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Fri, May. 19th, 2006 10:44 am
The politics of texture

There's politics in aesthetic choices, and it's as much a politics of texture as a politics of text; it's adverbial (how you do something) as much as verbal (what you do). In other words, there's a politics of form as well as a politics of content.



This is a theme that runs throughout all my writing and thinking. It popped up here yesterday, when I drew your attention to Jan Family's quest for visual metaphors for the idea of community. It also spilled over into this week's Village Voice, where Cortney Harding reported the Whitney Peace event that erupted into conflict when Iraqi blogger Faiza Al-Arji walked out, dismayed by the hardcore sounds of Apeshit. Under the headline "Give Noise a Chance", the Village Voice declared that "Aurally violent bands can have trouble convincing fellow Iraq war protesters they're serious about peace... Apeshit: music for tanks, peace rallies, or both?"

The Voice article spawned an I Love Music thread rather embarrassingly titled duz momus noize?, in which Pitchfork writer Nitsuh Ebebe (Nabisco), Dan Bunnybrain (who tours with Devendra Banhart) and others debated, amongst other things, the relationship of aggression to peace and politics to texture.

"If we assume that texture has politics," Nitsuh said, "there's a good chance the noise-critics here would actually lose the argument. The older-lefty contingent seems to be of the opinion that aggression and excitement represent the status quo (via rock and pop music?), and that sobriety and expressions of peace are the right response to that. But in a sense, "peaceful" music represents the status quo even more so, whether it's country, crooners, folk, world, adult-contemporary, or classical -- surely. A noise act can at least make the claim to be sonically skeptical of the pleasures the status quo offers, and therefore to be offering something incisive and politically engaged."

I disagree with this. Two quotes here: Susan Sontag said that rock music was "aggressive normality", a loud noise on behalf of the status quo. And Gandhi said "Be the change you want to see in the world". (Not "angrily demand it from your representatives", note: be it.)

My feeling is that to get aggressive about aggressive policies and wars is to remain on the same page as your opponents. The danger of embodying the change you want to see in the world before that change has come about, though, is that you go out on a limb, embracing textures that refer backwards or forwards to potential lifestyles rather than actual ones. While satire and anger reflect the world as we know it rather well, being the change you want to see (embracing, for instance, radical gentleness, or a permanent 1968 of the soul) ties you in to a fantasy utopia, to a society that hasn't actually been established anywhere. If the danger of satire is excessive tough-mindedness (a "moronic cynicism" worthy of one's worst opponents), the danger of radical gentleness is a kind of dreamy disconnect from reality, a disconnect that can look, to some, like an expression of protection and privilege.

I tend to agree with Dan Bunnybrain's statement on the ILM thread about the Whitney peace tower event: "evoking warlike scenes is one way for powerlunchers and art collectors to feel anything," Bunnybrain wrote. "id splash umbilical cord blood on them if i thought they would care enough to change anything..but i dont ..so ive gone folk."

The Freak Folk scene of the last three or four years has been an attempt to "be the change you want to see in the world", and do it with texture. "Mr. Banhart, 23, is the most prominent of a highly idealistic pack of young musicians whose music is quiet, soothing and childlike, their lyrics fantastic, surreal and free of the slightest trace of irony," the New York Times reported back in December 2004.

The word "freak" in Freak Folk implies the same disconnect I outlined above as the major risk of this kind of movement. As if aware of this, the movement has tried to find "objective correlatives" in other times and places, to draw spiritual nourishment from them. The hippie and peace movements of the 1960s are a good starting point (and they're also the starting point for the Whitney's Peace Tower, based on a 1966 original). So is the spiritual practise of India, a clear influence on Devendra. Less obviously, inspiration is drawn from Latin America, currently swinging left.



I actually discussed this over lunch with two radical designers on Tuesday, Steve Heller and Mirko Ilic. I wondered whether the leftward swing in the Latin American countries might spill into the US through immigration. The consensus seemed to be that, as with Cuban immigration, the people coming to the US are the more right-leaning South Americans, the more money-motivated ones who come here for commercial reasons, leaving their left wing brothers and sisters behind.

