Smack Jack

26 Nov

Private Idaho

24 Nov


20 Nov

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1. Texas Gladden – House Carpenter
2. Elizabeth Laprelle – Pretty Saro
3. Elizabeth Laprelle – East Virginia
4. Eddie LeJeune – Les Conseils J’ai Ecoute

I really love Appalachian folk (“holler”). There’s something really essential about unaccompanied voice and I wonder how many of our modern day music stars could really pull it off. I could never do it, not as a belter, anyway, so it makes me aware of that gap between what you’re attracted to and what you can actually physically do yourself. I can never sound like David Byrne or Iggy Pop either. It’s a bit painful to know you can never achieve what you love, but as Radiohead pointed out in a past interview, creativity happens in the trying (I believe they were talking about trying to replicate Can’s drum sound on Tago Mago. But “Halleluwah” does makes me think of “There, There“). You try and fail and make some sort of new hybrid that is more likely to be interesting than an accurate emulation. I suppose this applies to all art-making.

But back to Appalachia. Texas Gladden is on a few of the albums culled from the Alan Lomax collections, which look labyrinthine and great. There’s a nice interview with Joanna Newsom in Arthur Magazine where she talks about hearing Gladden’s “Three Little Babes” for the first time at Mills, a moment that galvanized her to use her own voice. (She also talks about the SF music scene compared to New York, but that was 10 years ago, and I wonder if that still applies.)

Silly me, I didn’t realize “House Carpenter” was a traditional (even Dylan has done a version). I’ve been looking for pre-Civil War American folk songs and it suddenly hit me that the song sure sounds different than everything else Faun Fables has done and has that minor key folk lilt. Turns out that it’s an Appalachian take on an old Scottish ballad called “The Daemon Lover.” This led me to Youtube and Elizabeth Laprelle, who also covered it:

Many of our folk songs have European roots, which makes sense, but I suppose I’d never bothered to think about it before now. A lot of it is based on the form of the French ballad, which came into its own as a musical form in the British Isles and it’s the Scottish ones that seem most interesting to me. The well-known ballad that comes to mind is “Stairway to Heaven,” and some cursory searching confirms that it was appropriately conceived in Wales. You can really hear it in the beginning before bridge and climax. I believe it’s in a minor key and uses a pentatonic scale, at least before it goes all power ballad.

The pentatonic underlies a lot of Celtic and Chinese traditional music, which, come to think of it, is probably why I have some sort of natural affinity for them. A harp tuned to a pentatonic scale sounds remarkably like a zheng, which produces the sounds I like best. (And incidentally, a harpsicle is actually a real thing…) (There’s an entire world of western music covered on zheng on Youtube. (What ISN’T on Youtube?! WHAT??) This lady is awesome. She covers all manner of pop and rock on guzheng with a synth/backing track accompaniment.)

The music class has gotten me thinking about intervals and scales, and gets me to remembering my preference for the blues scale. It finally makes sense why I like Chinese traditionals, blues and some folk. I like other things of course, but it’s those sounds that really hit on a visceral level as a pure physical (chemical?) reaction. It’s terribly confusing to think of musical taste as defined by genres, since some folk will use minor keys and different scales, and the result sounds completely different. It makes more sense to me to think of the underlying musical components, which I’ve had a hard time doing without any rigorous knowledge of theory. I think I like a lot of random things classified into different genres, but it really isn’t random at all when you take into account the musical foundations. Explanations based in theory make a lot more sense to me than to talk about which instruments are typically used in certain genres:

Because the Cajun accordion is a diatonic instrument it can only play tunes in a few keys. For example, a “C” accordion is tuned such that the entire C scale is available on the ten buttons (over two octaves) and it can play a tune in the key of C with all the notes of the C scale available. Also it can play in the key of D with a bluesy sound since the F natural note becomes a flat third or minor third in the key of D. (wiki)

“Les Conseils J’ai Ecoute” is Cajun, which of course has French roots (in this case via Nova Scotia). Eddie LeJeune is the son of Iry, who was well known as an accordionist and has quite the story as a blind sharecropper. He in turn had been influenced by Amédé Ardoin, who also has a sad story – both were hit by cars when young.

