It's been an intense few weeks as the Text Festival moved towards having some sort of shape, so I haven't had time to blog. The first wave of the programme will be officially announced in the next few days - there'll be more to follow. Meanwhile I am returning to my favourite (so far) place in Finland - Tampere.
Primarily I am seeing purdah to write "The Tragedy of Althusserianism", which assuming I finish it, will come out on ifpthenq in November. But I am looking forward to seeing Karri Korro again and meeting Satu Kaikkonen for the first time. The first thing I'll do on arrival is attend an exhibition opening at TR1 http://www.tampere.fi/tr1/english.htm Through the week I'll also be meeting various local curators to talk about future projects. I am not sure I will have internet access.
I remember that there were only two artists at Sevilla Biennale 2008 whom I found interesting; I can't recall one without looking back to my journal but the other was the Mexican-Canadian electronic artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. He also caught my radar at Basel Art Fair in 2009. So I am pleased to see that he has a solo show called Recorders at Manchester Art Gallery. It features seven recent pieces of which I think I recognise a couple from the previous installations. Lozano-Hemmer’s artworks depend on the participation of visitors to exist and develop, as the artist describes:
“In Recorders, artworks hear, see and feel the public, they exhibit awareness and record and replay memories entirely obtained during the show. The pieces either depend on participation to exist or predatorily gather information on the public through surveillance and biometric technologies.”
Highlights of the exhibition include Pulse Room, on show in the UK for the very first time. Premiered in Puebla, Mexico in 2006 and shown to critical acclaim in the Mexican pavilion for the Venice Biennale in 2007, the work is made up of 100 light bulbs which are activated by a sensor to flash at the exact rhythm of particpants' heart rates. "33 Questions per Minute" is a Queneau-like question-generating programme which as much uses rules of grammar to create endless (enigmatic and/or meaningless) questions. "Close Up" invites viewers to insert a finger into a scanner which then generate a digital image of the finger print into a collage of previously inserted fingers.
Seeing this accumulation of Lozano-Hemmer work, the striking thing is the visual pleasure in the digital super-realism of the images or the soothing beauty in mathematically balanced proportion in such works as Pulse Room. Oddly though, this ultimate over-rules the putative selling point of interactivity. This becomes of peripheral interest - and if focused on too long undermines the effect of the show as a whole because it gives the impression that in the end all the works are versions of the same piece.
I rarely mention film here and I am going to do what Ron Silliman in his review of Inception said one shouldn’t and that is consider that film’s implications as a medium of serious thought. Like Ron, I thought Christopher Nolan’s movie of dreams within dreams was a ‘kick-ass summer film to trump all summer films.” And I probably would have left it at that until I caught up with last year’s Tom Ford film A Single Man while in Malta. There may not seem an immediately obvious connection between the two films.
Inception is a ‘colossal digital artefact, a virtual reality sci-fi thriller set inside the dreaming mind, with brilliant architectural effects and a weirdly inert narrative inspired by Philip K Dick and Lewis Carroll’ (Guardian). In the distant future, the technology of industrial espionage allows snoopers to invade the dreams of CEOs and steal commercially sensitive information. Leonardo DiCaprio is Cobb, a specialist who both carries out these hi-tech brain raids and trains executives to resist them.
Cobb’s team of specialists plan their inceptions like heists, drugging their targets, installing vast, detailed imaginary worlds inside their minds where they go into a lucid dreaming state, letting their subconscious guard down so the team trick them into doing or believing the thing Cobb’s employers require. Saito, an energy magnate, wants Cobb to do the reverse: not take information, but plant an idea in a rival's mind. In return, he'll fix problems with the US government so Cobb can return to his children. Cobb takes the near-impossible job, planning three layers of dreams within dreams for the target. It requires a larger team taking a powerful sedative: if something goes awry, the dreamers may not awake. Cobb doesn't tell his team that his past nurtures feelings powerful enough to bring on this comatose state for all of them. The embedding of the multiple layers of dreams is a directorial tour de force. In such sure hands the viewer is never lost in the complications but has the pleasure of feeling that it frequently stretches you.
