Gaga Over Information Overload

Penguin Books has a video about the future of publishing that’s quite clever. The cleverness starts halfway in and requires you to have watched the first half, so stick it out.
Part of what struck me about the video, aside from it’s strategic use of where it put the word “not,” was how it places caring “about what Lady Gaga is wearing” in binary opposition to caring “about what Gandhi did 50 years ago.” I find this annoying, because I actually care about both. I mean, obviously a liberation movement was more immediately vital while it was going on. But, for example. Gaga’s costume in the prison yard of the Telephone video, with the lit cigarettes on her glasses, is also interesting and worthy of discussion. It’s less vital than liberation movements that are going on right now, but I would not want to have to rank it against other bits of current cultural output.
Indeed, I think what she’s wearing is some of the most compelling part of her performance and presentation. Her music is acceptable pop music. Some of it is catchy. But the visual images in her videos and her glammness is stunning. In this age, visual information is much more dominant than audio – we read more than we hear and we watch even more yet. Videos and the written word are the primary means of dispersing information. So even though she’s ostensibly a musician, her artistry seems to be concentrated in the visual sphere.
I went to a club last night and the people I was with were all talking about her (well, they were shouting over the din of exceedingly bad DJing). Jack Halberstam (of Female Masculinities fame) has got a blog post up about her. There’s almost certainly conferences being planned at this moment: Gaga and Postfeminism etc etc etc. She is the hot thing right now in pop culture and cultural studies and litres of virtual ink are being spilt over her – by people who are “smart” enough to care about Gandhi. There are elitists who want to posit that the analysis of images and ideas within a culture s vapid. Such a bias is not only wrong, it’s boring. Snobbery is tiresome.
Gaga is all so very now, immediate and new and clamouring for attention. Blog posts, news articles, tweets, facebook wall posts, background babble, shouting in clubs. This is the kind of effervescent pop phenomenon that one could easily miss while on an extended holiday or just taking a break from media saturation. The hype is not, in and of itself, vapid, but some portion of it is intended to be distracting. The hype machine is less interesting than her fascinating videos. It constitutes part of the information overload that keeps one from working on one’s thesis. I want to create a piece that is about information overload in some way.
For my MA thesis, I incorporated the distracting barrage of information directly into my work. At that time, I was overly interested in cable news cycles and pundits. I could sample them directly. But sampling Gaga directly raises additional copyright issues as making music from her music is clearly a derivative work and requires permission. Also, her musical work is already music and her visual output is tied to her music.
So is it possible to engage her work within the genre of electroacoustic / noise music without taking recognizable samples of her directly? I could calculate her frequency spectrum and work within that or copy some of her timbres, like pitch correction or the glitchy repeating in the telephone song. But even if I was able to successfully allude to her music, it’s still not what’s most interesting about her. I’m instead taken with the changing contexts of corpses in Paparazzi and Telephone. And by her use of repeated images and objects to tie her videos together: the gold jaw of Bad Romance is referenced again in Paparazzi, where the dogs of Poker Face also make a brief cameo. There’s a boom box in Telephone that is also in a previous video (which one?!?). The camera lingers on it. The viewer is meant to notice. How could that be explored in my music? Or can it? Am I just distracting myself?

Gaga Video: Post Feminism and Americana

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about Lady Gaga’s new video for her song Telephone:

What to make of this? There are some who want to put a feminist label on it, due to Girl Power-esque elements of the video, like the truck labelled “Pussy Wagon” and the female symbol at the end. However, I think this is a misreading. She references Thelma and Louise rather obviously at the end, but much of the rest of it is from exploitation movies of the 70’s. My media studies prof gf notes that these existed in dialog with the women’s liberation movement and thus the video is squarely within a post-feminist context.
I have the same problems with this video that I have with Natural Born Killers (which also clearly influenced it) in that it’s really much too violent to be camp. Lesbian serial killers are the stuff of exploitation films. And, of course, that scene of underwear dancing in the prison is just standard male-gaze music video stuff. It is slightly more complex than this, in that there are ‘real’ seeming lesbians in the prison yard scene. The leather clad dyke appeals to actual lesbians and is less easily placed in the male gaze.
There is also a lot of talk about product placement, which I think is also more complex than it initially appears. I’m sure Virgin was happy to be in the video and may even have paid for it, but Polaroid doesn’t even make those cameras or film anymore and I’m sure Wonder Bread and Miracle Whip are not exactly pleased to be linked with poisoning people to death. I think, instead, the products are meant to construct an image of Americana. The tropes of the video: prison, joshua trees, diners, cheap motel rooms, serial killers, pick up trucks, fuzzy dice; are all very american. And Gaga and Beyonce dancing around in pseudo Wonder Woman outfits at the end explicitly reference the flag, as do the placemats in the diner.
Thus we have an image of America made up of incarceration, road trips and violence. And the formation of (national) identity through consumption. Which may be depressing accurate, but at least is heavily satirised in the video. This is the biggest video in, like, forever and it’s been banned form MTV: the final sign of their irrelevance, as it’s easily viewable via YouTube. The major disappointment is the music. What in that song called out for that treatment? The lyrics talk about being too busy dancing ata club to talk on the phone. It’s ironic when paired with a prison fight scene, but, still, wtf? It’s no Thriller. And yet, every time I watch the video, it grows on me a little.

