Category Archives: other

Tea With Chris: Recklessly Perfect Things

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Thursday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Margaux: I went to an event recently, an informal award ceremony at The Gladstone Hotel in Toronto. The K.M. Hunter Artist Awards were recognizing my friend Jean Marshall’s work along with 7 other recipients. The people who received the grants were awarded out of the blue – nothing fancy, no applications, no parades, no advertisements. The night was structured around pretty great and simple short videos of each of the recipients talking about their work and somehow, as my mother would say, there was no B.S. – everyone seemed to know what they were doing. The video of my friend featured her first Skype conversation since she’s from way up north. All in all, a real classy way of going about an art award.

I love this art book by Richard William Hill, The World Upside Down, lent to me by the curator Michelle Jacques. As Hill explains inside: “The term ‘world upside down’ has its origins in Europe’s Middle Ages, and I have taken the liberty, as an enthusiastic amateur, of attempting an account of inversion in the visual arts of the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods.” There are many confident and recklessly perfect things inside, one of which is a discussion on tricksters that involves Chery L’Hirondelle. As L’Hirondell says there, “that spirit (the trickster) is there to remind us that many social parameters are just man-made, are not of the natural order.”

Ketchup is changing

This is a pretty interesting audio interview about hearing voices in the evangelical community – “‘When God Talks Back’ To The Evangelical Community”

Good art shows ended and in process in Toronto: I loved some of the new work from Derek Mainella at Neubacher Shor Contemporary. Jenn Murphy has an art show on now at Clint Roenisch gallery, Monkey’s Recovery, that I have no doubt will be pretty great to be in the middle of.

Chris: Here’s the pointillist form letter that rejected would-be contributors to Raw magazine received. “Impossible to reproduce / should not be allowed to reproduce.”

As someone who hates the word “foodie” even more than the bovine fetishism it denotes, I appreciate the fake menus a mystery comedian handed out at Brooklyn’s “Great GoogaMooga” festival (this orthography!) last weekend.

Carl: I have been distressed about our country this week. For just one example of why, listen to what a former government scientist has to say. On the other hand, I have been inspired by what our young, red-squared, francophone compatriots in Quebec have achieved, bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to protest their province’s drift away from its social-democratic traditions and, subsequently, its attempt to curtail their rights to protest. If you’ve gotten a less positive impression, here are 10 points you should know.

On a lighter (but raspier) note, I had an animated conversation at a dinner party last night about the apparent speech trend called “vocal fry,” aka “creaky voice,” especially among young women, about which there was much pop-science chatter early this year. Today I stumbled on a terrific blog about speech that has a more in-depth examination of the phenomenon’s precedents, prevalence and implications, from Britney to Gene Pitney. I did like the theory that we came up with last night, though – that, among people with parents and elder siblings likely afflicted with at least traces of Uptalk, it’s probably a typical generational reaction-for-distinction.

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Friday Pictures – Ernst Haeckel (1834 – 1919)

 

Gastraea

Arbol

 

Basimycetes

 

Anthropogenie

 

Ernst Haeckel & von Miclucho-Maclay / Canary Islands / 1866

 

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On Persian-Tuned Piano, and Not Knowing Anything

By Carl Wilson

I’m currently immersed in a project bigger than a breadbox (new version of the 20 Questions classic: “Is it bigger than a blogpost?”) for the first time in a while. While research is a pleasurable way to fill the gaps in one’s knowledge of a given field, what it immediately starts disclosing is how many other fields there are that to you are all gap: All ground, no figure. Existential vertigo is an easy reaction. The alternative is to enjoy your stupidity.

I’m indebted on that count to Jacob Wren, who posted the above in the sociable media earlier this week – a recording of early-20th-century Iranian musician Morteza Mahjoubi playing “Persian-tuned piano.” I thought that I had some inkling of the ways people had monkeywrenched pianos in the history of music – John Cage with his preparations, Conlon Nancarrow with his player-piano rolls, Terry Riley with just intonation, Thelonious Monk with his knuckles and Cecil Taylor with his elbows, etc. But I had never imagined the world of alternate tunings for a piano could be this vast.

Although I have a general interest in Iranian culture, I couldn’t say I know even a full-fledged smidgen about the operations of Persian music, even less than the almost-nothing I know about Arab music and the nearly-approaching-something I know about South Asian music. But I can understand that “well-tempered” pianos can’t play it, with its quartertones and mandatory wavers. So Mahjoubi and others began to find ways to retune and otherwise alter the instrument to approximate Persian modes (the radif system). It seems that many performers since have learned the method and still practice it today.

All this struck me as an intriguing early case of postmodernism, in which the traditional becomes a form of the avant-garde. So I went on a little Google hunt. I could find almost nothing written in English in about an hour’s search. This, compared to the overwhelming avalanche of information one finds on most subjects, was oddly soothing.

