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February 2010
 
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Wed, Feb. 10th, 2010 03:39 am

1. What's this? This is the last entry in the blog called Click Opera, which means that, in the funny through-the-looking-glass world of blogs, it's the first page future internauts and web adventurers will come to. So think of this not so much as an ending as an entrance. What you've reached is the door to "probably the best-written blog on the Anglophone web", according to Warren Ellis. "It doesn't get any better than Click Opera," said novelist Dennis Cooper.



2. Who's behind Click Opera? The best introduction to who I am is this article in The Guardian Review. I'm a Scot, a musician, a writer, and -- according to this page, gulp! -- the 4697th most significant contemporary visual artist working today. My Wikipedia page is here. You can download six of my early albums free here. Books I've written are here and here. I want to write more books, so if you're a publisher email me! That goes for people wanting to reproduce bits of this blog in print, too.

3. Where can we find out what you're up to, post-blog? From my "personal digital assistant" Maria Wolonski, who announces my engagements in the charming, ringing tones of a talking clock. From the Momus concerts page on LastFM. From my Flickr page and my two YouTube accounts, momasu and bookofjokes. I may even revive my old website (1995-2003), imomus.com.

4. What do you plan to do now? I want to write books and articles. Maybe teach at an art school. Deliver lectures in many lands. Make some more records. Play concerts. Walk around the world. Learn to speak Japanese and live in Japan. Write my own regular newspaper column of cultural commentary (I've written for people like Wired, The New York Times, Frieze, Spike, The Wire, 032c). Hold some more art shows. If you can help me realise these dreams, email me, please!

5. If I want to stage a Momus concert, what do I need to do? Tell your friendly local promoter (or it could be an art gallerist, store owner, festival director) that all I require is travel expenses (from Berlin), accommodation, plus a fee of around €1000 for a regular Momus show (festivals tend to pay more). If that works for the promoters, get them to drop me a line and we'll take it from there. I also do art performances -- live storytelling and unreliable tours.



6. Will you keep the Click Opera archive up indefinitely? Yes, I will. If you feel like helping with the modest LiveJournal and PhotoBucket hosting costs -- or compensating me directly for some illegal mp3s of my songs you've downloaded -- you can make a donation via PayPal here.

7. What's the best way to search the Click Opera archive? Simply type the word imomus plus your search term into a search engine, then follow the links headed "Click Opera".

8. Will you keep reading and responding to comments left under this entry? Yes, I will. Leave your email address if you want a personal response.

9. Why did you stop updating Click Opera? Not because anything went wrong or it got unpleasant. Quite the reverse, in fact. Click Opera was just too damned good: too compelling, too time-consuming, too satisfying. It took over my life. It became my job, the main topic of my conversation, the hub of my self-mediated fame: "Aren't you that guy from the internet?" (Read the piece called Clickswansong if you want to know more about why this blog came to a "happy ending". Or listen to this radio interview with KCSB's Colin Marshall.)

10. Can I step through the door now? Please do! There's a lot to read! You can browse backwards from here, or start at the beginning (Thursday January 15th 2004) and work forwards. The calendar is your friend, or you may prefer to read through the titles displayed in the month view.

Thanks to everyone who's contributed to Click Opera, this big vineyard! You've given me years of pleasure! Happiness, as T.E. Lawrence said, "is a by-product of absorption", and blogging -- the best hobby I ever had -- has been absorbing indeed.


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Tue, Feb. 9th, 2010 10:50 am

Momus: Hello everyone, thanks for coming today. I'd like to present Maria Wolonski, our new... What is your official title, Maria? I forget, despite being the one who made it up!
Maria: Wasn't it "Flexible Information Nexus"?
Momus: "F-I-N". Sounds a bit fishy! No, didn't it have a P in it... not PA, not PR...
Maria: PDA! Personal Digital Assistant!
Momus: Thanks, that'll do nicely for now. So, everyone, I'd like you to meet Maria Wolonski, the new Momus PDA. We're delighted to have her aboard.



Maria: Shall I curtsey? Or do you want to spray champagne over me, like Richard Branson?
Momus: Ha ha, it is tempting! But Richard Branson is a sexist pig. I wouldn't treat my employees like that. I think we should tell people first and foremost to follow your feed.
Maria: Yes! Right. Well, my feed is called wolon, which is obviously short for "Wolonski". It's your highly Portable Information Nexus (P-I-N) for anything and everything related to Momus. Concerts, press appearances, lectures, reactions to events, recommendations. Hey, should I be calling you "Mr Momus"?
Momus: No, no, just plain Momus is fine.
Maria: Should we talk about what we were discussing earlier?
Momus: What was that? Oh, about possible reactions? Okay... You go first.
Maria: Well, it's just that you thought... You thought there was a possibility of dismay. That people would say: "He's winding up Click Opera just to unveil... a Twitter feed?"
Momus: Right. And it's important to stress that this is not a Momus-related Twitter feed. Well, not just a Momus-related Twitter feed. This is Maria, a new person. A new member of staff. In a new office. With rafters.
Maria: You know, I think I will call you Mr Momus on the feed. So cute!
Momus: It is cute, but remember the "Mr" will take up two of those precious 140 characters.
Maria: Oh, I can slip it in there. I'm good at that. Mr Momus on BBC Radio 4's Quote Unquote "deserves to be a massive multi-billionaire" (says nice Dr Ben Goldacre). See? I tweeted all that plus a compact tinyurl. It fits!
Momus: I want to ask you a few questions about your origins, Maria, because I think the readers will want to know some background. But first I just want to clear up this question of the value of Twitter. As you know, I had a piece up in April called The case against -- and for -- Twitter. It was quite damning: "You could easily see the tweet as an inherently worthless form, some kind of spreading weed, replacing meaningful content with something scattershot, trivial, phatic, desultory -- eroding topsoil, decreasing crop yields." But then -- being a dialectical kind of chap -- I saw the plus side: "Couldn't all the important things ever said be reduced to 140 characters? There's nothing more wonderful than seeing a short form given some kind of lapidary perfection." Now, the wolon feed is mostly for information about real-world Momus activities, but I hope it can achieve some of that "lapidary perfection" too. Some kind of beauty.
Maria: That's why you made someone short and perfectly-formed your "flexible information nexus"?
Momus: You're perfectly formed, but you're not short! Come on, Maria, you're almost as tall as me!
Maria: It's true, and you wear high heels.
Momus: Don't tell them that!
Maria: Ha ha ha!
Momus: Do you want me to show them your baby pictures?
Maria: What, that one of me in my birthday suit? When you were down in the lab, fabricating me like the Bride of Frankenstein?
Momus: Yes, that one!
Maria: Well, I certainly don't want you holding the threat to show it over my head and using it to control my freedom of expression. So go ahead, I'm not ashamed. In fact, I think it's good to make my fabrication process clear and obvious to everybody, as if to say "This is how a PDA is made!"
Momus: Okay, here's Maria in the lab, back when she was being fabricated. Isn't she lovely?



