On Reading and Falling in Real Time

[Written April/May of 2011, published in Exhibit-V in June]

The planet Mercury is spinning backward. Expect delays, avoid purchasing ground transportation; electronics are glitchy and missed assignations the norm. Your horoscope predicts all this and other, less deleterious things: old friends reappeared, lost objects found; the timely resolution of old, unfinished business. I always think of “the Mercury Retrograde” as the space for in-between days, not exactly purgatory but a limbo for the unbaptized. Actually, Catholic afterlife is too punitive. Instead, think of something vague & pagan, like Haruki Murakami’s little village in the forest between this world and the next in Kafka on the Shore. After being led -in a turn characteristically banal but uncanny – by a pair of lost Japanese soldiers of the Second World War, Murakami’s protagonist finds himself at an innocuous standstill, in a small cabin with food and a television:

There’s an old colour TV in a heavy wooden cabinet that I’m guessing is fifteen or twenty years old. There’s no remote control. It looks like something that was thrown away and then retrieved. Which could be said of all the electric items, all of which look like they were saved from the trash. Not that they were dirty or anything, or didn’t work, just that they were faded and out of date.

I often think of this world as part of a complex of familiar associations that pass through my mind while picking up a book, borrowed, lent and retrieved to search out just such a reference, taking in the late-spring laundry and assessing the fridge’s inventory as afternoon leans into suppertime. The laundry could be a reading list. Absence of title, not as being without land, a temporary name or set of regional specifics, but space inhabited momentarily free of the intellectual traffic of getting where the spending goes on, being momentarily in its unawareness. At such moments, I feel as if I’m part of a global caste nowhere acknowledged but everywhere foreknown. The laundry began as second hand and the groceries are leftover, just substantive enough to flesh out a sit-down ritual for dinner. Meanwhile the books are becoming still life objects faster than I can finish them (think of Van Gogh’s paintings of Zola novels, the brushstrokes churning them directly into the paint like cream into butter). Investing in the subversion of passing a day without buying anything new is only part of this story and it’s not all that intentional. Rather, let us refuse to look at the things around us with the insistence of passive prayer that they too must soon pass away (but refusal is too final a word for a practice of avoidance.)

*

It’s an election year, an election week. Everything on the television sounds portentous and wrongful: the pores of our nation become momentarily vulnerable to the exigencies of all the others. I’m taking this election personally because our incumbent once reductively described artists as ‘elites’. This is fiction isn’t it? ‘Elites’ as some rarefied aristocracy of tasting, breeding, feeling and feeding don’t really exist anymore, except in the parodic argot of hipster-watch blogs. Recently, Boris Groys travelled back in time to cite Clement Greenberg writing in 1939 that what the financial elite really want in the Modernist era is to approximate mass taste. Groys’ broader assertion though is that artists are no longer an embattled bohemian minority, that there is not a black hole of sensibility on the other side of which a self-subordinating, long-suffering aesthete ‘elite’ execrably exist; no further avant-garde-ness in apartness. Instead, Groys argues that everyone takes an active role in the new constructivist productivity, after a manner both economically pragmatic and (assuming the North American spiritual polemical of capital) materially transcendental.

Between the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, art entered a new era – namely, an era of mass artistic production following an era of mass art consumption. Contemporary means of image production, such as video and cell phone cameras, as well as socially networked means of image distribution such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter give global populations the possibility of presenting their photos, videos, and texts in a way that cannot be distinguished from any other post-conceptual artwork. And contemporary design gives the same populations the possibility of shaping and experiencing their own bodies, apartments, or workplaces as artistic objects and installations. This means that contemporary art has definitively become a mass cultural practice.

