Tuesday, 30 September 2008


One way of understanding the cavern cinema - particularly with an artist like Smithson, so aware of language - is as a kind of experiential, expanded etymology of the word "underground." If, as other articles here have shown, the word was used to describe a range of directors and film practices, it acquired new force in the writings and performances of Jack Smith, where underground became a remarkable site of paranoia and insult, from which emerged key writings and performances:

Then I was hanging around the uh, the uh, Artcrust Archives. And uh, one day a kindly old man appeared on the steps, and uh, offered me a job as a sugar zombie. And uh, which I uh, accepted. And uh, every day the uh, I and the other sugar zombies would be marched out of the safe into the underground sugar beet pits. No, no, the underground sugar beet, no, no, the underground desert of sugar beets? ...of uh, and we had to toil in the oozing marshmallow paste all day long to harvest these enormous spoiling uh, sugar beets like giant enpurpled Andy Warhol noses... like huge bloated machine-gun turnips that out of the enlarged pores of which would ooze a sugar syrup...and uh... they putrified immediately if you touched them. It was loathsome... loathsome... the foul and purple things... it was hellish. Well, anyway... (coughs)

Long pause with exotic music and tango (137-38)

And then, no lessening of intensity after a break:

I noticed a small pointed doorway that was the uh, doorway to the uh, to Uncle Filmcrust's Hollywood Underground Sugar Hell... (music with jungle noises) Uh, and so uh, I went through this doorway and down some circular stone stairs, and at one end of a giant cavernous vault, I, uh, I saw among the giant boiling uh, uh... what are those things... what? Giant uh, (sighs) - I wish this roach would leave this stage! Please, go away! Shoosh - MEOW - meow, kitty, kitty... giant vats of uh, boiling sugar paste and among those I saw Uncle Artcrust bending over a film duplicating machine. And I realized that this was the reason or the means by which his operation could be understood, and he was duplicating the film left in the safe overnight by anyone he could succeed in having the characteristic two evening engagement of... of.. of uh, the uh, Lucky uh, Landlord Underground, uh, Desert of Blue Glitter. (138)

Smith's artistic transmutation of his disagreements with Jonas Mekas are still hard to read, like camp versions of Artaud's spells and curses. While Artaud gouged violently into sheets of paper, with Smith the emotion explodes into verbal and theatrical fantasy. Mekas' refusal on his trip to London last month to talk about personalities acquires new meaning when one sees how his own figured in Smith's feverish imagination.

How did such vitriol figure within a small community of artists focussed around the Anthology Film Archive? Putting that question aside, the "underground" for Smith is a place where disappointment, bitterness, anger and hate possess a remarkable creative charge. The quotes here are from the script to Smith's 1981 performance What's Underground About Marshmallows?, which had an extended legacy in that the text was also used by Ron Vawter in his 1992 performance Roy Cohn/ Jack Smith. In one example of the transmission of a legacy, Vawter listened to a tape of Smith during his own performance, using it to inform his own timing and inflection.

Juxtapose this conceptualisation of "underground" with Smithson's Cavern Cinema. It suggests both ideas as expressions of creative process as it interacts with issues of career and art world politics. To simplify:  Smith's is the unconscious of the idea and Smithson's the conscious, with Smithson's proposal posited on his worldly success as an artist, and Smith's on his sense of struggle, exploitation, and perilous economic plight. Put them together and there is a constantly shifting dialogue between intellectual fulfillment and fury.

Nothing like personal resentment to counter the entropy of the universe. A poem-text on a xeroxed flier further clarified Smith's paranoid and vitriolic views on what really was underground:

Is the underground exotic? No, this is how we got

Hollywood. Unreal film babes unable to do business,

losing money, slave class of loveable landlord class

who irrationally operate theatres in the style of the

passive executive, as just more of the old sacrifice-

betrayal context, the continuing betrayal of the 

socialistic impulse.

You know the kind... where we go from co-op, to

distributor to cinematheque to archives...

imperceptibly dissolving from one to the next

incarnation... So he'll never have to go hungry again

like back in Europe.