Maria: I have a damn good body, I'll say that for me. You look like you had a lot on your hands before I came along. In fact, you had a lot of hands, period.
Momus: That's right, I had a thumb in many pies. I had to juggle everything constantly. I didn't know what to do with all my hands. That's why I needed a new pair.
Maria: Yes, today you're showing a new pair of hands and a clean pair of heels!
Momus: Please don't go on about my heels!
Maria: You like to wear them with spurs while sitting on your high horse!
Momus: No I don't! Anyway, here's a flow diagram of how I hope we'll be working together in the future.



Maria: That's lovely! I'm a penguin! Where did you get the graphic?
Momus: It's a tribute to the Japanese designer Nakajo Masayoshi, a cluster of some of his motifs. He did a lot of work for the Shiseido magazine Hanatsubaki, really nice clear and simple design, but quirky, with lots of personality.
Maria: Is that you in the photo?
Momus: No, it's Harry Smith, but it's how I might look in a few years.
Maria: You have a birthday coming up soon, don't you?
Momus: No.
Maria: Yes you do!
Momus: No I don't! I don't want to talk about that! In fact, let's just end this meeting now, shall we, Maria?
Maria: Okay, you're the boss, Mr Branson! I mean, Mr Momus!

Follow Maria Wolonski on Twitter.

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Mon, Feb. 8th, 2010 11:03 am

I'm looking in the mirror and I have a dog's head. It's a small dog, rather well-groomed, with a bear-like snub nose and golden-brown hair. I have to go somewhere, see an art exhibition in rural Turkey, catch a train to the mountains... Oh, wait, that was a dream. I've woken up. I don't feel so great in the mornings -- a bit stiff. I'll be fine once I have some tea and move around a bit.

I jump up off the futon, leaving Hisae to doze. The rabbit lopes after me, down the corridor -- via the bathroom, where I pee and brush my teeth -- through the living room, into the kitchen.

Fuck, it's still totally white outside. I'm peering short-sightedly out into the courtyard garden as the kettle boils. This winter is just a tedious permatundra, more like Moscow than Berlin. I don't think I can take another like this; subzero, and everything locked under treacherous ice and snow for months. You never want to go out, but then you get cabin fever. Got to move somewhere warmer. Osaka, Athens.

I'm in my pink Habitat dressing-gown, the one I bought at Republique in Paris when I moved back to Europe from Japan in late 2002. Wearing this thick toweled garment, I feel like a prize fighter about to step into the ring. This, if anything, is my blogging garment; my pajamahadeen battle dress. I lie back in the reclining chair that faces my big, bright iMac screen. Check the remote control for the Japanese vibration device built into the chair; no light. The rabbit may have bitten through the power cable again. Fuck! I could do with a bit of a back massage.

After a cup of tea I feel better. Not just because my limbic system is flowing again and my stiff limbs are moving, but because there's a slight tingle of adrenalin now, a mixture of challenge and anxiety. My body is being led by my brain, which feels alert, crisp, purposeful. In a couple of hours I'll publish an illustrated article which people all over the world will be able to read. They'll start commenting on it almost immediately. I'll make the last editorial tweaks, and field the first comments, lying in my bath, reading my iPod Touch.

But first the big question, the Scheherazade question. What to write about? This is the key part of the process. Basically, it's about redemption. I must find something inspiring and exciting in my daily round of webpages, something I want to relay, repackage, expand on, interpret, rail against, connect unexpectedly to something else.

It's a bit like alchemy, turning base metals into gold. I'm actually rather unexcited by most of the stuff I read in the tight circles I make on the web. Let's see, on the Guardian news pages a law lord says the Iraq war was illegal, and British universities are having their budgets cut. You could do a piece on how those connect (Britain spent so much on the war, and later on bailing out the banks, that now they're chopping off bits of the future-national-brain to pay for it), but that way lies a bottomless pit of bitterness.

No, we want something a bit more arty and colourful for our topic. Check the Culture pages. Because when everything else is winter and gloom, culture can be glitter and bloom. Hmm, Gil Scott-Heron's back, and someone's written "an explosive new history of anti-semitism" which "has liberal intellectuals in its sights". 200 comments by lunchtime! But no thank you.

At this point I'm wondering if I have a "stub". A stub is a TextEdit document outlining an idea for a blog piece. It's usually just an URL and a few lines of notes connecting that topic to a photo and a few other topics. I open a folder marked "2010 alias" and arrange the files by type. There's one about Alan McGee closing his Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr accounts ("i got fed up with being in other people's personal real life shite drama's so closed them all down.it feels like freedom", he writes in his MySpace blog). Nah, lay off McGee, let him be free. I shall also be released soon.

