Saturday, 30 May 2009

Steve Dwoskin's The Sun and the Moon: Eroticism and the Filmic Avantgarde

I have never seen as strong a piece of experimental moving image as Steven Dwoskin’s The Sun and the Moon (what a sweeping statement that is!). As a piece of ‘personal cinema’ it intensely provides an insight into - not just the camera as a tool for the representation of the world (as a profound, obscured and obliterated entity) - but also the ever-present and ugly phenomenon of sex (yes it is! - even when conducted by the most ‘beautiful’ of people). Abstraction and sex incontestably sit side-by-side (as of course do art and sex historically). Sex only ever seems to make sense before and during, both then merely introducing the inevitable occurrence of post-coital guilt and confusion: What is this act? What does it actually involve? Why this consistent and depressing desire to partake? Through an acknowledgement of the inevitable degradation of the human body (accelerated by physical illness), the unfathomable urge for sexual interaction, and an overwhelming obsession with the moving-image avantgarde, Dwoskin's filmic abstractions are unbelievably compelling.


It is said that The Sun and the Moon is a lyrical evocation of the Beauty and the Beast story. Four directors shoot a 69-year-old Dwoskin showing the scars from the poliomyelitis he suffered in his childhood and the oxygen mask he wears since contracting pneumonia. However, what can seem terrible is not: does eroticism exclude certain bodies? Dwoskin's favourite writer, Georges Bataille, knows well the depths of Eros. Tears, aversion, terror and tenderness: Dwoskin re-establishes light into his marginalised body and claims an eroticism without words for himself. (Cece, 20th April 2008, translated by Jose de Esteban – quoted from the BFI notes on the current Dwoskin retrospective)



Dwoskin claims, not just a personal eroticism through the actions he conducts as a subject in his own film, but also the consistent maintaining of a weird sense of the erotic through the filming itself: the camera moves in an overtly sexual manner: zooms in and out, blurred close-up confusion followed by resting steps back into momentary clarity, 360 degree rotations, and dizzying changes of angle and general camera position (all filmic metaphors for sexual movements, it seems).

The film features three characters, Dwoskin himself, a brunette middle-aged woman (Beatrice Cordua) and a young-ish Scandinavian girl (Helga Wretman). Dwoskin sits uncomfortably on a bed, his face covered by an oxygen mask. He sits-up, lies-down and rolls around grunting, rasping and masturbating while the younger woman parades around naked and the older woman cries and screams out from the sidelines. The entire film is slowed down into recondite, grainy video with obscure time-stretched sound. Dwoskin has the various camera operators zoom in close on his body, revealing his strange form up-close, the texture of his paled skin full-screen, and the wispy fine hair that lines his stomach and chest: these shots are not abhorrently pornographic, more considered, abstracted images of the human body through close swoops and zooms with a modest hand-held camera.  

The various shots appear to fall into two categories: those that show the room itself and the placement and actions of the three characters, and those that reduce the characters themselves into bare-breasts reflecting in mirrors, screaming mouths, and rolling lumps of naked flesh. The older woman seems to represent Dwoskin’s anguish as a disabled, but never-the-less sexuated subject with her time-stretched yelps and howls, while the younger blonde combines looks of potential lust for Dwoskin, with teary-eyed stares for a man that may not be able to fulfil the expected rigours of sexual performance/ritual. For 61 minutes this harrowing yet strangely beautiful affair continues. The viewer is lead away into textural abstraction, before once again being reminded of the reality that is taking place between the three characters: all bodies are gradually and progressively becoming eroticised.


The whole business of eroticism is to strike to the inmost core of the living being, so that the heart stands still. The transition from the normal state to that of erotic desire presupposes a partial dissolution of the person as he exists in the realm of discontinuity. (Bataille, Eroticism, trans. Mary Dalwood, 1967.)


