Friday, December 25, 2009

All that jazz

Alfredo Triff

What's -really- jazz? 

El País covers an incident that has sparked a dormant controversy: What Larry Ochs played on stage was not jazz, but "contemporary music," a genre that he said, he has "contraindicated" by medical prescription.

That's Rafael Gilbert, the Spanish jazz aficionado who interrupted Larry Ochs's performance during the Singuenza Jazz Festival. Below, his side of the story:

Me and my wife decided to stay and listen. But after 10 minutes I started to feel very nervous. If you are not foretold, free jazz is the kind of music that irritate you and make you sick. As I couldn't take it anymore, I left and went to the box office get my money back. That's where the problems started. They laughed at us and gave us a complaint form. Then we went to the Guardia Civil.

After reading the news the following day in The Guardian, guess who was elated?

Wynton Marsalis, trumpeter, leader, businessman and perhaps the most important jazzman today, has been in contact with Tremlett (the journalist that published the news). Why? He's "delighted" with the story and the complainant1 and seeks to, "in gratitude", give him his complete discography (about 70 disks). Moreover, he will sign the collection.

Is Marsalis' "delight" and sudden largesse with Rafael Gilbert a case of Schadenfreude? Methinks not. As essentialist and jazz's ambassador extraordinaire, Marsalis doesn't miss a opportunity to lecture people and legitimize his hard-and-fast views:2

But first, let's see what the fuss is about. Below, a bit of what Ochs was doing at the Singuenza Jazz Festival (2009).

Is Och's music jazz? 1- It uses improvisation as well as the typical instruments associated with jazz, 2- the metronomical pulse relies on a syncopated structure, 3- Och's instrumental techniques make use of jazz's articulations and glissandi, etc, 4- the music is driven by a performer aesthetic.

Listen to Sam Rivers' Trio in 1979:

What's the big deal? For many musicians, free jazz is a cop-out: too aggressive, lacking in structure and it sounds too, well, free. It all starts here and takes definite shape here: 3

Coleman collected eight jazz musicians in a New York recording studio in 1964 [1960], and grouped them in two quartets: himself, Donald Cherry (trumpet), Scott La Faro (bass), and Billy Higgins (drums) in one; Eric Dolphy (bass clarinet), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Charlie Haden (bass), and Ed Blackwell (drums) in the other. With no rehearsal, the eight men performed a free improvisation based on no previously known tunes, no planned chord progressions, no planned structure. ... In listening, one can notice that although the players listen to one another— an idea played by one may be picked up by others, who play it in their own style—each player, even the drummers and bass players, goes his own way rhythmically, harmonically, and structurally. To ears conditioned to traditional jazz, or traditional music of any kind, this music is chaos. To ears that can listen in other ways, it is a fascinating and exciting collage, rich in detail, that changes with each hearing, depending on which instrument or instruments one listens to most closely.-- Jazz: A History, by Frank Tirro (Norton, 1993, p. 377).

Obviously, Ornette Coleman was not crazy. But why would musicians of the stature of John Coltrane and Mingus,4 toil with the new form? Let's search for context: Free jazz had a musical and political attitude of defiance. One can drawn a parallel to the socio-political climate of the early 1960's in America -something Marsalis seems to shrug off. For that young generation, free jazz represented an escape from the restrictive rules of traditional musical performance.

The new form, championed by players such as Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Pharoah Sanders, etc, expanded the structure of the jazz vocabulary. Equally important, it helped triggered new instrumental techniques. Free jazz stimulated the expansion of inner-city collectives to support artistic experimentation and community education. In a way it was like going back to the roots of group improvisation. Of course, free jazz is not for everybody. Great musicians like Sonny Rollins and Miles found the form too radical.

How else could Eric Dolphy's solo (starts on 00:45) with Mingus' band sound so authentic?

The form is very malleable and each musician interprets it differently (the band Circle, 1971, with Chick Corea, Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul):

Here is a powerful performance by the Mingus Band (Umbria, 1974). Listen to Hammett Bluiett and George Adams' solos (not to mention Don Pullen's fiery solo on piano):5

Don Cherry talks about Albert Ayler (1970's):

I doubt Marsalis would dare say this is not jazz:

Who knows? Maybe he opines Sun Ra's music is not jazz. What then?

We are ready to wrap it up: 1- Marsalis cannot ignore the historicity of free jazz. 2- Jazz is a rich and heterogeneous tradition: from Ragtime to Swing, to Bebop to Cool, to Hard-bop to Afro-Cuban to Fusion to Acid and counting. 3- Marsalis may not like free jazz -or fusion- and that's his right, but I think that for an ambassador of jazz who is supposed to represent the whole tradition to the world, Marsalis' take is shortsightedly pedestrian.

