October 24, 2012

A note on Every Song I've Ever Written


From 1985 to 2004, PME-ART co-artistic director Jacob Wren wrote songs. Lots and lots of songs. Then he completely stopped. At the time not very many people heard them. In a way, because hardly anyone heard them, we might say that these songs don’t yet exist. Every Song I’ve Ever Written is a project about memory, history, things that may or may not exist, songwriting, the internet and pop culture.

Every Song I’ve Ever Written is a project with four parts:

1) A website (www.everysongiveeverwritten.com) on which you can listen to, and download, all the songs Jacob wrote between 1985 to 2004. You can also record your own versions, send them to us, and we will post them on the site.

2) Karaoké Nights where anyone can sing one of the songs Karaoké-style, with Jacob playing guitar behind them.

3) Solo Performances in which Jacob will perform all of the songs in chronological order (it takes about five hours.) When put all together these songs form a picture not just of Jacob’s life but also of the decades during which they were written.

4) Band Nights where five local bands (in different cities: Düsseldorf, Montreal, Mannheim, Helsinki, Malmö, etc.) will perform one song each. After they perform the song there will be an interview in which Jacob asks the band what it was like to cover the song and the band can ask Jacob what it was like to write it.

We are not doing this because we think these are the best songs ever (we hope at least a few of them are good.) We are doing this because hardly anyone heard them at the time, and we are wondering if there is some new, strange way to bring them out into the world. In doing so we hope to raise a few questions about what songs mean on the internet, about what songwriting is actually like today, and also take a sidelong glance back at the recent past.

(P.S. On the site, the songs are listed in chronological order starting when Jacob was 14, so some of the best songs are probably closer to the middle or end of the list.)


October 19, 2012

Some brief thoughts on energy


I have been thinking so much about solar energy, about how much of what I read, especially from a mainstream perspective, seems misplaced. When I read that we will not be able to generate enough energy using solar and wind, I feel they are completely missing the point. The points are:

1) That these new, sustainable technologies will force us to use less, will demonstrate – on a real, lived, experiential basis – that resources are renewable but not infinite.

2) That there is more autonomy, and less greedy profit, in a decentralized power grid.

3) That the many exorbitant expenses of polluting the air and water are simply not being factored into the standard calculations. Environmental devastation is expensive on every level.

But it is mainly the first point I obsess over. Let’s say you have solar panels on the roof of your house. Each day, you will use only as much energy as these panels generate. When it runs out you go to sleep and wait for the sun to come up tomorrow. The energy is not infinite, not available twenty-four hours a day. There are limits and you learn, out of necessity, how to live within them.

This, for me, is the main lesson of sustainable technologies. They would force us to live differently, to be aware of daily limits, to find solutions that acknowledge real limitations. They do not make life easier in every way. They make life harder in some ways, ways that force a fundamental shift in how we see the world and our place within it. I also suspect that working within a series of concrete, reasonable limitations would bring along with it a kind of reality and even joy.

It is easy for me to write these things, since I am certainly not living them, and I am clearly not the first to suggest this. However, I definitely wish they were being said far more often.


Six Manifestos and/or Semi-manifestos


Over the past few years, I have written six manifestos (and/or semi-manifestos):

Notes on Literature (Unfinished Manifesto)

Manifesto for Confusion, Struggle and Conflicted Feelings

Songs Are Meant For Singing, a manifesto

Resistance as Paradox

Artist’s Pledge

A short history of anti-theatre, non-music, counter-philosophy, semi-specific art and unpolitics

I wonder if I will write more.


October 15, 2012

Jeremy M. Davies quote


It all comes back to our old friend the arbitrary constraint. (The following is a fairly familiar argument, I think, but come along anyhow, we’ll make a day of it.) One of the basic tenets of the Oulipo—founded in reaction, if not opposition, to Breton’s Surrealists—is that freedom, in writing (that is, “letting it flow,” and other such nauseating commonplaces), leads one to produce derivative offal. That is, when you free associate, it isn’t you talking, it’s the culture: we’re all plugged into the same calcified memes, cadences, and clichés; we’ve all got hearts, brothers and sisters, of bullshit. And yet—and yet!—we all still have to use the same words to communicate, all have to dip into the same language(s) to write “creatively,” all have to do our best to keep English (in this case) a worthwhile medium. The only way to circumvent the unclean spirit is to put pressure on our means of expression—and the best way isn’t to stop at naming your character “John McLane” rather than “Mr. M’Choakumchild” (though this is no less a constraint, and no less arbitrary, really, than not using the letter E), but to frustrate one’s compositional impulses at their root. Now everyone can type “Oulipo” into a search engine and choose their own example.

