Saturday, April 20, 2013

It's Record Store Day 2013! Go Out And Buy Some Records! Buy Yourself A Turntable! Find How To Do It Here!

 Look, only "gentlemen" have turntables and buy records!

Hello dear beloved yet thin readership,

Today's Record Store Day 2013! Meaning, if you are lucky enough to live in a city where there are still some independent record stores standing, you can go line up and buy some special issues 7" as well as some LPs that come with extras.
There's a bit of a grumpy backlash this year against RSD13 coming either from very small labels that can't afford to press the requisite number of copies for the event, some store owners who have trouble liquidating overstock in the months after the event (I mean, seriously, an Emerson, Lake & Palmer 7", who'd want that?), and regular vinyl collectors who complain that most of the stuff is snatched up by assholes who sell it on eBay for a nice profit - because alas many people don't have a record store near where they leave. More on that later.

Yours truly doesn't have any problem with the event itself. I've been told by some small store owners that RSD can make or break their year, and that if enough new customers come and peruse though the other stuff and buy records, they can stay afloat for yet another year. That's a good enough reason to support the event, in my opinion. Now, if all the people who wait in line on April 20 to get some beautiful wax (and ugly CDs, let's not begrudge them) would also buy records during the rest of the year, things would be much better. But everybody has to start somewhere, and if it is today I am all for it.

I hear vinyl sales are up, and it's enough to warm my old desiccated heart. However, I have a feeling they could go even higher if some issues were addressed by the entire music community and business. The points I'm going to raise are based entirely on empirical evidence as gathered by moi over the last 2 years, when I started to be re-interested in music again. If you've been following FBC! since its inception  not only you are a truly patient person, but you must have noticed we've been writing less and less about art and more and more about music over the last 3 years.
The root of this evolution has been purely accidental, as I've been confined home for a long time due to the consequences of a bad car crash (or two, or three). Less possibilities to go out to look at art, more time to listen to music and read fiction. Incidentally, my quality of life has dramatically improved because of that, so I suggest you try reading fiction and listen to music at home instead of going to stupid art openings or depressing art fairs.

Anyway, after evolving from watching music videos on YouTube to try music streaming services (I hate them all) and listen to mp3 on my laptop and iPod, I decided 2 years ago to get myself a decent stereo and start buying hard copies.
That move was motivated mostly by 1) witnessing friends losing their entire music libraries after a hard drive crash and finding the hard way their back-up didn't work 2) having a couple of bad experiences buying mp3s on iTunes that didn't download properly and being unable to get a replacement or a refund via their crappy, crappy customer service and 3) being tired of the horrible sound of the mp3s on whatever I played them. This being said, I am a big fan of bands streaming their entire record a week prior to release on a website, be it NPR, The Guardian or Pitchfork. That certainly made me buy some music.

vintage turntable picture found here.

Initially I wasn't particularly dead-set on vinyl, I bought a turntable as the cherry on top, so to speak, to buy the occasional used record when I couldn't find a CD. Used CDs were and are dirt cheap and actually cheaper than buying an entire mp3 album on iTunes, so that was primarily an economic motivation. What I didn't expect, aside from the warmer, ampler sound of the vinyl, was how I would love to care for my vinyl records. To clean them with a carbon brush before playing them, storing them in proper conditions, marveling again at how great the sleeves are, being overjoyed when they came with a set of printed lyrics, etc. CDs, on another hand... their stupid plastic case break, they do skip (ha ah, and we were told they were eternal when we were forcibly transitioned to that horrid format in the 1990s), they're too small to have properly interesting sleeves and the lyrics are printed too small if there's a booklet (yes, I am  that old).
That's how I ended up being a vinyl devotee, though not a purist. I occasionally buy some CDs if whatever I look for doesn't exist on vinyl, hasn't been reissued, is too hard to find, or too expensive (to the asshole selling the Walker Brother's Nite Flights original vinyl for £150 on eBay and Discogs: fuck you). I sometimes even get an mp3 if it's a one-off song by an artist whose other output doesn't interest me. Also, yes, I buy everything. I buy used records and new releases alike (and reissues).

So, now that you know the particulars of my music-buying adventure, let me enumerate the issues I have encountered that I think are an obstacle for the music industry as a whole to expand better.

1) Building a stereo.

If you want something decent, better plan to have a budget of $1,200 to $2,000. Yes, it seems like a lot. However, many people have a giant flat screen TV + Blue Ray DVD player in their home that cost about the same, and let's not talk about adding an Apple computer, an iPad and an iPhone to the mix (plus the giant crappy speakers for a home cinema system, the video game console + games, all the cables, external hard drives...).
 If you can afford all that crap, you can afford a decent stereo AND to buy your records. No need to steal crappy-sounding mp3 off the internet.
Also, you can have really good quality gear at a fraction of the price if you are patient: you can buy demo material, usually between 20% and 40% off, and the audiophile community being tech-obsessed and constantly upgrading, you can often get yourself a 2-year old CD player or amp for much cheaper than the original retail price (I scored a Creek CD player at 75% off from a guy upgrading to the next model, for example). A site like Audiogon often have good opportunities.

