imomus: (Default)
2010-02-10 03:39 am

Hello! This is Click Opera.

1. What's this? This is the last entry in the blog called Click Opera, which means that, in the funny through-the-looking-glass world of blogs, it's the first page future internauts and web adventurers will come to. So think of this not so much as an ending as an entrance. What you've reached is the door to "probably the best-written blog on the Anglophone web", according to Warren Ellis. "It doesn't get any better than Click Opera," said novelist Dennis Cooper.

2. Who's behind Click Opera? The best introduction to who I am is this article in The Guardian Review. I'm a Scot, a musician, a writer, and -- according to this page, gulp! -- the 4697th most significant contemporary visual artist working today. My Wikipedia page is here. You can download six of my early albums free here. Books I've written are here and here. I want to write more books, so if you're a publisher email me! That goes for people wanting to reproduce bits of this blog in print, too.

3. Where can we find out what you're up to, post-blog? From my "personal digital assistant" Maria Wolonski, who announces my engagements in the charming, ringing tones of a talking clock. From the Momus concerts page on LastFM. From my Flickr page and my two YouTube accounts, momasu and bookofjokes. I may even revive my old website (1995-2003),

4. What do you plan to do now? I want to write books and articles. Maybe teach at an art school. Deliver lectures in many lands. Make some more records. Play concerts. Walk around the world. Learn to speak Japanese and live in Japan. Write my own regular newspaper column of cultural commentary (I've written for people like Wired, The New York Times, Frieze, Spike, The Wire, 032c). Hold some more art shows. If you can help me realise these dreams, email me, please!

5. If I want to stage a Momus concert, what do I need to do? Tell your friendly local promoter (or it could be an art gallerist, store owner, festival director) that all I require is travel expenses (from Berlin), accommodation, plus a fee of around €500 for a regular Momus show (festivals tend to pay more). If that works for the promoters, get them to drop me a line and we'll take it from there. I also do art performances -- live storytelling and unreliable tours.

6. Will you keep the Click Opera archive up indefinitely? Yes, I will. If you feel like helping with the modest LiveJournal and PhotoBucket hosting costs -- or compensating me directly for some illegal mp3s of my songs you've downloaded -- you can make a donation via PayPal here.

7. What's the best way to search the Click Opera archive? Simply type the word imomus plus your search term into a search engine, then follow the links headed "Click Opera".

8. Will you keep reading and responding to comments left under this entry? Yes, I will. Leave your email address if you want a personal response.

9. Why did you stop updating Click Opera? Not because anything went wrong or it got unpleasant. Quite the reverse, in fact. Click Opera was just too damned good: too compelling, too time-consuming, too satisfying. It took over my life. It became my job, the main topic of my conversation, the hub of my self-mediated fame: "Aren't you that guy from the internet?" (Read the piece called Clickswansong if you want to know more about why this blog came to a "happy ending". Or listen to this radio interview with KCSB's Colin Marshall.)

10. Can I step through the door now? Please do! There's a lot to read! You can browse backwards from here, or start at the beginning (Thursday January 15th 2004) and work forwards. The calendar is your friend, or you may prefer to read through the titles displayed in the month view.

Thanks to everyone who's contributed to Click Opera, this big vineyard! You've given me years of pleasure! Happiness, as T.E. Lawrence said, "is a by-product of absorption", and blogging -- the best hobby I ever had -- has been absorbing indeed.

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2010-02-09 10:50 am

Meet Maria Wolonski

Momus: Hello everyone, thanks for coming today. I'd like to present Maria Wolonski, our new... What is your official title, Maria? I forget, despite being the one who made it up!
Maria: Wasn't it "Flexible Information Nexus"?
Momus: "F-I-N". Sounds a bit fishy! No, didn't it have a P in it... not PA, not PR...
Maria: PDA! Personal Digital Assistant!
Momus: Thanks, that'll do nicely for now. So, everyone, I'd like you to meet Maria Wolonski, the new Momus PDA. We're delighted to have her aboard.

