“Hyperstylish Objects” and Things

IMG_9943Walking through Old Montreal with my Mother, popping into galleries filled with 5000$ paintings (and people buying them!), we came across the strangest store. Called “Hyper-Stylish Books and Objects”, it was superficially a book store. But, unlike any book store I’d ever seen before – all of the books were wrapped in plastic. So, you purchase the books without even flipping through them! And then I looked at the pricetags – for a large collection of golf course photographs the cost was over ten thousand dollars. Books on the shelves looked not so different from the bookshelf at an art gallery bookstore, except again, all covered in plastic wrap.

The answer is of course, that it is not a book store but an object store. None of these books are for reading – they are for decorating rooms, for looking at, mostly at the spine.

Is this so strange, today? That books might be used as objects of style, of decoration, of “comfort”? No. In fact, the store fit in perfectly with the art galleries – perhaps art is being consumed in the same way – as decoration, as style, as prestige. Not as transgressive, evocative, form engendering. Or is this opposition now false? Is art’s fully authentic, magical act something sold by the yard? If so, would not this hyperstylish object store be the epidomy of such a commodification?

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I am not averse to the ownership of fine things – what might be in some interpretation “hyperstylish” objects. Aside from a stack of IMG_0252library books, desk is cluttered with a piece of dinosaur egg, a stone sculpture, an orange solar lamp, an art-nouveau stainless steel french press, even a 1930’s copy of “The Floating Republic” – a historical chronicle of the British Naval mutinies of 1797. What is the purpose of these objects, these idols? These ideals? Is it not to comfort, to show off, to dwell alongside?

Is it perhaps that the quickly observable superficiality of the plastic-wrapped bookstore conceals a common essence to things and our relationship to them? All things of this sort gather us, reflect us, bring us home. Things are what we want to be, which in late modernism is always also how we want to be seen – but not only this! We really are how we desire to be seen – there is no “fooling”, there is only a re-inscription of reality in terms of pure appearance!

The question for ethics here, for “how ought one live” is whether there is any measure which allows us to judge one set of things from another – whether one persons idols are more soulful, more genuine than those of another? I do not see how, without positing a set purpose for such objects/things/idols, any such measure could be drawn.

But does this mean that we should pay no heed to what we surround ourselves with? Does this mean we should, because of this lack of a standard measure, stop judging others by the content of their house rather than the content of their character? Of course not (although I would caution against the latter). Rather, we should concentrate on being mindful of the purposes of our idols, our objects, our things, such that proper measures can be drawn given the uses, values, purposes, and directions that draw us to acquire and tend to things.

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On Time and Engagement in the Present

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Today, two events occurred that together brought me to a clarifying thought about the ways we are in-time today. The first was a conversation with a retired professor, and the second was an entry on Milan’s excellent blog.

John was making the not too controversial point that the institution of texting, tweeting, being on the computer all the time, is an exercise of talking all the time without saying anything – because one is too busy talking. Too engaged in too many directions to take any particular one seriously. Or, a way for all your time to be taken up, for you to be effectively deported away from where you are. As these external demands on time become totalizing, it becomes a subversive, insane activity today to actually decide oneself what to do with one’s time. Decisions are made for us, or rather, we make decisions given extreme social/cultural pressures to participate in particular sets of values.

Milan’s post argues that voicemail and video are his two least favorite forms of communication because they can not be:

“easily skimmed to determine the degree to which they are relevant and interesting. They also cannot be searched for keywords, or automatically filtered on the basis of content.”

This is an interesting reversal of the standard critique of video. When I was younger, even in grade eleven, professors used to argue that the difficulty with pre-produced media as opposed to written text was that they were too fast, that they didn’t provide time for reflection and engagement. That instead of being engaged in a text, you were deported by a film – that it kept going when you naturally would have stopped to think. Here, the opposite point is being made – film requires too much engagement, they are too quick (they cannot be “skimmed”). Text on the other hand becomes what film used to be – the quick, easy, fast, convenient way to learn about something that is not very important to you, whereas film is now only good “when you are fully interested in the subject matter”.

