The Freelance Mentalists.
Saturday, August 14, 2004
 
SPECIAL GUEST MENTALIST--JOHN WOJTOWICZ! Presenting "The Uncanny"(Andy's Robot Mix)
(The following is butt a grain of John's epic account of a Vienna vastness, mounted by Mike Kelley, rising artstar, minion of Deetroit urcore Destroy All Monsters, illustrator of Sonic Oldth's DIRTY, and, most importantly,a RECORD COLLECTOR. If you don't like this mix, blame me, not John. Geek love--D.)
I. The Main Exhibit (excerpt)
Sitting unobtrusively off in one corner is a robot model of Andy Warhol: when he was invited to a TV show to plug his book,THE PHILOSOPHY OF ANDY WARHOL, he chose not to appear live and instead commissioned someone to construct this model, which was also equipped with a tape recording of him reading excerpts from this book. (And note that [i] he was thus hearkening back to his Czechoslovakian roots, since the word "robot" was first coined by Karel Capek in 1923; and [ii] this same idea would later be taken up by Kraftwerk, who have gone on entire concert tours by sending robots in place of themselves.) Ironically, in a gallery full of human figures, the only piece involving human language is a life-size Erector-set-style robot by Jonathan Borofsky, which continually pronounces the word "chatter" in a mechanical voice. And towering over the entire main room of the exhibition is "Ubermensch," a sculpture by Jake & Dinos Chapman, which consists of granite-grey plastic crags, on top of which is precariously perched a cartoonish life-size figure of Stephen Hawking.
II.The "Harems"(excerpt)
At the very end, after viewing the main room, a passageway, and a smaller gallery, one enters the chamber containing "The Harems," whose title is a term taken from classic psychological literature, where it is used to describe the fetishistic activity of the collector. In this room, Mike Kelley has gathered several of his own personal collections, including horror and monster bubblegum cards (several series), marbles, soup spoons, shot glasses, business cards, a half-dozen unbent wire hangers which had been used to break into cars, and the aforementioned squeeze toys. At the podium discussion, Kelley explained that "When you grow up in America, you're surrounded by things like this" and that this aspect might not come across to a European. Placed in the four corners of the room are video monitors which play back DVDs of Kelley's other collections: comic books (from back when they were still in the 12- and 15-cent price range), postcards (several thousand of them), pinups (with hardcore porn stills far outnumbered by fashion shots and cosmetic ads)and, best of all, HIS RECORD COLLECTION. The viewer not only gets to see the covers of all 3000-plus LPs of it, but hears a one-second sample from each one. Entire decades of your life will pass before your eyes. The added bonus, however, is that in addition to the historical and autobiographical, there's a hermeneutic level: when you hear 12 consecutive blasts of James Brown and Parliament/Funkadelic samples, you're also hearing what amounts to a cut-up and condensed history of hiphop. Likewise, when 15 snippets of Donna Summer and/or Giorgio Moroder go by, it becomes a mini-survey of house and techno. My friend Joe Herter, a Friend of Dorothy who, like Kelley, grew up in Detroit and studied at the University of Michigan, insists that "In life, there are two kinds of people: those who are size queens, and those who wish they could be size queens!" If that's the case, Mike Kelley's is not much bigger than mine: he has more James Brown, I have more Parliament & Funkadelic; he has more Sun Ra on vinyl, I have more Ornette. Though with that said, props are due: he's got every record released on JCOA, along with most of Arista Freedom, not to mention all the 90s metal I never want to hear again (NiN, Ministry), exotica like Yma Sumac (are 5 really necessary?) and scads of African folk records from before the days of "world music," when they constituted a form of anthropological doumentation.
I myself propose the dichotomy that in life there are "listmakers," and there are those who consider listmaking to be an unfathomable mental aberration. And the various anti-listmakers and anti-collectionists will simply fume and froth at "the Harems" or, at best, view it with the condescension that a pathological condition deserves. Kelley openly states that he considers collecting art to be a form of compulsion, but I suggest that "the Harems" itself carries additional aspects of the Uncanny:
"The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them."(Walter Benjamin, "Unpacking My Library")
"For what else is (a) collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?" (ibid.)
I would go one step further than Benjamin and propose that the uncanniness of a collection lies in its illusion of TOTALITY. This is the same principle by which the I Ching posits that there are only 64 possible situations in the universe; the tarot has it covered with 72 cards. To the mind of the 10-year-old collector, having the entire American League laid out in front of you is something greater than the Britannica and the O.E.D. put together.
