Sunday, March 30, 2008

Mantra For Conscious Life

Inhale (please).
Exhale (thank you).
Repeat x 65, 700, 000.

(Image from

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Cremaster Cycle: Treading Water in a Sea of Retarded Sexuality and Bad Poetry

Matthew Barney's film series, the Cremaster Cycle, is a cognitively retarded and symbolically barren exercise in tedium and bad taste. Barney's take on biology is more of a superficial pose than a serious exploratioin, and the sexual logic underlying his artistic vision is not evolutionary (i.e. human) but rather postmodern and Freudian. He throws around terms like "system" and "entropy," but makes no effort to link his use of these concepts to the notion of complex dynamical systems as they are now understood to occur in nature and culture (see James Gleick's Chaos and A Blessed Rage for Order by Alexander Argyros, both of which predate the Cremaster Cycle, for an introduction to this topic). Sport, likewise, appears in his work as a pseudo-theme, but since there are no distinct players or rules (not even the dynamic, evolving ones described by game theory), the treatment, again, is superficial.

What I can't understand is why Barney gets such rave reviews--his work appears on the covers of art history textbooks, and people seem to be throwing money at him to slop vaseline all over the Guggenheim (only an American artist could be so self-consciously Eurotrash). I guess the sophistos and trendoids of the moneyed academic art world have mistaken his vagueness and obscurity for depth, so no one wants to be the poor benighted rube who asks why the emperor isn't wearing any clothes.

The film series' only (dubious) value, it seems to me, is as a study of how an ill-conceived "closed aesthetic system" quickly succumbs to entropy, resulting in artless and sterile mutations like a grotesque half-sheep/half bagpipe or a rubber tire from which a pair of testicles dangles uselessly. It may be argued that this is the point, and that Barney's work succeeds as a depiction of aesthetic schizophrenia and metaphysical failure, but it's surely foolish to praise bad art for its ability to express bad ideas. Serious art, whatever its form and content, gives expression to enduring human themes like hope, promise and gravity--ideas which are absent from Barney's inane films.

Here's a link to a documentary-length interview with Barney that shows some of his work, and here's another to a Cremaster trailer. See if you can figure out what he means by terms like "mythology," "narrative," and "character"--I don't think he even knows.

Rather than releasing his films in a low cost, mass-market format like everyone else, Barney has pressed a limited run of 20 DVD's and auctioned them off in gussied up packaging for over $100,000 each. The unwashed philistines and non-cognoscenti will have to settle for a 30 minute excerpt from Cremaster 3, or maybe they will be able to find Neville Wakefield's overpriced book in a public library. Walter Benjamin, (the Marxist author of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" whose ideas about art and mass production have influenced 3 generations of "anti-establishment" elitists) would be impressed, no doubt, but I suspect Barney's marketing strategy has more to do with the fact that on some level he realizes that the common consumer, who is unburdened by a Yale education in postmodern pretension, would quickly see the Cremaster films for the malarky that they are.

THE BOTTOM LINE: If civilization fails when art and culture stop being sexy, then the Cremaster Cycle is a crime against humanity. I, for one, would rather watch a clown die of cancer than sit through all 7.5 hours of Barney's incoherent, self-indulgent, desperately ugly horseshit.

(image from

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Goodbye, Arthur C. Clark (1917-2008)

Arthur C. Clark had a very good run. In addition to being an excellent science fiction writer, he was also an accomplished scientist. Childhood's End is probably my favorite of his books, although I also liked Songs of Distant Earth for more sentimental reasons.

(Image from

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Happy Early Easter

My friend Ondra sent me this:

Monday, March 10, 2008

Bass with Balls #1: Music Man Stingray

The Music Man Stingray was first produced in 1976. Its physical similarity to the Fender Precision bass can be explained by the fact that it was designed by disgruntled former Fender employees, including Leo Fender himself, who sold his company to CBS in 1965. The classic Stingray, like the one pictured here, boasts a single humbucking pickup in the bridge position and an active 2 band EQ. Fingerstyle players who are used to anchoring their thumb on a neck pickup will have a tough time with the Stingray, as the strings have less springiness and punch when plucked way down by the bridge.

The Stingray sounds like a sabre-toothed tiger in heat humping a hive full of honeybees. Not only are its low mids thicker than Ricki Lake's ankles, but their complexity is fractaline, layering a piano-like clarity and sustain and a fret-buzzy growl to create a tone that's almost synesthetic. Properly amplified, the Stingray will cut through any racket made by even the noisiest guitarist like a knife through warm butter, without the honking and blatting characteristic of its Fender cousins. Its tone is perfect for funk, rock, punk, or metal, but the single pickup limits its tonal range, and if I were playing soft jazz, R&B or country I would probably reach for a different bass (likely a Fender Jazz). Although the Stingray's quality is legendary, it sacrifices versatility for personality, and some bass players just don't like it. I respect this. it takes more balls to be original, warts and all, than to be some kind of half-assed chameleon.

This bass is famous for its rugged construction (its body is solid ash and its neck is attached by six fat bolts--that's 2 more than are holding my Fender Jazz 5 together) as well as its quiet electronics (it's called a "humbucker," after all). Lower-end manufacturers have recently started copying it more often, but it still trails far behind the P-bass in terms of how often its design is ripped off. The most noteworthy budget Stingray clone is probably the Ibanez ATK, which, in my opinion, is a stylish piece of junk like everything else built by Ibanez.

Famous rock bassists who play a Stingray include Cliff Williams of AC/DC, Flea (who has since switched to a signature model Modulus Stingray clone that costs as much as a used Toyota), Tim Commeford of Rage Against the Machine (who switched to the Fender Jazz bass after Rage's first album) and Justin Chancellor of Tool (who switched to Zon basses about halfway through the recording of Aenima). I don't know why all the Stingray players are jumping ship--my guess is their great bass tone made them famous enough to afford fancier axes like Zons and Moduli. Even Kurt Cobain traded in his trusty Volvo for a Lexus in the end.

Here are some videos featuring the Stingray: The Red Hot Chili Pepper's "Aeroplane" (the Stingray's forte is slap-and-pop, and it really stands out in this song) and Rage Against the Machine's "Bomb Track."

Sunday, March 2, 2008

H.R. Giger

The biotechnological aesthetic in H.R. Giger's work is interesting, but I think its pessimism, its reptillian coldness, and its distorted or ugly faces and figures keep it from being beautiful. I'd love to see something similar with more emphasis on the informational rather than the mechanical and industrial, and on consciousness over blindness and violent manipulation. Some arboreal and mammalian (i.e. human) motifs might open up the possibility of a narrative with more than one or two dimensions (an exploration of evolutionary [dis]continuity, or self-reference, maybe?) while still allowing room for the treatment of the tragic and the grotesque. Too bad I can't draw or paint, so I all I'm basically doing is complaining that no one will make this art for me.