Tuesday, March 20, 2018

We're Baaaaaaaaaaack! With More MOCA Drama!

Pope L. at MOCA, March 2015

Howdy, FBC! readers. Long time no see, right?

I had happily left this blog to peter out, busy as I was elsewhere (I invite you to buy back issues of Frog Magazine to read my prose, and wait for the next one coming out this year) and also I was tired of the format. Writing online is a pain, compared to good old MS Word.
Yet not only I cannot bring myself to study linguistics today (did you know that old pronouns are the new determiners? Me neither) but the new events unfolding at MOCA have caught my attention, with friends left and right asking for my take on the news. That, and apparently there was a huge spike in readers of an old blog post about past drama, so I guess I should give my unsolicited opinion on that new turn of events. Anything but studying subordinate clauses, I'm telling you.

First of all, I need to preface whatever I'm going to write with a word or caution: as I obviously don't live in LA anymore, all that I know about the firing of Helen Molesworth by Philippe Vergne comes from online sources and of course juicy stuff people have told me. So whatever you, gentle readers, are going to read is just my interpretation of what I've read.
Secondly, as I said before  I know Vergne vaguely, but not beyond the "friendly acquaintance" stage. I've seen him a couple of times when I was in LA in 2015 for the  remarkable Pope L. exhibition at the Geffen, where Vergne was his usual unfailingly urbane and polite self. As for Molesworth I've met her only once about a decade ago at a curatorial conference we were both attending that lasted about 3 days. She struck me as someone visibly enamored of her intellectual abilities and not shy about broadcasting them, but we didn't chat or socialize or anything and since I don't think I've ever seen any of the exhibitions she's curated, I can't comment on their brilliance or genius beyond what I've heard, which is generally positive.
Come to think of it, I didn't meet her for Pope L. when I was there, at least I don't remember meeting her but as I'm a small potato it didn't strike me as odd.

I must say I was surprised when she was hired at MOCA because I would have expected some super safe choice out of MoMA or the Whitney or even SFMOMA, in terms of seasoned professionals who know how to do fundraising, and not someone who was so vocal about positioning herself as political, if I remember correctly the few interviews I had read of her when she came to MOCA. Back then I assumed it was a strategic choice, to reassure the local art community that had been so bruised under Jeffrey Deitch's tenure, and that maybe the museum's finances were in good enough order to withstand some potentially controversial exhibitions or acquisitions. In any case, I had moved out of the country and didn't really think about MOCA whatsoever, I had other stuff to worry about anyway.

Fast forward to last week, and the shockwaves sent from her firing. My first thoughts were, "Hhhm, Vergne is generally extremely tactful and diplomatic in whatever he does, so if he fired her the Board must have asked for her head," immediately followed by reminiscences of all the hearsay that ever got back to me about Molesworth's management style, which was generally not positive. Yet no curator is ever laid off for poor management style, because typically the Board never hears about it.
I have also had the privilege during my distinguished career of working under women curators* with poor management style but great curatorial chops, and they lasted decades in their jobs (and still last as I write) because whichever way they dealt with folks under them, they delivered when it came to acquisitions, donations, and exhibitions that attracted both foot traffic and great critical reviews.
So obviously there must have been some very serious stuff behind Molesworth's eviction, which I thought would come out as more information would unfold. I did recall that around the time Mark Grotjahn announced he was withdrawing from the MOCA gala, Vergne and Molesworth's respective statements seemed a bit at odds.
There has been a spate of articles from the LA Times (obviously on Molesworth's side) to more nuanced takes in Frieze, Hyperallergic and finally the latest one in Artnews, probably the best informed of all from my point of view. This morning Christopher Knight was demanding some statement from MOCA regarding all of this, but as lawyer friends of mine explained to me, in all likelihood MOCA is legally barred from saying anything about the firing, so we can wait for a long time before a statement comes out.

Initially most people reacted to the news of the firing in the light of the #MeToo movement, casting Molesworth as a victim of her gender kicked out by a white male, and lumping her eviction with two other recent firings of senior female art figures, the former director of the Queens Museum Laura Raicovich and Maria Ines Rodriguez from the capcMuseum in Bordeaux, France.
As for Maria Ines Rodriguez, lost in translation in the international online outcry was the local political context, which would be incredibly long and complicated to explain here but basically what happened is the local, city government removed her because French provincial authorities tend to be complete Philistines when it comes to contemporary art and would like to show crap like Ai WeiWei or Banksy for one tenth of the price, rather than actually support decent programming.
I am not sure Rodriguez's gender played that much of a role into that story, because there was a precedent in that exact same museum when founder and director Jean-Louis Froment was laid off  maybe 15 years ago, after right-wing former Prime Minister Alain Juppé was elected mayor of Bordeaux, following the death of his predecessor Alain Chaban-Delmas (who, despite being an old school conservative himself was always a staunch defender of the museum and its director.)
Juppé is still mayor of Bordeaux, where he had also slashed the budget of the local Opera house when he came into power, and whatever his other presumed qualities high cultural priorities don't find any echo in his agenda.

Sturtevant, at MOCA in 2015

Now reading the various articles about Molesworth and Vergne, it appears that gender doesn't have that much to do with her firing, however tempting it would be to cast it under that frame of thought in the light of the Carl Andre retrospective –which was terribly mishandled if you ask me.**
Rather, the picture painted in the Artnews article tells a tale of hubris from a senior curator who doesn't seem to understand the role of donors and trustees in a privately funded museum, and who appears to ignore the fundamentals of good manners when dealing with them.
Not showing up at an event is one thing, but not apologizing and simply explaining months later that one was elsewhere doing something else (a studio visit, which is easy to reschedule I guess?) is just plain rude. I get it, when you want to demonstrate you are on the artists's side, you make a point to say that this elsewhere you were at was a studio visit.
Nevertheless,  if you fundamentally want to be on the artists's side, you need to understand it's in their best interest, for example, to rally trustees, donors and collectors to their cause and thus ensure a place of honor for their work within the museum you work at. If you don't get this, maybe you have no business being a museum curator.
It is also just plain rude not to alert your coworkers and staff that you won't attend the event they spent weeks planning, so they cannot even explain away your absence to the host. It is bad politics, generally, to make your coworkers and boss –for Vergne, as the director, was Molesworth's boss– lose face in front of others, and if you're a mature person it is something you should have understood by your late twenties at most. Unless maybe you've never worked anywhere under a supervisor or boss, but aside from freelance people and scions of wealthy families, I'm unsure where you can grow into middle age without ever having the experience?

