The Blue Raccoon

Sunday, November 25, 2007


A Day Late and A Dollar Short Part VII:
Reading Ossie Clark and conclusion


Reading Ossie Clark (2003) is "a study of “Swinging London’s” preeminent fashion designer of the late 1960s and early 1970s, as seen through the pages of his wild and colorful stream-of-consciousness diaries," as the Corcoran literature explained. The image is via Kinz, Tillou + Feigen.

I recall from my absorption of the Duncan-Blake effect during the past summer how comparison was made between David Hockney's portrait of married designers Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell, and the Yo! Venice images of Duncan and Blake that got plastered all over web sites (this one included). Even I, the philistine, thought the Venice images resembled a Hockney painting. That California light and the wide beach spaces.



Mr. and Mrs. Clark Percy (1970), David Hockney, via artchive.




[Below] Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan, Venice Beach, by Bret of Yo! Venice, May 2005. Looking David Hockney by way of Edward Hopper...



[Below] "The Hockney That Never Was." A digital painting from Idyllopus Press, J.M Kearns, presiding and posted this image, August 23, 2007. Based on an image from the Yo! Venice series.


So, my notes for Reading Ossie Clark don't amount to much. Clarissa Darymple's narration was compelling, the accent something an actor might need to invent.

At one point the words appear, "Yak, yak, yak...lies, lies, lies," and I chuckled to myself, thinking of, well, the rushing torrents of language that have poured forth about this artist and his fate...and to which I've contributed. The wonderful visuals were based in designs and elements within Clark's oeuvre. The loop runs nine minutes but seemed longer--maybe because I was experiencing "moving painting" fatigue.

I profess to a profound lack of knowledge about the history of contemporary fashion and Ossie Clark and Swinging London. Blake's fascination didn't spark me, though many of the images he generated under its inspiration are quite splendid.


Image via creative time.org

I left the gallery of Wild Choir with a sense that I understood better the critical praise bestowed upon Blake's work but also aware of the limited nature of new media and how we here in the present can't predict how these multimedia pieces will make their ultimate contribution to art history. I also wondered about longevity. Digital media may last how long? How does one preserve it? Of course, all art is rotting and deteriorating, no matter how careful the efforts at conservation. Artists seize upon new technologies and methods because they want to see what they can make them do; theirs is not to know how to make it last.

Blake's pieces exists only when projected. His drawings and paintings remain in three-dimensional space. In the end, those may survive the videos.

Earlier, I'd viewed rooms full of Edward Hopper and J.M.W. Turner. Hopper, cool, distant, refined, simple yet complicated, a Hemingway of painting whom De Chirico referred to as the U.S.'s only Surrealist. De Chirico fell out of his avant-garde and struggled to reconnect with representational realism. Hopper didn't fall out of anything; he built his own niche.

Hopper's own countenance, in the show's photographs and portrayed in his paintings, seems a blend of Dwight Eisenhower and Fred Thompson. His is a big solid U.S. face; the son of a dry goods salesman father and a housewife who liked to draw.

Hopper was influenced by cinema and theater, and he in turn influenced cinema. The 15-minute film that went with the exhibit, narrated by Steve Martin, pointed out several examples--some outright, others more subtle--like Hitchcock's Gothic home of the Bates family in Psycho.

Perhaps my favorite painting of his is New York Movie (1939).

He conveys the hushed darkness of a film house but that he's interested in the usherette, lost in her own reverie, having seen this picture in bits and parts maybe a dozen times. I'm gazing at her from my seat, noticing how the the lamplight shines in her strawberry blond hair.
Image via artchive.com.


Another picture that I don't recall seeing before was one made quite late in Hopper's career and the portrayal of silent spareness is disturbing--and brings to mind DeChirico's empty streetscapes. Except this is a motel room. I remarked to Amie that it looks like somebody from a foreign country trying to paint like Hopper and making it even more weird. Or a still from a n early David Lynch film. This image is via the Yale University Gallery of Art.




J.M.W Turner astonished me. I've certainly seen examples of his work in various museums throughout my assorted travels, but never gathered in one place, and how given the benefit of walking along the line of his artistic development one sees an artist who made the mold then broke the mold.

His massive paintings of horrendous sea battles and ancient temples and pagan rituals remind me of meticulous matte paintings, except Turner's pictures present the drama instead of providing background. Then he ended up becoming what amounted to being the first Impressionist. Trying to gauge Turner's power from muddy images online or even good ones in books is like describing the quality of sunshine in a summer rain. You just have to see this yourself.



The Perfect Storm ca.1810, via Wikipedia, The Wreck of the Minotaur.

The vivid, hyper-real landscapes and tableaux give way to swirling colors and objects in name only.

The so-called Sunrise With Seamonsters of 1845, was given that name by curators
who first exhibited the piece in 1906 (!) This is probably two flounder in the surf, but, the perspective is so unusual one perhaps can forgive gallerists who'd perhaps never been to the sea. Imag via artchives.


In the biographies of the two artists, living centuries apart, there's interesting differences and connections. Hopper, now considered as much part of U.S. culture as Coke, didn't sell his first painting until 1913 when he was 31, and his second, at 41. After that, things began looking up; he married artist Jo Nevison, she 40, he 42, and they remained together until his death in 1964 at the age of 87. Jo followed him nine months later.

Hopper was part of no school, no movement, and worked in figurative or narrative idiom while the rest of the world went its merry Abstract Expressionist/Pop/Op way. Maybe in his own manner, Hopper was putting back together the shattered pieces before they were already all the way broken. But once anything is busted, the pieces never constitute what existed prior to the destruction.

Hopper, for all this ability to convey a sense of quiet desolation--he stopped putting people in his street scenes because they gave them an energy he didn't want--couldn't paint reflections in glass or water. His Nighthawks depicts the denizens of an all-night diner in the precise manner worthy of a film or stage director. We almost don't see the huge window through which we're observing the hunched diners. The only give-away that it is there is the pale beam of the curve by the sidewalk. But as the critic Clement Greenberg described Hopper's lack of virtuoso painting flourishes, "Hopper simply happens to be a bad painter. But if he were a better painter, he would, most likely, not be so superior an artist." Image via artchive.com.


J.M.W Turner could paint reflections, all kinds of them, in different perspectives, and in watercolor. Turner enjoyed success and praise from the outset of his art life. As he matured, and his world became more dominated by the Industrial Revolution, the fanciful landscapes and historical tableaux may have seemed to Turner as ostentatious. Romantic realism couldn't convey what he was sensing in the wind. The artist began expressing his experience of a world that itself was waning and receding while mysterious machines and violent war clashed in flickering lights, mists and steam, and myth and old ways faded.

"In his later life he began sending to the Academy exhibitions unfinished canvases which one contemporary described as being 'without form and void, like chaos before the creation'," says the Tate Gallery's online biography. "He would then complete them in the exhibition room on Varnishing Days, virtuoso performances which soon became legendary."

Turner's housewife mother died insane when he was at the outset of his career and his barber and wigmaker father lived with him for more than 30 years and even served as his studio assistant, until his death. Turner thereafter experienced bouts of depression and his behavior became more erratic. He never married, but sired two children.

He left behind a fortune that he intended to be held in trust for "decayed artists" and his entire collection bequeathed to the English nation for the purpose of keeping his work together in one place, though that didn't happen. The current "Turner Prize," awarded to artists of distinction, was founded in 1984 but has no connection to the artist, except for the use of his name.

Now, upstairs at the Corcoran, away from Jeremy Blake's noisy introspection, is a big Annie Leibovitz exhibition. Unlike paintings, in many cases, photographs look just fine in books. There's no glass to negotiate.