As a student, I recall seeing a sticker on somebody’s sketching box that read, “If everything is art than art is nothing.” The grammar of that axiom looked broken, incapable of gratuitous inversion. Its ignorance chilled me. Indignation at art’s permissions has always signaled the desire to hang on to one missed opportunity or another. Groys’ thesis accurately registers the tension I have felt looking over the varied objects in my living room and wondering how much of any of it is worth, knowing that in the balance of a lifetime of protracted debt it’s all probably underwater. And that the art that hangs on the walls or sits on the table belongs to a separate register of worth that can’t be spoken about in this room while it is a self-conscious room and not an extension and reflection of feelings other than the feelings that tell me I’m in the undertow of debt. This is a different velocity. It defeats the aspiration of objects to be props in the plot arc of biography-as-economy, allowing them instead to offer themselves as markers for another kind of direction. This seeming motion sees everything I own hurtling over the edge of a cliff or swept away into the sea by monster waves; it is the stuff of dreams and bears the queasy stamp of vestibular confusion: no doubt it’s we who are really moving, with all haste toward dissolution and true liquidity. Nevertheless, at such moments when they appear to fall away toward an interminable ceiling’s perspectival vanishing, they are harbingers of the truth that an object – any object (a grand piano, spare change, drops of a nosebleed, Lenin’s profile) – is most beautiful as it is falling.

**

Recently, I was an onlooker at the thesis defence of a youthful poet (a hallmark of this non-existent avant-garde: looking neither young nor old but indeterminately buoyish), Michael Nardone. He was anxious I thought, tangled up articulating his conditions before the committee. The first question from his inquisitors was classic: “Whom do you see as your peers?” and answer was a long one, starting with “I’ve been all over the place”, hitting pith and pitch with, “I identify with the Moderns.” Other individuals and schools a lot more recent than Eliot and Pound were namechecked, but the point was scored. Any new voice invested in its form must go back to the beginning of the break, the Modernist Fall, as it were. Earlier generations of artists had only to provide an object constancy out of which their important work might appear; later (and here we come back to Greenberg, or just after) a constancy of process or performance supplanted the object. Now artists are asked to supply a whole subcultural continuity:

It’s not a private act

That was a huge part of conceptual art for awhile

Your mind goes out your ear

These things have their convulsive moments

Durable artists emerge after that point

It doesn’t matter what happens from here on in

Nothing is stable

It’s called the golden age of paraphernalia

***

Writing in The New York Review of Books this April, Zadie Smith remarks of Christian Marclay’s Video mash-up installation opus, The Clock, quoting Susan Sontag, “Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art – and in criticism- today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.”

The Clock is a series of images culled from a trove of films most all of which reference time or a clock, orchestrated to operate in real time over 24 hours. This use of fiction’s skin to savour the rendering of real time right now is for Smith ‘the thing in itself.’ The urgency of time passing keeps calling fact home from fantasy, juxtaposing visions of anticipation and release in a means that exposes our time, shared time, as veiled becoming, the lived event. “Marclay has made, in essence, a sort of homemade Web engine that that collates and cross-references an extraordinary amount of different kinds of information […] It’s hard to convey in words what Marclay does with data, how luminous he makes it.”

“Luminous” is a word both women use with convincing readiness, but what could it mean? The Clock is a kind of subjectivity endurance test, as is Nardone’s composite poem “Undisclosed Recipients,” itself transcribed from the recordings of thirty microphones set up at a staged social gathering. Both navigate between subject and object without obvious reason or reserve, like the Eliot of the “Prologues” (one minute an ear overhearing the street, the next minute the conscience of the street itself, “impatient to assume the world”) or Murakami’s heroes who wander from urban fringe to folkloric wilderness (“I want to see how deep this forest really is”). Their characteristic frissons, discomfiting fragments of ugliness, irony, longing, dread & relish, are motivated by a proximacy of unknown knowns, and their manners are impeccable.

Here in limbo where everything is transparent in time, the talent required to navigate with gravity is a species of tact. To tell one kind of old black shirt from another, or know which book to read first thing in the morning or if the milk’s still good, as momentarily with a kind of specialness that offers itself between discretion and election, they are becoming luminous.

Notes

Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore, translated by Philip Gabriel (New York: Vintage International, 2006) 419, 367

Boris Groys, “Art and Money”, e-flux journal #24, 04/2011, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/226

Michael Nardone’s poem “Undisclosed Recipients” will be published in part summer 2011 by The University of Calgary’s poetry journal, dANDelion.

Zadie Smith, “Killing Orson Welles at Midnight”, The New York Review of Books, Volume LVIII, Number 7, April 28th 2011, p. 16

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