26 January, 2009

Ars non Quanta

With the small exception of the host's denasal sine-wave of a voice, This American Life is among my favorite Public Radio (the last remaining radio) programs. If you're a regular listener you may recently have heard tales from people who attempt to quantify non-rational experiences, expressions and events. Among the many fascinating segments was one, "Paint by Numbers" about a group of artists who sought over the course of many years to determine by polling what it is that people are looking for in their experience of art. The authors chose to limit their inquiry to painting and music.

Immediately I noticed that, with respect to art and art-making, the premise was possibly faulty. Do people precondition their desires for aesthetic experiences? Is it possible to desire a specific aesthetic experience? The artists, with the help of confederates the world over, apparently polled thousands of ordinary individuals in dozens of countries. Regarding paintings, nearly every person polled had an opinion, and within a very early sample certain constants of preference began to emerge. For example, across the board blue is a favored color, landscapes a favored subject (hills on the left, trees on the right), a body of water, and perhaps a political figure (?) somewhere in the mix. With their data the working group then set out to produce a few variations on statistically determinate art.

Every one of the pieces was not only a disappointment to the artists, but when presented in public drew uniform approbation from viewers. The variations were specific to place of presentation (e.g., the political figure in the piece produced for American audiences was George Washington, as uncontroversial a figure to the average American as could be imagined). Upon reading further into the backstory I learned that people in the US were marginally more gratified by other, less familiar, variants - say, Dutch themes - than they were by idioms and places they recognized.

The musical experiment I found even more intriguing (being married, as I am, to a musician). Following the same sampling method the artists polled thousands of people worldwide and came up with instrumentation, styles, voicings, themes and other elements of composition that were then compiled into a series of musical pieces. Most popular was the standard rock / blues combo of guitar, bass, drums, synth and low, slightly gravelly voice (male or female), regular dynamic variation, natural keys, and dramatic climaxes in themes of love and longing. Predictably, least favored among all the possibilities were opera voicings, cowboy music, children's choirs, bagpipe, accordion, death themes, augmented chord structures, flat keys, and so forth.

Of the songs composed according to the success formulation every single one sounded like it had been extruded from a plaque of corn syrup. As with mortgage derivatives and credit swaps, the initial raw goods had been so sliced and diced that the resulting product, designed as it had been to mitigate "risk" and presumably afford a pleasing return ended up having no value whatsoever.

The pleasant surprise came when the composer and his musicians began tinkering with instruments, voicings and themes that respondents had labeled as least favored. You'll have to listen for yourself to hear what they came up with.

Their one effort to assemble all the despised elements (e.g., a lyric soprano singing about life on the range backed by bagpipes and a chorus of urchins) resulted in something that at least the artists found interesting and a significant cross-section of random listeners actually liked.

If you've read this journal for any length of time, you likely already know how I'm going to read this phenomenon: Mostly unsurprising, maybe unimportant, but nonetheless affirming. I was glad to hear it reported in a popular format in any case, for the media outlets that do not follow the numerically predetermined path to capture for themselves and their advertisers the largest quantifiable audience slice possible are few.

The artists being interviewed rightly observe that numbers are entirely ecumenical - they not only do not lie, they cannot. Given a large enough sample, what people say they like in the way of aesthetic experience should, therefore, hold up to testing. After all, if Coca Cola can boost sales of a soft drink by fiddling with its sugar content based on sampling and testing, why should they same method not hold true in application to the several senses?

Numbers can, however, be misapplied. While it's obviously possible to quantify what people have liked aesthetically, what they will like in the next instance is the interesting question underlying our artists' inquiry, and where I think they got their premise wrong. However faulty the premises, in this case I still think the question was the right one, for in a somewhat oblique manner they addressed what may be close to the core of a modern aesthetic malaise, the one every sentient being understands in their bones. In attempting to quantify aesthetic pleasure, to dragoon that most ineffable of human experiences into a business model, we have produced the environmental equivalent of the focus group-derived art above. The proposition is both neatly and grossly endorsed by a visit to your nearest strip mall or government building, or by a listen to any Top 40 playlist (syndicated for decades to local transmitters by centralized industrial operations, such as Clear Channel Communications - a representative of the "music industry". Now there's an oxymoron).

Paradoxically, we yearn most for what we can never know we want. Ask people what they want and they're all too happy to tell you. Net result: HumVees and Zima, McNuggets and boy bands. Ask people what they yearn for and they're likely to describe something they resolutely do not expect. What people seem to find most gratifying is likely to arrive utterly unexpected and in a form they could not have anticipated, laid at right angles to what they thought they knew, such that it prompts a reassessing of assumptions, however slight. Of profound aesthetic experience people allow that they were displaced by it, and that maybe it even included bagpipes and cowboys.

