Saturday, July 14, 2007
Friday, July 13, 2007
An article I wrote for another publication in 2006, repurposed for today...
Teaching at a Media Arts College or;
Why I’m Still a Student
The world can ask you to participate, but it’s a day-by-day decision if you want to agree to that proposal.
It is said that one cannot possibly know what is new without understanding that which is old. With regard to the arts, I would contend, nothing at all is really new anymore, indeed only reverent or irreverent recombinations.
During the summer of 1880, Pierre-Auguste Renoir began work on a painting that eventually became known as Luncheon of the Boating Party. The artwork depicts a group of friends enjoying food, wine, and conversation overlooking the Seine at Maison Fournaise in the Parisan suburb Chatou. It is one of the most recognizable Impressionist paintings ever created, revealing a sense of community within disparate social strata in nineteenth-century France. The artist’s motivation, in part, was a response to author Emile Zola’s criticism of the Impressionists; they sell “sketches that are hardly dry.” The work did not come easily to Renoir. By autumn, he was frustrated, finding it difficult to capture the figures around the table to his satisfaction. He wrote to his friend, the banker and diplomat Paul Bérard, “I'm doing a painting of oarsmen which I've been itching to do for a long time. I'm not getting any younger, and I didn't want to defer this little festivity which later on I won't any longer be able to afford, already it's very difficult . . . . Even if the enormous expenses I'm incurring prevent me from finishing my picture, it's still a step forward; one must from time to time attempt things that are beyond one's capacity.” However scandalous Impressionism was for gallery patrons of the time, it appears that Renoir was keenly aware of his own abilities and compelled to continue challenging himself in a style resisting tradition.
120 years later, Raymond Dufayel, the Glass Man character in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s magical film Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, attempts to reproduce Luncheon of the Boating Party once a year as an exercise in understanding the human condition, trying to grasp what it must have been like for Renoir to paint the setting. The voice-over narration tells us Dufayel is called the Glass Man because of his advanced age and brittle bones. So, to hedge his chances against any physical mishap, the Glass Man lives in a padded apartment and has his groceries and necessities delivered to him. Living in the same building as Dufayel is the film’s ingenuous central character, Amélie Poulain. As a child, Poulain is rarely shown affection by her eccentric parents and is misdiagnosed as having a defective heart when her heartbeat races at the touch of her father’s hand during her annual physical. She is consequently home-schooled and left to her own imagination. Poulain marvels at everything, developing the purest sense of wonder and genuine interest in what makes people happy. Dufayel befriends her with answers to questions she has yet to ask while explaining his reasons for painting Luncheon over and over again. As Justin St. Clair points out in his review of the film written for the Iowa Review in 2001, we soon realize that Dufayel is not trying to paint like Renoir, but rather, he’s trying to be Renoir. Dufayel admits his own difficulty in capturing one particular figure in the middle of the painting, the lady behind the glass. Could this be the same figure that Renoir himself complained of struggling with? "In a word, today I've wiped her out. . . I no longer know where I am with it, except that it is annoying me more and more." The film uses Dufayel’s [Renoir’s] exasperation as a story line to connect with Poulain. He cannot capture the figure’s expression because he does not understand what she’s feeling. Poulain provides a simple explanation of her own life that is fitting of Renoir’s lady behind the glass, “I’m only trying to help people’s messy lives.” Once Dufayel realizes the toil of Poulain, who has become the Renoir figure inside the painting, which itself is inside the frame of film, he is free to express it. Art within art within art. Utterly brilliant. Renoir’s own difficulties in finishing Luncheon are never addressed head-on in Jeunet’s Amélie, but the common struggle and link between Dufayel and Renoir serves to remind us of the extraordinary power of cinematic representationalism, indeed a hidden treasure, unearthed only for those whose manner includes study.
The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.
Disillusionment is a powerful motivator; sometimes it alone can be enough to spawn new combinations of art. In fact, most of what is called rock ‘n’ roll has frustration and animosity at its core. One such moment in the recent past is particularly illustrative. In the mid-1970’s, youthful discontent not only collided head-on with the established authorities in government and social elite, but also with those artists who were desperately trying to hold on to the protest-driven ideals of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. The result was an explosively loud, short-lived movement of simplicity that unknowingly became a portal for the sweeping cultural changes and wide-ranging art that followed. To be sure, the movement was reckless, ironically intellectual, and for the most part, completely misunderstood.
