Saturday, April 29, 2006

Connection Theory

Order And Pleasure

The perception of order produces pleasure.

A hand reaches between two pillows, and pulls out an earring. This shot can be the high point of a movie, producing thrill, shock, recognition, and awe. In a rush of understanding, we realize that X has died, that Y was lying, that Z was having an affair with A, that B is innocent, etc, etc, etc. We feel pleasure as an avalanche of dramatic information washes over us, in stark contrast to the scantiness of the shot’s visual content of hand, pillows and earring. Our pleasure comes from the connections we have just made.

Connections in Narrative Film

The viewer’s eternal question of “What does this mean?” may be restated as: “What am I supposed to do with what I am seeing, hearing?”

Audiences are constantly processing information, ie making connections between signs. Realistic narrative exploits the huge store of shared connection-making power we soak up just by growing up in a particular culture: A heavily made-up woman in a miniskirt is kissing a man. She pulls his coat open, revealing a collar of a particular shape. We use our glimpse of the collar –no more than a strip of white—and make our connections: the man is a priest, the woman is a prostitute, this is a forbidden act, and so on. The woman pulls off her wig and groans in a deep voice. More connections. From the deep voice and wig, we conclude that “she’s” a man, and this one kinky priest. A door opens. We hear laughter and party music. In comes a Pharoah and a Cowgirl. They say “We were looking for you, Eddie.” The priest smiles sheepishly. In a split second, we reweigh and revise the connections. It’s a costume party. Eddie the priest is probably not a real priest, this is probably just a little role-playing, and so on. A skilled director controls the flow of screen visuals and sound to provoke our connection-making powers in exactly this way.

We make connections so automatically it’s hard for us to see the processes.We do it so naturally that even describing what we do as “making connections” feels somehow inaccurate. The phrase reminds us of things like algebra, translation or computer programming: abstract, intellectual, step-by-step operations; in contrast, we seem to take in film by near-instantaneous processes that feels like how we imagine telepathy might feel like. Seeing the simple strip of white of the clerical collar in the abovementioned scene instantly floods us with interest and/or uneasiness, in spite of the fact that there is nothing essentially dangerous about whiteness or collars. The danger we feel is the result of us having completely internalized the culture that associates that cut of collar with a thousand other things: ideas about priesthood, Sunday masses, the ten commandments, sexual taboos, other movies about priests, and so on. Our mastery of the meaning of the sign of the collar makes it difficult to see the simple geometric shape of the collar apart from everything we associate/connect with it. In the same way, it is nearly impossible for us to see the screen as a two-dimensional plane filled with differentiated light. The speed and invisibility of the sign-reading process contributes to our inability to see what narrative order might have in common with the order that underpins nonnarrative films, or even atemporal arts like painting or sculpture. This essay is an effort to make those connections clearer.

Internal and External Connections

It is useful to think of connections as being divided into two types: External and Internal connections. The connections we make with the collar is connection external to the scene. In spite of the fact that the scene does not include an anthropological documentary about the customs of the Catholic church, we know that that the whitecollared man is not supposed to be what he is doing. We connect the white collar with ideas about priesthood, celibacy and sin as a result of information we have accumulated from the life we lead outside the movie. On the other hand, the way we learn that the priest is not really a priest, is through an Internal connection, a connection established within the scene through the juxtaposition of party music, a Pharoah and a Cowgirl, the word “Eddie” and so on. (Wheels within wheels within wheels. Making meaning is a very complex affair. Thinking about how meaning is made makes you think of fractal graphics, designs that display the same level of detail and complexity no matter how much you zoom in. You can always zoom further in. For instance, the way we connect the sounds we hear in the scene above with “music” and “parties” is an external connection, as is the way we connect things like the girl’s big hat and string tie with “cowgirl” and so on. The more you think about it, the more you are put in awe of the sheer amount of information you must already have at your fingertips, in order to even begin to make sense of the simplest things.)

