Thursday, April 24, 2008

Linkage: Keep Calm Gallery

These folks have some excellent prints and frames available. I especially love the collages by Matthew Rose and (of course!) the bird heart by Amy Ross.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Let's argue about art! Guillermo "Habacuc" Vargas has made himself (in)famous.

You may have already seen this video (or one of the many like it), that encourages the viewer to sign an online petition to stop artist Guillermo "Habacuc" Vargas from participating in the Bienal Centroamericana Honduras 2008.

But the particulars of Vargas' controversial exhibition, El Perrito Vive (The Small Dog Lives), which took place at the Códice Gallery in Managua, Nicaragua, are disturbing, though murky.

The artist has been widely criticized for the exhibition, and he's made various contradictory statements about the ultimate fate of the animal. It's rumored that the dog (named Natividad) was only tied up for a few hours, and it's also been rumored that the animal "escaped" after the exhibition. The more widely distributed story, though, is that Natividad died as a result of starvation. But whether Natividad lived or died, Habacuc's installation raises question about the relevance and utility of exploiting suffering in order to create social commentary.

Presumably, Habacuc's installation indicts the viewer by changing the context in which the animal is suffering. Instead of starving on the street, where passersby would presumably overlook the animal entirely, Natividad was starving in a gallery, where viewers were implicitly asked to bear witness to the dog's condition (and were, apparently, discouraged from offering the animal food or water). Habacuc's critique of a broad, societal indifference to suffering is certainly shocking, but is Habacuc actually saying anything new?

Laying the immediate discomfort with the willing neglect of an animal aside for a moment, Habacuc's exhibition seems to fall flat on its face for artistic as well as ethical reasons. And here's why: El Perrito Vive relies almost solely on the shock that seeing a diseased and starving animal in an art gallery will cause.

In other words, Habacuc's message is not nearly as bold or as shocking as his staging. Nor is it particularly new. In fact, when I first heard of El Perrito Vive, I immediately thought of Raphael Montañez Ortiz's Destructivist performances of the late 1960s, in which Ortiz would kill a chicken and use its body to bang on a piano before ultimately destroying the piano in front of an audience. In Ortiz's case, the act of killing a chicken or of axing a piano into bits wasn't, in itself, terrifically disturbing. That he performed the acts in front of an audience—seemingly daring the audience members to react or intervene—was the shocking part. Like Ortiz, Habacuc relies on shock value in order to deliver a message (that human beings are indifferent to suffering; that human beings are uncomfortable with death; that the human capacity for empathy is finite; etc.) that has been delivered time and again, and in many instances in much more effective and interesting ways.

Is Habacuc's observation of societal indifference and passivity necessary? Is it worth killing a dog over? Is it even particularly interesting? I'd argue that it's none of these things. I think I'm in the Nabokov camp; he wrote: "A work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual." As such, I tend to find works that aim to make sweeping social commentary hollow somehow, and Habacuc's installation is no exception. Starving an animal is certainly disgusting, but I also think it's artistically boring, relying as it does on spectacle. It's a quick and easy shortcut to meaning, where the big and obvious ugliness of the installation outweighs any kind of complicated or nuanced vision or effort on the part of the artist.

One thing, though, is quite sure: the controversy caused by the exhibition has gained Habacuc international fame (perhaps infamy, but in a world where serial killer art sells for millions, what's the difference?), and I'm cynical enough to believe that this was at least part of the artist's goal. Let's face it, the guy goes by the name of an obscure New Testament prophet. That he probably killed a dog in order to make a name for himself is certainly disturbing, if not surprising.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

"You're way too beautiful girl..."

photo by Kim Fearick

Here's a song to celebrate the lovely beautiful weather in New York today:


...or, if you prefer the original...

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Strange Attractors

Video by Mike Wechsler
Music by Ben Kupstas

A New Sort of Stockholm Syndrome

First it was Jens Lekman, then Love is All, then El Perro del Mar, then The Knife, then Tape...with lots of other knee-weakening Scandinavian songsmiths in between.  Hell, even before any of those there was Ace of Base

The latest Swede to have us swooning (and singing along!) is Lykke Li.  Her debut, Youth Novels, was produced by Björn Yttling (of Peter Bjorn and John) and has been out overseas since January, but is as yet unavailable over here.  Luckily, she's giving us a little teaser with the Little Bit EP, which comes out May 6.

She plays Joe's Pub in New York on May 7 (along with El Perro del Mar!).

