Saturday, July 30, 2011

“This is wreckage,” writes Stephen Lapthisophon toward the beginning of Writing Art Cinema: 1988-2010. “These fragments I have shored up against my ruins,” wrote T.S. Eliot toward the very end of The Waste Land. I can’t help but think that if Eliot lived in our age, an age when text is image, an age of textimagesound, he might have made art like Stephen’s and Jesse’s: elusive, fragmentary, elliptical. I am not at all certain that the library can be unpacked. Or, rather, that Unpacking My Library can be unpacked, at least in the sense of explaining it. In “Unpacking My Library,” the essay by Walter Benjamin to which this video alludes, Benjamin identifies himself “as a genuine collector” who appears to speak of his books, but who “on closer scrutiny … proves to be speaking only about himself.” The genuine collector of this film, a collector of books but also sounds and images, speaks of everything but himself: stark images of empty, open, dilapidation; bare light bulbs, unilluminated; unplugged power cords coming in and out of focus; shadows of tree branches on closed blinds, wafting in the wind, looking like a Franz Kline canvas come alive; Martin Heidegger; the this and that of everyday life given the attention it merits but rarely gets — a corrugated fence, an upside-down garbage can. We see hands and feet and finally, one assumes, Stephen and Jesse, but blurred in dirty mirrors. No, these collectors are not speaking only of themselves. Nor for themselves. And yet they are spoken for, by sounds and images. As if they and we stand mute, hoping what we’ve collected can speak for us. For whom do the automated and human readings of Derrida’s Of Hospitality speak? We are welcomed to the disorder and order we see, but by whom? Who is our host? And what norms govern our behavior as guests? Bergson’s Matter and Memory bids us to “choos[e] the key in which our own intellect is called upon to play” — but how to choose? Does anything guide our choices and render them coherent? Among the keys offered us are Dionne Warkwick singing “Walk On By,” the opening dialogue from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, the glorious cacophony of Goddard’s Week End, Auden’s “Old People’s Home” with remembers “when week-end visits were a presumptive joy,” Sonic Youth, the weaving saxophone from Bernard Hermann’s score for Taxi Driver, a history of modern American painting and architecture, the sound of the wind, a train crossing, a carillon playing a forgotten hymn, foreign language lessons (will the lost or stolen travel bag be recovered?). And yet one does not feel lost, anchored perhaps by fragments of imagetextsound, each of which, to borrow from Auden, “has [its] own nuance of damage.” Though much of the space the film inhabits looks like a war zone, it is far from clear that the video endorses Fuller’s analogizing a film to a battleground.
And the books. Of course, the books. Their titles remain a mystery: the camera pans across the shelves, but the spines are out of focus. I can pick some out: there’s Heidegger’s Basic Writings; there’s Gadamer’s Truth and Method. I know them from their look, their surfaces — but their contents are hidden from me. Yet inside the books, we see photographs of Robert Smithson’s work, of Merce Cunningham’s, of Goddard’s. Just as the camera pans left to right across the blurry spines and later right to left in one of the video’s structuring tropes, the books are flipped through front to back and back to front — flipped by someone’s hands, but not the hands of a collector who proves to be speaking only about himself. We can see the images — but a photograph of a dance robs the dance of its very life: movement. And while we can see text, we can’t see the text, until toward the end when we are bombarded by full-screen letters and words arranged, rearranged, and deranged. For more important — or at least more salient — than the text is the sound of hands gripping and turning pages, a displacement of the visual by the tactile, reminding us of how books feel, of their materiality, their individuality, their non-fungibility for the collector, who, Benjamin tells us, thinks that “not only books but copies of books have their fates.” The only title we clearly see is Durkheim’s Suicide. And then we realize that it is a photograph, an image of the book that we see, not the book itself — as if there were such a thing. What are we to make of this? Some viewers schooled in the foundations of sociology will no doubt think of Durkheimian anomie, the rootlessness so typical of modernity, of changing orders. And some will pessimistically find anomie exemplified in the film. Perhaps, though, what’s on offer here is the strong pessimism Nietzsche wrote of in The Birth of Tragedy, an inclination for what is hard, dreadful, problematic. Following Bergson, we can choose the key in which to play, and then choose a different key. We can bemoan our world in ruins. Or we can shore up fragments against our own ruin. That is something we can do. It would be easier if we came to a world that (to echo Heidegger) is already always meaningful. But that is not the world we inhabit — at the very least, that is not the world of this mysterious, exhilarating film

Sean McAleer
Department of Philosophy
University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Writing Art Cinema 1988-2010, Stephen Lapthisophon, Green Lantern Press, Barbara E. Ladner, Professor of English and Media Studies, West Virginia State University
More than ever this spring, we’ve seen the world convulse with dislocations, ever-accelerating technological and economic shifts, and transformations that seem simultaneously to bring chaos and a promise of rebirth. How can we express experience that sometimes outstrips our capacity to comprehend it?