Moreover, still another aspect of the Uncanny is that of infinity (for example, in the realization that in order to collect the entire set, theoretically you might have to buy an infinite number of packs of cards, or at least every single one ever manufactured), and likewise, of the process by which something is assigned an imputed economic value (the entire set seems to immediately take on a value at least one order of magnitude greater than the price of the packs of cards that make it up). And lastly, there is a kind of stochastic uncanniness here, in the illusion that assembling (any?) 3000 albums can somehow sum up an entire musical culture.
While the mania of the collector, within the context of the exhibition, is meant to suggest repetition compulsion, I think that Kelley is also unintentionally drawing on another aspect of the Detroit myth. After all, to a stoned Surrealist the assembled array of business cards suggests an aerial view of finished cars outside a Michigan factory. To quote Kodwo Eshum quoting Juan Atkins (one of the three Detroit bruthas responsible for creating techno):
"Berry Gordy built the Motown Sound on the same principles as the conveyor belt of Ford...today the plants don't work that way. They use computers and robots to build the cars...I'm probably more interested in Ford's robots than Berry Gordy's music." So all at once, the Detroit auto industry suggests repetition AND robots AND the noise so beloved by not only the Stooges and MC5, but Mike Kelley's own noise band, Destroy All Monsters.
I myself experienced two different senses of the uncanny on separate viewings of "the Harems." One standing case displays a couple dozen announcement fliers of the sort that can be found in any college-town coffee shop or laundromat: "Apartment to Share," "Tutoring in Japanese," "Actor Needed To Play Pier Paul Pasolini"(yikes). The first time that I visited the show, I was struck by their collective uncanny quality, since one has to look very closely to spot any clues as to time or place. (All but two don't list any year whatsoever; only 2 or 3 indicate UCLA as a location.) Kelley cited Edward Hopper as an influence on the exhibition, and the fliers suggest an informational analogue to the visual nature of a Hopper painting: life somewhere in America, in some unspecified decade in some unspecified college town. On my second visit, however, I took a much closer look and discovered announcements for EVENTS THAT I HAD ACTUALLY ATTENDED: specifically, concerts by Sun Ra, James Newton, and Cassandra Wilson at Koncepts Cultural Gallery in Oakland (and to make it even weirder, I was wearing one of my Sun Ra T-shirts when I noticed this).
Most importantly, however, the inclusion of "the Harems" means that there are two very different ways of reading the exhibition. At the podium discussion I mentioned to Kelley that, since the visitor generally reaches "the Harems" only after he/she has seen the entire exhibtion, it seems to be a culmination of the entire thing, and is thereby a commentary on the processes of valorization and canonization with regard to the works on display elsewhere in the show. Kelley demurred, and apparently considers "the Harems" to be almost an afterthought. Nevertheless, one interpretation is that, in a show which is so concerned with representations of the human body, this final sanctum of fetishes and cultural memorabilia amounts to the "brain" of the whole operation.
III. Final Comments(complete)
After the opening I thought about the notable absence of camp at the exhibition (with the exception of Cindy Sherman, who is of course camp by defintion). Kelley's reason for this, given at the podium discussion, is that camp is simply not uncanny. But I maintain that a camp item always has quotes around it, whereas with the show's chockablock arrangement of artworks and non-artworks, EVERYTHING is in quotes vis-a-vis everything else. And there are no camp-style inside jokes here, because Kelley genuinely likes all this stuff; we all do.
And commendably, aside from the pinups of cosmetic ads, there are no brand names to be seen anywhere: given the trash-culture orientation of the show, this is an achievement in itself. Kelley explains: "Mass media has no psychology--it's [only] a psychology of money."
Lastly, there's the issue of where Uncle Sigmund fits in with all of this. For those of you outside Austria, I need to emphasize that, as I was once told, "Freud is not taken seriously here. He was FROM here," i.e. he had to go elsewhere in order to be taken seriously. A couple of years ago, the Sunday book section of the main Vienna newspaper published an article about Freud; the lead to the article basically read, "After nearly a century, Freud's ideas are being seriously contested, while in Austria they never achieved acceptance in the first place."(i. e. "See? we were right all along"). His concepts are not common currency here, and the entire psychotherapeutic culture in the U.S. which derives from Freud exists in a far different form, if at all (and believe me, living in Austria with no recourse to the term "passive-aggressive" is like living among a tribe of Eskimos who don't have any word for snow).
Nevertheless, I imagine that Kelley's exhibition would be utter catnip for a number of Central European writers who appeared around or just after Freud; e.g. Rilke, Musil (cf. "Torless"), Gombrowicz, and especially Bruno Schulz (cf. his "Treatise on Mannikins"). And meanwhile it's one trashy, trippy delight for the amateur semiotician in all of us.JW
 Very Special Comments Section ( instigated by template wuss)