Maria: Shall I curtsey? Or do you want to spray champagne over me, like Richard Branson?
Momus: Ha ha, it is tempting! But Richard Branson is a sexist pig. I wouldn't treat my employees like that. I think we should tell people first and foremost to follow your feed.
Maria: Yes! Right. Well, my feed is called wolon, which is obviously short for "Wolonski". It's your highly Portable Information Nexus (P-I-N) for anything and everything related to Momus. Concerts, press appearances, lectures, reactions to events, recommendations. Hey, should I be calling you "Mr Momus"?
Momus: No, no, just plain Momus is fine.
Maria: Should we talk about what we were discussing earlier?
Momus: What was that? Oh, about possible reactions? Okay... You go first.
Maria: Well, it's just that you thought... You thought there was a possibility of dismay. That people would say: "He's winding up Click Opera just to unveil... a Twitter feed?"
Momus: Right. And it's important to stress that this is not a Momus-related Twitter feed. Well, not just a Momus-related Twitter feed. This is Maria, a new person. A new member of staff. In a new office. With rafters.
Maria: You know, I think I will call you Mr Momus on the feed. So cute!
Momus: It is cute, but remember the "Mr" will take up two of those precious 140 characters.
Maria: Oh, I can slip it in there. I'm good at that. Mr Momus on BBC Radio 4's Quote Unquote "deserves to be a massive multi-billionaire" (says nice Dr Ben Goldacre). See? I tweeted all that plus a compact tinyurl. It fits!
Momus: I want to ask you a few questions about your origins, Maria, because I think the readers will want to know some background. But first I just want to clear up this question of the value of Twitter. As you know, I had a piece up in April called The case against -- and for -- Twitter. It was quite damning: "You could easily see the tweet as an inherently worthless form, some kind of spreading weed, replacing meaningful content with something scattershot, trivial, phatic, desultory -- eroding topsoil, decreasing crop yields." But then -- being a dialectical kind of chap -- I saw the plus side: "Couldn't all the important things ever said be reduced to 140 characters? There's nothing more wonderful than seeing a short form given some kind of lapidary perfection." Now, the wolon feed is mostly for information about real-world Momus activities, but I hope it can achieve some of that "lapidary perfection" too. Some kind of beauty.
Maria: That's why you made someone short and perfectly-formed your "flexible information nexus"?
Momus: You're perfectly formed, but you're not short! Come on, Maria, you're almost as tall as me!
Maria: It's true, and you wear high heels.
Momus: Don't tell them that!
Maria: Ha ha ha!
Momus: Do you want me to show them your baby pictures?
Maria: What, that one of me in my birthday suit? When you were down in the lab, fabricating me like the Bride of Frankenstein?
Momus: Yes, that one!
Maria: Well, I certainly don't want you holding the threat to show it over my head and using it to control my freedom of expression. So go ahead, I'm not ashamed. In fact, I think it's good to make my fabrication process clear and obvious to everybody, as if to say "This is how a PDA is made!"
Momus: Okay, here's Maria in the lab, back when she was being fabricated. Isn't she lovely?

Maria: I have a damn good body, I'll say that for me. You look like you had a lot on your hands before I came along. In fact, you had a lot of hands, period.
Momus: That's right, I had a thumb in many pies. I had to juggle everything constantly. I didn't know what to do with all my hands. That's why I needed a new pair.
Maria: Yes, today you're showing a new pair of hands and a clean pair of heels!
Momus: Please don't go on about my heels!
Maria: You like to wear them with spurs while sitting on your high horse!
Momus: No I don't! Anyway, here's a flow diagram of how I hope we'll be working together in the future.

Maria: That's lovely! I'm a penguin! Where did you get the graphic?
Momus: It's a tribute to the Japanese designer Nakajo Masayoshi, a cluster of some of his motifs. He did a lot of work for the Shiseido magazine Hanatsubaki, really nice clear and simple design, but quirky, with lots of personality.
Maria: Is that you in the photo?
Momus: No, it's Harry Smith, but it's how I might look in a few years.
Maria: You have a birthday coming up soon, don't you?
Momus: No.
Maria: Yes you do!
Momus: No I don't! I don't want to talk about that! In fact, let's just end this meeting now, shall we, Maria?
Maria: Okay, you're the boss, Mr Branson! I mean, Mr Momus!

