"Eye is one of the coolest people in the world," I said. "He's always pushing formats just that bit further than anyone else dares to."
Later, at Smart Deli, Yumi the owner told me about some Argentinians who were looking for places in Berlin to distribute their magazine Sede. I checked their site and was confronted by photos (by Guadalupe and Silvina Wernicke) of Mark Borthwick's Brooklyn studio, which has become an open house for people like Hisham, and Eye too, no doubt, and Miho Aoki from United Bamboo, and Yukinori Maeda from Osaka fashion house Cosmic Wonder. There's a whole gang of them -- neo-hippies of a sort, post-fashion and yet not post-fashion.
The neo-hippy vibe comes across very clearly in the photos of Borthwick's house. This is a big, open, plant-filled place (a "creator's space") where you sit on the floor and play guitars, bells, and so on. Borthwick has a music project with Hisham called Usun. Hisham also has a music project with Yukinori Maeda involving the same sort of windchimes-and-floormats. (You can see Hisham engaged in a formless acoustic strum in Prospect Park here.) These people all have links with Purple magazine in Paris, with Sonic Youth, with Animal Collective, with Susan Ciancolo. They're a scene, and a sensibility. (There's a further list of Hisham's friends on this Me magazine cover, and you can read an interview with him here.)
Now, I quite appreciate this scene, as do the kind of people I hang out with. Every female Japanese art student I've known reveres Mark Borthwick intensely, for instance. It's something to do with the refined, understated, tender-minded, nature-loving quality that comes through in his photographs, and the sense that, for the truly beautiful people, the fashion industry in itself isn't quite enough. The truly beautiful people go back to nature, hang out in the forest, have children, cook, get together and jam on acoustic guitars. They are, in other words, neo-hippies, too aloof to sell their souls to The Man.
In an interview with Fecal Face magazine, Mark Borthwick talks about being post-fashion, or rather how the fashion industry itself is out of fashion.
"I had to stop editorial photography" he says. "I was in fashion. I was always trying to find a new way of approaching how we use clothes, how we apply clothes, and how to attach myself to what it meant to be a fashion photographer. That was something that has always been very important to me. But I was placing too much importance onto continually putting myself in a position where I was questioning the industry. What is the importance of clothing? What is the importance of fashion? I think I lost that importance because I no longer believed in the industry itself..."
"You have these hypocritical fashion editors out there, a few of them that try to attain their rules and put that forth. I don't believe in any of it anymore and fashion itself has become extremely unfashionable in that sense. Especially today, I think it's amazing to hang out on stoops here [in Brooklyn] where we live and see there's another way. There's always another way. Magazines took such a step backwards over the last twenty years trying to close the door to the other way. And I'm always interested in the other way, and I attach myself to that, whether it's with the clothes, the music, the cooking or just the idea of bringing people together. There's so much joy to be had with the small little events that happen to you daily. The last couple of days have been magical. I walk out of this place, vibrating at a pace that's just phenomenal. There could be two or three people walking down the street, could be a kid and its mother and they sit down on the floor and... that's very precious. That lasts forever."
Now, I totally appreciate what he's saying here. I feel the same way about the music industry. And as a follower of John Cage (who got this from Eastern religion and philosophy) I share the hippyish belief that real life -- the view out of the window, or the sounds coming in through it -- is more exciting than most art, especially aggressive commercial art.
The thing is, the people Borthwick sees on the street are unlikely to share his views of their own beauty. They're probably hooked into the very commercial culture he abhors. If he were to go home with them and be forced to listen to the music they listen to and the TV they watch, he'd probably stop approving.
Certainly, when a bigger public is forced to confront what Borthwick does, the result is huge dissatisfaction. Check out the comments on the Amazon page for Speaking for Trees, the Cat Power DVD Borthwick released in 2004: two hours of Cat Power standing alone in a forest playing guitar and singing, shot with a fixed camera and no edits.
Speaking for trees, maybe. Speaking for Cat Power fans, well, no. They'd have preferred a pretty standard film with cliched editing and close-ups of their idol, it seems, rather than this neo-hippy, post-materialist stuff.
"The video is awful," says Dredfish, writing from a basement in Seattle. "The whole "Chan in nature" thing falls flat. It looks like they filmed it in the parking lot of a city park. Probably the worst are the three "music videos." If Mark Borthwick is an artist I'm sure he'll be a starving one. His filmmaking style is sadly lacking. Anybody, and I mean anybody, with a video camera could come up with something more compelling than this drivel... Blech."
At the end of his Fecal Face interview, Borthwick talks about his love of nature and the street as "universal", and there's a hint that he might want to make "universal" art -- follow figures like Mike Mills and Spike Jonze into movie-making, for instance, taking his neo-hippy values mainstream as he does it.
While I don't think Borthwick will starve -- he'll eat much better than Dredfish, and in better company -- I doubt he'll be able to pull this "universalizing" trick off. His values are too non-toxic for that. And what comes after disillusionment with the fashion industry is not a re-uniting with the great mass of the populace. It's isolation in a creative ghetto -- a very, very pleasant one -- with people after one's own heart, other post-professional beautiful people who want to hang out in the forest.
Rather than "the universal", this place we reach in the middle of our creative lives is somewhere very specific and restricted, somewhere you can only go to after passing through all the rings of fashion hell. The ring of the stylists, the ring of the publicists, the ring of the models, the ring of the press. It's a post-fashion forest where the appeal is all bound up with abhorrence of one's more mercenary colleagues, and the way they edit, angle, plot, and style life. You can see this in Cage's disdain for standard musical education and professional musicians just as clearly as you can in Borthwick's scorn for "hypocritical fashion editors".
It's a scorn which is totally understandable and largely correct. But it would be a mistake to assume that big majorities of the public shared it, and were just waiting to join us in the post-fashion forest.