Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Mauer Dreamstory, Pt.2

(X-posted from Faces on posters)

(from the work in progress "Poor But Sexy", see Pt.1 Drang nach Osten)

“I didnt want that to happen, but it did”

‘A woman who fucks an octopus’ – that was the way Andrzej Żuławski pitched his 1980 film Possession to the producer, fresh after the success of his French film L'important c’est d’aimer, about a fallen actress, played by a sad-eyed Romy Schneider, who is made to act in pornographic movies, surrounded by other failed artists, including an unusually melancholic, tender performance from Klaus Kinski. He was also right after the fiasco of his three hour long monumental metaphysical SF On a Silver Globe (1978), an adaptation of a fin de siecle futurological novel of his great uncle, Jerzy Żuławski, pulled before completion by the hostile communist authorities and shelved until 1987, when only Zulawski had a chance to "finish" the film. Around that time, he was abandoned by his wife Malgorzata Braunek, actress in his Third part of the night and The Devil, due to his famously domineering and possessive personality as a partner and a director. Left in shock and depression, he started plotting a mysogynist fairy tale about a monster....

The sleep of reason produces demons, and one of them materialised, when Anna, living in West Berlin with her functionary nice husband and child in a neat, 3 storeys blocks estate, realised she despised her husband. She confesses that to him. The rest is what happens after that confession.

Possession was made in the golden era of the genre of exploitation, and it must be due to the communal genius that things conceived as forgettable shlock to this day shine with a magnificent mixture of the visceral and the metaphysical, with cinematography, colours, costumes and set design taken from a masterpiece. Argento and the lesser gialli creators, Jean Rollin with his erotic horror, the expansion of intellectual SF, started and inspired by Tarkovsky, all paved the way for Possession, a still unrivalled study of a marital break-up, thrown in the middle of political turmoil in divided cold war Berlin. Still, Possession had a special “career” in the UK, if by career we understand horrible reception, extremely negative reviews and eventually putting it to the ‘video nasties’ list of banned films. “Film nobody likes”, it was deemed too arty for the flea pits and too trashy for the art house*.

Today perhaps we can’t imagine what it was like to live in a city surrounded by barbed wire and under a constant look of armed guards. When we first see Anna, played by a disturbingly pale, un-Holy Mary-like Isabelle Adjani and Mark (Sam Neill), we instantly see something is terribly wrong: their windows are under constant scrutiny, and surrounded by wire – the symbol of political oppression just as of the marital prison, of conventional life.

Mark’s job is not what it seems – he has completed a secret government mission, which he wants nothing to do with anymore. Meeting with mysterious grey-suited men, it’s clear he's involved in high rank espionage. Anna can’t explain what is driving her towards the mysterious lover. She wears her deep blue, up-to-neck gown of a 19th century governess, which walks her through all kinds of atrocities as if untouched, as if it’s a secret armor.

The Berlin U-bahn is a character in its own right, scene of her neurotic commutes to the fatal flat on another end of Kreuzberg, again, by the wall, with screaming dramatic graffiti: FREIE WEST and MAUER MUST GO (despite location in the east, it was still included in the West), and in its underpasses is the most terrifying scene of her possession, where she issues green-yellow gunk among terminal gargles. In all this there's a place for comic relief: the whole character of lusty Margie, played by one of iconic RW Fassbinder’s actresses Margrit Carstensen and her comical enormous leg in plaster, just as her failed courtship of Mark; in one of Zulawski's turns of surreal genius, when  a stupor-ridden Adjani is on the tube, she's robbed of a bunch of bananas by a homeless man, who takes one and gently puts the rest back to her bag. Luxury goods were an issue in the East, mind you.