Welcome through the pointed doorway to the

underground night of Uncle Archives Lucky Landlord

Underground Vaults of Filmcrust! (142-43)

Using all this for an architecture of the cavern cinema, wanting to get away from all that personal venom, but keeping the energy Smith generates, I devised the following group chant:

It's the underground sugar beet pits

and the oozing marshmallow paste

the huge bloated machine gun turnips

from the pores of which a sugar syrup

petrified upon touching. Well anyway

a small doorway the sugar and the tango

down the circular stone steps a giant

cavernous vault and a giant boiling

a duplicating machine how loathsome

uh, of uh, the lucky, uh, blue glitter

dissolving into another incarnation

All quotes in this article are from Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool: The Writings of Jack Smith eds. J.Hoberman and Edward Leffingwell (Serpent's Tail, 1997). This is part of an ongoing series of posts unfolding out of the Cavern Cinema proposal of Robert Smithson. Check out the RECENT POSTS listings for other explorations of Smithson's proposal, Stockhausen's cavern concert hall, performance scores,  creative etymologies of the underground, photo notations, and C.S.Leigh's memoir of the underground cinema's of Paris.

Friday, 26 September 2008


In a moment of carelessness all the magazines of the future....

It was 1962 - a moment when the discipline of art criticism was improvisatory and before ideologies hardened. It was still possible to launch a magazine without a million dollars of demographic surveys and focus groups, and people in their twenties could innocently commit themselves to an idealistic experiment. That they were naïve, inexperienced and flying by the seat of their pants emerges in the stories of those early days: borrowed quarters, unpaid staff, mistakes, blunders, missed issues and a midnight escape from creditors. 

For a while, Philip Leider wrote most of the "Letters to the Editor" under relatives' names, and an ad in an early issue for painter (and review editor) James Monte's show at a San Francisco gallery featured Leider's three-year-old-daughter.(Amy Newman, Challenging Art: ArtForum 1962-1974, 3)

Hi there MORE MILK! I've been reading your blogzine whilst hiking through Patagonia. I've particularly appreciated the focus on books I have no chance of obtaining. I have to say that out here at the end of the world my sense of the current changing relationship between an exhibition and its catalogue is less urgent than your own...

Hello! I think we met in a bar some months ago. You talked at great length about your plans for a magazine and I said artists' film in London needed a culture of criticism. What did I mean by that? I have no idea. I look at your magazine, I read every word and still I have no idea. Keep it up!

Dear More Milk Yvette, the other night I stayed up late reading your opinions on some exhibition or other - I forget which one. Is their anything in London other than multi-screen film and video installations? When I finally got to sleep I dreamed of a magazine printed on leaves of lettuce. I think this story is a complement.

THE EDITOR REPLIES: Relationships of book form and exhibition are designed to be different at different places throughout the world. Some of the best books are those we cannot obtain: have you a copy of Dieter Roth's Mundunculum? No, neither have I and isn't it magnificent?   

Yes, it was I, in the bar, talking about magazines. I didn't believe you. I still don't, and yet here we are. I think we might be saying the same thing.

What exhibition it was only matters if you need it to. Yes, plenty. I would like to collect stories of imaginary magazines, to rival histories of imaginary exhibitions or proposals for fantastic architectures. We would need mock-ups and I think ALL of these should be printed on lettuce leaf pages.

Letters to the editor and proposals for imaginary magazines should be sent to moremilkyvette@gmail.com

Wednesday, 24 September 2008


Spread throughout the current issue of the excellent art writing journal F.R.David are a number of a short texts by artist Michael Stevenson and writer Jan Verwoert, with titles such as "The Bull and the Beginning of the World", "The Shareholder and the Jackal" and "The Lizard and the Eagle."  The first of these provides a taste of what such stories involve:

Leaving the pastures one evening the Bull came upon The Beginning of the World resting peacefully in the fading light of the day.

"Who are you to sit in my way!" roared the Bull as he stamped the ground with his hoofs. "Move, or I will end your miserable life with the powerful thrust of my horns!" 