I didn't expect much out of this show and was overwhelmed. and this was far more affecting than either of us had reason to expect, as her images of people whose fame she's helped to propagate were intermixed with her personal shots and of her relationship with writer Susan Sontag, who dies during the course of the exhibit, as does Leibovitz's father. These are tough pictures. Sontag is depicted in death laid out like an effigy upon an ancient sarcophagus. Her father, compared to earlier images of him, is a husk wasted by disease and age.

Near these images of her personal losses were the violent deaths from the siege of Sarajevo and massacres in Rwanda. I'd seen these in magazines and didn't know, or forgotten, that Leibovitz on these journeys eschewed all studio trappings and took herself and a camera. Their is world of hurt out there, and nations bathed in the blood of innocents, and at once removed from the rarefied spaces of her New York City studios--and yet not that distant at all.

Here, too, is Leibovitz at--I think age 52--her belly swollen with twins. The young children are shown growing up and the images get a little Sallie Mann-esque. Amie says to me, "What are you going to do? The most precious things to you in life are right there in front of you, and they will be this way for that moment, and never again the same way. So you're an artist and you want to record that."

In front of Leibovitz's portrait of Bill Clinton, Amie said aloud, "This makes me sad and wistful." Then then a woman standing next to her said,"Me, too." He was so young and vital in 1998, his hair not yet gone white, and he looked like The Natural-era Robert Redford playing Bill Clinton, and I said so, and the ladies agreed. His hands are huge--mitts-- and a thumb that looks the length of most people's index fingers. Ahead of him was a political tempest and heart surgery.

Chuck Close told Amie a little while ago that he met Clinton and that after being in Clinton's presence for a few minutes, even he wanted to go to bed with him, so magnetic is his personality.

Then around the corner from this was a big color portrait of Bush's first term team, with Rumsfeld and the rest, and they looked like the cast for some Fox Network night-time soap opera about the rich and venal. Perhaps there is something in that these portraits of recent U.S. leaders in their natural habitats they seem more like the actors Leibovitz is famous for dressing up and putting in contrived tableaux.

In the end, I cared less about her celebrities, and more about all our humanity.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007


A Day Late and A Dollar Short: Part VI
"A peep show for poets."

"In this new opus, Blake takes as his departure Eugène Delacroix's Romantic painting, Liberty Leading The People. Delacroix's heroic image depicts the allegorical figure of Liberty as a half-draped woman wearing the traditional Phrygian cap of liberty and holding a gun in one hand and the tricolor in the other. Sodium Fox depicts a stripper from the Los Angeles club, Crazy Girls; a young woman who Blake presents as a similarly allegorical figure of freedom and confident independence. The film's terrain is one of superchurches, Wal-Marts, and war, but one that also contains the vital presence of the Sodium Fox, who might be a principle, a woman, or both." Kinz,Tillou + Feigen, catalogue.



L.A.Aphrodite: Announcement for a presentation of Blake's "Sodium Fox" as appeared on The Wit of the Staircase, August 28, 2006. The "protagonist" is a lithe, sun-burnished, stripper with breasts that look as though they were riveted to her chest.

Below: The narrator David Berman, lead for the Silver Jews, is saying round about this visual passage, set in the First Amendment Massage Parlor, "She was cross-eyed from giving too much head. She sleeps in makeup beside a mountain of clothes. Tonight, God has asked her to love me as a favor to him." Image via Kinz,Tillou + Feigen.

For a 49-second moving version of this see here.

The God depicted is the version by the aged comedian George Burns in not one but three films
, "Oh, God!" (1977) and tepid sequels, "Oh,God! Book II" (1980) and "Oh, God! You Devil" (1984)

This image is taken from the poster for the second.

Like several characters in the Blake pieces, eyes glow in comic-horror-sci-fi fashion and shoot out beams of light. This is a convention he enjoyed with obvious amusement.



A couple of book jackets make an appearance in Sodium Fox. In this sequence, the woman is dozing next to Manners Can Be Fun, part of a series of instructional texts by Munro Leaf for adolescents, first published in the 1930s and reprinted in recent years. Image below via Kinz,Tillou + Feigen.


Another is The Dictionary of Mis-Information, by Tom Burnam, considered a classic of fact-straightening and myth-busting of the pre-Snopes.com era. And I gotta wonder if there's a pun--sort of--referring to Burnam the lexicographer of misunderstood knowledge and the warm, Southern-but-not-hokey story-teller voice of Berman.
The Corcoran describes narrator David Berman thus:
"A native Virginian who now lives in Nashville, Berman is a fascinating and complex figure, and the one portrait subject in the group who may be considered part of Blake’s generation. Reluctant rock star, Gen-X wiseguy, willfully isolated literary light, reformed drug addict, Southerner, Jew, patriot, and ex-guard at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Berman’s talent and influence among his contemporaries are equally matched by a desire to remain outside the public fray and the mass media’s voracious spotlight. With its prosaic, bathroom-wall style poetry, fluid streams of saturated color, and mysterious stripper-heroine, Sodium Fox is, as Blake described it, a 'peep show for poets.'"

Here in a 14-minute loop I could see Blake at his most imaginative; and of the three pieces exhibited at the Corcoran, Sodium Fox is conceived with the most cogent thread, and, one might find something like a beginning-middle-end sequence.

There is a Beat-variety auto-biography quality about the narrative. The textured sound by Charles Burke is entertaining too, and the listener tries to ascertain what is what, and underlying the entire bed are faint crackles and pops that could be a dying fire.

Blake himself described the narration, "
The imagery and language in Sodium Fox emphasize the internal simultaneity in its protagonist of high artistic standards, and more mundane fears and desires. He reminisces in fragmentary bursts about his family, about having been a suburban juvenile delinquent, and recounts the details of an alienated adult life which hasn't yet crushed his ability to long for something more.

The harmful impact of negative authority is accounted for in references to "most of the minds that could eat us", and "the rapist from "All My Children"" and then set adrift. The option of being intimidated by such tin badge authority is repeatedly mocked, most notably when Berman skewers the nerd who panics whenever his boss enters the room. Alternately, precedents set by artistic heroes such as Ed Ruscha, Joan Didion, and Barry Hannah are celebrated as they appear as members of a fantasy gang of poetic ruffians called "The Rivergate 8".

Even where the language is at its most oblique, our protagonist's sincerity in looking for something or someone worthwhile remains clear. At one point he considers the central Gen X question: "Could I be saved by something as simple as caring or not caring?" The question doesn't need to be answered outright. Once addressed directly the effects of apathy, the preferred narcotic of a generation, begin to wear off."


A random, " My silence was like that of 10 men," and sunglasses such as Blake is often pictured wearing. Star Wars X-wing fighters swoop over big white houses clinging to hills, their picture windows over looking a boat harbor. Abraham Lincoln makes a cameo, and his eyes glow and he waggles an eye brow in a knowing reference to the audience.

A town "appealed to marijuana couples and violent nerds without jobs" where the First Amendment Massage Parlor is located, and the effervescent but dark words Sodium Fox appear. My hunch is that is what Blake considered the woman's name, and I wonder if it's a flipped around version the Salty Dog cocktail.


There's an "ESP Orgy," a wall of gold records, an art gallery, a glowing form that looks like the Enron logo and reflected in sunglasses like those Blake was often pictured wearing; a nude woman with a pony tail and a, well, wondrous callipygian asset. The image below is via Kinz,Tillou + Feigen.



A joke is like the skeleton who can't drink because the liguid pours out of him. He's wearing a t-shirt with David Berman's face. It, too, has glowing eyes that shoot beams. A ouija board shows up and the platen spins with ghost energy.


Via Kinz,Tillou + Feigen.


Toward what I'd consider the end, the Sodium Fox is shown drowsing upon a beach chair, wearing furry boots, The Dictionary of Mis-Information at her side. The view pans to show the sand, surf, a pirate skull-and-crossbones towel. Blake refers to this as a "makeshift flag" that doesn't symbolize death, but a struggle and victory.

