Dem Bones: On Musical Nostalgia.

•December 12, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I’ve been busy lately with my record label Paradise of Bachelors, so I haven’t had time for much writing, but Shuffle Magazine recently published this piece about futures past. The formidable music critic Simon Reynolds, whom I quote herein, had some kind words for the essay on his Retromania blog.

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Dem Bones: On Musical Nostalgia.

Our age is retrospective… Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? –Ralph Waldo Emerson

On the eve of el Día de los Muertos, not coincidentally also the release date of Hiss Golden Messenger’s autumnal and spectral Poor Moon LP, I’m thinking about ghosts. Poor Moon, as informed by its cosmic country and wah-wah cowboy ancestors as it is conversant with new horizons in Southern songcraft, is just the second album on Paradise of Bachelors—not counting our distribution of the remaining back stock of the 1984 North Carolina garage comp Tobacco A-Go-Go—but the first comprised of new music. From the outset, we’ve broadly defined Paradise of Bachelors as a label, a soundsystem, and an archive dedicated to documenting, curating, and releasing under-recognized musics of the Southern American vernacular, regardless of vintage. As musicians, curators, and folklorists, everyone involved in the album’s production senses a common lineage with the workaday poetics of both Tobacco and our inaugural record Said I Had a Vision: Songs & Labels of David Lee, 1960-1988, a reissue of North and South Carolina soul and gospel. But it has been fascinating to note and circumnavigate the more hesitant, even suspicious, reactions of press and market alike to music recorded in 2011 as opposed to 1971. Audiences today seem to crave the patina of authenticity imputed to unheard or heretofore obscured history, sometimes regardless of quality. Hence the rabid hunger for archeological reissues of out of print and private press records of dubious musical or cultural value beyond their previous scarcity.

Who wants yesterday’s papers?/ Nobody in the world. –The Rolling Stones

In his 2011 book Retromania, music critic Simon Reynolds argues strenuously against what he sees as a pervasive, self-consuming recycling impulse in contemporary pop music, provocatively claiming that “the world economy was brought down by derivatives and bad debt, [and] music has been depleted of meaning through derivativeness and indebtedness.” It’s ostensibly easy to sympathize with this anti-nostalgic position. Today we can stockpile, compile, and catalog our music ad infinitum, because the things we collect are not exclusively physical artifacts with an actual dimensional scale, but increasingly they are digital files of simulacra, binary data that we can cram into and electronically catapult between steadily shrinking plastic consumer containers: mp3s, jpegs, avis, and other mediated acronyms, even digital avatars of human artists in the form of our “friends” on social media platforms. Hard drives are not so hard to fill up with bullshit of any era, cheaply scored or pirated. Access is effectively immediate, and the archive is among us, on our bodies and in the ether, in the thickly wired and wireless interstices between our homes.

I understand, but I don’t see it/ I understand, but I don’t read it/ Futures and Pasts/ You can cry for your lost childhood/ Will you cry for our lost childhoods?/ Futures and Pasts –The Fall

Collecting music today is arguably easier, more ubiquitous, and more banal than ever before. Our digital collections are particularly rampant, containing more data than we can experience in a lifetime. Oddly, oldness imparts realness—it’s one index, however arbitrary, to help us wade through and order the chaotic glut of sound—and through the digital archive, there is suddenly much more old music easily available to explore (and cannibalize) than there is new music. (And anyway, the new is constantly in retreat.) The act of collecting, and the process of achieving record head status, involves much less temporal investment in research and less spatial ranging than ever before, and so devotees seek artifacts that can incorporate a more corporeal devotion, such as vinyl. (As I write, some righteous crate-diggers are already refusing to digitize and share their analog excavations.) Music is mechanically and physically inscribed in vinyl, so the data is tangible, concretized; the impending digital apocalypse may render much contemporary audio media obsolete, but enterprising folks can still build a record player with a wheel, a needle, and a horn. I find that idea appealing, and beyond fidelity, it’s one reason Paradise of Bachelors concentrates on producing vinyl artifacts. (Wax cylinders are probably rather expensive to produce these days, though my artist friend Jina Valentine has cut her own player-piano rolls.)

The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be. –Paul Valery, appropriated in song by Mickey Newbury, among others

It can make you grumpy, for sure, and so I recognize Mr. Reynold’s worries. But personally, I don’t see a cause for real concern. Musical nostalgia is not an intrinsic problem with our culture, but simply a reflection of exponentially increased access to music, which is ultimately a positive, democratic development. Not only is there nothing new about nostalgia, but there’s also nothing new about bemoaning a contemporary rut of self-reflexive nostalgia. (In 1733, on their brutal march into Germany, the Russian infantry was so overwhelmed by nostalgia that military doctors and officers invented and enforced a terrible, but highly effective cure for this unmanning brain disease: burying the afflicted, the nostalgic, alive.) Historically speaking, our cultural obsession with originality—as epitomized by Ezra Pound’s contagious dictum “make it new!”—is a relatively recent one. For thousands of years, musicians primarily aspired to achieve mature mastery, tempered by subtle innovations, within an ongoing, stable tradition by effacing traces of the personal or original. Recorded music and radio (and now the internet) changed that radically, but the traditional impulse continues unabated in the worlds of folk and vernacular musics. Those worlds, and those histories, are as worthy of documentation and presentation as the more rarefied milieus of the avant-garde frontiers, and the boundaries between the two are highly porous.

The past is the new future. –John Crowley

So what to do? As a record label conjuring both old and new dreams, the challenge of Paradise of Bachelors is how to render this inexorably waxing musical nostalgia productive rather than reductive. I’m a fan of many contemporary reissue labels, and there are hundreds—Mississippi Records and Light in the Attic, two of the finest, both helped distribute Said I Had a Vision for us. But we’d like to position Paradise of Bachelors as more than a reissue label—introspective, rather than retrospective, and opposed to the fetishized nostalgia peddled by lesser labels than those excellent examples. We hope to release music, historical or futuristic or otherwise, with contemporary relevance and resonance—the music’s rarity matters far less than strong curatorial and aesthetic coherence, compelling narratives, and our ability to articulate untold histories through engagement with the artists, through interviews, oral histories, photography, and friendships. For us, that means looking backwards, to heavy American Indian psych, to Vietnam vet laments, to Carolina soul and gospel, to coastal honky-conch, to Communist disco (some of our intended future subjects), but also to the contemporary iterations of the infinitely mutable, mercurial traditions of Southern vernacular music. It’s the dialogue between those modes, and through those years and artifacts, that we find interesting.

Make it new? No, just make it good. Don’t sweat those ghosts, because they aren’t going anywhere, and without them, there’s nothing new anyway. These are the days of the dead.

Bare Wires: Transmissions for the Philadelphia Wireman.

•September 30, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Things have been busy over at Paradise of Bachelors, but writing persists regardless. I just sent this to Sweden for publication in the catalogue of the upcoming Philadelphia Wireman exhibition at the Konsthallen in Södertälje (Bjorn Borg’s hometown.)

