December 28, 2014

Listing and listening in 2014

Like many privileged, semi-literate white males before me, I like to end the year by noting and ranking the cultural material I've been consuming over the last 365 days. I’ve been doing this for over a decade. My first year-end music list felt like a big deal. It appeared in my high school newspaper and caused a minor stir among my classmates for the very understandable reason that it was “out of touch” with what people were actually listening to. At the time, this judgment, which I was half expecting, only served to validate my elitism. Like many a high-minded idiot teenager, I held a naive disdain for popular taste and didn’t really understand what it meant. My list, like almost all published lists, was a performative act. But when I try to think about who I was performing for, I don’t get very far. In retrospect, that particular “best of” list looks like a way of proving (as much to myself as to anyone else) that I belonged to a specific category of taste, a cultivated sphere of discerning listeners. I imagine things would have been different had the internet been as pervasive then as it is today. Perhaps I’d have been more humble, less melodramatic and self-important. More likely, I’d have been a troll.

Over the last ten years, I’ve come to see my year-end ritual in a different light. (This critical pursuit was actually the occasion for first starting this blog back at the end of 2008.) For better or worse, I fall into the same social category as some of the loudest voices in the culture industry and, though I no longer try imitate them, I’ve realized that there’s little value in the kind of writing most of us produce when we make lists. Most of my past lists were attempts perform a certain kind of authority that is, I think, becoming less persuasive. As Carl Wilson has observed, there’s been a shift away from the kind of paternal criticism that used to dominate debates over artistic merit in the music industry. And yet lists persist, especially at this time of year.

Perhaps such lists are and have always been a form of clickbait, a promise of easy knowledge and authority. Perhaps my general cynicism for these rankings comes from a place of resentment; perhaps, deep down, I think I deserve a bigger platform from which to champion my favourite things. (This is certainly how I felt in high school.) Perhaps my waning enthusiasm also likely has something to do with my view of our list-driven culture as a symptom of residual patriarchy (and neoliberal competition) in which I still willingly participate. But even based on their own merit, I think it’s fair to say that the majority of year-end lists and reviews are lazy attempts to recycle old material and, as such, the writing rarely moves beyond grand, self-congratulatory pronouncements. Hopefully this short review of the music I loved in 2014 will be different, but I won’t make any such promises.

I wrote less about music throughout 2014 than I have in previous years, but I did manage to post a few brief notes on tracks by Ought, Chad VanGaalen, and The War on Drugs, as well as a lengthier writeup on the latest album from Wild Beasts. I had meant to write some shorter pieces about Sun Kil Moon, St. Vincent, and Flying Lotus but never had enough time to work through my impressions. Having a chance to sit down and synthesize some of this stuff is one of the things I relish most about the Christmas season. And just as I was starting to compile my list, the year in music ended with a big surprise.

Before D’Angelo’s sudden release of Black Messiah a few weeks back, I was fairly certain that my music appreciation in 2014 started and ended with the album Benji by Sun Kil Moon, an intimate and at times brutally honest collection of songs that burrows deep into the mundane concerns of a middle-aged man. It’s the kind of album that feels out of step with the most relevant parts of the pop landscape: the territory is far from new but that's also one of the best things about it.

In the last couple weeks, D’Angelo and The Vanguard have taken over my listening from Sun Kil Moon, and rightly so. There is much to love about Black Messiah: it’s fresh, effortless and moving. It grins with positive energy, it marches on with fists defiantly raised in a gesture of radical love. With the rising profile of racially motivated violence across the US, with reactionary attempts to depoliticize the crimes committed by predominantly white police in places like Ferguson, MO and New York City, with the ignorance of those attempting to displace and neutralize the very necessary point made by #blacklivesmatter, D’Angelo’s radically titled follow-up to 2000’s Voodoo was an album we all needed to hear. It’s been well publicized that D’Angelo, keenly aware of his album’s urgency, along with his team, worked his ass off to get the thing out as soon as possible. The final production on Black Messiah may have been rushed, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way. After all, it was a 14 year wait. As D'Angelo explained on a pamphlet from the album's debut listening session,
Not every song on this album is politically charged (though many are), but calling this album Black Messiah creates a landscape where these songs can live to the fullest. Black Messiah is not one man. It's a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.
Sun Kil Moon's Benji, then, can only be secondary, and the album isn't really suited for top spot anyhow. In fact, I'd argue that as one of the best albums put out by a sad white guy with a guitar in 2014 it needs to be heard alongside D'Angelo and The Vanguard. Released in early February, Benji takes some of the most sentimental, cliche-ridden topics in white guy folk music and explores them until they count for something. It is, in many ways, a good summary of white privilege: Kozelek sings about getting older, feeling uncool at shows and having to pee a lot; he describes watching helplessly as his parents age; he reflects on pivotal moments in his youth, he names his insecurities, loves and attachments; he revisits moments of confusion, resentment and joy that went unnoticed by everyone around him. Some of the most moving moments, however, are not about him. On songs like “Carissa” and “Micheline” Kozelek turns his attention toward individuals from his past who’ve been victims of tragic circumstances, people who’ve had to struggle against an absurd, indifferent existence.

Notwithstanding his baiting of the music press (to which Perfect Pussy's Meredith Graves gave one of the best responses), Kozelek held my interest through much of the year. His informal approach to songwriting was oddly compelling and I found much of Benji to be poignant and occasionally even beautiful. But Benji also has its limits. Kozelek committed to his anecdotal approach, honing in on the banal specifics of the everyday for a dense, univocal 60 minutes. It was a clever ploy. Benji’s understated form allowed Kozelek to say more than everybody else; his useless tiff with The War on Drugs seemed to carry that logic even further. Perhaps that’s why I found less straightforward albums by Flying Lotus and St. Vincent all the more compelling.

On Flying Lotus' fifth album, You're Dead!, Steven Ellison approaches his theme directly and dialogically without saying too much. Death is all too common and it comes all too quick. We glimpse it, we feel it; it’s a part of every human story. But it’s also profoundly individual and in this way eminently mysterious. On "Never Catch Me, my favourite song of the year, Kendrick Lamar joins Ellison for a powerful, instantly accessible distillation of You’re Dead!’s ambivalent embrace of the unknown. After the off-kilter jazz breakdowns of “Cold Dead” and “Fkn Dead," we meet hope paradoxically, in life's absence. The rest of the album expands the promise of “Never Catch Me,” playfully weaving in and out of something like consciousness and breaking down our linear expectations of time and the eternal return.

Cosmic concerns take all kinds of different forms and some are more familiar than others. Another big release of 2014, St Vincent’s fourth solo album, observes the futurity of our present moment by passing through a field of religious anachronism. On St Vincent, Annie Clark situates herself as icon, while we in the audience blankly nod our heads, lost in another thumping guitar line. In several different interviews, Clark explained that part of her intention with this album was to explore her own sound. In other words, it’s self-titled for a reason: it claims to realize the sound of Clark’s alter-ego, the sound of a saint.

So then, what does a saint sound like? More to the point, what does a saint of the (post)secular present sound like? What I liked most about Clark’s answer was that in each manifestation—her album, her lyrics, her videos and performances—she used her own static image as a point of departure. To me, this seems exactly right. Saints are typically accessed by sight, not by sound; it's easy to conjure up generic images of saintliness, the pale-faces of martyrs and mystics immortalized in Christian iconography. In this way, St. Vincent is an icon for the digital age, where the proliferation of sounds and images arrive from above and below. In the context of Clark’s discography, it continues an interesting progression: the more pronounced the artifice, the more robotic the appearance, the closer we get to something like truth or identity.

Earlier this year, Clark wrote a short piece for The Guardian about her experience using Twitter. "We perform our identities in the analogue and digital realm. Every tweet or T-shirt is a signifier that consciously or subconsciously communicates something about us to others."

St.Vincent’s preoccupation with the image is also what makes Clark’s cultural commentary on songs like “Digital Witness” so persuasive. Our lives, our experiences, our identities are always mediated by something, but digital platforms in particular enhance our visibility and, along with it, our appetites for spectatorship. Perhaps our orientation towards the glowing screen is less novel than we think. Perhaps we aren’t so different from medieval laymen, attuned to the icons that adorned their places of worship. We believe that we are accessing something that we all hold in common, a vehicle for transcendence, a way to participate in something greater than ourselves. Such naturalized rituals will become another era’s anachronism; but, as always, our desires persist within a contested history.

As Clark puts it, in a song inspired by her mother’s illness, “I, I prefer your love to Jesus.”