Basically the issue of getting yourself a decent stereo system isn't a question of budget, it's a problem of knowing what to get.  If you are a newbie like I was, it's better to buy new gear rather than used material that needs fixing up. You will need an amp, some speakers, a turntable, a CD player if you will, maybe a DAC (stuff that converts your horrid mp3s to sound like rich analog) and cables.
Where it gets complicated is knowing what type of amp (tubes are considered the best but they cost an arm and a leg), integrated or not, if not you need amp + preamp, what type of speakers (passive or powered? For ease of use if you move internationally, I recommend passive - they are powered by the amp), does it have a phono stage (what the fuck is a phono stage, I still don't know).
Then you will have to figure out where to plug the cables to what (I had techie friends doing it for me or I'd blown a fuse myself).  Many amps nowadays are made for home cinema systems and mp3 players, so it's not always easy to find one that has plugs for a turntable and even CD players, not mentioning a tuner (that you will need only if you listen to tons of classical music on the radio) or a tape player (if you're a total nutcase). The 2 brands I found that have affordable amps like this are Cambridge Audio and NAD (in the $200 to $350 range, less if you buy a demo model).
Another issue I hadn't known I'd encountered is that your turntable might not come pre-assembled and it's super delicate to calibrate a tonearm, not mentioning the manual is written in smurf. So you need to figure all of this out before you take the plunge, and when I did there weren't any simple website explaining what to do or where to get it.  I think it's easier now that more and more people are getting back to vinyl records.

Picture of vintage speakers found here (credit is embedded also in the pic).

And here, ta-da! You bump into the geeky assholes with an attitude at the audiophile store or on the audiophile website that are going to talk at you, belittle you for having such a small budget, and not bothering to explain to you what you need/can afford. It took me about 2 months to figure out what I needed, and 3 more months to assemble my gear.
 I was very lucky in that regard because one of my friends (hi Mike!) very patiently explained what I should get for my budget (an integrated amp with a phono plug, super important if you want a turntable), and more importantly where to get it for less money.
Generally speaking most brick-and-mortar Hi-Fi store clerks are condescending pricks to middle-age women like me, whereas I had the best experience online with this site. Excellent customer service as well. Their catalog could use less babes to pose near the gear, which will bring me later to the other major issue I've faced in my record-buying adventures, sexism (bet you didn't see that one coming, did you?).

Anyway, if you decide to build your stereo, it's going to be a complicated experience, with most places and sites having very technical descriptions of whatever you want to buy but don't always mention if it has what you need (phono input or not?).
Personally I think it's a hindrance for expanding the vinyl business: stereo retailers being willfully obscure and offering poor to no customer service (thank you so much, Polk Audio and Music Hall for not answering my emails when I had questions). I've rarely encountered such a poor business model.

The result is people buying really poor quality gear like the terrible Crosley turntables that look so cute but are in effect really crappy, and they have such bad needles they're going to destroy your records way too fast. They're not cheap to buy, so I can see people giving up on them and the whole vinyl records adventure because of a bad experience.
If there was a possibility of buying pre-assembled, good quality gear that is simple to put together, maybe more people would invest in a decent stereo. As I said, flat screen TVs are more expensive. But, you just have to plug them in, and be lazy.

2) Buying Records.

Now, that is the fun part! If you live in a big city, there should be a few independent record stores left, and if you live in a huge city (hello Los Angeles), you might even have 20 new stores that have opened since you started on your adventure. So you can buy used records, and most importantly for everybody to stay afloat, new releases and reissues.
 In a large city, your main sources for buying LPs and EPs  are the aforementioned record stores, flea markets, garage sales and thrift stores, and online resources (eBay, Discogs, etc.) Just avoid evil Amazon if you can.
Basically the main problem is the same as how to allocate your pocket money to buy candy when you were a child. I find that part the most enjoyable, also because it forces me to make decisions based on quality (should I buy the latest Scott Walker or The Knife? If you chose the latter, I think you wasted your money.) Also I am a big fan of delayed gratification, and it makes possibilities seem endless. There will always be something in the future to find and to listen to and I'll never get bored (that works with books, too, and I guess DVDs as well).
If you're skint, you can always find some fun stuff for under $3 (and usually just $1) in used bins and flea markets. Like movie soundtracks (often a good introduction to contemporary classical music if you find records from the 1950s), spoken words records, world music, novelties, or even the mainstream things you wouldn't be bothered buying new.

Some of the stuff you can find when you go to Wombleton Records in LA (photo snatched from their site)

In general, aside from budget considerations, I think the main issues about buying records depends on where you live. Someone who lives in a small town and has no record store/flea market etc. nearby has all the good reasons in the world to download mp3s on their crappy system (except often in rural communities you don't even have broadband access). You can find pretty much everything you want online, but postage is expensive and in many instances because shippers are abroad (in the UK, or in the US for the best ones) if you are on the wrong continent you can't afford it, especially if customs duties are to be added. So, you're forgiven your crappy mp3 and I feel very sorry for you.

The other problem about the location where you live is that even if you have access to a record store (or several) most of them make their bread and butter with used records (profit margins being higher) and have a very anemic selection of new releases. It is problematic here in Brussels (I'm told record stores in Antwerp and Ghent are better) because the handful of stores that stock new releases are mostly specialized in dance and electronica, not my thing (I'm a rock girl). So, if you want to support musical acts and get their new releases or their reissues, often you have to order them, which is OK, but that is where small stores can't compete with Amazon.  And speaking of musical genres: it is very difficult to find good classical music on vinyl outside of the mainstream standards in the US. Here in mainland Europe, for the time being I'm having trouble finding blues records outside of compilations and samplers.

