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Posts Tagged ‘art’

22 JANUARY, 2014

Oblique Strategies: Brian Eno’s Prompts for Overcoming Creative Block, Inspired by John Cage

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“If a thing can be said, it can be said simply.”

“Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences,” ambient music pioneer Brian Eno wrote in his diary. It is precisely this ethos that explains Eno’s medium-blind, experience-centric creative impulse underpinning the visual arts career that he undertook in the 1960s, which developed in tandem with his growth as a musician. That is precisely what Christopher Scoates, director of the University Art Museum at California State University, explores with unprecedented depth and dimension in Brian Eno: Visual Music (public library) — a magnificent monograph spanning more than four decades of Eno’s music projects and museum and gallery installations, contextualized amidst a wealth of exhibition notes, sketchbook pages, and other never-before-revealed archival materials.

Brian Eno lecturing at the MoMA, 1990.

In a 2005 interview for the British Arts Council, Eno came to compare his work to that of John Cage:

John Cage … made a choice at a certain point: he chose not to interfere with the music content anymore. But the approach I have chosen was different from his. I don’t reject interference; I choose to interfere and guide. . . . The music systems designed by Cage are choice-free, he doesn’t filter what comes out of his mind; people have to accept them passively. But my approach is, although I don’t interfere with the completion of a system, if the end result is not good, I’ll ditch it and do something else. This is a fundamental difference between Cage and me. If you consider yourself to be an experimental musician, you’ll have to accept that some of your experiments will fail. Though the failed works might be interesting too, they are not works that you would choose to share with other people or publish.

Indeed, one of Eno’s most interesting projects is a mid-1970s collaboration with the German composer Peter Schmidt, who had just finished a set of 64 drawings based on the I Ching — the same ancient Chinese text that so inspired Cage. Eno and Schmidt created a series of art instructions — an underappreciated art genre unto itself — titled Oblique Strategies. The project consisted of a set of 115 white cards with simple black text in a deck subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas. Though a conceptual art project, the cards were essentially a practical tool for generating ideas, breaking through creative block, and breaking free of stale thought patterns.

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Eno even employed the cards while producing David Bowie’s iconic 1977 album Heroes, using Oblique Strategies on the song “Sense of Doubt.”

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Eno first confronted this interweaving of music and visual art in his formal arts education, amidst the groundswell of the avant-garde and the Fluxus movement with its bold proclamation that “anything can be art and anyone can do it.” He empathically embraced this inclusive model of creativity in defiance to the specializations and constraints of the traditional art world, asserting:

Art schools manage to balance themselves on the fence between telling you what to do step by step, and leaving you free to do what you want. Their orientation is basically towards the production of specialists, and towards the provision of ambitions, of goals, and identities. The assumption of the correct identity — painter, sculptor — fattens you up for the market. The identity becomes a straightjacket; it becomes progressively more dangerous to step outside of it.

In the foreword, legendary British artist, theorist, and cybernetics pioneer Roy Ascott, who was once Eno’s teacher, attempts to map where Eno belongs in the ecosystem of art:

Any attempt to locate Brian Eno’s work within an historical framework calls for a triple triangulation, whose trig points in the English tradition would seem to be Turner/Elgar/Blake; in Europe, Matisse/Satie/ Bergson, and in the United States Rothko/La Monte Young/Rorty. This triple triangulation will quickly be seen as insufficient, however, since those based on Asian and Middle Eastern cultures will also be required. Soon it would become apparent that a precise or consistent location cannot be determined, except by the abandonment of triangulation in favor of a dynamic network model. Here we would need to adopt second-order cybernetics, the recognition that attempting to measure cultural location is relative, viewer dependent, unstable, shifting, and open-ended. This conclusion reminds me that Brian was the first of my students to understand that cybernetics is philosophy, and that philosophy is cybernetics.

However, this approach to an understanding of Eno’s art would in itself fail to recognize his aesthetic of surrender and meditation, in which respect he seems to adopt a kind of Duchampian indifference, flowing from a process of removal of the Self from reflection, toward a quiet celebration of uneventfulness.

