January 26, 2015

"It's much darker, much harder, than anything that happened to you…”


I’ve been obsessively listening to the new Belle & Sebastian album Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. It’s strange the way I’ve been listening to it. I keep telling myself that it’s actually not so good and then keep pressing play again and again.

There’s a kind of story I tell myself about the album. I have no idea if this story has any relation to reality or is simply pure projection. The story is that it’s an album made by artists overly conscious that their best work is long behind them, who are contemplating what it now means to continue making work when you find yourself in this particular situation, how to keep pushing oneself now that the initial rush of youth and inspiration is long gone. This probably says much more about me than it does about Belle & Sebastian, as Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance has become a kind of stand in for me for the kinds of artistic question I’ve been asking myself for (at least) the past twenty years.

There are a few lines in the song Allie that always hit me pretty hard: “You made a list of all your heroes / And you thought about what they went through / Yeah, you thought about what they went through / It's much darker, much harder, than anything that happened to you…”

And then I was thinking about when I first started listening to Belle & Sebastian. It was most likely 1996, the year If You’re Feeling Sinister came out. They were starting out and I was also starting out. I think about the other bands I listened back then: Pavement, Palace Brothers, Smog, Cat Power, Yo La Tengo, Silver Jews, Jim O'Rourke, Pulp, Squarepusher. Probably so many others I can’t remember at the moment (it's almost twenty years ago now.) And Belle & Sebastian is the only one I’m still listening to, or at least still listening to their more recent material. Actually, I stopped listening to them for about ten years and just came back to them this past summer. So maybe I’ll come back to some of the other stuff sooner or later as well. (I do really like that Bill Callahan song Riding for the Feeling.)

But I feel there’s something in the way Belle & Sebastian have reinvented themselves starting with 2010’s Write About Love. A way of re-inventing themselves that (for me) admits they’re never going to be as good as they were when they started, but that it’s still possible to do something now, and this something has to do with taking as much time as possible to make each record, with quality control, and with using all of the available resources to make the kind of real start-to-finish albums that perhaps people aren’t making anymore. And yet I still can’t help but feel Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance isn’t actually that good, which is another way of experiencing my constant anxiety that my own work is not as good as it used to be, or won’t be as good in the future as what I'm currently doing now.

Something else: many of the songs speak of Stuart Murdoch’s younger experiences with chronic fatigue syndrome and I had similar experiences, perhaps during the exact same years he did.

Then I read the review in Pitchfork and there was this passage that made me almost angry:
A flippant comment to Pitchfork about how listeners would rather lose themselves in Nina Simone than Beyoncé shows not just a flagrant misunderstanding of how people listen to Beyoncé, but to the artists they love. He means well, but it faintly stinks of snobbery that's gotten other indie acts in trouble when they've tried to explain their theory of pop with, well, a lot of theory. Tom Krell of How to Dress Well raised hackles when he told Pitchfork he wanted to be "pop, but not populist." But what's wrong with trying to appeal to as many people as possible?
What Stuart Murdoch actually said was:
I don’t hear that kind of honesty so much in pop nowadays, because it’s so processed. When I used to listen to records in the '80s as a teenager—by Morrissey or the Slits or the Raincoats—they were singing to you and telling you stuff about life you didn’t know. It was in the lyrics and it was in the feeling. I don’t mean to sound like an old fuddy duddy, but when you have your headphones on and you’re away for a long walk on the countryside, you want to be controlled by Nina Simone—you don’t want to be controlled so much by Beyoncé.
So really I just want to say that I feel there is something wrong with ‘trying to appeal to as many people as possible’ if it’s an end in itself, if it takes over. And if you don’t know the difference between Nina Simone and Beyoncé, between what they represent, than something has really gone wrong with the current state of criticism. They are like different worlds and we need different worlds, now more than ever. I have absolute nothing against Beyoncé, I like listening to Beyoncé (as I’ve previous tweeted I really like that part in Drunk in Love where she sings surfboard several times in a row.) But there is a kind of soul, depth, resistance, rebellion and all-too-human fucked-upness in Nina Simone that I hope can still exist today.

