Grand disillusion: it’s taken me this long to finish posting about the Berlin Biennial

Tuesday 15 August 2006

Sometimes you wonder why you bother. As an artist, as a curator, as a gallery-goer. An interview with the curators of the fourth Berlin Biennal reveals a quiet desperation as they discuss the scratching around they’ve done in a hunt for some means to break their lassitude. Contemporary art novices will wonder why they don’t talk about art; old hands won’t even bother clicking the link.
For their professed perversity, the curators’ attempt to shake things up doesn’t amount to more than pissing into an ocean of ennui. The only thing that got me truly puzzled at the Biennial was the inclusion of 30-year old art by Bruce Connor and Christopher Knowles, and even this looked like a curatorial gesture of defeat. No-one here, on either side of the Talent Moat, was operating outside of their comfort zones.
The biggest part of the exhibition was held in the old Jewish Girls’ School in the former Soviet sector: it was the first time the building had been open in over ten years. Really, everyone should know by now that attempting to put art in derelict buildings is a mug’s game. The art is left to compete with the building, and almost always loses. Correction: always loses.

At any rate, we were left free to roam the four floors of charming dilapidation only occasionally obstructed by artwork, once we had successfully passed through the security check and metal detector at the entrance. My German isn’t good enough to say whether they were searching us for bombs or for spraypaint. “Do not photograph,” admonished the sign tacked to the door, “this is not an art exhibit.” As we had guessed because, like the crumbling walls, it was more interesting than the art inside.
For the most part the art was trying to look Serious, i.e. grim and grotty in an effort to look more in tune with the darker aspects of life; the artists trying to pretend they weren’t quite so pleased with themselves, like the pious po-face of a libidinous preacher fronting up to Sunday service. Stockhausen spending a week barefoot in a rented log cabin in the mountains, divining the rhythm of the universe before he has to drive his Mercedes back to Kürten for a lecture. The grant recipient seeking inspiration by ramping up some empathy for the Turkish guest worker who comes into their flat each Tuesday.
Some of the art was just plain derivative (a room full of earth? in 2006?). People were making jokes about the dodgy lighting in a corridor being a Martin Creed work, until they found a title card showing that it was, in fact, a Martin Creed work. Then they made jokes about the Martin Creed work.
For all the standard curator-guff about inclusivity, the one piece that stood out and wasn’t thirty years old was Jeremy Deller’s film Theme for the 4th Berlin Biennial, shown in the old stables behind the former postal sorting centre: an old Klezmer group playing in someone’s flat, presumably the home of one of the band members. The tune they play is their own anthem to Auguststraße and the Biennial exhibitions that run its length. If only the rest of the show was as lively, well-crafted and generous as the theme tune performed in its honour. If only the other turgid, heavy-handed works in the show spoke as eloquently to the matters of history, society, and culture they loudly pretended to wrestle to the ground.
Curators need their fun, too: the room containing Christopher Knowles’ sheets of obsessively typed paper were hung in an old science room with a tattered poster of Einstein pasted on the wall.
Previously: Looking at looking at art.

Ravens 2 – Pigeons 0

Monday 14 August 2006

Once you’ve got a taste for it, you just can’t stop at one. Not what I want to see outside my window first thing in the morning. Maybe I should hang out a bird feeder.

Great moments in poetry: Charles Olson writes to his would-be publisher to discuss the typesetting of proofs for his Maximus IV, V, VI, 1968

Thursday 10 August 2006

Where in hell did anyone get the idea these lines are not as written… Oh Jesus! where again does such ideas – in the face of a incredibly careful mss – go fucking haywire??… Here again SHRINK LEADING!!!! oh God it’s too much!… Note: whoever directed the Printer to set this this way shld lose his fucking head.

Questi Cazzi Di Piccioni

Monday 7 August 2006

The roof space of the scuzzy block of flats across from where I live is infested with pigeons. Two ravens have just moseyed on into the hole the pigeons use to get into the roof.

Do ravens eat pigeons?

I’m hoping for the affirmative, particularly since that pigeon in Venice shat on me.
Note: The above was written a month or so ago but never posted, until now: The Squid Files has witnessed the same event today, with horrifying consequences. (Warning: lo-res but grody image that may offend some viewers, if they’re pigeons.)

I Want To Believe

Monday 7 August 2006

Meddlesome anorak that I am, I just looked back in on the Wikipedia entry for Jeremy Bentham to see how my little edit was going. It’s been re-edited, already. According to whoever violated my impeccable scholarship, the notorious Auto-Icon really, truly, ruly is wheeled in to Council meetings. Not being a member of the College, I’ll have to take their word for it.

Well! That wasn’t supposed to happen.