I invite you to try it yourself, but in case you haven’t the patience, the best two sources I found were here and in the explanation box accompanying this other YouTube video.

But perhaps you prefer to just glance at it and let it renew that Socratic sensation of wisdom-as-knowledge-of-ignorance? For now, me too – back to the task at hand.

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Thinking about Damien Hirst the other day

by Margaux Williamson

 

My sister, Tara Williamson, brought up the artist Damien Hirst with me last week. She said they had been discussing his new spot paintings on the radio. She asked what I thought of his work. I said that it can be irritating sometimes but that mostly it somehow always worked to break my heart a little bit. She said, I knew you would say that.

The next day I came across a text by Katy Siegel on Damien Hirst. It was somehow in my Kindle but maybe it came to me from an Art Forum email. Siegel’s text is useful in its criticism but generous too. In writing of Hirst against the art world Siegel writes:

It seems silly to feel sorry for successful artists, or for rich people in general, but in the end, there is no attitude to strike that can beat the house. Or, to put it another way, no one gets out of here alive.

I also feel a little silly to feel empathy for Hirst, but I do. Hirst’s work always seems to be saying “ALL IS LOST, I DON’T CARE”, with a much smaller voice in the background asking “all is lost, right?”

It’s interesting when an artist’s work, like in the case of Hirst, shows such a consistency of feeling despite how varied their projects or intent can be.

Thinking about it this week made me think of the model Kate Moss. She, too, seems to have a consistency in the work she does with her face.  Coming across a random picture of Kate Moss in a magazine,  her face always seems to say, “TAKE EVERYTHING, I DON’T CARE” with a much smaller voice in the background saying “you can take everything, but you’ll never, ever get anything from me.”

It seems a little like a puzzle. Was she born with this face? Is it her bone structure that tells you to “TAKE EVERYTHING”? Or are her feelings shaping her face? – the feelings that one doesn’t think to hide when the photographers take their pictures since one might not know that they are there.

Weighing Kate Moss’ feelings verses her bone structure reminded me of the work of Paul Ekman and Maureen O’Sullivan. They are psychologists who study, in great, unimaginable detail, humans’ microexpressions. Microexpressions are the involuntary expressions made unconsciously and received uconsciously. Apparently, microexpressions are very difficult things to repress.

Come to think of it, anything I came across by the designer ALexander McQueen always broke my heart too. His work always seemed to be saying “If I keep my eyes closed, keep dreaming and work really hard, maybe everything in the world will get better” (he never seemed to have a smaller voice saying something different – other than maybe “I DON’T SEE YOU”).

Maybe these are the things that happen when you are surrounded by England. Maybe these are things you can’t repress when England takes your picture. Maybe the gestures and the expressions and the objects made by people who are being closely watched by England always break my heart.

That’s on the other side of what I see when I see Damien Hirst’s work. When I see his work, I think “It’s not just England that’s watching you, it’s not just the filthy rich who are invested, it’s not just the art world that cares.”  Maybe it is always a little bit hard to strike a pose for people who aren’t in the room.

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Ten-plus Cultural Experiences I’m Still Thinking About Now that 2011’s Done with Us

by Carl Wilson

 [With trademark untimeliness, Back to the World is presenting a series of belated, cross-genre, year-end lists, as we did last year, and again loosely on the model of Greil Marcus’s long-running Real Life Rock Top Ten. Margaux posted last week and Chris will post soon. Once again I’ve confined myself to topics I haven’t written about at length here before, or in my year-end chatter in the Slate Music Club (and accompanying Spotify playlist).]

1. Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying (out, late 2010; read, early 2011)

 The Toronto-based writer, musician and scholar Marcus Boon’s generous intervention (that’s a full, free PDF) over one of the issues of our time (cf SOPA) seemed to echo everywhere – as far out as the viral reproduction of revolutionary courage through Arab countries, and the call-and-response of the “human microphone” of Occupy Wall Street and its own hashtag-breeding copycats.

What I found so moving, even given the book’s digressive wander through a potentially infinite subject (and the foolhardiness of trying to control infinitudes) was its restoration of copying’s many sensual and spiritual connotations in what has been much too abstract and legalistic a debate. The back-and-forth weave and warp of repetition and difference is a pervasive leitmotif of existence, and not just the human. Boon’s treatment is elusive, with no definitive answers, but that means it will reward repeated re-reading, never just a copy of the first time.

2. The sex scenes in Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce (March, 2011)

 

There was a lot of debate about what Haynes, one of my favourite American film directors, did in his HBO mini-series with the template of the 1940s melodrama starring, of course, Joan Crawford: Had he evacuated the original film’s queerness, its camp, and left only a portrait of a status-and-materialism-driven woman who brings ruin, reinstating the misogyny of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel? Yes and no. Yes, he was bringing back the sting of the novel’s more radical anti-capitalism. But he was also taking the mini-series’ extra time to push the viewer’s nose far deeper into the mortification (social death, social stiffening) Kate Winslet’s Mildred endures when all the guarantees of the social contract are pulled out from under her by economic-cycle brutality and masculine bad faith, and the contradictions she helplessly generates (chiefly in her daughter, almost earning Evan Rachel Wood’s scenery-masticating performance) in the course of trying to maintain vestiges of her expectations within that outcaste position.

