Monday 30 March 2015

Freud's "Uncanny" and Rachel Whiteread

I reread Freud's "Uncanny" today for an essay I am writing on Rachel Whiteread's sculpture called Torso and was reminded how much I love this piece of writing. The sculpture consists of a plaster cast of a hot water bottle. Freud's text is often used to describe Whiteread's work and although it may be a bit of a cliche by now, I think it is still such an appropriate and helpful lens through which to read her work for a number of reasons. Firstly, it evokes the concept of the familiar/unfamiliar; it is both a body and an object. It is both present and absent. It also refers to the double or doppelgänger as Torso is, in a sense, a copy of the original object although inverted.

(Whiteread's casts House and Ghost perhaps fit even more perfectly with Freud's "Uncanny" because of the text's German translation as "unheimlich" (unhomely) and of the sculptures's respective references to the domestic space.)

On a separate note, I thoroughly enjoyed reading his summary of Hoffman's "Sandman", one of my favourite stories. Read the story here:

More on Whiteread at later date.

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Tuesday 24 March 2015

Three faces

“Duck and Cover”… and Never, Ever Forget: Disciplining Fear in Cold War America

A version of a presentation I am giving on the 1951 Federal Defence Administration, "Duck and Cover". 

The Cold War pedagogical film called Duck and Cover, which was shown to primary school classrooms in America as a means to instill civil defense strategies amongst children. The film features Bert the turtle who is described as “very alert”. Upon the signal that danger is close, in this case, a monkey in a tree holding a lit stick of dynamite, he proceeds to take a nervous gulp and to pull his head and limbs into his shell, adopting and demonstrating the duck and cover position.

My essay will aim to argue that rather than sharing a productive and necessary lesson, “Duck and Cover” produces fear amongst the viewing children, advising them that they are never safe and must always be prepared for the bomb. The film’s efforts to train the students to duck and cover communicate a surveilling enemy gaze who might strike at any point. Rather than training students to adopt a productive defensive reaction, “Duck and Cover” instills fear within its viewing subjects and disciplines them to feel afraid and unsafe even in their homes and schools.

The first theoretical platform that I make use of is Jean Baudrillard’s discussion on the obscenity of images and of advertising. Although Baudrillard could be viewed as quite reserved or even technophobic at times, his discussion of the television is useful in this context to unpack how “Duck and Cover” produces more harm than it provides help. For Baudrillard, the screen in the domestic setting, which exhibits fictitious images and events make them seem imaginable and thus more plausible or realistic. “Duck and Cover” works exactly in this way. By making visible the possible interruption of everyday life by the atomic bomb, the young viewers are forced to conceive of an enemy gaze surveilling their actions and deciding to strike or not.

I expand this by attending to Żiżek’s notion that fantasy and fascination is driven by a non-existent and imagined gaze that looks upon a subject. In this case however, the gaze is not imaginary but hypothetical and poses real potential for destruction. The danger of “Duck and Cover” is that it leaves much to be imagined by its viewers and, in the wake of such provocative stimulation, the minds of such viewers get filled by such overwhelming imagery.

I go on to disucss Foucault’s Panopticon to describe the instruction of “Duck and Cover” to behave as if an enemy’s threatening gaze might always be actively peering in on them. The children have indeed been put in charge of their own well-being and defense – in the form of ducking and covering – and this message has been internalized so that citizens must always be alert and ready to respond according to their training.

In the film, the narrator proceeds to give examples of the various places the children might be upon the arrival of the bomb. He instructs the children to duck and cover under their desks so that nothing can hit them or to duck and cover away from windows or glass doors which he claims will cut them. These vivid descriptions are nothing less than traumatic and inevitably stimulate fear, whereby the children are already positioned as victims in danger. I argue that this can be viewed as an demonstration of Baudrillard’s claim that obscenity begins when something is “all-too-visible”, when the secret is dissipated and information is mass circulated. In this way, “Duck and Cover” provides too much information to its viewing students. Instead of simply providing a helpful response tactic to its citizens, it goes into the scenarios of injury so graphically that it functions to pervert spaces that are supposed to be safe and comforting.

