Rozz-Tox Manifesto/Ralph Records Buy or Die 5

This is the first post on this blog relating to a new research and writing project I began a couple of months ago, more context will trickle out shortly but I’m posting here now in the hope that others interested in the subject might get in touch with any additional info. For now this will probably be of interest only to those who are big fans of Gary Panter (there’s plenty of those) or The Residents.

Gary Panter’s Rozz-Tox manifesto seems to be one of those things that had small ambitions but inspired alot of others to do stuff (like the often quoted line about the Velvet Underground’s first album “everyone who bought it formed a band”). I’ve been doing some old-fashioned art history research to try and uncover a few more details about where and when the manifesto was published – it seems like if people care enough about this its worth trying to put together a more definitive timeline, also to help measure what influence it had and where. I’m not going to delve into the sentiments of the manifesto at this moment, if you’re not familiar with it this version is the more accurate one online.

According to a blog post on Gary’s old site that you can see on Wayback Machine, the manifesto was first published divided into separate weekly items in the personals section of the Los Angeles Reader throughout 1979, an approach attributed to thrift but which seems wholly appropriate to the manifesto’s culture infection mission: “back then getting something set in type cost money. By running it in the Reader, it got set in type for free”. The manifesto then did the rounds of early 80’s Californian alternative press, appearing in STUFF, New West and San Francisco magazine Boulevards, as well as Ralph Records Buy or Die Catalogue 5, 1980:

Another step in the media infiltration campaign was through the RESIDENTS. I approached the CRYPTIC CORPORATION with the manifesto and they were kind and swell enough to include it on some of their record releases. On these releases the image appeared without copyright as an anonymous logo of a pseudo movement, free to pass along. And that was the spirit in which the Cryptics accepted it. And many people reproduced the manifesto from the cover art or from insert flyers in their records which were distributed worldwide.

The Ralph version is the one most seen online (actually the only scanned version online as far as I can see). I’ve seen this credited as the version from New West magazine, unless it was a facsimile of the Ralph catalogue page that was re-printed there, which seems unlikely. I was uncertain which edition of the catalogue the manifesto appeared in but managed to buy a copy of #5 on discogs, and sure enough there’s the manifesto on page 13:

Ralph Records ‘Buy or Die’ No.5, April 1980, pages 12-13: Rozz-Tox Manifesto, see also Rozz Tox T-shirt advertised on page 12.
Ralph Records ‘Buy or Die’ No.5, April 1980, outside cover, artwork by Gary Panter.

I’ve scanned the whole catalogue, you can access a PDF below if you want it (sharing this for research purposes, if any copyright holders want me to take it down let me know)

Seeing the whole catalogue doesn’t really turn up any extra information or context really, but it also came with an article from the September 1980 issue of Trouser Press (no.54) magazine which the previous owner had carefully cut out: ‘Ralph Records: Surrealism A Go Go’, which interestingly opens with a quote from Rozz-Tox, also mentioned during the article

“The catalogue also includes the Rozz-Tox Manifesto, which deals with the creation of a “broad-based art movement” and “a pseudo-avant-garde that is cost-effective.” Pretty neat, huh?”

showing that the manifesto was already having a wider recognition and influence in the culture of the time. The article is otherwise pretty much the standard Residents biography that you will now find elsewhere, but might have been largely new information at the time. You can read that full issue online here (pages 29-31).

‘Ralph Records: Surrealism a go go’ from Trouser Press No.54, September 1980.

Side note: here’s a review of the great ‘Tornader to the Tater’ from issue 78, October 82 of Trouser Press.


My attempts to find any other print versions of Rozz-Tox have otherwise drawn a blank so far. No issues of LA Reader or Boulevards seem to have made it online. I thought I got close with the archive of scanned STUFF magazines on the adsausage site. Issue #30, 1981 contains a Panter-drawn ad for the Pee-Wee Herman stage show, and the contents page tantalisingly listed ‘Gary panter’ for page 121. I reached out to adsausage and JJ Englender who runs the archive very kindly sent me a scan of page 121:

Gary Panter, THE ART POLICE Rule Book, stamped with Gary’s customary date stamp. STUFF Magazine #30, 1981, p.121

It seems most likely Rozz-Tox must have been in STUFF before THE ART POLICE rule book, owing to the manifesto’s single reference to ‘Join the art police’ and Panter’s blog:

‘Some nice young people came over and tried to join the ART POLICE. I told them I wasn’t forming any, but that there were some ART POLICE in Chicago they could join.’

JJ kindly checked his other copies of STUFF in case he hadn’t scanned it but no luck there. So I’m putting this out to the world in the hope someone will send something through. Any information or images relating to the following much appreciated:

– Which issues of LA Reader did the free ads run in?
– Which issues of New West and Boulevards?
– Did it appear in any other issues of Buy or Die, or just number 5?
– Any other known records/magazines that might have contained the manifesto in authorised or unauthorised reproductions?

Get in touch danielseankelly at gmail dot com

Same Actor, Different Character

This is a side note to the spin-off future project – a few months ago I did a bit of a data mining exercise to find out where the crossovers are in the casts of Seinfeld, X Files and Twin Peaks. This was inspired by thinking about a kind of Tommy Westphall universe-in-reverse, i.e. if Westphall requires the sharing of characters between adjacent worlds, this follows the thought of Hollywood as a meta-universe, and the sharing of actors between adjacent productions. If you spend any time watching American TV from the early 90s it’s a pretty common experience to see the same faces pop up regularly playing bit-part characters in single episodes, usually playing roughly similar characters within different worlds.

The choice of Seinfeld, X Files and Twin Peaks as the data sets for this exercise was pretty much arbitrary, apart from the fact that they all have a cult following, and I have watched pretty much all of all three (X files only until the end of the Duchovny years). For Twin Peaks I just used the original 2 series, not Fire Walk with Me or The Return. On reflection using Twin Peaks for this is a bit of a false equivalence, because of its much smaller run of 30 episodes, Star Trek TNG would probably be a good contender for a fourth series to try. I assume the credited actors are just those who have a line in the show, and doesn’t include extras. I harvested the names off IMDB then used some sorting formulas in google sheets to identify the crossovers. Originally I wanted to make a Venn diagram out of this data, but out of laziness I’m just presenting it as this blog post instead.

If you want to see the raw data here’s the spreadsheet.

The headlines stats:

– 1318 named actors appeared in Seinfeld (172 Episodes)
– 2158 named actors appeared in X Files (217 Episodes)
– 176 named actors appeared in Twin Peaks (30 Episodes)

– 106 actors appear in both Seinfeld and X Files
– 14 actors appear in both Twin Peaks and X Files
– 12 actors appear in both Seinfeld and Twin Peaks

– 3 actors appear in all three.

The three who appear in all three are Frances Bay, Jack McGee and John Apicella. They’re not exactly household names but very recognisable faces nonetheless.

frances_bay
Frances Bay

jack-mcgee-actor-e87f192e-3619-4653-a020-6a8c4aaaf22-resize-750
Jack McGee

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John Apicella

These kind of actors make up the umwelt (surrounding world/sense island/cognitive map – of which more in this project soon) of TV and film – faces imbued with a familiarity that might hover just below conscious recognition, maybe irritatingly and distractingly hard to place. Their status says something about the difference between ‘star of the show’ (often those whose Earth Prime identity and name is unforgettable and pierces the mise-en-scene) and ‘jobbing actor’, whose name is unknown to most, existing and appearing only within on-screen worlds, and seldom in media outside of them.

It seems obvious to say that a single actor plays multiple characters, that’s the nature of the job, and, if they do it well, we are able to suspend the real-world personage of the actor who becomes only the character – often via a sacrifice of subjectivity (i.e. method acting). The unspoken operation on the part of the viewer/watcher/fan is to understand that an actor playing a different character does not cancel out or supersede their previous roles. In Lynch we often see the same actors return to play roughly analogous but separate characters, sometimes in two or even three roles in the same production (Sheryl Lee as both Laura Palmer and her cousin Maddie, Watts as both Dianne Selwyn and Betty Elms, Kyle MacLachlan in triplicate as Dale Cooper, ‘Evil Coop’ and Dougie).

maxresdefaultDougie

A radically credulous stance denies this repeat casting from foreclosing a shared universe reading of two works. Instead, the troupe cast opens up an opportunity to view Lynch’s wider canon, in particular the films Blue Velvet, (1986) Mulholland Drive, (2001) and the Twin Peaks three series and film as all existing in a roughly contingent universe of repeated tropes, motifs and storylines. Where Mulholland Drive is easily readable as existing in the same universe as Twin Peaks (even if no explicit crossovers are indicated), Noami Watts’ appearance in both might ordinarily challenge this notion unless we believe that either both characters are the same person, or that persons can co-exist through singular body-avatar doppelgangers.