On 4 June 1976, the Sex Pistols played Manchester, England for the very first time. Having seen the Pistols in London a month earlier, Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley [of the newly formed Buzzcocks] invited them to perform at Lesser Free Trade Hall in the Manchester neighborhood of Castlefield. While many since have falsely claimed to witness the event, it is generally accepted that just forty-two people were there. In addition to Devoto and Shelley, those confirmed to be in attendance were Anthony Wilson, Alan Erasmus, Rob Gretton, Martin Hannett [Factory Records], Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook [Joy Division/New Order], Mike Pickering [Haçienda], Stephen Morrissey [The Smiths], and Mick Hucknall [Simply Red]. As the Pistols thrashed about that evening spewing three-chord angry pop songs, a gigantic, collective light bulb switched on. Everyone in the audience instinctively understood that the music, and what it stood for, was a catalyst for a fresh construct. It was embedded with an energy and sensitivity that would bring about a confluence of innovative fashion, art, architecture, graphic design, and of course, music. It’s hard to imagine a single live performance attended by so few would eventually affect so many.
Punk, though not yet so named, had been brewing for some time already in the U.S. with Detroit-based bands like the Stooges and MC5, and New York’s Pere Ubu, Fugs, the Stillettoes, the Dictators, and the Ramones, although most of those bands were fueled by rawness alone. Add some pop art, and that was Velvet Underground. Throw in some fashion and DIY, and up came the New York Dolls and Television. Use poetry, and that was Patti Smith. By mid-1974, Londoners Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood had been to NYC a number of times to exhibit designs from their now infamous Let It Rock King’s Road clothing shop. When not hawking their wares at boutiques shows, the two dove headfirst into the city’s nightclub subculture. It was a startling atmosphere that combined extreme clothing styles, visual art, literature, music, and politics; much of it was impassioned, but lacked focus as a movement. Recognizing a vague connection to Guy Debord’s Situationist International [SI] philosophies, McLaren and Westwood returned to London with the idea of finding a pop group to embody the ethos of NYC’s subculture, but in purely British form and function. That group turned out to be the Sex Pistols. Taking an additional cue from the early twentieth-century Dadaist movement of artistic and cultural rejection, the Pistols were the leading edge, the only band bold enough to sacrificially estrange themselves as a living [and dying] authentic example. They, and those who engaged in the movement, used the arts to point out hypocrisies and corruption in government, the dangers of consumerism, the allure of fraudulent capitalism for excessive personal gain, the psychological strong-hold media had on society, and the importance of environmentalism and animal rights. Of course, none of those issues were new, but for the youth who were numb to the Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan, believing those artists “sold out” in one way or another, punk ferociously brought authenticity into razor-sharp focus once again. The sheer sonic force of the Pistols’ music and precarious behavior blew apart the very fabric of pop culture. They were a blue-white star though, burning so hot, so fast, self-destruction was inevitable. After a mere two years, a few singles, an LP wrought with controversy from four different record labels, and lives of considerable volatility, the band imploded. Even their record sleeve, designed by Jamie Reid in “cut-up” style to reference Dadaist Tristan Tzara and writer William S. Burroughs, drew significant and inescapable controversy. Contemporary bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Jam, the Buzzcocks, Magazine, the Mekons, and the Clash held on to some of the attitude, but truth be told, everything had changed. Punk music wasn’t dead, but the movement it came from was. On the pop culture timeline, the living and breathing punk era ended the day Johnny Rotten walked off the Winterland Ballroom stage in January 1978. Sure, being punk lingered on for years, but it was more homage than anything. The “leading edge” was now post-punk. In the States, Blondie, Devo, Tubeway Army, and Talking Heads became the “new wave.” Their counterparts in the U.K. were Gang of Four, Echo and the Bunnymen, XTC, and the Cure.