About used records: condition is often an issue especially if you live in Europe. In the US, absolutely every record store I've been to sells only clean records that play, and they put post-its on the plastic outer sleeve to signal if there's a problem. In Europe... you can't count on that. In the UK you actually only look at sleeves, then you go up to the counter and they show you the record and you have to decide if you want to buy it. Major waste of time, I understand it's to prevent shoplifting but that's not super customer-friendly. Anyway, you want to invest in record-cleaning fluid and accessories if you buy lots of used vinyl (and you will).

In general record stores are made for people taller than me and with longer arms: it can be very uncomfortable for me to reach up to the end of the bins to see what's in them. If one day I had my record store, I'd lower the tables by an inch or so and I'd make the bins a bit less deep. For normal giant other people, just remember that even when all the records are in plastic outer sleeves (like they do in the US, I love that, you get to take them home with you), you will end up with very dirty, sticky fingers after you're done crate digging, so wash your hand after, you dirty people.

3) Sexism.

Now I think this is THE major issue that affects vinyl (and maybe CDs) sales everywhere. I am in possession of a uterus (sorry about that), I'm middle-aged and I'm not a babe. Even when I was young I wasn't one, so that hasn't improved with age and it's all downhill from now on until my inevitable demise. It's not only "gentlemen" who own turntables and buy records.
Also, I go to gigs and I buy records, and I read music reviews and interviews. I have a bit of buying power, not immensely so but enough that my favorite record store owner (hi, Ian!) in LA knew my face. Therefore I use it by systematically boycotting the stores where I'm treated like crap because I'm a woman. And don't throw at me the "oh but record store clerks always have an attitude regardless of gender"  because, as I am often the ONLY woman in the store where I browse (and buy) for a long time, I can see the difference of treatment between me and the youngish hipster dudes hanging around (and who don't buy anything. That happens a lot).

It can go from talking down at me with stuff like "we don't sell mainstream music here" (as a matter of fact, you asshole Brooklynite from Iowa, you do, I saw some Foreigner and Yes in your bins), to totally ignore me if I ask a question, "what was it you were playing right before that song"? (I'd have bought that record, you idiot) or even not saying anything at all nor looking at me when I buy something (after chatting with some dudes in the store bout how business is slow). I can tell when I'm totally invisible because I'm a woman and not a "chick" (you're not exactly Daniel Craig yourself, you obese pimply bearded guy working that hip Silverlake store). I haven't spent more than 4 decades on this planet not to be confronted to ordinary sexism and not notice it.
So, er, you're not customer-friendly, your selection is weak and your prices not so good? My uterus says bye-bye. My uterus belongs to the same body as my brain, so I know how not to buy new releases off Amazon, but the penis that belongs to the same body as your brain, dear record store owners and clerks, it just made you lose a new customer.

That same customer goes back again and again to stores where she's treated like a normal human being, hence my eternal love for Wombleton Records (not cheap, but amazing selection and so friendly) and Amoeba in LA. I've always had great experiences at Amoeba no matter which part of the store I was in.
I'm not mentioning the names of the LA or NYC record stores where I've been treated like shit, but they're all in Silverlake or Silverlake-adjacent in LA and in or near Williamsburg in Brooklyn. They're kinda hip. They stock CDs, the horror, the horror.
I've yet to find my favorite store in Brussels but I'm leaning toward Veals & Geeks at the moment.

The problem with ingrained sexism in the business music at large, and it concerns also music writing (look at that headline in the picture on top of the post, only "gentlemen" buy records?), musical equipment  buying and music marketing in general, is that it puts off half of humanity as a customer base.

Not all women love Adele, Rhianna or Beyonce. Many women are put off by sexist lyrics, or blatantly misogynist ones (hip-hop being the classical case in point). If you read music criticism, and you will eventually if you want to buy new music, 90% of it is embedded with sexist clichés - a notable exception is The Quietus, and I also enjoy John Freeman's writing wherever he publishes because he's very careful to avoid sexism.
 But most reviews of musical acts where there are women always mention the sexiness (or not) of their members. There's always an adjective or two to discreetly underline their sex-appeal.
 When Susan Boyd irrupted on whatever that TV show was called, most reports focused on the discrepancy between her looks and her voice. Now has anybody looked at Tom Jones recently? or Engelbert Humperdinck?
 Articles about Adele like to point out that she's fat but nevertheless beautiful, never mind we've photoshopped her to death on our magazine cover to make her look thinner. I'd like to see some reviews about her focusing solely on her music, for example. She's incredibly young and talented, and even if her music is too bland and mainstream for me, I'd like to see how she will morph in the future (I'm always hoping for a female equivalent to Scott Walker's trajectory).

Another cliché is that to be interesting, if a female musician isn't classically pretty, she has to be crazy/wear weird outfits/make eccentric videos. Hence Lady Gaga (who cannot sing, has anybody noticed that?).  The opposite is also true: Lana Del Rey isn't a super interesting musician  but she's packaged at a sexy retro kitten with just that hint of vulgarity to visually appeal. Her music is very mainstream, full of clichés and it goes very well with a late-night drink at an expensive bar. Whether she's going to be able to be taken seriously as a musician in the future remains to be seen.