Eroticism, then, is a breaking down; a replacing of structure and order with dissolution (disunion, disintegration, decay). Dwoskin reveals the point of tension in this decay: is his body capable of performing a sexual act? As in several of his other works, will the women actually engage in any tactile sex act? Or, will they just eroticise their movements in space, simply providing entertainment for Dwoskin’s self-gratification through masturbation? The point of tension is this brink between stripping, nakedness and heavy-petting; the point between being naked in a space with another body, and actually engaging in some form of tactile intercourse. This tension is paramount throughout the entire film, and it dictates its extraordinary atmosphere.


Stripping naked is the decisive action. Nakedness offers a contrast to self-possession, to discontinuous existence, in other words. It is a state of communication revealing a quest for a possible continuance of being beyond the confines of the self. Bodies open out to a state of continuity through secret channels that give us a feeling of obscenity. Obscenity is our name for the uneasiness which upsets the physical state associated with self-possession, with the possession of a recognised and stable individuality. Through the activity of organs in a flow of coalescence and renewal, like the ebb and flow of waves surging into one another, the self is dispossessed, and so completely that most creatures in a state of nakedness, for nakedness is symbolic of this dispossession and heralds it: particularly if the erotic act follows, consummating it. (Ibid)


Shots of the moon are cut with those of Wretman’s naked body. The female form eclipses the moon, pushing back a celestial body only to replace it with an eroticised one. The eroticised female seems controlled by the moon’s glow, working for it through a strange double reflection. 

In another film, Trying to Kiss the Moon (1994), Dwoskin edits together archive footage of his father’s video tapes, creating an autobiography in black and white footage with classical music accompaniment (Sibelius’ violin concerto, amongst other pieces). He talks of his move to London from New York in 1964 and the strange affect it had on his career as an artist and filmmaker. Apart from the following video interview for Lux, this was the only footage of Dwoskin’s work I could find:


Stephen Dwoskin - vodcast


Friday, 29 May 2009

Florian Hecker’s Pentaphonic Dark Energy: Object Becomes Context: Or, a Prefatory Statement on the Curating of Sound in the Gallery

Pentaphonic Dark Energy further enforces the notion of sound becoming space:


Pushing the envelope of algorithmic software, the works of Florian Hecker reshape listener’s perceptual processes, taking the spatial soundworlds imagined by Xenakis a step further into psychoacoustic black holes. (Cain, 2008: 34)


Florian Hecker’s installation is sound infecting its surround. It relentlessly attacks the listener, before pulling back into quiet. And then again it comes, this time with a pure tone, and a second, before spitting sound around the room in a primal display of aggression. The speakers hang like Jurassic birds from the ceiling. The listener poses little threat, so the birds don’t move, they merely attack aurally, covering all directions, all frequencies it seems, confusing and engulfing space.

Pentaphonic Dark Energy is an object of context. It simultaneously exists as an independent artwork, and the space itself. Hecker’s interest in Psychoacoustics is paramount here. Hecker understands the human perception of sound is beyond a physiological or mechanical phenomenon; it is also a sensory event, processed in our auditory cortex, beyond the physiology of the human ear. Hecker’s piece distorts perception, creating a bodily experience that resonates deeper than the act of merely hearing; it is a physical and vibrational experience that takes listening beyond the scope of the ear and the brain, into the body. The title Pentaphonic Dark Energy pays homage to ‘Dark Energy;’ a hypothetical kind of energy proposed in cosmological study. It is apparently responsible for the expansion of the universe, nonetheless.

The sound of Pentaphonic Dark Energy fills the art gallery space, creating a space of its own that in turn submerges the body of the listener (the embodied subject, embodied by the context). This idea of space is not geometrical, mathematical or acoustic space, but bodily space.