In Manchester, “confirmed” Cambridge intellectual and Granata television presenter Anthony Wilson knew history was in the making. He would later say of the Pistols’ concert at Lesser Free Trade Hall, “It was nothing short of an epiphany.” Wilson and friend Alan Erasmus were convinced music was only part of a much bigger picture. Like McLaren, they were fascinated with the Situationists. In his essay titled Procession, John McCready writes that Debord, Alexander Trocchi, Asger Jorn, Michele Berstein, and others were primarily interested in the “founding concepts of spectacle [the consumer society], unitary urbanism [working towards new ways of living], psychogeography [the emotional impact of environment] and détournement [reconstructing existing art and language to create new meanings].” These concepts were particularly meaningful for Mancunians living in a drab, industrial metropolis. Maybe it was prescience or maybe it was fate, but as soon as Wilson and Erasmus began creating “situations” at the Russell Club in Moss Side to showcase local bands, the young and enthused came out in droves. They called it “Factory.”
Music and dance combined with SI inspired ideas of architecture, urban planning, and graphic design attracted another soon-to-be founding member of Factory, a gifted art student named Peter Saville. He created a poster for the first four Factory nights at the Russell Club that would become symbolic of the Factory design model—minimalistic, high contrast integration of text and color with representationalism overtones. To reach more than just the local crowd with one-off live performances, Wilson, Erasmus, and Saville collaborated on A Factory Sampler, a two-disc EP featuring Joy Divison, The Durutti Column, John Dowie, and Caberet Voltaire. With this release, Joy Division manager Rob Gretton and indie record producer Martin Hannett came on board and Factory Records was born. Holding true to the governing philosophies of the Situationists, Factory developed in the most unusual way: without any band contracts, without a formal business structure, and most importantly, without any financial motivation. The art came first, regardless of cost, and Factory artists were allowed complete creative freedom. Any profits were funneled back into new projects. Wilson was interested in the idea of documenting their history and wanted to start a cataloguing system to track releases. He suggested that A Factory Sampler ought to be FAC 1. But it was Saville who asserted that Factory was profoundly more than just a record label. The poster would be FAC 1, while A Factory Sampler would be given FAC 2. And so began the most idiosyncratic cataloguing system ever devised, assigning numbers to anything and everything related to the Factory concept: posters, clothing, letterhead, gifts, holiday cards, invitations, badges, matchbooks, singles, EP’s, cassettes, LP’s, videos, a menstrual egg timer, Gretton’s capped teeth, and Factory’s grandest experiment, a Ben Kelly designed building called FAC 51, the Haçienda.
Discriminating attention to detail characterized every Factory creation. In an amusing juxtaposition to their name, Factory didn’t make product, they designed it, often veiled in abstract references to other artforms and cultural philosophies. Of course, from a business point of view, that kind of enterprising cost money, sometimes more than would be recouped. FAC 73, the historic New Order 12” single Blue Monday is an example. The extraordinary first pressing actually lost money with each unit sold. Designed by Saville, the original record sleeve was a 12” replica of a 5” floppy disc used in the Fairlight Music System of the time. The outer sleeve was die-cut black while the inner sleeve was silver. Along the right edge was a color-coded cipher, a strip of printer color registration codes that when cracked spelled: FAC 73 BLUE MONDAY AND THE BEACH NEW ORDER. There was no text anywhere on the outer sleeve, and the answer key to the code was only found on the back cover of the follow-up full-length LP Power, Corruption & Lies. A bittersweet irony is that Blue Monday remains the biggest selling 12” single of all time. [NOTE: The complete Factory discography, timeline, and history, including the Haçienda during the “Madchester” years, has been painstakingly documented by a consortium of individuals led by Dennis Remmer, and can be found here:
You have the world at your fingertips; no one can make it better than you.