Room for Improvement

Five months ago, I posted a video to YouTube. A few weeks later, I played it for my supervisor, who gave me some very good feedback. He suggested that I vary the sounds of it and put the voice nearer the end, in order to not give it away and consider doing something about the sameness of the video. He indicated that it was too short to be minimalist, but too unchanging to fill the entire duration.
So this is what I’ve been working on. And working on. And working on. Every change I make seems to make the video worse. Which is hardly encouraging. It’s hard to work on for that reason. And also because I picked sounds for it that make me feel very nervous and edgy. And also because the subject matter makes me squirm.
It’s not that it couldn’t be better, it’s that I can’t seem to make it better.
The deadline is fast approaching for the Transgender Film Festival (indeed, if it is not already passed) and I’ve shown this video once to a small group and gotten some feedback from the YouTube posting. It seems to resonate well with women and gender minorities / queers. If straight men aren’t moved by it as much, should I care? Or am I just annoyed because the changes I’m making are really not helping?
Can it still be part of my PhD if I can’t repair it?
None of the composed music I’ve done in the last year has been especially engaging.

Naked Image

When I was last at the Tate Modern, I saw some video by Francesca Woodman from the 1970’s. She had a piece where she had stretched butcher paper in front of the large window of her loft. Light was shining through the window and through the paper. She stood naked behind the paper, so that her silhouette was visible and drew on the paper from behind. Then she tore the paper in a kind of provocative way, revealing increasing sexualized parts of her own body, until finally she stepped through it, tearing it all away and walking off frame.
I’ve been thinking about this piece a lot. I was first drawn to it because of the attractiveness of the artist, but the viewer is being asked to consider several things. By drawing on the paper, I think she was trying to create an idea of it as a canvas. We have a cultural idea that artists express themselves in a pure, cerebral form through their art. The canvas becomes almost an extension of self – but specifically, a very dualist kind of self. The canvas is not about the body, but about the mind.
Hélène Cixous argues that all binary oppositions eventually come back to gender. So when we put mind and body into opposition, immediately, we assign one of them to male. And, indeed, historically (and currently, alas) men are mind and women are body. These oppositions are also an implicit comparison, so the mind is more noble and pure than the body. The (male) artist is thus a triumph of masculinity. He expresses the true, the valuable and the pure of himself through his canvas. But if this is implicitly masculine, then women have greatly reduced access. They’re not artists, they’re women artists and that’s something different. Their body is thus always made visible, not just because it’s a site of difference, but because women are presumed to entirely be of and about the body.
By allowing light to filter around her naked body and through the canvas, Woodman makes this explicit in her work. The strip-tease aspect of her tearing makes a connection to sex and femininity even more explicit and invites a feminist analysis. Her drawings are torn to bits to reveal her body / herself, which / who then leaves. She breaks down the mind/body dichotomy, and, in so doing, her work is placed in the male gaze, which is not a site of empowerment. But she remains in control. There is no operator behind the camera. She controls what we see and when we see it, as much as she can, since the paper tears in unpredictable ways. By working within the male gaze, she makes it visible to the viewer.
I was also drawn to the aesthetics of the piece. It’s shot in her home. The attachment of the paper is ad hoc. The video is actually a series of takes. She tried this multiple times and put several of them on the finished tape. I like the experimental nature of it. I like that it’s about process. I think the aspect of it being in her home, which is an intimate setting (I mean that the way that small chamber music venues are described as intimate). She lets us into her life in a small way to make a statement about herself, her art and art in general.
I also admire her courage. There’s no metaphor for being naked on camera because it is the metaphor. She is actually uncovered, but never uncomfortable. It’s amazing.
So as I begin to think about making little films, I keep thinking of hers. I also think of her relationship to her body and the camera. I’ve spent most of my life striving to remain covered, living in my head. I don’t think I have the “wrong body,” but I think my identity was at odds with aspects of my body – not even in a way that I’ve been fully aware of. Which is to say, being naked on camera is not something I would ever have considered in a million years. No. No. No. What are you kidding? It’s another door that was closed – right next to all the doors that disallow crossdressing. These doors are starting to open for me. (Note that they should never have been closed in the first place.)
I’m working on a video of me giving myself a shot. It is uncovering. I thought of her video for courage to continue. My nakedness, though, is metaphorical. Do I want to put out there a picture of me in my bed room? Hesitating? Pausing? Failing?
Why do I want to do it? I have no idea. I try to get things out of my head sometimes and if you that with art, then how you do it is by putting it in other people’s heads. What does it feel like to have your identity hinge on an injection when you have a fear of needles? Well, here’s one answer.
I’m considering doing a piece with a bunch of still photos, slowly fading from one to another. In them I would be in the same location, in the same pose. I would start wearing a suit, hat and jacket and in each picture, remove one item until I was wearing nothing. (Why do I want to do it? I have no idea.)
I pass when I’m clothed. People see me as a man, which is what I want. But I’ve only done hormones and only for a few months. My body is ambiguous. Not even as ambiguous as I would like. It would be a stripping away of identity and of self. (Why do I want to do it? I have no idea.)
What is sex? What is gender? They’re both culturally constructed. My very body is queer now. I call all of these oppositions into question just by existing. My queer self is inscribed on my person, on my physical being.
I don’t want to be a shock value, though. I don’t want to be daytime TV. I don’t want to be a women’s glossy mag. I don’t want to be a bad joke. I want to be a person, clothed or unclothed. Woodman was dealing with the same sort of issues in her work, about how her image is transmitted and received. She can’t control what the perceiver thinks. Somebody like me could come up to it and think , “ooh, hot woman.” But if that person engages the work, they walk away with more than that. She does with pacing, timing, repetition of the same scenario. She’s got some advantage over me in that we, as a culture, acknowledge that cisgender women’s bodies exist.
So, I don’t know if it’s a good idea. I’m looking for thoughts.

