Possessed by ‘Wild Palms’: How Far Will You Go to Feel Connected?

Have listeners of the Danish ambient electronic outfit, Croatian Amor, given more of themselves than the musician ever would?

It created quite a stir in the mediasphere, yet I only belatedly and almost accidentally heard about The Wild Palms, the new release by Danish ambient electronic outfit Croatian Amor (aka Loke Rahbek). The music mattered less than the debatable process of its acquisition: my friend, it turned out, had sent a picture of himself naked (with ‘The Wild Palms’ scrawled on his body) in order to get hold of Croatian Amor’s last cassette.

Such was the musician’s seemingly random, and somehow despotical, decree: a nude picture of yourself for a cassette. Croatian Amor audaciously proposed that, since he (figuratively) bared himself as an artist, listeners should (literally) bare themselves, too.

For a few days I pondered upon the statement, wavering between amazement and utter distress. It disturbed me profoundly, stirring something of a melancholic stupor within me. I could not comprehend it.

Why would so many people subscribe to Croatian Amor’s rules? Was it because they wanted the music so much? It seemed a disproportionate, extreme deed to accomplish for a tape. Was it because (more likely) there was so much loneliness that any means of getting in touch, of getting closer, was preferable to this? Was it because people, in the age of digital ennui, sought solace in a suitably controversial art project? Was it a mere matter of, once again, épater le bourgeois? Or, quite simply, was the prospect of an apparently ‘free’ collector’s item enough to lure fans into doing almost anything?

Quite obviously, there was a more complex and radical story unfolding beneath the music. The music itself, I would argue, only played a minor part in participants’ motivations; if anything, it functioned as a pre-text, or a prompt to extravagance. Sending a picture of oneself naked was a bold act of abandon and of expression. It confusedly indicated desire, solitude, boredom and despair.

At the same time, it expressed the urgent, furious need to do something, a need which, I believe, did not systemically spring from misplaced narcissism or exhibitionist tendencies. Rather, it was the need to make contact, by participating into a wider, very intimate yet definitely collective, experience: to test one’s limit, perhaps even to destroy, or let go, something of oneself and one’s identity in the process.

In any case, this was an ontologically violent act – the strange, quite certainly traumatic, experience of exposing oneself to a stranger’s gaze.

In many ways, the idea itself seemed random: Croatian Amor’s justification of ‘baring oneself’ was a thin, inconsistent one. It could have been anything, any dare: why not, for instance, ask listeners to send something they had created? Or challenge them to shave their head, or steal a cumbersome object. Was this not enough?

The project was happening in what seemed a largely deregulated, uncontrollable, area – it was rooted in the digital world. Reciprocally, the smooth, easy quietness of the digital world certainly inspired it. It was a game, albeit a highly ambiguous one. What Croatian Amor demanded was a gratuitous act in the existentialist sense of the word. Because it did not make sense, and could not be strictly justified, it appeared as a truly ob-scene demand, that is to say, etymologically, something which fell outside categories.

Henry Miller once wrote that the birth of obscenity signified the disappearance of a form – that obscenity, in other words, announced something was dead, or about to die. It was the last stage before complete loss. It translated an artistic or ontological crisis. I cannot, obviously, claim to know and can only assume that there were as many reasons for participating as there were participants, all with various claims. I cannot, and do not wish, to judge. But The Wild Palms project seems a critical or crucial event. The fact that it should be linked to music consumption seemed to show the complete absurdity of cultural exchanges.

Something does not work anymore. The project went against the grain. Some musicians and record labels traditionally entice fans into buying their products by offering an abundance of carefully designed objects, limited edition memorabilia and other ‘magic’ artefacts. Here (and though the tape itself may be beautiful) the musician demands an act of divestment which is not monetary.

Still I could not help feeling that listeners were giving more of themselves than the musician ever would: theirs was a bigger gift, a bigger sacrifice. They parted with a most intimate and precious image.