There are other examples of her rude behavior toward donors in the various articles recently published. Is biting the hand that feeds you and foots the bill for your exhibitions the smartest thing to do when donors and trustees are the people who actually fund your salary? If you have an issue with the way museums are funded in the United States and with the need to diplomatically rub elbows with the deep-pocketed individuals who make them possible, it's better to rethink your career choices and either go work at some publicly-funded place, or campaign for public money to fund them.
I know it is incredibly tempting to just yell "fuck you" at rich people in the current political context where some loudmouth, uncouth orange person has hijacked the presidency just because they were male and rich, and that some exasperation can only seep through the cracks if some of your donors are also GOP stalwarts, but if you really need to frame your rudeness in political terms, then you should take a hard look at yourself and wonder if the way you treat your (working-class) staff aligns with your stated politics. There are myriads people in the arts and elsewhere who are very vocal about their left-wing opinions  yet treat waiters, janitors, hotel maids or retail workers like crap, who brandish their progressive politics like a badge of honor yet are incapable of an act of kindness toward anybody in real life, let alone treating everyone with respect. In passing, this is not about Molesworth specifically, as I haven't worked with her and only can report what I've read here and there, but about countless art people I've met over the years who're always happy to loudly express their political choices, preferably on social media, but tend to act poorly in real life.

There is a point where I can understand Molesworth when it comes to curatorial choices, because I too would be totally unenthusiastic about curating a Mark Grotjahn's retrospective. I also know how discouraging it is to look at so-so contemporary art collections and feign enthusiasm about the umpteenth Kaws or whatever is in fashion right now and whose shelf life won't exceed eighteen months. As for donors and collectors, I often felt very uncomfortable meeting them when I was still in the game, because I haven't grown up around money and it took me a very long time to at least have an understanding of it. Very wealthy people can sometimes be rude themselves, or at least totally oblivious to the power they exert on people surrounding them, which can make them at their worst impatient, demanding or tactless. As Fitzgerald said, the rich are not like us, and it takes some effort to comprehend how and why.

Yet I have also met collectors and donors who were passionate, enthusiastic, generous and well-meaning, and wealthy people who were kind and understanding. I have also met rich people who were genuinely philanthropic and devoted to improving their local community, who enjoyed supporting not only the arts but also homeless charities and children hospitals, who donated money to support victims of natural disasters or to environmental protection organizations, who got involved in progressive politics because they understood their money would be well-employed there, who made a point to support Planned Parenthood and the ACLU and to give more than small change to the homeless people they encountered, who gave to such unsexy causes as mental illness charities.
Some of these people no doubt are of the same kind whose donations paid for Molesworth's salary, and footed the bill for her exhibitions.

Whether she liked Grotjahn's or not, it would have been tactful and easy to just go to that meeting with him along with the junior curator and simply say, "so-and-so will curate your retrospective because I have too many obligations to be able to fully commit to it myself and your work deserves  full attention and support, but of course I will be at hand if any help is needed" and keep it at that. If I, Ms. Foot-in-her-mouth-incarnate, can come up with a sentence like this, I'm sure a woman as smart as Molesworth could have done much better, not even mentioning the career boost it could be for the junior curator to actually curate this retrospective in their own name –as a senior person, Molesworth's job is also to mentor less seasoned colleagues.
Whatever her own feelings for Grotjahn's work, her job as a senior curator would have been to placate him before the gala drama came to light and ask him to stick with it, pairing him with another co-honoree more in keeping with his wish for diversity –after all, the Hammer routinely honors two people for its gala, it's not an unusual proposition in itself.
This type of diplomatic stuff might be annoying, but it is not difficult. It doesn't demand enormous brain power or painful ethical contortions. One might not like Grotjahn's work, but if his chairing the gala can help raise enough money to support a more progressive, diverse programming, so be it. Any curator worth their salt know that blockbusters or mainstream exhibitions are necessary to get people through the door, as long as the programming isn't 100% crowdpleasers, and for this now Los Angeles has the Broad anyway.

Sturtevant, MOCA, 2015

From what transpires in these various, recent online articles, the main reason why Molesworth was fired was that her whole attitude toward both the top brass and her underlings was too harsh and abrasive, and that it interfered with the fundamentals of museum curating, where all your energy is focused in two directions: the collection, and the programing. 
Her attitude got in the way of her talent, and her talent couldn't save her from the realities of the job. Her refusal to do spectacular exhibitions is to her credit, intellectually speaking, but to survive a museum has to do blockbusters once in a while and for all the praise her Kerry James Marshall show has attracted and the slight spike in visitors, it can only pale in comparison to what the Broad does.
The Broad is obviously the elephant in the room in this story, as it sits across the street with its spectacular building and its blockbuster exhibitions and public programs: it's amazing what you can accomplish with a lot of money, right? 
Doubtless that for MOCA's Board of Trustees, they look at the beached whale on the other side of the road and wonder, why do they have Kusama and why cannot we have Kusama? If Molesworth had brought at least one Infinity Room to MOCA, she might have been forgiven all the quirks of her personality, her standing up donors, and the rest. As I said, it is to her credit that she hasn't given in to doing that kind of thing, yet people in LA remember that for all his faults, and God knows he was not an easy man to deal with, Schimmel did bring in spectacular harmless stuff that got people through the door, too, like the stoner show that was nothing but a giant carnival ride for adults. 
That failure to bring in blockbusters cannot rest squarely on Molesworth's shoulders in any case,  because Vergne is also responsible for the programming of his museum. As a director, his job is also to talk to other institutions and see what "take" shows he can bring in, even if he doesn't have the staff himself to originate such shows.

If you want to change your institution from within, the only way to do it is first of all to avoid alienating everyone who works there, because you need allies to effect change. 
Secondly, you need to understand its history, and its relation to the local context. Reading between the lines, it is entirely possible that with all the internal hoopla that happened under Molesworth and Vergne's tenure, Molesworth might have done some of Vergne's dirty work in getting rid of some historical staff. I wouldn't know, I wasn't there, but it's a relatively common situation when a new director takes over, however generally misguided. It is foolish to get rid of the institutional memory of a museum, especially when it is the head preparator who has overseen everything from digging new foundations for Richard Serra's sculptures, built a cascade for Robert Gober, to installing the sprawling, magnificent mess of the Whack! exhibition.
As for donors, the job of a curator is also to educate them and guide them toward what you want them to do for the institution. Granted it is not given to everyone to be eloquent and persuasive, but it is at least sensible to avoid rubbing the wrong way people who might just be persuaded to give enough money to make your cutting-edge, forward thinking new exhibition possible. 
After all, regardless of how their taste, politics and tax exemptions might diverge from yours,  as my best friend says you are dealing with people who chose to devote a large part of their available income to supporting the arts, rather than some incredibly stupid thing like buying a gold-plated private yacht, or something horribly harmful like funding climate change deniers or neo-Nazis. Just for this we should be grateful, even if they buy Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst by the bucketful rather than commissioning a memorial to Kathy Acker. Some of them might even fund Peter Hujar retrospectives or Kara Walker exhibitions, if you know how to talk to them.