 (((D.Buttinski on megaphone: Did yall ever see that video in which a scrotal-faced, pube-crowned Lou Reed robot stuck its finger in its mouth and deconstructed itself? That was the whole video, and MTV showed it a number of times, and not at 3 AM. But what *song* was that? Also,for the video of Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," the person who contributed a clothes line chorus line of legs, rippling in tha breeze, plus revolving Rod Stewartoid bumpkinheads and dedicated home appliances, is said to be the same progenitor of rude-thang mechanicals to whom late-60s Fairport Convention once sang:"Whoh, Mr. Lacey, let me work your lovely machine. Why Mr. Lacey, why you do the things you do. It's true no one here understands you, but some day they'll catch up with you.")))
(Blast From The Futcha--Mike Kelley RIP, and in his honor, a robot vs cyborg bonus track. From the I Love Music message board thread Whitney Houston R.I.P.:
Pop music hadn't had time to digest The Terminator (1984) and Donna Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto" (1985) when Whitney Houston released her 1980s albums. Thus, they were still in robot, not cyborg, mode. Fine robot music, for sure, esp. the robodisco of "So Emotional" and "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" (as well as its proper homecoming in "I Wanna Dance With Numbers"). But she didn't realize her cyborgian potential until "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)," her greatest single.
In his essay “An Anthropologist Underwater: Immersive Soundscapes, Submarine Cyborgs, and Transductive Ethnography,” Stefan Helmreich provides an excellent definition of cyborgs that helps get at the distinction between RoboWhitney and CyborgWhitney: "Cyborgs need not be material compounds of flesh and machine; anything that can be described in terms of information dynamics can be considered a cyborg. The boundaries of cyborgs are subject to shifting and expanding as they are networked to other feedback dynamics across scales and contexts" (627-8). RoboWhitney hasn't networked to other feedback dynamics. That's what "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" and "So Emotional" are about. She isn't dancing with somebody but she wants to. She remembers the way that we touched but we're not touching right now (and note how the lyrics appeal to the distancing sense of vision to heighten the sense of disconnection; even the production tends towards discrete sound-images as much as a Wall of DX7). More importantly, the thwarted desire implies the self-presence that identifies all robots from Phil Oakey to the love duo in the underrated Heartbeeps to David in the equally underrated A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Like the aforementioned, she can't help but broadcast her thereness because she's perpetually letting us know how frustrated she is in her casing (which is how many critics have described her post-"Memories" work in general).
CyborgWhitney makes herself available for networking. Crucially, "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" is the rare diva song where "I" is never mentioned. She has significantly lessened what Mark Sinker calls "the sense of regality, of dreadful awful majesty of style and skill as a weapon, the sense of renunciation, the sense that her role leaves her the loneliest person of all." She sings it down and invites us commoners in, not eradicating loneliness but finding a temporary prison for it. Nothing is forever in this network save for the infinite play of information dynamics. The song traces not a line from Whitney to a lover but a skein of flickering vectors, a series of points where for every win, someone must fail, where falling in love is sometimes wrong, sometimes right. There's a point where we exhale but a point back to where we're gasping for air. Even our identities are only momentarily whole when networking with another and looking inside ourselves only gets us halfway there. But, and herein is the song's genius, this holds true as much for Whitney here, in this modest moment (it's her shortest #1 single too), as it does for us which means at long last we can interface with her. We say shoop shoop as if to vault over language in an attempt to express the peace in this point of contact but even that is connected to other points back to The Sweet Inspirations and Salt-n-Pepa. It's Whitney Houston's cyborg manifesto and it holds out Haraway's world-changing vision. As Helmreich puts it, "Haraway found an unexpected, ironic, utopian promise in the figures of cyborgs initially created to automate warfare or de-skill workers; cybernetics opened up possibilities for recoding our human bodies and selves, for short-circuiting the idea that a durable 'nature' dictated our destinies. Somewhere in cyborg bodies might whir a liberatory consciousness."
Kevin John Bozelka, Tuesday, 14 February 2012 09:40 (2 weeks ago) Permalink
Mark Sinker comments:

can't really decide if i'm flattered or insulted to be included alongside ms haraway in the critical theory pantheon of the never-wrong : \

obviously as one of the "founding voices" of afrofuturism as a framing device, i quite like the science fictification of pop history, but the idea that this notion stems FROM haraway -- that she wasn't observing things already long loosed in pop culture -- reliably irritates me: accurate or otherwise (a lot of it is much too badly written to be good criticism), cyborg theory is descriptively conservative and backward-looking, and in no sense visionary 

 

 
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