The thinking of Descartes was viewed as the decisive point in the working-out of the concept of space, and the key to its mature form. According to most historians of Western thought, Descartes had brought to an end the Aristotelian tradition which held that space and time were among those categories which facilitated the naming and classing of the evidence of the senses. The status of such categories had hitherto remained unclear, for they could be looked upon either as simple empirical tools for ordering sense data or, alternatively, as generalities in some way superior to the evidence supplied by the body’s sensory organs. (Lefebvre, 1974: 1)

And later Kant supplied his own update. Merleau-Ponty elaborates,

Kant tried to draw a strict demarcation line between space as the form of external experience and the things given within that experience. There is naturally no question of a relationship of container to content, since this relationship exists only between objects, nor even a relationship of logical inclusion, like the one existing between the individual and the class, since space is anterior to its alleged parts, which are always carved out of it. Space is not the setting (real or logical) in which things are arranged, but the means whereby the position of things becomes possible. (Merleau-Ponty, 1958: 284)


Merleau-Ponty suggests space is in front of what constitutes it. Space is anterior (ahead in time) of what it is made up of. Therefore sound must catch up with space in order to fill it. In such a case sound is not only chasing space, constituting it, but also redefining it. Sound in the art gallery becomes the art gallery; the sound object becomes the context.

Florian Hecker’s installation changes the sterile white-cube environment of Sadie Coles’ gallery into a place of confusion and infection. It contrasts the comfortable, still experience of the subject’s body, with a dramatic, perplexing and hugely physical experience.


Again, it is clear that no causal relationship is conceivable between the subject and his body, his world or his society. Only at the cost of losing the basis of all my certainties can I question what is conveyed to me by my presence to myself. (Ibid: 504)


It is precisely within sound that one can lose physical certainty. When entirely immersed in a variety of sonic frequencies and intensities, we become aware of our own presence - the outside world renders itself conclusively unimportant. It is denied an existence and pushed away into unrecognisability by low hums, high squeaks, and attacking volumes of sound. Any references to external circumstances are actualised internally; they are the stuff of nostalgia, a version of history filtered through the self. There is no causal relationship between subject and body in sound, not because there is no correspondence between them, but precisely because they are so correspondent that they become one another; there is no separation between subject and body when immersed in sound; they are overwhelmingly united.

Pentaphonic Dark Energy is a purely aesthetic experience. The listening curator will acknowledge this pure and physical aesthetic of sound, encouraging and intensifying the experience in the art gallery. Musicality is not the only power sound possesses – there is also the pure volume and intensity of noise and sound devoid of 12-tone structural relations. By presenting a contrast to musical sound in the art gallery, the curator of contemporary sound art will dislocate sound art from the potentiality of musical listenability, forcing the gallery visitor to consider sound in its most pure and abstract form. By presenting music with abstract sound in the same curatorial space, the curator is not contextualising experimental sound practices within the history of music, but rather setting up a scenario where the very basis of the socioaural cannot be questioned because of the presence of musical sound. The human emotional response to musical sound will always win over abstract sound when the two forms are presented together in the same exhibition – history shows us this.

There must be a complete liberation of abstract sound from musicality and visuality in order to present sound art as an autonomous and progressive contemporary discipline. The space in which it should be presented is dark - the possibility of seeing removed. The gallery visitor should not consciously be hearing, for as neurobiological research shows, hearing is an act with two levels of understanding: linguistic and musical. Instead, the visitor should listen (attend to sound), not to their past (socioaural) experiences of sound, but to their bodies and the physical intensity that occurs. The aesthetic experience of sound art is not one of listening to the sound itself, but rather of listening to the body, and its interaction with sound and space. Appreciating abstract sound is to ‘feel’ sound, to understand the phenomena of tactility and spatio-temporality.


Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Grime is dead! Long live UK Funky!

My long-time friend Ali came over last night and we discussed, as we always do, her 'Real Drama' theatre project from which she had just arrived, having been at the weekly meet in the NT foyer (due to the bank holiday their usual meeting place was closed so they decided to infiltrate a much-used public space to rehearse in instead, good idea I say - and they didn't get chucked out either!). Aside from one guilty American, who over-actively and patronizingly [sic] commented on how it was great to see 'vulnerable youths' doing something with their time, there was no bother and the rehearsal/sing-off went down a treat. 