In the end, it is an incredible sad story of failure for the institution, for Vergne and for Molesworth herself; because there is no doubt she is a talented individual who simply failed to understand that with a modicum of diplomacy she could have accomplished great things there. Maybe she was not suited for what that specific job entailed, but then as a seasoned professional she should have known what she was in for when it comes to trustees and fundraising. It is also a spectacular failure for Vergne, who no doubt truly believed in Molesworth's talent when he hired her and who was apparently very close to her if that Artnews article can be trusted. As such the moment must be particularly painful for him, too.
As for MOCA, it could certainly have done without the additional drama, and it will be complicated for the museum to attract the right kind of curator now, someone who can balance an accute understanding of funding and finances with the desire to organize great exhibitions and significantly augment museum holdings.
There is no shortage of great curators out there,  indeed they are a dime a dozen. Many of them are underemployed or even unemployed, or simply undiscovered. Some of them are homegrown (Naima Keith is a stellar example of someone from LA who does great things with undiminished enthusiasm) some others do good things on the other coast (Ian Alteveer comes to mind) or even in the hinterlands.  There might be some fabulous person in Chicago, Detroit or New Orleans who would do a great job in LA, if only given the chance. Whether they'd want to come to MOCA now is another story, especially since the museum is singularly understaffed at present. Whoever comes there will need vision in addition to everything else. Many of the museum's woes are due to increased competition in terms of both fundraising and programming, now that Los Angeles counts LACMA, the Hammer, the Broad, the Marciano Foundation, in addition to all the other spaces such as The Underground Museum, the Mistake Room, 356 Mission or Hauser & Wirth's mega space, not even mentioning historical artist-run spaces such as LACE or POST and places like the MAK and the Armory.

Obviously MOCA has to find a way to distinguish itself from all these other LA art institutions. The artist Vincent Johnson recently told me it needed a new building, yet I think the museum could still be stellar within its current premises. Besides, as LACMA is decimating all local donations to create its foolish new building and disfigure the cityscape, I doubt MOCA could raise enough money for a new architectural venture right now.  Its best strength is the Geffen, which should still be used for what it does best: ambitious solo exhibitions where artists are commissioned to create large-scale projects. 
Maybe it could use the production money for these shows as acquisition money and keep the work made onsite as part of his permanent collection, who knows. There is no lack of women artists and POC who historically never had the opportunity to create large-scale work for lack of means and lack of recognition. The Pope L. show at the Geffen was a great step in that direction, evidently the museum should continue to mount this sort of spectacular yet meaningful exhibitions.

As for diversity, someone on Facebook recently published a list of all the women and Latinx artists the museum has ever exhibited, and it was very respectable. Of course it is always desirable to want to do better. Fortunately, Los Angeles is a town where there are so many great artists of all genders and colors that showcasing them shouldn't be that hard. Edgar Arceneaux for example is long due a comprehensive retrospective, and so is Monique Prieto. Jennifer Moon, Wong-Ju Lim, Juan Capistran, Ruben Ochoa, Analia Saban or Monique van Genderen all come to mind as far as local representation go, but there are countless others, not even mentioning all the younger local artists I do not know since I moved out of the country.
Another thing MOCA would be well-inspired to do would be to bring foreign artists or even people from the East Coast or elsewhere for its local audience. The Sigmar Polke retrospective for instance should have traveled to LA, ditto the Lygia Clark one. The current Zoe Leonard retrospective is scheduled to come to LA (I'm told Bennett Simpson curated it, but it opened on the East Coast first) and that's a good thing, but there are dozens and dozens of other artists who are rarely seen in LA that MOCA could showcase.
It could also reignite the Postwar art spark that seems to have departed with both Ann Goldstein and Paul Schimmel and get scholarly exhibitions where under-represented artists are contrasted with better-known ones. It could also spotlight specific moments in art history that for some reason or other haven't been shown comprehensively in LA. Why not an Arte Povera show for example?  There has been a resurgence of young painters interested in Supports-Surfaces,  and that could be done, too. People like Bernard Frize or Walter Swennen are virtually unknown in the States, and I have been vocal enough about Lea Lublin whose German retrospective has been deemed marvelous by people who saw it. Has a survey show of Jackie Winsor ever been done? The Pompidou has a great Sheila Hicks exhibition on view right now, this would be awesome in LA. MOCA could also be the site for a West Coast satellite of the Performa Biennial, too, which would make a lot of sense given the historical importance of performance art in California. I'm sure many people could come up with other ideas, and even with potential blockbusters.

There are so many different paths that MOCA could take to re-establish national prominence, but with the fragile situation it is in right now it obviously will need to not only attract talent, and a lot of it –it needs at least three curators in addition to a senior/chief curator one if it wants to function normally– but also to work internally to restore morale, because no workplace can ever be so great if its staff is demoralized and frightened. From here, the museum also needs to restore its image, not only in the light of this recent drama, but also because for a long time its exhibitions haven't been that attractive. It's time now to rethink the museum both on a local and international scale, and finally make it exciting again.

Not MOCA: the Broad across the street, before it opened.

*I have also worked under male curators with a terrible management style but who didn't deliver when it came to what mattered, and with male and female supervisors outside of the art world who were  terrible in all respects. Needless to say I didn't really learn much from them, but the point I want to make is that with one exception who has now left the field, they maintained the illusion for a while by hopping from job to job before they were found out, but eventually they all ended up being fired, demoted, or pushed toward early retirement. In the end, it all comes down to how you manage your budgets and deal with funding rather than how shitty you are toward your staff, however being shitty to your underlings is generally a good indicator of how you deal with everything including financial matters.

**If I understand that it makes sense, historically, to organize a Carl Andre retrospective, it seems to me that to do so in a sensitive manner would have entailed to simultaneously organize an Ana Mendieta retrospective at MOCA, and to set up a series of events, debates and discussions about Andre's role in her death. In short, rather than try to ignore it and brush it aside, confronting it head-on and holding panels and debates about their respective places in art history might have been a better way of asserting the museum's understanding of how to tackle sensitive issues. I have no clue whether this solution has been contemplated by either Molesworth or Vergne, but from the outset it seems like a lost opportunity for the museum to fulfill its educational and art historical role.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Effectively Announcing FBC!'s Demise As Of Today

 A magnificent porn-y John Currin in between a landscape by John McAllister and an abstract painting by Christopher Wool.

Today I got notice that Google, a monopolistic entity that owns the Blogger platform, a shitload of other things, and doesn't pay its fair share of taxes, is going to ban "explicit nudity" on the blogs it's hosting. I'm pretty sure it's going to continue to allow videos and images of decapitations or soldiers in cage being burnt alive, and racist, antisemitic, homophobic and sexist images and texts on everything it hosts or operates, so as usual that ban on "explicit nudity" smacks of hypocrisy and double standards.
This being said, I've used their product for almost 8  years now in exchange for paying absolutely nothing, so it's not as if I had a choice regarding their stupid users policy. But, even if I did, I've had it with their totally unwieldy format for a long while now, and as many people who blog, I've reach blogger fatigue.

 FBC! was started as a personal space to fend off boredom when I was recovering from a car accident, and nothing else. It's been a bit incidental if it has reached a few people outside of my close friends, and for me it's been really helpful on my long road to recovery, in terms of learning how to write again, trying to organize my thoughts, and getting back into my love of music. Outside of this, the format was always complicated to use, and I never wanted to take it to the next [professional] level.
So, today's announcement was a bit of the last nail in the coffin as far as FBC! is concerned. I occasionally post, er, "mature content" (that's the nature of the beast when writing about art) and I always trusted my 400 or so regular readers to be smart people. But at this stage I do not want to have to deal with "removing sexually explicit content" from the hundreds of posts on here, nor taking the blog "private" out of my own free will. So, effectively, as of March 23rd, Google will forcibly make that choice for me and so FBC! will stop to exist as such.

