Tag Archives: abstraction

Little Boxes #41

(from Thimble Theater, by E. C. Segar, 1930s)

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Tintin in Tangier

by Chris Randle

It’s often said that Tintin is the world’s most famous Belgian, perhaps because it sounds like a syllogism: a fictional character from a notional country. And the intrepid boy reporter has been appropriated far beyond Wallonia, for purposes alternately pornographic, postmodern and Spielbergian. My favourite of these detournements is predictably Breaking Free, which recasts Hergé’s characters as working-class radicals in a didactic struggle against Thatcherism. That almost seems pious next to X’ed Out.

Charles Burns’ new book is the first of a trilogy, oversized and full-colour in the Franco-Belgian tradition.  Most people reading this probably know Burns best from the portraits he’s drawn for every cover of The Believer, but his major work up until now was Black Hole, a serial-turned-graphic-novel about teenage stoners giving each other sexually transmitted mutations. The horror in X’ed Out is more implicit; it unnerves by infecting Hergé’s bright, clean world with images from ’70s punk culture. You could call it Tintin and the Lower East Side.

Bandaged and bedridden for unexplained reasons, a kid named Doug slides through time and space whenever he swallows enough medication or stares at the wrong Polaroid. Burns’ alienated performance artist bounces from a no-future Pacific Northwest into some city out of the dystopian adventure Tintin never had. William Burroughs is a big, clammy touchstone here – the grumpy lizard-men, rivers of industrial sludge and North-African-ish setting all feel like his kinks. The two worlds eventually bleed into each other: Nitnit is Doug’s alter ego both in the realm of “the Hive” and on stage in Seattle, where he reads cut-ups over feedback before the main act runs out of patience. (“I mean, what do you call that, anyway? I guess it was art.”)

So far Burns is only gesturing at a plot. (Doug’s dying father and the self-destructive photographer he’s fixated on appear only briefly in the parasite landscape, the latter as a cliffhanger.) The primary attraction is watching a great cartoonist experiment. This one has never worked in colour before, and his deep, dark inks diverge sharply from Hergé’s ligne claire. Following his pastiche’s adaptation to those rounder, cartoonish lines, I saw new resonances between the two artists: Burns’ usual style is far more elaborate than his model’s was, but their techniques both feel methodical, controlled.

Not all of the riffs are so intriguing. While Tintin always chased after that little white dog, Nitnit searches for a cat named Inky, and the critter might as well bat readers on the nose. But I loved how Burns recycles one familiar image to fill Burroughsworld with mottled red-and-white eggs, culminating in the creepiest-looking omelette you’ll ever see. There’s a single notable female character in Hergé’s strips, matronly diva Bianca Castiafiore, and our hero’s intentions towards her or his bawdy sailor friend remain pure as Snowy.

Chris Ware once said: “Tintin was fundamentally too sexless to really catch on in America.” Yet Tom McCarthy’s poststructuralist romp Tintin and the Secret of Literature argues that “Hergé, like all good Catholic boys, has a filthy mind…[Castafiore’s titular emerald] is a clitoris, duh.” Burns’ pregnant allusions to “breeding” imply where his X is marked. Like fellow cartoonist Joost Swarte, who coined the phrase ligne claire, he draws out the fucking repressed by that flatness.

A smooth surface can intimate freakiness of its own, though. The hybrid sections of X’ed Out are filled with suggestive abstractions: Doug’s scar becomes Nitnit’s cartoon plaster, his hair spikes out into a punkish variation on Tintin’s trademark quiff, and entire panels are taken up by blocks of colour or symbols. It reminded me of TNT en Amerique, the most radical Hergé revision of all. Jochen Gerner’s comic, which sprang from the cartooning equivalent of Oulipo, reduces Tintin in America to a blacked-out series of broken phrases and neon signs.

