Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Nothing To See Here.

This blog has been orphaned, sunsetted, and any other terms you can think of for "I'm not writing it any more."

I now write (when I write) at my site. I'll be straight with you, I'm doing this because people laugh at the Blogger platform and I want to remain on the right side of history.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

In Which I Explain How Magic Works.

Filament Magazine's Music Issue is now available, in which you can read my essay about music, occultism and human consciousness in ancient and recent history. Karen D Tregaskin's illustrations are so good I am half-seriously considering having one tattooed upon my flesh.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Marina in New Zealand

While interviewing Marina Abramović for Filament last year, we chatted about some stuff that didn't really fit into the article. A lot of it centered around her visit to New Zealand in 1981 for the performance of a one-off work in Christchurch (RIP Christchurch). I've decided to "publish" this "piece" "here" so you can enjoy some more of this fascinating woman's thoughts.

Performance artist Marina Abramović just finished a mammoth three-month show at New York's MoMA gallery in which she was joined by international stars like Lady Gaga and James Franco. But when I interviewed her, what she really wanted to talk about was her time in New Zealand.

The first question Marina Abramović asks when I telephone her New York country house is whether I'm calling from Christchurch. The 64-year old, self-described “grandmother of performance art,” left her homeland in the former Yugoslavia in 1976. But hers is still a thick Slavic accent, not unlike that of the snake-handling matriarch played by Angelina Jolie in Oliver Stone's Alexander.

It turns out Christchurch is the only place in New Zealand she's been. She and her then-partner, Uwe Laysiepen (commonly known by the performance name of Ulay), came here in 1981 for a one-off performance organized by local artist Andrew Drummond.

“It's a piece that's almost unknown,” she says. “A work called Witnessing. Ulay was sitting on the floor and I was standing and pointing one finger in his direction. The natural light was becoming darker over the four hours of the piece. My feet were on a pedestal and they had to lift me down because I was completely cramped. It was a very strange piece.”

It's strange within the context of her work mainly because it doesn't involve the artist putting herself in extreme pain or danger. Abramović's work explores the limits of the human mind and body. She creates illuminating experiences for herself and her audience by putting herself through physical and mental endurance tests. Highlights of her career have included stabbing herself in the hand with twenty knives as part of a traditional Balkan soldiers' game, cutting a star into her flesh, and ingesting drugs intended for catatonic patients, making a performance out of the seizures the drugs induced.

So while standing on a platform for four hours may not be as much fun as the exploits of, say, Andy Warhol's Factory or the Dada movement, for her it probably counts as a working holiday.

“It was a bit of a trip,” she says. Once she got here, she found that she was only six hours from the South Pole. “I wanted to go on an expedition. But I only wanted to go at the time when there was ten hours of sunset. They wanted to sign me for six months.”

“I'm sure if you found the right person,” I say, “you could strong-arm them.”

“That's true,” she agrees. “Another thing is that every person I knew in New Zealand saw at least one UFO. I think there's a landing area there. I was in Christchurch for ten days and didn't see one. I'll have to come back for that.”

“I don't know anyone in New Zealand who thinks they've seen a UFO,” I say, then immediately feel bad because this makes it sound like I think she's wrong or crazy.

“Come on!” she exclaims. “Everyone I talked to there saw at least one UFO. Or at least, they told me they did.”

“Obviously,” I say, “You're mixing with the right crowds and I'm not. I'd love to find someone who's seen a UFO.” I think this is a good way of qualifying my earlier objection.

“The other thing that happened,” she goes on, “was a crazy situation.” She tells me about the farm she was staying in in Canterbury. “One morning I woke up and walked up the hill. There were hundreds of sheep giving birth, all at the same time. The sun was coming up and it was like one massive birth. I'll never forget seeing that in New Zealand. It was the most beautiful thing.”

“That seems like exactly the sort of thing that should happen when you come here,” I tell her. Themes of rebirth and renewal are constant in Marina Abramović's work. In the 1990s she performed a work involving scrubbing the flesh off 6,000 pounds of cow bones, an intentionally impossible attempt to render them pure (the piece, Balkan Baroque, was her comment on the Bosnian civil war). Another saw her reinvent herself by trading places with an Amsterdam prostitute for four hours: the woman took Abramović's place at a gallery opening, while the artist sat in the brothel window.

Her latest work at the New York MoMA, The Artist is Present, saw her sit motionless opposite visitors, one at a time. The piece went on for seven hours, every weekday for three months. “People haven't talked about this,” she says, “Because it's not something you're supposed to talk about. But that piece was really about giving unconditional love to complete strangers.”

“You mean treating each audience member as individuals?” I ask.

“At the moment he was in that chair,” she explains, “Every visitor was a unique universe. That's new to audiences. They've never been treated in that way.”

