Black Moon

If only Louis Malle’s 1975 folly, Black Moon were a short film! The first twenty or thirty minutes are frightening and sublime. A young woman tears through wild and beautiful countryside in the attempt to escape a strange civil war between men and women. I began watching, and expected something like the political allegory of Peter Watkin’s Punishment Park (1971) to develop.

However, Malle is uninterested in the problems and the possibilities of something like feminist armed resistance. Like the bedridden old woman (Thérèse Giehse) later in the film who radios nonsense to some unseen master narrator, Malle relays the tone, suggestion and gesture of sexual identity instead of any cogent expression of it or any attempt at agency through it. Ultimately the film is a retrospective, Bathusian muddle, breathtakingly filmed by Ingmar Bergman’s cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. I recommend the extraordinary trailer.


I had the good fortune to see Eileen Myles and Thurston Moore perform together last week. It was a really great evening; its intensity surprised me.

I think many of us in the red-velveted auditorium felt a discomforting but not displeasing mise en abyme of nostalgia that night. (Paris’s Maison de la Poésie was the perfect place for it, with the Salle de Lautréamont right next door.)

The poetry they read and the music Moore performed were haunted by the specter of the lost-and-safe 1990s…

which was in turn haunted by the New York punk 1970s…

haunted by the Parisian decadents,

haunted by Sade and 18th century gothic terror…and that’s where I lose the trail of this dark streak. It was a glaringly Caucasian and Eurocentric day of the dead celebration.

Myles has moved much further beyond the mode of gleeful, negative immaturity than Moore in her creative work. She read from her forthcoming, unabashedly loopy dog memoir, which turns the dog she is fictionalizing into God. Her endearing and funny fusion of therapeutic lingo, rhythmic wordplay, and sensual description sounded very fresh to me.

Moore’s guitar work didn’t, but it did sound classic. I still found it quite moving:

The performance crystallized for me the highly problematic aspects of the Marxist-influenced, post-punk subjective paradigm Myles and Moore share. Yet it also helped me think about the ways this paradigm can still be useful and vital, once recast.

Punk never died, but was always part of a larger lineage of the undead that haunts dominant industrialized culture across the globe.

Here is Eileen Myles’ “Holes,” collected in Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, ed. Alan Kaufman. NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999.

Once when I passed East Fourth Street off First Avenue,
I think it was in early fall and I had a small hole
in the shoulder of my white shirt, and another on
the back–I looked just beautiful. There was a
whole moment in the 70s when it was beautiful
to have holes in your shirts and sweaters.
By now it was 1981, but I carried that 70s style
around like a torch. There was a whole way of
feeling about yourself that was more European
than American, unless it was American around
1910 when it was beautiful to be a strong
starving immigrant who believed so much
in herself and she was part of a movement
as big as history and it explained the
hole in her shirt. It’s the beginning
of summer tonight, and every season has
cracks through which winter
or fall might leak out. The most perfect
flavor of it, oddly in June. Oh remember
when I was an immigrant. I took a black
beauty and got up from the pile of poems
around my knees and just had too much
energy for thought and walked over to
your house where there was continuous
beer. Finally we were just drinking
Rheingold, a hell of a beer. At the
door I mentioned I had a crush on both
of you, what you say to a couple. By
now the kids were in bed. I can’t
even say clearly now that I wanted
the woman, though it seemed to be
the driving principle then, wanting
one of everything. I was part of
a generation of people who went to
the bars on 7th street and drank the
cheap whiskey and the ale on tap and dreamed
about when I would get you alone. Those
big breasts. I carried slim notebooks which only
permitted two or three-word lines. I need you.
“Nearing the Horse.” There was blood in all my
titles, and milk. I had two bright blue pills
in my pocket. I loved you so much. It was
the last young thing I ever did, the end of
my renaissance, an immigration into my
dream world which even my grandparents
had not dared to live, being prisoners
of schizophrenia and alcohol, though
I was lovers with the two. The beauty
of the story is that it happened.
It was the last thing that happened
in New York. Everything else happened
while I was stopping it from happening.
Everything else had a life of
its own. I don’t think I owe
them an apology, though at least
one of their kids hates my guts.
She can eat my guts for all
I care. I had a small hole in
the front of my black sleeveless
sweater. It was just something
that happened. It got larger
and larger. I liked to put
my finger in it. In the month
of December I couldn’t get
out of bed. I kept waking
up at 6PM and it was Christmas
or New Year’s and I had
started drinking & eating. I remember
you handing me the most beautiful
red plate of pasta. It was like your cunt
on a plate. I met people in your house
even found people to go out and fuck,
regrettably, not knowing about
the forbidden fruit. I forget
what the only sin is. Somebody
told me recently. I have so
many holes in my memory. Between
me and the things I’m separated
from. I pick up a book and
another book and memory
and separation seem to
be all anyone writes
about. Or all they
seem to let me read.
But I remember those
beautiful holes on
my back like a
beautiful cloak
of feeling.

