[9 January 2008]
Pablo Picasso observed that “all art is theft” and so it was: classical composers cribbed from folk melodies and each other, Dadaists recaptioned or reassembled magazine illustrations, Andy Warhol endlessly reproduced the printed images of products and celebrities, Roy Lichtenstein enlarged and manipulated single comic book panels for maximum impact. With the Situationist movement of ‘60s France, the concept of modifying cultural artifacts specifically to contradict and undermine the originals and their socio-political context (already very much a part of the Dada aesthetic) was rechristened détournement, the French word for diversion, distortion, and deflection. Since then, thanks to the efforts of such groups as the Billboard Liberation Front, Adbusters magazine, cultural-critique artists like Ron English, and anyone who has ever altered the message on a subway ad poster with a sharpie, the practice has been kept alive.
In the last 20 years or so, music has proved a fertile medium for new innovations in détournement, from John Oswald’s genre-spawning “plunderphonics”, through Negativland’s ongoing campaigns (against abuse of copyright law, out-of-control advertising, and rabid news media), to the Evolution Control Commitee’s creation of the first modern “mash-ups” (from Herb Alpert and Public Enemy) and Napster-exploiting promotional schemes. With the increasing viability of the personal computer as home-recording studio around the turn of the century, home-made audio détournement only picked up momentum, spawning or enabling labels like Spasticated and V/vm. I’m uncertain of when exactly artists began making the leap to video, but stunning examples like “Gimme the Mermaid” by ever-influential Negativeland (working with renegade Disney animator Tim Maloney), and the works of newer collective Paul Harvey Oswald (and really the entirety of Stay Free Magazine’s Illegal Art exhibit) attest to the potential of the form.
Baltimore’s Jimmy Joe Roche is a junk artist, the video equivalent of one of those sculptors who solders together old car parts, furniture, and decades of cultural flotsom and jetsom into edifices of pop-art and social commentary (détourning, often, simply as a matter of process). Such sculptors create physical junk art from the debris of the modern world, but Roche’s disjointed, blue-screen-technology-abusing chunks of Baltimore Shopping Network or banana-promotion infomercial are divided only by format. His clips of film seem equally derived from sifting through trash culture, and seem equally to encourage accusations of just being a bunch of trash, however packaged. If anything, this scrutiny of discarded pop-culture has only intensified with Ultimate Reality, Roche’s recent collaboration with Wham City house-mate and rapid-rising naive-electro talent Dan Deacon. But even still soundly in the trash-art arena, and still composed entirely of sampled existing video clips, Ultimate Reality is easily his most polished work—dense, psychedelic, hypnotic—and the one most likely to attract both critical and popular attention.
Knowingly or not, Ultimate Reality fits easily into the détournement lineage mapped out above. The first of the 35-minute film’s three mostly-independent segments instantly recalls détournement‘s inherent politics by opening with a shot of California’s republican governor brandishing a broadsword as fighter jets blow up a bridge behind him. While that almost sounds plausible in the current American political landscape, the shot is in fact a composite. Governor Schwarzenegger appears bare-chested, flowing-haired, muscle-bound: it is footage from Conan the Barbarian. The jets, however topical, were lifted directly from True Lies.
Whatever the context, however, Ultimate Reality proves to be purely enjoyable viewing. The simple source material (entirely derived from various Schwarzenegger films) quickly builds up, through endless mirroring, layering, chopping, and re-touching, into a kaleidoscopic tapestry of kitsch. Flaming silhouettes flail across the screen in stereo over a seductive Jamie Lee Curtis and spinning helicopter rotors and galloping horsemen, all breaking through one another and pulsing with unearthly colors. Roche himself appropriately describes the results as “a mandala projected from the third eye of suburban back yards, cracked drive ways, and dusty VCR’s”: even as it dismantles and reconfigures, it cannot help projecting the heady mysticism of nostalgia, of slow afternoons marveling at the pyrotechnics of Commando. And gaudy as the forms and colors can be, there’s often an undeniable beauty to the resulting arrangements. At times it’s easy to lose track of the specifics and be swallowed up in the pleasures of vivid, flittering abstraction.
Dan Deacon may not be the same variety of cultural saboteur, creating his musical arrangements out of primarily original components, but his euphoric arpeggios and candy-colored synth stabs are nonetheless a fitting companion piece to Roche’s visuals. Eschewing any trace of his usual heavily manipulated vocals, Deacon builds sweeping instrumental epics that ebb and flow continuously to match the on-screen intricacies, looping hypnotically in a manner that never jars or distracts from the rest (ultimately, it’s Roche’s show here—Deacon independently bowled us over with last year’s Spiderman of the Rings). Everything is masterfully synced and coordinated to a degree that suggests both components were composed in unison, beats speeding to a swirling, vibrating thrum precisely in time with epileptic bursts of flashing, slo-mo barbarian invaders. Even Deacon’s squeals and slurps of atonal electronic noise find their ready analogue in the video’s cacophonously jumbled clarity.
All this happens in the first ten minutes. For the next segment, Roche slows things down with glacially inching footage from perhaps less fondly remembered Schwarzenegger efforts like Kindergarten Cop and Junior, agonizingly prolonging shots of a third-trimester terminator in lamas class and the classroom, Deacon oozing keys and sparse percussion along in time. Brilliantly, they also work in segments of scrolling decoupaged plot-synopses detailing Detective John Kimble’s mission to avoid killer cyborgs, whatever is lurking in the jungle, and flunking out of high school, all while protecting the “man-womb”. This piece builds slowly as it progresses, eventually incorporating many of of the tricks of the first, before giving way to the frenzied orgy of mutants, robots, and magma that makes up the third and final part. (Bonus inclusion of a couple of older Deacon/Roche music videos extend the video to a full 45 minutes of material, perhaps more interesting for the light they shed on the collaborative building blocks in Roche and Deacon’s past.)
Ultimate Reality is a strangely exhilarating cultural artifact, squeezing equal (however conflicting) parts sun-bleached nostalgia, ecstatic new-rave seizure, Situationist guerrilla-culture, bitterly hysterical current-events commentary, Timothy Leary’s psychedelic religion, copyright and fair use crusade, and mass-media meltdown, into a full collective-American-unconsciousness of glorious Saturday morning cartoons-and-sugar-cereal overstimulation. Really, all or none of those things are inherent to the film, existing clearly but fleetingly for whoever seeks them in its shifting mosaics, and still furnishing those who seek nothing at all with more than enough amusement and entertainment. Perhaps just forget everything I said; it’s inconsequential to enjoyment. But if you want to prod at it for more, go ahead. In this way Ultimate Reality is least-common-denominator art where the denominator really does belong equally to everyone: modern culture scholars and couch-bound stoners will likely find equal reason to rhapsodize. As complex, fantastic, and alarming as the American cultural landscape into which it is being launched.