The surf rolls, and a voice, more distant, remarks, "This is going to take four or five years to describe." He promises that after the war is over, "I'll come home to you," and he sees a rainbow. A blurry point of star-pointed light brightens the horizon. There is static, and quiet, and what sounds like a cell phone ringing unanswered. The Sodium Fox is asleep, and perhaps, dreaming this video that begins again, with a skull announcing its presence.





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A Day Late and A Dollar Short Part V:
Wild Choir: Cinematic Portraits by Jeremy Blake



From Jeremy Blake's Sodium Fox (2005), showing some of its cast of recurring images; a chaise lounge lolling stripper; Abraham Lincoln; a Pabst Blue Ribbon-dousing skeleton; a floating eyeball, Star Wars fighters blasting Los Angeles hillside houses, and an owl, among others, via Kinz, Tillou + Feigen.

"It feels like channel-surfing through your dreams." -- Chris Richards, The Washington Post, Nov. 10, 2007.

Washington Post slide show of Blake's life and work.

From critic Deven Golden, December 2004, emphasis mine:

"Blake has referred to this kind of work as "moving paintings", and we are entering a period when a confluence of readily available consumer technologies will enable this vision to fully manifest. DVD players are everywhere. Plasma screen flat monitors, if not ubiquitous, are at least becoming common. Displaying Reading Ossie Clark as one would a painting in a home setting - over the couch, in the hallway, at the top of the stairs - is now within the realm of possibilities. Watching a video this way ceases to be a scheduled event. Instead, one has the opportunity, the luxury, of absorbing the artwork over time, in different moods, in a variety of circumstances, even in that odd moment out of the corner of your eye. You can enter the work at any point and leave at any point. In short, Blake's "Reading Ossie Clark" has little to do with the linear nature of film, and everything to do with the circular reading of painting."


Moving paintings in the dark...

Three bright and active screens, two rigged for ear phones and the other with the sound going. In other situations, tromping through the great halls of the world's museums and contemporary galleries, exhibits like this most often afford me a place to sit and ease my throbbing feet from unforgiving concrete floors.

This is different.

"Blake’s cinematic video portraits are the final development in a career that consistently challenged distinctions between painting, photography, and computer and video art," states the Corcoran's description. And that much is true. One could, as I did, sit and watch them straight through or, as I pointed out in the previous section, graze and on occasion dip into their experience while conducting a conversation.


Glitterbest




Still from Jeremy Blake's uncompleted Glitterbest. That 's Sid Vicious
at right "mean mugging in a Naval uniform." Via Kunstschau.

I started with Glitterbest, the "work-in-progress" that the Corcoran was careful to point out wasn't anywhere near finished and that some of the images were retrieved per instruction from Blake's computer. The portions in their varying stages "demonstrate how Blake constructed his 'moving paintings' layer upon layer, frame by frame..."

I come to these pieces with my linear-cinema biases; I don't mind how crazy films get, long as they try to resolve the weirdness according to the laws of the film's own universe. Blake's work isn't cinema, but video on a loop, and I must meet the work half-way on terms with which I'm unfamiliar. Like literature, or good music, these pieces hold meanings, repeated imagery and sounds that could reward repeated viewings. Sitting in a museum setting, though, they can also blur into one amorphous cloud of color and light and sound.

Punk impresario Malcolm McLaren recites a stream-of-conscious history of his glory days in an engaging Cockney voice. I enjoyed seeing the punks posed in martial array as though setting out to conquer culture; a sagging phallic Maltese-cross marked dirigible with its roustabout crew transforming either into a lipstick or an animal's penis; masted ships at furious surreal battle, undulating colors and patterns. The work was assembled by David Sigal.

My note-taking was limited, in the dark, trying to watch the images at the same time, thus McLaren's pithy and absurd statements are, at moments, rendered even less sensible. Sorry.

At, one supposes, the beginning: "Once upon a time, in world increasingly bereft of ideas....[the punks] set off in a rented man-of-war...an [illegible] epoch ended...to a [punker?] this is a "X" on a map...Blitzkrieg...Atom Ant...unruly hair...William Blake and Jack the Ripper rolled over Beethoven...Lord Nelson discovered that America was a cracked pattern in a linoleum Times Square floor...I ain't your father, Punk, but I produced you...Beau Brummel with a boombox...The unmoved mover as opposed to the unmoved manager...History is for pissing on...Peyote Pete on a platypus."

Well, this is an example of 'You had to bet there.'

It isn't a piece of cultural history with which I have great familiarity. But Blake was a student of the period, enjoyed the music and so he sought to create a view into the time and place with what one writer termed a "nostalgic" sensibility.

Malcolm McLaren (left), Jeremy Blake (gesturing, right) from
Wednesday, November 15, 2006, post on The Wit of the Staircase.


On September 9, 2007, The Independent of London ran Charles Darwent's piece about the late Blake and Duncan, and caught up to McLaren, who had some rather curious comments, and he was there to watch the couple interact. The piece dropped some tantalizing first-hand observation into a spinning-into-butter situation, while presenting a posthumous he said-she said-he said.

"Sitting in his Manhattan office, Malcolm McLaren winces and says, "I'm only talking to you about this because I don't understand what happened." Then the man who invented punk goes uncustomarily quiet.

Actually, the silence is a relief. For an hour, McLaren has talked unstoppably about Blake and Duncan's double suicide, his voice rising in exasperation. "I met Theresa first, in the late 1990s," he says. " She was just about to venture off to Hollywood and her agent wanted me to meet her. I knew nothing about her, but I found her vivacious, full of herself. Incredibly self-confident, but also innocent about the world she was getting herself into. There was a touch of hysteria to her. If you were ever even faintly critical, she would explode. So I didn't go there."

At the time, Duncan had just finished making The History of Glamour with Kilimnik. "The title told you everything you needed to know about Theresa and Jeremy," McLaren says. "Glamour was what they were about, and Hollywood was where they were going to find it. She had an idea for a movie, a fashion-driven, coming-of-age story called Alice Underground. The unexpected thing about Theresa, though, was her mind. For all her youth-culture thing, when she spoke she had real curiosity. She was intellectually driven."

By contrast, according to McLaren, Blake was much the less confident of the two. "I liked him a lot," McLaren says, "but he always struck me as a troubled person. Everything that's been written about them since it happened has suggested that Theresa was the crazy one. But actually I don't think she was all that crazy. I think it was the other way around."

...Malcolm McLaren has a different take on the story. "It was Jeremy who was the real troubled soul in that relationship," he says. "He was much darker than Theresa. His father died of Aids, he didn't see much of his mother. And he was screwed up by not knowing where he came from culturally. His mother was Jewish, but he had his father's really Waspy surname, Blake. I think that's partly why he took to me, that I'm a Jew called McLaren. He was a damaged person, and he relied on Theresa utterly."

The golden-couple image was flawed in other ways, too.' "If we're being honest," says McLaren, "Jeremy was gay. I don't think his relationship with Theresa was all that sexual. She was a mother to him. When I saw them in Hollywood, he was always terribly concerned that people would think he was a fag – he walked around with this hip flask of whisky in his pocket and he was constantly swigging from it, like some kind of cowboy."

Blake was also obsessed by the rock culture of his parents' generation, another thing that drew him to McLaren. At the time of his death, he was working on Glitterbest, a cinematic portrait of the Sex Pistols' Svengali, due to be shown at Washington's Corcoran Gallery this October. A taste for the early 1970s meant a taste for things British: Blake had already done a DVD portrait of the fashion designer Ossie Clark, composed of abstract images taken from Clark's floral prints. Interviewed by the supercool art magazine, Tokion, about the work's pink-and-blue prettiness, Blake was emphatic that his admiration for Clark was strictly artistic. "This guy was a gay jet-setter," he said. "I'm a straight guy from the suburbs of DC."


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A Day Late and A Dollar Short IV:
"People will flock to an idea that is 75 to 95 percent true..."