Wynton, here's my advice: loosen up a little and let the music play.
1Marsalis makes no fuss about it: he likes Miles until 1969. 2 One could argue that it's Marsalis neoclassical jazz that -because of its willful didacticism- begins to sound pretty stale. 3"Free jazz and aleatoric, or chance, performances are similar in many essential details. Attempts to destroy feelings of structure, direction, and tonality and the introduction of elements of surprise are common to both. The main distinctions between the two usually lie in the instrumentation of the ensembles and the musical training of the performers. Free-jazz instrumentation tended to approximate that of the normal jazz group—melody instruments and rhythm section—but eventually these traditional instruments gave way to sitars, tablas, amplified thumb pianos, police whistles, electronic octave machines, psychedelic lighting, and a host of nonstandard electronic and percussion pieces of equipment. Consequently, some of the free-jazz groups have the appearance of non-jazz avant-garde ensembles." --Jazz: A History by Frank Tirro (Norton, 1993, p. 377).   4 Coltrane free jazz happens late in his career, and it's based on a modal structure. Coltrane depended on the style of his idiosyncratic pianist, McCoy Tyner, who used a pedal point in the left hand which helped organize pitches around a tonal center without resorting to functional harmony. It provided Coltrane's free improvisations with a sense of focus that was absent in the work of other free jazz musicians. Check Mingus' 1963 recording of Hora Decubitus which shows a very interesting combination of the new ideas. The basic structural framework of the piece is the twelve-bar blues, but the sonority is atypical of mainstream jazz groups.5Late pianist Don Pullen once told me that free jazz was "a voice of liberation."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Whale of Gas

Alfredo Triff

This article by Deborah Sontag in The New York Times, dedicated to Mexican conceptual artist Gabriel Orozco, is ponderously vacuous.

Click on "Multimedia," and stop by Orozco's Hirst-like Mobile-Matrix, which is described as:

... a whale skeleton excavated from the sands of Baja California, fitted onto a metal armature and intricately inscribed with graphite rings and circles by a team of 20 members who exhausted 6,000 mechanical pencil leads.

Why do we need to know that 6,000 mechanical pencil leads have been "exhausted" by a team of 20 members-workers? A clever way of describing what we don't see to buttress what we need-help-with-seeing. Suddenly, the marks, explained as human labor onto the armature, are worth our attention. Let me insist on this point: Human labor is important enough to explain that Mobile-Matrix is not just a "ready-made," and that 6,000 divided by 20 = 300 pencil leads per person is enough wage-labor to justify Orozco's sculpture.1

In Duchampian fashion, the whale qua whale2 = the whale-ready-made3 is as valid and interesting as Orozco's embroidered version, but that's not my call.

Mobile-Matrix characterizes a paradigm of spectacle that contemporary art cannot live without: Art is supposed to oomph you!4

In the multimedia to Sontag's article one reads:

In 1993, the year that he created "La DS," Mr. Orozco's career took off with multiple exhibitions. Among them was one that Marian Goodman arranged at the Venice Biennale, where he showed "Empty Shoebox," (below) an open cardboard box left on the floor to be kicked about. "It shocked everybody," Ms. Goodman said. "He has a lot of courage in what he does and can be quite radical."

I excuse Ms. Goodman, Orozco's dealer, for the hyperbole: That's is exactly the kind of mythologizing she is supposed to propagate. But then, Sontag produces this sentence:  

Still, Mr. Orozco likes to disappoint; it is almost a credo of his. "I want to disappoint the expectations of the one who waits to be amazed," he has said.

Deborah, wake up and open your eyes: Orozco cannot possibly have a "credo to disappoint" and go on to produce his ponderous Mobile-Matrix for his MoMA retrospective! Or else, he's so deluded not to see that he's not "really" disappointing, but playacting the pretend-to-disappoint political game, which feeds into the "appointing" of his image as enfant terrible.  

Worse yet, what self-aggrandizement can motivate Orozco to actually believe he can amaze people so much that he ought to willfully disappoint in order to level the field!


1How much do you think Orozco's crew got paid: $8, $10, $20 an hour? I bet you think I'm bluffing. But the release of the actual wages would present Mobile-Matrix under a totally different light: It would help our understanding of the making of art-making -by artists and the system behind them. You think that what really makes for the final piece is the intensity of human labor, but labor qua labor is critically and institutionally concealed behind the artist's name!  2That's exactly what this bottle-rack is:

3 From a art conceptual standpoint, the graphite marks on the whale's bones shouldn't more relevant because of the human labor put into it, which paradoxically is why Sontag goes at length to detail it. So, Orozco's marks qua marks become a paltry add-on. 4Mobile-Matrix incorporates 2nd and 3rd generation "conceptual" production-strategies: the Fordist-like assembly-line, 

 Cildo Meireles' Coca Cola Project, 1970.

and the more recent art haute-couture (the specialized, high-end, aristocratic conceptualism of Jeff Koons):

Jeff Koons' Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988 (life-size sculpture)

