Monthly Archives: July 2010

David Antin’s “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde” (1981/1993), 2010 Scream festival edition

by Carl Wilson

I was having one of those swamp-thing weekends where you start crying in all the wrong places and to all the wrong people, and I needed a therapy. Not the sort to solve problems but the sort in which you invent an imaginative diversion machine to feed them into, to help you stop thinking explicitly about them, and hope that they return to you in some more intelligible form. Evolution might have invented dreaming for this purpose but there was no way I could sleep.

The first imaginative diversion machine consisted of sitting in a bar full of people watching Spain and Paraguay play soccer; then a gallery show (Michah Lexier’s playfully arid numbers-game group show A to B); then a movie and some wine at Margaux’s. These were effective but only till waking Sunday morning in much the same state as I had Saturday morning, so I had to invent something better.

That better thing turned out to be to sit, pace, stroll and stride around a park with MP3s of talk-pieces by David Antin on my headphones. I had downloaded them because in a couple of days I would be introducing Antin at an event in the Scream Literary Festival in Toronto and wanted to get in tune with his work, which I’d known only passingly.

They were, that is, an obligation. It’s been a while since I was reminded so intensely how when it comes to art what seemed like obligation can become the greatest pleasure. (I’m reminded of the reverse all too frequently.)

The talk I listened to was broadly about time and memory, the way that without memory there is no time – without a past, no future. And then the question of what information the past consists in. Walking around the park I was thinking about my own past and future, my eyes on other people having their summer weekend, my ears full of a recording of what was once a spontaneous event, a decade ago in a gallery somewhere, as Antin improvises his talks in response to the place and situation within which they take place, like site-specific art works. (To what degree they are spontaneous and how much they contain preconceived structures and set pieces I’m less sure – as is often the case with, say, jazz musicians. I am content not to knock too hard against the girders of the illusion.)

In listening I was both in the park and out of it. I was inside Antin’s story about his mother-in-law gradually forgetting an amazing story about her own youth due to Alzheimer’s, which made my woes feel far away, and yet I was also within the range of frisbees zooming over my head and couples necking on picnic blankets. His remembering was my forgetting, his mother-in-law’s forgetting was my remembering. This was site-specific too, though perhaps the site was some third place neither in the recording nor the park. Perhaps with someone absent.

I don’t think listening to music or a reading of a novel on my headphones would have had the same effect. Antin’s talks are conversational, so much so that they don’t feel one-way, even as they skip through his own recalled conversations with other artists or suddenly discourse on how Pythagoras would have calculated the value of pi with polygons and circles (and Antin, a scientist by training, specifies what kinds of polygons and circles) drawn in the sand, as that was all the material available to him, until an invading Senecan soldier trampled through his diagram. (This, he says, is the kind of way most of us interact with war who aren’t sent to fight it or in the place the soldiers are sent – it’s an absurdity that messes up our better intentions. The same could be said of emotional crises but I suppose probably shouldn’t?)

He’s been doing these talk-pieces since the late 1960s, initially in response to frustration with the canned feeling of reading written pieces aloud, then gradually as (I think) a project that builds and builds upon itself, as at the beginning of many talks he discusses what happened when he gave another talk, so they become a chattering common commentary, a talmudic meditation on Antin’s own speaking mind, think-talking. It’s experimental in the scientific sense as much as the artistic one: What happens if we now put the Antin in this environment? What phenomena can he observe himself observing? It’s a much more sophisticated version than most of the others of the reality games that are so common to art practice now, from “relational aesthetics” to what David Shields calls “reality hunger,” and it involves a lot fewer silly trappings than most, only the faith to follow Antin as he figures out where he’s going.

Because they’re such an exploration of the condition of being present (time/space), recordings and publications of his work have to be understood as subject to severe conditions of irony, which then carry over to the live performances, of course, and so his life is like ours.

On Tuesday night I did my best to introduce him and sound poet Steve McCaffery despite the fact that doing things with my voice felt pinched and artificial by comparison. He gave a generous talk on this year’s Scream theme of “agent provocateurs” (and/or the tradition (?) of the avant-garde), framing it in terms of the police repression that happened around the G20, and the kind of abstract and untrue economic “logic” that prevails in conversational spaces like the G20, and contrasting it to the narrative (which is misinterpreted as illogic) of dreams. And how Freud got things wrong because he understood classical story and not narrative. And the way that it matters more to animals what they look like to each other than what they look like to us.