Nevertheless, South America is a source of hope for disconsolate lefties at the moment, and you can see that in design, art and music trends. I selected Sergio Vega's tropicalia installation "Paradise in the New World" as the high point of last year's Venice Biennale. The record that made the biggest impact on me (and not just me) last year was Caetano Veloso's "Araca Azul" (1973). A Caetano display was featured in the Frieze Art Fair.

Hope can also be drawn from the period 1968-1973. An artist I'm very interested in is Luke Fowler, who makes documentaries about counter-cultural figures from the late 60s and early 70s. "They work as documentaries you might see on TV, but his techniques are much more radical, his textures much more aesthetic," I reported after seeing his Cornelius Cardew documentary at the Armory Show in March. Last year I saw Fowler's R.D. Laing documentary at the ICA in London. Again, the texture of this work is as important as its interest in freaky fringe figures from the utopian late 60s and early 70s, the high water mark of community-minded thinking in the West.

Luke Fowler's Cardew and Laing films are very much about attempts to found alternative utopian communities. I don't think it would be far-fetched to say that the sleeve of Devendra Banhart's Cripple Crow has the same theme, and so does the work of the Jan Family. The images you see scattered throughout this entry are examples of gentle, whimsical community- and nature-oriented design, mostly the produce of small record labels. It may look apolitical at first glance, but I think it's clearly trying to "be the change it wants to see in the world".

This work is also "Japanese", I think (yes, I do!) for three or four reasons:

1. Because the status quo in Japan endorses collectivism and nature-worship, these values don't have to be oppositional ones, expressed with anger. (Angry collectivism: communist revolution. Angry nature-worship: the Unabomber.)

2. Because a taboo on the public expression of aggression makes it more difficult, in Japan, to be a protester or satirist, people tend towards more "Gandhian" ways of expressing things positively.

3. Because in Japan subcultural styles have always been able to exist somewhat in a vacuum, without subcultural modes of life to support them. This may not be totally desirable when it turns into "style without substance", but it's a way to keep certain tender ideas alive in a harsh climate.

4. Because in Japan texture has often done the work that, elsewhere, text alone is supposed able to do. It's a "formalist" culture.

I'd therefore advance the hypothesis that it's only in Japan, where aggression is not normality but somewhat taboo, that, as Nitsuh says, "a noise act can at least make the claim to be sonically skeptical of the pleasures the status quo offers, and therefore to be offering something incisive and politically engaged." In the West, noise acts are "aggressive normality", they express the status quo, they are the music of the West's imperialistic tanks (I think Faiza was probably right about that, and maybe heard something we've become a bit deafened to). It's interesting, then, that it's Japan which has produced the most interesting, influential and radical noise acts of the last twenty years. We shouldn't be surprised: you can't be radical if you're expressing the status quo.

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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 03:19 pm (UTC)
Re: Some radical American textures ;)

Lovely!

So, for you, gardening is politics? I know it certainly was for Ian Hamilton Finlay.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 03:22 pm (UTC)

I agree that these people (Devendra et al.) are invoking the change they wish to see in the world, but are they really being it?

ryan


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freesurfboards
freesurfboards
freesurfboards
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 03:37 pm (UTC)

I always thought it strange that the country with the most intresting soft and subtle music would give birth to boredoms, ruins, boris, etc. I always thought that it was because any extreme of one idea that pervades a culture produces the exact opposite idea in a minority group, but the two are linked through extremity. But since you mention it, those noise groups from japan don't feel angry.
it's ironic that usa is a monster is tapping the same cultural anger that leads to war and imperialism, and is unwittingly feeding into the same alienation that leads to nationalism. They are "of the monsters party and don't even know it"


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freesurfboards
freesurfboards
freesurfboards
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 03:48 pm (UTC)

On second thought - listening to usa is a monster - they aren't very angry most of the time -> but the same could be said of lightining bolt, albeit without the pun on a william blake quote


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kubia
kubia
kubia
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 03:44 pm (UTC)