In these days of 10% unemployment, "mechanical reproduction" may not be as cool. What critics and journalists don't mention is that a lot of what used to be called "craft" (let's call it "the making of art making") is now done by contracting specialized labor. What does this surrender of craft mean? 1- Subcontracting is a safe way of putting up a bigger (and more varied) output. Nobody cares that Koons is not a ceramist or is not an expert at glazing or that Jean Michell Othoniel is not a enameled glass expert. 2- On the other hand, the artist becomes a designer. One who conceives and produces.   
Marveled at Koons' Puppy, Jerry Saltz enthused on that it was possible to be "wowed by the technical virtuosity and eye-popping visual blast" of Koons's art. Charlie Finch mordantly advances:
Hush, giant Puppy,
don't you cry,
Koonzy's gonna buy you
a piece of the sky.
where you can lift your leg
and wiggle your butt
and urinate on Koonzy's old smut
of Jeff copulatin'
with his Italian bride-
Put on skates, giant Puppy
and glide, glide, glide...
"Puppy Chow," by Charlie Finch.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Stifters Dinge

Presented in New York as Stifters Dinge.

Here an interview with Goebbles taken from his site:

Is art a language for you?
HG: Much more than that, because it affects the register of the unconscious, articulate speech has no particular hold: the same applies to poetry, music, visual, as well as the Performing Arts.
Do you establish "a conversation" with your prospective audience?
HG: I think it's the opposite: I have -especially for Stifters Dinge - the idea that I just bring the listener/viewer to Sprechen (talk, language) . I still recall this one response from the audience after a performance: "For once nobody is telling me what to think..."
Many people "fear" contemporary music. Can you understand that? What do you do?
HG: Me too! No, seriously. There is some New Music that disturbs, hurts, or at least wants to shake up people with a pedagogical purpose. We shouldn't fear it beforehand, although some will not give it a second chance. My relationship with the audience is totally different: I don't assume I have to say or teach anything beforehand. Having one hundred, five hundred or a thousand listeners/viewers is enough a rich experience for me as a composer (or as the team that creates a musical/theater production). My compositions/pieces build spaces for the imagination; they "wish for" the ears and eyes of the audience -not to be distorted by my own perspective.
In the program of the festival one reads: Stifters Dinge: A piano piece without pianist, a performance without actors. How does it work?
HG: Come, and check it out yourself. Theater is not just there to present great actors, musicians and dancers. It is also (and especially for me) a way to deal with something "else" - something that is not just “we.” Theater reduces all subjects to psychological conflicts. But there are larger issues than just the dialogue between two characters on stage - for example, our engagement with nature ...
What's the difference between Stifters Dinge ("The Experience of Things") and "other things?"
HG: One sees the word "thing" on almost every page of novels and short stories. And "thing" doesn't apply only to subjects and objects. By "thing" one describes all that is unknown, that demands respect and attention: including natural disasters, people of other cultures, etc.
Since the early 90's you have been a frequent guest at the Dresden Festival of Contemporary Music. This year, one of your pieces will be performed for the first time in the historic Festspielhaus Hellerau. What does this mean to you?
HG: I am really excited about it. This particular piece is a new experiment, right in the tradition of the Hellerau, since it uses the openness to take up the space to react to it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Christ, Marx, Wood and Wei,
Led us to this perfect day.
Marx, Wood, Wei and Christ,
All but Wei were sacrificed.
Wood, Wei, Christ and Marx,
Gave us lovely schools and parks.

This Perfect Day.- Ira Levin (1970, Random House)

Nakagin Capsule: Between utopia and tragedy

We regard human society as a vital process - a continuous development from atom to nebula.*

Alfredo Triff

The news:
Kisho Kurokawa's Nakagin Capsule Tower is in real danger. New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff puts it dramatically:

When I visited several weeks ago, it was pouring rain. Corridors smelled of mildew. Some tenants had taped plastic bags to their door frames to catch leaks, and many of them were bulging with gray water. At one point a tenant took me up to a bridge that connected the two towers, where I could see chunks of concrete breaking off from the corner of one of the capsules. Nothing short of a full-scale restoration would save it.

En passant:
In the first story of Tokyo (2008), the movie, directed by Michel Gondry, we see a young artsy couple, fresh from the provinces, struggling to find a cheap apartment in the capital. They go through dozens of rentals, one of them at the Nagakin Capsule.2 Though desperate, they decline the offer. Gondry's choice of location is telling: A masterpiece of architecture that nobody wants to live in. Why the fuss? Living in the Shinbashi District is not cheap, and Tokyo apartments -by US standards- are minuscule. 

Utopia for the masses:
Of course, nowadays Nakagin dwellers would not see themselves as "metabolic occupants," living a sort of bio-rhythmic "inter-polarity." Kurokawa's project suggested flexibility (possibility of continual re-composition), adaptability (reinterpreting the Japan post-war dwelling) and reversibility (short duration). But was the project successful?3 Metabolism evolved in response to the devastation left by the War, propagating the idea that in a world of continual change and growth, structures should be created to help advance social development.

