Friday, January 31, 2020


This book came out several years ago, but the ideas were shopworn years before that

Release rationale:

'Art is theft,’ Picasso once proclaimed, and much of the best and most ‘original’ new art involves an act or two of unequivocal, overt theft. Paradoxically, the law relating to artistic borrowing has grown more restrictive. ‘The plagiarism and copyright trials of the twenty-first century are what the obscenity trials were to the twentieth century’, Kenneth Goldsmith, has observed. ‘These are really the issues of our time.’ Beg, Steal and Borrow offers a comprehensive and provocative survey of a complex subject that is destined to grow in relevance and importance. It traces an artistic lineage of appropriation from Michelangelo to Jeff Koons, and examines the history of its legality from the sixteenth century to now.

Some chapter titles and quotes

 Chapter 1 "How Original Are You?"

"The self -- the thing that makes me so uniquely me and you so uniquely you -- is entirely borrowed" 

Chapter 2 "Thou Shalt Not Steal"

Chapter 3 "…But You Will Be Taught to Copy"

"Michaelangelo's own originality was of an avowedly imitative kind" 

"Copying is the foundation stone of art-making, and the impulse to copy the art of other artists is the progressive motor of art history." 

Chapter 4 "A Brave New Multi-Authored World"

Chapter 6, "Remake, Reuse, Reassemble, Recombine: That's the Way to Go",

 "Art has become one big stylistic mash-up, then, an orgy of copying and collaging beyond the logic of time and place 

"As is only appropriate in a book on appropriating and copying, every word and thought in this text has been borrowed from someone else"


My lecture on how everything is NOT a remix

Friday, January 3, 2020

i stream you stream we all stream

Here's a piece I did for last weekend's Guardian Guide looking back at the last decade's popular culture - music and TV -  focused on how streaming is eroding the idea of a mainstream, as we all follow on our own increasingly individualized streams that thread through the flood of content. The result is not so much the disintegration of the Monoculture as the de-synchronization of the Monotemporality: a swarm of micro-publics all tied to their own timeline.

My original headline was "Scattered and Shattered".

A scatter of further thought-shards from myself...

Lured down the path of least resistance (oh so convenient) I use Spotify (along with YouTube and Bandcamp etc) as the primary way of listening to things, unless I've been sent them as files, and even then sometimes it's just easier to stream. (A lifetime's worth of records and CDs lie inert in their vastness: I've even downloaded things I already own rather than be obliged to move my butt from this chair).

But I find streaming in general and Spotify in particular unsatisfying in a way that’s hard to explain...  The nearest I can get is that it feels like the music isn’t really going in.  Or that it passes right through me, like water (which is one reason why the utility analogy - piped music - feels so apt). That’s possibly down to the fact that I’m nearly always doing something else on the computer while listening, so that the concentration-pie is divided.  Streaming tends to turn music - even the most lively or attention-grabbing - into background listening.

But the lack of a public dimension is also part of the disconnection feeling. Radio feels realer somehow - more social, less atomised. A record that is getting increasing radio-play feels like an unfolding event within popular desire. And when you grow to like that record you feel like are converging with unknown others in social space.

Radio also liberates the listeners from the burden of having to choose (okay, it's true you'll often flick to a different station in the hopes of hearing a tune you like better - but that's as close to a toss of the coin as it is a purposeful act of navigation within the sound library).  For sure, there are algorithms at work in streaming that attempt to tune into your sonic libido and do the selecting for you. I find that the archival surfeit provokes in me a neurotic drive to master the flux, by building enormous playlists of genres or clustered artists, that once assembled would take a day or two to listen through. These playlists are almost always then immediately forgotten and never returned to, although catching sight of them from the corner of my eye as I assemble another never-to-be-played playlist I experience a shuddery twitch of self-disgust.

Talking about self-disgust, Andrew Parker chips in with a thought about the audio-cornucopia:

"Looking at my hard drive and seeing all the music files I've collected over the year is like walking into room flooded with my own vomit. I feel ashamed as I recognise almost all of it and know that it was only partially digested before being expelled."

Haha! In my case, the shame is the arrayed accumulation of things acquired but never unzipped - and the frequency of non-recognition: what the hell was that then, and why did I download it?

Andrew also mentions how his music-processing speed has massively gone up, his ability to extract nutritive-value from something in a single listen. I do think most civilian consumers are now in the position that critics and DJs (radio and club) have been in since forever, getting tons of stuff and learning to how to sift based on a single or partial listen. But with streaming etc it’s even more overwhelming the amount of music / TV that is available and you fall into an even faster browse/sift mode since you don’t even have to take things out of their packaging, place them on turntables or insert them into CD players…

On an earlier occasion of discussing these sort of issues here, an Anonymous Commenter suggested acidly that there was a kind of puritanism lurking behind the worries about the musical glut / gluttony. On the contrary, I asserted, these complaints are really coming from a completely opposite place: anxiety about the loss of pleasure, the dulling of aural sensuality. It's more based in a kind of "home economics" of the libido / psyche: excess of supply causes demand to wane and wither. Music fandom defeats itself.