The demon can be many things: her anxieties, her neuroses that took the shape of an evil monster. The monster can be also simply a misogynistic punishment for the unfaithful Zulawski’s wife. A chronically decaying demon, built out of corpses, can be also a sum of the traumas his generation had to go through. It is common to say of JG Ballard that everything he ever written, wore the shadow of the scenes he saw in a concentration camp in war-ridden Shanghai. Similarly, it is generally believed of Roman Polanski, that all his films, revolving around pain, trauma, sickly sexuality and claustrophobia, reveal the daily atrocities he saw as a child in the Cracow’s ghetto. There’s no doubt Zulawski also went through a traumatic childhood experience, motifs of which he obsessively came back to throughout all his career: war, isolation, madness realising in taboo eroticism, violence, evisceration, Polish romanticisme fou and our tragic history. Born in Lvov, Ukraine (then Poland) in 1940, he barely survived the war, once nearly hit by a bomb, witnessing the destruction of the city and his family at a very early age. In Possession we observe a growing hostility of the spouses, a decay of the family, of the city, and of the world.

Most of Zulawski’s and some Polanski’s films, like Repulsion, Cul de Sac, Locataire (The Tenant), all associate eroticism with perversion and anomaly, and fetishism, in a genuinely surrealist way. Sex is creepy, sex involves an exchange of ugly secretions, preceding of our inevitable decay; in fact, sex is a delight in revulsion, in turning to rot, to a corpse, an acceptance not only of dying, but also of dying disgustingly.

Also, due to the amusing, pretty-ugly soundtrack of Andrzej Korzynski (rereleased recently, what's characteristic, by English afficionados from Finders Keepers), the tale gains the feel of deceit and malice and of a childish game at once: music is here at the same time parodic and deadly serious. Korzynski had a longstanding relation to two Polish directors: the great Andrzej Wajda and to Zulawski, which can be compared to the greatest director-composer couples in cinema: Leone-Morricone, Argento-Goblin/Morricone, Fellini and Rota**. In Third Part of the Night it was more art and free rock and prog - a bricoleur, it's clear he was taking from wherever he could. Some of his musique concrete experiments may owe a lot to the seminal activity of the pioneering Polish Radio Experimental Studio (featured a lot before on my blog), and Wlodzimierz Kotoński. In Possession, he takes those typically romantic styles, like tango or waltz, and turns them upside down; similarly, he takes a children’s ditty motif, played on a broken harpsichord, and twists it with sardonic, scary undertones, like a parody of a cheap Hollywood film noir. Every romantic illusion, fantasy of a nice, unproblematic life, must in the end collapse and rear its disgusting head to us. The motifs come back on a loop, signifying the hopeless routine, in which the life of Mark and Anna has hung, and how terrible the way out of it must be.

Anna’s ‘nymphomania’ can be also explained by her lack of orgasm. The whole film revolves around her lack of pleasure, or in general, woman's incapability to get an orgasm from the men that surround her. her craving for the beast is a typical freudian case of women's narcissism grew out of imprisonment and solitude (much like the aristocrat in Borowczyk's Beast, who also craved a monster as a source of unbelievable ecstasy). 'Almost' we hear from Anna each time she has sex with her husband, with a tragic facial expression, typically, almost feeling sorry for him, not for herself. Woman blames herself for the lack of orgasm, never her lover. Neill is in his role often disarmingly, charmingly naive: he's chasing his wife, this woman, whom he doesn't understand a bit, always several steps behind her, disoriented. I'm sure this way Zulawski wanted to suggest who is in fact the vulnerable sex, cheated by the deceitful womanhood. As a proof of that, we have also Anna's double, their son's teacher, like in many other films (Third part of the night), replacing the (dead) Anna, who's less demanding in bed.

Anna is disintegrating, gradually possessed by demons: with her body becoming like a lifeless marionette, sleepwalking through the besieged city, with uncontrollable self-harm, shaken by one shock after another, obsessed with bodily mutilation (never before has an electric knife and kitchen automat meant so much in the marital drama). She’s breeding her monster on her neurosis, guilt and repulsion (like Catherine Deneuve keeping a dead rabbit in the fridge in Polanski's eponymous film). I always actually thought monster is primarily an idea, Anna's punishment, her thoughts that turn into flesh. A fallen from grace housewife and mother, living on sex like a vampire lives on blood, driven to madness by the increasingly mad Berlin, Anna falls out of her previous gender roles, challenges all the cliches of a woman of her class or position and mocks this spectacle. The only healthy products she keeps in her fridge now are the macabre heads and body-parts of her victims. It’s a story of a woman who stops controlling herself: stops controlling her libido (then of course she must fail as a mother), stops controlling her mind (madness ensues), then stops controlling her body – and then her fluids start to flow freely regardless of decorum: a dress is torn, a woman fucks an octopus, a woman expels vomit, yellow prenatal waters and finally the foetus, shaken, in a shocking scene, through all her orifices.