I don’t know if there is nearly enough soul, depth, resistance, rebellion or fucked-upness in Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, but perhaps it’s an album made by people who know what they are missing yet continue trying to get there anyway. Which is the least any of us can do.


January 22, 2015

Past, Present, Future, Etc.


[This text was originally published in The Coming Envelope Issue 8.]

I read this quote from Chantal Akerman. She is speaking about Jean Luc Godard:
You can see him excluding himself from the world in an almost autistic manner. For people like me, who started doing film because of him, it is a terrible fright. And the fact that the long evolution that Godard has been through can lead to this, almost brings me to despair. He was kind of a pioneer, an inventor who didn’t care much about anybody or anything. And that a man at this stage of his life isolates himself, should also be a lesson for us other filmmakers.
And I wondered if the same thing was happening to me. I have been thinking so much about blurring reality and fiction. I feel it is important to do so, that it is our zeitgeist, but am never precisely sure why. Why is it important to blur reality and fiction? It has something to do with a lack of reality in our lives. Gilles Deleuze writes:
The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. We do not even believe in the events that happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us. It is not we who make cinema; it is the world which looks to us like a bad film.
In using these quotes it is as if I were trying to bring a piece, a moment, of outside reality into this text. It is still writing, still words on a page, yet it came from somewhere else, not from me. It is as if I think quotations are a small chunk of the world.

As I write, cinema is a little over 100 years old and its relevance already seems to be fading. But perhaps this is only a lull, and some time in the near or distant future cinema will begin its second (or third or forth) life. Writing books, I have often felt that cinema has won, while literature has lost. That reading can never compete with the mesmerizing, dream-state of the screen. But I mean this only for others. For me, I have always preferred to read. In fact, more and more, I find watching movies or television almost unbearable. How can I feel such a strong desire to be contemporary, while simultaneously being so much at odds with my time?

To bring ‘reality’ into a cinematic work is more direct, more straightforward, then attempting to bring reality into a work of literature. You point the camera at a tree, film it, the tree is reality and that reality, at least partly, is now in your film. This might sound stupid, but I’ve always felt this simple fact has so much to do with the energy and allure of film. When I stare at a tree and attempt to describe it in words (something I have no talent for whatsoever), the tree is already filtered both through my own particular subjectivity and through language.

I have always been fascinated by the use of voiceovers in cinema. I see within them a slight anxiety that the image is not enough, that the moving image requires words to add context or generate narrative. The use of background music gives me a similar feeling. Of course, like theatre before it, cinema is an art form that can eat everything: music, stories, pictures, action, the past, present and future. Very simply, I don’t like watching films because I feel I am being manipulated, and that I am far too susceptible to it. I also feel manipulated by books, but never as intensely. It is so much easier to put a book down.

Literature has something to do with time, with changing the nature and experience of time. You spend four years working on a book that takes two weeks to read. You can also spend four years working on a film that takes two hours to watch. But, if its within a single take, three minutes of film takes three minutes to watch, while a single page of a book might take days or weeks to write. Both cinema and literature are ways of playing with time, but within literature I often feel a difference sense of time than the one that most often surrounds me.

I am writing now in the lobby of a cinema. It is 10pm and I have just walked out of a film in the middle. My date is still inside watching and I am sitting here in the lobby. The film was Post Tenebras Lux by the Mexican director Carlos Regayas and it was very good, completely strange and unprecedented, but I had to flee, couldn’t continue. It was as if the stunning pictures in front of me were too hard on my nervous system, inducing panic. So many times in my life I have walked out of films in the middle. In the past ten years I have left in the middle far more often than I’ve made it to the end (and I of course don’t go to films frequently.)

Earlier in Post Tenebras Lux, there was a scene in which a man strangles his dog. The dog is off screen, you do not see anything particularly violent, just the yelps of the dog and a medium close up of the man hitting and swearing. I left just after a later scene where the same man had argued with his wife, stormed out of the room to go feed the dogs. There was a shot of the dogs in their pen just before the man entered. I thought it would be too obvious a choice, on the director’s part, for the man to beat the dogs again. Most of the film so far had been fragmented, one scene barely relating to the next. But the tension I felt at the shot of those dogs, with my nervous system already at its limit, was too much. This slight hint of possible (most likely mild) cinematic violence was too much for me to take, yet people watch considerably more violent films every day, and often seem to take pleasure in the visceral experience of conflict or gore. I am so far from being able to understand this difference I cannot even see it from here, sitting in the empty lobby of the movie theatre, watching the rather loud air conditioning blow a red, semi-transparent table cloth up and then back down over the legs of a folding table.

