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Planning for Burial – Quietly

cover

[I]t is a relief to have some utterly banal sound pierce the darkness that we lie in, and to jar us out of the hypnagogic terror that would convince us that we are alone with the phantasms of our minds. – Thomas Bey William Bailey (174)

 

Planning for Burial

Quietly CD reissue (limited, with bonus tracks).

Digital album.

Enemies List Home Recordings

Planning for Burial make an audacious claim – Death to false gloom. The credo firmly asserts the idea that “yes, this is all real.” This is not to be confused with doom. Doom and gloom may go hand-in-hand in some contexts, there are noticeable differences. The former suggests a noticeable reality, a pending and altogether real shift of the inevitable – wide scale and encompassing. Gloom permeates strictly within. A personal melancholy that is experienced by the individual. Though it is something one can identify with, one’s gloom is their own. That is part of the enigma, struggle, and beauty of Planning for Burial.

With contemporaries such as Enemies List artists Have a Nice Life and Giles Corey, or other shoegaze projects such as Sun Devoured Earth, Planning for Burial is a part of a prolific and engaging indie music culture. But, where Giles Corey might eulogize that “No One is Ever Going to Want Me,” the sadness of Planning for Burial seems different. Alfred Tennyson might have proclaimed that “’Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.” Planning for Burial adamantly denies this proposition.

The metanarrative of the band supports this. One need only follow the band’s tumblr in the twilight hours to catch glimpses of haunting pain. Cryptic posts written in drunken hazes alluding to past events, impossible realities, constant hurt, and lost love. While some may only sympathize, being able to identify with the struggle is perhaps what makes Planning for Burial so mesmerizing. The gloom is real. All of our gloom is real.

It is perhaps an odd comparison to make, but I am reminded of listening to Navicon Torture Technologies while wandering around my college campus. While they sound nothing alike, Lee M. Bartow left the same impression on me – this is real. Songs of such inner-hatred echoed in my headphones as one man attempted a form of artistic and noisey emotional revenge. It seemed like the only way he could deal with heartbreak, loss, betrayal, and pain (his “Personal Apocalypse” series of songs really comes to mind). Listening to him back then helped me process my own gloom. I get the same feeling as I listen to Planning for Burial. As the band stated in a correspondence with me in late 2012, “[gloom] to me is about feeling…it’s a feeling that comes through me best through music, I believe.”

Quietly works differently than most PFB releases. The album Leaving often presents a loud, clashing, distorted drone as a sense of gloom. I have tried to share the beauty of “Oh Pennsylvania, Your Black Clouds Hang Low,” with others, only to have them be immediately turned off by the carnal screams within the first few seconds. Even “Humming Quietly” has a sense of immediacy and synaptic anxiety feedback that the album Quietly contrasts against. Herein lies the rather splendid way in which Planning for Burial is able to capture gloom – in noise, in quietness, and in the noise of the quiet.

A series of guitar notes, brushed up against and plucked, loom over frequencies in the background. Mild feedback oscillates between the delicate balances of here and there. The album itself is quieter than others, but “quietly” is an adverb and means more than the presentation of the music. The albums captures, in a sense, the ways in which those who manage the day-to-day, but suffer in the invisible heartbreak of life. The music is able to haunt rather than intrude, lingering in the listener like a memory. Its quietness is no less powerful, emotive, or deafening. The vocals are just within listenable range – there, but not quiet identifiable. The words are there, but you can’t quiet capture them. They drift, like a dream after you wake up, away from consciousness and into a lingering sensation. This is not to suggest that “quiet” is “nice” or “relaxing” or any number of positive connotations.  There can be a violence of emotion that is singular, personal, and hidden. The album forces a pain, luring in one with an aesthetic of ambience but contrasting with distortions, noises, and emotions. Quietly is an ethereal experience, allowing the listener participate with the quietness around them and the emotions muted inside.

 

 

 

 

Bailey, Thomas Bey William. Micro-bionic: Radical Electronic Music and Sound Art in the 21st Century. [London]: Creation, 2009. Print.

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Stapled Copy – 09/12/2012

Think Tank #2
Matt Hawkins, Rahsan Ekedal
Top Cow

Think Tank has a bold tag line – “Danger: Reading this book will make you smarter.” I really liked the first issue, but was dubious about how that tag line would come into play with the narrative. This issue helps demonstrate that the tag line is, I think, right. This book very well might make you smarter. Not in terms of IQ points, per say, but in terms of awareness. The density of content is surprising, especially for a book whose protagonist just wants to get laid and play video games. While Dr. David Loren contemplates his own role in the death of thousands, it reflects a great reality for scientists to consider their role in global progress after the famous words of Dr. Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. I found myself considering how the recession, the struggle for employment, and the ways in which one bends their morality in order to pay the bills. The realities of war are always awful, and Hawkins ties the idea to someone just wanting to get paid and being happy with their work. The scariest thing about this book is the fact that Hawkins adds supplemental material in the back to help bring a chilling sense of reality to the goofiness of David’s character and the unsettling violence of the weapons and technology presented in Think Tank’s pages. It’s easy to give a pass on the atrocities of war, as we are not reminded of them on a regular basis, but this book balances grim realities with an engaging and identifiable story. I try to not be definitive with these, but more than just “good” or “readable”, this comic has the potential to go on as being a text of importance – particularly as the discourse of drone-based warfare remains muted from public consciousness.

 

Harbinger #4
Joshua Dysart, Khari Evans, Lewis Larosa, Ian Hannin
Valiant

Harbinger is an intensely disturbing book. Not so much in terms of content, but in the realities of the narrative. This is partially the case due to the book’s ingeniously ambiguous representation of truth. The evil is subtle and disturbing. On one side, you have a rather mysterious mega-corporation with seemingly good public intentions who are secretly collecting an army of super-powered people for unknown reason. We learn in this issue the lengths in which these people are collected – preying on and seducing the naive, unconfident, and even delusional young people with latent powers and exploiting their desire to be special. On the other hand, we have a creepy jerk teenager with complex personal trauma and rage issues. Peter is slowly catching on the weirdness of the corporation…but is it weirdness or paranoia? Are our fears founded, or are we as readers simply reading the intentions of the Harada Corporation through the authority issues of the protagonist? The story is complex. The conflict is subtle, but remarkably intense and makes for an absolutely thrilling read.

 

Hawkeye #2
Matt Fraction, David Aja, Matt Hollingsworth
Marvel


Hawkeye and Clint Barton represent a stark duality of Apollonian (archer metaphor unintended) and Dionysian dualities. The premise of the comic revolves around what Hawkeye’s life is like when he’s not directly working for the Avengers – the off hours, so to speak. Somewhat mild mannered, and the new owner of the iconic #pizzadog, Clint continues to be a hero, even when he doesn’t “have” to be. But, this emphasizes the somewhat absurd opening sentence to this review – Clint straddles the worlds of the perfect-god-hero (Official, card-carrying Avenger) and the self-made, moral, fragile, human being hero. The motives of the story translate further to the aesthetic. While the heavy use of panels creates a frantic sense of action to the story, noticeably the use of color is lacking. Perhaps consisting no more than 3-5 colors, Clint is humanized in contrast to the bright and infinite superhero spectrum.

Giles Corey – Deconstructionist

There is some negativity in deconstruction. I wouldn’t deny this. You have to criticise, to ask questions, to challenge and sometimes to oppose. – Jacques Derrida

The shaman is the great specialist in the human soul; he alone “sees” it, for he knows its “form” and its destiny. – Mircea Eliade

 

Giles Corey – Deconstructionist
$5 Digital Download
Release Date: 08/24/2012
Enemies List

After an attempted suicide, Dan Barrett recorded Giles Corey’s self titled debut. In 1611, Giles Corey, the person, was crushed to death under stones in an attempt to have him confess to witchcraft. This bleakness – the attempt to force someone to confess something due to moral panic (in effect, being killed for perceived strangeness), and suffering a painful death in protest at the very idea of it, became a figurehead of sorts for the project. The album is, as the press page suggests, “An intensely personal study of depression and the afterlife.” Songs such as “I am Going to Do It” and “No One is Ever Going to Want Me” deliver an expression of deep depression, which for the listener can be identifiably therapeutic. Stylistically, I suppose you could say that this was a “folk” album. Though I’d imagine that most traditional folk fans would find it unlistenable, partially because of its experimentality and partially due to the fact that it dives head first into the sadness that most Americana music tends to be aware of, yet skirt around, in hopes of better times. For Giles Corey, there are no better times.

Barrett enlisted the help of internet to help review his latest Giles Corey album Deconstructionist with the warning that it was “weird.” I jumped at the chance to review this new album not only as a huge fan of Barrett’s work and the artists of his label, but as a dedicated fan of “weird” music.

What I got was something rather unexpected.

In 2005, there were rumors of the black metal band Sigh recording with experimental sonic warfare techniques that were developed by the Nazis during the second World War. The album experienced great delays, according to these rumors, due to the aurally-derived illnesses of Mirai Kawashima, the frontperson of Sigh. This came as a warning to listeners and developed an intense authenticity of the release – a metal album that could actually harm you. Later it was revealed that the delay and the rumors had the same cause – a disappointed record label that dropped the band, causing them to need to find a new home for the release. The dangers were not really there, just a somewhat disappointing album after their critically acclaimed Imaginary Sonicscapes.

In essence, this release is a couple of steps further in a different direction. And it is not simply a rumor.

Many of Barrett’s releases come with paratexts (novella length album booklets, building an additional narrative to each body of work). While Sigh’s Gallows Gallery is an album that came with a warning (though based on a false premise), nothing comes to mind in terms of albums that have come with instruction manuals (besides casual lines about listening to it “really loud”).