So minor keys, sad stories – does the cliché about minor keys being sad come out of some biological programming in our heads, or from hundreds of sad stories about poor blues and folk musicians?

the bird

18 Nov

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1. Sigur Ros – Brennisteinn
2. Neil Young – Guitar Solo 4 (Dead Man soundtrack)
3. Neil Young – Guitar Solo 5 (Dead Man soundtrack)
4. Portishead – Deep Water
5. Portishead – We Carry On
6. Portishead – Machine Gun
7. Radiohead – The Butcher
8. Radiohead – All I Need
9. Tom Waits – Sins of My Father
10. Pixies – Caribou
11. Other Lives – For 12
12. Kronos Quartet – Lecuona: Tabu

I wrote those last few posts about three weeks ago, and ironically, the week following churned into a stretch of grappling with new ideas and confusion over why I feel nothing over having moved to the East Bay despite feeling plenty for others who have faced eviction. I resort to music as comfort food and pull up the playlist I made during the sea days crossing the Atlantic Ocean in spring. Despite its sometimes rather unsubtle water theme (accentuated at times by the weird redundancy of listening to water sound effects while in the center of one giant real live water sound effect), I permanently imprinted to it on the evening that we left land behind for 6 days at sea.

As I clutched the railings at the bow, trying not to blow away in the 30mph wind, a seabird flew strenuously alongside to coast on the currents generated as the ship cut into the air, hovering without effort for a while before an invisible disturbance sent it tumbling aft. But it was a spirited animal, repeatedly falling back and catching up, falling back and catching up, sometimes flying so close that I could look into its round black eye, so close that I could have reached out and touched almost every part of its body. The wind grew increasingly hostile as the ship picked up speed, but the bird persisted and so did I. The only other people who witnessed this little game, a middle-aged Hispanic couple, seemed just as intent on seeing this through. We grinned silently at each other and pulled out our cameras, all three of our heads and devices swiveling with the bird’s highs and lows.

The captain and crew must have observed us from the bridge and allowed us our fun, since only minutes after our bird finally tired and fell back for good, after what seemed between half an hour to a full hour of this game, a crew member ushered us off to a lower deck, closing the deck due to the high winds and dimming light. By that time my face had begun to hurt from grinning so widely and I was covered from head to toe in a film of salt spray.

It is always enjoyable to feel the benign acceptance of wild animals who do not turn away from your gaze, but this was something else. Perhaps it was the music that took it to another level, but it is the only time in my life that I have wept out of sheer bliss. I could not believe it as it happened, but there it was. It is probably as close to a chemical high as I will ever come, but it means so much more since it goes beyond a pure physical sensation. It is a memory of the sea, of dusk and of flight.


And it’s the music that brings it back. I listen to this playlist and I remember one of the sea days that followed. I ate brunch, went out on deck meaning to read and write, but simply staring at the ocean and jotting down frenzied notes for more than eight straight hours. I sat and stared, walked and stopped to stare, sat back down and stared in a loop (literally, given the space constraints of a sea-going vessel), while the playlist repeated what must have been at least 7 times. The repetition lulled me into a state that is best described as “cloud in the sky.”

To be looking, to have no obligations to the world of people, to stand in the unbroken color field itself – I think that is truly my bliss. I see that blue still, that deep blue that I never understood before and which will never translate in any medium; that endless water, the never the same color of it from day to day. And that wind at the bow, those waves and the fish, the bird, the dark shape of the last islands fading in the night before the crossing.

We spend a week in Spain, and as I conduct my conquistador research and struggle to recall the three sentences of Spanish I’m able to deploy, the sea fades. But on the flight back home, as soon as the plane cruises over the Atlantic, I’m overwhelmed with a terrible longing to be on the ships that are tiny dots below. It hurts to not stand close to the sea. It hurts to be so confined in a steel tube that contains no hint of salt, to shorten the journey from weeks to no time at all. Eight hours is a long time to be strapped into an airplane seat, but it is not a long time to spend with the sea. I think that I must have at least a few more weeks of ocean-going in me before I tire, if I’d ever tire.

So, as I listen to that nostalgia-inflected playlist, I’m back where I am before housing ate up all my energy and attention. That’s when it comes flooding back, when I find my misplaced affect. This is where all the pain of leaving a place is – to imagine the man who wants so badly to be in a new world, the shipwrecked man in involuntary exile, the joy of moving through a vast foreign landscape that is a tainted happiness since you know it will end. And so it did. It is over and I am grounded, a land creature again.