Whereas ‘A Single Man’ is based on the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood, which follows a desparate single day in the life of a deeply grieving single man – possibly the last day as the man, George Falconer, played by Colin Firth, prepares to commit suicide. Falconer is an expatriate Englishman in Los Angeles, a bespectacled college professor teaching English literature, a discreet gay man whose partner, Jim, has just died in a car accident. It is 1962, and there is fever and change in the air: the recently passed Cuban missile crisis has left America in a jittery mood, relieved but still profoundly anxious. The students increasingly affect the style of beatniks, bikers and bohemians, and youth culture is breaking through the suburban conformity. Falconer lectures against the state of fear for fear’s sake and compared to the authenticity of celebration implied by the meeting of Jim and George the students’ testing of youthful ideas are gropingly superficial. Colin Firth's performance is brilliant; as the Guardian reviewer commented, almost radioactive with grief, a grief which he may not express publicly, having been debarred from Jim's funeral by the deceased's family, and compounded (especially for us) by the loss of the couple’s two dogs in the same accident. So George lives this last day, punctuated with flashbacks to poignant memories of times with Jim as a kind of sensory farewell.
Both are great to watch (though the latter is head-and-shoulders better), though apparently no points of connection between the two films; but as they both revolve around the structure of consciousness, for the purposes of argument they were unified in my consciousness so that’s enough to consider the connection.
The reviews of A Single Man were strangely grudging. On the one hand, Colin Firth is universally appreciated for an outstanding portrayal, ably supported by Julianne Moore’s characterisation of his semi-alcoholic best-friend. But all the ones I have read are critical of Tom Ford’s directorial style; eg “sometimes looks like an indulgent exercise in 1960s period style, glazed with 21st-century good taste, a 100-minute commercial for men's cologne: Bereavement by Dior” and “visually potent but after a while it degenerates into a preening perfume commercial.” While once or twice, a beautiful composition is lingered on a moment too long, overall these criticisms are irritatingly misconceived. The only aspect that seemed overly a device of advertising is the absence of text. Advertising is a textual monoculture where only the words and logos of the single product features – it is actually this which makes advertland so unnatural. Despite the criticism being leveled at A Single Man, Inception is similarly textually restrainted but doesn’t get that charge.
In terms of representations of consciousness there is a big hole at the centre of the conception of Inception which makes it much closer to a film of multiple dimensions (like Matrix) rather than recursive dreams: each level has the same degree of reality as the next one and all levels are versions of reality. There’s no surrealism; even though in the dream worlds geometry can be distorted, it only transforms to hyperbolic geometry ie still geometry. The only ‘random intervention’ is a train blasting unexpectedly through one of the team’s set pieces, but in the context of the chase scene it arrives in, it almost doesn’t seem that out of place. There is no strangeness, the dream worlds dont have fuzzy edges, things that arent explicable to the dreamer; there are no puppies! Whereas Colin Firth experiences his day much more realistically as a dream, his consciousness drifts or focuses with intensity that changes the colour of the world, a sensation can overwhelm him, or the scent - when missing his lost dogs, he pets another character’s dog, smelling its head as someone who had lost a loved pet would. One of the reviewers criticised a flashback scene where George and Jim are sun-bathing in an unlikely rocky landscape, criticised it because it looked like an advertising location, but it is more dream-like than any scene in Inception. In comparing the models of consciousness in the two films - Inception's is as digital as its form; A Single Man is a phenomenological study, beautifully balanced and deeply insightful with a poignant conclusion looping back to the opening scenes.
I have a dilemma in writing about the Manchester Literature Festival which has launched its programme for this October: I have noticed that my blog readership doubles when I critically blast some aspect of UK literary banality – so if I comment on the MIF programme in the way that most of my readers would expect I will increase my hits; on the other hand I also notice that the Manchester Blogger Awards are situated within the Festival, so if I say something less critical maybe I’d increase my chances of a Blogger nomination. So prostitute myself for blog-reader popularity or sell out for an Award nomination?
I jest, of course. I couldn’t get a Manchester Blogger nomination because I am too negative about too many things Manchester. This is not because I have particular pleasure in denigrating the city; rather it is because I am fond of Manchester, because I like living here and therefore want it to be what it could be. I want Manchester to be an international city, and am saddened that it only has delusions of grandeur not real prospects (except in football which irritatingly, as an Everton supporter, is the one greatness I am against). A great city has certain characteristics. I want it to have great contemporary architecture and it doesn’t. I want it to have a great orchestra but it doesn’t. I want it to have a great Gallery and it doesn’t. I want it to have an International Festival that's not corporate or Literature Festival that actually contributes something to global artistic dialogue and its own cultural life but it doesn’t (well it does – the Text Festival but Manchester doesn’t acknowledge it). As Kurt Vonneghut would say: so it goes. So I can forget the Blogger nominations because I want Manchester to be more than it is - and so I turn to the Literature Festival programme.