A text file came with the zip of the album, reminding us that the “booklet *must* be read before listening to the music. Seriously.” The instructions, 34 pages in total, are an undertaking on their own. Before getting to Barrett’s how-to for listening, we get a treatise on the concept of identity – or, at the very least, the conflicting relationship between the Western concept of identity and cultural relativism. I am who I am versus I am what culture has made me.

This manual is part of the namesake of the album, Deconstructionist, as it is partially an attempt to deconstruct the very nature of identity and our understanding of consciousness. Barrett is correct on many levels with his writing, we are a product of the culture that surrounds us, and that includes our mindsets, our ideologies, and our concepts of truth. Barrett highlights this through various case studies and scientific experiments. His ideas have merit and are grounded in scientific and anthropological studies (though, somewhat ironically, it is a Western science objecting a Western expression of consciousness). He is not making this stuff up, either. The skeptical can easily google any of the names or studies he mentions.

Beyond that, Barrett is touching on something very shamanic, regardless of his lack of addressing the idea from outside the grounded world of tested scientific principles. For example – consider the words of Grant Morrison from his speech at the Disinfo Conference in 2000:

Morrison, a counterculture icon, practicing magician, and self-ascribed shaman, alludes to the same ideas – the idea of the individual is a false one. Though the scientific approach by Barrett may ultimately be a more identifiable one (and thus making his experiment more believable), it (perhaps on purpose) ignores the spiritual and the shamanic, except for in metaphor or example. (If you want to watch the whole thing (and I suggest it), click here).

Regardless of the science and audio technology behind the music, the album is an experiment in the shamanic. As Barrett points out, “This is not really ‘music.’” He uses audio frequencies, chants, drums, and “cultural connections” in order to create a technique of ecstasy (ecstasy, in this spiritual and magical sense, not to be confused with the idea of pleasure). In this creation, he is pushing the very limits of the listener and his fan base by going against the expectations of a Giles Corey album, as it isn’t an album at all. It is an attempt to invoke a trance state in the listener through musical meditation.

What we get is 3 audio tracks. Each track is 20-40 minutes long. Because of this, you will most likely never see it as a vinyl release (sorry fans). And due to Berrett’s insistence that it needs to be listened to in order and as a whole, there is no way it could be a CD release either. Not only that, but it must be listened to with headphones in order to get the desired effects. I can attest to this personally, as I listened to it as an experiment with headphones and as a piece of music through speakers (you have to hear the left and the right directly in each ear, or it just won’t work the way it is intended). So, there are serious limitations for potential listeners. No physical copy, no real music, and required situational context.

As a piece of music, it will read similar to the dark ambient works found on Cold Meat Industries than as a piece of folk music. So, expect something more like Coil’s ANS, Nurse With Wound, or Wolfskin. As it was not intended to be listened to as a piece of music, it is hard to review it as one. If you like dark ambient stuff, as I do, it can be entirely listenable on its own. The songs, though lengthy, are interesting, droning, and have a surprising depth to their sounds. The experience could be rather tedious, if one is unfamiliar with ambient works.

As an experiment, though. That is a little more weird to talk about. I did as the instructions asked, turning out all the lights, blindfolding myself, becoming isolated, and putting on my big stupid headphones. Most importantly though, you need to want to try. Magic will not happen if you are unwilling to allow it to happen. My breathing became scant and a great stillness overcame my body. I can’t necessarily associate this with the music, as opposed to my relaxed state. But, I did experience visions and I was not sleeping/dreaming. In terms of what I experienced, the first song (Awake Now) had very natural, man-made images floating in my mind – statues, machines, political leaders, industry, and art. The second song (Death) was very dark. Black figures and bodies in total blackness. It was not scary, in fact, I think this part was the deepest experience of them all, but it was the most “dark” in terms of aesthetic compared to the other two. The final song, (Epsilon) was very natural. I saw animals and landscapes.

Again, I can’t necessarily connect this to the album or the experience that the album was trying to invoke. As an admitted piece of “not really music” its very essence begs the question of the very nature of music itself. I would image my willingness to be “into it” could have worked regardless of the music, as long as I was consciously working towards that end. But in terms of listening to music, in general I want more of an emotional or mental connection to it (which Enemies List is particularly good at). Deconstructionist purposely tries to connect the aural event to the emotional being of the listener, giving them something more from the experience. This idea of moreness is something Jeremy Wallach describes (in terms of listening to metal music) as affective overdrive. This idea, as Wallach states in Metal Rules the Globe, “can even fill one’s awareness to such an extent that, while listening, it becomes impossible to think about or feel anything else” (Wallach, Berger, Greene 13). Though I haven’t tried, I wonder if I could have a similar “ecstatic” experience listening to just about anything that I find emotionally engaging. At the very least, affective overdrive is used to explain when someone feels so passionately engaged with something that may be aesthetically questionable, challenging, or nontraditional – such as this album. It implies that there is an engagement beyond mere enjoyment – a deeper connection to the musical experience. Deconstructionist works on this same level, I feel. The paratext of the instruction manual adds to the idea of the album, and perhaps makes the experience more probable. (Though, I am entirely willing to try a few more times).

Can I recommend Deconstructionist? I am not entirely sure. But, one is not supposed to listen to this album for its aesthetics, so the idea of a recommendation is a moot point. Dedicated Enemies List fans will want to get it no matter what. Fans wanting another similar Giles Corey album may be disappointed. It is an experiment, something to try.

Does the experiment work? Well, I’ll leave that up to the individual listener.

Stapled Copy – 08/21/2012

Harbinger #3
Joshua Dysart, Khari Evans, Lewis Larosa, Ian Hannin
Valiant


Every Valiant series is worth reading. Period. Harbinger  is not only my favorite of them, but also perhaps my favorite series out currently. Perhaps because Peter Stanchek is a weird little shit like I was. Peter is a creepy, angry teenager whose childhood has lingering trauma that have deep emotional hooks. While everything new in his life is shiny and perfect, he rightfully is dubious of the intent of the most profitable corporation on the planet, noting that he and his new peers are an “army in training for a corporation.” At the heart of this book is a nature vs. nurture debate – will fate or experience overcome Peter? While a company is hoping they can change fate, they seem oblivious to the fact that they are pacifying the human condition. While thinking they know what is best for an individual or society, few take the time to actually listen to a person or understand their individual situation.

 

Captain Marvel #2
Kelly Sue Deconnick, Dexter Soy
Marvel


Continuing to breach the canon of Marvel, issue 2 of Kelly Sue Deconnick’s Captain Marvel further establishes the idea that women have been a prominent and important part of not just Marvel’s history, but the history of human culture within the world of Marvel. In this instance, particularly in war. While the Howling Commandos are the de facto military squad for a Marvel book, Captain Marvel asserts that, yes, there were women at war was well. And smartly so. If the Commandos are in Europe battling the evils of the Axis, who is at the Pacific Rim? This book isn’t about replacing male characters, or women proving themselves as heroes, but demonstrating that they always already have, but without the recognition and acknowledgment that men received from history. I’m thrilled that Marvel and Kelly Sue care so much about the culture and history of the world within Marvel’s pages.

 

Bloodshot #2
Duane Swierczynski, Manuel Garcia, Arturo Lozzi, Matt Ryan
Valiant

One thing in particular that I find rather smart about Bloodshot is the way it shifts art styles to deal with conflicting identities and diegetic realities of our silver-skinned hero in question – perhaps most-so because of how the actual reality of the book is the most improbable for both the hero and the reader to comprehend. Therefore, the reader, much like Bloodshot, must try to make sense of the world we are slowing learning about. Bloodshot puts his mind and body through horrors in order to assemble an concept of truth to his humanity – the interesting part of this series is that while the truth may be difficult for him to discover, there may not be one at all. So, while there is great military-industrial-complex action, there is also great mystery and debate. A smart action book.

Victories #1
Michael Avon Oeming
Dark Horse


Early on in Geoffrey Harpham’s Shadow of Ethics, he discusses literature in association with “place” by stating that, “there will very likely be a sense of moving stillness at the core, a ‘place,’…that animates and grounds the imagination itself…[and] take narrative form.” While this idea is easily applicable to the great cities of DC Comics, the moving stillness takes a firm hold in Victories. The dark skyline of dimming infrastructure hint at a political climate. The affluent in a carriage ride through a park hint at struggles of class. The delapitated apartment complex hints at the instability of the protagonist. All of these come together to form a structure of what promises to be an interesting and dark story from Oeming.

Stapled Copy – 08/15/2012

Hi. this is Tim. I’ve been trying to get myself to write regularly, and have gotten back into buying single comics. So, I will be writing these weekly. These have been comics I have been thinking about for the last month that have inspired this series, so this is a bit of a catch-up post. I’ll hopefully have “this weeks” reviews up and online within the next day or so. My reviews (if you can even call them that) are not about whether I think something is “good”. In essence, this will be more micro-analysis of comics as they come out in single issue form. I will try to not let my opinions or enthusiasm lead my critiques and analysis.