All my nostalgia seems to be folded into the motion of the journey, not the stationary spot that is home. I have my theories about why this is, and I suppose they are all very telling, but what occurs to me now is that music is not the least of it. Travel is the only non-place where music can be a whole day. Where you are running a shadow’s width ahead of errands and bills and deadlines. And if you go somewhere remote, where there is no ready internet access (such as the middle of an ocean!), maybe you are running ahead of (or behind?) the entire world too. That’s a space in which it is easy to slink into pleasures for lack of anything other occupation, and that is the space where day-long playlists are not an aberrant indulgence.

Every time come close to even the realization that the words are done and I have no excuse to stall any longer, I become incredibly irritable, and retreat, laying a fat carpet of excuses behind me. Everything else I do is based in cerebral ideas that I can work with through facts, words and research, but the songs are just little pockets of emotion, people who are in situations and feel a certain way. There is no message, no deeper idea, no way to rationalize or intellectualize. To start down the road of working with emotion itself – to try to approximate other people’s emotions – is to open a door to a way of working that defies scheduling.

There is something in the prospect of making music that defeats the rational attitude of trial-and-feedback-and-retry that I can adopt for work in all other media. I’m too aware of my skills gap and I do not have the benefit of having had a couple of years to play carelessly before setting out to make something presentable. It means a bit too much too me, and I can’t take it lightly, but taking it lightly is probably the only approach that will lead to a pleasant learning curve.

Nothing doing but to start!

Center for Political Beauty

16 Nov

There’s an interesting post on about the Center for Political Beauty, which was recently in the news for the relocation of Berlin war commemorative crosses to European border walls.

For the past 10 years, 14 white crosses in the heart of Berlin have marked the lives of those who died trying to cross from east to west. Over the weekend, they disappeared, replaced with empty black metal frames and a note: “There’s no thinking going on here.”

On Monday, the crosses resurfaced on walls and fences that mark the very outer edges of Europe, in Greece, Bulgaria and Melilla, on the north African coast. A performance art group called the Centre for Political Beauty claimed to have organised the stunt.

In a video statement, the group criticised what it said was Europe’s hypocrisy in fortifying its borders in the south just as it celebrated the fall of an old border in the east. More than 3,000 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year alone.

The group plans to send up to three coachloads of people from Berlin to the Mediterranean, to “tear down the European wall”. Its crowdfunding page carries Ikea-style instructions on how to dismantle a wire fence with a bolt-cutter and an angle grinder.

The Centre for Political Beauty has a history of controversial acts. In 2009, it auctioned the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, on eBay. This year, it organised an X Factor-style audition for Syrian refugees in the German capital.

…The stunt drew criticism from the director of the Berlin Wall Foundation, Axel Klausmeier, who said he sympathised with the motives but “could not approve” of the memorial being used for political ends.

“Each of the crosses is in memory of a wall victim with their own fate, their own motives for the attempted escape with their own lives. Those who demand more respect for the dignity of human individuals – which we supported wholeheartedly – should also respect the dignity of the individual victims of the wall,” Klausmeier said.

pain in someone else’s body

14 Nov

I don’t know why I bother writing anything any more. There’s always a Solnit quote that does it. After writing that last post, I came upon a section in The Faraway Nearby that deals with the notion of empathy, using leprosy as an entry point:

It was not the disease of leprosy itself that caused so much damage to hands and feet. The disease strangles nerves, kills off feeling, and what you cannot feel you cannot take care of: not the disease but the patient does the damage…

“Pain, along with its cousin touch, is distributed universally on the body, providing a sort of boundary of self. Even after surgery, [leprosy patients] tended to view their repaired hands and feet as tools or artificial appendages. They lacked the basic instinct of self-protection that pain normally provides.”

Physical pain is often lonely, felt only by one person who must trust that others will believe and empathize. Empathy is the capacity to feel what you do not literally feel, and Brand taught his young patients a kind of empathy for extremities that no longer seemed part of themselves. “I feel you,” people say. If pain defines the boundaries of the body, you participate in the social body with those you empathize with, whose pain pains you – and whose joy is also contagious.

