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Driving Freely Through the World: Cosmopolitanism in K-pop

by Chris Randle

[This essay was first presented as a paper at last month’s 2012 Pop Conference, which accounts for the Frankfurt School citations.]

During the summer of 2010, as one or two billion people learned to pronounce and sometimes dread the word “vuvuzela,” I was taking part in a parallel spectacle. The British music critic Tom Ewing had organized a competition called the Pop World Cup, little different from its gargantuan namesake, only played with singles instead of feet. I volunteered for the tournament, and my randomly determined team ended up being South Korea. Despite a fleeting teenage infatuation with J-pop, I’d never knowingly heard any Korean songs before. I conducted the usual recondite research – asking for Youtube links on Twitter – and my friend Maddie Lee recommended a bunch of tracks. This was one of them:

It’s the 2009 single “Gee,” by Girls’ Generation (also known as SNSD), and although that Korean squad would lose in the quarterfinals by a single reader vote, my fascination soon developed into committed fandom. At first I only paid attention to several familiar sources, such as Maddie’s critical K-pop blog, semi-ironically called My First Love Story. But over time my affection grew increasingly unrestrained, and I was searching for hangul-inflected Mediafire links or learning relevant slang like oppas and jimseungdol. My RSS feed now features dozens of posts a day from Omona They Didn’t!, East Asia’s rough equivalent of the gossipy Livejournal community Oh No They Didn’t! (“Omona” means “oh my gosh” in Korean.) Listening to the multilingual lyrics of these ultra-modern songs, I began to wonder how their cosmopolitanism intersected with their place of origin. The World Cup is a planetary celebration that happens to provide an arena for the most reflexive tribalism, enriching a corrupt organization in the process. Another irony: the international qualities of K-pop and its idols reflect Seoul as a city, yet that openness has often been coerced from outside.

In his 2006 book Cosmopolitanism, philosopher Kwame Appiah notes that said word dates back to the Cynics of the fourth century BCE, though it’s a distinctly un-cynical phrasing: “citizen of the universe.” They meant to sound paradoxical, as cosmopolitanism sometimes is. For its self-isolation and resistance to imperial entreaties, 19th century Westerners called dynastic Korea “the hermit kingdom,” but its eventual engagement with the world wasn’t exactly voluntary: after beginning to modernize in the 1890s, it was annexed by the Japanese Empire, which accelerated the process. Politically and culturally, Japanese rule was no less oppressive than that of a typical European power, but unlike, say, Belgians in the Congo, the colonizers encouraged Korean education and economic development, perhaps realizing that assimilated consumers would prove to be more lucrative subjects than illiterate peasants.

By 1930, of the 200-plus factories on the peninsula employing more than 50 workers, a fifth were Korean-owned. Seven years later, 52 000 Japanese bureaucrats were there, fifteen times the number of French colonial officials in Vietnam. Jonathan Krieckhaus’ book Dictating Development uses this and other data to argue that the Korean state is an international construction, doubly shaped by foreign rulers; while occupying the country after World War II, the United States actually wanted Japanese advisors to stay on and run its government, but settled for recommendations of “acceptable Korean replacements” following the local outrage. Well into the 1960s, majorities of high-ranking civil servants and police officers – including the dictator Park Chung Hee – were former Japanese collaborators. There’s a loaded Korean phrase about toadying to outside powers, sadaechuui, which dates back to the era of Chinese influence: “serving the great.”

Like Japan, the U.S. saw Korean economic success as an important part of its geopolitical strategy, and sent huge amounts of aid to its new southern ally after the peninsula’s division. The money was certainly needed. Conservative estimates suggest that half of Seoul’s buildings were destroyed during the Korean War, making modernity inescapable there. Today the city’s skyline is dominated by towering headquarters of the chaebol, family-controlled multinationals like Samsung and Hyundai – these corporations employ roughly 10 percent of the South Korean population, but their outsized influence and prestige make them loom over competitive university entrance exams. The three companies releasing most K-pop, which go by the confusingly generic names of SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment, are relative upstarts. They were all founded in the mid-‘90s, after the fall of South Korea’s military junta, and none is a subsidiary of some larger conglomerate, unlike the remaining major labels that North Americans know. In a recent Omona They Didn’t! thread, “netizens” discussed the Seoul home bases of each record company, noting how ordinary they looked.