Post Tenebras Lux is a poetic film (at least the first half of it was) – random scenes of daily life, gorgeously shot, cut together so one is never quite sure how to place oneself in relation to them. As I watched, I had no sense of what might be holding it together. I feel bad walking out, would like to know what happens in the second half and now suspect I never completely will. I am wondering if there are any books I stopped reading in the middle then never picked up again. I have some memory of an Italian novel That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda that I don’t believe I ever finished. This must be twenty years ago. What’s strange was I thought it was an amazing book but couldn’t make it through. I often see it in bookstores and every time think about trying it again. I’m a different reader now, almost certain I would sail through it with ease.

And now it’s the next day and already I think Post Tenebras Lux wasn’t such a good film after all. In the second half, apparently, it became more narrative, with the dog-killer getting shot by a thief, his family rallying around him. The things I had liked about it, how fragmented and discontinuous it felt, now seem like mere formal constraints. On the level of content, upon further reflection, the film seems conventional, another story about a male jerk who is redeemed. Having not seen the entire film, I cannot think any of this with certainty.

As I get older, there are more and more people I don’t particularly like. I spend a great deal of time wondering why this is the case, if it has anything to do with a gradually increasing bitterness that constitutes my inner life. What does it mean to not like other people? That I would prefer to spend the time alone? That I am threatened by them in some way? Or competitive? Life can seem so repetitive: I feel I meet the same people over and over again. And the people I have known for years so rarely surprise me. (I don’t know any of them particularly well.) I wonder if there is some connection between not liking people and not being able to watch movies. The people I don’t like claim to love watching movies, as does practically everyone I meet. Does this love encapsulate some key difference between us? Is their pleasure in watching movies, a pleasure I am unable to share, analogous to a more general, unbridgeable divide?

I find movies manipulative and I find people manipulative. I find movies emotionally draining and I find people emotionally draining. (This reminds me of the following, told to me when I was young to demonstrate a certain kind of logic error: fire engines are red, and communists are red, therefore all communists are fire engines.) All of this has something to do with being too fragile, too vulnerable, somehow not tough enough for the modern world.

My last book, published in 2010, was called Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed. There was a moment, before I started, when I thought of making it as a movie instead, but then realized I didn’t have the energy or will to make a film, to raise money, to convince producers and distributors, therefore decided it would work better as a book. Revenge Fantasies is about a group of activists who meet once a week to discuss politics. Because they are living in a dystopian near future, there is one rule for their meetings, that they are there only to talk, only to think together, and not to engage in any acts of civil disobedience or direct resistance, because they fear if they were to do so they might be kidnapped by the government, tortured, killed, that their families might come to harm or worse. I was thinking about Argentina during the disappearances, but also about the direction my paranoia reasonably tells me that much of the Western world is rapidly heading.

As I was finishing a first draft I suddenly went into crisis. What gave me the right to make a book set within an activist milieu, a world I’ve had few experiences with and know very little about. I felt I was writing something too disconnected from reality, my fantasy of an activism in which people got together only to speak about ideas and felt no concurrent pressure or responsibility to act. (Talking about ideas has always been one of my strong suits.) I had turned activism into a discursive art, one that played to my immediate strengths but in the larger world changed nothing. However, when the book was finally released, at least some of my fears were alleviated. A few activists I know liked the book, were enthusiastic about it, told me that for them, though absurd, the tone of the meetings rang true. I had captured some of the spirit of how things are organized, of how people behave in such situations, accurate enough, at times, to make them laugh aloud in recognition. I had fired an arrow in the dark and miraculously hit at least one part of the target.