(Above, Arata Isozaki's Electric Labyrinth, Milan Triennale, 1968, with images of ruined futuristic cities being projected on a screen printed with an image of Hiroshima flattened by the atomic bomb). Kurokawa had an intuition about the connection between architecture, cybernetics and molecular biology. Given the remarkable self-organization at the biological and neurological levels, could architecture become an emergent model and module connecting human activities and territories? Could the Nakagin tower become an architectural symbol of the evolution of human society?4

The metabolic city was meant to act as replicator, a self-design of regenerating modules on to which spare parts, extensions and replacements could be plugged or unplugged -as in Kiyonori Kikutake's ambitious Marine City (1961):

or Arata Isozaki's Clusters in the Air (1960-1963):

Suspicious assessments:
Metabolism is a response to the geologic ephemeral, i.e., the power of destruction caused by nature and man. But even out of chaos, the umwelt should not become overpowering. Kenneth Frampton, in his Critical History of Modern Architecture cites Gunther Nitschke's perspicacious assessment of the Metabolist movement as early as 1966:

"As long as the actual buildings got heavier, harder and more monstrous in scale, as long as architecture is taken as a means to power, the talk of greater flexibility is just fuss."

Jonathan Barnett shares Nitschke's views:

"By 1972 the Nakagin Capsule Tower by Kisho Kurokawa was completed in Tokyo. Extremely compact prefabricated living units, looking like elongated clothes dryers, were attached to concrete towers. Here was a plug-in structure actually completed. But the Nakagin tower was not a precursor of plug-in cities; it was an isolated and idiosyncratic building. By 1972 the whole idea of the city as a megastructure was in decline almost everywhere."5

In spite of its problems, I admire Metabolism's disparate mix of Buddhism, nuclear physics, biological emergence and its corageous disdain of nostalgia.

Does Kurakawa's tower deserve a comeback? I hope for an affirmative reply.
*Taken from Metabolism: 1960: A Proposal for New Urbanism, by Kinoyori Kikutake, Masato Ohtaka, Fumihiko Maki, Kisho Kurokawa and Noboru Kawazoe.  2Kurokawa's tower consists of 144 units attached to two fixed nuclei. Its main principle of packing and repetition of industrially fabricated units has influenced more recent developments in architecture, such as deconstructionism, which tries to overcome traditional concepts of order and gravity.  3According to the architect, "each unit was to represent the personality of its occupant."  Its principles of packing and repetition of industrially pre-fabricated units inspired new technologies in the transport industry and spaceflight. More recent developments include the movement of Deconstructionism in architecture, seeking the redefinition traditional hierarchies such as order and gravity. 4 Coincidentally, in 1970, Michael Polanyi wrote his known essay, "Life's Irreducible Structure" for the Journal of American Scientific Affiliation: Higher level of complexity could not be explained in terms of the lower levels. Just as a wave can't be described in terms of water molecules, a human, with all of its intricate, integrated physical structures, thoughts and emotions cannot possibly be explained in terms of mere molecules, not even DNA. Life manifests emergent properties far beyond the sum of its molecules. Around the same time, linguist Noam Chomsky made similar observations in terms of human language capability. He wondered how biologists could explain the stunning complexity of language competence, a unique characteristic shared among all humans (and to a lesser extent shared with our primate relatives, and apparently some other vertebrates). 

5Jonathan Barnett's The Elusive City (Harper & Row, 1986).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Art as worldmaking

Colombian painter Fernando Botero desqualifies the results of his own prize!*

Botero, known for his paintings and sculptures of exaggerated forms, said that it had appointed an international jury which awarded "works that were regrettable."

The Latin American Herald Tribune has a different angle:

The Colombian Foundation of Young Artists said it found the statements by Botero, who was born in the northwestern city of Medellin in 1932, strange because he had expressed support for a contemporary art competition, an event that could yield works that were different from his tastes (my red).

This patent rift of taste between Botero and the jury of his own prize is yet another sign of the unbridgeable gap between "traditional" and contemporary art. Only now, the old oppositional dichotomy of representation vs. ideation, craft vs. serialization, durability vs. ephemerality, history vs. ahistoricity, bounded vs. open-ended, just doesn't work anymore.

Different statements with different vocabularies for different "versions" of the world. If we bring Nelson Goodman's idea of Worldmaking, as such:

... these versions as depictions ... have no truth-value in the literal sense, and cannot be combined by conjunction. The difference between juxtaposing and conjoining two statements has no evident analogue for two pictures or for a picture and a statement. The dramatically contrasting versions of the world can of course be relativized: each is right under a given system — for a given science, a given artist, or a given perceiver and situation. Here again we turn from describing or depicting 'the world' to talking of descriptions and depictions, but now without even the consolation of intertranslatability among or any evident organization of the several systems in question.

What does Botero's "version" (below),

has in common with  performer María José Arjona? Diet Gallery, Miami (2008)

or Doris Salcedo's installation for the Instanbul Biennal (2007)?

*Botero's prize of $50,000, which was given out between 2005-2008, was considered one of the richest in Latin America for artists younger than 35.

