Monday, December 11, 2017

Winter is the Time to Break Things with Robots

Well, winter has come to Berlin. It's quite cold. But nothing that a family of well-seasoned Taoseños can't handle.

We will be spending the holiday season in Athens with my brother Cles, a nice respite from the grey. The grey is actually more bothersome for me than the cold. Taos isn't grey.

This weekend saw the first snow of the year here... which coincided with the triumphant return of the Hand of Man to Berlin! Which is to say that we ran it this weekend at the KAOS Weihnachtsmarkt (or, the Christmas Market at the communal art-space we've been working at a little, which is called KAOS).
Running the Hand in the snow was a new one on me. It performed well and made some Germans smile... which is saying something.

A special treat for me was letting my old friend Jens Schendel run it. Jens worked on the first hand, the prototype, with me in Amsterdam in 2006.

Well, I submitted my proposals for Burning Man. For whatever reason I'm superstitious about revealing my ideas in any public way... but it will suffice to say that I'm happy with all the ideas. I submitted more than one idea... but less than five! I do hope to build one of them.

I'm on a bit of a Stanley Kubrick kick. I watched Eyes Wide Shut and 2001: A Space Odyssey a few days ago, both in one day. I like Eyes Wide Shut quite a lot. It seems a lot of people don't care for it much, but I do. I've read a bit about the film since watching it, and I'm puzzled by reading the not-uncommon views of people who can't seem to understand what the film is about. It's about temptation and fidelity. It seems to also layer in commentary on the topics of secret societies, Masonic rituals, etc., but come on... the theme of the film is plain to see in the main story arc. One thing I like about the film is that the entire midsection, Dr. Harford's "adventures," feel in retrospect like they could be some sort of dream or metaphor.

But 2001: A Space Odyssey is the movie that's been occupying my thinking more of late. There's little that I could write here that hasn't been written before, but... the writing that is out there already makes for some really good reading. And there's a lot of it. It's claimed in various places that 2001 has inspired more written film criticism than any other film. I've also heard that Kubrick actually intended to make a film that would be considered a legend, an enigma, an archetype... something that people would puzzle over and write about for years. It seems he succeeded.

The theory of the film which I currently find the most compelling is that it is an articulation of Nietzsche's theory of the "Overman," as laid out in Thus Spake Zarathustra. There's a lot of explication of Nietzsche's ideas online, so I won't give a detailed regurgitation of the theory here, but... In short, it postulates that Man, as we know him today, is just a stopover, an intermediate stage, in the evolution from Ape to Overman, which could be understood as some sort of as-yet unspecified "higher consciousness" iteration of humanity. In Zarathustra, the Overman is allegorically correlated with the Child, insofar as they both share a spirit of innocence and curiosity. It is not difficult to see how the story of 2001, which starts with Apes, then moves on to Man and his uneasy relationship with Artificial Intelligence, and concludes with the death of man and his rebirth as the Star Child, lines up with this Nietzchean concept of evolution. This is a good article.

I've had a strong interest in Nietzsche ever since reading him in college. Maybe much the same can be said of many philosophers, but Nietzsche has always struck me as someone who could see the underlying and overarching patterns of humanity like few else. It's as if he could see right through the issues of the day, or even of the century, and penetrate through to both the psychological underpinnings of human behavior as well as the much larger history-scale phenomena. Perhaps this ability was facilitated by his somewhat tenuous relationship to society in general; he was a bit of a hermit especially in his later productive years. Have you ever noticed (as I have) how often his name shows up in the indices of books of wildly varying topics? (A quick glance at my bookshelf reveals that he pops up in a book about the history of beauty, another about the human face, another about masks, and another about Europe's current crisis, and of course that's just naming a few). Laibach's newest album is a soundtrack to a theatrical presentation of "Thus Spake Zarathustra," which I saw them perform live a few weeks ago. And not long ago I picked up a copy of Zarathustra in both English and German as part of my efforts to learn German. I didn't get too far. If you look for him, Nietzsche is everywhere.