I will not take the blog offline yet however, because I won't have time to do it for a while, but I'll eventually will get down to it, after I've culled the few posts here and there I want to keep for myself and maybe publish in print sometimes in the distant future (any publisher interested?). Feel free to comment here or message me if there are some specific posts you really like you think would be worthy of a reprint somewhere. Just do it before March 23rd, because this is when FBC! will become "private", whatever the fuck that means in Google parlance.

A close-up of part of an ass,  a scrotum and a bit of a dick in action performing anal sex, from a Betty Tompkins painting.

I won't quit writing though, especially now that I've found a very happy home with Frog Magazine, the best art publication I've ever encountered and for which I am extraordinarily happy and honored to write for. So, if you like my writing, I can only recommend you buy Frog, and discover many other great writers. Frog has articles in both French and English and also publishes really beautiful photo spreads.
I can already announce that I will publish a long feature article on Cady Noland in the next issue, Frog15, as well as a review of the Sigmar Polke retrospective in London. To keep up to date with Frog, you can also like their Facebook page or follow them on Twitter.  The next issue should be out in June. If you can't find it at newsstands, ask your art bookstores to stock it, or  you can order it directly online. It's a pricey publication but it only comes out twice a year and has very minimal advertisements, and really a lot of (great quality) writing in it.

I'm also going to publish a long essay in a print catalog about Eric Troncy's recent exhibitions sometimes in the next few months. It will be morbid and maritime, and talking about current things.  I'll announce my future publications on my own Twitter so feel free to follow me on there, just be aware I don't post on it very often and I don't necessarily follow back, not because I don't like you but because I don't like the medium that much. I won't write or publish a lot in the next few months because I unfortunately have to move out of my place as well, so it will take some time, but outside of Frog and this specific catalog, I may very well start something else online in the Fall, if I find a convenient format and platform I am comfortable with. If not, I'll remain print-only and that will be it.

Thanks so much for having been faithful to FBC! all those years, and for putting up with the lack of editing, insufficient research, terrible photographs, and the fact that I've been writing in my second language. Hope you enjoyed it nonetheless.

Blogger new "adult content policy". Fuck you, prudish male straight techs at Google and elsewhere, who are so frustrated you can't get any pussy because you're so lame and misogynistic you take revenge on writers' free speech. That's not how you gonna get brownie points with women, you know?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Shell at Almine Rech Gallery - A Show Organized By Eric Troncy

Alex KATZ, Three Cows, 1981 Oil on canvas 243,8 x 367 cm, 96 x 144 1/2 inches

"Le Panorama ( a literary and critical review appearing five times weekly), in volume 1, number 3 (its last number), February 25, 1840, under the title "Difficult Questions": "Will the universe end tomorrow? Or must it -enduring for all eternity- see the end of our planet? Or will this planet, which has the honor of bearing us, outlast all the other worlds?" [...]

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project,   The Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London, England,  (1st paperback edition), 2002, p.98

It was a bit strange to find oneself in Paris last weekend in an atmosphere of trauma and world ending, many Parisians being shell-shocked enough to display a very unusual if pained niceness in their everyday dealings with each others. Yet everybody kept on going their normal business, in defiance of the trauma, and business there was to be had aplenty, albeit in places prominently displaying the ubiquitous Je Suis Charlie posters in their front windows as if to say the show must go on, the show can't go on, the show will go on, the show must go on.
 And so one found oneself attending the opening of The Shell, an exhibition organized at Almine Rech Gallery by über-talented French curator and art critic Eric Troncy, who, as you know if you follow FBC! even occasionally, is the (my) intrepid editor of Frog Magazine, and someone I now find myself lucky to call a friend. If this doesn't constitute the fullest disclosure ever I don't know what else does, but in passing, he's the kind of friend of such caliber that I feel very free to critique what he does, because he's this very rare type of smart guy who can take in criticism (hi, Eric! Hope we're still friends at the end of this post!)
For those of you who like to get  their predigested primers in the form of a press release in advance of taking in a show, Eric Troncy must be the most infuriating of curators/writers ever because he refuses to be a condescending mansplainer uncovering all his choices and the reasons he made them, as he trusts the viewers to make their own opinion about what they see. Yet there was some unearthing of the ideas behind the exhibition in the press release, which for me seemed transparently clear but it may be because I've known a few things about it for a while. I know things. I really do.

Alas, all my pictures of the show suck. Sorry about that.

In a nutshell (ahem) the show is a reflection on the place painting is currently having in today's bloated art market, ostensibly showing current market darlings (Joe Bradley, Alex Israel, Brian Calvin, Christian Rosa, etc.) alongside artists who made it big, sometimes eons ago (Bernard Buffet or even David Hockney) or in the mid-distance, someone like Julian Schnabel who's represented in the exhibition with two (surprisingly) more than decent purplish abstractions (The Day I Missed, 1990 and Later That Day, 1990) that would give shame to our current so-called zombie abstractionists. There's also one of his atrocious dinner plate paintings from the 1980s (Untitled, 1988) for contrast.
 There's a certain sadness in witnessing  Schnabel has in fact been capable of producing paintings that were really good at some point in his career, but somehow ended up as that sort of harmless buffoon symbolizing the excesses of the art world of yesteryear, now being surpassed in fame by the likes of Koons, Hirst or Abramovic (not that we don't envy Schnabel's wealth, mind you). All because he got famous with this bloody dinner plate paintings, which unfortunately obscure the rest. It's the first feat in this show to make one reflects on an artist we usually dismiss as really commercially bloated and uninteresting to realize he had, in fact, all the makings of becoming a good artist, instead of settling for mediocre work that sold. 

Josh Smith, Jean-Baptiste Bernadet, Betty Tompkins, Alain Séchas

I said, "ostensibly showing current market darlings " because some of the super smart choices like Betty Tompkins I don't believe have ever been art market darlings ever (I could be wrong, but I don't keep such a close watch on what happens or had happened on the art market over the last decades or so), ditto the French artist Alain Séchas who outside of France isn't particularly well-known. Tompkins is represented by in-your-face black and white (or rather, gray-hued) erotic/pornographic paintings seized for obscenity by French customs in the 1970s, in an innocent era that didn't know yet the ease of finding internet porn of a much more aggressive nature than Tompkins paintings, which now look almost subdued in comparison.
In passing, the paintings are installed very close to each other in the exhibition (less than one foot I think) but when you see the show in person it doesn't look crowded whatsoever, on the contrary the closeness of the paintings to each other makes them come alive more and helps understand better the groupings and arrangements.