Friday, December 11, 2009

No conflict no interests

(Above Damien Hirst in his recent exhibition, Requiem, at the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev, Ukraine).

A new art prize to honor artists under 35. Oh, so Mr. Pinchuk "enlists" established names of artists he collects, such as Damien Hirst,  Murakami, Andreas Gursky and Jeff Koons* —to serve as "mentors" who will make themselves available to the finalists and the winner. Pinchuk's board? Star power: Eli Broad (who also runs an art foundation), Ms. Prada, the fashion designer and collector (who runs her own art foundation in Milan); and singer Elton John (coincidentally, Pinchuk Art Center has shown Mr. John's photo collection).

Why does it smell circuitously foul?
Is there a code of ethics for the art market? How about private collection shows? The curator who accepts artworks for including artists in exhibits, or the art patron's holdings being displayed in traveling shows and/or auctions in exchange for connections and political influence? Coincidentally, Pinchuk is son-in-low of Leonid Kuchma, the controversial ex-president of Ukraine. His wife, Elena Franchuk, is believed to have purchased the world's most expensive home in London.
*Á propos of conflict of interest: In March 2010, Koons will be guest curator of his own work at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan, showcasing the collection of Dakis Joannou, his most important buyer. By some negotiation behind doors, the famous artist gets to play the curator, simultaneously showing and "arranging" his own work at a museum. As Koons' foremost collector, Joannou vicariously becomes presenter -and presented!
More on conflict of interests:

The trustee's own acquisitions must not compete with his museum's; he is obligated to put the collecting ambitions of his institution before his own. The collections management policy should itemize in detail the collecting interests of the museum so that trustees who collect are put on notice that certain activities related to their personal collecting must be circumscribed while they serve on the board....

The ethical standards that the board adopts for managing potential conflicts of interest for trustees are, in some museums, the same as those applied to the staff. The rules for staff with respect to collecting generally aim to prevent situations in which staff members compete with the museum or profit from their positions or official duties....

The trustee who collects could be liable to the museum for profits he makes as a provable consequence of actions taken by the museum if his participation was a major influence in the institution's decision to take those actions. Such a case might occur, for example, if he persuaded the museum to hold an exhibition of objects represented in his personal collection and then was able to sell those objects at a profit. Whether his objects were exhibited or not, there is a conflict of interest and potential liability to the museum in this situation. (Taken from "Museum Trusteeship" by Alan and Patricia Ullberg, published in 1981 by the American Association of Museums).

Medeski, Martin And Wood: Uninvisible

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Art for living = living for art

Alfredo Triff

(Sarah Gavlak, in the photo above, has made an art gallery out of her apartment).
The New York Times article by Penelope Green mentions the word "saloniste," which harks back to the apogee of the late-Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Parisian salons. But as such, the bourgeois salon was not primarily a place to sell art, but to show it as conspicuous token of cultural status. Early and mid-Nineteenth Century salonistes bought and promoted art; not precisely the predicament of these Twenty-First Century gallerists.

So what? There is something remarkable about exhibiting art pour l'art consistency. Then, selling art becomes secondary to "living art"* -which clearly sells. Imagine these post-Capitalist autarchical denizens going about their normal private lives -sans the public. Suddenly, the means-to-end of picayune every-day life evaporates. The dichotomy between object and subject is erased: Art feels less abstract, more emplaced. Thus, I quote poet and saloniste Théophile Gautier, requiring, precisely that art be severely art-fashioned, as the NYTimes piece seems to suggest:

More fair the work, more strong
Stamped in resistance long,
Enamel, marble, song.
Poet, no shackles bear,
Yet bid thy Muse to wear
The buskin bound with care.
A fashion loose forsake,
A shoe of sloven make,
That any foot may take.

*Life begins to imitate art: Is it me the only one noticing a likeness between Ms. Gavlak and the women in Cristopher Milne's paintings in photos #2 and #3?

Oui, l'oeuvre sort plus belle
D'une forme au travail
Vers, marbre, onyx, émail.
Point de contraintes fausses!
Mais que pour marcher droit
Tu chausses,
Muse, un cothurne étroit.
Fi du rhythme commode,
Comme un soulier trop grand,
Du mode
Que tout pied quitte et prend!

Théophile Gautier, Émaux et camées (Paris: Bibliotheque-Charpentier, 1918), p. 223, and Enamels and Cameos and Other Poems, trans. Agnes Lee (The Complete Works, New York: Bigelow, Smith & Co., 1910), p. 180.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sodomy vs. Lesbianism

Update: ABC cancels Adam Lambert appearances

Alfredo Triff

Man-to-man kiss: CENSORED.


Woman-to-woman kiss: [OK].