But Haynes also grants Winslet’s Mildred a grace Crawford’s could never taste – full-blown, full-grown sensual gratification, in her leggy, languorous love scenes with Guy Pearce as aristocratic reprobate Monty Beragon, the real sex object of the piece. Granted, the plot ensures this is in many ways another trap, but between them the actors and Haynes refuse that old morality’s to overpower the commandments of skin and light on skin, the manifesto for being and perseverance that an intimate bodily encounter can’t utter but can proclaim. It enacts what camp once did but no longer can: victory within defeat, not just despite but also because of loss, in its unapologetic ensnarement with entropy and other ultimate unfairnesses, against which desire still demands, “Live all you can.”

By making that so vivid, and driven by the will of the “unrespectable” woman, Haynes discredited his own tragedy, asking why a male film figure like George Clooney or Clark Gable (whom Pearce’s Monty directly recalls) can give that same kind of vicarious pleasure and get at best lightly slapped, while Mildred Pierce has to be dragged through the shoals. In this, though the rest isn’t perfect, Haynes really made a melodrama to end all melodrama.

3. WTF with Marc Maron interviewing Bryan Cranston (June 10); Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul on Breaking Bad (all year)

 

If you measured by the number of hours spent on it in the year, you would conclude my most cherished art form is not music, literature, live performance or even TV, but the podcast. Check my iTunes: I’m currently subscribed to about 65, though the majority are really radio shows, not native to the pod. And the majority of those aren’t mwhusic but talk. Perhaps it’s that I live alone and am comforted by the chatter during cleaning, cooking, trying to go to sleep and other routines (I wish I were better with silence). But it’s also because non-broadcast radio lets people take liberties with talk – that most eternally human of media – that feel fresh and exciting without being consciously experimental and avant. There’s no better example, title down, than Marc Maron’s What the Fuck?! I came to it a little late, compelled by its backstory: A veteran, never breakout comedian who’s struggled with personal demons gets new career success and satisfaction by sitting down with people in his field in his garage and asking them frank, patient questions of craft, d but also how their own flaws and hauntings have affected their stories – empathetically sounding their barriers and/or divulging his admiring but frustrated puzzlement at how they surpass them.

The editions that draw hype tend to be confronting, sensational – a showdown with a hack, an uncomfortable discussion with a friend, a comedy writer confessing an attempted suicide. But I love the quieter talks he has with people about their growth. One of my favourites was with Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, and not just because he’s an actor whose work left me wide-eyed over the past several years (as it clearly did Maron). Cranston is at once enormously garrulous and open about his route to his ambitions (he tells stories with theatrical gusto) and humble (not showbiz humble, but humble) and grateful for the improbable fact that his journeyman dues-paying led to an artistic and career jackpot. I listened in early summer and have thought about it at least weekly since.

  

 Bryan Cranston, out of character … and in.

For several months, that was partly because a highlight of each week was the fourth season of Breaking Bad, the best drama on television since The Wire, even better if only because it had the previous show to go by (just as The Wire had The Sopranos). Unlike those two, it isn’t a big ensemble piece. Supporting players are super, but this is a show about two people, Cranston’s Walter White and his protégé (considering how terribly he’s protected, that’s exactly the wrong word): Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman. I have nothing original to add to the accolades: Beyond character and cinematic weave, what’s remarkable is its arc in which a good man becomes very far from good, at first for circumstantial reasons and then for deeply rooted ones, and the audience has to test how far our sympathies can extend, even as we vicariously participate in the rot.

The season finale is the obvious standout, featuring both one of the most ingenious murder scenes ever committed to film or video and an ending many viewers might find it hard to get past (and not just for its dangling plot threads). But three weeks earlier, there was an atypical episode, in which the focus shifted from Walter to Jesse for nearly the whole hour and forced the younger man to find unexpected strengths. It mattered because the question has become whether anyone in this saga will walk away alive with something like an intact soul, and there’s really only one hope left. Here we begin to see that a story that seemed to be about one person and his themes and issues might really be a story about someone and something else. As always: The story of the parents turns into the story of the children, which then turns out to be the story of their children, and the next, and so on. If it doesn’t, that’s when there’s real trouble. (Attention, anyone who compared Occupy Wall Street to Woodstock.)