Ali and I then got on to the topic of grime, dubstep and skank dancing - which she has discussed and participated in at length with her youth group, and as a result has quite a lot of interesting things to say, and demonstrate, on such matters (some of which I am regurgitating here). As a middle-class white Londoner, all of my insights into black urban music come from four sources: my two-year stint living with much sunlight on the 5th floor of the Wendover block on the Aylesbury Estate (also see these abhorrent plans for its regeneration), Wire (the magazine), youtube and Ali. I think Ali is by far the most accurate.

Anyhow, so the story goes, grime and dubstep are old hat, and the ever-changing morphology of trend has produced a hybrid form of grime which sounds a bit like electro with funky house tendencies! I wanted dirtier and bassier, and what I got was synthier and more production-hungry. I think it sounds a bit like Paul Hardcastle or even a slightly faster digital version of Marc Almond (think Tears Run Rings with Skepta's voice replacing Marc's):

Example 1:

Example 2:

After that Ali showed me how to skank-dance to it. You start with these moves:

And then:

And then (with a strangely Lynchian introduction):

And finally (as the NHS probably suggest):

Monday, 25 May 2009

The Grapes Are Sour Anyway! - The Photography of Karen Knorr

The Passage, Villa Savoye, Poissy, 2008.

All images copyright
Karen Knorr/Villa Savoye series courtesy of the Le Corbusier Foundation. Originally published in Hotshoe International, April/May issue, 2009.

In his book Science and the Arts (1935), Jacob Opper describes the change in the theory of nature from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century as one that involves a shift from Cartesian and Newtonian mechanics, to biology – the science of life. It is this turn from the rigidity of mathematical physics to natural history that sparked a parallel movement in the arts of the time. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who eerily shares his place of birth with Karen Knorr (Frankfurt-on-main), straddled this change in the sciences and carved out one of the most prolific series of writings of the age of enlightenment. These writings are best known as works of fiction (namely the great tragedy Faust,) but also prolific to the time were his developments of scientific study - particularly anatomy and colour theory. In 1784 Goethe published his independent discovery of the inter-maxillary bone in man, therefore relating man to other ‘higher animals’ and understanding that man and nature are fundamentally tied in evolution; governed by the same natural principles. It is these discoveries in good science that should force a perceivable equality between man and animal today, so why then, is an imbalance still prevalent?

The Shelf, Villa Savoye, Poissy, 2008.

Nature and man-made culture are antithetic; they are distinct in as much as nature, on the one hand, retains a certain integrity and honesty, and mankind, on the other hand, seems to thrive on the principles of greed, arrogance and deceit. As nature and mankind have drifted apart, nature, which was once by its very definition natural, has become a spectacle. The appearances of the objects of nature into the built space or environment of the modern city come as a surprise to us - they are somehow regarded unnatural (the fox in my garden, the mouse in my kitchen, the pigeon in my chimney). It is this incongruity between objects and space that is central to Knorr’s photographic practice.

On two levels, the taxidermised animals - as foreign objects unusual or ‘other’ to the environment they inhabit - recall the central intent of the pagan fable. The first level represents the traditional definition of the fable as a fictional narrative that uses animal characters to teach a moral lesson. For example Aesop’s The Fox and the Grapes where the central and only protagonist, a fox in this case, realises he cannot reach the grapes he desires and therefore defaults to a position of indifference, exclaiming “The grapes are sour anyway!” – the moral of the story being – “it is easy to despise what you cannot get”. And the second, more complex and to some extent subversive level, admirably seeks to hold the anti-humanist position that animals need not be anthropomorphised by the writers of folkloric literature in order to teach a moral lesson to humankind; but instead, simply by being their animal selves, they are equally capable of moral teaching. In this sense Knorr’s work removes the need for allegorical storytelling, and uses the animals in their purest, non-fictional form to deliver a striking ethical lesson. These animals are removed from their natural habitat as a means to directly compare ‘pure nature’ with ‘high culture’. 

The Stairs, Villa Savoye, Poissy, 2008.