What this has to do with smut is that here, again, is a medium where one is restricted to a fairly finite number of effective tools. Sex as sex is not all that interesting, outside the context of our complex reactions to it in life, in art, in passing. Prudishness, then, is an arbitrary constraint on human interaction and expression. It makes smut more interesting and peculiar if it comes out of someone battling their own inability to be forthright about . . . whatever. Even if they succeed in writing something quite filthy, this filth is a different filth from the filth mongered by an author who feels they have nothing to hide. (Which reminds me: my favorite Oulipian constraint? The “Canada Dry”: Write something that reads as though it was written under a constraint, but was not.)

- Jeremy M. Davies, find the rest of the interview here


October 13, 2012

Internet Feelings


[This text was originally published in Spike Art Quarterly #25.]

As an artist I feel more or less irrelevant. It seems to me that I am one of approximately a billion artists on the planet, all making our little projects, hoping that someone will see them and, for a few moments, be interested. All of us trying to scrape by and whip up a modicum of success. In the grand scheme of things the work I make, and the work I see, barely feels like ephemera, as if it were vanishing as soon as it appeared. YouTube seems important. Facebook feels significant. I don’t play videogames, but I suspect there is something happening there as well. I cannot think of a single artist or group of artists today that can begin to match the society-changing force of these technological innovations. Maybe in the sixties, maybe even in the eighties, but not today.

All of this is, most likely, an unfair comparison: artists are artists and the Internet (and video games) are global technologies with military origins. Perhaps art simply isn’t, or is no longer, about changing the world. It is about enriching our lives within the moment, in our direct encounter and experience of it. Nonetheless, when I am working, attempting to make something, more and more such comparisons are never far from my mind. There was one paradigm shift with the invention of the printing press, another intense shift with the introduction of a television set into every Western home, and possibly, as we speak, another overhaul with the predominance of the internet. I can certainly not prove it, but I have a feeling, this suspicion: in terms of art, the internet changes everything. What makes this fact potentially negative is that we haven’t even begun to understand what these changes might be or mean. At least I haven’t.

(There are of course many artists today working on and about the internet. That is not quite what I mean. I am wondering about something larger, some more fundamental shift.)

When I was growing up there was a great deal of talk about post-modernism. You don’t hear nearly as much about it now. For me, what post-modernism most resembled was television. The juxtaposition of different positions and historical styles felt like different television channels, sitting side by side yet not particularly affecting one another. The idea that everything could be shoved together in every possible way, what did this resemble more than flipping channels: programs, commercials and music videos all blurring together into one never-ending flow.

When both radio and television were first invented, it was proposed that they could be revolutionarily democratic mediums, that everyone could broadcast from their homes, that new pathways of global communication were opening, but quickly monopolies developed and they became something quite different, much as we know them today. For the time being, the internet fulfills certain of the early democratic aspirations of radio and television. Anyone can post a YouTube video. Anyone can start a blog. It is quite likely that no one will watch my video or read my blog, but this reality is also somehow democratic. As Emily Vey Duke has concisely stated, YouTube replaces the one-to-many ratio of traditional media with a one-to-one ratio. I post a video and my friend watches it. Complete strangers might also watch it but it is unlikely there will be very many. And then every once in a while, like a hurricane, there is a rush, a meme, a million hits and it’s done. As an artist I can put my work on the internet, potentially have it seen everywhere in the world at once. But of course everyone else, artist or not, can do exactly the same thing.

The way radically different materials are juxtaposed on the Internet seems, to me, significantly different from the way in which different television channels, or television shows and their commercials, press against one another. On YouTube, when I am watching a video, there is a long list of related videos down the right hand side of the screen. This selection of related videos is generated by an algorithm. Often selections appear within this list that seem strange, make no sense, where I am unable to see the logic of the choice. This list is provided in order to be helpful, but within its helpfulness there are moments of pure dada (or data.) In a way, it is only an acceleration, an increase in the degree and quantity of simultaneity. But like any acceleration, it brings along with it qualitative changes as well.

