Saturday, May 2, 2015

Plastic Promises

I am a modernist by nature. Considering the readings I have been doing on fascism lately, I am even more comfortable with this. The term "traditional values" stinks of the gulag and oppression for me, and history agrees with this assumption. When anyone tells you they want to go backwards, be afraid.

Looking back, however, is another story. Examination, contemplation. And modernism is rife with opportunities to do just that. The modern world is almost bursting with heavy matter- condensed experience. In fact it is so condensed that "looking back" into our nearest history is absolutely, deadly necessary. Things move so fast and fashion leaves so much behind, so much unsaid, that to me the Transistor Age (which, to my mind, is a far more appropriate starting point than the industrial age) could stand even MORE study. There are subtle currents everywhere. And the implications of those subtle currents are even more massive than they would be say, 300 years ago. The more things change the more rapidly they change. History's like some sort of kaleidoscopic spinning top in an avalanche, gathering momentum and new pictures all the way.

So you find yourself effecting by strange things that might be a new product of a new kind of history. The uncanny is part of that, but I realize there is this other fleeting feeling I have had all my life that catches me unawares, and interests me, and something I have wanted to write of for some time.

Its that WISH to comply with a commercial ideal. To want to believe in some fairy-tale magical way that a PRODUCT or a television show could really be a modern deliverance. To partake in that breathless sense that everything is possible through Products, and Chemistry, and commerce. How much HAPPIER you could be if you could let your truths go.

Since I became a teenager, television has infuriated me. Not the shows always, but the commercials. Some of them were so sublime (those early eighties Chanel ads were out of this world and I LOVED the Chanel ads in the late eighties with the model Ines de la Fressange, and collected them) you saw what was possible, that ads could be wonderfully seductive and enjoyable, really, so you were mostly just horribly disappointed and felt almost gypped in some kind of unconscious way. It was like a fat song and dance that you saw through from the first second. And those pro-American Wal-Mart ads just made me want to load up a gun and kill myself. Just vomitous and so treacly and unreal and PANDERING, really, to your basest stupidest instincts. I have always found patriotism to be terrifying anyway, in too large a dose.
(Sidebar-Lee Greenwood's pukey anthem "I'm Proud to be an American" was so strange to me and still is. It was bizarre and gutless. "Where AT LEAST I know I'm free"? I mean, it struck such a weird, bum note with me, that phrase. Its like the first part of that sentence is missing and that sentence is, "I may be homeless, and work at WalMart and my son was killed by cops and my other son died in Iraq for oil but AT LEAST I KNOW I'M FREE"! But I digress).

So on the one hand, I am a huge fan of commercial art, especially from the mid-sixties to the very late 70's, and I have found truly sublime, well done stuff that shows the potential to make public art very special. There is an elegance that, were it rendered in today's idioms and images, is liable to leave me cold.
But, looking back, there was a great era of creative work being done for public, commercial purposes that echoed a sense of forward-thinking that is so deeply missing from today's ads. Now there is this sense of wanting to go BACKWARDS, there is a "green" sensibility that is all fine and well and good but when it becomes tethered to "traditional values".....again, it's implications are very deep and very telling.

I miss the Space Age. I miss the age where everything was possible through SCIENCE. I fully understand that science too has its limits, like every human system- democracy, communism, psychology, religion. But I fully embrace the logical in human systems and discourse. Without logic, all arguments are rendered null and void. You find yourself arguing over the improvable, instead of being curious enough to test the limits and ask questions. You cannot argue with an evangelical.

It must be said here that I am a follower of Jesus all the way, and consider him a great revolutionary and a wonderful star to guide your ship by. But I abhor the vast majority of Christians and Christian Newspeak and groupthink and think they are heretics, to the core. They loathe the poor and only want to talk about abortion and gay marriage and no longer love their enemies, take care of their communities- the MLK Jesus is entirely absent from the 700 Club and "Left Behind" freak jobs that pass themselves off as Christians these days.
And with the rise of the evangelical Right comes with it a terrible hatred of intellectuals, science, and critical thinking. When you take a people who BELIEVE they will rise from the dead on Judgement Day, you are dealing with people who have no truck with the laws of even the farthest reaches of Quantum Physics. There is this bizarre denial of factual data, this complete reliance on their own interpretation of a vast trove of testaments that were discarded, shaped, and used to consolidate power and THEY DON'T ASK QUESTIONS. "Do I believe what John is saying when he contradicts Luke?" They don't ask that. They believe their CONFUSION is a blessing. That things are inherently unknowable and that to try is a heresy.
In this atmosphere, the Space Age strikes one as so much more inclusive, so much more of a kinder place to be.

