Friday, March 30, 2007

Kino Echo

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Electro-Mechanical Show Revisited

Me on Russian Futurism, for Socialist Worker.

Plakaty 134

Rodchenko and Mayakovsky advertising mustard for the Mosselprom co-op store...

Great Failed Pop Music, pt 1

For a certain sort of Manics fan (ie, the book-reading, kohl-wearing, Simon Price/Taylor Parkes-worshipping contingent) upset at their increasingly lumpen records, the salvation wasn't in another kind of misery rock, but in Kenickie, who are now more or less in the dustbin of history (and you won't catch me listening to Xfm, no sir). Spurred on by a recent Voyou post, and by the Lauren Laverne interview recently linked to at I like, I dug out my somewhat mouldering old copy of Get In, the difficult second album. Now while I'd love to be revsionist about this and claim that the rest of the time I was listening to 2step (I did like 'Gumnan' by 187 Lockdown on TOTP though) in 1998-9 this is what I was actually listening to. Rather a lot. This album was where, after the needle-sharp excoriation of indie pieties in 'Punka' they were supposedly meant to carry out the second part of their mission, ie, making actual pop music. But the feeling that something was not quite right here is evoked by the packaging: on the cover we have a blank, alpine cabin with the design in the style of a 60s crime novel; on the back, raining fish from a medieval manuscript; and some decidedly oblique sleevenotes ('we used to sit in the empty car park all day and sun ourselves').

Naturally it failed completely, but it's nice to find that unlike most other things I was listening to at the time it stands up very well indeed, in places. Sometimes it errs towards the mawkish, the existential pain of the 20 year old getting their first hangovers: the Nick Drakeisms of 'And That's Why' for instance are slightly cloying, though even here there's unnerving imagery, imploring someone to 'stretch my skin til it comes open' (see also the distinctly creepy masochism of 'I Would Fix You') When it works, and the conjunction of aspirations to chart-conquering pop, cranky, home-studio electronics and the transcendent melancholia of Stevie Nicks circa Sara all fall into place, its quite wonderful.

Take '60s Bitch', a tragicomic tale of jealousy and devotion ('you don't want her...she's known in New Look, she's got a card there') with an outrageously romantic 'Last Exit'-like chorus, or 'Magnatron', a ridiculous electro-disco fantasia, all 'kissing tigers' and popping champagne corks; or 'Run me Over', a jolly tale of paranoia, dizzily produced with all manner of synth micro-riffs and haunting reversed harmonies. The main attempt to get out of indie was the single 'Stay in the Sun', a Motiv 8-esque Hi-NRG thing that immediately lost them half their audience. Much of Get In anticipates what Motiv 8 did next, i.e morph into Xenomania: a tempting pop counterfactual would have had them working together, actually adding some wit and personality to the sometimes distinctly uninteresting extra-musical elements of new New Pop...

The Death Agonies of Fabianism

Alan Walter, great (despite a 'leave the '60s alone!' moment) on Ruth Kelly's attempts to twist the knife into what remains of social housing in Britain: note especially the historical ironies of the paragraph 'in a recent Fabian society lecture...' (pic incidentally is of the Red Vienna style Quarry Hill flats in Leeds, demolished in the 70s, from this invaluable photo archive)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Rationing and Rationalism

Perhaps the most irksome element of ideology as currently practised is the belief that in the face of climate change the individual can make a difference. Hence the moronic plaint of various charities in sundry adverts that by not overfilling the kettle, or by not leaving your telly on standby, you can help avert the holocaust that rising temperatures will cause in the global south. What this serves to occlude is that the only measure that could really avert this is massive cutbacks in private cars, Rationing and some form of Central Planning: by curbing the individual, in other words.

In many 60s-70s critiques of capitalism (I'm thinking here of Manfredo Tafuri, but this applies across the board) 'planning' in the Keynesian and Stalinist sense is used as a kind of scare word, something intrinsic to reformed capitalism that would endure: in fact it would last barely another decade. Since the 'planned economies' of the Eastern Bloc collapsed ignominiously (which may just have had something to do with colossal military expenditure and political repression, but I digress) the term has never been held in such contempt, which is interesting, as it has surely never been as essential.

Rationing in the 1940s, as social historians have always acknowledged, actually improved the general lifestyle, diet and health of most of the population: it may have limited 'choice', but this choice would remain resolutely class-based. Individual choice, whether to drive across London at 4 miles an hour or the choice to shop at organic supermarkets and re-use your bathwater is utterly impotent. The more prevalent resigned belief that climate change and the attendant catastrophe is inevitable rests on a more fundamental truth: that the lone consumer can do nothing about it. The next step from this is not necessarily despair, but collective action.