Some empathy must be learned and then imagined, by perceiving the suffering of others and translating it into one’s own experience of suffering and thereby suffering a little with them. Empathy can be a story you tell yourself about what it must be like to be that other person; but its lack can also arise from narrative, about why the sufferer deserved it, or why that person or those people have nothing to do with you. Whole societies can be taught to deaden feeling, to disassociate from their marginal and minority members.

Empathy makes you imagine the sensation of torture, of the hunger, of the loss. You make that person into yourself, you inscribe their suffering on your own body or heart or mind, and then you respond to their suffering as though it were your own.

To injure, to kill, to cause suffering in others, requires first that withdrawal of empathy that would have made such action painful or impossible.

…We know the facts, but we don’t always realize them with that imaginative, emotional engagement that makes them vivid forces and deciding factors.

The moment when mortality, ephemerality, uncertainty, suffering, or the possibility of change arrives can split a life in two. Facts and ideas we might have heard a thousand times assume a vivid, urgent, felt reality. We knew them then, but they matter now. They are like guests that suddenly speak up and make demands upon us; sometimes they appear as guides, sometimes they just wreck what came before or shove us out the door. We answer them, when we answer, with how we lead our lives. Sometimes what begins as bad news prompts the true path of a life, a disruptive visitor that might be thanked only later. Most of us don’t change until we have to, and crisis is often what obliges us to do so. Crises are often resolved only through anew identity and new purpose, whether it’s that of a nation or a single human being.

In other words, all of social justice rests on the ability to feel what Matmos refers to as “pain in someone else’s body.” Questions of social justice are related to questions of what we do about other people’s suffering. The phrase, “the natural outlet of empathy is activism” repeats in my head. Solnit doesn’t come right out and say it, but there is an underlying current, an arrow, pointing to activism. This makes sense considering the work that her activist brother David does, work she also mentions in Savage Dreams quite a bit.

For color, here’s the Matmos song in question, “Roses and Teeth For Ludwig Wittgenstein”:

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The Wittgenstein reference is a nod to a phrase he used in the philosophical discussion of empathy (in connection with qualia, an aspect of philosophy of mind that is the intersection between the problem of other minds and the mind-body problem – I recommend reading it just for the discussions of Mary, Robo-Mary, zombies and bats), which includes epistemological and biological underpinnings of the idea of empathy as well as the related issue of moral agency:

In a series of ingeniously designed experiments, Batson has accumulated evidence for what he calls the empathy-altruism thesis. The task of those experiments consists in showing that empathy/sympathy does indeed lead to genuinely altruistic motivation rather than to helping behavior because of predominantly egoistic motivations.

According to the egoistic interpretation of empathy related phenomena, empathizing with another person in need is associated with a negative feeling or can lead to a heightened awareness of the negative consequences of not helping; such as feelings of guilt, shame, or social sanctions. Alternatively, it can lead to an enhanced recognition of the positive consequences of helping behavior such as social rewards or good feelings. Empathy according to this interpretation induces us to help through mediation of purely egoistic motivations. We help others only because we recognize helping behavior as a means to egoistic ends. It allows us to reduce our negative feelings (aversive arousal reduction hypothesis), to avoid “punishment,” or to gain specific internal or external “rewards” (empathy-specific punishment and empathy-specific reward hypotheses).

Notice however that in arguing for the empathy-altruism thesis, Batson is not claiming that empathy always induces helping behavior. Rather, he argues against the predominance of an egoistic interpretation of an agent’s motivational structure. He argues for the existence of genuinely altruistic motivations and more specifically for the claim that empathy causes such genuinely altruistic motivation. These genuinely altruistic motives (together with other egoistic motives) are taken into account by the individual agent in deliberating about whether or not to help. The question of whether the agent will act on his or her altruistic motivations depends ultimately on how strong they are and what costs the agent would incur in helping another person.

So we all do a cost-benefit analysis in deciding whether to act for another’s sake, even if the benefit in this case is altruistic gratification rather than material. What the article doesn’t mention, however, is the argument that the evolutionary basis for altruism (ie biological altruism) may still be grounded in eventual material gain. It’s just that as social animals, social capital is just as valuable as material capital. In fact, “altruistic behaviour is common throughout the animal kingdom, particularly in species with complex social structures.”