Sunday 6 August 2006

I come back from a small holiday away only to find that my last three posts, including the one which explained I would be offline for a week or so, didn’t get posted. Oh, and July went missing for a bit there, too.
I think it’s all working OK now, although it looks a bit pointless. Normal business resumes tomorrow.

Postcard from Venice

Friday 28 July 2006


I came here in my young youth
and lay there under the crocodile
By the column, looking East on the Friday,
And I said: Tomorrow I will lie on the South side
And the day after, south west.

Ezra Pound, Canto XXVI.

It’s been another slow month

Thursday 27 July 2006

And it’s about to get slower. I’m on holiday all next week. Don’t worry, I know you’ll cope somehow.
I was going to suggest some highlights from the past month but (a) there aren’t any, really, and (b) the July archive is mangled right now. I didn’t even get around to posting the write-up of the Berlin Biennial. Ah well.

Unfortunately, when they arrived at the other end they discovered the movie was also showing there. (Bada-bing!)

Thursday 27 July 2006


Eurostar said the partnership with the movie – whose cast included French actress Audrey Tatou – helped generate “strong interest in overseas markets”, with travel agents reporting increased sales on the London-Paris route.

Just what the world needs

Tuesday 25 July 2006

I have finally made my first edit to a Wikipedia article. Of course, it concerns you know who…

Why I don’t read Patrick White

Tuesday 25 July 2006

I have read and enjoyed Patrick White’s Voss and Riders in the Chariot, and sat through Shepherd on the Rocks without undue discomfort. The back cover blurbs of his novels interest me more than most books published these days. And yet I have always balked at reading more White. Why?
The Nobel Prize doesn’t help. There’s something about the average Nobel laureate that makes them seem like the sort of author UN delegates pretend to read. It is the epitome of officially-sanctioned literature, its demand of “idealism” (extraordinary word, just ask Allen Upward) become an officially-approved meliorist sentiment. It deals in certainties, it evades ambiguity the way it avoids awkward details and disturbing complications. It is perfect for Goverment-sponsored reading programs.
How many of your favourite, literary, capital-S Serious authors received a Nobel prize? Just look at the anointed Americans.
My other problem is the same one Kyle Gann at PostClassic encountered recently, when reading a comprehensive handbook of 20th Century composers:
Eurocentric criteria with which I might have been sympathetic when I was 20, before I became more acclimated to the changes that came with postmodernism. On one hand we have “the wider human condition,” i.e., the programmatic holdover from Romanticism that music is supposed to encapsulate some echo of the bourgeois man’s relation to society. On the other, “the narrower expression of the ethos and ideas of the day,” which seems to reflect a modernist belief that the Hegelian World Spirit, moving ever westward… is embodied in a mainstream of music on which all “serious” composers must comment, and to which they all contribute.

For “music” read literature, another artform we still cannot quite believe has no insides. My taste has always instincively been for the art that tells us something else beside the cultural received opinion. No matter how I liked White, I always had the feeling he was limited by the need to Say Something Important, and spent his career, on-page and off, play-acting The Great Author, mummifying his books in thematic boilerplate.
Despite these reservations I cannot bring myself to dislike what I’ve read: there is enough discomfiting unevenness in his writing to keep it lively, as his splenetic visions of righteousness wrestle with his petty meanness. The Readers’ Group is my excuse to finally read White again, and to see whether the good outweighs the bad.

Take Back the White

Tuesday 25 July 2006

Six months ago: The Sunday Times in the UK sends a chapter of some book by V.S. Naipaul anonymously to several British publishers. Of course, it gets rejected. At the time I wrote about how probably no-one involved in the caper on either side had read Naipaul, but then my argument devolved into pitching into James Frey or Peter Phelps one more time.
Two weeks ago: After several weeks of brainstorming, The Australian sends a chapter of some book by Patrick White anonymously to several Australian publishers. Of course, it gets rejected. I like to think that the journalist simply submitted the Sunday Times article anonymously to the editor to see if it would get rejected.
Amazingly, there’s more than one publisher left in business in Australia to submit novels to. Even more amazingly, at least one of them seemed to have read the submitted chapter before rejecting it. However, as the discussion of the caper at Sarsparilla observes:
in amongst all that commentary and discussion one thing kept coming up again and again: hardly anyone has read a novel by Patrick White and seen for themselves what the fuss is about.

In response to this dilemma, The Patrick White Readers’ Group has been formed. Punters are invited to read The Vivisector and share their opinions during September. The tricky part for White’s fellow Australians will be getting hold of a copy: his novels are no longer printed in Australia.

“Remarkably boring sonic content but being free of musical substance can firmly be considered ‘sound art'”

Monday 24 July 2006

I had an urgent barbecue to attend in the Cotswolds, so unfortunately I had to cancel plans to see Mattin and some other new-musicy dudes play at Alma Enterprises last weekend. I forget who else was playing; I wanted to see Mattin again, having previously seen him give one of the best live laptop performances I’ve experienced outside of a strip club.