There's a stub entitled "Modern Painters mystery" which is about how the art magazine's Wikipedia page mentions nothing about the origins of the much-relaunched title. The Modern Painters disambiguation page says "for the art magazine founded by Peter Fuller...", but the actual page doesn't mention Fuller at all, nor any of the umpteen editors and companies and headquarters the mag has gone through over the last decade. I'm sure there used to be a Wikipedia page mentioning some of these things, and the corporate gloss that now stands in for a proper account of Modern Painters strikes me as a kind of Orwellian propaganda -- the kind of thing Marxy is always complaining about re: the Japanese Wikipedia, in fact.

But no. Bringing Marxy into it would feel terribly 2005, and bashing Modern Painters would feel wrong too, because they covered me at generous length in 2003. Ha, what about a waspish, self-mocking piece saying that every media outlet that covers Momus is doomed to go on the skids shortly afterwards? Then I could say that failing to respond promptly to Tokyo Art Beat's request for a TABuzz feature recently has been my way to spare the troubled website (currently requesting donations) "the curse of Momus"! No, but that's stirring it, and the TABBERS I met in Tokyo this trip were lovely people.

What about a Japan-themed entry? Aha, there is a stub for one of those. It's about Wim Wenders' late-80s film Notebook on Cities and Clothes, which is about Yohji Yamamoto and video imaging technology. I saw it when it came out, and it fits (along with Chris Marker's Sunless and Elizabeth Lennard's documentary on Ryuichi Sakamoto) into a fascinating subgenre of Western takes on late-Showa Tokyo. There's a really interesting sub-theme in Wenders' ruminative, oblique film about peace-as-war. Yamamoto says that commerce has been, post-war, Japan's way of holding its head up in the world, and that it's pursued like a peacetime war effort. Japan doesn't really have that attitude any more, though maybe China does.

Anyway, blogging about that would be a good opportunity to link to Toog's excellent interview with Elizabeth Lennard. God, how I admire Toog's blog! If people should read any blog after mine stops, they should read his. And Toog himself is really an inspiration: the handmade book of poetry he sent me recently, for instance, the one that looks like a passport to higher states. What an elegant project! To take orders for a book of poems then write each one by hand! It's monklike, it's quirkily humourous, it's exactly the kind of stubborn gesture that commands interest and respect in an age where it's far too easy to launch culture electronically.

Speaking of "too many words", I still haven't settled on a topic to blog about. But maybe -- since I've written about trying to find something to write about -- that's no longer necessary. I can just blog about blogging. The medium is, after all, the message.

Remember that piece I wrote, A cup of tea? Mischa Shoni had written asking "Momus, what should I blog about?" It was 2006, and everyone was supposed to blog. So I did an entry saying you could blog interestingly about anything, even a cup of tea. It was one of the first blog entries to use numbered paragraphs, which later became a bit of a Click Opera signature (I later discovered Alain Badiou did the same thing). It made Mischa happy, and got 80 comments.

Well, I don't think I'm going to blog about cups of tea again -- Click Opera ends on Wednesday, and I don't want to repeat myself -- but it might be a good plan to drink one. For some reason Samuel Beckett's line about how "having nothing to say, no words but the words of others, I have to speak" pops into my head. Maybe that would be a good title for today's entry.

I raise my pink-clad body up out of the vibrating, reclining chair (I seem to have spent a big chunk of the last decade cranked back in this "driving seat", facing the big iMac "windscreen") and head for the kitchen. Instead of the wireless mouse, I click the button on the kettle, and soon the fresh water is chuckling to a boil. It's coming up to 11am, time to post. But what'll I use for pictures?

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Sun, Feb. 7th, 2010 12:44 pm

Am I a narcissist? The question itself is self-indulgent and self-absorbed, but I can't help asking it. Maybe my six years demanding your daily attention here at Click Opera have been nothing but "digital narcissism", a daily seduction, an attempt to put myself at the centre of the world, to spin myself into every story, to make myself the universal prism, the central aleph, the keystone in a grand facade. Has the motif behind every story (and almost thirty years of records, for that matter) really been "me, me, me"?



I think it's clear that I am a narcissist -- God knows, I love and believe in myself strongly enough -- but I'd say I'm also rather guilty about it. I'd say I diffuse my self-love out into so many other things that it becomes acceptable. It's not sticky and repulsive any more, as immoderate self-love tends to be.

Or does it? According to an article on PsyBlog, Why we love narcissists (at first), "despite being self-absorbed, arrogant, entitled and exploitative, narcissists are also fascinating... we are strangely drawn to their self-centred personalities, their dominance and their hostility, their sensitivity and their despair, at least for a while."

The article reports an experiment by social psychologist Mitja Back which found that narcissists make a good first impression because they look, sound and move better. They use charming facial expressions, have a more confident speaking tone, wear more fashionable clothes, have trendier haircuts and are funnier.

Wow, what's not to self-love? Narcissists sound like attractive hipsters! They must get laid a lot!



If they do -- and surely they do -- their relationships don't last long, Back found. Weirdly enough, it's the narcissist-hipster's entitlement and exploitative abilities which lure people in initially: "participants liked narcissists' sense of entitlement most -- of the four aspects of narcissism they studied (leadership/authority, self-admiration/self-absorption, arrogance/superiority and entitlement/exploitativeness) it was the last of these that most predicted liking". However, "narcissists are usually soon found out and shunned since few people will put up with a self-absorbed, authoritarian, arrogant, exploitative friend".

At this point my picture of the narcissist -- with his trendy haircut and funny comments -- became the image of a musician on tour, getting laid every night but exhausting sympathy just in time to move on to the next concert in the next town. But the digital dandy could fit the bill just as well: instead of sticking around long enough for real people to get the message that there's no place in the dandy's heart for anyone but himself, he can simply display himself digitally in the web's shop window.

