May 19th, 2006


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 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.