If I may be said to have any religion at all my default is science. Science is, at bottom, an expression of faith in certain codes, however granular and reduced. At the core of the method is mystery, as honest prelates in the assorted -ologies readily confess. I do not have any faith in art, for no faith is required. Unlike conventional notions of spiritual revelation, the revelations of art are practically a commonplace, available 24/7 to the feeling person. The barren calculus of capitalism and production, with its maximizing of yields and scientific reproducibility of results, despises real art and, as we see above, is incapable of producing it.

20 January, 2009

Angelic Bitchslap

I write a lot here about the spiritual and practical effects of embracing uncertainty, doubt, displacement and, ultimately, change. I like to think that often enough I remember to link my ruminations through the ungentle art of bondage and its related practices. This one is going to be a stretch.

I look out my living room window as I write this entry and see a decrepit oil tanker loudly blurting diesel fumes into the air as it delivers another 40,000 gallons of soon-to-be greenhouse gases into the bunker beneath my building in Brooklyn. It will lumber around the corner onto the main commercial drag in my neighborhood and crumble a few more centimeters of salt-crusted tarmac from the hundreds of potholes it hits as it coughs its way back to the oil terminal along Gowanus Canal.

However it arrives, the day is coming when this little transaction will cease. Even so, with the snow on the ground and the wind chill approaching zero, I'm glad for a warm apartment and that the toddler running around over my head can at least do so in stocking feet. As I watch the delivery conclude, the hose is coiled back to its ready position and a few obsidian drops mark the snow and the event... and the need. The truck lurches away in crescendo of ground gears and a cloud of blue smoke.

Made of fungible stuff, these carbon traces - the oil on the snow, the blue fumes - may come from Saudi Arabia, from the North Sea, from Texas, from Venezuela or from any several of the thousands of corners of earth being ruined by the habit of consumption, war and resistance to change.

Today, around noon, we will watch as our last, desperate, generations-long bitchiness about progress sings its nunc dimittis, having delivered fully on the pestilential promise of its creed. The revelation of our folly was so sudden and catastrophic, in our freshly home-made straits we have already begun to sigh with relief at the mere promise of remedy, of a shift. The long captivity to which we consented began in a spasm of self-loathing following the banishing of institutional prejudice with the triumph of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and was tempered by the schism of Vietnam. We have been having something like Robert Frost's "lover's quarrel" ever since.

No one ever tells you that the "better angels" of which Lincoln and now Barack Obama have spoken so eloquently can reveal to a culture and a people just how hateful and venal they have been. In the venal acts of 9/11/01 we had an opportunity to heed the angels' call - the manner of our better angels is not necessarily kind, but it encourages us to be more so, and their point is that we not make war upon ourselves. That devastatingly obvious opportunity was squandered and the acid bath of the last eight years was, in a way, just the last swing of the pendulum before it finally lost its moorings. We totally ran the clock down, broke it, maybe because it needed breaking, but also maybe because our collective soul needed just this much uncoiling, just this much and nothing less.

The utter loss of institutional and personal certainty, of anything like "homeland security," and the certainty of the change that will ensue is the same opportunity, only more obvious, less dispensable. It still boggles my mind that we dispensed the call of 9/11 with comic bromides like shopping is patriotic, but if, in the the end, we were engineering a shovel-ready shit-storm such as we're now experiencing, all for the sake of a fresh appreciation of the excellence of our Constitutional principles, then leveraging pliant national moods during national tragedies is just one abuse among a multitude we consented to.

Today we close the old book, the book of reaction and victimization, right to left and left to right, and we step up upon its terrible lessons to our prosperity and our posterity, to look homeward to where we grew up before, and to where we are to grow up yet again. It's the way we do it here.

Congratulations to Barack Obama and to our United States.

12 January, 2009

Meeting With BS, Part 5

Props go to M. Yu at The Jade Gate for breaking the news of Barbara Bell and Anna Lorentzon's documentary on the Insex phenomenon, Graphic Sexual Horror.

In previous postings on this subject I have been circumspect regarding Barbara's identity and especially that of Insex's resident mad creative, pd, or Brent Scott (BS). With the release of GSH I can relax. Better still, I can share more openly.

When I returned to NYC after sojourning here and there I fell upon the notes I'd made about meeting Brent and my impressions of his peculiar genius, much of which comprise my extant ramblings here on the subject. In them were particulars on the TransHudson Gallery and its proprietor in 1995, whom I don't believe is mentioned in the GSH film, and is certainly not (yet) on the GSH website, so I'll refer to him simply as J. A little filtering in Google netted me a small number of contacts to dial up.

