:: Buzzwords Archive: June 2008. Click here for the latest posts.

Bringing it all back Home (published 06/06/2008)

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Stewart Home brings you a trippy night of occultism, sex and London psychogeography to celebrate the first publications in Book Works Semina series. Readings by Home, Maxi Kim, author of One Break, A Thousand Blows! [Semina No. 2] and Bridget Penney, author of Index [Semina No. 1] will take place on Thursday 12 June at Housmans Bookshop.

Meanwhile Frieze magazine review the two titles:

The original Semina was a hand-produced journal published by the American artist Wallace Berman between 1955 and 1964, featuring Berman’s own photography and collages alongside images and texts by both canonical and overlooked artists and writers. Berman was at the centre of a group that extended from his West Coast peers to the Beat poets, Black Mountain College and Andy Warhol’s Factory, among others – a continuation of a trajectory that, for him, included such avant-gardists as Charles Baudelaire and Antonin Artaud. So Stuart Home’s [sic] adoption of the title ‘Semina’ for a series of commissioned novels could be seen as a somewhat self-mythologizing gesture, or, less cynically, as signalling a continued need for a community supportive of producers of non-commercial and ‘difficult’ genres.

The ongoing call for open submissions for the series reads like a style sheet for motifs and Gestalts: ‘Think of the ways in which time and space died yesterday, how acceleration exceeds accumulation, the dead city and the perpetual twilight of technology: Georges Bataille, Henri Michaux, Alexander Trocchi, William Burroughs, Ann Quin, Clarence Cooper Jr, Claude Cahun etc.’ Evaluating open submissions is a tiresome process, and any method for stemming the flood of drivel is a sensible undertaking, but editing at the level of taste seems at odds with the liberal openness associated with public funding – and it’s particularly, and pleasingly, ribald that the selection process is overseen by the author of such titles as Cunt (1999).

Curator Michael Duncan has written that the original Semina publications were pretty hermetic: ‘Inside jokes, wilful obfuscation, and hermetic systems abound, giving an air of insular impenetrability to the uninitiated.’ One of the first books in Home’s ‘Semina’ series, Maxi Kim’s novel One Break, A Thousand Blows! (2008) is an infuriating continuation of this tendency. Kim’s use of language, and proper nouns in particular, as a mule for meaning often makes passages rather business-like, quashing the potential for linguistic play. Throughout the book a rash of artists’, writers’ and academics’ names prick the prose until it’s almost unbearable, as Kim ham-fistedly stakes a claim to a patch of cultural territory. For instance, in a moment of reverie one of the characters evokes the particularities of a former lover with the grace of an inventory clerk: ‘The way Miju’s small fingers snaked around his cock. Miju’s restless description of the ontological similarities between Eileen Myles and Slavoj Zizek.’

At a structural level Kim’s fragmentary tactic is more lithe, interweaving characters, geographies and time-frames so that we are often unsure where we are or in whose voice we are reading. Bridget Penney’s Index (2007) also demonstrates this anti-literary strategy. Here the orthodox narrative arc is utterly splintered and reconfigured, and lyrically wrought vignettes of historical and fictional episodes are held enigmatically apart rather than enmeshed. Much of the historical material relates to 18th-century sources and the unknowable interiority of figures and events in an age of reason and revolution. The inference of an ultimately scrambled and therefore failed index emphasizes the hubris of taxonomy and genre, which, while fulfilling the series’ intention to ‘demonstrate total disregard for the conventions that structure received ideas about fiction, may frustrate others who require causality in their novels.