What do these two thoughts have in common? Well for one, they both have to do with the speed at which we are expected to deal with knowledge, and the amount of engagement which can be reasonably expected at that speed. It seems to me that it is possible to become so reliant on the constant stream of information that is blogs, newspapers, facebook, (twitter for some), that actually deciding how to spend one’s time, rather than coping with the streams, might almost become a subversive activity. I’m not trying to make a strictly totalizing statement here – I don’t think everyone is “trapped” in this whirlwind, or that everyone participating in a thousand streams is actually trapped -there might be freeing ways of participating as well as entrapping ways. At the same time, however, I really do respect people like Kaitlyn, who is not Luddites by any stretch, but who chooses not to have a cell phone, or even to have internet at home – because of the costs constant connectivity can impose on one’s autonomy.

The deeper question, however, has to do with not with individual action, my choices on how to respond to the ways cultural society structures my existence, but rather – is this structuring of leisure time into coping with streams of shallow (twitter) or shallowly engaged with (skimmed emails) content any different from the ways society has always colonized the time of its members through labour, religion, etc… – is twitter “just” the new Zeus, the new textile mill? Or, is the way it’s bound up with “leisure” and “self expression” (self publishing!) make this way of having one’s time externally structured more devious, more dis-empowering than the others? Is this concealed by the fact it is so easy to parody, as “Let me Twitter that” – a new Andy Milonakis rap?  Is this concealed by the fact it is superficially easier to circumvent – the addict’s “I can stop anytime”? Is it even more deeply concealed by this it being actually easier to circumvent (maybe we are not addicts?) ? What is the status of the “ease” of stepping back and deciding to:

Never replace face-to-face with technology. This is the big one. Human beings are social. We need facetime. We need touch. We rely on extremely subtle cues from tone of voice, body language, and posture to read people; those things can’t be replicated in text messages, no matter how much passion is infused with “r u awak?” People live far? Call ’em on the phone. People live close? Go see ’em.” (Hipsters are Boring, August 26 2009)

We could of course simply do it. And we do do it, those of us who are lucky enough to live in real communities, or who remember how to use a phone. But concentrating only on communication and not publishing or learning misses part of the picture. Here is a list of information Milan processes on a daily basis:

  • At least ten email accounts, three highly active
  • Two phone lines, with voicemail
  • A complete issue of The Economist per week
  • BBC, Slate, and Globe and Mail headlines daily
  • Dozens of blogs, many of them highly active
  • Discussions on my blog
  • Instant messages
  • Waves
  • Google Alerts
  • Text messages
  • Comments on certain blogs I follow
  • Mailing lists
  • Etc.

The advantages of access to so much information on a constant basis are obvious. But we still have to ask questions about whether, in the midst of all this knowledge, there is still an “us” taking it in? Or, are we quietly becoming, in our free time, knowledge machines? Are “we” deciding anything when we read and interpret this vast amount of data continuously? Or are we simply sites for the data to analyze itself? Where is conscience? And where do the people go? We should in no way be surprised they are outcast to text messages and facebook! York University is actually in the planning stages of moving all of first year university into being strictly online (you wouldn’t actually attend University in person until second year – so the same amount of classrooms can accommodate a bigger student body).

It cannot be contested that the cyber is changing our bodies – socially, intellectually, and physically of course as well. The question about the effects, the desirability, how to cope,  and what are the possibilities for transgressive activity they might engender, these must all be held open.

Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal

Montreal_Museum_of_Fine_Arts_Musee_des_Beaux_Arts-Montreal_oThe Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal is free. This means you don’t have to pay, (except for some temporary exhibitions). That and the collection is quite astonishing – including the likes of Monet, Picasso, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, etc… There is also a serious ancient Greece exhibit which, unlike the ROM’s, doesn’t pretend that Roman copies of Greek statues are Greek. There is an excellent exhibit on 20th century style and design. There is an expansive collection of European painting between the 15th and 19th centuries.