So, if I'm getting your point correct,y, than noise is affirming a bellicist politics precisely because of "destructive" aesthetics? I'm not sure that I agree with that completely. A lot of noise music consists of a very playful experimenting with equipment and exploring them in an almost childlike way. I'm especially thinking of Black Dice here or somebody like Violent Onsen Geisha. When thinking about noise I don't refer so much to the receptive side of it on which it might indeed come across as "scary" or even "militant" when one's ears are attuned to muzak or Top 40 radio, but rather on the part of the artists, who are allowed a freedom of experimentation with sounds that turn from mere noise into a certain kind of playful beauty, maybe even innocence, a freedom almost contrary to any form of hierarchical organisation such as the army.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 03:54 pm (UTC)

I agree it's much more nuanced: I like New Humans a lot, for instance, another band who played at the Whitney event and are actually much closer to a Japanese noise band than the bands who provoked the controversy with their (much more conventional) noise.

On the Black Dice question, I think there's a clear split between early Black Dice and late Black Dice -- the dividing line is the departure of drummer Hisham Bharoocha. I like Hisham's other work, but find Black Dice better without him; precisely because they've incorporated elements of the world music that Nitsuh includes, wrongly, I think, as one of the "status quo" musics in his list. Post-Creature Comforts here's still aggression in Black Dice's sound, but it's non-normative aggression.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 03:48 pm (UTC)
sometimes just being doesn't cut it

Loud and noisy groups like Act-Up were invaluable in advancing gay rights. Malcolm X spurred people to "be the change they want" and so on.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 03:58 pm (UTC)
Re: sometimes just being doesn't cut it

I think the crucial difference is between leaders who ask people to demand change from representatives (ie leaders who want us, angry or not, to work with leaders) and leaders who advise people to go off and simply exemplify or be something -- leaders who are, in a sense, the end of leaders.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 04:01 pm (UTC)

I'm in agreement with, well, everything you say, here more or less. But with all the emphasis on the art-politics overlap, I have to ask: when does the art start to get short-shrifted? Once again, like I do with, well, almost everything, I'll double back on Vladimir Nabokov as a starting point. This is from an August 18th, 1964 interview in Life magazine. It's anthologized in Strong Opinions, along with a dozen or so other interviews and some really bitchy letters to editors. On the questions of his views of politics and religion, and how they affect his writing:

"I have never belonged to any political party, but have always loathed and despised dictatorships and police states, as well as any sort of oppression. This goes for regimentations of thought, governmental censorship, racial or religious persecution, and all the rest of it. Whether or not this simple credo affects my writing does not interest me."

Nabokov was a strong case, as he showed nothing but disdain for all perceived "political or social" writing, but I think he's on to something there. At what point does an artist become so embroiled in the politics of their aesthetic that they forget the craft of the piece? Also, is it necessary, as readers/viewers/listeners, to eschew entirely the works of artists whose politics or religion we find vapid, reactionary, dangerous, or all of the above?

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, how much of our own political opinions should we bring in to our evaluation of art? As I said above, I'm more or less of your mind: a Marxist who doesn't believe in violent revolution, an individualist with collectivist sympathies/beliefs, a lover of nature and niceness. But does this mean that I must disregard art that is violent and "revolutionary" or (on the flip side) mainstream and conservative (lower-case "c," not fascist, which simply doesn't count).

Sorry for the length. As the intersection of art and politics is a major leitmotif of your writing, I'd love to hear your take on this. Also, I'm re-reading Ada right now, and I highly suggest all of you do it, 'cos it's just wonderful.

Shanti, shanti, shanti -

Rob


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 04:11 pm (UTC)

does this mean that I must disregard art that is violent and "revolutionary" or (on the flip side) mainstream and conservative (lower-case "c," not fascist, which simply doesn't count).

I'm tempted to say that we could learn a few tricks from the way such work is put together, and employ it to our own ends. BUT MY IDEA THAT TEXTURE IS POLITICS SPECIFICALLY FORBIDS ME TO DO THAT!

(Sorry for shouting, I've become a "noise blogger"!)


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maybeimdead
maybeimdead
Maybe I'm Dead
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 04:39 pm (UTC)

Because a taboo on the public expression of aggression makes it more difficult, in Japan, to be a protester or satirist, people tend towards more "Gandhian" ways of expressing things positively.