Visa de censure no. X

Here are about two minutes from the closing credits sequence of Pierre Clémenti’s Visa de censure no. X. Clémenti was, in the apt description of Helen Donlon, “European cinema’s christ-devil child.” He made this countercultural carnival of a short film between 1967 and 1975, under the influence (amongst other things) of New American Cinema, via Québécois film artist Etienne O’Leary. The psychedelic musical accompaniment on the soundtrack is by Clearlight Symphony, later known as Clearlight, headed up by pianist Cyrille Verdeaux.

Three thoughts on visual culture studies

This summer I had a discussion with another scholar over whether our work should be considered “visual culture” or “visual studies.” She tilted her head. “Visual culture has these connotations of material culture, of cultural studies, of nineteenth-century studies,” she explained. “Not art historical or film theoretical enough. I usually say ‘visual studies.'”

I nodded. I understood. Yet, I explained, I consider a rigorous focus on spectatorial environment, historical conditions of reception and/or the materiality of projection methods to be fundamental to my study of the visual. The overarching cultural connection is very important to me.

With Visual Culture Studies (London: Sage, 2008) Marquard Smith has fleshed out an interdisciplinary term that suggests the marriage of perception and its position amidst the social. Here are three perspectives on visual culture studies from the interviews he conducted that I find particularly thought-provoking, whether or not I entirely agree or disagree with them.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

I suspect that the most interesting new questions for visual studies, then, will be located at the frontiers of visuality, the places where seeing approaches a limit and is faced with its own negation, or with some other perceptual modality or medium. That is probably why, in my own ‘general’ teaching, I have shifted from visual culture to media studies. It’s not because I have given up on visual studies, but because the problem of mediation opens the visual onto different phenomenological frontiers (stillness and motion; audition, tactility, and embodiment) as well as technologies and regimes of the visible. This leads me to ask what the digitalization of the visible field means, and to press for answers that would take us beyond the received ideas, e.g. the ‘loss of the real’ posited by so many theorists[…]The current revival of Guy Debord’s concept of the ‘spectacle’ as a tool for diagnosing the war on terror (see Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War, the Retort collective) strikes me as deeply flawed in its hostility to technical considerations, and its recourse to iconoclastic remedies for political maladies. If visual studies is going to engage capitalism, politics and war through the medium of spectacle, it is going to require analysis and historical investigation of the spectacular concept itself (36).

the wonderful Vivian Sobchack:

For the most part, I think that what goes by the name of ‘visual culture’ is really ‘visible culture.’ That what gets talked about is not ‘visuality’ but ‘visibility.’ Similarly, instead of talking about embodiment–what it is to live a body, what it is to live acts of seeing not merely with one’s eyes (as if that were possible)–most scholars talk about ‘the body’–positing it as merely a thing, or as a visible object belonging to someone else. This seems to me a continuation of the objectivist project–despite the fat that people writing about ‘visuality’ and ‘the body’ are critiquing that project.


I think the distinctions between visible culture and visual culture are terribly important ones. Although it’s changing, the tendency still is to only talk about the side of vision that is about the visible, not about the visual. But you need both sides to achieve vision. Thinking about visuality links vision to the body and our other senses which are not, to use a phrase, ‘asleep on the job,’ but active in giving the things we see a visible thickness and dimension (124).

Best and last, Martin Jay:

In the critique of the reifying power of the gaze, most extensively explored in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, there was already a powerful ethical moment, which was given added impetus when feminists like Luce Irigaray and Laura Mulvey stressed its gendered character. The Jewish emphasis on hearing as opposed to the Greek stress on sight, which Levinas tied to the relative importance respectively of the ethical and the ontological in each tradition, increased still further the ethical stakes in discussions of visual culture.

Perhaps the real task these days is not so much to rehearse these now familiar connections, but rather to probe the ways in which the sense of ‘looking after’ someone is just as much a possibility as ‘looking at’ them in le regard, and ‘watching out for someone’ is an ethical alternative to controlling surveillance (184).