You don't have to regard gluttony as one of the seven deadly sins to be wary of it - it might be unhealthy physiologically or emotionally.  There are reasons not to do the audio equivalent of stuffing 18 chocolate eclairs down your gullet in quick succession.  For instance, trying to listen to the complete works of an artist in a single chronological listen removes the interval in which digestion can take place - and which, in historical real-time, involved gaps of a year or more, multiple replays of the work in question etc. You can't really reconstruct that experience nowadays, but you can at least leave a gap between masterworks, before ploughing on into the next one.

If a truly profound art of listening could find an infinity in a single piece of music listened to for the rest of one's life and nothing else ... the inverse seems to imply a logical outcome in the other direction. A near-infinity of listening (both in amount and variety) available to you as individual, without any impediments of cost or effort, will lead to the ultimate form of undeep listening... pre-fatigued ears skim across everything in a futile attempt to take it all in.

There's disorientation too: Pelle Snickars, co-author of  Spotify Teardown: Inside the Black Box of Streaming Music, has talked about the downside of audio clutter: how you "lose track of your tracks". (Of course, that happened with the solid-form modes of music commodity, but there is something about the absolute inconspicuousness of immaterial sound, whether in your hard drive or in the cloud, that makes it easier to not-see and soon-forget).

But I know people have many other - and completely opposite - experiences with streaming.  And yes, there's a generational aspect.

Living with a TV journalist means that I see these syndromes play out in another field of entertainment that's been absolutely transformed by streaming. But most people are familiar with the downsides. The dither-inducing dizziness of all those options, a Tinder-ization of culture as you flick through deferring the moment of commitment - the decision on how to spend time, invest your leisure capital. Desultory browsing suddenly galvanised in the potlatch splurge of the binge session, the delirious release from choice through submission to the crack-fiend commitment to a single storyline and set of characters... knowing exactly what you'll be doing for the next X number of hours or days. (The uneasy laugh of recognition off of this Portlandia sketch about the couple who consume an entire series in one sleepless jag and then - in severe withdrawal - pressure a man they mistakenly believe to be the show’s creator to perform new episodes just for their own private delight).

Further, even more stray and shard-like thoughts...

Awards Ceremonies were never such a big deal in the past, were they? I don't remember watching a single one in my UK youth. Like the phone-in voice contests and the reality eliminations, these ceremonies are re-constitutions of the General Public, running counter to the centrifugal tendencies of everything else going on. Mark Fisher wrote and spoke about this, even saw something hopeful in it.

I wonder what Mark would have thought about the spread across all the end-of-year lists of what is effectively (regardless of genre or sonic specifics) a new singer-songwriter ethos...  recordings approached and analysed and felt largely as literary expressions... narratives of self, social comment, political stances and statements, representations of identity, thematic links  ....  the criticism surrounding it somewhat more attentive to sound and rhythm than Paul Nelson's purely literary appreciation of  Jackson Browne in Stranded, but fundamentally coming from the same place, the same understanding of how popular music works and what it's for.  Today, listening to and reading about this kind of album (fucking Norman Fucking Rockwell the supreme example), it feels like what's going on between artist and critics is a performance of  Importance and Seriousness - Masterpiece Theater you could call it - one that harks back achingly to a time when such major statements could be presumed to be of universal significance. In that sense, true retro rather than surface retro (although NFR is laden with the surface kind too, while Weyes Blood is a singer-songwriter era reeanctment).

The thought of Mark's scorn is a painful pleasure, since we'll never know how he would have worded it or what insights he'd have filleted from the middlebrow morass. He probably would have felt similarly about much of the quality TV of our time - the "must-see" stuff where the "must" connotes not so much "compulsive" as "compulsory"  - claiming our attention via an appeal to a vague dutifulness, the necessity to keep abreast of Important Statements.

I suspect Mark would have felt this kind of thing to be the diametric opposite of "pulp modernism", i.e. mass entertainment of a seemingly escapist and purely spectacular type (escapist even when dystopian), within which are secreted  concepts and philosophical-political thought-bombs - arguably all the more potent for being inveigled into minds that are not already primed to be edified or "challenged".

He would instinctively have been supportive of the kind of movies and TV that only get nominated for awards in technical categories like special effects, editing, lighting, etc.

He'd probably have liked Chernobyl though - for the science-fiction-NOW landscapes of catastrophe.

Others (including the missus) have noted the rise of culture/entertainment that feels like work (or homework). No wonder so many are going truant, returning to vegetative modes of watching that are purely relaxing (as with the popularity of Friends reruns, even used by some as a sleep aid). 

What will the next decade bring? Sometimes I imagine a sort of attention recession. An involuntary, reflexive reaction of withdrawal on the part of consumer-spectactors.  Appetite and interest wane to almost nothing in response to the escalating overload, as supply vastly exceeds conceivable demand. Turn off, tune out, and drop away.

For my own part, as I sit on the sofa, eyes arrested by some new accomplishment in art-TV,  I sometimes remember my teenage self discovering the work of the Situationists - theorists of boredom who coined the concept of “the spectacle” to characterize the passivity and isolation of mass media.

At the end of day, it doesn't really matter whether what you watch is quality or garbage, enlightening or vegetative: it's all TV, a way of taking your mind off your problems (even when you are informing yourself about other people's problems, or past problems). Your butt is stuck in the sofa either way. Real life is elsewhere. And so is politics.

Which is a reminder also that all of the above is among the least pressing of our problems heading into the 2020s.