It is arguable whether or not it is possible to disentangle the idea of progress from the realities of industrial capitalism. Progress is the idea that things will continue to grow, to improve, etc. As has often been mentioned, we cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. If we remove the idea of progress from our thinking, how does the future change? In some sense it almost disappears. There is no question that everything repeats, in cycles, over years and over centuries, and yet the idea of progress implicitly averts its gaze from this fact. When something repeats, it is never exactly the same: there is an element of how it was before and an element of difference. Progress focuses on the difference, tradition encourages the similarity. But I find myself imagining something else, more like alchemy, that mixes past and future as if turning lead into gold.

So much of my life, like so many artists in the early 21st century, circles around projects. When asked what I’m working on, invariably I’m always working on something I am only able to refer to as a ‘project.’ I have always known one of the things I like about projects is that they end. If you are in a band, and you don’t want to be in the band anymore, the band has to break up, but a project simply runs its course. A project is agreeing to work on a certain set of questions for a certain period of time. I have often wondered if a project is the opposite of activism. With activism you need to keep fighting forever, since injustice is never solved, it must be fought against ceaselessly. A project ends, while activism must keep going. Of course, each project is followed by another project, the next one. In this sense a project is mainly a way of compartmentalizing time. (Perhaps compartmentalizing it in a way that changes it from political or historical time, into a more apolitical, ahistorical modality.) A project will usually take a couple of months, a longer project might take a few years, but activism is measured in generations. For activism to truly shift society, each generation needs to pick up the struggle then keep pushing. This is clearly impossible without some larger, active sense of cultural memory.

I keep circling round and round this idea that what politics needs today is a different way of thinking about time, that the problem with Marxism is it was working towards victory in the future, while what we need is more like a victory of living together in mutual loneliness, a victory-in-the-present-as-future-that-will-never-come, which sounds frustrating, and probably is. But how to imagine this impossible present-future hybrid as not frustrating, as something good, something desirable, a struggle and strength worth having, as possible. Trying to imagine the things I am not yet able to imagine.

I wish I were a better activist, a better citizen. I’m too defeatist. Whatever I undertake, I always have the overwhelming feeling it will fail. The one exception to this defeatism is art. In art, paradoxically, I often trick myself into thinking that failure is a kind of success. A ‘perfect’ work feels dead and sterile. (Also works that strive towards perfection.) For me, in art, it is only failure, imperfection, vulnerability that opens things up, makes them human, leaves room for the viewer or reader to enter the machine. I try to remind myself that activism too is about failure, is always incomplete. Sometimes I wonder if the only problem is that I like art, at times it still gives me energy, but I’m not particularly sure if I like the world. So much activism has a better world as its goal, so if you don’t like the world activism might reflect this desire to see it fundamentally change. What else do you have to believe, before you can believe that something is worth saving?

Perhaps I have an overly romantic idea of what activism is and means. In interviews, the artist Paul Chan has often stated that he tries to keep his art practice and his activism separate. The main reason he gives is that he wants his art to remain complex, controversial, full of ambiguity; and for activism to succeed you need to simplify the goal, so that everyone can agree, or at least agree enough to more fully work together, push towards the same objective in unison. The ambiguity of art rejects easy consensus, divides viewers, undermines clear solidarity. (Though solidarity is rarely clear or simple.) Activism requires the largest possible coalition to succeed, while art needs only one sufficiently passionate viewer.


January 19, 2015

Tangentially yours - Jacob Wren & Todd Lester in conversation, #2


Read the first letter: Tangentially yours —Jacob Wren & Todd Lester in conversation, #1

Dear Todd,

Wow, you’ve managed to raise a series of questions and complexes that I literally know almost nothing about. There are many, many things I know almost nothing about, so this is not particularly surprising. What is surprising (to me at least) is that I’m now considering writing something on these topics and posting it on the internet.

I spent almost two weeks reading article after article on the Charlie Hebdo situation and could not quite get my thinking around it completely clear. (I did post a very quick thought about it.) But after reading all those articles I started asking myself a different set of questions. Why was I reading all these articles? What did it matter if I had a complex enough understanding of the situation and what did it matter whether my opinions around the questions raised were correct? Did I simply want to add my perspective to the endless opinion machine that is the internet and if so towards what end?

