Low End Theories

 The latest issue of The Wire has an excellent section on bass in contemporary music and theory, which includes two pieces from me, one on UK soundsystem Aba-Shanti and their heavy vibrations, the other on the deepest bass sound in the universe, emitted from a black hole.  I also suggested a piece on the humming sounds of Putumayo shamanism, as described by my friend and teacher Michael Taussig, and the following piece about plumbing sonic mental depths, as described by another teacher of mine, Sri Karunamayee:

“In an interview conducted in Delhi in 2001, the Indian singer and philosopher Karunamayee, a long term student of Hindustani raga singer Pandit Pran Nath, teacher of La Monte Young, Terry Riley and many others, explained to me how she first learnt to sing: “At the age of six, good teachers were coming and teaching my brother and sister.  But I was very small and it was not considered necessary for me.  But I had a gift.  Whenever I heard some music it just became ingrained in me.  My consciousness of silence kept my slate very clean.  Most of the time I enjoyed the silence, even when everyone was talking, I felt a kind of echo of the silence, as if I was in a tunnel, untouched by any of it.   Whatever I heard was imprinted, and I found myself singing in that way.  Nobody cared.  I would just put my head down and start going sa-re-ga-ma.  Sometimes I would hear my sound very clearly.  I would think: it may be that my sound is not heard, but I can think of music!  And holding that thread, not of the sound that I’m making, but of the concept of sound, with that I would go up the scales for many octaves.  And then I would say, alright, let me come down, keeping the thread, and I would find my voice becoming audible, very clear, and then deep, and then less clear, more unheard, but I could go deep also.  This was my favorite exercise.  I would go higher and higher like the birds at noontime in the sky.  Then I would imagine that somebody is taking water out of a well. You can go as deep as you want.  There is no limit on either side, up or down.  So I experienced infinity in height and depth through sound and silence. It gives you control over your mind. A thread of sound. “

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Sound Workshop at Cornell, Friday April 20th!

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2011 Annual Report on Drugs and Creativity

Jeremy Shaw, Unseen Potentials (2011).

Creative Capital/The Warhol Foundation just posted the audio of my keynote talk at the their Arts Writers convening in Philadelphia last August.  They asked me to speak about drugs and creativity, and this gave me an opportunity to revisit the work I’d done on drugs and the arts in my book The Roads of Excess: A History of Writers and Drugs in the early 2000s.

As you can hear on the audio recording, mostly my argument was that the heroic age of literary and artistic experimentation with drugs is over, even if many of the questions provoked by the existence of psychoactive substances remain unanswered.  You can see it in Vancouver based artist Jeremy Shaw’s fascinating installation piece, DMT from 2004, where the gap between the noumenal quality of the experience and the banality of the images of those perhaps under the influence or their narratives is a vast one.  Whatever the quality of the experience, it is basically unrepresentable, and thus beyond the sphere of art.  Contrast this if you like with someone like Henri Michaux’s attempts in the 1950s and 1960s to write and draw under the influence of mescaline.

In place of this kind of art, the most interesting drug cultural artefacts have been TV shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire and Weeds.  But there’s little attempt to represent drug experiences in those shows, and all the excitement and drama comes from the fact that drugs are an economic and legal proposition.  It’s almost as though people now get high on business or the law, the way they used to on drugs.  I find that an amazing and troubling proposition.  In the talk, I looked at some of Ryan Trecartin’s recent video pieces, which are strikingly psychedelic, but whose psychedelia mimics and amplifies the self-distorting fx of corporate training videos and reality TV, and is without reference to drugs.

Talk of drugs and economy brought me back to research I’m currently doing on William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s collage manual, The Third Mind, and Burroughs’ still unassimilated argument that the broader lesson of drug addiction is that we almost always build our reality pictures based on what he calls “the algebra of need”.  And that need can be and is manufactured — this corresponding to what Zizek and others today call ideology.

For me this opens up an interesting way of thinking about the contemporary impasse of the arts, whether writing or visual arts or for that matter music.  If the presentation of reality itself happens mostly through the manufacture and manipulation of need, what can art be, other than one more form of participation in the manufacture of our need for certain kinds of reality picture?  Is it a question of distinguishing between false needs and real ones? Or do “real needs” become the primary site of ideological capture … i.e. the thing that you submit to believing.  Conversely, would an art that refused any discourse of need have any meaning or function whatsoever? Do we need to have needs, even beyond the biological imperatives that seem so fundamental?  David Levi-Strauss asked me: why “need” and not “desire”?  It was a really good question … maybe this is a very 2012 answer but it seems very difficult to think about desire today without also thinking about what limits or structures desire.  It unsettles me to think about need and I think that’s a good thing.

