Joy as Tactic: On the Art of Michael Gillette

One image from Michael Gillette's incredible series, Little Angels. I highly recommend his monograph, "Drawn in Stereo."

As Guy Debord argues, the contemporary has insinuated itself into the very fabric of our being. We are inundated with images that lay claim to our most intimate selves — how we cry, love, feel, interact. We are occupied by the myths and desires propagated by capitalism, by the corporate will to profit: we believe, deep down, that the new gadget will set us free, make us whole, bring us joy.

But within this occupation lie moments, opportunities, spaces of dissent. There are what Deleuze and Guattari might call lines of flight, passages out of the occupied spaces of identity, a deterritorialization of self and world. Rock & roll has played a particularly poignant role in the spectacle and the constitution of selves and society. It has forged and fomented a variety of postures and possibilities — not all lines of flight, mind you — from angry revolt to masculine and particularly phallic bravado to the cloying nostalgia of classic rock radio.

A conspicuous aspect to rock & roll is that it was never only a sonic movement. It was, from the beginning, a visual movement. We can literally picture rock & roll — from Elvis to Stanley "Mouse" Miller and beyond. We see The Beatles in that crosswalk, Mick Jagger gyrating, Stevie Nicks swirling. Like all kids from a certain era, I'd put the record on and then sit with the album cover, studying every last detail. Two in particular scared me with their promise and possibility. One was the cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors" which, with its idiotic sexual innuendo and complex psychosexual politics, titillated and confused me and let me know an entire universe awaited me with pain and pleasure (I was, like, seven).

The other was the back of The Grateful Dead's "Aoxomoxoa" with its pastoral scene of hippie families. Oh, man that one still haunts me! Were they free of the bourgeois world I lived in? What did that entail? Did they have beds and showers? Did they go to school? That image lingers in the periphery of my consciousness, a possibility of freedom and a possibility of stinky horror.

I am not saying much when I say that the intensity and affect of the music worked with the intensity and affect of the image to create many possible modes of self. To a lot of people, it was — and remains — a literal line of flight out of the mundanity, and often violence, of their closed worlds. Michael Gillette was one such person.

And while rock & roll was creating new — and reviving old — myths of self and society, the art world was playing a particular role in fomenting different kinds of lines of flight. Warhol, Lichtenstein, Richard Prince, Marc Lafia, John Baldessari: all these artists grab images of the capitalist engine as they pass through the ether and ourselves and redistribute them, forging cracks, folds, and territories. They jam the system, revealing its mechanics — its environment, as Marshall McLuhan would say. But they do other things, as well, each in their own way. Warhol reveled in the freedom the endless imagistic production of self affords. Lichtenstein denuded the myths, allowing us a certain distance from their affect. Baldessari, Prince, and Lafia — each in their own distinctive manner — give us the engine of image production as a plaything.

Michael Gillette does something else entirely. He doesn't jam the system. Nor does he merely perpetuate it. While his work seems familiar — there is no doubt a whiff of nostalgia for the promise of punk — he breaks cliché through one of the most difficult tactics: joy. He takes up the images of rock & roll that surround us — the elaborate mythology of the psychedelic, of Woodstock, of "Rolling Stone" and "Spin" — and inhabits them, lending the mythology a pathos evacuated by the the profit motive and cock rock disc jockeys.

Look at his Little Angels series. Here, he paints portaits of dead rock and pop stars — Biggie, Amy Whinehouse, Whitney, Jimi and Janis, Kurt — but as children. The pathos is achingly poignant, almost unbearable. In these faces, painted with just their their name, we see and feel lives lived and lives lost, all at once. The fact that it's just their first name echoes twice: it is how children designate themselves — you can see Amy as child, "Hi, I'm Amy!" — and it's how they are mythologized by the spectacle: you hear Amy and you know to whom it refers (it's the title of her postmortem documentary: the one name suffices, amplifying the mythos). But by mixing these two — the innocence of youth with the spectacle of image — we live the life of the myth in its beauty, its pain, its horror, its exploitation, its longing, its aspiration, its villainy, its promise.


Gillette is in perhaps a unique position. While Warhol played at labor with his Factory — although I feel his best paintings were his corporate illustrations — Gillette's art is often literally labor, the product of a corporate commission, illustrating for the likes of Levi's and "Spin" and Penguin Books, (although not exclusively). While the art world proper might frown on such things, it is what gives Gillette's art its power, posture, and particular poignance. (And isn't all art a commodity? Isn't the distinction specious at best? Don't we all know this by now?) He is poised at the the very juncture where the spectacle is produced. And while some artists might ironically sneer, Gillette takes it as an opportunity to lend pathos where there is too often none.