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Bare Wires: Transmissions for the Philadelphia Wireman.

These are bare wires of my life…

All my bare wires are alive.

Who untangles bare wires?

– From Bare Wires, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, London PS 537 (1968)

Who is the Philadelphia Wireman?

He greets me by proxy every time I drop the needle onto a record in my living room, because his talisman—one of more than a thousand such mysterious objects known—stands silent sentry on the left rear corner of the turntable there. The odd, inscrutable lump (itself a wireman) appears vaguely anthropomorphic, and although barely four inches tall, art critics, curators, and dealers have imputed to this figure a powerful, even magical, presence, and a certain monetary value. The Wireman proper is the anonymous person who, likely sometime in the 1970s in Philadelphia, tightly wound three gauges of bare wire, accentuated by a thin strip of green adhesive tape, around what appears to be a vintage lipstick tube, crowned with a medicinal cork and a red, scalloped sticker proclaiming in bold text: “HOOK HOLDER.” He is, we are told, an artist, a lumpen bricoleur whose (mostly) miniature assemblages reconfigure urban flotsam into fist-sized, fossil-like sculptural forms constructed according to a singularly obsessive formula. Trash of every conceivable variety—castoff printed media, plastic, food packaging, reflectors, glasses, hardware, tape, rubber bands, combs, buttons, electrical parts, even the odd umbrella—is enclosed securely within, and threaded through, a densely wrapped wire armature or exoskeleton.

The needle drops, the record spins, and “Bare Wires” blares, a loose-limbed, atmospheric overture by English blues-rock band John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. My wireman listens, in sympathy. Because we have so little else to guide us into the obscure whorl of these (im)mortal coils of wire and waste transfigured, let’s start with a song. Why not, since he stares there from the stereo? The lyrics to this particular song inform poetically—“who untangles bare wiiiires?”—and the technology by which we perceive it offers a less incidental cultural context. When we listen to recorded music, or live music electronically amplified, our brains process the sound as it hits our eardrums only after an electrical signal has hummed through a web of wires (world-wide or otherwise) to hammer a speaker diaphragm, which displaces the interstitial air with vibrating molecules. We hear.

As John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers undoubtedly knew, Bo Diddley and many other African American blues musicians who came of age in and around the pre-WWII Mississippi Delta learned how to play guitar by stringing an uncoiled broom-wire—a kind of wireman unwound—along an exterior wall of their homes, which served as a sound box.  And so in field recordings we hear a very different sort of spectral wire-sound, produced by the material’s innate acoustic properties, its resonant, ramshackle overtones, rather than its electrical properties. The so-called “one-strand on the wall,” or “diddy bow,” often fretted with a bottleneck slide or another piece of appropriated glass or metal, shares possible West African antecedents and a bricolage aesthetic with the Wireman’s perplexing artwork.

Wire, whether manufactured specifically for electrical or musical uses or not, registers as a symbolically freighted material of modernity and technological perception. Wiring hogties our homes and offices, trusses our cities, traces our roads, cleaves our forests, burrows beneath our soil, and traverses our seas, hungrily. Even as we rapidly retire the surfeit of wires which has strung us up (and perhaps strung us out) and which has governed much of our communication for a century—as we transition from a wired to a “wireless” lifestyle—we recognize the material for its literal and metaphorical status as a conduit of energy, power, immediate meaning. We speak of information and voices passing over “the wire,” of thrumming wires, hot and bothersome and even menacing with the threat of pain: barbed wire, bare wires. (John Ashbery writes in his 1979 poem “Pyrography” of “America calling:/ The mirroring of state to state/ Of voice to voice on the wires.”) Wire is not a material of comfort, but rather a material of technological contingency and the relatively recent human dependence on electrical communication, the transmission of signals both banal and beautiful over vast, unhollerable distances.

Similarly, the roughly 1200 artworks attributed to the Philadelphia Wireman provide no comfort to the viewer as objects of material culture, at least from an art historical perspective. The identity of their maker, this diminutive infantry’s shepherd and general, remains unknown, a snarl of guesses, hearsay, and speculative theory. The Wireman is the rough neighbor, the uninvited, wild-haired guest at the formal dinner party of contemporary art. Who is that? And yet these nuggets, these wiremen, somehow communicate; they divulge, however reluctantly. They contain meaning, just as the generic, labyrinthine wire that comprises their shells, mute with potential charge, contains identifiable artifacts of modern material culture. We see: a cigar label, a metal buckle, a ballpoint pen, a bottle cap, a bolt, yellow tape, aluminum foil, a hair curler, a drafting compass, a plastic bottle, drinking straws, green paper, broken blue glass, all swathed snugly, or crushingly, in bare wire. We buy this stuff, we lose this stuff, we throw it away, on the streets and in dumps. But some of it survives, transmogrified. These three-dimensional drawings in tangled line and scavenged scraps of color activate and gracefully syncretize inelegant junk. (Kids love the Wireman and his wiremen, their awkward toy-soldier angles and playful figuration, their compressed secrets and intimate miniaturism.)

The study of material culture involves the examination of and participation in the dimension of physical artifacts—our world of objects and tangible things collected, curated, created, and consumed. Material culture, often associated with folkloristics, greedily encompasses architecture; foodways; craft; farming; office decor; record collections; fashion; furniture; laptops and smartphones; as well as Art, that thorny and fussy master category of expressive culture. Academic or commercial or fine; vernacular or self-taught or outsider or brut or visionary or folk art—all these tired terms and specious, overdetermined taxa (each representing a distinct concept, none interchangeable and none adequate, but none mutually exclusive either) coexist within the study of material culture. This is a historical tale best told by William Morris, and retold by folklorist Henry Glassie.

Like other contemporaneous artists—like Emery Blagdon, like Felipe Jesus Consalvos, like James Castle—the Philadelphia Wireman belongs to a tradition of American vernacular modernism, specifically the democratic modality of collage. The diffuse condition of American modernity, with its attendant explosion of material culture, presented many of the same sets of circumstances and material glut to all potential artists within range of a highway, postal route, radio, telephone, or television—our wired or wireless networks of commerce. But the loudest response to the call of this cloying materiality, the official system dedicated to sales and exhibition of visual artwork (“dealing”), has long followed axes of established or emergent hegemonic power and privilege, particularly wealth and education. The notion of vernacular modernism subverts those shaky binaries of culture that demand we consider art made by different sorts of people hierarchically: fine vs. folk, academic vs. vernacular, insider vs. outsider, trained vs. self-taught, secular vs. visionary. Regardless of what Foucault would deem the artist’s subject position, it’s all art, my friends; and at a certain level we should regard it as such, celebrating its similar cultural impacts as well as its culturally inscribed differences.