He ended with a celebratory nod to the “energy” of the Scream asking this question about what meaning or use remains to the idea of an “avant-garde.” The theme was inspired by his 1981 talk-piece “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde” – long out of print except, he advised me to say “drolly” in my introduction, in French – and which the Scream made available in its own reprint. That talk comes round to an assertion that if being avant-garde is anything it means to respond to the present, not to be somewhere ahead of it, intimating along the way that this might make the whole history of the concept kind of ridiculous. He forbore from suggesting that we at the Scream were ridiculous, therefore, to be discussing it still, 29 years after he gave that talk. I felt masochistically let down that he wasn’t tougher on us.

But I also wondered, never having seen him speak, about the twisting, knotting motion he continually made with his fingers, this man in his late 70s whom I’d come in the past couple of days to think of as a model for how to do something with your mouth and your mind that makes you not ridiculous, not inadvertently wrecking things with imprecision and passivity. I wondered if it was a tic of long standing, and so a sweet one, or a sign of a health condition, and so a sad one. Perhaps he was being nicer to himself than he used to be, which may not be avant-garde but is human and so perhaps it is avant-garde, as it is to tell someone your dreams and for their attention to drift away while you are telling the dream, even if you are, say, a surrealist.

You can’t expect your imaginative diversion machine to be someone else’s imaginative diversion machine, though we always try. Too often it might be the main thing we do with one another. (If this entry is too much like me telling you my dreams, I’ll understand if you stopped reading it.)

On his way off stage to much applause, after thanking me very kindly for my introduction, he rounded a corner and kicked over the glass of beer sitting beside my chair, sending Tankhouse Ale spreading all across the stained-wood floor of Toronto’s gothic, comically anglophilic Arts & Letters Club. (In the talk, at one of the tougher points, he referred to such unnecessarily ornate buildings where literary meetings are held as “machines for not thinking.”)

I’d seen it coming but hadn’t spoken in time (the only place you can speak), and I apologized for that, and he didn’t quite acknowledge it, but stepped gingerly forward, saying, “Just one of those days.”

1 Comment

Filed under carl wilson, events, lectures, literature, poetry

Backyard (1984) – directed by Ross McElwee, starring Ross McElwee and Dr. Ross McElwee

by Margaux Williamson

(I had the south on my brain – I felt like sitting in the south, outside, for a bit. I thought of Ross McElwee, who made the pretty great Sherman’s March. I poked around the library and found another movie of his whose title also refers to a specific location in the south,“Backyard”. )

Ross McElwee, returning from a northern college, is back at the family home in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has brought his moving picture camera with him.

The movie begins with a still picture of the Ross McElwee, who is the director of “Backyard”, and his father, Dr. Ross McElwee. The doctor is wearing a pale southern suit and has graying hair. Ross is wearing running shoes and has a beard. They look good and kind of like the same white man playing two very different parts. Ross is holding his camera in the picture. He’s holding it like some people, in still pictures, hold a fish or a gun or a baby – like an important piece of information. The two men are, ever so slightly, leaning away from each other.

Over the still image, Ross tells us that his father disapproves of his career path – a career path that involves that moving image camera. I think about the doctor sending his son off to college in the north and then the son returns with a camera – a camera that is, for the most part, pointed directly at the doctor’s face. It is hard to match up values sometimes.

After the still photos, we move in real time around the house, the backyard, the country club, the hospital. Ross films himself and other people who work or reside around these places. There are banal activities, racism, celebrations, rides on golf carts and work. There is not much talking or explaining so we mostly get to know people by what they do.

The doctor goes to work a lot. At work, he cuts into people’s bodies and fixes their organs. It is hard to argue against the value of that career. When the doctor comes home, he sees his son sitting in a chair filming his backyard.

There is the African American couple, the Staffords. Lucille Stafford cooks and cleans for the McElwees and Melvin Stafford takes care out their backyard. We see them working more than the doctor works since “the backyard” is where they work. The Staffords seem more comfortable being filmed that the young white people who periodically show up in he frame, whose working lives are not shown but who often request sandwiches. I think they are students.

There is a neighbour seated on a chair in a thicket behind a fence. He is wearing a suit. His self-appointed job is to keep himself hidden and his eyes on a house in the distance. He is anticipating a mid-day break-in. There have been a few break-ins around the affluent neighborhood in the backyard and he thinks he might catch the criminals if he waits. His job is the one that, technically, most resembles Ross’s job.