(see also Voyou on 'capitalism’s terrifying, meaningless, demand: choose!')

Plakaty 133

Felix Dzerzhinsky's Photo Casebook

More Sovietology: a beautfifully illustrated alternate history of photography can be found in this piece by Oscar Fricke, 'The Dzerzhinsky Commune: the Birth of the Soviet 35mm Camera industry', which from its rum opening cartoon (immediately suggesting links between secret police surveillance and questionable methods of flirtation) is seemingly designed for my research interests and dubious amusement. This begins with Rodchenko's romance with his Leica, and the liberatory potentials of the instantly accessible mass-produced mini-camera, illustrated by the vertiginous light-play of his late 20s photographs; then goes onto the development of the technology by a Commune named after the fairly terrifying head of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky, and its director being drafted into administrating 'labour colonies', whatever that might have referred to.

More in this general 'Archaeology of Socialism' vein, there is this excellent page on the Svoboda Factory Club, one of the aesthetically extremist versions of the Working Men's Club by the great avant-garde architect Konstantin Melnikov; and, for any Russian readers who have lots of time on their hands, if they were to translate this article they'd get a big 'ta!' in my thesis.

'Visionary in Residence'

Two excellent posts on Post-Communist idiocracy over at Ads Without Products, related to astoundingly ethically blank post-Soviet plutocrats and the somewhat distasteful tendency of Western semi-intellectuals to use the cities of the former allegedly existing socialism as sites for their own self-aggrandisement. We won! We won! (ad nauseam)

Monday, March 26, 2007

'I've seen a cat without a grin, but...'

The Chris Marker Kino Fist went off very well, the icy cold and warehouse setting making it seem appropriately like some intense groupuscule meeting. My piece on A Grin Without a Cat, montage and the New Left is up at the Kino Fist site, while IT's pennorth worth is here. There's not much else about on the film, although this is short and sweet.

Plakaty 132

Friday, March 23, 2007

A Concrete Atlantis

Via i like, here is 'my Dad's architecture photos', some quite extraordinary images of early '70s brutalism: a vision of a Britain stunningly alien, a moonscape of concrete contours, all shot in a gorgeous European grey and worn to an onierically hazy finish.

Plakaty 131

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Circus Maximus

Guy Debord dated the start of the society of the spectacle to the inauguration of the Crystal Palace in the 1840s, and we have no particular reason to dissent from that (all 'yes but the Romans had colosseums!' shouters to the back of the class). The most poignant fragments of the earlier forms of said society have always been Picture Palaces: the very phrase evoking a folie de grandeur, as well as an alignment with other 20th century palaces.

So, at the risk of this blog tipping over into a general tribute to the aesthetics of a now defunct and sometimes rather questionable country, here's a link to a fascinating piece on Moscow's Kinopanorama. Especially interesting here is the emphasis on the curvilinear as the Socialist form: an idea also used by Oscar Niemeyer, usually (bless him) in conjunction with 'the curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman.' A lovely montage of attractions, this paragraph:

'With the end of the Civil War and the strengthening of the Trotskyite idea of the USSR as a realized mini-cell of the world revolution, many artists begin to imagine the “red” world in a spherical form. The sphere first appears in Leonidov’s project of the “Lenin Institute” (1927), which includes a spherical amphitheater with a transparent cupola. In 1928, Lissitzky and Meyerhold collaborated on a stage design for Sergei Tretyakov’s play “I Want a Baby!” in which they fashioned the theater in the form of an amphitheater. (Incidentally, this design included plans for the simultaneous projection of films along its perimeter.) For Lenin, both cinema and circus belong to the most important forms of art. But in the early Stalin era, the circus prevailed.'

A pregnant last phrase, that: here one can bring in not only the Bakhtinian idea of circus as raw public expression (something occasionally endorsed by Adorno as well as the Soviet Eccentrists), to the carnivalesque workings of the show trials as Zizek discusses them in Did Someone Say Totalitarianism? A typical Kinopanorama itself would run in circular form, and be apprehended as something that one couldn't possibly take in all at once. The piece then goes on to explain that in order to get around this, there were attempts to ensure that the Soviet spectator genuinely did have eyes in the back of their head, attempts to develop a truly collective, dialectical mode of perception for its dialectical cinema (I've been reading lots of Eisenstein this week, so there's more of this to come...). Another example to add to the list: the curves of the 'Chekists Village' in Ekaterinburg, a GPU headquarters in the shape of a hammer and sickle designed in the early 30s, summing up the dialectic of the utopian potentialities and the grim secret state. It's now a hotel...

