(Visual) Notes on Culture
  Christmas and Visual Culture
I am sure that we are all quite tired of the normal Christmas iconography by this point (Santa, elves, dollar signs, etc). Here is a less recognizable image by Phiz that appeared as an illustration to Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers. Merry Christmas!

  Zine Scene: Flicker Super 8 Guide, Volume 1
Flicker Super 8 Guide
Volume 1, 2003
Distributed by Desert Moon Periodicals

I've known about the "Flicker" phenomenon for a couple of years. Super 8 film equipment is still relatively available, despite its age, and still more affordable of a medium than 16 mm. Though Kodak still manufactures different types of stock (five different types, as of the zine's printing in 2003), there are no sound stocks. Luckily, 8 mm has most recently been adopted as a format for artist's work - that is, an antiquated, oppositional type of filmmaking that stands in bold contrast to Hollywood's perpetual gloss. Derek Jarman's experimental The Last of England (1987) serves as a benchmark.

Super 8 is for budding filmmakers just seeking a good time, too. Flicker, the blanket term given for these amateur film festivals, is a not-for-profit, loosely affiliated body that supports 8 mm filmmaking. Film festivals often have astronomical entry fees and oftentimes no longer accepted 8 mm submissions. Flicker festivals (located from Adelaide, Austrailia to Cleveland, OH) are free places to show your work. Held in alternative spaces - often venues meant for rock music - these showcases have the feel of a neighborhood bar-b-que and none of the snootiness of the festival circuit proper.

The Flicker Guide serves a brief introduction to the whole scene. It sports attractive typography but feels like a zine through and through. Covering equipment, prominent personalities, and places to turn for film stock, the Flicker Guide is indispensable for first-timers while remaining useful for veterans.

Since the guide was compiled in 2003, it is probably a bit out-of-date. For the latest information on Flicker, consult on of its constituent websites (Flicker LA and the Richmond Moving Image Co-Op are good places to start). This guide can be purchased through the Flicker LA website.
  What can be done with Contemporary Art?

There has been a good deal of press in the last week about the new Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Initially thought to be dead in the water, an anomaly in an “artistically conservative” town, the building is being hailed as a significant architectural achievement and the promise of the collection poised for success.

What makes a city “artistically conservative?” Washington D.C. makes for a good example. No matter who is in power, Washington runs on consistency, punctuality, and tact (tawdiness is not uncommon, though certainly frowned upon). The city center is a massive project of Neo-Classical monoliths. Despite the fact that D.C. houses the greatest percentage of adults with Masters Degrees of anywhere in the country, it does not have the same manic artistic vibe as New York, Paris, or London. Culture always takes a back-seat to politics, profits, and shopping in D.C.

I use “Contemporary” as a term to talk about recently created works that cannot be historically situated within the “Modernist” movements and somehow seem outside of the immediate grasp of “Postmodernity.” Much contemporary art is the result of combinations, pastiches on previous movements, works, artists, and mediums. In one sense, contemporary art can be conceptualized as the physical embodiment of Freud’s “Eros.” That is, ever progressive combinations and recombinations that serve the life-affirming instincts by way of their inability to let any idea expire. Almost all contemporary works of art have a certain poise or posture that reflexively demands the viewer to situate the viewed object/performance into the greater history of art. If previous movements always had a sense of place – “I am a portrait of Louis XIV, am part of the late Baroque and/or Rococo traditions, and deserve to be hung on the walls of Versailles” – then these works may not. “I am a jar of urine with a baseball inside, could be situated in eight current ‘movements,’ and should be stored somewhere-or-other” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Can certain challenging works of art thrive in a conservative scene? Certainly, though the artistic-cultural apparatus might not be in place to make them known. In an era of fragmented avant-gardes, polyvocality, and rampant speculation on art prices, works sell and become known out of hype more often than originality (or, if that Romantic criterion has failed us, emotion, compositional excellence, intensity of alienation, or any number of other benchmarks).

Contemporary art does not thrive in rural areas, where the Hudson River School and kitsch still reign supreme. Universities have an interesting connection to art – on the one hand, they introduce a generation of artists into the ways, practices, and means of the contemporary art scene, but on the other, are burdened by the political correctness, regulations, and free-speech restrictions that frequently shackle educational institutions.

Some would argue that contemporary art thrives in certain non-metropoles, and it well may. However, much of what passes for contemporary art is no more than craft. One can hardly take two or three steps in downtown Charlottesville, VA or Asheville, NC without crashing into a “gallery.” Rather than challenging, historically important work, we see ceramics made by bored retirees, blatent knock-offs of Sol Lewitt, Calder, and some of the other heroes of late modernism, or simply unapologetically nostalgic painting that would make Norman Rockwell cough in disgust. Likewise with the American Southwest. Arizona’s main cottage industry is the commidification and contemporization of the art of Native Americans. What once had spiritual significance and ritualistic value has become a set of trendy earrings that was mass-produced, sold at an outrageous profit, and passed-off as important. After all, what kind of art could possibly be sold by a huckster as lovably clueless as Benny Reyes (Miguel Sandoval) from Alex Cox’s underrated Three Businessmen (1998)?

This whole entry, in fact, is my roundabout way of lamenting the fact that, even in an age of digital dispersal, de-localized business, and fast travel, art is still very geographically determined. If the London art scene remains ready to explode, it could certainly pass off some of its zeal to suburban Virginia.

I wish for the best for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and sincerely hope that it makes inroads into shaking up a non-happening art scene.
The Twilight Years: Paris in the 1930s
William Wiser
Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2001
(Trade Paperback Reprint Edition)

William Wiser is blessed with the gift of gab. His prose bleeds style, force, and more than a little confusion. Though primarily known as a novelist (K and Disappearances among them), he has a unique way with history. This uniqueness is not entirely good - Wiser seems more concerned with eventual quotability than with fact. His history sometimes reads like a gossip column. Keeping this in mind The Twilight Years is a highly readable, if far from authoritative, account of notable lives in 1930s Paris.

Wiser spins interconnected yarns about artists and cultural figures. Though ostensibly about Paris (as a broad, historical idea/ideal), it boils down to notable instances in the lives of a few key players. As one Amazon reviewer noted - confirming my observation - it is more accurately about the lives of various expatriates and artists in exile then about dyed-in-the-wool Parisians. James Joyce and Henry Miller are the big stars. Sylvia Beach (proprietress of Shakespeare & Co. bookstores) figures heavily, as do Dali, Picasso, and a handful of other artists. Wiser presents some fascinating vignettes but never gets to the deeper meanings and experiences. If he had solely focused on the lives of expatriates in Paris in the 1930s, he might have been able to make a stronger statement. Of course, there are many notables missing, chief among them Walter Benjamin.

Wiser's book is a companion piece to The Crazy Years: Paris in the Twenties, which I have not read. Given its limitations Wiser's book is a bit expendable, but could serve as an interesting tapestry for those interested in living vicariously through and with the zenith of Bohemia. One is left wanting more facts and a bigger awareness of the rest of the world.
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