David HOCKNEY, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven), 31 May, No. 1 2011, 2011

What can be found online, art-wise,  is also a theme of The Shell, and by extension so is the advent of the new technologies so ubiquitous nowadays. Troncy observes (in the press release but also elsewhere, such as in the audioguide available online for the exhibition La Décennie at the Pompidou Metz - in French) that the advent of the internet has totally changed the way exhibitions are conceived and also the way art is distributed and perceived: just perform any Google Image search and jpgs jump at your face seemingly randomly, selected by an algorithm without any obvious reason why they're picked up in the first place over some others.
The way we can now supposedly find any image online - supposedly, because in fact many photos of  contemporary artworks made before, say, 2002 or 2003 are very difficult to find online if they haven't been exhibited recently - has radically changed the way art history is taught, for one thing, and therefore the way future art will be made (that is, if artists are still taught art history).
Before the advent of digital photography and of Powerpoint, instructors were dependent on making/finding slides and often had to rely on re-shooting images out of art catalogs or magazines, themselves contingent on the availability of 4"x5". And so the art history we were told was reduced to a few "significant" choices of images representing which artworks were deemed masterpieces (by whom?), depending on whether they photographed well or not.
In the age of mechanical reproduction, theoretically images could be multiplied indefinitely but in reality not so many artworks were deemed worthy of being photographed, which explains why sometimes we know only a few works from some historically significant exhibitions when the checklist is considerably bigger than the 30 or so plates reproduced in the catalog.

In the age of digital dissemination now just any image can be shot and uploaded in a matter of seconds, and made available for all to grab (I'm loosely paraphrasing Troncy here). I am not sure it has actually diminished the aura of the original artwork itself (if it had the art market would have crashed at the same time of the rest of the economy, maybe) the way mp3s and music streams have destroyed the magic of experiencing music, but it certainly has changed the way art history is taught, and is being constructed in today's hyperpresent.

 Part of a David Hockney, David Ostrowski, John Currin, Christian Rosa

For one thing there are exponentially many more art images to be found online, more often than not without attribution: if we know the name of the artist (frequently misspelled), then the title is missing, if the title is indicated then we're not told when the work was made, if there's a legend somewhere then the techniques and dimensions are missing, and so forth. If we come as total virgins to an artist's work it's not obvious from a Google Image search why some pieces are repeated more often than others, why some periods of the works are more represented than others, etc. (yes, yes, we know about SEO and all that shit, but how it works for art isn't particularly obvious).
And so, if we are to believe the exhibition press release, the paintings in the show were meant to be shown the same way images appear on a Google Image Search, or are "reblogged" from Tumblr to Tumblr without reflection, critical thinking and, one might add, without comment or attribution.

John McAllister, John Currin, Christopher Wool

Yet if there is no apparent hierarchy in a Google Image Search and the selection is made by an automated algorithm, in The Shell the selection is made by a human being and very seasoned curator who knows how to install a show like it's nobody's business. When visiting the exhibition it's rather obvious why some paintings are in the vicinity of the others, often (but not always) because of formal similarities. For example the Ostrowski, Currin and Rosa grouping shows a progression from left to right, with a squiggle within a beige rectangle that offers similarities with the ocher upright rectangle on the screen (where the bra is dangling from) in the Currin, while the abstract Rosa sees both the squiggle motif and the rectangles be present.

Karen Kilimnik, The fancy pretty farm - the happy cows grazing by the fountain, 2012

Likewise, there are similarities between artworks by artists from different generations, which are not necessarily shown in the same room but offer easy points of comparison, such as the lovely if small Karen Kilimnik above and of course the magnificent and much larger Alex Katz at the beginning of this post. A lesser curator would have maybe tried to install one next to each other, and would have failed miserably in any case because of the scale. Speaking of Kilimnik and Katz I'm sure you guys can spot the blooming tree with pink flowers on the lower left corner of the image above, and then have a look at the  the gorgeous and lovely Cherry Blossoms by Katz below and, well, you catch my drift.

 Richard Phillips, Daan van Golden, Alex Katz

Some of the groupings were very convincing, some less so, though it may have to do with individual taste - I'm still not convinced by Richard Phillips, whose painting here was preceded by a Brian Calvin on the adjacent wall - but in the arrangement above I thought the van Golden was a bit extinguished by the Pop-like colors of Phillips but mostly couldn't hold a candle to the really great Alex Katz right next to it.  Which made me want to see a Katz retrospective, stats.

Charlene von Heyl, Ida Tursic & Wilfried Mille, Bernard Buffet.

This was one of my favorite grouping in the entire exhibition, in no small part because I totally fell in love with the two paintings by Ida Tursic & Wilfried Mille, who for me were the revelation of The Shell. As far as these three paintings being together it's rather obvious how they all function, so if people can't get it, well, what can I say? Maybe they should consider getting some sort of eye transplant. As for the Bernard Buffet shown on the right, some people at the opening were commenting about its relevance in regard to last week's events in Paris, but Troncy having worked on this show for months and months I'm pretty sure it's a coincidence.
In passing, Troncy has been instrumental and very brave in trying to rehabilitate Buffet's standing as a painter, a courageous move I don't necessarily agree with (nor disagree with, just not my cup of tea but maybe Troncy will convince me otherwise next time we meet). Yet it's interesting to me in terms of how the fads and trends of the market and of art history work, generally speaking. The presence of the Buffet and the Schnabels make a strong point about how the aesthetic permanence of  artworks can mark the collective consciousness at a given time, to give way to mockery and ridicule and aesthetic impermanence after the big sellout has occurred and we get tired of seeing the same things over and over.
It may not be the mechanical reproduction of the artwork that destroyed its aura but rather its ubiquitous repetition (real Buffet paintings were shown in dentist waiting rooms the world over, not posters of them), the same way being subjected to the same songs over and over in supermarkets and shopping malls signals the entry into obsolescence of a proven hit.

Eric Lindman, Brian Calvin, Bertrand Lavier.

Here I thought there was an interesting juxtaposition, which works precisely because of the grouping. I am not sure the Lindman holds itself together as a standalone painting (it's rather bland in its, er, Matisse-esque paper cut/sort of Ellsworth Kelly-like desire to be a sharp abstraction and IMHO fails at it) whereas it works with the Lavier opposite (from the Walt Disney Production series, where Lavier appropriates background "abstract/modern" paintings and sculptures from Disney animated cartoons and blows them up as real artworks). The Lavier also shows some interesting layers that work as a "painterly" signifier over the inkjet print he used. Painterly layers as signifiers of "Painting" with a capital P are used as well in the Ida Tursic & Wilfried Mille paintings, and in other works that punctuate the show at very precise moments.
 The layers/brushstroke as painterly signifiers work most interestingly so in the Christopher Wool right next to the John Currin in the "erotic room". The Currin is rather porny, in a great porny way, yay! This specific Christopher Wool painting, as far as his production goes, is rather the blandest and most boring one he ever made. But, in between the Currin (which you should really go see in person) and the really great purplish Schnabel next to it, it just seems to scream "smeared semen" and suddenly loses its overall (and bland, boring and generic) abstract appearance.
I don't know about you, but me, when I saw this, the only thing I could think about was (beside "PAINTERLY SPERM!", I mean) was that it takes a really masterful curator to turn a painting  into something that screams sexual arousal and subsequent release, a painting that in itself, alone, on a blank wall would only want to become some sort of elegant decorative tax-write off for a wealthy collector's foundation.