The single most revolutionary aesthetic technology of modernism, the crown jewel of its innovation, is recombinative appropriation, in its multifarious forms: collage, assemblage, photomontage, bricolage, sampling, remixing. It is evident everywhere we look in the United States, from teenagers’ pin-up-plastered walls, to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, to hotrods in Los Angeles, to Lukumi altars in Miami, to Andy Warhol, to Public Enemy, to YouTube, to quilters everywhere. An already ancient technology of expressive culture, appropriation accelerated and thrived in the realms of the domestic and everyday once 19th-century North American mass production and mass media flooded the country with material culture to expend, to sort, to reuse, to worship, to love, to discard. (These days, with the dominance of online culture and commerce, collage has colonized the realm of the virtual, where it has become even more entrenched in the vernacular.) But the vernacular artist has only recently edged herself into the footnotes of art history. You see, there are established disciplinary ghettoes for discussing art that exists outside the rarefied air of the academy, the museum, and the gallery: we call these ghettoes folklore, anthropology, and material culture. With the Södertälje exhibition of more than sixty of his sculptures, the Wireman takes another step out of the (putative) ghetto and into the (purported) light of international art-world acclaim.

But the problem persists. Mired as vernacular art is in the twin ruses of intentionality and authenticity, and in the Western cult of the artist—of the individual genius whose singular authority and (anti)heroic stature imparts value to his work—the Philadelphia Wireman unsettles us with his inherent instability and vexing ambiguity. His anonymity does not permit a patronizing psychological, socioeconomic, educational, or spiritual rationale, as in the cases of Henry Darger, Martín Ramírez, Adolf Wölfli, Sister Gertrude Morgan, and Frank Jones. Despite a few tentative and unreliable anecdotal claims to the contrary—a few Philadelphia residents have shared hazy memories of seeing a wire artist in the vicinity where the work was discovered—no one has any real idea who this guy was. He has no biography, and the work possesses only a dim provenance, and certainly no easy biographical justification.

Who is the Philadelphia Wireman? Does it matter? And why do we care? Perhaps the more salient question is Why is the Wireman, or How?

The discourse of vernacular artistry, much more reliant than the discourse of academic art on ascribing biographical and cultural difference, foregrounds the discovery narrative, often muffled in beguiling myth. (Here, in an admittedly perverse inversion, we’ll end with discovery instead of beginning with it.) As artwork made outside the conventional purview of the contemporary art world follows its often circuitous route into the art market and academia, it achieves a wider audience. It obtains normative economic and intellectual validations that it may resist or to which it may capitulate, but which it (and its maker, if still living, as is tragically seldom the case) does not necessarily seek or require. The Wireman’s artistic practice may well have been secret, sacred, public, or profane. But ultimately we really have no idea, despite the insightful conjecture of various curators and critics.

There does exist a vernacular American tradition of wire sculpture and junkyard assemblage, but nothing comparable to the Wireman oeuvre’s rigid discipline, serialism, and non-objectivity. Some have noticed similarities to Crow medicine bundles and African American memory jugs, North American assemblage practices with spiritual, mnemonic, and funerary functions. Foremost among Wireman commentators is Robert Farris Thompson, a pioneering and influential scholar of African art, who has noticed the persuasive formal correspondences between the Wireman’s work and the Kongo ritual power objects known as nkisi, which he posits may have survived in radically mutated fashion in contemporary African American culture. This surmise stems largely from the geographical fact of discovery, the thin crust of fact that tenuously anchors the Wireman mythos.

Sometime in 1978 or 1979—the date has never been concretely determined—a young designer named Bob Leitch was driving home from a party when his headlights illuminated a curious field of dazzlingly reflective wreckage (stones? car parts? jewelry? plumbing fixtures?) on Juniper Street in Center City Philadelphia. He alit to take a closer look and found hundreds of cockeyed, wire-bound objects piled in and around dozens of sodden cardboard boxes, as if recently and hastily emptied out of one of the nearby derelict houses. (Among the sculptures was also a group of page-sized abstract drawings in colorful marker ink, reminiscent of both Mark Tobey’s and J.B. Murry’s calligraphic images; these lyrical, linear drawings have been much less frequently exhibited, though they bear a revealing two-dimensional kinship to the sculptures.) “Somebody made these things,” Leitch remembers realizing aloud, and he breathlessly packed as many boxes as possible into his car, finder’s keeper’s. He returned to salvage more of the ductile sculptures over the subsequent several days, afraid that they would be sold for scrap or brought to the dump, their presumed final destination. Finally all that remained on that block of Juniper Street was the crushed anatomy of those wiremen massacred by car tires or perhaps never fully assembled in the first place. For years, much of the extraordinary find languished in storage, though Leitch displayed the most impressive pieces in his home and gave others away as gifts, never forgetting his thrilling foray into urban archeology, but unsure what to do with so much ostensibly worthless stuff.

Finally, around 1982, a friend convinced him to bring his enigmatic cabinet of curiosities to Philadelphia’s Janet Fleisher Gallery (now the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery), where director John Ollman, an expert in American self-taught art and African art history alike, immediately recognized something special in these tiny totems or urban fetishes. At the time, the block where Leitch discovered the wiremen was in an historically African American neighborhood undergoing a painful process of what city planners then euphemistically branded “urban renewal.” Because of these seismic demographic dislocations and a perceived relationship to traditions of sacred Central and West African power objects, Ollman ventured that the artist may have been African American, either recently deceased and lacking a sympathetic executor to sort through his belongings, or perhaps uprooted by the recent gentrification and forced suddenly to move, to another street or to the streets. Because of the brute strength required to bend and bind wire so tightly without pliers (there are few apparent pliers marks), he assumed the artist was also male, a Wireman and not a Wirewoman. Both suppositions offer compelling coordinates, but they remain unresolved and definitely open to debate. Despite numerous inquiries and substantial research, no one has ever advanced a convincing answer to the Wireman’s true identity.

To further complicate matters, the discovery narrative of the Philadelphia Wireman has remained even more obscure due to Leitch’s decision to remain anonymous himself during his lifetime. (Sadly, he passed away recently.) That is not an uncommon choice in the world of vernacular art, since those who bring such artwork to the market risk exposing themselves to charges of  fraud, opportunism, or exploitation. Often they prefer for a gallery to deflect such accusations, and indeed, John Ollman has tackled allegations that he himself was the  artist, perpetrating an elaborate hoax. With the artist’s anonymity compounded by the discoverer’s, it is to Ollman’s great credit that he steadfastly maintained that the value of the artwork transcended biography or established provenance. And in a sense, his accusers have a point—his tireless work as curator, dealer, and champion has effectively achieved generative consequences almost tantamount to the Wireman’s artistry.

By recognizing the aesthetic beauty and cultural significance of the work, buttressed only by his intuition and the most threadbare sense of context, he and Leitch together assumed the mantles of artists, tradition-bearers, and folklorists. Since the Wireman’s inaugural exhibition at the Janet Fleisher Gallery in 1985, Ollman has ushered the artwork into exhibitions from Malmo, Sweden to Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, and into the collections of the National Museum of American Art, the American Folk Art Museum, and La Musée de l’Art Brut, among others internationally. By providing an open but culturally specific interpretation of the artifacts, and by encouraging frontal and figurative readings by displaying them on custom wire armature stands—gallerist Randall Morris has suggested that the artist himself may have hung the artwork—Ollman has effectively rendered these unquestionably prickly artworks digestible, appealing, and fascinating to audiences worldwide.

