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Friday, Apr 18, 2008
J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee


Australians are quick to claim celebrities as our own, even when the connection is tenuous. Russell Crowe is ours (born in New Zealand); Naomi Watts (United Kingdom) likewise. Mel Gibson (United States) was, but that’s been kept quiet since his drunk-and-racist driving incident.


So it’s no surprise to see that J.M. Coetzee, newly naturalized as an Australian citizen, is already thoroughly “one of ours”. The South African-born novelist and Nobel laureate has spent most of his professional career in his homeland, but now resides in Adelaide. His recent works have even taken on Australian characters and locations.


The latest sign of his adoption as an Australian was his invitation to attend the Australia 2020 Summit this weekend. Australia 2020, a talk fest convened by new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, has some vague nation-building aspirations and Coetzee’s role is to join with 99 others to plan pathways “towards a creative Australia”.


The “creative Australia” stream is heavy with celebrities and big names, so it’s no surprise that our only living Nobel Prize for Literature winner would be invited. Many commentators are asking whether celebrities are the best people to determine national direction—as is how 100 people with individual ideas and agendas can agree on concrete plans for national creativity in two short days. Perhaps Hugh Jackman will go head to head with Baz Luhrmann’s wife Catherine Martin in a battle over theatre funding, while screenwriter Geoffrey Atherden will try to pitch his latest TV show to Joel Edgerton.


The choice of Coetzee, for all his newness as an Aussie, is one of the better selections. Unlike many of the established voices invited to attend, Coetzee is not part of any local mafia or interest group. He can bring a freshness of approach that the patronage-hungry locals may lack. In all likelihood, though, the notoriously taciturn Coetzee will probably just smile benignly throughout the weekend and write a book about it later.


A problem for the Summit is the vague nature of “creativity”. Australia’s working-class roots still impart to residents a distrust of “high” art from an early age. Television and movies are generally popular, although Australian movies are currently out of favour. Books by footballers and cricketers and J.K. Rowling are popular, but Coetzee sells far fewer copies than fellow South African expat Bryce Courtenay. Opera, ballet, and theatre that isn’t Mamma Mia! are niche tastes.


Yet the 2020 attendees span all these aspects of art and culture—so discussions of funding and priority may be particularly heated. Just exactly who “needs” funding and what Australia as a nation gets out of the arts—these are questions that will hopefully be asked. The contrast between a writer such as Anna Funder, whose excellent Stasiland was assisted by local arts funding, and Coetzee, who comes from a completely different system, will be interesting.


Maybe even a celebrity-heavy discussion forum can give some guidance on the future of Australian art. At least Germaine Greer’s invitation was lost in the post.


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Friday, Apr 18, 2008

This Felix Salmon post made me wonder about the occasional claim that selling out can be some kind of high ironic art form. And it also shed some light on how musicians could perhaps capitalize on selling out’s currently fashionable profile.


The first thing musicians should do is stop making their own music. Salmon writes,


if you think of the artists who are famous for having assistants make their art for them, starting with Andy Warhol and moving on through the likes of Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami, there’s no indication that taking away the artist’s touch has any kind of negative effect on the value of the art. If anything, the opposite seems to be true.
Part of the reason is that these artists have turned themselves into businesses. Both artists and collectors have at this point embraced the idea that there’s nothing wrong with artists being motivated by money, and indeed they’ve created something of a virtuous cycle: an artist creates the kind of art that rich collectors want, which fuels demand for that artist, which drives up his prices, which makes him even more desirable, and so on. Eventually, collectors, especially hedge-fund managers, start buying an artist like they might a momentum stock: they place faith in the management of the company to continue to maximize shareholder value. And in doing so, of course, they only drive prices higher.


In this rarefied realm, artists are brand managers and recognized as being better investments because of it. Svengali music producers once played this role in pop music perhaps, and that was probably what Warhol had in mind in promoting the Velvet Underground. He would guarantee the quality and reap the reputational rewards. Quality of music, as with the contemporary art, is sort of beside the point, as are any questions of authenticity. So bands should somehow figure out how to capitalize on not having to actually make the music they are selling as their creation—electronic music and DJ-style laptop music are good steps in this direction. As long as your craft as a musician is not displayed and can’t be evaluated, and your brand floats on pure assertion and chutzpah. It’s the equivalent of the wealthy eschewing work to send the message about their exalted class status. For haute artists, actually making art is beneath them. By becoming brands, artists can preempt any attention that their individual works might garner: As Salmon explains, “The normal mode of looking at art is reversed: you don’t think ‘I like that, I wonder who the artist is’ but rather ‘Oh, there’s a Koons, I wonder if I’ll like it’.


Pop music has worked along similar lines for a long time; megastars’ albums always attract notice and comment regardless of their quality, because they have had their significance to our zeitgeist preordained. And quality is subjective and irrelevant, particular in the face of the very large numbers involved with the top tier of performers.


Salmon wonders whether “these brands might suffer enormously when the art market crashes, just because their values are supported more by branding than by aesthetic fundamentals.” Of course, if you have learned the lessons of deconstruction, you know that there are no aesthetic fundamentals, so certainly you shouldn’t spend any time worrying about them. What you do have to consider is market positioning and creating the appropriate class associations. For musicians this means selling out to the right sorts of advertisers and so on. Or simply selling out, period, establishing cultural zeitgeisty significance in that way. Bands with grand ambitions will likely begin actively promoting their promotional duties.


 


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Friday, Apr 18, 2008
When Wii Sports was released 17 months ago, it set the standard for minigames, one that countless compilations since have never even approached. Can Hudson's latest attempt stand next to greatness?

Tomorrow’s the 17-month birthday of the Wii and, in turn, Wii Sports!  Should we bake a cake?