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Postcolonial Piracy Conference, Berlin, Dec. 2 – 4, 2011

I’ll be giving a paper at a very interesting looking conference on postcolonial piracy, hosted by the University of Potsdam in Berlin, this coming weekend.  My paper is on depropriation, and looks at a variety of examples of depropriation including ayahuasca shamanism in Colombia, mp3 piracy in the Sahel and the Occupy movements.  The conference is connected to the Worldtronics music festival, which will focus on Ghana and Colombia, and we are promised hiplife concerts curated by Awesome Tapes from Africa’s Brian Shimkovitz. Sounds great.

I imagine that there will be plenty of discussion of the fascinating new book/report Media Piracy in Emerging Economies, definitely the most in depth look at this topic that I’ve seen.  You can download a copy here.  The report makes the sensible observation that most of what is called piracy in emerging countries has to do with prohibitively high pricing of media by corporate producers, in a situation where there are cheap and available technologies for the production of copies of media items.  Aggressive law enforcement, according to the report, has little effect on the black/gray market economies that flourish in this void.  Appropriately low pricing does however allow for possible integration of such markets.

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Collateral Damage

The Wire has been running an interesting series of columns called Collateral Damage in recent months — mostly in response to a provocative piece written by Kenneth Goldsmith celebrating the apparent triumph of quantity over quality in downloading cultures of the musical variety.  My own response to the issue is published in the latest issue of the magazine — you can read the column here.

The most important points I wanted to make in the column are: that copying in music didn’t begin with Napster, it’s essential to any musical culture or practice; that there’s something utopian about the current situation in which anyone with a computer has access to almost any sound recording made; that the resulting erosion of revenues from the sales of musical recordings isn’t in itself a valid reason to insist on more stringent intellectual property laws, which might in theory reduce the amount of copying of music, even if they (debatably) support indie music scenes.  Music scenes, indie or not are part of a broader economy and an economic crisis that affects most workers today. Music and sound are part of a global commons — they belong, or should belong, to everyone, and the challenge is to ensure that our economy and political systems support that commons.

Last paragraph: “One of the most intriguing compilations I’ve heard recently is called Music From Saharan Cellphones. It’s a collection of tracks discovered by Oregon based Christopher Kirkley while travelling in the Sahara, where nomads and urban youth now exchange music using Bluetooth and the memory cards on their cellphones. First available as a limited edition cassette, then ripped as downloadable MP3s, Kirkley is now using the micro-investment website Kickstarter to try to fund a vinyl release that also identifies and pays some of the artists involved. It’s a remarkable recording for many reasons, exposing us to new styles of music (Auto-Tuned desert blues, West African hiphop, tranced-out digital reggae and much more), and to the way people elsewhere in the world listen and distribute music. Is anything really resolved by declaring such exchanges unauthorised? That neither the Oregon hipster nor the Bedouin biker in Timbuktu pay artists for their work? That these tracks are distributed through computer and digital networks rather than physical sites across the city? That the recording quality is sometimes poor, and we can’t name the artists or songs, or work out whether the musicians, Bluetooth recording vendors or even Kirkley, with his microfinancing scheme, are all in it for the money? Sound itself remains indifferent to such questions. Something opens up here, a way of inhabiting the world together, a counter-globalisation, and that’s something we need to hear.”

UPDATE: Kirkley has written a beautiful piece on his blog Sahel Sounds describing the details of a Saharan mp3 market.

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Catherine Christer Hennix Update

Photo by Laura Gianetti.

I wrote a profile of minimalist composer, philosopher and blues musician Catherine Christer Hennix for The Wire last year to coincide with the release of her masterwork from the 1970s, The Electric Harpsichord.  Hennix lives in Berlin these days, and has a band called  The Chora(s)san Time-Court Mirage which played a series of shows this summer at the Grimmuseum.  The band features the amazing Amelia Cuni, to my mind the foremost practitioner of Hindustani classical vocal music outside of the south Asian diaspora, and a master of the most austere of classical vocal styles, dhrupad.  You can hear a twenty minute recording of Hennix et al on Soundcloud — the first time that anyone not living in Berlin has had a chance to hear these guys.  The most obvious comparison of course is the Theater of Eternal Music, especially in later days when La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela were using sine waves, and were joined by folks like Jon Hassell. But Cuni doesn’t “just” sustain a drone tone, she moves between notes in the style of an alap singer. And there’s something about the way the sound pulsates, in a way that’s almost monstrous, that’s peculiar to Hennix.  At times you can’t tell whether the sound is happening externally or actually inside your skull.  The sound seems to surge, but the surge is, well, mathematical, not in the sense of something cold or formal, but in the sense of an iteration that extends to infinity … you can somehow feel or maybe hear the matrix of tones beyond what’s actually audible.