So what about in private space? Do you think some of the more "negative" (racist) Nihonjinron notions is an externalization of internalized aggression?


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(Anonymous)
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 04:43 pm (UTC)

wee wee


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(Anonymous)
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 04:42 pm (UTC)

Noise music is an imperialist tank? I thought it was just music by kids who liked the sound.

Anyway, Japan is the dominant culture when it comes to noise music - when American kids make horrifically painful and loud noise tunes, they look to Japan. They're probably the originators of the contemporary style and are still the reigning masters of obnoxious, violent crap. How does that fit into things?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 05:11 pm (UTC)

You didn't read my piece to the end, did you? I think you'll find we're in agreement on Japanoise being the dominant influence on American noise music right now.


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dayofthelocust
dayofthelocust
dayofthelocust
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 04:54 pm (UTC)

I'm in total agreement with your observations about the uncomfortable relationship between what I call "art school hardcore" and the peace movement people. The end result is that not a lot gets done because people are busy bickering on livejournal about whether or not soldiers would listen to Apeshit while operating weaponry, in the unlikely event that they'd ever heard of Apeshit and liked them. Either way, it doesn't make any real difference. I feel like the modern peace movement represented by the Whitney show doesn't exist to facilitate peace, but a few people's sense of self-righteousness. Even a cosmetic move towards peace through sound and album design would feel like progress right now.

In a year where I bought no contemporary music, my favorite release was Soul Jazz Records' "Tropicalia" compilation. The real reason I'm adding a comment today is that your link to Sergio Vega's tropicalia installation, "Paradise in the New World" does not work. And I would be very happy if it did. Thank you.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 05:16 pm (UTC)

Ha, I'd call your view of the modern peace movement "intelligent cynicism".

Sorry about the Vega link, I've now fixed it. Here's another bit from Click Opera about that installation.


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fishwithissues
fishwithissues
jordan fish
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 05:29 pm (UTC)

i'd venture that one of the differences between text and texture is that text has a more determinate, accepted meaning and texture is more indeterminate, experiential; we bring our own set of associations to the table. somebody might smell gunpowder and immediately think of a gun, while another might immediately think of model rockets.

ultimately the emphasis on normative vs. non-normative aggression is more salient than a blanket contention that noise = bad. what matters is how much the music diverges from the rock 'n' roll canon, and weakens associations between loudness and actual violence.


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uberdionysus
uberdionysus
Troy Swain: Black Box Miasma
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 06:14 pm (UTC)
At least you acknowledges some of the holes in your theory...

the danger of radical gentleness is a kind of dreamy disconnect from reality, a disconnect that can look, to some, like an expression of protection and privilege.

Thank you for conceding a potential danger of "radical gentleness."

As certain aspects of the 60s hippies and commune movement showed us, the extremeties of "radical gentleness" is a disconnect from reality, which extinguishes the voices necessary to counter the opposite side. Not only can "radical gentleness" look like an expression of protection and privilege; it can also BE an expression of protection and privilege.

A quick story about Devendra Banhart: Once, he came into my favorite very tiny Mexican ran taqueria without his shirt. As you know, Dev is very gentle and an exceedingly nice guy, but the Mexican staff were extremely uncomfortable with his shirtlessness, as was the other (predominately Mexican) patrons. Despite his gentleness, he didn't pick up that his act of shirtlessness was an attack on their notions of social decorum and WAS an act of aggression. D

Despite his sensitivity, he continued to make everyone uncomfortable (even me, because of everyone else's discomfort). I'll never forget that, and it's something you should take to heart - aggression and being offensive are not always intended, but that doesn't mean their unintentional effects aren't felt.

Another example: I found a few of your recent posts very aggressive, brash, offensive and simplistic, but I doubt that was your intention, and I wonder if you even knew that your posts were perceived in that way.

Lastly, I agree that the good leader is an anti-leader.