The K-pop production model parallels another city known for its cars. Marxist theorists characterized the labour-dividing ethos of Detroit’s assembly lines as “Fordism,” but one could equally call it Gordyism. Motown’s success was built on clear sonic templates, top-down control over a group’s name, image or lineup, and unyielding specialization: “Artists performed, writers wrote, producers produced,” as the Temptations’ Otis Williams put it in his autobiography. This rigidly efficient process frustrated the artistic ambitions of people like Marvin Gaye; it also churned out sublime pop songs by the hundreds. SM, YG and JYP have made the Gordyist model even more systematic and all-encompassing, on an international scale. In a Spin magazine article this year, David Bevan described the dormitory-like facilities for YG’s young trainees: “Walk down a few flights and you’re met with an assortment of plush recording studios, available to producers both in-house and imported. There’s a fully outfitted gym manned by a celebrity fitness guru. The cafeteria serves home-style Korean fare and boutique coffee until late into the night. And of course, there are those practice spaces…”

The relative diversity of these musical rosters probably exceeds that of Seoul proper, which is over 95% Korean. Where its factories were once obliged to labour for the benefit of imperial rulers, K-pop companies now court foreign listeners by choice, albeit an imperative one: unlike Japan or the U.S., their domestic market isn’t large enough to make much money from alone. So singles combine Korean verses with rapped breaks and slogan-scaled English choruses, even re-recording entire albums in Japanese or Chinese, while A&R reps search for potential idols throughout East Asia and beyond. In David Bevan’s Spin piece, a JYP PR manager describes one trainee as “post-Nichkhun,” referring to a member of the boy band 2PM. His family came from Thailand and China, he grew up in California, and he’s apparently changed the way millions of young Koreans see entire countries. Bevan quotes the American-born head of a Korean creative agency, who says that Thailand “has gone from mysterious to fabulous.”

The labels have begun taking cosmopolitanism to high-concept extremes: one new group sounds like some sort of fantastical superhero team. The 12-member EXO will apparently split into two separate boy bands, one ethnically Korean and one Chinese, and tour their respective countries before reuniting for climactic crossover shows. Extra-large configurations are common in K-pop – SNSD have nine members, and Super Junior once extended to 13 – and a canny elaboration on the Gordyist model, since they give fans more idols to potentially identify with while diluting the power of any individual star. A sudden lineup change isn’t the only questionable practice favoured by the major music companies: fans, journalists and courts alike have decried “slave contracts,” the agreements that lock a teenage trainee down for 10 or 12 years without offering any access to the huge profits they might later earn. Given this track record of exploitation, the labels’ recent forays into America feel less like sudden experiments and more like a foreseeable pursuit of similar corporations. Speaking of competitive ruthlessness, here’s the music video for “I Am the Best,” by 2NE1:

Punkishly attired in Jeremy Scott and committing enough gleeful property destruction to impress Ke$ha, they don’t seem to be working under the influence of American pop so much as they’re determined to outdo it. I especially like how the intonation of “best” sounds just enough like “bitch” to slip past any censors. Covering 2NE1’s New York City debut several months ago for the Village Voice, Brad Nelson wrote: “the crowd roared at this sudden, television-sized affirmation of their identity, inextricably tied up in this Korean group, obscure to others but approaching visibility.” The overtures haven’t always been received with such intense sympathy. SNSD embarked on their own media rounds this year after headlining a K-pop show at Madison Square Garden last fall, making this glorious photo possible. When they performed on Live! With Kelly, Howie Mandel (who I unfortunately share a passport with) elected to display some serious ignorance. In his book about cosmopolitanism, Kwame Appiah wryly demonstrates the many ways a “cultural dialogue” can fail to end in happy consensus, arguing against “those who imagine that prejudice derives only from ignorance, that intimacy must breed amity.”

Misunderstandings wreak ruptures in multiple directions, too. Last month, a young black woman with the handle IFUASKEDMETO published an Oh No They Didn’t! post called “K-pop or KKK-pop?”, compiling several recent instances of Korean stars using blackface or other racist caricatures. Without a history of white supremacy, these offenses appear less calculatedly malicious than they would in a Western context, but their tangle of perverse cultural affection and cruel mockery bears an ashen resemblance to traditional American minstrelsy. Though still a miniscule proportion of the city as a whole, Seoul has one of the largest black populations in East Asia (after the major Chinese port Guangzhou), including many U.S. soldiers stationed at Yongsan Garrison. Unlike other such installations around the region, the military base – first built as a headquarters for the Imperial Japanese Army – is located at the capital’s heart, a symbol of foreign occupation that countless thousands walk past every day. If it seems inexplicable that K-pop groups would incorporate rap with such enthusiasm while blithely reiterating imported racial stereotypes, that only reflects the tortured ambiguity of their own urbanity, both entrepôt and fortress.