Returning to those actors in separate universes, Frances Bay in particular is the kind of actor that Lynch uses frequently in bit-parts throughout his productions (Bay also appears in Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart) – character actors of the 1930s-50s who had faded into obscurity and were somehow still miraculously working in the 1990s. Bay started her career as a radio actress in the 1930’s, followed by a long career break and re-emergence on TV in the 1970s – her first on-screen role listed on IMDB is ‘Lady at Chapel (Uncredited)’ in a 1976 episode of Kojak. Others that spring to mind in Lynch roles include Ann Miller (more of a genuine star of golden age Hollywood, appearing as Coco, the landlady in Mulholland Drive), Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn, who both appeared in West Side Story (Some more examples relating to David Lynch casting here). Lynch’s use of these actors speaks to his position as someone who has grown up in an earlier age of Hollywood and daytime TV, but also a masterful wielding of the uncanny affect generated by the return of an unplaceably familiar face, an actor who history would prefer to confine to a neatly canonised era, somehow still alive, talking, moving and acting, propped up and held together by plastic surgery of a more experimental era. 

500,000 Kilowatts of Stardust

Still from Warner Brothers Ident showing adjacent soundstages. (Image Source https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QW3zcF_CQ6w)

Kathy:              Why, it’s just an empty stage.

 Don:               At first glance, yes. But wait a second. A beautiful sunset. Mist from the distant mountains. Coloured lights in a garden. Flooded with moonlight. We add 500,000 kilowatts of stardust. A soft summer breeze…[1]

 The empty sound stage is an empty world, a vacuum ready to be populated by sets, props and characters that constitute a universe – like the sets of Artaud and Trecartin whose surrealist vibrancy is designed to provoke production, the sets of Hollywood consist of a vacuum, an immersive emptiness that is the pre-condition of production. Hollywood operates as meta-universe, within which all other worlds can co-exist in spatio-temporal adjacency, and a model for a post-digital relational space of production.

The formation of the film studio lot offers a diagram for a physical shared universe. Parallel sound stages act as host voids for the construction of immersive set-worlds. Often in the case of contemporary film production, the set is also mostly a void of chroma key green screen, the immersive world building taking place on the shared desktop of Adobe After Effects. Still, the physical studio formation persists, of sound stages side-by-side hosting parallel worlds and bodies, mirrored in the multiplex cinema with its corridor of screens, each a door leading to a different world, and the streaming platform in which content is positioned more-or-less horizontally. These worlds intersect as characters, actors, props and crew members interchange between stages. Proximity begets contingency, and thus Hollywood constitutes a meta-universe, occasionally crossing over to become the subject of film in itself. 

An early example of the meta-universe as fictional world is Singin’ in the Rain (1952), which takes the techniques and technologies of filmmaking as its subject matter, specifically the transition from silent film to talking pictures in the late 1920’s, and the tribulations for the studio system that this shift engendered. Whilst the characters and productions the film focuses on are fictional, it makes reference to real-life releases including Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer (1927), thus positioning itself on the periphery of the Real. The character of Lina Lamont is a nod toward silent film actress Clara Bow, who, with the advent of ‘talkies’ surprised audiences with her thick Brooklyn accent: “I hate talkies … they’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me.”[2]

Singin’ therefore charts the same moment of transition outlined by Deleuze’s Cinema I (1983) and Cinema II (1985): from the pre-war movement-image to the post-war time-image, in which Bow’s call for ‘action’ (i.e. movement) is superseded by the time-binding effects of language and sound. Deleuze identifies Gene Kelly’s movement and dancing in Singin’ as a response to the ‘sensory-motor situation’[3] (the rain-drenched street) that calls for a ‘movement of world that the dance will outline’[4], in the case of the iconic titular routine this is described as a ‘dance which seems to have its origin in the unevenness of the pavement.’[5] The sensory-motor situation, then has much to do with Artaud’s idea of the setting as the ‘starting point for theatrical creation’, but what of the empty stage, the empty world?

Still from Singin’ in the Rain (You Were Meant for Me sequence) Singin’ in the Rain, Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donan, Beverly Hills: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1952.

On a number of occasions, Singin’ utilises the soundstages and equipment of filmmaking as a location whose very emptiness provides the sensory-motor stimulus for these ‘movements of world’. Protagonist Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) uses a vacant stage to woo his love interest Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds) through the song ‘You Were Meant For Me’. The emptiness of the stage becomes Lockwood’s material with which to produce the required affect of romance as he manipulates light, smoke and wind, (along with ‘500,000 kilowatts of stardust’) to produce a simulacra of the natural world before launching into song. The empty stage is an exemplification of Marc Augé’s ‘Non-Place’, and its adaptation by Deleuze as the ‘any-space-whatever’: a ‘space of virtual conjunction, grasped as pure locus of the possible,’[6] in which song and dance routines might spontaneously erupt at any given moment in a flow of continuity that is at odds with the Brechtian use of song as an alienating interruption.

Still from Singin’ in the Rain, (Make ‘em Laugh sequence), Singin’ in the Rain, Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donan, Beverly Hills: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1952

The effect is replicated in the sequence for the song ‘Make em Laugh’, which begins with Lockwood and Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) walking across a soundstage, moving between a series of adjacent set-worlds and their film crews; a jungle scene, a western, a sports stadium, a hotel lobby. The latter becomes the setting for Brown’s acrobatic dance routine which utilises the half-constructed set to comic effect, opening a door that leads onto a brick wall, running up leaning planks in a series of gravity-defying stunts. Meanwhile set dressers and stage hands continue their work in the background seemingly oblivious or indifferent to Brown’s moment of pure motor-sensory abandon.

By being a film about film-making, also a mise-en-abyme (‘Singin’ in the Rain’ becomes the title of the film they are making, as well as the film we are watching) the film somewhat dissolves the fourth wall of the Hollywood studio, but only to a degree that will enhance the immersion and entertainment of its audience. Rather than the alienating provocation of Brecht, Singin’s dissolutions serve to enhance immersion through a contract of understanding with the post-war audience, in which recognition of their pre-war selves and the sound stage sites of production positions the film adjacent to lived reality. The film addresses its audience knowing them to be Fans, privy to a knowledge of Hollywood stars of a previous era. The character of Kathy Seldon is also a Fan, her avid readership of the ‘fan magazines’ (such as Photoplay (1911-1980), Motion Picture Magazine (1911-1977) and Modern Screen (1930-1985)) is a source of embarrassment she seeks to conceal. Fandom here is not a productive force, it’s only outlet being enraptured spectatorship at a movie premiere or mobbing and tearing the clothing of stars encountered on the street.

Golden era Hollywood’s disregard for its fans perhaps rebounded in the form of Kenneth Anger’s ostensibly non-fiction account of the era Hollywood Babylon (1959), in which Anger took the gossip impulse of the fan magazine and its celebrity personae as characters for a series of libelous debauched episodes, the content of which was accessed by “mental telepathy, mostly,”[7] in keeping with his status as a practitioner of Thelemic magick. Anger’s merging of the Hollywood milieu and occult practice follows Artauld’s suspicion that ‘the cinema reveals a whole occult life with which it puts us directly into contact. But we must know how to divine this occult life.’[8] It is precisely the occluded aspects of the studio system, the sound stages and equipment, the processes and techniques of film-making, which if done correctly will remain occluded and serve only to enhance immersion.