Captain Marvel #1
Kelly Sue DeConnick & Dexter Soy
Marvel

Captain Marvel does several interesting things with its first issue. It analyzes and applies the fluidity of the character’s name/rank to an already-existing Marvel property and by doing so it not only re-launches an old franchise (Captain Marvel), but also revolutionizes another (Ms. Marvel). A previous Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell) introduced a sense of mortality to the Marvel universe and an unwavering sense of courage. Captain America rightfully suggests that Ms. Marvel becomes a part of (and take over) the legacy. This issue has several bold things going on. We have a woman character who is not “Woman” or “Girl” or “Ms.” in namesake – a rarity but also a completely obvious and sensical change that has been seemingly staring Marvel in the face for years. Yes, it takes Captain America to help legitimize her, but that is what he does. In doing so, Marvel creates what potentially could have been stuck as a “girl comic” (which is not necessarily bad, but needlessly limiting and somewhat culturally problematic). This comic simply considers their women readership to be an equal, prominent, and important part of their customer base. This isn’t to say that Marvel masculinized Ms. Marvel or that the only legitimate form of superhero comic is that of a “boy book,” but rather it shifts the idea of the gender-essential superhero canon to something that everyone has always already read. Which is true. Both genders have always read superhero comics, so their very being is not inherently more masculine, but was culturally constructed that way. Captain Marvel tries to shift that mindset in many ways. The comic establishes Carol Danvers as an important hero to the world/universe. It lays the groundwork for a history and development of the character, creating a deep relationship between the reader and a character many Marvel readers may have ignored over the years. This history shows us Danvers’s personal hero, an aged pilot named Helen Cobb. A woman hero with a woman hero. A woman superhero with importance to the Marvel canon with a woman hero who has historical and cultural importance to the diegetic Earth. This gives female readers the potential for the same sense of importance to the character as Danvers has for Cobb – a privilege male readers have had for decades.

 

Archer & Armstrong #1
Fred van Lente, Clayton Henry, Matt Millia
Valiant

I have been very impressed with all the Valiant relaunch titles, and the latest #1 had me really tickled. I didn’t read any of the original Valiant books and quite frankly don’t know anything about them. So, each one of these titles has been a rather joyful surprise. What is introduced with this title is a rather absurd yet completely recognizable representation of American Neo-Conservative culture and a rather biting satire at that. The series opens with a flashback – a pre-known humanity culture arguing over whether to turn on a device. A brother vowing its usage and one suggesting more thought. The device is switched on and (seemingly) destroys all life on Earth. Within the first few pages, the series sets up an ideological tone to the comic’s world – Relativism versus Objectivism. Rationality vs. Absolutism. We flash forward to a Biblical Realism amusement park opens the series and we learn of the training of Archer, a perfect image of a blonde hair/blue eyed ubermensch teen. He is set forth on a secret mission to assassinate the source of ultimate evil – who we learn is the whiskey-slugging, broad-chasing, hangover-dodging, poetry-quoting, heavy-hitting, and seemingly immortal Armstrong. To Archer, he represents the sins of Humanity that must be wiped clean of the Earth. But they stumble on a greater conspiracy that will surely cause the boy a great deal of personal conflict. The book’s reality-as-conspiracy theory has a deeply metaphorical representation of how ideology controls and hegemonizes worldviews and lifestyles. I can’t wait to read more.

 

Harvest #1
A.J. Lieberman & Colin Lorimer
Image

Harvest is a bleak book, particularly in aesthetic. Gray, black, murky greens and blues make up the majority of the color scheme, save for the nostalgia of flashbacks and the viscera of human gore that scatters the pages. A deadbeat playboy surgeon is disbarred and is forced to participate in illegal, underground operations – both to save the unlawful and to generate huge profits from organ harvesting. Deeply tied to America’s current economic crisis, the book shows the desperation of uncertainty and the flexibility of morality – both in the gluttonous over-abundance money and in its horrifying lack.

 

Think Tank #1
Matt Hawkins, Rahsan Ekedal
Top Cow

There is some interesting stuff going on in Think Tank. Dr. David Loren, young genius, works in research and development for future weapons and technology for the American military. David is famous in the department for creating the technology necessary to make drones a functional and effective tool/weapon/force for the military. Faced with the weight of his inventions – arm-chair killings, the overly-easy justification for military force (ie: person-less battle – zero casualty, zero risk, so why not?), domestic surveillance state, etc.., David reverts to transgression as protest. That is, until the military threatens to ruin his life and the life of the only person close enough to him to be considered a friend. The premise is interesting – a person morally objecting to his own work and creations is forced to continue to invent future technology and future violence. His subversion is comical (using military tech to get laid) – but the story is establishing itself to be more. The fact that the comic is presenting a reality of drone-based warfare serves both as education for the readers and as well as possible protest by the creator. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes from here.

PBS’s Problematic Representation of GIFs, Culture, and Art

Works of art are their own standard of judgement. They themselves stipulate the rules they then follow. – Theodore Adorno (AT 243)

[Before I get into the article, I would first like to thank Douglas Schatz for allowing me to use his art within this post. I first saw the Off Book video on his Tumblr, and his comments inspired my own in a brief Tumblr exchange that became this post. I’m sprinkling in some chosen GIFs at random to help add some color and life to an otherwise long post. While one of my main criticisms about the video in question is the lack of alternative view points, I don’t exactly bring up these alternative points of view myself. His work helps to elaborate a bit on alternative voices, but there are many more types, styles, and aesthetics.]

Recently, PBS put out a short documentary about the animated GIF. This is a part of their Off Book video series that explores contemporary art, artists, and the ways that people share and participate with it. While this is a noble goal, I question the majority of what this video is doing.

This video made some rounds on the internet, partially in thanks to BuzzFeed and Mashable. I saw this video posted several times on my various friend feeds, and felt compelled to comment on it based on what little I know about the history and culture of contemporary GIF art. I have only been following the GIF scene for a year now after I was introduced to dump.fm by a friend of mine, but I have been following peoples’ art and thoughts on GIFs pretty heavily since then. The community is active, creative, but remarkably poorly represented because of this video. The mass exposure online through various content aggregates (like BuzzFeed – the scourge of internet journalism) only makes the problem worse, as the video’s ignorance of history and culture surrounding the GIF, the internet, and its related art scenes only propagates that ignorance to those who are otherwise unaware and watching due to mass exposure. While I know a thing or two about GIFs from being online for the past 15 years and following these new communities, I do not wish to suggest that I am the ultimate expert. I am trying to not put words in the mouths of the artists in the video, but rather focus entirely on its context. I do not speak for the GIF community. In essence, this piece is less about GIFs and more about the removal of art, creation, and expression from artists, communities, and cultures in a capitalist society.

Let me get a few things out of the way – the video at least attempts to explain, on a technical level, what the animated Graphics Interchange Format is (even though it fails to name the creator of the format…), gives a little bit of history about its expansion post-Netscape, and a humorous exchange about pronunciation at the end. It is a bit of a general overview, and not factually accurate in most cases (more on that later), which hurts the legitimacy of what these people are talking about. It does note a bit of historical context regarding the internet’s “abundant” (which is a value judgment I would prefer not to have included) use of flame animations and Under Construction signs in the early days of the web. Browse around on http://www.internetarchaeology.org and you will see what I mean, if you do not remember what the internet was like more than 10 years ago. However, the video is quick to trivialize these examples as lacking purpose and aesthetic.

I am not exactly sure where to start with this criticism, but I think it is important to set up a bit about the artists featured in the video and the production company in charge of the content.

Kornhaber Brown is the company responsible for the Off Book series. Though their website is relatively vague about what they do, they primarily develop brands vis-à-vis content creation for corporate clients (alliteration unintended). There are lots of lists of work, but few samples of what they actually do, but my analysis is leaning towards them being an advertising agency that focuses on content creation that does not call themselves an advertising agency because it makes them sound more hip. While its Youtube page states that PBS is putting out these shorts, I really question this. I have the feeling that PBS had little involvement in this process. Kornhaber Brown’s own website states that they prefer to do all the work, as it would no doubt keep an editorial stance away from their process. What we end up with here is an ad agency who makes content for other companies that ends up serving as advertising for their own work. There is no care in accuracy, need for multiple voices and points of view, or desire to create a product that is anything other than a quick consumable to link around for viral exposure – I notice that their staff page does not feature anyone who focuses on research. The company’s essential mission statement, as taken from their website (which I’d rather not link to, for political reasons, but it is their name dot com) says “We are primarily content creators, so we like to handle the entire production process.” To me, this says that PBS had nothing to do with this video other than that they hired a company to make some slick videos to attract viewers. However, the standards at PBS for research are considerably higher and they should take responsibility for their product.

Douglas Schatz’s blog post about the video points out that all the artists featured in this have major corporate backers: “Mr. GIF works for MTV [Viacom], Toper Chris works for Tumblr, Reed/Radar/Beck/Burg work for major fashion brands, etc.” This point compounds on the previous paragraph in really problematic ways. It seems like an overly careful selection of people – this is perhaps a conscious decision on the filmmakers’ part, but also a benefit of the money put behind these artists. Major corporations and those with financial power have defined these people as experts in their field and masters of their craft and therefore worthy of the attention of others. In doing so, the companies backing these artists have purposely eliminated the voices of others and have carefully controlled an aesthetic, and thus controlled how and where the corporate definition of art and culture is distributed. What a GIF “is”, “means”, is “capable of” is now established by Viacom et al and a form of art is transmogrified into a way to generate profit.

