Trecartin’s work is not only interesting because it enacts a literal illustration of the electric mania of modern life: I get enough of that from sixty seconds online. Rather, I like how his artworks animate the ongoing dialogue between identity and technology. The love/hate nature of this relationship arises from the mix of liberty and alienation that it affords (our world is getting faster, brighter, better; our world can feel disorientating, overloaded with information) and which, with the invention of the internet, entered an era of unparalleled anxiety and opportunity.
This tension has been with us for centuries. In the Phaedrus, Socrates reveals a deep suspicion of the written word that prefigures ongoing concerns about the dubious allure of technology. People who credulously embrace the written word will, he says, ‘appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality’. He claims the written word is ‘no more than an image’: a false facsimile of truth. When we outsource self-expression to the written word we are estranged from ourselves and the world: we dip our heads in Lethe, forget our voice.
It’s astonishing how much of a fuss Socrates kicks up about writing, which most of us stopped thinking of as a technology a long, long time ago. If you hollow out his argument and reassign it as a broad analogy, it helps contextualise what can seem like an exclusively contemporary concern: the lag between the onset of technological change and our ability to absorb it. In an interview with curator Jennifer Lange, Trecartin put it like this: ‘I love the idea of technology and culture moving faster than the understanding of those mediums by people. It’s like the jumper being jumped before the onset of “jump”.’ (By ‘jump,’ I can only assume he is referring to the teleportation film Jumper, mauled by critics back in 2008.)
Socrates’ graphophobia seems petty when set against the insidious imperialism of screen-based life: tablet computers of ever-increasing power and ever-decreasing size, a sense of global contraction, the rise of social networking as a new manifestation of advertising. Like writing, these forms of technological self-extension diminish our agency by challenging our conception of ourselves as consistent, centralised selves. We think of gadgets as our slaves, but the minute they acquire a will or agency of their own they threaten to overpower their users. From Mary Shelley to Isaac Asimov, speculative fiction is littered with technological experiments gone wrong.
Trecartin’s films, by contrast, invert this technological anxiety. In fact, for all they might unsettle us, they present the process as thrilling, impulsive, and fun. Many of his characters read like avatars from Second Life, and the manipulation of the film is so relentless that this fusion of physical digital selves is realised within the plane of the image. This might sound slightly sci-fi, but it’s commonplace today in practices like photographic re-touching and auto-tuning. For all that they need and love their smartphones and digital cameras, Trecartin’s characters hurl them across the room in fits of pique, take hammers to flatbed scanners. The union of self and technology is attended with frustrations; crucially, however, it is not burdened by worry, loss or fear.In Ryan’s Web 1.0, a series of photo-collages, Trecartin recasts his collaborators/friends Lizzie Fitch, Veronica Gelbaum, Telfar Clemens and Ashland Mines as avatars of future fashion. These thumbnail visions of Trecartin’s world present the self as open network, pervaded by culture. Logos inscribe themselves on flesh, brands become bodies, and personality is realised in an act of synaesthetic over-identification with consumerist ephemera.
Corruption—House of Cards fictional Chinese Billionaire Xander Feng, though twice tried for corruption at home, says he can sway the senior leadership of the Communist Party. Question: Possible?
Steven Jiang: Not really. It’s like saying Bo Xilai came out of prison but was tried for corruption again—and he got released again and became best pals with Xi Jinping.
Kaiser Kuo: If he’s supposed to be a princeling whose grandfather fought alongside Mao and was one of the Eight Immortals, then it’s plausible that he would have access and even influence within the very senior echelons of the Party leadership. The impossible part of course is the notion that he’d been brought up twice on corruption charges and acquitted. This to me was the most egregious bit in Feng’s backstory, and one that was wholly unnecessary to establish that he was walking a fine line.Evan Osnos: Since a trial would indicate that Feng had already failed to manage his relationship with his peers, the answer is no. This is merging two interesting but separate themes from Chinese history: In the past, you could be purged twice or three times as Deng Xiaoping was, and still recover your status. But in this day, when corruption trials are deployed only as a final verdict on your political viability, there are no second chances. You need to go as long as you can before getting tried.
* * *
Rare Earth Mining—Feng is in a joint venture rare earths mining operation with U.S. power plant billionaire Raymond Tusk. Question: Plausible?
Jiang: Not really. Beijing has linked its rare earth deposits to national interest and would never approve such a joint venture. And why would there be rare earth mining in Fujian as described in the show? Most deposits are in Inner Mongolia!
Donald Clarke: No. According to the most recent version of the Guidance Catalog for Foreign Investment in Industrial Sectors, any foreign investment in rare earths mining, even via a joint venture, is prohibited (see Prohibited Industries, Sec. II.2). This is not to say that Tusk couldn’t be involved in some arrangement with Feng that is similar in substance to a joint venture—after all, foreign investors have been able to use the variable-interest entity structure to navigate around restrictions and prohibitions on foreign investment in telecommunications—but it certainly couldn’t be called a joint venture.