4. The consolations of comedy: Party Down on Netflix, “Adults in Autumn” (Chris Locke, Kathleen Phillips, Nick Flanagan, 
Rebecca Kohler, 
Jon McCurley, 
Tom Henry
, Glenn Macaulay) at Double Double Land (November), Louis CK at the Sony Centre (October) and Louie, Maria Bamford at Comedy Bar (January), Parks & Recreation, Community, the Comedy Bang Bang podcast …

Along with having become a podcast nerd – and abetted by it – what really struck me in 2011 is that over the past several years I was becoming a comedy nerd. I’m now usually more enthusiastic to go see people say funny things than to hear a concert, or to listen to or watch comedy on my computer than to listen to music. I follow local comics, especially the way-underpublicized Kathleen Phillips, as avidly as I used to follow bands, even here in the greatest musickest citiest of them all-est. I am still puzzling. Perhaps it’s just that a change is as good as a rest, as they say: The comedy nodes in my brain may be less worn-down than the music nodes. Or perhaps there really is more fresh happening in comedy than in music (in Toronto specifically or in general?), or more likely that whatever was new a half-decade ago or more to true comedy nerds finally has become obvious and available to us rabble. (The fact that I still don’t love the Best Show on WFMU is the clinching evidence, right?)

Or as Woody Allen would say, maybe I just needed the eggs. A lot of us had a grim year.

And speaking of eggs, I agree completely with Margaux about the Louie duckling-in-Afghanistan episode.

5. Have Not Been the Same by Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack and Jason Schneider: reissue (June), panel (Soundscapes, Toronto, July) and CD (November)

Have I gotten this far without having to declare any conflicts of interest? No matter, plenty more to come.

Even in this supposedly retromanic age of eternal re-re-return, the bubbles of cultural history with local habitations but no names can easily pop away and leave only stains on the barroom floors. A decade ago, three Canadian music writers, one of them my friend Michael Barclay, tried to guard against that by writing a history of the Canadian music world (mostly indie division) from the mid-‘80s to the mid-‘90s, Have Not Been the Same: The Can-Rock Renaissance. It was a fairly thankless task in 2001, when those scenes were waninh, fractured and with little apparent trace, though since the book mentioned dozens upon dozens of people it sold well enough. Perceptively, though, they later realized the Canadian successes of recent years lent their subject renewed relevance – and that made it incomplete as history. So they undertook many more interviews, updated the individual stories and overall tale with a new introduction and conclusion and brought the book back this year. They held launch concerts and discussions – including a panel at Soundscapes record shop in Toronto with Julie Doiron (ex-Eric’s Trip, current-Julie Doiron), Don Pyle (ex-Shadowy Men, ex-Phono Comb, many more, current Trouble in the Camera Club) and Alison Outhit (ex-Rebecca West, ex-Halifax Pop Explosion, current FACTOR) that was one of the most worthwhile discussions of how musicians and music live and that life has changed I’ve experienced in ages, even (I think) without nostalgia.

Michael’s also curated a companion soundtrack, possibly the first of many, with more recent Can-Rockers playing gems from the book’s era. Which coverers and coverees you like best likely will depend on your own faves: For me, there’s something especially poignant about the Hidden Cameras coaxing out the gentleness of Mecca Normal’s “Throw Silver,” or Richard Reed Parry (of Arcade Fire) and Little Scream slipping into the steamy ether of Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “When You Know Why You’re Happy.” Maps overlaid, outlines of one sunken continent shimmering around the contours of one newer-risen. Lenses, focusing other lenses, or a more vibrant blur.

6. Stand-In (1937) with Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart and Joan Blondell, on Turner Classic Movies (August 24)

Not at all new, of course, but new to me when I stumbled upon it on TV in the summer. It’s a bundle of this-but-that: A screwball, Hollywood-skewers-Hollywood comedy that bridges Bogart’s tough-guy and leading-man days, with Busby Berkeley star Joan Blondell (the excuse for its airing, in an evening featuring her) being cutesy-charming but also the brains of the outfit, Leslie Howard stiff and patrician-blinkered but then melting and gaining his senses, and the whole thing ending with a ridiculous/stirring Hollywood labour uprising that gives away its Depression-to-New Deal moment, hard to imagine in many other eras. Apparently the original was more radical still – censored were “a speech about the stifling of competition in the industry and the crushing of independent companies by the majors; and … a speech by Atterbury at the end, in which he says he is going to start a Senate investigation of the motion picture business.”

Here’s a link to the whole movie, as long as it lasts:

It probably stuck with me because the broadcast just preceded the #Occupy moment, but anything mainstream-American that talks explicitly of economic justice without patting itself on the back until its spine breaks (like recent supposed treatments of the financial crisis), frankly, is memorable on its own.

7. The Citizens’ Filibuster (July 28)

Another classic movie came to mind in Toronto a month earlier, on the night of July 28: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. We mentioned it and pictured it here at the time, but too briefly: The bizarre, nearly-24-hour session of citizen testimony – or, as it became known, the “citizens’ filibuster” – against Rob Ford’s attempt to slash budgets was, just as Torontoist says, one of the truly heroic moments of the year, here or anywhere: Our local mini-Newt’s attempt to force closure became the opposite, a populist force to pry the oyster of debate back open, which led to this month’s still-surprising turnabout, in which Ford’s agenda was, for the time being, trounced.