10 songs for 2014

Flying Lotus feat. Kendrick Lamar - Never Catch Me
Perfume Genius - Queen
Ought - Habit
D’Angelo - The Charade
Caribou - Can’t Do Without You
Viet Cong - Continental Shelf
Wild Beasts - A Simple Beautiful Truth
Lydia Ainsworth - White Shadows
Future Islands - Spirit
Ava Luna - PRPL

My favourite EPs from 2014

Lydia Ainsworth - Right from Real Pt. 1
Vince Staples - Hell Can Wait
Hush Pup - Waterwings
Speedy Ortiz - Real Hair
Baths - Ocean Death

My favourite albums of 2014

D’Angelo - Black Messiah
Sun Kil Moon - Benji
Flying Lotus - You’re Dead!
St. Vincent - St. Vincent
Caribou - Our Love
Jom Comyn - In the Dark on 99 (All the Time, All the Time)
Ought - More Than Any Other Day
Chad VanGaalen - Shrink Dust
A Sunny Day in Glasgow - Sea When Absent
Wild Beasts - Present Tense
FKA Twigs - LP1
Grouper - Ruins
Future Islands - Singles
Owen Pallett - In Conflict
Ava Luna - Electric Balloon
BadBadNotGood - III
The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream
Swans - To Be Kind
Amen Dunes - Love
Cibo Matto - Hotel Valentine
Marissa Nadler - July
Mac DeMarco - Salad Days
Ex Hex - Rips
Angel Olsen - Burn Fire For No Witness
Perfume Genius - Too Bright

December 20, 2014

Jacqueline Rose in conversation with Nina Power

In partial response to Jacqueline Rose's new book Women in Dark Times, James Butler, Nina Power, and Rose discuss past and future feminism, capitalism, police brutality and other contemporary intersections of violence, spectacle and power. (via Novara Media)

December 16, 2014

After the End

Four months ago, I found myself caught between several freelance projects leftover from the summer and a tidal wave of new homework: the beginning of my final year at school. One of those lingering projects was also one of the most satisfying: a comic for Geez magazine's apocalypse-themed winter issue. That issue is now on newsstands and I'm thrilled to be among so many strong and vital voices. I've been following Geez off and on since its inception (I actually remember buying the first issue). I've occasionally thought about contributing, but the timing was never right. I'm glad it finally worked out, even if I was pressed for time. Geez consistently pushes itself in worthwhile directions, and the writing in this issue in particular manages to be severely critical yet unabashedly hopeful. Just the dialectical imbalance I look for in a quasi-religious publication.

My own contribution is an odd one. When I first heard of the theme, I knew immediately that my comic would take aim at liberal suburbia, where the average church member's biggest discomfort on a Sunday morning revolves around the church parking lot. There is something apocalyptic even in this, something revelatory about a place that, despite some good intentions, is so often out of touch with what really matters, unaware of its role in safeguarding structures of oppression.

When I finally started working on my comic, I came to recognize that for many mainstream Christian groups obsessed with the End Times, there's an omnipresent, hermeneutical interplay between inside and outside. A claim to clarity and revelation–being able to read and interpret the "signs of the times" for what they really are–is perhaps what makes most apocalyptic fixations so densely ideological. Concern for the salvation of the world and, by extension, belief in an external, mysterious, universal and ultimately unthinkable Event should, in theory, put such groups in positions of vulnerability. The end of the world is a terrifying, humbling possibility to consider. But precisely the opposite happens. Our belief in the End becomes an article of knowledge: an expectation, a judgment and, most importantly, a possession to which one clings, a locus of power and authority. Such knowledge demarcates the boundaries of the elect and signals a turn inward. If one has a conscience, despair sets in: "Why won't they turn away from their wickedness and join us?" World events, environmental catastrophe; these crises seem to point to something that only an apocalyptic hermeneutic can organize and decipher.

If my comic is at all successful, it pokes fun at how modern obsessions with the end of the world often give way to this kind of insularity, how such fixations define our readings of current events and how our conceptions of the End perpetuate privileged forms of representation. 

The educated white male sitting in the church basement isn't only the most outspoken person in the room–he's also the loudest, and he loves to play devil's advocate. 

December 11, 2014

Owen Pallett - "Song for Five & Six"

This is, apparently, my 400th post (!) and since we're already talking numbers, here's "Song for Five & Six" from Owen Pallett's excellent In Conflict, one of my favourites of 2014. The video was choreographed by Robert Binet and features students of Canada's National Ballet School.

November 29, 2014

Long Conversation: Life Online

I'm taking part in a cross-country writing group called Long Conversation. This month we were asked how our relation to the internet has changed. Here's what I wrote.

Before moving to Edmonton four years ago I didn’t use the internet for much beyond downloading music, reading articles and sending emails. This city gave me may first opportunity to live alone, without the comforting distractions of roommates. As I started my program, I realized most of my academic work and most of my leisure activities depended on the glowing screen sitting on my desk. As some friends of mine pointed out, my presence on Facebook had dramatically increased during my first semester of grad school. I was averaging five Facebook posts a day when I finally joined Twitter, a better home for all the stuff I felt I needed to share.

Work and Facebook consumed most of my days, while my lonelier evenings were filled by Megavideo. I streamed the entire series of The Wire in a few short months and got through most of Friday Night Lights just as quickly. Back then, Megavideo had a viewing time limit (around 58 minutes); once you hit that limit you were forced to wait for an hour or so. Eventually this limit began structuring my study routine. I would go through an entire day, watching 6 episodes of the Wire and reading Derrida for the remaining hours that I could muster the concentration. Each time Megavideo forced me back to work, I knew that after an hour of study, I’d earn the reward of another episode.

It wasn’t long before I realized that I wasn’t very good at living alone. I needed something (or, better, someone) to give my days structure and with only three seminars a week, the internet was the best option I had. I could watch shows when I was bored and when I was feeling isolated in my basement suite, I could relocate to social media. At it’s best, the internet gave me immediate access to all kinds of data, allowing me to share content and communicate with friends; I could adopt a grammar of sharing. At its worst, it was (and still is) a form of social control that it’s become hard to do without, a place where popularity and visibility are synonymous, not unlike the logic of high school.

Fortunately, I no longer live on my own, but I'm not sure how much my online activity has changed. That being said, my ambitions definitely have. It’s been two years since I humbly entered the world of graphic design, a world built on freelancing, a world that once looked entirely different without the web. I suppose I’m now much more aware of my identity on the internet, in part because I’ve been forced to see it as a place for self-promotion, a place where I can present my work and connect with clients. Over the next 6 months, I’ll be preparing for this to become more of a reality, as I set up a personal website (with my own domain name!) and assemble an online portfolio. The thought of this near future fills me with dread and a degree of excitement. At the same time, it means that I’ve also entered an increasingly precarious work environment. For every illustrator or designer who sees mild success there are twenty more equally talented people who have to pursue their work as a labour of love, or, more realistically, not at all. At least I have some sense of how to navigate the web. In fact, I’ve been thinking about my online identity much longer than I’ve been in Edmonton.

Back in 2008, I started a blog to share bits of writing I was working on and catalogue lists of my favourite things (mostly related to indie music and literary theory). I’ve averaged about 60 posts each year since, and the blog currently figures as an archive of my interests as they’ve emerged over the past six years. Even though writing has become less of a priority, I still make the occasional blog post for no other reason than to extend my archive into the future (and I’m slightly alarmed at how patriarchal that sounds). In many ways, my blogging has prepared me for the kind of online identity I’m now slowly building. It’s allowed me to track hits and views from across the world and see what kinds of posts attract visitors. Every once in a while I’ll find a comment on an old post and sometimes it’s not even spam! 

Last summer I decided the time was right to start two new blogs. One is used strictly as hosting site for mp3s from a radio show I’m part of. The other one is on Tumblr, which I’m finding to be one of the most interesting and surprising places on the internet right now. Part of its charm is the way it accommodates visual media. It also connects with what I do because of how many illustrators, photographers and designers use it to show off their work and process. The structure is more or less like that of Twitter or Instagram, where you have a stream of posts compiled for you on your home page (or “Dashboard”) that’s based on the users that you follow. As a fellow user, you have the option to “heart” or reblog any post you come across. There don’t seem to be many limitations on what you can post, and artists have been known to experience theft of their work or, at the very least, posting without proper attribution. When you visit someone else’s page you see the images they’ve posted or reblogged, arranged according to their page’s structure or theme.

This is what it looks like when you appear on the "Radar," which randomly happened to me just after I wrote this.