For a taste of her distinctly Swedish (whatever that means) indie-pop, here are two versions of a song that I believe was excluded from the album (but it's one of my favorites from what I've heard so far!): 

"Tonight" (Demo Version):

"Tonight" (Finished Version):

Which version do you prefer?

You can download the "finished" version at her website.

Video for "Little Bit":

New video for "I'm Good, I'm Gone":

Monday, April 14, 2008

Conversation Piece: Steven Pinker on "Secular Enlightenment"

I'd love for this blog to become something of a forum.  This video featuring the scientist/author Steven Pinker begins fairly innocuously, but towards the end he touches on several large and contentious issues.  Feel free to use the comments section to throw in your reactions, opinions, etc.

(Sorry about the ad at the beginning of the stream...Salon has to bring in the dough somehow I guess.)

Make a Point at

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Linkage: Toby Warner Interviews Jad Abumrad

Jad Abumrad (photo courtesy of

Toby Warner, a good friend, recently interviewed Jad Abumrad, the producer/co-host of one of our favorite radio shows, Radio Lab.  The interview appears in the latest issue of Boldtype, the online monthly book review for which Toby serves as Managing Editor.

(Abumrad also recently curated the Video Digest for The Morning News, a site I highly recommend!)

Friday, April 11, 2008

Photo of the Day

garden of the gods on a sunny day
Originally uploaded by freshie823

This is where our friend Megan is living now...I'm a bit envious.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Deserving Hyperbole: Stars Like Fleas

stars like fleas
Stars Like Fleas are the best band in New York.  It's true. 

Their newest album, The Ken Burns Effect, has been out in Europe for a while now, but will finally grace our shores via the Hometapes label on June 3.  

It's one of those rarest of albums that completely defies any comparison.  SLF distill and refract so many disparate sounds, textures, and emotions (both familiar and foreign).  (Free jazz horns, backwoods banjos and pedal steel, a harp (!), classical interludes, ethereal falsetto non sequitors, laptop landscape drizzles, a deconstructed symphony...)  

The term "postmodern" was never more fitting for a band than it is for this one.  Seeing them and hearing them is honestly transcendent, and I'm not getting unduly hyperbolic here.  They take more risks than is probably advisable, and sometimes their shows flirt with disaster, but more often than not, they create something utterly captivating and closer to a religious experience than I'm even comfortable with.

Plus, for those who care, the band is something of a Who's Who of the New York Underground, including members of Beirut, Doveman, the Silent League, the Fiery Furnaces, and Scarlett Johansson's band

And...if you won't take my word for it, how about Ed Droste's (he of Grizzly Bear fame):
"Their live show was absolutely mind blowing. They’ve got something like 10 members and 50 instruments they use, and it all works perfectly. Textures would come and go throughout every song: it felt like a warm bath and a pleasantly uncomfortable acid trip. Don’t see them in a space where the crowd is loud, otherwise you’ll miss the important intricacies that make their live show so special." [from Dusted Magazine]

The Ken Burns Effect comes out June 3 on Hometapes

"I Was Only Dancing" by Stars Like Fleas:

Here's a performance they filmed for the esteemed La blogotheque (yes, I know, "the the"...) at Monkeytown, one of my absolute favorite spots in New York (and the brain-child brain-restaurant/theatre/living-room/Eden of SLF singer/lyricist Montgomery Knott):

Oh, yeah, and the timeliness of this post: the band is making one of its rare and "mind-blowing" (!) appearances at Studio B in Greenpoint on April 16, along with YACHT and Parts & Labor.

(259 Banker St., Brooklyn, NY)

Photo of the Day

Gas Works Park
Originally uploaded by yonajon

This shot by our good friend, Jon Aizen, looks almost unreal, or maybe hyper-real.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Anti-Cynicism: Oh Jason, Are You Still Waiting?

I first saw Jason Anderson perform several years ago in Ithaca, when he was still calling himself Wolf Colonel.  Around the same time, I received from K Records a promo copy of Something/Everything!, the transitional album with which he came out from under his lupine nom de plume (it was credited to Wolf Colonel/Jason Anderson).  That album contains one of my favorite songs ever, "Jet Ski Accidents" (later covered by the Blow).
Since then, he's become something of a post-millennial Bruce Springsteen, if Bruce hailed from New England via Oregon instead of Jersey (via Jersey) and collaborated with Phil Elv(e)rum instead of Max Weinberg.  He's amassed a pretty ardent following, which is understandable if you've seen one of his incredibly exuberant and intimate shows (click those last three links; it'll be worth it!).  