Stephen Lapthisophon’s Writing Art Cinema 1988-2010 courageously and vigorously joins the project—begun in the twentieth century with Dada and Surrealism and continuing in the cultural criticism of Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin—of finding words and images to grapple with, and shift our perspective on, Global Society, Inc. (I want to say emphatically NOT culture; the layers of experience reflected here have too little coherence, grounding, or meaning to be either “culture” or “ideology.” Lapthisophon drives home the idea that destroying, deconstructing received this commercial culture alone promises new life for the corpse of our current corporate existence.)
The rhythm of the sound resembling an anthem of blank assurance breaks down into fragments. The texts of identity have long become just another casualty of war. When we link arms and march through the corridors without refraining from irrational bursts of ecstasy, the collective energy is felt throughout the area. The image of a mass of individuals joined in common purpose captured in faded photographs hides a terrifying violence. This is the urge to create—to think deeply about our bodies and regret the lack of evidence for hope. Deep in the background of the history paintings of their memory lies a powdery surface. Dried pigment that no longer holds any responsibility for questions of causality or truth, Depending on the angle of vision, we will have to move the frame to accommodate the fullness of the unrelenting storm of history. This is the threat of the past. Details reach us in broken pieces. The totality of the unlicensed reproductions of these pictures fails. Beauty is an ugly thing.
Recalling at times Surrealist poetry and Dadaist defamiliarization, Lapthisophon’s writing and images force readers/viewers to question the very foundations of received knowledge and values.
Unfamiliarity creates a living force, a thirst for surprise.
Lapthisophon confronts us with startling juxtapositions and shifts of context with fragmentary snatches of text from a dizzying array of contemporary experience. (Remember—or should we forget?—Tristan Tzara’s “Dada Manifesto”: “Dada is the bitterness which opens its laugh on all that which has been made consecrated forgotten in our language in our brain in our habits.”)
. . . first free the wheel then release the frozen element from the broken spoke. coax the thinnest wires out along the back of the edge and wrap the groove around the propulsion unit, wait, do not expect to break the system all at once, underneath it all there is a deep center of grief, speak the language of a retired miner and break free from the ties to the wall of other days and dreams, attach deep meaning to every neglected grain of dirt. youth will prevail on the homefront and complete versions of the story will arrive in the morning mail. never wander across the yard for more than an hour. just keep twisting. sing and shout after the second wheel is successfully released, pull it toward you until it breaks, reach out and touch someone. reach an ending which resembles a particle. Or...“I’LL BUY THAT FOR A DOLLAR!”
Lapthisophon is a multimedia artist, and many of his artistic credits are installations at major galleries and regional museums, so a book might seem an odd venue for his work. But the words and photographs here—some his own, some drawn from popular culture—effectively draw linear text (McLuhan’s bugaboo) into a multisensory nexus. They simultaneously challenge “normal” reason and propose instead an ir-rational logic about actions as diverse as achieving “firm footing in black socks,” lining “up next to your neighbor shoulder to shoulder,” and attempting “direct political action [that] becomes a matter of trying to pick poison out of a boiling stew.”
Multiplicity and speed heighten the manipulative power that McLuhan warned of in electronic media, making it fitting that Writing Art Cinema 1988-2010 comes to us from Green Lantern Press, a nonprofit paperback press “dedicated to the ‘slow media’ approach.” Green Lantern Press partners with a bookstore (for-profit) and a nonprofit performance space called “The [New] Corpse,” celebrating the integration of artistic mediums and exploring alternative models for supporting artists, writers and community and for distributing noncommercial contemporary art.