"Sodomy" is taboo. "Lesbianism," on the other hand, is a male-coveted bourgeois perversion. There's a long history of patriarchal flirtation with sapphic themes in literature and art. Baudelaire's lesbian poems in Fleurs du Mal, Gautier Mademoiselle de Maupin, and Balzac The Girl with the Golden Eyes (amongst many others) use lesbian sexuality as a field in which to play out male confusion with prescribed roles for men and women. Through lesbian personae, late-Nineteenth Century men cross-over into the forbidden territory of feminine feeling and bodily sensations. No doubt, but there is a limit.

Eliseu Visconti's In Summertime (1891)

Tolouse Lautrec's The Kiss (1892)

Louis Corinth's Friends (1904)

Man's fin de siècle heterocentric representations of lesbian sexuality are surprisingly flat and one-dimensional. They privilege the stereotype of the "passive" lesbian, which poses little threat to patriarchal mastery of desire.* Yet, inevitably, man's playing on with lesbianism brings forth the possibility of softer, lenient man-to-man ideations.**

The system will not tolerate any subversion of patriarchal power.
*Lesbian pulp fiction in the 1950's was marketed to heterosexual men. **It may explain late-Victorian "effeminate" representations of homosexuality:

Simeon Salomon's Love Dreaming by the Sea (1871)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Goodbye, Dubai!

Don't miss Lauren Greenfield photo series documenting the "Dubai miracle" for the New York Times. This is no sinless Las Vegas. Not if we redefine "sin" as capitalist excess and waste. See the contrast between opulence and poverty, the vain failure of spectacle gone awry: Abandoned mansions, withered gardens, empty pools, unpaid foreign workers, unfinished buildings (the world's largest skyscraper, in the photo above, really stands amidst an empty, dusty, huge undeveloped lot). Conspicuous projects that didn't sell being demolished for new ones (who will buy them?). Rushed developments and poor infrastructure and planning, all for the sake of the appearance of power. Dubai Real Estate has fallen by 40%. How do you restructure $26 billion in debt? Buried in the sand. For now, buy time and ease the panic.

Dubai? The Miami of the desert.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Don Cherry: Swedish TV Documentary, 1978 (Part 1)

... the trumpeter Don Cherry would announce his arrival by playing so clear it broke through the traffic noise. The acoustics of Cooper Square augmented every
music: if it was warm weather when Archie Shepp's groups played, they'd open his studio windows and let the sound ricochet off the factories and repeat a millisecond later on the tenement wall on Fifth Street. The Five Spot was only a stone's throw away. Roi was always hanging out the window. The casual proximity to his life of his chosen frame of reference, the source of so many images, made him deeply happy.-- Amiri Baraka, "The Autobiography of Leroi Jones," (Freundlich, New York, 1984).

Friday, November 20, 2009

Miami's urban mess

 Alfredo Triff

By force of habit, we live in Miami accepting the degradation of its surroundings. Since urban changes take place slowly, we may not notice them because we move around the environment as part of our daily routines. One day, we realize that beauty is gone. Miami has become a weird mix of traffic-clogged highways, strip malls, cheap “pleasant villages,” parking-lot wastelands -with sparse green areas strewn in between- and plenty of sun with no shade. The construction is shoddy, the housing developments tedious, the architecture anti-functional. In spite of all the noise, few meaningful aesthetic standards are being set by private initiative or through city planning or zoning laws. As examples, take a look at three areas: Brickell Avenue, Liberty City, and the typical city-limit sprawl of suburbia.

Many people see Brickell as one of Miami's positive architectural achievements. Driving along I-95 south of downtown, one sees the collage of structures that have come to define Miami's cityscape. Most banks on Brickell are windowless glass boxes: Tall, austere, cold and inaccessible (in a way is the common image of every American city's downtown).

CONDO FEVER! (2005-2008)

How about design? These new condos are taller and sleeker. Some show a MIMO flavor with more thought-out asymmetry and better incorporation of parking vs. overall structure, but in terms of scale, they shadow the physical space around them (file under late-Capitalist "habitable area vs. profitable area" ratio).  Below, "50 Biscayne," a taller more utilitarian version of Enrique Gutierrez's 1963 Bacardi Building.

These structures can only be admired from a distance. Their main attraction consists of outside scenery. Walking around them is a dwarfing, alienating experience devoid of public amenities. Miami's "condo fever" was just a consequence of the bizarre organization of our lives by the forces of capital. A design where human interaction is hijacked by profit-maximization leading to social estrangement. This is the program: Daily-work-routine dispatches life from the office/box to the living/box with a box-on-wheels and the elevator in between. Then, human exchange is rare within these tall structures. You enter by car, park, go up the elevator and walk a narrow corridor to your apartment. People only coincide in the same common area momentarily, reluctantly. Given our "normal" social isolation, we prefer to avoid one another.

Overall, Brickell speaks of exile from the environment.1 These buildings look at the city from a superior, safe, and detached point of view. They represent a flamboyant separation in terms of income, lifestyle, and self-imposed isolation. Like old fortresses, they are gated, and can only be accessed by car; guards check visitors and strangers at each gate. Not too far away, in Liberty City, the poor remain poor and also isolated.