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Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith in Bomb magazine


I have an in depth interview with conceptual poet and UbuWeb founder Kenneth Goldsmith in the latest issue of Bomb magazine. You can listen to audio from it and read an excerpt here.   Here’s the intro to the piece for those who are curious: “”Kenneth Goldsmith is a trickster for sure, not just because his work takes place on the crossroads between legal and illegal, between digital and real life, between word and image, but because he’s a man who wears a lot of hats, metaphorical and otherwise. He’s the founder of UbuWeb, the largest archive of avant-garde art on the Internet, and an incredibly rich and dense resource for anyone interested in the history of experimental writing, music, film, and visual arts. He was a radio DJ on WFMU for many years, producing a prank-heavy show of experimental horseplay called Unpopular Music. He’s a professor of creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses on what he calls “uncreative writing.” He’s a visual, sound, and text-based artist and poet, author of a number of remarkable books, including No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 (1997), Day (2003), the radio-appropriation trilogy The Weather/Traffic/Sports (2005–08), and is currently working on a history of New York in the 20th century built around Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. His new book, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, sets out much of the thinking behind these projects and proposes a manifesto for writing in the 21st century, while the recent collection Against Expression, co-edited with poetics scholar Craig Dworkin, brings together key literary texts that enact what Dworkin and Goldsmith call conceptual writing—writing built around specific processes of experimentation (i.e., concepts) rather than the demand for self-expression.

Interviewing Goldsmith is a slightly unnerving affair, even for someone such as myself, who’s known him for many years. Goldsmith has brought many of the techniques of appropriation-based visual art to literature, and then multiplied the power of these techniques again through his provocative use of digital technologies and the Internet. The result is that anyone speaking to Goldsmith knows that anything said to him might be appropriated, transformed into a text of some kind, and made part of one of Goldsmith’s strange and beautiful textual mirrors. I met Goldsmith in the West 20s Manhattan loft he shares with his wife, visual artist Cheryl Donegan, and sons, Finnegan and Cassius. The loft’s walls are covered with books, CDs, and vinyl—relics of the predigital age. The main apartment window, which used to offer a view of the wonderful Chelsea Flea Market, where Goldsmith acquired many of his treasures, now looks onto a vast apartment building. We talked for an hour before lunch. My recording device died halfway through the interview. Goldsmith’s didn’t. A small detail, but important, especially today, because as William S. Burroughs said, and Goldsmith understands very well, there’s “nothing here but the recordings.””

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Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage and Copyright Law

I have an essay in a new book from Duke UP, Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage and Copyright Law, edited by intellectual property theorist and prankster Kembrew McLeod and dada scholar Rudi Kuenzli.  The essay, “Digital Mana: On the Infinite Proliferation of Mutant Copies in Contemporary Culture” is a pretty freewheeling spin through the work of Philip K. Dick and the late great graffiti sage Rammellzee, amongst others … taking the position that countercultures in the late twentieth century are very much concerned with the concept of infinity and how human beings can access it through various practices and counter-mathematics.  I apply some of Alain Badiou’s work on the politics of how we think about infinity to some examples that probably Badiou would not be interested in … but generally, I think Badiou is right that our ability to imagine and enact social transformation is related to our understanding of number, and that which is beyond number.  “Version like rain!”   Generally speaking, it’s a great collection, with work by Siva Vaidhyanathan, Joshua Clover, Douglas Kahn, Craig Baldwin, Jeff Chang, Jonathan Lethem and many others ….

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On the Copies in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy

A number of people have asked me what I thought of Abbas Kiarostami’s new film Certified Copy, which is about an English writer, James Miller, who’s just published a book arguing that the distinction between original and copy is meaningless, and his meeting with a charming art dealer, identified only as “Elle”, who may or may not be his wife, in Tuscany during a book tour.  The movie is set up so didactically – it more or less begins with a ten minute lecture setting out the thesis of the writer’s book – that one is forced to assume that what follows – a more or less standard European art movie scene of romantic hijinx played out in a picturesque location – is also about copying.  I felt fairly indifferent to the movie while watching it, but it’s growing on me as I think about it.  I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing.

If the movie is indeed a copy of a generic European art house movie narrative, then it’s such a correct copy that it’s hard to see where the intervention, or the creativity in the act of making the copy is.  True, Duchamp’s “Fontaine” is also just another urinal, but it achieved it’s power through the shock of being relocated from the bathroom to the art  gallery.  But isn’t this kind of film and role exactly what we expect of Juliet Binoche (playing “Elle”), if not Kiarostami himself?

