Doctor Gene Scott was no ordinary televangelist. In fact, it was just like him to sue Time magazine for comparing him with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, and Jimmy Swaggart. The maverick Scott might be a bit of a local Los Angeles phenomenon, but his often bizarrely unpredictable sermons were broadcast all over the world. Flipping deep in the channel count late at night, you never knew what high jinks the good doctor was going to be up to. As often as not what one came upon on one of those desperate late night searches for something vaguely watchable on TV was a tight headshot of the white bearded Scott smoking a cigar and berating a staff member, or reminding his congregation that a good seat in Heaven wasn’t cheap. Just as often Scott might be delivering one of his famous whiteboard sermons that featured the doctor feverishly working out a problem with his multi-colored felt tip markers that just became more and more densely composed of cross outs, arrows, and other indecipherable chicken scratch until it made the artist Joseph Beuys’ inscrutable chalkboard performance diagrams look like child’s play by comparison. Then again, he might just as well be seen galloping around in circles on one of his horses enjoying a sunny day. The German movie director Werner Herzog was so impressed with the doctor’s bully pulpit browbeating talent for moneymaking, he made Scott the subject of his 1980 documentary God’s Angry Man.
A lot of what the digital future might look like is the brainchild of William Gibson. Books like Neuromancer and short story compilations like Burning Chrome opened the inner world of computers and the Internet to our fantasies and are largely responsible for inspiring movies like TRON (1982), The Lawnmower Man (1987), and Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995). In Gibson, the computer geek was instantly transformed into a future-hero. These books announced a whole new ballgame in which code writers would go head to head. Only the demented imagination of these hi-tech brainiacs could navigate the new cryptic networks. Neuromancer was an archetypal battle for global dominance where the hacker was the good guy, up against evil corporate interests. In the years since Gibson has shown no intention of resting on his laurels. The author continues to play up the practically indistinguishable difference between literary fiction and virtual reality. Among Gibson’s more accessible side projects is a blog. After a year of no posts, it started up again last autumn. Most of the initial entries, as one might expect, were concerned with the election. Gibson uses the blog very much like a notepad, jotting down idea fragments and noting references. The effect is a bit like reading an updated version of traditionally published letters. One can follow the author as he works through a problem. Take, as example, the post for Thursday October 21st:
“E. M. Forster maintained that didactic novels were, invariably, inherently less good -- as novels. If an author's politico-religio-social agenda is what directly drives the work, I take that to mean, no genuinely valuable interrogation of reality can take place, and the result will be a literary virtuality built as exclusively from the author's expressed political philosophy as that author can manage. This is best understood, an excellent teacher of mine said, by asking ourselves whether or not a fascist can write a good novel.
“I took this idea of Forster's immediately to heart, upon first discovering it. I likewise took to heart his idea that authors fully or even predominately in control of their characters just aren't doing their job. Indeed, the two are really the same: A fascist can't write a good novel because writing a good novel, in the end, is about relinquishing control of the text.”
There are those of us for which pornography was our sex education and Hunter S. Thompson was our intro to drug culture. But drug culture is not just about getting stoned. It is a culture with as broad, if not broader, implications as any other culture. There is an esthetic, and there is, most definitely, a politics. Like any great writer, Thompson had a genius for lying. It is not easy to get the world’s attention or to hold it. But, Thompson was more than just a really good liar. No matter how spectacular, the fish story only gets you so far. Thompson knew how to hold our attention. But he was about much more important issues. The inventor of gonzo journalism was able to give us genuine political insight about a world that was going through radical changes. From the start these were books that were filled with the heartbreak of an idealist who saw one of the only and biggest chances for real political, social, and cultural change wasted and finally exhausted. By the time the movie version of Fear and Loathing came out in 1998 the depiction of optimistic excess gone sour looked more like your average anti-drug campaign. The uniquely American politics of individual sovereignty as the basis for all of our freedom had been replaced by a new standard of witch-hunts at the highest levels of government, laws that did not apply to everyone equally, etc. One can only hope that Thompson is not the last of his breed.
The meteoric rise of Outkast is an extraordinary and wonderful thing. It is that rarest of miracles that keeps so many independent thinkers working so hard, despite the odds, at what ever it is they work hard at. Every once in a very long while something genuinely good gets the recognition it deserves. In a world of baseless hyperbole aimed at convincing us there is something good where there is not, the greatest praise is reserved for the actual talent and invention of genuine freaks. No doubt the vampires of commerce have plenty to sink their teeth into, but the blood is so rich there’s plenty left over for the rest of us to enjoy. Among the major bonuses that accompanies such an upheaval is the collateral effect of illuminating all the other bands that have been instrumental in creating the culture Outkast was only the first to emerge from. That culture is the Dungeon in which the ATL sound was cooked up. Big Boy and Andre 3000 have made amazing music, no doubt, but they were carried on the strong shoulders of Wille Knight a.k.a. Khujo Goodie. The dirty south sound has plenty of contributors. Not least of all the other members of The Mob, Big Gipp a.k.a. The Mutant and T-Mo Goodie. Their latest album One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show is a tribute to their resilience and survival despite the onslaught of curve balls life likes to throw at struggling artists. One of the major innovations is the ATL sound’s genuine fascination with soul music and the subtlety of production values that go along with it.