The internet as collage-machine: where massive amounts of related and unrelated materials exist side by side, all at the same time, separated only by the same monotonous click. (Other loose examples: Having four or five browser windows open at the same time. Or a Wikipedia page in which a compendium of different authors and sources are formatted to appear as a single text.) And yet, considering the breadth and variety of material available, it is shocking to me how narrow and limited my use of it is. Most days I look at the same handful of sites, occasionally following a few loose threads but rarely following them very far. I have the strange feeling that, within me, the internet promotes an ever-increasing lack of curiosity. I can click forever and nothing will genuinely catch my interest. (Or at least I would be required to look at far too many things before stumbling upon something that eventually did.) Taken as a whole, it is more information than I could ever digest. An endless bricolage of the entire world: in all its crassness, banality, confusion, redundancy, interspersed with tiny yet electric sparks of interest, compassion, violence and difference.

I have suggested that the internet embodies a certain democratic potential. While this is my personal experience, it is also highly suspect, since when I am attempting to use the internet in a democratic manner, at the same time I am also generating data trails that subject me to new forms of social monitoring and control from corporations, advertisers and the state. A strong mix of (illusory) freedom and (potential) surveillance blankets the web. I don’t necessarily experience the informational trails I generate, or the surveillance I am subject to, and therefore will leave such Big Brother aspects, obviously troubling, aside (in the same manner I put them out of mind when I am surfing the web.) Yet the discomfort persists: that the collage I generate through my random curiosity (along with my email writing, profile constructing, etc.) may be used to monitor, manipulate, somehow control me.

The fact that Facebook, to this day, fails to make a profit: I hope this is a timid sign of what the future might still hold in store. And yet the possibility that Facebook is little more than Big Brother run by Deep Blue, this is the other, more pernicious, face of what might be to come.

Perhaps, in a more ordered, coherent world (for example the 1920’s), avant-garde strategies of visual juxtaposition and bricolage might have felt jarring or provocative. Instead, we now live in a flow of anti-contextualizing visual and informational chaos. For the most part, we don’t experience this chaos as such. We select. We make our little stories that navigate us through the ambush (I am interested in this, this and this, considerably less interested in the rest.) We are not worried about missing out, since we know that everything outside of our little stories, everything else, is only, now and forever, just a click away.

I remember reading about how in the eleventh century (as least I think it was the eleventh century) people would go on a pilgrimage, walk for several weeks to see a painting, and how it might be the only reproduced image they would see in their natural lives. I try to imagine what it would be like to walk for three or four weeks simply in order to see an image, what the experience of viewing an image might mean after such a journey. I am unclear whether or not this anecdote is historically accurate, but nonetheless it is a way of thinking about an experience of the image, in this case a painting, that is radically different from our own, that we have no way of accessing, no reference points for or towards.

Feeling irrelevant, marginal, powerless, these are also lacks that fit very neatly within the guiding principles of capitalism and neo-liberalism. If I feel marginal I must work harder, network more efficiently, promote myself with greater panache. As I do so I might fail to notice many things: not only how, year by year, power is being further consolidated by corporations with an ever-expanding global reach (the corporations I in fact feel powerless in relation too), but also how in some small, tepid manner my own actions and motivations mirror the insatiable expansionism of the corporate world. There is a certain kind of artist that, suspecting it is impossible, still wants his or her work to have the impact of a Hollywood blockbuster (but of course with a much greater sense of integrity.)

This sense of lack is also (always) an excellent trait for a consumer to possess. I will try to fill this undefined sense of emptiness with purchases, career goals, with an endless variety of goals of every kind that I will select for myself as if from a market shelf. I will not necessarily realize that this sense of lack has been created within me in order to make me a more voracious consumer. Because, of course, of the massive amounts of images and information that are available to me, so many of them, in one way or another, have been put in place in order to sell me something. And I don’t want to sell anything. In fact, I don’t want to sell myself. But, also, I don’t want to sell myself short.