But he has been careful not to defang the Wireman, whose dangerous anonymity and hypothesized link to arcane, alternative American religions still provokes a certain frisson with bourgeois audiences. Because in this case of immediate archeology, we still lack several crucial analytical valences. When we cannot attribute an artifact to a specific maker, we void those insoluble riddles of intentionality and authenticity, without which the spectatorship, connoisseurship, and criticism of Western art founder and gutter. Instead we must speculatively assess either what the culture can tell us about the artifact (rude aim of the art historian and material culture expert) or what the artifact can tell us about the culture (rude aim of the archeologist and anthropologist.) Of course, artifact and culture always inform each other in dialogue, sympathetically and symbiotically, and all these disciplinary approaches are essentially compatible, if seldom pragmatically reconciled in the academy, at least in terms of vernacular art.

Listen. The art of the Wireman whispers about one person’s experience of Philadelphia in the 1970s, invoking promises of bicentennial freedom and civil rights realized in the City of Brotherly Love and indicting the sad reality of systematic discrimination, urban decay, the dereliction of our built and natural environments, and the forgotten despair of brothers and sisters. Today a crisis of faith in advanced market capitalism, abetted by an impending global environmental crisis, has degraded the world of objects and material culture. Suddenly things are worth less, and it has once again become fashionable to reuse what we already have in our possession. But the Wireman’s work tells a lonesome story of an enduring, tenacious human recycling impulse, a deeply personal economy of accumulation and lack. The Wireman’s artful accretion of waste products through the fundamental modernist technology of appropriation attests to a quiet revolt against a culture of disposability and speculative, abstract wealth. Let’s not misinterpret these objects through the lens of gape-mouthed condescension to magic, animism, or cultural difference. We needn’t allow any more slippage of the fault lines between the artists more regularly enshrined in the white-columned institutions and the unseen millions making in their homes, for their own private reasons and for their own private audiences.

When you view this exhibition—here in Södertälje, as in Philadelphia—when I put a record on my turntable, when we ask who could have made these astonishing objects, so seductive yet so forbiddingly insular, we participate in a collective narrative. We propagate and unfold the Wireman’s hermetic vision and aesthetic through the modest act of wondering, of considering how these objects mean, and telling others what we think and feel about their existence. That is our gauge; that is our reckoning. We are, all of us, implicated in the formation, circulation, and interpretation of the Wireman’s identity, history, and art. Who is the Philadelphia Wireman? We are, all of us. Together we untangle bare wires.

Brendan Greaves

September 2010

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Blue World Amateurs 1966/1976.

•October 7, 2009 • Leave a Comment

BLA 2-lr

I’m still and all, just otherly engaged. Please check out Paradise of Bachelors, my primary venture these days.

Hiss Country Hai.

•January 23, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Buddha

Wreck of the Golden Heart, Okratoke, October 2007

Santa Barbara

This one’s going out by request to my homie Mike… It was a pleasure to tool through his tunes on the occasion of Hiss Golden Messenger’s upcoming long-player, “Country Hai East Cotton.”

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I was that kid on the Georgia line

Jai Lil Diamond did hard time on the farm, and it was blood in the creek how they caught him.

I come from Lexington

Or, Jai Lil Diamond used to tear-ass around the county in a pristine ’57 Chevy Bel-Air lowrider, blasting a Billy Stewart tape and shooting out mailboxes with his juvember.

It’s called Paradise, and I think I’ve seen it once or twice

Or, Jai Lil Diamond dug a hole in the red clay and buried the band’s instruments in a charred canoe down there what belonged to his Uncle Irv, and collards sprouted up thick as you ever seen them sprout.

If we want to stay alive, we better row

I saw Jai Lil Diamond sing a besotted Gary Stewart plaint — it was “Drinkin’ Thing,” not that it matters particularly, and he killed it — in front of a five-hundred-year-old Ayutthaya head of Buddha, a grape-faced bronze androgyne that watched with blissed-out eyes, listened with elongated ears, and perhaps even contemplated Gary’s dipsomaniacal suffering beneath what resembled a ribbed Esther Williams swim cap ablaze with a perfect solitary gilt flame. Some have hearts of gold, and some have hearts of bronze. Jai had a new winter beard on and wore blue jeans. I won’t bullshit you, their aspects didn’t quite jibe then and there, but these two Golden Messengers both held in that moment a jewelled guess at the horror and hilarity of passing hours. As if counting the miles from home, Thailand or California or where-have-you. This was North Carolina, Sunday, not that it matters particularly.

Afterwards Jai Lil Diamond told me a thing. He took a slug, slid his mug of brew back across the bar and told me what it was to be nigh a daddy. She would have me be a ring of bone. I didn’t know it at the time — and he didn’t know it at the time — but when the Diamonds moved South to Eaglewing Farm, they would soon be joined by a young’un. New life, and new ears, waiting to get born! We got woods between us, a handful of acres separate the Farm from our Lodge, and out of those woods hums a dream of barred owls, stunned deer, and swift bats. As with most things, the youngest among us hear the hum clearest and closest. That’s the sound Jai and Hiss crew harnessed from afar, in anticipation of a return to a new original homeplace, early soil and heavy carpet of fallen leaves and the tenderest carnitas. They stole those sylvan scenes, especially the autumnal echoes of quiet rot, conjured them from three thousand or so miles out West, and set them down with incanted urgency on three thousand feet or so of magnetic tape. Most takes were first takes. Instant light.

I guess it’s like when you go to a place and carry some dirt from there and transplant the translated dirt in your own garden. If the music herein sounds more burnished than that, then know that this is the sound of grown folks considering the proper proportions of moving around and staying still, of grown folks saying their goodbyes, gently. If John has gone to the light, and Isobel‘s face in the eponymous film brings some dim light to the past, if I don’t want to talk about my baby, and I always thought you were my friend, and Oh Nathaniel, then maybe time might not exact an unanswered revenge. Not so much ruefully counting our losses as piling on more and more blankets when the mercury drops (it always drops, even here in the Old North State.) There is, if you listen carefully, a dire hint of the inexorable nestled down in the swelling strings and the steel and loping bass and brass, a bramble among the roses. Watch out for the cannonball. In 1733, on their brutal march into Germany, the Russian infantry was so overwhelmed by nostalgia that military doctors and officers were forced to enforce a terrible, but highly effective cure for this unmanning brain inflammation: burying the afflicted, the nostalgic, alive. The record you hold in your hands voices a different strain of nostalgia, but one no less potent. The cure’s just different, is all. Resurrection blues, why don’t you let me die?

