August 2007

Useful things I have done this morning:

  • ordered a sexy brand new Olivetti MS25 manual typewriter (very exciting)
  • went through pile of boring mail
  • bought a can of Chock Full O’ Nuts heavenly coffee
  • brewed coffee (yum)
  • reviewed, once again, local catteries that have available Sphynx kittens
  • emptied the dehumidifier in the basement
  • bought first ever, rather anemic Sunday edition of Philadelphia Inquirer (yet unread)
  • put up Flickr photos of my new house

It’s this last item that prompts the present blog entry. I really don’t think this is all that interesting, but blog posts have been few and far between, and my house is my life for the moment. I tried to make the comments entertaining.


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One of the handful of young artists who really inspired me back when I was still haunting the streets of New York was Jeremy Blake, who died this July.

I think I first heard about him through Lytle Shaw, who is much more on the scene than I am (or was). I know that the first piece I saw of Blake’s was at a group show — a single panel video on a huge, wide flatscreen that moved very slowly and could have been mistaken for some terribly gaudy if baroque piece of teak furniture collecting dust in the corner, though opening and closing its doors as if by a poltergeist. It was the most beautiful thing there — a fetish object that was really just a television set — and I was intrigued.

The second was at the Whitney Biennial around the same time. This one involved three flatscreens, two on one wall, one on the other, and resembled a very slow moving anime film, but without any characters (we call them “figures”). There seemed to be some story being told between the three uncoordinated panels having to do with trains, mysterious doors (like the numbered doors on the Price is Right) and toxic gasses that killed off entire (unseen) populations. The colors were bright, sharp, almost fluorescent, the mood haunting and apocalyptic. I spent a lot of time gazing at this one, wondering how the three panels interacted, trying to suss out the narrative if any, confused about whether the images were digitally created or drawn with pastels, and really wondering if I was seeing a brand new form of art being born.

[Addendum: I remembered last night, just before falling asleep — fittingly — that I had seen a Blake piece even earlier at P.S. 1 in a basement room with my friend Melanie Rios. It was a single screen projection, and involved a section that seemed to be snowflakes falling, followed by sections of colored boxes fading into place. We sat and stared at it for a long time, really not knowing what we were witnessing or why it was so engaging. I remember thinking it was trivial at first, a little too passive, but it managed to be kind of aggressively controlling as well. Anyway, you’ll notice I have no memories for the names of these projects, I’m bad with that — I just hope my descriptions are accurate.]

Blake “started as a painter” — such a cliche these days to “sex up” the resume of a digital artist, but in his case very relevant given his prodigious visual vocabulary — but his work eventually ended up in a space all his own between photography, illustration and film (surely some of the slowest moving cinema since Warhol, possibly the slowest moving animation ever, and moving in the opposite direction from many videographers after they get their hands on Final Cut).

Blake might be best known to the world as the person who did the transition scenes for the movie Punch Drunk Love with Adam Sandler and Emily Watson. Another flirtation with pop success was being asked to do a video for Beck:

What is really strange (and I won’t dwell on it, there are obituaries all over the web) is how he died. After his partner, the new media artist Theresa Duncan, died on July 10 — some suspect a suicide, though she overdosed on Tylenol PM and bourbon, which seems an odd choice for me — Blake simply walked into the ocean and drowned. This is from Wikipedia:

On July 17, 2007, Blake was reported missing off New York’s Rockaway Beach. According to news accounts, a woman called 911 to report that she saw a man swimming out to sea. Blake’s clothes and wallet were reportedly found under the boardwalk at Rockaway’s 122nd Street Beach, along with a suicide note that referred to Duncan.

On the morning of Sunday, July 22, 2007, a body thought to be that of Jeremy Blake was discovered 4.5 miles off the coast of Sea Girt, New Jersey (which is 35 miles south of Rockaway Beach). Police announced on July 31, 2007 that they had identified his body.