There is no doubt an implicit critique that runs through Gillette's work. By taking up images of what we know, by taking up the myths of rock & roll as artifice, he is exposing the machinery of myth-making, revealing the environment of spectacle production. We create these myths, he tells us. And by revealing, and reveling in, the pathos cliché and nostalgia eliminate, he points to the dehumanization inherent in capitalist production.

But Gillette does this all through a surprising technique: through an abundance of love! An abundance of joy! He finds life where there was none! I see him closer to Jeff Koons than, say, Roy Lichtenstein or Richard Prince. If Lichtenstein affords us a certain critical remove and Prince a critique of art production both through a certain delirium of image appropriation, Koons loves the glitter and shine of the pop image. But he takes images of Michael Jackson and moves them into a posthuman affect: his Michael Jackson and Bubbles is not of this world, the pop image elevated to pure adorned glitter. There is no human pathos there, only a toothy sheen. Gillette, on the other hand, discovers a transcendence within the human-all-too-human, within the mythologies that we create. We feel the love but also the pain. And that, alas, is the affirmation of this life. That is joy.

We see it in his line which I want to call voluptuous, generous, adoring. Look at his illustrations for "American Hustle" (one of the great American movies of the past few decades). Look at the glimmering love. There is no irony. Nor is there capitulation to the spectacle, selling for the sake of profit. Rather, there is a love of it all, a generous eye and line, emanating pathos. His line, his gesture, is so effusive, so voluminous, so palpable that we feel the humanity within the myth.

At times, there is a wit that is joyous and affirmative, as well. Look at his Elvis. It's funny. It's true, somehow. There seems at first to be some snark, Elvis love as Americana. But take a second look. There is no snark. Yes, Elvis love embodies a certain Americana. And vice versa. And that is how we make myths, yes. And it's glorious and strange and fun and funny. Gillette sees and enjoys it all — and let's us do the same.

And then look: it's Michael Cera, all sweet nerdy innocence. How are we to stand towards this? How are we to feel? There is a nod of recognition, sure. But then something else happens. In its glaring analogness — an unseemly word but conceptually apropos as Gillette is relentlessly non-digital — a personal aside I happen to know: he doesn't have a cell phone —  in this human touch, we see so much: myth making but also the power of myth to forge possibilities, of Cera's distinctive promise of unpretentious humanity. What Gillette gives us is the most difficult mode of critique — critique not through alienation, not through No-saying, but through an abundance of love: through joy.


The Monumental Within the Everyday: On the Images of Raoul Ollman

The images are of familiar things — faces, streets, buildings, his family (in full disclosure, he's even taken a picture of me). But something is different; things are still — too still, conspicuously still, as if cemented in place.

At first glance, this may not seem surprising. After all, we like to say that photography captures the world. The presumption is that life is fleeting; the camera freezes it in place. This, we imagine, is the promise of photography: the world moves, the photograph stays put.

But Ollman is up to something else, creating a different architecture between photography, world, and photograph. Yes, his camera seems to freeze the world around us. But his images are not just still; it's as if they've always already been still. Viewing image after image, I feel like I'm moving through Pompeii. But that's not quite right. It's more like moving through some kind of sculpture park.

It's not, then, that Ollman is stopping something in motion. It's that he sees a different world, one in which the everyday is pervaded, down to its very molecular structure, with a certain transcendent stillness: with the monumental.

As the photographer, Ollman doesn't see a world in progress and try to capture the moment. I want to suggest, rather, that when he sees the everyday world, he sees something else: he sees the monumental already there, running through the world. He doesn't just proffer the beauty, the grotesque, or sublimity of the world around us. He's not Weegee. Nor is he Stieglitz or Eisenstaedt, raising the everyday to the level of grandeur. He sees the elements of the everyday that persist across time and space. There's a transcendence, sure, but that word doesn't suffice. It's too immaterial, too vaporous. Ollman's images have weight, enormous weight, perhaps infinite weight: the weight of being itself.

In fact, I want to say that he's not as much a photographer as a sculptor who carves with a camera. That is what these images are: faces and scenes carved in stone, all the better to celebrate their grandness and stand the test of time. Only they're not sculptures per se; they are not made of stone. They're made of light and pixels.