Internal and External are adjectives. They work exactly like the words inside and outside. A connection is either Internal or External depending on where you put the border. In the last scene of Blade Runner where Rick Deckard spirits Rachel out of his apartment, he sees a little paper crane on the floor outside his apartment door. We realize that the detective with the pock-marked face has been there. We know this because earlier in the movie, we saw the same detective making little figurines: a matchstick scarecrow, an origami dinosaur, and so on. We make a connection to a piece of information that is internal relative to the movie Blade Runner, but external to the scene Spiriting Rachel Away.

The more familiar/traditional an art form is, the more it can draw on external connections.The less familiar/traditional an art form is the more information it has to establish internally, for connections to be drawn. A story about sex taps into universal experiences. A science-fiction dystopia must internally establish the laws and taboos of its fictional society. A film about the life of a nine-year old female Untouchable in Uttar Pradesh cannot take anything for granted if it hopes to be understood outside Uttar Pradesh. And so on. (Put this way, it becomes easy to imagine someone wondering to himself: Would it be possible to create a film that had absolutely NO external connections? Perhaps something that used only fields of color. It would move from light to dark. Perhaps it would begin as one unified field of yellow and end with an image of a million little shivering worms of black. We could call it Zebra Crossing. And so on. This is the sort of problem-based thinking some experimental filmmakers do.)

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Of Warriors, Punks and Silence

Three interesting comments from fellow artists about Abakanism, which seemed to throw lights interesting enough to comment on:

1) Stanley says he is disinterested in "competing". He will talk about his art to those who seem sympathetic, but thinks that this is something the artist can choose or not choose to do. The artist is not OBLIGATED to explain, still less to shout anyone down.

2) Erwin (filmmaker) says that whenever he tells people what this bit or that bit derives from, is reacting to, is inspired by, etc,
he gets labeled as "pretentious," and finds that the less he says about his work, the more positively people seem to respond to it.

3) Lyle (filmmaker) says he can talk about his stuff, but doesn't think he can write about it.

To which I warmly pontificate as follows ;-)

1) Well, yes, nobody should have to do anything they don't want to. I know a couple of gentle souls myself, who have no verbal claws, and no wish to grow any. I would not wish them to change a hair either, and so I have secretly decided that I am their champion and protector, so let the evil and thoughtless beware, mwahahaha. But Abakanism is a polemic position, a warrior's code; naturally its internal hierarchy places warriors on the right hand of God. Samurai think civilians are kind of cute, but soft.

2) I didn't mean, when I said that real artists should explain, that they should tell ALL. I meant that they should be ready to impart whatever information is necessary for the work to become legendary. It is possible to curate with silence.

3) I wonder if Lyle (whom I find to be consistently insightful, funny and articulate in person) is laboring under some preconceived notions about what "good writing" should sound like. What if good writing DOESN'T have to sound like what you think it should sound like? What if it just has to do the job and sound like you? I sound like I do basically because I 1) put in the big stuff and 2) leave out everything that it would bore me to leave in. This doesn't GUARANTEE that you'll produce something good or even readable, but it's a good place to start. I would like to see texts/manifestoes/clarifications that were not "literary" in the sense of being polished or slick. I want to read punk criticism! (You read that here first!)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


Why? Why explain the context of your work?

The short answer:

Because if you don’t, somebody else will.

The long answer:

An artwork is typically the tip of an iceberg. It is like the punch line of a joke: it concentrates the energies of an existing context. Folk/Traditional/Folk/pop musicians typically don't have to explain their work, because their work usually sits in a context/history most people are familiar with. On the other hand, anybody doing conceptual/”avante-garde”/new work is usually trying to make a point in a different context. Perhaps he is even trying to invent a new context altogether. Such an artist naturally has to contend with people looking for things in his work that he was trying to leave out on purpose, and so on. --For instance, many modernist composers deliberately did not write harmony into their pieces, because they were trying to find musical structures ASIDE from harmony. Unless the listener understood the context ("I am trying to compose a new music without harmony") it is possible that the listener might think that the composer a) didn't know how to write harmony b) was joking, c) was insane, and so on. If you are an artist working in a new context, would you rather have a hand in making that context known, or would you rather hope and pray that somebody else does that task correctly?