In addition, both Duncan and Blake had thought they were being pursued and harassed and by Scientologists — Beck is a Scientologist, and both thought Blake had somehow troubled the waters enough to get them on the Scientologist black list, like an informal Jihad of some nature. Of course, the Scientologists deny any such thing, but Blake had prepared a 27-page “chronicle” in preparation for a lawsuit that he was planning to file, so he clearly took it quite seriously — it was no passing paranoia, and they both shared this fear. Blake had just gotten a hot job at Rockstar Games — maker of the Grand Theft Auto video game series — so he was hardly down on his luck. The couple had just moved back to New York from Los Angeles.

In any case, I was really hurt by the news of his death. I really felt that he was part of “my generation” and someone whose work I could look forward to for many years in the future as a sort of guide, someone to goad me on by producing work I could only struggle to understand. Another artist I really admire, even cling to in a way, is Paul Chan, and both Blake and Chan are similar in that they conceived — and coolly, charismatically completed — ambitious digital art projects that really go against the grain of what it means to do “digital” work.

That is. both artists choose craft over pressing all the buttons and rushing a work out to the periphery of the technologically possible, and prefer conceptual simplicity and meditative registers over intellectual showboating and machismo, and yet neither are less than provocative and have some complex “message” to convey. Some of Chan’s most impressive Flash work uses only black and white pseudo-silhouette images — the only video art I’ve seen in Philadelphia was a Chan piece that depicts figures of all natures falling either downward or upward like a nightmare from 9/11, projected diagonally across a floor — or images based on the drawings of Henry Darger and the writing of Fourier.

The Beck video is not really representative of Blake’s work, at least not the stuff I’ve seen, and I think the inclusion of Beck’s face in the video was probably a record company decision (like the overlays of Morrissey’s face on the original “Ask” video, directed by Derek Jarman). It does share with his other work the basic premise of long, slow fades between colorful images with certain colors lingering longer than others so that, between images, a sort of “interstitial” composite is created. It takes the idea of the afterimage on the retina — stare at something red long enough and you’ll see blue — and makes it tactile, forcing a different state of perception on the viewer, slowed by the pace yet never at rest.

By the way, do any of you thirty-somethings remember the first version of the video for U2’s “One,” created by David Wojnarowicz? It was rejected by the record company as too uncommercial after appearing on MTV for about a week — there was a world premiere and everything. It was finally pulled and replaced by two other versions, one a bleeding-heart-Bono quickie like every other U2 video, and another directed by the celebrity photographer Anton Corbijn of the band in drag (probably a result of bad conscience, as Wojnarowicz died of AIDS soon after the first video premiered). Since I’m high on the YouTube stuff recently, here’s the original “Buffalo” version of “One,” AIDS allegory and all:

I found that Derek Jarman Smiths video on YouTube as well… oh the glory. The video was made spontaneously by Jarman, who is best known for the punk rock movie Jubilee and who eventually also died of AIDS. When the record company decided to use his film for promotion, they demanded Morrissey’s face appear at regular intervals to keep the kiddies engaged:

In any case, check out Jeremy Blake’s installations if they come to town since I doubt they work as at-home video watching. I’m sure there will be retrospectives and other sorts of appraisals and encomiums to come, though I’m surprised that it took me so long to find out about his death — I had just happened to check out the Philly artblog a few days ago and read about it. And don’t take anything, or anyone, for granted, given the fickle, recalcitrant nature of death. Bergman and Antonioni in the same week? But they both lived a long time.    Send article as PDF   

Quebec has a rather strange history when it comes to poets who are more or less linked with Modernism, at least among the menfolk.

Claude Gauvreau, for instance, associated with the group of Automatiste artists such as Paul-Emile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle, wrote several theatrical works usually considered as extreme as Artaud’s, and yet he jumped (or fell) off a building in 1971, and had been hospitalized ten times for psychological disorders prior to that. Two books of his have been translated by Ray Ellenwood — Entrails and The Charge of the Expormidable Moose — and Steve McCaffery has a nice essay on his poetry in North of Intention. Wikipedia has an English-language biography.

Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau is usually considered the first truly modern Quebec poet, and despite being rather good-looking, he died of a heart attack while canoeing in 1943 at the age of 31. He also has a Wikipedia biography. I’ve enjoyed reading his poems in translation, and he seems to be popular enough with the young Quebec crowd to have inspired a short video based on one of his poems which appears on YouTube. Most videos based on poems seem to be pretty bad, but this one fares reasonably well despite some hammy acting.