Perhaps something is lost in translation.   Certainly the film abounds with translation problems: the shifts from English to Italian to French; between lovers and genders; between generations; between those with traditional commitments and those who believe themselves without them.  In every case, something like a copy appears when there’s an expectation as to how things are supposed to be, an expectation which is let down.  Which incidentally describes prevalent critical reaction to the film.

Is anything gained in translation too?  An “Iranian” director making a “European” art house film?  Certainly it’d be worth looking at the way in which non European film-makers are invited to participate in art house cinema only through adopting and reiterating certain kinds of cinematic discourse. But that’s old news at this point, isn’t it? A dysfunctional couple forced to roleplay traditional gender and marital parts in order to revive their relationship? Ditto.  Perhaps translation is the wrong word for what’s happening.

Most reviewers of the film feel compelled to make a decision about who the two main characters in the film are, while the film itself goes to great lengths to resist this.  In fact, the weakness of the film, if it is one, consists in the apparently artificial lengths that Kiarostami is compelled to go to in order to maintain the ambiguity about whether or not Elle and Miller are a long time married couple now meeting up again and acting as if they don’t know each other, or a couple meeting for the first time who find themselves playing the roles of people in a long term relationship.  In other words, a drama of original and copy.

Is the point then that the same claim that Miller makes in his book turns out to be true in real life, that the distinction between original and copy is not so important and that sometimes the copy may be more relevant or powerful than the original?  Just in terms of the narrative arc of the movie this doesn’t sound entirely right.  The movie ends with Elle remembering a moment of happiness and satisfaction on her wedding night, while Miller looks at himself in the bathroom mirror and has a moment presumably of self recognition, marked by the somewhat crude device of the church bells outside ringing.  Is the point then conversely that behind the superficial play of original and copy there is the mark of an original trauma which somehow is revealed by the tracking and repeating of symptoms, which are in a sense copies that disavow the original that is in fact their source.  That would explain the unpleasantly uptight and reactive character of Miller, and equally clueless sentimentality of Elle.

But that also sounds too crude.  After all, there’s no clear explanation or resolution given at the end of the movie.  Even the mirror that one assumes Miller is looking into is not actually seen on screen.  It’s a camera that the actor faces onto, imitating the expression he might have in front of a mirror.  A camera is not exactly a mirror.  So the movie floats in a strange way towards recent films such as Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York, or Lars von Trier’s Dogville, where the scaffolding of the film set is itself visible and constitutive of what goes on in the film.  Kiarostami goes a step further than Kaufman or von Trier by exposing the “Real” of the Tuscan town in the movie as a kind of mimetic installation as much as the warehouses and stages of those other films.  The point is driven home by the presentation of the Tuscan towns as tourist destinations, frozen in some image of their own past and cultural heritage, yet still full of people finally just trying to live their lives.

What is disturbing or confusing or even disappointing in the film is the lack of clear directions as to what we are to do with this mimetic impasse.  Is it an invitation to the unleashing of drives as in von Trier’s movies? Or to the multiple personalities or aphasiacs that populate Kaufman’s films?  Perhaps there’s a simpler response: that one of the core principles animating mimetic phenomena is erotic.  Put crudely, the film tracks an amorous encounter through various stages of deflection and displacement to the very moment where the two lovers are finally in a hotel room, about to make love.  Or not.  In other words, copying in the movie is mostly an expression of erotic ambivalence.  The young couples who are getting married in the church are disavowed by Miller because of their supposed naivete about what the future actually holds in store for them, but what’s provocative mimetically of course is that the religious and state rituals around marriage structure the obscenity of sexual reproduction.  The couples are not so much naïve as committed to the mimetic rites that they are going through.  Miller is incapable of this commitment.  As my colleague Ian Carr-Harris said to me in a recent discussion, he’s “afraid of originals”!  And therefore obfuscates the difference between original and copy in his work.

Am I guilty of the same kind of obfuscation?  For me, an original is a kind of copy, since there is no original without an act of labeling or designation that says “this is an original” (at the same time obscuring the processes of imitation and appropriation that make up an object).  But both originals and copies can expose one to the nonconceptual Real, and it’s this exposure to the Real that we are afraid of.  Certified Copy is a film about this fear, about the ways in which cinema can or can’t address it, and in particular about the way Kiarostami thinks it can be addressed, in 2011, in a film funded by European backers.

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A Few More Reviews of In Praise of Copying

A busy time of the year for me, but I have a backlog of posts re. copying that I’m working on. In the meantime, here are few interesting recent reviews of In Praise of Copying.  First off Amy Ione in Leonardo Digital.  Then David Banash in Postmodern Culture.  Finally Mark Fisher in The Wire.  All well worth a look …

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