Prominent cultural theorists Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer discuss the problems with this in their essay “The Culture Industry” stating:

They [artists] are confined to the apocryphal field of the ‘amateur’, and also have to accept organization from above. But any trace of spontaneity from the public in official broadcasting is controlled and absorbed by talent scouts, studio competitions and official programmes of every kind selected by professionals. Talented performers belong to the industry long before it displays them; otherwise they would not be so eager to fit in. – Adorno and Horkheimer (407)

Art and culture are victims to “the absolute power of capitalism” (406). This means that it is controlled in terms of production and distribution. Companies select who the artists are and they define what art is. Therefore, to be a “proper” artist, one must have a sponsor – all other artists are merely amateurs and thus offer no legitimacy in the work they produce or their point of view. Originality and uniqueness are spotted and gobbled up quickly by companies and become integrated into the industry of culture and are thus properly contained and controlled. Adorno and Horkheimer also note that artists are always a part of this system suggesting that regardless of having a contract, the desire for success and wealth is so strong that it becomes the ultimate goal, and thus are controlled as well. The final sentiments are perhaps a bit harsh, but speak to the overwhelming power of capitalism. Culture and art become products for sale and profit. Consumers buy culture and art because they are produced and made desirable and the companies profit. Let me just repeat that – companies manufacture abstract concepts and sell it at gigantic profits or use it indirectly as advertising. All of this speaks to the destruction of culture by capitalism, and one could go on and on about that, but I have other points to make.

Taken aside from the economic manipulation of our world around us, this process establishes a destructive hierarchy. Since companies can establish what is art, they thus define what is not, and with binaries comes power and privilege. If the cinemagraph is high art, then the flame GIF is trash. If cinemagraphers are artists, then the dumpers are not. 

The aesthetic is controlled in this instance and thus so is taste. This includes the consumer in the dialectic of power – one should only like what is “art” or thus be subjugated as a luddite. One should buy into Viacom’s GIFs rather than participate and make their own, because theirs will not be art and people will not like them. Capitalism has made liking anything outside of The Culture Industry dangerous to the point of heresy. The video is very clear in defining the flame GIF and Under Construction sign as garbage, rather than a part of the developing tradition of GIF art. If an artist creates something like this, they will be labeled as unsuccessful, unimportant, or simply just BAD at what they do. For the consumer, liking them in any way, shape, or form establishes the individual as a low-class, poorly cultured, misinformed, and uneducated person. They enforce their iron rule so that they only way to be proper is to participate, which means giving MTV money, participating in a capitalism system of standardization and pseudo-individualization. No one wants to be a juggalo.

Adorno is a massive pessimist, though. I think we can all agree that just because capitalism exists, it does not mean that art cannot also exist. However, his message still holds incredible bearing. All of this is just a framework based on the company making the video and the people in it – there is much more to be said, so let us dig in.

Within the very introduction, as we are meeting the artists and learning some brief ideological stances on their art – there are some fairly problematic statements being made. I am going to try to not be too nit-picky in terms of rhetoric (there are some problems with history and technology) and focus more on ideology behind statements. The majority of the creative forces represented here are immediately relating GIFs to photographs. Mathew Reed of Reed+Rader and Jamie Beck open the video by discussing photographic based GIFs, but dangerously balance the mediums they use for their work with the purpose of the work itself. Reed states that “the animated GIF for us was just a photograph that can move” followed by Beck’s statement “this is a photograph that is still alive.” Relating back to Adorno’s points above, what we have in the first 20 seconds of this video is a particular enforcement of what a GIF is and should be. A GIF is being equated to a photograph in order to establish a false sense of legitimacy of their own work, linking it to a historically established art form. In doing so, it is intrinsically linking their particular art with high-brow capital-A Art, as well as creating an importance in terms of political meaning and representation. If a GIF is “like a photograph”, then all of the importance of photography is automatically linked to their own work. In doing so, they are implying that anyone not working in photograph-based GIFs is essentially false and unimportant. Because they are working with photography, there is the implication of being more real, honest, or authentic in terms of their own work, which can carry a sense of legitimacy behind it. However, it also implies that no other form is capable of doing so, that a GIF of a splotch of rotating colors holds no value or purpose, and an artist attempting anything other than photographic GIFs does not know what they are doing.

Patrick Davidson speaks about the differences of GIFs between a Web 1.0 culture and a Web 2.0 culture. Web 2.0 as a distinction rather than a philosophical stance has always bothered me – what is the difference between the two? There is usually an association of socialness associated with Web 2.0, but the internet was always a social space, even before HTTP and browser-based surfing was the standard. BBS cultures were incredibly social, sharing, and had art scenes as well. Therefore, to say that art or images were pragmatically different is a little absurd. The historical notion of Web 1.0 being 30 years old is iffy and inaccurate, and enforces the same shift of power in the work of these artists, “ours is the best, theirs is old and bad.”

I will say, in Davidson’s defense, he is my favorite in this video in terms of his message. He is also been participating in the dialogue against this video in a very respectful and open way, and I really admire that. He also has admitted that the above his comments discussed above were basically due to a lengthy interview and a bit of tired rambling. So, I accept and respect his stance, but I think it is still important to comment within the context of the video.

What is being presented is the idea that GIFs somehow went away, or were deemed a bit silly (IE: not art, not important, not relevant, not profound) until approximately 2007. I think that stance is wholly inaccurate. While it may be true that I see more GIFs on a daily basis now, and that these GIFs are serving different functions than before, to suggest that people were unconscious of their potential is really hard to backup and statements like this. This false distinction make the work of these artists seem more important, cutting edge, and interesting, as if they caught on to something that we were all missing. Going back to Douglas Schatz’s tumblr post, he is quick to remind us that the conscious use of GIFs as art, in a contemporary context, is as early as:

2003-2004 culminating in The GIF Show at the RX Gallery in SF at the beginning of 2006 which featured Cory Archangel (who recently showed at MOMA), Tom Moody (critic/artist published in the New York Times among other major publications), Paper Rad (a collective that’s been killing it in a variety of mediums for the last 10ish years) and other artists who have since become very accomplished.

It also discredits places such as http://ytmnd.com/ – which was one of the first big social content creators. They have consistently used GIFs to demonstrate their work since 2000. Tom Moody adds:

A YouTube commenter made a good point: a successful campaign to discourage GIFs because of lingering patent claims may have put a dent in their use, but the patent lapsed in ’03 in the US. 4chan and YTMND used GIFs all through the ’00s and speaking as a maker/enjoyer of GIFs from ’03 to the present they never seemed the least bit scarce. I think this “return to GIFs” is a juicy-sounding story hook for editor types but has little basis in reality – GIF use has continued throughout the 2.0 era.

YTMND and 4chan are important to add here because they are NOT corporate spaces; they are places of social participation and transgression. The use of GIFs in both of these communities has been a staple for their entire existence, but because it is transgressive, corporations are quick to ignore their significance because they are places that cannot be controlled.

The idea of dating this shift in the purpose of GIFs is minimally important, I think, other than as a factoid that should be accurate. If one wants to look back at the history of the novel, some of the first books of prose narratives are questioned as being novels because of the idea that they were not consciously “writing a novel”. The idea of a novel, as a cultural object, did not exist. It does not devalue their art or how they made it, but simply establishes some historical cultural markers. While people have been making GIFs for quite some time, and some even doing so for the purpose of creating an artistic image, the idea of creating GIFs as art is something that is we don’t really associate with a pre-2000s internet. If I had to stake a claim at why, I would suggest the abundance of Flash during this time period, and how artists and animators were focusing on that, rather than GIFs. There is“bigness” to Flash that perhaps attracted artists with something to say who may have overlooked the minimal idea of a single image file. Because of Flash’s layering and animation system, one could suggest that Photoshop’s similarities made it so the skills of animation translated into the skills of image manipulation. As we adjusted to one form of creation, we applied these skills to others. One could also suggest that piracy was more difficult, and thus the software to make GIFs was more exclusive. There was also a lack of patience in terms of internet bandwidth speeds – no one wanted to wait around for a simple image to load when they could experience more content otherwise.

Nevertheless, going on with Davidson’s inaccurate history, he furthers his interview by stating that “[in 2007-2008] people start to realize that you can use GIFs for tons of different things”. There is a really important point here, but Davidson is not making it. In the open Google document transcription/discussion, Will Brand hints at it when he states “…like attracting attention to an ad, or getting someone to email you, or showing that your website is incomplete or…”. He is making a joke about the practicality of a GIF as an eye-grabbing ad, but there is something more going on. If, as Moody states above, companies were leery of using a GIF for marketing purposes in the earlier 2000’s, and people were “finding new uses for them” due to their lack of corporate attention, we can clearly see how corporations are coming back to the GIF in order to control the art and content created with them. If it is clear that people “saw the possibilities” because it was being ignored by the capitalist system, then it is all the more troubling that almost every artist in this video is describing their work in an advertising and marketing sense and we are not hearing any voices saying that GIFs are capable of anything else.

Davidson’s next point suggests that GIFs are more important now than before because of the ease of access to distribution, where social sites will host images for the user rather than having to track down an FTP or use the space of a message board. I find this a little offensive because it seems to lack a cultural understanding of internet communities and creators before this current decade. Personal sites were common, so was FTP access. Yes, it was expensive, but often communities were able to share through subdomains – this is how the creativity of the E/N scene flourished. Having a place to store an image is not a groundbreaking revelation to the internet, Photobucket was hugely prominent and free to use as early as 2003. While it is easier than ever before, not many people as one might think take advantage of Tumblr or Imgur as a host – these are still fairly specific markets. It suggests that there is something “special” to the now of the internet, and in particular, the established artists, that was not there before. Again, it is discrediting the content, creators, communities, and files of the past.

As far as Davidson’s statement about postmodern GIFs, I will just allow you to read the discussion on the debate page. I just do not see a reason to address it because it seems to be flying out of nowhere.  It is just an inappropriate and misinformed use of the word.

TopherChris’s segment follows, discussing the explosion of Tumblr usage. The focus on Tumblr is interesting to note. Over the last year, brands, ad agencies, and marketing firms have been struggling to figure out how and why to use Tumblr to reach its young audience. Now, connect that back to the idea that an ad agency made this video, and you essentially have a commercial for themselves as being hip enough to understand Tumblr and youth culture. Very subtle.