And then there’s the characteristic claustrophobia of all the interiors, as if the closeness of the eastern border and the restriction by the wall, especially felt in Kreuzberg district, caused a specific Island Fever mentality (Insellkoller). Polanski’s Locataire (together with Last Tango in Paris and Possession forming a great film trilogy about the madness induced by the claustrophobic bourgeois tenements), tells a story of a man growingly assuming the identity of the previous female tenant, who killed herself (it’s also starring Adjani against her emploi as an unattractive, bespectacled woman who grows friendly with Polanski’s character). Similarly, Anna’s monster belongs to the insalubrious, skanky place of their love, feeding on the negative aura surrounding the place, just like on the blood and the headless bodies she brings him. Zulawski had a proper budget behind him, so it is funny and telling, that the beast was made by the special FX specialist Carlo Rambaldi, known mostly for his outstanding work for Ridley Scott's Alien (as well as Argento's Profondo Rosso; then he went on to model the little body of E.T., amazingly) and it would be tempting to compare Alien and Possession's main females and in many other ways.

The glass-blue eyes of Isabelle Adjani seem to tell the truth beyond recognition, beyond understanding…She knows that the only way through the cold war of Europe and of her own marriage is to live it, become like them: crazy.

All this to the accompaniment of the melody of sardonic music box, deriding the characters. The queasy, sickly and morbid ditty, it owes a lot to Polish Jazz and Komeda’s deliberately frantic note and soundtracks to Lenica and Borowczyk’s animated films, House or Labyrinth, or Polanski’s Cul de Sac with its fucked up organ melody in a false key, just as the cheap soundtrack to horror movies.They all belong to something that could be called a Polish surrealist tradition, similar to the experimental Czech cinema. But it's synth drivennes is another issue entirely, taking from the italo disco frenzy of the era, Giorgio Moroder's Munich Machine.

The genius of Possession is that it's at least three films at once. On the surface it is a horror movie, if slightly metaphysical, a giallo with images terrifying beyond comprehension, with a monster, cannibalism, blood, forbidden sexuality, macabre murders, corpses etc. On another level it is a marital break-up drama, much in the style of many Bergmans, like Scenes from a Marriage or From the Life of Marionettes, with spouses self-harming, humiliating, and tearing each other apart. But that still wouldn’t explain why they act the way they act, at least if we won’t accept the rule of exploitation: there's no rules, and a plot of no plot. Here, a plot there definitely is, and it develops with the inevitability of Greek tragedy. Because another level of this drama is a political movie, set in the key city of international secret services and a scene of ideological war. Anna and Mark may live the relatively privileged life of expats, in their nice low rise modernist flat, but are still subject to increasing alienation and isolation, harrassed by men of mystery in ridiculous pink socks.

Trouble with sexuality pervades the whole film – woman's sexuality, the murder of a homosexual couple, Anna's previous lover ridiculed as an amateur of tantric sex and martial arts, and all this finalizing in a third world war-verging plot. Early 80s were the era of a 'second cold war' entering a new phase, a nuclear crisis which could lead to 3rd WW, which is implied by the final carnage between the secret services and the aftermath. Extremely theatrical, like a lot of the rest of the film, it's very much in the 'postmodern' style of the French Neobaroque. To me, Possession is one of the most prophetic movies for the 1980s, predicting the Polish Martial Law of the 1981 and the great depression that followed.