Tumblr works for a variety of media, but for me it’s a hub for illustration, photography, and design, both amateur and professional. Some use it for documenting process, others for web comics, and still others (like me) use it as a less discretionary portfolio of current work. Like Instagram, it’s a way of sharing the stuff I’m doing with whoever cares to see it. Unlike Instagram, your work can become incredibly popular if the right people reblog it. I have several images from a year ago that are still getting reblogged, and when I think about the network that exists between my computer and the many Tumblr pages where my image currently appears, my work feels infinitely far away. I don’t expect that anyone currently viewing it will try to trace it back to its proper origin, but at the same time I’m flattered that something of mine has resonated with so many strangers.

Suffice it to say that on Tumblr, you can see something of yours quickly spiral out of your control. You can see your work become part of someone else’s visual language. You can, for instance, see how your image fits into the mosaic of erotically charged pictures on the Tumblr page of a high school student who’s used Tumblr to build the visual ideal of her identity. This might, and often does, turn her followers into your followers. But much more effective for gaining loyal viewers is Tumblr’s built-in system of curation. Certain popular tags (“Artists on Tumblr” for example) that accompany your work can be highlighted and used to prioritize a post in relevant searches. Your page might also appear on the Tumblr “Radar” if you’re deemed worthy. It’s almost enough to convince you that all the labour of making your art is actually valued, but the only return is visibility in a system over-saturated with images. Every now and then I remember that, by all appearances, it’s followers like the high school student with a taste for the macabre that I’m really working for. The only real difference between her and I is that I did this kind of collaging before I had a life on the internet.

In junior high, I had a bulletin board in my room that I covered with photos and clippings from magazines. As I got older, I realized that the bulletin board was a sham and covered my walls with postcards and handbills from concerts. A Tumblr page projects that same kind of archive outward, where the gaze of others is more immediate. But both instances of self-fashioning are fundamentally discursive. They each assemble signs and symbols in a way that suggests an audience, even if that audience is, in the end, a reflexive self. Social media now facilitates this, but despite the possibility of updates, the options for individual users still remains frustratingly limited. Our online “selves” remain fixed in order to be recognizable, often skewed in favour of the privileged and popular. For all the possibilities of our projections, some of us can’t help but be consistent.

November 7, 2014

Long Conversation: Alcohol

I'm taking part in a cross-country writing group called Long Conversation. This month we were asked to explore our relationship to intoxication. Here's what I wrote.

I enjoy the occasional solitary drink, but most of my experiences with alcohol point to an overwhelmingly social drug. For many of us, alcohol is more than just a substance. It names a way to imagine and practice an idealized set of social relations. Alcohol is effective and attractive. It can elevate and degrade. It can help groups cohere just as easily as it can fracture longstanding relationships. As with most drugs, those of us who use it are always in danger of turning it into a crutch, relying on the substance just a little too much. In certain situations, it goes without saying. I find it far easier to be at a club when I’m a bit tipsy, and having a few drinks makes it easier to be at a party where I only know a few of the guests. The conversation flows. Big deals can become small deals, and vice versa. Unlikely friendships are made quickly and forgotten.

Another thing common to a culture of drinking is the idea of initiation. Since the early days of high school, parties and drinking have been bound together but I’m sure many of us can remember our first time drinking in excess.

Even in that first, supposedly free encounter, my attitude towards alcohol has always reflected a certain understanding of my immediate social context. My track record, in other words, has a lot to do with where and when I grew up: in a sporadically dry town—the tightly fastened buckle of Manitoba’s Bible belt—a decade or so before the opening of its first liquor store. Along with all the extra effort involved in acquiring alcohol, its somewhat forbidden nature should have made it more enticing. But unlike the teetotallers in my town, I never really saw alcohol consumption as a moral issue, and by extension I never dreamt about an end to its repression. To me, the alcohol issue seemed symptomatic of the community’s contradictory relationship with the outside world: strictly Mennonite in the petty ways but more than happy to support an unjust government hellbent on going to war and whose policies actively promoted the destruction of the environment.

My parents counteracted the puritanical nature of our town by having a well-stocked liquor cabinet and bringing me up to appreciate a good wine and cheese pairing. Early on, I appreciated the taste of wine and beer but by the middle of high school I was slightly paranoid about what might happen if I over-indulged: an uncontrollable change in personality or, worse, irreparable brain damage. Judging by all the parties I’d been to, people did really act out when they were drunk and, on a few occasions, I was no exception.

Before my first experience of real “drinking,” alcohol was a pretty neutral part of adulthood. However, it quickly assumed a social importance in my grade, and as someone who played on several sports teams, I had plenty of opportunities to become part of the elite group of kids who drank at parties. I had my first night of drunkenness at the end of grade 10. As I recall, it was plotted one evening after a baseball game. My friend’s parents were out of town. We had an older acquaintance who we knew would be willing to buy us a 24 of Coors. It was a weird night, not least because our buyer wouldn’t leave. We weren’t expecting him to actually hang out with us. It definitely put a damper on things. Not long after that, I decided not get drunk again.

In those first few experiences, I treated intoxication the way most young people do: as a way to escape or rebel, an excuse to act belligerent. My identification of booze with rebellion quickly waned when I realized that if something as easy as drinking was the most secure route to a better high school social status, it wasn’t really a status worth having. And if drinking was simply a right of passage, I could move on. Besides, there always had to be at least one person willing to look after all the unfortunate souls who’d consumed more than they could handle. I have a distinct memory of my friend passed out on a couch in another friend’s basement. He was covered in sweat, snoring away while my other friends threw Cheetos at him, trying to get them to stick onto his face. Oh, the joys of high school drinking.

Chivalry aside, my decision to no longer get drunk during this period in high school also came from an embarrassingly narcissistic fear that I wasn’t a very bright kid and I had a vulnerable brain to protect. I was growing anxious about university; I knew I’d have to rely on scholarships and I had the wild ambition to transcend my rural upbringing. So yeah, along with a threat my assets, I associated drinking with a part of small-town culture that I wanted to escape. Occasionally, I managed to romanticize it and see our group participating in something that was rustic and removed; but more often it left me feeling cynical and out of place. Perhaps without that rural association, perhaps if I’d grown up in a more cosmopolitan space, I wouldn’t have adopted such a skewed, elitist perspective about drinking. At that point it was hard think differently.

When the scenery finally changed, I changed with it. But the transition was slow. I didn’t attend any parties during my first semester at university, and when I did I noticed a small group who went to parties but didn’t drink. They were fellow first years, but unlike me they were armed with more altruistic intentions than shyness. They tried to make the point that you didn’t need to drink in order to have fun and do stupid shit. It wasn’t lost on the rest of us, but no one was surprised when these same people started showing up with beer at parties months later.

In terms of intoxication, those years were probably the wildest I’ll ever have. They allowed me the space and safety to figure out my limits and establish a relatively comfortable relationship with my own intoxication. I now know generally what to expect when decide to drink. During my first year I remember being able to count the number of times I’d been drunk. As drinking became a more standard part of my routine, I recognized that this finite number would soon become a thing of the past. I found some small comfort in knowing that. Once I lost track of my drinking escapades, my fears about its consequences would also slide out of view.

Whether you condemned it or celebrated it, drinking played a pretty significant role in my undergraduate experience and was a frequent topic of discussion both on and off campus. There were forums and committees to deal with the issue, and occasionally students involved in leadership roles would draw fire for instances of drunken belligerence. Most of us understood and accepted that it was a contentious issue, but saw no need to change our lifestyles. My university placed a great amount of importance on promoting and fostering community, both publicly and internally. Although my friends and I were at times critical of the way this idea got thrown around, we recognized that our actions did occasionally make others uncomfortable and, at times, made efforts to hold alcohol-free events (one of which I remember being quite successful). I’m glad we did. In a few short years, it had become natural for most of us to assume that social life automatically included alcohol. It even related to what we were studying. We had biblical examples of drinking (the Wedding at Cana was a favourite) and a long tradition of Eucharistic celebration to back us up. At parties, we took it as our rite to celebrate the sacred connection between booze and community, but it was equal parts profound and stupid, like most ideologies are.

The days of excessive drinking are, I hope, long past. But it remains difficult to imagine a social gathering that doesn’t bring with it the expectation that most people will be drinking and the feeling that you are strange for not doing so. The pressure isn’t as overt as it once was: no one is forcing you to drink or mocking your decision to abstain. At this point many of us just drink out of habit, often without the expectation that we’ll get drunk. Sometimes it almost feels like if drinking isn’t going to be part of a social gathering, we expect it to be unmemorable or at the very least, unremarkable. Or, if drinking is involved, new possibilities are opened up (and paradoxically, a tradition is continued); the very idea of alcohol acts to dissolve the mental barriers that prevent us from doing things like climbing onto buildings, playing dumb games, or eating too much greasy food.