Another aspect of the music world at large that is off-putting to this woman is the serious geekery going on where you're berated for not knowing what members of which obscure band went to found other even more obscure bands, that this 1993 song is actually a cover of a 1967 one, that in 1974 this musician went on a Buddhist retreat and that influenced 1 verse of the B-side of the Japanese test pressing of his 1977 come-back flop, or that of course the gig that was cancelled by this other band in 2007 wasn't due to "visa problems" but because the replacement bass player had ODed prior to the plane taking off. That kind of stuff. Not knowing this really prevents me from FULLY enjoying the music, right? Right.
I mention it here because each time I've encountered it it was uttered by males, and often to belittle my taste ("nah, you CAN'T like this record, that's only his second best one, you HAVE to get that one, it only cost $500 on eBay because only 100 copies were pressed before the mastered were destroyed"). It tends to be super prevalent on fan sites or fan pages on Facebook (the kind where someone goes "and in this 1971 picture the singer made this hand gesture which is universally acknowledged to mean this in Japanese culture, I swear it has a profound implication for the lyrics of this cover version of..."). And, er, bloody tedious.

Whatever else you do, don't store any records like this. Image found here.

Of course, it's not only sexism that destroyed the music industry (and people who say that isn't the internet either, I'm waiting to see how e-books are going to destroy the book industry after mp3s destroyed the music business and Dvix damaged the entertainment industry and then we can talk about how it's only all the fault of the majors - I guess Amazon and iTunes will be the only remaining ones).  But if music businesses in general - labels, store personnel, music critics and the musicians themselves - were attentive and trying to eradicate it, maybe they'd see more female customers buying their wares.
I have a few female friends who would like to go back to vinyl records. But in the absence of a customer-friendly attitude toward women in the audio equipment business, in record stores, and in the music medias, it's going to be a much longer way toward the ongoing recovery of the business. Women have jobs, they have buying power, and they have their own taste. They can help you sustain your business model, if only you treated them right. I see middle-aged men treated much better than me at record stores, so it's not a question of ageism.

Meanwhile, may this not prevent you all from buying yourself some records today and every other day of the year. You just need to get yourself the best equipment you can afford and then the record store you gonna like. And it will be the beginning of a beautiful adventure.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Let's Not Make Plans For Nigel, He Has No Future In The British Steel Anymore

XTC, Making Plans For Nigel

Unless you're living under a rock, and in that case, oh, how do I envy you, dear beloved yet thin readership, you know that yesterday Margaret Thatcher died.
That's it, the scarecrow of my childhood has finally croaked her pipe!

There's been an avalanche of articles in mainstream medias on both side of the Atlantic, most of them praising her legacy, a few of them elliptically critical ("sometimes a divisive figure", "her policies meeting some resistance"),  many of them downright ridiculous in their effort to whitewash the debilitating impact her ideological rule has had on millions of people in her own country.
Mass privatization, mass deregulation, increased poverty, derelict infrastructure are her legacy. Millions of people who ended up on welfare  happened there in the first place because of the near-total dismantlement of the manufacturing base in the UK, and the lack of replacement opportunities for all the people who lost their job. They were no alternative plans made for Nigel by the Thatcherites, so he ended up on the dole instead of finding his future in the British Steel.

The most absurd articles praising Thatcher's legacy were, unsurprisingly, published in the US, where they still believe Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War and don't even know who Gorbachev is. They conveniently ignored the fact that Thatcher was against feminism, loved to mingle with dictators like Pinochet, supported the Apartheid regime in South Africa (going as far as labeling Nelson Mandela a terrorist), but they didn't hesitate to tout her as a "freedom lover".

Meanwhile, a curious thing occurred: within minutes of her death being announced, a collective burst of glee and schadenfreude overwhelmed social networks, more often than not materialized by cries and singing of "Ding, Dong, The Witch Is Dead!"
 Searching "Bobby Sands" on Twitter within 10 minutes of the announcement returned thousands of tweets (and it still does, if you care to search it now). Some parties were spontaneously planned to celebrate the death of the Wicked Witch of the West  (I've seen evidence this morning of 2, in Brixton and in Glasgow) while lots of people were all going "let's go get some bubbly"!
The fascinating thing was that it wasn't only British people rejoicing, but also French, Belgian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, German, American, Swiss people, etc. So much universal loathing for a political figure that didn't govern the rest of us must mean something, right?


Klaus Nomi, Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead

The gap between this overwhelming response and the mainstream media coverage was growing up by the minute, and eventually the UK-based, billionaires-owned right-wing tabloids caught up and chastised the plebs (us, all of us) for rejoicing.
It was all in bad taste, we were lacking decency, compassion and humanity for someone who was a mother and grandmother, etc.
Most certainly so, but bad taste had never killed anybody, whereas letting millions of people slide into poverty, waging absurd foreign wars or letting Bobby Sands die didn't denote any outwardly remarkable form of decency, compassion and humanity for the victims of her social and political reforms.
 Beside, we all have mothers and grandmothers, but so far there isn't any evidence that most of our immediate relatives have engaged in cavorting with dictatorships responsible for the deaths of thousands and thousands of people (see Pinochet above). Also, most of our grandmothers didn't die at the Ritz.

Someone in the Guardian wrote more eloquently than I could ever do why those calls for, you know, not speaking ill of this particular dead person are misplaced. A friend of mine was wondering aloud if we would ever mourn when Berlusconi, GW Bush, Putin or Tony Blair will pass away. Most likely, we won't. Most people I know didn't give a shit when Mitterrand died, and 99,99% of my friends are left-wing. We mourn artists, musicians, writers, choreographers, but not politicians.
I think that when you display so much contempt and disregard for ordinary people who are not you while alive, you lose the right to their respect once you're dead. There are lots of world leaders who profoundly transformed their countries, and usually they're not exactly mourned by their population, unless being forced to do so publicly by dictatorship rule (North Korea, anyone?)

Scott Walker, The Day The Conducator Died.