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bopscotch
bopscotch
bopscotch
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 07:03 pm (UTC)

Momus, what do you think of the US noise band Growing? I was just reading about them in Arthur Magazine - and though they're not Japanese-influenced (at least, not directly), their noise is definitely pointing towards a nature aesthetic. The photos to the article (which is also this month's cover story) show the band members immersed by nature. Their album titles are influenced by visual music (their 2004 album title is a quote of, and reference to an Bainbridge Bishop essay). Their website includes photos showing audience members either sitting or laying down while Growing's noise causes them to drift into bliss (in addition to the website being of "gentle, whimsical community- and nature-oriented design," as you put it).

I went and downloaded thier 2004 album, "The Soul Of The Rainbow And The Harmony Of Light" and I think you'd really dig it.

Also, check out Arthur Magazine while you're at it. They, I believe, fit with the nature aesthetic you discuss - Devendra Banhart even compiled a CD of his fellow Freak Folksters for them.


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peripherus_max
peripherus_max
peripherus_max
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 07:13 pm (UTC)

I disagree with Sontag that rock music is a volume-cranked expression of the status quo. Would Jimi Hendrix's version of the Star Spangled Banner in '69 qualify as a radical act of noise, (dare I say) an act of "agressive normality," in contrast to, say, Joan Baez?


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glassplastic
Emilio
Sat, May. 20th, 2006 05:52 pm (UTC)

Well . . . the interpretation of that song, as I always saw it, was to conflate the anthem with the sounds of planes attacking and bombs dropping. Which was a pretty radical thing at the time, and which dealt more with American's view of their country and their friends being drafted. But now the song is used in commercials to sell trucks, and the capitalist idea that "freedom" is "freedom to buy." So it went from radical to normal (through no fault of Jimi's, though).


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intergalactim
intergalactim
intergalactim
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 10:29 pm (UTC)

merzbow's "noise for animal-rights" philosophy is fascinating (i mean it).


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fritzela
fritzela
Fri, May. 19th, 2006 07:55 pm (UTC)
tangential considerations

Sometimes it would take just much too much of my day to exaggerate all the little knee-jerks I get when I read your entries. Avoiding a direct approach to the Whitney debacle, your opening theoretical remarks on the politics of texture appealed to me most. And then especially in light of the third reason you listed as to why the term "Japanese" makes for a good adjective to apply to the products of artists striving to be an embodiment of a utopian ideal. This point conjures up a botanical analogy for the relationship between form and content, as though the fruits of formal invention (texture begetting text) can serve as seed-vessels to keep the possibility open for a future re-emergence of the parent form (text begetting texture).

I've doubts as to whether this is really possible. To my mind, content is always the produce of a particular methodology. Granted, methodology, in turn, spawns from the potentialities of a socio-political climate, within which art is a huge contributing factor. However, in terms of subcultural transmission, I can't see how the vestigial leftovers of a political mode of life could later respawn that same mode of life in an inherently different atmosphere.

Devendra Banhart comes to mind here (a year younger than me and he already gets to be exemplary, the prick) as an example of an artist seeding time-capsuled 'texts' from the sixties in order to bring the rebirth of a subcultural form to bear on a world with comparable problems (war for one). I see an important derangement in Devendra's take on the political texture of the sixties, a big difference in How he does it; a smirking, haughty delivery with elitist implications. His efforts in this day and age are not ridiculous because of the mode of life he fails to reinvent, but because of the subcultural trends in aesthetics he succeeds in readopting. I think he knows he's being laughable when he presents the dress and makeup of a political model that's way beyond the pale of a Western audience, except as reference to a fashion of the hippy movement. He's alright being laughable so long as he gets to laugh loudest (a la, that blurb on the proliferation of the headband in Brooklyn you mentioned a while back in your talk with some dude from Vice magazine).

So, the fruit of India's precedents in formal protest have not and cannot give rise to similar form in America. Each newfound mode of life or political texture cannot possibly be so sweeping in its cultural awareness since the nature of its invention is of a reactionary impulsiveness. However, it can be realized later that certain textures resemble previous ones. The relays, if they exist, are not contained in the textual detritus of a particular subculture, but rather in the biographical evidence of those who have gone before. As Gandhi learned of Thoreau and Martin Luther King of Gandhi. Perhaps I'd be better able to genuinely appreciate the textural quality of Devendra's music if he'd applied his pretty lyricism to Gospel and not Folk.


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