Anger’s writing is the form of frustrated fan theory-fiction that Hollywood engendered, the literary equivalent of rending a star’s garments in the street. The same impulse is present in J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), in which Princess Margaret, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, become the cast of Ballard’s surgical-erotic vignettes. Ballard’s own specific locale in West London, surrounded by the film studios of Shepperton and Pinewood offers a twin, more prosaic milieu to that of Anger’s Hollywood. Where Ballard’s writing is clearly a neurologically admixed version of the mid-1960’s mediascape, Anger positions his writing within the real by claiming the work is non-fiction, the apparatus of a Hollywood non-place providing the motor-sensory impetus for his visions. Anger closes the book with a description of the emptiness of the Columbia studios soundstages rendered permanently vacant by the increasing popularity of on-location filming in that era, invoking an image of ancient Egyptian tombs: ‘hulking, obsolete sound stages like secretive mastabas.’[9] For Anger the emptiness of the sound stage is the emptiness of Hollywood, a vessel ready to contain whatever worlds can be conjured from its immersive vacuity.

Pre and post-production images, Game of Thrones, (Image Source:https://digitalsynopsis.com/design/movies-before-after-green-screen-cgi/)

With the increasing dominance of chroma key (colloquially ‘green screen’, often blue screen) filming in mainstream cinema, Hollywood (particularly the cinema of genre fiction and superhero comic adaptation which is particularly reliant on such technologies), once again requires voids to produce its immersions, with actors expected to respond with the minimum of possible motor-sensory stimulus. The actor must perform within a vacuum, alienated from fictive imagination and deprived of motor-sensory stimulus, producing alongside flattened body-voids waiting to be populated by avatars. As jolting to the actor as the door that opens onto a brick wall, the chroma key screen becomes a zone of limitless possibility for the production of immersive images in digital space, the exemplification of Auge’s indifferent non-place. The alienations of the empty soundstage, the empty green screen, enable the building of new worlds; echoing Laboria Cuboniks once again, ‘Alienation is the labour of freedom’s construction.’[10]

[1] Singin’ in the Rain, Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donan, Beverly Hills: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1952.

[2] Elisabeth Goldbeck “The Real Clara Bow,” Motion Picture Classic, September 1930. Quoted in Annabel Lagasse, “An Exploration Of The Creative Challenges In Representing Human Movement In Digital Animation” (PhD diss., Nottingham Trent and Southampton Solent University, 2015), 85.

[3] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema II:The Time Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: Bloomsbury Revelations, 2013), 63.

[4] Deleuze, Cinema II, 62.

[5] Deleuze, Cinema II, 62.

[6] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema I:The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (London: Bloomsbury Revelations, 2013), 123.

[7] Kevin Brownlow, “Foreword,” in Laura Balogh, Karl Dane: A biography and filmography (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2009), 1.

[8] Antonin Artaud, “Witchcraft and the Cinema,” in Antonin Artaud Collected Works Volume Three, trans. Alastair Hamilton (London: Calder & Boyars, 1972), 66.

[9] Kenneth Anger, Hollywood Babylon (New York: Dell Publishing, 1975), 418.

[10] Laboria Cuboniks, “Xenofeminism.”

Raw Supplies

Ryan Trecartin’s works are produced within a wide circle of co-producers, primarily the sculptor Lizzie Fitch, yet Trecartin keenly rejects any suggestion that the group of artists and performers involved are a collective, stating ‘The way Lizzie Fitch and I work with collaborators has grown out of a network culture perspective that sees authorship as a fluid space and collaboration as an inherent, connective reality.’[1] This ‘network culture’ approach can perhaps be best engendered as a nesting of practices, extending into the scripting process, in which the ‘sets, props, costumes, hair and makeup…constitute a type of script.’[2] In the final edit the whole created world becomes simply ‘raw supplies’,[3] with all possibilities of narrative, timeline and character achieving horizontal parity.

Where real-world settings are used, such as the semi-derelict L.A. masonic temple used for Temple Time (2016) the setting becomes directly implicated in the work, with Trecartin stating that ‘we were thinking of the building as the protagonist and the building itself was the main character of this piece.’[4] There are clear echoes here of Artaud’s orientation towards materiality as instigator and not simply backdrop to the dramatic, as his manifesto states: ‘Staging: This archetypal theatre language will be formed around staging not simply viewed as one degree of refraction of the script on stage, but as the starting point for theatrical creation.’[5] The closed-world constructed set shared by three of the Priority Innfield movies has an overbearing impetus upon the work; its low-ceilinged, wide rooms have an ominously awkward architecture, evoking reality TV studios, furniture showrooms or theme park facades.

The three movies filmed within this set go nowhere, both spatially and in terms of narrative, the zones, edges and boundaries of the set constituting their whole world. The interior is populated by the kind of disjointed amalgam of furniture and objects that might occur only within video games such as The Sims (Will Wright – 2000) a mixture reflecting the transient tastes, attention spans and spending habits of anhedonic millenial youth. Everything is incoherently positioned, and incompletely constructed, making it very hard to get a clear sense of the space’s organisation through the movies, which dart between locations, usually in constantly moving hand-held shots that defy the viewer a clear look at the background.

Priority Innfield set. Note: this image comes from one of the set builders involved in constructing the set, which is never this clearly legible is in any of the movies. (Accessed September 2, 2019, Image Source: https://jer.studio/brink-1)

Image from The Sims, 2000, Designer, Will Wright, EA Games, (Accessed September 2, 2019, Image Source https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/91/SimsSS.jpg)

The default material state in Priority Innfield is one of infinite admixture – there are recurrent moments of characters smashing cinder blocks with their bare hands and squeezing the red plastic cups synonymous with ‘frat parties’ until they shatter, ultimately becoming a texture of fragmented matter. Other objects appear stranded, such as the yacht that features prominently in Comma Boat pulled up on dry land. In Trecartin’s universe, to be a prop is to be solid, stable, linear, distinctly non-fluid and non-queer, devoid of the freedoms offered by the virtual space which his characters inhabit. It is to be available for use by another, unable to express one’s own agency – the state which all of Trecartin’s characters struggle towards. The characters’ irreverence toward the material extends to their lexicon, where ‘prop’ become a frequent insult or term of denigration, e.g; ‘if M-pegative productions makes a prop out of me again, I’ll erase everything you ever made, including the videotape of my birth’.[6]

The origins of this material ambivalence are traceable to the fourth part of the series Junior War, filmed in the year 2000 in Trecartin’s Ohio hometown, and which documents the misdeeds of his teenage peers during homecoming week as they smash mailboxes with baseball bats, throw televisions from moving cars and steal garden ornaments. The youngsters’ rallying cry is their desire to ‘Fuck Shit Up’, a phrase that is echoed throughout Trecartin’s films, and a process in which all matter is drawn entropically towards a state of ultimate abjection. This state of commingling calls to mind Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s conception of the contemporary mediascape as a ‘shitstorm’, which demands an altered state of neurological plasticity to navigate. Berardi borrows the term from Byung-Chul Han, who states that ‘Shit-storms…arise in a culture where respect is lacking and indiscretion prevails. The shit-storm represents an authentic phenomenon of digital communication.’[7] Berardi goes a step further, describing the shitstorm as not just a symptom of digital communication, but ‘the new discursive weapon of power…the mutation of the public discourse into war among a-signifiers…the goal of semiotic emission…is not to produce meaning but to compete and to win.’[8]

Where Berardi calls to counter the shitstorm with a future-enabling silence, Trecartin’s is the work of the digital shitstorm (or shitpost)-native, simulating a writerly neurological state – not to be unpicked or decoded, so much as sensed and enjoyed on a level of a-signification. His is an appropriation of the shitstorm affect, producing immersion that strips the viewer of body and leaves just an avatar. Whilst Trecartin may anticipate a point at which fans become directly implicated as authors and editors of works, the movies already provoke their audience in an immersive neurological labour process, of constituting timelines, sense and meaning. Cinema continues to operate on such a basis, with film presented as a complete artefact. In spite of such wholeness, the fan impulse still finds and creates a space for production and expansion. The techniques and motivations of Hollywood film-making remain a technology for the production of desire, with the film-maker an affect magician who seeks to produce immersion, if not quite ‘cruelty’.

Ryan Trecartin/Lizzie Fitch, Priority Innfield (Freestanding Sculptural Theatre – Fence), Install view at Andrea Rosen Gallery, 2013 (Accessed September 2, 2019, Image source: http://www.spruethmagers.com/artists/lizzie_fitch_ryan_trecartin@@viewq13)

[1] “Cindy Sherman Interviews Ryan Trecartin,” in Any Ever: Ryan Trecartin, ed. Kevin McGarry (New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2011), 144

[2] Ryan Trecartin, “When the time comes
you won’t understand
the battlefield,” interview by Kristina Lee Podesva, Fillip 13, Fillip, Spring 2011, https://fillip.ca/content/when-the-time-comes-you-wont-understand-the-battlefield?order=513fc90cbea11ecb09febe9757903ae7.