  • From Jeremy Blake's Sodium Fox: Virginia-born musician/poet David Berman intones at this point: "We called ourselves the Rivergate 8. Most parents thought we were a cinemaplex." I've tried identifying the figures here, with that kind of cross-word puzzle need for clues. Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov is far right, next to Geronimo, and to the left of the dog is a youthful photo of reclusive writer Thomas Pynchon. The expression and attitude of the woman at far left resembles Theresa Duncan, but is writer Joan Didion. Right of her is the young Ed Ruscha and next to him, writer Barry Hannah. The identity of the dog, or the Mod vest and striped coat guy--a rocker, designer? What's six across?
A few weeks ago the Partner-in-Art and I went with a group to meander in Washington D.C. art museums. Big shows of Edward Hopper and J.M.W. Turner are up at the National Gallery and at the Corcoran, a massive Annie Leibovitz exhibition.

Amie's been working more with video and new media due to her endeavors with the Praxis Studios "Dreams and Possibilities" project. So Blake's work is of some interest to her.

New media/video work is an acquired taste for me. Sorry. I'm a 19th century plastic arts kind of guy, I guess. I mean. Look. How can you sit and enjoy a video work -- as art -- that isn't more than five minutes in duration? Seems to me it's something a wealthy so-and-so in some vast New York or Chicago loft or Hollywood Hills cliff house turns on for party guests who glance at the ever-moving screen when conversation flags or, in some form of altered state, start seeing or hearing profundities within the imagery and sound which may or may not be imbedded there. The visual experience must either be unceasing with compelling eye candy or interactive in some fashion.

At the same time that Blake's work is up at the Corocoran, in a atrium is a video/sound installation Loop of 2000 by Jennifer Steinkamp and musician Jimmy Johnson. The piece puts visitors of Thomas Hope's copy of Canova's sculpture of Venus in the middle of a stringy, whirling abstract painting. Silhouettes of the goddess hover at all cardinal directions and you can stand alongside her, spirits together. Amie enjoyed this, and I liked Johnson's music, too. Kids loved jumping around in the vibrating colors and observing their shadows alongside the Goddess of Love. We are transported into this divinity's realm.




Venus draped in colors, from Agrinberg on Flickr.

"
The room, now luminous, feels almost weightless; the walls seem, somehow, to have dissolved. In their place loops of light in vibrant electronic hues sway and bob in an imperceptible breeze, dappling the bodies of delighted visitors who sit, walk around, lean back, look up, and cast their shadows on the moving veil of illumination. What lies beyond this glowing threshold? Infinity? A galaxy where things float unmoored?...Jimmy Johnson’s ambient score enhances this impression. It’s synthesized harmonies, so mesmerizing and euphoric, are a perfect complement to Steinkamp’s animations. Gene Youngblood might call this complementarity one of “synaesthetic synergy”: an elegant correspondence between differing or opposing elements." -- Melinda Barlow


Then, you take a look at this example of Blake's work, and maybe you can see better where I'm hung up:

Via Kinz,Tillou + Feigen.

So, imagine some film producer or stock broker inviting a few score of his/her closest friends, wafting about in baring designer cocktail dresses and summer whites, or, urban black, carrying their drinks, and on occasion, looking toward this projection and stopping and starting their conversations perhaps as a result of an image they've seen.

And I wonder about purpose here, too, in a philosophic art sense. Is this creative distraction? Is anything we call art just something that may give us pause, send our minds adrift for a few moments? A painting requires one to linger and by virtue of the placement of display, the light, the mood of the viewer, the meaning and interpretation changes. So could the argument be made that a new media piece, by its constant flux and flow, is a different work each few moments.

I've seen a variety of video/new media art in the past few years. Little of what I've experienced has remained in my memory, or moved me.

Bill Viola's groundbreaking work retains a connection to narrative painting, for example. And Jeremy Blake didn't consider himself a video artist, as he manipulated his pieces pixel by pixel, painted and drew elements that were later animated.
I am reminded, too, when considering the undulating colors of Blake's pieces--and his interest, too, in social/pop culture figures of the 1960s to 1980s--of the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Midway through is a long, acid-trippy descent through Jupiter's atmosphere in a space pod piloted by Mission Commander Frank Bowman (Keir Dullea) as the soundtrack plays the ominous, spiritual music of Gyorgy Ligeti's Requiem and Lux Aeterna.

"In a thrilling light-show ride activated by the monolith through both inner and outer space, the pod is sucked into and sent racing down a vortex, corridor, or tunnel of speckles of light (a time warp termed the Star Gate), moving faster and faster (than the speed of light). During his transcendental journey and space odyssey into the galactic round-about, images of the highlights of his views reflect off his space helmet as he shakes and watches in wonder at the cosmic whirlpool racing and rerouting him toward other dimensions at breakneck speed."--Tim Dirks

And:

"Bowman first falls through a web of geometry's and colors. The universe is passing by at light-speed. Everything has become porous and blended together. Seven octahedrons - all changing color and form - appear over the sliding universe. The core of a distant galaxy explodes. A sperm cell-like creature searches for something. An ovary? A cloud-like embryo is forming into a child . Now alien worlds fly by, all of their colors and hues gone wild. Bowman is experiencing overload and looks like he might not be able to handle the amount of information that is being given.

This is humanity's initiation. Bowman is our representative in this process. He is the first man through. In this experience of passing through the monolith, or the single stone, Bowman is shamanically transformed by a completely psychedelic experience. Real information is being passed to Bowman by the monolith. This information is experiential and shamanic."-- Jay Weidner

The image below isn't from 2001, but Blake's interstitial art from Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love (1999). Given this is cinema, not video art, but, the direction or influence seems clear.

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Friday, November 23, 2007


A Day Late and A Dollar Short
Part III: From Glamour To Grammar




From, Wit of the Staircase, May 10, 2007

But Stardom was made a year after THOG. Still, the themes are similar. Girl from the sticks (in THOG's case Antler, Ohio, though neither Grace Greenberg the editor of her chronicling fashion magazine Ooh La La nor her agent Alphonse Harlan, can remember where she's from) stumbles into fame that she at first enjoys but--as seldom occurs in reality--she rejects the trappings. Well, in Charles' case, she "goes into seclusion" after staging a gothic fashion show case death ritual with her fashion designer friends, Osage and Orange. In Stardom, Tina marries a physician whose demanding career prevents him from giving her any affection.

One becomes isolated by choice, the other by a poor choice in husband.



Duncan was aware, too of director William Klein's antic and absurd 1965 satiric "mockumentary" about high fashion, Where Are You Polly Maggoo? This was the single film made by Twiggy-esque model Dorothy McGowan. The story behind the story is that McGowan made "Polly" then quit public life for good. See a bit of it on Sundance's site --which is where the elbow raised image of Polly is from.

The most striking and bizarre scene in the Duncan-Blake film -- given subsequent events-- is a funereal fashion show. One thinks of Duncan's "Los Angeles Lunar Society" and its full moon rituals and the memorial service for fake novelist JT Leroy, and the strange demise of both Duncan and Blake.

The Osage and Orange event features models in grim high fashion wearing jewelry with words
LEFT and GONE (also references to the "dead" Charles Valentine's music). Charles herself is laid out in an open casket--much as Duncan herself.

An unseen male questioner--like the reporter in Citizen Kane--asks Grace Greenberg, "But didn't she have problems in New York?" And she replies, "Well, we're all allowed to indulge ourselves, aren't we?" This includes swilling Chanel No.5 "on the rocks" at hip night spots. (Given that Duncan's decease first got into the Interwebs via a perfume blog...w
ell.)

And, in similar fashion, Grace Greenberg says with enthusiasm, "Charles was like a beacon! When she was in a good mood, it was like being by the Hope diamond!" Otherwise, Charles could be at best aloof or at worst a pyromaniac. The film implies that when Charles gets tired of a difficult situation, she burns it down--as happens with her family's cosmetology salon and the headquarters of Ooh La La.


