Friday, November 18, 2011

Cutting Up: Art in the Age of Electronic Reproduction

In his recent book Retromania: Pop Culture’sAddiction to Its Own Past, British-born writer Simon Reynolds laments what he believes is the lack of creative originality in contemporary popular music. He compares what he perceives as the debilitated state of today’s sounds to the toxic instruments of financial piracy that nearly collapsed the global economy: "music," he writes, "has been depleted by derivativeness and indebtedness."

And yet one might note the irony that Reynolds himself initially emerged as a champion of English punk, a musical form that leapfrogged back over the stylistic excesses of glam, disco, and arena rock to mine the lode of romantic primitivism that fueled skiffle and the thrashier proponents of beat, in particular groups like Them, the Kinks, and the Yardbirds. What’s more, the subsequent style Reynolds lionized, rave, is even more obviously built upon a preexisting foundation, pilfering tracks from a variety of sources, which are sampled, looped, and mashed-up into collages of sound.

That this is pretty much the way that popular music, and indeed much of art, both high and low, has long been made is obvious to Kembrew McLeod and Rudolf Kuenzli, who have put together the collection of essays, Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage, and Copyright Law (Duke University, 2011). As befits its subject, the book brings together a broad range of contributors, from highfalutin academics to cutting-edge (no pun intended) street-level remixers, who reflect on a plethora of creative practices in all manner of media and genres.

An idea underlying the book is that the process of exchanging, altering, and assimilating information is and always has been central to humankind’s conscious being in the world. Natural scientist Richard Dawkins terms the basic unit of information exchange the meme, which is to culture what the gene is to biology. 

The means by which memes develop, proliferate, and mutate is what’s known in the social sciences as diffusion. It’s a phenomenon that is as necessary to evolution and interaction from a cultural perspective as genes are from a physiological one. As poet Joshua Clover states in his contribution to the book titled "Ambiguity and Theft": "culture is always already collage" (original emphasis). It’s only with the rise of the new robust intellectual property regime that this activity has come to be viewed as disreputable from certain quarters (i.e., power, especially of the Euroamerican white hetero male “ownership” class, AKA the one percent).

The capstone of the book is Jonathan Lethem’s famous essay from the November 2007 issue of Harper’s Magazine "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism," a meditation on originality and it discontents composed entirely from cribbed sources. Even more radical takes are those of Jeff Chang, David Banash, and Eve Hemmungs Wirten, each of whom in their respective essays essentially argue for copyright violation as a necessary moral and political act in the face of current, and at this point largely successful, attempts by transnational capital to colonize the noosphere for private profit at the expense of everyone else. (A similar argument is made by Ken Wark in The Beach Beneath the Streets:The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the SituationistInternational in discussing the continued relevance of unrepentant nineteenth-century plagiarist Comte de Lautreamont for contemporary vanguard cultural politics.)

Cutting Across Media isn’t meant to be a definitive volume on the subject. There’s no contribution, for example, from Lawrence Lessig, Rosemary Coombe, or James Boyle, legal scholars who have become well known as benchmark thinkers in recent years for staking claims to the creative commons and arguing for the rights of cultural legacies broadly applied. (Although critical information studies scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan puts in an appearance in an interview conducted by Stay Free! publisher Carrie McLaren.) But it offers a good compendium of current ways of thinking about such issues as intellectual property ownership, creativity and its influences, and strategic practices, both contemporary and historical, for negotiating the contested terrain of creative production. And where many studies are predominantly theoretical or focused on a single medium, Cutting Across Media cuts across mediums to consider pop and classical music as well as visual arts and literature, using specific examples, including the culture-jamming pioneers Billboard LiberationFront and the redoubtable Negativland.

The objection to all of this, of course, is the claim that to allow unfettered access to the creative productions of others is to prevent them from realizing their right to the fruits of their labor. The functionalist reply is that in fact very few creators actually own the right to profit from their work, which instead is usually held by the distributors. A more visionary response sees creative production not as just a pure commodity but also as in some measure a gift that adds to common good known as culture, which has taken on a world-historical scope under the binary digit and its global distribution network. Cutting Across Media proposes that in place of a burdensome intellectual property regime, with its copyright limitations and infringement lawsuits, there shall be an association, in which the free expression of each is the condition for the free expression of all.

Note: This post originally appeared in PopMatters.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Revealing Detroit Photographically

Scott Hocking, Garden of the Gods, West, Snow, 2009-2010 (image courtesy of the artist and Susanne Hilberry Gallery)
These days, Detroit is considered a pretty cool place to be artwise. Most recently, W magazine and the LA Times have run feature stories extolling the virtues of the erstwhile Motor City as a place where aesthetic entrepreneurs can set up shop with minimal capital investment. (Christian Landers' book Whiter Shades of Pale sardonically notes that Detroit is an especially agreeable place for artist-posers with modest trust funds.) While the grassroots efforts at creating aesthetic community are an important part of what's happening in the city, the average media representations are still those of abandonment and ruin.