Zulawski's genius was to see the personal drama as political, and the visceral and the sexual as coming from the social and political oppression. Incredibly stylish, haunted with beauty and austerity, it's a world torn between Marx and Coca-cola (with Anna in one scene smashing the portraits of the classics of Marxism) and Zulawski is not necessarily a Marxist. The choices of many in that generation, and later - which they made as soon as capitalism entered Poland - wore serious traces of reacting over a trauma. Still, Zulawski remains a Romantic: revealing that love is the darkness, against the common, desexualized, sanitized convictions within capitalism.

* and ** - observations I owe to one of Zulawski's greatest experts, Daniel Bird.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Not For Human Consumption

[a longer version of a review published in the #348 2013 issue of the Wire)

Online exhibition

CRISAP, ie Creative Research Into Sound Art Practice is a new platform for developing of contemporary critical art and thinking around sound, focusing on developing new ways of engaging with the environment, creating new software and organizing seminars and symposiums, mingling artists and scholars, with the flagship projects such as HerNoise, problematising women’s participation in the sonic and public sphere. The newest way of engaging with the public is the idea of publishing? installing? - a whole exhibition online. We can say many websites, serving as databases, with all kinds of links, mp3, podcasts, are already in a way were creating the experience of entering an "exhibition", conceived as a little world in itself. But Not for Human Consumption, sixth online show by CRISAP is consciously using the format, liquidating this way any other institutional threshold shying the potential audience away, and taking from our everyday experience of online wandering as a ready blueprint of how the future exhibition should work.

And isn’t it a realisation of the avant-garde ideas of overcoming the “space” as a finite concept anyway? Ten or so sound artists and researchers took the task of coming up with a sonic phenomena, tests, by-products and compositions, that didn’t previously exist in the world, challenging the primate of human consciousness in the phenomenal world. Text and mp3 files, distributed randomly on the page like a discontinued milky way, unveil the sounds, sometimes barely audible or unaudible, but possibly audible to the non-humans; sounds of things that do not exist yet or are yet to come. We are, for instance, listening to the listening brain, or the termites activity under earth (R. W. Mankin & J. Benshemesh’s project using geophone), or acoustic vibration tester from NASA, or modern trains DD IRM, helioseismology, solar oscillations, voice-bots, choreography for computers etc. Its sounds that can be only listened to on our behalf by the machines. Of course, in this sense, as such a post-human and even speculative music, it is very much an illustration of the contemporary theories of posthumanity, expanding of our ontological world, like Michel Serres' concept of quasi-objects or Bruno Latour’s theory of non-human actors and the so called Speculative Realism, developing mostly online. One project by Steven Hammer, is even called Towards an Object Oriented Sonic Phenomenology, and what it does is an extremely sophisticated system of listening to objects’ vibrations near a highway.

The brave new world of new sonic objects is still only looming, it seems: the intellectual just as the practical part of such project seem not have matured enough to already speak of a revolution. The non-anthropocentric theory can have of course very interesting ethical consequences, of which we have to still think aboutas explored by SF or recently, by the dystopias of Michel Houellebecq. What I’ve found nevertheless appealing, were the charm of certain projects: even computers have a right to choreography, and the voice-bots getting excited and reverberating to each other is a dream of every bored commuter on the tube, though again, I think these are concepts straight from the SF books, confirming our imagination of the future largely comes from the 30 and more years old SF visions, where there's dreaming of music created by the cosmic vibrations or the inner life of the machines. Still, CRISAP goes against this tedious argument, that we stopped projecting the future. It's speculative music, music of things to come, even if in practice it can come across as a not tremendously appealing "noise". In a way, it is also the final consequences of conceptualism, with internet as a “site specific” place, place that can be one day of a historical value.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Physical sensations

[a review of FUSE 1-20, a retrospective of the cult typography magazine, based on a commission for Blueprint 12/2012]

From today’s perspective, the 1990s seem increasingly like a somewhat lost, under-considered era. We have replayed the raucous/bombastic 80s aesthetic in all possible ways, but the 90s holds a strange in-between legacy. Technologies, political systems, styles from a fascinating decade stand still partially explored, with its hopes in technology and a strong futurist streak, now largely obsolete. FUSE magazine, whose lavish anthology has been republished by Taschen, was the brainchild of two designers-cum-theorists: Neville Brody and Jon Wozencroft and looks today like a dispatch from this blurred, and misunderstood transitional time.

