February 26, 2011

Insincere YouTube Auteur


I wanted, I desired, to become the Jean Luc Godard of YouTube. Could there actually be a Jean Luc Godard of YouTube? I was in Brussels. Marcel Broodthaers was a Belgian conceptual artist from the sixties. He is very well regarded here in Belgium but I’m not sure how many people know about him back in Canada. There is a postcard of him staring out the back of a moving train, smiling and waving. Besides him is a small girl who is also smiling and waving. I used to have that postcard. I have no idea where it is now. But I kept thinking of that postcard and of these two Broodthaers quotes from 1964:

I too wondered if I couldn't sell something and succeed in life. I had for quite a little while been good for nothing. I am forty years old... the idea of inventing something insincere finally crossed my mind and I set to work at once.

In art exhibitions I often mused... Finally I would try to change into an amateur. I would revel in my bad faith... Since I couldn’t build a collection of my own, for lack of even the minimum of financial means, I had to find another way of dealing with the bad faith that allowed me to indulge in so many strong emotions. So, I said to myself, I’ll be a creator. 

All my life I have been working with too much sincerity, trying to make works of art that would last forever, becoming quietly ridiculous in the attempt. I am 39. I too wondered if I couldn't sell something, or rather give something way for free, and therefore succeed in life. On YouTube I could be ephemeral, amateur, insincere in a way that simply felt impossible elsewhere in my life. Or so I hoped, desired. Could there be a Jean Luc Godard of YouTube? Is Lil B already the Jean Luc Godard of YouTube or is there room for me as well? Is Ryan Trecartin? I knew I meant something fairly specific with this idea, this desire, this phrase ‘YouTube auteur’, yet I still didn’t know exactly what. I knew I wanted to make video, or rather I didn’t want to make video at all, I wanted to make YouTube, perhaps make YouTube every day, seven days a week, have it watched by millions of people all around the world, and have those millions of people experience the work in a manner that effectively transcended how they had previously experienced the internet. I knew that by ‘YouTube’ I meant something both the same and radically different than what everyone else meant when they used the term, that my plan had absolutely nothing to do with videos of cats or babies eating lemons. But then again I didn’t know even that. Maybe there was room for cats, or at least kittens, somewhere within the labyrinthine vision of my daily YouTube making practice.

In 1960, with his debut film À bout de souffle, Godard invented the jump cut. He did so almost by accident. The conversation scenes he had shot were too long and boring, and he had no coverage, so he simply got rid of the boring parts, cutting from one highlight to the next. It was the simplest idea and yet apparently no one had tried it before. What has no one ever tried on YouTube and why do I feel certain someone else will think of it before me? And I don’t want them, those who are more clever, ingenious or simply much younger, to become the Jean Luc Godard’s of YouTube. I want it to be me, with my language, craft and insincerity. I want to think of the idea, the breakthrough, perhaps even tonight, purchase a video camera first thing tomorrow morning, start shooting. But not shooting just anything. Shooting something that will effortlessly manage to cut through, to shatter, the incessant chatter of the internet. Something that will accrue meaning with repeated viewings, inspire imitators, be critical towards the medium which it is simultaneously revolutionizing, change the fundamental ways in which YouTube videos are made and perceived. Clearly I do not know how to make this happen.

Godard invented the jump cut, emulated Hollywood while simultaneously disassembling it, was part of a zeitgeist that altered cinema forever. Broodthaters built his own museums long before such conceptual bait and switch was the art world norm. Where was the lever that could turn YouTube inside out, twist it around so it quietly, thrillingly, became new again? Why was I so certain this was possible and yet equally uncertain how? And why was I also certain that some strain of insincerity, of forcing the issue, lay at the heart of the project. Was it only that I had no idea how to proceed yet planed to blindly push forward regardless, marking any action I might take as insincere, motivated solely by the attempt to fill the empty husk of YouTube and not from any inner content or need? What was sincerity on the internet? Could it be anything other than a lure for endless anonymous ridicule? Did I want to be ridiculed? Ridiculed like a genius down into the grave?

I didn’t know what I wanted. I wanted to become the Jean Luc Godard of YouTube but instead wrote a 941 word text and published it on my blog, which is no more able to christen me the Jean Luc Godard of YouTube than I am able to christen it the Bible.


February 25, 2011

Rosi Braidotti on Affirmative Ethics


Negative passions are black holes. In affirmative ethics, the harm you do to others is immediately reflected on the harm you do to yourself in terms of loss of potentia, positivity, capacity to relate and hence freedom. Affirmative ethics is not about the avoidance of pain, but rather about transcending the resignation and passivity that ensue from being hurt, lost and dispossessed. One has to become ethical, as opposed to applying moral rules and protocols as a form of self-protection.

