“Nothing I see in this room [on this street, from this window,
in this place] means anything.”
—A Course In Miracles, Lesson 1
“You suffer // But Why?”
—Napalm Death, “You Suffer”
When a gaggle of Meriden teenagers got together in the early 80’s to form Napalm Death, they weren’t thinking of completely restructuring the DNA of the Song. They weren’t thinking about inventing a new Metal genre, Grindcore. They weren’t thinking about garnering the lifelong support of John Peel. They weren’t thinking about any of these things. They were just bored with the music they were hearing. They wanted to make something faster than Punk. They wanted to kill it, the latest tired beast. Turned out the beast was already out of breath, but that didn’t mean it didn’t need a good clubbing. Overkill never hurt anyone.
And nothing says overkill like zombies. Isle of the Dead, the Bruce High Quality Foundation’s film that played as part of Creative Time’s* PLOT09 on Governor’s Island this summer exploited the innately ham-fisted genre to hold up a mirror to an art world—already dead and gone—that required one last good carcass throttling. The main zombie in the film tromps through the well-worn paths of NEWYORKMUSEUMWORLD® and Chelsealand on her way to the zombie mecca of Governor’s Island. Accompanying her is Bryan Adams’ utterly perfect wistful-looking-back song, Summer of ’69. When this song is played in bars heads tip back, eyes close, a thousand false memories about the good times are generated. Even the cold hearted know about these things. Even zombies. In the film our hero zombie enters the same theatre in which the film is being shown to find it full of like-minded reanimates. In case you were wondering, this film is about you.
The zombies are singing “Summer of ’69” in a style similar to the ghost echo choir the Stones deployed on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Mixing their living dead chorus with a mournful looping and rhythmic drone pulls the viewer into the emotional boneyard of the piece. It’s an avalanche of the sad and the bombastic. Laying out and lacerating familiar photos and film clips ranging from 1969 through the last Presidential election, the Bruces draw a line between then and now, and the hope we’ve been repeatedly sold. It’s not that we shouldn’t have hope, or that it doesn’t feel good. It’s that we shouldn’t so readily hand it over to icons, collective memory, or Larry Gagosian.
“I rule my mind, which I alone must rule.”
—A Course In Miracles, Lesson 236
Siege of power, they made you a tool
While others were ruling you were being ruled
—Napalm Death, “Siege of Power”
Larry Gagosian. Wow. Haven’t we seen him (been here) before? Haven’t we learned anything since the last big art market crash? Let’s ask Patrick Bateman . . .
“Bateman (in voiceover): But even after admitting this, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing…”
Weren’t the aughts great, especially if you were an artist? Especially if you were a mid-career artist producing the strongest work of your career and limited to showing it in the occasional group show. Or maybe you were an artist with a brand new Masters-degree and you were trying to get your career off the ground while working as much overtime as possible at your full-time job to pay back your school loans AND pay your apartment and studio rent at the same time. Wait. What? You say the aughts sucked? Yeah, well. You’re probably right. Unless you were at the tippy top of the pyramid you’ve probably had a shit decade. Or if you happened to be looking at art, then you were probably more than a little disappointed at how conservative things became. You probably wanted more. I know I did.
* * *
It was hard not to think about money every time I walked out of Isle of the Dead. Not too far from the front of the theater you could see the tops of the buildings of the Financial District in the distance. The more money entered the picture the safer things became. By the end of the decade fewer chances were undertaken by artists, writers, collectors, galleries, and museums. We have just a few months until 2010, and the New Museum has given up their original creed and just decided that it’s easier to collect collectors than art. There’s a word for that: Over.
A couple weeks ago the Bruces did a Q&A after a screening of their film. In discussing their latest project, the Bruce High Quality Foundation University (also supported by Creative Time), somebody asked how they saw their school project in the context of other small endeavors that were created to support artists and became Institutions, capital I. One of the guys said that unfortunately, with success, these things often become “monsters . . . ” An audience member finished the sentence for him “. . . like the New Museum.” The Bruce’s response was coy, but the rest of the audience knowingly laughed. Ouch. But at least we’re talking about it in public now. That’s a start.
The will to succeed
Overpowers the will to resist
—Napalm Death, “Mentally Murdered”
“Let not my world obscure the sight of Christ.”
—A Course In Miracles, Lesson 304
The end of Isle of the Dead feels more like an ellipses than anything. It leaves things in our laps, sitting in a dark theater on Governor’s Island and waiting for the end. The credits bleed into the same images of the hallways that greeted us when we entered. We’re stuck in a loop of memory and grief. We have to mourn this carcass to make our way to the other side of the caesura. Like any good zombie battle, the only way out is through. The Bruces might be four guys, but through their film and the Q&A they acted as a single axe swinging at our collective parietal lobe.
When I walked out of the theatre, I thought to myself, “Why do art reviews have to be words? Why can’t we just post songs that reflect the work? Or a poem?” I thought of the equal amounts of eloquence contained in one of Jen Bekman’s pairings and a long Peter Schjeldahl New Yorker piece. Everything felt open. I could have swam home.
The Bruces are extending their hand at inspiration and questioning with the Bruce High Quality Foundation University. Classes are free with different levels of structure and self-direction, academia and action. They also don’t cost a thing. I sat in on the class “Occult Shenanigans in 20th/21st Century Art.” It was messy, covering topics ranging from traditional art history to Jack Chick tracts. There was drawing and smoking. There was confusion and there was next. It was good in all directions. If this was the future, I was sold but not bought. I was in.
I had a dream the night after I saw the Bruce High Quality Foundation give their Q&A on Governors Island. I walked up to a bed & breakfast. Knocked on the door. It was answered by a naked Jerry Saltz and his concubine. (At first this freaked me out in a there’s-a-problem-with-mom-and-dad kinda way, but I quickly got over it when I remembered that it’s just a dream. Everything is metaphor. The concubine is just a stand-in for Glenn Beck.) Saltz invited me inside, but the only catch was that I had to carry in my own mattress. It was an odd fit, getting it through the door. After I was settled into my room I went back out into the hallway. Off to my left, I saw naked dream Jerry hanging out with his naked dream whore, lit like a photo from The Art of Sensual Massage. Southern exposure. Straight ahead the door was open to a room less well lit. Looking in I saw the painter Angela Dufresne, fully clothed, focused, and painting away. It was time to say my prayers and wake up, “the morning already begun.”
*Full disclosure time! I’ve sent Creative Time checks for 10 years. I also used to write their blog. Plus, I think the people who work there are smart and nice.