Gerner later said: “I dismantle a given material to make something else of it…I did not see this book as a ‘technical feat’ but as the discovery of a secret passage, of a dark track followed to the end.” When William Burroughs and Brion Gysin joined forces to spread their gospel of divine deformity, they gave the cut-up technique a slogan: “Rub Out the Word.” You know what Tintin means in French? “Nothing.”

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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.

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Title Track

by Carl Wilson

An email group that I’m on – let’s call it the Nerd Mafia – got into exchanging favourite song titles this week. Someone offered up Don Caballero’s “A Lot Of People Tell Me I Have A Fake British Accent” and “Why Is the Couch Always Wet?” and then came Half Man Half Biscuit’s “Architecture, Morality, Ted And Alice.” Inevitably, someone raised with Guided By Voices (“A Contest Featuring Human Beings,” “14 Cheerleader Cold Front”) and doubled down with Jim O’Rourke’s “Halfway to a Three Way.”

The Minutemen (“Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing”), Smog (“Dress Sexy at My Funeral”), the Fugs (“I’m Gonna Kill Myself Over Your Dead Body,” “I Command the House of the Devil”), Love (“Maybe the People Would Be The Times or Between Clark and Hilldale”), Curtis Mayfield (“We the People Who Are Darker than Blue”), Captain Beefheart (“Neon Meate Dreams of an Octafish”), and even calypso godfather Lord Executioner (“Seven Skeletons Found in the Yard,” ”How I Spent My Time at the Hospital,” “We Mourn the Loss of Sir Murchison Fletcher”) all got their due respect. I felt I crowned the lot with Charles Mingus – pretty hard to outdo “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers” or “All the Things You Could Be Right Now if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Were Your Mother.”

With a few exceptions, those are jokey titles, but most of them do stand up, even without hearing the songs they name. The conversation got me thinking about this relationship between artwork and title. I adore titles, and pride myself on having a good ear for them, but the hours of intense conversations I’ve had with friends when they’re in the titling stage of a project strikes me in retrospect; likewise the number of friends who seem to have many more titles than they do projects, or who need to begin with a title.

It speaks to a conceptualist orientation, but it’s also to be a child of the marketing age. I sometimes wonder if it betrays a preference for the idea of a thing over the thing itself, a self-accusation that quickly widens its net over the rest of my life and hauls it in for questioning. I’m prone to idealize the mind of the artist who rejects titling as too restrictive, and goes with “Untitled #2” or “Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major.” But such an artist offers a certain impersonality to the audience, too. Especially in abstract forms, the title is an opportunity to offer the audience a starting point, a weather-vane to swing round in the imagination and point in a rough direction. A sonata or a jazz instrumental or minimalist sculpture on first encounter can be, to swipe my favourite Modest Mouse album title, “a long drive for someone with nothing to think about.” A title can supplant that nothing with something that then evolves of its own accord in the listener’s mind. Or it can simply help you focus on the more helpful detail among all the elements of a work. There’s a generosity in that. It doesn’t presume that the audience has nothing better to do with its time than search your work for a clue to what you’re on about.

When I was a child, I had a guitar-strumming, open-concept-school teacher who played us songs like “One Tin Soldier,” the cheesy anti-war anthem first recorded by the Canadian pop group Original Caste in 1969, remade first by Skeeter Davis (whose “The End of the World” from 1963 – a good title, though not quite as good as Willie Nelson’s “I’ve Just Destroyed the World” – was named the 177th greatest country single in my friends David Cantwell and Bill Frikiscs-Warren’s book of the best 500 country singles) and then more successfully by Coven for one of the Billy Jack movies. I vividly remember getting laughed at by my classmates for requesting it by the name “Listen Children,” based on the first line, “Listen, children, to a story that was written long ago…” Somehow I missed the resonance of the key chorus line, “On the bloody morning after, one tin soldier rides away.” No doubt I was narcissistically overrating the importance of the invocation of children. In any case it left me careful to get titles right.

