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by Rob Horning

14 Nov 2008

I still remember being taught in high school during the 1980s that the U.S. was superior to the Soviet Union because we could shop at the mall and choose from a cornucopia of goods while the Soviets had stand in line at gray, dreary state-owned dispensaries and basically take what they were given. The Soviet citizens envied our freedom, which is why they were always defecting and why they faced a repressive police state and fences to keep them in rather than enemies out. When the U.S.S.R. fell, many assumed that the former Soviet bloc would smoothly integrate into the global capitalist economy, greased by surging consumer demand. That hasn’t worked out so well, though we still hear of the over-the-top consumer decadence of Russian oligarchs—for example inadvertently killing their mistresses by letting them bathe in tubfuls of expensive perfume. But considering how Russia remains a bloc unto itself, it seems true that Soviet citizen weren’t simply Western-style consumers in waiting, that in fact Western-style consumption is not some universal mind-set that sits dormant in all humans and is merely waiting for the opportunity to flourish as it should. It may be that the Western consumerist mentality is itself as anomalous as the Iron Curtain mind-set. What’s more, those not to the consumerist manner born might actively resist adopting it.

This FT editorial about stoking consumer demand in China (also noted by Brad Setser here) got me thinking about the desirability of consumer mind-set. The FT and Setser rightly argue that from an economic standpoint, the world needs more demand from Chinese consumers. From the FT:

China’s growth to date has been phenomenal, but it was based on exports and investment, at the expense of consumption. China almost aimed to be a supersized South Korea: in 2005, capital investment made up more than half of China’s gross domestic product. The capital-intensity of its growth also meant profits grew strongly as a share of GDP. But employment growth has slowed since the 1980s, so workers have gained small benefit.
With an undervalued renminbi also making imports dear, the Chinese public has proved loath to spend. China has far too little dom­estic consumer demand. Where­as household consumption made up more than half of China’s GDP in the 1980s, it now contributes little more than a third.

Whether China wants to become more like South Korea culturally seems questionable; it’s curtailment of political freedoms seems to suggest otherwise, and if the Milton Friedmans of the world are right, the procedure of fulfilling increased consumer demand habituates people to freedom of choice and leads to citizens insisting on liberty across the board. Already, no one trusts China’s economic data; part of the obfuscation seems to be to conceal its efforts to manage consumer demand and suppress it. It seems probable that China, on the give-an-inch-take—a-mile principle, would want to intentionally restrict consumer demand to forestall unrest. So it keeps wages (and consumer demand) low, produces goods and sells them to the West, and then uses the proceeds to buy Treasurys and keep its currency weak (making foreign goods expensive and also pre-empting consumer demand). It pooh-poohs the West with talks of rebalancing its economy and reducing its current-accounts surplus, but takes no action. Its recent stimulus plan, as the FT argues, does little to address this. Setser adds that Chinese tax rebates on exports will only exacerbate the imbalances that are creating problems for the Chinese economy in the first place—namely that world demand for cheap Chinese goods is falling yet the Chinese economy has little incentive to shift to manufacturing for the domestic market. (Though the Chinese government might want to consider some palliatives if this sort of thing keeps up.)

This seems to add up to Chinese government officials being reluctant to unleash consumerism in China. Perhaps they fear moral corrosion. Perhaps the ghost of Mao is admonishing them. Perhaps the Chinese people haven’t effectively been taught how to demand—maybe there is a marketing deficit there. But some attention should be paid to the political and social factors (as opposed to only the economic factors) that retard the growth of consumer demand. It may be that consumer demand can’t automatically be called into being simply because economic models require it.

by Thomas Hauner

14 Nov 2008

Living legend is a term frequently abused. Interlopers inattentively dilute it, so squeezing what meaning remains from it does not give justice to David “Honeyboy” Edwards’ remarkable, and continuing, 93-year history steeped in the blues. However, tossing in the name Robert Johnson—whom Honeyboy was acquainted with and whose fateful final performance he was present at—instantly adds much deserved lore and intrigue to Honeyboy’s often overlooked stature.

Let it be clear that the rowdy crowd at B.B. King’s knew exactly whom and what they were listening to. The venue’s dinner-theatre arrangement easily gave way to whoops and hollers that helped energize Honeyboy’s aged hands and weathered voice, while second guitarist Rocky Lawrence also egged them on between and during songs.

Joining the nonagenarian and Lawrence was harmonica player Michael Frank, longtime collaborator and friend. But Frank and Lawrence were merely rhythmic and social companions to Honeyboy’s deep shuffling vocals and finger picked slides. Together they played with apt dynamics, beautifully conveying the emotional ebb and flow of each tune.