An adequate ethical relation is capable of sustaining the subject in his or her quest for more inter-relations with others i.e. more ‘Life’, motion, change and transformation. The adequate ethical question provides the subject with a frame for interaction and change, growth and movement. It affirms life as difference-at-work and as sustainable transformations. An ethical relation must confront the question of how much freedom of action we can endure. Affirmative ethics assumes that humanity does not stem out of freedom, but rather that freedom is extracted out of awareness of our multiple limitations. Affirmation is about freedom from the burden of negativity, through the understanding of these limitations.

- Rosi Braidotti, The New Activism, A Plea for Affirmative Ethics


February 21, 2011

Speaking About Politics


Sometimes when you’re in a room with a bull, and you’re holding a piece of red fabric, the only thing you can think to do is wave the fabric around.

Dog barking just to hear his own echo.

In Lisbon, where the sky and water are beautiful.

Thinking about everything again.

Wondering how people will speak of us, after we are gone.


February 19, 2011

Notes from the Jacques Rancière / Pedro Costa round-table


[On Friday February 18th I attended the round-table between Jacques Rancière and Pedro Costa which was part of the conference Image in Science and Art. What follows are my notes. Most of the statements are approximations of things said by Pedro Costa, who I found enormously inspiring.]

I need cheap machines.

I want to push the machines into the past.

I can only think about yesterday, today, and I cannot think about tomorrow.

Everyone knows this, with digital machines, with computers, sometimes something happens and nobody knows why.

Digital problems: noise and squares and everything that happens.

Q: You think this image is not healthy enough? A: They [the images] need to be a little bit more alive.


We were talking completely about us and we had stopped talking about the machines.

Appear / disappear.

Work with natural light whenever possible.

I have to take them to the light, which means to the window.

We have a lot of doubts and we're not convinced that we're going to get there.

We have so little that it should be sufficient.

The problem is how to turn the doubt into something positive.

Classic Hollywood movies had a conscience.

There's no place for two at the window so one will be in the dark: a voice, a conscience.

Today there's a big problem.

It's a melange of what's happening today, trying to be a little bit documentary [and also towards something a bit classic like Mizoguchi.]

Images today hate to confront reality, to confront what is happening.

Films today are trying to avoid reality, to escape.

Here, without vanity, we tried to go somewhere and we got there.

Too many images of one kind.

An image that breaks consensus.

It's an effect, it's very effective.

Film is closely related to some kind of justice and even to revenge.

Cinema could be an avenger.

There is a profound social injustice today and there's a profound filmic injustice.

Confronting ourselves with some sort of reality.

I still think images and words can go together.

He was the one who could write the letters for the other workers. A lover letter, a money letter. There is a formula and he improvises a little bit.

He was more or less the prisoner and the guardian of the prison. "I died every night and the only thing keeping me alive was alcohol and writing these letters" [for other workers to send back home.]

When it slips completely out of control.

This letter that was only supposed to be one scene, three or four shots, became the whole film - that was a contradiction in the film.

This character who cannot learn the letter, in the end, just tells it like he knew it all his life.

I am very eager and interested to work with some people and not with other people. And I don't like to put my words in their mouths.

One of the lessons of Godard - everything is there for us to pick up and use when it is useful.

In the past there were films that had sounds that were much more powerful than any of the images.

Sometimes what seems most alien - Desnos, the surrealist poet - is in fact the perfect marriage for me.

It's terrible, sometimes, a documentary. It's terrible what you see and hear in a documentary.


February 15, 2011

A short interview I did with Catherine Lacey for HTMLGIANT


Catherine Lacey: Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed has this backdrop of a disenfranchised political movement, which was so dead-on. Was this based working as an activist of some sort? If not, what spurred the decision to have a book set in this way?

Jacob Wren: I’ve had a little bit of experience with activism and in the anarchist community, mainly when I was much younger, but that wasn’t exactly what made me write about these things (though it most likely affected my take on it.) In some ways Revenge Fantasies, and my previous book Families Are Formed Through Copulation, are both responses to the shock of the Bush years, to my feeling that the world was sliding into some new kind of fascism (perhaps I was over-reacting but I’m still not sure, time will tell) and there seemed to be so little one could do. I kept reading the papers, wondering what was possible, how to fight against everything that was happening. I continue to feel so pathetically overwhelmed by the injustices that rule the world: the ever-growing chasm between rich and poor, the ways in which our daily consumer choices contribute to the evisceration of the natural world (of which we are in fact only a small part), more prisons and more profitable prisons, the pure evil that is Monsanto, wars being fought for corporate gain… all right, when I write such lists I basically feel like a fucking dreadful Marxist bore. Everyone knows and then what can you do? Well, the obvious solution is to get together with large numbers of other people and fight. But how to find the common purpose and solidarity, and how exactly to fight, is by no means easy or clear.

