Monday, December 03, 2007

The Renewable Tradition III

Two years ago, the digital art collective I am part of, DJRABBI, performed a 24-hour multi-media blog jam performance as part of our commissioned installation at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. The work was called 24 Hour Count:
For this 24 hour online blog performance, the artists will use a variety of media including the Internet, mobile phones, digital video and photo cameras, mini-disk recorders, musical instruments, and many computer software programs to improvisationally remix, interpret, and respond to current events while filtering their "digital readings" through the prism of Count Lautréamont's "Songs of Maldoror," a classic French text written in the 19th century and whom the Surrealists adopted as the progenitor of their significant 20th century movement.

André Breton wrote that Maldoror is "the expression of a revelation so complete it seems to exceed human potential." Little is known about Lautréamont aside from his real name (Isidore Ducasse), birth in Uruguay (1846), and early death in Paris (1870). It has been said that "Lautréamont's writings bewildered his contemporaries but the Surrealists modeled their efforts after his lawless black humor and poetic leaps of logic," exemplified by the oft-quoted slogan, "As beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!" which has also been used as an album title by the underground UK band Nurse With Wound. Rumor has it that Maldoror's shocked first publisher refused to bind the sheets of the original edition, all of which bodes well for this 21st century remix since all of the live data transmission will take place over the net and will contain links to whatever current events happen to be developing during the duration of the performance.
Lautréamont is generally considered one of the first remixologists because of his embrace of pla(y)giarism as a primary aesthetic device in the composition of his stories. He is famous in some circles for having written that:
Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It holds tight an author’s phrase, uses his expressions, eliminates a false idea, and replaces it with just the right idea.
Remixologically inhabiting another artist's stylistic tendencies and/or "body language" with a touch of nervous energy was Lautréamont's forte. An early remixologist, Lautréamont would create his poésies as a counterforce meant to deconstruct the cult of genius by employing the illogic of sense, something he would activate while composing with the artists he was sampling from. His own style in The Songs of Maldoror is decidedly nonlinear, what we might call prototypically hypertextual in its execution even though it was -- as it had to be -- published as a book in the 19th century. Borrowing from much of the gothic literature of his time, I associate his anti-hero Maldoror with what today is sometimes called a "totally goth" coupled with a "rad" political agenda that fought against conventional notions of beauty, originality, and Godlike inspiration. In the youthful parlance of my students today, we could call his methods "wicked" or "sick" and if we read between the lines of what he is saying above in relation to plagiarism, we can see that he views his own remixological writing style as part of a larger critique process, one we might think of as a "collective / collaborative peer review" or "peer renewal" process that, again, writes with those who came before him the same way that, over 100 years later, a "punk" performance writer like Kathy Acker wrote with Hawthorne or Verlaine or the "cyberpunk" William Gibson who came after her (some might suggest that Acker wrote against these male literary icons but my personal discussions with her suggested it was more with them as part of a larger methodological approach to align herself with [or to even become the radicalized spirit of] the figures who preceded or followed her in the rival tradition of literature).

The key word in Lautréamont's quote above, especially for those who struggle to maintain writing's vitality in a post-literary culture, is necessary. Lautréamont is telling us us that plagiarism is necessary for without it there is no renewal of discourse and the tradition of being creative as such ceases to exist. This resonates with the title to Wallace Stevens' book of poetics "The Necessary Angel" and helps us launch a few tags to run with when describing the figures who embrace the remixological methods of the renewable tradition: angels, punks, goths, cyberpunks, pla(y)giarists, postproduction artists -- and yes, we can also say hackers and remixologists too.

To remix Lautréamont's famous quote then, I might say:
Remixology is necessary. Life depends on it. It inhabits a work of art by physically taking on its expressive qualities while simultaneously attempting to remove its excess information and replacing it with a more valuable source material.
[Artist's aside: Can one perform this (anti-author? creative?) function within an economy of motion, one that wastes no time-movement? I ask this because sometimes writing out an artist poetics itself feels like wasted motion as it takes away from the more primary bursts of creativity immersed in its own potential. What's a digital artist / avant-writer / live A/V performer to do?