Saturday, April 15, 2006


Anti-Bahala-Ka-Na-Ism. A NEW MOVEMENT!!!

In Tagalog, Bahala ka na, which roughly translates as "It's all up to you," is the artist's stereotypical response to the question "what is this work about?" ? I have no idea how the rest of the world does it, but in the Philippines, artists are taught that it is improper to "explain" your work, that to do so is to some how violate the integrity of the work. In practice, I've gotten some fairly thoughtful answers from artists who saw me as, well, if not an ally, at least someone who was not a complete idiot. Still, this is the status quo, the partyline: THE WORK IS NOT MEANT TO BE EXPLAINED.

EXCEPT, that is, when some kind of curatorial statement is called for, typically in some art magazine, or on a sheet of bond paper glued by the door, or over the price lists. Typically this is some near-incomprehensible gobbledygook larded with abstract nouns and postmodernist buzzwords. And I say this as someone who has actually READ some Derrida. The works by Tagalog or Taglish speaking artists, snorting with good-natured laughter over pop-art references and limp jokes, must be framed by the most ornate, gilded, otiose, fringed,beribboned, sequin-spangled, curlicued, velvet chiffon french-english lark's vomit. Apparently the old-school writing principles of using concrete nouns, favoring the short word over the long one, the direct over the indirect, must be completely reversed for the purposes of talking about AHT.

If I were completely paranoid, which I am not, yet, I would suspect that this strangely claustrophobic state of affairs --where the artists seem either trained or determined not to speak about what they do or think, and yet are framed and legitimized by texts made indecipherable precisely by doing the OPPOSITE of what makes good writing-- to be the product of a deliberate conspiracy to defraud artists of the right or power to speak. It's like some paranoid fantasy out of Burroughs. The Puta Mayan Rice Caper. Alien Centipedes have taken over the control room and have cut the lines to thought, forcing all Filipino artists to talk like Cheech and Chong, and released a virus that infects ink, causing all written texts to grow prolix to the point of unreadability in order to keep the people under the control of the High Puta Mayan Centipede Priests.



1) The artwork exists in a context. It is like the punchline of a joke: it needs a setup.

2) The context is a web of ideas surrounding the work. In a time of whitewater, white noise makes it difficult to perceive the context. Therefore it is the artist’s duty to make that web known and visible.

3) Explanations do not detract from the experience of the artwork. Explanations enhance the experience of the artwork.

4) It is possible for an explanation to be bullshit. It is also possible for an artwork to be bullshit. It is possible that both or that neither is the case. Therefore it is necessary to experience both the art and the explanation to know what is what.

5) A real artist is not afraid to talk about his intentions.

6) A real artist does not have French postmodernist intentions.

7) A real artist is not afraid to speak for his work.

8) A real artist is not afraid of criticism. A real artist welcomes all attention, even negative attention. That which does not kill him only makes him stronger.

9) A real artwork is not afraid of explanations and contexts because it has the power to exceed all explanations and contexts.



PS Cheech and Chong don't talk like Cheech and Chong. Read the Playboy interview.

Scores vs Recordings

Extract from Notes on Some Issues Brought to Mind by the Metropolis Screening
tracked by Rubber Inc. 2005

Time has been much kinder to the crowd and factory scenes, which remain much more vital than the dramatic scenes, most of which have become irredeemably hokey with the passage of time. This seems to be a general rule, and not something specific to Metropolis. I don’t think there is any film that ages in the opposite way, ie, with crowd and architecture becoming more hokey and drama remaining vital. I think this is a consequence of the cinematic form and the speed of the times. Contemporary film (like any contemporary popular art form) can ring with absolute truth for its contemporary (literally: “together in time”) audience, because it can speak fluently using all the semiotic systems/languages of their shared temporal horizon: sonic, spoken, visual, sartorial, tonsorial, architectural, etc. In fact, it seems possible that narrative film is not only an art of concrete details, but that its essence is detail itself. However, by this same token, film is also therefore uniquely vulnerable to the damage that time wreaks on those details’ semiotic systems. For example: clothes, hair and speech patterns --channels of information that establish not only aspects like class and profession, but aspects like sincerity, individualism, and outlook -- become, with time’s passing, filled with other information, the information of time. The “right on,” and afro and leather fringes which once established a character as an enlightened nonconformist become filled with “sixtiesness.”

