John Powers, artist, blogger at Star Wars Modern, as well as Rhizome contributor, might now add "script doctor" to his bio. Yesterday, he unveiled his recent project — a rewrite of the script for Prometheus. I asked Powers several questions over email about his improvements to the script:
What was your reaction to Prometheus? How does that compare with your feelings about the films Alien andAliens?
I was disappointed but still engaged. I had been looking forward to the film. After Requiem I could never have been lured back to another Alien movie, but it was Ridley Scott. And while I really don't like slasher films at all, body horror is something I've always been fascinated by. From Cronenberg's Fly, to Aronofsky's Black Swan, to Natali'sSplice, body horror has always been a genre that my imagination has latched onto. Alien is the ultimate. I would love to know the page count of academic papers written on the sexual horror of those films. When I realized Scott was making a stab at 2001 via Alien- ala a scifi film about God (but founded in body horror) I got really excited.
So Prometheus has more in common with 2001 than the original Alien?
To horribly misquote Allen Ginsberg: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the exercise of filming their own 2001; A Space Odyssey.
In 2002 Steven Soderbergh made a run at it (and bombed), via Post-Soviet chic, with his remake of Solaris. In 2006 Darren Aronofsky all but destroyed any artistic credibility he had by making The Fountain, a over-blown scifi opus about life, the universe, and everything. A year later Danny Boyle did it with a little more success (but not much) with his movie Sunshine (wrote about that one). In 2010 Christopher Nolan was clearly aiming for the Kubrick-esque moon with his film Inception (I wrote a LOT about tht one). And Terrence Malick was clearly swinging for the Jovian moons with Tree of Life.
All these films excepting Inception (which is more about the film director as God, than God) are catastrophically flawed. All of them attracted A-list talent (Clooney, Jackman, Dicaprio, Spicoli...) and all were clearly passion projects on the part of their directors...
From the set of "How to Hide from Machines"/CV Dazzle photoshoot
It's interesting that your career has gone from taking pictures to thwarting cameras, with projects like CV Dazzle and Camoflash. When did you become interested in camouflage and face-detection spoofing?
I became interested in spoofing and camouflage when cameras metamorphosed from art making tools into enablers of surveillance societies. This happened gradually over the last decade starting with the Patriot Act in 2001. To me, this document marked the beginning of the end of photography as I knew it from art history books. Now, 175 years after the daguerreotype was invented, cameras integrated with facial-recognition systems comprise the fastest growing sector of the biometrics industry.
But the use of photography in biometrics is almost as old as photography itself. In the late 1800s Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin and pioneer of biometrics, used composite imaging in an attempt to predict criminal behavior and illness. For example, if a subject has similar facial features to that of a criminal he or she was more likely to commit a crime.
I see spoofing and camouflage as intelligent responses to the uses/misuses of photography: surveillance cameras, biometric systems, and paparazzi photography. Though these uses have always been part of photography at large, it’s impossible to ignore their presence now.
Sometimes this negative omnipresence supersedes the camera’s role as an art-making tool. As a photographer, I think spoofing and camouflaging tactics can help offset this effect and make photography more interesting, more communicative, and that this can lead to better pictures. Camoflash and CV Dazzle are projects centered on making photography more interesting.
One of my favorite quotes, by René Magritte, is that “everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” When everyone is photographing and revealing the world, it becomes interesting to try and cover it back up, to reveal anonymity.
Thinking of "How to Hide from Machines," included in the exhibition FaceTime at On Stellar Rays last winter, in which DIS magazine assisted with your tactical makeup and hairstyling ideas; there's something very stylish about CV Dazzle in addition to its function. What was your inspiration? Do you consider these looks "design fiction" or something we might one day see out on the street?
I think it depends on the cost associated with being exposed in public. If there is an increased threat to privacy or instances of abuse in the biometrics industry, then I think it is very likely that spoofing in public could become more acceptable.
