Breathe

IMG_1858.jpg

I was at a conference this week sponsored by the digital knowledge management company Yext. One of the speakers was Ed Parsons, the Geospatial Technologist for Google, who essentially is a geographer and works on all their mapping projects. In the course of his really interesting talk he mention a concept called 'contextual literature' and cited an author by the name of Kate Pullinger who had created a piece of online literary experience delivered through your smartphone that responds to your presence by internalising the world around you. Using APIs – application programming interfaces – the story leverages data about you, including place, weather, time, in order to create, so the site says, an experience that is personal and uncanny.

So I went to the site and followed the instructions and launched the book on my phone...

IMG_1859.jpg

As soon as I accessed the site, the story integrated bits and pieces of my life and surroundings in to the story. It's an experiment in personalizing a story and blurring boundaries between writer and reader I guess. I'm not sure that I need that, or that I actually like it very much but it ties very much into the shift towards an experience economy which is where we seem to be headed in virtually every area of our lives.

Let There Be More Light

IMG_1628.jpg

One of the UK's richest people, Mike Platt, a hedge-fund investor, is also a patron of many contemporary artists and has taken over a deconsecrated church in Marylebone as a base for his collection.

The work of sculptor Paul Fryer was supported by Platt and in 2008, Fryer put on a solo show of his amazing sculptural works. The show was called, Let There Be More Light, and featured a series of sculptures, all exploring the dual themes of agony and human folly. These themes were worked out by the artist through the appropriation of religious themes and symbolism. The striking image above is, Lucifer, and pictures the fallen angel, trapped in a web of telephone wires, fallen to earth and fallen to technology. The works were lit to amplify the play of light and shadows and each of the sculptures showed a character in some degree of self-generated agony-the 'terror and chaos of one's own making' as one reviewer noted. 

IMG_1635.JPG
IMG_1632.jpg
IMG_1629.JPG
IMG_1630.jpg

The formerly religious space, with it's stained glass windows and curved walls and arches only seem to amplify both the dynamism in the sculptures and the troubling issues the artist is exploring. Of course, the use of religious imagery in the service of contemporary art is contested by many, and cries of blasphemy are usually hard from some quarters.

I am exploring the role of religion and religious imagery in the contemporary arts in a book I am co-writing which is called, The Aesthetics of A/Theism. I am looking at the notion of making revelation out of profanation, an idea drawn from the poetic works of French philosopher/poet, Michel Deguy. The profane is not always a resistance to the sacred and in these times it seems that the profane might be the place where the sacred is most apparent. It seems that art has taken up some of the slack in a post-religious world to address the dilemmas and dichotomies of human existence. As Mark C. Taylor notes, religion is the most interesting where it is the least obvious.

Fryer continues to create spectacular sculptures, most of which explore religion and science in a variety of ways designed to confront the viewer with the complexity and beauty of life.

 Hydromorph, Murano crystal.

Hydromorph, Murano crystal.

Free from the Net of Meaning: Larry Harvey and Burning Man

IMG_1159.JPG

Burning Man founder Larry Harvey has passed away at the age of 70. It has been virtually impossible to live on the Westside of Los Angeles, as I did for the past few decades, and not have conversations about two things-Coachella and Burning Man. Burning Man, which began as an annual ritual on the Northern California coast became a seminal counter-cultural event. black Rock City, the site of the annual 'burn' in the Nevada desert drawing thousands of people from all over the world for an experience like no other, a TAZ event (temporary autonomous zone, driven by a gift economy and a commitment to an avoidance of significance and what writer Erik Davis called the 'insidious net of meaning.

Almost everyone has an opinion about BM, it runs from dismissal of it as a New-Age bacchanal, to hopes that the ideas of behind BM would take hold in the wider culture and 'really change things.'

The questions that are raised in many of the circles I move in relate to issues of religion, spiritualty and the sacred/profane dynamics so prominent in most conversations about religion today. I knew a girl who used to tout the spiritual dynamics of BM, she also used to go there dressed only in blue latex and a commitment to explore sexuality and hallucinogenic experiences. I also know of a few groups of Christians who go, some to evangelize or be a presence for God, whatever that means.

Unbridled sexuality, wide use of drugs and lots and lots of wild goings on muddied the waters for many people who were somewhat confused as to what exactly Burning Man was or was trying to do or be.

What makes the event sacred is its very profanity, or perhaps I should say, the way in which the sacred and the profane intersect and join up. “Beyond belief, beyond the dogmas, creeds, and metaphysical ideas of religion, there is immediate experience,” this is what Larry Harvey wrote and perhaps provides a clue to the essential dynamic of BM--its an experience. And it's this dynamic at the heart of Burning Man that links to it broader and perhaps more accepted forms of American Spirituality. American Spirituality is many things and takes many forms, but it is essentially built on experience. William James, who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, noted that it was experience rather than belief that was at the root of religious life. Burning Man's experiences may seem a long way from traditional religious expression, that is partly because traditional religion has continually domesticated its experiences (think Pentecostalism, Charismatic movements etc that very quickly saddle experiences with dogma and order which ultimately turn them into virtual parodies of themselves), and also because of the conditions under which things are experienced at Burning Man. Because it is wrapped up in a healthy dose of hedonism and other physical dynamics, the event doesn't present a singular experience and consequently the myriad experiences people have at Burning Man become its currency its ritual form and its means of sustainability.