I am reminded of anonymous critics of Duncan who claimed she was like a "bright and polished apple with a rotten core" (LAist, Aug. 4, 2007); "Beauty. Brains. Bonkers." (SoMA: Society of Mutual Autopsy, Aug.2,2007), and a July 28,2007 post on BLDBLOG that described Duncan as
a "paranoid schizophrenic who went out of her way to be very insulting to a lot of people. Her suicide just seems like one final selfish gesture, especially since her being "at peace" with the decision did not diminish the huge impact this act had on the lives of her loved ones."

Likewise, ardent and grieving defender Mike Payne wrote in DreamsEnd on August 10, and a similar entry on August 4 on the Laist blog, "She was righteously capable of lording over one. The namesake of her blog-didn’t really apply to her-of course she would think of things to say later-no she’d probably be asleep-because she would have already blown everyone away with her quick tongue. She cracked me up so fast I can’t remember what she said-she was that quick."

Charles Valentine dreams of leaving Antler. She lays in the grass with her friend Sarah Barnicle and imagines how the clouds resemble famous people, like those she read of in New York or London, who may have been real, or, as Barnicle recalls, "made up." If this was just a movie and not, also, a person's life, we'd call this foreshadowing, considering accusations both pre-and most belligerent post-mortem, that Duncan's relationship with objective truth was, at best, a creative one.

Charles Valentine achieves a level of pop icon status that Theresa Duncan didn't. Artist Jeremy Blake, her partner of a dozen years, is commemorated now in museums. He's regarded--at this early juncture--as a pioneer in new media art. As artist friends discussed over the Thanksgiving table yesterday, we won't know in our life time what art is in fact the Great Work of our time. We are too close to have the understanding perspective affords.

For a recent musing on the joining of the two, and a semi-hemi-demi recap of the late and unfortunate events, see the appropriate named Memoirs on A Rainy Day.

"They were like two weird people from a circus or something," says Loren Valentine, Charles' brother about his sister's first boy friend Lyle Borkan. Together, they start a music club in a bathroom stall of Antler, Ohio's only night club where Lyle whispers the lyrics of his songs into the ears of adoring girls while Charles strums her guitar. "I sold your love for $1.50," is such a line. Lyle's unfaithfulness--it is implied--and the crushing lack of imagination in Antler leads Charles to seek a way out--by hitching.

She juts out her thumb by the gas station with a sign around her neck proclaiming, "Wherever" and arrives in New York City via a family from St. Louis. She sees the skyline for the first time and in her minds's eye--and an image made jarring by intervening events-- the World Trade Center towers turn into surreal fingers adorned by fire engine red nails.

At the conclusion of this animated female bildungsroman, Charles has rejected the trappings of fame and is living in a shack in Antler, smoking, drinking, and trying to write the demons out of her while her janitor brother (who resembles a hick version of Jeremy Blake) dozes on the front porch.

Charles Valentine made a transition from glamour girl to grammar girl, as Duncan has her say. Charles' creator has in a way achieved these two titles--but she extinguished herself in the process, and the grief of her loss caused Jeremy Blake to walk into the surf off the Far Rockaway beach.



Theresa Duncan, Wit of the Staircase, July 8, 2005.











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A Day Late and A Dollar Short Part II

"They came to watch me disappear"

[Via: The Wit of the Staircase, August 2, 2006.]


[A version of events, as collected here, for those members of the billion-eyed audience who aren't following along, as the Rev. R. Stuart Carlton used say at Stockton Memorial Baptist, in their hymnals.]

I sat down during this holiday to watch the 1999 animated film short The History of Glamour by Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake, with additional assistance by Karen Kilimnik both this summer by predicament translated into idea and metaphor. The animated short--and such deceptive simple creations require many handmaidens--included the efforts of Eric Dyer, David Oppenheim, and Fugazi Brendan Canty, DJ Kasmir, Bikini Kill Kathy Wilcox, Clifford Le Cloyer, and, credited for the opening credits that explode and double expose in Blake-ian fashion, Matt Berninger, who must've handled some of the music.

To follow what our cosmologist Mr. Davies observed above, the past undergoes alteration as we revise our understanding of the present. Sort of like the view from a mountainside with the use of a binoculars; the further way you are, the more you can see, but without aide, you cannot glean the details. The History of Glamour seems prescient, but how is that possible since the film was produced in 1999? A self-fulfilling prophecy?

In one respect, the through line off THOG reminded me of a guilty pleasure of mine, Stardom featuring Jessica Paré.


This, too, is a mockumentary. The protagonist here is a Canadian woman hockey player who is spotted by a sleazy photography and one thing leads to another and she's celebretized as a fashion model. The benefits and deficits of the limelight life are encapsulated, but my favorite parts are when Paré's Tina Menzhal uses her hockey battle training to take down annoying paparazzi and men who become abusive.



Duncan's singer-songwriting protagonist is given the androgynous name of Charles Valentine. She doesn't have hockey skills, but other idiosyncratic behaviors.

She stages an art provocation by crashing a performance art piece by Alicia Boobcraft (see Vanessa Beecroft) at the Googenheim Museum. Past a line of "serious intellectuals" there are dozen women, naked, or wearing "cootchie bikinis" standing "still and tall. Lovely art workers swaying."

Charles decides a missing element is her. Her clothing designer friends, Osage and Orange, rush the arts provacateur to their studio, put her in a tiny bikini, outfit her
with teetering high heels and an aluminum baseball bat. She returns to the Googenheim and with her trusty metal slugger proceeds in her anarchic way to shatter the high church of art. Thus, she critiques what is supposed to be shocking by throwing a punk act of hooliganism into the works.

Life in a way imitated art during a 2005 Beecroft exhibition in Berlin; except there, audience members trying to get closer to the poker-faced participants
instead scuffled with police. Thus, the static performance was interrupted by reactions to action.

Charles becomes the prettiest resident ever of the city jail and this is the scene depicted in the textbook illustration at the top of this post; a sensual, languorous Charles lounging on her bunk.



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A Day Late and A Dollar Short
Part I

Spooky Action

Anthropomorphic Chest of Drawers, Salvador Dalí

This is "Science Friday" on NPR's Talk of the Nation and Ira Flatow is talking to author Alan Weisman whose "The World Without Us" analyzes the ultimate deterioration of human-made objects, from the Panama Canal to the New York City subway system and the Pyramids, if maintenance stopped. And what is the expected of the continuing existence of such detritus as plastic

The following guest is the cosmologist--what a job title!--Paul Davies, discussing a subject dear to my hear, that is the multiverse theory of physics, or, cosmology/metaphysics. His assessment in his The Cosmic Jackpot is that the Universe has engineered its own self-awareness. Mind an Life are fundamental particles in Creation. Life and and the Universe that brought it into being are part of a explanatory statement. The Universe is a great cosmic computer, and thought its software -- didn't we get this with The Hitch-hiker's Guide To The Galaxy?

He also states with great emphasis that you can't travel back in time or send information through time. Humph. Near as I know, that's all still a theory. See Paul J. Nahin's Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction, Second Edition.

Davies says mind and Universe will at some point in the future merge. What we do today, what human beings choose to measure, what gets measured today effects what happens in the distant past -- sounds weird but weird things happen in quantum physics.

Reality is an amalgam of histories of the past, thus, what we study today, affects the past. Mind/Universe is in a constant process self-revelation--computing itself; refining and polishing. Davies isn't partial to the idea that life was imprinted from outside. The Universe generated Mind. It's always thinking about...itself. What happens when Deep Thought reaches a conclusion?

Spooky Action

All this taken into consideration, I've now experienced Theresa Duncan's History of Glamour, and I'll be writing here about that piece and the current Corocran exhibition of Jeremy Blake's Wild Choir.