Many of her visitors have been the New York art crowd, but she says many more would never step into a gallery usually. Part of the appeal is the famous sitters on the guest list. “Lady Gaga came to see the show and talked about me on Larry King Live and YouTube interviews. She reaches fourteen year olds who'd never care about performance art. They become this whole new audience, which is a completely new thing for me.”

Another guest was Hollywood actor James Franco, a performance art devotee himself. Franco recently claimed that his recurring role on the soap opera General Hospital was an elaborate work of performance art. I ask Abramovic what she thinks of this use of the medium.

“That was such a mixed-up issue,” she says. “In the 70s, people would just do some stupid gesture and say, 'I'm doing performance art,' and this attitude is still here today. But James Franco studied performance at NYU. He did a dissertation on my work. We've talked a lot. He says as an actor, he reaches a wall so many times because he's trying to be someone you're not. Performance art deals with truly being what you are, and he wanted to incorporate that into his acting.”

The intersection of performance art with superstars like Gaga and Franco is new for her. Abramović considers her fame to have come quite late – her Christchurch trip may have been big news among the cognoscenti, but most New Zealanders probably didn't even know who she was. She suspects that her late breakthrough to mass-media stardom was a good thing.

“Look at me. Recognition came very late. That's very good, because then you don't get stuck on how great you are. When it happens at 25, you're young and you don't know who you are.” She laughs. “Then you die of an overdose at 41.”

And then you'd never get to see a UFO.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Gears of War post, now with less reading

Here's a video of a thing I wrote about Gears of War. Some people said they'd like to see it in film form, which was convenient as I myself felt that way also. This is definitely the best video about an okay videogame you're likely to see today.

Friday, August 19, 2011

In Which I Weigh In on Ayn Rand (spoiler: she's a dick).

I'm a bit late to this party, but here's a quickie from me about Objectivism and seasteading in which I make the subtext of every joke made over the last week about either topic achingly concrete. And now, your bonus blog-only Tom's Thoughts.


It occurred to me while watching Brad Pitt's performance in The Tree of Life (really, the most like Terranigma any film has ever been, which is to say singularly astounding) that Objectivism has undergone basically the ideal character arc over the past ten years. I remember in the early '00s when Pitt was running his mouth off about how great it would be to make a movie of The Fountainhead, and how the whole idea of Rand and Objectivism were this secretive badge of pride that certain public figures would wear poking out from under their lapels. The notion seemed imbued with a terrible sort of grandeur -- a gilded villainy that at least commanded a presence, even if it looked a bit scuffed and chipped up close.

But the past ten years have been rubbish for Objectivism as a cultural element. It now just seems a dirty, shameful, shabby sort of thing, a spite-faced lizard of a woman scurrying in the shadows of skyscrapers, her long coat stinking of stale cigarettes and ridiculous fumbling half-hearted attempts at humanness. Today more people, so the news reports and bestseller lists tell us, are looking into Rand and her work than ever -- but the larger the movement grows, the more malformed and cancerous it reveals itself to be, shiny-faced jackasses braying buzzwords as they stockpile increasingly useless cachet and preside over the darkest Age of Grimness since the Seventies were burned at Comiskey Park, a frustratingly inauspicious 35 days before I was born. The first Atlas Shrugged movie, presented Twilight- or Harry Potter-like in multiple momentous epic installments, had direct-to-video sloppiness written all over it and went largely unnoticed even despite the promotion of what we're assured is the most powerful political force since cocaine, the Tea Party movement -- surely the least self-aware group of people in the history of ostensible mental competence, not to mention the least glamorous assemblage of ruiners since the Bonfire of the Vanities.

Objectivism has got what it needs -- for a lot of people, preferably some of them owning property and mostly-clean clothes, to rally around it -- but it has lost what it wants, which is for the glamorous and respectable to extol its virtues. Which is the perfect position, from an audience standpoint, for a character to arrive at. Of course Objectivists will tell you that they neither want nor care for your respect or disregard; but then, why do they make so goddamn many speeches about it?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

In Which Everything is Mentioned.

My article on the past 30 years' Touchstones of Gaming - in which I survey the culture, politics and media (also video games) of every year since 1980 - is now up on Gamesradar. If you want an article which mentions the Falklands War, Waco siege, Lost, Bobbitt Trial, Elvis Presley, Doom and Ronald Reagan's relationship to Princess Toadstool, it is your lucky day! Of all the things I've written about games, this is the one most geared toward people who don't give a shit about games (well, apart from this, anyway).

Bonus blog content: I'd have said the touchstone of this year was Modern Warfare 3, whose heartfelt paean to the terrible euphoria of techno-militarism - not to mention embroilment in unending corporate, legal and political skirmishes - perfectly represents an age of corporatized war without end pushing us ever closer to the brink of extremely cinematic Armageddon. LA Noire is all very well, but I don't see the publisher of that game (whoever it is) starring in a Brad Pitt movie.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Corganwatch: A Big Fat Nothing

I started to cry, which started the whole world laughing
Oh, if only I'd seen that the joke was on me.