The exhibition was designed to function as a panorama, that 19th century invention displaying 360º paintings into rotunda-shaped buildings for the entertainment and sometimes education of the masses. At the time they were very popular in Paris, where one arcade abundantly studied by Walter Benjamin, the Passage des Panoramas, still keeps their memory in its name. They were a sort of pre-cinema, so to speak (Benjamin has written extensively about panoramas, if you're curious).
 As the center of the panorama presented by Troncy lays a spectator, here metaphorically represented by the Katharina Frisch sculpture you can see above, staring at my favorite painting in the entire exhibition (by Ida Tursic & Wilfried Mille). Because I know things, and I really do, I know the sculpture is supposed to be the centerpiece that holds the exhibition together, logically so as the prehistoric man represents a sort of perplexed viewer being assaulted by this explosion of paintings surrounding him/her without any kind of apparent logic (yet as I said above there is one when you look closely). As far as it being successful I am not sure its presence was absolutely necessary, because I think the exhibition could hold itself together as well without it. Maybe it's a bit too demonstrative for me but yet again I knew why this sculpture is there whereas I'm not sure how obvious it is for other viewers.

In any case I'm glad that prehistoric man was placed in such a way he could stare constantly at the Ida Tursic and Wilfried Mille painting, because these two are very talented painters and the crappy photo above doesn't give justice to their work. This painting alone is worth traveling to Paris to see The Shell, and if someone ever wants to commission me to write a 3,000-word essay on this painting and only this painting, you know where to find me. I'd gladly write it here but then this is going to be the longer than long epic post from Hell, so I'll just state that their paintings need to be seen up close as well as from a distance, because there's a very interesting superposition of layers and brushwork that can't be rendered in photographs. I really love the way the spots of color everywhere on the gray landscape seem to invade it, as some sort of disease spreading everywhere and ready to almost overflow outside of the canvas. If you really love me, my birthday is in April and I think this painting would fit very nicely in my bedroom. I hope.

Another revelation for me were David Hockney's iPad "paintings" as I've never seen them before. They're not  "real" paintings obviously, just inkjet prints of digital images he makes using the painting app of his iPad, but the resulting glossy texture is very appealing and more interesting to me than his older, "regular" paintings (I tend to think  Hockney is a much better draftsman than painter). The only regret I have about these inkjet prints is that to get one large size image, he assembles 4 smaller prints into one, the seams being very obvious when you look at the work up close. I mean, he's David Hockney, I'm sure he has the means to get them printed in one large sheet, if Jeff Wall can do it then so can David Hockney FFS.
 Since the exhibition is also a comment on the resilience and resurgence of painting (on the art market but obviously it goes beyond it) in the era of digital dissemination, and of the way new technologies change the way we experience art, Hockney's works could be a perfect piece of the puzzle if we think about them as the illustration of an idea. But then that would be too simplistic because this isn't the way the exhibition functions, thankfully. One of the Hockneys is situated opposite Katz's cows in the main room (the one with our friend the Neanderthal Man) where it responds formally to it with its green overall tones, but its purple hues also react to the John McAllister's painting that shares the same wall as the Katz. When you are in the exhibition, the most striking thing as a spectator is the way color is used masterfully throughout the exhibition, as in the examples I've just quoted but also with the Schnabels, etc.

This was the other Ida Tursic and Wilfried Mille in the exhibition, where the yellow noodle-like finger painting (not sure it is finger-painting but from a distance it looks like it) oozes over the mountain to cover it, like some sort of dirty material answer to Hockney's own elegant use of iPad finger painting. In the show this was cornered by a black figure on a yellow background by Charlene von Heyl on the left, and the Bernard Buffet sporting a blackish balaclava-clad character holding a rifle on a yellow background, seemingly pointing from his own canvas over the yellow mountain of the Tursic & Mille in the direction of the von Heyl figure (see above).

This one was also of my favorite views in the show, in the same room as the über-porny Currin and the Christopher Wool "smeared semen" painting. The palm trees are a collaboration between Alex Israel and Josh Smith (and there's a Josh Smith painting of palm trees on a pinkish/orangey background in the other room immediately on the left of the door, if I remember correctly), with the curator taking advantage of the architectural decor over the door between the Smith/Israel painting and the John McAllister on the right. Now as far as standalone paintings go I do find the Smith/Israel paintings of no great interest whatsoever (especially when in the presence of  the greats around them) but as an ensemble this is really a great view. Which is why The Shell really succeeds in its presentation "as a panorama without apparent hierarchy", the exhibition as an ensemble is gorgeous and smart even though some of the paintings in the exhibition are less than interesting to me (and, let's be blunt, not particularly good) and couldn't really function on their own.
Which is exactly what happens when you do a Google Image search: some of the images are obvious, many less so, some are relevant, many more are not, and images get repeated while some others that would be obvious when you know what you're looking for don't appear. Images appear out of sequences, and you can get anomalous results based on whatever the algorithm is programmed to do.

Stripes against stripes: Charlene von Heyl next to Bridget Riley.

In this regard the exhibition as a whole can be somewhat cruel to a younger generation of successful artists, such as Brian Calvin whose large portraits (and only those as The Low Road (God Out West), 2006, is rather good ) really pale in comparison to Katz, for example, and as I said I don't think the Smith/Israel collaborative paintings work all that well. The weakest works in my opinion were Jean-Baptiste Bernadet's whose specific brand of late post-Monet in psychedelic colors impresses me as much as the exact same type of New Age paintings made by the hippie wives of Hollywood executives living in retirement communities around San Diego or Santa Barbara. I don't see why they would be more interesting made by a youngish French guy than presented by some sort of elderly Self-Realization Fellowship devotee enthusiastically working for the local amateur society annual show in, er, say, Azusa.
But then the Tursic & Mille paintings hold together fantastically if you consider they're in the vicinity of Alex Katz and David Hockney, and John McAllister does pretty well for himself, thank you very much, and the Jonas Wood is rather cool, too.

The worst paintings in the show without contest, to me, are Richard Phillips's (I am very predictable) not for the same reasons everybody seems to hate Phillips (I, er, don't care that he's successful and rich) but because = Los Angeles commercial painting murals, anyone? Not sure I see such a difference if it's on canvas or on a warehouse wall in North Hollywood, and, er, there's such fantastically great work elsewhere in the show I'm not sure I see any use for these in it, except maybe as  a counterpoint needed for a burst of color here and there within the entire ensemble.

Which functions fantastically in its entirety and manages to make everything shines within groupings and also if you think about it as a whole, with the placement of the paintings within the same room or how they respond to each other formally. Even though there are works I didn't like (and when is it you ever go see an exhibition and you like absolutely every single work in it?) I thought this was one of the most stimulating exhibitions I have seen in a while, and which would deserve a much deeper reflection if I wasn't so pressed for time. For one thing, this is one of the most fantastic exhibitions about painting I've seen in a long time, and an exhibition that asks questions about the validity of market success as an indicator of historic and aesthetic relevance in the long term, showing together heavyweights for whom fame, critical success and commercial success may not  always have been concomitant (Katz was totally outside of fashion, and outside of art historical and critical discourse for a long time, for example) and how these indicators become even more blurred in the age of digital dissemination.
Lastly, like all great exhibitions, it's one of these where seeing images online or elsewhere don't give a real feeling of the impression one gets as a spectator when physically confronted with the art, which is a perfect demonstration that the show drives the point home effortlessly.