[3] Trecartin, “When the time comes
you won’t understand
the battlefield.”

[4] Trecartin, “The Safe Space of Movies.”

[5] Artaud, “The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto),” 97.

[6] Trecartin “I-Be Area.”

[7] Byung-Chul Han, In the Swarm, quoted in Franco Berardi, The Second Coming, (Cambridge: Theory Redux, 2019)

[8] Franco Berardi, The Second Coming.

Mesh

The hybrid moving image works and sculptural environments of Ryan Trecartin approximate the Artaudian conception of cruelty in their visual hypermontage and spectral narrative arcs, usually incorporating a cast of non-actors playing out semi-improvised scenarios that are chaotically edited and re-presented within immersive installation environments. Their stuttering of the textual in favour of the gestural, the overloading of the visual and linguistic facilitates an altered neurological state that uncompromisingly demands its viewer enter into a state of fan-being in relation to the work – pulled into and gifting over to the world on screen, and ultimately undergoing a form of bodily erosion. The 2013 Priority Innfield series, consists of four separate, interlinked moving image works (Junior War, CENTER JENNY, Item Falls and Comma Boat) and screening environments, whose discernible plot revolves around a post-apocalyptic scenario in which approximately-human beings struggle to gain agency within an institutional framework that is redolent of american college education and its accompanying social sphere.

Trecartin describes his characters as ‘avatars’, echoing the surrogates and stand-ins of social platforms, sometimes a prosaic profile pic, sometimes an idealised fantasy construction – often an opportunity to inhabit a body unlike one’s own. These avatars frequently refer to ‘the second big bang’ and speculate about life ‘back in the human era’, and we ultimately learn that they ‘evolved from animations, those are our ancestors…and these animations, actually evolved from humans.’[1] Whether the avatars we see are controlled by a secondary agent or ‘user’ never becomes apparent, their uncanny modes of speech and behaviour seeming to suggest they have become untethered as they giddily grasp towards agency.

Trecartin refuses a reading of his movies that would place them neatly within a tradition of post-modernist nonlinear fictions, preferring instead to frame them as ‘a mesh of linearities or like a multi-linear constellation.’[2] This mesh is formed out of the intersected, tangled threads of characters, locations, scripts and scenarios, which collide many times within single movies, as well as branching out adjacently to the other movies through repurposed clips, characters and lines of dialogue. Trecartin states that ‘every movie functions on its own but also functions as a sideways entry point to all the other movies,’[3] constituting an oeuvre that we might refer to as ‘The Ryan Trecartin Universe’. This state of being alongside extends into Trecartin’s notion of where the movies exist in relation to lived existence: ‘The movies are somewhat sci-fi but they’re more like adjacent sci-fi…a present-side rather than a future or past.’[4]

Much of this enmeshment comes about through the complex ways in which Trecartin treats characters and actors, with single actors sometimes playing multiple characters, and multiple actors sometimes inhabiting single characters. This is the logic of a copy-and-paste characterisation, with the avatar-body becoming a low value flattened vessel, easily replicated and just as easily discarded. Trecartin’s 2007 film I-Be Area follows a clone who ‘exist[s] because of command-V, copy and paste some dudes DNA,’[5] and proceeds to rapidly switch between a multitude of identities (‘skins’ as they might be called in-game). In CENTER JENNY, several sets of young women (all credited as ‘Jennys’) form distinct singular entities, acting and behaving as one person split across multiple bodies, like choruses in the sense of the ancient Greek theatre, designated by their shared costume and unified voice. Simon O’Sullivan describes these figures as inhabiting a ‘patchwork temporality,’[6] and whilst these collective characters may position themselves in an awkward semblance of communality, theirs is a texture of empty conviviality: they gather but do not connect. Such is the nature of online interaction, as cliques of distinct yet highly specific identities inhabit shared platforms whilst seldom entering into meaningful exchange.

For Trecartin the editing of footage is the attempt to constitute a form of timeline within this mesh that is inherently unlike the conventions of narrative cinema, and perhaps more akin to an unfiltered, extra-anthropomorphic perspective in which all timelines unfold simultaneously. Recalling Derrida’s comment on the Theatre of Cruelty as ‘life itself, in the extent to which life is unrepresentable,’ such a mesh also recalls the Tommy Westphall-type shared universe diagram, with its tangled contingency knots. Trecartin finds the currently available technology of video only partially satisfactory for embodying the mesh, and calls forward to a point when this time-editing function of the filmmaking process will become more intuitive and placed in the hands of its viewer, with the ‘initial movie [just] an area of data, and people will participate in articulating all of the potential lineages and narratives and plots by creating structures…There’s potential for movies that expand in all directions with how they’re experienced,’[7]

Such a regard for the viewer in constituting the work perhaps stems from the ways that Trecartin’s mode of production resembles that of the fan-producer. Trecartin insists that his moving image works be referred to as ‘movies’, not videos or films, an attribution that positions the artist in the place of the viewer, the domestic quotidien consumer, for whom film equates to Hollywood, consumed and enjoyed at the multiplex or in the home through a TV or laptop screen. Trecartin frequently emphasises the fact that his background is in video production, not as a visual artist, and that he never considered his films belonging within the gallery environment.[8] Early works were distributed by posting DVDs to strangers he met through the now-defunct social media site Friendster,[9] and latterly are uploaded freely to YouTube and Vimeo, giving them a parity as ‘content’ alongside the chaotic plethora of moving image that these platforms host.

[1] Ryan Trecartin, Center Jenny, 2013, Digital Video, 53:15, Accessed August 3 2019 at https://vimeo.com/75735816.

[2] Ryan Trecartin, “Ryan Trecartin Interview: The Safe Space of Movies,” interview with Kasper Bech Dyg, Louisiana Channel, May 1, 2018, digital video, 29:20, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdmItKVe2rU.

[3] Trecartin, “The Safe Space of Movies.”

[4] Trecartin, “The Safe Space of Movies.”

[5] Ryan Trecartin, I-Be Area, 2007, Digital Video, 1:47:50, Accessed August 3 2019 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V27rH6b5ub4.

[6] Simon O’Sullivan “From Financial Fictions to Mythotechnesis,” in Futures and Fictions, eds. Henriette Gunkel et al (London: Repeater Books, 2017), 331.

[7] Trecartin, “The Safe Space of Movies.”

[8] Calvin Tomkins, “Experimental People: The exuberant world of a video-art visionary,” The New Yorker, last modified March 17, 2004, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/03/24/experimental-people.

[9] Tomkins, “Experimental People.”

Wrong Side Out

Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty is a vision for a parallel yet alternate avante-garde of the modernist theatre to that of the Brechtian Epic. The theatre of cruelty also seeks to do away with the intellectualism of the Renaissance theatre, yet unlike Brecht, Artaud seeks the pre-textual enchantment and magic of the Dionysiac festivity, inspired by the Balinese dancers he had witnessed at the 1931 Exposition Coloniale.[1] Artaud’s ‘Cruelty’ builds upon his history as a fringe member of the surrealists, whose cause he foreswore after they oriented themselves towards the communist party in 1926. Considering himself the only true surrealist, a movement which he believed to have been “never anything else but a new type of magic,”[2] Artuad’s magic was to be made manifest through theatre, which could not function ‘without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle.’[3] This cruelty is not that of ‘bloodshed, martyred flesh, crucified enemies,’[4] but ‘a cosmic rigor and implacable necessity…a living whirlwind that devours the darkness.’[5]

In his First Manifesto for a Theatre of Cruelty (1932), Artaud outlines the programme and nature of such a theatre, which will ‘put an end to the subjugation of the theater to the text, and…recover the notion of a kind of unique language half­way between gesture and thought.’[6] Its architecture will ‘do away with stage and auditorium, replacing them by a kind of single, undivided locale without any partitions of any kind and this will become the very scene of the action.’[7] Whilst Artaud calls for ‘No décor,’ this is not the minimalism of the Brechtian stage, but rather a call for a different form of designed space altogether, for which ‘objects of unknown form and purpose are enough to fulfil this function.’[8]

The audience member would be on the receiving end of a sensory overload, of ‘fiery projection of all the objective results of gestures, words, sounds, music or their combinations.’[9] Where Brecht had rejected the Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk, in whose synthesis and admixture ‘the three sister-arts unite their forces in one collective operation, in which the highest faculty of each comes to its highest unfolding,’[10] Artaud embraces such a vision, with all of the elements of staging becoming one encompassing whole – constituting a world and a universe. If the immersive shared universe fiction encourages it’s fans to fling themselves into the plot-river, it perhaps does so in the mode of just such a cruelty.