It is not an easy day in the south, but it is intimate and complicated and quiet and interesting. All of these good things were established right away in the first moving image scene of the movie. In this scene, Ross films himself, alone, playing the family piano. The piano is out of tune and Ross plays it kind of badly. It is not like he has his tongue sticking while he tries to make an ugly face – it is him trying to be good and failing. It’s pleasurable and even strangely soothing to watch him play with sincerity and mistakes and without frustration. It is not an apologetic scene – just one with a lot of information about Ross and maybe of what is to follow. If there is bad behavior or human mistakes caught with his moving picture camera, it will not be too surprising if some of them are his.

Comments Off on Backyard (1984) – directed by Ross McElwee, starring Ross McElwee and Dr. Ross McElwee

Filed under margaux williamson, movies

Little Boxes #3

(from “The Drum Who Fell in Love,” by David B., 2006/2008)

Comments Off on Little Boxes #3

Filed under chris randle, comics

Tea With Chris: Self-Effacing

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

Carl: Via my friend Sean Dixon, this entry from Toronto poet Sina Queyras’ always-interesting Lemon Hound blog, which usually concerns poetry, instead addresses itself to photographs, selective looking, wishful thinking and historical atrocities. It has the quality of a parable: Not only is it about how little separates humanity and inhumanity, but it asks: How much in our lives does affinity conceal from us?

Chris: Obviously this:

But here’s a strong, equally frivolous late challenger.

Margaux: I read a bit of “Exiles from Dialogue” (a book of interviews between Jean Baudrillard and Enrique Valiente Noailles) in the laundromat this week. Baudrillard, especially in this excerpt, sounds simultaneously like a grand god in the sky and a humble accountant on the ground – incapable of saying anything that is not technically true. So good. “We have undertaken to engineer our disappearance in an extremely complex and sophisticated way.”

Oh! Speaking of which (thanks Kathryn Borel), a song about engineering our own disappearance – with heart.

1 Comment

Filed under carl wilson, chris randle, margaux williamson, other

Friday Pictures – Brad Phillips

 

Brad Phillips / tried and dismissed (entheogenic)

 

Brad Phillips / back of the mirror

 

Comments Off on Friday Pictures – Brad Phillips

Filed under Friday Pictures, margaux williamson, visual art

Teach Me How to Boogie #1: Bounce

by Chris Randle

Part of my excitement over this blog’s inception came from the possibility of writing about unfamiliar subjects, topics that nobody would pay a rube to opine on. One that I had in mind was dance, a medium I know almost nothing about, including how to do it very well. So I’m starting TEACH ME HOW TO BOOGIE, an ongoing and irregular series exploring its many permutations: European folk styles, regional dance rap hits, the footwork recorded on myriad dancefloors. Sometimes I’ll just post a clip and write about it; sometimes there will be extended discussions of a particular form or phenomenon with people who know how to move. There may eventually be video demonstrations if Margaux has the time and I have the excess dignity. Please welcome, then, Amelia Ehrhardt (real name), a student in York University’s dance program. We talked about bounce, breakdancing and several tangents on Gchat before I condensed the resulting massive chatlog into this.

Chris: OK, so, the first (sub)genre I had in mind is bounce, a regional music/dance style from New Orleans – let’s see how that goes?

Chris: Here’s my first clip:

Amelia: Holy shit this is amazing

Amelia: What is it exactly you want me to talk about?

Chris: Anything, really – one notable thing about bounce is that almost all such beats are based on samples from a handful of songs

Chris: Which appeals to me since I was the kind of dorky teenager who tried to write sestina poems. Formal constraints!

Amelia: Well I guess the first thing I’m noticing is of course choreography – hard to escape as a dancer – it’s really footwork heavy and they use a lot of gesture.

Amelia: I mean there’s also some pretty “classical” elements of hip hop, there’s popping and locking – footwork too is a mainstay of breaking/hip hop. Formal constraints, totally.

Chris: Is that kind of dancing studied in the academy at all now?

Amelia: Hip-hop? Depending where you go. There is only one program in Ontario, maybe Canada, where hip-hop is on the curriculum, it’s at George Brown, the commercial dance program.

Amelia: What I find interesting about the formal constraints thing in hip-hop is how quickly they change. I mean, it’s pretty much a given for a form like this one, firstly it’s contemporary and surprise, contemporary humans get bored fast

Amelia: But in other dance forms change tends to be reeeealllyyyy slow, like, classical ballet has been around for a little over 200 years and it took maybe  fifty years for it to even come to any sort of format, as in, for it to really peak

Amelia: And come up with a system that was like THIS IS THE WAY WE WILL ALWAYS DO CLASSICAL BALLET

Amelia: Of course that got changed, but formatting changes faster than technique and I think hip-hop is the only form I know of where technique seems to evolve faster than format.