Why transitional? The nineties saw a moment of great technological change: launching off the back of fax, where paper, print and immediacy were suddenly one, and more obviously, the personal computer, which became increasingly ubiquitous. Together with this emerged graphic design software, meaning the laborious techniques of designing, especially typography, suddenly became easy and within a reach of a click.

Brody, as the 2012's V&A exhibition on "Postmodernism" proved, is one of the contemporary classics of design and typography, someone who combined punk’s radicalism, early avant-garde’s rigour and glamour of 80s fashion. Both Wozencroft and Brody came from the sophisticated circles of high art and music, both involved in building the visual language of post-punk and new pop. Brody designed covers for Sheffield’s industrial gods Cabaret Voltaire, Depeche Mode and of The FACE – the “style magazine” and the era's true bible, which helped to define its erratic, eclectic, whimsical esthetic. Channelling something of the unpolished, radical, buzzingly creative energy of punk was key to providing an intellectual and visual extension of those aesthetic movements.

That also meant the pair had higher demands of graphic art, which at this point was swiftly being co-opted as the purview of advertising agencies and marketable products. Already in the 1980s the tandem issued a manifesto called “Death of Typography”, worried by the sudden eruption of easy corporate design. FUSE was established in 1991 and continued until the 2000s; designed to create a multinational workshop of the new possibilities of technology in typography as art, as intellectual provocation, as a catalyst. A look at Brody’s covers, with their blurry, fizzy metallic layers of dimmed greys, oranges and anthracites brings to mind the visceral futurism of David Cronenberg just as much as Sonic Youth’s album covers.

That was the time of floppy discs and MS DOS ecstasy, now wholly nostalgic accessories, but FUSE was trying to combine radical futurism and possibilities with a sense of bodily fragility of material. FUSE issues typically arrived in a taped cardboard box, including floppy discs, CD-roms, posters, cut-outs and bitingly intelligent Wozencroft manifestos, with topics varying from religion, (dis)information, exuberance, cybernetics and the virtual. The spirit of JG Ballard was always present, providing the more pessimistic undertones of Wozencroft’s visions (“Abuse is part of the process!”). As a result of the new more versatile software and treating design as one creative whole, typography and design were finally one and the same and a host of graphic luminaries including Peter Saville, Malcolm Garrett (of the Buzzcocks’ album covers fame), Pierre di Sciullo, Paul Elliman John Critchley and Blueprint regular Erik Spiekermann were commissioned to respond to FUSE’s ideas. Their influence shaped the title in a truly curatorial sense, as we’d say today, just like in the conceptual magazines of the Fluxus era, like Fluxus Yearbook or Aspen, which had contributions in conceptual, sculptural or other experimental formats.

The result, with typographic gems such as the Stealth font face by Malcolm Garrett or Chocolate Runes by Gerard Unger, is astonishing, an inspirational remembrance of the possibilities and ambition graphic design could have. Taschen’s retrospective is trying to repeat the format of cardboard box, but instead of a floppy disc you get a graphic card with free access to the last two, digitalized issues and fonts. We seem much more minimalist and boring now, aren’t we? Compressing everything in a chip we eliminated the first excitement of new inventions. Wozencroft is now more dedicated to his ‘audiovisual’ label TOUCH. (again, physical sensations!), but his darkly humorous manifestos are something we now truly miss.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Strange Silence of Liberal Poland

Occupy Movement European solidarity map

[full version of the Guardian CiF piece published on October 24th 2012]

After 1989 Eastern Europe was supposed to join the club of so-called ‘normal countries’. From now on, we were told, there will be free speech, a free press and free debate, all prevented during the years of communist oppression. But in practice, this free liberal debate has become a strange unison. Whenever someone in post-communist countries wanted to criticize the style of capitalist transformation, their voice was either ridiculed, or cut out, or rather, made inaudible. We were all now to become middle class, found our own little enterprises, consume and shut up. Anyone today trying to discuss any solutions to the current crisis other than accepting austerity measures is dismissed.

