Monthly Archives: April 2011


Or, as the title says, I’m still glow-basking.  Last night, I attended a film talk with three of the main members of CALF Animation, a recently formed independent animation collective in Japan.  Beyond being a great discussion and a chance to hear from Mizue Mirai, Doi Nobuaki, and Nagata Takeshi in person, it meant that I was suddenly sitting in a room with two people I have ‘known’ through the internet for ages but have never met in real life.

This light-painting animation by Tochka reveals another facet of the festival - a major focus on raising awareness and relief funds for the victims of the recent crises in Japan.

Although I didn’t realize it before sitting down and pulling out my laptop to take notes, the film talk was being moderated by Cathy Munroe Hotes, whose blog Nishikata Film Review I have been following since I attended the Kyoto Media Arts Festival last fall.  And then, when they opened it up to questions from the floor, JASPER SHARP raised his hand.  I actually wrote in my notes:


He is a major contributor to KineJapan, but more importantly, the mastermind of Midnight Eye, which is basically THE online Japanese Cinema journal/website.  I’ve been reading it for ages, I’ve cited him in papers…so realizing I was within 15 feet of its illustrious author was a bit like seeing Justin Bieber last month, only way more academic and legit.  The excitement one can have over finally encountering the index of someone’s digital self, of seeing someone in real life who you had only ever conceived of through the means of the internet and virtual interactions, reflects in a very interesting way on the post-modern sort-of-dichotomy between digital and ‘real’ selves — or rather, the inescapable intertwining of the two.

So, having seen Jasper Sharp and Cathy Munroe Hotes, now to find Tom Mes, who also runs Midnight Eye and is as iconic in my mind as Jasper Sharp, is one of the jury members for the competing films here.  I haven’t seen him yet, but I’ve got a day and a half left…for SO MUCH GEEKING OUT.

permanent nobara

There was some debate a while back on KineJapan, the worldwide listserv for discussion of Japanese moving image media to which I subscribe, about the accuracy of the translation of the title of Yoshida Daihachi’s Permanent Nobara.  The consensus, as far as I can remember, was that ‘Permanent Nobara’ was indeed the best translation, given that the original title in Japanese was パーマネントのばら, which indicates an intentional Japanization of the English word ‘permanent’, and of course is the actual name of the salon around which the lives of the film’s characters is centered.  As someone on KineJapan pointed out, this translation (and its original) allow for ambiguity in the meaning of the title, and having now seen the film this afternoon for myself, I would throw in my vote for the intentional-ambiguity camp.  (As a side note, speaking of translation, I’m very much stoked to be attending a subtitling lecture and workshop called “Translating Culture and Context” tomorrow evening with Taro Goto, one of the leading Japanese-English interpreters and subtitlers in the world!)

Naoko and her daughter Momo move back in with Naoko's mother, living in the same building as the Permanent Nobara hair salon.

So, to what does the ‘permanent’ in the title of Yoshida’s film refer?  Literally, to the tightly coiled hairdos with which protagonist Naoko’s mother coifs the fishing village’s ladies, and to the name of her hair salon.  Figuratively, to the tensely balanced ideas of forgetting and remaining, of change and stasis that underlie the themes of the film.  And ‘nobara’?  The name of hairstyling mother, and her salon, but if the title is read as ‘Paamanento no bara’, it can translate to something more ambiguous like “the rose of permanence”.  To my Western mind (and potentially to the globalizing Japanese filmmaking community and audiences) this invokes Shakespeare; this invokes Gertrude Stein.  “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”  The title, then, is the key with which to unlock the meaning of this painfully hilarious yet hauntingly beautiful film, the aporia from which to unravel, deconstructively, the complexity of meaning that fills its frames.

Before I get carried away on a train driven by Jacques Derrida and conducted by J. Hillis Miller, for those of you who dislike post-modernism (although if you’ve made it this far as a reader of my blog, you probably aren’t allergic to it) and are simply interested in how the film was, let me highlight some of the most salient brilliances of Permament Nobara.  It tells the story of Naoko’s return, in the wake of divorce, to her mother’s home with her young daughter, interweaving her own story with the lives of her childhood friends and the women who frequent her mother’s salon.  Think Steel Magnoliasuprooted and replanted in a rural contemporary Japanese fishing village, with a touch of the prodigal son (turned daughter), then given free reign of the diegetic world outside of the hair salon, and free reign of the complex emotions of being human — you get a masterpiece running the entire emotional gamut, from shocked horror to gut-splitting laughter to the tears that were, to completely fail in avoiding the use of clichés, welling in my eyes by the end of the movie.  The film is incredibly well-scripted, and shot with the steady, long takes that both mark it as classically Japanese and recall the idea of permanence that is immediately introduced in the title.  It is also incredibly well-acted, and the ensemble cast of actresses builds a bastion of strong women who persist beyond the varying impermanences of the men in their lives, who find powerful strength in their bonds with one another but also in their individuality.   Coming from a national cinema that has traditionally reflected a less-than-feminist-friendly attitude and arguably oppressive status of gender roles in Japan, this is a refreshing and hope-inspiring piece to see on that front as well.