Conceivably, an animal might engage in a social behaviour which benefits another and reduces its own fitness in the short-term; however, in the long-term, the behaviour might be to the animal’s advantage. So if we focus on short-term fitness effects, the behaviour will seem altruistic; but if we focus on lifetime fitness, the behaviour will seem selfish.

…The problem of altruism is intimately connected with questions about the level at which natural selection acts. If selection acts exclusively at the individual level, favouring some individual organisms over others, then it seems that altruism cannot evolve, for behaving altruistically is disadvantageous for the individual organism itself, by definition. However, it is possible that altruism may be advantageous at the group level. A group containing lots of altruists, each ready to subordinate their own selfish interests for the greater good of the group, may well have a survival advantage over a group composed mainly or exclusively of selfish organisms. A process of between-group selection may thus allow the altruistic behaviour to evolve. Within each group, altruists will be at a selective disadvantage relative to their selfish colleagues, but the fitness of the group as a whole will be enhanced by the presence of altruists. Groups composed only or mainly of selfish organisms go extinct, leaving behind groups containing altruists.

This certainly maps to the point that some activists make that they have spent their lives helping other people, and are not well-rewarded for this tiring work compared to those who simply set out to do well for themselves. It’s like the tragedy of the commons, where what benefits an individual differs from what benefits the group:

The major weakness of group selection as an explanation of altruism, according to the consensus that emerged in the 1960s, was a problem that Dawkins called ‘subversion from within’. Even if altruism is advantageous at the group level, within any group altruists are liable to be exploited by selfish ‘free-riders’ who refrain from behaving altruistically. These free-riders will have an obvious fitness advantage: they benefit from the altruism of others, but do not incur any of the costs. So even if a group is composed exclusively of altruists, all behaving nicely towards each other, it only takes a single selfish mutant to bring an end to this happy idyll. By virtue of its relative fitness advantage within the group, the selfish mutant will out-reproduce the altruists, hence selfishness will eventually swamp altruism.

However, this is where start favoring the people closest to us, genetically (kin selection) and literally (reciprocal altruism):

Suppose that altruists are discriminating in who they share food with. They do not share with just anybody, but only with their relatives. This immediately changes things. For relatives are genetically similar—they share genes with one another. So when an organism carrying the altruistic gene shares his food, there is a certain probability that the recipients of the food will also carry copies of that gene. This means that the altruistic gene can in principle spread by natural selection. So the overall effect of the behaviour may be to increase the number of copies of the altruistic gene found in the next generation, and thus the incidence of the altruistic behaviour itself.

Kin selection does not require that animals must have the ability to discriminate relatives from non-relatives. Kin selection can operate in the absence of such an ability. An alternative is to use some proximal indicator of kinship. For example, if an animal behaves altruistically towards those in its immediate vicinity, then the recipients of the altruism are likely to be relatives, given that relatives tend to live near each other.

…For reciprocal altruism to work, there is no need for the two individuals to be relatives, nor even to be members of the same species. However, it is necessary that individuals should interact with each more than once, and have the ability to recognize other individuals with whom they have interacted in the past. If individuals interact only once in their lifetimes and never meet again, there is obviously no possibility of return benefit, so there is nothing to be gained by helping another. However, if individuals encounter each other frequently, and are capable of identifying and punishing ‘cheaters’ who have refused to help in the past, then the helping behaviour can evolve.

This was perhaps more formal of a discussion than need be, but the evolutionary perspective raises for me a question of whether inequality is tied to larger social groupings. In a globalized and cosmopolitan urban world where we frequently interact with people whom we will never see again, perhaps selfishness is more passable than if we still lived in village-sized groups. In other words, it is much easier to shaft someone you will never see again than someone you will see again and again. This is certainly intuitively true.

Perhaps this suggests that artistic strategies which may increase empathy might either create a sense of kinship in people or, alternatively, create a sense of eventual social consequence (karma?) for one’s actions. Connectedness through the web means that though one may never see the person who was shafted ever again, word of this action might spread fast to the ears of people one does in fact know and damage reputation.

This is a fairly obvious conclusion even without all the theory and argumentation.

happiness and meaning

12 Nov

It is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’

– Viktor Frankl

I read an article in The Atlantic that differentiates between the concepts of happiness and meaning in life. The authors have an interesting bio-evolutionary explanation:

Leading a happy life, psychologists found, is associated with being a ‘taker’ while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a ‘giver.’