The looks I collaborated on with DIS magazine could easily be classified under design fiction, but so could a lot of runway fashion. One of the goals of this project is to make camouflage communicative. The looks we designed were meant to make the wearer feel protected but not invisible.
It was interesting to see how the models reacted to wearing it. One of my favorite images from the shoot with DIS is when one of the models started texting and smoking while wearing CV Dazzle. This made it seem as if it had already become practical...
Jesse England, E-Book backup (ongoing)
In 2007, novelist Jonathan Lethem published an essay in Harper's ending with a grand reveal: "every line I stole, warped, and cobbled together." The patchwork includes dozens of sources — part of a Steve Erickson novel, something from a Pitchfork review, a quote from an interview with Rick Prelinger. Sandra Day O'Connor and Ralph Waldo Emerson are stitched in too.
The Ecstasy of Influence, now the title of his recent collection of writings, often addresses the process of integrating and "cobbling together" ideas and culture to make something new. Yet, stories Lethem relates of hosting "mailing parties" for the Philip K Dick Society or working in a bookstore seem like snapshots from pre-digital age. Recently I talked with the author about our rapidly dematerializing culture as well as appropriation as an art practice:
JM: Have you ever tried to imagine what kind of career path you would have had without a culture of physical objects?
JL: It’s really interesting because I do think of the procedural experience of having to dig, having to find out what, let’s say, all of those names in the back of Greil Marcus’ “Stranded” were. Now when I read that collection, I see it put together like his esoteric nod to the history of rock and roll and like 80 percent of it was terra incognita. I didn’t know the names at all, and I couldn’t just go skimming around and get a little taste. I had to make each and every one of those things that compelled me —because of the name or his description — a search. I’d have to go find some broken down piece of media, some old vinyl or something, and you know, the delay that inserts, the relationship to time. I spent a lot of time thinking about a culture that wasn’t right at hand.
I might envision a given song or movie for five or ten years before I’d lay hands on it at times, and that creates this sort of personal, fictional vision. It’s like having a book unread on your shelf and just staring at the jacket or the title or what you’ve heard about it, and having it emanating all this promise. Books I guess, can still do that, but it’s a really peculiar thing for me to think about how I would relate differently.
I mean, I was advantaged. I grew up in New York City. Compared to other versions of access in our generation, I had great access. My parents had a good record collection and really interesting books on the shelves and pointed me to them. There was no quarantine. I was in New York City and there were great repertory houses and I started going to them when I was 14 or 15 years old, just gobbling down some curators’ ideas of cinema. I was getting all these versions of importance or interest out of the obscure past or out of other national cinemas. So in that way, it was like I was surrounded. I didn't even think of myself as deprived.
The strange thing that the question sets up is an image of me, or anyone my age, as somehow suffering from a drought. But I wouldn't have, of course, had the comparison. I wouldn't have had any notion that I was lacking materials. I still had to make really complicated priorities for myself because there was so much that seemed so compelling, potentially compelling. And it wasn't too hard to get a hold of it. But I did, in retrospect I did have these kinds of limits and always a physical relationship — a movie theater that smelled a certain way. What it was to go to the Thalia and watch Bunuel films. It's associated for me with the feeling of that lobby and the strange loneliness in that place on a Thursday afternoon and the other people who would be there present or the kinds of record stores where I would at look at things or the bookstores and the way the objects themselves felt and became talismanic. And the way my own room was changing if I brought these things! It wasn't like I could close the computer and it would all go away. It was like I was changing my body practically. To just start accruing all this stuff like armor, like an exoskeleton.
JM: I'm sure your consumption of culture now is different though. Do you have a Kindle or an iPad? Are you an ebook reader? I'm sure you have MP3s, at least.