Naoko's childhood friend Mi-chan (center) shares shochu and small-talk with the older generation at the salon.

I couldn’t find a trailer with subtitles, but you can get a sense of the emotional quality of the film even without words, because the acting speaks volumes:

The analysis that this film deserves is beyond the scope of this post, mostly because I have been up for about 17 hours of train travel and film festing, but I promise to deconstruct it at my soonest available convenience. 🙂

My Personal Ratings for the film…

Acting/Direction: 9/10
Script: 9/10
Lighting/Cinematography: 8/10
Editing: 9/10
Overall: 9/10

donju / dumbeast

If The Rise and Fall… was promising but poorly-produced, Mr. Hide’s Donju (Dumbeast) was a promise made good, and then made great.  A true visual tour-de-force with eye-popping cinematography and a playful engagement of the macabre that is reminiscent of Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris, it begins its story of the search for a prize-winning author gone missing with a literal bang: an epically animated train-crash.  A crazed monster charges us down, charges down the train on which an editor is rushing towards the Sumo town where Deko (the lost author) originated.  As the train comes to a halt, the beautiful editor is thrown forward, in high definition and slow motion, only to be cushioned by the shockingly ample stomach of the ice-cream-eating passenger across from her, her glasses flying apart as she is knocked back into her seat and two tasteful and highly-saturated rivulets of blood exit her nostrils to give her something that strongly resembles a mustache.  Once this standard is set, we are never disappointed — Mr. Hide continues to deliver visually-stunning irreverence for the remaining 106 minutes of the cinematic experience.

From right to left, Junko, Eda, Okamoto, and Nora face down the elevator in Mr. Hide's most recent filmic offering.

The basic plot of Donju consists of the repeated attempts of Deko’s childhood friends Okamoto, a policeman, and Eda, the owner of a hostclub gone somewhat to seed, to kill the author in order to prevent him producing more chapters of his serialized novel, the titular Donju, which is a recounting of his two friends’ younger exploits and misdoings.  Despite the many ingenious ways they attempt to ポロス(porosu, a play on the verb for to kill, 殺す, korosu) Deko, he is himself so strangely stupid that he seems to never realize what’s going on.  Chronologically, the film interlaces the inquiries of the editor with live-action and animated flashbacks, until the two trajectories of the present and past finally coincide (I won’t reveal how — this film comes highly recommended, so I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum).

Visually, the use of lighting is exquisite — beyond the pleasingly-crammed frames that fill the film, there are also clear shifts in light quality and style of shooting that guide the viewer to the mood or time period that Mr. Hide is trying to evoke as the film jumps about temporally.  And attention to detail in props and characterization gives the humor and pathos of the piece a puzzle-like interplay of layers of things to be discovered — Deko’s fanny packs and bowties, Eda’s quirkily consistent consumption of milk instead of beer, Okamoto’s cellphone with its Imperial flag design and foxtail charm twice as long as the phone itself, Junko’s exquisitely patterned wafukukimono.  In the post-screening talkback, Mr. Hide described his intention that the different characters represent different facets of Japanese society today — together, this crazy bunch of Sumo town residents makes up a sort of microcosm of Tokyo, and it is precisely through his attention to detail that this is carried out.  The Americanization of Eda comes out in his milk-drinking, the traditionally Japanese characteristics of Okamoto are apparent when we see his cellphone, if only for a moment.  Through these subtle (although I hesitate to call much about this film ‘subtle’…) cues, Mr. Hide deftly creates that visually-alluring heterogeneous microcosm of Japan, opening up that heterogeneity to social commentary and larger thematic considerations.

Mr. Hide, in his signature shades, at right, and his German-Japanese translator, left, field questions after the screening.