Stewart Home, Maxi Kim, Bridget Penney
Thursday 12 June 7:00 pm
Housmans
5 Caledonian Road, Kings Cross, London

Annotated curiosities (published 05/06/2008)

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One of my favourite books of 2007 was BibliOdyssey: Amazing Archival Images from the Internet, edited by PK and an extension of his amazing website of the same name. You could easily kiss goodbye to couple of days browsing through BibliOdyssey’s archives (I know I have). My delight, then, in stumbling into Room 26 Cabinet of Curiosities must be shared. Room 26 is an ongoing on-line exhibition of “new acquisitions, unique documents, and visual and textual curiosities from the collections of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library” at Yale University and is, like BibliOdyssey, just staggering. From manuscript fragments written by Walt Whitman to the wonderful world of David Shrigley, and from love notes (including one from Gertrude Stein to Alice B. Toklas) to Guy Debord‘s Guide psychogeographique de Paris [above], not to mention posters for Alfred Jarry‘s Ubu Roi and the real adventures of Tintin (with shades of Chris Ware), Room 26 Cabinet of Curiosities is fast becoming my favourite website of 2008. Forget Google Books; perhaps Room 26 is a more human answer to Robert Darnton‘s question of what role libraries should play in the new digital age.

Type-cast (published )

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There’s an article in the BBC Magazine on why people still use typewriters:

They’re clunky, dirty and can’t access the internet, yet every year thousands of people buy typewriters when they could probably afford a computer. Why?

When asked how he writes, Frederick Forsyth has a simple answer. “With a typewriter.”

He admits this is to avoid the more difficult business of describing his creative process, but it also means he can celebrate old friends.

There was the steel-cased portable he used as a foreign correspondent in the 1960s. “It had a crease across the lid which was done by a bullet in Biafra. It just kept tapping away. It didn’t need power, it didn’t need batteries, it didn’t need recharging. One ribbon went back and forward and back until it was a rag, almost, and out came the dispatches.”

And after 50 years and a dozen novels including The Day of the Jackal, why change now, he asks.

“I have never had an accident where I have pressed a button and accidentally sent seven chapters into cyberspace, never to be seen again. And have you ever tried to hack into my typewriter? It is very secure.”

Although he laughs as he says it, Mr Forsyth identifies the continuing attraction of a typewriter for thousands of people. They find a computer distracting, unreliable or just plain terrifying, and they have a love for the tangible. As he puts it, “I like to see black words on white paper rolling up in front of my gaze”.

Mr Forsyth’s novels are so popular that he could write them in the sand and publishers would still queue up for his business. But who else is still pounding rather than pressing their keyboard?

[..]

The writer Will Self is a convert. He went back to using a manual typewriter several years ago. “I think the computer user does their thinking on the screen, and the non-computer user is compelled, because he or she has to retype a whole text, to do a lot more thinking in the head,” he said in a recent interview.

A couple of years back, the Design Observer’s Rick Poynor dug out his:

What a mixture of emotions a machine can stir. I bought my Olympia Monica S in Croydon, south London, from an office supply shop when I was 20. It was a decisive moment. I wanted to write and a typewriter was the essential tool of the trade, an instrument every bit as vital as a paintbrush is to a painter or a guitar to a guitarist. Longhand was never an option. Acquiring a typewriter, particularly if you had no plans to become a secretary, was a sign of identity, a declaration of commitment and intent. After two failed attempts to teach myself to touch-type on another machine, investing in my own obliged me to get serious and stick with the exercises for a month until I had disciplined my fingers to find the keys without looking.

[..]

I did quite a lot of unpublished writing on my Olympia, but by the time I became a journalist in 1984 the PC had arrived. Word processing’s advantages were obvious and I was happy to upgrade. You can’t just brush the keys of a manual typewriter. You really have to hit them. That character has to arc through the air on its metal stalk and thwack the ink on to the paper. Correcting errors is messy and boring. Redrafting is worse. Typing can be an unglamorous slog. I operated PCs and later Macs at work and bought a Compaq portable computer the size of a small suitcase for a ridiculous sum and used its tiny green screen to “keyboard” the text of my first book. For years, I treated computers as little more than glorified typewriters with a memory and a built-in word counter. The point, of course, is that the computer has never been a dedicated writing tool — writing is the least of it — and everyone uses them. They are somehow both more marvellous and more ordinary. That’s why there isn’t a shred of romance in the idea of a writer and his or her personal computer.