Like many forms of American spirituality Burning Man's perspective is riddled with the apocalyptic. Burning Man, which it should be noted has now become a well-laid out, temporary city, is haunted by the conditions of the playa-the consumerist, capitalist, military-industrial world, that rules the outside world, acknowledges, dismisses and mocks that world through its gift economy, its artworks, its hedonism, and throws itself wide open to the void that exists, but that void is not nothing, it is chaos, creative chaos. Chaos is a reminder of impermanence and this of course lies at the heart of the event itself. It lasts a week and then disappears without a trace, leaving the empty desert playa as though nothing ever happened. It's not that there is no meaning, there just isn't any meaning except that which lies beneath the creativity and the chaos, between the apocalytpic and the utopian--it is spirituality gone wild, perhaps the only form of spirituality that might survive in the times in which we live,

The Last Supper/Giles Walker

Giles Walker spent a year constructing the remarkable piece, The Last Supper. It is a fully animated sculpture consisting of thirteen mechanical figures who interact around a table. It's quite funny at times and a bit scary, it is also extraordinarily human, which you realize as the robotic nature of the piece gives way to the lurking humanity beneath it. if you are unfamiliar with Walker, he is a UK-based artist who has created sculptures for almost thIrty years. He is a member of the guerrilla-art group, The Mutoid Waste Company, and he started building sculptures from materials found in scrapyards as they travelled around Europe. Walker also creates collages, which he contends is a link to his scrapyard work.

 

HORSES

This has been a great time for music documentaries. They used to be little more than puff pieces or extended music videos really, but lately a slew of documentaries have been released from artists like Iggy Pop and Nick Cave that delve deep into the artist's life and psyche. The latest addition is Horses, a documentary celebrating the 40th anniversary of Patti Smith seminal album. It's a concert film but with depth, capturing the humanity and fiery creativity of one of rock music's legendary figures. Smith has had a resurgence of late, largely through her literary offerings (Just Kids, M Train and Devotion), but her live performances are still something to behold. Shot at LA's Wiltern Theatre, this will be available on May 22nd on Apple Music and elsewhere I presume. Check out the trailer and then while tyouy are waiting for the release date, do yourself a favour and rent American Valhalla, which chronicles Iggy Pop and Josh Homme's musical collaborations.  

The Apocalypse Will Blossom

IMG_4854.jpg

I spent the past week in Belfast participating in a boutique festival hosted by my friend Peter Rollins called Wake. It's been running for six years now and draws about 80 or so people from all over the map. The theme this year was Apocalypse-the cataclysmic event that brings upheaval to the existing order of things and open up the possibility of a new horizon. 

I gave a couple of talks and hosted a screening and discussion around Catherine Malabou's theory of destructive plasticity and a documentary called, One More Time With Feeling, which explores how the singer/songwriter, Nick Cave and his family and friends dealt with the tragedy of the loss of one of Cave's fifteen-year old twin sons. I'll be posting the talks over the next couple of weeks on my Patreon site: www.patreon.com/barrytaylor

Deconstruction: Eels

Eels have released a new video from their latest album, Deconstruction. It's a return to form after a four year hiatus during which Eels front man and architect, Mark Oliver Everett, got married, got divorced and had a child, something Everett has termed as a "project of self-improvement."

The album is an exploration of the constant motion of life and Everett's question of what might be underneath it all? Tearing down the defenses that we build over time and in life is how the album introduces itself with the title  track, 

The deconstruction has begun
Time for me to fall apart
And if you think that it was rough
I tell you nothing changes
Till you start to break it down:
And break apart
I'll break apart
I'll break apart
Right now it's going to start
I'll break apart:
The reconstruction will begin
Only when there's nothing left
But little pieces on the floor
They're made of what I was
Before I had to break it down

Getting down to the roots of what it means to be human and re-building on the bare bones of existence-sounds like a radical theology soundtrack if ever there was one.
 

Jack's Back!

IMG_9761.jpg

Boarding House Reach is the latest release from Jack White. It represents some major departures from his usual musical trajectories. White has long built a career on his commitment to old school approaches like home-made guitars, the use of solely analog recording equipment and a blues-rock base to his musical creations. The new album feels like someone(JW) has decided that the time has come to let a few guards down, to release himself from a set of rules that was perhaps becoming a dogmatic and predictable chain around his musical neck, and to try new things. That is certainly what you get with Boarding House Reach. Funk, hip-hop, rap, even a little gospel flare come together in a musical mishmash that makes you smile. Taking the expected road has never been White's way, and here he departs from his own self-ordered musical world to chart new waters. It works. This is an album that sounds like a man re-energized (given the gushing reviews of his surprise live shows here in London, that energy is translating to a new live energy also) who has found renewed vigour by simply letting go of previously held notions about how music should be made and what a song should sound like. There is a lesson here that extends beyond music. All too often the things that once liberated become legalistic millstones around our necks, strangling creativity and liberty, when we allow no room to adjust, to stay open to the possibility of finding freedom other ways. "The White Stripes was nothing but constriction. I feel like it's better to put obstacles in my path in order to get someplace new," He seems to have exchanged constriction to expansion and it's proven to be a good thing.