Mr. Hide himself is intriguing, a wildcard of sorts.  A mysterious comedian who never removed his sunglasses during the screening, and who every time he was asked to speak, read “Guten abend, ich comme auf Japan” haltingly from where he had written it on his hand.  He himself characterizes a globalization of Japan that we can see reflected in the heterogeneous microcosm of the film — born in Dusseldorf, educated in Japan and America, simultaneously a Japanese and a global citizen.

Like The Rise and Fall…, the gender roles in Donju are quite fascinating, particularly in how they are revealed in more subtle ways: how the sumo scenes are shot, or the institution of the host club itself and the attitudes of characters towards, or even the 3 second nod to the notoriously promiscuous photographer, Araki.  In anticipation of many more films to come this weekend that treat on this subject, I can feel a nice (BIG) analytic post brewing…

Tadanobu Asano, who has gained fame in Ichi the Killer and as Mamoru Arita in Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s haunting Bright Future, also does a fantastic turn as Deko.  But beyond its great cinematography and engaging script and performances, Donju raises some deeper questions about human relationships and the afterlife through the ever-useful mode of humor — what kind of world do we live in when two men will go to any means to kill their friend, but when the killers are lovable and laughable?  Perhaps Donju is a ghost story, and Deko’s hilarious persistence to live speaks more deeply to a persistence of man — to stay alive in the truest sense of the word, through his connections with his fellow men.

My Personal Ratings for the film…

Acting/Direction: 9/10
Script: 8/10
Lighting/Cinematography: 10/10
Editing: 10/10
Overall: 9/10

If you were in attendance, weigh in below!

the rise and fall of the unparalleled band

The first film I decided to see on Wednesday evening was a new offering from young director Hiranami Wataru, whose previous work Scherzo (2008) was screened at Pia and whose upcoming filming Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (2011) will be released this year.  This was the international premiere of the film, so Hiranami-san and lead actor Tsuchiya Takeshi were in attendance to introduce the film and field questions after the screening, through a Japanese-German translator.  (Thank god I speak Japanese; as they say, mein Deutsch ist nicht sehr gut.)

From right to left: actor Tsuchiya Takeshi, German-Japanese translator, and director NHiranami Wataru.

I was of course immediately struck by the utter Japaneseness of Hiranami-san and Tsuchiya-san, who seemed mildly embarrassed before the room full of anticipation and sounds of Japanese beer bottles clinking, and who bowed incessantly throughout their introductions and answering sessions.  This kind of “Oh look, Japanese people being Japanese” observation will undoubtedly lose its novelty as I grow re-accustomed to the demeanor and body language that tends to accompany the Japanese culture, and it’s probably just a factor of my recent deprival of most things 日本的 (nihonteki, or ‘Japan-like’), and the odd but fascinating experience of re-encountering that foreign yet familiar culture in a country that is halfway around the world from East Asia, yet is equally foreign to me.  In fact, I feel more comfortable being at Nippon Connection than being in Germany at large.  This is an interesting example of how concepts of uchi/soto become subjective in the face of shifting contexts — just as how during the Q&As I laugh during the original Japanese answers, and am lost and quiet during the German translations, when the locals around me and chuckling appreciatively.  In reality though, since my understanding is nowhere near the level of native, I exit more in a liminal space of being Western but not German, Japanese-speaking but not Japanese — in this encounter between Germany and Japan, I am in some ways uchi to both groups, and in some ways soto to both groups, which affords me an interesting position as critic, observer, academic, and lover of Japanese film.  I’ll be working through feelings of both alienation and inclusion over the next several days, but it’ll be interesting and mildly post-modern, so bear with me.

Nippon Connection seems to be characterized by an intensely pink attention to detail this year.

But now to the intended topic of this blog post: The Rise and Fall of the Unparalleled Band, or 青すぎたギルティ (Aosugita giruti), which tells the story of a mediocre (fictional) rock band in Tokyo, from their first successful concert to their slow break-up, structured along the 12 tracks of their only record and narrated in oddly broken English by a Nepalese gaikokujin (‘foreigner’).  Think mockumentary meets J-Rock meets student film.  Think This Is Spinal Tap meets Japan.

The members of The Guiltys charge at the camera.