Anderson plays almost exclusively All Ages shows in a refreshingly earnest D.I.Y. vein—putting himself out there rawly and passionately and without pretense (click it, dammit!), completely vulnerable and vital (it'd be cheesy if it wasn't so inspiring to see/hear someone so unencumbered by stylistic self-consciousness—just emphatically and uncynically dedicated to pure artistic connections).  Sometimes he performs with just an acoustic guitar, standing in the center of the crowd dripping sweat and belting out without a microphone; other times he's joined by a full band that shares his unbridled vivacity and optimism, like Guided by Voices pretending to be the E Street Band at a sweaty basement show.  

Anyhow, he currently has a month-long residency at Pete's Candy Store, performing each Wednesday in April for FREE, so you have ample opportunities and no excuse to miss him!

A song:

Same song, visually enhanced:


(709 Lorimer St., Brooklyn, NY, 11211)


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Linkage: Flip Flop Flyin'

Minipops (clockwise from top left: Henry David Thoreau, Yo La Tengo, Columbo, Daniel Johnston, Fidel Castro, ZZ Top, Joan of Arc, and Indiana Jones)

I think Craig Robinson is a genius.

There is so much to see, but consider starting here.  Then maybe try this.  I'll leave the rest for you to explore on your own!  (Go on now, don't be afraid...)

Oh, and there's a book out containing a bunch of those Minipops (Nate, I wonder how it would look on a Kindle?).

Monday, April 7, 2008

Profit Sharing is Awesome! Or, is it?

With profits down in the industry, publishers come up with a solution: let's share them with the authors (oh, and also, let's do away with advances).

People have been sounding a death knell for the book industry for nearly as long as I’ve personally been aware that there is a book industry (as a child I believed that the public library was a sort of book nursery, and the librarians the super-bitchy midwifes who brought them into the world).

After college, when I took a job as an editorial assistant at a big publishing house, it was clear that, like any other business, publishing’s a numbers game. And when the numbers are bad, the job’s a real bitch. “Drive one to drink” might be a shlocky idiom, but some jobs do just that. There’s nothing like working in an industry that’s convinced of its own imminent financial demise, and the assured lack of job security kept us assistants drinking hard after work and on the weekends. But even during a late night industry conversation between extraordinarily low-level (and incredibly intoxicated) publishing coffee-fetchers, nothing so bold as (gasp) a profit-sharing deal replacing book advances was ever broached.

That a major house is doing just that could be a very good sign that change is indeed possible in an industry whose recent “innovations” include the Kindle (Mom, can I borrow 400 bucks?). Word of the experimental business model came in the New York Times over the weekend, but Motoko Rich's article left me with some serious questions about the venture.

The amazingly sleek machine that will revolutionize the way we read!

What are we to make of the profit-sharing experiment that HarperCollins will attempt under the direction of Hyperion founder Robert S. Miller? On the one hand, Harper gets a big high five for having the balls to try something different. But before we go and glad-hand big publishing too much, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this is any attempt to democratize literature through new media; to create a co-op model for a generation of eco- and fair-trade-conscious consumers; or that Harper would be venturing into this territory if there were a more significant financial risk for the publisher than there is for the author.

The basic plan is this: Instead of paying authors an advance and agreeing to pay them royalties, the author will share a 50/50 split of profits with publishers. At face value, that doesn’t seem like such a terrible thing, especially because many authors don’t ever earn out their advances and, as such, do not receive royalties (often 15% of profits after the book has earned more than was paid to the author as an advance). Harper is beginning small, and will wade very slowly into this little experiment (they’re calling it a “studio” and not an imprint – Eh?) with a list of approximately 25 titles a year.

I’m pretty skeptical of the plan for many reasons that don’t involve the demonizing of giant media companies (in this case, HarperCollins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation).

#1) What’s an advance for anyway?

An advance against royalties used to be paid the author before delivery of a manuscript so that the author would have the time and resources necessary to finish the book. Currently, the advance is paid out in a few (often three) increments, with one payment typically coming when the contract is signed; another when the author delivers the completed manuscript to the publisher; and the final payment coming when the book is published.
Now, we no longer live in an age of vocational, I'm-just-a-writer writers (note: you could probably argue that we never really did), where one just wrote and published and spoke as a guest lecturer from time to time, and ate cheese cubes and drank little plastic cups of wine after readings at university campuses. Nowadays (unless you’re a Clancy, King, Steele or a Dan Brown) pretty much everybody has a teaching gig somewhere. At Harper’s new “studio,” it seems the leg-work of writing a book and going through the laborious editing process will be done up front, with a financial reward to come (maybe) later, assuming the book sells. In short, the author assumes more of the risk and gets stiffed on all the fun of up-front validation and reward. I guess you could still go out drinking when you and your agent sign the contract, but without a big, fat check with which to buy all your schlubby writer friends drinks, where’s the fun?