Arthur, the free monthly tabloid with the unpredictable distribution, likes to do theme issues. Not every one is a homerun. But, already in their first year, they have managed to put out some amazing issues. The first one to catch a lot of positive attention was the Detroit Issue. There was writing by a totally politically disillusioned John Sinclair, substantial interviews with Iggy Pop and the Stooges' Ashton brothers, etc. Just as good, if not better, was last year’s November issue: “Out, Demons, Out!” The issue revisited the 1967 exorcism of the Pentagon and birth of the Yippie movement. Those principals still among the living (Abbie Hoffman notably chose death over the Reagan era) gave ample first hand anecdotes of the event. Every one from Jerry Rubin to the consummate outsider filmmaker Kenneth Anger had plenty to say. To illustrate the writing, shutterbug cum movie auteur Robert Altman dug into the files and pulled out some incredible pictures he took at the protest. Arthur has set their standards high.
Richard Hertz’s Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia is a tribute to the troubled artist who, after at least one prior failure, finally succeeded in committing suicide in 2002. The book resulted from a year’s worth of interviews with Goldstein, mostly held during Chinatown lunches in Los Angeles. Transcripts of those conversations are interspersed with first-hand accounts from other artists and art world figures that knew Jack personally. As cautionary tales go, however, the book has its limitations. Sure, Goldstein’s early naiveté and anxiety in the big city come across clearly in passages, he was after all among the first students of the Disney sponsored school to succeed in the New York art world along with David Salle, Eric Fischl, and Troy Brauntuch. But these insights are limited to anecdotes about the artist’s not entirely unfounded suspicion of art world politics. The equally paranoid extreme fear of failure is more to the point. It definitely did nothing to counter his severe drug addiction. As is frequently the case with addicts, the artist’s reliance on narcotics becomes the only really distinguishable aspect of his personality in these chapters. The book’s brilliance is, however, probably inadvertent. The accounts of Goldstein’s peers that appear between the transcriptions of the artist’s sessions with Hertz offer the greatest insight into the art world mindset. For many of those asked to contribute, their memory of Goldstein coincided with their own glory days. It is really interesting how few of them have anything at all meaningful to say about Jack. James Welling, as example, barely mentions Goldstein at all. But the same is true of everyone's contribution from the Winter Warlock, John Baldessari, to Tom Wudl. As anyone might expect they are generally focused on what was going on in their own lives. In the end the greatest success stories always win out. Goldstein had a brief spate of major accomplishment, but his then girl friend Helene Weiner obviously went on to greater things. Consequently, if one were to go solely on the outside contributions to the book, there is no small irony in the fact that the casual reader might actually confuse Weiner and Metro Pictures for the real subject of the book. If there is anything that will ultimately betray the Los Angeles art scene, it is exactly this kind of mistake of placing the art institution before the artist.
Strange Attractor launched their first journal last winter with the idea that they would regularly put them out semi-annually. The fact that the first one took over a year from start to finish should have tipped them off how hard it would be, but you can’t blame the editor’s for their optimism. However long the wait, it is well worth it. The first issue was filled past bursting with wonderful oddities; stories on the London underground, cargo cults, Blackpools lost wax museum, experimental weapons, 19th-century anarchist bombers, H.P. Lovecraft, etc — close to three hundred pages of curious writing and art. The mission of Strange Attractor, the editor writes, is to “celebrate unpopular culture.” The journal is concerned “with the marginal; those cultural, historical and technological grey areas that defy conventional categorizations; the wide-open, in-between spaces so often missed, ignored or deliberately papered over by the coin operated automatons who preside over so much of contemporary popular culture.” And, in spirit, at least, who can argue with that? The design is also a striking mixture of Victoriana and more contemporary graphic elements. Strange Attractor is apparently a larger project. Their radio shows and “information happenings” have been going on for quite awhile. The journal is only the latest extension of their mission.
An eerie childhood longing increasingly characterizes much LA art. It is hard to say how such a particularly nostalgic iconography has emerged so strongly. Probably an over-simplistic reception of Mike Kelley and co.’s use of adolescent and teen signifiers has had a lot to do with it. But, what started out as a reactive position to prior art eras, has over time become a style – albeit not a style based on form, but one based on content (our favorite records, etc.). In this regard, Marnie Weber’s work stands out in an odd way. The iconography of sick and hobbled animals was already present in her childhood sketchbooks. As if it is literally derived from a Freudian-brand trauma, Weber has seemingly been obsessed with her imagery for all these years. Over time the iconography has grown to include other elements, equally strange in their use of the conventional imagery of girlish fantasy. Weber’s latest video Spirit Girls (2005) is a 13-minute dream sequence in which a number of these fantasies are acted out. Even though formative surrealist films come to mind like Jean Painlevé’s Methusalah (1926) and the camp retro-surrealism of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), a yawing cultural divide separates Weber’s film from these potential precedents. Spirit Girl’s exemplifies a much more contemporary position in which the historical avant-garde is reasserted as an extension of middle class sensibilities. This is particularly true for Weber's more recent work. Over time the production value of the imagery has become much more suffisticated. The footage of the new work is often strikingly beautiful, and has, consequently, become much more comfortable, and far less weird.
Mike Kelley has begun to release some previously unavailable Destroy All Monsters music. The 13th offering from Kelley’s Compound Annex Records is self-published Destroy All Monsters “Live in Tokyo and Osaka”. Band members on the tour included Art Byington, Mike Kelley, Cary Loren, Dave Muller, and Jim Shaw. There is plenty to listen to on the album. Kelley provides rhythm and Loren’s guitar work is always a highlight. A marked despondency is characteristic for DAM, who troll the sewers of musical literacy and human pathos for unexpected finds that are sometimes sublime.