—Randolph Craig Wolfe
To be authentic is easily the most noble of all human endeavor. If nothing else, authenticity defined the Sex Pistols and Factory. That their refusal to be corporate and boring was ultimately their undoing is, in fact, poetic. Were they any more revolutionary or impactful than Lennon or Dylan in 1962? More than Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock in 1954? Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88 in 1951? What about Roy Brown’s Good Rockin’ Tonight in 1946, or Robert Johnson’s Love In Vain in 1937? For that matter, as an artform, was punk music circa 1975-1978 any more meaningful than artforms of the Postmodernism or Modernism periods? Romanticism, Classicism, Baroque? Did the hearts of punk’s devotees soar more than the followers of DJ Kool Herc, Maria Callas, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Samuel Beckett, Martha Graham, Michelangelo Antonioni, Cormac McCarthy, Salavador Dalí, Arnold Schoenberg, or Missy Elliott? I think my old friend Dan Mead has it right: the great artists of any form from any era are illustrious not because they create[d] new art out of thin air, but because of their incomparable ability to see the big picture; to transform existing vehicles of artistic expression with voices of undeniable focus at particularly momentous times. Boundaries stretched, feathers ruffled, history made.
We all have occasions of connectivity; moments in our lives when the circumstances are just right for art to make us dance. At other times art is a slow rise. Still others, art is crushing and relentless. These connections may occur when we are young or not or intermittently. One thing is certain however, actively engaging to experience art isn’t easy. It requires time, commitment, and discipline. That’s much different than enjoying art passively, as in, firing up James Brown’s Cold Sweat for a run on the treadmill, or watching last year’s Oscar-winning live-action short film, Six Shooter, on a 320 x 240 pixel TFT display. And therein lies the rub.
Working to “get” art is in direct opposition to our twenty-first century proclivity for sloth and personal preference. Christine Rosen writes in an essay titled The Age of Egocasting that we are dangerously heading toward “absent presence.” She convincingly argues the remote control, iPod, TiVo, et cetera have allowed us to contour how we experience society. We selfishly manage and organize our lives with preference pop-up menus, affording us opportunities to “filter culture” more and more, resulting in a minimum amount of external influence and a maximum amount of personal preference, i.e., satisfaction. Not only do these technologies promote isolation, they simultaneously endorse cultural indolence. Rosen is spot on, “The more convenient our entertainments, the weaker our resolve to meet the challenges posed by difficult or inconvenient expressions of culture. Music and images are now delivered directly to us, and we consume them in the comfort of our own homes. You can see reproductions of major works of art by perusing the Internet; even literature has been modified for easy consumption.” Technology has literally saved us from having to surrender ourselves to anything anymore. Unfortunately, these phenomena are not limited to art. Rosen also cites Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor and author of Republic.com, “As the customization of our communications universe increases, society is in danger of fragmenting, shared communities in danger of dissolving . . . . People should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unplanned, unanticipated encounters are central to democracy itself.” Rosen continues, “If these technologies facilitate polarization in politics, what influence are they exerting over art, literature, and music? In our haste to find the quickest, most convenient, and most easily individualized way of getting what we want, are we creating eclectic personal theaters or sophisticated echo chambers? Are we promoting a creative individualism or a narrow individualism? An expansion of choices or a deadening of taste?”
Three examples for your amusement:  One could walk down the long corridor of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, approaching the beautifully lit, large canvas of John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo, taking in its resounding foot stomp, shouts, and hand claps, “Olay!,” then stroll with a lingering visual into an adjacent courtyard filled with the swirling perfume of flowers; or, more efficiently, Google it online.  One could sit in the first row balcony of a respected concert hall with a community of passionate music lovers, intently listening to a 200 voice chorale and 95 piece orchestra thunderously attack O Fortuna, the opening movement of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana; or, more simply, download it from iTunes at 128kbps and don a pair of earbuds.  One could surrender themself to a weekend’s reading and study of Decorations in a Ruined Cemetary, John Gregory Brown’s impressive and heartrending tale of race, struggle, and forgiveness in the deep South; or, with much less effort, listen to it as an audio book during rush hour commutes.
Studying and regular practice of experiencing art beyond one’s own capacity is vital to developing resourcefulness, ultimately pushing one toward vulnerability, and away from complacency. Knowing this is counter to the societal shift of personal preference, institutions of higher learning, and their educators, must surrender any notions of laissez-faireism. I believe the very best of academia, especially at Liberal Arts and Media Arts institutions, is collaborative. That is to say, the surest way to turn off a twenty-first century student’s ambition to mature is to define education as a one way street. Classroom hierarchy need not imply an impenetrable barrier between teacher and student. Learning hands-on is a good start, but today's education must go further. Students must also feel safe in their inevitable failures as they dive headfirst in what to them are literally unknown learning experiences. They must be able to not only get outside of their own boxed, isolated, personal preference world, but feel welcome as they collaborate with students in related disciplines and branch outward in their art experieinces.