I then had a different kind of thought: what if tomorrow there was a moratorium on white people writing about Charlie Hebdo? What if suddenly every last sentence one could read about it was written by a person of colour or by someone from a different cultural community? How would the discourse change? I don’t mean this would be a solution to anything. Absolutely anyone is equally capable of being wrong about anything. But I am certain that the conversations would have a substantially different texture and feel. It would simply be a different conversation.

The dominant voices establish so much not only in what is said but in how it is said. They are like the polluted air we read about in pollution warnings but on a daily basis often forget we are breathing.

One of the reasons I read so many articles about Charlie Hebdo is I am completely, completely addicted to Facebook. I am very worried about this addiction because in so many ways it has taken over my life, altered how I see the world. I have less and less real life interactions with people, and since I have always found interacting with people difficult I am frightened to the degree in which this reduction feels like a relief. I mostly have Facebook ‘friends’ I have never met in real life. One of these individuals recently wrote to me that it was great to been in touch with another queer writer. I wrote back saying that unfortunately I had to admit I was a straight white male. (Perhaps many people think I’m queer these days because there’s queer content in my most recent book Polyamorous Love Song.) I don’t think I’ve ever publicly written that I’m a straight white male anywhere before and I honestly don’t like doing so now. Since queer is such an open category, I could simply claim it for myself but I feel, in doing do, I would be claiming a kind of artistic cultural capital that I’m pretty sure I haven’t earned.

A few minutes ago I posted this quote from an interview with Jackie Wang:
Perversion is probably more important to me than “orientation.” I’m certainly not a purist when it comes to identity but I do want “queer” to retain its freakish and non-normative edge, and for people to back their aesthetic commitments by embodying that commitment in how they lives their lives. Normal people who write weird shit disappoint me hahahaha.
I posted it because I suddenly felt it was about me. I am a ‘normal’ person who writes weird shit. But I’m not sure anyone who knows me would really say I’m normal. I’ve spent most of my life trying to be anything but normal. I certainly feel extremely queer positive and feel a deep love for queer art and politics. Maybe already I’ve gotten a bit lost.

I’m trying to come back around to that Charlie Hebdo image of a male staffer with a pencil behind his ear and a Muslim man  kissing. The first moment I saw it my very first thought was ‘this is a homophobic cartoon.’ Then I immediately asked myself: How do I know that? Would it make any difference if it was drawn by a gay man or if it was in a queer publication? Can I trust my gut instincts or do I need to know more?

I was sure there was a way for to me to come back around to rape as a war crime and homophobia in other countries, how these things might relate to any given foreign policy. But maybe there’s not. I can’t get past the feeling that my (not well enough informed) thoughts on these matters won’t change anything. But then what will?

I think the main way my thinking has changed in the past few years is I’ve become more and more aware of the degree to which racism is the gasoline of imperialist capitalism. Norway also has oil but if the U.S. were to start bombing Norway I believe the outcry would be much greater. I know I’m not saying anything new but I feel I need to work so much harder to honesty feel this reality. And also to imagine other possibilities.

In the end I fear I’ve avoided writing too much about the things I know nothing about. I’m not sure whether this is a good or a bad thing. Writing is strange.



January 18, 2015

Manifeste pour la confusion, l'épreuve et les émotions conflictuelles

[Translation by Simon Brown. This text was originally published in Le Merle. You can read the English version here.]

Je fais de l'art depuis toujours et je ne me suis jamais senti aussi perdu qu'en ce moment. Je ne suis pas le seul à me retrouver dans cette situation.

Est-ce que l'art est assez important pour nous? C'est-à-dire, est-ce que le monde dans lequel nous vivons nous importe assez pour que nous reconnaissions enfin que nous sommes devant une impasse? Que nous tournons en rond sans nous en rendre compte? Que ça ne touche plus vraiment la société qui nous entoure et que nous ne sommes pas prêts à nous rendre à l'évidence?