But Eno’s greatest accomplishment — and what makes his visual art so singular yet so widely resonant and important — is arguably his exploration of identity. Amidst a cultural landscape where the creative self is necessarily divided, Eno has consistently conquered a wide array of creative and intellectual fields while at the same time mastering the art of integration. Ascott puts it beautifully:

We cannot grasp the ambient identity of Eno’s artwork without also recognizing the ambient identity of the artist himself. This demands knowing not only where to place him in the spectrum of roles across philosophy, visual arts, performance, music, social and cultural commentary, and activism, but in terms of personae, or as we say now, avatars. . . . Throughout his career, not only has Eno explored identity, he has provided the context, employing light, sound, space, and color, in which each participant can playfully and passionately share in the breaching of the boundaries of the Self.

'77 Million Paintings,' Sydney Opera House, 2009

Brian Eno: Visual Music is beautiful and compelling in its entirety. Complement it with the psychology of getting unstuck and some of today’s most celebrated writers, artists, and designers on how to break through your creative block.

Images courtesy of Chronicle Books

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21 JANUARY, 2014

The Futurist Cookbook: 11 Rules for a Perfect Meal and an Anti-Pasta Manifesto circa 1932

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Optimism at the table, or why the dark void of the soul can’t be stuffed with spaghetti.

Given my voracious appetite for unusual cookbooks — especially ones at the intersection of food and the arts, including little-known gems from the likes of Andy Warhol, Liberace, Lewis Carroll, and Alice B. Toklas — I was delighted to discover The Futurist Cookbook (public library; AbeBooks) by Italian poet and editor Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, originally published in 1932 and reprinted in 1989, translated into English by Suzanne Brill.

At the time of its release, the cookbook became somewhat of a sensation, thanks to Marinetti’s shrewdness as a publicist. But while major newspapers like the Chicago Tribune proclaimed it a bold manifesto to revitalize culture by revolutionizing how people ate, what the media missed at first was that the cookbook was arguably the greatest artistic prank of the twentieth century — it wasn’t a populist effort to upgrade mass cuisine but, rather, a highbrow quest to raise the nation’s, perhaps the world’s, collective artistic consciousness.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

In the introduction to the 1989 edition, British journalist, historian and travel writer Lesley Chamberlain calls it “a provocative work of art disguised as easy-to-read cookbook” and writes:

The Futurist Cookbook was a serious joke, revolutionary in the first instance because it overturned with ribald laughter everything “food” and “cookbooks” held sacred: the family table, great “recipes,” established notions of goodness and taste.

Marinetti fighting a duel with the journalist Carlo Chiminelli in Rome, April 30, 1924. He was wounded.

What made Futurist “cooking” so revolutionary was that it drew on food as a raw material for art and cultural commentary reflecting the Futurist idea that human experience is empowered and liberated by the presence of art in everyday life, that osmosis of arte-vita. Marinetti himself framed the premise of the cookbook in his introduction to the original 1932 edition:

The Futurist culinary revolution … has the lofty, noble and universally expedient aim of changing radically the eating habits of our race, strengthening it, dynamizing it and spiritualizing it with brand-new food combinations in which experiment, intelligence and imagination will economically take the place of quantity, banality, repetition and expense.

This Futurist cooking of ours, tuned to high speeds like the motor of a hydroplane, will seem to some trembling traditionalists both mad and dangerous: but its ultimate aim is to create a harmony between man’s palate and his life today and tomorrow.

[…]

It is not by chance this work is published during a world economic crisis, which has clearly inspired a dangerous depressing panic, though its future direction remains unclear. We propose as an antidote to this panic a Futurist way of cooking, that is: optimism at the table.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

Indeed, Marinetti saw food as the ultimate promise of optimism — a gateway to sensual freedom, imbued with the carefree lightness of a children’s party and the intellectual enthusiasm of a literary salon. He believed that “men think, dream and act according to what they eat and drink.” But nowhere did his culinary and cultural dogmatism shine more blazingly than in his contempt for pastasciutta, better-known simply as pasta — the traditional Italian staple beloved the world over. He preceded the modern low-carb craze by more than seven decades, outroaring even its most zealous contemporary adherents with the fanaticism of his convictions. Pasta, he asserted, made people heavy in both body and spirit, turned them sour and pessimistic, and robbed them of the creative impulse. The riddance from pasta wasn’t merely a matter of individual salvation — Marinetti even made it a matter of patriotism, arguing that the abolition of pasta would liberate Italy from the despotism of expensive foreign grain and instead boost the domestic rice industry.

