Category Archives: Manifesto

Not What, But How

Back in the 1970s I made my first trips to New York city as an art student, and one of the artists who attracted me most, and who has remained a major influence for me, was Richard Foreman. I bought a copy of his book Richard Foreman, Plays and Manifestos (NYU Press, 1976), and couldn’t help but notice that there on the cover of the book was an illustration of a theatre by Robert Fludd, one that I first saw in The Art of Memory by Frances Yates.

Now, the image on the cover would have been enough to sell me on the book, but Foreman’s texts were so focused on exactly where I wanted to focus, on that moment where one notices. It isn’t a scientific type of focus or noticing. It’s a noticing where one suddenly finds oneself aware that one had been carrying around a conceptual frame that was not synched with what one was confronting, and then one notices that frame shift so that one is suddenly resonant with that confrontation. What happens in this type of noticing, is that one is not so involved with WHAT something means, as one is with HOW something means.

After a lifetime of focusing on how things mean, it is a response that is always ready to erupt. If one continually had that as an initial reaction we would not survive–we’d get hit by cars while staring at the walk/don’t walk signs, instead of just waiting for the proper sign to blink on. But it is a response that occurs enough with me that it is my main source of humor, and I’m sure I annoy many people with my deliberate misinterpretations of statements. It’s not that I think I’m clever, my mind is just constantly looking for the pun, the parallel meaning, the unintended wordplay, and it goes there first. I live in an alternative universe.

Here is a note in one of Foreman’s “manifestos” from the book: “Write by thinking against the material. Since you don’t want to convince self of your vision, etc.–but to let it be informed by the disintegrating non-moment”.

For me his plays throw everything at each other so that all of us–and I believe Foreman himself as a viewer–is actively engaged in trying to find anything that makes sense. With no traditional story or narrative, objects are present as objects, and only on occasion, seemingly unconsciously, they collide with the right object and a symbol radiates from the crash. And as the symbol emerges from our suddenly noticing, from an otherwise noisy but meaningless stage, we are able to better notice elemental aspects of our “making sense”.

In October, Foreman premiered a new film “Once Every Day” at the New York Film Festival. He was interviewed by the critic Amy Taubin. Here it is:


Beefheart’s Wake and the Cultural API

Attended the Beefheart “symposium” last night. Enjoyed it. As one speaker said “This is really a wake”. Very few young people, mostly old men–except for Robin, who came along. Earlier in the week I’d asked my film students how many had gone to the SF Cinematheque, and no one knew what I was talking about. On the way home last night, out in the world, while passing bright new billboards for the Beatles, I had a sudden “Blade Runner” feeling. I had a kind of flash-backed premonition. Instead of buildings and physical infrastructure left in disrepair, there was a culture with so much of its vitality lost that the present couldn’t be understood, we are left with behavioral habits without knowledge of their cause. The Beatle billboards were the ads in Blade Runner, and Beefheart and Independent Cinema were the missing creators of the unmaintained architecture and infrastructure. Where are the counter-cultural inventors who construct truly new meaning from the new technologies? Who create art that is unsalable not because it is scatological, but because it is so radical in its form that it demands work from the viewer to perceive that it has an aesthetic source. There is absolutely no need for another Beefheart, or Beatles for that matter. But I look for more desperation to invent one’s self even at the cost of losing one’s self.

Or maybe invention maintains the same relation to the underlying culture as it ever did, and we just have less underlying movement to be reflected in new art. That seems hard for me to believe, with all the technological innovations present. And we can see those so clearly reflected in Egypt, as the people there are forced to reinvent themselves as free souls within a world community. Perhaps here we have too little need to reinvent the self as presently imagined by society.

Gary Lucas shared a Beefheart quote last night: “I think of music as primarily an irritant”. There is no understanding this unless you posit a disconnect between the form to which the society requires the artist to con-form, and the need by the artist to produce a form that differs from it. If the self-form that the artist/citizen requires matches the one enjoined by cultural infrastructure (the API calls work in both directions), you don’t get the desperation to reinvent the self. Note this isn’t at the social level (which is analogous to a digital “skin”), but at the cultural level (not directly available to the conscious, but sensed by the conscious as an emotional or physical/synaesthetic malaise). If that malaise isn’t present: no need to create a self reformed so that it can survive without the cultural API communications. The “irritant” is such not because the artist wants someone to feel badly, but because s/he is trying to invent his or her own albumin…one that because of its source and purpose is impermeable to the cultural API…and that creates a mirrored malaise between the albumin and the outside society.

So perhaps it is a good thing that it does not occur to youth to basically reinvent itself: as sign of alignment between the young individual and the surrounding culture. Either that, or there is no sensitivity left: no individual, no name, numb.