As these conditions persist in certain friend groups, I’m also getting to know more people who opt out of drinking at social events, for whatever reason. In the last couple years I’ve tried giving up alcohol over lent. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially since my birthday usually falls within that forty day period. It can be quite frustrating, both for me and for the people who want me to drink along with them. By this point, some friendships almost require it, while for others it simply serves as a nice addition, a slightly different way of relating. Still, I’ve found giving up alcohol for prolonged periods worthwhile, not just for the perspective it affords, but for all the money it saves me.

October 29, 2014

Jian Ghomeshi and the ways of judgment

I have no desire to comment on the shitstorm that erupted over the weekend involving Jian Ghomeshi and the CBC, except to join my voice to the chorus of support for the victims of sexual assault and reiterate that this is not and never has been an even playing field, that crimes like this mostly go unreported, and that the immediate dismissal of the women involved reflects a broader structure of misogyny. As a friend pointed out in a post today at GUTS, it's not enough to simply stand by and wait for the facts to emerge. We need to make space for voices that are, under the current conditions, too afraid to speak.

Over the past few days, I've been interested in the way I've seen people react on Facebook and Twitter, and I've tried to be relatively cautious in my own interactions. The sheer amount of people who initially jumped to Jian Ghomeshi's defense was striking. His manipulative, PR-fashioned Facebook post was itself an interesting tactic, but I was more impressed with how quickly it circulated. For all of us who rushed to judgment of Ghomeshi's actions there were many more who rushed to judgment of his alleged victims. Now, as some of his victims are beginning to speak out, we're seeing momentum swing the other way. It would be petty to start calling out those who came to Ghomeshi's defense and are now recanting. That said, I hope the conversation shifts, that there is more awareness of how difficult it can be for victims to come forward, and why a broader understanding of consent is so important. Although it's been a slow, secretive issue for some, I'm struck by how fast the news of Ghomeshi's shameful activities has spread, how quickly we could take sides, and how quickly we all wanted to. 

It's an impulse I experience frequently on different forms of social media. I see something and my immediate response is to endorse it, ignore it, or condemn it. We "like," we "share," we "retweet." We trust others who are doing the same. But how often do we think through what we're doing and how it might affect others? Much of our social media activities are there to be seen. We share, but we do it mostly for ourselves. Exposure, visibility, followers -- these are the conditions of social life online. Our reach can be broad, but the form of this spectacle occurs with the speed of lightning. We are part of a public forum but it's first and foremost a system of representation.

Using social media is a performative activity. You're always seen by someone, even if that audience chooses to ignore you. At the same time, the rapid, live nature of recent events suggest that these platforms don't really condition the same kind of thoughtfulness or caution one might adopt if they were speaking to crowd. In many ways, it's an obvious point, but it's been on my mind as this scandal has grown. Are we prepared to have our judgements judged, especially by those who, unlike Ghomeshi, don't have the privilege of 100,000 likes on Facebook or 300,000 Twitter followers to raise the profile of their statements? Are we prepared to have our words judged by victims, those whose voices have been taken away?  How are we benefiting from sharing and tweeting about a case of sexual assault, where a simple statement or retweet can trigger a survivor's trauma? 

Not surprisingly, Ghomeshi's Facebook post went as far as it could go in the opposite direction: not a snap judgment but a postured, "personal" defense, a blanket claim of full consent made on behalf of all parties involved. 

October 26, 2014

The return of Sleater-Kinney

Last week, Sleater-Kinney announced their reunion and comeback album No Cities To Love, but calling it a "comeback" isn't totally fair. 2005's The Woods saw Sleater-Kinney at the height of their powers, and each member has kept incredibly busy with a range of other worthwhile projects (from Wild Flag and solo albums to Portlandia and the Jicks).  By the time they called it quits in 2006, Sleater-Kinney had successfully transitioned from the riot grrrl movement of the mid-90s through  indie rock's internet-fuelled critical mass.

If their new track "Bury Our Friends" is any indication, Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss haven't lost any jam. Like many who came of age during the late 90s, I was instantly hooked when I heard Sleater-Kinney for the first time. The combination of raw energy and insight in their music was something I'd never heard before. It was heavy, direct and full of political outrage. Just what I was looking for.

A welcome return from an absolutely vital band.

October 8, 2014

A Jest of God

Last week, on a whim, I picked up a two dollar copy of Margaret Laurence's 1966 novel, A Jest of God. Halfway through the book, I'm shocked at how much I enjoy Laurence's prose. In two brilliantly uncomfortable scenes, she presents a pair of contrasting church services. The first takes place after Rachel reluctantly accepts the last of several invitations from a fellow elementary school teacher. At this church, or, "the Tabernacle," as her friend Calla calls it, speaking in tongues isn't a rare occurrence. Rachel is on edge the entire time and, on this particular night out, things don't end well. 

Most reviews of the book focus on Rachel's inner struggle, her self-alienation. Rachel is a compellingly complex character with plenty of problems, many of them internal and many more derived from circumstance. But even with all her neuroses, I find Rachel's accounts of these services incredibly resonant. 
Singing. We have to stand, and I must try to make myself narrower so I won't brush against anyone. A piano crashes the tune. Guitars and one trombone are in support. The voices are weak at first, wavering like a radio not quite adjusted, and I'm shaking with effort not to giggle, although God knows it's not amusing me. The voices strengthen, grow muscular, until the room is swollen with the sound of a hymn macabre as the messengers of the apocalypse, the gaunt horsemen, the cloaked skeletons I dreamed of once when I was quite young, and wakened, and she said, "Don't be foolish -- Don't be foolish, Rachel -- there's nothing there." The hymn-sound is too loud -- it washes in my head, sea and waves of it.
Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophet's warning!
Heaven and earth in ashes burning!
I hate this. I would like to go home. Sit down. The others are sitting down. Just don't be noticeable. Oh God -- do I know anyone? Suddenly I'm scanning rows, searching. Seek and ye shall find. Mrs. Pusey, ancient arch-enemy of my mother, tongue like a cat-'o-nine-tails, and Alvin Jarrett, who works at the bakery, and old Miss Murdoch from the bank. How in hell can I get out of this bloody place without being seen?
Of course, Rachel doesn't escape before the end of the service and we're treated to more of her sardonic inner monologue, occasionally interrupted by the words of a zealous preacher. The next chapter finds Rachel attending church again, this time with her mother (the unnamed woman scolding her for her young superstition in the passage above). While the Tabernacle service is full of flare, the Presbyterian church service is as bland as the members of the town establishment who attend it. Rachel, again, sees the service for what it is: an expression of the neutered desires of its congregation.
Here we are. Mother flicks through the Hymnary to look up the hymns in advance. I wonder what she believes, if anything. She's never said. It was not a subject for discussion. She loves coming to church because she sees everyone, and in spring the new hats are like a forest of tulips. But as for faith -- I suppose she takes for granted that she believes. Yet if the Reverend MacElfrish should suddenly lose his mind and speak of God with anguish or joy, or out of some need should pray with fierce humility as though God had to be there, Mother would be shocked to the core. Luckily it will never happen. 
Mr. MacElfrish's voice is as smooth and mellifluous as always, and he's careful not to say anything which might be upsetting. His sermon deals with Gratitude. He says we are fortunate to be living here, in plenty, and we ought not to take our blessings for granted. Who is likely to quibble with that? 
The wood in this church is beautifully finished. Nothing ornate -- heaven forbid. The congregation has good taste. Simple furnishings, but the grain of the wood shows deeply brown-gold, and at the front where the high alter would be if this had been a church which paid court to high alters, a stained-glass window shows a pretty and clean-cut Jesus expiring gently and with absolutely no inconvenience, no gore, no pain, just this nice and slightly effeminate insurance salesman who, somewhat incongruously, happens to be clad in a toga, holding his arms languidly up to something which might in other circumstances have been a cross.

September 20, 2014

Long Conversation: Adulthood

I'm taking part in a cross-country writing group called Long Conversation.  This month we were asked to explore the idea of adulthood. Here's what I wrote.

Last week marked the ten year anniversary of the release of Arcade Fire’s Funeral. That record arrived just as I was beginning my first year at university and thus marks the beginning of life away from home. While certain rights of passage reinforce the fact that I’ve grown up—or at least that I should have by now—the truth is that I don’t feel much different now than I did at 18.