My sense is that the reasons why many artists, novelists, poets, and performers still take on the role of philosopher or timely rhetorician are many. To be clear, it's not an attempt to over-academicize ones practice, or if it is, then please, show some restraint, and stop yourself right now before it's too late. Rather, this kind of autocannibalizing discourse generally evolves as a way to pragmatically take into account why these "primary bursts of creativity immersed in their own potential" exist in the first place and how they may relate to new forms of knowledge that grow out of what has been remixologically inhabited in the past. If this sounds like a zen-like remix of Alfred North Whitehead's process theory while bringing to mind his own introduction into the philosophical lexicon the word (and idea/theory behind) "creativity" then so be it. Later I will focus more concretely on Whitehead who, it ends, up, was the first philosopher I ever seriously read while an undergraduate at the University of Florida.]

For contemporary remixologists who perform a new author function by hyperimprovisationally tapping into their unconscious creative potential in asynchronous realtime while employing the use of network/digital technologies, there's no escaping the past. Every (instantaneous) process of renewal depends on envisioning their next version of the "author function" with each writerly performance (and in my mind, on a parallel track, as I write these words I am reminded that even that rather short and insignificant last sentence I just wrote was essentially "co-produced" with Barthes and Flusser and countless others). To do this, their bodies must be attuned to the neural resonance of their relationships with other people in their social network, other artworks produced by many of these same people, and the distribution channels that the various works continuously pass through (in META/DATA, I refer to this as a networked space of flows). And yet, even as we say that contemporary remixologists cannot escape the past, the renewable tradition they are the current manifestation of demands that they perform their work in the present. Marshall McLuhan, in a 1968 TV bout with Norman Mailer, wins a round when he both flatters and chinks Mailer's armor by countering Mailer's helplessness in the face of "information overload" and says:
The artist when he encounters the present, the contemporary artist, is always seeking new patterns, new patterns of recognition, which is his task [...] His great need, the absolute indispensability of the artist, is that he alone and the encounter with the present, can give the pattern recognition [...] He alone has the sensory awareness to tell us what our world is made of.
(Remixologist's note: who still talks like that? McLuhan, whose Sixties metaphors helped launch our present-day Wired fashion culture, sounds like an instructional audio book on autopilot when he speaks in this fascinating TV show produced by the Canadian Broadcast Company).

The Artist and the Present, performing together in a Total Field of Action. As a contemporary remixologist, I turn to intuition and make my necessary move in the Total Field of Action. Staying on my quick McLuhan kick, I grab this famous quote from him hot off the web:
. . . it is the speed of electric involvement that creates the integral whole of both private and public awareness. We live today in the Age of Information and of Communication because electric media instantly and constantly create a total field of interacting events in which all men participate.
But then I take a break away from the computer, and jot down some notes, phrases, and other potential source material from David Antin's what it means to be avant-garde and now have this in my stash as well:
all that unites us in this country is the present / and the difficulty of recognizing it and occupying it / which is why it's so easy to slip into prophesy and the emptiness of the future / that is so easy / to occupy because of its emptiness / that we fill up so quickly with a cargo of memories and attendant dreams
(in META/DATA, I attempt to create a poetics that highlights this "cargo of memories and attendant dreams" as prime source material to remix into the night's hyperimprovisatory performance).

Antin has little use for any detailed account of a so-called tradition, even an avant-garde tradition or anti-tradition tradition. "[T]he tradition will resolve itself in the present," he proposes in his talkstory, "and all you have to do is find it / but if you don't it will find you."

In digital cultures, this tradition of finding or having been found by ones "unconscious creative potential" can be rendered as a formal experiment in the creation of an even richer autopoietic network potential, one where "going with the flow" is feeling w-r-i-t-e. (Do I have to I have to spell it out for you? Only as a way to acknowledge its attendant resolutionary potential as well! Here I am reminded of something Charles Bernstein once said to me over lunch, referring to the "high P-R-I-N-T resolution.")

Summoning the ghosts of Burroughs - McLuhan - Williams - Olson - and Ornette Coleman - I have no choice but to say
(Capturing) Source Material Everywhere -- 