It is interesting that Lang’s film remains most vital where it departed most radically from the visual language of it’s time. I suppose this cannot be a hard rule of cinematic or artistic survival, because it seems obvious that this vitality is a consequence of the historical fact that we continue to explore the avenues he opened up. Science fiction is a living and fertile metaphor for us, who live in an age of accelerating cultural shocks occasioned by technological change. It seems just as likely that radical stylistic departures might open roads that one’s descendants (postdecessors?) will NOT explore, will not find interesting to explore, and to which time will consequently give the appearance of museum knick-knacks.

In contrast to film, something like a script written for the stage is (all other things being equal) much less vulnerable to time, because so much detail remains unspecified. Moreover, it is acceptable that a stage director ignore or even outlandishly violate notes on staging, scenery, and costume. A director replaces Chekhov’s drawing rooms with a couple of white cubes and no-one turns a hair. We accept that he has not violated anything essential to Chekhov, and rightly see dramatic scripts as outlines, in which no detail need remain unchanged. (After all, Chekhov as we know it is all translated from the Russian to begin with. ) In contrast, traditional English speakers view tinkering with Shakespeare with more misgivings, because they believe (are trained to believe) that his language is essential to what is great and vital to the plays. As a speaker of contemporary English, I must say that this idea seems obviously false. It seems clear to me that time has definitely poisoned many of the details of Shakespeare’s language, robbed them of power and immediacy and refilled them with quaintness and even outright incomprehensibility; and that while it is true that I have seen some instances of vital Shakespeare (Macbeth staged by an English theatrical troupe, scenes from Richard III by Pacino) it also seems clear to me that the scenes remained vital in spite of the ornate and creaky burden of the author’s language. They were vital because the actors OVERCAME the text. It seems to me that techniques powerful enough to wrest vitality from Shakespeare could just as profitably be used on a script consisting of pure or nearly pure gibberish. Vital Shakespeare is an invitation to release theater from the confines of lexicography. (You read it here first.) Accordingly, we can derive the following rule of thumb: the chances of remaining vital are inversely proportionate to the amount of detail that is considered as essential to the work. As a rule, recorded performances (of which films are a paradigmatic example) date quickly, as we consider all the recorded details of the performances as the essence of the work, the object. We find it easier to accept tinkering with a script than with a performance. Easier to accept Glenn Gould omitting passages Beethoven wrote than somebody laying some beats on top of Glenn Gould (though even that is getting less scandalous by the second). Scripts and scores, which are nearly all outline, (and which therefore can absorb detail from their surrounds) date more slowly. As a rule. (We should note that not all recorded content has to be considered a recorded performance. Pop musicians often make acoustic demos that serve as scores: as song sketches that the band is meant to fill out in rehearsal)

Further, it seems that certain details are more vulnerable than others, though I would have to watch more samples to be sure, or even to stab at general observations. Of them all, those details that are mobilized for dramatic dialogue seem to age fastest. Perhaps this is the fate of overspecified (overspecified emotion?). Something overspecified is difficult to recontextualize, which is perhaps what updating is all about? The chase scenes, riot scenes, and stylized robot-marching scenes look almost contemporary, and remain particularly watchable, perhaps because they can be read as abstract motion, and are readable as a kind of dance. The dramatic scenes in Metropolis shimmer between the boring and hilarious, though Chaplin’s pathos scenes do not. Is it simply that we apply different standards to a “serious” silent? Or is the difference simply due to the fact that Lang didn’t know what good acting was while Chaplin did? Many questions.

