Thursday, 3 October 2013

on the new OPN video

Your Internet Needs YOU

I guess I sort of missed the comment window on this one, but there's been a couple of things people have said, and a couple of things I've read on a similar theme lately. I have some reservations about the video that came out of Oneohtrix Point Never's new album, R Plus 7, the video for 'Still Life (Betamale)'. Watch it, if you must, here. I've never had the chance to address OPN's work directly, but I'm still a big fan, I think R Plus 7 is brilliant, full of previously unimaginable forms and abstractions, really good music, and hopefully I'll get into that on another occasion (and the 'Still Life (Excerpt)' video? one of the best things I've seen all year). I also know other work by Jon Rafman, and think it's often pretty cool (though not everyone likes the way he does it). This video is a more or less separate issue. To begin with, it's important to emphasise that the people who made this video and the people who really liked it probably had good intentions, are not scoundrels, and probably were not conscious of the wider contexts, and that's understandable.

Yeah so people really liked this video. Someone on Facebook said about it 'The truth is...things are grim, and people DON'T feel things, so feeling drawn to and repulsed by media like this says a lot about our state and less about our tastes.' A friend of mine called it 'provocative in a modern way.' Sean DeLanty on Ad Hoc said:
In the incredible clip... we see flashes of disgustingly dirty computers and keyboards, screenshots of anime pornography, live-action shots of furries and other online fetishists, and a variety of other NSFW, internet-enabled manifestations of human sexuality, violence, and general carnality-- all presented through a hallucinatory digital aesthetic.
The Warp website says:
'Still Life (Betamale)’ draws images from a range of online fetish sites, engaging with the theme of obsessive desire. The narrated version of the album track is immersed in the simultaneously captivating and disturbing world of internet subcultures.
Let's get something out the way - don't take this response as a sign that the video is controversial, shocking or envelope-pushing. I'm not critiquing this video because I'm too 'challenged' by it, because I think it's in poor taste or pornographic, because I can't handle the 'truth'. It's precisely because it reflects pre-conceived notions of taste in a sham-realist, sham-sociological exposé that it doesn't challenge me or frighten me enough.

I thought the beginning was atmospheric, and I liked its retro graphics. Then there are the images of computers in a state of physical neglect, portrayed in a forensic photography, crime-scene style, absent of people, like we've wandered into a house where someone's recently died. These are images of environments occupied by people who may or may not need some sort of help. Then there are images and videos from various alternative sexual subcultures. We're being invited to make the association, loud and clear, between the electronic world of these alternative sexualities and these sites of physical neglect. People have been praising it for this aspect, because it revels in the binary of the virtual and the physical, and the true alienation of the digital aesthetic and these modern times.

There's the heavy implication that these dirty computers are sites where dirty people have been practicing their dirty sexualities. Ew. You know the type. Ugh. Overweight, probably old, disgusting, wallowing in decomposing pizza, beating off to something fucked up. Yknow, internet-users. Cos, like, this is us. Well, not really, but basically. That's what's going happen to us when we use the internet too much. It's going to stop us being healthy and normal. Shit. Baudrillard or something. Koyaanisqatsi. Sad.

Nah. The video is policing sexuality and computer use, mapping them onto heightened constructions of a physical world ('IRL') vs an electronic world, unnatural excess in the one driving unnatural excess in the other and the whole thing turning into a cautionary tale of horror and disaster. Constructions? I mean to say that many of us have come to believe in a separation between 'real life' and 'electronic life,' and we constrain and tame the 'internet life' and all the troublingly relativising potential it represents by framing it as unimportant, trivial, unnatural, unreal, excessive, inauthentic, shameful, threatening, and often, as in this video, fearful.

If you survive the video, find it meaningful and feel the frisson, you're the lucky winner of a sort of 'reality patrol support officer' badge. The training was difficult (which enhances the sense of psychological reward and newfound cultural capital), but you've negotiated with genuine images (never mind the way they were framed) and discovered in them the valuable truth about The Way Things Are, that excessive internet usage, the inability to properly maintain that all-important boundary between 'real life' and 'the electronic world,' and 'normal sexuality' and 'fucked up sexuality' accordingly, is bad and a real problem with grave consequences. These ideas are generated somewhere between the video itself and the audience reaction.