Culturally, whether you were at City Hall or following it on the simulcast and especially social media, it was incredible civic theatre, in which vivid characters (none more heart-tugging than the one below, but some others close) displayed the eloquence and, more significantly, the expertise of so-called ordinary people who normally aren’t even allowed to pick up the marbles in the political game. It’s a contrast to the ugly pro-death-penalty and anti-immigrant ovations of selected attendees at Republican primary debates, for instance. Don’t let those things kill your faith in humanity. The corpse of that faith is what the vultures feed upon.

8. DJs Debate Club at the Henhouse (March 6)

This entry’s a tad more self-indulgent: For the past few years, the Henhouse on Dundas West in Toronto has been the place that I and a few close friends have gone to get our cheap beers on and make like Jonathan Richman, except in a post-Will-Munro-polymorphic Third Place. Our hosts Katie Ritchie, Jenny Smyth and Vanessa Dunn made us more than welcome, and last spring invited me and pal Michael McManus (yes, the last of the Brunnen-G) to DJ one night under our Henhouse nickname, Debate Club (for our propensity to jawbone loudly about politics till closing time).

On the theme of #occupy-precursors that runs through this list, Michael decided we should intercut tracks of famous political speeches between tracks. It would have been a big hit if it had been six months later. Instead we eventually abandoned poor Mario Savio when cooler (but sweatier) heads prevailed and taught us girls just wanna have Robyn. I hadn’t DJ’d since the last time I supplied Wavelength with an iPod playlist, and had forgotten what a rush it is to play music very, very loud, like conjuring worlds, and sex, and astral projection. (Thanks also to Jacob Zimmer, Small Wooden Shoe and Dancemakers for letting me do it again at a fundraiser in December.)

The Henhouse has changed hands now, sadly for its denizens, end of an era. Ladies, you regularly made a room a festival and a roundup of strays into a small community, as best a bar can do. You’ll be missed, but I’m excited to see what you all do next.

9. Misha Glouberman’s Negotiation Class (winter/spring)

Along with assuming the role of author (along with our comrade Sheila Heti) of The Chairs are Where the People Go (about which I really recommend this Los Angeles Review of Books podcast, along with LARB in general), B2TW associate Misha embarked on another new venture this year: An experienced teacher of many forms of improvisation and facilitator of conferences and events, he began this year giving a class in negotiation and communication born of both his innate inclinations to and his concerted studies of  reason, compromise and low-bullshit ways for people to have difficult conversations.

I took the pilot-workshop version of it last winter, with mostly Misha’s friends in it, at a time that I was navigating some crucial personal and professional transitions; some parts worked out and some didn’t, but I’d been given new tools to break down what was happening and address it with, most of all, relative fearlessness. That’s what much of Misha’s work is about: how to cope with the fear that human exchange sparks, which causes us to act protectively in ways that read as irrational to the very people we want most to understand, and find productive alternatives. Generosity, he shows, is a more winning position – not #winning, but in the sense that there’s usually less substantial conflict than meets the eye. (The urge to win, itself, might be an evolutionary catch-22.) He’s teaching a short, intensive version of the course again next month at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

10. Quite Interesting (QI) with Alan Davies, Bill Bailey, Rob Brydon, Jimmy Carr and Stephen Fry (Sept., 2007)

Back to humour again: This is from a few years ago but I first saw it because over Vietnamese dinner Misha brought up the BBC quiz/chat/comedy show QI, hosted by Stephen Fry, so I spent an afternoon watching clips. And then I hit this, which (beginning at 0:22), makes me laugh helplessly and forgive Britain all its sins. I like to watch it any time I feel overwhelmed, with no straight lines to follow. Or maybe I’ll do it ritually every year, as a colonial amusement, the way northern Europeans watch Dinner for One.