Chris: The level of social acceptance seems to vary as well – people still freak out about grinding or daggering, but even when it was relatively new breakdancing was endorsed by the Reagan Administration.

Amelia: Well breakdancing is pretty nonsexual

Chris: I once saw an unintentionally hilarious old editorial from National Review where they talked about how wholesome it was

Amelia: Hahaha

Amelia: …Just watching this clip again, I am finding it interesting how…cartoonish they are

Amelia: It seems to be a lot more caricature-based than a lot of hip-hop I have seen

Chris: In a very self-aware way, I think

Amelia: Yes exactly, it is self-aware…Usually every hip-hop dancer has an extremely individual form, but this seems more than just individuality, it’s like a hyper-performative version of themselves.

Amelia: Ha ha, the song just went “na na na na na, FUCK YOU”

Chris: Even the invective or disses in bounce songs seem to be intentionally over-the-top

Chris: I was reading through this earlier: http://www.wheretheyatnola.com

Amelia: “[Mama’s Hurtin’] comes from a friend. One of our friends, she lost a baby. We was like, ‘Wow, I can’t imagine.’ We just took it and put it into our own feelings. You know what I’m saying? We just put ourself in her shoes. We were just only speaking from the heart. That is what ‘Mama’s Hurtin’ is about.”

Amelia: People never talk about their art that honestly

Amelia: I don’t want to get all The Other about this but truly, I can’t remember the last time I read an artistic statement or interview that was just like “I felt X so I did that.”

Amelia: Anyhow. Bounce. Good stuff

Chris: What are the main styles/elements/theories of dance you’ve studied in school?

Amelia: Western, predominantly – started in classical ballet, studied modern western forms, like Limon and Graham, moved into contemporary work like release/contact improvization

Amelia: Theory-wise I haven’t delved specifically into any one thing yet but mostly I have studied context I guess – the place of dance in culture, culture’s place for dance

Amelia: How it gets there/why it isn’t there etc

Amelia: Also York University is really into things like “a multicultural perspective” and “the effect of globalization” so I’ve looked at a lot of that stuff, I danced with a classical Indian dance company for a while.

Chris: Is that the same as what you’d see in a Bollywood movie?

Amelia: No, not at all really – Bollywood is like Indian hip-hop, it’s everywhere, it sort of takes influence from the classical forms

Amelia: Kathak, Bharatanatyam

Amelia: I danced with a Bharatanatyam company

Amelia: It is similar to Western dance in that – for instance on So You Think You Can Dance, all these bastardized versions of classical dance, or contemporary jazz forms that take a lot of tricks from classical ballet, you can tell who has done a lot of classical ballet, and been “properly” trained. Similarly with Bharatanatyan, there is more control.

Chris: So you haven’t done any hip hop dancing in school?

Amelia: The odd workshop…I have taken a lot of jazz, which has some vaguely hip hop elements, and yes, workshops all over the place. But it isn’t really a priority anywhere, although to be honest that should change, so much contemporary dance has hip hop elements in it. And how are you supposed to understand popping and locking/all that complicated isolation work if you’ve been doing ballet your whole life? Insane.

Amelia: Hip hop is still sort of treated as contemporary folk dance.

Chris: Oh, can you go on about the hip-hop elements in contemporary dance? Do you mean the more avant-garde stuff, or…

Amelia: Oh yeah sure

Amelia: Hmm avant-garde? Maybe

Amelia: What I mean is current contemporary dance, derived from western modern dance – sure, let’s call it avant garde, but not so avant garde that it’s not dancing anymore

Amelia: For instance ImPulsTanz, the Vienna international dance festival, has hip hop classes now. I mean, there’s everything at Impulse, it’s huge, but it’s pretty notable that hip hop is in there, it’s the youngest form at the festival for sure, or the youngest non-European-derived form.

Chris: Would this be people like…Which people should I look up?

Amelia: In terms of people who have used elements of hip hop or in general?

Chris: Both, I guess, although I should probably only include the former in this post

Amelia: Wellllll as for choreographers who have used elements of hip hop, I can’t speak for the international scene very well, but locally Valerie Calam is a big one

Amelia: Alias Dance Co.

Amelia: Tanya Crowder lately

Chris: Thanks! I’ll look all of those upppppp

Chris: Oh yeah, here’s another video I wanted to show you, it’s a “sissy bounce” clip:

Amelia: As for non-hip-hop – Wim Vandekeybus, Anne Terese der Keersmaeker, Tino Seghal, Ame Henderson, Susie Burpee, KG Guttman are a start

Amelia: *add Lloyd Newson and DV8 to above list

Amelia: This is amazing!!!