Les remous dans le monde de l'art, les ruptures modernistes, les naissances, les renaissances, les cataclysmes — ce sont des choses du passé. Les tendances de l'heure disparaissent aussitôt. La possibilité de faire quelque chose d'original ne semble plus être possible, ni même souhaitable. Il y a saturation, une surenchère de tout. Une saturation d'art, de théâtre, de performances, de musique, d'installations, de tableaux, de livres, de films, de sites web — et ce, de tous les genres et de toutes les qualités imaginables. On ne pourrait pas passer à travers en un million d'années. De toute façon, la vie est bien trop courte, et le carpe diem proverbial d'autrefois ne semble plus avoir de sens clair. Sommes-nous vraiment obligés de faire semblant?

La politique s'est égarée il y a longtemps — les gouvernements de droite et l'emprise des riches sur le pouvoir constituent notre nouvelle réalité, et les artistes ne semblent pas avoir la volonté de rien y changer. En ce qui concerne l'environnement, il est évident que la planète ne s'en sortira pas. Dans tous les cas, si nous continuons sur la voie actuelle, l'être humain ne s'en sortira pas — il pourrait y avoir quelques rescapés, c'est vrai, mais on ne peut pas faire de l'art pour eux, on se doit de faire de l'art pour nous, maintenant.

Étant donné les réalités du moment présent et celles qui nous attendent, on ne peut plus vraiment affirmer que les gestes audacieux peuvent apporter quoi que ce soit. La confusion et les émotions conflictuelles sont nos nouveaux repères. L'ambivalence dicte tout. Où sont les artistes conscients du caractère futile de leurs actions mais qui continuent quand même; parce qu'ils n'ont pas le choix?

Pour changer les choses, il faut travailler avec les autres. C'est le noyau de tout mouvement artistique et de tout manifeste. Ceux qui travaillent ensemble doivent partager les mêmes convictions et s'entendre sur un objectif commun. L'union fait la force des clans, des clubs, des mafias... pourquoi pas des artistes? Nous, les artistes désorientés et fichus, ne pourrions-nous pas unir nos forces dans le but de trouver une solution? Même si aucune conviction ne nous rassemble, ne pourrions pas nous réunir sous la bannière de l'ambivalence et d'un aveu collectif de vulnérabilité?

(Un artiste qui se concentre sur l'autopromotion est en voie de perdition et risque de ne jamais retrouver le chemin de la signification. J'ai peur de devenir cette personne.)

Je rêve à quelque chose d'effervescent, qui a de la substance, de la valeur, du contenu. Un populisme de gauche qui fonctionne. La fin de l'aliénation, de la société de consommation, de la guerre, de la stupidité. Mais celui qui rêve est endormi, et il faut que je me réveille; que je me rende à l'évidence. Je ne sais pas transformer ces rêves en réalités. Partout des impasses, partout des écueils. Je n'ai aucune idée comment m'en sortir, comment produire quelque chose d'utile ou même de poétique. Je veux être éveillé, mais je ne veux pas perdre de vue ce rêve qui est la seule chose qui m'empêche de devenir fou.

À vrai dire, je voulais écrire un manifeste en guise de confession : une confession d'ambivalence, de sentiments conflictuels, du fait de me vendre, de l'humiliation, du cynisme, de la confusion, du fait que je n'arrive pas à distinguer mes amis de mes adversaires. Une confession de tout, pour voir si d'autres qui se sentent comme moi. Pour voir si la franchise et la confusion peuvent avoir une valeur quelconque dans notre monde. Pour voir si la probité existe toujours. Pour voir s'il existe toujours de vraies choses, des choses utiles.

Un artiste n'a pas besoin de convictions. Un artiste n'est pas obligé de connaître son parcours d'avance. Il lui faut plutôt du talent, de la sincérité, d'une communauté, de l'expérience de vie — des choses tout à fait compatibles avec le fait d'être perdu.

(Je voudrais un jour écrire un autre manifeste pour dénoncer l'art qui n'a pas de rapport direct avec la vraie vie. Mais je n'arrive pas à entrer dans ce qu'on appelle la vie. Je suis un cas extrême.)

Normalement on n'écrit pas des manifestes sur ce genre de choses. Mais peut-être qu'il est temps de commencer à le faire.