PLUS

Melancholia, especially Charlotte Rampling as the archetypical Bad Mother, and Earth as the even more archetypical Bad Mother; Kirsten Dunst at the Cannes press conference for Melancholia; the BBC series Sherlock, the other BBC series The Hour, and the other (much less smart about Britain, class and war, but still absurdly entertaining) BBC series Downton Abbey; Christian Marclay’s The Clock at Paula Cooper and Alexander McQueen’s “Savage Beauty” at the Met (the two art shows I most regret missing) and “Alexander McQueen” (the song by Tomboyfriend); Ryan Trecartin’s “Any Ever” in Queens (the show I’m gladdest I didn’t miss); the Doug Loves Movies podcast and the (for me, unplayable) Leonard Maltin Game (throughout “Two Oceans 11”); the Slate Culture Gabfest (especially being on an episode, which was a thrill); The Ex with Brass Unbound at Lee’s Palace in May; two concert/tour movies about Canadian artists that I didn’t expect to like but that each made me cry, watching them in immediate sequence, Look at What the Light Did Now (Feist) and We’re the Weakerthans, We’re from Winnipeg (Weakerthans); the saving of Saint Mark’s Bookshop; the Smee jokes in Pat Thornton’s third 24-hour standup marathon at Comedy Bar; Tim Hecker’s pipe-organ concert at the Music Gallery; poems by Michael Robbins and D.A. Powell; John Hawkes and Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene; Sandro Perri’s CD launch concerts at the Tranzac in November; Ty Segall at the Wrongbar in NXNE (June); Jeff Mangum at Trinity Saint Paul’s church in Toronto, Aug. 12; discovering this early-1980s scene from a Ron Mann art film featuring Jim Carroll and Jack Layton improbably together, both RIP, #occupymemory; as an epigraph to the year, these lines from “Hindsight,” by Richard Buckner: “Stricken as we stood/ Broken as we made/ Time for make-believe/ Stealing, when we should/ What we couldn’t give away.”

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Friday Pictures – Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s 24 hour “Who the heck needs a city’s infrastructure?” Executive Committee Meeting Marathon, featuring Mary Trapani Hynes, Kevin Clark, and Adam Vaughan / Toronto City Hall


Mary Trapani Hynes / Toronto City Hall / July 28 2011

Kevin Clark / Toronto City Hall / July 28 2011

Adam Vaughan (click on image for video) / Toronto City Hall / July 28 2011

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Enjoined Joy: “Gross National Happiness” and Pop Music in Bhutan

by Chris Randle

[This essay was first presented in slightly different form at the 2011 Pop Conference.]

Several years ago, the Nova Scotia think tank GPI Atlantic took on an unusual project: helping to redesign an entire country’s economic system. But it wasn’t invited to the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan by the International Monetary Fund. The Bhutanese government intended to negate the very concept of Gross Domestic Product. GPI was charged with creating a set of indicators for the alternative measurement of Gross National Happiness, the sort of financial yardstick one might see if superproducer Max Martin’s disciples went around making structural adjustments in lieu of Milton Friedman’s. The four “pillars” of GNH – sustainable development, good governance, environmental conservation and cultural preservation – were divided into seventy-two quantifiable variables. Bhutan’s Buddhist-inspired embrace of “happiness economics” is no longer unique – indeed, it seems to be the unlikely starting point of a global vogue. Nicholas Sarkozy has asked the economist Joseph Stiglitz how to acknowledge “quality of life” in France’s GDP figures, while the British Prime Minister David Cameron, always alert for fluffy-sounding trends, told his country’s National Statistics Office to prepare a quarterly “well-being index.” Earlier this month, Coca-Cola Canada celebrated its 125th anniversary by “sponsoring a comprehensive study that will examine the idea of happiness across the country.”

Bhutan’s adoption of GNH is no fad, intellectual or otherwise, but that only heightens the importance of due skepticism. Unlike welfare benefits or public housing, happiness is a slippery, subjective concept, its artistic causes the most mysterious of all. What kind of policies has “cultural preservation” entailed? The notion of “national happiness” suggests universal contentment and chilled-out anti-capitalism, but what does the Bhutanese monarchy’s vision of “authentic” national culture mean in practice? Secular pop music, local or foreign, tends to be seen as counterfeit currency in elite Bhutan. If artists are society’s radar screen, as Marshall McLuhan put it, that sonic protectionism is a leading indicator of what ails Gross National Happiness.

Bhutan lies between India and China, high in the Himalayas, though its northern border was shared with another nation not so long ago. It’s smaller than Portugal and thinly populated by no more than one million people – over 60% of the land is forested. Buddhism arrived there shortly after it did in Tibet, becoming the dominant faith by the 9th century; the Tibetan strand of that creed, primarily influenced by Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism, is still Bhutan’s state religion today. Traditional Bhutanese music owes a similar debt to its occupied northern neighbour: the boedra genre is a descendant of ancient Tibetan court music, though zhungdra, its other main folk style, emerged from the valleys of Bhutan itself. The two societies also share certain instruments, like the dranyen. Surviving works of pre-modern Bhutanese literature tend to be written in classical Tibetan rather than Dzongkha, the underused national language. Bhutan’s very name is an anglicization of the Sanskrit term “Bhotanta,” which just means “the end of Tibet.” The inherited liminality of so much Bhutanese culture both explains and complicates the nationalism bound up in GNH “preservation” metrics.