If you walk in to my current bedroom, you’ll notice a lot of posters and postcards filling up the walls. Most of them are relics acquired during my teenage years. I’ve never had a permanent bedroom (i.e., one that lasted more than three months) without most of them spread around the space. And until I arrive at a place in my life where my bedroom isn’t simply a personal space, I don’t expect this to change. This environment is full of residual signs of youth, now signs that I use, however unconsciously, to reflect my young identity back at me. Yet, as a young person, I certainly didn’t see it that way. The significance of this stuff used to be more aspirational. The images stood for a life that I imagined could exist beyond what I then saw as a dull, rural existence: a youth culture that I could only really glimpse (and sometimes even access) on trips to the city. Now that I’ve been emancipated from my hometown for 10 years, my room looks pretty much the same and I don’t really know what that means.

I’m tempted to draw a line from my bedroom decor to the ongoing condition of being a student; a condition that has persisted off and on for the 10 years since I moved away from home. Of course, I was also a student before I moved out. It’s been one of the biggest constants of my post-adolescent life, but it feels more like a continuation of teenage development than an early stage of adulthood.

Still, I can’t help being reminded of my age at every turn. I’m also aware, however, that many of these reminders are nothing more than projections of my own insecurities. I’m now roughly the age my parents were when they married and I occasionally find myself wondering about what kinds of alternatives might have been possible throughout my twenties. This worry about aging, more than fitting into a certain standard of adulthood, has become a more prominent part of my thinking as I’ve gotten older. In some ways, it’s a ridiculous worry. From early on, we’re trained to see age as a definitive social category, and when you’re young the visible difference between age categories seems to confirm their existence. But after finally leaving secondary school, I quickly realized that age actually matters very little when it comes to things like friendship and compatibility. Perhaps that realization corresponds to a level of maturity or approaches something like adulthood, but I’m skeptical of categories that demand such a linear approach. But there’s something contradictory going on as well: I want to think aging means less in terms of social organization but the weight of years seems to be getting heavier and more daunting as I grow older.

As I’ve considered my own anxieties around aging over the past few weeks, I’ve realized that many of them stem from a linear conception of time as progress or development, from the gap I see between where I am now and where I imagined myself in my younger aspirations. I don’t think I was overly ambitious. Rather, the future seemed open and I saw different possibilities as I imagined myself in different contexts. Like most young people I was pretty naive about my own limitations and my awareness of what came before me was characteristically shallow. Then again, there are plenty of people who fit into the “adult” category who haven’t outgrown this. It leads me to wonder whether the category of adulthood still has influence as an idea. I currently understand it as a way of grouping certain (Western) standards of living, but those standards seem increasingly out of sync with the precarious conditions many of us now experience as we gain independence from the structures of support we were lucky enough to have as kids.

Over the past month, I’ve encountered a wave of media that focuses on the transition we all supposedly make from youth to adulthood. I doubt whether this kind of navel-gazing is unique to my generation, but I am growing increasingly aware of how much speculation on aging and adulthood is regularly produced. A couple weeks ago, I saw Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. It was filmed over a 12-year period and follows a young boy’s passage through puberty and into adulthood, managing to compress it all into about two and half hours. I was struck by how the process of aging differs between the children and the adults. Emotional and physical development don’t necessarily work in tandem, and my own experiences seem to confirm that as well. Then there’s Seven Up, a recent discovery on Netflix. It follows a group of kids starting at the age of 7, and interviews each of them every seven years for as long as they’re still living (the most recent release finds them at age 56). I haven’t caught up with all the episodes, but the show’s argument, at least in part, is that there are certain continuities that stretch though a person’s life: characteristics and dispositions, structures and privileges, that are very hard for individuals to shake. Some glide along without much effort while others try to move against the grain and suffer the consequences. In the case of both Boyhood and Seven Up, we’re presented with a linear narrative of development that allows us to easily fill in the gaps between the moments we see caught on film. The form of documentation appears fairly neutral in capturing and ordering these sequences, but, especially in the case of Seven Up, it also invites the audience to measure each person against their past: to search for continuities which can then be identified as successes or failures.

Last week an article written by the New York Times film critic A.O. Scott went into high circulation on the internet. Its lofty, elegiac title, “The Death of the Adult in American Culture,” gives the reader a pretty good sense of what to expect: a survey of contemporary male archetypes in television and film (many of them baby boomer holdovers) alongside a growing number of examples that purportedly take a quite different approach to modern life and the expectations of the American adult. What all these new shows grasp, writes Scott, “is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable. It isn’t only that patriarchy in the strict, old-school Don Draper sense has fallen apart. It’s that it may never really have existed in the first place, at least in the way its avatars imagined.” Scott’s assessment misses its mark for a number of reasons, many of which have to do with his own fairly narrow, obviously privileged perspective; his view of culture takes little account of the social and economic conditions that allow it to exist in the first place.

Articles like A.O. Scott’s paranoid think-piece are part of a growing genre that speculates on millennials, hipsters, boomers, etc. These days, you can’t go far without seeing a headline, debate, or product that has to do with the idea (and in some cases, the “crisis”) of arrested development. It remains unclear whether the paradigm of adulthood has truly shifted or whether the concept was ever truly adequate to our cultural condition in the first place. Development, progress, growth. I find it hard not to see this ideology of aging as a reflection of late capitalism. It’s a relatively seamless fit. Yet those same social and economic forces are also responsible for hollowing out the sort of adulthood that used to inspire a more conventional, middle class way of life.

In my mind, “adulthood” remains remarkably abstract: unattainable but also undesirable, an ideal that used to make sense but now seems like it will be forever deferred. Based on my conversations with friends, I think this has become a common way to understand the category. Less common, however, is the relative security that allows me to welcome that deferral, even with all the uncertainties it brings.

September 4, 2014

The Work of Nostalgia in the Age of Instagram

Following the insights of the German critic Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag once observed that photographs acquire the aura of a work of art by their own visible deterioration. With the advent of mechanical reproduction, artistic images had broken free of the aesthetic regime which once made their value synonymous with their singularity as works of art. No longer context bound, any image can be cropped and made adjacent to any other image. For Sontag, writing in the 1970s, photographs and reproduced images had become so common that they had developed their own type of aura: that of the vintage photograph.

That same aura, the aestheticization of decay and deterioration, is perhaps even more recognizable in its current manifestation on Instagram. With its clear focus on the now, digital photo-sharing has had to evolve in order to accommodate the nostalgic desires of its users. Echoing Sontag’s observation about the acquired aura of the faded photograph, we select from a range of vintage-style filters before posting pictures for the eyes of our Instagram followers. Nathan Jurgensen, writing for The New Inquiry, argues that the filters are a way of coping with the overabundance of images that typifies social medial. It’s a way of convincing ourselves that our photographs are just as worthy of nostalgia as if they belonged to a finite archive from the past. As artificial memory storage becomes more efficient, we are producing more than most of us would deem worth remembering. But this overabundance has not curbed our appetite for images.

Instagram’s filters are meant to instil a sense of nostalgia for the present, a condition of scarcity that digital photography has long surpassed. But, as Jorgensen writes, “Merely making your photos evocative of photo scarcity doesn’t make them actually scarce or make others covet them.” Snapchat, by contrast, he argues, is built upon the idea of real scarcity, where images and videos, once the viewing has started, exist up to ten seconds before disappearing forever. No external memory, no archive. A singular aesthetic experience.

A year before Sontag’s first essay on photography was published in The New York Review of Books, John Berger’s influential documentary about the history of European Art, Ways of Seeing, aired on the BBC. Like Sontag, Berger was deeply indebted to Walter Benjamin’s writing on art and sought to provide his audience with the means to connect the art of the European tradition with contemporary media, advertising, and power structures. Equally impressed with the way images seemed to saturate modern life, Berger argued, “In no other form of society in history has there been such a concentration of images, such a density of visual messages.”

Not surprisingly, Berger’s work has also inspired some timely reflections on the aesthetic discourse of Instagram. In his article “Ways of Seeing Instagram” the art critic Ben Davis begins with a Google trend chart showing that “Instagram” has eclipsed “art” in terms of popular searches. Photosharing on Instagram (or, for that matter, Tumblr, Pintrest, even Flickr) has become a dominant way of seeing, and like all ways of seeing reflects certain social interests. The tradition of oil painting, observed Berger, could credit its subjects (nudes, fruit, and other commodities) to the presentation of a privileged, often opulent lifestyle. The continuities between advertising photos and still lifes, between classical nudes and pin-ups, are laid bare. Despite differences of social and historical context, Davis, like Berger, draws out the similarities between the art Berger works to demystify and the various genres of Instagram photos. Although current technologies have seemingly democratized the image-making that used to exist only at the behest of aristocrats, Davis argues, “images retain their function as game pieces in the competition for social status.”

