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There Go the Zeros 

The passing of the first decayed

Wednesday, Dec 30 2009

Was that really a decade that just sputtered by?

Granted, everyone was numbed to the teeth for a couple of years after 9/11, but aren’t decades supposed to be demarcated by some sort of discernible content, like techno music, the civil rights movement or cocaine abuse?

What can the Zeros claim? The Jonas Brothers? Avatar? Devendra Banhart? The emergence of graphic novels as a viable literary genre? Good TV? Gay marriage?

click to enlarge Chris Burden’s 747 (1973)
  • Chris Burden’s 747 (1973)

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These are all more or less wonderful things, but uniformly retro, cobbled together from surefire crowd-pleasers and reconfigured for today’s a-go-go cyber lifestyle.

Where’s the surprise, the indication that something new is afoot — something that might signal a sea change in our culture’s disastrous path of self-destructive materialism, or at least save us from drowning in reassuring pabulum? When I see “The ’00s,” I think “the ooze” — and wonder how to scrape it off.

In many ways, the art produced since 9/11 has been a sort of collective cultural shudder, as figure and ground have flipped, and artifacts that were supposed to embody the pinnacle of Western society’s enlightened evolution have been revealed as flimsy props in the most elaborate theater of denial in history.

When German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen notoriously (and career-endingly) described the attack on the World Trade Center as “the greatest work of art there has ever been,” he was putting his finger not only on a truth about transdimensional mythological entities manifesting in “so-called” reality but also on the sore spot — rubbed raw by the fundamental incompatibility of its cohabitants — where Art and Politics tussle. It’s an open, unmentionable wound in our collective self-image, the bullet hole in Chris Burden’s arm, where art history vanished, never to be heard from again.

Burden’s signature 1971 piece, Shoot, where he had a friend puncture his arm with a .22 shot from a rifle 13 feet away (not to mention just more than a year later, when Burden fired a pistol at an airliner taking off from LAX) quite literally embodies the question of how much responsibility an artist must take for the destruction and violence inherent in creativity.

Put another way, when modernism erased the boundary between art and life, it also erased the boundary between art and death, and death has been the elephant in the room ever since.

Or to put it yet another way, how the hell do you top that? Kill yourself? Shoot someone else?

Better to pretend it never happened and keep rotating the merchandise.

As usual, Art is ahead of the conceptual, structural and formal curves that define contemporary society — keeping up appearances while running on empty for three decades before the shit hit the fan in the public domain.

Sept. 11 threw the Art World’s defense mechanisms into overdrive, with an unabashed replay of Wall Street–era trough-groveling at one end of the spectrum, and on the other, a superfluity of unctuous told-you-so-ism trickling down from the halls of academe — strategies that were well in place, and proved extremely prescient as coping mechanisms on a broader cultural canvas.

But underlying both these supercharged attempts at rationalization lies a deep and undeniable insecurity in the significance and power of art as anything more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. At the bottom level of the Art World pyramid — where actual artists make actual things — this insecurity began to manifest itself more plainly. Artists began to ask questions, like Billy Kwan, the androgynous dwarf photographer in Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) desperately, furiously quoting Tolstoy: “What then must we do?” (Pete’s answer, in case you forgot, was “Get the fuck out of Dodge and take the Girl” — which goes a long way in explaining Dead Poets Society.)

Some of the most plausible experimental stabs at answering this question have emerged from a distinctly Los Angeles–based tradition dating to the opening of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in the late ’80s, and the unleashing of a torrent of more or less successfully confusing attempts at bureaucratic and institutional mimickry.

I wouldn’t reduce the Jurassic’s mandate to this one area (disclosure: used to work there), but in terms of its treatment of the Art & Politics boo-boo, I would characterize the MJT as ground zero of the current wave of Situationist vaccines — autonomous, idiosyncratic collectives that flirt with the depersonalizing structures of the host organism to produce the exact opposite effect.

The most successful of these politburo doppelgängers is undoubtedly the MJT–adjacent Center for Land Use Interpretation, whose agenda of nonpartisan informational openness rode a contextual wave of exponential currency over the course of the Patriot Decade, and whose recent guided bus tour of the “urban oilscape of Los Angeles” — ranging from the giant, hippie bedsheet–camouflaged rig in the playground of Beverly Hills High to the man-made modernist islands hidden in plain view in Long Beach Harbor — demonstrated how incisive and funny a poker face can still be.

With the ascendancy of the most Zeros-specific iteration of Public Service Aesthetics — the meta-institutional clearinghouse that is Edendale’s Machine Project — deadpan has moved through the looking glass, triggering and riding high on a tidal wave of incongruous symposia on grassroots DIY activism at Ivy League schools and exhibits on organic gardening and home canning at major art museums.

Thank God that when the apocalypse arrives, several thousand hipsters with vague ideas about recycling gray water will be there, ready to bail us out!

Not to denigrate the potential effectiveness of bringing these scattershot home-brew recipes to broader public attention, but the fact that the new radicalism has proven so smoothly assimilable into the Art World status quo is evidence of its fundamental shortcoming — its emphatic reasonableness.

One of the decade’s most telling examples of the attempt to use reason and rationality in an artwork to effect a positive change in the world was Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which should have reasonably resulted in immediate impeachment proceedings, war-crimes trials and reparations to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. Didn’t happen. It’s not that we don’t know how to do the right thing, we just choose not to.

In the meantime, bicycle-powered irrigation systems have become the latest subterfuge for ambitious grad students who want to be written up in Artforum.

What then must we do?

What has been undermined in the wake of 9/11 is not the legitimacy of art itself but the system by which it is accorded value and meaning in a fatally wounded social construct. The things our culture designates as Art are probably the last things Martian anthropologists will take into account when they try to parse our species’ arc of willful self-immolation. Maybe YouTube?

Art predates human civilization and will probably outlast it. But it’s not art’s undeniable persuasive power that offers a glimmer of hope for the future but its capacity to absorb and accommodate our species’ deep irrationality, instead of projecting it outward and shooting it full of holes.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly from whence the next round of vaccines will emerge, but Art will definitely need a shot in the arm as the New Millennium enters puberty.

  • The passing of the first decayed

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