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Hemingway famously said, “Typewriters write like people talk,” so it’s hardly a surprise that writers are fans and Poynor goes on to point out the fine history of writers and their machines: Mark Twain and his Sholes & Glidden typewriter in the 1870s, Jack Kerouac‘s Underwood, Thomas Pynchon‘s Olivetti, Ernest Hemingway‘s Royal Quiet De Luxe Portable, and not forgetting The Story of My Typewriter, Paul Auster‘s love letter to his Olympia SM 9. Says Auster: “Since… 1974, every word I have written has been typed out on that machine..Like it or not, I realized we [Auster and the Olympia] had the same past. As time went on, I came to understand we had the same future.”

Even William Gibson, the father of Cyberpunk, has waxed lyrical on the joy of the Selectric, the must-have of its day: “The IBM Selectric, when I started writing for publication, was the most shit-hot professional writing machine on the planet; by the time I could have afforded one, they were propping up broken barbecue grills in Value Village”.”

Rick Poynor may lament the fate of the younger generation of writers, raised on computers—“Consider, by way of digital contrast, the mental image of Zadie Smith toiling away at the screen of her iMac G5, or Jonathan Safran Foer punching the keys of his 17-inch SuperDrive PowerBook. I made those up, but let’s face it they just don’t resonate in the same way”—and while Nick Hallows is at pains to point out that “Royals and Underwoods are not elbowing PCs and Macs off the desk with their jabby little carriage return levers,” he says typewriters, “even for the technologically savvy…have their uses.” Long live the typewriter.

He’s in fashion (published 04/06/2008)

David Lynch‘s Opium spot, to mark the passing of fashion guru Yves Saint Laurent:

Offbeat, on message (published )

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Literary Kicks talk to 3:AM‘s Andrew Gallix about the Offbeat Generation:

Offbeat writers are nonconcomformists who (at least in their work) feel alienated from mainstream publishing, which is increasingly dominated by marketing people, and often draw inspiration from non-literary material. In some ways, it’s a continuation of the post-punk Blank Generation writers. Some Offbeats also have an offbeat, experimental style, but that’s certainly not the case of all of us. It’s not a movement with a manifesto. All of the Offbeats write in very different styles. What brought us together was our hostility to mainstream publishing.

Is there a criteria for inclusion or exclusion?

It’s not a club, so in theory anybody can be an Offbeat writer. There is no criteria as such. There are webzines out there made by people we don’t know who claim to be Offbeat publications, which is great because it means that the movement is growing. In fact, some people who were very dismissive, and even hostile, at first, are now blowing the trumpets for the Offbeats. The original Offbeats coalesced around 3:AM Magazine, and in particular the events we organised in London. We started 3:AM in 2000. By 2003, we started organizing readings and concerts: The future Offbeats started coming along, but didn’t know one another. By 2006 I became aware of the fact that all of these people needed to be brought together. The first thing we needed was a name so I started speaking of the ‘Offbeat generation’.

I have to wonder if it is not the writers who reject the mainstream, and alienate themselves from society through their writing, rather then being rejected and alienated by it. Should we compare this movement to the Naturalist/Realist movement? Why are these periods being repeated in modern literature?

Well, I would partially disagree. Some Offbeats like Tony O’Neill are writing in a naturalist tradition, but others like HP Tinker, Tom McCarthy, Steven Hall, or dare I say me, certainly aren’t. The Offbeat scene covers many genres and styles.

Why do you feel that the marketing departments are dictating what is being published?

Publishing houses used to support authors simply because they were good or interesting; that’s almost unheard of these days. More and more books are being published, but alot of them aren’t worth publishing (one thinks of Ecclesiastes: “Of the making of books there is no end”!). More and more books are being published, but there’s less and less choice in book stores.

If there is a large market out there of writers who want to read (and buy) more literary type books, then why are the marketing departments not seeing this as reflected in sales?

I think they are, when they’re ready to take a risk. Tom McCarthy‘s extraordinary success is a good illustration of this. The good writers are not being drowned out by the dross; there’s just more choice out there. If a band creates its own label and releases a record, everybody applauds their sense of enterprise; when a writer does the same, some people cry out “vanity publishing”! However, writing is not all about marketing and money. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Related: WWW killed the ISBN? / Surfing the new literary wave / Literature for the MySpace generation / Brit Lit of the Post-Punk Generation

His dark materials (published )

Tom McCarthy‘s Black Box, an installation that transmits INS propaganda messages non-stop around a forty-kilometre area in Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, and part of Eclipse: Art in a Dark Age exhibition.