But social status comes in many forms. It isn’t all just fine dining and selfies. Having a past worth sharing, and a past that’s accessible through other processes of archiving, is what many of us are now flaunting on Instagram. And we do so on a weekly basis. Nostalgia has finally been reconciled with Instagram’s presentism in the form of the hashtag, throwback Thursday (#tbt). The hashtag has existed for over a year, but it’s only recently become a constant in the feeds of our friends and followers. The #tbt image can come in any format, though the proper distance between the image and its posting date remains a mildly contentious topic. For me, and likely for most of my generation, the most enjoyable images tend to be those of old photographs rephotographed. The past returns again, and I don’t have to wait for someone’s wedding slideshow to see their pubescent class photos or an unself-conscious work of art from elementary school. For those who started snapping photos during the internet age, Throwback Thursday is another chance to mine the recent past for a flattering photo; for the rest of us, it’s an opportunity to reassert the aura of an old photo that hasn’t yet been digitized.

I can’t say I dislike seeing the young faces of my friends crop up on my Instagram feed. Bad haircuts, awkward family photos, and the like. And despite the well-publicized “rules” for how one should participate in #tbt, I was also sort of impressed when I saw Barack Obama tweeted, “Throwback to last week when a woman—not her boss—made her own decisions about her health care. #TBT”. The past has its uses. Even a form whose sole purpose is nostalgia can be a way of politicizing the past. More than anything, though, Throwback Thursday reflects a collective sense of nostalgia that runs deep enough to be ritualized, a way of remembering that isn’t likely to be forgotten, whatever the future brings.

August 26, 2014

Lost in the Dream

A couple weeks off work gave me the chance to visit my family in Manitoba and see some old, estranged friends. Returning home often leaves me with mixed emotions. There's something mysterious about reassuming the roles and rituals that once seemed to provide structure; at the same time, such familiarity can make the distance between past and presence that much sharper. Sometimes music helps to dull what that awkward pain, that feeling of being disjointed. As is often the case with art, one kind of ambiguity is displaced by another.

On more than one occasion I was asked what I've been listening to lately. In each case, it felt right to mention the new album from The War On Drugs, Lost in the Dream, an album that seemed to evoke the weird feelings I was having in my old surroundings. It's an album that sounds hauntingly familiar, especially for kids who grew up in the late 80s and unwittingly absorbed the better part of their parents' record collections. The nostalgia is impossible to avoid and there's no need to apologize for it. It's inevitable.

The songs on Lost in the Dream stretch out like highways. And for an album this confident in its nostalgia, an album so far removed from the sounds of its contemporaries, you might expect these highways to lead home, to some sentimental destination. But the drive takes over and you realize that, despite all the classic rock tropes, the well-worn themes, and all that sweet emotion, you've arrived somewhere you didn't expect to be.

August 5, 2014

Sontag, again

Since reading Susan Sontag's On Photography several months ago, I've had some opportunity to engage with more fully with a few of its ideas. One of the fruits of this engagement is a comic I drew for Whether, an online magazine that was launched earlier this summer by some friends of mine. I've also managed to read through Sontag's unofficial sequel to On Photography, which ended up being the last book she published during her lifetime.

In 2003, a year before she passed away, Sontag published Regarding the Pain of Others, a short book based on her 2001 Oxford Amnesty Lecture. The book's focus is on war photography, and Sontag moves through a familiar survey of images, taking up one of the major questions of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas: can images of suffering prevent war? Is war photography enough to inspire peace and activism, or does it insulate us from the real suffering of others by turning pain into a spectacle?

One of the things that makes this short survey worthwhile is that it allows Sontag to revisit some of the grand statements she made in her book on photography from the 1970s. Rather than building on her previous claims about the relationship between the ubiquity of the photograph and postmodern malaise, she ends up rejecting many of what used to be her central assumptions:

“As much as they create sympathy, I wrote, photographs shrivel sympathy. Is this true? I thought it was when I wrote it. I’m not so sure now. What is the evidence that photographs have a diminishing impact, that our culture of spectatorship neutralizes the moral force of photographs of atrocities?”  
“But what is really being asked here?  That images of carnage be cut back to, say, once a week? More generally, that we work toward what I called for in On Photography: an “ecology of images”? There isn’t going to be an ecology of images. No Committee of Guardians is going to ration horror, to keep fresh its ability to shock. And the horrors themselves are not going to abate.” 
“The view proposed in On Photography —that our capacity to respond to our experiences with emotional freshness and ethical pertinence is being sapped by the relentless diffusion of vulgar and appalling images—might be called the conservative critique of such images. I call this argument conservative because it is the sense of reality that is eroded.” 
“To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment… it assumes that everyone is a spectator.”

August 1, 2014

Bill Callahan - "Javelin Unlanding"

Another gem from Bill Callahan's wonderful Dream River, released last year via Drag City.

July 21, 2014

Long Conversation: Joy

I'm taking part in a cross-country writing group called Long Conversation. This month we were asked to describe a recent experience of exultant joy. Here's what I wrote.

A recent experience of exultant joy? The event that first comes to mind happened on a bike, which isn’t very surprising. I’ve found that riding my bike at every possible opportunity is the closest I can come to something like a joyful disposition. Even my daily commute feels worthwhile. This particular case of joy, however, was made exultant because of the way I was riding: communally, stripped down to my underwear, late at night.

That night I was with a group of friends who were celebrating the departure of a companion who had just finished med-school and was leaving to begin his residency in Winnipeg. Easily the wildest person I know, he’s gained a reputation for stirring up shit at bars and getting my friends into fights or injured on the bike ride home. He’s a bit of liability, in other words. Then again, he’s usually able to tell whether or not someone needs stitches. The kind of guy you feel weirdly safe around, despite his track record.

After drinking around a fire for several hours, we decided it was time for cycling (a pretty typical way to conclude a night of drinking among this group of friends). We have a standard route that takes us through Edmonton’s river valley, across the river, and onto an open dock, where we close out the night. On this occasion, it was settled that we needed to do something to make the evening a bit more memorable. Our course of action was to disrobe and ride our bikes in our undies. I’m not sure what prevented us from getting naked, but I probably wasn’t the only one who was relieved to have some (mild) protection from my bike seat.

I should probably mention at this point that it was only the men who stripped down. It’s a pretty homo-erotic, testosterone-driven group, and as you’d expect our collective exhibition that was part of the thrill. At times this group has made me feel like I’m on a varsity sports team, which is, in my experience, an ambivalent feeling, at once familiar and disconcerting. But I digress.

We began our slow descent into the river valley and were getting plenty of looks and a few honks. Together with the booze, the social adrenaline was enough to keep energy levels high. We turned down a large decline called “Connor’s Hill.” It takes about 30 seconds to reach the bottom and there’s a crucial turn-off just before the slope flattens out. It’s a terrifying hill to ride down at the best of times and I’m usually pretty cautious.

There’s no climax in this narrative. We rode down the hill as we’ve done countless times before. It was a clear night. Stars visible. City lights shining across the river. I usually dread going down that hill because I’m sure that, at some point, someone’s going to take a spill. I don’t even have rear brakes, so I’m basically dead if I have to make sudden stop. The rest of the boys ride fixies, and I don’t envy them. We made it safely down the hill, went to our next drinking spot and stood around half-naked for a while, basking in the reflective glow of pale skin in the moonlight. And then we got dressed and our bike ride continued.

My joy in the 30 seconds it took to reach the base of Connor’s Hill came from a combination of the view, the warm, summer night air, and the vulnerability we all felt, speeding down a long hill, slightly under the influence. But most of all it was the way the air hit my skin, the way my whole body felt alive and lifted up. Exultant.

July 7, 2014

Chad VanGaalen - "Weighed Sin"

One of my all-time favourite humans, Chad VanGaalen, released Shrink Dust, his fifth full length, at the end of April and I'm ashamed to admit that I've only just begun to really appreciate it. I may have been distracted by all his other endeavours: his work with Viet Cong, his new Instagram account, and Zooosh, his comic series for Chart Attack. Every couple of years, VanGaalen pulls back the curtain and let's us take a look at all the weird stuff he's getting up to. Most of the time, I just sit back in awe.

Shrink Dust is less punchy than some of VanGaalen's previous releases but it moves slow and steady through the same kind of sophisticated songwriting that touches the best tracks of his catalogue. Along with its alt-country vibes, the songs on Shrink Dust have a natural flow about them: a clear contrast to the disjointedness that, for better or worse, has defined VanGaalen's previous full lengths.