Amelia: I will be right back to talk about this, it’s awesome

[maddening series of disconnections]

Chris: Okay I rebooted my browser after cursing at it

Amelia: Hahahahahaha

Amelia: Let me remember what I was going to say

Amelia: Well the first thing I find I have to comment on is the major difference between women in hip hop and men in hip hop…Is this bounce too?

Amelia: Oh nevermind there go the men

Chris: Yeah, some people believe it’s a subgenre of bounce and some people believe it’s the same thing. It’s basically bounce music performed by gay men and trans/queer/sometimes straight women, performed in a hypersexual way

Amelia: Well it’s so sexual there aren’t any bones about it. Like with some hip-hop or other sexualized dance there’s at least some mystery to it

Amelia: I have seen backup dancers for a drag queen do this, this dancer I knew named Luis.

Amelia: He was amazing, they did this style of hip-hop called tipping

Chris: It’s almost abstract in a way

Amelia: The thing about dance is that it’s all abstract in essence, because movement doesn’t have a language, or rather is its own language, and so stuff like this is so blatant that yes, I see what you mean, it starts becoming abstract.

Chris: Oh, that’s true – it’s emotional aggregates rather than an alphabetic language.

Amelia: Like when you think about a word too much and it loses all meaning. Drawer – drawer – DRAA-WEERR, what was that word anyway?

Chris: Another thing about sissy bounce is that they’re dancing in such an incredibly sexual way at club nights full of women, gay men and drag queens, or people who are otherwise androgynous

Chris: From what I’ve read and seen straight men seem to be (relatively) rare

Amelia: Where would straight men fit into this behaviour? Not to overgeneralize but straight men tend to not have the same public displays of sexuality that women do, women or gay/trans/queer men.

Chris: Yeah, that’s true

Amelia: It’s an interesting thing about humans vs. every other animal

Chris: I suppose a lot of straight men are often insecure or uncomfortable about being someone else’s object of sexualization

Chris: Here’s another one:

Amelia: God I love Youtube

Amelia: You almost never see their faces

Amelia: Those were two separate thoughts

Chris: Haha

Amelia: Toys R Us! Wow.

Chris: Yeah, I like the weird, incongruous settings. It plays into the abstract aspect I guess

Amelia: Yeah exactly, it’s not about sex it’s just dancing

Amelia: Well truthfully this looks a lot more like a lot of African dance forms than contemporary hip hop to me

Amelia: I don’t know enough about African dance forms to specify which, I think it is one of the West African forms

Amelia: But that might be bullshit

Chris: How is uh “social” dancing studied in universities? As opposed to dance qua dance, formal performances watched by passive audiences?

Amelia: Social dance is a pretty big area of study. Like, you can take social dance classes – studio classes. A lot of nonmajors take them.

Amelia: There is a lot of talk about social dance vs. codified dance forms and how social dance fits into our lives now, there is less of a place for it. It has become really codified too. Or not a lot of talk, this is just how I feel anyway: that in codifying it, it makes it inaccessible.

Amelia: I feel like that might be a big part of why dance isn’t in people’s lives, that there are so many specific rules around it that to be “A Dancer” becomes a very big thing

Chris: Is [literalism] common with social dancing, regardless of the music being played or the milieu?

Amelia: I wouldn’t say so, most social dance is basically just moving your feet. Very minimal use of the body at all, especially Western social dance: Foxtrot, waltz etc. Hardly social, and not even very performative.

Amelia: This work is much more of both of those things, and in a way is sort of reminiscent of the kind of dance traditions that have existed forever – a circle of people and one dancer at a time entering the middle

Amelia: In particular that first video made me think of that, all the dancers working to outdo each other. It is hardly a new concept, it almost reminds me of a really standard classical ballet, where there are endless variations (solos), and then a grande pas de deux where the man and woman just do variations after each other

Amelia: For instance in Sleeping Beauty, the worst/best for that, in the first fifteen minutes there are six fairies with six variations. Never mind how vapid the whole idea of a slew of fairies is

Amelia: Basically I think the extreme posturing of this whole bounce thing – the first video you showed me in particular – speaks to a real primal sort of idea, and I am sick, I am so sick of people talking about dance, especially hip hop, as being “primal” becuase let’s be real, it’s offensive, but I don’t mean aesthetically I mean format-wise.

Chris: Competition, you mean?

Amelia: Yes exactly.

1 Comment

Filed under chris randle, dance