In other words, there is enough here that one can get a sense of the entire history of painting in a day. As such, welcome to Tristan’s comprehensive theory of European painting. Just kidding of course, but even a cursory look through does reveal some very interesting events. First off, Painting seems to have progressed quite slowly between the 15 and 19th centuries – many pieces from the early 19th century could be confused with things painted hundreds of years earlier. Basically, until Monet, the advances seem to be mostly technical – as far as style is concerned, there are 14th century landscapes and portraits that look like early 19th century works by lesser painters. 01445L

With Monet, however, the codes seem to break down. “Impressionism” means the self-consciously recognized product of painting is emotional. The symbolic codes become the object of play (Picasso), and dismissal (painting black squares). Rejection of symbolic codes for a time is revolutionary (dada), but is later co-opted by the same system it wishes not to reproduce (dada on Starbucks water bottles). Montreal_Museum_of_Fine_Arts_Musee_des_Beaux_Arts-Montreal_o1

What is most amazing about this history is how, taking Monet as a fulcrum, we can see such a disparate rate of change of artistic style on either historical side – before, 300 years of relative calm – after, less than a hundred before the codes have completely broken down. Of course, they do not disappear – symbolic painting and representational painting persist, but persist as one code among many options.  The old code was not characterized by its properties, its attributes, but by it being the-code, the dominant – not one part of a plurality.
The reason the current age can be said to “have no style” is not that there are no trends in design, not that no one is doing anything new in sculpture or painting or furniture – but rather that no unified code develops amongst people ever inventing the new. Foundings ever repeat, but do not take hold. There are too many choices, freedoms, possibilities. The system embraces it’s own deconstruction. The post-modern self is the one products are marketed towards.

Obscure Band Showcares: Part 2 of 3 – the Consumer Goods

The Consumer Goods - Anti-Imperial CabaretThe Consumer Goods are a Winnipeg band that are not afraid to voice their opinions on political issues. Their Myspace page is littered with songs about the department of national defense, police violence, the Canadian occupation of Afghanistan, and the erosion of abortion rights in the U.S.

Their frontman, Tyler Shipley (one of my only friends with a wikipedia site) was active in the Cupe 3903 union during our 3 month strike last year. He’s a generally upright and decent guy – he even let me sing the song I wrote for the Pond Road picket at his band’s show at the Tranzac.

Perhaps their most popular song is entitled “Hockey Night in Afghanada” (music video here) is critical of Don Cherry for using Hockey as a way of justifying and supporting the Canadian operations in Afghanistan. The song is definitely worth a listen. I personally like the way the chorus differentiates legitimate views on hockey issues from support for the army:
“There’s nothing about Ron Maclean, the CBC, or hits from behind that says it’s alright to bomb a few foreigners from the sky”

Obscure Band Showcase: Part 1 of 3

I’ve been thinking about blogging about some of my favorite bands for a while now, and I think the most appropriate way to do it is in a series of posts, like the previous set concerned with the future. The bands I will feature here are all similar only in the fact that I think they are extremely excellent, and that I have thought so for a long time. (And that they are, at least for the most part, obscure).

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The first and most obscure band I’d like people to consider looking into is “Old Phoebe“. It’s hard to describe Old Phoebe. No wait, that’s not right – it’s easy: Old Phoebe is like a happier, angrier, younger, and purer version of Teagen and Sarah – but with a bicycle instead of a drum set. They are from Nanimo, and though I suppose they may be older now, when I first discovered them at hoko’s kareoke sushi bar in Vancouver they were just out of High School. Because they are (were) so young, they can sing about the forces of social control in a way only the innocent can, as in the song “The Machine”. We can hear truth in their words, which we couldn’t have heard if we’d said them ourselves. “Rock and Roll on the Floor” is also a great song, and available on youtube.

Their best song in my opinion, however, is “Catchers” – a song based loosely on the novel “Catcher in the Rye”. Blessedly, it is avaiable on their myspace page. The song is about making mistakes, repeating mistakes, working with mistakes. To give you an idea, here is a segment of the song’s lyric:
“I make mistakes ok

I’m on the radio I’m singin a work of art somebody made

And you catch me in the rye (catch you in a lie)

My whole life, one focussed, my whole life’s a mistake

I’ll be on the radio singin’ a work of a mistake somebody made”