Country Hai East Cotton” means “OK this is where we’re living now, and this growth has choked and clothed our brothers and sisters for hundreds, and now let’s all together raise a glass and raise our voices against the wind.” In North Carolina, we grow our cotton in the coastal plains of the East, on the swamp; we chew it up and process it in the rapidly emptying Piedmont textile mills — they called the workers “lintheads” once, derogatively, those same blessed hardscrabble souls who invented bluegrass — and we wear layers of it in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the West, where winters are coldest, ballads the oldest, and voices the high-lonesomest. But none of that matters particularly. Place is just a passing whisper in our contemporary world of whirring wires. On my way to getting wasted. Here on this recorded document of a brief era we have sturdy bridges between cracklins boogie, cinematic flatland sprawl, and a few fine-tuned international engines (Jamaican certainly, and German, probably.) But what Hiss Golden Messenger pushes is the subversive idea that as much as we might cruise around, chorus to chorus, on the steam of our gathered myths and models — records, stories, recipes, pictures, poems, apocrypha — you’ve ultimately got to choose a place to settle a while and soak in your surroundings. And that matters. That is our gauge. That is our reckoning.

The moon is nothing but an old stone.

Marpessa Dawn

Womble Lodge

January 2008

Country Hai East Cotton

Look what thoughts will do.

•December 27, 2008 • 2 Comments

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Andrew Witkin and I have known each other since we were twelve years old. I wrote this essay for a catalogue of his work on the happy occasion of two 2008-2009 Boston exhibitions, at the ICA and at LaMontagne Gallery.

*****

“Look What Thoughts Will Do”:

Reflections on Some Rooms Our Friend Andrew Currently Occupies in Boston

DOOR

It is not the food bought, but the food processed and made into a meal—it is not the shirt bought off the rack that is you, but the shirt as a component in a composition of attire that informs on you. Whole meals, sets of clothing in action (the soft architecture of the environments that go near us), and collections of commodities assembled into domestic settings—these are the key creations of the material culture of industrial civilization. They are our mirrors; we see ourselves in them. They are our lenses; others read us through them.

– Henry Glassie, Material Culture (1999)

Forget, if you will, if only for the span of these pages, the entire tired discourse of “the artist” and “the curator” and “the gallery.” That persistent modern terminology, with all its vaunted (now limping) romantic aspirations and its implicit (now ingrown) class hierarchy, which valorizes some kinds of human labor over other kinds, is a broken animal. Kick out its broken paws, and let it lie! Work is work, and good work is good work, and good works are good works, creative and valid and artful and useful, whether political or culinary or scientific or automotive or cinematic or whatever. If you live in the United States of America, where many folks are becoming increasingly paranoid of what pundits curse as elitism or exclusivity and what others recognize as the essential culture-hex of advanced finance capitalism, I doubt I am the first to ask this kind favor of you. And in fact, if you’ve been looking and listening, Andrew has asked you already––tacitly, politely, patiently––through the images and objects and groupings he has shared. That is his good work, and these are his good works. Look around some. Call things by their names.

Call him a collector.

Instead of the tortured, misunderstood artist, consider the contented, understanding collector. In our contemporary cultural mythos, the former supposedly angles for notice (if not fame), for public recognition and some measure of specialization, exceptionalism, and immortality, whether economic or canonical-historical. On the other hand (so the legend goes), the collector happily putters away in privacy, foraging, amassing, arranging, middle-manning it. That is of course a gross oversimplification of a potentially specious dichotomy—Duchamp and Cornell and many others busted that door wide open many decades ago––but bear with me. Things are different beyond the clean, well-lit white cubes of the art world, folks; let’s talk about the accumulative acts of not-art collectors, or gatherers, as opposed to hunters.

If dichotomies are too messy for you, let’s talk democracy. I’m a collector, as I’m sure you are too. We are all collectors. I collect various things: books, photographs, pickled foods in jars, hats, firewood, records mostly. My collections, like most of those kept and ordered by my generation and subsequent ones, comprise both tangible things and their shadows, information things. And I don’t mean just the synaptic memories and mental feelings that we all accumulate  whether we want to or not. Today we can stockpile, compile, and catalog ad infinitum, because the things we collect are not exclusively physical items with an actual dimensional scale, but also digital files of simulacra, binary data that we can cram into and catapult between steadily shrinking plastic consumer containers: mp3s, jpegs, avis, and other mediated acronyms, even digital avatars of human beings in the form of our “friends” on Facebook and MySpace. Hard drives are not so hard to fill up with bullshit, cheaply scored or pirated.

Access is effectively immediate, and the archive is among us, on our bodies and in the ether, in the thickly wired and wireless interstices between our homes. Collecting today, while arguably more ubiquitous and banal than ever before, is also easier than ever before. Our digital collections—I’m thinking of music in particular—are particularly rampant, containing more data than we can experience in a lifetime. The act of collecting involves much less temporal investment and less spatial ranging than ever before, and as such, the pendulum is bound to swing back to other modes that can incorporate a more corporeal devotion. But you don’t need me to explain any of this stuff––prognostications aside, surely you’re hip to all this already. You’ve opened this book, which is a good sign.

*

HALL

Standing on the corner
I heard my bulldog bark.
He was barking at the two men
Who were gambling in the dark.
Stagger Lee and Billy,
Just two men who gambled late.
Stagger Lee, he threw a seven.
Billy swore he saw an eight.
Stagger Lee went home,
They say he got that big old forty-four.
Said, “I’m going to that barroom
“I’m gonna pay that debt I owe.”
“Stagger Lee,” cried Billy,
“Oh please don’t take my life,
Cause I got so many children
And a very sickly wife.”
Stagger Lee, he shot poor Billy.
Oh he shot that boy so bad
When those bullets went through Billy
They broke the bartender’s glass.
Should I take it––
Should I take it real slow
Oh Oh Oh
Oh Oh Oh
Oh Stagger Lee
Oh Stagger Lee

– “Stagger Lee,” American traditional (arr. Terry Melcher, 1974)

One thing our friend Andrew does really well is lists. Lists are their own kinds of collections, catalogs of words, which are themselves representations of other collections. Text, both appropriated and authored, appears throughout his archives and artifacts, often in staccato list form, and yet, for as long as I’ve been knowing him—sixty percent of our lives now—he has insisted that he is not “a writer.” OK, so he’s neither “artist” nor “writer,” but let’s stick with “collector.” Of friends’ birthdays, for instance. Of all kinds of books, music, photographs, and artworks, yes, but also of word data, list data, and anecdotal minutiae, some of it quite personal and some of it bluntly public domain. What lies between the lines?