"Behaving selfishly seems to bring them a rush of admiration which they get addicted to, while devaluing others when the inevitable rejection comes, covering it up by searching out new people to worship them. The reason narcissists fail to spot this cycle may well be that friends and partners never hang around long enough to tell them in such a way that they actually believe it and want to do something about it," the article concludes.

That almost makes it sound like narcissism is being made into a "cycle of abuse", a "clinical condition requiring treatment", and even a "disease". And it might well be a facet of the narcissism of psychologists that they see themselves as the universal prism, the central aleph, the see-all and cure-all. Do scientists have a grudge against artists? Do they want us to be as boring as them? It's certainly understandable that these science types would prefer to vest their own value in something other than cool clothes, immediate charm, and a nice line in chat-up patter.



So, therapy for narcissists. Would it remove their charm and attractiveness, or only their own exploitation and manipulation of it to seduce the easily-impressed? Would the trendy haircut, the nice voice, the funny remarks, vanish after a course of antibiotics? Would the narcissist become one of those English self-deprecators who proudly proclaims his complete inadequacy, stupidity and laziness at every opportunity (surely a kind of "inverted narcissism" even more egregious than the overt kind, since it often comes with a refusal to improve)?

Attacks on narcissists disturb me just as attacks on hipsters do. After reading the PsyBlog piece -- to get the astringent flavour of crushed aspirin out of my mouth -- I watched a lot of Prince videos: Kiss, Sexy MF, Alphabet Street, Cream. You can only watch them on dodgy offshore servers, because either Prince or the media moguls who own his material slap suits on anyone showing them (and I don't mean padded-shouldered, wasp-waisted numbers with peep-holes for chest hair).

The narcissism levels in the Prince vids were off the meter, way beyond the red. I loved them. I imagined that if I'd been born a girl (Sheena Easton, for instance) I'd willingly have served my time as a love-slave in the pimp-imp's harem. The idea of a "normal" Prince cured of his scandalous self-love... well, it's just plain fugly.

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Sat, Feb. 6th, 2010 12:26 pm

Someone sent me to read John Haffner's interesting blog post Immigration as a Source of Renewal in Japan. It's about Japan "growing old", and it's of particular relevance to me because it's an ambition of mine to grow old as an immigrant in Japan.

Now, I'm not really the sort of immigrant John Haffner has in mind as a solution for Japan's ills. Although English-speaking Westerners do figure in his prescriptions, he sees young, dynamic, entrepreneurial people -- many from surrounding Asian countries -- as the only way to kick the nation off a demographic course which, left unchecked, will see its population shrink from 127 to less than 100 million people by 2050. Niken and Mahesa, two charming Javanese students we befriended in Tokyo in December, might fit the bill better.



Niken and Mahesa plan to go back to Jakarta when their studies are over. But they'd certainly be an asset to Japan: stylish, resourceful, trilingual, full of good ideas, ambitious and friendly, they could represent one future for a Japan even I've reproached for entering a navel-gazing new period of sakoku, or cultural isolation. Other contenders might be the family of Malaysian restauranteurs we dined with in Osaka in early December. Inter-marrying with Japanese, they were bringing members of their Malaysian families up to Japan one by one.



As once-solid mega-corporations like Toyota and JAL begin to wobble badly, as Japan's debt approaches 200% of its GDP, and as China overtakes to become the world's number two economic power, it's clear that something has to change in Japan. As Haffner points out, "whereas 11 workers supported two retirees in 1960, the ratio was four workers to one retiree in 1999, and by 2050 the UN projects that only 1.7 workers will support one retiree. Those workers will face a heavy burden," and "the continual improvement in living standards the Japanese have enjoyed during the last half-century will come to an end.”

After making an enthusiastic case for increasing Japanese immigration, though, Haffner admits it just isn't likely to happen: "The country is likely to do no more than tinker with its immigration levels. By implication, therefore, Japan is also likely to become a smaller, more debt-laden and less productive country in the coming decades."

So that's the change we're most likely to see: shrinkage, decline, deflation. Ha, exactly the same processes I expect to see in myself over the next thirty years! Maybe Japan will be the perfect place to grow old!



Given that we're not likely to see a sudden immigration-powered economic miracle in Japan, or a sudden massive baby boom (despite the government basically paying people to have kids), is there a silver lining to Japan's likely silver age? I think there could be several. Let's list them.

* According to Iwao Fujimasa, a demographer with the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, depopulation could depress the real estate market and affect the financial standing of banks dependent on real estate prices. In other words, cheaper house and rental prices in Japan! Yay!

* Fujimasa thinks that population decline will boost gender equality, break down generation gaps and bring a more relaxed way of living. Land prices will fall, people will be able to afford bigger homes, and the daily crush on trains will be lessened. (Population decline not all bad news, Japan Times)

* Then there's the argument that we need to stop promoting endless economic growth as the only goal. As Sakamoto put it: "The current economic system has required people to be busy trying to achieve growth -- it's as though they're continually riding a bicycle. People have to do things fast to meet the demand for excessive efficiency.... I think it would be better if Japan became a beautiful third-rate country. It would be nice if Japan was a place of delicious food, beautiful scenery and abundant nature. If that were the case, I think it wouldn't matter if one had little money."

* This could, in other words, be Japan's midlife crisis, and the best thing about a midlife crisis is that it's an opportunity to ask some basic questions: "Is that all there is?" and "What really matters to me?" Trying to catch Japanese artists in the act of asking these questions is the whole premise of the Aftergold art show I'm currently putting together.