Whilst Artaud was not able to fully realise the proposal for the theatre of cruelty in his lifetime, achieving only one production that approximated the tenets of the manifesto (the 1935 staging of Les Cenci), its intentions echo down through the deconstructive impulses of the 20th century avant-garde. Artaud anticipates the psychedelic mode of multimedia events such as Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and the gestural bodily extremism of Carolee Schneemann’s performance works.[11] The sensory overload of cruelty supersedes the textual to reach an aesthetics of pure encounter, with Derrida commenting that ‘The theater of cruelty is not a representation. It is life itself, in the extent to which life is unrepresentable.’[12]

Rather than Brecht’s proletarian viewer who is inspired upon leaving the theatre to upend the world, Artaud instead expects ‘the spectator to give himself up, once outside the theater, to ideas of war, riot, and blatant murder.’[13] Instead of the didacticism of Brecht, such a surrender to immersion could perhaps be the key to another form of active engagement by an audience, one in which consciousness is raised and razed, leaving the fan stripped of their shell and open to the production of new possibilities. Such a state of possibility is akin to the Deleuzian body without organs (BwO), and it is from Artaud’s play To Have Done with the Judgment of God (1947) that Deleuze first takes the concept:

Man is sick because he is badly constructed.
We must make up our minds to strip him bare in order to
scrape off that animalcule that itches him mortally,

God,
and with god
his organs.
For you can tie me up if you wish,
but there is nothing more useless than an organ.            

When you will have made him a body without organs,
then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions
and restored him to his true freedom.

Then you will teach him again to dance wrong side out
as in the frenzy of dance halls
and this wrong side out will be his real place.[14]

It is Artaud’s abeyance of the linguistic in favour of the guttural wail, the ‘breath-words’ and ‘howl-words’ that Deleuze positions as calling forth ‘a glorious body…a new dimension of the schizophrenic body, an organism without parts which operates entirely by insufflation, respiration, evaporation, and fluid transmission.’[15] To Deleuze the nature of the schizophrenic is ‘less a question of recovering meaning than of destroying the word, of conjuring up the affect, and of transforming the painful passion of the body into a triumphant action, obedience into command, always in this depth beneath the fissured surface.’[16] The fan destroys the world through the supplanting of ontic reality with the fictional. They too plumb the depths, to seek the esoteric, the deletia and the appended, and furthermore to inflate, to gouge new spaces that deny fixity of meaning or canon. The fan surrenders at least a portion of their subjectivity, to become both the object of obsession and stand apart from it as admirer.

Despite Artaud’s distancing from the surrealists, his theatre of cruelty retains many elements of their approach, in particular his prioritisation of the gestural over the linguistic script. Barthes identifies how the surrealists sought to erode the primacy of language – ‘language being system and the aim of the movement being, romantically, a direct subversion of codes’[17] leading to ‘the desacrilization of the image of the Author…accepting the principle and the experience of several people writing together.’[18] The surrealists practiced this desacralization in collective exercises such as the exquisite corpse, whose assemblages often become literal bodies without organs, populated instead by a comingling of enmeshed lines of thought, disjunctured propositions.

Breton describes how the exquisite corpse ‘tend[ed] inevitably to raise anthropomorphism to its highest pitch and to accentuate vividly the continuing relationship uniting the exterior world with the interior world,’[19] indicating the ways in which conception of the bodily might have very little to do with the substance of flesh. The body depopulated of organs becomes a world wrong side out, a universe, just as the fan’s conception of the extra-bodily universe retains the anthropomorphic schema of a paranoid’s ‘influencing machine’. The collectively executed fan work becomes a discursively authored exquisite corpse, composed of myopic occluded contributions. Denied the absolute knowledge that the paranoiac might seek, one must act nonetheless, to leave a mark upon the page, small accretions that form the bodily whole.

Exquisite corpse by André Breton, Valentine Hugo, Paul and Nusch Éluard, source: https://poulwebb.blogspot.com/2019/11/cadavre-exquis-exquiste-corpses.html

[1] Patricia A. Clancy, “Artaud and the Balinese Theatre,” Modern Drama 28, no.3 (Fall 1985): 397, http://dx.doi.org/10.3138/md.28.3.397.

[2] Antonin Artaud, “Letter to Louis Jouvet, 27 August 1931,” quoted in Bettina Knapp, “Artaud: A New Type of Magic,” Yale French Studies 31, Surrealism (1964): 98, http://dx.doi.org/ 10.2307/2929726.

[3] Antonin Artaud, “The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto),” in The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 99.

[4] Antonin Artaud, “Letters on Cruelty,” in The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 102.

[5] Artaud, “Letters on Cruelty,”102.

[6] Artaud, “The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto),” 89.

[7] Artaud, “The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto),” 73.

[8] Artaud, “The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto),” 75.

[9] Antonin Artaud, “Oriental and Western Theatre,” in Antonin Artaud Collected Works Volume Four, trans. Victor Corti (London: Calder & Boyars, 1974), 55.

[10] Richard Wagner, The Art-Work of the Future, trans. William Ashton Ellis (Leipzig: Wigand, 1849), 78, http://users.skynet.be/johndeere/wlpdf/wlpr0062.pdf.

 

[11] Carolee Schneemann, Imaging Her Erotics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 230.

[12] Jacques Derrida, “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 234.

[13] Antonin Artaud, “No More Masterpieces,” in The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 82.

[14] Antonin Artaud, “To Have Done with the Judgment of God” in Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 571.

[15] Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester (London: Continuum, 1990), 88.

[16] Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, 88.

[17] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image Music Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press,1977), 144.

[18] Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” 144.

[19] André Breton, “The Exquisite Corpse, Its Exaltation (1948),” in André Breton, Surrealism and Painting, trans. Simon Watson Taylor (Boston: MFA Publications, 2002), 89.

A-Effects

Despite the focus on Verfremdungseffekts/Alienation-effects/A-Effects, Brecht maintains that this theatre must remain enjoyable, and transcend enjoyment, becoming ‘an instrument of instruction, and to convert certain amusement establishments into organs of mass communication…i.e. to emigrate from the realm of the merely enjoyable.’ Fan-being transcends enjoyment also, not into the realm of instruction, but into one of over-enjoyment, a sublimation that rejects capital’s curtailments that would prefer the labour of the fan to be directed toward more economically fruitful causes.

The strive to incorporate the will of the audience calls forward to Platt’s Quantum Fiction, also in the designation that each scene should operate as a play-within-a-play, similar to platts ‘quanta’, enabling random access. Benjamin likens this structure to the modern cinema in which ‘the audience should be able to ‘come in’ at any point, that complicated plot developments should be avoided and that each part…possess its own episodic value.’[1] As with the hyperfictions produced in Platt’s wake, I would argue that approaches dependent upon audience interactivity can only remain as novelty, where viewer responses invested with conviction are more likely to arise without invitation, as a result of uninterrupted immersive flows of enjoyment.

Brecht follows in the footsteps of Marx, for whom alienation was the force by which workers were separated from the products of their labour, the labour process, their fellow man and their species-being.[2] To Marx, alienation went hand-in-hand with commodity fetishism, with the products of capital akin to relics and idols formed in ‘the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life.’[3] The fan’s object of obsession (the fiction itself, but also the objects and products which it supports) is certainly a fetish, with many works of genre fiction taking on just such a mythical, transcendental dimension to their fans. However what is perhaps unique in the fan’s response to an alienating, transcendental object is their willingness to resist its orthodoxy, and read its alienations as an invitation to immersion.