From ‘Twilight Vision’, Magnus af Petersens’s introduction to Ekilps:

The twenty-first century got off to a good start. The “Millennium Bug” didn’t happen. The lights and computers didn’t go down, contrary to the doomsday prophesies. But before long, the situation changed radically. After September 11 we have had to live with both terrorist actions and the so-called war against terror. In the west, this has resulted in higher security alerts and tougher surveillance of ordinary citizens. Human rights have been violated in the name of security: The US prison camp on Cuba is merely one example. Apart from geo-political crises, we read daily reports on hurricanes, floods and melting glaciers. Many people are speculating on what will happen when large populations in China and India adopt the consumerist lifestyle characteristic of the west. The short period of optimism that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the abolishment of the apartheid system feels very distant today.

Nevertheless, there are some glimmers of light. Starvation and illiteracy are diminishing in the world. In the west we have been surfing for a long time on an exceptional economic boom, although it appears to have passed its climax now, and many scientific achievements today would have appeared like science fiction only a decade ago. Just think of the progress in biomedicine and IT. The information and knowledge society can be seen as a sign that we are living in the most enlightened age ever. And yet, there is a growing ambivalence with regard to the enlightenment and the modern project. On the one hand, we see how it has served as an alibi for colonialism and imperialism (the spreading of one’s culture to the “savages” using weapons); on the other, the philosophy of the enlightenment includes many ideas and ideals (critical thinking, freedom of speech) that many, not least artists and intellectuals, believe are worth fighting for. Today, we see increasing intolerance, a “clash of civilisations” (the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington ominously identifies cultural differences as a source of conflict). Intolerance is found in both left and right wing politics. In the USA, the Christian conservatives have spoken up against artistic expression that they consider offensive. And in the name of political correctness the liberals and left-wing intellectuals risk developing norms for what is permissible to say and a form of consensus on how modern man should think. There are a worrying number of taboos and to avoid annoying one group or another requires great caution. Those artists who defend the right to say the “wrong” things are obviously moving in the opposite direction. In an essay in the catalogue for the Whitney Biennial in 2006, Toni Burlap concludes with a reflection on the art project The Wrong Gallery, and quotes the Biennial curators: “The opposite of ‘right’ is not ‘left’, but ‘wrong’. Since the world seems to be moving inextricably toward the right – an impulse repressed since the ground zero of the end of World War II – to be wrong is to be the opposition.” To be “wrong” in relation to one’s own era – to break against consensus – can involve formulating a new position that will prove to be crucial to the future. To be wrong and to refuse to conform to the cut-and-dried positions of the prevailing discussion, can be a conscious strategy and a form of resistance. It is also an approach that creates greater potential for more interesting and less predictable art. This approach is what unites the artists in the Eclipse exhibition. They also share the ability to use the freedom to speculate which fiction affords, and a fascination for the dark side.

[..]

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The myths and legends generated by Mike Nelson include the one that some of his works were made in collaboration with a biker gang of Kuwait veterans who call themselves The Amnesiacs. They see visions in the form of flashbacks they cannot interpret, but which Mike Nelson helps them to reconstruct and turn into pictures or sculptures. This reconstruction of memories also appears in Tom McCarthy’s first novel, Remainder. Mike Nelson’s installations have been described as “fake ready-mades”. He builds environments that seem to be “found” and perhaps slightly modified to enhance an atmosphere or cause a shift in meaning. In fact, they are more or less entirely fabricated, created from scratch in the same way that a painter would start with an empty canvas. the places he builds seem to bear the imprint of a history, a hidden story tied to people on the margins of society. The myths and stories, despite being purely fictive, can be read metaphorically and can concern political and social issues. In Mike Nelson’s apparently abandoned hiding-places we sometimes find books by for instance Stanislav Lem, the Polish author who used the science fiction genre as a means of writing about the real situation without being stopped by censors.