At this point, over 18 million people have plugged in their new little white box and taken their little brightly-colored no-armed sphere-handed people for a test drive in the five arenas offered by Wii Sports, and by most accounts, its popularity remains rampant.  To date, no collection of minigames has been received nearly as well by both the critical community and the general public, and though its presence is quieter now than it was a year ago (we haven’t seen it on any late-night talk shows recently), its impact looms large over the release of any collection of minigames, particularly sports-related ones, that dare to stake a claim to its legion of fans.


This is motocross, which is fun, but…

This is motocross, which is fun, but…


The latest group of developers to attempt to stake a claim to the Wii Sports constituency is over at Hudson, where they’re putting something together called Deca Sports.


Hudson was nice enough to send a preview of Deca Sports with four of the ten games playable.  Regrettably, they did not include the curling (because, hey, who doesn’t love curling?), but we did get to try out beach volleyball, figure skating, motocross, and badminton.


For the most part, Hudson is sticking to the formula that made Wii Sports so popular, in that playing the games is generally a piece of cake.  Of the four games included in the demo, three are played using only the Wiimote, with the only exception being figure skating.  Figure skating is probably the most difficult of the games for the non-gamer to master, simply because it requires agile manipulation of the thumbstick on the nunchuck, combined with flicks of the Wiimote to perform jumps, which isn’t hard in theory, but comes off a bit like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time.  Badminton and volleyball follow the Wii Tennis formula of not actually moving your players to the ball/birdie; you just hit it the way you want when you have a clear shot at it.  Finally, there’s motocross, which was actually really fun, mostly because it’s like playing Excitebike in rudimentary 3D.  Think Wii Play‘s cow racing with more hills and less cows and you’re most of the way to Deca Sports’ motocross.


...this is what I\'m waiting for.

...this is what I\‘m waiting for.


Playing these games with family and friends around is fun, but a couple of things are off when the inevitable comparisons start happening.  For one, the mechanics of the “hit the thing over the net” games seem a little off, because now you can wave the remote in the direction that you want things to go, which makes the games an awful lot less twitchy than they could be.  This is actually to their disadvantage, as the primary audience for these games is simply going to want to pick them up and play them the way they could when they first unpacked their Wii.  Depth of gameplay should not come from more advanced game mechanics, it should be found in difficulty scaling based on some very, very simple mechanics.  The lack of Mii integration is also unfortunate, as is the lack of online multiplayer, though limitations on these things have come to be expected of Nintendo, which seems to dole out its technology on a case-by-case basis.


What we also didn’t get a sense of was the way in which these games were going to be packaged and supplemented.  What are the single-player modes like?  Are they going to give out medals or implement some sort of achievement system for high scores?  Are there going to be fun little training games?  All of these things were an important part of Wii Sports’ success, and without some incentive to play beyond picking up a couple of controllers and competing with buddies, these kinds of games can get old, and fast.


What do you think?  Can any minigame compilation ever truly live up to Wii Sports?  I don’t think so, as it’s a perfect case of right-place-right-time combined with some of the most well-implemented waggle yet seen on the Wii, even a year and a half after its release.  Maybe you think differently—give us the what-for in the comments.  We like that sort of thing.


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Friday, Apr 18, 2008

Maybe you shouldn’t be amazed that the 2nd biggest Net provider in the U.S. ain’t necessarily nice people.  Even forgetting their crappy service record, Comcast is also fighting and biting about the issue of Net neutrality where they see fit to block any big P2P traffic that they don’t like as chronicled in an AP article and this Channel Web article.  In the former article, they admit to hiring ‘seat warmers’ at their public meetings where they usually get lambasted so that they have some friendly folks to applaud their efforts.  The later article notes CC’s ‘bill of rights,’ which is seen as a red herring to distract from their poor record of such.  Is Karl Rove consulting these guys are what…?


Just be glad that you’re not an indie band getting cut out of MySpace’s deal with the major labels for ad revenue sharing.  In an interview with Wired magazine, the MS folks admit that unless a band is hitched up with an aggregate service like The Orchard, IODA, Merlin and CD Baby, they’re cut out of any potential ad money.  But… note this quote at the end where they say that the aggregations are “all possible candidates for signing equity deals with MySpace Music.”  Note the word ‘possible.’  That means that if you’re an indie band and you sign up with one of these services, they MIGHT be able to cut a deal with MS, or they might not.  You sign up with them and then gamble and hope that things will work out peachy with MS.  Quite a racket, eh?


 


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Friday, Apr 18, 2008

This is really just an excuse to play a track from Estelle’s sophomore album, Shine, one of the year’s best pop soul records. Shine is as infectious as my worn through copy of Lauren Hill’s debut, before she picked up a guitar and decided to join the ranks of the tortured and sermonizing. It’s not the ideal track to pick (for that see the Cee-Lo collab “Pretty Please”), especially since Kanye’s flow consistently deflates his musical surroundings and his “moon/June” rhymes are fairly low hanging fruit. Actually that’s an overstatement, Kanye’s rhymes are, more often than not, of the “moon/moon” variety. As a video, it lacks coherent art direction and narrative, especially in the split-screen montages of various typical American boys, all of whom look like they’re doing ads for the Gap’s new edgy urban Ivy-leaguer line. Sure, black and white is always carries a certain entry-level morsel of cool cache, but for this song it’s cold and comparatively drab. The only part that captures some of this song’s buoyant Summer energy comes from the disconnected dance play between Estelle and her shadow, which provides sexy liquid movement in a video with static pictures of men backdropped with the kind of white void you’d expect from a near death experience. She’s too vibrant to be framed by such McArty deserted space that could just as easily sell a parka, a cheeseburger or Windsong perfume. And, if you can get John Legend in the video, why not have him pick up Kanye’s half of the duet.  Just saying.


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