TopherChris does bring up an interesting point to the ideas of repetition and the ways context and meaning change over time, but it is dropped very quickly. He is, though, one of the few people to discuss ideas of humor, which has always been heavily prevalent in animated GIFs. There is a subtle connection to the creation and distribution of GIFs to personal cultural capital as well, but in a community context such as Tumblr, where it is more about sharing, I question the importance of origin – but perhaps that is the point? It is the idea of collective sharing, distribution, and participation that give GIFs their importance, particularly on Tumblr. I still really question the ways in which GIFs have changed over time as being something that is SO SUDDENLY different. I think it is a lot more subtle and slow than people are giving credence to. GIFs based on TV and movies are not terribly new , they have been around as long as we have had digital versions of shows and movies and imaging software – but, the way Tumblr users has developed this to fit the limitations of the service is more interesting. When Tumblr allowed multiple image posting without making a Flash gallery, which opened up GIFs to be a bit more than what they were before on the site. This is not a fundamental change in the file form, but a change in its delivery. Therefore, the fact that GIFs have changed is a sort of meaningless idea when it is more so the technology and websites that have changed. TopherChris is, at least, speaking about GIFs on a cultural level, but it is still problematically narrow in perspective. 

There is a very radical shift in the video at this point – where GIFs were seen as dorky internet fun becoming more something, we are now seeing GIFs as being declared high art. I have a lot of problems with this.

Pamela Reed and Mathew Rader work for the fashion industry as GIF artists. The artists are very quick to celebrate and discuss their own work with putting down any sort of stance on the development of culture in a greater context. “Douglas LL Cool J” notes this shift in tone and states:

It’s such a weird flip from “hey isn’t Internet Culture great” to “well, we get paid a lot of money to take pictures of clothes that 90% of internet users can’t afford”. If internet memes are meant to showcase the open and democratized spread of cultural ideas (no-technorachy bro), why are we focusing exclusively on production that is funded by one of the most closed industries. Given that the fashion industry has a long and painful history of hardcore IP protection, it’s weird that fashion GIFs are used as the prime example of art in the reddit/Tumblr culture where authorship has next-to-no meaning.

The point is apt. If you are discussing the GIF as a medium, then why are you focusing on exclusivity? There is not anything particularly interesting about what Reed+Rader do, the just throw a bunch of still images into an animation sequence. Where the limitations of GIF as art above focused on ideas of conscious art making versus casual GIF creation, this establishes the dynamic one step further. These two instigate GIF as high art by associating it with both photography and with the fashion industry, thus limiting the perspective of art and the possibility of creation. Because of their connections with other well-established mediums of art, they are able to include themselves in that upper echelon and damn others. More than that, there is a quaintness to how they address their outside influences. It is an admission of commodification of lower forms of art for the inclusion in their work for profit. Adorno addresses this concept as well by stating “if a movement from a Beethoven symphony is crudely ‘adapted’ for a film soundtrack in the same way as a Tolstoy novel is garbled in a film script: then the claim that this is done to satisfy the spontaneous wishes of the public is no more than hot air” (Adorno, Horkheimer 407). The quote does not fit exactly, as Adorno was a bit of a snob when it comes to art and asserted that all mass produced work was garbage. But, if we can suggest that that premise is outdated, and all art regardless of its class associations are equal, then we see a producer of art-for-profit grabbing something from culture that was made to satisfy expression, incorporating it into their own work in order to suggest some sort of appeal or market, and profiting on the works and successes of others under the guise of creativity and art. It is a bit of a mixed metaphor, but I think it works.

However, Reed makes a point asking, “Why put a still picture online now that the image can now move?” Is this not a rather destructive statement to what they actually do? Why put a GIF online if you can just put a on a video? The statements being made by these artists are going nowhere and offer no insight in what they do or how they do it.

Reed does add that there is some unfavorable editing in the video. She states “To us, it’s about creating worlds and characters, clothes just happen to be a part of that. The worlds of fashion, art and commerce are getting more and more blurred and what we are trying to prove is that you can work in all these venues, it doesn’t need to be so black or white.” Again, we see an established difference in terms of their work as high art through the privilege of the fashion industry.

The final segment of the video deals with cinemagraphs. These are quickly established in contrast to GIFs, and it makes me angry. I find many of the statements made by these creators to be somewhat deluded in order to serve their own established personas. Kevin Burg states that “I think there’s opportunities in this kind of hybrid medium to show people something they’ve never seen before. We have these moments that can just exist forever.” There are a few things going on here. First, Burg is quick to mention that their work is a hybrid medium, not the lowly and pathetic GIF. This connects to the statements above about how their work is more closely related to photography than to something else. Not only that, but the music of the video changes to a somber and serious piece. It established this form of GIF as more auteured and separate than those wacky GIF makers we saw previously.

Cinemagraphs focus their animation on a single element of the image, rather than the image as a whole. Why they would instigate that their concept of “a moment” is somehow different than a moment in any other GIF is a little absurd – time is passing in both, it just features selective stillness in one to emphasize that moment. Time is time. Paddy Johnson elaborates on this with a tongue-in-cheek quip by stating “Read: There’s something special about capturing a moment in time, there’s something more special about capturing three seconds of moment in time. No explanation offered as to why a loop is more interesting than a still, a short, or a feature. Not saying there isn’t a conversation to be had, only that one was never started.” The makers of cinemagraphs want to make sure that consumers think that their work is profoundly different from anyone else, but their explanations are hollow.

My main problem with cinemagraphs is the fact that there has been a very careful campaign to give them a new title and to make sure there are distinctions between cinemagraphs and GIFs. The concept of cinemagraphs privilege a specific way of making a file format as “art” when people have been making GIFs for 25 years. It has its own term because it does not want to be associated with animated GIFs – the very thing it actually is. It applies concepts like “beautiful” and “ugly” to be delineated in ways that are illegitimate, forced, and privileged. They get away with this due to careful marketing of their own work and its closeness to photography and the lens rather than digital paintbrushes and computers. They even enforce this idea in a more subtle context by not participating in the humorous discussion at the end of the video of how to pronounce “GIF”. Why? Well, they do not make them, remember?

There is a Tumblr that focuses on displaying the failed cinemagraphs of users in the community, labeling them cinemacraphs. This helps to illustrate the point of privilege. Burg and Beck discuss their work on some sort of elevated plane of existence, where it is a “magical warp of time” that becomes “fascinating” and “emotional”. They are also quick to point to their creative process, as Beck states, “To dream of something and then create it in a camera and share it with people and let them dream with you, just for a moment.” The word choices are elevated, and they associate how their work is created with a camera – a mark of elegance and distinction. While they use photographs (or possibly stills from raw video files), the reality is that it is simply a clever use of Photoshop layers and animation. Yeah, it might be slightly tricky for some (and you cannot just make them out of previously created GIFs, as the Tumblr above mocks), but its simplicity is something that the creators want to hide as much as possible. They want their techniques to be secretive and deceptive in order to secure themselves as achieved artists.

Each of their statements is littered with hyperbole in order to self-aggrandize themselves and their work culminating with the statement that their work is “essentially something you’ve never seen before.” The very idea of that is insulting.

While this is a bit divergent from my main point, I feel it is worth including. Tom Moody has a really interesting discussion about cinemagraphs in a post entitled “Hair GIFs and the Male Gaze”, Hair GIFs being a humorous take (credit to Paddy Johnson for the term) on how cinemagraphs usually seem to animate hair wafting in a nostalgic breeze in an otherwise still frame. He quotes Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”:

The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. This alien presence then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative.

Like the gaze of the privilege of patriarchy, the camera’s gaze enforces a system of power over women. This is an important point to bring up due to some of the statements of the artist involved. Beck states “It’s so voyeuristic. You look but you feel like you should look away, but then you can watch it, and then you can watch it some more and it’s like ooooh.” This is an oddly placed bit in the discussion and forces a sexualized perspective at the consumption of their own work. Voyeurism is that system of power that Mulvey is talking about, where the audience watches over the powerlessness of women and engage in the powerfulness of men. Moody adds “you’re supposed to be staring at her” and thus enforcing power over her. Beck seems somewhat oblivious to this connotation, which I find a bit troubling. They capture forever a moment of a sexualized woman, and she becomes powerless in her GIF form, forever victim to the gaze of the viewer. Its associations with the fashion industry just seems to perpetrate the power of gaze over models and the enforcement of beauty and aesthetics over women because of it.

Granted, this previous thought was more of a tangent. Someone else can go on and elaborate on this concept. It is valid and there is plenty to say, I am only piggy banking off of Moody. Please do not make me write another one of these.

The concluding points are brief, but also worthy of a word or two. Each point seems to suggest that the process of what is going on is “too new” to understand, “is art” because of their new uses in culture, or demonstrating some sort of fundamental change in ideals that are “more than” a simple file format. Nevertheless, the enforcement of this as art is still there, and with that enforcement comes the establishment of hierarchy that we can see demonstrated in this video. Why does it have to be “art” when Davidson seems to be implying something more along the lines of communication, expression, and culture and TopherChris equating it along the lines of cultural participation? The limitations of this video become entirely destructive to what is going on in the culture of GIFs. While I am more inclined to think that Davidson and TopherChris have more to say than the video allowed, the commercialization of art is heavy throughout, even in a meta-context of the company behind the video. It not only fumbles any sense of understanding to an artistic process, it completely misses decades of cultural development that is linking back to anonymous BBS art crews and beyond. This takes the easy road by finding the most noted artists rather than taking the time to research the actual movement and culture. The criticism and developments of the GIF scene, mostly done by the community itself, are entirely lost due to the narrow focus of the filmmakers.