A Total Field (of Action) --

(Projecting) Composition By Field --

(Remixed Personas) Play to Play.
Source material is not just data for data's sake either. Nor is it just hackworthy computer code in an open source environment that the programmer can manipulate to alter the functionality of the program. Source material can be found within interpersonal relationships via the body language gestures of those who we used to or still hang out with as well as the stylistic tendencies these same people have revealed to us through their various artworks. Antin, again, in what it means to be avant-garde:
the best you can do depends upon what you have to do and where / and if you have to invent something new to do the work at hand you will / but not if you have a ready-made that will work and is close at hand and you want to get on with the rest of the business / then youll pick up the tool thats there / a tool that somebody else has made that will work / and youll lean on it and feel grateful when its good to you / and youll think of him as a friend who would borrow as freely from you if he thought of it or needed to / because there is a community of artists / who dont recognize copyrights and patents / or shouldnt / except under unusual circumstances / who send each other tools in the mail or exchange them in conversations in a bar
These "friends" are crucial spigots of source material and when added with the free flowing excess of our simultaneous and continuous mash-up of cultural influences that endlessly spur us on to actively participate in a social network of collaborators (creative co-conspirators), we start feeling ourselves awash in an amniotic fluid where it's only natural to experience a kind of body-brain-apparatus achievement while composing on-the-fly remixological discourses in asynchronous realtime. We don't even really have to be aware of our past influences while we participate in these "primary bursts of creativity immersed in their own remixological potential." They reside in the body like a second -- or third or fourth -- nature, something that enables us to "play ourselves" without having to think about it.

But where these creative potentia reside in our bodies is another story. As far as I can tell, there is no advanced biophotonic imaging technology on the market that can come close to visualizing our past influences in any concrete way, so we are left to our imagination, our dreams, our advanced mnemonic devices triggering neural fireworks in the thick of body-brain-apparatus achievements. My experience in making art across the medium spectrum suggests to me that the subjective events we process while we tap into our unconscious readiness potential are themselves the only creative acts worth investing in, and that they are generated by an ongoing sequence of embedded remixological styles, styles that organically mature via a process of innovation that, in an ironic twist of unintentional alliance, seem to sit well with the herding charge of technocapitalism ("Heard that!"). This often leads to the inevitable love-hate relationship one always has with the thing it is co-dependent on.

This can lead to some serious contradiction in the remixological lifestyle. If we assume that innovation depends on what comes before it, then how does aligning oneself with the remixologists of the past while engaging with new media technologies of the present constitute anything more than an attempt at mythologizing a radical stance within the "new tradition" so that we can then lead ourselves to believe that we, as an emergent network of electronically charged creators, are experiencing a unique moment in history, a moment suffused with a many-layered value? That is, and especially in this instance, are we looking for links to the mythologized past -- say, something leashed to the "human imaginary" like the so-called "rival tradition in literature" -- as a way to build whatever measurable value there may be left to tap into for the revolutionary artists, poets, and digital prophets whose multi-media writing gestures seek distinctiveness but may be nothing more than a just-in-time fashion statement for the politically obscure? The fact of the matter is that the "new tradition" has already left us behind and either we have to find it asap or, as if we really have to wait, let it find us. As we sit at our Death Terminals and wait for the next big bang of creative potential to immerse ourselves in, we cannot help but wonder: "Is there another way out? Which way is out? This way? This? How do we move beyond the newness of a tradition typecast as being avant-garde but always trending toward the 'innovative'?"

Innovation bears the same relation to the mainstream as does a concept car to a factory model. Or even better, a hot rod to the mass production version. The former comparison stresses the experimental aspect of innovative work; the latter stresses the excitement, the extra intensity, the pure thrill that comes with the riskiness of high stakes.
In other words: remixologists who play with innovative genres are practicing forms of extreme writing. But here the term "innovation" also brings to mind other terms like "technocapitalism," "market timing," "fashion statement," etc., in that the further you can push the envelope, the more entrepreneurial your writing gesture may be, especially in relation to the way one employs new media technologies that challenge the concept of writing to its core. Could it be that the degree one is more likely to find ways to create measurable value to their embodied praxis using new media technologies is directly correlated to the more attracted they will become to the latest innovations being invented in the commercial marketplace? Inventing a remixological style that is distinct and can easily be associated with your personal narrative, even as the bulk of the source material you remix into your story is inherited from other artist-writers who came before you, runs the risk of playing it too safe by essentially saying "Look at me, I am part of the rival tradition in literature, and I am doing a damn good job of taking it to its next level of innovative development thanks in large part to my inventive use of the latest wave of new technologies." Sukenick was right when he wrote, in his short story Death of the Novel:
Obviously there's no progress in art. Progress toward what? The avant-garde is a convenient propaganda device, but when it wins the war everything is avant-garde, which leaves us just about where we were before.
But then again, that was fictional, yes?

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