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”

The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire – like hunger – you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want.

“Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need.”

What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans.

If I’m reading the study results correctly, they seem to indicate that, in a way, meaning keeps you at an even keel, insulating you from the effects of bad things happening even though it also keeps you from enjoying the sheer animal bliss of getting everything you’ve ever wanted:

People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people.

While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.

Meaning is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future. That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.

Having negative events happen to you decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose.

Happiness vs meaning is similar to Brené Brown’s Be Good vs Get Better framework. Perhaps happiness is the measure of objective states (ie the be good mentality) and meaning arises out of a choice of approach (ie the get better mentality) rather than the concrete results. Thus, it makes sense that Frankl could find meaning and a method of surviving in horrible situations like the camps – if satisfaction depends on a mental approach in a search for meaning instead of an objective state of happiness, then it truly is under one’s control no matter what the situation.


I’m noticing this dynamic of meaningful stress in a lot of current work. I’ve pushed back a lot of other ideas in progress to research and work on housing issues this last year, and a part of me is very grumpy about it. I feel wronged, slighted, but the person doing the slighting is myself. So where does that leave me? Yet I know that to not pick up this housing work would be worse. It is all happening so fast, so NOW, and I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t do it, so I do it.

I find the happiness/meaning dichotomy a useful way of thinking through what I am experiencing (perhaps even what I described in another post as the contrast of joy and weight) as well as in trying to understand why more people aren’t taking action or actively searching for collective solutions. By the measure of one’s own happiness, it makes very little sense to get involved in fighting someone else’s battle if your own life is not affected. By default, there can only be an additional load of stress and pain to bear even if there are also the benefits of meeting a community of very dedicated and compassionate people. But by the measure of a search for meaning, the stress is not relevant. It becomes very small factor in the larger picture.

And as for the role of the artist? What I’m talking about is really about whether to join a cause or not, even if you take that to in a more figurative sense and do not participate in traditional activism. Still, it is a political proposition, so the question for me then becomes how to make work that does not verge on propaganda and preachy sloganeering.

We had a lively discussion in class weeks ago about what the word “didactic” means when critics and artists use it in a critique or review context. Invariably, the connotation is negative, as people tend to use the phrase “too didactic” or “so didactic,” implying an excess, never a sweet spot of didacticism. If the work operates within that sweet range, then the word never enters the conversation at all.

The implication of its usage is that there is so much information dispensed that all the hedonistic pleasure is sucked out of the act of viewing the piece, or that there is a preachy tone which is dull. So either the artwork is not supposed to dispense a large quantity of information, or the quality of the information-dispensing is not enjoyable enough. The assumption there would be that art should be either uplifting, transcendent or at least a pleasure. Another version is that art is simply not as interesting if there is an identifiable, specific message. If viewers cannot interpret it in their own way, then it is too simplistic or one-dimensional (ie propaganda).

Through the filter of the happiness/meaning dichotomy, I start to make some sense of the motivations behind comments about didactic work. If what we are concerned about is the viewer’s personal happiness (ie pleasure in viewing the work), then work that dispenses a lot of unsought information or deals with contentious, divisive political issues is not desirable. However, if you are looking for some sort of meaning in the work that goes beyond a viewer’s personal reactions and desires, then it does not seem out of turn to dispense a large amount of information, to even suggest that viewers should do further reading on the issues at hand in their own time in order to come to a deeper understanding of issues outside their usual range of attention.

For me, there is no question that art could be educational in the fullest sense of the word. I see nothing wrong with that, but whether the average viewer (or even the art establishment) will embrace or enjoy work like that is a whole other question that is political in and of itself.


10 Nov

I found the music of Violeta Parra through the readings for my Southern Border class. She was one of the primary figures in the style of ’60s Chilean folk music called the nuevo cancion. (This movement also included Victor Jara, whose story is a true tragedy. As it happens, he is one of the musicians presented in the Ai Wei Wei Alcatraz installation.) “Gracias a la Vida” is the classic.