It should be noted that, at least on Omona They Didn’t!, most K-pop fans are reacting to these blackface routines with conspicuous side-eyes and angry disappointment. And not all stars have used diversity as a punchline – or been portrayed as a fetishistic representation of it, as with Chocolat, the rookie quintet whose publicity focused on their three biracial members. There’s a South Korean reality show called Hello Baby that gives idol groups an adorable toddler to take care of for a while, albeit while facing totally unrealistic scripted challenges. My friend Maddie recently watched the latest season, which entrusted boy band MBLAQ with three pancake-devouring children, all of mixed heritage: one’s dad French, another’s mother Vietnamese. On her blog, she wrote: “Being Korean/Chinese-Canadian myself, I felt a Lacanian sense of fascination and kinship at the presence of a Vietnamese/Korean child, in the same way that I’m fascinated by Canadians in K-pop. I’m not mixed-race, but I’m mixed-culture, and I’ve never thought that was something others could relate to, nor did I know anyone who was in a similar situation of having two (equally diluted) ethno-cultural influences in her life. Though I’m not pleased that Canadian = white as far as this show goes, I am pleased that the approach is a multicultural one.”

In another post, about the common practice of drag in K-pop, Maddie noted: “Some female North American K-pop fans idealize South Korean culture because “it’s okay for men to act feminine”, using conservative North American conceptions of masculinity and femininity as the benchmark…But male idols who are known for frequently dressing in drag are just as frequently asked to defend (or maintain) their heterosexuality in interviews.” This hints at an important theme in Appiah’s book: universalist ideas, such as the conservative Protestantism that an influential minority of South Koreans adheres to, aren’t necessarily cosmopolitan or pluralist. They can be downright reactionary when it comes to the most fundamental differences. Over the past few years, 2000-plus songs have been banned in some form by South Korean censors, including Hyuna’s brilliant 2011 single “Bubble Pop.”

The censors weren’t concerned about the sonic radicalism of Hyuna’s onomatopoeic beats. They went after that music video because its sexualized choreography might be “hazardous.” Women now earn half of South Korea’s master’s degrees; they wield ever-increasing economic power. As manifested in song, traditional roles and female abandon sometimes collide at absurd speed. The bridge at 2:30 or so is what happens when you try to recapitulate gender norms in a moving vehicle. Such tensions existed before the music I’m discussing did; in the early ‘90s, after a media panic, governments cracked down on the sensual nightlife of Seoul’s Kangnam district. But the idea of “the club” has become increasingly central to American and Korean pop alike, and yet, looking at sites like undergroundseoul.tumblr.com, Seoul’s real discotheques only seem more hedonistic than a typical music video set there. Still, the prudish edicts haven’t gone unopposed: at http://feministkpopbloggerdirectory.tumblr.com/, the list of writers keeps growing. Feminist organizers are taking to the streets, too: there was a Slutwalk in Korea last summer.

Looking at the contradictions and complications of K-pop, some observers suggest rejecting it entirely. In 2005, Cho Han Hye-Jeong of Yonsei University argued: “South Korean popular cultural products are nothing but a South Korean version of American popular culture, and the Hallyu [‘Korean wave’] phenomenon is nothing but South Korea’s export-oriented industrial system extended into the popular cultural sector.” It’s true that certain officials and executives discuss Hallyu in a dubiously nationalistic tone; after the North Korean torpedo attack two years ago, Southern military brass installed loudspeakers at 11 locations along the DMZ, blasting K-pop across the border as sonic propaganda. But it’s also true that Hallyu itself is a Chinese term. Even a fraught, compromised expression of cosmopolitanism, exported from an occupied city by an exploitative industry, can dissolve old enmities and bear radical ideas.