My focus then shifts to the scenes that involve the home. One of these scenes is of a mother rubbing lotion on her son’s bare chest and back. The narrator explains how unpleasant sunburn can be as a warning of the effects of the bomb. Here I make use of architectural theorist Beatriz Colomina’s discussion of the home and particularly on the ways in which domestic hygiene is a military and national campaign for ultimate efficiency. I think that this can be extended to bodily hygiene and care for the next generation as being integral to this strategy.

In this way, both Colomina as well as Foucault provide relevant and useful accounts of the ways in which the internalization of surveillance result in specific behavioural codes, even within the home that aim to support and contribute to the state’s military agenda. In this way, fear enters the most private sphere. While the film never shows the atom bomb go off while the children are in their homes, the repercussions of it do exist in this supposedly safe domestic structure.  

I end my essay with a brief discussion of another shorter text by Baudrillard called “The Pornography of War”. In this article, Baudrillard discusses the post 9/11 American military photographs of Iraqi prisoners and argues that the visibility of these images amongst an American public is equally harmful to American citizens as the images of the twin towers burning down. He conflates images and war as both being virtual and ingenuine. He states that:
“for images to constitute genuine information they would have to be different from war. But they have become precisely as virtual as war today and hence their own specific violence is now superadded to the specific violence of war. Moreover, by their omnipresence… [images] have become in substance pornographic”.
For Baudrillard, the mass visibility of images is akin to, and an example of, the pornographic. The violence of images is at once as real and as virtual as war and are active contributors to war itself. He ends his essay with the statement that “this is America having electrocuted itself”.


Baudrillard, Jean. “Pornography of War”. Cultural Politics, Vol. 1, Issue 1 (2005): 23-26.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Ecstasy of Communication” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. ed. Hal Foster. Washington: Bay Press (1983): 126-134.

Colomina, Beatriz. “Domesticity at War”. Discourse, vol. 14, no. 1 (Winter 1991-2): 3-22.

Foucault, Michel. “ ‘Panopiticism’ from ‘Discilpine & Punish: The Birth of the Prison”. Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, Vol. 2, No. 1. The Dynamics of race and Incarceration: Social Integration, Social Welfare, and Social Control (Autumn, 2008): 1-12.

Matthews, Melvin E. Duck and Cover: Civil Defense Images in Film and Television fromthe Cold War to 9/11. (Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc, 2012).

Żiżek, Slavoj. ‘Big Brother, Or The Triumph of the Gaze Over the Eye’, in CTRL[Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance From Bentham to Big Brother. Ed. Thomas Y. Levin & Ursula Frohne & Peter Weibel. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002).

Hot Tub Astronaut

Really excited that Hot Tub Astronaut is back up and running. Looking to expand to media other than writing. So far, I think its going to be fun :)

Monday 23 March 2015

Blue Greens Track with Brian Pokora

Check out a track my friend Brian Pokora made to my Blue Greens poems! Really excited to continue the project to make a forthcoming mixtape. The image is a compilation I made a while ago using Google Earth. All of these pools are in LA.

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Raymond Carver

The quote by Raymond Carver that opens the recent film Birdman is the exact same that my father read at my grandfather's funeral this past summer.

And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? 
I did. 
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.

-Raymond Carver, Late Fragment

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Tuesday 10 March 2015

Some fun with film

Critters that Move (Us): Lygia Clark’s Bichos

Here is a version of the presentation I am giving on an essay that I have written on Lygia Clark. 

Today I will be discussing the Brazilian Neoconcretist artist Lygia Clark’s series called “Bichos” which she began making in 1965. Just for a bit of background information, Neoconcretism was a movement beginning in the 1950s in Rio de Janeiro in response to the Sao Paolo Concretism group. For the Neoconcretists, the Sao Paolo movement focused too much on the theoretical and dogmatic aspects of geometric abstract art whereas their own focus was to restore a sense of expression in the production of art objects, or as they are sometimes called, instruments.