Beyond the morality or decency of rejoicing or not at someone's passing, be it one of the most hated politicians of the late 20th century, I find that tidal wave and outburst of joyful glee fascinating. It is medieval, most certainly, recalling spontaneous partying when serfs learned of the death of a much-hated overlord.
It  also  gave us a rare view into the collective mindset of the people who are now structurally déclassés: the former middle-class, the former working-class, the current unemployed. Our friends, our relatives, us.

 We live in an era when  representations of the poor and the working-class have all but disappeared from popular culture. How many books, songs, movies made recently have been dealing with current economic and cultural deprivation? When was the last time you saw a TV show about an entire family losing its jobs/ livelihood because of the financial recession of the last few years? Oh sure, there are always the rags-to-riches sob stories ("homeless man wins the Mega-Millions!"), but I've yet to see a recent artwork or book about, say, unemployed people living in trailer parks. How they make do, what's their day-to-day life, do they have to engage in drug traffic or prostitution just to be able to eat?On the other hand, I do see lots of Kickstarters and Indiegogos to help finance the medical bills of the downtrodden. Correlation? Coincidence?

When the poor are mentioned in the mainstream media it's almost always negatively ("benefits scroungers", "welfare queens", "spongers"), and nowhere can we find some decent analysis of wages stagnation over the last 30 years, the exponential rise of housing costs, and the structural high unemployment in most Western countries (where a common tactic is to exclude long-term jobless people and welfare recipients from unemployment statistics to make these appear lower).
When the lucky few who are still  employed haven't seen their salaries (in constant currency) rise over the last  3 decades, but must spend up to 60% of their income on housing alone, no wonder all they can afford are cheaply-produced artifacts made by near-slaves in "emerging" economies abroad. If people could afford to buy good-quality necessities in the first place, jobs wouldn't have had to be shipped off to China. They'd be domestic growth within our own borders and no need to sink our economies into so much debt.
As an aside, I always wondered how, now that steel industries, British or otherwise, have all but been dismantled and sent to the Far East, would Western countries fare in case of a new World War. If the means of production and the knowledge to operate them have gone, how to quickly kickstart them again in case of sudden, acute need?

So I guess the collective joy at seeing a hated political figure go, while her destructive politics goes on under the current UK government (dismantling the NHS, forcing disabled and sick people to go back to work and die, etc.) gives a good glimpse of the current state of mind of the current population.
It is frustrated, it is bitter, it is at the end of its tether. Maybe in thirty years from now some historians will see this sea of Twitter  posts and Facebook statutes celebrating Thatcher's death at the point of non-return.
The revolution might not be near, not when the so-called opposition is virtually undistinguishable from the party in power, but from here it looks like the pitchforks are being readied. When you force a sizable chunk of your population into unemployment, economic dependency and despair, it's only a question of time before the first food riots start. Nigel never found his future in the British Steel, his children never had any to speak of, maybe soon his grandchildren are going to light up the pyres.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Mike Kelley Retrospective At The Stedelijk Museum In Amsterdam.

Very special thanks to Ann Goldstein and the staff at the Stedelijk Museum  for facilitating my visit.

Let me preface this by stating I am probably not the best person to review the Mike Kelley retrospective that ended in Amsterdam on April 1st.

 For one thing I am too close to the subject, having spent a good chunk of my adult life researching his work for my Ph. D dissertation*. The latter was finished at the end of 2002, about ten years before Kelley's passing last year, meaning that even though I did follow what he was doing over the last decade or so, I didn't do it as closely as before.
For instance I didn't collect articles, catalogs, books and reviews of his latter work, I just contended myself with attending whichever exhibition he was having when I could and occasionally ask him a few questions to clarify things, but that was pretty much it.
So I have a rather in-depth knowledge of much everything he made between the mid/late 1970s to the late 1990s, and after that it becomes spotty. On the one hand I have too much knowledge of  some of Kelley's work, but on the other I moved from being a scholar to simply a big fan of his, and I might not have the necessary distance to evaluate the exhibition; while in some instances I may actually know too much and become overtly critical about small things most visitors wouldn't notice. So generally speaking I have no idea how people not familiar with Kelley's work would react to seeing it for the first time, but I'm happy to report a friend who had never really seen it was really shocked by it. It's great to know the work can still be fresh that way!

Exhibitions are designed for "the audience" at large, and most of it isn't specialized. At the time of my visit, there had been 200,000 people who had visited the retrospective, and judging from what I saw most people seem to deeply enjoy the artworks. It's a pity Kelley didn't get to see how popular his œuvre has become, because as for myself I see it as a testament to his influence on the art of the last 30 years or so. Evolving from a deeply controversial artist whose work was often testing boundaries and expanding our conception of what art is to someone almost universally respected among his peers and loved by the public is no ordinary trajectory at any given time; to achieve that over the course of just a couple decades is even rarer.
This  is the journey that was presented at the Stedelijk Museum for its reopening after several years of renovation and extension, inside its new spaces, from December 15, 2012 to April 1st, 2013.