In the light of these considerations, it seems justifiable to raise doubts about the viability of the strategy of “updating” classic cinema by purely musical means. Metropolis has survived as a kind of mosaic of vital and dead parts. It seems inescapable to conclude that any hope of salvaging some kind of emotional power from the drama would have to incorporate some kind of re-editing, which could range from something as minor as using the subtitles as a libretto in an operatic score (as Philip Glass did for Renoir’s La Belle et La Bete) reshooting scenes with lookalikes, to cutting MTVs and trailers (which would be the equivalent of sampling Miles Davis for a hiphop track). In any case, it seems to me an inevitability that the film form will soon suffer the same assault on its inviolability as recorded music, and be sampled, recut and reused, all to the screams of purists, but to the nodding acceptance of the multitudes. It is possible that Moroder’s strategy, these days viewed as an act of artistic butchery, was simply way ahead of its time.

3 analytical tools: Dominant Flow, Parallel, Counterpoint

Extract from Notes on Some Issues Brought to Mind by the Metropolis Screening
tracked by Rubber Inc. 2005

By angermintano

The music was definitely much more responsive to the changes in the tone of the film this year, unlike last year, when the music would often keep rolling along in the same vein even when the tone/temper/mood of the scene had changed radically, violating a prerequisite that seems to me to define what the hell soundtracking is in the first place ie to make sounds that keep faith with the visuals.

“To keep faith with,” what does that mean? Not exactly sure myself, which is (one of the things) that this essay is supposed to clarify.And now it might be best to go into specifics:

Malek , the group’s leader, had Arvin (Caliph8) DJ an orchestral record (Holst’s “The Planets”) during certain parts of the movie, notably during the idyllic opening scenes with the children of the elite partying in some garden. Debussy’s legacy music: no strong melody/motifs, strings noodling along, beginning, implying, erasing, revising, etc. The music fit the mood perfectly in some 1950’s Hollywood mode, up until Maria showed up with her gaggle of urchins saying, “These are your brothers!!” This development of course breaks the idyll, yet the music goes on dreaming away,oblivious to the dramatic development. The same thing happened when more of the same music was used to track Maria’s prayer meeting in the caves. Perfect consonance between sound and image, up until the camera cuts to Jon Federer and Rotwang spying on the proceedings. At this point, the editing goes parallel, tracking both the prayer meeting and the shadowy conspirators, which again the music ignored. Now, while it perfectly valid to use a disjunction between the visual and musical moods as a dramatic device, so that the music becomes a kind of ironic commentary on the visuals, --eg a car radio playing cheery muzak while the driver is hacked to pieces by Leatherface—we did not perceive the disjunction as such. Rather, the disjunction struck us as an error, a kind of obtuseness in the music.

When I mentioned this to Caliph afterwards, he said something to the effect that “we didn’t want the music to be too literal.” Leaving issues of veracity aside, two things immediately eventually came to mind:

1) You can’t have it both ways. The music was selected because it seemed “appropriate”, ie because the music and the film blended like old Hollywood. When the music and the film cease to blend like old Hollywood (ie when the like of the aforementioned disjunctions crop up) you can’t turn around and say you didn’t want the music to be too literal because you negate the premise that was the criteria of appropriateness in the first place. This is inconsistent.

2) The word “literal” lives on unchallenged because of an absence of a common theoretical framework. I propose this premise as the foundations of one: The music must at all times jam with the visuals. When a musician jams with other musicians, he has 2 general options open to him at any time: to go with the flow or to oppose it (better: COUNTERPOINT it). These two general principles can be fleshed out in infinite ways. One go with the flow by repeating a melody in unison, or playing in harmony; go with the rhythm while opposing the key; hold a key but play at double speed; oppose sporadically by inserting passing chords, and so on. Enshrining “jamming” as the first principle makes much clearer the soundtrack’s responsibilities, options and mandate, and makes it clearer what kind of error the deprecatory use of the word “literal” encourages. Using the word “literal” this way

a) sets up a straw man by pre-equating “going with the flow” ( a phrase which we will henceforth replace with the noun PARALLELISM ) with bad musical strategy. This allows the speaker to claim anything OTHER than parallelism (including simple inertia) as good musical strategy; and

b) clouds (perhaps even corrodes) one’s intuitive awareness that jamming, or INTERACTION is not a program of exclusive parallelism or exclusive opposition. Interaction is the choosing of one or another program at every moment. One could get all Zen here and discuss The Void as the place where choice occurs or not-occurs. I leave this option to those so inclined.