Speaking of: you can have a pretty good idea of the show as a panorama on here but you still need to go see it in person. You do.

Monday, December 1, 2014

My Favorite Albums Of The Year And Then Some Personal Crap At The End Of This Post

It's this time of the year again, when every single music magazine or website publishes its top 50 or 100 of their favorite albums of the year.
Nobody really gives a shit which ones were mine, beside I am so absolutely predictable anybody who's been following FBC! for the past few years will know *exactly* which ones are my top 3. But, this being December (meaning, not ALL albums of 2014 have been out yet) and because there won't be any new blog post on here until 2015 I thought I should keep FBC! on life support a little bit longer with crap and stuff. Speaking of, there will be other news at the end of this post so if you're not interested in music you can skip to the bottom right now.

Now, let's go back to music. There won't be a "top 100" albums because, as I buy everything on vinyl and I'm a permanently broke writer and translator, I don't buy that many records. My top 7 in decending order:

1. Scott Walker, Sunn O))), Soused. 

I know, I know. I haven't written a review for lack of time but in a nutshell, I think this is the most accessible Scott Walker record in 20 years, because, let's not kid ourselves, this is Scott Walker & backing band much more than a real collaboration.  Here's Brando, the belter on the album, if you don't find yourself singing OOOOOOOOOHHHHHHH THE WIDE MISSOURIIIIIIIIIIII after listening to it then you don't know what an earworm is.
Only regret I have: this video is ridiculously stupid, Gisele Vienne should stick to choreography I think. Also, I wish there would have been more interviews of Scott Walker and the Sunn O))) people when the record came out, in terms of promotion because this record deserves to be heard and sold and bought and listened to obsessively over and over again.

2. Swans, To be Kind.

Told ya I was predictable. Musically I don't think the current Swans are super groundbreaking but the intensity of their music is so deep it doesn't matter. A band you need to see and experience live. Gira did a short Q&A in Brussels recently before the concert and stressed that because people don't buy records anymore, in any form, it's becoming difficult to make a living but as a touring band. Which is great for us, the audience, but imagine how hard it is on musicians. Buy records, people, they last longer than your stupid smartphones and tablets and other shit.

3. Liars, Mes.

I love Liars, a band I've never seen live but it's not for lack of want. It's probably the only electronic act I find interesting aside from Dan Deacon (who's going to release a new album soon, I'm told). It goes beyond the usual clichés of electronica yet manages to make you dance to dirty tunes. If there had been no Swans and Scott Walker this year they'd be my #1.

4. Einstürzende Neubauten, Lament.

Not strictly "an album" per se but the soundtrack to a live performance piece commissioned to them for the centenary of the First World War and premiered recently in Dixmude, Belgium. It's narrative and contains some tunes and lyrics not written by EN (the various hymn and Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind, made famous by Marlene Dietrich). As such it is uneven mostly because of the one song where they use autotune, proving to the world that even EN (and John Cale 2 years ago) can't manage to do anything decent with autotune.  Below is a live performance of Lament in Prague.

5. Neneh Cherry, Blank Project

That album came out about the same time as the new St. Vincent one (the indie Lady gaga), which was extraordinarily over-hyped in the same proportion it was overproduced and lacked soul. Meanwhile nobody really talked about Blank Project which I found much more adventurous musically than St. Vincent and had much more depth and soul.  Thank you, Neneh Cherry.

6. The Woodentops, Granular Tales.

 The Woodentops were one of my favorite bands when I was a teen, long, long ago sometimes in the last century. They made a new record that came out this year but unfortunately for them they're signed with Cherry Red, a label that doesn't bother with promotion and vinyls for things that should count. There are very few videos on YouTube alas, but trust me, this album is very good. Buy it, if only for A Little More Time, the best song on the record I think.

7. Hauschka, Abandoned City

A really good album of prepared piano music. It certainly lacks John Cage's use of silence and to a certain extent also lacks subtlety (there are some slow numbers which aren't very far removed from shopping mall piano playing, especially on the extra tunes you get if you buy the vinyl. In passing, this is a very generous gesture) but it's an excellent gateway drug to more experimental or interesting music straddling the divide between indie (for lack of a better word) and contemporary "classical" music. A bit disappointing live but apparently his physical handsomeness makes up for that in the eye of his audience.

And that's pretty much it for my end of year list. Told ya I didn't get to buy that many albums. If you want to contribute to the "let's extend the Frenchy musical library" fund, all monetary donations are accepted.
There were lots of other records my friends seemed to have loved, but that didn't do anything for me, such as The War On Drugs (boring) and Girls In Hawaii. I've seen a lot of people enamored of the new Perfume Genius, but alas I listened to it only after seeing the band live and, uh if you have pitch problems as a singer and your material so depends on adventurous and difficult singing, it's an issue. The few songs I heard from the record were very interesting but unfortunately that live experience totally ruined it for me.

And now that this year is nearly over, something deeply personal. I had started this year in the pits, as some of you know, and didn't expect much improvement as it went on. Yet at about the same time last year, about seventy people reached out to me on Facebook and somehow made things more bearable to me. I would like to thank all of you collectively, for taking the time to be supportive and loving when I truly needed it.  It was an astonishing and truly beautiful experience for me, especially as many of the people who messaged me were virtual friends I've had not much contact with before. From the bottom of my heart, thank you all, it's been much, much appreciated. And also very humbling.
After this, everything that could make 2014 better happened: the new Lydia Davis book came out, and then there was the Swans record, the Liars one, and blowing everybody away, the new Scott Walker one. It can only be a good year when all these bands release an album, right?

Something else wonderful that happened this year is I started to collaborate to Frog Magazine (a print only art and architecture biannual publication) where I found a happy home writing and publishing, thanks to its marvelous editor, Eric Troncy whom I finally met in person this year, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship (hi, Eric!).
All of you who read FBC! for the now super rare art writing, I'd like to encourage you to go and buy Frog, because there is some truly great writing in it, all the photos are taken by contributors (i.e. not the same press photos we see over and over again in other mags).
In the next issue that will likely be out in the Spring of 2015 there will be a review of Sigmar Polke at Tate Modern written by yours truly as well as a feature on Cady Noland, and a review of Robert Gober at MoMA with really great photos by Grant Wahlquist, thanks to Chuck Kim's help in securing the photo op.
And in the latest issue (#14), which you can buy online at the link above but also at select vendors worldwide, I've published a very weird article that starts as a review of an exhibit of the late French TV stage magician Garcimore at a roadside museum but somehow manages to cover Marina Abramovic's magic pee, the distinction between mainstream culture and the possibility of an indie one in contemporary art, and lots of other things.
I'm not sure exactly what I've done with that one, to be honest, but I'm rather happy with it, a rarity with my own writing, so if you're curious take a gander at it. And if you read French I can only recommend you read ALL of Eric Troncy's articles. He's the best thing that ever happened to art writing, and, personally, to my own writing as well.

Monday, September 29, 2014

I've Seen Gods On Earth And They Are The Almighty Swans

Swans At Brussels' Ancienne Belgique, September 25, 2014.

I've seen Gods on Earth and they are the almighty Swans.