Kristen Ross on October 17, 1961


On October 17, 1961, the first mass demonstration of the 1960s occurred, organized by the FLN to protest a recent curfew set by the prefect of police that prohibited Algerians in the Paris region from being on the street after 8:30 PM. Informed in advance of the demonstration, the police, along with the CRS and the mobile gendarmerie, are armed with bidules, a longer version of the matraque with greater leverage and range, capable of breaking a skull open in a single swing when adroitly applied. The police have also been virtually exonerated in advance of any “police excesses” that might occur; in the preceding weeks Papon has visited the various commissariats, imparting these messages: “Settle your affairs with the Algerian yourselves. Whatever happens, you’re covered,” and “For one blow, give then back ten.” And, to overcome the scruples of certain more hesitant members of his forces, he adds: “You don’t need to complicate things. Even if the Algerians are not armed, you should think of them always as armed.”

The Algerians – between thirty and forty-thousand men, women and children – are, in fact, unarmed, and the demonstration is peaceful. Many of the Algerians are wearing their best “Sunday” clothes, in the interest of impressing the French and the international communities with their peaceful motives. Nevertheless, police open fire almost immediately. Confrontations occur simultaneously throughout the city wherever the Algerians are concentrated. Police “combat groups” charge the crowd in the main thoroughfares and boulevards, while other police ranks stand behind in the side streets, blocking escape routes and splitting the crowd into small pockets of two or three individuals, each of whom is then surrounded by police, and men and women are methodically clubbed. Along the Seine, police lift unconscious and already dead or dying Algerians and toss them into the river. A document published soon after the massacre by a group of progressive police describes what went on in one part of the city:
At one end of the Neuilly Bridge, police troops, and on the other, CRS riot police, slowly moved toward one another. All the Algerians caught in this immense trap were struck down and systematically thrown into the Seine. At least a hundred of them underwent this treatment. The bodies of the victims floated to the surface daily and bore traces of blows and strangulation.
Some of the arrested men and women are taken to the courtyard of the prefecture of police where, as Pierre Vidal-Baquet reports, “If I believe the testimony of one policeman, gathered immediately after the event by Paul Thibaud and that I’ve often had occasion to evoke since then, Papon had several dozen Algerians beaten [matraqué] to death in front of his eyes in the courtyard of the police prefecture.” Some six thousand others are taken to several sports stadiums reserved by police for that purpose. In all of these places, people die while in custody – of wounds they had already received or of new blows administered by police “welcoming committees” arranged in a kind of gauntlet outside the entrance to the sports arenas.

On the night of October 17, the police publish a communiqué stating that the Algerians had fired on police, who were then forced to return fire. The official death count, originally two, was revised the next morning by Papon’s office to three. The almost total news blackout that surrounded the event makes it very hard to determine the exact number of Algerians – for no police were injured – who actually died. Most knowledgeable estimates put the number at around two hundred.

- Kristen Ross, May ’68 and Its Afterlives


January 14, 2015

I don't know...


I don't know if Charlie Hebdo is racist or not, because I don't read French and don't have the French cultural background to properly judge the situation. But more and more I realize this cannot be the point. The point is that the Arab world is the true scapegoat of our time, that history teaches us there is no end to what might be done to any given scapegoat, to how horrifying it can get (if Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are not already horrifying enough) and that worldwide Islamophobia is on the rise in ways I find extremely frightening.

I have now read far too many articles on the topic but here are three I found convincing:

Charlie Hebdo and the hypocrisy of pencils

Charlie Hebdo and the Limits of the Republic

“Charlie Hebdo”, not racist? If you say so…

I'm not sure I agree with all of it, but this article has made me (continue to) further rethink my position:

Paris, 2015


January 12, 2015

Freedom of speech...


Freedom of speech is most often the freedom to be celebrated for saying things that support the status quo and to be ignored for saying things that challenge it.