He resolves in the cookbook:

Futurist cooking will be free of the old obsessions with volume and weight and will have as one of its principles the abolition of pastasciutta. Pastasciutta, however agreeable to the palate, is a passéist food because it makes people heavy, brutish, deludes them into thinking it is nutritious, makes them skeptical, slow, pessimistic.

[…]

[Pasta] is completely hostile to the vivacious spirit and passionate, generous, intuitive soul of the Neapolitans. If these people have been heroic fighters, inspired artists, awe-inspiring orators, shrewd lawyers, tenacious farmers it was in spite of their voluminous daily plate of pasta. When they eat it they develop that typical ironic and sentimental skepticism which can often cut short their enthusiasm.

Any pastascuittist who honestly examines his conscience at the moment he ingurgitates his biquotidian pyramid of pasta will find within the gloomy satisfaction of stopping up a black hole. This voracious hole is an incurable sadness of his. He may delude himself, but nothing can fill it. Only a Futurist meal can lift his spirits.

He then outlines the eleven requirements for the ideal Futurist meal:

One perfect meal requires:

  1. Originality and harmony in the table setting (crystal, china, décor) extending to the flavors and colors of the foods.
  2. Absolute originality in the food.
  3. The invention of appetizing food sculptures, whose original harmony of form and color feeds the eyes and excites the imagination before it tempts the lips.
  4. The abolition of the knife and fork for eating food sculptures, which can give prelabial tactile pleasure.
  5. The use of the art of perfumes to enhance tasting.

    Every dish must be preceded by a perfume which will be driven from the table with the help of electric fans.

  6. The use of music limited to the intervals between courses so as not to distract the sensitivity of the tongue and palate but to help annul the last taste enjoyed by re-establishing gustatory virginity.
  7. The abolition of speech-making and politics at the table.
  8. The use in prescribed doses of poetry and music as surprise ingredients to accentuate the flavors of a given dish with their sensual intensity.
  9. The rapid presentation, between courses, under the eyes and nostrils of the guests, of some dishes they will eat and other they will not, to increase their curiosity, surprise and imagination.
  10. The creation of simultaneous and changing canapés which contain ten, twenty flavors to be tasted in a few seconds. In Futurist cooking these canapés have by analogy the same amplifying function that images have in literature. A given taste of something can sum up an entire area of life, the history of an amorous passion or an entire voyage to the Far East.
  11. A battery of scientific instruments in the kitchen: ozonizers to give liquids and foods the perfume of ozone, ultra-violet ray lamps (since many foods when irradiated with ultra-violet rays acquire active properties, become more assimilable, preventing rickets in young children,etc.), electrolyzers to decompose juices and extracts, etc. in such a way as to obtain from a known product a new product with new properties, colloidal mills to pulverize flours, dried fruits, drugs, etc.; atmospheric and vacuum stills, centrifugal autoclaves, dialyzers. The use of these appliances will have to be scientific, avoiding the typical error of cooking foods under steam pressure, which provokes the destruction of active substances (vitamins, etc.) because of the high temperatures. Chemical indicators will take into account the acidity and alkalinity of these sauces and serve to correct possible errors: too little salt, too much vinegar, too much pepper or too much sugar.

Marinetti proceeds to offer several dozen colorfully titled, highly performative Futurist recipes compliant with these criteria. Her are a few favorites:

IMMORTAL TROUT

Stuff some trout with chopped nuts and fry them in olive oil. Then wrap the trout in very thin slices of calves’ liver.

HUNTING IN HEAVEN

Slowly cook a hare in sparkling wine mixed with cocoa powder until the liquid is absorbed. Then immerse it for a minute in plenty of lemon juice. Serve it in a copious green sauce based on spinach and juniper, and decorate with those silver hundred and thousands which recall huntsmen’s shot.

DATES IN MOONLIGHT

30–40 very mature and sugary dates, 500 grams Roman ricotta. Stone the dates and mash them well (all the better if you can pass them through a sieve). Mix the pulp thus obtained with the ricotta until you have a smooth poltiglia [mush]. Refrigerate for a few hours and serve chilled.

AEROFOOD

The diner is served from the right with a plate containing some black olives, fennel hearts and kumquats. From the left he is served with a rectangle made of sandpaper, silk and velvet. The foods must be carried directly to the mouth with the right hand while the left hand lightly and repeatedly strokes the tactile rectangle. In the meantime the waiters spray the napes of the diners’ necks with a conprofumo [perfume] of carnations while from the kitchen comes contemporaneously a violent conrumore [music] of an aeroplane motor and some dismusica [music] by Bach.