This has the perhaps surprising effect of making them even more monumental. As we've seen with the great Greco-Roman artifacts, sculpture gives way to the elements. Noses lose their definition; limbs fall off (see the Venus de Milo). But the photograph, especially in the digital age, offers the true monument: the image that will never fade. I want to say, then, that Ollman is a digital sculptor of the modern urban moment.


Distributed Grammar

Say you're reading a book. Say it's Moby Dick (why not make it a good one?). Where does meaning reside? Whence the meaning you experience with and from this whale of a book?

Surely, it comes from the words. But where do words get their meaning? After all, take them out of all context and they're just shapes on a page. Ah, but there is no such thing as "taken out of all context." Some context is always already present, making its present felt. There is no such thing as a vacuum; everything is inflected.

So many presences when we read — words, books, biographies, appetites, images of reading, associations of images of reading, the need to eat or pea or sleep, friends, your sense of yourself and all that that entails. So many forces and things come to bear as you, alone, read Moby Dick.

There's history, too. But history is itself multiple. There is the history of the word that brings it across time to sit on that page there and look back at you. Those travels across time and ink and minds are rich, fecund with nuance, connotations, denotations, permutations and such. And there's your history — of those words, of your various and diverse experiences, of reading, of what you believe it means to read. (For many of us, reading is an inherent good, a sign of a lively mind and refined spirit. These days, I'm not so sure of that. Books are just another technology and words just another set of stuff.)

There's the writer, as well, or what we sometimes call the author. Melville lived in a time and place, had certain associations with words and images and they traveled across time to his hand to his page to your eyes to your experience.

In this seemingly straightforward act of you reading a book, probably alone in your bedroom, there are so many forces at work coming together and not coming together but somehow creating a machine that produces meaning, understanding, sensations. Every moment is a conjuring, a séance of sorts.

Meaning is distributed across these various bodies. You, as the reader, don't invent the meaning. You inflect it, inevitably, but you don't invent it. Melville has a lot to say but, on the other hand, he has nothing to say as he's not there; in fact, he's dead. So let's say that rather than Melville, there is this arrangement of these words.

And that arrangement does a lot of work, with or without Melville. Subject-verb agreement; inflection of subjects and objects and indirect objects; adjectival and adverbial qualifications. The grammar of language, its written as well as unwritten rules of how words should go together, is a pronounced presence as you sit there in your room, seemingly alone, reading this book.

The event of meaning — all these diverse forces cohering into something you feel and think and, perhaps, articulate — is a conspiracy of forces both visible and invisible, both immediate (the need to pee!) and historical (the word "doom" bears its eschatological etymology).  And each party plays its role, to a greater or lesser degree. Which is to say, sometimes you — the reader — have to do a lot of work. Or maybe you don't have to but you want to. Sometimes, a word rings out so great it muffles most attempts to domesticate it — in which case, it's the word doing most of the work. Sometimes it's circumstance. Different things at different times in my life have different effects and affects, as if Melville and words and whole history of the novel, of language, of the world is put to work in the service of a dominant mood emerging from a set of particular circumstances. 

The responsibility of meaning — the grammar of the meaning event — is distributed. It doesn't exist in one place. It happens between lots of things. But this distribution is not equal. It is not a load split evenly among all parties. It is a distributing of duty, as well.

Charisma, for instance, has a way of determining meaning perhaps even despite the best intentions of those around. Such is charisma: it is that which seduces and coerces attraction. And what is meaning except a certain mode of attraction between words, bodies, desires, appetites, and concepts?

I saw a film a few years ago called Zero Dark Thirty about the USA's assassination of Osama bin Laden (oy! Now I know this blog is tagged by the NSA, some virtual spider crawling it looking for keywords, probably mining my unsavory browse history. But that is my point, if I have a point: there are so many forces at work determining the way this text goes). The oddest thing to me about this film is that its very meaning resides on a shared knowledge. That is to say, if you don't know about 9/11 and the presumed role of Mr. bin Laden (fuck! I feel like that rag, the NY Times), the film makes no sense. It doesn't tell you about the towers; it rests on a shared history for its semantic production. The distribution of grammatic duty lies in the shared history of the viewers. If you had never heard of 9/11 or this Osama character, the film would be insane. Which is to say, it would have the oddest of  meanings — for no apparent reason, an organized mafia/militia wants to kill one man hiding — which, I suppose, might make it more interesting. Or meaningless!