The elitism represented in the video removes the egalitarian ideology of internet creation and participation and enforces a the importance of profit in creation. The fact that an ad agency is behind this video is troubling because it suggests obfuscates the idea that someone would make something without monetary gain in mind, the perspective driving the video is skewing the ideologies of the art and artists represented within. In doing so, they revoked the agency of creators that has been developing online as a way of rejecting the obsequious media industry that has been bombarding consumers for decades. We have seen the media conglomarates running scared about how individuals have been finding other things to do other than consume – mainly create, participate, distribute, and others. This is demonstrating a panicked attempt to bring in that outside creative force back into the capitalist market forces and in doing so, misses the whole point about why this scene is so important and cool in the first place. Technology does not make art – it is a cultural and personal process. A medium may be new, but expression and creation are timeless.

Here are some more links for further reading:

Paddy Johnson: http://www.artfagcity.com/2012/03/14/to-do-annotate-the-pbs-animated-GIF-transcript/

 

Tom Moody: http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2012/03/07/pbs-does-animated-jifs/

http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2012/03/15/pbs-does-animated-jifs-part-2/

http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2012/03/18/pbs-does-animated-jifs-part-3/

http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2012/03/21/pbs-does-animated-jifs-part-4/

http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2012/03/21/off-book-new-art-needs-new-gatekeepers/

http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2012/03/17/hair-GIFs-and-the-male-gaze/

 

Douglas Schatz: http://whenthennow.tumblr.com/post/18918438259/oh-god-fucking-damnit-why-do-these-uniformed-jerks

 

Google Transcript:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/15LFzToq8ouubPRBvLy2xqJHW2u13iL8rYvFdfoDpSSk/edit?pli=1

 

Sources:

Adorno, Theodore, and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry.” The Cultural Studies Reader. Ed. Simon During. Third ed. London: Routledge, 2007. 405-15. Print.

Adorno, Theodore. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. C Lenhardt. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Inc., 1984.

My GIF to you.

Review – The Rock-afire Explosion

The show was really for me. I wanted it so Showbiz Pizza Place could never be took away from me again, because it was always going to be mine.” – Chris Thrash

The Rock-afire Explosion (2008) is a documentary about a very specific and possibly entirely unknown fandom. Showbiz Pizza was a regional pizza and arcade chain that was scattered across the U.S. It was sort of like Chuck E. Cheese, but slightly different. What is particularly special about Showbiz Pizza, and the focus of this documentary, is an animatronic band called The Rock-afire Explosion that played shows for kids. These were robotic animals programed to play unique songs and skits every hour or so while families ate their generic pizza and drank soda when not throwing skeeballs for tickets to earn lame prizes.

Documentaries about fandom tend to focus on the extremities that people go through for something they love. This obsession, whatever it may be (and I do not use obsession pejoratively in this article) is generally something that few people can identify with outside of the particular fandom in question. Generally, if the documentary well planned, it will demonstrate that these fans are not as crazy as we think, and that the viewers will learn something about themselves through the people in the film. This one accomplishes that, as well as providing a history about a rather limited topic – Showbiz Pizza and the animatronic band The Rock-afire Explosion.

It is hard to describe a place like this, because they have not really been prominent in American culture for about 20 years. Chuck E. Cheese still floats around in the landscapes of suburbia, but not at all to the same degree as the 1980s. It was a pizza place – because all kids love pizza. It was an arcade – because all kids love video games. There were prizes – because all kids love prizes. It basically hits all the notes of happiness for children. Showbiz Pizza’s slogan used to be “Where a kid can be a kid,” but these sorts of cultural spaces of childhood have been replaced by other elements of consumption and entertainment. Arcades proved to be too costly of an investment for most places, and few have survived over the years – those that did have specialized in some way in order to stand out. Since Showbiz was an arcade attached to a restaurant, they lost money even faster, as they had to compete against pizza chains that provided better pizza delivered to the home for less and arcades with better and usually more up to date games. The fact that they decided to combine these two hot buttons of 80s culture into one place forced them to cut corners on both aspects of the business, thriving in neither of the things they focused in. However, they were unique in one aspect – The Rock-afire Explosion.

This documentary is about many things – primarily it focuses on describing the legacy of Rock-afire, both by a comprehensive look at the creation/creator of the band and how fans have help to keep this band alive for decades. Each perspective is uniquely interesting and in depth. Inventor Aaron Fechter created this band for Showbiz, and shows the behind the scenes of the history of the business and manufacturing – this is particularly haunting as we witness the promise of success and the failure of Showbiz personified in the decay of his workshop. As advanced as he was with engineering and development, fans have matched him on their own (well, almost). Dedicated individuals have scraped up money for years in order to buy up their own animatronic bands (which cannot be cheap). They have set up shows in their houses, or as the film shows, created sheds larger than their modest homes to hold a space for the band to play. New owners of these animatronic bands have dedicated their lives to Rock-afire – saving money, sacrificing various economic or personal improvements to their lives, learning programing and mechanical engineering, and maintaining their own personal band (a particularly rare collectable that needs to be kept in perfect order). In essence, they have taken everything that a million dollar business put in to a franchise into a glorified collectable.

There is an underlying theme of economics throughout this documentary. Animatronics is an expensive pursuit, and while the 80’s seemed like a gilded age of Reagan-promised optimism, that was not the reality. Arcades exploded in their presence in American culture as video games grew increasingly popular, but arcade cabinets are costly and their audience was relatively specific at the time. Video games were not as omnipresent or accepted as mainstream consumption as they are now. Arcades peaked as kids shifted their consumption from spaces of culture to the home. Personal consoles, handheld systems, and digitization made it possible for every home to be an arcade, therefore eliminating the need for an arcade in every town. Smaller towns may have been more likely to have a Showbiz Pizza, as it offered the excitement of an arcade with the practicality of a family restaurant. The kids (now adults) in this documentary worshiped these locations (and more importantly, the iconic band that lived in an otherwise generic pizza restaurant), and these spaces of culture and the band in it never left them.

While there is a focus on corporate economics, there is also a more subtle, but apparent focus on the economics of the people in the documentary. The fans are so earnest and enthusiastic, and the documentary does a good job of showing them as human beings instead of objects of ridicule. However, there is a reality of social class that may help to explain this rather specific fandom. Some of the people in the documentary have been in a life-long lower economic status, and have lived in a single particular place their entire lives. Therefore, their only way to engage culture, or to escape the overbearing economic pressures of their lives, was to go to these places of cultural consumption. It was their only break away from their lives, and their only means of cultural exploration, regardless of how limited this exploration is. It is not shocking that they developed a strong affinity towards it, as Showbiz very much represented the possibilities of the world outside of their means – the world of culture, music, entertainment, fame, and the technology of the future. I do not think it is too off to say that the obsession with the band may be rooted in this – the joy of going to this special place in contrast with the limitations and struggles of their daily lives must have been explosive. The life-long dedication to something that made someone so uniquely happy is not at all strange. Therefore, in a sense, this documentary is about finding absolute joy in culturally limiting environments and situations, and doing whatever you can in life to keep that joy in your life. It is also about finding out you are not alone, that you are not crazy, and that your love is not that weird after all.

I am absolutely blown away by this documentary. While it seems overly limited, it does not fail to be engaging. It is relatively cheaply made, but deeply personal. It demonstrates how individuals hold on to one of the few things in life that made them happy while forced to participate in a system of corrupt economics that forces them to remain in your place at the bottom. The film’s focus on how people continue to participate with and share the things they love in life, to the point of personal dedication to a sort of shitty pizza chain’s fake puppet band, is actually really inspiring. I really like the suggestion of moving away from cultural spaces to personal consumer culture in the home visa vi the absurdity of 80s economics – where we thought we could just do whatever we wanted and people would make it profitable. However, the end of these pizza chains, along with the end of arcades symbolized how production forced people to consume privately – a shift of social participation to personal consumption, a shift we are seeing reversed through current internet as fans are re-uniting with what they love and creating communities around it.

I love that the filmmakers never show these people as being weird or obsessive – they are simply fans of something a little different. The main problem with the documentary is that it lacks a bit of outside context. A lot of historical and cultural background could have helped make this film much larger piece of cultural analysis, and would not have been difficult to fit in, as it is relatively short as it stands. It hints at various things, but would benefit from larger discussion. Though, it would not be difficult to elaborate on these things for a class with a lecture or discussion after viewing. While showing this in a class would be great for a discussion of fandom, the economic and cultural context of the 1980s would be helpful for demonstrating why this fandom is not as strange as how some people will interpret it. Regardless, it is an interesting film and well worth watching.

You can find it on Netflix Instant Stream or by going to http://www.rockafiremovie.com/

Leviathan and the Ethics of Consumption

… the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. … The condition of man … is a condition of war of everyone against everyone. (Hobbes, Leviathan)

[Update: The more I think about this post, the more compelled I am to preface it. The basic argument stands as a ‘people are able to think critical about the media they like’ approach, which isn’t terribly new, complicated, or even an interesting point to make. I wanted to emphasize my own moral complications about the horror of his action versus being a fan of someone’s music for several years. There was an attempt to highlight the ways in which black metal has been celebrated over the recent years for its artistic authenticity and to contrast that with the fact that it is still a rather violent, bleak, and problematic subculture. It complicates a lot of cultural perspectives about consumption and art. Some of the comments nail the complications better than I did, and I appreciate the fact that people have read the piece and have added to it. Leviathan was and still is a rather difficult topic to handle. He was eventually found guilty of some of his charges. Something certainly happened in his assault arrest, but it doesn’t seem to be as horrendous as the original charge against him. Noisey also released their 3-part One Man Metal documentary series featuring Wrest. And he comes off much different than he does in interviews, particularly part 3.]