To use fictive “agents” in creating art adds a further interpretative level to the works and gives them a speculative, occasionally ironic, undertone. It also generates greater freedom to try ideas that one may otherwise have found impermissible. Mike Nelson shares this method with several artists in his generation. Where the artist Mike Nelson created a fictive group, The Amnesiacs, there are many other cases where groups have created a fictive artist. Reena Spauling, Claire Fontaine, Otabenga Jones and other artists are products of various artist collectives. This raises questions about originator and authenticity. It is a play with alternative identities, a way of gaining scope for freer thought. It serves as a mask. The International Necronautical Society (INS) is an artist group that is a pastiche on early 20th century avant-garde movements such as the surrealists who organised themselves and wrote manifestos. Despite their artistic and conceptual radicalism, these avant-garde groups may appear rather bureaucratic today in their organisation. The activities of the INS include hearings with various representatives of the art sector. Tom McCarthy is the secretary general of the INS and has written reports for the Society. The second report is reproduced in this catalogue. The context of the report he presents, an art project where he played an important part as the secretary-general, a sort of persona, creates a detachment to the contents of the report. In itself, the report can be seen as a highly speculative and theoretical platform for the aesthetics and practices of the Society. The key concept is that art harbours subversive, encoded messages with a politically explosive potential. Codes usually have only one key that enables the holder to read the exact message. In this sense, codes differ in a more literal sense from artistic expressions that have numerous possible interpretations. What unites them is the idea that everything has multiple layers of meaning and the veritably paranoid desire to read between the lines.

Eclipse: Art in a Dark Age, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 31 May – 24 August

Offbeat TV XVI (published )

Tony O’Neill reads ‘War Every Day’, a poem from Songs from the Shooting Gallery:

Further: The Offbeat Generation / The Offbeat Generation Film Channel / Matthew Coleman reads ‘Dream Poem’ / Heidi James reads two pieces / Adelle Stripe reads 3 poems / Ben Myers reads four Brutalist poems / Matthew Coleman reads from Her Naked Self / Lee Rourke reads Everyday / Andrew Gallix talks Offbeat / Tony O’Neill reads ‘Mark Twain & I’ / Heidi James: My Favourite Author / Lee Rourke: My Favourite Author / Tom McCarthy: My Favourite Author / Andrew Gallix: My Favourite Author / Sophie Parkin: My Favourite Author / Heidi James and Matthew Coleman‘s ‘Footsteps’ / Stewart Home on 69 Things.., Trocchi and Goddard / Heidi James & Matthew Coleman‘s ‘Dagger’

Art ravin’ Mad(chester) (published 03/06/2008)

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“Fuckin’ blinding—but I would say that wouldn’t i? Shaun Ryder on Fac Off, a retrospective of Central Station‘s late-80s artwork on at the Richard Goodall Gallery, Manchester. Creative Review get more sense out of Central Station artists Karen Jackson and Pat & Matt Carroll:

In design terms, what do we think of first when we think of Factory Records? Perhaps it’s the impact of Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 film, 24 Hour Party People and, more recently, that of Anton Corbijn’s Control, that steers our thoughts towards Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, or that famously costly New Order sleeve for Blue Monday. Or the yellow and black striped columns in the Haçienda… But wait, there is another chapter to the Factory design story, one that often gets overlooked.

Which is strange really, when confronted with the sleeve artwork for The Happy Mondays and Black Grape created by design trio Central Station – surely the most vibrant and bold sleeves ever commissioned by Factory Records.

[..]

“At that time we were living in a house in Fallowfield [Manchester] and Shaun and Bez moved in with us,” Jackson recalls. “People would come and stay and they wouldn’t leave so it ended up with this three storey house just full of all our mates.” “The parties back at ours were legendary,” adds Pat. “Leroy [Richardson, manager of The Haçienda] would pack up a couple of bags full of records from the Haçienda at the end of the night and we’d all pile back to the house. What an amazing time.”

[..]