This is the metric of alienated enjoyment that accelerationist thought seeks to enhance and exacerbate, in which capital does not care about its subjects or their opinion of it, in fact thriving upon the energy of resistant subjects, whose folk-political approaches are simply detournéed by capital into marketing strategies. To the accelerationist, such an inflation of alienation is not carried out that one might ‘turn society upside down’ in response, but that such an alienation might in itself be transformative, speeding passage through to an inevitable post-human future. It is that to which Sadie Plant and Nick Land refer when they state that ‘we are all foreigners now, no longer alienated but alien…If the schizoid children of modernity are alienated, it is not as survivors from a pastoral past, but as explorers of an impending post-humanity.’[4]

Somewhat less dystopian is the ‘politics for alienation’ of Laboria Cuboniks’ (LC) Xenofeminism, which seeks to seize ‘alienation as an impetus to generate new worlds…The construction of freedom involves not less but more alienation; alienation is the labour of freedom’s construction.’[5] Whilst LC distance themselves somewhat from the work of Marx, stating ‘Marx…ignored gender and the types of labour (specifically care and reproductive labour) associated with a binary gender structure to which females have historically been subject,’[6] their conception of alienation has something in common, particularly in the notion of alienation from one’s species-being and fellow humans. It is the relationship to alienation that varies, with LC rejecting an essentialist biological species-being and embracing artificiality and bio-hacking, enacted through the slogan ‘If nature is unjust, change nature!’[7] Where Marx sees alienation as the product of work, LC see freedom as the product of alienation.

Following Marx’s four modalities we can enumerate the ways in which the fan’s alienation from the indifferent franchise does not mitigate their immersion; the fan willingly alienates themself from the product of their labour, which is offered as a gift to the fictional universe, rejecting traditional notions of authorship or the demand for credit. While fan sociality might curtail alienation from one’s fellow man (at least virtually), the social bond comes second to that between the fan and their obsession. The fan might go so far as to feel more alike to the products of imagination than the reality of their human species-being, for example occupying the space of the franchise-object, not the author when they choose to write fan fiction.

In their nested, embedded position the fan can be at once immersed in alienations and alienated by immersion, an action via compulsion that echoes the CCRU’s claim to be ‘Alienated and Loving it.’[8] The intractable complication between multiple shared universe fictions and lived existence can never be fully grasped or mapped – a painfully enjoyable alienation in which the sheer speed and volume of cultural production is experienced as sublimated overload. Rather than the alienation-as-provocation of Brecht, we might try to find the political applications of works of art and culture that seek to accelerate such an overload. If the subject of contemporary techno-capital does not turn the world upside down in response to alienation, but rather seeks to make it the core of their subjectivity, the visual culture of such times must be implicated in a more fatal immersion, must fling the fan-being more fully into the river, enacting a form of cruelty that is pre-linguistic, gestural and utilises the unresolved residues of the surreal.

[1] Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, 6.

[2] Judy Cox, “An Introduction to Marx’s Theory of Alienation”, International Socialism, Issue 79, (July, 1988), accessed at http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj79/cox.htm.

[3] Judy Cox, “An Introduction to Marx’s Theory of Alienation.”

[4] Sadie Plant and Nick Land, Cyberpositive, accessed August 9, 2019 at http://www.sterneck.net/cyber/plant-land-cyber/.

[5] Laboria Cuboniks, “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation,” accessed August 9, 2019 at
https://www.laboriacuboniks.net/.

[6] Laboria Cuboniks, “Revisiting the future with Laboria Cuboniks | A conversation,” interview by Cornelia Sollfrank and Rachel Baker, Furtherfield, July 27, 2016, http://www.furtherfield.org/revisiting-the-future-with-laboria-cuboniks-a-conversation/.

[7] Laboria Cuboniks, “Xenofeminism.”

[8] CCRU, Swarmachines, accessed August 9, 2019 at https://web.archive.org/web/20130621022804/http://www.ccru.net/swarm1/1_swarm.htm.

Flung into the River

The immersed subjectivity capable of producing diagrams like the Tommy Westphall universe is the unintended side-effect of a flow designed simply to produce loyal viewers and customers, accidentally resulting in a cargo-cult of immersed fan-acolytes, for whom the world of TV becomes their transcendental realm. Fan-being requires a spirit of unmitigated naive enjoyment, blind to both the machinations of postmodernism and the realities of the studio production system. It is to follow the Deleuzian spirit of encounter-over-representation, whereby ‘Something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recognition but of a fundamental encounter’[1] – the kind of encounter that can only take place when a fiction is approached not as a representation of an author’s will but as a new, cogent formation with which one might become immanent, entering into a relation of becoming.

Such a spirit of encounter goes hand in hand with the search for meaning that so much fan theory is predicated upon. Simon O’Sullivan positions this meaning in the Deleuzian terms of that which is produced through the encounter between a viewer and an artwork: ‘Meaning’ might then be thought as this productive ‘event’, this ‘moment’ of meeting, ungraspable in its moment of occurrence, but real in its effects.[2] Brian Massumi states that in such an encounter of becoming ‘a set of affects, a portion of the object’s essential dynamism, is drawn in, transferred into the substance of the thinking-perceiving body.’[3] The fan’s relation to their object of obsession is not just one of drawing-in, but of gifting-over – seeking to place a portion of themselves, via their productive labour and their credulity, to be nested inside the fictional universe.

The fan’s gifted love is one-sided, in keeping with Sedgewick’s conception of the paranoiac’s devotion: ‘of all forms of love, paranoia is the most ascetic, the love that demands least from its object.’[4] Confined within the flow-consumption of paranoid enjoyment, inspired to productive labour furnished in tribute without reciprocation – whilst demanding little, the fan gives much over in the totality of their immersions. This is the process to which Barthes refers: ‘writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.’[5] If the relationship of reader and work is to be productive, if credulity might lead toward a radical politics rather than gullible passivity, the fan must throw themself fully into the fictional universe, navigating its alienating and immersive qualities and ultimately undergoing a shift in conception of the bodily self.

The ideal fan is also the ideal customer, unfalteringly loyal, their habitual consumption not simply a hobby but an identity-defining lifestyle. In this surrender of subjectivity, does the fan not risk losing all? In performing a radical credulity do they not become blind to the modes of production, the machinations of capital and ultimately the alienations which the studio system and its products serve to enhance? The danger is perhaps that the fan becomes too pliable a consumer, too willing or too distracted by their enjoyment to see the ideologies and hegemonies that hold them in place. Perhaps instead popular culture ought to function to highlight the alienations at play in capital, rather than as a distraction from the crises of our time. The fan ‘fling[s] itself into the story as if it were a river,’[6] in just the manner of the passive audience member whom Bertolt Brecht decried in his A Short Organum for the Theatre (1948), and once ‘carried vaguely hither and thither’ cannot focus on the ideological and hegemonic currents at play, let alone overcome the political impasses of the present.

Premier of Brecht’s musical, The Threepenny Opera, at the Theatre am Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin, 1928 (Accessed September 2, 2019, Image Source: https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/bertolt-brecht-and-epic-theatre-v-is-for-verfremdungseffekt)

Brecht’s proposal for an Epic theatre sought to resist the illusionistic plot-river of popular drama and distance itself from its audience, throwing the spotlight upon the alienating tendencies at the heart of capital’s relations with its workers. Through the agitprop of plays including The Threepenny Opera (1928), Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), The Good Person of Szechwan (1941), Brecht utilised the realities of staging to distance the audience from the stage by use of Verfremdungseffekts (Alienation-Effects): ‘a representation that alienates is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar.’[7] Brecht’s catalogue of ‘A-effects’ included breaking the fourth wall through direct address, turning the bright white lights of the auditorium onto the audience, the action being interrupted by the inclusion of musical numbers, the stage stripped as bare of props and scenery as possible – all in an attempt to provoke the audience into realising its political reality and potential.

Walter Benjamin, in his text What is Epic Theatre? writes of how: ‘In one who is astonished, interest is born: interest in its primordial form,’ and that Epic theatre attempts to ‘transform this primordial interest directly into a technical, expert one.’[8] Brecht’s ideal technically-minded proletarian audience member is a ‘child of the scientific age’, who cannot help but react productively and critically when presented with the realities of their time: ‘faced with a river, it consists in regulating the river…faced with society, in turning society upside down.’ The hope is that after experiencing the alienation of the Epic theatre, the audience will seek to produce its opposite in the political and social world around them.