I haven't researched which architects designed the extension, but from my point of view they don't know much about what is needed to install contemporary art exhibitions. The new spaces have enormously high ceilings but the surface of the rooms themselves isn't that large, which is always problematic for large-scale installations.
 Unfortunately Kelley's work more often than not demands a lot of space, resulting in many instances in pieces being squeezed together when they would need some space to breath. This lack of wide floor space would also likely dictate what could be loaned in to the retrospective, as several major pieces were missing.
Now at any given time it's always difficult for a museum to get some loans due to many purely practical reasons (not enough budget, works loaned elsewhere, the childish tit-for-tat game played by museums worldwide, paranoid collectors trying to hide from their tax obligations, etc.) but I would surmise that the absence of, say, Frame and Framed... or Craft Morphology Flow Chart has more to do with lack of space and/or lack of shipping budget than any other  "real" curatorial choice. The unfortunate result is that, from my point of view, some works that are not so seminal in Kelley's output seem to be highlighted while some others are missing that could give a deeper understanding of his artistic process.

The exhibition was installed on two different floors and started in the middle, with the felt banners, stuffed animals and paintings of the Half A Man project, Kelley's exploration of American stereotypes about masculinity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a choice I found odd  because if these are Kelley's most famous body of works, chronologically it doesn't make that much sense to begin with them.
The handy leaflet with floor plan of the exhibition explained that the retrospective while largely chronological strived to link thematic concepts within Kelley's work (in fact mostly one theme, the question of memory, its erasure and later fantasy reconstruction). While I understood what it meant when I saw the works I am not so certain it was so obvious to casual visitors?

After the visit I realized that the impression of confusion in the exhibition design is largely due to a common practice in most museums: curators design shows to be "read" left to right, as with reading books, whereas most visitors immediately turn to the right and wander from right to left, or counter-clockwise, so to speak. Everybody I saw in the exhibition who hadn't bothered with audio guides did exactly that - as I did myself - and therefore was treated to a super confusing way of looking at the work.
The confusion was deepened by the architectural layout, because there is no way within the space to go from any beginning to any end, whichever side you take first, without going via the middle, so I assume the curators did the best they could with what they had. Basically to go chronologically you had to go directly to the far left of the space, then walk back to the middle and then behind it, go back again and then right. Befuddling, eh?

So if, unlike me, you started correctly with the oldest works you were treated to the early Bird Houses, then various props related to Kelley's performances, then moving  into the first hint of what were to become Kelley's later trademark large-scale works he called his "projects".
 These were long-term explorations of various subjects usually initiated with, say, traditional Western philosophical questions but viewed through the lens of vernacular culture, such as The Sublime, or abstract grammatical concepts like "the possessive" (usually marked in English with 's - I indicate this because some terrible French translations  in the 1990s substituted "possession" as in "demonic possession" for "possessive") with Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile.
Kelley's performances were never recorded except some audio for Plato's Cave... and the made-for-the-radio Peristaltic Airwaves, so the props and drawings are the only things that remain of what were mostly language pieces that integrated objects, noise and music.
A very moving thing about the props, aside from their small scale,  is how perfectly crafted they were. Kelley was never a sloppy artist even when he worked with seemingly shapeless forms (he was a master of the blob!) or cheap materials, even in his early days when he didn't have much money and worked as a janitor to sustain his art practice. The Banana Man costume  made for the video of the same name was particularly moving in that regard.

After this you were confronted with various works related to the Plato's Cave... and The Sublime projects, and then you could turn into the infamous Pay For Your Pleasure installation, a series of quotes about evil thoughts and deeds and portraits of famous artists, writers and musicians,  installed in a long corridor and leading to a painting made by a local  serial killer (each time the work travels a painting made by one has to be found - I don't know if/how they found one in Amsterdam). A donation box is installed at the entrance so the visitors can donate to a charity. It's a work that has been censored a few times, made in an era when American pop culture from James Ellroy to Bret Easton Ellis was obsessed with its psychopath serial killers, and confronting both the common delusion that artists are excused from their misdeeds because of their exceptional position in society as well as the redemptive/therapeutic qualities of art making for criminals. The work does plenty of other things as well, like squarely making fun of the illusory washing of one's conscience by donating to charity without really trying to solve any problem, an idea that comes no doubt from Kelley's visceral rejection of his Catholic upbringing, paying for one's pleasure being a reminder things such as the buying of indulgences.

The middle section of the exhibition was taken mostly by the various stuffed animal pieces, with More Love Hours Than Can Ever Been Repaid and The Wages of Sins, with a curious floor installation mixing the Arenas and Dialogues but all crammed together in a small enclosure, sadly, whereas Lumpenprole was majestically unfolding in an adjacent room. Things got a bit confusing with the various pieces for the 1992  Documenta in a nearby room, pieces that are not often seen but are mostly transitional between the stuffed animal ones and the next big project, the fake memory syndrome ones.

A weird thing happened to Mike Kelley as his work suddenly became more and more famous. He was subjected to the same process that often plague celebrities (something he wasn't, the art world of the time being significantly smaller than today and contemporary art then rarely reaching the mainstream outside of the periodical culture wars launched by the far-right) when their fans start projecting their increasingly weird fantasies on their idols and their output.
His work started to be stupidly misinterpreted, the same way a songwriter's lyrics can be deconstructed in crazy ways to mean anything at all.

Where a lovelorn, delusional music fan would think a song would be addressed to them and only them (something as anodyne as "I will always love you, Lee" ) and therefore allow them to start stalking their idol because the lyrics OBVIOUSLY indicate the musician's secret sexual orientation/contain secret Rosicrucian/Satanist/Nazi/Communist coded messages/location of Knight Templars secret treasures/message to aliens/sea monsters/white supremacists/wizards, etc. the casual art person would think that OF COURSE Kelley's work with stuffed animals was all about child abuse and THEREFORE, tada! Kelley would somehow send secret personal messages about his own autobiography**.