('But all that stuff you said was true, there really IS a separation like that with all those characteristics.' If you believe in that, that's my point. It's like the separation between mind and body. It's not like your mind, your hard drive and the internet is floating beyond the boundary of some transcendental limbo dimension that's in some sort of hierarchy of existences whereby it doesn't properly exist or is situated above or beneath the physical somehow. In terms of 'existence,' the electronic world is ultimately nothing more or less than an extension of paper and pencil.)

(And if you think that the sexualities and other images represented in the video are uniquely contemporary, 'internet-enabled' and 'digital-aesthetic' try visiting a fanzine archive, or this exhibition at the admittedly culturally marginal British Museum, or a cave painting. If you think the position or the argument about grim, icky, contemporary alienation is uniquely Internet Age, look at Videodrome, Alban Berg, Egon Schiele, William Dean Howells, dark satanic mills etc. I have an academic friend who argues that the monstrous Caliban in The Tempest, for example, represents seventeenth-century anxieties about the new environments and possibilities of oceans, which trade and exploration were opening up at the time. If you want some contemporary-times / new-electronic-world satire that actually might be complex, illuminating and thought-provoking, watch Black Mirror.)

'Modern,' 'internet-enabled,' 'digital aesthetic.'
Now there's definitely a case to be made that some of the sexual images in the video are or were harmful to people / animals and harmful representations of people / animals, and that this does need to be brought to wider attention via for example this video. Strangling, distress, etc. (nb, BDSM is a lifestyle which observes rules and safety procedures, but yeah), there is certainly room for debate here, the same way that pornography has been debated in feminism, I won't go into that here. Is there an element of misogyny in the pictures worth being genuinely concerned about? Definitely, yes. Rape culture? Non-consenting sexual violence? Absolutely - big, big potential danger being hinted at in the video. But does the video make a clear, unambiguous argument about how these images function harmfully (other than to make the stupid association with hygienic neglect) and what we might do about it? No. Does it differentiate between a whole bunch of alternative sexualities? No. There is at least one element in there - furry fandom and other costumes - that probably needn't be included in the parade as harmful or worryingly freakish. I don't see how people doing that is inherently dodgy. But the multifaceted bucket o' freaky perversions it goes through before your appalled normative eyes is not unlike its equivalent a hundred years ago which included, yes, paedophilia, but also, of course, homosexuality and inter-racial sex taboos. Fifty years from now will we look back and think 'yeah, that that drowning furry-costumed person someone found on the internet really nailed the dark, fucked-up, unnatural place we were at as a culture?' Or will we feel an uncomfortable sense of phobia, gaze and exploitation about the whole thing?

If you were under the impression that furries are freaks or digital-age deviations, PLEASE watch this video. Not so weird and dark, huh.

(And a side-point here, as I can't count myself as a card-carrying representative of any of the alternative sexualities in the video, but I do know we don't have to worry about the ethics of using the images and videos and what these communities think about they way they've been represented and their potentially sensitive material used in the video. Because I know that whoever made the 'Still Life (Betamale)' video has long been involved with alternative sexual communities and knew that the representation in the video was appropriate. I know that whoever made the video was in an open and equal dialogue with the people who made and use those images and videos and got their consent and input. And during this dialogue, there must have been the conclusion that it was fine that those communities and their imagery be conflated with extremes of domestic and hygienic neglect. Because I know that whoever compiled those images wouldn't just have wandered into an online culture and just taken what worked the most for them because they believed that everything in culture and on the internet is free of context and free to use for whatever purpose they want. And even if they didn't, it would be very different from someone taking sensitive items of non-Western culture and putting them in Western museums and galleries for Westerners to gawp at and misinterpret. Thankfully we don't have to worry about these things, because the people who make videos for major independent labels are fair, responsible and scrupulous.)

