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by Rob Horning

1 Sep 2009

At Design Observer, Michael Bierut mentioned the High Line—an old elevated railway track in New York City that’s been turned into an awkward, real-estate-value enhancing gated-park space—as an example of “when design gets in the way.” The case he presents for that struck me as a bit incoherent—the High Line is so well-designed that it has become too popular for its own good, while the ad hoc utilitarian set-up in Times Square (recently closed to automotive traffic) works just as well to please people. Should the High Line have been made less appealing so it wouldn’t become overcrowded? Should it have been renovated on the cheap since people might have used it anyway?

I want to agree that design has indeed gotten in the way, because when I visited it last Friday before I left for the shore it made me very uneasy, but I’m confused. I think his point is that design can be more spontaneous and require less bureaucracy. My point would be that designy-ness itself, whether the product of a well-meaning bureaucracy or a marketing firm, is suffocating; its fastidiousness seems to close off user interaction even when it has seen fit to try to engineer it in advance with various heavy-handed interventions. At the High Line everything seemed so thought out in advance that I could only conclude that I was not invited to do any thinking for myself while I was there. It feels less like a park than a useless piece of installation art meant to impress us with its ingenuity. I half expected to see people walking along applauding. I felt corralled into performing the piece’s cleverness by traversing it, but I didn’t want to perform (unlike the guys conspicuously doing yoga in the middle of the narrow platform). I just wanted a refuge from what is at street level, which is designy-ness harnessed to marketing purposes. Up on the High Line, there’s just a more concentrated form of that deisigny-ness, elevated to civic duty, vindicating all the shop windows down below. 

The friend who accompanied me to the High Line thought its design was a little oppressive also—she pointed to the lack of seats in the shade, and the lack of assembly spaces. Its design—by necessity I guess, given the constraints—streamlines away the possibility that it might serve as a public place of protest. It’s a park for an orderly, obedient people content to walk in single file and stay within the prescribed boundaries. She noted also the fact it can be locked up to bar undesirables, and the way it seemed to mock the death of manufacturing in the city. In terms of what the city produces, manufactured goods have been supplanted by the dissemination of design ideas—a transition the High Line commemorates with no consolation for the losers. Once the rails moved actual goods and anchored working-class jobs; now they are purposely overgrown, archaicized, dressed up to make the condos for the wealthy built all around the tracks more aesthetically pleasing. But it seems doomed to feel dated (it’s very much of the eco-conscious zeitgeist—like a Method detergent bottle), and after its vogue fades, it will probably become this weird, depopulated albatross we must continue to maintain, a Christo exhibit that never goes away.

by Matt Mazur

1 Sep 2009

Looks like a rare funny movie will get some traction this fall—with George Clooney, Ewan MacGregor, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges heading the cast, The Men Who Stare at Goats trailer feels like a mix of the Coen Brothers and David O. Russell, with a major wink to the current “bromance” trend in film.

by AJ Ramirez

1 Sep 2009

This past week saw the public debut of material by Bad Lieutenant, as the band uploaded the track “Sink or Swim” on its MySpace page.  Bad Lieutenant is the new group formed by singer/guitarist Bernard Sumner, after the dissolution of his previous band New Order by bassist Peter Hook in 2007.  The breakup is an interesting story in of itself, as Hook went around telling interviewers that the group was over while his bandmates expressed surprise and bafflement over his remarks for months on end.

While the group features latter-day New Order guitarist Phil Cunningham and contributions from stalwart Joy Division/New Order drummer Stephen Morris, the impression is that Bad Lieutenant is very much Sumner’s band.  “Sink or Swim” is a decent start, if not a particularly striking one, not sounding out of place among material by British indie bands more than half Sumner’s age.  The song takes advantage of the fact that a bassist of Hook’s caliber is not laying down the central melody, instead letting guitarist Jake Evans weave winding leads throughout.  While Sumner has never been the greatest singer in the world, there’s a certain charm to his soft, average-guy-singing-in-the-elevator voice, and it suits the song perfectly.  Despite the song’s downer lyrics, Sumner sounds quite pleased to be surrounded by so many guitar parts.

The song gets a physical release on September 21, with the group’s debut album Never Cry Another Tear due in October.  Meanwhile, Hook has remarked to The Quietus recently that material by his long-gestating Freebass project (featuring fellow Manchester, England bass legends Andy Rourke of The Smiths and Mani of The Stone Roses) is due for release around the same time as Bad Lieutenant’s record.  He’s even gone as far as to refer to his potential showdown with his former bandmate as “a bit like a fat version of Blur and Oasis”, referencing the epic UK chart showdown between the Britpop titans for the number one single slot in 1995.  Will either of these releases chart that high?  Not likely, but at least Bad Lieutenant has so far given the public a glimpse of something promising coming out of the unfortunate end of New Order.