My thoughts on it are mostly poetry related, as nowadays I get very little time to read fiction, but I guess we can extrapolate the quality of the poetry programme as consistent across to fiction.
Having built up to the big statement, it may not be world-shattering news for me to say the programme is dismally dull. Self-evidently the hegemony of the banal is installed in this and most other UK literature events, intertwined with the dumb marketing-led publishing, prize-winning poets giving each other prizes and facile literature newspaper coverage. So in this sense, Manchester is merely representative of the UK situation - the hegemony of the banal is a gauge symmetry – pretty much interchangeable with other such festivals in the UK - accommodation of mediocrity, indeed its celebration. Fundamentally, the purposeless Hegemonists have no artistic direction (just telling their own stories in their own voices) and so their festivals are artistically static. It is analogous to Richard Dawkins’ observation of the corrosive effect of day-to-day superstitions such as astrology on rationality; or the delusions of ‘be-nice’ liberalism – which have been cruelly exposed for their political vacuity in the current evil of the coalition government.
The only event that seems odd is the Tribute to Roy Fisher, which raises the question: Why has this particular poet been located in a relation to the mainstream? After all as Marjorie Perloff observed: “Fisher’s ‘cutting’ of the page, with its removal of words from their ‘planned situations’, anticipated a mode that became prominent in the U.S., not only in Silliman’s poetry but in that of many other Language poets, at least a decade after Fisher had written the (evidently unknown to them) Cut Pages”. But then in the brochure copy you find that his work has been championed by Carol Ann Duffy – the festival is shot-through (as Sartre would say) with Duffy. As Nate Dorward notes in Jacket 12 “a new mainstream postmodernism represented by authors like Craig Raine, Carol Ann Duffy, Paul Muldoon and Simon Armitage, and more generally by the popular dissemination of the clichés of poststructuralist theory…Fisher’s poetry has become less formally unpredictable since the mid-1970” and “The Cut Pages, Fisher’s most experimental text, is little known outside the ranks of Fisher enthusiasts because of its exclusion from the Oxford and Bloodaxe editions of his poems”. So that explains it.
Ordinarily MLF would not occupy my thoughts for more than the time it takes to flick through the brochure and be confirmed in the expectation that there is nothing worth attending. However, the mainstream is fond of its competitions – it is the way in which it validates itself, sells its books, rewards its mates. MLF is liberally sprinkled with awards, there’s even a gala prize dinner (in the company of Simon Armitage et al) for something called the Manchester Poetry Prize. But there is one prize which the mainstream can never have, despite their bid for it in the centre spread of the Festival Brochure. And that is Best Poetry Dog. MLF’s whimsical design conceit is minimalist and newsprint style, punctuated by photos of flyposted epigrammatic sentences, with the addition on the centre spread of an intensely focused Border Terrier pulling toward something out of shot (amusingly it seems to have more directional intent than the mainstream poetry it has been co-opted to represent). The mainstream has a tendency to raid beyond its boundaries to pick up less threatening elements of more experimental work, the flyposting is a neat absorption of street poem installations stretching back to Cobbing and beyond, and more recently Phil Davenport’s interventions in Manchester and other cities; but the inclusion of the Border Terrier, can only be seen as a doomed attempt to take on the world’s most famous Poetry Dog – Barney. (I obviously highly rate Márton Koppány’s Gertrude S. in Budapest but I think Márton would accept that Barney holds the crown). This is a field of poetic contention which the Hegemony can not win. So the terrier – nameless therefore simply a model rather than a real poetry dog – fails miserably to challenge the Barnster. As evidence of Barney’s poetry credentials I offer the illustrations in this blog: Barney and Derek Beaulieu Barney (as a puppy) sitting in Robert Grenier’s shoes Barney and Ron Silliman reading Geof Huth (photoed by Geof himself)
And therefore I am sure you will join me in celebration as the Award for the Best Poetry Dog goes to … Barney.
I've not really had time to blog this last week or more due to the Text Festival curating. Between now and early November is the busiest period of organisation. It is such a big labour that it has to be done in phases. The Text Festival website should be back live any day now with the first announcements of what and who's on but in the meantime there is now a Text Festival Facebook and Twitter.
This coming week I am off to Malta for a break - except while I am there I will be finishing my article for the Shortcut Europe Conference publication, the sleeve notes for Ben Gwilliam's disc of 'moltosemplice e cantabile', my Nono sound-poem for the Luigi Nono Project, and my forthcoming collection for ifpthenq "The Tragedy of Althusserianism". I have a couple of long blog rants also on the go which may make it up here when I get back.