The original title directly translates to “The Guiltys that were too blue/young/fresh”.  My first reaction was to wonder whether perhaps it was not the only the film’s fictional band, but it’s executors who were ‘too young’.  From the opening shots, I felt a mild resistance to the aesthetic of the film — it felt very much like a student production, giving the sense that it had funding to match (a fact that Hiranami-san did acknowledge in his introductory comments).  But about a third of the way into the film, there is a fantastically shot sequence which revealed, I think, some of the deliberateness with which the amateur aesthetic of the film was crafted.  At this point in the film, the bassist Sato has been cast in an independent film, and the entire band is on set.  Turning his camera on his own genre of jishu eiga, Hiranami-san creates a hilariously self-reflexive vignette within the larger narrative that shows a brutally violent, disaffected, self-absorbed director and quirky actors, a rather bumbling crew of over-earnest PAs and technicians, creating a brilliant satire-within-satire that made me see the whole film in a new light.  This light, however brilliant, though, did not make up for the inconsistency of the actual lighting in the film (and the foley, for that matter…) — I’ll forgive them their low budget, but a couple of C-stands and china balls wouldn’t have broken the bank for some of those woefully underexposed shots.  The reality of filmmaking is a balance of the economic, the expressive, and the technical, and in this case the neglect of the technical does, I think, detract from the emotional impact of what the program notes describe as a film that “confronts us with a truly energetic and impressively dynamic, yet thoughtful impression of today’s youth and pop-culture in Japan”.

That being said, the film succeeds on several thematic levels – it treats on issues of stalking, suicide, and the sad slipping away of success with a mix of slapstick humor and surprising poignancy.  The primary actress in the film, whose name I think is Kotori, also deserves a nod for her portrayal of heavy-drinking, hardcore replacement bassist Midori, of all the exaggerated performances in the film, hers had the most realism and emotional depth.  (I will hopefully return to her character for more extensive analysis as soon as I can – I think she presents, along with lead-singer Yamada’s girlfriend and an occasional trio of fangirls, interesting visions of the modern Japanese woman.)  So, while not without its faults, The Rise and Fall… stands, I think, at the vanguard of the new generation of jishu eiga filmmaking.  Here’s hoping Hiranami-san can parlay this international exposure into a little extra cash for C-stands and full-time foley artists in his next feature.

My Ratings for the film

Acting/Direction: 5/10
Script: 6/10
Lighting/Cinematography: 3/10
Editing: 8/10
Overall: 4/10

For those of you who were in attendance, weigh in below — how did the film measure up to your expectations?

haiku for visuality: nippon connection, day one


My first impression?
I can speak Japanese, お



The Rise and Fall of
the Unparalleled Band was
low-budget and strange.



Mr. Hide must
require stunner shades because
his film is BRILLIANT.



Just because something’s
from Japan does not mean it
starts on time abroad…

about to connect

This post is not my usual quasi-academic musings — I’m simply beyond stoked about what is about to be my life for the next several days: NIPPON CONNECTION, arguably the premiere Japanese film festival outside of Japan, kicks off tonight in Frankfurt, Germany, and yours truly will be there, taking in all the Japanese sights and sounds and tastes (there’s a soba-ya on site!!!).  Since technically I’m supposed to be arriving in Berlin on Thursday to move into our new CAMS Roadtrip housing there, I’m proving my devotion to Japanese film by hitting the festival today, jetting to Berlin tomorrow, and then jetting back at the earliest possible convenience on Friday, so I can enjoy as many new films and (free!) artist talks and lectures as possible.  I’ll do my best to blog as much of it as possible; a whole world of ideas and experiences is awaiting me, and I want to share that and find a way to synthesize it into some semblance of crazily fragmented but totally rich meaningfulness.  Festival structure and attendance is also one of my current fascinations, so look forward to some observations on that — and watch out for lots of random Japanese in my posts.  I’ve been lucky enough to have a Japanese, and then a Korean (whose Japanese was better than her English) roommate at my hostel here in Strasbourg, so linguistically, I’m on a (dragon) roll, as they might say.

I’m especially looking forward to THIS:

There is a free 'Gaming Den' open throughout the festival...any bets as to what I'll be doing when I'm not at talks or screenings?


無題: my very first mash-up

For the longest time, I’ve expressed my fascination with and desire to create music video mash-ups/re-mixes/found-footage-films — and now I’ve finally created one!  Part of the impetus was that I am on break, so technically I can do whatever the hell I want with my time, so as a CAMS major, I of course end up spending a day playing with Final Cut…but the theoretical and artistic impetus is the desire to express something without words — it’s nearly impossible to escape textual anchoring (this introduction being my case-in-point), but my goal for the video was to communicate without language (although, as an only-partly-skeptical student of post-structural thought, I would certainly make the case that aural instrumentation and video and images have their own semiotics).  The idea that the world of YouTube is like a set symbols, an alphabet of potential meaning, that we as 21st century visual culturists are free to co-opt and make speak for us (with or without ‘words’) is quite exciting.