A terrific example is the Princeton Atelier. Founded in 1994 by Toni Morrison, Nobel laureate and Professor of Humanties at Princeton University, the Atelier brings world-renowned artists to work in partnership with students, faculty, and each other. Harold T. Shapiro, then president of Princeton explains, “the focus of the Atelier is on the process of creating a work of art rather than on the finished product . . . . Imagine watching cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bass player Edgar Meyer, composer Richard Danielpour, and Toni Morrison work on an original song. Think of working with theater and opera director Peter Sellars to interpret a sixteenth-century Chinese opera. Filmmaker Louis Massiah and his fellow guest artists Charlene Gilbert and Carlton Jones collaborated with students to produce two documentaries that were later entered in Philadelphia's public television documentary film festival. The first Atelier in 1994 brought together choreographer Jacques d'Amboise, director of the National Dance Institute, and novelist critic A.S. Byatt to compose with students a dance inspired by A.S. Byatt's novel Possession.”
The future is now; and by the way, blink and you're left behind. Engage with passion and purpose and be willing to surrender your comfort zone to excel beyond, however, and the gates to the twenty-first century are wide open.
-Rosenbaum Fine Art, Boca Raton, Florida
-The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
-Justin St. Clair, The Iowa Review, Celebrating Reproduction
-A.S. Van Dorston, Fast ‘n’ Bulbous, History of Punk
-D.K. Peneny, History of Rock ‘n’ Roll
-John McCready, Dazed and Confused, Procession
-Christine Rosen, The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society, The Age of Egocasting
-Ted Uzzle, regular supporter of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA
-Princeton University, The President’s Page, Princeton Alumni Weekly, May 1998
Berger, Steven - Special Projects Coordinator
Bergeron, Brad - Registrar
Christopher, Mario - CFO
Drucker, Lindsay - Student Advisor
Ehrlich, Nick - Faculty, Game Development
Epstein, Dan - IT
Froehle, Paula - Academic Dean and Chair of Film
Harovas, Perry - Chair of Visual Effects and Animation
Hawley, Peter - Associate Chair of Film
Jackson, Gregg - ACI/ACSR Elite Systems Manager
Jones, Charles - Dean of Students
Kiwala, Terry - Strategic Projects Manager
Landry, Rachel - Marketing
Landry, Ric - Founder/Chairman
Luif, George - Engineering
Mack, Bernie - Faculty, Recording Arts
Murray, John - Chair of Recording Arts
Owczarski, Mary - Dean of Career Development
Paras, Ernesto - Director of Operations
Peebler, Simeon - Chair of Game Development
Petry, Laura - Controller
Pollack, Barbara - Project Manager and Designer
Ransom, Lauren - Admissions
Rising, Amy - Faculty, Film
Rusin, Julie - Public Relations
Smith, Jacob - Admissions
Stutz, Chris - IT
Tullman, Howard - CEO/President
White, Phineas - Utility
Completed mixing last night, delivering a 5.1 surround track as well as a two-channel downmix version. Sean Clark, Steven Berger, Danielle Corches, and JM have been grinding away at this for some time now, but finally locked into a great workflow these past 3-4 sessions and ended up with a gorgeous sounding track. Danielle will now prepare the hd cut and begin the festival journey with fabulous inertia. We all look forward to the DVD packaging and release.
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Though it was a low turn out—I suppose the severe thunderstorm hanging over the 2600 block of Halsted had something to do with it—Bernie and I made our presence known at GC, passing out postcards and business cards to, most importantly, the store managers who will carry the FPA torch in our absence everyday. In talking with patrons and GC employees, we learned some valuable information, such as, most of the audiences who frequent the city stores [already working professionals] tend NOT to be who we a looking for, rather, the young and enthused are in the suburbs. We are currently arranging contact with the regional district manager who will provide us dates of clinics held at suburban stores so we can better target prospective students. All in all, through soaked clothes and no slam dunks, we feel like it was time well spent.