English-language accounts of this nation date back no earlier than the 1700s, about a century after it came under the control of a monkish theocracy. European reports were therefore refracted through a colonial racial lens from the beginning, but their typical tone is a wary paranoia, unlike the covetous forays into India. One early English visitor tried his hand at music criticism, writing that Bhutanese ceremonial songs were “as disagreeable as they are continuous.” When the amusing humiliation of a Victorian envoy led to a minor war, the Empire decided that annexing a topological fortress wasn’t worth their trouble and agreed to pay Bhutan annual bribes if it would return two stolen cannons, give Britain a veto over foreign policy and apologize to the offended Sir Ashley Eden. The Bhutanese suddenly got much better press back in the UK. But their own ruling elite also became remarkably anglophilic, to the point of overthrowing the monks and installing a native monarchy in 1907. That Wangchuck dynasty still rules the country today.

Despite its new administration, Bhutan remained deeply poor and unchanging for the first half of the 20th century, a quasi-feudal society where the vast majority of people were scratching out a living as subsistence farmers. The capital Thimphu consisted of two dozen single-story buildings right up until the 1960s. However, when India gained independence and succeeded Britain as the major power in the region, King Jigme Wangchuck began a jarring process of modernization. His government freed Bhutan’s serfs, inaugurated the elected though fairly toothless National Assembly and created a Five-Year Plan for further reform. But the most important development for this paper was completion of the first road between Bhutan and India in 1963, smoothing pop’s sinuous path.

Rigsar was born in the late 1960s, when a Bhutanese group covered – or ripped off – the hit Bollywood soundtrack cut “Sayonara.” Local conservatives thus despised their country’s flagship pop genre from the moment of reception, disdaining it as a rootless echo of trendy foreign music. Five years ago, the young academic Sonam Kinga published an essay-length condemnation: “Rigsar songs are mostly solos about a person, usually a lovelorn lover singing to a beloved making very blunt statements about their love…In their similarity and association with English pop songs and songs of Hindi films, rigsar songs no longer function as a repository of and a medium for transmitting social values.” Over 150 rigsar albums were released in the past decade alone – a large number for such a tiny country – and Kinga worriedly notes that a Calcutta musician was composing riddims full-time for the largest recording studio. To put it another way, in the official statistics for Gross National Happiness, rigsar represents an unhealthy economic bubble.

You should decide for yourself, though. That music video above is the recent single “Tok Tok Heel.” There’s an emphasis on rhythm and prominent use of synth horns (“prominent synth horns” may be redundant), in contrast to this zhungdra song’s complex overlapping vocals. Some of the young Bhutanese people I interviewed said that rigsar is seen as being easier to learn or perform, which only feeds the anxiety about its purported inauthenticity. Yet the genre’s mimetic, provisional qualities are themselves deeply Buddhist. Marcus Boon’s recent book In Praise of Copying notes that Tibet’s oldest temple was built as a replica of an earlier Indian one, and that reciting the same mantra one hundred thousand times, Erik Satie style, is a standard rite of Himalayan Buddhism. At the risk of sounding like an ex-Usenet hippie, why would sampling or BitTorrent mystify kids who grew up surrounded by fractal mandalas? And rampant music piracy, a factor in Bhutan as it is everywhere else, would seem to be healthy for Gross National Happiness – just not for most of those working in music, a reminder that GNH can disguise negative externalities of its own.

As Sonam Kinga’s dismissive reference to “lovelorn lovers” suggests, the content of rigsar songs can also be controversial. But even the more lascivious tracks are relatively chaste. This music video may or may not be a cover of Chamillionaire’s “Peepin’ Me.”

I don’t mean to imply that Bhutan is puritanical; tourists reliably gawk at its sacramental penises, which are painted on numerous buildings in tribute to a 15th-century religious teacher nicknamed “The Saint of 5000 Women.” He once vanquished a cannibal demon goddess by seducing her. But public expressions of sexuality are still taboo in this country, although the restraints seem to be much looser in private.

Customary modesty hasn’t prevented Bhutanese kids from seeking out foreign pop music with more explicit lyrics, not when there are so many of them – half of the population is under 25. A radio DJ told me that his most common request is for “sexy R&B.” The government barred all television broadcasts and internet service until the end of the 1990s, meaning that twentysomething people often have charmingly random memories of their first encounters with western music. Ganchu Wangchu, founder and manager of the ecumenical FM station Radio Valley, recalled a teacher leading his class through a performance of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence.” Another young man became passionately devoted to the Irish boy band Westlife after chancing across a dusty cassette of their first album. During my research I found an Ozzy-obsessed metal band called Tragic Attack, the Mos-Def-namechecking MC Bardo and a fan of the terminally Canadian hoser rocker Gord Downie. God knows what he makes of songs about martyred hockey heroes, but perhaps the Tragically Hip’s discography has a hidden resonance there: Canada and Bhutan are both cultural runts fidgeting beneath colossi.