* Interviewed by De:bug magazine in November for their Japan special, I was asked to clarify my views on immigration in Japan. The editors had been troubled by some comments I'd made, and said they had a different definition of multiculturalism from mine. I responded that while I'm very much in favour of immigration to Europe, I felt that many of the things I value about Japan are only possible because of the high level of trust, harmony and homogeneity that exists there.

* "To impose exactly the same sort of multiculturalism worldwide would not be multiculturalism at all, but a kind of monoculture. It would result in a decrease in diversity," I added. "Japan is not a hegemonic power in the world today. The US is. Therefore, I see the maintenance of Japaneseness as a form of resistance struggle. It opposes the homogenising globalisation which proposes the US model as the one we must all follow."

* It's also important to remember that there is a conflict between internal population diversity on the national level and global cultural diversity. Global cultural diversity can only flourish if there are distinct "flavours" and identities, which are often maintained by the restriction, on a national level, of diversity. This is a swings-and-roundabouts argument. Just as Japanese women may benefit from the lack of immigrants on the Japanese job market, so the failure of internal diversity may be the success of international diversity.

Let's be clear: I'd love DPJ prime minister Hatoyama's cherished personal vision of an Asian monetary and political union modeled on the European vision of Jacques Delors and Count Coudenhove-Kalergi to be realised. I'd love Japan to be filled with young, visionary and dynamic people like Niken and Mahesa, or like Hisae's Korean mother, for that matter. I think these immigrants do and would continue to expand Japan's culture in interesting ways. And I have an obvious personal interest in Japan's visa requirements getting loosened so that people like me can "flood in" and "swamp" the nation.

But realistically that ain't gonna happen. Not in my lifetime, anyway. So all I'm saying is that the alternative is interesting too. Japan will get cheaper, smaller, poorer, purer, wiser, more itself. Rather than forging new forms of industry and commerce (same old thing, same old bling), Japan will from now on be pioneering new ways of living; post-industrial, post-materialist, post-wealth, post-growth. This is something the world doesn't know much about yet. How to live longer, live better, yet live cheaper, live smaller. How to live for the pure joy of living, not for the grim accumulation of money. How to "decline successfully". How to be wise. Show us how it's done, Japan!

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Fri, Feb. 5th, 2010 10:43 am

I escaped yesterday from winter-glitched Berlin (grit, dark, dirt, slush and slither) into the warm, clean capsule of sunlight-and-elsewhere which is the Walther Koenig bookstore. Soon I found myself flipping through an interesting architect's-coffee-table book by Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham, Portraits from Above: Hong Kong's Informal Rooftop Communities.

Up on the roofs of Hong Kong buildings you often find them: corrugated shacks, little huts, self-built structures which replicate, up in the air, rural Chinese villages. "Informal" means, of course, that they don't meet any building standards and don't have any legal status, so living in one of these skyhuts is a precarious business in every sense; a government inspector will sooner or later mark your dwelling with a fluorescent ink stain which means that you have a minimal window of a day or two to vacate before they pull the place down and chuck its constituent parts onto a skip thirty stories below.



Wu (the Chinese-Canadian who did the meticulous cut-away drawings) and Canham (German, photographs) asked themselves the same questions I did: Who lives here? How do they live? Do they have wifi? Do they have running water and electricity? What's it like in there? Luckily, the pair were invited in quite readily, and allowed to document the living spaces.



Did I tell you I once lived for a year in a hen hutch? Well, it wasn't really a hen hutch, more a garden shed behind a house in Torry, Aberdeen. It was my last year at university, and I actually really enjoyed living there. I put a picture of Alexander Pope on the wall, taught myself Brel songs, warmed myself with a two-bar heater, and, when I had to use the loo or the bath, let myself into the adjacent house belonging to my landlady, Mrs Ross. So that's what I imagine living on a Hong Kong roof to be like.



Humble, fleeting, homemade, ramshackle and cheap, the self-fab skyhut is admirable in all sorts of ways. Okay, so the toilet appears to be in the kitchen in some of these photos, and they wouldn't keep the cold out if Hong Kong ever did get cold (today it's 20c, perfect!). But from the point of view of density, recycling, efficiency and sustainability these structures -- built in a spirit of dung-beetle bricolage -- have a lot to teach us. Up on the roof it's cooler and quieter, you're out of people's way, you have good views out over the city, you can befriend the birds and watch the sun set. You haven't used up any extra land, and you haven't spent a ridiculous amount of money on construction. You're up on the roof, hurting no-one, minding your own business, listening to the aircon.



The nice thing about books like Portraits from Above is that they provide a detailed decor into which you can insert characters of your own. Yesterday, after playing Grand Theft Auto for a while at the Transmediale hub, I invented a character called Mr Pantouffle. He's a semi-retired clown with a heart of gold, always being cheated by the people he meets down on the ground. Only up in his skyhut, with his beloved avifauna around him, is Pantouffle free. He hums, he feeds the birds, he works on his clown act, he scatters fresh rice into his pink plug-in cooker and flips the switch.


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Thu, Feb. 4th, 2010 02:01 am

My City vs Your City is a fascinating information widget designed by Michael Schieben. It takes data from LastFM and organises it so that you can compare the Top 10 most-listened-to artists in any two cities of your choice (as long as they're on LastFM's list of cities, and have active listeners). The clean and attractive interface then gives you a percentage overlap between the two cities.



After using the widget to make some fairly trivial observations (Kings of Leon do better in Protestant countries than Catholic ones! David Bowie is more popular in London than New York!), I found myself most interested in comparing how many domestic artists different countries have in their Top 10s. You might expect pop songs in local tongues, from local artists, to sprinkle the most-listened-to playlists of all nations fairly equally, but that turns out not to be the case at all. What emerges very strongly, in almost all the cities you care to look at, is an Anglo-Saxon monoculture. Cities all over the world list the same artists in their Top 10s: Coldplay, Radiohead, Lady GaGa, The Beatles...