One of his collections is an iTunes playlist of every recording he has been able to find of the archetypal African American badman song and toast “Stagger Lee.” The song is a vernacular transposition probably based on real-life Lee Shelton, a pimp who killed William Lyons on Christmas Eve, 1895, in Bill Curtis’s saloon in St. Louis. Andrew and I share a fascination with this tune, which we’ve both addressed in visual as well as musical terms. Andrew made a sound collage in 2004 called “Stagolee,” which digitally collapsed the entirety of his still growing collection of recordings into a dense, symphonic buzzsaw the length of the longest version of the song. The sustained appeal this blues ballad holds for two thirty-something white men from the Northeast is a subject for another essay, but the legend, in its many articulations, goes roughly like this:

“Cruel cruel” Stagger Lee (aka Stagolee, Stag Lee, Stack O’Lee, Stackalee, Stackerlee, Stack Lee, and other variants) is one bad motherfucker. He and Billy Lyons (aka Lyon or De Lyon) get to gambling late one night, down in a place near the bordello known as the Bucket of Blood. One of them, probably Billy, cheats at cards or dice, and somehow, either through theft or a fraudulent bet, Billy gets a hold of Stag’s brand-new white Stetson hat, which may or may not have magical properties. Enraged, Lee goes home to fetch his gun, and returns to shoot Billy, who pleads for his life on account of his family. Sometimes additional barroom mayhem and violence ensue; sometimes sexual jealousy is a motive; Billy almost always dies. Occasionally, Stag’s woman Stack O’ Dollars shows up. Stag often ends up on trial or in jail, where he insults the court, or even in hell, where he has been known to sodomize the devil. He’s that bad.

The song has slithered through blues, r&b, string band, country, and rock idioms for over a century, always disreputable and always mean, but often difficult to recognize harmonically or melodically. It’s hard to beat Mississippi John Hurt’s gently menacing country blues version—or its opposite, the uptempo boogiefied Youngbloods version—but out of all the worthy, wildly disparate articulations, I’ve always had a special affection for Terry Melcher’s, just for its sheer spitshine artifice and strangely incompatible timbre. His rendering builds from a disconcertingly mellow, chiming guitar introduction to a burnt-moustache beach-weirdo midsection into an abrupt choral fade-out featuring his mom Doris Day’s backing vocals. The narrative and pacing feel truncated and rushed, and the whole tenor of the affair is just slightly off, overproduced and caked in a California cocaine glaze, but it’s somehow irresistible and powerfully affecting anyway. A year or so ago I finally sent Andrew the mp3 to add to his ongoing iTunes playlist. It sits in a good spot, actually—between Taj Mahal (whose band the Rising Sons Melcher was instrumental in signing to a record deal) and Tim Hardin.

Before submitting to his collaborative, omnivorous list, I did not tell Andrew anything about Terry Melcher and his charmed/damaged, spooked/gilt life and its bloody resonances with the Stagger Lee myth. So here’s my own Melcher obit-list, Andrew, an anecdotal dissection of the data already swallowed up by your hungry practice:

• He was born in 1942 to Doris Day and her then husband, trombonist Al Jorden.
• He formed the bands Bruce & Terry and the Rip Chords with future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, beginning a lifelong interest in hot rod and surf music songwriting and production techniques.
• He produced early Columbia records by the Byrds, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and the Mamas & the Papas, among many others.
• He introduced Brian Wilson to Van Dyke Parks and sang backing vocals on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
• He befriended Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys; together with Gregg Jakobson, they established a blonde gang known as The Golden Penetrators, whose sole charter was to drive around L.A. in their extravagant cars looking to pick up girls for casual sex (Beach Boys groupies were a sure bet).
•  “We’re high-rollin’ studs from L.A.” (“High Rollers,” 1978)
• He was introduced to Charles Manson by Dennis Wilson in 1968. After initial interest in recording Manson’s music, Melcher turned him down after a botched audition and evidence of his erratic violence.
• He rented his house on Cielo Drive in L.A., which he formerly shared with girlfriend Candace Bergen, to Roman Polanski. On August 9, 1969, Charlie Manson’s “family” brutally murdered Abigail Folger, Voytek Frykowski,  Jay Sebring, Steven Parent, and Polanski’s pregnant wife Sharon Tate in the same house.
• “Family” member Susan Atkins claimed in testimony that they intended to target Melcher because of his perceived slight to Manson, though it was soon revealed that Manson knew that Melcher no longer lived in the house.
• Terrified, Melcher hired a bodyguard and underwent psychotherapy.
• He recorded two tepidly received, decadently produced solo records, the slyly ironic L.A.-scape Terry Melcher (1974)—with an all-star band featuring Ry Cooder, Doris Day, Chris Hillman, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Spooner Oldham, and Clarence White—and the Old Mexico and gambling themed daiquiri-fever-dream Royal Flush (1978).
• He produced the notoriously overdubbed 1971 Byrds record Byrdmaniax, which has been referred to as “Melcher’s Folly.”
• He produced The Doris Day Show.
• He co-wrote the 1988 Beach Boys comeback smash “Kokomo” with Papa John Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas, Scott “If You’re Going to San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” McKenzie, and Beach Boy Mike Love, earning himself a Grammy.
• He produced Summer in Paradise (1992), the final Beach Boys studio record and the first album ever recorded with Pro Tools.
• He died in 2004 at age 62, after a long battle with melanoma.

The archive has already absorbed all of this data. Nested within the Stagger Lee archive is another story of a very different sort of homicidal maniac, Charles Manson. This history, as esoteric and minor as it may appear to the casual viewer of Andrew’s work, resides inside his oeuvre. Andrew’s data, like all collections, is recursive; each unit, each manufactured artifact, contains other anecdotes and narratives, in an endless helix. The fossil record is deep. We are not privy to much of this information—in many cases, images or documents are stacked or bundled to efface or hide their legibility—but the data is there nonetheless, honey in the rock.

Andrew has abiding interests, and he nurtures those interests daily, suturing them to domestic reflections and to the awed archeology of wandering, wondering knowledge. Here the archive (after Foucault, but who cares?) becomes an active organ of discursive meaning-mapping, fodder for a feast of engaged show-and-tell exercises. Above all, our friend Andrew offers dialogue. That is his work––that is what his work yields for mute objects and lonesome letters and faraway friends. He allows no one atomic element to stand on its own as given, but leaves the manifold component conversations to insulated chance. Here Terry and Billy cross paths with Charlie and Stack. Who lives in your collections, the things that sit on your bureau and bedside table? Bring ‘em out! No one should ever be alone or without their own and borrowed memories, and minimalism is a sad fart in a world that produces Stagger Lees and Charlie Mansons.

*

ROOM

On the third night following the arrival of the party in the city, Pierre sat at twilight by a lofty window in the rear building of the Apostles’. The chamber was meager even to meanness. No carpet on the floor, no picture on the wall; nothing but a low, long, and very curious-looking single bedstead, that might possibly serve for an indigent bachelor’s pallet, a large, blue, chintz-covered chest, a rickety, rheumatic, and most ancient mahogany chair, and a wide board of the toughest live-oak, about six feet long, laid upon two upright empty flour-barrels, and loaded with a large bottle of ink, an unfastened bundle of quills, a pen-knife, a folder, and a still unbound ream of foolscap paper, significantly stamped, “Ruled; Blue.”

– Herman Melville, Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852)

Here’s some history. If horror vacui—a fear of emptiness—characterized the cluttered aesthetic sensibility of the collectors of Victorian industrialism, then the contemporary conjuncture of data-glut and rapidly devoured open spaces suggests the advent of a kind of nostalgia vacui. (By the way, collage is a vernacular tactic, not some magical modernist invention!) This potential nostalgia for spatially arrayed information––for fresh, composed space, for the unabashedly sentimental echo of bare tables and bare beds––is what Andrew proposes with his work. It’s no coincidence that Yves Klein’s notion of “Le Vide” is a perennial touchstone for him, even appearing as an explicit allusion in his own work. But aesthetics in Andrew’s work sound in counterpoint to information compulsively ordered and re-ordered.