"Do as you please," The Beginning of the World replied calmly. "But behold that when you do to me what you are threatening the end of this day will be the end of your days too, for never again will there be a new beginning." (19)

In an accompanying letter that Stevenson sent to Will Holder, one of the journal's editors, he explains some of the rationale behind the stories, and his own reading of the above tale:

[These] were written for my project at the Kröller-Müller, Lender of Last Resort. They encourage a more metaphorical reading of the installation - that is their most basic usefulness - Beyond this they are specific descriptions of the situation with the Kröller-Müllers - between patron and state and the enveloping financial crisis - very contemporary one would have to admit - I think the most beautiful is the first fable - for us the bull is the bull market - the beginning of the world is a Brancusi piece from the Kröller-Müller collection from 1924 - the year of the crisis - but it is also of course some kind of description of the original creative act - so creativity and the market - you could write volumes on this of course - (18)

Stevenson's letter  highlights a number of the ways in which such storytelling has become a prevalent contemporary methodology. It's a notion borne out by numerous other publications. Writing of her own practice of written storytelling within an art context,  Maria Fusco has outlined a methodology of "anti-suspense" - which both seems a little removed from the imaginative excess of Stevenson and Verwoert and seems to articulate such of the tension and resistance such a form deploys.  

As opposed to traditional narrative structure and its components of plot and character, Fusco talks of writing that enacts a "relief from plot" and can be:

... invested with a new life or critical trajectory, and a more profound cathetic and critical immersion, in which the spectator is encouraged to be always in the present rather than wondering what will happen at the end... [through] non-sequential narratives effectively reintroducing the reader/viewer to closer looking and calling for his/her presence in the present. (fillip 6, 22)

Last weekend I also picked up a copy of The Great Method/Casco Issues X (2007) a themed issue of an annual magazine produced by the Casco Office of Art, Design and Theory in Utrecht. It's a fascinating project in which artists including Martin Beck, Falke Pisano and Stuart Bailey are invited to "address the question of method (and methodology) in artistic practice, raising questions about its presence or absence, its ideological connotations and historical backgrounds, in order to examine some of the issues around creative production." (4)

The central source for this book-project connects it to the stories in F.R.David.'The Great Method' is a reference to the doctrine taught by Me-ti as it was described by Bertolt Brecht in the untranslated Meti, Book of Changes or Book of Twists (Me-ti, Buch der Wendungen, Surhkamp, 1983), a book of aphoristic dialogues that posit The Great Method - a name CASCO cannot but embrace with some irony - as 'the dynamic balance of opposites, the evolution of events as a process, and acceptance of the inevitability of change." (6). Or, as the artist Stephan Dillemuth puts it, in his essay on Brecht's book: "It seems he wrote it to demonstrate dialectics at work, and to negotiate his own doubts." (21)

Whilst there's a danger of conflating dialogue, fable, and conversation into a single genre, I do think, as the following example demonstrates, that Stevenson and Verwoert's  short stories and Brecht's use of Me-ti, are being evoked by contemporary artists because of some perceived shared methodology:

A student said to Me-ti: what you teach is not new. Ka-meh, Mi-en-leh and many others besides them have taught  the very same. Me-ti answered: I teach what I teach because it is old, i.e. because it is forgotten and because it is seen to be valid allegedly only for the past times. Isn't there a great number of people for whom this is totally new? (20)

So why use such methods? At first I thought of it as being a logical outcome of a meeting between storytelling and a participatory or relational impulse in contemporary art. The mode of address of such stories involve the sense of intimacy and participation of the traditional storyteller, but have none of its implied "we" or shared communal values. There's also - at least until everyone starts doing it - a sense of distance that comes from the insertion of such a form and style in an art magazine or gallery context. 

I also found it useful to think of such texts as a contemporary version of the minimal, fluxus scores by the likes of - amongst others - George Brecht, Yoko Ono, and Alison Knowles. Whilst those often comprised a single word or sentence, these new fables have a similar function but are more expansive, suggesting a willingness to engage with certain notions of subjectivity, whilst maintaining a certain distance and discipline shared with the earlier pieces. Fables also, I think, function as scores, acting out a perceived complex of issues and contexts, but perhaps more for their creators than for any audience. 

But above all - and it was rather startling to realize this - the use of such stories also addresses a need for a strategy of secrecy and subterfuge in the addressing of power. The different voices in Brecht's rendering of Me-ti enabled him to conduct a written dialogue with Leninism, Stalinism, and Socialism. Stevenson and Verwoert's tale's perform a similar function with regard to the different aspects of power in the art world. More broadly, they  speak to a cultural need to engage with culture through forms of projective, imaginative, ventriloquism, where broader public debates are replaced by a theatrical mono-dialogue conducted by different spectres of the self.  