They would assume that Kelley was himself abused as a child, something he repeatedly denied all his life and there is no reason whatsoever to doubt his word, because he was generally not given to that kind of bullshit - he had no time for that.
If you look at the works themselves you wonder how people would come to this conclusion (OK they're dirty and smelly but damn! They're very funny and cute), especially since the very abundant literature about them explains how they came from the concept of gift-giving as a free act located outside of consumer society, in reaction to the post-readymade objects that populated the NYC art world in the 1980s (Koons, Steinbach most specifically, also reading Danto's Transfiguration of The Commonplace should illuminate the whole thing for you).
 They were also used visually as a response to Barry LeVa's floor pieces, which in the late 1980s were still largely forgotten. So here's for the art context. As far as the general culture, Kelley was also interested initially in the exploration of masculinity in relation to crafts, more specifically with stereotypical gender expectations (sewing and knitting as "feminine" occupations and skills). That also launched quite a few battles along the lines of "is Mike Kelley a feminist artist" in various art publications of the time.

Now mainstream culture in the late 1980s and early 1990s was often obsessed with predators in general, concentrating its revulsion not only on serial killers but was also starting at the time to get focused on child abuse, molestation and incest (and nowadays pedophilia). It would be too long and complicated to get into that now, but suffices to say that when every biography of a dead actor or musician published in the 1990s mentioned the possibility of child molestation and abuse, the climate was ripe to appose this type of projection onto a visual artist's work where the materials used were old dirty toys. It's a bit harder to do with geometrical abstract paintings, but I'm sure if you try (not so) very hard you could also surmise Mondrian spent his childhood locked inside a square, or that Frank Stella made his black paintings because he couldn't afford buying more colors. Stuff like that is easy to make up.

Kelley's work was often reactive (a word I use instead of "reactionary" because in Europe the latter is loaded with right-wing meaning), usually responding to mainstream ideas in society or to general trends in art and counter-blasting them with tropes and ideas he saw riding below the general consciousness level but very present nonetheless, using visual cues taken from every day objects that were either mass-produced or hand-crafted. Sometimes he focused on certain well-known subcultures to do so, in other occasions he would study very specific customs and practices drawn from local or regional groups but that could be understood by everybody. He would also pick up on fads and trends gaining mainstream traction nationally and globally, such as fashionable psychological illnesses suddenly making headline news, like the so-called "recovered memory syndrome".

He initially picked up on that because of all the assumptions people made about his supposed abusive childhood, and decided to  pretend he had effectively been abused as an artist through his rigorous formalist education (when he was effectively an adult) at the hand of none the less than Hans Hofmann whose theory of the "push-and-pull" in painting influenced the entire Post-War US art system, and by ricochet much later on was seen as the oppressive hand torturing Kelley out of his Surrealist influences to make him into a formalist painter. Hofmann, needless to say, died years before Kelley entered art school.

So it started more or less as a joke, but morphed into successive bodies of works, some of them really hilarious, some other totally outrageous, all of them loosely linked via the general theme of memory (recovered or not, fake or not).  There were the aliens and UFO works (which I think are rather transitional, like the 1992 Documenta ones, helpful to kickstart a new phase in his art but not major artworks per se), the Memory Wares, highly sought-after by collectors but not as interesting as, say, Educational Complex, the white, Modernist maquette made from memory of all the places where Kelley had received some education, with holes cut out where he couldn't remember the spaces, pretending that if he couldn't remember them therefore they were the place where educational art abuse must have had occurred (obliged to, say, study 13th century tempera paintings instead of debased hippie posters or latter-day derivative Surrealists), or Black Out, a large-scale installation linked to his upbringing in suburbs of Detroit.

Most of these were represented at the retrospective, and loosely connected visually (the buttons and pins of the Memory Wares jumping into the broken china of Black Out. They make  the process of accumulation present in Kelley's visual vocabulary more apparent, same with the use of pure abstraction as an obliterative gesture (begun with the Hans Hofmannesque monochromatic brushtrokes, followed by the holes in Educational Complex, etc.). The blown-up newspaper articles used in Black Out announce the blown-up high school yearbook pictures later used for Day Is Done (upstairs), and the stuffed animals of the 1980s and 1990s will be reused for a Voyage Of Growth And Discovery, his collaboration with Michael Smith (not represented in the exhibition) where the sculpture of the Burning Man recalls the John Glenn statue in Black Out. There were lots of things like this in the exhibition that I am very grateful for because they make some things more obvious to me, but I am not certain they were understandable for regular visitors.
In that context I could only regret the absence of Framed and Frame, Heidi ( with Paul McCarthy, one of his most famous works in Europe), Sublevel and a few other works like Exploded Fortress Of Solitude that concludes the Kandors project (also shown upstairs).

One half of the upper level was almost entirely devoted to a partial showing of Day Is Done, his huge project reconstructing activities such as theatrical projects depicted in old high-school yearbooks, activities that often imply sadistic and ritualistic aspects. It would have been impossible to show it entirely if only to get the loans, and the entire space of the museum would have been needed for that.

The Kandors were shown next, a decade-long project based on Superman's childhood city preserved in jars and its various depictions in the comics series. This is a part of Kelley's work I know the least about and am in the process of doing research on, so there is very little I can say about it  at present except that in my opinion these operate a complete shift in his work (and I hope to explain that in the book I'm working on).
 In the auditorium upstairs a selection of his videos was presented, alas when I sat down with the intent of watching them all (I spent hours at this museum...) there was a bit of a dysfunction and the Four Dance Baskets from Heidi for some reason looped for 45 minutes straight instead of the 15 indicated...