On the second try I landed the very person I'd been seeking, who in reply was polite and quite clear that he had been the one to book Brent at the gallery. He remembered the show as short-lived but utterly fascinating and almost certainly doomed to failure owing to the bombast of its artistic intent and the expense of mounting it. He noted to me several pieces of memorabilia in his possession, and would be happy to show any and all.

We met shortly thereafter and I spent a very pleasant afternoon comparing notes and discovering a fellow patron of the arts, one whose constitutional inclinations diverged sharply from the Brent Scott vision, but who nonetheless recognized profound talent when it landed in front of him. J. spent a ramshackle career from the 70s to the 90s as an impressario, bon vivant and, from the looks of his home decor, a groovy dresser.

I came away from that meeting with not only a better appreciation of Brent Scott before the fall, but pleased to have made the acquaintance of a fellow dilettante, a non-artist with an gnawing, insatiable need to be mixed up with the creative moment. J. sent me along with a stack of aging VHS tapes (including Brent's personal document of man.INFESTation), a copy of the show poster (posted previously) and other records of the event, all of which pointed to Brent's aspirations being not at all dissimilar at the time of man.INFESTation to those of all artists I have known.

Owing to the sloppily laid plans of various reactionary authorities, the creative history of Brent Scott is inscribed as a short, intense record of revolutions, against respectable bourgeois propriety right up the demonization scale to, literally, imputations of terrorism. In 2005, as you'll learn when you see GSH, Insex was forced to close under threat of prosecution for violations of the Patriot Act, namely suspicion of bagging money for terrorist organizations. Thus did Insex become a casualty of our era's cheif mania: Cynical political manipulation. Brent may not have been sentenced to drink the hemlock, but I don't think the parallels between his case and that of the great ancient corruptor of youth are at all lost on him:
"If you won't allow me to teach your children, then I will corrupt them."
Brent Scott, riffing on Socrates
In matters cultural it is in the nature of governments to work at 180 degrees to the foregone conclusions of any great cultural shift. Government is always last to lead. In 1995 it was possible, if one was looking closely, to visit the future of porn, and possibly of art, in the short-lived gallery career of rejected academic Brent Scott. Within the ten year history of Insex, from its formative moment to its manufactured demise, sex would become exponentially more defused throughout culture and sadomasochistic signifiers would begin infiltrating the popular consciousness. When most BDSM was still the provenance of Farmer's Daughter BBS, through the then-experimental Vivo player Insex loosened the stopper from the full-motion dike and inaugurated the end of the passive era in media, as well as affording a first look at fearlessly expansive, deeply disturbing and displacing forms of play known previously to very few.

While I have in my own life and play gone to very few of the precincts regularly visited by Brent Scott at Insex, I'm indebted to the appaling grandeur and devastating sweep of his vision, and to his ultimate faith in the fortitude of the women (and later the men) with whom he worked. Over the years I've met many of those models and to a one they recall their visits (often multiple) to Insex as the hardest and most rewarding bondage modeling gigs they'd ever landed. When I visited, when Insex was young, the world of hard-core questers, pain-sluts and contortionists was beating a path to Big Worm Productions. The payoff for performing may indeed have scaled according to depth of ability and/or consent, but there was always an out, a safeword, so in the final analysis the bottom reserved control and the deprivations suffered were ultimately elective.

Incentivizing with bonuses to get better performance, all for the sake of selling...what? Mortgage derivatives? Credit swaps? Economy busting, life-ruining, reputation raping, history changing swindles?

No... just sex.

Seems quaint in light of the scorched earth the partisans of righteousness were engineering while they drew their long knives on Insex, habeas corpus, the Geneva Convention and The Constitution. Reactions to art have always given a clear warning that human rights are in the cross-hairs, and I don't think it overreaching to consider for a moment the history of any art labeled "degenerate" by politicians - as it was by the Nazis (the Entartete Kunst and Entartete Musik exhibitions of 1937), or, more recently in my own fair city, the pogrom against degenerate art and the NEA staged by then-mayor and former Presidential candidate Rudolf Guliani along with the right-wing minion of representatives Jesse Helms and Al D'Amato.

I bring this last example up for those who think that I am perhaps overreaching for comparing the shuttering of Insex to government demagoguery against art - the anti-NEA cabal of the late 1980s is now well understood to have been an opening salvo in the anti-gay, anti-sex war on culture by the religious right. As Insex succumbed in 2005, the economic, cultural and political carnage of the Bush occupation forces was becoming apparent; remember Terri Schiavo, privatizing Social Security, New Orleans, Tom DeLay, "Duke" Cunningham, Harriet Miers, warrantless wiretaps, etc., etc.

When the moralists and the clean-living get vocal, sensible folks watch their rights and their wallets, the latter of which I'll be opening as soon as Graphic Sexual Horror screens in New York.

06 January, 2009

Energy Independence

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