To resume those sports analogies: organized by a corrupt entity, the World Cup siphons billions of dollars in public money for the benefit of corporate sponsors and TV networks, and encourages the most lizard-brained forms of nationalism. That doesn’t make the quadrennial encounters of so many fans from so many countries less meaningful. A famous aphorism in Adorno’s Minima Moralia states: “Love is the power to see similarity in the dissimilar.” Less famously, he went on to argue that “the strongest argument of the apologists for film is the crudest, its massive consumption.” One needn’t rise to defend an entire medium, but they’re both right, in a sense. I don’t think I would have fallen this hard for K-pop if it wasn’t brash mass culture, able to sing of the universal while illuminating parochial differences. Unwittingly echoing those Korean censors and their “hazardous cultural materials,” Kwame Appiah praises “contamination,” idiosyncratic reworkings of common global touchstones. And why not embrace it, striving only to maintain an identity amidst impurity? To breathe is to be contaminated.

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Filed under chris randle, music

Like a G20: K-Pop and Far East Movements

by Chris Randle

A creaking racial barrier was breached last November. It mostly went unnoticed – this was not an Obama-sized milestone – but as omens go, it’s a convincing one. When the L.A. rap crew Far East Movement sent their single “Like a G6” to #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, they became the first Asian-American group to top the U.S. charts. And they happened to do so just as record companies are making an unprecedented promotional effort on behalf of pop acts from East Asia itself, hoping that Korean and Japanese stars will find an Atlantic audience.

“The first Asian-American…” is a problematic distinction, or at least a fussy one. Ne-Yo has Chinese ancestry; Nicki Minaj’s background is partly Indo-Trinidadian; Amerie was an army brat who spent several early years in her mother’s native Korea. They’ve all recorded Top 10 hits. But their public identities tend to be coded as black and nothing else, by design or otherwise. (Amerie collaborated with the Korean R&B singer Se7en and apparently speaks the language with relatives.) Not to mention Jay Sean, whose Britishness is probably more exotic than his brownness in parts of the U.S. now. Far East Movement just register as “Asian” without any such ambiguity – I mean, look at that name. Like California Swag District, it reminds me of factions from a video game, possibly because I spent way too much time playing Fallout over the holidays.

Though FEM sometimes work with an African/Asian/Caucasian-American production team called the Stereotypes, “Like a G6” is free of dubious chinoiserie. The most cringeworthy thing about this single is its faint resemblance  to Black Eyed Peas. I like the cold bass – between that and affectless chorus girl Dev, the track almost sounds like electroclash. I like her own party-party-party anthem better, if only for “wanna get your mitts in my oven.”

It’s unremarkable that a bunch of guys from Los Angeles’ Koreatown grew up surrounded by pop-rap and thought yeah, me too! What did surprise me is how much certain East Asian groups have enthusiastically adopted American musical idioms. When Tom Ewing assigned me to South Korea for last year’s Pop World Cup, I fell in love with K-pop. (Ended up losing by a single vote in the quarterfinals, perhaps due to my unhealthy fixation on propulsive beats + blatant Autotune.) And K-pop idols – a very technoccult term for these carefully managed stars, as if Genesis P-Orridge had gone into A&R – are rapping a lot. There are successful Korean MCs, such as G-Dragon, but the ascendant girl groups often have designated verse-spitting members of their own, from Rainbow to Miss A. Plus, club bangers:

None of the aforementioned foreign acts have actually broken through in the U.S. yet (Wonder Girls’ “Nobody” did reach the outer environs of Billboard’s chart in 2009, the first Korean song to do so). I suspect that’s because the artists in question have been induced to imitate passing American trends before each marketing push. The Korean-Japanese singer BoA, for example, recorded an entire album of sub-Gaga Eurobosh for her stateside debut, sounding understandably awkward in the process. Why not foist the ultramodern, ecstatically artificial bubblegum of a Girls’ Generation on unsuspecting Americans and see what happens?

That easy choice is ultimately a false one. What I really want to see 2011’s slate of crossover wannabes do is continue the tangled polycultural moves they’re already feeling out. Anyone living in a major North American city has probably been pulled into that dance already, if not born on the floor. My friend Maddie, whose critical K-pop blog My First Love Story guides, incites and inspires, recently argued that “hybridizing one’s identity is better than endlessly floundering between one or the other.” Nicki Minaj couldn’t forge a katana for you, but she knows how to swing one.