I believe art should fight the status quo. At the same time, it often seems to me that much, or most, art I see is actually doing the exact opposite, that it is barely a millimeter away from the ruling logics of our time, just a hairbreadth from power. Resistance is rare, often ineffective, but nonetheless must be cherished. As I write these things, I worry they are little more than empty platitudes. I want to write them anyways. I don’t hear such statements often and therefore crave to see them in print. And yet how do you resist within an ever-expanding field of informational chaos? What do you resist? Where is the solid ground from which to launch an attack, the runway along which one can effectively achieve liftoff?

The power of bricolage and collage lie in their ability to show us radically different materials side by side, to allow us to compare and contrast, see how things might be put together in ways we would have never previously expected, generate new possibilities. The internet also does this. In a work of visual or literary collage, it is the author or artist who decides what information is juxtaposed with what. On the internet, we ourselves (partially) decide with every click. However, this limited sense of autonomy is rarely invigorating. Through a lens of deep information-fatigue, it is difficult to view such juxtapositions crisply, for them to keep their critical edge in relation to one another. Everything blurs slightly (or not so slightly) around the edges. Radically disparate materials begin to feel increasingly the same.

Every difficulty, every strangeness, is also an opportunity. And I return to my earlier suspicion: that in terms of art, the Internet changes everything. I stare at this statement and realize that the problem, at least in part, might be that I was born too soon or too late. I have fallen in between, somewhere in the gap between television and internet. Perhaps the artists who will fully grasp this shift, which may be little more than a mirage, have not yet been born. But as Borges wrote: “Like all men, he was simply given bad times in which to live.”


October 12, 2012

Things in the world


I know I should be thinking about, or doing something, with feeling. I look at the things in the world, things I have thought about a great deal and others which leave me utterly blank, and they are like boats on the river in front of me, drifting past, carried by the wind. In fact, I am barely watching them, almost fully immersed in the book I am reading, and yet as soon as I turn each page I have almost no recollection of anything that happened, or that was said, on any of the pages already read, nor do I have any recollection of what I felt about any of it. And yet I know I read those pages, and that the boats did drift past. I know, am certain, yet don’t know anything else, for instance how any of it might concern me, or if there was any way I could have intervened, or if intervention on my part would have been useful or counterproductive. Feeling powerless is the most effective siphon. Last week I went to the launch for an art catalog I have a text in. The catalog is hardcover, about four hundred pages. It features many images and many texts. My text is about Quebec, about the fact I don’t speak or understand French, and about Japan. I don’t know how I feel about what I wrote, and also know that I will receive basically no feedback on it ever, will have no idea if anyone read it and, if they did, what they may or may not have thought. It is dropping a pebble into the void. A world with much noise but no echo. I started a Tumblr account a few days ago and quickly found myself following over two hundred other Tumblr accounts. The images scroll past and just keep scrolling. It is difficult to believe there are so many compelling images in the world and yet, for as long as I am able to sit here, they keep rolling past my eyes. Life is certainly not infinite but this scroll of images is, made by everyone and no one, for pleasure and out of boredom, an infinite confusion that cannot be grasped. Distraction is at war with politics. Infinity is at war with the finite. And all roads lead to either moderation or collapse.


October 11, 2012

Songs Are Meant For Singing, a manifesto


1. Not everyone can play violin or accordion (to give just two examples off the top of my head) but everyone can sing.

2. Singing is one of life’s great pleasures.

3. Listening to songs is great, but it will never be as much fun as singing them.

4. Singing alone is okay, but to get the real feeling one needs a group.

5. Nothing comes closer to a feeling of pure community than singing together with a group of friends. Or a group of friendly strangers.

6. Take the songs you love, get together with the people you love, and sing them.

7. When you sing a song, you more fully make it your own. It is no longer their song, it is now yours as well.

8. If some are better and some worse singers, when we all sing together it very quickly no longer matters. Especially if there are many of us and alcohol is involved.

9. Dancing is also great. But lots of people go out dancing. The invention of recorded music perhaps suppressed singing as a public activity. Lets bring it back.

10. When you sing you can also change the lyrics. It is a chance to say what you want to say. It is a chance to twist the world and make it your own.


October 9, 2012

Found poem on the topic of singing in falsetto


desire is undiluted by an object
romance is undisturbed by love
tragedy is distilled from humanity

[Part of a line from the essay This Prince is No Pretender by Ariel Swartley.]