- Gibb/Gibb/Gibb, I Started a Joke
"God's joke" was how Billy Corgan famously described the origin of his band's name throughout the days of the original lineup: rather than new-wavers The Marked or synth-rockers Star Children[1], the band - operating under the assumption that this wouldn't last, thrashing out (excellent) Sabbath-meets-Reznor mechanistic psych-outs like Nothing and Everything for halfhearted audiences sporting no more confidence in the venture's lasting potential than Corgan/Iha themselves - figured if they were going to do something stupid, they might as well have a stupid name while they were about it. Thus, Smashing Pumpkins.

God, of course, was joking on the sly: if we can posit Billy Corgan as an incarnation of the two-faced god Janus (and let's see you tell me we can't), then one face must be that of the inspired genius, the other the dullard crippled by self-doubt and lashing out at anyone nearby: himself, Courtney Love, the press, fans, Courtney Love, Courtney Love. And so it was that Corgan's daemon became hoodwinked by his demons: the wind changed, and that shrugging, don't-worry-I-don't-mean-this jest would become frozen on his face for the next twenty years as "Smashing Pumpkins" became... Smashing Pumpkins.

Billy Corgan is at pains to establish that his thread winds inexorably through the tapestry of rock music in and after the 1990s; what he fails to acknowledge is that a large part of his influence is to add to rock's meme-pool one of the most generous infusions of that self-doubting essence. The oeuvre of Corgan at his peak may not have the visceral self-immolation of his most obvious counterpart, Kurt Cobain, but - in interviews and in tracks like Ugly or Tales of a Scorched Earth - it's tempered with a wry, almost twee brand of self-abasement that's less solipsistic than his contemporaries', and thus more engaging. The result is a deadly self-destructive streak with the cuddly, approachable palette of a Wes Anderson flick. And also probably Hinder's Better Than Me, thank you so very fucking much.

For years, Corgan would deny the literal interpretation of the name, accepting the appellation's sigilization of bittersweet divine mockery, its codifying of the universe's fickle silliness, even its connotations of Halloween boogedy-boo, toddling down the street in a Cool Britannia costume (this latter manifesting itself as the band became The Smashing Pumpkins, by which point the world was a vampire and Corgan a slapheaded superhero who only came out at night). But one thing the band did not go in for was the actual smashing of pumpkins: when one Australian fan asked Corgan during a radio phone-in whether any pumpkins were harmed during the making of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Corgan sneered, "that's the stupidest question ever asked. For asking that question you get a big fat nothing."

It is, of course, beneath Corganwatch to play the game of hoists and petards [2]. One day the literality of "Smashing Pumpkins" may be off-limits; the next it may be used to sell records. That is fine and good. A free pass from Corganwatch! However, it's worth noting that, in finally acknowledging after all this time that, you know what, the words "smashing pumpkins" do actually conjure the image of pumpkins being smashed, one might observe a resurgence of Corgan's long-dormant (and entirely unreasonably so, because holy fuck, have you seen this shit? There are no words) self-abasing urge.

If the new Smashing Pumpkins have an element of cut-up randomness to them - a desperation to be back in the zeitgeist, tempered by a welcome willingness to perform crazy experiments with unorthodox release techniques and music of tragicomically variable quality - then we might start to suspect the identity of the hand moving the planchette. The paradox is this: Billy Corgan is trying to free himself from the dull and dying machinations of a musical economy that patently has no use for him, nor him for it, and that is fine, because Billy Corgan is a gnostic and a mystic and he wants very much to get somewhere and that Neoplatonic form ain't gonna idealize itself, buddy. But in throwing the bones and letting onesself and one's image be swept wherever the current takes one, one encounters the risk (indeed, the probability) that the current sweeping one up will be the strongest one; and if there's only one force in the world stronger than what Billy Corgan thinks of himself, it's what people think of Billy Corgan. Meaning the stronger his attempts to put aside ego and do whatever he's moved to do, the more likely he'll just do whatever people have been assuming he's doing for years now, which is to say, fronting a band which is all about the violent pulverization of squash.

The part where the whole thing is presented by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, on the other hand, is obviously just Billy Corgan fucking with you.

[1] A nom de musique employed when the band were making the styles of music they'd swear didn't fit the brand of their day-job outfit, until The Chamberlin Incident forced an adoption of those exact styles: first for the extended mostly-covers version of the Bullet With Butterfly Wings EP, then with Adore and the sheepish, halfhearted pretense that this was where things were headed all along.

[2] During the Pumpkins' heyday, Metallica were widely quoted as having said they'd never do all the things they then turned around and did the shit out of; this in response to their release of the alt-inspired Load, unquestionably the best album of their career.