So, if you are so inclined, you can witness my first piece of mashed-up video craft.  Source materials include my own photography and HD footage of Paris and Barcelona, three music videos, a couple of travel advertisements, and a recording by a friend…I’ll give anyone who identifies all three music videos a gold star, or something of equal fake internet value. 🙂

this time, it’s personal

One of our major projects in Barcelona was an exploration of rephotography (you can read my brilliant blog post about our first session if you like), but the focus in our work with Arqueologia del Punt de Vista was largely on the historicity and ideas of collective memory and consciousness, as well as the self-reflexivity, of the concept and practice (I’m serious about the self-reflexive stuff — Natasha and Ricard went crazy over pictures of pictures that include the photographer themselves).  So most of our work took the form of rephotographing historical (early 20th century) shots of Placa Catalunya, Parc de la Ciutadella, Hospital de Santa Creu, and so forth.  While this was interesting, from a theoretical perspective, and from a technical perspective, it was good practice with Photoshop and establishing of vantage points, I felt I was left with a question: what about meaning?  I think in its most potent forms, rephotography is an act, a performative process that is as much itself the artwork as is the finished photograph (or, most likely, photo-composite).  And the meaning of this repetitive act, in many cases, and certainly in the workshop we just concluded, is tied to place.

“Place” — a pregnant term, the title of a book (by Tim Cresswell) that I have recently finished as part of the reading for my study abroad program, an idea that has a sense and is, according to most (modern) theorists, differentiated from “space”.  Place has a subjective meaning, place can be personal, place can be non-, place can be imaginary, place can be virtual.  The problem with rephotographing these spaces, I will call them, in Barcelona, is that their historicity is almost completely divorced from our sense of them as places — as transient international students inhabiting the city itself for only a scant month, our sense of place that gives meaning to Placa Catalunya is very much a nowness, of pigeons and Spanish children and the personal ballets we enact through it on our way from school at IES to the La Rambla Carrefore where we could buy a liter of shockingly decent boxed wine for only 55 eurocents.

My first attempt at rephotography ala Photoshop.

Maybe the very act (which I have declared as so very important) of rephotographing these historical vantage points on places we have visited in the present is a creation of a more historically-connected sense of place.  But to be honest, I know nothing about the author of the image I rephotographed for my personal project, only that it where it was taken and roughly what time of day, from the angle of the light and the projection of the shadows.  The only historical connection that the photograph creates for me is a sense of aesthetic or architectural alteration.  Admittedly, I could perhaps have sought out more information about the photograph’s production myself, but part of my point is that while it was interesting, it lacks much matter for me in this particular case of being put into practice.

So, when we approach rephotography as an act, it begs personal meaning for the performer — whether that meaning is in the intended production of art or affect on others, or resides firmly in the psychology of the performer-artist.  Often, deeply personal acts, when made public (through exhibition, through published accounts, through the perennial ‘based-on-a-true-story’…) can themselves be powerful art pieces (case-in-point: the photography of Nan Goldin).  But like photography, rephotography need not always be gratuitously artistic — photography and rephotography can encompass similarly multiplicities of uses and therefore meanings.

Rephotography, says Natasha Christia, is a “returning to the scene of the crime”.  So, knowing that I would soon be bidding farewell to Barcelona, I found myself compelled to do exactly this — to engage in personal rephotography.  There are two scenes, and two crimes, that I needed to revisit, to deal with photographically, and somehow I felt that I could not leave the city without retracing these steps.  One was a space of vicitmization, the other of perpetration.  Spaces that were converted into places through occurrences and the memories that I now carry with me, spaces made personal, spaces appropriated now, digitally and visually and indelibly, through the act of taking a photograph.  While I did not engage in rephotography in its strictest sense of taking a specific photograph that has already been taken, the theoretical sense was the same, in that I was using photography to recreate perspective, placing myself in exact locations I had been in with the exact vantage points, and re-enacting my own (recently) historical experience of seeing.

The park where I was targeted, 4 weeks later.