The stage presence of most live computer sound-crunching musos has been definitively described elsewhere as that of “bored young men checking their email”. Usually, the music isn’t much more engaging. But several years ago, in the Iwaki Auditorium, Mattin conscientiously set up his Powerbook, covered his ears, winced in anticipation, and waited.

Then, tentatively, he uncovered his ears and relaxed. Then he hunched forward and braced himself again, before relaxing once more. In between the occasional small adjustment to his inert computer, he and an accomplice crept from one corner of the auditorium to another, finding a place to freeze, cover over, and wait with increasing bemusement. There was never so much as a peep from the computer or the PA.

Last Saturday’s gig was held as part of a show currently on at Alma, “Arsenal: artists exploring the potential of sound as a weapon“. I would have said I was disappointed with the show, but I don’t have high hopes for gallery presentations of sound art, or for shows which advertise a political subtext.

The necessity of artists compromising their aesthetic or political beliefs to conform to such a high-concept curatorial brief is evident immediately upon entering the gallery. You wouldn’t know the show was about sound art: four of the six artists have presented video installations. Apparently, sound doesn’t have much potential as a weapon unless it is circumscribed with image.

Of these, two were video documentations of events involving sound and/or music. In November 2005 Thomas Altheimer attempted to sail to Guantanamo Bay to play Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony within earshot of the camp. There may be an interesting documentary in his tribulations to make the project succeed, but not in this muddled, artsy-fartsy installation.

Rod Dickinson’s video footage of his reenactment of the sound barrage used by the FBI at the seige of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco is similarly dull and unenlightening, elucidating neither the reenactment nor the siege itself. The most psychologically disturbing aspect of this piece was its expectation that you would sit wearing headphones while watching a video of unspecified length.

There was also a music video, little more than an advertisement for the metaphor of sound as virus without any further exploration of how this may work as an idea. The final video was an incompetently shot video of someone’s backyard accompanied by non-English speakers reading an English language primer, a cheap bit of grant-bait that fits the curatorial brief only if the intended audience is poor Professor Henry Higgins.

The sad part of this show is that underneath it all lies the tired old idea that art still has some social subversiveness to it, a political relevance it can no longer even pretend to claim. And yet the proposed transgressions are so vague and unambitious. If you want some real mayhem, try getting hold of William Burroughs’ Revised Boy Scout Manual.

Filler by Proxy XXXVIII: Billy Joel – American Idiot

Sunday 23 July 2006

Emily at Progressive Boink analyses Billy Joel – The Essential Video Collection and reaches some conclusions about what makes a video [or Billy Joel] essential:
1) The song must feature an Important Life Lesson. This lesson can usually be summed up on a single sentence, and often ends in an exclamation point.
2) Billy and/or his band (also known as The Black Hole of Rockin’) must in some way remind the viewer of another band/another celebrity/some irrelevant piece of pop culture history. You’ll be surprised how often this happens.
3) There must be celebrity guest stars. Not every video features a guest star, but when they do, you can almost count of them being 80’s specific.
4) Perhaps most important in determining how essential a video is, is where it falls on the BJ Jew Fro Scale.
. . .Oh, and it always helps if a video has hilariously out-of-place black people.
Convincing scientific analysis of a dozen or so case studies follows. I think it was The Standing Room’s overzealous del.icio.us feed that brought this important information to my attention.

Rediscovering the secret history of music: NMAtapes

Thursday 20 July 2006

Found via Half/Theory: Shame File Music hosts an impressive array of weirdo fringe music from Australia and New Zealand, all freely available for download. Most importantly, they are in the process of digitising and uploading the complete series of NMAtapes.
NMA was the new music magazine in Australia, publishing about one issue a year from 1982 to 1992. The featured composers and performers were resolutely of what New Yorkers call a “downtown” musical orientation, revolving around free improvisation, home-made instruments and homebrew electronics, multimedia extravaganzas, lo-fi sampling, bizarro forays into rock and dance music, and general eclecticism and mockery of the dogma emanating from the self-anointed cultural centres in Europe and the USA.
Each issue came with a cassette tape of pieces by musicians who appeared in the mag. Most (all?) of it has never been reissued commerically: for decades this music has circulated by samizdat, dubbed and redubbed from library copies and occasional radio broadcasts, passed between music geeks who knew there was more to life than horrible pub rock and tribute bands. The music is wild, unique, and utterly essential to anyone interested in the less offensive developments in music over the last 25 years.
Shame File is halfway through uploading the complete series of ten cassettes. NMA’s website has published the complete text of the 1988 book 22 Contemporary Australian Composers, which describes the careers of many of the composers on the tapes.