Andrew offers an intermediary data system that overlays the deliberate taxonomy of the archive onto the satisfyingly palpable presence of objects found, appropriated, and customized. But the central display objects of his installations feature a bland, generic execution that gestures towards the emptiness of these everywhere data-things and their opposition to objecthood. Metaphorically he reconciles data-things and thing-things, the architectural rigor of the perfect library with the hollow falsity of our more ersatz collections. The simple plywood shelves, tables, beds, boards, dressers, et al. that Andrew constructs are all spartan symbols of more substantial and well-worn home ideals; they are half-things, ghost-things, mock-ups that draw our attention to the collections on and in them or not on and not in them. These furniture framing devices are unique, and built to spec, but they are decidedly contingent, makeshift. They offer neat, blank surfaces and spaces for lived-in and lived-with jackets, socks, shirts, blankets, towels, boxes, photographs, bottles, tools, bones, and other ephemera. Their provisional, prosaic construction is diagrammatic and unsteady at best, spindly and rickety at worst, and plainly unable to support human weight, despite the tidy and often elegant construction. They cannot function as functional furniture, and yet they are the components of his inhabitations that perform the crucial task of scaling the evidence to the human body, toward the humanity and mortality of the artifacts and the whole tradition of gathering and archiving mementoes.

Vanitas!

These stark forms, these wooden keels, have another efficacy as well. They behave as framing indicators––humble stand-ins, surrogates, and synecdoches for presentational and behind-the-desk museological facts like pedestals, vitrines, specimen cases, shelves, desks, work tables, and flat storage. Andrew lives intimately with these kinds of forms—remember that his day job, an intrinsic part of his making, is dealing and curating contemporary art at a prominent Boston gallery. He literally looks at and arranges things for a living, abetting the habits of other collectors. To a great extent, his practice responds to his experience as a gallerist and an archivist––documenting, collecting, arranging for visual and intellectual pleasure––but it is simultaneously antithetical to normative notions of art-world market viability.

(At the moment, those bottom lines have been lamed by what the radio heads call the “global economic crisis,” the result of randy trading in imaginary fiscal products with preposterously abstract names like “futures” and “securities.” Aren’t you glad for Andrew’s old towels, so like your own?)

Is it finally time then for the obligatory art-historical fingering? His installations read as fundamentally unassuming sketches of functionality, neither as fussily and self-consciously museological as Mark Dion’s displays, nor as theatrical, untamed, and scavenged as Dieter Roth’s archives. And why should they be? Andrew plumbs another sort of home order, playing with systems that chart the phenomenology of domestic everydayness and its interlocking rhythms—that’s philosopher Henri  LeFebvre’s notion—rather than flaunting knowledge or exhibitionism or chaos. No flagrante delicto moments here, just stringent plainness, or “normalism,” as Andrew himself once deemed his own methodology. The most radical thing about the work is this: it’s somehow essentially banal, quotidian, buttoned-down, boring, ordinary… and therein resides its true-gotten beauty. What is real, what is really there, what is important, what is the distinguishable difference between these objects and arrangements as they appear here—say at the ICA—or in Andrew’s bedroom? These are the ripest of Ambiguities.

My friend Will—he’s Andrew’s friend too—recently drew my attention to a remarkable 1965 sculpture by Michelangelo Pistoletto, one of his so-called “Minus Objects.” Entitled “Lunch Painting,” it’s a minimalist plywood frame-box that sits against the wall, with a table and two chairs built into its radically simple geometry of eleven plain plywood planks. Here we have a certain kinship of Ambiguities and Invitations-to-Stay-Awhile. Come in, these two makers say, here is something familiar.

Andrew’s rooms, immaculate, antiseptic voids when the well-meaning gallery or museum presents them, rely on their adopted frame architecture, indicating a thorough contextualism, a desire to showcase and to share and to sit-in. That is not the case in his own home, or the homes of others in which he has shown; those spaces already enjoy a human-scaled sense of space. They already have the decidedly comfier furniture that his plywood objects reference, so much the better to serve as ready, site-specific surfaces for his collections. And until recently, Andrew’s collecting practice remained largely inside his own home, available to all friends and visitors but inherently private nonetheless. These important sharings in public venues represent an extension of a home life that is deliberately aestheticized, but wholly welcoming.

Andrew inhabits spaces, rather than exhibiting in them, and that I believe is a crucial distinction between an artist and a collector, or between an artist and a human being.

DOOR

“GOAT COAT! GOAT COAT!”

– Andrew Witkin, from the 1996 poem “Against Fabrication”

Chapel Hill
December 22, 2008

Drinkin’ thing.

•December 21, 2008 • Leave a Comment

garystewart1

thomasgary

This here’s a quickie. My man M. through the forest sent out a call for some ruminations on the late, great Gary Stewart–Snoc threw him an inspired poem on the subject–so I tossed this off today trying to distract myself from the task at hand. Stay tuned for M.’s essay, which is  guaranteed to delight.

********

Uncle Hammy turned me on to Gary a year or two back, but it was already too late—the man whose voice punched me in the chest had already ridden his keening laments into the inexorable dirt. It’s not exactly healthy fandom, but Gary’s still here with us now, some of us, anyway. It’s mostly white dudes in their thirties who pull up round this particular circle of emptiness—that’s a technical term describing a domestic session of bonded, group-listening catatonia usually following massive alcohol and Class C drug consumption—which speaks to the dumb gender rift of country music fans and late-classic era country music record collectors.

But then there are the folks elsewhere, the fans on YouTube from Gary’s hometown in Jenkins, Kentucky, or the ones who saw him rock some hairball, biker-vest central Florida dive—I picture the kind of spot I’ve visited with a live gator in a cage in the back—who offer a kind of ephemeral interwebbed prayer: “We miss this down around Lake Okeechobee. I will drink a beer in his honor,” writes kwedgworth2000. I will drink another. What do kwedgeworth2000 and I share? Why does the man’s music still appeal now, five years after his suicide?

Maybe it’s the easy economy and the carefully scaled ache of his inimitable practice, something born of years of fame-eluding songwriting and session work (he played piano in Charley Pride’s Pridemen for a solid spell.) The songs themselves are devastating in their melancholy insistence, but honest and humble in scope. There’s that raise-hell-raise-another-bottle-but-don’t-be-ashamed-to-leak-tears quotient, which keeps pace with David Coe’s more tender moments or Johnny Paycheck’s overbrimming darkness. But there’s something far different too, an abiding grace and diffidence in Gary’s lilting delivery and his rather sentimental songwriting and modest arranging strategies.