Osnos: My fellow commentators have dismantled this one, but I've always been impressed with how the Tusk character has mastered the very authentic habit of constantly invoking his “35 years of dealing with the Chinese” as his trump card in conversations. Any China hand has used a version of this line before, in an attempt to squelch some bad idea or another, and we should be reminded of how it sounds.
* * *
Junkets: In the show, the sociopathic U.S. Vice President Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, unearths Federal Aviation Administration records showing that Feng’s private jet has flown from Beijing to Missouri dozens of times in a few years. Question: So what?
Osnos: If this was reality, Feng is more likely to have gone to New Haven (to visit a child in prep school), then Napa (to check on his vineyards), and then Vegas. For the Chinese oligarchs, the days of dutiful work-only trips to the U.S. are over, if ever they existed.
* * *
Campaign Finance: The show’s writers would have viewers believe that Chinese gambling losses at a Missouri casino are funneled into U.S. politics by the Native American casino owner as Political Action Committee contributions, first to the Democrats, then to the Republicans. Question: Really?
Jiang: The image of Al Gore “hanging out” with Asian monks popped up in my mind—as far as I remember, that was the last time alleged illegal campaign donation involving the Chinese made news. This hasn’t been a major issue recently and I somehow doubt the Chinese would be this sophisticated in channeling money to U.S. politicians.
Kuo: Hey, after Citizens United, who knows? Even with scrutiny, the rules governing Super PAC contributions and the extent to which Super PAC contributors can involve themselves with candidates isn’t neatly laid out and easy to fudge. It’s plausible to me that earnings from Chinese gamblers—given the pervasiveness of the stereotype of Chinese fondness for gambling—could easily have gone from an Indian casino to a PAC without close scrutiny.
Fin, Talabot's classic house and modern music mix has both an urban and knowing sensibility that produces dance all over my body. Nevertheless, a subtle play on what is fast becoming the most creative space for the future.
Never tell John Talabot his music's cozy. In a recent interview with Juno Plus,
the Barcelona-based producer expressed confusion over many of the
labels applied to the music that has made him such a presence in
electronic music over the last few years—"tropical" being the most
obvious. He insists that he always thought of his productions as kind of
shadowy. It's an interesting objection because you can hear what he's
saying: There's always been a sly melancholy, a kind of sonic withdrawal
and itchy discomfort, to Talabot's material that belies the shimmer at
Regardless of how you view these timbres though—and, clearly, one man's
beachbum anthem is another's depressive tearbait—Talabot's been
omnipresent in sets, mixes and compilations for about three years now.
Across well-caned favorites like "Sunshine," "Matilda's Dream" and
"Families" on labels like Permanent Vacation, Young Turks and Spain's
Hivern Discs, Talabot's established his own brand of sandy haired
electronica that owes as much to the jumpy Balearic strains of fellow
Spaniards like Delorean and Hamburg microscopic deep house as they do to
the melodic swellings of early to mid-00 heavies like Kompakt and Get
Marked by his keen sense of songcraft, Talabot's tunes are just as good
(if not better) for country day strolls or evening reading than peak
night hedonism. And with his debut album, fIN, finally arriving
on Permanent Vacation, it's obvious from the outset that he's
constructed a fifty-odd minute piece of music as cohesive and
narrative-oriented as some of the best electronic full-lengths of the
last few years. There are stepbacks and detours—the ambient whirl of
"H.O.R.S.E." and the garbled dystopic blur of "Last Land"—that lend
moments of sonic reprieve against the album's heartiest tracks. Fellow
Spaniard and recent Permanent Vacation standout Pional turns up on the
sultry vocal-bent house of "Destiny," with its brief lapses into
bell-laced ambience that almost resemble Pantha du Prince, while "Depak
Ine" opens with brief night calls—birds, frogs, all manner of cries
unseen—before slipping into an eclipse of pitch-shifted vocal blurs and
fuzzy synth blurts (surely one of the songs Talabot had in mind when
referring to the album's blacker hues).
Barcelona house producer John Talabot has a knack for capturing the very
specific kind of bliss associated with dancing on Mediterranean beaches
at the height of summer. A penchant for rising chords means that all
his melodies make you feel like raising your arms and face to the sun.
Talabot also has arguably the greatest sense of build-and-release in dance music
since prime Booka Shade: ƒin is full of incredible tension-releasing
moments, from the extended break in Destiny to the entrance of Missing
You's bouncing bass. The generosity of Talabot's sound can also be
ascribed to the amount of disparate ingredients he puts to use in
service of his aesthetic – particularly the variety of human voices on
display. There are wordless chants and bright, optimistic pop hooks; an
echoing scream is plucked from a horror film and deposited in the middle
of a carnival on Oro y Sangre, while on So Will Be Now, cut-up vocals
coalesce gradually and gorgeously into recognisable language. All of
humanity seems to be here – and it's busy celebrating being alive.
