The sober joy of thieving

I’m happy to have my review of Judith Rodenbeck’s Radical Prototypes: Allan Kaprow and the Invention of Happenings published in the current issue of Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts. Rodenbeck’s framework for conceptualizing happenings is central to the discourse surrounding art and the everyday in the 1960s. An excerpt from the review here below:

With her narrative, Rodenbeck deliberately sidesteps the dualism of formalism and the avant-garde that has dominated many of the art historical narratives of the 1960s. If happenings are best characterized as intermediary, open-ended, relational, and interdisciplinary, then their historicization would do well to reflect this, she reasons. Her book calls for and models a scholarly “matrix through which to approach a generation of postwar artistic efforts” (27). Her contribution lies in a series of individual “material, rhetorical, and discursive” histories (18) that enhance ourunderstanding of what happenings were and what they aspired to be. The wealth of material on the sociological climates, the architectural practices, the technological metaphors, the theatrical methodologies, and the photographic conditions that surrounded happenings acts like connective tissue, shaping and securing them within art history.
In this sense, then, the art historical matrix to which Rodenbeck contributes should be thought of as a sort of expanded field for happenings where the artworks of Kaprow and company are no longer contrasted with painting alone but with all other experimental intermedia and the areas of inquiry intermedia shares: the everyday, the aleatory, and the participatory. Measured and formal in tone, preeminently readable at the same time, Rodenbeck’s book is often like an unexpected treasure hunt amidst the presumed familiar.
“Let’s look for traces of civilization!” the trio in François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962) exclaim delightedly to one another as they wander through a wooded area to the beach. Readers of Rodenbeck’s histories are led to wander, too, finding known documents, theories, and artworks linked freshly and illuminatingly to one another.

Interview with Jodie Mack

Image: Jodie Mack at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Photo by Alex Inglizian. Accessed at

What a pleasure it was to interview experimental filmmaker Jodie Mack for the “Back and Forth” series of INCITE: Journal of Experimental Media.

You can read the interview (illustrated with some fantastic behind-the-scenes photos) here.

The small fraction of a human that is human

It was a true pleasure to write a short essay for multimedia artist Liz Rodda’s exhibition of Total Body at the Lawndale Art Center in Houston, Texas. You can see the dual-channel piece in LAC’s project space until June 13, 2015 and watch an excerpt of it on her website. My thoughts on her excellent work below.

Where is the human body in the twenty-first century? At the gym, in traffic, outdoors, or home alone? Wherever the emblematic sites of embodiment for the present day might be, they are always also online. We pass bodies and their parts to one another via smartphones, we post them on websites, and we find them—absurd, touching, sexy, troubling—when streaming digital video from all sorts of online caches. We can ignore our bodies and those of others, choosing to withdraw into the abstract thoughts that our bodies house. Even so, we can never empty those thoughts entirely of the sensations our bodies produce.
Despite its wry title, Liz Rodda’s dual-channel video piece doesn’t explain
what it means to be flesh and blood. It doesn’t identify the mishmash of
existential musings that make up its soundtrack, or distinguish humanistic, virtual actions from those that are virtually human.
Total Body shows us the extreme irreconcilability of each “small fraction of a human that is human” mentioned in its voiceover. This is no tragedy. Paradoxically enough, Total Body suggests it may be a primary source of life’s pleasure. Rodda is one of the most distinctive artists working in expanded media today. Her aesthetic is cerebral—and rousingly funny. Her work in digital formats as well as her installation practice avoids obvious moral questions of consumer culture and identity, zeroing in on the uncanny forces that drive our media and object-based interactions.

Self-portrait of an unknown

I stumbled upon this documentary about Jean Cocteau (dir. Edgardo Cozarinsky, 1985) several months ago, and saved it to my bookmarks. Last weekend I re-discovered the link, and spent part of Tuesday’s April Central New York snow flurries watching it.

Nothing special, but I took pleasure in Cocteau’s repeated insistence on two contradictory artistic impulses: his ambition to know himself and become known, and his desire to keep himself hidden and obscure to himself and all others, as an unmappable and untappable source of creativity.

Some of Cocteau’s bon mots from the film:

We are the workers of a darkness that belongs to us, but eludes us. This profound man–we don’t know him well at all–is our true self. He is hidden in the shadows. He commands us. I decided to plunge down into myself, into this formidable hole, into this unknown mine, at the risk of running into explosive gas.


Honors–one must envision them as a sort of transcendent punishment.


We are the very humble servants of a force that lives in us. We are led–we are led by a force that isn’t external to us–it’s internal. We are led by this night that is our true self.

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.

Poetry from the trenches

Going to MoMA’s current exhibition, “Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925” was like a French New Year’s feast with a boggled mind afterward instead of a groaning belly: there was fois gras. There were oysters. Champagne, white wine, red wine, digestif. Lobster, roast, and quail. And of course, the moelleux.