Perhaps because of their intended use in an unfinished film project, the songs on Shrink Dust consistently tickle the imagination with bizarre imagery and shifting first-person perspectives. If it weren't for the disturbing confessions of its grotesque, pitiable character, "Monster" might as well be a campfire sing-along for kids. The stoner jam "All Will Combine" shifts between eerie verses and the spacey, organ-fuelled sounds of its celebratory chorus. Other beauties like "Lila," "Hangman's Son" and "Weighed Sin" (see the video above) follow in the tradition of songs like "Molten Light" (from Soft Airplane) and "Sarah" (from Diaper Island), blending VanGaalen's creepy brand of melancholy into the kind of earnest folk ballads that tug on your heartstrings and don't let go.

June 29, 2014

Long Conversation: Vanity

I'm taking part in a cross-country writing group called Long Conversation. Each month we get a question and have to come up with an answer. This month the question was: How do you think about your physical appearance? Here's what I wrote.

Even at a young age, I spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the bathroom mirror, inspecting my image and experimenting with it. I’d play at different hair styles and contort my face into something more preferable or more terrifying. Eventually, I learned that, besides simple curiosity, one of the names for this fascination with my own appearance was “vanity.” Although the word first assumed its real (shame-inducing) significance for me by way “Vanity Fair,” one of many dangerous distractions for Christian in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, I was still somewhat surprised when, years later, I later discovered that the English word vanity comes from the Latin vanus, which means empty or without substance. I had equated it with excess, drawing out the obvious connection between Bunyan’s morality tale and the name of what I thought was a risqué magazine whose sole purpose was to celebrate indulgence. Strange as it is, I think this misunderstanding gets at something central to the way I think about my apparent identity.

There’s a sense in which every attempt I make to think about my personal appearance is filtered through the experience of conscious self-reflection. It goes without saying that to be preoccupied, as I am, with my own self-image is a form of indulgence: a luxury, a privilege, an experience that I could probably do without. At the same time, however, the very thought of my appearance requires me to acknowledge a subjective lack. At a very basic level, the way I think I look is a reflection of what others see. Or, to put it another way, to imagine my appearance, I have to think in the abstract or, at the very least, deal with my image as an object, pulling together those barely-remembered photographs and mirror moments and arranging them into an intelligible collage or sequence: a cipher for a social subject who finds it more expedient, perhaps even more natural, to see himself as an individual. I know myself as a living reflection, a reflection of something I can only approach though technology and representation. All the way back to Plato’s cave, we’ve been dismissing images as distractions and dead-ends. This what Bunyan, an iconoclastic Protestant, was getting at when he gave the name Vanity to that prideful city in Pilgrim’s Progress. Vanity, like pride, positions the self as an idol, an object of worship. In the narrative of Christian salvation it is antithetical to the progress of the soul towards God. In other words, vanity turns one backwards. Bunyan’s allegory can ring hollow as an instance of antiquated piety, and by most interpretations it usually is. But apart from the mirror, how is it possible to access one’s appearance without indulging in some kind of retrospection, especially considering the flux and symbiosis of our bodies? When I try to imagine my appearance I defer to traces of photographs, the profile that I’ve managed to construct on Facebook. I get nostalgic.

A photograph can seem so false, so artificial; but it’s often closer to what others see. That toothy smile that seems to align in front of my bathroom mirror appears crooked and ghoulish if the camera captures me at the wrong angle. Of course, it works both ways. When I was much younger, I caught sight of my dad’s reflection through an open bathroom door and thought there was a stranger in our house. Encountering someone else’s reflection in the mirror can feel deeply estranging, but in reality we’re seeing that person as they most often see themselves.

My ongoing attempts to appraise my body and the way it appears are, often simultaneously, attempts to adhere to something else, whether it’s a socialized ideal or a nostalgic impression of a younger, better self. Being limited by my own subjectivity means that I have to isolate my body as an image in order to think about my appearance and the very fact that I can do this (and will do it all too easily) is an effect of my lived experience as a white male, seemingly healthy and well-proportioned, though increasingly vulnerable to accidents of clumsiness. What makes this empty, idealized image—this instance of vanity—so necessary? Why does it govern what I do to my body? And why does my body, in particular, appear so complacently in this privileged form of abstraction? By most North American standards of representation, there are things about my appearance that I simply don’t have to question. This means that I’m free to inspect my chin for blackheads and spend five minutes trying to pluck a stray nose hair; that I can buy four different types of anti-dandruff shampoo before any one of them runs out; and that I can preen and polish the dry patches of skin around my eyes and nose. My daily struggle in front of the mirror is microscopically insignificant, but this fact does not stop me from hunting down that last, visible flake of skin from my hairline, which, incidentally, is only visible under the blazing lights above our bathroom sink. Or perhaps I should call it our vanity.

June 23, 2014

Susan Sontag on Photography

One of the few critical texts that was recommended during my first year of design studies, Susan Sontag's On Photography, features essays that were originally published in The New York Review of Books in the 1970s. Most discussions of technology from the period feel dated and irrelevant, but Sontag follows a critical tradition that blends cultural analysis, history and philosophy in a way that still feels fresh and readable, if not compelling. From the beginning of her first essay, “In Plato’s Cave,” Sontag makes numerous attempts to define the cultural moment of her writing through the growing phenomenon of photography as a practice, on the one hand, and the increasing ubiquity of the photographic image. She sees herself surrounded by “aesthetic consumers” and “image-junkies,” for whom experience itself has become a way of seeing. “Today,” she writes in the essay’s final paragraph, “everything exists to end in a photograph.” Sontag will make a similar kind of statement at the end of her penultimate essay, “Photographic Evangels.” This time, instead of revising the French nineteenth-century poet Mallarmé, she alters a famous statement by the late Victorian critic Walter Pater: “A modernist would have to rewrite Pater’s dictum that all art aspires to the condition of music. Now all art aspires to the condition of photography.”

The essays that make up On Photography are at times polemical and immoderately aphoristic. (The final 25 page section is a collection of quotations featuring the likes of Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Lewis Heine, Victor Schlovsky, and Charles Baudelaire.) Definitions for photography abound. Photography appropriates, documents, democratizes, idealizes, distills, amuses, distracts, memorializes, certifies and justifies. As William H. Gass writes in his 1977 review of Sontag’s collection for The New York Review of Books, “No simple summary of the views contained in Susan Sontag's brief but brilliant work on photography is possible, first because there are too many, and second because the book is a thoughtful meditation, not a treatise, and its ideas are grouped more nearly like a gang of keys upon a ring than a run of onions on a sting.” The collection is at times unhelpfully general and scattered, but certain themes do become apparent, if only because of Sontag’s very deliberate attempt to ground her reflections in her present surroundings. What really interests Sontag throughout these six essays is the relationship between photography and reality: the way that photography gives shape to experience and informs our judgements about what counts as “real.”

But this concern for the “real” happens to be one of least interesting things about On Photography. Photography, as an artistic discipline, was at first naively situated within the genre of realism, comprising of what Fox Talbot first described as “natural images,” once believed to provide the viewer with pure access to its subject. Similarly, the great modernist László Moholy-Nagy saw the genius of photography in its ability to render “an objective portrait: the individual to be photographed so that the photographic result shall not be encumbered with subjective intention.” Early defenders of photography as an art form tended champion photography either as an assault on reality or a submission to it. A result of this tension, observes Sontag, is a deep ambivalence towards photography’s means, often manifested in one’s reluctance to use the newest high-powered equipment. But this tension wasn’t really an issue for the new class of photographers that emerged along with cheaper, easier technology.

For Sontag, writing in the 1970s, photography had recently become “a social rite, a defence against anxiety, and a tool of power” for middle class Americans (8). Finally an affordable past-time, photography became a way of constructing personal and family narratives, documenting notable events (that is, turning situations into events) and doing something with one’s leisure time. For Sontag, the modern photographer cannot be considered without recourse to the figure of the tourist. The camera not only helps to “make real what one is experiencing,” but allows its user to occupy as space outside of what he or she is documenting. “Photographing,” she writes, “is essentially an act of non-intervention.” But it is also “an elegiac art, a twilight art.” To capture a moment in time is to step outside of it: to bear witness to an alternate reality, or, at least, a morbid one.