Nor is this just something that effects these individual pieces of writing. One of the pleasures of F.R.David is that it explores such issues on the level of the magazine as whole, setting up a whole series of connections with the novel, both unifying the diverse contributions to each issue and compiling ever expanding agglomerations of voices and strategies. 



Tuesday, 23 September 2008


Jennifer West, Installation View, Electric Kool-Aid and the Mezcal Worm, Vilma Gold, 2008. Courtesy of the artist, Marc Foxx, Los Angeles and Vilma Gold, London.

Jennifer West, Electric Kool-Aid and the Mezcal Worm, Vilma Gold, 7 September - 5 October 2008.

It must be frustrating for Jennifer West that everyone always says this, but it's hard to see her films and not think of the history of treated film - of Ken Lye or Stan Brakhage painting directly onto the film strip. That's because the films look so similar and yet this doesn't feel like the kind of work overly bothered with quoting such historical precedents.

It's odd, too, because, as the titles of her films reveal, West is using very different materials - including LSD, liquid viagra, and strawberry jam to make the brightly coloured patterns that fill the screens. I guess there's much to be said about the cultural differences, artistic assumptions, and working methods that lead an artist to choose particular materials, but it's also remarkable how similar a film you get with liquid viagra than you do painting Brakhage-style onto the film strip. Or maybe it's not.

All of which puts an emphasis less on the colored patterns themselves than on the way such films are presented. West avoids the home made feel that super 8 or even 16mm would have - this would be too close to her historical precedents. She uses 35mm and 70mm, projected large on the wall, two films in each of Vilma Gold's interconnected warehouse spaces. 

The size is necessary, capturing the elevation of a certain silliness and goofiness into moments of cultural zeitgeist. In her new 35mm Electric Kool-Aid Fountain Swimming Film, there's a clearer sense of how these films capture certain lifestyles, generations, and ways of behaving. The colored patterns flicker and swirl over images of West and her friends bathing at night in Los Angeles swimming pools. In Seriously Film that attitude comes in the films repeated writings - in viagra, visine and fake tanning lotion - of the word "seriously." In the other films here it's left to the play of colors themselves, and the knowledge - from the descriptive titles - of what materials were used to make them.

Jennifer West, Green M&M's & Mexcal Worm Film (70MM film leader with a mezcal worm dragged over the surface - imprinted with hundreds of green M&M's), 2008, 1:18. Courtesy of the artist, Marc Foxx, Los Angeles and Vilma Gold, London.

Indeed, watching West's patterns of color made me wonder what flows of colours like these are capturing or prompting. The recent Len Lye presentation at BFI Southbank highlighted the way such flows were products of that artists deeply held views concerning mythological and biological notions of creation and evolution. Stan Brakhage, reflecting on his own process of painting on film, writes of how it involves "the paradigmatic play of memory." (Telling Time: Essays of a Visionary Filmmaker, 80) He describes his own process when painting onto the filmstrip the lettuce on the table in front of him:

Were I to paint the plein-air abstraction of this (as I do) onto a strip of film, my whim would be to absorb what could be seen of such lettuce, its surrounds of tables and all, the very room, and then to allow into my consideration the movements of such absorption - the shifts of eye in contemplation, the electric discharges of synaptic thought, the "translations," as it were, from  optic imprint to memorabilis.(78)

This is hugely different from what West is up to. West's patterns make no claim to a kind of synaptic immediacy, or, rather, it offers the immediacy of a mind  defined by a crazed post-pop-and-punk consciousness, endlessly expressing itself through - and being manipulated by - the substances to hand, more everyday curiosity and involvement than primal perceptual experience. 

That's why I like the new film so much, where West and friends lark around amid the patterns and flows of color: it captures just this sense of the patterns as interior and exterior, description and occurrence, of the body these substances were intended for and the film that absorbed them instead of or as well. Certain reviewers have found this all a bit knowing and tiresome, but I liked how that knowingness combined with the casual and everyday, without ever letting in the complacency of either.

Jennifer West, Seriously Film (70MM Film Leader soaked in MSG and boiling water - inscribed and stamped with the word seriously - with Viagra, Visine and fake taning lotion), 2008, 1:01. Courtesy of the artist, Marc Foxx, Los Angeles and Vilma Gold, London. 