I love and have begun collecting those Soviet space lapel pins (as I mentioned in my previous post) and that dizzying, swooping sense of a Great Future is a really, truly beautiful thing to me. "To the Stars"! is such a wonderful cry, a wonderful thing to reach for, far superior to a battle cry. That pride that just bursts from the vast amount of art created during that period of the Soviet space program (despite there being very compelling evidence that Gagarin was not the first Russian in space). A wonderful sense of possibility and BELIEF is written all over it.

I DEEPLY value the intellectual, the scientific, debate, questions and criticism. I am also happy with mysteries, and do in fact agree that much of our universe IS unknowable. But I am ALSO in love with the journey, of the discovery, the bizarre and wonderful universe that science sheds its light on. I don't believe in cloning, or bizarre monkeying-about with the forces of nature. But gaining and reaching for a deeper understanding of nature and asking those questions is just a fantastical thing, really. It is completely, in my opinion, in total accord with spiritual life.

So in that respect, its understandable that a certain class of advertisement or public art lends itself to a certain kind of romance. Arguably, that is its reason for existing, is to woo you. And I LIKE that feeling, frankly. And I am not sure why. I want to be complicit in that process. I want to believe- in a retrospective view through the lens of commercial art- that these things were POSSIBLE.

I have often been reminded, wandering and exploring on those magical odd detourments I take often , that there is a certain smell that wafts from a department store in summertime that I find very romantic. A sort of "woosh" as you walk past and the automated doors open, giving you a blast of frigid air and a bright, plastic scent. The hotter it is that day, the more magical the effect, and you don't even need to go inside to feel uplifted. Its sort of a naive sense of "everything is still all right with the world" in that the A/C is going, we have bright shiny products, people will smile at you, you will find something that will change your life......

This passes through my mind on such a subtle level that I forget to even be aware of it. It certainly makes a banal shopping trip that much more interesting. Wintertime is always grimmer somehow, shopping, what with Christmas and the vomitous music and the eye-raping displays of products you can never afford nor need at all. The romance goes out of it, and is only rescued by the enjoyment of the pretty lights or perhaps a small miniature scene on a white blanket of little trains going through tunnels, or talking dolls. That is the kind of nonsense I am always excited by. I'd rather to go to the Frye's electronics store in Burbank, with its crashed spaceship sticking out of the roof, that I would ever rather go to a Radio Shack (a store that used to REEK with analog stereo romance, and wonderful funky lights, and that solid-state smell I still so enjoy- and which has been entirely eradicated in favor of cell phone plans and IPhone cases).

Give me nonsense and romance. Give me a wonderland of scents and colors and mystery and promise. Don't try to convince me that you are going down to earth with all your green-zen-garden hardwood-floor-organic esthetic. You are NEVER going to be that and putting that on is a LIE. Its selling us a past for which we were ill-equipped and ripe for ruin in the first place. Simplicity is MY job. I don't want it sold to me as a lifestyle. NEVER.

I want the romance. The plastic promises. I know they can never be fulfilled. But I want to reach for something beyond myself. And commerce, and the terms it uses, can aid or abet any process. It is lifestyle propaganda. Putting a farmer in an advertisement will never convince me that that is your process. Or your lifestyle.

I like the older, more promising, more silvery and glittering, lies the best.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Architectural Uncanny

"The contemporary sensibility that sees the uncanny erupt in empty parking lots around abandoned or run-down shopping malls, in the screened trompe l’oeil of simulated space, in, that is, the wasted margins and surface appearances of postindustrial culture, this sensibility has its roots and draws its commonplaces from a long but essentially modern tradition."
 Anthony Vidler


There is probably nothing else that has so defined my life, apart from love and depression, as the uncanny. Its something I have chased all my life. From a very young age, I wanted that same feeling as I had when I heard ghost stories told by my family- I wanted that wonderful sense of dread, wrapped up in safety. Something about that is just necessary for my mind. 