Those of the billion-eyed audience who've been following the general train of thought at the Blue Raccoon may have noticed an interest in the suicide deaths of writer/bloggist Theresa Duncan and new media artist Jeremy Blake. Or rather, the reaction to their deaths in the blogosphere.

Now that I've viewed THoG within close proximity to Blake's works, I'm girding to give my views on both. Should anyone care.

There's been a slight uptick on the Duncan-Blake interest meter due to the Corcoran exhibit and one also presented in memoriam at the Kinz, Tillou + Feigen gallery that represented him. The negativity expressed by some trollers also remains: at Gothamist, the Nov. 16 announcement of the Blake show drew two unfeeling remarks, one from Reality Czech: "How to become a famous artist: kill yourself," and ihatellbrokers offered, "not missing you two twits at all! boo hoo hoo!"

But, and here is where the dedicated "Duncanologists" will point and laugh at me; I didn't realize until a few days ago that "The Wit" left a message from the grave. Or did she?

In February 2007, her scan of a New York Times blog by none other than Dick Cavett turned up a story about Basil Rathbone and a communication pertaining to an acquaintance killed in an automobile accident. Verifying this urban myth-esque story would require time, an expense account, and knowledge of how to track down mouldering LAPD files, hospital and morgue records, or hunting through obituaries. Finding the truth would either enhance or diminish Mr. Cavett's good story.

I love me some Dick Cavett, and, well, Theresa Duncan, too--as I Drop Names in the way only the D.C. could (because he met these people--I didn't)--but facts is fact, Basil Rathbone, or not. This accident left a paper trail--if it happened.

So, here we are with a Rigged To Explode On Halloween note from T.D.

Now. One wonders: when and under what circumstances may she have concocted leaving this message -- and the one to come on New Year's Eve?

As our great Mr. Davies might agree: the past changes as we come to greater understanding of the present.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Louees On The Flying Trapeze...































Billion-eyed audience, for your viewing pleasure, a laggard recognition of the 101st nativity anniversary of one of film's greatest and yet obscure personalities, Mary Louise Brooks, born in Cherryvale, Kansas, Nov. 14, 1906.

These images, via brooksie, show her in all her lithe-armed glory in the otherwise awful 1929 Philo Vance detective adaptation, The Canary Murder Case. The film shows early-going promise in its champagne-woozy perspectives of Louise as a calculating show girl, perched here on her swing that swoops over the heads of evening clothes attired swells and belles. One wonders of Baz Luhrmann ever viewed the film prior to his 2001 Moulin Rouge!














[Moulin Rouge! still from allmoviephoto]

Brooksians know that the '29 film was a mish-mash, created as a silent then dubbed, and Louise refused good money to go contribute her voice, and told Paramount's mighty Budd Schulberg where he could shove his cash.

Her career in The Pitchas was pretty much over after that, except for some minor roles in worse and worse films. Hollywood then--and now--didn't much cotton to uppity Talent/Product telling the Man-agement where to get off and how. Louise gets the last laugh, though, because she made a trifecta of fine European films, Pandora's Box, Diary of a Lost Girl, and the kitchen sink vérité of the Prix de Beauté. The latter has perhaps the most amazing final moments ever in cinema.

I insist, could be re-made today--perhaps by Baz Luhrmann himself--set in New York, or for gritty regional character, a small Southern town in the 1950s--or even the 1980s--in which our heroine tries to become a national sensation despite her man's jealousy through an MTV-esque talent contest. It sort of got made with Star 80. This is a cautionary tale about buying into the cold and callous promises of the Society of the Spectacle: "the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing."

But why do that? There's the dubbed original, (Louees made to speak the French when she was conversant just in "Kansas English"), and Louise cavorting in a bathing suit. Now, that's entertainment.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Whirlybird: The Prez Alights, Then Leaves--
No West Wing for you!





So, billion-eyed audience, I'm sitting at my desk around 11 a.m. frowning into my computer screen and gripping my hair while trying to figure out what to do next, when this reciprocating thudding rattles the windows. I look out to Broad Street and there, descending from the gun metal grey skies was, if my West Wing nomencalture was correct, Marine One.

I'd seen in the paper today that POTUS was paying call in RVA to bestow a President's Volunteer Service Award to Paul Anderson, who serves the Central Virginia Foodbank, which is just a few blocks from our offices. Then the Chief Executive is to heigh over to Berkeley Plantation, where I guess he's seeking some Colonial-era pointers about landowning aristocrats and their chattels. Hope they show him the escape tunnel that's there--built perhaps to outwit uppity natives, or later, slave insurrection.

Anyway, so Portia, Kate, Jack and me ambled in the chill air over to the Division of Motor Vehicles offices (that are out of character to the cityscape, and plopped down in an ocean of parking, resembles some kind of 1970s corporate headquarters).

I wondered aloud in a hopeful voice, "Is Martin Sheen on [the helicopter]?" I'd just seen the doco Who Killed The Electric Car? which he narrates -- as usual with these pieces, I found corporate stupidity and venality displayed therein almost unbearable. Kate said, "Or even Michael Douglas," referring to his role in another Aaron Sorkin-penned entertainment, The American President. Even Jeff Bridges, who was in the excellent-except-for-the-last-10 minutes The Contender (filmed, in part, rahtcheer in RVA), would've been better: a fake as opposed to a fraud.

Another guy, in a pea coat, said there was a helipad behind the DMV. The Governor uses the pad on certain occasions. The lot is also used for driving school, where those trying to get points shaved off their record can get their strikes expunged. Peacoat said there was more than one 'copter.

Guess they motorcaded POTUS from there over to the CVFB. Anyway, we got to the corner of Broad and DMV Drive, where emergency vehicles with their lights whirling added a sense of drama to this ordinary Presidential errand, and a squadron of Richmond bicycle-borne police shooed us away, though another one said, "Yall can walk up through the parking lot." Which we did, and we got far enough down the sidewalk to see--as our hanger-on mentioned--that there wasn't just one, but two dark green helicopters. Then a bike officer, a she, with a long blonde ponytail came riding up and admonished us with autoritative urgency, "Yall need to turn around and go back the way you came." As we did she offered, "Sorry about that, sorry," and rode off.

That was our at-a-distance non-encounter with POTUS. The most recent visit in these parts was for a George Allen campaign fundraiser at the Science Museum of Virginia, which is right next to the DMV. On that occasion a cloud of protestors showed up to hiss and boo the long black line of war machinist limos. The event didn't do Allen much good, though he proved that he didn't do himself many favors, either.

More later
I have a backlog of news and notes I want to get up here. For one, we went up on a bus tour to D.C. and I took in Jeremy Blake's "Wild Choir" show. I've still not watched Theresa Duncan's collaborative with Blake and artist Karen Kilimnik History of Glamour, though, and I'd like to discuss the two at once.

Also, last night, one of the reasons the Partner In Art and I can't ever agree to cancel cable, because on occasion, a good film comes on -- like Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) -- a joint German, British, Belgian, French and Romanian production directed by Christian Caron. On Starz! which surprised me. We've seen a big portion of the film before, but as she painted and I vaccuumed and put away dishes, the confabulated story--taken from different incidents along the Western Front during the holiday season of 1914--filmed with an artist's eye and a remarkable sense of scale and human proportions--resonanted more with me as I've just finished Modris Ecksteins' brilliant Rites of Spring that recounts the cultural, intellectual and historical underpinnings of World War I's eruption, and how those same ingredients within the aftermath bred rampant, hyper-idealistic nationalism whose figuration became Hitler.

You know, the Blue Raccoon carries a mournful and neverending rememberance pertaining to that catastophic enterprise of 1914-1918, and wishes with fantastical might that the conflaguration would've never happened as known to our history.