The first place I rephotographed was an area of the Gothic Quarter where I had settled on the Sunday before school officially began, in order to read a book on mapping.  To make a long story short, I was robbed, and chased the thief through alleyways and cobbled sidestreets until I finally shamed him into returning my entire backpack in front of a square-full of lunching Barcelonans.  I was wary of this whole area of the city for several weeks to follow, the memory of my pounding heart and footsteps filling my mind and creating almost single-handedly my ‘sense of place’.

Another view of the park.

So I returned, four weeks later – I sat in the same spot on the bench where I had been conned into looking away from my bag for two seconds too long, and rephotographed the view of the park that I been before me that afternoon.  I walked the streets through which I had dashed in pursuit of my pickpocket, taking a photograph every few feet, recreating my own perspective.  I also took some pictures of vantage points I had never had that day, but which were rephotographic in their intent of reinterpreting that place, and how it had changed in meaning, for me — it was strangely cathartic, but I still felt a lingering unease as I walked through that brightly lit park, past ping-pong players and children set in motion on swing sets.

Presumably, the vantage point of my attempted pickpockets.

My vantage point prior to the robbery, rephotographed.

The square where I had finally received my bag was strangely empty.  What is interesting about the rephotographs I produced is that the ‘originals’ are in my own mind, and they do not reveal a change so much as the act of returning, the act of pressing the button to release the shutter, reveals the change – in me, in my conception of place, in my conception of my own experience, in my relationship with the city of Barcelona as a greater incarnation of place that inherently includes this tighter-cropped circle of experience.

A photographic walk through the beginning of my pursuit of the pickpocket and my pack:

Returning to the scene of the crime can be dangerous, but I also felt compelled to bring my camera back to the site of my own mild misdemeanor.  Barcelona is known for its graffiti (a culture intimately connected with its status as the skateboarding capitol of Europe and the brightness of its modernist architecture and art nouveau designs).  Now, thanks to a few friends (who shall of course remain nameless) and I, that body of work of street art is a little richer.  We headed out from our residence at 1 am dressed in hoodies and dark jeans and armed with two cans of spray paint, with the intention of ‘making spaces into places’ by quite literally inscribing our mark on them.  Ironically, given that we are here as digital photography students, not a single one of us was carrying any device with which to digitally record our exploits.

So I went back with my DSLR, the next afternoon, in order to save my own handiwork for posterity, or something like it.  Perhaps as proof that we had done what we had – a sort of preservation for bragging rights.  Inherent in all rephotography is a temporal shift — broadly defined, this can be anywhere from a few seconds to centuries.  The interesting thing about this case of ‘rephotography’ was the shift in time of day — seeing our graffiti in the light of 16:00 is altogether different from seeing it at the witching hour, freshly painted.  Further, despite the passage of less than 24 hours between its execution and my rephotographic pilgrimage, one section of it had already been painted over!  I rephotographed this as well, as a testament to its short-lived nature, a reflection on the surprisingly strict sanctions that the Barcelona municipality has established with regard to street art.  This sort of conspicuous, or meaningful, absence is itself an entire subcategory of rephotography.

One of my tags.

I didn’t take these pictures with an end goal of art (although I always strive for some sort of aesthetic whenever I release the shutter) — perhaps they are art because they have a sort of process-based meaning that has resulted in some sort of aesthetic.  I don’t have any intention of exhibiting them, except in order to illustrate this discourse on photographic practice.  But even if this is only the loosest form of rephotography, it is a prime example of how meaningful the photographic act can be as just that — an action that carries meaning through its being carried out.

tv on the internet: a few thoughts inspired by rac105

One thing that struck me right away in Barcelona was the predominance of chart-topping American pop music — I could hear it pumping from this booth outside El Corte Ingles every day when I went to class, it played in tiendas and supermercats all over the city, and on my first evening in the area, I distinctly heard some Justin Bieber flowing out of the club Razzmatazz near our housing in Poble Nou.  (This is in opposition to Paris, where I was during spring break, and where I was constantly hearing very mediocre American hip-hop/R&B that I had never before…  Also while in Paris, my friend Clare introduced me to the videos of the French artist Yelle, who is beyond the scope of this current post but merits further consideration.  I think there is something distinctly French about French music videos.)