Plakaty 130


Today's Featured Article: The Fourth International. Full of surprises, Wikipedia. I especially like the list of predecessors, which seem weirdly appropriate: Triceratops, Final Fantasy VII, Uranium...(being a bit on the Deutscherite side, I've always found the splintering internationals rather cute. I swear I saw a 'Fifth' at a demo recently. Not to mention the pathos of calling yourself the 'Committee for a Workers International')

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

End Notes

In the midst of the German inflation of 1923 - the period of general financial mentalism that led to wages being paid in wheelbarrows and so forth - bauhaus designer Herbert Bayer, somewhat sardonically, designed for the Thuringian government an unornamented, sans serif banknote to give a rationalist face to this lunatic spiral. Since this first intervention, banknotes have been a fine indicator to the mood of a given country, offering intriguing insights into aesthetic politics. When the most recent 10 and 20 pound notes were distributed, there was some sniffiness from Daily Mail quarters: they looked suspiciously European, not sufficently Gothicky. As if they were trying to prepare the British for the Euro by stealth.

Now that it seems inconceivable that Britain will ever become part of Europe rather than the US' bitch, it's no surprise that the new 20 quid looks like it was designed by the Daily Mail itself. From the choice of cover star (Adam Smith, of the currently very well hidden hand) to the use of Times bleeding New Roman as typeface, they fairly scream 'reactionary'; not to mention a catastrophically ugly, blocky approach to design. Only a country that produced Barratt Homes could have produced these banknotes. But at least in their choice of Adam Smith, the Bank of England that Gordon Brown denationalised in 1997 has shown themselves to have a keen sense of irony. Not quite as keen as the DDR's Central Bank when they slapped Marx's face on their notes, but not too far off.

Plakaty 129

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Private Clean, Public Unclean

My Grandad, an awesomely sideburned old Communist, once said something along the lines of 'Julie Burchill is usually wrong, but when she's right, she's really right'. So while her frequently dim-witted views on Milosevic, Palestine, the Iraq war, Uncle Joe and God (not to mention her slightly tragic conviction that the British Working Class can Do No Wrong) should be passed over in silence, these extracts from her attack on Brighton's New Labour council are essential reading, and typically, mainly because of their attention to the class composition of the 'Labour Party' and how this is what former fashionable Lefties of the early 80s retain, even as they ruthlessly purge every last remnant of Social Democracy in Britain, as in the unseemly sell-off of the remains of council housing. Viz:

Even Mrs Thatcher would not touch the post office and the railways, let alone start dicking around with the prison system. And at least in her case privatisation was about ideology, so understandable if misguided. With Labour, getting rid of public utilities or, in the case of local Labour councils, farming out contracts to private companies, seems like some sort of bizarre obsessive-compulsive disorder ("Eww, trains... dirty!"), like with those weird women who have one thing surgically altered then can't stop until everything's been renovated. If this country looked like a person right now, it would be Michael Jackson; a perfectly decent specimen to start with which for some reason convinced itself it would look a lot better with everything taken off and put back on inside out and upside down.

...It is very hard to see all this as unconnected to the chav phenomenon of the past few years. The rise of this word mirrors the almost pathological loathing and demonisation of the working class as the only underdogs it's safe to pick on now that race relations and religious hatred laws have put beyond the pale poking fun at any other ethnic group. How ironic, therefore, that in the shameful list of "chavscum" insults, "council" is up there with "pram-face" and "chip-shop" as a description of working-class people.

Marker Fist

Friday, March 16, 2007

Got the Spirit, don't lose the Feeling

Curiously enough, many of the ideas in my Brecht piece were salvaged from a very unfinished thing in my vaults on the 'Once more with Feeling' episode of Buffy, treating it alongside The Threepenny Opera and The Singing Detective. The best analysis of this extraordinary bit of television though is still Mark Sinker's Village Voice piece: 'the question the entire musical asks, with tremendous, intricate force, at every level: Are the feelings induced by art—magic or music or motion picture—real, or an artifact? And real or artifact, which is preferable?'

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Plakaty 128

And surely the greatest and most creepy proponent of the conjunction outlined below: montage pioneer Gustav Klutsis.