[And yet another way: in August 1914, Germany goes on the defense in the West, respecting Belgian neutrality and thus the British have no immediate prompt for war; instead, Germany uses greater force--and airborne reconnaisance, such as was used with great effect at Tannenberg-- against Russia that liberates the Tsar's satellite states and precipitates a collapse of the Romanov government in much shorter order. Lenin need not apply. The arrangement would breed eventual civil unrest, as the Germans would extract economic concessions from the Ukrainians, Belorussians and Baltic nations, and the Kingdom of Poland, too, and that would eventually bubble over, and give a truncated Kerensky-democratic/socialist Russia enemy-of-my-enemy allies against imperial German designs. A fight would ensue, over time, with the British due to colonialist pursuits and a naval arms race. The French would become the aggressors of 1914, or, perhaps more the case, sit across the border stewing and seething and hurling anti-German slogans but not bombs, in a 1914 version of the 1939-1940 "Phony War."]

As Brane theory suggests, that in an universe next door, "in the bosom of its proper and particular God," as RVA's favorite non-adopted, un-son Edgar Allan Poe described in his befuddling Eureka--that there is a reality where 170 millions or so didn't die from WWI and its evil spawn, WWII.

The continuing horrors are thus avoided of the Soviet Union, Pol Pot, Mao, a split Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, and a chopped up and dangerous Mesopotamia. It'd be wonderful for the world to just have a different set of problems than the one like landed on the DMV helipad this morning.

Um, but that's all for later.





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Monday, November 12, 2007


Advertisement for Myself: True Richmond Stories

In honor of the late great Norman Mailer, I post this advertisement for myself.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, me and Amie will be at the Can Can Brasserie in Carytown from 6-8 p.m. She'll be showing examples of her work, and I'll be reading examples of mine, for whoever shows up.

Copies of the slender volume will be available.

Not included on this announcement is the November 30 revisitation I'll be making to the Fountain Bookstore, a lunchtime, daytime signing and selling kind of thing. Read all about it here.

Hope some of you billion-eyed audience can make it out tomorrow. Some rain is predicted. Pack your bumbershoot.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

A German prisoner helps British wounded make their way to a dressing station near Bernafay Wood following fighting on Bazentin Ridge, 19 July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. Via Wikipedia.

We Interrupt This Regularly Scheduled Blogpost
To
Prevent World War I.

Again.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month some 89 winters ago; distant from us across a scorched earth of memory and events; known because of black and white photographs and some herky-jerky moving images and yellowing newspapers -- back then, the most horrendous enterprise ever undertaken by humanity concluded. World War One came to an exhausted finale.

The war settled little and returned in a new and improved guise 21 years later.

Some 10 million people died during 1914-1918, though this was but the warm-up for the Big One, which swallowed around 65 million. If we throw in that science now guesstimates that the Great Influenza of 1918 may have had its incubation in the trenches of northern France--and that that pandemic may have killed between 20 million to 100 million from August 1918 to March 1919--we can pile those incomprehensible figures on top of everything else. So we're talking ballpark about 172 million people dying as a direct result, or through disease, from both conflicts.

This is a bit like dropping a rock down a well and never hearing a splash. We cannot now contemplate such horrendous, unspeakable amounts of death.

I've spent far too much time and effort contemplating a separate reality where World War I as it is known to us didn't occur. If you go here, and scroll down, you can see. If we undertake a study of the causes of that cataclysm, they were hydra-headed. Gavrilo Prinzip lit a fuse when he bumbled into assassinating the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. You can go to Strange Interludes Part the Second to read more.

I asserted then that our history would be better off if the Wilhelmine Germans and the so-called Central Powers had triumphed in the fall and winter of 1914. But I've reassessed. Consider how during the first four months of the war, on the Western front alone, the combined casualties of Britain, Belgium and France were 570,000. Germany suffered about 200,000.

That's too many. Too many wives to have lost husbands, too many children to be deprived of fathers, too many first blushes of young love extinguished. These numbers are an affront and insult to life itself. Yes, Heraclitus the Cynic observed that struggle is the father of all things; but bettter that be accomplished through challenging poses of the Kama Sutra than across the churned up moonscape of Flanders.

And so I take a step into mist-shrouded fantasy. I ask for your indulgence, and to consider this: how at almost each turn, the assassination by Serbian state-allowed terrorists of Austria-Hungary's heir apparent could've been prevented. Even to the last. If Gavrilo Prinzip had just eaten his lunch at another deli, the Archduke's discombobulated motorcade would've ridden off into the Sarajevan dust. The random quality of this single occurrence just causes one to shake the head in disbelief. It's almost like Prinzip was being guided on a wire.

World War I--as it occurred in our history--was avoidable, or it could've been mitigated into a Balkan region conflict such as were flickering and disturbing the peace as they'd been since 1912.

Boundaries on the Balkans after the First and the Second Balkan War, 1912-1913.

Consider how Austrian chief of the general staff and primary war planner, Baron Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf wavered on July 29, 1914, about going to war with Russia. He thought he could settle the score with Serbia first. He figured he'd have two weeks before Russian intervention.

Further, Hotzendorf's German equivalent, Helmuth von Moltke believed on the morning of July 30 that Russian mobilization didn't mean Germany needed to mobilize in support of Austria-Hungary. By the afternoon, Moltke's mind was changed--maybe because he'd learned that Hotzendorf's preoccupation with Serbia would leave Germany's ass in the wind. Moltke was counting on supporting Austro-Hungarian movement in Galicia. But the two generals, supposed allies, didn't really talk much prior to the war. When it all came down, these two be-medaled boobs were swept up and tossed aside.

Matters were further muddied by official German diplomatic messages urging Austro-Hungarian restraint regarding Russia, while Moltke urged otherwise, confusing the easy-to-confuse Hotzendorf who said flat out he didn't want to be blamed for igniting a general European war.


One August 1, 1914, Europe teetered on the edge of international war. As historian Harry F. Young summarized in his recounting of that fateful day: "Austria had opened fire on Serbia; Russia had begun to mobilize the troops; Berlin’s ultimatum to St. Petersburg would expire at noon; France was prepared to support her tsarist ally; and so far England’s efforts to mediate had failed.”

Kaiser Wilhelm signed the order to commence German war preparations. A short while later, Wilhelm was given a dispatch from a German diplomat in London that indicated the British foreign minister Sir Edward Grey had promised, "England would remain neutral and would guarantee France's neutrality" if Germany didn't attack France. Wilhelm convened a meeting of his top brass and popped champagne to celebrate.

The specter of a two-front war was dissipated. Germany could go on the offensive in the East and remain on the defensive in the West. Von Moltke, summoned to the meeting by a harried messenger, was flabbergasted. He and the "All Highest" argued as the general insisted the Schlieffen Plan had a schedule to keep. The single-front mobilization plan was, he said, out of date. The trains couldn't be called back. If they were, the troops sent east would arrive in a higgedly-piggeldly pile of bodies and equipment, far too unorganized to present effective force. The Schlieffen Plan was to Moltke holy writ -- for the most part because he didn't have an alternative he believed would work. The concept of a quick knock out of France in one campaign was his motivating idea. Nothing else mattered.

The Kaiser bellowed at Moltke, "Your uncle would've given me a different answer!" This was a sharp cut; he was referring to "Moltke the Great" who, with Bismarck, unified Germany into an empire.

The younger Moltke must've known that plans to send the armies to the East were worked on through 1913, and with typical German efficiency could've been yanked out of their files and put into play. German railroad officers received as rigorous training as soldiers. A staff officer who'd worked on these plans would later prove, on paper at least, that with almost the flip of a switch, the Germans could've transferred up to four armies to the east within days. But the German Railway Office wasn't consulted: just two neurotics getting red-faced in Berlin, both of whom, were they in civilian life, would've been more suitable for running a grocery store.

Moltke quite simply didn't want to deviate from the schedule. He seems just to have wanted to get it over with. War was inevitable; let it come. This meant violating the neutrality of Belgium, and tripping the wire to get Britain involved.