Next to lastly is Sylvain Garneau, no relation to the above poet, who wrote mostly rhyming verse in quatrains and other forms. His work comes across remarkably well in translation, sounding a bit like a cross between Brecht of Die Dreigroschenopfer and Jacques Brel. There’s no complete English-language edition of his work, which inspires me to give it a shot myself, since I love Brecht and Brel. Also apparently a dashing fellow (I’ll let you be the judge — at least he dressed well), he committed suicide at the age of 23 in 1953. The Canadian Encyclopedia has a good biography of him, as they do of the other poets mentioned here.

Before all of these blokes, however, was the poet Emile Nelligan, who lived to the ripe age of 62 but was hospitalized at 19 for what appears to be schizophrenia and wrote nearly nothing afterwards, living out his days in the asylum in near total indifference to the world. Born in 1879, he read widely in French Symbolist literature, especially Baudelaire and Verlaine and two poets I know nothing about, Rodenbach and Rollinat. He might have read Rimbaud, but it’s not clear given the availability of the literature in Quebec and Rimbaud’s unusual publishing history.

Anyway, I sort of “discovered” Nelligan during my last year at college while on a trip to Quebec City with my family. I walked into a bookstore looking for the “Canadian Rimbaud” — since I have a pet theory that every country has their Rimbaud, troubled adolescent genius who wrote their entire works before the age of 20 or so, and I was obsessed with Rimbaud at the time — and saw Nelligan’s photograph and bust (the bookstore was selling small plaster statues of him) and knew instantly, without looking at the books or reading a bio, that this was him. I think it’s because his photograph reminded me of the famous photographs of Rimbaud during his “seer” phase in Paris which you’ve all seen.


Turned out to be sort of true — Nelligan wasn’t nearly as original as Rimbaud, but he was a “visionary,” and he still seems to be the central point of inspiration for many Quebec poets wanting to push the boundaries. I ended up translating four of Nelligan’s poems for my senior project at Bard, two of which appear below (I got the other two very wrong in places, I don’t know French all that well). They may seem a little olde fashioned but I think they still hold up. There’s a really nice selection of translations available by P.F. Widdows, and a more awkward but readable complete edition by Fred Cogswell.

(Nelligan has a huge hotel in Montreal named after him; Sylvain Garneau has a library. Walt Whitman has a rest stop — just like Joyce Kilmer!)

You’ll notice — those of you who read or speak French — that I use some rather literal word choices, for example “massive” for “massif,” which would not really be accurate translations. I did this on purpose since I like to use the original language in a translation to “deterritorialize” or render strange the English of the new poem. Also, Nelligan fans, you’ll notice that the “ideal ocean” in the original is where hurricanes don’t swirl, but having that Rimbaud itch, I made the waters rather torrential.


from Emile Nelligan

Queen, will you assent to unfurl just one curl,
One billow of your hair for the blades of scissors?
I want to inhale just one note of the birdsong
Of this night of love, born from your eyes of pearl.

My heart’s bouquet, trills of its thicket,
In there your spirit plays its roseate flute.
Queen, will you assent to unfurl just one curl,
One billow of your hair for the blades of scissors?

Silken flowers, perfumes of roses, lilies,
I want to return them with a secret envelope.
They were in Eden. One day we’ll take ship
On the ideal ocean, where the hurricane swirls!

Queen, will you assent to unfurl just one curl?

The Ship of Gold

from Emile Nelligan

There was a mighty ship carved of massive gold:
Its masts touched the azure, on the unknown seas;
The Cyprus of love, hair loose, with nude torso
Stretched herself on its prows, in excessive suns.

One night, however, there came the great danger
In those clever oceans where the Sirens sing;
This horrible shipwreck inclined the ship’s bottom
Toward the depths of the abyss, unchanging grave.

There was a ship of gold, and its diaphanous flanks
Displayed its rich hold to those profane sailors,
Disgust, Hate, and Nerves… they split it between them.

What is left of the ship from that so brief Tempest?
What has my heart become, but a deserted ship?
Alas! it has foundered on the vacuum of the dream.

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