A Modernism for Thermidor

Some would have it that it's only a matter of coincidence or luck that no reactionary, Fascist and/or Stalinist regime ever really favoured Modernist architecture; a line taken by Deyan Sudjic and others, which makes the counterfactual 'what if Stalin had chosen the Vesnin brothers, Corbusier or Gropius' designs for the Palace of the Soviets?' Naturally I have no time for this argument, but it is nonetheless a mistake to think that the country skipped from the avant-garde to the Neoclassical instantly, and all sorts of things, such as the magazine USSR in Construction or Vertov's Three Songs of Lenin, exist in the grey area between Leftism and Thermidorian bombast (and are, I confess, a guilty pleasure of mine, rather like the M&S on Oxford St or art deco in general...)

So it was really quite exciting (well for me anyway) to find that someone has just made a very extensively illustrated wikipedia page on Postconstructivism, the composite style that tried to bridge the two in architecture. Unlike the wild eclecticism that followed it, this does seem to me to be distinctly Speerian in some respects, or at least akin to the 'Luftwaffe Modern' of Ernst Sagebiel, but that might get put in a re-edit. One of the best things about this page is how utterly tendentious it is, something which is worth enjoying now before it gets edited out (the same writer has done a similarly comprehensive and combative job on the Stalinist architecture entry). I've already had a poke at the grammar myself...

Keaton avec Corbusier

The post below was intended to actually have, er, embedded, the relevant clips, but for some reason Youtube is not playing (hence if you're reading this and the blog is clogged up with multiple clips, that'll be why). Anyway, I am currently writing, for a very glamorous publication (well, the journal of the Hertfordshire Architectural Association. So it isn't Vogue...) a piece that will explain just what connects Buster Keaton's One Week, the work of the noted 'Swiss psychotic' and the prefabricated schools of the late 1940s. There would be little videos of all/some of these things, but for the moment you'll just have to click on the links...
UPDATE: Oh, hang on...

Perversion against Profit

According to a vaguely notorious 1965 propaganda film, pornography was something that weakened America's resistance to the international Communist conspiracy. This of course suggests a possible alliance between smut and socialism, one which a few people implied (me, for one) in the Porn Symposium last year. As this seemed quite appropriate not only to my personal consumer choices (i.e, whether to buy the New Humanist or Classic Glamour this month) but to a general reconsideration of political aesthetics, we screened it along with the Genet and Fassbinder at the last Kino Fist. Regardless, a clip from the film is above, for the viewing pleasure of those who didn't make it on Sunday.

Which brings us to Animated Soviet Propaganda, a DVD box set the existence of which I have just been informed. Naturally, as everything a communist does is inherently propagandistic (while presumably Captitalist animation is apolitical and autonomous) this looks like it encompasses a huge range of stuff, such as previously absurdly difficult to find things like Dziga Vertov's Soviet Toys. Anyone who wants to be my friend for ever and ever should buy me a copy, but meanwhile, there's a large snippet of it on Google Video which makes it look especially intriguing, concentrating on the fight via animation against US imperialism. See also this short review by J Hoberman, whose excellent Red Atlantis is one of the best and most peculiar books on Soviet aesthetics.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Kino Marker

The next Kino Fist, by the way, after a surprisingly full room tried not to blush through Un Chant d'Amour last Sunday, will be (obvious candidate for the 'great and surprisingly alive' post below) Chris Marker's magnificent Grin Without a Cat, his monumental 1977 masterwork on the 'Third World War', i.e the struggles against capital, Stalinism and imperialism post-war and pre-Thatcher. If that sounds on the dry side (what, would you rather it wet? oh, hang on) then there are images easily the equal of La Jetee, along with the impressionistic intellectual montage of Sans Soleil and The Last Bolshevik (above) here as well. Also it's absurdly difficult to get hold of, which makes this screening a really very rare thing indeed. Usual place (90 Wallis Road, London E9) usual price (a quid) and usual free stuff (hooray for free photocopiers).

Meanwhile, here's the K-Punk piece on the film from a little while back.

Celebrity Existenzminimum

I've just found out via Wikipedia that Diana Ross (who, let's not forget, hymns 'the international style' on the sublime 'My Old Piano') used to live in Mies van der Rohe and Ludwig Hilberseimer's Lafayette Apartments in Detroit. Aside from this bit of archi-pop incongruity, rivalled only by Agatha Christie's residence in the Isokon Building, can anyone else think of similar famous inhabitants of hardcore functionalist buildings? Gold star available, etc.

