Sunday, July 11, 2010

Amsterdam: shit, bicycles, video art, Deleuze

1. Shit
IT MUST BE so you can examine your shit properly before you flush it, that's what I'm thinking.  Nothing else really makes sense.

Oh hi!  I didn't see you there.  I'm just looking at this weird toilet in an art gallery in Amsterdam.  What are you doing?  Can't you wait til I leave the toilet before you come in?  What the fuck is going on?

The thing that's weird about this toilet, since you're here anyway, is that the bowl is divided into two sections.  The front bit, the bit which is under your urethra if you're sitting down, is deep.  The back bit, directly under your arse, is a broad flat pan.  I have not shat, but if I had my shit would be sitting on a kind of plate, separated from a deep well of my piss.  Which would make sense if I wanted to examine the colour and consistency of each before I consigned them lo! to the watery underworld which lies beneath urban life, the veins which carry waste back to the oceanic heart whence came all.  Otherwise it's a bit of a fucking mystery, that's what I'm thinking.

Me and Hanna are in this gallery looking at some video art.  The art is good, which is a relief: until now our gallery visits here have only turned up pretentious fashion-inspired photography, the kind that was so exciting back in 1985 and now, perhaps, not so much.  We opened the gallery door and walked in and saw about 15 screens, all turned off, and a stereotypical Amsterdam art person sitting at a stereotypical Amsterdam art Mac.  He had product in his hair and horn-rimmed glasses and a shirt with tiny blue checks.

'Are you open?' we said.

'Oh!' he said.  'I'll just turn it on.'  He seemed surprised, like he wasn't really expecting anyone to come and see any video art.  Reader: this is often a safe attitude to have, but perhaps it's a little strange in a gallery attendant, is it not?  Or perhaps he had learnt from experience and decided to save electricity until it was really necessary.  Frugal, the Dutch.

2. Besties
APART FROM PRETENTIOUS photography, Amsterdam is like the best city ever.  Everyone gets around on bicycles, from kids to students to businesspeople to old people.  Perhaps because everyone rides everywhere, bikes don't seem to be status symbols at all, and everyone gets around on these solid granny bikes that look like they were built for service - and, in some cases, might have seen it - in World War II.  There's no fixies.  A million bikes and no fixies; a million people and only nine hipsters, at least as far as I can make out.  Like I said: best city ever.

Since everyone rides, there are dedicated bike lanes everywhere.  Since there are dedicated bike lanes everywhere, no-one needs a helmet.  And since the basic unit of traffic is the bicycle, the traffic is driven by the logic of bicycle riders.  Bicycle riders in many places are defensive and oppositional because they're consigned to the margins of dangerous roads and have to assert themselves to avoid injury and death.  But here they're the majority, so they're relaxed.  Bicycles weave easily around obstacles, so there's no reason to get too upset by anything.  The city is flat, so no-one is precious about their momentum.  Traffic - I know I've said this before, but anyway - gets annoying when traffickers get precious about their momentum, once starting and stopping start to seem like a big deal.  But here you stop if you need to and start when you can and there's no need to get upset.

Reader: Australian traffic sucks balls by comparison.  It's not that it's all that dense or busy or anything, compared to anywhere else.  It's more that we've developed a bullshit attitude from building our cities around cars.  We sit in traffic forever and when something blocks our path we shake our heads and swear and frown and really it's pretty much all bullshit.  We sit at lights for minute after minute and if someone delays us even by seconds we curse them and get vexed.  It's a bullshit attitude, and it makes us unhappy.  And what a city like Amsterdam demonstrates is that traffic really doesn't have to be such a cunty fucking pain in the balls, to coin a phrase.

3. The Nile in Ancient Egypt
IT'S PARTLY TO do with how things are organised here and a lot to do with attitude and character, but a lot of what we think of as national character traits come from geography.  Europeans who settled in America, for example, started at the eastern edge, so for the first century or two whenever anyone got too annoyed with how society was shaping up they could just head West, and eventually they'd find fertile land they could claim as their own and set up a little homestead.  Since most of the continent was fertile they ended up with a nation of small landholders, self-reliant and independent, suspicious of external influence, occasionally insular and selfish.  Australia, by contrast, was arid and relatively barren except on the coastal fringes, a geography which interacted with European farming practices to produce massive sheep and cattle stations, owned by a rich few and worked by itinerants.  Australian workers, at least for a while, ended up ripe for socialism and unionism, suspicious of property owners and used to considering themselves as a working class.

In Ancient Egypt the Nile flooded predictably and reliably and always in the same place, and the Ancient Egyptian attitude to life emphasised eternal cycles where everyone's status was known.  In nearby Mesopotamia the riverbeds were shallower and rivers changed course often, sometimes washing away entire settlements in the process, and Mesopotamian cosmology emphasised uncertainty and doubt and cruel gods you could propitiate but whose response was always unpredictable.

