February 10th, 2014

Adam Curtis: Pop Culture’s Edgiest Truth-Teller

“Although we don’t realize it, the way we see everything in the
world today is through the eyes of the computers.” — Adam Curtis



I discovered documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis a couple of years ago when my friend, the writer John Calendo, forwarded me a link to Curtis’ 2011 film All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace with an ammendment: “This is weird, so you’ll like it.”

On the surface (not a good place to go for a description of Curtis’ work) this looked to be a documentary about how computers and people have come to co-exist. But no. This was a bold salvo that cracked open the notion of how computers have colonized the world by playing off of our inability to tolerate uncertainty and the unknown. Computers promise systems and control and people like control.

Remember in Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001, when HAL is slowly disassembled by Dave and the computer keeps moaning: “Stop. Don’t do that Dave. I can feel myself fading.” Well, that was a fine bit of prescience that Curtis’ film indirectly explores. Computers and feelings. Feelings as visions. Visions as the future. A ridiculous confluence? Not really when you consider the power of identification and what identification can wreak when wedded to machines.

Revisit the devastating economic crash that destroyed East Asia in 1997 or the ‘recovery’ we are still stuck in after the global economic meltdown of 2008 — all directly related to the manipulation of the markets via computers. Or doubly unimaginable, revisit the utopian visions of the counterculture movement in the 60s. Those dreamscapes of returning to the organic rhythms and glorious symmetry of nature.

Those were computer-based ideals that took hold like a fever as techno models more and more came to be considered the perfect matrix to build a new world upon. They do not exist in nature, as Curtis shows. Nature leans towards the chaotic. But not so, when framed in a computer-based template.

Even the title to Curtis’s film is taken from the hippie poet Richard Brautigan, who wandered through early 60s Haight-Ashbury, distributing xeroxed copies of his idyl to whomever would have them. Man and machine cohabiting in constant bliss. It seems a crazy conceit of the counterculture ethos, but, again, as Curtis shows, this concept was based on computer systems as matrixes for creating a better society.

His documentary, All Watched Over disconcertingly opens with Pizzicato Five‘s pop song Baby Love Child bouncing through the soundtrack while images of people jacked into computer screens stream by. The rapt computer users remind me of those “dairying ants” that milk aphids for honeydew, a juice that’s excreted from the aphid’s ass. Meaning, there is a constant, never-broken attention loop projected into the computer screen, as if nourishing forces are flowing from the screen’s glow, into its viewers’ brain-holes. It is weird.

And then, boom, a disruptive cut, a studio tech’s blaring announcement amidst the disintegrating soundtrack and we’ve jumped back 55 years to a Mike Wallace interview with the doyen of capitalism, Ayn Rand — her dark, darting bird eyes scanning the studio furtively. Read more

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January 27th, 2014

The Grammys: Porn Yes. Protest No.


Like I’ve done every year since I was a wee lad, I watched the Grammys last night. Which was more of a long slog through tepid, dish-watery music with lotsa nostalgia and female artists stirring hormones (shock!) to confirm their viability in the pop marketplace, which isn’t much of a vital music milieu anymore.

When a friend asked me at dinner recently to name my favorite albums from last year, I couldn’t think of any. Singles stood out, yes. But cohesive productions, works that normally qualify as an ‘album’? Not so much. There was engaging music, for certain, but it was found on obscure paths, from esoteric artists or labels or autodidact home studio aficionados. That New Zealand’s lovely Lorde won two awards last night was a nice compensation for the long train of tedium.

Gone are the days when a creation of genius, like Stevie Wonder‘s Innervisions, would command a pile of Grammys. Now it’s target group, marketing department-derived music that translates instantly into cash for the dinosaur labels. During her acceptance speech last night, some country artist thanked Mercury and I thought: Oh cool, she’s into astrology; but then recalled how that used to be a big label.

So, is it surprising that the big winners last night were robots? Artists that didn’t even speak but osmotically conveyed gratitude through other entities on stage. Very much the reverse of how Daft Punk comprised their album: by siphoning off the best melodies and riffs from previously established hits from Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder and others. I enjoyed Daft Punk’s album, I have a copy, and it’s fun to put on when I’m cleaning the house and thinking about Donna Summer‘s Bad Girls — which I used to clean the house with. Back in the 80s.
Read more

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January 04th, 2014

The Roaring Engine of This Tremendous Time

“We are living in a demented world …

Everywhere there are doubts as to the solidity of our social structure, vague fears of the imminent future, a feeling that our civilization is on the way to ruin.