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Tuli Kupferberg: For Nothing’s Sake

by Carl Wilson

This weekend, I watched the Spanish not-so-gloriously defeat the Dutch in the World Cup, and figured that would be about that: Unlike the Italians, Portuguese, Brazilians, Italians, Koreans and other past contenders, whose victories bring masses of revelers into the streets of Toronto honking horns and waving flags, there isn’t to my knowledge an especially big Spanish-expatriate community here. So I bicycled down to the Kensington Market area to attend a panel discussion about the “avant-garde” (“old school and new school”). But when I arrived in the neighbourhood I found pandemonium had broken out and there were hundreds on foot and wheels jamming the streets with Spanish flags.  It seemed anyone who spoke a Romance language had decided this win was fairly theirs to celebrate.

I watched for a little while, especially blown away by the fact that there was a stopped streetcar that had a crowd of some 40 people dancing high atop it, blowing vuvuzelas, rocking the vehicle on its tracks.

Then I went into the back of a bar, where for some reason in what was billed as kind of an open-discussion forum, the lights were dimmed to nearly black, there was a group of people on stage giving (very intelligent) semi-formal presentations, and the matter at stake was the survival of the “radical gesture.” This seemed like a strange juxtaposition. I wanted to shout, “Um, guys, there are people outside dancing on top of a streetcar!”

Not that I mistake a soccer party for a radical gesture – as others pointed out, shutting down several city blocks for a sports party is just dandy with authorities, but doing so to protest an international financial summit makes you a criminal. But such communal outpourings certainly can approach poetry, while the debate that bogged down in that dark back room about “difficulty” versus “accessibility” (as if, among other things, accessibility is not difficult) seemed only to get further away from poetry as it progressed. The participants weren’t to blame; it’s just such a hard question to frame in the present moment, or maybe a hard one to refrain from framing.

Yesterday, poet-singer Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs died, which was kind of a reminder of an idea of the avant-garde that didn’t measure itself by “difficulty” or even “innovation” (and not that all self-identified avant-gardists do now), though challenge was certainly involved. It seems the sensibility was that you are experimenting or innovating when you change the stakes, and only secondarily the form or material.

My friend Erella tells me that she knew Kupferberg in New York years ago and remembers him selling his newsprint poetry zines – the pricing structure was something like $9.99 for one, and 79 cents for two.

This other avant-garde might have been marked by sloppiness or lack of rigor at times. But then there are other definitions of rigor: The song above was recorded not long ago when Kupferberg was already housebound and blinded by a series of strokes and other illnesses (he was 86). The rest of the Fugs laid down tracks in a studio to support his home-recorded vocals. Kupferberg probably did all this – along with his regular YouTube video posts – because he understood himself to be a bohemian, an existential label, instead perhaps of being a member of the avant-garde, more a matter of aesthetic affiliation.

It doesn’t seem viable to call yourself a bohemian now, among other reasons because anticonformity has been adapted as a dominant capitalist value. (Although Tupferberg seems to have felt being foolish or clownish in that identification was better than the alternative – he’d always prefer to be on top of the streetcar.) But looking at yourself in that mirror you can see some barred doors in shadows behind your back, and wonder if they lead to a room where we could propose talking about avant-garde poetry and it wouldn’t break down into a factional fracas about criticism – which seemed more like a fight over whose fault it was that we were sitting in a cold dark place and not out playing in the sunlight of victory, however purloined.

Below is one of the Fugs’ more beloved early songs, which I won’t try to connect to all the above. It’s based on a popular Yiddish folk song about eating potatoes, day after day after day. The Fugs changed “potatoes” to “nothing,” and I’m not sure, Toto, that it’s about eating anymore. Not bad, as radical gestures go.

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Filed under carl wilson, dance, lectures, literature, music, other, poetry

Horns of Plenty

by Chris Randle

In 1863, teams with names like Forest of Leytonstone, Crystal Palace and Civil Service agreed on universal rules for the game they decided to call association football. Their representatives also created England’s still-extant Football Association, but that act of codification was far more momentous: the 1863 rules presaged FIFA’s modern Laws of the Game, their accessible simplicity spreading the sport with pandemic speed. Over a century later, on a date no one bothers to recite or remember, another group of Englishmen recorded another milestone, the first World Cup song. Any national primacy in either endeavour proved to be fleeting.

The World Cup song is one of those characteristic eccentricities the British music charts enjoy, like the annual race for a #1 Christmas single (which occasionally kicks up some golden dust). Like “Back Home” above, the first few FA-approved tracks were performed by the various England squads alone, as shouting singalongs that flattened out any individuality. None of them are a triumph for outsider music, though I like the resemblance to those mass chants urging each team on. The FA apparently agreed, because as years and defeats went on they began substituting pop stars for the players.