Harmful or otherwise, there's no denying that these subcultures (as well as people who have one way or another unfortunately neglected on hygiene, a completely different category) are being objectified in the video for the amusement, terror and fascination of us normal, right-thinking people. It might be different if these people were deliberately objectifying themselves directly, for their own purposes and under their own control (as some of them might have been doing in the original videos), but that ultimately might not be the case here because those videos and images have been re-purposed and reframed. So it becomes the contemporary manifestation of the nineteenth-century freak show, really. You remember the way the bodies of women of colour were (as said e.g. here) used as props in recent widely publicised pop performances. And Warp have commissioned videos that ogle anomalous bodies before, particularly Chris Cunningham videos such as Rubber Johnny. He was dancing to the music of Aphex Twin in a potentially empowering way, but the opening and the depiction of him in the dark amped up the horrifying aspect as much as it could, just like 'Still Life (Betamale)'. Then there's the photography of Diane Arbus, pictures of people with all sorts of sexualities, disabilities and othernesses (disability activist David Hevey calls it 'enfreakment' and that's a great word for the 'Still Life (Betamale)' video) which in themselves are one thing, but Arbus and indeed Susan Sontag also explicitly drew connections between the subjects / objects in the photography and a supposed condition of alienation. Then there's Frank Zappa, who considered himself (and his fans still believe it today) to be an 'anthropologist' and sociologist of the seedy side of American life as he was recording a mentally ill person for his Bizarre label, and making music that reflected perceptions of bad taste in all its varieties. His fans say his music is tough, provocative and challenging, but fun, true and a genuine, important reflection of the way things are, and they say that he sticks it to the man, and that they know all this makes them the special chosen few.

They don't see what all this is, the dubiously celebrative and undeconstructive gaze of the normality police masquerading as new and meaningful commentary.

'In times of socio-cultural stress, when the need for positive self-definition asserts itself but no compelling criterion of self-identification appears, it is always possible to say something like: 'I may not know the precise content of my own felt humanity, but I am most certainly not like that,' and simply point to something in the landscape that is manifestly different from oneself' - Hayden White, 'The Forms of Wildness: Archaeology of an Idea', in Dudley and Novak (eds.), The Wild Man Within: An Image of Western Thought from the Renaissance to Romanticism.

'Modernism' has a long and ugly history of using Others and 'deviants' to say what it wants to say about a confusing, changing world quickly and easily and with the greatest impact. Progressive weirdness and depictions of modernity, don't have to - and shouldn't - involve things that are actually part of actual people's actual lives and turn them into objects that represent, enforce and amplify constructions and alienations that we already brought to the table.

This is precisely what I was going on about in the latest Pattern Recognition, about how online music is in danger of being confined to a set of easily recognisable characteristics that serve to maintain a reductive sense of 'internetness'. If the central focus of underground new culture is going to move online - and this is an exciting prospect - it should not proceed by objectifying, reducing and colonising what it finds there into a series of ostensibly edgy symbols that only serve to shore up its own prejudices in a facile postmodernist Seth-MacFarlane-come-Douglas-Coupland-come-Frank-Zappa way. The internet and the digital world are not pathologies, the cultures that develop there are not symptoms to be gazed at, to titillate us and make us feel both in the know, bravely in touch with the challenging truth, and superior to the freaks. Call it the IRL gaze. Call it the Internet Other. I shudder to think that the positive reaction to this video reflects the way people have been listening to other artists who have been associated, tenuously (as many are) or otherwise, with internet culture or internetness, or that this is what people think the potential of the internet is.

And, problems of inter-cultural art-making aside, I hate to think that this video is supposed to be what relevancy and modernity, or truth and satire, are today. Really? This? A confirmation of the ugly suspicions of people who are freaked out by the new technology blaring as subtly as an eighteen-wheeler airhorn? Next we'll have a music video about that baby you heard about that thought a book was an iPad, or people who say 'hashtag' out loud (why do people hate that? Cos it violates that precious physical / electronic boundary), or about how there are too many albums to listen to now and how horrible that is, or a terrifying video about how someone spent more than half an hour looking at jpegs of cats and they had no idea it had been that long. And people will be all like Yes. This. This is What The World Is Coming To, never suspecting that the very pleasure and ease with which they accept all this represents and stems from the fact that they're not moving on, not adapting, not discovering anything or seeing the new structures openly, but keeping them in their place, at arm's length.
The Matrix claims its latest victim
And if you're thinking, 'But the internet really is evil, we have to bear this in mind!' I'm not disagreeing that there are drawbacks to the rise of the digital world. Again, watch Black Mirror. Or, as I said, to certain sorts of sexual imagery on it. But even as a cause for genuine concern, I don't agree that parading objectifying representations of its deviancy in an atmosphere of horror and the grotesque is fair or helpful, and certainly not a great artistic statement we can be proud of.

Again, I don't mean to say that anyone who made this or liked this is did so deliberately or maliciously, and if people who made it and liked it are not aware of critical perspectives like these that are admittedly not well-known or well-developed, that's hardly their fault. And God knows I've been guilty of approaching all the stuff I've moaned about above in some of my writing, but my perspective has been changing and I hope it will continue to do so - I'm feeling that new music has more to offer than this.