And the uncanny is literally defined as something that occurs in the most banal of environments. It isn't necessarily just a spooky building- its the fact that that spooky building is on a quite ordinary street. Its the juxtaposition, that tension. That sense of the surreal and spooky sidled up next to the almost grossly familiar. 

Even before I fell in love with business architecture (and by definition, in this context, disused business architecture) I remember a dream I had as a very young child, not more than five. It was so vivid. I was in a city, at night, and there was a skyscraper, with some of the offices inside lit up. The most ordinary thing. But in the dream it was absolutely breathtaking. There was involved by strange association, a potted palm. The type you find in lobbies, the type that by definition are probably not even real. I had a set of Childcraft Encyclopedias (bless them, with their wonderful sixties typography, psychedelic woodcuts and visions of cities of the future, glowing in a white-glitter utopia) and there was picture of a clown on a small stage with a potted palm. It looked so- weird to me. So night-like. The dark stage which I could see behind the fake wall. Every time I thought of that skyscraper dream, I thought of that potted palm.

So strange, like a piece of candy thrown into the junk drawer of your mind, adhering itself to other strange symbols. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015


Not sure exactly what set it off, in retrospect it seems nearly accidental. But somehow I randomly decided to look up ticket prices between here and Russia, and found them to be cheap. Very cheap. Remembering a longtime desire to visit Chernobyl, I started snooping around and found, again, cheap tours, cheap hotels, and an article that stated that the two cheapest tourist destinations for 2015 were the Ukraine, and Russia.
And, spookily enough, found that a momentarily lost brother of mine is apparently traveling right now in Eastern Europe and the former CCCR (USSR).

Fancy that.

Of course, the fact that Putin is doing his KGBest to raise a dead Soviet Union from the ashes by making a play for the Ukraine (and Georgia, and Chechnya, etc.) probably renders those countries a bit tricky to actually visit as of this writing. So, apart from Chernobyl, which is a must-see and far out of the reaches of Eastern Ukraine (the hotspot and border), I have decided to forego any travel there for the moment.

For the moment.

But it really sent me off into a wonderland, which is a healthy thing for me to be sent off in every couple or so years. If you are an artist you know what I am talking about. I think that every artist's esthetic should evolve, like a growing thing. It should take signals from the air around it. Its good to get a slug of something that gets you all jazz-handy and jumping around, something that informs your brain weather and gives you new pictures.

Principle among these new obsessions, and a place that has actually begun to eclipse Chernobyl for me, is Buzluzdha.

Say it with me.
Just the sound of it makes my eyes roll back into my head. 
I have never been so obsessed with a building. 

These pictures come from Damien Richter's amazing Bohemian Blog. I insist that you visit. I warn you tho, if you are at ALL into abandoned places, you will be up all night reading of his exploits. But Buzluzdha tops them all for me. 
Its an abandoned Communist Party HQ, built in 1981. Terrifying in its concrete glory, it stands isolated on a mountain in Bulgaria. I have spent countless hours of late reading about it, planning a whole vacation around it, dreaming of it, thinking of laying in its frightening, hulking maw. These pictures don't even include its fascinating inner auditorium, which features a hammer and sickle in its center.....YOU MUST see more photos. Do this. Fall down the rabbit hole as I did. 
Its almost like some Brutalist beast, or some kind of UFO. Never have I seen a building that just made me want to fall down in front of it in terror and some kind of awe. But awe gone all the way is probably alot like terror. Something biblical in that, I am sure. 

It isn't just Buzluzdha, tho. That held the key that unlocked a flood of other associations, and it left me wondering why it had taken me so long to notice that many of my favorite things or fascinations- clean lines, Brutalist architecture, abandonment, time warps and disquiet- are all to be found in the former Soviet Union, in big, fat, terrifying hordes. 