It's almost as if someone or something has got to them. The same "someone" who commands people all over the world to wear blue jeans seems to be laying down the law, or subtly inveigling its norms into people's desires. THOU SHALT HAVE A MAXIMUM OF THREE DOMESTIC ARTISTS IN THY LASTFM TOP 10, this "something" says, UNLESS THOU ART FRENCH OR JAPANESE.

Yes, according to this widget it is only cities in France and Japan in which we find people willing to go beyond this unofficial "30% local cap", this unwritten "commandment of monoculture". Paris boasts 40% domestic artists in its list (Gainsbourg, Air, Phoenix, Daft Punk), while Tokyo charts a massive 70% of homegrown talent. That's almost complete self-sufficiency! No need to import any foreign music except the odd Beatles and Radiohead mp3!



Nowhere else can match this extraordinary Japanese achievement (which could be a fantastic blow struck for autonomy, or a kind of navel-gazing autism, depending on your perspective). Even in China -- confident, fast-growing China, which just took Japan's place as the world's second richest nation, and is on track to be its richest within ten years -- LastFM users are only tending to let one single measly Chinese track into their Top 10s.

Muslim Turkey stretches to three domestics, Mexico has none. Religion seems to count for more than money: the Anglosphere's cultural hegemony seems to be outlasting the financial dominance of the US, although slightly less so in Muslim countries. (Here we have to strike a note of caution, though. This is all based on data coming in via LastFM, a Western service. It's perfectly possible that Chinese music-sharing services would feature more Chinese music. Or possibly not.)



There are, of course, two nations who listen almost exclusively to music made within their own borders: the US and the UK. No, make that three, because Japan does too. Where the US and the UK differ from Japan, though, is that they export their local culture all over the world. Nobody outside Japan is listening to Japanese music. Japanese music isn't a hegemony, and Japan is not a music hub.



I must say, I find the picture that emerges from My City vs. Your City a deeply depressing -- and sadly familiar -- one. What this widget makes visible is the same one-way cultural flow I described in (Don't want to live in a) hub and spoke world and Culture flows through English channels, but not for long. In the terms used by airlines for their route maps, culture is flowing in a clear hub-and-spoke pattern, radiating out from a strong central point, rather than in a point-to-point way.

Comparing Porto in Portugal with Porto Alegre in Brazil, I'd have hoped to see a little point-to-point cultural action going on based on the fact that these two nations share a language, Portugese. But no, neither Porto nor Porto Alegre is using LastFM to listen to anything in Portugese. If they have anything in common, it's their love of Metallica and the Arctic Monkeys. You can only "fly" from Portugal to Brazil via LA or London.



Another way to look at what's going on is to say that we live in a world in which global pluralism is "asymmetrical" rather than "symmetrical". Many are not speaking to many on a level playing-field; someone is at the centre, speaking, and all the others are ranged around that "someone", listening, and mostly inaudible, even to their immediate neighbours. In the words of the Barclays Capital slogan, this is "global reach, built around you". As long as you're an Anglo-Saxon.

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Wed, Feb. 3rd, 2010 10:11 am

1. This is the trailer for a new Japanese romcom coming out in April, My Darling is a Foreigner. It looks harmless enough:



2. The trailer made me think back to the very different -- and much less positive -- way Japanese-Westerner relationships are represented in a french film made forty years ago, Domicile Conjugal (Bed and Board), the fourth in François Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series, released in 1970.



3. The film is up on YouTube in its entirety, so I watched it again. The relevant part of the plot begins at the end of the fifth slice, when Antoine (played by the beautiful, mime-like Jean-Pierre Léaud) is visited at his absurd job (directing model ships around a pond by remote control) by a rich Japanese family; a burly businessman and his wife and daughter (both dressed in kimonos). Antoine is given the job of accompanying Kyoko, the daughter, to the bathroom. They fall -- silently, like two mimes -- for each other, and Kyoko drops her bracelet into the pond deliberately, so that Antoine will have to return it in person.



4. Now, Domicile Conjugal is a great film -- I love Truffaut's lightness of touch, his combination of charm and realism -- but Kyoko is not a great character. As far as representations of Japanese women on the screen go, she actually makes Kissy Suzuki, the double agent in the 1967 Bond film You Only Live Twice, look well-rounded. Kyoko (played by the slightly-too-old Hiroko Berghauer, announced in the titles as "Mademoiselle Hiroko", and never seen on movie screens again) is, frankly, bizarre, a bore and a bitch; both stereotypical and weird, gracious and rude.



5. This is a romantic comedy, so stereotypes are forgivable, especially in the secondary characters. Kyoko draws on the 19th century imagery of Madame Butterfly, of course -- Antoine's wife Christine calls her that at one point, and even dresses up in a Butterfly-ish Japanese costume when she finds out about the affair. But could she also draw on the late-1960s stereotypology of Yoko Ono?



6. There are parallels. Released a year after The Beatles released their breakup single The Ballad of John and Yoko, Domicile Conjugal shows Kyoko breaking up Antoine and Christine. Christine finds out about the affair when some paper phrases -- half-Fluxus, half-Shinto -- pop out of a bouquet of flowers Kyoko has given Antoine. KYOKO LOVES ANTOINE, SHE IS CALLED KYOKO AND SHE LOVES YOU, COME WHEN YOU CAN BUT CAN SOON, SHE SAYS GOOD NIGHT AND THINKS OF ANTOINE, they say. Later, when Antoine's disinterest in Kyoko becomes too obvious, Kyoko also uses a note to tell Doinel to go fuck himself. It's written in Japanese on a piece of coloured paper, for all the world like a Yoko Ono instruction painting. ("Make three phonecalls to your wife. Return to your table. Examine my empty chair. Go fuck yourself.")