But the Kaiser didn't want to hear a refutation of good news. If conflict with France could be prevented, Germany needed to make the effort. A messenger was sent flying to the forward units edging toward Luxembourg: stop in your tracks. Don't transgress the border.

As happened, though, the whole thing was an an apparent confusion by the Anglophillic and fluent English speaker Prince Karl Max Lichnowsky, the German envoy in London -- "The Misunderstanding of August 1." Lichnowsky loved England's ways, but his homeland, too, and a telephone conversation with the obtuse British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, left him with the impression that a ruinous conflagaration engulfing both of his favorite nations could be avoided. He'd cabled the Kaiser: Wait, hold up--we can turn this thing around. There's been debates about this so-called misunderstanding ever since.

Prince Lichnowsky seems to have misinterpreted Grey's circituitous phrases--what the foreign secretary had actually said was that he could guarantee Germany against attack by France if Germany would promise to attack neither France nor Russia.

There was no way, of course, that Britain could assure French docility. The incident, however, points out Moltke's over-reliance on a plan that really wasn't much better than a table-top exercise that rolled over neutral Belgium and guaranteed British mobilization, and didn't solve the Problem of How To Take Paris. In fact, within a few months of the extent of the horrendous miscalculation becoming quite visible in both the exhausted soldiery and massive body counts, Moltke would remark that the choice to invade France--which hadn't fired so much as a popgun at Germany after Sarajevo--was a terrible mistake.

It is doubtful France would've remained idle if Germany had turned the brunt of its power against Russia. The nation could now revenge the humiliation of Sedan and 1870. Or, would some how a diplomatic angle get worked; that of making a Alsace-Lorriane an autonomous division of Germany? Better diplomacy than mad policy -- except nationalism in Europe was in the air like a dog whistle, calling the nations forward, lerching them into collision like zombies driving in a demolition derby.

Consider the Titanic, built by this same Anglo-Teutonic Civilization, one that believed in such a thing as a ship that couldn't sink. Her Captain Edward J. Smith was at the helm of a vessel that in size and scope surpassed his experience. She had the latest technological innovations, but not enough lifeboats due to concern both about concern and appearances. No boat drills were held. After the iceberg was struck, no general announcement was given, word spread like gossip, although steerage passengers, engineers and those luckless post office clerks knew the ship was in dire trouble.

And later, when the "Spanish Influenza" began claiming thousands of lives at a rate not known since the bubonic pandemic of the 14th century, the civil and religious authorities of 1917-1919 at first thought that such a thing was impossible in their advanced technological age. These were the people who considered the 1914-1918 cataclysm "The War To End All Wars."

Von Moltke was hung up on his pre-conceived plans and wouldn't deviate from them. But they were faulty, and relied on a knock out one-two punch by armies too large to actually encircle and destroy, much less move at inhuman speeds to undertake such endeavors. He had to learn that himself, in time, and by then, it was too late for him and Europe.

So my solution? I send this out to any who would be able to conceive of such.

On May 9, 1911, 10 men meet in Belgrade to form a secret organization Ujedinjenje ili Smrt (Union or Death), which becomes known as The Black Hand. This is the most radical branch of another secret organization brought together on Oct. 8, 1908, Norodna Odbrama, "National Defense."

A number of members were Serb army officers. Their stated goal was to realize a Greater Serbia by any means necessary, which meant political assassinations. This meant the destabilization of Austria-Hungary. None of them on May 9 understand what their shenanigans will end up causing.

By 1914 the group blossoms into some 2500 members organized in grassroot cells of 3-to-5 members.
Cell members didn't know much about what was going on outside their sub-groups.

The Black Hand obscures the boundary between it and National Defense, and supplants the older group. The cells were directed by two levels of committees, the top being a 10-member committee chaired by Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, known also as Apis, The Bee. His personal courage was undisputed, but his zealotry and ruthlessness knew no bounds. Even the Serbian prime minister feared Dimitrijevic--for he could just as well lead a coup against the present Serb government if it stood in the way of his plans.

My solution: through bio-electro-chemical means, zap the 10-member "Black Hand" May 9, 1911 gathering with a shot of "Road to Damascus." Maybe it's triggered by something in their drinks, food, even an airborne agency. The 10 are afflicted by physiological seizures. Their brains spark and pop as synaptic firings alter. They scream, laugh, weep. They transform into Scrooge on Christmas Day.

A few go starkers. Drooling, naked crazy. A couple may kill themselves on the spot in a fit of ecstatic realization. The Bee could be one of these, or, he understands now he must work for a diplomatic solution. That'll end up getting him killed by the haters he's helped stir up (in fact, Dimitrijevic got shot in 1917 for treason).

This mind-altering experience of a few key players won't stop war, but delay the conception, and perhaps prevent the grinding death machine of the Western Front trenches and the horror of Galipoli. Likewise not to occur as in our history, would be the nonsensical drawing of Mesoptamian maps by the British and French. Their meddling-- and the world's ravenous need for petroleum-- is one of the reasons our reality today is threatened by constant conflict from that region.

No World War I, no World War II, no Holocaust, no Soviet pogroms, no Rape of Nanking, no "Great Depression," no radical Islam as it is understood today, a different development of nations both in Mesopotamia and Africa -- and no Hogan's Heroes.

This changed reality still leaves Britain and Germany in a naval arms race, a truncated Russia with German satellites--through economic support or otherwise--in the Ukraine, along the Baltic and with the Kingdom of Poland, providing buffers between the German Empire and nationalist Russians. There is a revanchist France, perhaps in the altered worldline, more like Franco's Spain. Another spate of conflict is inevitable. Anybody who has ever played the elementary strategy game of Risk, and squabbled over Europe, can tell you that.

Perhaps Russia moves to reclaim Belarus, a chafing German client state, and at the same time, France launches across the border again to get its licks in, sometime around 1920-ish. The U.S.--a different one than what we know because there wasn't a World War I for it to stretch its superpower eagle's wings--would sit and read of the distant events at the family breakfast table.

Germany and Britain come to blows over colonies and control of Mesopotamian oil interests. Maybe a version of Jutland occurs, but under different circumstances, and another result. And, because there's no repression of Jews, all those European scientists and intellectuals and artists stay home. Abstract Expressionism isn't exported to New York. The laurels of European culture is wrested from Paris, where it was sliding anyway, to Berlin.

In this altered world, perhaps it is the Germans who split the atom, and the Germans who perfect rocketry, among other technolgical innovations. A "Cold War" might exist between whatever Germany evolves into and the whatever Russia becomes, but it's anybody's guess whether in this altered world if the nuclear standoff would've led to a Space Race like the one that caused John F. Kennedy to make the bold statement of sending a man to the moon and returning him to Earth. The Maltese Cross banner might've gotten shoved into the lunar dust, not Old Glory. "Das ist ein kleiner Schritt für einen Mann, ein riesiger Sprung für Menschheit."

The inhabitants of such a world wouldn't be any less venal or more gracious than the world we are condemned to inhabit. Those residents just have a different set of problems to complain about, and keep them up nights on blogs that few if anybody ever reads.

The sad part is, that even if this "zap the Black Hand" option could be played, I wouldn't enjoy any of the benefits. Not in this "worldline" where I dwell. Some other Harry Kollatz Jr., sitting in his version of a cluttered Colonial Ave. Richmond, Va., office, would be pondering another batch of "what-ifs." Or, at least, that's one theory.

Whatever the case, get working on this problem of World War I, you future historic circumstance-altering humanity-loving scientists, on this 11th day of the 11th month. Make the past an alternate future for somebody today!

A rare World War I aerial photo, taken at a height of 150 meters by a French photographer, shows French troops on the Somme Front launching an attack on the Germans. (Photo credit: U.S. National Archives) Via History Place.












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