January 5, 2015

We’re finally necessary: Kristen Ross on the Atelier populaire des Beaux-Arts


For May ’68 itself was not an artistic moment. It was an event that transpired amid very few images; French television, after all, was on strike. Drawings, political cartoons – by Siné, Willem, Cabu, and others – proliferated; photographs were taken. Only the most “immediate” of artistic techniques, it seems, could keep up with the speed of events. But to say this is already to point out how much politics was exerting a magnetic pull on culture, yanking it out of its specific and specialized realm. For what does it mean that art should suddenly see its purpose as that of keeping apace with events, with achieving a complete contemporaneity with the present and with what is happening around it?

The incommensurability or asymmetry that seems to govern the relation between culture and politics holds true for the ’68 period in France. In fact, that incommensurability is what the event is about: the failure of cultural solutions to provide an answer, the invention and deployment of political forms in direct contestation with existing cultural forms, the exigency of political practices over cultural ones. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the experience of the Beaux-Arts students who occupied their school in mid-May 1968, proclaimed it the revolutionary Atelier populaire des Beaux-Arts, and began producing, at breakneck speed, the posters supporting the strike that covered the walls of Paris during those months. The “message” of the majority of posters, stark and direct, was the certification, and at times the imperative, that whatever it was that was happening – the interruption, the strike, the “moving train” – that it simply continue: “Continuons le combat.” “La grève continue.” “Contre offensive: la grève continue.” “Chauffeurs de taxi: la lute continue.” “Maine Montparnasse: la lute continue.” Nothing, that is, in the message aspires to a level of “representing” what was occurring; the goal, rather, is to be at one with – at the same time with, contemporary with – whatever was occurring. Speed, a speedy technique, was of the essence; students learned this soon enough when they abandoned lithography early on because, at ten to fifteen printings an hour, it was far too slow to respond to the needs of a mass movement. Serigraphy, which was light and easy to use, yielded up to 250 printings an hour. Speed and flexible mediums facilitated the absolute interpenetration of art and event achieved by the posters, but speed is not the most important factor in rendering art capable of living the temporality of an event. Writing thirty years later, one of the militants active in the Atelier populaire, Gérard Fromanger, recalls the genesis of the posters in a brief memoir. His title, “Art Is What Makes Life More Interesting Than Art,” goes far in giving a sense of the dizzying opening created when the social refuses to stay “out there,” distinct from art, or when art achieves presentation, rather than representation:
May ’68 was that. Artists no longer in their studios, they no longer work, they can’t work any more because the real is more powerful than their inventions. Naturally, they become militants, me among them. We create the Atelier populaire des Beaux-Arts and we make posters. We’re there night and day making posters. The whole country is on strike and we’ve never worked harder in our lives. We’re finally necessary.
Fromanger describes in greater detail the stages in the dismantling of art and artists during May: how, as the mass demonstrations got under way in mid-May, art students first “got down off their horses to gather the flowers,” as the Maoists would say, how they left art behind as they ran from demo to demo. “We artists had been in the movement for ten days, we run into each other at the demos. We had separated from everything we had before. We don’t sleep in the studios… we live in the streets, in the occupied spaces… We no longer paint, we don’t think about it anymore.” The next phase describes a retreat to familiar spaces: “We painters say to ourselves that we have to do something at Beaux-Arts, that we can’t let the buildings be empty, closed up.” An old lithograph machine is located; the first poster, USINE-UNIVERSITE-UNION, is produced immediately. The thought at that point is for someone to run the thirty copies down to a gallery on the rue Dragon to sell them to help the movement. But it is at this point that “the real,” in the shape of the movement, literally intervenes, short-circuiting the steps that art must take to be art in bourgeois culture and hijacking it, so to speak, off that path, bringing it into the now. There is no time, it seems, for the art object to remain a commodity, even one that had been redirected in the service of the movement. On the way to the gallery, the copies are snatched out of the arms of the student carrying them and plastered immediately on the first available wall. The poster becomes a poster.

“Bourgeois culture,” reads the statement that accompanied the founding of the Atelier populaire, “separates and isolates artists from other workers by according them a privileged status. Privilege encloses the artist in an invisible prison. We have decided to transform what we are in society.”

- Kristen Ross, May ’68 and Its Afterlives


January 4, 2015

Two year attempt...


In my two year attempt to write a kind of strange, fictional-autobiography I now realize the block is very simple: I don't want people to know about my life.