7. Kyoko is kooky, obsessional, determined, bitchy, rich, spoiled, aesthetic. She's living in France, but stays locked within her own culture, alternating kimonos with sexy black leather mini-skirts. She shares her apartment with Maki, a Japanese roommate Kyoko pretty much throws out onto the street when she wants to seduce Antoine over dinner. Sexually predatory, she lunges (amidst spooky pseudo-oriental music by Antoine Duhamel) to kiss Doinel when he delivers her lost bracelet.



8. Kyoko's Japanese lifestyle presents little interest or pleasure to Antoine. Although we see him lying in bed with Christine reading a tome entitled Japanese Women, Kyoko's apartment -- scattered with floor cushions, decorated with wind-chimes, ukiyo-e prints, a huge low-hanging paper lantern, and a groovy1970-style kotatsu table -- presents him only with discomfort (he keeps his shoes on and can't find a comfortable sitting position), and the Japanese food she serves seems to hold more horror than delight for him.



9. Kyoko soon begins to frighten Antoine with weird, fanatical utterances: "If I commit suicide with someone," she tells him, "I'd like it to be you" (this statement is followed by a dramatic chord on the soundtrack, part samurai movie, part horror film). When she isn't suggesting self-harm, Kyoko is boring Antoine to death by sitting silently, spinning meals out longer than he can bear, making him smile silently so long he gets lockjaw. Soon he escapes back to his wife.



10. Now, I very much doubt that My Darling is a Foreigner will trade in imagery anywhere near as negative and xenophobic as this. Imagine the Japanese film showing its American character as a kooky, unscrupulous fanatic, and the trans-cultural relationship as boring and doomed! From the trailer, it seems that the script of My Darling is a Foreigner concentrates, instead, on the happy couple's righteous struggle to overcome the prejudices of elderly family members.



11. My Darling is a Foreigner is clearly a nicer film, gentler in its treatment of its characters, and much more like the kind of scenario we'd all like to be living out in our cross-cultural relationships. I very much doubt, however, whether it's a better film; despite its unkindness to Kyoko and its very old-fashioned pessimism about cross-cultural relationships, Truffaut's film is artistically very strong indeed.



12. But Truffaut, with his portrayal of Kyoko, may have muddied his image in Japan. All the Japanese people I know love Godard; now I think about it, I've never heard one mention Truffaut. If they talk about Jean-Pierre Léaud, it's for his role in La Chinoise, or the darker, more complex, more obscure films of Jean Eustache.

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Tue, Feb. 2nd, 2010 09:17 am

(Assumes David Shrigley-esque voice). Things that are popular on the internet:

1. Naked attractive people.
2. Cute kittens, jumping.
3. Opportunities to call strangers "asshole" and "douchebag".
....

89,374. The sort of things that Momus writes about on his blog, like arty bookshops in Berlin.




As a matter of fact I was planning to write today about an arty bookshop in Berlin, Motto, knowing full well that almost nobody would pay any attention whatsoever, and preparing to console myself with an insight of the Dalai Lama: "If a practitioner thinks I hope people admire what I'm doing, expecting to receive praise for the great effort he is making... these are mundane concerns that spoil one's practice, and it is important to ensure that this does not happen so we keep our practice pure."



But then something remarkable happened. As I was browsing at Motto, making notes of interesting things they stock -- a book called L'Humanisme de Michel Foucault quirkily illustrated by Isabelle Boinot (whose work is really quite reminiscent of Shrigley's), some short stories art critic Jeff Rian wrote about Paris for Purple magazine (Purple Years, which in fact you can download for free as a PDF file here), a book by Margot Zanni about film locations rather excellently designed by Swiss designer Corinne Zellweger (it made me want to produce a much more illustrated and designed book next time), a British magazine called The Mock which proclaims, in its second edition, that anecdote is the new theory (you can read the issue free online here), and the gorgeously-designed (by Zak Kyes, natch) Exhibition Prosthetics co-published by Bedford Press and Sternberg -- I was suddenly attacked by a small black kitten.



Akiko Watanabe, who runs Motto, has just acquired this captivating beast -- a white-pawed small black cat, two months old, with huge pupils and a miniaturised instinct to murder. For this kitten (I didn't discover its name), Motto's piles of arty, gorgeous, intelligent and obscure books are nothing more than rocky outcrops in a tiny landscape, a "killing fields" populated by "mice" and "birds" evoked by a playful customer's wriggling, darting hands. For the kitten, a free handout advertising an art event, rattled in the air overhead, is enough to make a half-convincing sparrow.

Like a masturbating internet-user or the audience at a Keiji Haino concert (I saw one last night), the kitten is willing to suspend its disbelief in the interests of having a more exciting and fulfilling life. Yes, that's almost a real naked woman on my screen! Yes, Haino really is flexing, thrashing and swishing his blond mane around in an orgiastic access of Bacchic excess, and not faking or formularising it! Yes, that really is a sparrow, flying around the shop at such a low height that I could plausibly catch, kill and eat it, staining my furry black kitten lips with warm, red bird blood!

While the kitten calculated this, I was calculating myself. "If I make a short video of this kitten," I reasoned, "I could post it to YouTube, and in no time at all rack up something like eight million views. Because kittens -- along with Magibon not even bothering to hide her product placement -- are what YouTube users love more than anything else!" Then, I calculated, I could simply add the URL for Motto Distribution and I'd be transforming the Motto kitten into a very successful and effective viral sock puppet ad.

What would be in it for me? Well, I'd find a populist peg to hang an unpopular blog entry on, for a start. Look, a kitten! But also, by making a free viral ad for Motto, I'd lessen my guilt about the freeloading way I tend to use the store myself: browsing the interesting paper publications Akiko has curated, noting the most intriguing names and URLs, then going home and downloading free PDFs and JPGs of the stuff off the internet. Look, everyone! A kitten! At Motto!