I am going to write about the new Leviathan album, even though I have not yet listened to it. In the context of this article, I do not think I need to – I am discussing True Traitor, True Whore as a cultural object, not as a piece of music. I have been a fan of Leviathan (and the various and entirely different projects of Wrest (aka Jef Whitehead) – Twilight, Lurker of Chalice) since I made a special order for The Tenth Sublevel of Suicide album at my local music shop in my first year of college. He is responsible for some of my favorite music, black metal or not. All of his albums are haunting and leave an impact on the listener in some way (if they listen to black metal, or are brave enough to try). His latest release is looking to be no exception, and has many people declaring it the album of the year (considering the releases so far, that is absolutely no easy task).

But, this article is not directly about this new album. I am insanely excited to hear it, but a review/deconstruction will have to come later.

Regardless of the name of this site, and the misconceptions of popular culture being entirely mainstream culture, it is not my intention to define black metal (or even metal) to a potentially unknowing audience. As a genre, black metal has been around (arguably) since the late 70s/early 80s and has been global since the mid-to-late 80s. It is notorious for murder, church burnings, upsetting politics, radical imagery, and for its sound alone. It is not appealing to a mass audience, and was never intended to be. However, it is a cultural trend that has existed for nearly 30 years, and someone should have some minimal exposure to it, even if it is just jokes from Adult Swim’s Metalacolypse or humorous internet lists. The genre has managed to escape a large portion of cultural exposure, but you can walk into a Hot Topic and buy tee-shirts from a number of more mainstream acts (Cradle of Filth, for example).

As a bit of a primer for any future posts on the topic of black metal, I am aware that many people may not be particularly aware about the historical, cultural, and musical developments of the genre. Black metal has made its way into academia, which means that it has some tangible amount of mainstream exposure. There are some fantastic academic sources on the topic (covering history, culture, philosophy, globalization, etc):

  • Lords of ChaosA good start at the history of black metal. It sometimes romanticizes intention and ideology, as well as some potentially problematic issues with the writers (in terms of being participants rather than objective historians), but it does a great job at discussing the genre’s roots.
  • Extreme Metal – This is probably my favorite book on metal, as it deals with a holistic approach to multiple genres. It is constantly interesting and very well written.
  • Hideous Gnosis – Notorious in the black metal scene for being full of shit (and it mostly is…), but an important work of philosophy that is at least trying to engage the essence of black metal in different ways. The collection suffers from being overly disjointed and non-applicable, but some pieces stand out.
  • Metal Rules the Globe – This book is technically not out yet, but a good collection of essays about metal and how a genre and culture develops on a global and local scale. Metal is a global genre, and this volume offers a lot of great insight on perspectives that are not generally considered.
  • Metal A Headbangers Journey / Global MetalTwo important anthropological documentaries on the genre. Accessible and well worth the time. They strive to discuss the function and purpose of metal music in peoples’ lives.

But, I should get back to Leviathan and Wrest. His music has always had a big impact on me. While it is a one-man project (which is not all that rare in black metal), all the music is well constructed, atmospheric (even if that is a cliché description), and he develops his sound in an interesting way from album to album. Wrest’s voice is almost always indecipherable, but being able to understand lyrical content has never appealed to me. This is, in part, due to metal’s inherent way of being emotionally evocative rather than lyrically illuminative. This is not the genre of singer-songwriters spinning narratives of nostalgia, love, and ennui.

As I said above, I am here to talk about the upcoming album, and again, I have yet to hear it (though, if you would like to send me future advance copies of any upcoming music for the purpose of a similarly elaborate article, I’d be thrilled). So, this article is less about the album as a piece of music, and more about the album as a cultural object. This particular context is important to discuss because of the controversy of events leading to its creation and release, as well as the intense cultural capital surrounding its distribution.

Things get complicated from here.

In January of 2011, Wrest was arrested for allegedly choking his at-the-time girlfriend, and beating her unconscious. He allegedly sexually assaulted her with his tattooing equipment, and beat her unconscious again. The article linked above is quick to mention Wrest’s physical appearance, noting his beard and tattoos, and wearing all black. For any Foucault fans out there, this is a classic example of the panoptic gaze, declaring his guilt through the judgement of his character. The crimes are deplorable and it is not difficult to put guilt on someone accused for this sort of assault – especially when someone is a black metal musician. Black metal is not unfamiliar with artists and crime, and the rhetoric of Leviathan’s albums and song titles have always had an uncomfortable air of violence and sexual aggression – including Fucking Her Ghost in Chains of Ice”, “Mouth Orifice Bizarre”, “The History of Rape” and others. So, it is increasingly difficult to separate Wrest’s work from his actions, considering his upcoming album is entitled True Traitor, True Whore and features album art prominently displaying the hand he allegedly used to assault the woman in question.

Black metal has also always capitalized on the actions of individuals – either in directly making Varg Virkernes one of the most recognizable names in the genre, or by bands simply building cachet from the sensationalized authenticity. But, generally speaking, the actions that have stood out by these musicians have been rare. Only a small handful of black metal musicians have done anything of questionable morality.

Colleagues and friends of Wrest have spoken out in his defense, stating that he didn’t do the crime of which he is accused. They claim they saw the woman hit herself, and that she has a history of falsely accusing people of rape. When Blake Judd speaks so candidly and honestly about his own life in the interview, it is hard to imagine he is making things up about Wrest. Though, it is also difficult to take everything as truth when speaking in defense about a friend and colleague. One should be aware of both sides of the story.

Ultimately, Wrest has not been convicted, and little more about the case has come to light. Wrest had time to record a new album and approached metal’s most prestigious record label to release it. Profound Lore consistently puts out amazing albums that gain serious critical acclaim, even from unlikely sources like NPR. Generally speaking, if PL releases it, it has to be good. Invisible Oranges and Pitchfork have released exclusive tracks from the upcoming release, and they sound incredible, different, and interesting.  The album is pushing the genre down creative roads and each song is intensely fascinating. But, the aura of Wrest certainly helps to put the listener into a particular state of mind when listening. Guilt or innocence aside, the crime haunts the album and artist, and thus, haunts the mind of the listener. When metal is often about making the listener feel something, and when black metal is an extreme of that goal, it is difficult to consider that this affect on the listener is deliberate – either in the construction of the album or in the culture that surrounds it. In that context, is it not successful? Is it not an accomplishment? You are not supposed to necessarily like the feeling – and this goes for any art, in a general sense – but it is supposed to make consider it. While, I do not associate the songs I have heard so far to be evocative of violence (physical or sexual), there is something profound in these tracks, and that alone is both enjoyable and important.

Within the press for the upcoming album, there is also a certain amount of discomfort with journalists and reviewers. Due to the allegations against him, people have already stated their disavowal with Wrest and his work, or choosing to only discuss the album as a piece of music alone.

Obviously, alleged sexual assault is a serious issue– one that put Whitehead in the category of Burzum (the project of convicted murderer Varg Vikernes) as a band to boycott. As music writer Chris Weingarten Tweeted (and I Retweeted) at the time: “ATTN Metal fans, today is the day you throw your Leviathan and Twilight records in the trash.” I did feel that way. I was disgusted by the details of the alleged crime. And I still am.

http://pitchfork.com/features/show-no-mercy/8660-show-no-mercy/

[Though it should be noted that the writer of above (Brandon Stosuy) continued on to ignore this particular perspective and declares, “I’d prefer to confront controversial art instead of brushing it under the rug.” There are people who do not share this point of view.]

For most of us, it is difficult to separate the life of the creator with the art they create. This is not necessarily bad or unthoughtful, but simply something that occurs. Keith Kahn-Harris, writer of Extreme Metal and MetalJew.com often discusses the work of Burzum and the conflicts he feels when listening to the music, both as a Jew and as a fan. He states:

[T]here’s no way of ignoring the context of which Burzum emerged – a violent, misanthropic world of church burnings, suicide and murder. Even if the history of the early 1990s Norwegian black metal is often romanticised, sensationalized and its extremity exaggerated, you cannot ignore the fact that Vikernes burned down several historic churches and murdered his erstwhile friend Euronymous of the band Mayhem. Nor can you ignore the fact that even before his imprisonment, Vikernes embraced pagan neo-Nazism and once even sent a letter bomb to the Israeli band Salem.

One may view this as a rant against Burzum, but he prefaces this acknowledgement of Burzum by review his latest album – “Vikernes produced something cold, sublime and ineffably beautiful.” Again, Kahn-Harris is a fan of Burzum. One might see potential conflict in this, but he concludes his piece with this particularly apt statement:

The acceptance of Burzum within much of the contemporary metal scene provides ample illustration of the ways in which an overriding love of music can cause people to overlook or collude in dangerous politics. The flipside of this though is that Burzum’s music can also undermine Vikernes dangerousness. It may be then that leftist Burzum fans should feel no guilt. The more albums Vikernes produces, the less he will be a threat to anyone or anything.

Justin Davisson goes on further to discuss this tenuous relationship between artist and audience in his essay “Extreme Politics and Extreme Metal: Strange Bedfellows or Fellow Travelers?” (which can be found in the amazing collection of essays in The Metal Void: First Gathering – a clear predecessor to Hideous Gnosis, but with actual intent, purpose, and application). He states:

Music from bands like Graveland, Absurd, Nokturnal Mortum and many other like-minded bands can easily be found in record stores in the traditionally liberal cities of San Francisco and Berkeley, California.