Opening with “Catfish Blues” Honeyboy himself was avuncular and sympathetic. Maintaining a woefully serious face on the surface through most of his songs, he would eventually give in to a bright-eyed grin when the audience got particularly rowdy, like during “Sweet Home Chicago”, or when they howled after he sang “I don’t know right from wrong” during “Don’t Say I Don’t Love You”. I also personally felt for him and his inherent frustrations, his fingers not always responding as they once had nor as he’d intended.

Like Honeyboy’s humble origins in Shaw, Mississippi (where the historic Mississippi Blues Trail marks his roots) his sound was bare yet refined, unfiltered yet concentrated with decades of raw emotion. In fact, much of Honeyboy’s demeanor suggested ceaseless pain from the woeful subjects of his songs: drunks, untrustworthy companions, and his own primordial vices. 

But he keeps moving on though, musically steeped in a distancing past, his life embodying that of the mythical traveling blues man.

by Timothy Gabriele

13 Nov 2008

In my review of Max Richter’s 24 Postcards in Full Colour, I choked a bit trying to connect the dots between Richter and the texturalists, that sorted group who together make up a kind of non-laptop-based “glitch” scene by exploiting the naturalized deterioration of sound and using entropy and antiquity as instruments in their recordings.  I’d count among this lot Bibio, Belong, Optiganally Yours, Ariel Pink, Burning Star Core, William Basinski, The Caretaker, Boards of Canada, Black Mother Super Rainbow, and almost all noise musicians, amongst a host of others.  There’s something important I wasn’t quite putting my finger on when examining the vitality of the recursive losses within the effects these musicians employ. 

And then I came upon this old article by Woebot, which describes the advent of digital technology as the end of time, at least as far as sound media is concerned (even going so far as to speculate that such problem have facilitated the crisis of conscience and consciousness in the music industry).  The article supposes that digital technology has perfected our desire to mummify every artifact in its exact original depiction, creating in essence a whole new generation who will be raised under MP3 and M4A and whatever’s to follow without ever understanding the temporal nature of music.

If digital music threatens to prevent music from colliding into a frictional relationship with time, then all new recorded sound will develop within the framework of a quarantined plasticity usually reserved for only the glossiest of pop stars.  It is left constantly shiny, constantly new, pre-wrapped for consumption.  In this sense, digital rendering is the genetic modification of music.  It threatens to take away what those of us who came of age in the era of tapes and records recall as music’s fallibility- its expiration date.  Remember when the magnetic tape of your cassette would gag itself in the gears of your walkman?  That can never happen with virtual music.  It is immortal, zombified. 

Like a painter who might burn his canvas to simulate aging, the aforementioned texturalists see decay in sound as something more than just window dressing.  Theirs is a kind of simulated attic music (attictronica? attica?), which carries the emotional resonance of years of dust and debris, the history of an old record collection like the rings of tree bark, despite the fact that it’s newly created music coming out of the speakers.  Their work examines the mysterious aesthetic of time’s toll on the intangible, a sound once uttered, once carried through the air and captured by a microphone, forever to be trapped in polyvinyl casing.  The tape decay and natural wear these artists dress their productions with carries an intrinsic gravity, but not just superficially from their association with a kind of universalist nostalgia.  This kind of imperative programming reproduces a world in which in which the studio is not a vacuum and music serves as an organic member of the phenomenological community, regardless of its relationship to methods of production. 

In the age of Pro Tools, one need not leave their desktop to have access to a home studio, so the decision of, say, Ariel Pink or Axolotl to use a four track or tape recorder should be seen as both an aesthetic and ideological choice.  It’s futile to argue which aesthetic sounds “better”, as all presumptive hierarchies are entirely subjective, but it’s not beyond reason to wonder if this kind of reactionary choice does not serve as a kind of elegy.

Whenever coming upon a just-barely rescued anthology or a blog cataloguing rare and out-of-print records, its halts me when I think of those that never made it out of the crates, works of art reduced to dust before any one could ever hear their beauty again.  Therein lies the sad secret of our great musical culture and its many institutions, all predicated on the seemingly populist notion that our shared artifacts are the distillation of mass tastemaking consensus, that we arrive by our heroes through their indisputable superiority.  The fact of the matter is that most great music lives and dies in a basement.  It gets thrown out or tossed aside, never making its way to the right sets of ears (namely, yours).  In fact the greatest song ever written is probably being written right now.  In a few days, it’ll uploaded to a random Myspace page in a corner of the internet no one visits, and promoted by a bunch of kids who are better musicians than salesmen.  The Myspace page may remain up for years, but only a select few will care about the greatest song ever written.