Discoveries for me were:

Josef Albers’ Gitterbild (1921), a droll and clever teaching tool that transformed wire and industrial glass samples into a modernist study of color resonance and texture,

a whole wall of Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist compositions–abstract portraits, landscapes and still lifes,

a 1979 reconstructed model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1920), which sat ambitiously and quite uneasily in the gallery, surrounded by other Constructivist masterworks


Suzanne Duchamp’s Solitude entonnoir (1921), which entered into melancholy conversation with all of the grinders and rotaries and mills in the work of brother Marcel (dutifully represented in painting, sculpture and cinema).

The most extraordinary, however, was an extremely rare copy of Guillame Apollinaire’s Case d’Armons (1915). Apollinaire published the (I believe) hand-bound booklet of 21 poems on graph paper with the help of two sergeant friends from the trenches during the First World War. The booklet sat in a vitrine, covered by a velvet powder blue cloth. Visitors approached and lifted the cloth, perhaps expecting to see something illicit, and were met with the incredible fragility and power of aesthetics amidst war.

Ta punition, c’est d’être toi

“I go on as I began: for the beauty of the gesture,” says Denis Lavant’s character midway through the fantastic and fantastically sad Holy Motors. As he (Monsieur Oscar) utters those words, peeling the prosthetic skin off of his face and glaring strangely at Michel Piccoli’s character, I could feel the sparse and scattered audience around me in the movie theater stiffen slightly, as if a low voltage current had gone through all of us. This is what this film means, we all thought to ourselves, thrilling to the justification and the way it matched the wondrous and gross and disconcerting gestures we had been watching for the last hour.

A fine understanding of how astonishingly beautiful la geste can be unites all of Leos Carax’s films. In them, this gesture is a passionate and extreme employment of the body that encompasses and surpasses both use-value and exchange-value. These gestures are the panache from Cyrano de Bergerac. They are the synaesthetic moments in Rimbaud. They are the senses put to art, no matter whether the bodies that house these senses and the situations that result are hideous or obscene, funny or touching or elegant. Carax engineers these gestures on screen, but he hopes that as spectators, we will complete them.

It has been well documented by now that Holy Motors pays tender tribute to film history, from Carax’s own filmmaking to George Franju’s love of l’insolite to Étienne-Jules Marey‘s serial photography (with many in between). Perhaps film isn’t the only art form that can produce the gesture of which Monsieur Oscar speaks, but it might well be the only one that can capture the quest as well as the fleeting result.

“The [story of cinema] starts with the human body, or an action,” Carax tells Interview magazine.

“We always have, and we still love to watch human bodies in action. We also love to watch landscapes or things we have created, buildings or cigarettes, guns and cars… but above all, we love to watch human bodies, whether they’re walking, running, fucking, or anything.”

The plight explored in Holy Motors is twofold. First: how can art as a sensual gesture be created and recreated in a world which increasingly de-emphasizes the embodied use of the senses? Second: how can art be created and recreated by artists as their bodies and senses change, fatigue and deaden with the passage of time?

Carax suggests a multiplicity of answers to these questions as he takes us around his Paris. (Will this be the last film which manages to make Paris penultimately modern and eternal at the same time?) Viewers can choose to hold onto the ecstatic parts of Holy Motors (like the entr’acte above) or the maudlin ones. Or even accept la grande geste in all its complexity.

Like the young daughter Monsieur Oscar drops home in a fury after picking her up from a house party, Carax is brutal with us: our punishment is being ourselves, and having to live with that. Yet he clearly shows us the flip-side of this punishment, as well: our lives of the senses.

“The inner chronicle of what we are”

This clip is from the end of the documentary, Burden of Dreams (Les Blank and Maureen Gosling, 1982). In it, Werner Herzog tries to answer why art is so vital and so absurd, and what kind of sheer artist hubris is necessary to say so. In his face and his falsely casual body language, we see his pride and slight embarrassment mingle.

Herzog’s testament to art is echoed in Bernard Stiegler’s “The Tongue of the Eye: What “Art History” Means,” which I recently read in the very good Releasing the Image: From Literature to New Media (edited by Jacques Khalip and Robert MItchell, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).
Stiegler writes,
To paint, to write (music, literature), to perform (music, theater), to stage and to install, is to take care of oneself–and consequently of others, and of the realm of others. The practices constituing this care, and that give acces to noetic organs (including the memory and brain that connect them), have been destroyed by the proletarization of the consumer subjected to the automatisms of a de-sublimated unconscious. This tends to make us return en masse–and as audiences–to the prenoetic, losing the ability to look [savoir regarder], trans-individuated by the ability to do [savoir-faire] and the ability to live [savoir-vivre] transmitted to us by painting and, broadly, by culture. For the culture industries and the psycho-technologies that they develop destroy the organological circuits supporting the processes of transindividuation (229).