West herself has described all this - in an interview with Greg Kurcewicz available here  - as an anarchic, gender conscious alchemy:   

When I apply any crazy materials to film emulsion - I have learned how the emulsion will react to something acidic versus something sweet - or over time something that will rot eventually. But I still get a huge satisfaction to see what exactly happens to the film when I apply say, mosquito repellant - which I recently did to a film called the Campfire Smell Film. The mosquito repellant made tiny magenta and purple dots all over the film. I didn't really know if it would do anything. The results were fantastic. 

Alchemy is historically linked to men - and I find it funny and perhaps rather perverse to do things that a young boy would find delight in - like covering film in gunpowder and lighting it on fire or running over it with a motorcycle. I like to mix the gender thing up though - something akin to riding a skateboard wearing a dress... 

Occamy is the silver version of alchemy - I like how this relates to film, considering film emulsion was once made with silver nitrates - hence that's where the "silver screen" comes from. So film is inherently alchemical - as its made of layers of emulsion that are exposed to light or in my case, anything I want - that then produces "gold" in the form of mesmerizing, colorful images. 

Urine produced some of the most beautiful images I've ever made. I processed some film in my bathtub recently in the light and was mesmerized as it slowly transformed from opaque to transparent.

Monday, 22 September 2008


Josh Smith, Hidden Darts/ Hidden Darts Reader. Edited by Achim Horchdörfer. Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Köln 2008. ISBN 978-3-86560-495-8

With recent exhibitions and catalogues of both Jess and Joseph Cornel, the figure of the artist as collagist has been acquiring a greater visibility. This may speak to a connection of such work and current preoccupations with, say, the re-enactment of historical events and the layering of fiction and reality in documentary. But, perhaps, it refers more strongly to a particular sense of the artist: as hoarder, arranger, and hermetic world-maker within what Jess' partner - the poet Robert Duncan - termed the "economy of the household."    

I was thinking of some of these issues reading Hidden Darts and Hidden Darts Reader, the two-books in one that comprise the delightful bookwork accompanying New York artist Josh Smith's show at MUMOK, Vienna. Hold the book one way round, then the numbered verso pages intersperse a long interview between Smith and the Achim Hochdörfer - show curator and book editor - with texts by writers, artists and friends, who responded to Smiths instruction to describe "hidden darts" without mentioning either of the two words. Turn the book around and on the recto pages one has reproductions of the long sequence of around hundred paintings that comprised the MUMOK show.

In any act of reading the two, of course, cannot be kept separate. It may be a simple enough structure but it's one I didn't grasp fully until I was quite a way through the reader, which meant I'd paid careful attention to a lot of upside down images. All of which, I suspect, Smith would welcome, the catalogue being a more polished, commercial form of his photocopied, string bound artists' books, which, as Anthony Elms writes here, posit the book as "an opportunity to make another gesture, to push forward into new places by complicating the relationship to past works. Here, the book is not a backward looking catalogue, it is a confusing, boundless mess of questions." (8) Or perhaps, with its choreographed mix of ingredients, it is the book as show window:

Hopefully, what I produce could be compared to maybe a reflection in a store window; something that can be acknowledge and recognized, contemplated, processed, stored, and walked by, without a lot of effort and concentration. Also like a store window, because you pass it everyday and it puts a different thought into your head. Depending on your mood, the weather and what's behind the window, how dirty the window is...(58)

Actually, this book isn't a confusing mess at all. It has a clear concept, acted out on the level of both form and content. What's interesting is what it doesn't say. Indeed, for someone like me who hadn't encountered Smith's work before, it posits the book as a form of implied retrospective. The conversations, for example, are self-conscious, wide-ranging, witty, intelligent and intimate, so that one reaches the end of the book with a good sense of Smith's views, attitudes, and the way critics and curators understand his work. But although biographical facts, and details of his work emerge, there's no overall scene setting, no chronology, no development traced, no history of schools attended or galleries shown at, other than as it emerges almost incidentally and partially in conversation. 