The goofy wordplay pushes potential hackney and cliché into the realm of punning poetry, by slyly one-upping your best and lamest idea for a parenthetical, instant punch-line country lyric and singing it with a kind of palpably wounded dignity: “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)”; “She’s Got a Drinkin’ Problem (And It’s Me); “I’ve got this drinkin’ thing/ to keep from thinkin’ things.” Gary kept his whole operation within what was becoming an increasingly quaint and fenced-in honky-tonk formula, but he managed to edge Hank and Lefty and Ray Price into a much darker, contemporary discourse that dug deeper and flew higher than your Moe Bandy or George Strait (and that’s no mean feat.)

The songs are perfect, unfussy miniatures, masterpieces that transcend the decadent era of the limping honky-tonk genre. There is a sense, when you listen to Out of Hand, that the recording, through its elegant, workmanlike craftsmanship, taps and tamps down some roiling, heaving hurt. The whiskey flowed in excess, yes, but the booze only coated the sea of black bile like an oil slick. Play on, Little Junior.

The Library of Babel.

•December 20, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Lips.

Jim

More James Castle. This one was recently published in “James Castle: A Retrospective” (Philadelphia Museum of Art/Yale Press.) The kind folks at the PMA invited me to speak at their “Alternate American Art Worlds” symposium on Nov. 15. I did a thing for the UPenn Humanities forum too. Anyway, enjoy (link to full essay below–it’s a big’un.)

*****

“Characters More Comely to the Eye”: Text and Intention in the Art of James Castle

One book . . . consisted of the letters MCV perversely repeated from the first line to the last. Another . . . is a mere labyrinth of letters whose penultimate page contains the phrase O Time thy pyramids. . . . There is no combination of characters one can make—dhcmrlchtdj, for example—that the divine Library has not foreseen and that in one or more of its secret tongues does not hide a terrible significance.
—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel” (1941)

Sequoyah and His Talking Leaves: A Way In
Among those ancient scribes variously ascribed the invention of writing—the Egyptian deity Thoth; the legendary Chinese emperor Fu Xi; the Phoenician prince Cadmus, founder of the city of Thebes in Greek mythology; the Scythian king of Irish folklore, Fenius Farsa, who synthesized Gaelic and its Ogham alphabet from the Tower of Babel’s linguistic ruins; and the one-eyed Norse god Odin, to name just a few—few are available for historical verification and analysis through primary sources. However, certain culture heroes of premodernity and modernity alike emerge from mythological abstraction into the realms of contemporaneously recorded history to offer more tangible accounts of the actual process of visualizing language.  The Byzantine monk Saint Cyril (Constantine, 827–869) and King Sejong the Great of Korea (1397–1450), like the Roman deity and Greek language guide Evander before them, adapted other systems—Greek and Hebrew for the former and Chinese Hanja, Mongol, and Tibetan Buddhist writing for the latter—to forge the foundations of the Cyrillic and the Hangul (Korean) alphabets, respectively.  In fact, apart from the generally accepted independent development of scripts in Sumer and Mesoamerica, and also arguably in China, Egypt, and Easter Island, all written languages have followed similar diffusionist models.
Around 1820, in present-day Polk County, Arkansas, the Cherokee silversmith, veteran of the War of 1812, and visionary linguist Sequoyah (c. 1770–1843),  despite his illiteracy in English, successfully modified that language’s Roman alphabet to arrive at a Cherokee syllabary.  The first Cherokee writing system of any kind and the result of almost a decade’s work, his syllabary employs directly appropriated and graphically ornamented Roman letters alongside additional expressly designed characters, eighty-five in all, each of which corresponds to a specific speech sound, or phoneme (fig. G1). After initially accusing Sequoyah, his daughter, and his “talking leaves” of witchcraft, Cherokees quickly recognized the value of adopting the system, and they still use a nearly identical script today. Sequoyah provides a particularly dramatic example of a relatively rare, and recent, originator of a writing system—a grammatogenist—whose life and work were adequately recorded by contemporaries. His story is not unique. Modern missionaries, colonial authorities, authors, artists, and enterprising dreamers have occasionally invented so-called constructed or artificial scripts from positions of altruistic (or invasive) literacy, cryptographic stealth, literary world-making (in the cases of fictional scripts and languages), or monolingual illiteracy (like Sequoyah). But Sequoyah remains rightly renowned for his impressive independent achievement, an especially aesthetic innovation almost out of thin air and with a widespread impact. Described as an “American Cadmus and modern Moses,”  Sequoyah attained celebrity at home and abroad, even granting interviews. A report of an interview by a Captain John Stuart of the U.S. Army in 1837 states that

being one day on a public road, [Sequoyah] found a piece of newspaper, which had been thrown aside by a traveler, which he took up, and, on examining it, found characters on it that would be more easily made than his own, and consequently picked out for that purpose the largest of them, which happened to be the Roman letters, and adopted [some] in lieu of so many of his own characters—and that, too, without knowing the English name or meaning of a single one of them.

Whether true or apocryphal, this tidy little account illustrates a possible appropriative derivation of the Cherokee syllabary, one couched in the condition of modernity’s proliferation of mechanically printed matter.  To continue the story for us, we are lucky enough to have the firsthand 1829 testimony of an American man of letters, Samuel Lorenzo Knapp, who claims that, after drafting an efficient and suitable set of symbols, Sequoyah “then set to work to make these characters more comely to the eye, and succeeded” (italics mine).  And therein resides a wonderful and exciting detail. At some point—and this is key—Sequoyah consciously transcended the practical bounds of linguistics to consider visual verbal aesthetics, a move doubtlessly made by numerous grammatogenists—not to mention calligraphers, typeface designers, and handwriting standardizers—long before his time, but rarely so explicitly described. By first appropriating and reshaping the linguistic refuse—a discarded newspaper—of the dominant culture, and then evaluating the “artistic” nature of the text and implementing substantial aesthetic alterations, a monolingual Cherokee speaker customized a preexisting alphabet to suit his own language’s needs as well as his personal and cultural aesthetic criteria. Beyond the obvious total disjuncture in sound, grammar, and syntax (and even in semiotic purpose, since used in a syllabary, not in an alphabet) between Roman letters as they function in English and in Cherokee, in purely visual terms Sequoyah thereby activated an appropriative transformation, a shift in the contextual meanings of the same signs.
Not so transparent are the runic inscriptions of the later American artist James Castle (1899–1977), which lack a legible lexicon. And yet a kinship, a kindred aesthetic aptitude, is clear. Both men devised their “comely characters” intuitively, regardless of their imputed illiteracy, and neither ever learned to speak English, though for different reasons. Both necessity and difference compelled them in their craft. As an unspeaking, profoundly deaf artist, Castle shared a marginal status with Sequoyah (the name literally means “Pig’s Foot”), whose reported “lameness”—a “white swelling” of the knee —prevented him from physically demanding labor. Perhaps both these “disabilities” have been overstated or distorted by most historians. And yet these two men independently achieved remarkable feats of linguistic artistry, in a sense performing their otherness through the appropriation and manipulation of the hegemonic language.

Click here to read the whole thing.