As may have been implied in my post on remix, one of my favorite focuses of visual culture is the music video.  But music videos on TV – Spain has a channel called RAC105, which is what MTV would be (what MTV should be, at the risk of inciting argument…) had it not become predominated by reality TV and other programming that seems to have forgotten its roots in avant-garde video and, oh yeah, music.  My beef with MTV aside, RAC105 was fascinating in its selection of videos: almost all American pop, plus some local Spanish color, and one random house single from Eastern Europe called Mr. Saxobeat by Alexandra Stan.  Pop songs and music videos tend to have a shelf-life in the context of radio-play and MTV-play (when MTV gets around to playing music videos…), but RAC105 defied a lot of my expectations about what would get played — it was not uncommon to have Miley Cyrus’  “Party in the U.S.A.” followed by “Born This Way” followed by something Annie Lennox recorded in the 80s.  It reminded me, in its programming and ordering, of the often-eclecticness of KRLX, my beloved home college radio station (where, incidentally, I DJ when I am on campus).  Maybe this connection is related to the relative lack of commercials on RAC105, such that it, like college radio, can sort of play whatever it wants – or rather, whatever it is that it thins Spain wants, which seems to be this intriguing mélange of American music (plus the token Romanian house stuff…).

There are also definitely videos that I saw for the first time on RAC105 (Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me”, in which the relevance of Rocky Horror and Tommy references elude the best of us…).  The channel was on most of the time we were all in our lounge/kitchen, and was very popular with my fellow study abroad students, but we would often ask each other, is this popular in the U.S.?  Is this what Spain thinks is popular in the U.S.?  I never had definitive answer for either of those questions.  Nonetheless, I find it fascinating to consider how music videos that may or may not reflect our culture and its values are being received abroad – what is catching on in Spain, and what, through the lens of Spanish TV, we can assume is catching on at home while we are away.

pablo picasso and the potential parasites*

Today’s class in the land of Carleton College CAMS New Media consisted of a guest lecture by Matthew Clear, a professor at IES Barcelona, on Picasso, followed by a guided visit with Matthew to the Picasso Museum in El Born district.  Despite the fact that I was dead tired from staying up until the wee hours this morning editing video (I am a CAMS major, after all), both the lecture and the tour (especially the tour) were completely engaging.  Prior to this morning, I knew enough about Picasso to rattle off his various Periods (Blue, Pink, etc.), expound a bit on his influence (or fathering, one might say) of Cubism, recognize (some) of his works, comment on his proliferate womanizing, etc. etc.

But I definitely discovered a great deal more of the depth of Pablo Picasso, and particularly the fact that there is, in fact, a continuity in this body of work that at first glance seems almost disjointed at times, so varied and shifted in its style.  That continuity, I think, is his constant curiosity about his art and himself — translating into a consistently autobiographical and medium-experimental approach to art.

I’m sure this has been written on extensively by scholars before me, but I think it’s particularly interesting that if we consider his curiosity to be a inherent part of his character, his self, then even his experimentation, medium-wise, is part of an over-arching autobiographical thread, tying together all the reflections of his sexuality, his relationship with his family, his lovers, events in his life, his varying levels of wealth, that run through and define and inspire his art.

Of course, this approach to interpretation is very much author-oriented, so now I will turn about-face (of a sort) and talk about one particular work that we saw today that I think has special meaning located in the image itself, and in my own subjective appreciation of it.

Unfinished is fine

The work is one that Picasso half-executed in 1917, at the age of 36, a foray into yet another style in his never-ending process of self- and medium-exploration.  Matthew asked us why we thought it had, like every other attempt Picasso made at pointillism, remained unfinished, and I raised my hand to suggest that Picasso must have simply gotten bored, knowing his tendency to work fast his constant to desire to move on to the ‘next thing’ — whether a new painting, a new artistic style, or a new lover.  But while this is a likely (and interesting) explanation for the painting’s unfinished state, I want to question whether this painting should, in fact, be called unfinished.  Clearly, Picasso was done with it — he had ‘finished’ with the pointillistic approach not long after he took it up.  This, in some ways, could be seen as a mechanism of the medium itself — like the mechanically inherent aspects of the photographic practice that at times places the act of creation more in the body of the camera than in the hands of its operator, the artist, the mechanism of pointillism produces inherent impatience in some of its less ‘devoted’ practitioners.  And as a result, we are left with this beautiful trace of the medium, this ephemeral story of coming-into-being, a story we would not have been able to read had the medium been any other.

Picasso's unfinished attempt at pointillism.