[1] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press), 139.

[2] Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) 22.

[3] Brian Massumi, A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992) 36, quoted in Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari.

[4] Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” 132.

[5] Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” 142.

[6] Brecht, “A Short Organum for the Theatre (1948).”

[7] Brecht, “A Short Organum for the Theatre (1948).”

[8] Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, trans. Anna Bostock (London: Verso Books, 1998), 4.

Same Universe?

The form of fandom that is obsessed with the question “could X and Y exist in the same universe?” expresses its labour not through fanfiction or fan art but through the production of Fan Theory, as a form of creative discursive practice. Often these theories are presented under the aegis that one has uncovered the ‘true meaning’ or ‘hidden truth’ behind an otherwise ambiguous detail, as seen in the proliferation of ‘ending explained’ videos on youtube that attempt to unpick the final sequences of Hollywood films. Whilst much of this theorising is being undertaken tongue-in-cheek, or for no productive reason other than the joy of speculation, it points towards a more general indication that contemporary fandom is about attempting to map the available territory, draw connections between canons and find contingencies and links between disparate worlds.

Tommy Westphall Universe (2016 update) Source: https://tommywestphall.fandom.com/wiki/Tommy_Westphall_Hypothesis

This tendency is taken to perhaps its most extreme degree in the fan theory/meme ‘the Tommy Westphall Universe’ (Keith Gow and Ash Crowe, 1999-), which theorises that most of the fictions of American television have taken place in the mind of an autistic boy named Tommy Westphall, a character in the TV series St. Elsewhere – the final episode of which implied the whole series had taken place in Tommy’s mind. Through St. Elsewhere’s crossovers and spin-offs with other dramas and sitcoms a web of interconnections is formed that, at its most recent update in 2016, included 419 shows[1] all taking place within the mind of Tommy Westphall. Some of these connections are the result of official crossovers and spin-offs instigated by television networks’ desire to migrate existing audiences to new shows, such as Cheers’ (1982-93) spinoff into Frasier (1993-2004) and the less successful The Tortellis (1987). Others are based upon ‘Easter Egg’ type details and production bleedthroughs, such as the inclusion of ‘Morley’ brand cigarettes – a copyright-free approximation of the Marlborough brand produced by American prop manufacturer The Earl Hays Press[2] and used frequently on-screen (for example by X-Files ‘Smoking Man’).[3]

Source: https://www.radiotimes.com/news/2017-01-18/morley-the-cigarette-brand-that-doesnt-exist-even-though-its-in-every-tv-show/

Source: http://www.theearlhayspress.com/tobacco.html

Such diagrams could be posited as paranoiac works – a tendency that Hal Foster also identifies in the archival impulse of contemporary art-making. Foster states ‘what is paranoia if not a practice of forced connections, of my own private archive, of my own notes from the underground, put on display?’[4] Foster points towards the Freudian paranoid, who ‘projects his meanings onto the world precisely because it appears ominously drained of all significance.’[5] To some extent, the fan is also a structuralist, and the structuralist is also a paranoiac – as Freud remarked, ‘the delusions of paranoiacs have an unpalatable external similarity and internal kinship to the systems of our philosophers,’[6] (what then, would the Post-structuralist be? Not the optimist Pronoiac, rather the Denialist perhaps?) The schematism of the Tommy Westphall diagram could be thought of akin to the Victor Tausk’s influencing machines, with their ‘boxes, cranks, levers, wheels, buttons, wires, batteries, and the like’[7]replaced by plot twists and character arcs, alongside an overarching belief that someone (or something – a universalising logic?) is pulling the levers. Eve Sedgewick states that the epistemophilia of the paranoiac is not just the simple drive towards ‘unique access to true knowledge’ but also offers a way of ‘seeking, finding, and organizing knowledge. Paranoia knows some things well and others poorly.’[8] The fan is perhaps happy to know fiction better than reality.

Canonical example of an Influencing Machine – James Tilly Matthew’s “air-loom,” source: http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/14/turner.php/cabinet-the-influencing-machine?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+thehugeentity+%28MachineMachine.net+%2Fstream%29

The form of fan-being that is able to draw such sprawling webs of connection is reliant upon a certain suspension of scepticism, supplanted instead by a radical credulity, a willingness to encounter at face value and undertake an enhanced immersion into the world of TV. Whilst Sedgewick states that ‘in a world where no one need be delusional to find evidence of systemic oppression, to theorize out of anything but a paranoid critical stance has come to seem naïve, pious, or complaisant,’[9] the radically credulous fan is both naïve and paranoid in their theorisations, eager to seek the ‘truth’ of worlds they know to be fictional. The radicality of such a position is in the fact that the fan-as-producer does not see the fictional canon as sacred or fixed, and could perhaps be compelled to view the political realities of Earth Prime through the same lens. The fan’s sense of devotion and accumulated knowledge grants them a degree of authority to expand the canon of a shared universe, a refusal of orthodoxy that echoes Barthes’ assertion that ‘refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text [is] an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law.’[10]

Such an indiscernibility between the real and fictitious, and the perceived contingencies of the two are formed by long hours of continuous consumption, in which the shared platform (i.e. same channel/same hardware) implies the same universe. Media theorist Raymond Williams framed such a relationship in terms of flow in his work Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974) where he states that ‘planned flow, is…the defining characteristic of broadcasting, simultaneously as a technology and as a cultural form’[11] and that in such a flow could be found the ‘meanings and values of a specific culture.’ The contemporary mediascape is split between the fixed immersive flows of streaming platforms like Netflix or Amazon Prime, with their autoplay technology and predictive algorithms designed to lead viewers down binge watch cul-de-sacs, and the scattergun admixture of YouTube, Facebook or Twitter, in which attention is fleeting and transient, always accompanied by the spectre of infinite choice.

[1] “The Master List : The Tommy Westphall Universe,” accessed August 9, 2019
https://thetommywestphall.wordpress.com/the-master-list/.

[2] “Earl Hays Home Page,” Eral Hays Press, accessed August 9, 2019, http://theearlhayspress.com/tobacco.html.

[3] “Morley: Tommy Westphall Universe” FANDOM powered by Wikia, accessed August 9, 2019,
https://tommywestphall.fandom.com/wiki/Morley#Red_box_Morley.

[4] Hal Foster, Bad New Days, (New York: Verso Books), 59.

[5] Foster, Bad New Days, 59.

[6] Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey, trans. James Stracehy et al. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74), vol,17, 261.

[7] Victor Tausk “On the Origin of the “Influencing Machine” in Schizophrenia,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly Vol 2 (1933):, 519-556, accessed September 2, 2019 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3330285/pdf/184.pdf.

[8] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re so Paranoid, you Probably Think This Essay is About You,” in Touching Feeling (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 130.

[9] Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” 126.

[10] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image Music Text, ed and trans. Stephen Heath
(London: Fontana Press,1977), 147.

[11] Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and cultural form (London: Routledge Classics, 2003), 86.

Single Fictions, Multiple Authors

In 1990, Sci-Fi magazine New Worlds’ sometimes-editor Charles Platt coined the term ‘Quantum Fiction’[1] as a call for fiction to follow quantum theory in physics towards a form that ‘acknowledges the observer…as an active participant…presents a narrative as short bites, or quanta…and rejects the concept of a single objective view of reality’. Complaining that ‘Science fiction writers are in the ironic position of depicting the future using techniques derived entirely from the past’ Platt points towards Gibson’s Neuromancer and the two-column passages in Delaney’s Dhalgren as approaching quantum fiction, and called for authors to facilitate a process of selection and flow on the part of readers – ‘The appeal of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, for instance, was largely a function of its mood, shifting perspectives, and fragmentary images.’