The Angel of History

Here, four Dürer etchings from the catalogue of a show I saw this summer at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paris…

Albrecht Dürer, The Angel of the Apocalypse and the Dragon with Seven Heads, ca. 1497, engraving from "The Apocalypse," of 1498, wood engraving, 37.4 x 28.5 cm

Albrecht Dürer, The Angel of the Apocalypse and the Dragon with Seven Heads, ca. 1497, engraving from “The Apocalypse,” of 1498, wood engraving, 37.4 x 28.5 cm

These engravings were part of a portfolio that belonged to collector Jacques-Édouard Gatteaux (1788-1881). They were badly damaged along with other precious artworks and art objects in a fire occasioned by the Parisian communards in May 1871.

Albrect Dürer, Saint John devouring the Book of Life, ca. 1498, from "The Apocalypse," 1498, wood engraving, 37.3 x 29.2 cm

Albrect Dürer, Saint John devouring the Book of Life, ca. 1498, from “The Apocalypse,” 1498, wood engraving, 37.3 x 29.2 cm

The exhibition these damaged engravings were a part of was called “The Angel of History.”   Its curator-in-chief was Nicolas Bourriaud, of “relational art” fame. Bourriaud is currently director of the École des Beaux Arts.

Bourriaud’s newest art conceptual gambit is “the ruin.” The contemporary artists he assembled (among them, Haris Epaminonda, Rashid Johnson, Walead Beshty, Jospehine Meckseper) were, in his view, like Benjaminian angels of history, picking their way through fragmented piles of the past and forming new artistic narratives out of rubble.

Dürer’s singed Biblical images were on the exhibition’s second floor, amongst other artworks and objects from the Beaux-Arts archives and collections. There were models of Greek and Roman ruins, Romantic-era watercolors and sketches of ruins and photographs of destroyed buildings dating from the Franco-Prussian War and World War One.

Albrecht Dürer, Three Putti, ca. 1505, burin engraving, 8 x 7.2 cm

Albrecht Dürer, Three Putti, ca. 1505, burin engraving, 8 x 7.2 cm

It was moving and naughtily satisfying to look at damaged art, I admit. However, the interest of these engravings went beyond iconoclasm or pathos.

Blackened by revolutionary fire, each of these engravings was the kind of doubly-determined “dialectical image” that Walter Benjamin wrote about in “On the Concept of History.” Like all artworks, they tell a visual story, but they are also material culture. These engravings testify to the era in which they were created as well as the era in which they were damaged.

A pity, then, that Bourriaud and his team didn’t create a space for viewers to ask how their own reception in 2013 might constitute a further testimony of these engravings–can we see the present or the future in these images as well as the near and distant past?

The exhibition missed its opportunity to work dialectically because it enclosed its early modern and contemporary artworks within the limited parameters of universality, atemporality and the picturesque instead of delving into socio-aesthetic and institutional context.

Albrecht Dürer, The Annonciation, ca. 1510, from "The Passion," 1511, wood engraving, 12 x 10 cm

Albrecht Dürer, The Annonciation, ca. 1510, from “The Passion,” 1511, wood engraving, 12 x 10 cm

“The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.”  – Walter Benjamin, Thesis VI, “On the Concept of History,” 1935

Views from above in A Sixth Part of the World and The Eleventh Year

I’ve recently submitted an article examining the aerial view as a visual modality. Two more film fragments by Vertov that have inspired me to think further on the subject:

The opening of A Sixth Part of the World (1926), in which Vertov juxtaposes omniscient vision from above, the slicing legs of foxtrotters, the powerful magnet of a construction crane and the small mole on the back of a bourgeois neck.

Another aerial view from the ending of The Eleventh Year (1928), where the technological advancements of Soviet aviation link Russia to its Chinese comrades via sight and flight.

This last sequence, with its views from below, from above, and from beside a soaring plane reminds me of Paula Amad’s excellent essay published last year in History of Photography, “From God’s Eye to Camera Eye: Aerial Photography’s Post-humanist and Neo-humanist Visions of the World.” Amad thoughtfully takes on the dialectic between abstracted knowledge in views from above and embodied knowledge in views from below, arguing for a more fluid, less dogmatic understanding of our encounters with this practice of looking.

Entuziazm (Simfonija Donbassa)

In preparation for teaching the old one-two punch of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov in History and Theory of Cinema this fall, I’ve been watching some of their films I hadn’t yet seen.

Last night: Entuziazm (Simfonija Donbassa), made in 1930 by Dziga Vertov, restored by Peter Kubelka in 1972 and released on DVD in 2010 by Edition Filmmuseum.

According to the DVD liner notes,

enormous problems involving massive loss of recorded material led Vertov to call Enthusiasm “a film…covered with wounds.”