They are not merely the shapeless anxieties which beset us in the small hours of the night when the flame of life burns low. They are considered expectations founded on observation and judgment of an overwhelming multitude of facts.

How to avoid the recognition that almost all things which once seemed sacred and immutable have now become unsettled, truth and humanity, justice and reason?

We see forms of government no longer capable of functioning, production systems on the verge of collapse, social forces gone wild with power.

The roaring engine of this tremendous time seems to be heading for a breakdown.

But immediately the antithesis forces itself on our minds. Never has there been a time when men were so clearly conscious of their commanding duty to co-operate in the task of preserving and improving the world’s well being and human civilization.”

— Johan Huizinga

From In The Shadow of Tomorrow
Animate GIF by ABVH from an illustration by Alexis Diaz.

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November 21st, 2013

Still and Always We Want Waking

Why does death catch us by surprise, and why love?

We still and always want waking.

We should amass half dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up: instead we watch television and miss the show.

— Annie Dillard
Installation by Eva and Franco Mattes (aka 0100101110101101.ORG)

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August 13th, 2013

Can You Hear Me Now?

Watching the NSA/PRISM surveillance scandal unravel is disconcerting on a score of different of fronts. The most salient, as the Pentagon Papers’ papa Daniel Ellsberg puts it, is the “possibility to roll back a key part of what has amounted to an ‘executive coup’ against the US constitution.”

“Possibilities” like this also crop unsavory mushrooms, like Congress’s own Lollypop Kid, Rand Paul, co-opting the fracas to rally support for his presidential bid in 2016. One disaster begets another.

With an eruption of this magnitude in the global theater (OMG, even China’s databases have been mined) and given the omnipresence of online bobble heads — logorrheic pundits, Armageddonites and wannabe journalists, it’s wise — just like the NSA — to sift your information discreetly. What (and how much data) should you pay attention to?

But first, consider how we gorged on data shortly after 9/11 — and what little good that yielded. Meaning, no matter the quantity, it was impossible to escape our primitive desire for Old Testament style vengeance. Lots of information doesn’t necessarily soothe the primitive instincts.

By not disciplining our reptilian brain, we were, simply put, distracted into a war with Iraq. Today we blame President Bush, but societies always have the king or simpleton that best mirrors their collective mindset. Or as Joseph de Maistre put it: “Every country has the government it deserves.”

There was very little ‘presence of mind’ after 9/11 but lots of aping. We all took on the habit of borrowing opinions from experts to weave together a narrative that made sense, made us feel safe — or vindicated. And so began the great divide between tree houses. The Fox and the Peacock. The red and the blue. The Hatfield and the McCoy’s. The underpinnings on the dumbing of America.

The New Yorker‘s George Packer described this post-9/11 dementia as: “Too much information and not enough understanding of power: globalization and violence merged to create a particular kind of psychosis, with well-founded fears and judgments warped into paranoia and hallucination by nonstop media saturation.”

The weeks after 9/11 were charged with an otherworldly sensitivity. It’s true, people were kinder to one another in the subway, kinder to themselves. But shortly thereafter an eerie, robotic re-engagement kicked in. To be disconnected from the agitated hive-mind felt unsafe (“Honey, what’s the color of today’s Terror Alert?”)

To heal as a nation we were instructed to “shop more”. I remember talking to friends in Germany — a revelation. Europeans considered us with disbelief — and then confirmation (Americans were not only obnoxious, but ignorant too!) How could we be so naive? So self-absorbed with the current version of our Manifest Destiny (the American Dream) — that we’d no connection to the historical and global implications of our pursuits, ideologies and childlike trust in fools?

I mention 9/11 because, well, origin, how the tale began, is good to throw into to the NSA/PRISM whirlpool. Post 9/11, cryptologic storehouses like the NSA (humorously dubbed by insiders as: No Such Agency) were shored and granted carte blanche under the Bush/Cheney congress and its comfy-sounding Homeland Security rubric (a term George Orwell would have envied). To continue shopping at Wal*Mart was critical, and to have that sort of post-shock nonchalance meant surrendering our privacy. But more important was the notion to not look back, not to scrutinize how the big suck would be implemented.

If you put all of the above together — civilian surveillance, hypnotic info glut, media manipulation/distraction — and push it through an astrological funnel, you’ll land in the center of the United States’ natal Mercury Pluto opposition. The lone opposition in the USA’s birth chart, the very spine that all of the various planetary relationships that comprise a chart teeter. Read more

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