In part, Faç Off [which takes its name from a Factory Records promo t-shirt] is all about celebrating the “strange madness” that Tony Wilson recognised in both the music of The Happy Mondays and Central Station’s sleeve design. “I think that the Mondays stuff is a really important part of this country’s history in terms of design and music and culture,” says Pat. “It’s around 25 years since we first decided to form Central Station and it’s as good a time as any to have another look at this work.” A time perhaps for some re-assessment of the studio’s contribution. “I think sometimes it can get marginalised because the people involved in it never presented themselves as serious people,” says Pat. “We were seen as up for a laugh when, in fact, we all looked on the work with an incredible sense of responsibility. We’ve always believed in working hard and playing hard and have made enjoying ourselves a priority – but never at the expense of missing a deadline. Life fuels creativity.”

Some kind of mark? You’d better believe it (published 02/06/2008)

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Tom McCarthy‘s Remainder has been selected as the best book in The Believer‘s fourth annual book award (but don’t let that put you off). Here’s what they say about the book:

“What’s the most intense, clear memory you have?” asks the narrator of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. “The one you can see even if you close your eyes—really see, clear as in a vision?” Dispensing with Proustian reminiscence, McCarthy brazenly assumes the role of conceptual artist and literally reconstructs moments of time. In the same way that Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy tells its story through architecture in book form, Remainder is an art installation disguised as a brilliant novel.

After enduring hospitalization due to an undisclosed falling “something,” the novel’s nameless narrator receives a massive corporate reparation, which gives his post-traumatic mind the opportunity to fund any bizarre project it imagines. In this case, that means physically realizing his memories and quasi-metaphysical visions, creating a fantasy world he can inhabit for the duration of the book.

On the surface, the narrator is concerned with uncomplicated things, such as “blue liquid gushing out of an air conditioning unit” or “taking a carrot in your right hand”—but as with William S. Burroughs or Raymond Roussel, there exists a remarkable system of intersecting ideas governing every detail of Remainder’s hermetic universe. McCarthy conjures miniature worlds and explores the fabric of time with the creative ambition usually reserved for science fiction authors. Every movement of every character is McCarthy’s way of asking his larger question: What does it means to be an authentic human being?

McCarthy wields all the literary essentials—neurosis, repression, subconscious desires, etc.—but wields them like newfangled weapons, aiming them into strange little pockets of life, such as déjà vu and nostalgia. He manipulates the what-would-you-do-with-a-million-dollars hypothetical to take free reign with his imagination, and bravely rethinks the way people act out their lives.

And from their interview with McCarthy:

How do you feel reading someone like Mark Danielewski, for instance?

Oh, I was just reading him today. I’ve been reading Only Revolutions. Here’s the thing, right, Finnegans WakeJoyce thought it was the last novel. He thought this was the novel in which the destiny of literature would realize itself. It was the event that we have been waiting for all of these years. And he literally thought it would be the last novel. It would be (a) unnecessary and (b) impossible to write a novel, I mean a proper novel, a serious novel, after Finnegans Wake. Now, in a way, if you have this linear-progressive view of literary or cultural history, then it is quite hard to see that he wasn’t right. But I have tried to argue, in the past, that he was exactly, I mean exactly, wrong—that Finnegans Wake is actually the first book. It is the source code of the novel. It contains everything from the picaresque Spanish, to the Anglo-Saxon novel, through Shakespeare and everything else. It eviscerates them and lays them open, but doesn’t resolve anything.

So, I don’t buy into the idea of progress, that we need to go beyond Joyce in terms of form. I think there are other things to do. Once we’ve observed the big bang in physics we don’t all just dissolve into space. We do other stuff that’s enabled by that. This goes back to what you were asking about Robbe-Grillet or Burroughs, who are writers I have a huge, huge admiration for. And you know, in my early twenties I used to copy passages of Burroughs out and make diagrams of sequences of Robbe-Grillet. But I don’t just want to imitate them or take what is most superficial about them and add one to that. I would rather do something that makes sense at a more intuitive level.

Not only has McCarthy penned the introduction to the new Oneworld edition of Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, but has also contributed the diagrams he talks about above to Artforum‘s tribute to Robbe-Grillet.