I have long had a fascination with the poles- particularly the Antarctic, just because of Captain Scott really. But something about snowy places began to seem very surreal to me. Very frightening. Unknowable. Maybe its because of "The Shining", but winter, REAL winter- and places rendered uninhabitable by the cold- hold a real claim on my imagination. Throw some abandoned satellites in there and some old hulking concrete Commie monuments and you have a recipe for Place I Must See Now. (I do understand that not all of EE or Russia lies under a constant blanket of snow. But winters get real there, lets not kid ourselves).

SO that sends you off on a million tangents. Every day for weeks now I have been googling "abandoned Eastern Europe" or "communist architecture" and peeing myself looking at the pictures. I don't even know what to see first. I read everything I can find, have combed through pages upon pages of Youtube searches, and that sends you off into another rabbit hole. Soviet Sci-fi, for instance.  Or Soviet space docus!!!! I mean, don't even get me started. 

I am learning that if you are someone like me who obsessively collects content (videos of all sorts) and has for years, you have probably plundered through mountains of crap looking for jewels and you get real good at sifting. Since I am constantly chopping up film to make videos and VJ I had gotten that smug sense that I had pretty much devoured the lion's share of what was out there, and just kept my eye out for recent uploads- no need to march into the hinterlands and beat the bushes like in years past. This is how I learned that you are doing yourself a disservice if you are not diligently searching Youtube using foreign search terms. I Babelfished "Soviet advertisement" and getting the phrase "CCCR реклама", I unleashed a torrent of creaky old adverts that I will probably spend the next few months sifting through. Adverts with music whose provenance can only be guessed at (one doubts that Soviet officials- and I use the term to cover all its Bloc officials as well- were too concerned about properly crediting the music they ripped off), whose meanings and products are hidden in a Cyrillic fog. Which makes them WAY more fun. 

And then there are things that give you a glimpse of the daily life of your ordinary citizen. 

Witness this housewife's ad for some fryer contraption. A carousel of amazing strange fryups are panned over dramatically. But the thing I find most fascinating about this advert is, glancing out the window, you see a typical Soviet apartment bloc and bleak, gray skies. 

I certainly don't want to dissolve many generations of pain and paranoia into a a mere artistic statement. But I can't help but be fascinating with the entire Soviet schlock- the bizarre architecture, the cold formality of a dead satellite, the eavesdropping spookiness of it all. 

I have been told that to travel to Russia, its best to have a friend on the ground to show you the ropes. As a new friend said, "things can go wrong there very fast". I have never liked authority, and have always quaked and jabbered in the presence of cops as if i carted dead bodies or kilos of coke round in my trunk (and I have never done either). I can't even imagine being given the "show me your papers" number by a real, bonafide Russian official. I would probably start crying and apologizing for whatever American crimes I am supposed to be guilty of by association. I just have no spine in those circumstances. I can't even imagine what it must have been like to KNOW that informers are a part of every single human enterprise- even down to the grocery store you work at. I can't imagine living under a dictatorship.

And maybe that's something to do with why I find Communist leavings so interesting. I have often thought about how all the abandoned factories all over America, all the middle-American abandoned cornfield-adjacent ghost towns, the entirety of Detroit, told a story about a passing age. "This bank/fast food/housing project/factory is gone now because (insert poignant-and-possibly-angering reason here)." It really told a story to me.

When you put this level of abandonment as it stands in Eastern Europe and Russia, the story told is FAR more poignant and spectral than ours. There are still countless stories waiting to be told, and probably many are being covered over afresh by Putin as we speak. Because Putin is very much of the old guard. He is a former KGB man who has been laying the groundwork for the resurrection for much of his life. He wants to bring all of it back-with a capitalist swagger thrown on top. He has NO PROBLEM with coming off as the ultimate James Bond villain. He is like something out of a spy novel. And he is for real, and he controls much of Europe's energy supply, due to his making-nice with Europe (and screwing Ukraine/Chechnya in the process). He doesn't care if you think he is an underhanded sonofabitch. His flat effect and strange attempts at seeming like a "regular guy" are somehow terrifying. If anyone on earth could start WW3, be sure its not some guy in a cave wearing a robe and a machine gun, ISIS notwithstanding. 

So. Luckily, it thus far appears that he will keep his hands off EE for the time being. This summer I shall go there.