The Catalan producer hails from a sound stable saddled with the early
moniker ‘Balearic’, named for the collaborations conjured up between he
and his Basque country brethren – check out his shimmering remix of
Delorean’s “Sunshine,” and his mate from Madrid, Pional’s many vocals on
Fin. His oozy, woozy take on ambient house evokes the sun sinking below Barcelona’s rooftops, so effortlessly captured in his EP Families - yet save for the song titles, somewhat surprisingly there’s no Spanish on the album.
But for all the deliciousness and delicacy, the record is interlaced
with moments of darkness – something Talabot is determined to cling to.
‘Why am I always tagged as house, or tropical or happy music when I’m
making dark tracks? ’, he said in this interview. ‘I don’t understand’.
Perhaps that’s why opening track “Depak Ine” begins in the way that
it does, with a haunting jungle-like atmosphere where the skittering
hoots and hollers of unseen wild beasts are offset by a pounding
rhythmic drumbeat. This seven minute extravaganza fully immerses the
listener into the record as layer upon layer is gently spliced together,
until all the slivers make up a complex, melodic slice of sound. It’s
an method that’s equally well wielded on album closer “So Will Be Now,”
that cuts samples of Pional’s vocal with a groovy, bouncy bass and tight
Better at layering than any fashion editor, is Talabot. In the same
Red Bull interview, Talabot admits he likes to sample – ‘it’s something
more creative’, and this is exemplified on ”Last Land.” There are sounds
you recognize and yet can’t place – it’ll make you gurn in that
desperation to identify it – rounded off by a sequence that recalls Arabian Nights, all twinkly bells and twisted synths.
I hardly ever watch network news, but I happened to stumble across
this appalling report on NBC's "Rock Center" last night. In
this clip, reporter Richard Engel blames this week's anti-American violence on "conspiracy
theories" that Arab populations have been fed over the years by their
rulers, including the idea that the United States and Israel are colluding to
control the Middle East.
It's no secret there are conspiracy theories circulating in the Middle
East (as there are here in the good old USA: Remember the "birthers?")
I've heard them every time I've lectured in the region and done my best
debunk them. But by attributing Arab and Muslim anger solely to these
ideas, Engel's report paints a picture of the United States (and by
implication, Israel) as wholly blameless. In his telling, the U.S. has
nothing but good intentions for the past century, but the intended
beneficiaries of our generosity don't get it solely because they've been
by their leaders.
In short, Operation Cast Lead never happened, Lebanon wasn't invaded
in 1982 or bombed relentlessly for a month in 2006, the United States
turned a blind eye towards repeated human rights violations by every
of its Middle Eastern allies, the occupation of Iraq in 2003 was just a
and the Palestinians ought to be grateful to us for what they've been
left after forty-plus years of occupation. To say this in no way
absolves governments in the region for
responsibility for many of their current difficulties, but Americans do
themselves no favors by ignoring our own contribution to the region's
In short, you want to get some idea of why most Americans have no idea
why we are unpopular in the region, this example of sanitized "analysis" is
illuminating, though not in the way that Engel and NBC intended.
The chance to snap out of our numbness, provided by processes of break boundaries or hybridization, is one of several possible antidotes to the narcotic effects of media. McLuhan wrote Understanding Media, in part, as a warning about the effects of media that we are ignoring. One of McLuhan’s antidotes is awareness; by being aware of the effects our media have on us we can be in a better position to counteract them. But that is only the first step. Awareness itself is not enough. McLuhan writes in chapter 31 on television:
It is the theme of this book that not even the most lucid understanding of the peculiar force of a medium can head off the ordinary "closure" of the senses that causes us to conform to the pattern of experience presented. . . . To resist TV, therefore one must acquire the antidote of related media like print. (329)
So one antidote to the numbing effect of a particular medium is to use another medium that has a counter-effect: “When the technology of a time is powerfully thrusting in one direction, wisdom may well call for a countervailing thrust” (70-71). So turn off the TV (or the computer or the cell phone) after some time and read a book or take a walk in the woods. After enough reading, have a conversation with another human being. McLuhan thus is arguing that a “cure” for the effects of a dominant medium or pattern of the time can be a countervailing force in the opposite direction of the dominating force.
Another antidote to technological narcosis is for people to assume the attitude of the artist. McLuhan writes:
The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinion or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception. (18)
He further claims that the “artist picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs” and so “the artist is indispensible in the shaping and analysis and understanding of the life of forms, and structures, created by electric technology” (65). But by “artist” McLuhan does not mean just the person who formally engages in some artistic endeavor as a profession but the person of “integral awareness,” a point he makes clear when he says: “The artist is the man, in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness” (65). Thus, the artistic perspective serves as an antidote to media narcosis because it allows us to see the big picture and the interrelationship among things, as well as to anticipate technological changes, and their social and cultural implications, before they happen.