#2) New Media?

Harper’s experiment puts an emphasis on new media; that is, typically digital methods for delivering content. Most often, this refers to electronic editions that can be produced cheaply and distributed easily and quickly. The problem, of course, is that I can’t think of a single person who would rather have the e-text of a book (either on their own computer, laptop or Kindle) than a physical copy. It’s one thing to read a 1, 400-word piece on the NYT website and quite another to sit down with a 60,000-word novel in digital form. I’m sure some folks might prefer digital text, but those are probably also the people who own talking coffee pots and who blow their paychecks at Hammacher Schlemmer. If HarperCollins can drum up a viable and reliable “new media” market, then God bless ‘em, but I won’t hold my breath.

#3) Physicality (addendum to reason #2).

I had a teacher in high school who was a bit of a turd and who often spouted the true-if-trite idiom: “reading is its own reward.” Fair enough. But owning a book is also a nice thing, and I’d rather own a paper-and-boards book than a PDF. If I’m going to invest time, money and intellectual energy into a book, I still want to own the traditional, physical object. Issues of negative vs. positive ions and potentially carcinogenic batteries aside, there’s just something about holding a book that can’t be replicated on a screen. I’ll concede that this is perhaps a generational preference and that, years from now, cool kids will carry their fifth generation Kindles in their back pockets while smoking their non-carcinogenic Camel Lights. But again, I’m not holding my breath.

#4) “We’ll Only Make Money if You Do.”

Writing a book is a lot of work. I mean, I’d imagine it’s a lot of work. I’ve never done it. Publishing is work, too, but when you’re a big house like HarperCollins and you have multiple revenue streams and can afford to sink a little money into a profit-sharing venture like this one, my knee-jerk reaction is to fear for the interests of the authors. Let’s say HarperCollins buys your book, puts the money into the packaging, marketing and publicity and then the book makes $10,000 in profits. A 50/50 split sends 5,000 to the author (less that pesky agent’s fee), and 5,000 to Harper.
From the publisher’s perspective, that won’t cover the cost of the labor put into the publishing of the book. But who cares? They have other fish (books that is) in the sea. In big publishing, it’s nothing new under the sun for a book not to sell well. The change, in this case, would be that their initial investment in the author would be significantly less. Had they paid even a small advance up front, they’d likely be out more cash than they would be under this kind of profit sharing. That’s smart on their part, but I sure wouldn’t want to be the author who poured his heart and soul into the creation of a novel (even a really good one, see reason #5) only to get the short end of the financial stick.

#5) Some of my favorite writers don’t sell particularly well.

What of the Kevin Cantys? What of the Alice Munros? If good writers aren’t getting good enough money to continue to write good books, what will the publishing world look like in a few years? If publishers hedge their bets and tighten their belts too much, will we see fewer good books on the shelves in the years to come? Will we see fewer risky or innovative novels? Symbolically and financially, HarperCollins’s 25-book-a-year experiment may be a just another symptom of the publishing industry’s contemporary trepidation and not the bold innovation in profit sharing and new media that HarperCollins wants it to be.

The final trite idiom of this post? Only time will tell.

Beaten to the Punch

I was going to write a review of the new memoir by Dean Wareham (Galaxie 500, Luna, Dean & Britta), titled Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance, but someone beat me to it, and I really couldn't have said it any better.  That person: Liz Phair!

Click HERE to read her superb review. 

I concur with Liz wholeheartedly, and highly recommend the book.

And here's a photo of Dean & Britta (though not in that exact order), just because...

Who's Cooler than Nick Cave?

I think nobody.

Catch Warren Ellis (of Dirty Three) and his beard dancing behind Nick in the beginning.

Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! is available tomorrow (April 8).

Monday Morning Photo

Electric City
Scranton, PA—Electric City

Saturday, April 5, 2008

American Outrage

I am not prone to espouse my political or ethical convictions publicly, but certain issues seem to transcend partisan politics.  Lately, as we all know, the act of questioning U.S. policies has been discouraged—conflated with a false notion of a lack of patriotism (of course, the real misguided conflation here is between patriotism vs. nationalism).  

About a decade ago, Ed Bradley from 60 Minutes was sent to Nevada to cover a story of two sisters—Mary and Carrie Dann—from the Shoshone tribe.  Horses and land belonging to the grandmothers had been illegally seized by the U.S. government, in violation of a treaty (The Treaty of Ruby Valley) and also, according to the United Nations, the sisters' basic human rights.  

