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.