The Netherlands contain a lot of reclaimed land, land which was seabed when settlers first found it, and much of the country is below sea level.  It started out as a country in constant danger of being washed away unless everyone cooperated, so everyone did.  They're used to getting along without being told, and it shows in the traffic.  Amsterdam, also, is a planned city, more or less: a kind of half-hexagonal grid of alternating canals and streets, and it just kind of works.

(London, by contrast, where we were a few days ago, is an ancient mass of villages which have grown into each other.  I liked it a lot.  It reminded me of Delhi and Bangkok, to be honest, but that's probably just cos I'm not very travelled and so the only really big old chaotic cities I know are in Asia.  Also because London was warm and humid while we were there.  It was fun.  I recommend it.)

4. Excuse me while I pontificate
TODAY I WENT with Hanna and looked at more art.  We saw some shit video art and some decent video art.  Shit video art is worse than shit still art because video is a temporal art and you have to watch the whole thing to feel like you've given it a proper chance.  With a painting you can decide you hate it in a second and get on with your life but shit video art makes you wait for the right to move on, wait like you wait at a long boring embarrassing wedding or a long boring embarrassing motivational seminar.  You feel the seconds of your life tick by and turn into minutes and you know you'll never get them back, so the pain of shit video art contains the pain of mortality in a way few other shit art forms can really manage (except of course for shit theatre).  It's like shit music, but at least with shit music your eyes are free to wander where they will.  Shit video art captures the eyes too, turning the audiovisual experience to torture.

This particular shit video art was particularly shit because it was deliberately obscure.  Deliberate obscurity is a sign of insecurity.  People do it when they're scared to express themselves simply, but anyone who knows what they think doesn't mind expressing themselves simply and straightforwardly.  Ok, that's a sweeping statement, and actually I can think of four exceptions to straightforward clarity which aren't deliberate obscurity, which I'll call the poetic, the professional, the political and the philosophical:

a. The poetic exception means poets are allowed to fuck with your head by fucking with language.  It's their job.

b. The professional exception means it's ok sometimes to only want to communicate to someone you share some kind of common knowledge with already.  Doctors talking to other doctors are allowed to use language only other doctors will understand.  This is true of artists too, who sometimes want to say something which will only make sense to people familiar with some facet or other of art history.  Outsiders get annoyed by this but everyone does it, so they shouldn't.  This kind of prior knowledge is a big part of what makes watching sport fun, for instance, and no-one gives sport any shit for it.  Watching any given football game, say, is fun if you know the rules of the game, the recent and longer-term history of the individual players and each team, and so on.  Otherwise it's just abstract.  I get the same pleasure from watching sport as I get from watching modern dance, which is to say: only a tiny bit, because I don't know the relevant history of either.

When we hear people talk about sport we don't demand that they explain themselves in terms anyone can understand; even if we did they'd just tell us to fuck off and learn a bit about the game.  And if sports is allowed to only make sense to people who care enough to know some background, so is art.  But even with this kind of art, someone is trying to communicate something.  Deliberate obscurity, on the other hand, is bullshit, and we don't need it.

c. The political exception means you can speak in codes when it's too dangerous to speak simply.  No-one in Amsterdam gets to use this as an excuse though, because it's too nice here.

d. The philosophical exception means sometimes the words everyone's familiar with lead to thinking about things in the ways everyone's familiar with.  Since it's the job of philosophy to come up with new ways of thinking about things, sometimes philosophers needs to invent new terms.  The best example of this is Deleuze, one of those philosophers no-one really understands but whose language is evocative enough that people want to use it even if they're not sure what it means.  No reason why not, I guess.

5. Speaking of Deleuze:
SPEAKING OF DELEUZE: we caught a ferry across the river to look at some art that was supposed to be Deleuzean.  I didn't understand any of it but it looked like they were at least trying, so I didn't mind.  I looked at the art for a little while and then I had to shit.  The toilet in the gallery, as it happened, was exactly the same as the toilet I was talking about before, so I got to test my theory.

It turns out I was right.  After shitting my shit sat there on display like fois gras on a broad white plate in a fancy restaurant.  I looked at it for a while.  The situation seemed to call for it.  We sat there for a little while, me and the plate of shit, looking at each other.  Unlike shit video art my shit demanded nothing from me, it just sat there silent like a painting.  It was out of my body now so our necessary relationship was over, and I was happy to spend a little while communing with it.  We shared a peaceful moment.  The moment passed into history and then so did my shit.

Love to all,
xx Mike


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