Adding insult to injury (quite literally), the U.S. government audaciously justified the land/horse grab using an almost two-century-old Supreme Court case, Johnson v. M'Intosh. In his majority decision, Chief Justice Marshall called Native Americans "savages," claiming that those people indigenous to this continent had no rights to the very land on which they lived for centuries.

The story gets even crazier and more infuriating (see here and here for more information), but back to Ed Bradley... The episode never aired, because the network didn't want to appear too "political."  Hmmm... Does it jeopardize my patriotism to find fault with that "journalistic" logic?

Beth and George Gage have made a documentary on the Dann sisters, American Outrage, excerpted in the latest issue of Wholphin (from which I learned about the story and gleaned most of the details in this post).  As the filmmakers point out in their interview with Wholphin editor/curator Brent Hoff, "[the U.S.] is only too anxious to expose human rights offenses in other countries while ignoring the same abuses going on right under our collective noses." 

With ongoing civil rights issues such as the injustices in Tibet and Darfur gaining (deserved) media attention, it is all too easy to miss abuses occurring on our own soil.  Kudos to Wholphin for educating its audience about this domestic outrage.

The New Weird...Scandinavia

Silje Nes - New Weird Nordic, New Weird Scandinavian

Silje Nes is a Norwegian singer/composer (now based in Berlin) who makes some lovely, textured new-folk music.

Her arrangements on Ames Room (her debut on FatCat Records), veering from sparse electro-acoustic delicacy to more rhythmically dense territory, are evocative in a way akin to fellow Nordic experimentalists like múm or Sigur Rós, and her nymph-like whispers fit so wonderfully into the mix.

Not to get overly referential, but the record really does coalesce so many familiar elements into something refreshingly distinctive. The loop-centric compositions recall Juana Molina; she shares an almost naïve, slightly twee, amateurish-in-a-good-way sonic playfulness with the K Records stable (Mirah, Microphones, etc.); and her range of child-like melodies and sophisticated timbral textures and juxtapositions brings to mind another recent favorite, the Japanese duo Tenniscoats (!!!). Oh yeah, let me throw the whole Fonal roster (from Norway's neighbor, Finland) and their legitimate 'freak-folk' in there too, for good measure (Islaja, particularly). Heck, there are even hints of Boards of Canada in the ambient electronic elements and melodic whimsy.

Let's call it New Weird Scandinavia.

Listen HERE.

Consider purchasing HERE or at your local independent physical music purveyor.

In both directions, from the lens... (and a discussion of eyesight and nakedness)

Beloved Object, Amorphous Subject

A good friend, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, has a book about to be released. It is called Beloved Object & Amorphous Subject, Revisited, and it's stunning. Paul is like a lepidopterist, but instead of butterflies or moths, he lovingly captures and collects and preserves the beauty of his friends. You should all buy a copy for your respective coffee tables! It will be available through the Envoy Gallery and some bookshops.

Subject-Object Proof no.2 (2008)
2-channel video projection, photograph (24x30), xerox on paper. dimensions variable.

Paul recently had an installation at the Pulse Art Fair in New York City. It was his first foray into video, with two projections: one of Paul with his camera; one of his subject on his bed.

It was a sort of documentation of process, elucidating and emphasizing the the space between the camera and the subject, particularly because that became the space occupied by the spectator. Paul mentioned before I entered the room that he had expected a table in the center of the room to hold to the projectors, but I think the placement (seen in the photo) is much more appropriate.

The other mind-tangent the piece sparked was related to the act of declothing, and specifically the eyeglasses worn by the subject. For those without perfect vision, are we more naked with or without glasses? Of course, the obvious answer is off, in a more 'natural' state, but it's as always a matter of perspective. Without glasses, the subject is behind her/his own blanket of blurred perception. Is nakedness more a state beheld or held? The salience of nakedness is so often greater for the naked than the for the (clothed) viewer/voyeur. A kind of paradox then arises, because without glasses the subject cannot fully perceive her/his own nakedness, but with glasses she/he is no longer naked. Are contacts the solution?

The notion of a 'natural' state isn't a simple one either. Glasses might not be the best example, but consider someone with a prosthetic limb. I'd imagine they'd consider themselves naked with the limb still attached, but I don't know.

This doesn't seem nearly as interesting now that I've typed it.

But anyway...

Paul's work is superb, and it's great to see him getting so much attention!

UPDATE: More congrats to Paul!  The book got a post on the New York Times T Style Magazine blog!