In these images the photographed animals defy the construction of human spaces for solely human use; they enter into our domain reducing the human-defined gap that separates animal nature (as base and untamed), and human culture (as relatively advanced and refined). By appropriating the fable, Knorr represents this gap between nature and culture and calls into question the very logic of the institutions in which the animals are placed. By re-staging nature in the built environment by way of positioning these animals in a variety of museum spaces, Knorr seeks to question why cultural institutions such as the museum remain so fundamentally unnatural. Many museums are, after all, narcissistic reminders of human cultural worth - built and adored by humans themselves - which deny entry to nature other than by way of pictorial representation. Museums are, as art theorist Danielle Rice has put it (referring to a consensus amongst theorists) “ideological symbols of the power relationships in today’s culture.”

The Rooftop, Villa Savoye, Poissy, France, 2008.

Circa 1929, Swiss architect Le Corbusier completed his Villa Savoye, a building that would come to epitomise high-modernism. Just prior to the Second World War, the building developed a structural fault in the roof (initially designed so it’s flat surface could be of some practical use to its owners), but has since been fully restored and made available for public viewing. It has, quite literally, become a museum.

“The idea of this house is that it is a free-flowing space that blurs the boundaries between the inside and the outside. I chose birds as the animal type to go into this building because all the work with the animals and these architectural spaces is about blurring the boundaries, disrupting the boundaries, or transgressing the boundaries between nature and culture. These birds [the crane and the magpie] formally echo the architectural space with their colour; they are, in a way, playfully formalist devices. The building is very clean – you can’t imagine organic matter. The birds are unnatural in this environment, totally unnatural, like the building itself.” (Interview with the artist, February 2009.)

The slick, hard lines of Le Corbusier’s design contrast the natural and soft aerodynamic curvature of the birds in these Villa Savoye works. Both the shots taken in architecturally Baroque museums, and the newer pieces at the modern Villa Savoye, seem to point directly at some of the issues facing the art museum as a supposedly accessible cultural institution today. In his essay Having One’s Tate and Eating It: Transformations of the Museum in a Hypermodern Era, Nick Prior recounts Bourdieu and Darbel’s 1969 study of art museum audiences. This study reveals the poignantly elitist nature of museum culture as a phenomenon that breeds and reinforces social difference (class, education, distinctions between high and low culture). Although the situation has vastly improved since the late sixties, with more diverse education programs and increased museum visitor numbers being recorded (surely a reflection of museums doing better work?), there is still an issue prevalent, elucidated by Knorr’s concerns of why, when directly compared to nature, such institutions remain fundamentally unnatural and possibly immoral? Her appropriation of the fable into a photographic device necessarily raises this fundamentally important issue.

Installation shot, Gallerie Cenrale Electrique, Brussels, 2008.

Knorr’s work subverts the power of the museum setting. While creating artworks of visual beauty and conceptual clarity (a pairing rare in much contemporary art), Knorr’s photography consistently challenges the spectator’s assumptions about the nature of representation, and indeed, the representation of nature within the art museum.

From a curatorial perspective, it is work such as this that functions well as an apĂ©ritif to exhibition strategising; by way of its critique of high culture it provides a lucid reminder of the ever-pervading didacticism in contemporary museum curatorial practice (important, as we have now just been subjected to the next implausible neologism, ‘altermodern,’ courtesy of the Tate Britain’s Gulbenkian Curator of Contemporary Art).

In conclusion, Karen Knorr’s photographic practice is a constant reminder of the essentially unnatural phenomenon of the classist, hierarchical structure of modern society. It is within the very institutions that Knorr photographs, and in turn displays her work, that these issues still ubiquitous in contemporary culture can be most readily understood.

Installation shot, Gallerie Cenrale Electrique, Brussels, 2008.



I've been obsessing over these today, asking myself what the man who once showed so much promise with his lo-fi Brixton-hop thought exactly he was doing with everything (well, most things) that followed his first release proper, Brand New Second Hand. It serves well as a point of contrast (in a strange regressive way) with Dizzee Rascal's Butterfly - recent b-side to the single Bonkers. Simon Reynolds' Guardian blog post on Butterfly hitting no.1 in the singles chart can be read here. The b-side is much more worth the listen in my humble opinion, however.