The official 1998 single, care of a supergroup including Echo and the Bunnymen, Space, and the Spice Girls, was outpaced at the charts by two unofficial efforts: Fat Les’ beery anthem “Vindaloo” (featuring the scarcely less unlikely lineup of Blur’s Alex James, Charles Saatchi’s Damien Hirst and Lily Allen’s dad) and the re-released “Three Lions,” a meta-World-Cup-song about the sentimental self-pity and masochistic optimism that come with being an England fan. That new approach didn’t really work; it just made the quadrennial kitsch sound more generic. But there’s a single exception from the transitional tournament of 1990, England’s only good World Cup song.

A lot of New Order fans hate “World in Motion,” partly because it’s their sole #1. I kind of love it. Bernard Sumner’s lyrics are silly, but no sillier than the ones he wrote for all their previous hits. The central melody has the relentless forward motion that one would hope for in a World Cup single. And while John Barnes’ featured cameo – that tentative, arthritic rapping, so unlike his run – is harder to defend, it should be contextualized. Born in Jamaica, Barnes was the first black England regular at a time when such players might be pelted with bananas from the stands, when the National Front hawked its literature outside stadiums. He helped banish the fascists by making it blindingly obvious that his place was deserved: integration of the deed.

I can only see his spotlighted guest spot – not much worse than other ’80s Anglo-rapping, and certainly better than Barnes’ previous outing as an MC – as a small extension of that. The man’s flow was, if nothing else, game. His prominence also complements the song’s lyrical tactics, which adapt football jargon into the terms of utopian rave culture: “beat the man,” “don’t get caught,” “create the space.” The band almost got away with calling this track “E for England.” If the contradiction at the heart of the World Cup is between its cosmopolitanism and its nationalism, New Order et al managed to unify them.

Whether due to quiet self-confidence, administrative monomania or the slow-motion collapse of the music industry, there was no FA-sanctioned anthem in 2010, for the first time since England actually won the thing. The number of unofficial themed singles had exploded to 15 in 2002 and 30 in 2006, but that just meant most no longer had even novelty going for them. Fat Les chose well with their Euro 2000 comeback “Jerusalem” (an anthem in search of a nation), and Simon Cowell got Dizzee Rascal to front the chart-topping “Shout For England” this summer; otherwise, the artistic and commercial failure of England’s would-be trivia contest answers has paralleled their national squad’s. Luckily, the rest of the world seems to hunger for timely gimmicks too. You can shimmy to Shakira’s “Waka Waka (This Time For Africa)” (endorsed by FIFA), K’naan’s “Wavin’ Flag” (rejigged for Coca-Cola), or countless other tracks with only a vague immediacy in common. Most of the compelling ones, such as JJC’s “We Are Africans,” are either from the continent or inspired by it.

Appropriately, the greatest controversy of this World Cup was a musical one. Some people would balk at calling what vuvuzelas make music rather than noise, but some people would also reply that the noise is music. When the games began and that drone descended on every stadium, my friends of a certain persuasion exchanged jokes about Tony Conrad and Steve Reich. The vuvuzela’s buzz could be heard as another overlooked affinity between black pop sounds and an avant-garde, like Darius Milhaud’s infatuation with Louis Armstrong (or indeed Satchmo’s own use of the cut-up technique in his private collages). The racial dimension to some of these arguments, for or against, is blatant: FIFA president Sepp Blatter condescendingly shrugged that African football is all about “noise, excitement, dancing, shouting and enjoyment,” and elderly Canadian right-winger Peter Worthington sneered that “maybe the vuvuzelas are the apex of [African] cultural achievement.”

It would probably shock the joyless reactionary to learn how many producers are gleefully incorporating his hated horn. On “Cumbia de la Vuvuzela” it provides an unmistakable texture; Mr. Benn’s “Vuvuzela Riddim” uses it as sharp punctuation; 985’s “Mabeze” is a defiant tribute. Perhaps these are the vuvuzela’s most natural positions, superseding even the ceremonial purpose of its ancient forerunner. It can’t deafen you in a crowded pop song, or exhaust its lone note. And it’s a blaring reminder that, while the “World Cup finalist” club remains relatively elite, a different game is playing out across the fields of Sendspace and Mediafire.

that is what African and South Africa football is all about — noise, excitement, dancing, shouting and enjoyment”.

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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.”

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