This is not really surprising or shocking in any way, but uses some interviews with shop keepers to help explain the point, stating that music buyers can be extremely conscious of the politics in the music they buy, but that this is not always the case.

[W]e have a couple of older Jewish guys, who both wrestled over Burzum to begin with but both eventually decided they love the music and have chosen to just ignore the politics. I think that stuff is abhorrent, but a lot of the music is amazing.

H.P. Lovecraft wrote stories warning America about the dangers of race mixing. Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite. Ezra Pound was a fascist. We forgive a lot of these thoughts and actions because of their historical and cultural context. And, quite frankly, they are all amazing artists, worthy of our praise.

But, there are just as many artists today with questionable politics. Famed science fiction writer Orson Scott Card opposed gay rights (this is a particularly good article on how video game fans reacted to a highly-rated game for Xbox that was based off of a story of Card’s). Roman Polanski raped a child. Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, posted some bizarre and extremely misogynist rants on his website. These actions always shock their unknowing fans, but Card is still a best-seller, Polanski is still making critically acclaimed films, and Dilbert is still in most newspapers.

You’ll have to excuse the divergence away from Leviathan here, but I’m going somewhere with it.

Chicago’s Nachtmystium, fronted by Blake Judd, is known for pushing their music into new directions. Their earlier albums represented a traditional form of black metal, but their music has been growing increasingly “psychedelic” in nature, pulling in clear influences from very non-metal genres. Nachtmystium embodies what Kahn-Harris (applying Foucault’s concept) describes as transgression, “implying a sense of testing and crossing boundaries and limits” (Kahn-Harris Extreme Metal, 28). Nachtmystium’s most recent album, Addicts: Black Meddle part II (the album name a plays on Pink Floyd), describes itself on the album’s cover as “[continuing] to blur the chopped lines of metal and psychedelia, only this time cutting in a little bit of dark wave to help bring you down.” This contrasts to the advertising of Swedish contemporaries, Watain, who released Lawless Darkness a week before Addicts. The album describes itself as “up-to-date Bathory worship,” implying a traditional black metal sound. Nachtmystium boldly transgresses away from the notion of an “authentic” black metal sound, and admits it right on the front of their albums. Judd states, “I just feel that those bands are marketed for what has happened outside of the music, not so much involving the music. There’s guys selling crack in Chicago that are scarier to me than [Gaahl of Gorgoroth],” Nachtmystium rejects the idea of marketing their albums based on the actions of past bands that made their genre notorious, and chooses to focus on their own music, transgressing away from the idea of marketing on the aura of the past, and of limiting their own creative output to the historical standard of music for the genre. Addicts is described as including “dance beats, juddery eighth-note alternative rock, psychedelia,” and is described as including influences from Neil Young, Joy Division, and Interpol as well as “[a cross] between extreme metal and music recognizable as ‘pop.’” This review emphasizes the way in which Nachtmystium has brought in outside influences and has created hybridic music away from the clichéd sound of tradition.

Black metal has traditionally been associated with “corpse paint” – white face paint and blackened eyes, Satanic symbols, and “infernal names” – referring to yourself as a demonic pseudonym (Kahn-Harris, Extreme Metal, 38). These iconographic symbols, along with the particularly hateful worldview, are frequent throughout the culture, and particularly heavy among Scandinavian bands, and have become defining features of a black metal band. Judd formerly referred to himself as “Azentrius,” and subscribed to these symbols of black metal, but has removed all from his band, transgressing away from the traditional notions of what it means to be black metal.

These symbolic notions of black metal has haunted Judd’s recent career, particularly accusations of racism and bigotry. The band was dropped from the Scion Rock Fest in 2009, a large extreme metal festival, because Toyota Motor Corporation did not want a racist band on their tour. Judd has a long past in the black metal scene, starting when he was in his teens, and the actions of his youth have haunted his career. During an interview in 2005, Judd was fully encapsulated with the traditional black metal lifestyle, including using a pseudonym, wearing corpse paint, and subscribing to an aggressive view of the world. Judd was quoted in the interview discussing the talent of his influences versus, “something not found in 99% of TV-fed ‘bands’ through MTV and other Zionist means of demoralizing young American’s artistic standards.” In reaction to this, Judd states, “I probably didn’t realize exactly what I was saying. I made a stupid comment as a kid,” Judd admits to his words, but also is aware of the ideologies prevalent in black metal culture. In his youth, Judd subscribed to the notions of black metal, including many of the negative aspects of the genre. Though he is clearly aware of the boundaries and limits of the genre, particularly in the ways one must act to be an authentic member of the culture, Judd’s transgression away from these boundaries is embodied in his rejection of traditional black metal ideology, discourse and ultimately in the rejection of traditional black metal culture.

This is also combined with two early Nachtmystium albums being released on Vinland Winds and Unholy Records and Regimental Records, labels noted for connections to white supremacist organizations. Judd stats that the releases were not authorized, as Miles Raymer explains, “[the album] was a CD-R, and Vinland simply burned more copies without the band’s permission.” Judd claims he simply didn’t know Regimental Records was affiliated with racism, as it was a small D.I.Y. organization, and when he found out he demanded they stopped distribution. These controversies have been detrimental to Nachtmystium’s ability to tour, as promoters are unwilling to be associated with the band. Raymer is quick to counter these weak allegations of bigotry with several simple facts, “Judd collaborated with Robert Lowe of Lichens, who’s black…Bruce Finkelman, his [former] boss at the Empty Bottle [bar], is Jewish, as is Nachtmystium’s manager, Merrick Jarmulowicz.” (All quotes from this paragraph are from this article – it is particularly good).

The band furthers to comment on the allegations with their new logo for merchandise stating the slogan, “White Powder Not White Power,” rejecting the associations of black metal and hatred, and playing on the notions of drug use with the band’s musical experimentation. Judd does not just comment on the ideas of racist allegations, like some Scandinavian bands, but openly and aggressively rejects the ideology and its cultural connections to black metal, again, actively transgressing away from the standard approach of traditional black metal.

Point being – Nachtmystium is not and should not be wholly represented by their actions, past, present, or future. Neither should Leviathan, or any other artist.

As creatively transgressive as Nachtmystium is, Metalsucks.net is still prone to criticize Judd for his drug use. Critics and academics have latched onto black metal for its authenticity, its creativity and constant development, and its unignorable presence (both in sound and in the aura of its creators). This has romanticized the genre and its history and culture to a certain extent. We are horrified at the supposed actions of Wrest – but forget that black metal is a big “fuck you” in almost every possible meaning. We can glorify the genre all we want, but one shouldn’t forget that there are some seriously bad dudes (again, in a general sense – Wrest has yet to be convicted). Blake Judd is there to remind us about black metal

We are not your leaders
We are not your friends
We are thieves and cheaters
We live at the end

We don’t want your loyalty
We reject your trust
We ignore your sympathy
We do what we must

– High on Hate – Addicts: Black Meddle pt II

While black metal is worthy of our critical attention, it is also constantly there to remind us of this sometimes mortally troubling relationship between artist and audience. In the case of black metal, it is easy for us not involved to separate ourselves from the things we do not like and to celebrate what we do. For the artists, it is very much their entire lives condensed into their work, and one can not glorify and ignore parts of a life on a whim.

A friend of mine once described her thoughts on art to me, after she had read a book for a class. I can’t remember the title, but that is not important, her words stuck in my head. They are thoughtful, sincere, and powerfully apt (as she usually is).

I do like the way that this author describes the way that art works. It gives form to the immaterial, confronting the viewer with new interactions with the materials that surround us, thereby creating new thought processes rather than objects of knowledge.

I have always been drawn to more formalist approaches to things, as I like to work with processes of intent and purpose, and I think that this really nails down the purpose of art. Though I could certainly go into Benjamin or Adorno, I like the simplicity of this statement more and it focuses on the audience, rather than the artist. It gives the consumer agency in the artistic process.

The Tweet mentioned above is destructive for several reasons. It removes the idea that audience is able to think critically about what they are consuming. It strips the listener from being able to enjoy any type of art, and it revokes their ability to acknowledge and think critically about those responsible for the things they like. This is probably why the stance was later rejected by Pitchfork’s Brandon Stosuy. Keith Kahn-Harris can like Burzum, and I can continue to like Leviathan.

In a sense, Leviathan’s TTTW is a perfect example of why cultural literacy is important, and how badly it is ignored in contemporary education. Though we should be aware of the aura surrounding of a piece of art, never should it be able to overshadow the consumer’s ability to interpret, negotiate, criticize, or enjoy a piece of art. A piece of art is not attempting to convince us of any particular ideology, but only to make us think. Our ability to critically engage a piece of art is not entirely dependent on role of the artist and we should not allow the creator to have all the social and cultural power in this dynamic relationship. Negating the ability of the consumer to think critically is damningly destructive and ignores the purpose of art in the first place.

The ability to be critical is an ethical action. Geoffrey Harpham states in his book Shadows of Ethics that:

It is also the office of criticism to promote literature’s immediacy, concreteness, vitality, and affective richness, and so to assert the claims of literature as a way of understanding human life that is superior to philosophy. –Harpham, iiiiv

It is not unreasonable to replace “literature” with “art” or even “culture”. The study of culture, art, media, music, or any related concept is important, and these can all tell us something about the understanding of human life – even True Traitor, True Whore. Good art (and I use that phrase begrudgingly) should make us feel and think, but exactly what is up to the consumer. It is not unethical to consume art by seemingly unethical individuals as long as you are able to think critically about what you are consuming. One should not feel troubled about buying a Leviathan album, but one should be aware of the context in which it was created.

I can’t wait to buy this album and listen to it very loudly in my car.