Platt cites his inspiration as the analytic cubism of Picasso, Braque and latterly David Hockney, calling for a fiction which will similarly allow the capture of essence and allow ‘the vicarious experience of moving freely through the scene,’ which he feels to have been achieved by Ballard, whose 1960s novels ‘contained multiple segmented perspectives very much like cubist paintings, sampling not only space but time and human psychology.’ He stated: ‘this kind of experience, in which we are free to sample fragments of artistically rendered reality, is random access,’ highlighting experiments in the production of hyperfictions that utilised web architecture to allow stratified forms of storytelling, turning the reader into a pathfinder. Three prominent examples of Hyperfiction from Platt’s era, all of which are still running online in archived form (although I can’t get portal or afternoon to work properly on chrome or safari):

Stuart Moulthrop, Victory Garden
http://www.eastgate.com/VG/VGStart.html

Rob Swigart, Portal
https://archive.org/details/msdos_Portal_1986

Michael joyce ‘afternoon’
https://wwnorton.com/college/english/pmaf/hypertext/aft/

Platt and his interlocutors in the article also point towards some example of the hypertext or quantum approach in more conventional literary formats including Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, John Brunner Stand on Zanzibar, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Milorad Pavić The Dictionary of the Khazars, and experiments undertaken by the the Oulipo movement in france, for example Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual and the lipogram A Void. More widely we could see elements of the hyperficitonal in the epistolary form or choose-your-own-adventure (Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch as the most prominent recent outing). Platt’s contention is that these attempts to innovate the literary form have failed because ‘they were not easily accessible to the mass audience, were extremely difficult for the writer to control successfully, and therefore never led to an enduring school or tradition.’

Whilst Platt’s proposal might have once seemed a logical route for the progression of modernist popular culture, the linear, discrete mode has remained the dominant form of production, with hosting platforms rather than the works themselves enabling random access between an admixture of worlds. Platt’s predictions belong to a different world infused with the optimism of web 1.0. Although he anticipates the hyperactive attention economy of the present-day web, he still assumes a great degree of patience on the part of his reader – truly engaging with these hyperfictions can become very tedious when much of their value rests on the novelty of the technology in a pre-google/pre-wikipedia world where the internet barely existed. To the contemporary reader, any text hosted online is inherently hyperlinked to the whole rest of the internet, the equivalent of the temptation to stare out the window or simply move on is too great.

Hyperfictions of these kinds are constructed in the mind of internet users, for whom the admixture of the timeline and infinite scroll begins to take on this kind of assemblage effect, the headlines of shared news stories never read are intermingled with photos of the children of acquaintances. The affectual rollercoaster of the twitter feed swings instantly between outrage and hilarity, with no buffer zone producing mixed emotions and mixed affects. How do you feel when you put your phone down? You’re not sure. Good and Bad – goodbad, badgood. Maybe the timeline is a hyperfiction or at least a hyperspace, or a quantum space? Maybe all of those attributions are too grand.

Mark Fisher covered these ideas in his piece ‘Time Wars’, lamenting the intermixing of work and non-work time that contemporary communicative capitalism has engendered:

Cyberspatial urgencies – the smartphone’s flashing red light, the siren call of its alert – function like trance-inhibitors or alarm clocks that keep waking us out of collective dreaming. In these conditions, intellectual work can only be undertaken on a short-term basis. Only prisoners have time to read, and if you want to engage in a twenty-year long research project funded by the state, you will have to kill someone.[2]

 

Against this background of timeline admixture fans will become active participants in a work when it feels complete and compelling in it’s verisimilitude, and express that participation through production whether invited to do so or not – in fact preferring to play within fictional universes that appear more complete and aesthetically congruent such as the highly detailed universes of Star Trek and Star Wars, and allow the authorial status of these productions to be inherently collective.

In Foucault’s text What is an Author? (1969), he calls towards a notion of literature in which the status of the author becomes increasingly irrelevant, signalling the ways that the writer of the modernist work has historically been upheld as a heroic individual, with the meaning and value of a text dependent upon proper attribution and cases of ‘Literary anonymity…of interest only as a puzzle to be solved as, in our day, literary works are totally dominated by the sovereignty of the author.’[3] Barthes echoes these concerns in The Death of the Author, stating ‘when the Author has been found, the text is ‘explained’ – victory to the critic.’ (two examples that spring to mind, the speculation around the attribution of Pauline Réage’s Story of O and Bataille’s Story of the Eye published under the psuedonym Lord Auch – in both cases the sexual transgressions detailed within build a greater power when authorial attribution is removed, or at least that the notion of the mortal author can be held at arms distance).

Instead Foucault indicates that the future cultural work might take the form of discursive practice, following the example of those who choose to work within the oeuvre of Marx and Freud, who ‘made possible a certain number of analogies that could be adopted by future texts, but…also made possible a certain number of differences.’[4] Foucault draws attention to these differences as a vital component to any significant work, for which the originators of such fields simply ‘cleared a space’. If, as the epithet goes, nothing ever died of its contradictions, might we infer the reverse, that contradictions are what anything healthy needs to live?

Foucault predicts a future in which ‘We can easily imagine a culture where discourse would circulate without any need for an author. Discourses, whatever their status, form, or value, and regardless of our manner of handling them, would unfold in a pervasive anonymity.’[5] The meme is probably the truest incarnation of this tendency, and by extension ideas of theoretical discourse that hold a memetic, hyperstitional charge – accelerationism most notably, with the notion of originary authorship impossible to locate within a group voice such as that of the CCRU (or latterly cave twitter) and irrelevant to a practice emerging via a process of hyperstition (i.e. we can never reliably attribute the author of an idea that arrives from our future). This is authorship arriving via the logic of the mob.

The shared universe work also constitutes a discursive practice, that of a single fiction inhabited by multiple authors. Sometimes literally, as in the case of posthumous sequels by a ghost writer or named author working in another’s milieu, a tendency found mainly in popular fiction, (i.e. Eric Van Lustbader’s Jason Bourne novels which now greatly outnumber those by series initiator Robert Ludlum, with the later books bearing both writers’ names in a confusion of authorship). In most cases of the canon or fan work, the notion of authorship ultimately recedes into obscurity, with the world produced by an author coming to act as a stand-in for authorial sovereignty. This is particularly present in the realms of film, television and comic books which are usually ensemble productions from their outset. Barthes alludes to such a form in his conception of texts that are ‘not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the AuthorGod) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.’[6] Such an admixture as this is the dominant form for fiction in the postmodernist mode, and yet the patchwork, ‘writers room’ nature of composition does not diminish any of its power for the fan, for whom hero worship of an author or creator is something removed from their appreciation for the work itself.

To Barthes, this multidimensional space is reliant upon the reader, whose cultural awareness and intertextual lack of orthodoxy allows such a commingling:

there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.[7]

At the most basic level Barthes sees such instances as polysemous works, containing ‘a “floating chain” of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others.’[8] More ideally, such works would become ‘writerly’, not simply constituting a choice to read or ignore, but to ‘make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text,’[9] with the opposite (and majority) of texts ‘read, but not written: the readerly. We call any readerly text a classic text.’[10] The writerly text does not rely on the novelty of Quantum Fiction-style ‘random access’, but is that which offers ‘several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one’[11] and in its multiplicity constitutes a universe, or in Barthes’ terms ‘a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds,’[12] presenting plural polysemous images and formations that invite the reader to become active and participant.

_

As a side note, returning to Charles Platt, this blog post interview about his time as editor and occasional art director of New Worlds, (including ballard layouts etc,) its a good read if just to learn about how magazines were put together before word processing.

https://pedromarquesdg.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/the-new-worlds-of-charles-platt/

[1] Charles Platt, “Quantum Fiction, a blueprint for avoiding literary obsolescence,” in The New York Review of Science Fiction, (April 1990), accessed at August 31 2019 at https://archive.org/details/The_New_York_Review_Of_Science_Fiction_020_1990-04/page/n15/mode/2up

[2] https://www.gonzocircus.com/exclusive-essay-time-wars-towards-an-alternative-for-the-neo-capitalist-era/

[3] Michel Foucault “What is an Author?” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Donald F. Bouchard, Sherry Simon (New York: Cornell University Press,1977), 126.

[4] Foucault “What is an Author?” 132.

[5] Foucault “What is an Author?” 138.

[6] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image Music Text, ed and trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press,1977), 146.

[7] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” 148.

[8] Roland Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image,” in Image Music Text, ed and trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press,1977), 39.

[9] Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (Malden: Blackwell, 2002), 4.

[10] Roland Barthes, S/Z, 4.

[11] Roland Barthes, S/Z, 5.

[12] Roland Barthes, S/Z, 5.