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Mon, Feb. 1st, 2010 12:16 pm

1. Although you, my dear Click Opera readers, will never know the 50-year-old Momus "directly" (I'll have slung my blog hook by the time I turn that corner), this unlikely person is arriving, and imminently. I wonder what it will be like to be such a farcically old age? I read in today's Guardian, in an interview with Martin Amis, that there's a "thickening out" of life that comes after 50 – "there is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being," he says in The Pregnant Widow, "like an undiscovered continent." The exact nature of this "thickening out" and this "undiscovered continent" isn't made explicit; I suppose you have to buy The Pregnant Widow to find out, or turn 50 yourself.



2. Stephen Moss also says, in the same article: "Amis is fascinated by the way he has changed since what he admits was a midlife crisis in the early 90s. At its simplest, he has discovered the purity of love, love without ego... Women, trophies to the early Amis, have become redeemers." Which all sounds very nice, but we need more detail. Or something else: a ritual!

3. Yesterday I posted a photo to my Facebook page and captioned it "I've decided to enjoy my midlife crisis". Someone called Aki Tudor commented: "Just don't get a red Porsche:)". You could say that Aki's response -- to reach for the stereotype of the red Porsche or Ferrari as a recognised sign for substitute testosterone, a kind of symbolic Hormone Replacement Therapy -- is so conventional that it's almost ritualistic. Repeat this kind of formula enough and it becomes a reflex refrain, like shouting "Bless you!" when someone sneezes.

4. An Anon wrote yesterday on Click Opera: "A side note: it is funny that puberty seems to mean a lot on nature's terms but nothing in legality's terms." That made me think of how, just as we're always creating new taboos, we're also always creating new festivals. Sometimes it takes an artist to "design" them.

5. The artist Chad McCail created a new rite in a screenprint published by Edinburgh Printmakers. It's called Relationships Grow Stronger, and -- rather in the manner of my Book of Scotlands -- it imagines a parallel world where things are done differently.



6. Here's how Chad McCail explained the print for EdFest.tv: "This is part of some local event that the people round about have created to mark the fact that these children, who are all about the same age, are becoming adults. It's marking their passage from childhood to adulthood; they've become fertile, they now have serious responsibilities, they can create children. And they're not fudging it, they want everyone to acknowledge that this is happening. And of course we do fudge it. We don't talk about it, we don't mark it, we don't like to acknowledge that it's happening, really. And that's difficult for children, so I wanted to make a picture where maybe it was being acknowledged." McCail's picture shows a tree outside a suburban house, garlanded with model penises and vaginas, a sort of sexual Christmas tree.



7. I thought of McCail's print on the second Monday in January. We'd been late getting away from Onomichi, and I was tired after a couple of hours piloting the Daihatsu Naked up the expressway towards Kansai. Out on the freeway it's every man for himself; headlights, tunnels, passengers sleeping, sipping coffee from a pet bottle to stay alert. When we arrived in Kobe, I didn't notice them at first: girls in kimonos, brilliant as humming birds, swarming around the railway stations. Yoyo, waking and rising from the back seat, explained: today was a national holiday, Coming of Age Day, Seijin No Hi. It's a festival in which everybody who'll turn 20 this year dresses up and drinks at one of the big parties held to celebrate their ability to drink, and vote, and smoke.



8. Although Seijin No Hi doesn't feature penises and vaginas balanced on Sexual Christmas Trees, it is at least halfway towards Chad McCail's vision of a parallel world in which the "seasonal" changes in human life are socially recognised and pleasantly ritualised. For me, coming to a pleasant halt (it was impossible to drive through the crowds of excited young people, asserting their newfound power over passing motor traffic) in the centre of Kobe was a magical and mood-lifting experience. After the weary modern tension of the expressway, I felt the ritual celebration take me somewhere else: somewhere youthful yet timeless, thronging and joyful, dense and urban yet pre-modern. As if the energy of youth culture had been harnessed to some kind of primal-aristocratic court culture obsessed with the fragile beauty of transition. As if adults and children -- and individuals and society -- were looking at each other with shared knowledge.

9. Seijin No Hi reminded me of what a successful society Japan is. Japan succeeds, at moments like these, for the same reasons Chad McCail shows the West failing. We fail because we make important life-seasonal transitions secretive, leaving them for individuals to discover and cope with in solitude (perhaps with the aid of therapy or art or the occasional parental lecture) rather than providing something as joyful as a festival or ritual for it.



10. Watching BBC4 documentary The Waughs, Fathers and Sons last night, I noted a similar theme, again to do with coming of age. Part 3 begins with a letter Victorian patriarch Arthur Waugh wrote to Alec, his son, who'd been caught wanking in the chapel at Sherborne School. "Every time seed is lost from the body, the backbone is slightly affected," Arthur wrote. "If one feels weaker after a natural loss, it follows that a forced loss of seed, such as self-abuse entails, is much more mischievous. It is indeed a deadly danger, because it undermines the very seat of life. The result of self-abuse, if carried on persistently, is first weakness of body and mind, and finally paralysis and softening of the brain."

11. "But I suppose, in a way, it was rather wonderful of a father brought up in the Victorian age even to be writing to his son at all about this sort of thing," says Alexander Waugh, who agrees with his grandfather Evelyn that the worst thing is "being brought up in the dark". Perhaps... but a luminous ritual or a festival might have saved them all the embarrassment.

12. I'm off now to invent some "turning 50" rituals. Let's see, what did David Bowie do? Didn't he dress up like a Tibetan and ask younger singers to do his songs? The thing is, you can't just invent a single ritual, or even a single festival. You have to invent a whole surrounding culture to depersonalise, dignify and perpetuate your rite of spring, your welcome to autumn, your Whitsun Weddings. If it's not cultural, it's just a party.

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