Now consider another film about 9/11, United 93, which I wrote about ages ago and is brilliant (the film but, well, my reading of it, too). The grammatic distribution in that film is quite different than it is in Zero Dark Thirty. In United 93, it doesn't matter if you already know the history of 9/11 (as if there were one history); in Zero Dark Thirty, the film is downright demented if you don't know and, finally, share its assumptions about what it is you know. It doesn't build its own argument about the event; it relies on common sense which, as someone I know recently tweeted, is an oxymoron. United 93, however, is about an event whose sense is distributed. No one ever quite knows what's happening; information spills across different screens and eyes and doesn't become the event we know it as for quite a while.

Think for a moment about images and captions — or, better, The New Yorker cartoons. Meaning is distributed between and among the image, words, and our shared assumptions and ideologies. Change the words and, well, the image changes dramatically. And yet the image can't just be pushed to mean this or that. The image has something to say. The meaning happens between them — and so much more.


The Form Writing Takes: Essays, Books, Notes

Recently, I find myself disinclined to write. Which is funny — and a bit disconcerting — as writing has been my go-to delight since I was 20 and writing my undergraduate honors thesis. I discovered then that I could churn out the pages and that it filled me not just with delight but with vitality. I never feel more alive and entwined with the universe than when I'm writing.

For me, writing has never been an expression of thoughts I've had. It is thought itself happening right now across the page (or screen, as the case may be — although I do continue to write on my tiny Rhodia pad). Writing, for me, is an experience rather than a recounting. I am at the edge of my seat, literally, but also at the edge of my thoughts and the edges of words and grammar — reaching, delving, exploring, seeking the right word, the right turn of phrase, as ideas take shape before my eyes. It is thrilling, life at the limit of its own becoming.

Recently, I've published a book with a press I love, Zero Books (the official release date is August 26th). It's a book I've written and re-written many times over the last 20 years. So it feels good that it's out there in this present form; it is a pretty good summation of thoughts I've had — and believed, I suppose — for decades.

But I think that its bookishness, its closed borders, has dampened my will to write. Books are so final. In the process of publishing, I had to sign off on the manuscript's finality along the way. And now it's bound and printed, an object in the world. I can't tweak a phrase, add an idea, qualify a claim. There it is, repeating itself over and over to anyone who will read it. It's done.

This is a beautiful thing in its way. Like the Oulipo writers, I enjoy constraints. If I hadn't published this book, I'd keep writing it over and over. Which is beautiful, too, but in a different way. With the thingness of a book demanding a finale, a form is birthed, perhaps a bit misshapen but a life unto itself nonetheless. It will now do what it does, have the effects and affects it does. (Plato and Derrida differ over how they feel about precisely this fact: Plato is a bit anxious that writing has no parent to defend it; Derrida loves this undoing of subjectivity; but both feel the power of this detachment from the person.)

I always enjoyed writing books (although this is my first one published). I loved writing my dissertation; as I've written in the past, writing a book is constructing a house from the inside out — while living in it! You can add whatever room you want, knock down walls as you go.

But after my son was born, my ability to have the kind of time and space — practically and intellectually — was, well, eliminated. And so, tentatively, I took up blogging. At first, all my posts were essays I'd write first in Word before cutting and pasting into blogware. Over time, however, I took to writing directly into the blog UI. I enjoy this liveliness, my writing sitting somewhere between me, my screen, and the internet. I like this plasticity, that I can change it, write over it, write it again as I wish, when I wish, with nearly no obstacles. If a book is solid, a blog is liquid.

Essays are an incredible form, so generous (I wrote about them here). They afford me a freedom, a space and form to improvise and play.

But recently I keep having thoughts, flickers of ideas. I jot them down or verbally record them on my phone. In the past, I've thought of these notes as seeds that might germinate and become essays. But now I am attracted to their brevity, to the fact that they don't go anywhere. I like the fragmented nature of the note.

If I published just one note on this blog, in this interface, it would look silly, look almost wrong. And readers would be confused or maybe bored (of course, they may be bored right now reading this essay about not writing essays). Where, then, does the note live? Twitter, perhaps. That's certainly how I use my Twitter (talk about an Oulipo-style constraint!).

But I don't always want that constraint, either. I want the note to go as it will, fork as it will, end as it will. I can do this in my pad and my voice memos. But how do I publish notes? Maybe they're not for publishing; maybe notes are too private to be of interest to anybody else. We'll see, I suppose.