Generally speaking I felt the retrospective was organized with the idea of trying to pick up items from almost every single phase in Kelley's work, a very brave attempt to demonstrate the breadth, depth and scope of his entire output, but a very difficult one as many of the installations are too large to be shown together at any museum.
Similarly, the collaborations with various artists (Tony Oursler, Paul McCarthy, Michael Smith, David Askevold, etc.)  could constitute an exhibition in themselves, so  some of them are not represented. The sound works  were blasted to a PA system while taking the escalator to go to the second level, something I enjoyed immensely myself but was thinking maybe having a room with lots of headphones and couches to stay in and immerse oneself in would have been really cool.
I think most visitors were left with the evidence that Kelley worked in a very large variety of mediums (drawings, paintings, installations, sculptures, videos, sound art, performances) and hopefully a sense of what a joyous iconoclastic artist he was in his practice.
My only regret (because nitpicking about which works should have been there is really a specialist problem) is that the catalog wasn't out when I visited the show. I had forgotten about that bad European habit of publishing catalogs way after an exhibition is over,  and I deeply, deeply missed not being able to buy one.
The bookstore was selling the Phaidon Press monograph by the dozen, but 1) I already have it and 2) it was published a while ago, so recent work isn't represented. Hopefully the catalog will be out soon now, and I can't wait to buy it.

The retrospective ended with Kelley's very last work, not the house that is being completed at MOCAD in Detroit but the sound piece he made at The Box, Mara McCarthy's gallery in Los Angeles, shortly before he died. As a last work it is a bit anticlimatic , but also very poignant because I think it clearly signaled a phase in Kelley's process when his work was going through a transitional phase. He was done with the Kandors project, almost done with the house and therefore the "memory" one,  and who knows what else he could have been onto next?

*Many people asked me why I never published my dissertation. The short answer is that it was written in French and that I moved back to the US almost immediately after I was done with the defense, and that translating oneself in a second language is arduous at best, not mentioning very time-consuming. 
The other reason was that writing a Ph.D. dissertation on a contemporary artist like Mike Kelley at a venerable institution such as the Sorbonne University was a bloody nightmare through and through, and after getting my diploma I pretty much had it with French academia. Besides, offers from publishers weren't exactly forthcoming anyway.
I'm planning to write a new book on Mike's work, about one half of which will be based on my dissertation, the rest on new research. Stay tuned, and please forward all those great publishers' offers!

** As a side note, when I started researching my dissertation in the mid-1990s and met Mike Kelley, he informed me of these type of misinterpretation of his work; I was confounded because none of the research material I had and used (mostly catalog essays, magazine articles and exhibition reviews) mentioned it at all. 
It's only when I started meeting people in the US art world and casually mentioned my project that I first heard them surmising it. Much later on I began to see this type of BS "in print" only when I came across  some secondary market works offered for sale, with some casual note offered by  the sellers to "explain" the work. It cascaded after Kelley's death when many people took to the internet and their blogs/tumblr/HuffPo to explain everything about Kelley's passing without bothering to do any research or even having any argument to present. Case in point: Kelley would have been responsible for the terrible state of today's indie's music via "his influence on Sonic Youth".  Next thing we know, he would also have been the cause of the Beatles break-up, or even the Gulf War while we're at it. Needless to say that all those allegations of abuse are very painful to Kelley's family, and were deeply annoying for Mike himself when he was alive.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

We're Baaaaaaaaaaaaack!

Hello, dear beloved and faithful readership (what's left of you anyway),

After a long dormant period due to the throes of relocation - we're still in the midst of it - FBC! is back with just a few snippets of info.

Next post will be devoted to the Mike Kelley retrospective that recently ended in Amsterdam, that is if I manage to put up the pictures I've taken of the show on the blog. I've been having trouble uploading pictures and videos in the past, so we'll see what I can do. Speaking of Mike Kelley, I will launch an Indiegogo in the next few weeks to help finance the book I am writing about his work, partially based on my dissertation, + new research. Stay tuned and if you can, please contribute and pass around once the link is up.

After that post I'll also report on the Stedelijk Museum permanent collection, where the curators have been doing a stellar job of highlighting women artists, I thought.

Meanwhile, some news. The Louvre has a new director, yay, and the director the powers that be selected is an excellent professional, Jean-Luc Martinez. He used to teach Greek art classes within the museum space when I was a student at the Louvre way back in the last century and he was a lovely man as well as a passionate (then future) curator. He's also someone who comes from a very humble background, unlike most French curators, so it's heartening to see him chosen for the job. We wish him the best of luck and the most success in his new position.

Unrelated, but the ever excellent Tosh Berman, former book buyer at Booksoup, and publisher of Tam Tam Press has a book out about the band Sparks, Sparkstastic! and he's doing a mini book tour on the West Coast like, right now. Tosh has the best blog ever and in person is the sweetest, nicest man you could ever meet, in addition to having excellent musical and literary taste. He's also the son of the late Wallace Berman, whose work you should check out as well. [I'm linking to Amazon for Tosh's book but as usual, don't buy from the evil Jeff Bezos but go instead to your brick and mortar independent bookstore to get it].

Lastly, this is highly personal but two of my friends just finished their dissertations and passed their defense exam with flying colors. Congrats to Laurence Pen and Bénédicte Ramade for their achievements, having been there myself a decade ago I know how hard it is. Here's to wishing them lots of publications and speaking gigs!