Buffalo Heads by Peter Weibel, Woody Vasulka

This communication is filtered through the medium of this image on your screen, surrounded by advertisements and links that I did not choose to bring to you, that I cannot foretell.

Buffalo Heads

Publisher: Universal Music International
Subtitle: Media Study, Media Practice, Media Pioneers, 1973-1990
Author: Woody Vasulka
Price: $59.95
Display Artist: Peter Weibel, Woody Vasulka
Length: 800
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9780262720502
US publication date: 2008-09

As I write this -- staring at the screen, the blinking curser egging me on to be more productive, to be more eloquent, to express myself ever more quickly -- I am reminded of the many poets in the past who have decried the cruelty of the blank page. No matter what one writes, it seems to fall short of the demand of the emptiness that one always confronts in that blank page, or this blank screen. As I write this, you are not here. I have no inkling of who you are and what you want from me. As you read this, staring at your computer screen, I am not there. I am no longer thinking these thoughts. I am not available to you for further discussion. We are marked for each other by our mutual absence -- your absence as I write, mine as you read. We are connected, you and I, only through the medium of this electronic image, this modicum of data that has no materiality of its own but is only translated into a legible form by your computer screen. At any moment, you might turn away, the electricity might fail, your Internet connection might drop and our tenuous link will have been broken.

Our connection at this moment is not immediate; it is mediated. Indeed, it is doubly mediated inasmuch as language itself is a medium that serves to bridge (albeit imperfectly and while fulfilling demands of its own) the chasm that always lies between us. This communication is filtered through the medium of this image on your screen, surrounded by advertisements and links that I did not choose to bring to you, that I cannot foretell. These advertisements might be for products that I would not endorse, products that I might even find objectionable, and yet they become part of what you are taking in at the moment that you are reading these words. In as sense, they become part of this message; you and I become their unwitting accomplices.

But it would be disingenuous of me to claim that these advertisements distort my message or that they are merely the necessary detritus of our fleeting communication. They are as much a part of the communication as any of the words that I now write in your absence and that you now read in mine (two different “now”s mediated by this image, by this language). As Marshall McLuhan never tired of reminding us, “the medium is the message” or as he sometimes wrote, “the medium is the massage”. Reading these words on a computer screen (as opposed to reading it printed in a newspaper as opposed to hearing me speak these thoughts to you over the telephone as opposed to speaking with me in person) alters the message itself. Indeed there is no message without a medium. And no medium is innocent just as no message is innocent. All media are tendentious. And yet media are often self-effacing (hence “the massage”), always asking you to ignore their presence.

McLuhan’s thoughts concerning media suffuse the various essays, artworks, and interviews contained in the weighty new tome Buffalo Heads: Media Study, Media Practice, Media Pioneers, 1973-1990, edited by Woody Vasulka and Peter Weibel. This impressive book was assembled for the exhibition Mindframes: Media Study at Buffalo 1973-1990 and documents the work and writings of a remarkable cadre of media artists and theorists associated with the Center for Media Study at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo (now the Department for Media Study at the University of Buffalo). The Center for Media Study, the first organization of its kind in the USA, was founded in 1972 by Gerald O’Grady. O’Grady, an English professor influenced by McLuhan, also founded the Educational Communications Center at SUNY and the public institution Media Study/Buffalo. Thus by 1973 there were three institutions under the stewardship of O’Grady, all in Buffalo and in constant communication, that were working toward exploring and furthering our understanding of media and developing their aesthetic, social, and political potential. Buffalo Heads illuminates a fascinating chapter in a history that continues to unfold, a history in which we are participating at this very moment in our mutual absence -- I, the writer, and you, the reader.

The book opens with a preface by Peter Weibel that articulates the wonderfully rich historical moment in which Gerald O’Grady found himself in early 1970s Buffalo and that led him to cultivate ties with several fascinating thinkers, artists, and writers. An essay by John Minkowsky then discusses the exhibition, Mindframes, which was on display at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany from 16 December 2006 to 25 March 2007, featuring artworks, writings, and interviews of James Blue, Tony Conrad, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Steina, Woody Vasulka, and Peter Weibel. The exhibition contained roughly 400 hours of film and video and the curators designed the architectural layout of the show in order to reinforce but also to reinvent the artwork on display. That is to say, the exhibition space enters into the art and forges a new range of possibilities for one to interact with that art; the space and the art, wholly entwined, then involve the viewer in their complicity. Minkowsky’s careful description and the wonderful photographs of the exhibition document what is ultimately an ephemeral and almost unimaginable event. In this case, the vicarious experience is better than none at all.

Indeed this book is rife with vicarious experiences. The remainder of the volume consists of the writings of Gerald O’Grady and the artists whose work was on display in Mindframes interspersed with photographs of the people and their works. The essays are of varying degrees of complexity and interest. The essays are organized by author, beginning with O’Grady and then continuing with the artists. This is not the kind of book one reads cover to cover. Indeed it seems to reward a far more casual form of reading in which one flips to an essay, reads it carefully, and then ponders the ideas it contains. It is a book that demands slow consideration. But if given the time, many of the essays prove worth one’s trouble.

O’Grady’s essays are perhaps the most prosaic of the lot. His discussions mostly just lay out the projects behind his three institutions, the degree tracks he established, and the equipment and facilities he had at his disposal. No doubt such information is useful as documentation but it makes for less than compelling reading. O’Grady is at his best and most tantalizing in the two speeches in which he directly comes to grips with the writings and thoughts of his friend Marshall McLuhan. Here one gets a sense of what an engaging thinker O’Grady could be.

Other highlights of the collection include a bizarre interview/discussion among Gene Youngblood, Woody Vasulka, and Steina in which they try to come to terms with the smallest unit of meaning within video art, Tony Conrad’s essay “A Propaedeutic for Active Viewing” that claims that quality in art ought to be disparaged in preference for “difference”, the various interviews with filmmakers (including Godard) conducted by James Blue, and almost any of the writings of Peter Weibel -- particularly the essay “Photo-Fake” in which Weibel debunks the notion that the photograph somehow captures reality unawares and can present the truly authentic.

Buffalo Heads is not a book for everyone. It is not a quick read even for those who are predisposed to be open to its subject matter. Some of the ideas expressed are rather dated (after all some of these writings are over 30 years old) but many remain prescient and deeply intriguing. Buffalo Heads is an intellectual challenge that, at the very least, will force its readers to contemplate media as extensions of our nervous systems, as McLuhan would have it, allowing us to reach and feel farther than we have heretofore been able to do -- to reach out, to grope perhaps, for each other.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Julian Barratt and Oliver Maltman (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.