This could indicate two main things. Either the body is clearly desacralised and devalued – perhaps this has been the case for a long time – and sending a photograph meant nothing to the participant. After all, the naked body in itself is a banal topos of the Western world; pornography is not new, and the art and literature of the 20th century have routinely engaged with crude sexuality: from the paintings of Eric Fischl and the drawings of Pierre Klossowski, to the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and Annette Messager, the films of Nagisa Oshima, Paul Vecchiali or Alain Fleisher, or again the writings of Miller and Bataille.

Yet, in the present case the amateur photographs are not aesthetical objects a priori (unless, perhaps, the inscription or signature ‘The Wild Palms’ transforms them into art). Or, the second thing it could mean was that: the body was still valued, and the fan was making an immense sacrifice. The whole process somehow reminded me of the potlatch of primitive societies: when your neighbour offered you a gift, you had to give something greater in exchange, even if (especially if) it utterly ruined you. Ruin itself (and the shame with came with it) was the most beautiful, the most perfect gift of all.

The exchange of a cassette versus a body (or the image of a body) seemed to ridicule and undermine the whole notion of value and exchange. There was no equivalence, no common denominator between the serially produced cultural object and the self. How could there be? The lure of participating into a collective work of art meant a form of voluntary self-annihilation. It presupposed quite an extraordinary degree of courage, lunacy or self-denegation.

At the same time, the project may have made things ‘special’ and novel again, by reinjecting (however spuriously) an aura and a symbolic weight into an increasingly moribund music object. Mostly it created a very unique form of music consumption. The choice of the cassette as a fetish was not accidental, the cassette having become a medium of choice for contemporary hipster culture. Barely played, it exists as an object of leisurely contemplation. It is an empty vessel, a mythical object.

Croatian Amor asked for something extreme, and he knew it. The Wild Palms project resembled a radical, equivocal (perhaps even sadistic) test of devotion. The musician coldly stored the pictures he received on a hard disk, which only he can access – pornographic material would be kept no differently – an anonymous accumulation and circulation of files, an archive of secret, shameless documents. There were no more names; everyone was marked as ‘Wild Palms’. Nothing was special anymore. It barely mattered.

The veil of secrecy, which necessarily enveloped the whole process, paradoxically reinforced the need to speak about it, to mediate it on internet forums and in ‘real life’ conversations. Croatian Amor, and by extension the other projects (Lust for Youth, Damien Dubrovnik, Var) and the aptly named label, Posh Isolation, are getting miraculous amounts of promotion. But promotion is only an aspect; I believe it deserves a deeper analysis, beyond its anecdotal or sensational aspects.

The project materialised fears, crystallising contemporary debates on the nature of music in the networked age: what does it mean to be connected? How do audiences relate to musicians? How do we relate to each other? Croatian Amor’s project proposed an alien, alternative and controversial story of (music) consumption; it established a sensual, possibly uncomfortable, connection between the fan and the musician. It alluded to the libidinal economy of desire which ties some musicians to their public, and successfully staged the immaterial notion of attachment, affect and (perhaps) emotional exploitation.

Although there was a physical exchange (the tape was posted to you), there was no real or direct communication at any point. By a silent and taciturn agreement, the fan has to keep the tape a secret, the way Croatian Amor keeps the photograph – jealously. Quite ironically, then, nothing will be shared with anyone.

Musically, it is a relatively infertile venture; the mode of access to the album does not encourage its dissemination but its confiscation from the world. Socially, it is an important story: it divides opinions, it makes people speak, it starts polemical debates. In the end, as part of the process, the Wild Palms cassette tape did not amount to much and yet it meant so much – it was less a climax than the tangible trace of a priceless and intense story. To own the tape meant: ‘Something happened. I did it. I was part of it. It was all real.’ And reality has come to define itself in the most extreme form.

The French sociologist Baudrillard would have written eloquently about this: the collapse of the social, the intoxicating desire to exist, the unrelenting need for speed, the quest for intensity, the continual yearning for something real to the point of sickness and, always, the absolute, implacable abyss of loneliness.

The genesis of Croatian Amor’s last album illuminates what I felt confusedly: in a context of material saturation and cultural hypertrophy, it may be that one yearns less for possessions than for emotional involvements. Such involvements, however, come at a price: the paradoxical silencing of the self.

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Above: Sexy woman’s back & buttocks from Shutterstock.com.