Instead, there's a focus on what I first thought to call the moment, but is actually something different. Perhaps the conversation functions in the same way as Smith's discussion of his works: 

I put down the forms and then I see the emotions; I don't put the emotions in the form before I put them down. I write the story after the painting. I take these motifs of abstraction like lines, dots, squiggles and shapes of colors and zig zags and just layer them. The gestures could be anything and I am going to try to do it in the right way. These paintings just have as much emotion as an expressionist painting, except they were made in reverse... I am trying to make a point that emotion can come from other places besides internal emotion. (90-91)

Smith's dialogue with Hochdörfer is broken into seven chapters, which offer a useful taxonomy of the key concerns Smiths practice, understood broadly, raises, and one which I think has a certain suggestiveness even as a simple list: Oral History, Hidden Darts, Pop Expressionism, Artist's Community, Working Ethos, Cancelled Television Show, Appropriation and Dedication. 

If expressionism is one artistic strategy Smith's work an evoke, then the other is appropriation. Here, again, Smith stresses his differences:

I don't like stuff that takes rather than gives. In my way of working I try to establish a sort of acceptance of the limitations of art. In this respect I am definitely not an appropriation artist. I am referring to a lot of artists and ideas because it helps to show the process of filtration that my work goes through. I am very judgmental and quick. I always have a plan but I don't expect the plan to work. (81) 

As for the contributions by others that break up the interview, they are a varied bunch. Many, whilst enjoyable, I felt functioned primarily as communiques within the context of the authors friendship with Smith. Only a few sought to open up into a broader critical debate. I was most drawn to the formal inventiveness of Kerstin Brätsch's list poem, and to Amy Silliman's short essay "On Embarrassment." The later comprises a fable about visiting the studio of "someone very sophisticated and up-to-date." You look at many "trophy paintings" before the artist "sheepishly" shows you a painting that has been turned to the wall:  

... and it's an ugly brown one with an embarrassing image on it, and it turns out to be the one you like the most. And when you tell the painter this, he or she brightens up because you have given an embarrassing and off-limits painting the permission it needed to live. But really, it IS the best painting in the room because it's the one where you feel the strangest edge, the most out-there and unafraid quality, the painting that goes to a really weird bad place without the baggage of shame or guilt. This is not a painting for everyone mind you. This painting is perverse, and in being so, it expresses aggression. Well, that's how I've come to like and think of a certain kind of expressionism. 

Of course this could merely put embarrassment in a kitsch category of so-bad-it's-good - which is something Josh is constantly playing with. But this is more than a strategy of kitsch: it is an awareness of history, in a way, because it is a double negative position, a position from which a certain kind of critical theory has already been absorbed and the artist is trying to go further, to make an object or have an attitude or find a place to stand that has not been sanctioned by art bureaucrats. This is the cliff edge one feels around for. 

Embarrassment is therefore a sign that one is at risk of exposing one's feelings, which is a good thing, especially if these feelings are ugly and contradictory. I look for these complications in Josh's paintings. He has built an infrastructure that is shored up with analysis and calculation, but nevertheless it leaks out the back with painterly desire and instinct. And it is for this reason that I care about his work so much. I don't like any work that isn't equally one thing as another: as revealing as it is concealing; as cold as it is heartfelt, as hating as it is loving. (38-9)

I copied all that out because it seems to delineate aspects underpinning a large number of shows, events, and writings I've encountered lately.

Then turn the book over and look through the sequence of images. Each begins as a 5x4 feet canvas. Each is covered in what looks a sheet of hand drawn stamps advertising the Lyon Biennale. Both in itself and in relationship to the other canvasses, then, each piece already propounds a serialism, and this is compounded by what Smith paints or collages on top. Some of his repeated strategies include: large, flat areas of color; bold distinctive lines - curving, zig-zags and spots; hand painted words, sometimes announcements for other art shows. Whole sheets of newspaper, menu's, or what looks like sheets from Smith's sketchbook are also added, and these may then also be overlaid with lines or masses of color.

Smith observes that he can work on as many as 100 paintings simultaneously. The book's cover reproduces them all, in a grid, echoing the pattern of stamps from which each individual canvas begins. It highlights the tension of similarity and difference, between a certain improvisational casualness and the defining parameters of canvas and series. 

Inspired by this book, I sought out some other examples of Josh Smith's work, in other books and on the internet. Nothing  else prompted the strong response I had to the work in Hidden Darts - even when, as in Smith's own website - it presented some of the same images, testimony to this books success in finding a form for the presentation and discussion of his work.