Locals know the genre of photography that revels in Detroit's devastation as "ruin porn." These images, often taken by outsiders, present the idled factories and dissolute neighborhoods as monuments of melancholy, constituting a romantic dystopia of a failed civilization returning to the state of nature. Among the recent masters of the form is New York-based photographer Andrew Moore, whose book Detroit Disassembled (Diamani/Akron Art Museum, 2011) has been favorably reviewed, among other places, in the New York Times.

The cover image from Moore's book is one of the featured photographs in the current exhibition "Detroit Revealed: Photographs, 2000-2010" at the Detroit Institute of Arts, put together by DIA Associate Curator of the Graphic ArtsDepartment Nancy Watson Barr. The supersized super-detailed color print shows a view looking into a cavernous factory corridor, which is lit from above by a skylight supported by rusted trusswork and lined on either side by piles of industrial detritus, moldering brick walls and broken windows. Its sheer beauty recalls Walter Benjamin's famous observation in the Epilogue of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in witness to the rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930, on the ability to enjoy destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the highest order. It's also somewhat misleading in that the image was shot at the Ford Motor Company Rouge complex, which for the most part is still operational and has been retooled with high-tech facilities for producing the top-selling F-150 pickup.

An arguably more reliable set of images is the work of Detroit artist Scott Hocking, who embraces Detroit's decaying areas but does so with an eye toward a broader historical and philosophical view. Hocking's images, while aesthetically pleasing as photographs, are actually records of his walkabouts and projects among the city's industrial ruins and other neglected spaces. The photographs in the DIA exhibition document monumental works Hocking created in two of Detroit's legendary abandoned automobile plants.

Ziggurat documents a sculptural installation Hocking built in Fisher Body Plant 21, a building that had been abandoned for the more than 20 years. The installation was constructed over several months between winter 2007 and summer 2008. It consisted of some 6200 wooden flooring blocks retrieved from around the empty building and assembled into a massive pyramid inside the empty and gutted structure. The project reveals a Sisyphean aspect to Hocking's work in that he continued to labor at it in full knowledge that it would ultimately be destroyed either due to either human intervention or exposure to the elements.

The Garden of the Gods pushes the inevitability of entropy even further. It is sited in the old Packard Plant, a 3.5 million square foot facility, nearly half a mile in length and believed to be the largest abandoned industrial site in the United States, which has been abandoned for decades. On a section of collapsed roof in the building designed by Detroit's premier architect Albert Kahn, Hocking placed a series of old wooden TV consoles he found on a lower floor atop structural columns that had remained upright. Over a period of months, some of the columns toppled and more of the roof collapsed, events also documented photographically. Named after a sedimentary rock formation in southern Illinois, Garden of the Gods isn't a ritual of mourning but an acknowledgment of natural processes that have occurred throughout history.

The images of Dawoud Bey, Carlos Diaz and Corine Vermeulen constitute a kind of visual anthropology, surveying the faces and places of different populations that make up the city. Although Bey is the more well known, Diaz and Vermeulen, both local residents, are represented by equally compelling images. Diaz's 2010 series "Beyond Borders: Latino Immigrants and Southwest Detroit" comprises portraits as well as the homes and gardens of the city's Mexican Town community, examples of each which are in the show. Vermeulen's images are taken from her "Your Town Tomorrow" series depicting postindustrial Detroit and its denizens as harbingers of America's potential alternate future.

The exhibition, installed in the photography galleries in the museum's lower level, begs to be compared with one of the acknowledged masterpieces in the DIA collection, the Detroit Industry mural cycle by Diego Rivera on the main floor almost directly above. Like the mounting of "Detroit Revealed," the creation of Rivera's murals in 1932-33 took place at the height of an economic and political crisis, namely the Great Depression. Breathtaking in scale and awe-inspiring in its ambition, Detroit Industry depicts the productive might of the system, given the eponymous designation Fordism, that was to propel Detroit, and in the process America, to global prominence after the Second World War. By comparison, "Detroit Revealed" is substantially less grand, embodying a more fragmented and temperate vision of personal strategies for survival after the fall.

"Detroit Revealed: Photographs 2000-2010" continues at the Detroit Institute of Arts until April 8, 2012. A catalog with essays by exhibition curator Nancy Watson Barr, John Gallagher and Carlo McCormick is available. Visit or call 1-313-833-7900 for information.

Note: this post originally appeared in the inaugural section of HuffPost Detroit. The published piece contained a couple of minor proofreading errors and broken links. This version corrects those mistakes.