Clark’s Bichos have been translated to English as animal, beast or critter. They are composed of metal plates that are hinged together to create a mutable polymorphous sculpture, which can be held in the viewer’s hands. Its original design was such that it instructed the viewer to play with the Bicho by folding it to create new forms. For my essay, I was interested to see how we might approach the Bichos as having a certain agency as well as occupying a body. Some of the questions I want to ask are: What would we discover if we were to set aside what we already think we understand about the subjectivity of objects and of animals? What would a democratic, a more egalitarian, encounter between human and thing look like? If we were to consider technologies and objects as having bodies, how might this change the ways in which we approach the world as well as ourselves as humans?

The argument that I would like to put forward is that the Bicho is a subjective agent that behaves as an equal participant in the encounter between itself and the viewer. In such a meeting, wherein the viewer takes hold of the Bicho’s metallic limbs and moves them, she too is moved as a function of the distinct limitations of the physical structure of the given Bicho.

I begin my argument by exploring Bill Brown’s notion of the “thing” which he distinguishes from the object. For Brown, we don’t see objects, or as he puts it, we see through objects because of their cultural associations with a particular function. It is only when an object fails to function for humans and is rendered obsolete or inoperable that it asserts itself as an agential thing. Brown explains how a thing is a description of a subject-object relationship. In this way, a thing is born through its encounter with a viewer. While the Bicho may initially signify as a work of art, especially in the context of a gallery, the permission to touch it and play with it destabilizes the look-but-don’t-touch rule. In this sense, it stops being a typical artwork and asserts itself as a participant in the encounter, as a thing.

I go on to discuss how this encounter can be repeated again and again because of the multitude of forms that the Bicho can claim. In her discussion of the Bichos, Briony Fer argues that this kind of variability is dependent on the Bicho’s sensitivity to its surroundings and to the hands that manipulate it.

What I want to draw out here is the performability that is inherent in such an encounter. What I find particularly interesting here are the ways in which the subject also moves as she moves the Bicho. What I mean by this is that the joints of that particular Bicho dictate the subject’s physical disposition. In this way, there is a sort of harmonious dance that occurs when a viewer moves a Bicho and a Bicho consequently moves the viewer.

In another aspect that is crucial to my argument, I make use of Derrida’s text “The Animal That Therefore I Am”. In this context, I first discuss Derrida’s return to Genesis to recount how God instructs Adam to name the animals. Derrida explains that this power is a privilege reserved for man alone. Clark names her sculptures beasts, animals or critters but does not provide any further specification, only tells us that they belong to this category. Because of the polymorphic and mutable nature of the Bichos, they can never resemble a specific animal long enough to be named after it. In this way, by refraining from specifying the Bichos more acutely, Clark decidedly does not participate in the violence inherent in the human methods of ordering living things into a hierarchy. Instead of subjugating her Bichos to the dominating power described by Derrida, by titling her work in this way, as well as facilitating a respectful exchange between the human subject and the Bicho, Clark draws attention to the human as animal as well as to the animal as subject.

I briefly discuss Donna Haraway’s section on critters in her book When Species Meet. Interestingly enough, Haraway equates the critter with the thing. For Haraway however, things are material and specific. Alternatively, I suggest that the very quality that makes an object a thing is its inability to be specific, its abstractness. In the case of the Bichos, this is twofold: firstly, it is not specific because of its changeable and ever-changing form and secondly, because it is named a critter and not anything more descriptive or concrete. Haraway also proposes that things never function alone but are compound and interact with other things in the world. If this is true then things function as a component that contributes to a larger assemblage of active agents. In other words, the thing collaborates with the viewer in order to come into its thingness and to create an encounter that challenges the hierarchy of bodies, whether animal, thing or human.

The last section of my essay discusses the recent curatorial decisions and exhibition strategies of the Bichos in the exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery called “Adventures of the Black Square”. In this show, the Bichos are shown on a plinth inside a clear display case. By enclosing the critter in this way, its ability to interact with the viewer is so compromised that its previous generative potential to produce meaning and to move the viewer as the viewer moves it is utterly lost and rendered sterile. The ability to play with the Bicho is vital not only to the viewer’s conception of it as thing, as animal, but also to the animation of it as an agent in motion.  

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