In short the film should be considered as another musician, (better: as the DOMINANT FLOW) It is incumbent on the soundtracker that he make a meaningful choice at every passing moment; that is, he must decide how or whether he is at any given moment playing with the flow or counterpointing it in some way; and he must be clear how he is executing the counterpoint. In the light of this framework, it becomes impossible to deny our perception of glitches as glitches, and we can say confidently that letting Holst play on even when he and the visuals have obviously parted ways is not good soundtracking, BECAUSE IT NEITHER PARALLELS NOR COUNTERPOINTS THE VISUALS. It is a (momentary) abdication of interaction. This is why it strikes us as a form of obtuseness.

This is not to say that I don’t appreciate the practical difficulties of editing Holst to fit Lang. I know it’s hard, but then one should say “That would be the ideal, but I don’t know how,” or “It’s impossible” or “I didn’t have the time” or whatever is/was the case instead of defending the glitches as aesthetic choices, not only because it’s illogical, or even that it’s dishonest, but because you run the risk (if you adopt this sort of mental judo as a standard move) of eventually believing it, which will only happen at the price of rendering yourself numb to the perception of error. It carries the threat of self-mutilation. And it happens.

In contrast to the glitchy moments in the Holst passages, the music accompanying the scene in the caves where Rotwang abducts Maria exemplifies excellent counterpoint. The music, instead of paralleling Maria’s desperation, lays back, deploying an impersonal architecture of percussion, in the process remaining icily distant, with the result that it emphasizes and sharpens our sense of her isolation, tiny white figures running crazily in the twisting dark.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

art in whitewater time

We start from here: that most art, for all the PR about absolute freedom, is created in relation to certain themes and problems. How can this sound both blasphemous and tautological? Of course people will keep doing whatever they want to: people will probably keep on painting nudes etc as long as there are nudes to paint, they are and always will be free to do that. But of course the art that seems most numinous/relevant/revolutionary seems to break ground. And this is the point: art can only break ground where there is ground to break. Meaning that it can only break ground if it exists in the context of some kind of obsession/thematic/problem.

In whitewater time, these thematics follow hard after each other like TV channels surfed by a bored idiot. How do you flatten a painting? How do you remove the symbolic value of a painting? How do you deconstruct gender? Boring, boring, boring, like reading transcripts of monks debating angels on pinheads. Even now "new media" installations that juxtapose the virtual and the real as if their interpenetration was some sort of ontological scandal are starting to smell like ancient Victorian pornography. "LOOK at this TART showing her ANKLES!!! Isn't she a SLUT!!!"

In this environment, it seems hopeless (or at least boring) to read, let alone write a history or a taxonomy from first principles. I am highly impatient of learning or inventing new terms unless their usefulness is demonstated in the next paragraph. The principle of parsimony must be applied with an iron fist. I am particularly suspicious of grounding abstract principles in words from languages other than the primary language of the text. Heidegger used a lot of Greek, but it was justified because he wanted to talk about things for which there were no German words. Derrida forced English-speakers everywhere to use words like "differance," "trace" and "deconstruction," but again, he was writing in French to begin with and these coinages proved, like geometric axioms, to be highly useful, far-reaching notions. I still think though, that he did a particularly bad job of explaining what the hell he meant. No Feynman, he.

And so we arrive at my three models for clear writing: Richard Feynman, Philosophical Investigations-era Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Brian Eno. Everything they wrote was short and aimed at illuminating/dissolving a specific/immediate issue. Feynman was fond of referring to himself as a Babylonian (as opposed to Greek) physicist. Greeks were supposedly more interested in creating huge, monolithic, self-consistent superstructures of ideas, whereas Babylonians were more interested in finding techniques that bore immediate practical results. By which Feynman meant he was not averse to utilizing a range of techniques, perhaps even a multiplicity of incommensurable metaphors, to make predictions of practical value. That's for me.