Of course the interweaving of the theme of Artificial Intelligence into the storyline of 2001 is especially interesting to me as I've spent a lot of time reading about it lately in the context of developing my pitches for Burning Man. Also don't forget that the screenplay was co-written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, the father of A.I. and robot fiction, and partly based on a short story by Clarke. Insofar as evolution is one of the overarching themes of the film, it's interesting to see what a big role is played by A.I., which is often spoken of in terms of an evolving life-form in its own right, depicted as a helper to man or as his competitor with equal frequency. Not strictly Nietzschean, but certainly relevant.

But as I mentioned, it's not exactly my goal here to present original scholarship on 2001 or Kubrick or Nietzsche because all that has already been done by others far more qualified than I. I think my interest in Kubrick breaks down along many of the same parameters as my interest in Damien Hirst or Björk, which is to say that in all their work you can clearly sense a vision, a focus, a directness. They all display an unwavering commitment to ambitious, grand-scale work which requires a lot of labor, a fearless leader, and a team.

Although I'm not really a film buff, I have a tremendous respect for film as a medium. Some number of months ago I wrote here in the blog about the centrally important role of emotion in artwork, and how I personally value work that can tease emotion from the viewer. I think that film is uniquely capable of taking viewers on a journey, often emotional, but also at times intellectual, escapist, etc. It's an interesting medium because it's experiential... not something you can hold or put on your wall... but so versatile and capable.

In the interest of curtailing my rambling, I am going to just quickly pose a few questions which occur to me in the context of film-making and Kubrick...

Do artists unconsciously tap into the cultural zeitgeist, or is timely work actually the product of lots of hard work? The many, many ways that 2001 dovetails thematically with Nietzsche, even in the minutiae, tempt me towards the seductive idea that Kubrick and Nietzsche were both able to tap into some visionary truth about humanity, just below the surface. But the years that each of them put into their work probably tells a different story, one of careful attention to detail, with all its various meanings and connections well-considered.

To what degree is all artwork autobiographical? Does work need to be autobiographical to be meaningful? Björk's work is clearly and persistently autobiographical, and I think this is part of what makes it successful. Hirst, not so much. Kubrick, probably also not... but I did read one interpretation of Eyes Wide Shut which suggested that it was very personal and autobiographical for Kubrick. I think it was Steven Spielberg who said that "you have to wait for a story that is worth telling," which pretty clearly suggests that he is just a "storyteller," and probably not his own story. I'm reminded again of Amanda Palmer's great quote (* see below), and I wonder if perhaps the best stories feel successful because we all see ourselves in them? They are biographies of everyone.

Sometimes I fantasize about making a film; the idea of reaching so many people and being able to offer a collective, guided experience is enticing. But I once tried to take a class in creative fiction writing and my stories were like 2nd grade learn-to-read books. I dropped the class. Maybe I would have to wait for a story worth telling. (I did make two short movies with Kodiak recently with the awesome smartphone app Splice... Easy and fun.)

For now I am still a visual artist, and 2001 is visually stunning. In a month that movie will be 50 years old (can you believe that?), and it still looks amazing. I particularly love the bedroom scene at the end. So frickin' weird.

Not long ago the room was re-created for an art gallery installation in Los Angeles. (Thanks for letting me know about that, Jared!) I would have loved to visit.

In the meantime I've finished another clay sculpture.

It still needs to be fired, so the color will normalize a bit.

Happy Holidays

I'll try to post again soon, maybe a more photographically guided post... 

* (Amanda Palmer's quote) 
But fundamentally this is what we – as artists – have always done. We take our pain and we transform it into some kind of narrative, some show or story, something... else. We frame our trauma as best we can, and we offer it up. At best, it’s a gift; at worst, it’s a product. And the amount of enduring respect we bestow on our artists seems to be directly proportionate to how well, how authentically, how selflessly, they can take and deliver an emotional selfie like this.