So when Przekroj (“Slant”), a prominent Polish news weekly, after undergoing several typically 90s and 2000s chaotic political shifts and even more erratic makeovers, going from one owner to another, was all of a sudden given over to a left-oriented editorial board last winter, there was suddenly a strange breeze of fresh air blown into a public debate. In Poland, a debate usually, like in most post-communist countries, divided evenly between neoliberalists and nationalists. Yet, after several months, with the circulation shrunk by roughly 50% (later it was revealed it was 25% only), the editors were sacked, and within a fortnight replaced with well-known specialists in entertainment and lifestyle press.

The leftist Przekroj was trying to initiate a debate about capitalism and its crisis in a country that didn’t dare to use a class language supposedly discredited by its use in the previous system. It interviewed trade unionists and spoke about strikes and opposition against austerity in a committed way. They interviewed critics of America and Israel, wrote on the “rebel cities” of David Harvey, the Occupy movement, Indignados, or last year’s riots in the UK – and took them seriously, unlike most of the liberal media, including Gazeta Wyborcza, founded by the previous oppositionists, who after ’89 did their best to dismiss welfare state or fight for workers’ rights.

Wait a minute, you might ask, wasn’t it a union, Solidarity, who were the architects of the great freedom of ’89? What happened to them? You’d be surprised: when recently the union, or rather what’s left of it, protested the raising of pension threshold by Donald Tusk’s neoliberal government from 65 to 67 years, their previous leader Lech Walesa said in an interview that in the PM’s place he’d have sent truncheons to these ungrateful spongers. Such robust protests were legitimate if directed against a dictatorship, he said, but couldn't be tolerated in a modern democracy. "Tusk works behind the desk, what does he know about being old and having have to work in the coal mine?” – one of the protesters was quoted, but not in liberal outlets, busy condemning them for greediness, but on a blog run by an English leftist in Warsaw. Class is on the agenda, but the media refuses to talk about it.

This protest, as well as recent strikes of nurses, was a rarity, because in the whole ex-bloc the culture of protest died off with communism. It’s sufficient enough to look at the map depicting the Indignados & Occupy solidarity marches on October 15 2001, which was nearly empty east of the Iron Curtain, with tiny, 100-200 people-strong groups in Warsaw, Bucharest or Prague. There was a better turnout in Slovenia or Croatia, but this they owe to a much better-remembered tradition of Titoism and the left was always stronger in there. Yet Eastern Europe – the Balkans and Baltic states especially – has been hit very hard by the crisis. Latvia has experienced economic collapse on the scale of Greece. But there is no Latvian Syntagma Square or a party like SYRIZA.

In Poland there’re two kinds of protests – the old generation of Solidarity, or the post-89 youngsters, protesting against internet censorship ACTA, can gather thousands. Yet the only reason the jobless or insecure young took to the streets was the fear of free culture being taken from them. This in a situation where the state thinks only of liberalising employment legislation, tax-cuts and privatisation. Leszek Balcerowicz, who introduced shock therapy at the beginning of the 90s, talks today of “swollen public sector”, while his old comrades Sachs and Stiglitz say they were wrong. Nobody in Poland is exposing the ATOS company, who will soon be taking care of “benefit reform” in Eastern countries, but the UK knows their results very well. It is a shame that Poland, so far masking the crisis’ toll through mass emigration, EU subsidies and manufacturing goods for Germany, doesn’t want to debate capitalism.

But now, Przekroj’s solution to the jobs crisis is “it’s everywhere, it’s enough to jump on a bike”, similarly to much British coverage, and amongst articles about luxurious living and design toasters. Needless to say, after the announcement of the editorial change, the internet was full of pleased liberals, finally having a chance to express their Schadenfreude. If this is how current events are talked about, when the crisis really hits home, Poland will be taken unawares.