Are You a feminist? Why or why not?

Video from the 4th of July shot with my camera. The audio from this will shortly be munched into a piece of music. You too can participate. Make your voice heard! I am not looking for any particular answer. However, I am looking for language diversity. So send me your answer in your favorite language: English, Esperanto, Spanish, Japanese, Klingon, etc. I’m especially looking for German, since the piece is going to premier in Austria.
Email me your answer in audio or video (with sound). Any format is ok. I will thank you in the program notes and give you a copy of the piece. Cell phone movies/recordings are ok, the internal mic on your computer, whatever. Send files to celesteh AT gmail DOT com.
This movie little clip is under a Creative Commons Attribution-only Liscence, btw. Video wants to be free.

Flanders Montage

This short film begins with a scene near the border where the bike route goes through a lovely National Park. There is a frog croaking on the audio track. I heard many frogs croaking and some of them sounded nice. This one was clever though, since he would only croak when there were other loud sounds a fade out when it was quiet. It made hir hard to record, but probably also more difficult for predators to find. The next two bits are the red light district in Antwerp. Everybody knows that prostitution is legal in The Netherlands, but it seems like most Americans are unaware that it’s legal in several other countries too, including law-heavy Belgium. Then comes audio from a carilon concert in Mechelen. The carilon there is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the very large number of bells. They were put to good use doing renditions of sappy pop songs. Can you name the tunes from the short fragments? Post your guesses in the comments. Finally, the last bit is pitch black and much longer than the rest.
I posted earlier about the horror movie campsite. I described the slugs everywhere, the mossy, moldy abandoned caravas, the very strange owner wanting to know if Xena was a good gaurd dog and the screams of animal life all night long.
Let me assure you that lying in a tent in the total blackness, it sounded much, much louder than it does on this recording. Maybe the spookiness doesn’t come across in this segment, but the audio is the best quality of the whole trip.
I’m disproportionately proud of these little videos. Feel free to remix them under an attribution-only liscence.

Holland Montage

The first bit is of a rural area near to Den Haag. The next is a windmill on a river. I could go look up where, but I’m lazy. The next windmills are around Rotterdam sort of near the area where all the tourists go, as there is a very high concertration of windmills. I got lost and arrived at a lower concentration of windmills, alas. Still nice though. Some of the noise you hear is the windmill actually working to move water around the canals! Then is an outdoor shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s in the south, near the Belgian border. There are Catholics in the South part of the country. Then, Xena runs around near the shrine while Nicole sneezes. All that long grass isn’t so good for her allergies. Finally, I stayed in a campground next to a bunch of sheep. The kept baa-ing at each other. But when I went out to video them, they were scared of Xena and made no sound. I succedded only in alarming the entire flock. The farmer yelled something at me. I asked for a translation, but he declined to provide one.
I made this montage by dragging the short films to iMovie and then exporting them as Quicktime.
Next up: sights and sounds of Flanders.

My phone takes videos

I used to think it was funny. Who would want to make movies with their phone? That’s before I realized I was carrying an audio recorder in my pocket all the time! Aha! So when Nicole and I were standing in the Grote Kerk in Breda, which has a fantastically long reverb, I asked her to clap.
Most of my other short films are of windmills. I don’t know if anybody would watch them if I posted them one at a time, so I might try a windmill montage. Will the excitement never cease??!!