 Little did I know, when as a teen I bought their red-colored vinyl record of Love Will Tear Us Apart covers (Michael Gira doing singing duties on one side, Jarboe on the other) in my shitty little provincial hometown that one day I would get to see these strange radical New Yorkers -as they were then- play live one day.
Which is why I'm so grateful to all these bands reforming these days and playing live, even if sometimes if makes me feel like my parent's generation deciding to attend a Rolling  Stones concert at some giant arena in 1982.
Not that Swans has anything do to with that sort of things of course, but I'm just happy they're having records of new music out* and that they're touring often.

 The concert was preceded by a rare public interview with Michael Gira at Huis23, a cosy intimate space above the venue's bar where about 60 of us gathered to see the cowboy-hatted man answer a few questions.
Asked if he did that often he said, "no, it's the very first time and the very last one, too!" It was very short, and the questions were not so interesting  -pro tip: when you interview an artist, musician, writer, filmmaker… ask them about THEIR work and not every other band under the sun- nonetheless Gira gave some interesting answers and also proved himself tremendously funny.

Asked why the band didn't play old material he said that they did that after they reformed a few years ago but that he realized they were "wasting time, and it felt fake somehow" like some sort of old bands reforming to cash in I guess, so he decided to forge ahead with new material.
  He spoke a little bit about running his own label and how he decided ultimately to only use if for his own band, which has all to do with current music economics: you all young fuckers downloading the music for free and never buying records, despite a lot of people being interested in what he was putting out (check the link above and buy stuff there!). And that it involved a lot of energy and "I'm not 30 anymore, and I have children and stuff" and so he preferred to focus on his own activities and manage to survive doing that.

 He told a funny anecdote about recording with Devendra Banhart and wanting him to focus on a vocal take, and playing some sort of private performance à la Joseph Beuys' Coyote (I Like America And America Likes Me) whereupon he stripped naked and threw a blanket over his head, running around in the studio like a mad man to elicit some sort of reaction from Banhart.
He also answered a lot of questions about other bands (yes in the 1980s he felt more of a kinship with Einstürzende Neubauten than bands like Sonic Youth, no, there's nobody like Swans out there today, etc.)
Also as the host kept on prodding him about "radical bands" and "radical music" and "radicality" [sic] in general in the end he said something like "I'm not sure being radical is really something desirable" (which I take it to mean "for the music's own sake"). There were some interesting bits about working in the studio and starting from mistakes, which every musician worth their salt always talks about. And after 20 minutes it was over, and time to get dinner for me and avoid (thank Lucifer) most of the opening act, Pharmakon. What I caught from her was some incessant wailing over electronic music which… give me back Lydia Lunch or Diamanda Galas, please. Talking about radicalness.

The venue was at capacity and the audience was a mix of middle-aged people who have known Swans for several decades like yours truly, and also much younger people who, despite what you would expect my generation to label them, weren't really hipsters. Thankfully there aren't that many hipsters in Brussels, but even if there were… I don't think they are the enemy.
The gear on stage was stacked in such a way that there was very little room in front for the musicians to move, which must be some quirk from the band because the stage is actually very large. Thor Harris and the drummer (Phil Puelo, Wikipedia tells me) were a little bit behind the stacks.

The lights went out at 8.15 PM sharp (they're always on time at Belgian venues) and… the mighty Thor Harris came on stage and started to bang on his gong slowly… and slowly… and slowly… and I thought, uh oh is it going to be some sort of prog-like slow boring something? Then came Christopher Hahn on lap steel guitar (from where I was on the 1st balcony I actually thought it was a synth or some sort of keyboard) and it went on… slowly… and on... then  came Gira and the rest of the band … and so the world exploded.

It's hard to describe a Swans concert and I'm going to fail like everybody else before me, because words are really lame in trying to recapture what is a collective trance-like atmosphere where everybody is enraptured by the music. It's true what everybody else says: it is ear-shatteringly loud. But not much more than a Dan Deacon concert or even a Sparks one. Having been warned by the lovely Barry Schwabsky who saw them recently in the US (hi, Barry!) I had made sure to bring my own earplugs (if you ever go to a concert in Belgium, most venues if not all usually give you free earplugs when you ask at the bar) but I took them off intermittently. The loudness is powerful enough to make the floor and walls vibrate, and all your body as well, which I'm sure must be the scientific reason why everybody is communing so well with the music as the band plays on.
It doesn't however muddies the sound whatsoever, and so you get to really appreciate the use of percussive elements. There is of course a strong "American music" feel to Swans because it is primarily a guitar band (or so you would think), where guitars sculpt drone-like repetitive sound, which comes in great waves crashing out and washing out all over you.

But I think it's only on stage that Thor Harris' importance to the music becomes obvious and you understand what he brings to the band: he's not only a powerful percussionist but a delicate multi-intrumentist as well who plays I think clarinet (I was far…) and some sort of string instrument with a bow, and the trombone. But even when that moment of recognition comes, it is fleeting because witnessing a Swans concert is something that takes you away from "normal" gigs, even if there are some highlights -Thor Harris crashing his great cymbals in synch with Gira jumping on the stage with his guitar, Harris bare-chested playing trombone, Gira and Hahn kinda "jamming" together with Hahn looking like an evil character out of a Lynch movie, which is rather incredible for a seated musician.

 It's fleeting because it's music you can't take apart and say, pore over the lyrics, dissociate some chord from another, analyze how it works, what it does, especially what it does as it is impossible to describe. You could say, "the band is tight", "it's a whole" but even this doesn't even begin to describe it. There's a certain perfection of craft, in any craft, when you have a group of people working  in  absolute synch together, and producing something that is more than the sum of its parts, and Swans is that more.  And the audience comes to feel it and be part of this more, too, experiencing something that all religions the world over would be at pain to ever match, because it is a more that is real. Like all great music the sound that comes out of these musicians is almost tactile, but unlike merely good music it can't be reduced to "slow song", "uptempo number", "great hooks" and not only because the music is more drone-like than anything else, because it isn't only drone-like nor repetitive. You can hear it, you can feel it, you can almost touch it.

 Swans is probably the best live band on the planet right now because it sculpt sounds with an intensity that is unmatched by anybody or anything else, and there is a sort of manic energy that runs through the various songs/tunes/pieces (most from To be Kind plus one I didn't recognize at all that I don't think was on The Seer but, hhhmmm, I think the lucid part of my brain was pretty much gone by then). I tried to record some video snippets at various moments, only snippets because I didn't want to hold my camera throughout when the only thing I wanted to do was be in the moment and enjoy the gig.
Which is a trite way to describe the sort of feeling you have when you are at a Swans concert, aside from saying that as a spectator, you are indeed in the moment. There is nothing before and no mental recognition of what would be an after, you are, indeed, here, now. It's a bit beyond music, that power to make you just be. Now.

And it also makes you think, once the lights come on again, and the band has left the stage, and the rumble of hundreds of feet and bodies moving to reach the exits reaches you -nobody talked much after, really- it does make you think that there is nothing, absolutely nothing in the visual arts that can ever match this intensity. Nothing.

* Filth is being reissued on vinyl next month, if anybody reading this loves me and has some spare $, you know what I want for Christmas.