As a mode of knowing and experiencing the world, photography leaves Sontag feeling jaded and cynical. Although they can help raise our collective consciousness to various injustices throughout the world, photographs are perhaps even more potent in the way that they desensitize us and contribute toward false-consciousness. She writes:
The limit of photographic knowledge of the world is that, while it can goad conscience, it can, finally, never be ethical or political knowledge. The knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist. . . . By furnishing this already crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is. 
More compelling, and less speculative, is Sontag’s interest in the relationship between photography and art. This relationship hinges on the way that the majority of art is circulated and experienced; that is, through photographs. As Sontag puts it, “photographs have become so much the leading visual experience that we now have works of art which are produced in order to be photographed.” It’s not difficult to see how this thread continues to inform the world of digital aesthetics thirty years later. There was a time when the screen was simply a vehicle for the consumption of images. Now, much of the art that is made for the screen is produced on a screen. Categories like viewers, users and producers seem inadequate for capturing the range of activities enabled by the digital platform.

The controversies of photography’s history are all forms of the debate about its relation to art: “how close it can get while still retaining its claim to unlimited visual acquisition.” For Sontag, the 1970s were a time when the public appetite for photography had less to do with experiencing a neglected art form than with making a break with the abstract art that had become synonymous with modernism. Classical modernist painting, writes Sontag, “presupposes highly developed skills of looking, and a familiarity with other art and with certain notions about the history of art.” Photography, instead, seems to simply make form disappear, delivering its content to viewers without asking much of them. In this way, photography aligns itself with modernism’s populist impulse, its eschewal of high culture and traditionalism. Yet, as Sontag notes, this is precisely the dilemma for modernists: for all their promotion of naive art, they continue to espouse a hidden attachment to their own sophistication.

May 23, 2014

"Kerosene" - St. Vincent

Back in 2011, before she covered Nirvana's "Lithium" for the band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, St. Vincent performed this vicious cover of "Kerosene" from Big Black's 1986 album Atomizer. This video was posted on The New Inquiry today.

May 11, 2014

"I can't live without my mother's love" - Sun Kil Moon

Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon) performs "I Can't Live Without My Mother's Love" at Central Presbyterian Church in Austin during SXSW 2014.

May 6, 2014

"Habit" - Ought

Sometimes a song arrives that hits hard and true. Ought's "Habit," from their new album More Than Any Other Day (via Constellation), is one of those songs. To me, it sounds like growing up, or the moment, amidst all the fun, when you realize that growing up means accumulating your own patterns and routines. Perhaps nothing more than a habit forming, as Ought's singer/guitarist Tim Beeler puts it.

It's familiar, musically, conceptually: that's the important part. It sounds like the restless need to believe in something, to create something. Despite that rush of feeling, there's nothing novel about what you're doing and experiencing. Caught in a cycle, feeling, failing. A habit. Repetition, ecstasy. Ecstasy in repetition.

May 3, 2014

On Art as Therapy

During my recent visit to Toronto, I was able to spend an afternoon at the Art Gallery of Ontario. After absorbing parallel bodies of work by Francis Bacon and Henry Moore in a new high profile exhibit, I noticed a large display awkwardly thrown into the corner of the gallery’s entrance. Beside the title “Art as Therapy” sat a screen with Alain de Botton’s head prominently displayed, ready and waiting to explain how select works of art can help us better understand one of five select categories he's deemed relevant to the human experience. Of course, the flags go up immediately, not simply because the simple equivocation of art as therapy brings to mind the worst kinds of bourgeois myths — and indeed it’s hard to think of a better face for this than de Botton’s — but because the whole scheme is such an unabashedly self-aggrandizing gesture by de Botton himself. Here, alongside a group of select paintings from the canon of Western art (placed in groups throughout the gallery according to the categories of “sex,” “money,” “politics,” “love,” “nature”), was de Botton’s talking head. Not that it was necessarily out of place. The seamless relationship between ideology and arrogance is nothing new to the art gallery.

In this mini-exhibit, each work of art is accompanied by a reflection and a “problem” for the viewer to digest. Passing through the gift shop, I realized that the project was tied in with a new book (after which the exhibit is titled) and the author had been scheduled for a book signing at the gallery within the next couple of hours. Sure enough, de Botton had also been featured on Q earlier that morning in a debate over his controversial project. I listened to the radio clip today and none of what he said was terribly surprising. De Botton’s approach to art as an opportunity for therapy is not at all out of step with his recent book Religion for Atheists or his so-called School of Life project. In nearly all cases, the cultural products that make up the Western canon are uncritically received and repurposed for the lifestyle politics of the modern consumer. Stripped of their historical and cultural contexts, religion, philosophy and art have a similar function: to make us better people, to help us believe in the supposedly ennobling values of European culture. For de Botton our present enjoyment and use of the arts has been held hostage by art historians. What I find interesting about this strategy for engaging visitors is how it’s all based on an emotional or affective register. There is no illusion here, no attempt to sell this as anything other than straightforward ideology. Visitors are invited to “feel better” about one of the five categories and the selected piece of art will, upon its reflection, help with that process.

I’ve always been uneasy with this brand of easy-going pop philosophy, partly because of how it always seeks to write off intellectual or academic approaches as inaccessible and elitist. In his Q debate, De Botton started by giving a fairly trite summary of art criticism as a field that disregards all questions of functionality or purpose, a field that instead insists upon art’s ambiguity and silence as is best for private enjoyment. Art, he says, should by contrast provide us with an opportunity to experience the whole range of human emotion, but in order for it to do that it needs to be framed in a psychological method that allows us to align our “deeper selves” with works of art.

My main problem with this union between de Botton and the AGO has mostly to do with his patronizing, dull readings of artworks and the interpretive keys that he provides as opportunities for self-reflection and improvement. His approach has been called “reductive” and it is. But it's also worse than that. It assumes that gallery visitors can only find common ground in their individual sense of fulfillment and contentment. Sex, politics, love, money, nature: each category is simply a self-evident way to experience and digest our individual feelings about the world. Against his caricature of art criticism (which eschews all sense of function or purpose) de Botton sets up a program he believes to be controversial and provocative, that is in fact anything but. Rather, it’s the most sentimental form of appreciation possible and does little more than deflate its objects while reproducing the most vacuous of readings. Along with treating art as a good in itself, each category appears fully formed and uncontested. A telling moment in the Q debate occurs when the issue of accessibility arises from de Botton’s opponent (Canadian artist/critic RM Vaughan), who rightly suggests that most art is still synonymous with wealth, class and privilege. De Botton immediately agrees and says, “that’s why I’m a great believer in postcards, online images, and anything that you can do to bring art, freely, cheaply and easily into peoples’ lives.” He then decries our cultural obsession with the original as the problem standing in the way of this. But this is where it stops for de Botton because, as should be clear by now, he only cares about values in the abstract and consistently overlooks any resonance that such cultural obsessions might have something to do with class, history, gender and so on.

It’s perhaps unfair to levy such criticisms at de Botton, who has after all been doing essentially the same thing since publishing his book on Proust back in 1997. His message remains the same, even if his books have gotten bigger and his subjects have switched from high-minded French literature to high-minded European art. What his art criticism project does best is point out how much our cultural categories of aesthetic appreciation increasingly favour of an ahistorical, affective response that finds its footing in the self-help industry. But, then, why should any of us be surprised by this?

April 24, 2014

Whither Church Going?

I've had a long semester and blog entries have been sporadic at best. Apart from a few album reviews, I've had little time to give to writing and I'm hoping to change that. Schoolwork is responsible for sucking up most of my days and nights. Whatever time was leftover I gave to job/internship applications, and I'm happy to report that I have a graphic design job for the summer that will likely switch part-time when the Fall semester begins.

But despite my inactivity on the blog, there's been plenty going over the past month.

  • The second issue of Guts Canadian Feminist Magazine has been published.
  • The Truth and Reconciliation Commission ended here in Edmonton.
  • I stupidly jumped down a flight of stairs in a Toronto subway and fractured my ankle. Yeah, really proud of that one.
  • I won an award for some posters I designed.
  • My gf entered the debate over unpaid internships at the Walrus.
  • I've been doing a lot of freelance work, some of which is featured on my tumblr page.

I'm off to Toronto tomorrow morning for a brief visit before I start my job. I'm also looking forward to a summer full of personal projects. Some of these probably won't happen but listing them here might help.

  • a month of studio time at SNAP (which hopefully results in a chapbook)
  • working through John Ruskin's Elements of Drawing and Walter Crane's history of illustration
  • conference design for the Marxist Literary Group's annual Institute on Culture and Society
  • a couple zines, comics strips, etc.
  • a series of musician portraits to build up my illustration portfolio and as well as some concert posters for local venues
  • several book reviews on art and aesthetics (I've been meaning to write on Jacques Ranciere's The Future of the Image and Jean-Luc Nancy's The Ground of the Image)
  • condensing the final chapters of my thesis into an article
  • more focused writing on music