I’ve been keeping track of specific melodies and sounds that appeal to me, so I’ve been mining what I’ve posted over the years here and will likely post more. I’ve decided to make a push to get some music made while in the program (one song!) so I can do it in a place where there is a bit of a safety net in case of utter nuclear failure. I’ve been waffling back and forth about whether to show the lyrics I’ve been gnawing on for a couple of years in crit. I think I will go for it if only to push myself forward. It is the thing that most scares the crap out of me, so it must also be true that it is the thing in which I have the most invested, and therefore the thing that is of greatest value to complete.

My first crit went well. I presented videos, and as I was editing beforehand, it struck me that I’d finally hit on a small strain of something simple and emotional that I had not been able to get at in stills, and it was extremely gratifying to see people pick up on whatever it was. There is something about seeing a face in motion picture, with the sound (the sound!), that a still portrait does not touch. I came away very glad to be where I am.

The word that rings in my head over the last month or so has been “glad.”

Glad glad glad glad.
I wish I had a more eloquent descriptor but that is all it is on a visceral level.
A word that drops sweetly down from the sky like fruit from a tree.

I’m auditing an introductory musicianship class in which we are learning to read music and sight sing, and I leave each session glad glad glad. That mantra. Into the daylight with skip and a hop. The instructor (named Amadeus, if you can believe the astounding serendipity) is indeed the best kind of teacher you could have – engaged, humorous and firm but nice – for such a potentially nerve-wracking setting. At one point in class, it became obvious that it meant a lot to him that we had gone from a place of no musical skill to being able to read music and vocalize what’s on the page. That I’ve missed sessions of class feels like some sort of tragedy.

I’ve returned to my roots as a giant nerd who tromps around looking for more classes to take and more homework to do. It is ultimate cheese, but it is all a dream – I float about doing what I like most and working on issues that I think are important. My classes shed light on what I’ve been thinking about for the last two years, and develop skills I’ve been searching for a way to learn. The faculty have been easy to like and the cohort is a bunch that likes to laugh together. It’s bordering on outright fun, which somehow feels illicit. I am a thief getting away with all the goods. At any rate, it is soundly defying all expectations I had of “art school.” I am glad (there is that apple!) that I chose a university rather than an art school.


There is a certain feeling which occurs when I think about where I was ten years ago and where I am now that I can only compare to the sensation of hearing an instrument sweep upwards or downward with a great velocity. That is a terrible metaphor since it is less about trajectory than sheer contrast.

It is perhaps the same feeling when you look in awe at the valleys and peaks of Yosemite from Tunnel View at dusk. Is there really any semantic meaning to such a thing? It feels like hard-wiring to experience a combination of joy (jubilation?) and inexplicable heaviness to see great contrasts placed next to each other. Sometimes uplift and weight are whole and same. Sometimes contrast is not singular and solid, but a porous gradient of extremes. Sometimes happiness is just incredibly hard to take.

Perhaps perception of impressive sensations triggers an implicit recognition that things could just as easily not been so. This arrangement of things is rare and perishable. This is a different time than all the time that came before. I think the words are, my heart is in it. My heart is in it and it is not a figure of speech. My heart is in it. Whole-hearted. I wonder if this must be the first time I really know what those words mean, because I must not have felt that way about anything else I’ve ever attempted before.

I’ve actively avoided expressing any of this to anyone in real life for fear that every time I open my mouth, instead of words, fluffy pink bunny rabbits will pop out in melodic little herds. And no one takes an artist seriously if they are constantly spewing bunny rabbits. Maybe I haven’t hit the hard part yet – the part where I begin to get feedback that I don’t understand or like. The (ultimately?) harsh reality is lurking in the distance, surely. I must not be able to see it for the rabbits.

It’s hard to describe such things and this is why I am hellbent on music. All I can do is refer you to a handful of playlists. Some mix of the four sum up the color of my days. The everlasting Solnit sums it up:

Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers.

– Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Yuri Suzuki

8 Nov

Yuri Suzuki

Interesting guy.

nano piracy

6 Nov

Scientist Deliberately Pirates Art on a Nanoscopic Scale:

Hovden has ‘pirated’ four famous works of art by scribing them into the surface of a silicon crystal using a focused ion beam. The features in the artwork replicas are five hundred times smaller than the eye can perceive and five times smaller than the wavelength of light.

The concept of infringement at an imperceptible level is an intriguing one. Are artists affected by ‘pirate’ music that’s too quiet to be heard or by entire movies played in a fraction of a second, for example?