And then I started thinking about fidelity. The fight will be long, difficult and often painfully discouraging. It requires something like an infinite patience and overwhelming fidelity or conviction. Well, fidelity has never been my strong suit. In that respect I’m of my generation: a bit ADD. And I started comparing different kinds of fidelity: fidelity to a political cause versus fidelity within a romantic relationship. (I’ve never been called upon to test my fidelity to a political cause but I have experienced questions of fidelity in and around romance.) Somehow, along this path, I ended up with a love triangle, some strange kind of juxtaposition between a more political question (fidelity to a cause) and a classic soap-opera device (broken fidelity to a lover). What happens to the fidelity of the original relationship in a love triangle, how does it evolve, disintegrate, become more paradoxical? And how is this analogous, or completely different, from fidelity to a political cause? I wanted to write about these questions in ways I had never seen them written about before – full of doubt, confusion, curiosity, precision, cynicism and joy.

Catherine Lacey: While writing it, did the direction the book ended up going surprise you at all?

Jacob Wren: Yes, as I wrote, most of the time I never really knew where it was going (and even now that it’s done I’m still not quite sure I know what it is.) There were so many times when I was completely stuck. Most often the way it came unstuck was I would spontaneously write something so terrible and unexpected I couldn’t help but follow it a bit and see where it led. (I now think a lot of this ‘being stuck’ was simply being hampered by various unexamined notions of good writing and good taste.) Sometimes I felt the trick – like some sort of fucked up alchemist – was to magically transmute the bad taste into good taste, and that this alchemy had something to do with what it means to write about politics today, though I’m still not sure exactly what. I love it when I’m writing and something completely unexpected comes out. There are also a lot of things in the book I ripped off, but hopefully ripped off in such a perverse way they have also become something new.

Catherine Lacey: What’s next for you? I know you’re in Lisbon (and I’m jealous); what’s that all about? Are you working on something set there?

Jacob Wren: Over the past year I have had writing residencies in Denmark at Hald Hovedgaard, in Belgium at Passa Porta and currently here in Portugal hosted by the festival Alkantara. I have been trying to finish a new novel called Polyamorous Love Song. I am very excited about it, I think it is some of the best writing I’ve ever done, and yet, as I’ve been working on it steadily for the past four years, I was starting to worry I might never manage to finish it. I’m just starting to realize that my life is considerably busier than it’s ever been before and I needed to find a way to carve out some additional time to write. These writing residencies were my first attempt at a solution and I honestly can’t believe how helpful it’s been. The new book doesn’t have anything directly to do with Denmark, Belgium or Portugal, and yet, undeniably, all of these places, and the people I’ve met while there, have now influenced it. If you’re curious, here is my first attempt at a description:

Polyamorous Love Song is a novel concerning the relationship between artists and the world. Shot through with unexpected moments of sex and violence, it is written within the strict logic of an absolute dream, a dream that is both the same and opposite to the world in which we live. It is a novel of many through-lines. For example: 1) A group of people who wear furry mascot costumes at all times fighting a revolutionary war for their right to wear furry mascot costumes at all times. 2) A movement known as the ‘New Filmmaking’ in which, instead of shooting and editing a film, one simply does all of the things that would have been in the film, but in real life. This movement has many adherents. 3) A group of ‘New Filmmakers’ who devise increasingly strange sexual scenarios with complete strangers. They invent a drug that allows them to intuit the cell phone number of anyone they see, allowing phone calls to be the first stage of their spontaneous, yet somehow scripted, seductions. 4) A secret society that concocts a virus that only infects those on the political right. They stage large-scale orgies, creating unexpected intimacies and connections between individuals who are otherwise savagely opposed to each other. 5) A radical leftist who catches this virus, forcing her to question the depth of her considerable leftist credentials. 6) A German barber in New York who, out of scorn for the stupidity of his American clients, gives them avant-garde haircuts, unintentionally achieving acclaim among the bohemian set. And yet such stories are only the beginning.

[The accompanying ten sentences I wrote can be found here.]


Ten sentences I wrote for HTMLGIANT (followed by a short interview.)


Ten sentences I wrote for HTMLGIANT (followed by a short interview.)


February 9, 2011

Smarter than the world


This desire to be smarter than the world.

No one is smarter than the world.

The world isn’t even smart.


February 3, 2011

from The Spirit of the Gourd


A lamb eats a mouse: once inside, the mouse worms its way through the lamb's bowels to the end of its tail. Because the lamb suffers greatly from the mouse's biting, it asks a snake to cure it. The snake then eats the lamb's tail. The lamb then wants to eat the snake to avenge its tail. As all of this chewing is slow – just imagine: the mouse eats the bowels, the snake eats the mouse and finally the lamb eats the snake, each chewing the body of the next - it would be no surprise if the lamb had become as tiny as a pea! There are those who call what cannot be seen the indiscernible and in this sequence in which man feeds off the world, representing and idealizing what surrounds him, he is also devoured by the sea monsters and by all the unknown faces glimpsing around the corner. The result is "digestive nihilation" and at the end of all this what can we expect to find that is smaller than the atom? Perhaps a spark, the final infinitesimal chimera placed before even the world itself and devoid of intent and will.

- João Maria Gusmão + Pedro Paiva - O Espírito da Cabaça (The Spirit of the Gourd)