Apparently White abandoned his almost religious commitment to purely analog recording and this time used digital technology as well--it didn't do him any harm and it certainly didn't spoil the sonic pleasure of listening to his latest collection of songs. 

THE AGE OF INTERPRETATION

IMG_9124.JPG

Jack Caputo has a new book out and I pretty much devoured it in a day. Hermeneutics: Facts and Interpretation in the Age of Information revisits most of Caputo's ideas, and presents them slightly differently by placing them in direct dialog with hermeneutics. hermeneutics has always been central to Caputo's work, this book just names that a bit more clearly perhaps. He does a great job of tracing the develop of hermeneutics and its re-directions under the post-modern, the post-secular, the post-religious. Along the way we get some Gadamer, Heidegger and of course, Derrida, plus a little Vattimo and Rorty for good measure.

 Essentially, Caputo says, by way of Heidegger, we have a sense of something, a vague pre-understanding--it could be God, Being, but something very basic and elemental that we spend our lives trying to give voice to-this is hermeneutics.

As I said, it's compact and very readable and covers lots of bases and culminates with yet another Caputo trope-a conclusion without a conclusion--a god even Nietzsche could love. 

In this age where 'facts' and fake news are thrown around like hand grenades, Caputo offers us another way of thinking about information and how we handle it. It's timely, insightful and ultimately really helpful for anyone trying to make sense of our current predicaments.

"The death of God is the birth of human creativity." That statement alone should be enough to get you interested.

Sacred Threads? fashion's religious imagination

08-met.jpg

Beginning in May of this year, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York will present Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, an exhibit that will include numerous vestments and other forms of religious dress loaned by the Sistine Chapel sacristy, many of them never seen outside of the Vatican. Included in the items loaned is a papal tiara given to Pius IX, by Queen Isabella II of Spain that contains 19,000 precious stones, 18,000 of them diamonds.

Curator Andrew Bolton said of the forthcoming exhibit that, “Some might consider fashion to be an unfitting or unseemly medium by which to engage with ideas about the sacred or the divine. But dress is central to any discussion about religion; it affirms religious allegiances and, by extension, it asserts religious differences.” The exhibit will explore the manner in which many fashion designers have been shaped by the 'catholic imagination.'  Gianni Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Jean-Paul De Castelbajac, Christian Lacroix, and Jean Paul Gaultier, are a few of famous designers whose creations have been directly inspired by both catholicism and liturgical dress. Bolton also said, “In ‘Heavenly Bodies’ it is the narrative impulses of the designers that are the deepest and most profound expressions of their Catholic imaginations. While the fashions that are featured in the exhibition might seem far-removed from the sanctity of the Catholic Church, they should not be dismissed lightly, for they embody the storytelling traditions of Catholicism. Taken together, the fashions and artworks in ‘Heavenly Bodies’ sing with enchanted, and enchanting, voices.

The relationship between material christianity and the forming of a catholic imagination is what is really being explored here. It is about the intersection of faith and fashion, the sacred and profane, and how in this contested space fashion innovation was, and is, made. As Balzac once wrote, "a person who sees only fashion in fashion is a fool," something this exhibit seeks to avoid.

It was Roland Barthes who undertook perhaps the first serious examination of fashion in the 1960s. In his oft-cited book, The Fashion System, he declared that fashion is a language, a communication tool, by which we make ourselves known and are known. Fashion and the Catholic Imagination is an exploration of the dialogue, the conversation between Catholicism and fashion.

Interestingly, the religious items loaned by the Vatican will be kept separate from the 'secular' creations, which will be shown in the Byzantine and Medieval galleries. in a sense the religious clothing is there to act as a foil to demonstrate the influence they have made on the world of fashion. I find this a somewhat strange move given the goal of the exhibit. Perhaps there are constraints placed upon the loaned items, a desire to preserve a distance between what are viewed as components of the religious rites and traditions of the church rather than items of clothing or fashion. Afterall, religious clothing has its own terminologies such as chasuble, dalmatic, cassocks, surplice, etc. but also has it's own communication goal, which differ greatly from street fashion. Fashion would seem to invite us to fantasize and experiment with identity, whereas religious clothing speaks of a very fixed notion of humanity, particularly in its relation to the divine, herein lies the tension between fashion and religion.

The annual Met Gala, hosted by Anna Wintour, editor of US Vogue magazine, is held just a few days before the exhibit opens to the general public. Guests, who comprise much of the world's fashion elite, are asked to dress to the theme of the exhibition, which means that this year they will be interpreting religious iconography into red carpet wear--something that will no doubt prove provocative and perhaps even blasphemous to some, but will surely be worth a viewing,.