JL: I have a lot of MP3s! I'm going to qualify this in a number of different ways. I've always been a very late adopter. I mean even MP3s, I didn't have them after other people I knew did. Something about me always sort of wants them to become a little more part of the world. It's like I need to believe in them by seeing people form attachments before I make that move. I've got a friend who teases me because he remembers me saying that I would probably never bother with email. I knew a few people who were doing it and it just didn't seem that appealing to me. Now I'm ten years into an unbelievable promiscuous emailing binge that will never end. So I've been a late adopter a lot of times with tech. I wrote novels on an electric typewriter after it was possible to begin writing prose on computers. I just wasn't quite there. I wasn't ready to make a move from something that felt very important and material and personal to me. So who knows what I might do later on, but I've never read anything on a Kindle and I haven't even really had an iPad or a Kindle in my hands. The nearest I've been has been in the seat beside me in an airplane when I feel smug because they have to stop reading when the announcement goes out and my book is still open.
I think as a writer about the shape and heft of a book. And so I think the reason I am attached to reading them is I’m writing into that form. For better or worse, I still think of where physically my hands would be turning the pages. Feeling, oh, maybe now I’m ten pages from the end. And so some of those things are sacrificed in the Kindle.
Also, the kind of doubling back that I do as a reader seems very fundamental to pages. I’ll keep my finger sometimes even three or four pages width in two places in a book. Because I’m interested in doing a doubling. It’s very much a part of the physical object to me....
Could you tell me a little about your "Facebook sitcom" Dorm Daze? How long did the narrative play out on Facebook?
Dorm Daze was a performance conducted on a self-contained network on Facebook. Participants inhabited profiles scalped from real life American college students, which over three months were developed within a semi-scripted narrative - through interaction with each other and direction from me.
In general, social networking sites reward engagement with engagement, and those characters that invested most time within the community became the lead roles of the sitcom. The exciting thing for me was watching these local narratives develop, feeding into and accelerating the narrative as a whole. Further, playing out the sitcom over three months gave opportunity to bring in real world events; for example, one character became very involved in the Occupy movement, propagating within our fictitious environment at the same time as these events were kicking off all around the world. In fact series one ended on a cliffhanger when a group that evolved out of the occupy movement blew up Wells Fargo bank and took to the road.
Important also is that Dorm Daze was a piece in itself, but also a content generating system which has created material I’ve then been able to use in sculptural and installation works, brought together in the show The Hangover (Part II). Beyond these physical environments, the project has also spawned a book and a read only version of Dorm Daze 1, soon to be available for limited time only online. Recently, we’ve also begun talking to a TV network about the potential of turning it into a TV series. The point that this happens, the point that Dorm Daze becomes part of a cultural feedback loop in a very real, tangible way, is the point where ...
Great longread in the New Yorker this week about Christian Marclay's The Clock. Although I agree with Kenneth Goldsmith that the piece could benefit from greater discussion of the copyright issues he faced; the story behind how it was made is very compelling. It starts describing his move from New York, which meant leaving behind a larger apartment and boxes and boxes of bric-à-brac. In London his desktop became his studio:
Given his space constraints in London, Marclay decided that his first project would involve immaterial material—that is, digital media. Instead of wielding an X-Acto knife, he’d use Final Cut Pro. As he told me recently, sitting at his desk in Clerkenwell, “All I needed was this table and a computer” ....
“The Clock” is far too long to be presented on a DVD. The work is a computer program—coded by Mick Grierson, a professor at Goldsmiths College, in London—that, when booted, launches into whichever clip matches the time, down to the microsecond. The system, which archives the video and audio tracks separately, requires setup, and Marclay and a White Cube technician, Scott Martin, were present at virtually every city where the piece had been shown. (As carefully tended as the system is, mishaps can occur: at the Pompidou, “The Clock” mysteriously fell a few minutes en retard.)
If you're wondering why they aren't renting out bigger theaters for screenings, it's because the intimacy and the sound quality is so essential to the experience. The strength of The Clock lies in its uncanny intimacy, the ability to create a shared experience — a moment in time — between screen and audience. When you are stuggling to stay away at 4 am in the theater, the actors in the film clips are also yawning and sleepy-eyed ...