With the explosion of suburbia throughout America during the Sixties and Seventies, highway expansions decimated and dissected poor neighborhoods to the detriment of much needed cohesion to the city as a whole. With time awkward city ordinances and bad development practices only exacerbated segregation and depression in areas such as Liberty City. The high unemployment, pervasive crime, and poor tax base kept business away, and what went up in its place were ugly cheap establishments.2 Add to this the halfway houses and rehabilitation centers that continue to accumulate around these impoverished areas, and beauty all but disappeared. Middle-class America moved west of the city, creating the sprawl of a place such as Westchester. Most of these developments follow the quick-fix utilitarian model:

They're examples of mediocre construction: Poor design and horrible style reign. Many residents believe they're getting their money's worth, but the tradeoff is ominous. Far from city centers, with little greenery and unwalkable sidewalkless streets, developers keep adding ugly, stressful, car-polluting environments, devoid of any communal feeling.3

The sight has become familiar: monotonous twisting rows of single-family monotone units filled with plastic pipes, hollow walls, cheap moldings; some houses lack defined fronts and backs, but yes, they always have a front garage.

Breaking up the cookie-cutter housing, we get some respite in the form of shopping malls and multiplexes. This is not the old arcade of yesteryear, with an embedded network of familiar retailers and a variety of heterogeneous neighborhood shops. Rather, these big structures of no architectural importance, exhibiting ostentatious parking lots, a waste of asphalt and space. Their sole purpose is to house parallel rows of stores.

Sure, shopping malls try hard to entertain us, offering all the amenities possible so we don't feel as though we're there to spend our money.  No matter how hard they try, it's obvious most of our malls are still spaces filled with plenty of goods and food courts with bad food, but not really filling in the void of a real city center or town square, which offers more than merchandise. Which brings me to another fixture of our environment: the car, that old American emblem of modernity now turned into a paradigm of noise and pollution. As we rely on more and bigger gas-guzzling vehicles, we continue to try to solve traffic problems by building additional highways.

But in the end, new roads designed to decongest traffic only lead to more development, more suburban sprawl, and thus, more traffic. Rather than navigating pristine preserves, most of our beloved SUVs barrel down the same traffic-choked highways, past the same swaths of commercial blight and architectural dread, through the same gated communities, tacky golf-villas, and dull single-family outgrowths that the majority of Americans call home. Where are the parks, fountains, and boulevards we revere when we travel overseas?

A beautiful city needs beautiful designs that incorporate and play off the natural environment specific to the location -in our case the water and waterfront properties, the flora and fauna of the subtropics, the natural bright light, among many other assets. But creating more beautiful environments may require us to forego some pleasures we take for granted. Could we restrict the use and speed of vehicles and encourage public transportation? Will we stop segregating the poor and work to create safer, more integrated neighborhoods? Could we build streets that are interesting, accessible, and encourage community interaction? To achieve these goals, we may need to better comprehend how to reach them. If the goal is to have an attractive, functional city, the public must first understand what basic city planning and zoning means and then make sure our planners stick to them. More roads may simply mean more sprawl, the goal of alleviating traffic may not involve much construction at all. Simplicity, elegance, cohesion, and even functionality are related to beauty. But this beauty must be what we are about and not what we simply copy from inefficient models.
1Many of these buildings' tenants have bought properties here, escaping Latin America's political turmoil. 2The introduction of interstate highways gave the middle class in the market for new homes a subsidized means to get away from the red-lined ghettos of the inner cities and beyond the reach of mass transit, and out into the rural hinterlands where land was available for the FHA to insure mortgages on new single-family homes. But they also did much more. The highways hastened the decline of the inner cities not only because of this escape valve but also because of the physical nature of the highways themselves, given the way they sliced through neighborhoods, turning them into dusty, congested no-man's lands during their construction (David Willens, The Interstate Highway System and the Disfiguring of America, A Tale of Two Kinds of Cities: Part 5). In large cities in the United States, governments own as much as 45% of the developed land area and allocate most of these public lands for use as streets and highways. In a society that not only accepts, but exalts, private property in land, why does one observe so much open-access land?  3 Some studies show that High-growth areas nearly always translate into higher property taxes. One study in Dane County, Wisconsin, where the tax burden is among the highest in the United States, showed that while the county’s population grew 12 percent from 1990 to 1996, total property taxes soared 3.57 times faster than the population. Part of the reason is that developers rarely pay the long-term costs of building communities.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


A snowy bird in the snowfield
Where winter grass is unseen
Hides itself in its own figure.

Verse: Dogen Zenji (Japan, 13th Century)
Images: Lucio Fontana (Italy, 20th Century)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pamela Anderson Redux

Above, artist Marilyn Minter's Unarmed, 40x60", (enamel on metal, 2007). It belongs to a series of Pamela Anderson portraits at Regen Projects II. Check out Minter's Tanline (2009), showing a detail of Anderson's see-through pink-laced bra and her barb-wire arm-tattoo, amidst bursts of glitter and colorful bubbles. Minter vulns the right buttons: Soft pink, delicate embroider, plump flesh, quiet sensuality, symbolic saturation. One feels put-upon and yet wishing more, and that's Minter's success.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A thought on the Deleuzian link of "art," "territory" and "rhtyhm"

Alfredo Triff

In their essay "Of the Refrain" (A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Minnesota Press, 1987), Deleuze and Guatari propose a novel way of looking at the phenomenon of art. It has to do with the idea of territory.