The book format, however, allows the reader/viewer time/space to ponder multiplied layers of startling juxtapositions (“exit Goethe and avoid the heavy smoke exhaust fumes”), allusions (to Lee Marvin, to Robert Musil’s fictional murderer, Moosbrugger, to Buster Keaton, to “Okie from Muskogee, to Heinrich Heine), apparent ravings on the character of modern experience (“Fix and Finks have joined the Muddites because of the attraction that the low initiation fee brings. Across the road the metaphor for translation has been brought over by our friend Laura riding a horse and speaking about the times we spent in cages wearing shoes made of rabbit and mud”), “the same cast of characters” (from “Morpho” and “Binx” to Lee Marvin and Johnny Cool), poetry, photographs (and descriptions of photographs), as well as essayistic passages.
Many of these layers serve as Mythologies—Barthes’ most iconic work—for our “information” age, but much more violent in the deconstructive force applied to the unexamined texture of our “reality.” Where Barthes points out the cynical manipulation through “photography [that] is an ellipse of language and a condensation of an ‘ineffable’ social whole, it constitutes an anti-intellectual weapon and tends to spirit away ‘politics’ (that is to say a body of problems and solutions) to the advantage of a ‘manner of being’, a socio-moral status,” Lapthisophon writes, “In the darkness, crimes will continue to committed. Guilt will continue to be a function memory and future investigations of the procedures that determine this procedure will be doubled. The following steps will follow the political: loss, cover, clear, and follow.” The readable, analyzable PR of Barthes’ age has become the nearly invisible propaganda of our own. These passages read like “notes from an underground” where multinationals function as a much more efficient “Big Brother”—they don’t need to watch us if they control our language and imagery.
Most powerful are the sections entitled “Notes on Instrumental Reason” and “Prosopopeia.” The first section of Writing Art Cinema 1988-2010, “Notes on Instrumental Reason” explores the fragmenting, alienating impact of contemporary society’s obsession with numbering, quantifying, and dividing/classifying that goes all the way back (perhaps) to the invention of movable, interchangeable type. Though divided into numbered sections, “Notes” undercuts the accounting/accountability mentality by changing what is being numbered/counted with each subsection. “PART ONE” is followed by “EDIT TWO,” “PAGE THREE (A), (B), AND (C),” all the way through “FRAME THIRTY.”
Now, that does not mean that we can see the back portion of the picture through the broken glass (because of its density). There’s too much garbage floating in the front. It’s in the way. But that can be divided into small portions so that it will be easier to discard. Dismember now. Sit down and wait for your answer. It’s the animal’s only response.
From the symptoms Lapthisophon collects, a diagnosis?
CASE SIXTEEN: These are homes for America. The alphabet of our logic has turned muscle into stone. Build on this, realize the potential danger of overfamiliarity. Knock on any door. The documentary style hides an aversion to telling stories. Every story tells a lie. Built into the structure of recollection is an authority of deceit. We will never know how these secrets came to be so deeply hidden within the American psyche. The concept of a theory of disclosure will remain open for discussion. Behind the screen lies a memory of truth.
“Prosopopeia,” which is a figure of speech that presents an imaginary or dead person as speaking, offers Lapthisophon’s most essayistic writing. In part a meditation on the nature of artistic activity, it also renders our society’s enthrallment to mechanically reproduced images. Paradoxically dead, removed from the artist’s hand, photographs also testify to the actual (living/real-“life”?) presence (then) and absence (now) of the photographed subject.
The photograph is both a record of, and cancellation of, presence.
A refrain through “Prosopopeia,” Lapthisophon’s plaint that “it is hard to ask for help” reminds us of our contemporary dependence on technologies that limit our imaginations.
We are so unknown to ourselves that any attempt to control this release of corporeal power is futile.
Lapthisophon closes this section with an anthem of sorts.
Braced against the wind, we face the passing of time and give it a name. This is not a call to action. It is not a cry for help. The illusion of image is associated with the face. The face changes, but the name remains constant. The name does not hear itself. It has the support of time.
And on the book’s final pages, he echoes this challenge to ubiquitous distortion, illusion, and lie.
Framed by our own, reflections on distance and remembrance, we argue over the veracity of our own speculative powers. Close inspection reveals little. The dispute remains. I will act as an envoy to bridge these, two forces. I shall keep to myself and not repeat others comments about me. I will not flee in the face of a dangerous mistake.
Writing Art Cinema 1988-2010 startles and provokes on a first examination, and promises to continue to do so on many subsequent readings. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in the integration of art and criticism.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Everything changes today.