As a whole the film is undoubtedly flawed (leaving aside completely the collossal flaws of the First Five Year Plan it sought to celebrate), but passages in it are absolutely wonderful.

Here below, one that thrilled me for its ingenious canted framing. The halting steps of a drunkard and the droning hymn of a church choir are transformed through industry (and the magic of the editing table) into a winding band of socialist marchers. As in the better known Man With a Movie Camera, Vertov employs a diegetic figure to help orchestrate his “film facts” — in this case, a female auditor instead of a female editor.

Included as an extra on the DVD was a welcome glimpse of Vertov in movement. From the liner notes:

A latter day compilation by Elisaveta Svilova, Vertov’s creative partner and widow, it features (as Yuri Tsivian has noted) material from 1922-1923, as well as from the 1930s. Kinopravda  No. 8 and No. 17 are two of the sources.

It is the exquisites who are going to rule

The Party Line, Ken Russell, January 1955. From the series: "The last of the Teddy Girls"

The Party Line, Ken Russell, January 1955. From the series: “The last of the Teddy Girls”

The future belongs to the dandy. It is the exquisites who are going to rule.
— Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance

Unbelievably, I’ve never seen a Ken Russell film. Now that I have enjoyed his photography, I’ll make a point to watch some. Slideshows of Russell’s photos can be found here and here; particularly intriguing are his photographs of Teddy Girls, made with participative humor and candor at a time when all the subcultural attention was going to the boys. If indeed the Teddy Girls were flouting postwar austerity with their get-ups, they were also thumbing their noses at late modernist consumer culture and its suggestions for acceptable femininity.

Writing, writing, writing

Der arme Poet / The Poor Poet, Carl Spitzweg, 1839, oil on canvas, 36.2 × 44.6 cm.

For a long while I had a link on my “projects” page to this painting, which I love with all the force of a million starving artist cliches. I thought I’d post it here as a fond and gently satirical testament to work of the mind.

A couple of interesting facts I learned while browsing the German Wikipedia entry for this painting:

-After the Mona Lisa, this is the painting that Germans most love in the world (according to an unidentified poll).

-Many have wondered what sort of a gesture this poor poet is making with his right hand. Some think he is scanning verse. Others believe he has plucked and is squishing a flea from his bedding. All poor poets know that one does not discount the other.

Mathias Etenhueber had the dubious privilege of serving as the model for this poor poet picture.

-And finally, my favorite: There are two almost identical versions of this painting. One is in the Neue Pinakotek in Munich, and the other was in the Nationalgalerie in Berlin. Until it was stolen by Ulay in 1976 as part of a performance piece (!), then stolen again in 1989 by true art thieves and never located. In art, there is a criminal touch.

Es sind lauter Widerstände von Anfang an

I found this funny, minimal, inventive and very moving film two weeks ago and was swallowed up whole (not a common Youtube viewing occurrence). Between 16mm and video recording for television, Ferry Radax performs a respectful, absurdist, and elegant pas de deux with Austrian novelist, poet, playwright and saint of the negative Thomas Bernhard.

Of the many brutal yet ornamental and telegrammatically-spoken thoughts Bernhard shares, I especially appreciated the one I’ve tried to translate below. Darkly hilarious and reluctantly tender. It brought my attention to the German word Widerstand, which I had always understood as “resistance,” but which Bernhard uses here equally in the sense of “antagonism,” “opposition” and “obstruction.” From around the 16:30 mark:

There’s plenty of oppositions from the very beginning, probably always have been. Oppositions, what is opposition? Opposition is material. The brain needs oppositions. By amassing oppositions, it has material.

Opposition? Oppositions. Opposition, when you peer through a window, opposition when you should write a letter–you just don’t want to do it–you receive a letter, another opposition [wieder ein Widerstand]. You say to hell with it–nevertheless, you answer at some point.

You walk outside, you buy something, you drink a beer, it’s all such a bother, all that is opposition. You get sick, go to the hospital, there are complications–again opposition [wieder Widerstand]. Suddenly chronic illnesses surface, go away again, linger–oppositions, of course. You read books–oppositions. You don’t want any books, you don’t want any thoughts, either, you don’t want language or words, no sentences, you don’t want any history–you want absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, you fall asleep, you wake up. The result of falling asleep is waking up, the result of waking up is standing up. You must stand up against all oppositions.

You must leave the bedroom, the newspaper appears, sentences appear, always the same sentences, actually–you don’t know where they come from–uniformity, right? From it new oppositions arise again, from all that you notice. Actually, you want nothing more than to sleep, to be ignorant of it all. Then suddenly, once again the desire to…