The critical distance between two beings of the same species: Mark your distance. (ATP, 319).

The fight above has milieu and rhythm. Its function (the mapping of its constituent parts) presupposes the expressiveness of its territory. Milieu brings forth the very phenomenon of how life expresses itself. Surely, the event is not self-conscious. A Deleuzian question: Can this emergence be called art? As we know, art is connected to representation, but not necessarily the idea of "presenting again."

Against "traditional representation," Deleuze suggests a one-to-many/many-to-many relationship that changes the dynamics of representation:

Rhizomatics! An a-centered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a general and without an organizing memory or central automaton, defined solely by a circulation of states.

 What is at question in the rhizome is a relation to sexuality —but also to the animal, the vegetal, the world, politics, the book, things natural and artificial—that is totally different from the arborescent relation: all manner of "becomings." (ATP, 21). That is why,

The artist is the first person to set out a boundary stone, or to make a mark. (ATP, 314).

Artist? Animal? How?

Not in the sense that these qualities belong to a subject, but in the case that they delineate a territory that will belong to the subject that carries or produces them. These qualities are signatures, but the signature, the proper name is not the mark of the subject but the constituting mark of the domain. (ATP, 311).

What's art anyway? 

Art is a false concept ... solely nominal. (ATP, 301)

"False" is the fallacy of defining something for which we already have an example to begin with. That's the problem of defining art a priori.1 Deleuze favors the empirical approach of the anthropologist to that of the essentialist philosopher. We can know of art-objects because of the organization, difference and internal coherence of purpose they exhibit. Instead of "defining" let's talk about how art is exemplified:2

Deleuze is explicit about not falling for the essentialist trap. Art shows itself in its expressive qualities, not by "belonging to the subject," but because it brings forth a territory. The mark in the cave-wall above is not that of a subject, but the abode itself. "The signature is not the indication of a person, but the chancy formation of a domain."

As it's to be expected, art [as territory] presupposes de-territorialisation, which is why the latter becomes essential to the stratification of human life: From undifferentiated magic, to tradition, to religious symbol, to l'art pour l'art institution, to post-Capitalist art as spectacle. Meanwhile, artists "produce fragments without totality, cut-up particles." Deleuzian art presupposes a constant fragmentary interaction between particular instances (say, Duchamp's "ready mades") and fields (the Avant-garde).4

What defines a territory is the emergence of different matters of expression. (ATP, 315)

Of course, art's "territories" have multiplied. Art [styles] grow out of particular social and aesthetic contexts. As they mutate, they grow in complexity. At times, it becomes difficult to read these stylistic differences, because they are context-bound.

What holds the totality? Rhythm: The possibility of transforming/perverting life.5

"Rhythm enables one to set general level, pleasure, pain, recognition and misrecognition ... as cycles in the nervous system and the psyche, cycles which must form and dissolve territories in response to other territorial actions." 6

Deleuzian art is a becoming of life in response to the world. (To be continued)
1Perception itself is not representation, it's more a form of interactive production between an object and subject. 2 As much as Deleuze disliked Wittgenstein, there is a similarity between his rhizomatic approach and Wittgenstein's "open ended" idea of Familienähnlichkeit (family resemblances). Reading Deleuze with Wittgenstein's glasses: Instead of defining art from the outset let's keep expanding the understanding of these resemblances between "milieus" and "territories." Deleuze opts for an empirical approach beyond the subjective/objective opposition which is justified by his Spinozist view of immanence. For Spinoza, there is no transcendent principle or external cause to things. The process of life production is contained in life itself. Thus, Deleuzian "immanence" does not apply to any specific lives to a life, conceived as the "immanence of immanence." See Giovanna Borradori (The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 56, 2003). Deleuze once said: "Spinoza is for me the 'prince' of philosophers." (Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, New York, Zone, 1990).
4 Duchamp's mark: Between "original" and "ready made."


5 This is not the place to address Rhythmanalysis, an idea elaborated by Henri Lefebvre, from Brazilian philosopher Lucio Alberto Pinheiro. According to Kurt Meyer, there are five elements worth considering in Lefebvre's rhythm theory: 1- Contemporary life ruled by abstract time (the hands of the clock), 2- Isorhythm and the importance of the eurhythmic, 3- Chronobiology as catalyst leisure and work, 4-Music and dance and, 5- the post-Capitalist manipulation of time. See Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre (Routledge, New York, 2008). 6Gay Genosko, Deleuze and Guatari: Critical Assessment of Leading Philosophers (p. 256, Routledge, 2001).