by Rob Horning

31 Aug 2009

Harper’s editor Bill Wasik, the inventor of the purposely pointless internet-driven media event known as a flash mob, has expanded on what that experiment taught him in a book, And Then There’s This. Fittingly enough, I finished reading it while I was down the shore, in the land that the internet seems to have forgot. (When they hear wi-fi, many in Wildwood would probably think you are talking about WIFI 92, the top 40 station in Philly circa 1978.) The book is primarily about how the internet encourages the acceleration of our cultural consumption by prompting us—now no longer passive consumers but media operatives ourselves, fascinated by our own impact and keen to play at being an insider—to refashion news as “nanostories,” microstories whose popularity (measured by internet metrics) peaks quickly and then rapidly dissipates. Whatever real underlying fundamental trends there might be get lost in the noise. Culture accelerates, becomes quicker in its payouts, and becomes more compulsive and addictive. This, as Wasik notes, makes the internet just like a slot machine, whose quick-hitting but apparently random rewards are engineered to make players addicted: “games of chance seem to be more addictive in direct proportion to the rapidity and continuity of their ‘action’—how quickly, that is, a gambler is able to learn the outcome of his wager and then make another.” Online, the action is the tracing of trends and our own statistically determined significance. Twittering, and then seeing what sort of response it provokes, etc. We are never at a loss for an opportunity to try to garner attention, and these efforts are archived, deepening our potential self, even if it is all noise. The internet’s archiving capacity means there is an excess of the narratives from which we shape our sense of self. “With the Long Tail of Truth, telling ourselves new stories about ourselves has never been easier: abundant, cheap distribution of facts means an abundant, cheap and unlimited variety of narratives, on demand, all the time.”

But the internet is not only a machine for generating memes, but also for manufacturing spurious hermeneutics. Wasik contends that we have all become conscious analysts of how media narratives operate (we have the “media mind,” as he puts it); the presence of so many independent operators in the media space compresses those narratives, turns them over quickly as we all experiment to see which framing techniques attract the most attention. (Popularity tends to snowball, since popularity is factored in to what choices are given prominence.) The internet has given us means to sell ourselves the way products have long been sold to us, and we’ve embraced them, adopting advertising measuring tools (the data on popularity the internet makes available to use for our personal pages) as markers of moral value. The potential scope of our reach invalidates previous mores:

When your words or actions or art are available not only to your friends but to potentially thousands or even millions of strangers, it changes what you say, how you act, how you see yourself. You become aware of yourself as a character on a stage, as a public figure with a meaning.

As a result, we manage our public meaning like a brand manager, and perfect the art of culture monitoring—meta consumption of media. We begin to consume the buzz about buzz, or pure buzz, with no concern with what it’s about, only whether we can exploit it for self-promotion.

What’s lost in the focus on the meta-story of something’s popularity and usefulness for our own carefully monitored identity is obviously the thing itself, which becomes difficult to recognize and consume in traditional ways. Artists are seen as the “instantiation of a trend,” and their work is assessed in that regard—the mythical organic reading is even harder to achieve or even simulate. “Call it the age of the model” Wasik writes. “Our metaanalyses of culture (tipping points, long tails,  crossing chasms, ideaviruses) have come to seem mroe relevant and vital than the content of culture itself…. The real vigorish is in learning not about what is cool than learning about how cool works.” When all that resonates about a meme or idea is its viral potential, all ideas are ideas about marketing.

This concern with only the momentary impact of any story and its metasignificance decontextualizes them, allows ideas to function as commodities: “The meme vision of culture—where ideas compete for brain space, unburdened by history or context—really resembles nothing so much as an economist’s dream of the free market. We are asked to admire the marvelous theoretical efficiencies (no barriers to entry, unfettered competition, persistence of the fittest) but to ignore the factual inequalities.” In other words, nanostories, not suprisingly, preserve the status quo, reinforcing our own vanity and self-centeredness along with the market as timeless, unquestionable norm.

Wasik takes a look at the decisive role of boredom. We are not inherently disposed to be bored—Wasik cites research that suggests boredom is a defense mechanism that we invoke when we are confronted with too many choices. But those choices are what capitalism offers us as proof of our purchasing power as consumers. So we experience boredom as proof of our centrality in the consumerist cosmos, and this boredom is a deliberate achievement of the existing social order—it fixates us on novelty as a value, and drives us to consume habitually, for ideological rather than material fulfillment. It’s pretty self-evident, I guess—boredom is a product of awareness of choice, and the advertising infrastructure does nothing but make us aware of choices. Wasik argues that the ubiquitous boredom helps drives the acceleration of media consumption by fostering backlashes on schedule; I would only add that the boredom is market-driven—the oversupply of ideas and goods are stimulating the demand adequate to them, changing the attitudes and self-concepts of consumers in the process.

So the market imposes the possibility of novelty on everyday life, which engenders boredom, the feeling of being hopelessly overwhelmed by choice and the drift into aimless lassitude. In this state we are unwilling to commit to anything deeply—it might grow boring—so we invest our time and effort on into shallow things that are quickly disposed of, or the most convenient experiences, things which are by their nature not very satisfying. So we become temperamentally insatiable.

In the final chapter, Wasik suggests strategies for fighting the acceleration and compression of cultural consumption: one is rationing our information supply and adopting a renunciative attitude toward the internet. Just say no. Another is time-shifting—“delaying one’s experience of a cultural product long enough that any hype or buzz surrounding it has dissipated.” That is something I wholeheartedly endorse and practice: I am currently watching the second season of Dallas—and loving it. I don’t know that it helps anything though. I needed there to be buzz before to even think of watching it now. Ultimately Wasik has no answers—we must strike a balance, he suggests in Aristotalian fashion, but gives no sense of what that might be. We must choose “judiciously” what information we consume, but offers no criteria for this. He advocates “sustainable approaches to information” but little sense of what that would entail. Like Žižek argues, it is easier to imagine the end of the world—the destuction of the internet by some super virus or something—than to imagine a way to consume it temperately.

by PopMatters Staff

31 Aug 2009

GusGus
24/7
(Kompakt)
Releasing: 14 September (US)

SONG LIST
01 Thin Ice
02 Hateful
03 On the Job
04 Take Me Baby (feat. Jimi Tenor)
05 Bremen Cowboy
06 Add This Song

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