The Futurist Cookbook is a kooky treat in its entirety. Complement it with The Artists’ & Writers Cookbook, then spice it up a notch with Mimi Sheraton’s The Seducer’s Cookbook.

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20 JANUARY, 2014

The Creative Cleft: Joyce Carol Oates on the Divided Self and the “Diamagnetic” Relationship Between Person and Persona

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“No one wants to believe this obvious truth: The ‘artist’ can inhabit any individual, for the individual is irrelevant to ‘art.’”

“I am more interested in human beings than in writing … more interested in living than in writing,” Anaïs Nin wrote when graciously declining being profiled in Harper’s Bazaar in 1946, an act of resistance against the tendency of such cultural reportage to flatten out a creative person into a static, one-dimensional self rather than a vibrant human being full of conflicting dualities. In fact, we now know, thanks to modern psychology, that the notion of unchanging personality is a myth, just as we know that the left brain vs. right brain divide is scientifically misleading and the cultural polarities we subscribe to are psychologically toxic. But perhaps one of the greatest divides that we humans, woven of inner contradictions as we are, have to grapple with is that between person and persona, our private and public self, the inner world and its outer expression — and hardly any species of human is more chronically bedeviled by this drudging duality than the writer.

In Who’s Writing This?: Notations on the Authorial I with Self-Portraits (public library) — the same superb Borges-inspired 1995 volume that gave us famous authors’ hand-drawn self-portraits and the story of Edward Gorey’s pseudonyms — comes a remarkable meditation on the subject from Joyce Carol Oates, in a short essay titled “‘JCO’ and I” and prefaced by her own collaged self-portrait.

'JCO'

Oates begins:

It is a fact that, to that other, nothing ever happens. I, a mortal woman, move through my life with the excited interest of a swimmer in uncharted waters — my predilections are few, but intense — while she, the other, is a mere shadow, a blur, a figure glimpsed in the corner of the eye. Rumors of “JCO” come to me thirdhand and usually unrecognizable, arguing, absurdly, for her historical existence. But while writing exists, writers do not — as all writers know.

Noting that she always beholds photographs of her likeness with “faint bewilderment,” Oates urges the reader not to be deceived about the difference between the likeness and the self, and adds a poignant meditation on the odd cultural tendency to turn a living writer’s persona into taxidermy while the arrow of time carries the person along the trajectory of human life:

“JCO” is not a person, nor even a personality, but a process that has resulted in a sequence of texts. Some of the texts are retained in my (our) memory, but some have bleached out like pages of print left too long in the sun. … I continue to age year by year, if not hour by hour, while “JCO” the other, remains no fixed age — in spiritual essence, perhaps, forever poised between the fever of idealism and the chill of cynicism, a precocious eighteen years old. Yet, can a process be said to have an age? an impulse, a strategy, an obsessive tracery, like planetary orbits to which planets, “real” planets, must conform?

Oates considers the notion of art as something external to the individual, something that inhabits him or her rather at random, and adds to history’s most beautiful definitions of art:

No one wants to believe this obvious truth: The “artist” can inhabit any individual, for the individual is irrelevant to “art.” (And what is “art” — a firestorm rushing through Time, arising from no visible source and conforming to no principles of logic or causality.) “JCO” occasionally mines, and distorts, my personal history; but only because the history is so close at hand, and then only when some idiosyncrasy about it suits her design, or some curious element of the symbolic. If you, a friend of mine, should appear in her work, have no fear — you won’t recognize yourself, any more than I would recognize you.

It would be misleading to describe our relationship as hostile in any emotional sense, for she, being bodiless, having no existence, has no emotions: We are more helpfully defined as diamagnetic, the one repulsing the other as magnetic poles repulse each other, so that “JCO” eclipses me, or, and this is less frequent, I eclipse “JCO,” depending upon the strength of my will.

Oates returns to the central divide between the likeness and the self:

And so my life continues through the decades…not connected in the slightest with that conspicuous other with whom, by accident, I share a name and likeness. The fact seems self-evident that I was but the door through which she entered — “it” entered — but any door would have done as well. Does it matter which entrance you use to enter a walled garden? Once you’re inside, and have closed the door?

For once, not she but I am writing these pages. Or so I believe.

Who’s Writing This? is excellent in its entirety. See more authors’ meditations on the subject here.

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