One of the practical purposes of a title is for a fan to call it in to a radio show or shout it out at a concert, but often you might know a song without knowing its title. Especially when the relationship between the two gets looser. This is a point against the title that stands independent of the work. My mind’s never really been able to maintain the link between the words “Lady Marmalade” and the Labelle hit that seems to want to be called, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”

But several of my favourite songwriters use titles as almost a cryptogrammic guide to underlying themes in their work. I love the “hymn” series by Hefner: “The Hymn for the Cigarettes,” “The Hymn for the Alcohol,” “The Hymn for the Postal Service,” “The Hymn for the Coffee” – in one fell gesture it indicates the whole approach to beauty that the band takes: elevating the abject, losing to win, mocking to worship and worshiping to mock. It may be that titles now are what we have instead of manifestos, to state our aesthetics without going to the obnoxious lengths of making an “artist’s statement” out of it.

One of the more outré approaches to titling of late (well, outside metal, Anthony Braxton, the likes of Autechre and the highly ambivalent case of Fall Out Boy) has come from The Mountain Goats, a.k.a. John Darnielle, who for years not only worked in series (the “Alpha” series, in which all the songs using that word in their titles depicted the same imaginary doomed couple; the “Going to _____” series, which featured characters who mix up geographic plans with life plans; more), but titled most of the rest of his songs with various historical, mythological and geographical references, so that if I want to hear one of my most-loved songs about burning jealousy, infidelity and loss, for example, I need to call to mind what I think is a grammatical mode in Sanskrit (“Raja Vocative”), or if you want to hear the one about robbing the candy store, you’ll have to recall the classical-dramaturgy/psychoanalytic term “The Recognition Scene.” Is this a less generous, more self-indulgent approach to titling? Here’s what Darnielle said in a Believer interview in 2004:

“I always preferred album titles that weren’t named after a song on the album. … Why is the album called Get Lost? That’s a great example, because it’s The Magnetic Fields Get Lost – it’s a sentence. But divorce it from the band name, and it’s an imperative: Get lost. When I was a kid, when I was developing my record-collector disease, those are the types of records I liked best because when I exhausted the songs and the lyrics I could still think about that aspect and I wanted albums to have as many possible points of scrutiny as they could. From the time I started writing songs, I thought it’d be better if the song title had to be in some way connected to the song. Then I got perverse about it and thought if I titled them in ways that no one could possibly make the connection I’ve made, they’d be even more interesting because anybody who’s like me and wants to make the connection would have to fabricate their own or conclude that it can’t be done. If you’re a record collector, you won’t conclude that it can’t be done. You’ll just go ahead and do it.”

So there’s another, more playful kind of generosity there, a game being played with the listener, based on the kinds of games the artist himself likes, which again is a hint of what kind of artist this is: “Here is everything I know, and here is how I put it together, but I’d be delighted if you would pull it all apart and put it back together differently. Also, I think meaning is contingent, how about you?” (Perhaps with the settling calm of maturity, perhaps because “record collector” is a pretty imperilled category, more recent Mountain Goats albums have used song titles closer to the content of the lyrics – even the latest, on which all the songs are titled with chapters and verses from scripture, is a relatively low-difficulty-level challenge.)

It’s refreshingly bracing sometimes when a song’s just called “Love Song” or “Divorce Song,” but all the additional pointers and tags make for a richer experience. Indeed, perhaps the question should be why we use the same general names for so many different things in life, like loves and divorces, rather than inventing unique titles for them. Or perhaps we already spend too much of our precious time in those deepest realms of our lives searching for the caption instead of listening to the music.

P.S. Here are some of the rejected potential titles for this website:
Kritosaurus
Crritic
Triple Nerd Score
Ergo the Living Planet
The Potato Barn
Big Head
Parkour
Blind Chess
Erathem
Zionist Time Conspiracy
The DeLorean of All One’s Born Days
Viva la Quinta Brigada

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