And we’ve both struggled mightily to compensate for it, with varying degrees of success. Some of Bhutan’s approaches are noble attempts at getting fledging industries off the ground: the country produces an unusually high number of movies per capita, for example, so keeping their ticket prices the lowest at Thimpu cinemas seems like prescient taxation policy. In other cases, however, the authorities have just been reactionary. Pelden Dorji’s 2006 film Aum Chum, the story of a hip-hop-loving stepmother, was censored by film board members who objected to its extended breakdance sequence. Their rationale was that “Bhutan is not yet ready for the culture of breakdancing.” But I think Bhutan would beg to differ:

The problem is that Gross National Happiness doesn’t recognize pidgin pop as legitimate productivity: it’s the cultural equivalent of a marijuana grow-op. The first official GNH index, published in 2008, relied on indicators like “knowledge of traditional dances,” not knowledge of Dzongkha rap singles. And although the state broadcaster’s Bhutan Star talent search drew 800 hopefuls for its previous season – several times more than the 100 000 people who tried out during the last cycle of American Idol, proportionally – producers herded contestants into one of three rigid styles. Rigsar was grudgingly added to a pair of folk categories, possibly because the monarchy’s own GNH survey showed it to be the most popular genre in Bhutan.

Himalayan rockism is a secondary issue, however, compared to Bhutan’s most shameful act of “cultural preservation.” Nepali Bhutanese have lived in the country’s southern districts since the 1860s, when the British Raj began sending Nepalis to nearby Darjeeling for tea-plantation labour and for Machiavellian imperial purposes. They are also known as Lhotshampa. As in other societies from Kenya to Quebec, post-war modernization heightened the Bhutanese population’s ethnic consciousness, and though the government fitfully gestured toward assimilation or multiculturalism – at one point it was actually paying members of the Drukpa majority to marry Lhotshampas – its posture ultimately hardened. Michael Hutt’s study Unbecoming Citizens documents what happened next: citizenship laws were tightened throughout the 1980s, with the addition of requirements like “good knowledge of Bhutanese culture.” Hutt notes that GNH discussions of “cultural preservation” were accompanied by a national dress code and a crackdown on Lhotshampa using illicit satellite connections to watch Hindi music videos or Bollywood movies. Finally, in 1989 and 1990, tens of thousands of Nepali Bhutanese were stripped of their citizenships and driven from the country amidst growing unrest. Most of them are still awaiting return or resettlement in border refugee camps.

This story is complicated by the fact that, according to Hutt’s book, many of the refugees disdain “genuine” Bhutanese culture in turn, seeing it as insular and backwards. Some try to beat back the cosmopolitan influences that reach even UN camps now. It’s a small but striking piece of evidence for the Michael Hardt/Antonio Negri thesis that patterns of power are fragmenting, becoming less binary and more diffuse. Whether musical, political or both, there is thrilling potential in that process and the unruly hybrids it produces. But the radical disruptions can cause real anguish. Hutt quotes the poignant lament of a conservative refugee: “Am I the only person who cannot recognize himself? Everything is old: the sun and moon are the same old sun and moon, the days, weeks, months, seasons and years are the same, so how is it that the times have been transformed into modernity?”

The great failure of Gross National Happiness is its attempt to objectively quantify these subjective tastes. It replaces GDP’s economic inequities with exploitation via cultural capital. In certain areas, like environmental conservation, GNH provides a valuable alternative perspective, but its effect on Bhutanese music has been mere chauvinism. The Bhutanese intellectual Karma Ura once worried that this nature-preserve approach would make his country known for nothing more than “a penchant for picturesque attire and the capacity to ingest vast quantities of chillies.” And the very fixation on “happiness” denies any value or purpose to art that makes you feel angry, or shocked, or weepy: If the U.S. converted to GNH tomorrow, would “Morrissey fan” become the rhetorical replacement for “welfare queen”? Though hardly totalitarian, Bhutan’s current emphasis on nationalistic revivalism, in songcraft and everything else, sometimes echoes North Korean state music – that disturbing zone where poptimism meets Stalinism. But what’s the alternative for a country in its culturally vulnerable, economically impoverished position?

In his book Development and Freedom, the Indian economist Amartya Sen argued: “it is sensible enough to take note of happiness, but we do not necessarily want to be happy slaves or delirious vassals.” He proposed a different framework based on capability: creating conditions where underprivileged people not only have the abstract right to choose a career or an aesthetic but the resources and social space to realize them. For music, this might entail pluralistic suspensions of judgment. Why can’t Nepalis be Bhutanese too? And why would it somehow be “inauthentic” if a Rihanna cover won Bhutan Star? The Buddha would probably have a few philosophical differences with your average Ke$ha video, but I was struck by a Youtube clip where some Thimphu girls danced to “Tik Tok,” their moves mimicking those many-armed statues of him. Which culture does that spectacle belong to? Bhutanese iconoclasts don’t need to look westwards for their radicalism. Many centuries ago, a Chinese Buddhist teacher named Linji told his students to spurn the orthodoxy of settled doctrine; emancipated from uncritical veneration, they would find enlightenment. He illustrated this belief with a famous maxim: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Very punk, no?

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