Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Decay, Destruction and Waste

Note: written for the program book of the fourth edition of new music festival Dag in de Branding. Also appears at the <>TAG website.

Decay, destruction, and waste. I could be writing a history of the decline and fall of an ancient empire. Or a modern empire. Or the much more devastating and long-lived empire of Civilization. But I’m not: I’m describing the twelve hours of new music that make up the fourth edition of the Dag in de Branding Festival.

If you’re inclined to see this red thread of explicit decadence as just so much doom and gloom, I invite you to look more carefully. Albert Camus, a hero of mine who worked in times not unlike our own---times that were and are unfortunately “interesting”---wrote that the greatest art speaks to the time in which it is created. That is exactly what the events in this program do.

This is not doom and gloom. It is an absolutely essential state of the Arts at this interesting moment. Indeed at any moment. I have written elsewhere that artists are the sensory organs of the culture. We are its eyes, its ears, its mouths and its hands. If our works of art fail to recognize the decay, destruction, and waste, then our eyes, ears, and mouths are shut, and our hands are bound. How encouraging then, in these seemingly senseless times, that (some) artists haven’t lost their senses. To rephrase yet another observation of Monsieur Camus, art may dispute reality, but it does not hide from it.

How so? At the start of the program we are brought face to face with the reality of decay in the abstract in Bill Morrison’s film to Michael Gordon’s extraordinary symphony Decasia wherein ancient filmstock is seen suffering the ravages of time. But the work masterfully disputes this reality by preserving the decay itself, turning the visible death of a beloved artifact of industrial civilization into a thing of aesthetic beauty. An underlying question of this work, at least for me, is whether to mourn or celebrate the decay of a culture that has paid for its wonderful creativity with unspeakable environmental devastation.

Or this: the destruction referenced in Bob Ostertag’s music to the Living Cinema project Special Forces is the real destruction that the world silently (and to its great shame) witnessed in Lebanon last summer. Ostertag is never one to hide from the reality of destruction, having earlier brought his Yugoslavia Suite to the Balkans, post-Nato, and Special Forces to Beirut. Yet, I think, he disputes this reality, constantly, by using these works as opportunities for beginning dialogues on the themes he treats. Ostertag disputes the reality of the destruction his work reflects with uncompromising dedication to social justice through and beyond his music.

Or this: Egon Kracht and the Troupe bring us the Faust story as a rock opera (with a nod to Frank Zappa) in The Seduction of Harry Faust. In this updated version, guess how God, Mephisto, and Faust are portrayed? As a media tycoon, his marketing expert son, and a loser they destroy by bringing him into their world, of course. This is right on target for our uber-consumerist, narcissistic, and celebrity-infatuated culture (though I must say, sadly, that satire and reality are more often than not one and the same thing these days).

Or this: Boxing Pushkin, ostensibly about the life of the famous Russian author, consciously throws the audience into the role of spectator. Meanwhile the very definition of freedom, as embodied by Pushkin, seems to be at stake. While this work is perhaps the least overtly connected to our red thread, even a cursory glance at the synopsis (and the battles over Pushkin’s legacy) calls to mind the violence one witnesses done to language to legitimize this or that regime.

Or this: “Waste equals food” write the authors of Cradle to Cradle, a remarkable book that examines natural life cycles and nutrient flows as paradigms for how to reinvent industrial design in environmentally sane and ethically responsible ways. I mention it here in connection with Wasted, the mini-festival of decayed, destroyed, and degraded sounds-turned-breakbeats (and more) hosted by Jason Forrest and Pure. This gathering feeds its audience-participants with energy, exuberance, and catharsis mined from some of the darkest reaches of our culture. What is wasted here and what is eaten, I will not say, nor will I venture to put into words what reality is under dispute.

* * *

“Create dangerously” urged Albert Camus toward the end of his life. The American civil rights and social justice leader Martin Luther King, Jr. declared that “the world is in dire need of creative extremists.” Both were destroyed early by two of the more nefarious designs of Civilization: the automobile and the gun. What a waste.

We may not have asked for this red thread---I mean the red thread of decay, destruction, and waste running through the lives of humans and non-humans, through our values and wound tightly around our planet---but it is what we have and what we are. To present a program of new music revolving around aspects of the decay, destruction, and waste of our culture, our Industrial Civilization, from material to social decay, from self-destruction to the destruction of our neighbors, from the wasting of our planetary environment to the wasting of our youth---to present works that reflect this historical moment is not necessarily to celebrate it, but to recognize it.

It is to come to our senses as listeners, as artists, as social beings.

It is to know who we are, what we are, and what we must do. It is to be awake, alive, and up to the task.

Doom and gloom? If art should be uplifting, and if the world is in fact in dire need of creative extremists, what could be more uplifting than that?

Friday, May 11, 2007


"It's not disillusionment, it's callibration."

---Mihnea Mircan, a curator at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest, speaking at a curators conference organized this week by Stroom in The Hague. He was answering a question about a shift in the way he deals with the political ramifications of his work. See a brief essay by Mircan here.

I am the recipient of a grant from Stroom and was asked to write a short description of my work for an online portfolio the organization maintains. This is what I wrote:

My work, all of it, from music to video to installations to texts and so on, is an attempt to answer a question posed by environmentalist author Derrick Jensen: "What are sane and appropriate responses to insanely destructive behavior?" Or this question, from architect/designer William McDonough: "How do we love all of the children of all of the species for all time?" It is a reply to the call to arms of Albert Camus: "Create dangerously" or that of Martin Luther King, Jr.: "The world is in dire need of creative extremists". It is a recognition of the extraordinary danger industrial civilization poses to the natural world, and a reaction to this danger, spoken in a language the people destroying the planet cannot speak.

Which, as it happens, doesn't change a damn thing. Have a nice day.

Saturday, May 05, 2007


These are the lyrics to the new song "Breaker" by Low:

Our bodies break
and the blood just spills and spills
but here we sit debating math.

It's just a shame
my hand just kills and kills
there's got to be an end to that.

There's got to be an end to that.

Strong stuff. The video is here.