To me personally, this painting is beautiful and mesmerizing (I aver that the rendering above holds no candle to the actual painting — shout out to Walter Benjamin!) precisely because it is ‘unfinished’.  The balance of space and color, of lines and dots grows together so organically.  There is a sense of fleeting existence, or simultaneously disappearance and reappearance, that I see in this painting.  For me, it is finished.  Or rather, it is not unfinished — it is always still being finished.  In a way, no work of art is ever finished, if we allow it to ‘mean’ subjectively, because it’s meanings and its context grow and change, almost imperceptibly, every time it is viewed or discovered and drunk in by museum-goers like myself.

the critic as tourist?**

I am as always, interested in how we attend museums, the paths we take through them, why we look at certain works and not at others, and how the architecture (literal and institutional) of the museum structures our visit.  As a large group (25 people counting Matthew) taking a tour in an extensive but rather small-roomed museum, we tended to cause blockages, but one thing I found fascinating was the way that other visitors to the museum would sort of attach themselves to us for varying lengths of time.  Undoubtedly, this is a credit to Matthew’s excellent tour-guiding, but it got me thinking about whether this is okay.  Sure, if you’re looking at a painting a tour group is looking at as well, it’s rather unavoidable that you will hear their guide’s explanations, but there was one point where we had accumulated at least a dozen hangers-on who were actually moving with us from room to room, which, practically speaking, creates serious traffic issues.  Then there is the question of whether these non-group members should be allowed to join a tour that was not, technically, public — we had some clinging Asian tourists for 5 or 6 paintings, and one older American couple that stuck with us until the very end in the ceramics gallery.  I guess as long as they aren’t preventing the students for whom the tour was intended from seeing or hearing, then it’s probably fine, but I’m also fascinated by the extent to which this fascinates (read: kind of bothers?) me.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for open-source, especially in academic contexts.  And it seems wrong that I should be bothered by the fact that other people were taking an opportunity to learn more about Picasso by listening to Matthew, who is a veritable expert.  But beyond speaking to a potentially unsettling elitism in myself, an elitism that I am beginning to suspect is in fact produced by the museum structure and the way it privileges certain art and an intellectual approach to the aesthetic, might this accumulation of tour group ‘parasites’, if you will, speak to a general lack of knowledge of how one engages a museum?  And how one engages art in general?  When I am feeling energetic, I like to go into art museums and look at everything, especially if the particular exhibit compels me in some particular way, as if it were a photograph with some Barthesian punctum to reach out and interpellate me.

The Louvre, where I am not afraid to admit, I get lost.

But not everybody does this, and I certainly don’t in every museum: I walk into the Louvre and feel lost, partly because it is physically dwarfing and mostly because I am looking for the modern and contemporary art that I personally know how to engage with (and which the Louvre tends to lack, since you must be dead to be exhibited there — unless, of course, you are Picasso, who was the first living artist to have his paintings hung alongside the likes of his idols El Greco and Velazquez).

Guided tours, then, are all about solving this confusion of what to look at, a method for dealing with the image-overload of entering the museum space.  They are a way of having our sight instructed.  In this sense, they have the potential to be both incredibly useful and incredibly limiting.  Approaching any museum through both the tour format and the free-form (as free-form as an architecturally-structured space can allow) act of exploration can be differently rewarding in different situations.

Centre Pompidou, where I know exactly which route to take so I can stand in front of the Mark Rothko for half an hour.

So I understand, on some level, these other tourists’ desire to join our group, a desire perhaps influenced, if they spoke little Spanish, by hearing a continuous stream of clever and enlightening and lightly-accented and familiar English in a foreign country.  Perhaps my unease at being joined is that, as a student here, I tend to Otherize tourists, hypocritical as that may be.  I conveniently forget that I myself am also from America, am also only marginally skilled in speaking Spanish, am also engaging in a number of activities that could be considered ‘touristic’.  I see American (and other) tourists as Others, in a separate group, while they see me (and the CAMS group) as Self, part of their own familiar space of English-speakers excursioning abroad.

So thinking about museums and the relative private-ness of guided tours reveals almost as much about how I see others as it does about how I (and others) see art — which in itself speaks to the interdisciplinary nature of visual studies, my tangential foray into my own psychology and some anthropological musings.  Speaking of (visual) anthropology, I should end by saying that, as tempted as I was, I did not sneakily follow the Japanese tour group that kept crossing our path in the museum.  At least, not for that long…

*I’m thinking of naming my band this, if I ever start the post-twee extravaganza I’ve always dreamed of fronting…
**Syntax and implied reference to parasitism lovingly attributed to J. Hillis Miller.