Plakaty 127 (Temporary Maoist Aberration)

I've never really had any affection for Maoism, I must admit: despite it's appeal for it of such SDMYABT heroes as Godard and Bat, it has always seemed a mixture of economic idiocy (furnaces in gardens, etc) quasi-religious grotesquerie and a markedly un-Internationalist bent towards brutality and expansionism (aside - given the prominence of Maoism in post-68 Third Worldism, isn't it curious how China under Mao was more keen on cosying up to Nixon than aiding any actual struggles? Aside from such delighful regimes as those of Enver Hoxha and Pol Pot). Regardless of this glib dismissal of the largest revolutionary movement in history, may I draw your attention (via Voyou) to Stefan Landsberger's tremendous site of Chinese Revolutionary Posters: essentially an entire political history illumined vis the propaganda poster. Curiously enough, given that their conjuncton of stylistic ultra-conservatism and utterly bizarre content evokes the avant-Beaux Arts of Dali or Delvaux, they could be truly said to be an amalgam of Stalinism and Surrealism...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

'Social Exclusion'

The UK’s New Labour government now hails ‘complex art’ as a way to challenge the ‘poverty of aspiration’ and ‘low expectations’ allegedly afflicting the lower class. The ongoing increase in simple poverty is ignored. Although social engagement on the part of artists is viewed as a beneficial and moral expansion of their activities into the community, artists’ role is primarily to provide stimulus to and communitarian credibility for the process of privatisation and gentrification which the term ‘regeneration’ figures as progress and renewal.

Just to highlight this excellent demolition of the myth of regeneration, as supplied by Daniel in the comments to the Shoreditch post (and no apologies for reposting the above pic...)

Plakaty 126

Must you Learn?

After reading K-Punk's expansion of the Kino Fist disquisition on the Verfremdungseffekt to Public Enemy, I've been pondering the question of the Brechtian Lehre and how an almost analagous thing had a currency in Hip Hop. Obviously what makes PE so key here is that they could be unashamedly didactic while being totally, unabashedly thrilling - listened earlier to Yo! Bum Rush the Show, and a shiver runs down the spine at the cavernous clatter, the metallic blare of Chuck D declaring himself a 'COMMUNIST' and 'TERRORIST' on 'Raise the Roof'. The problem is how often this became like the more dull end of a lecture: not a class self-educating its way to power but a kind of Black History Month dreariness - in conversation with Mark we decided this moment might have been mid-way through the second Boogie Down Productions LP...

Regardless, it now seems totally impossible to imagine a semi-mainstream rap record ranting about the Emperor Theodosius as on KRS-1's 'You must Learn' (nb, I would rather listen to Juvenile's 'Back that Azz Up' than almost all of KRS' post-88 career), with this sort of thing now subsumed in the tedium of something like Immortal Technique, where the music languishes in 1988 as much as the politics. But if the lehre got stuck, is it worth resurrecting? Where in pop culture today would it find an opening?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Plakaty 125

Constructivism and its Discontents

A point I wanted to make, but didn't have time due to the move (ah, the joys of the Blackwall Tunnel approach!), on Slavoj Z's distinctly shoddy Birkbeck lecture a couple of weeks ago. Though IT has already poked at this, and though I don't intend to join the Parody Centre and Chabert in their increasingly tiresome Zizek-bashing, one moment when he got onto what, with a sort of politico-cultural territorialism I tend to think of as my territory, deserves a proper riposte. In an excursus on the occlusion of Leftist art by Stalinism, he pointed out that the Taylorist, techno-fetishist ideology shared by both Constructivists and Trotskyists was actually more terrifying than Stalinism itself. While this might have created some Zamyatinesque order of instantly responsive biomechanical robots, Stalinism in both its affection for the classics (which I discuss a bit in the most recent comment here) and its preservation of ethics, of a particularly perverse sort, actually saved humanity. Zizek seemed to think this was terribly shocking, and perhaps it is, to the humanist version of Trotskyism, but it is nonetheless utterly ideological.

What it resembles is not only a kind of idiot version of Sartre's claim that the Resistance proved that even under torture one could still make a choice, still be a Man, but at the same time points to the common surrealist/psychoanalytical line on Modernism, akin to Ballard's admission of defeat, 'no-one could fall in love in the Heathrow Hilton'. While the atavistic dictatorships of the 30s or the chaos of capitalism enable some sort of preservation of the bourgeois Subject, and of his majesty the Ego, this could only be destroyed by a society brought into being by a Tatlin or a Corbusier. Essentially this boils down to a hypothetical choice. Between the society dreamt of by Reich, which would have in Brecht's phrase 'effaced the traces' and communalised man out of the Oedipus complex; and a society still brutal, still unequal, which nevertheless preserves Oedipus. It's depressing, but not remotely surprising that Zizek, seemingly like everyone else, would rather choose the latter.