As disappointing as this notion may seem, there’s something self-satisfactory about the intransigence of sonic mortality.  Degenerative C90s and scratchable records were made to be discarded in an attic, forgotten by their owners, and left for dead.  That we even discover them at all is like dancing with a ghost.  And it’s not just the physical music object that is its hauntological essence, but the sound itself too.

The death of sound is something we experience perpetually as each wave vibration detonates against our eardrum and dithers its way into memory.  Recorded sound, like photography, is a time machine, a cheat against nature.  Our record collections are mausoleums of dead sound and now, with digital restoration, all these songs are absent the signs of rot usually observed in a corpse.  The modern age has also seen an exponential expansion of the aural Golgotha.  Technology now allows us the ability to establish a metalibrary of all recorded sound, left in the exact state it was recorded in.  Conspiracy theories tell of a vast NSA database of every phone call in America, recorded for posterity.  But when one thinks of the massive undertaking one would have to undergo to simply establish a categorical framework for analyzing these data mines, the idea seems more like a feckless battle against time than a system of control.

Recorded sound information is only doomed to be forgotten, left in eternal hospice without permission to fade off.  As vast as our music collections grow, as knowledgeable as we become by dissecting the past, we’re still left with the burdensome task of actually listening to all that music.  Eventually, the speed of information catches up with us all, just like death.

Hunters and collectors will continue to search through the bottomless record crate in attempts to communicate with the past.  Others will seek out only the obscure and potentially miss out on music’s essential function as a social unifier.  The rest of us will either look for a happy medium or settle for what the critical establishment, our friends and family, or the rest of the music community contends to be the best music has to offer, even though it probably isn’t. 

Will future generations be able to establish their own unique identities through music if what they listen to sounds exactly like what their parents listened to though?  What digital music threatens to erode is the knowledge that all music has a history, a genealogy, and plenty of contemporaries who have now passed on into the great record crate in the sky.  At the cellular level, we’re always changing into new people, shedding our skins, replacing dead cells with new ones, old music with new.  Musical evolution, like human evolution, requires us to allow for the death of music, loved or not, sanctified or vilified, to fertilize the grounds for tomorrow’s sounds.  Whispering crumbled, fragmentary, and wounded sounds of wisdom, the texturalists tell us to let it be.

by Bill Gibron

13 Nov 2008

It’s a strange weekend for film fans. Unless you’re enamored of a certain British secret agent and his contemporary post-modern reimagining, you’re actually fairly stuck for something to see. Clearly convinced that Bond will dominate the box office, the studios have steered clear of this date, restricting the releases to a bare minimum. Indeed, unless you’re lucky enough to live in one of those limited viewing areas that see award season surprises before the rest of the anxious, overwrought public, there’s nothing else new. Leave it to SE&L then to suggest 10 alternatives (five films, five DVDs) that easily replace 007 and his hyper-action epic. While some will seem obvious, there’s a few oddballs tossed into the mix as well (click on the title to find reviews, when available/applicable):

In Theaters:

Slumdog Millionaire
One of 2008’s best films, without question. Sadly, this critic is unable to add anything further, having been specifically embargoed until the movie opens proper in mid-December. This amazing multicultural take on an Indian boy’s horrific life will have you wincing and cheering at the same time.




Zach and Miri Make a Porno
Don’t let Kevin Smith’s past cinematic indiscretions and naughty by nature attitude turn you off of this winning, effective comedy. Sure, there’s some scatology involved, and the material may not be perfectly suited for the uptight, but there is as much heart as horniness in this unlikely love story.




Rachel Getting Married
Jonathan Demme is back - and apparently, few in the fanbase truly care. The movie is receiving raves, the acting is impeccable, and yet the audiences aren’t coming. Do yourself a favor and see this amazing movie about familial dysfunction and betrayal before it slowly slinks out of your local Multiplex. You’ll be well rewarded.




W.
Oliver Stone’s even-handed, sometimes sympathetic view of the sitting lame duck President is one of 2008’s shrewdest political statements. All sonny boy wanted to do was impress his overbearing, power hungry poppa. Ruining the US in the rest of the world’s eyes is apparently the way to do it.




RocknRolla
Guy Ritchie is given over to certain solid self-indulgences - and some of us love him for it. Now free of the ball and chain known as the Material Girl, he is able to return to and revel in them, delivering a devastating return to UK ruffian form. Includes a career-making turn by Toby Kebbell (remember that name).





On DVD:

Stuck
Stuart Gordon, the man behind Re-Animator and From Beyond, takes a true story about a homeless man trapped in a car’s windshield after a hit and run (the driver simply ignored him) and turns it into one of the most visceral statements about our sour society circa the ‘00s you’ve ever seen.




Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Ok…ok…Guillermo Del Toro is a geek. We get it. That doesn’t mean he can’t make masterpieces now can it? First there was The Devil’s Backbone. Then the brilliant Pan’s Labyrinth. Oddly enough, this underappreciated summer standout is one of his best, most personal efforts. It’s grandeur on a groovy scale. 




Sukiyaki Western Django
Takashi Miike is best known for taking the Japanese Yakuza film and its genre gangster offshoots into sickening, violence strewn territories. For this fabulous left turn homage to spaghetti oaters, he decides to cut down on the blood and instead flood the screen with gorgeous, pseudo-psychedelic imagery. And it works wonderfully.




Mil Mascaras: Resurrection
Mexico’s fascination with the legendary Luchadore wrestlers is given a contemporary makeover by confirmed old school fanboy Jeffrey Ulhmann. The result is something that pays perfect respect to the sensational schlock of the past while perfecting same for the new millennium.




Dante’s Inferno
Looking for something really unusual? How about an urban update of the famous Divine Comedy, acted out by carefully constructed and imaginatively manipulated paper puppets? Sound insane? Well, thanks to creative genius and certified whack job Sean Meredith, it actually turns into something quite profound.

by L.B. Jeffries

13 Nov 2008

The Graveyard is an art game about being old. More specifically, it imposes a series of motion limitations in conjunction with an interruptible cutscene and potential random event. The motion limitation is the limping slow pace of the old woman you control. The interruptible cutscene is when she crosses through a graveyard, sits on a bench, and muses about life while a song about death plays. The random event is that she could drop dead at any moment during this exchange. The game is over when you stand up and make it back to the gates of the grave yard.

The game came out in March and received quite a bit of press when it did, so this post is late to the party. What prompted this was a run-down by the company concerning their experiences with making and releasing the game. The objective of the game, as stated by the developers, “In many games, death is simply a temporary game state, a way for the game to express your failure. We were motivated by this shocking disregard for the meaning of death to make something that explores this concept more deeply. Not just your own death but also how we live our lives among people who will die or have died. Death is a fascinating part of life. We find exploring the emotions and contradictions triggered by it, interesting and moving.” Accomplishing this meant animating the old woman in such a way that her pace was slow and tedious. On all sides are tombstones while all the branching paths lead nowhere in particular. You go to the bench and the woman reflects about her life and you observe this. Before and after the sequence there is no music and the soundscape is mostly birds and your slow foot steps.

The reaction to this was fairly interesting. Manifesto Games, who represent countless indie games and distribute them for bargain prices, did not respond when asked to host the game. Steam, run by Valve and home to many classic old titles, was not interested. Even Jonathon Blow, maker of Braid refused to host it at his Experimental Games Workshop. The developers explain, “To some extent The Graveyard is disqualified beforehand because “it is not a game“…The gameplay in The Graveyard cannot be considered experimental/interesting/etc because it cannot be considered gameplay. Or something along those lines. There was another strange response that we heard from several game experts. When they realized that The Graveyard was a work of art, their reaction was to try and uncover its meaning. And they were confused when they didn’t find a clear message. It’s as if they, even when looking at art, couldn’t shake the inclination to deal with everything in the world as a puzzle to be solved.” In other words, because the player lacks the ability to affect the experience through game design, it is not considered a video game.

It’s easy to get pissy about these titans of the ‘Games as Art’ movement shunning a title that goes for such a remarkable experience but they also have their own visions about what direction that movement should be heading. The game is, at best, a piece of interactive fiction and attempts at poesy do not necessarily justify its failure to use the power of choice which makes video games profound. Even the Adventure Company’s Deirdra Kiai complained about the lack of any real understanding about the old woman and being irritated at the game’s slow pace. The issue it raises, both to the developers and the audience, is whether or not revulsion and distaste is a valid emotional response to a video game experience. Kiai complains that she wanted something affirming or interesting about the old woman to make the experience have some kind of meaning that dignified old age, the indie critics preferred Passage because of how the game design created sympathy for the characters as they grew older. Is their failure to find these emotions and meanings in the game a critical failure, considering it sought to explore the contradictions and mixed feeling we have about old age?

Perhaps not. Experiencing that getting old means you don’t have the ability to waltz around the graveyard anymore (and thus isn’t in the game) is disconcerting for most. Having the old woman’s song be little more than musings about frailty and people that have passed away hardly generates empathy. The fact that throughout this experience you may succumb to the very thing all around you, death, hardly allows for much of an emotional response except cynical fear. If there is a flaw to this game, it’s that it does not provide much for the player to experience except the feelings of frustration that Kiai had.

And yet, I am not sure I would expect much else from a game about old age.

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