Follow Maria Wolonski on Twitter.
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2010-02-08 11:03 am

Having nothing to say, no words but the words of others, I have to speak

I'm looking in the mirror and I have a dog's head. It's a small dog, rather well-groomed, with a bear-like snub nose and golden-brown hair. I have to go somewhere, see an art exhibition in rural Turkey, catch a train to the mountains... Oh, wait, that was a dream. I've woken up. I don't feel so great in the mornings -- a bit stiff. I'll be fine once I have some tea and move around a bit.

I jump up off the futon, leaving Hisae to doze. The rabbit lopes after me, down the corridor -- via the bathroom, where I pee and brush my teeth -- through the living room, into the kitchen.

Fuck, it's still totally white outside. I'm peering short-sightedly out into the courtyard garden as the kettle boils. This winter is just a tedious permatundra, more like Moscow than Berlin. I don't think I can take another like this; subzero, and everything locked under treacherous ice and snow for months. You never want to go out, but then you get cabin fever. Got to move somewhere warmer. Osaka, Athens.

I'm in my pink Habitat dressing-gown, the one I bought at Republique in Paris when I moved back to Europe from Japan in late 2002. Wearing this thick toweled garment, I feel like a prize fighter about to step into the ring. This, if anything, is my blogging garment; my pajamahadeen battle dress. I lie back in the reclining chair that faces my big, bright iMac screen. Check the remote control for the Japanese vibration device built into the chair; no light. The rabbit may have bitten through the power cable again. Fuck! I could do with a bit of a back massage.

After a cup of tea I feel better. Not just because my limbic system is flowing again and my stiff limbs are moving, but because there's a slight tingle of adrenalin now, a mixture of challenge and anxiety. My body is being led by my brain, which feels alert, crisp, purposeful. In a couple of hours I'll publish an illustrated article which people all over the world will be able to read. They'll start commenting on it almost immediately. I'll make the last editorial tweaks, and field the first comments, lying in my bath, reading my iPod Touch.

But first the big question, the Scheherazade question. What to write about? This is the key part of the process. Basically, it's about redemption. I must find something inspiring and exciting in my daily round of webpages, something I want to relay, repackage, expand on, interpret, rail against, connect unexpectedly to something else.

It's a bit like alchemy, turning base metals into gold. I'm actually rather unexcited by most of the stuff I read in the tight circles I make on the web. Let's see, on the Guardian news pages a law lord says the Iraq war was illegal, and British universities are having their budgets cut. You could do a piece on how those connect (Britain spent so much on the war, and later on bailing out the banks, that now they're chopping off bits of the future-national-brain to pay for it), but that way lies a bottomless pit of bitterness.

No, we want something a bit more arty and colourful for our topic. Check the Culture pages. Because when everything else is winter and gloom, culture can be glitter and bloom. Hmm, Gil Scott-Heron's back, and someone's written "an explosive new history of anti-semitism" which "has liberal intellectuals in its sights". 200 comments by lunchtime! But no thank you.

At this point I'm wondering if I have a "stub". A stub is a TextEdit document outlining an idea for a blog piece. It's usually just an URL and a few lines of notes connecting that topic to a photo and a few other topics. I open a folder marked "2010 alias" and arrange the files by type. There's one about Alan McGee closing his Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr accounts ("i got fed up with being in other people's personal real life shite drama's so closed them all feels like freedom", he writes in his MySpace blog). Nah, lay off McGee, let him be free. I shall also be released soon.

There's a stub entitled "Modern Painters mystery" which is about how the art magazine's Wikipedia page mentions nothing about the origins of the much-relaunched title. The Modern Painters disambiguation page says "for the art magazine founded by Peter Fuller...", but the actual page doesn't mention Fuller at all, nor any of the umpteen editors and companies and headquarters the mag has gone through over the last decade. I'm sure there used to be a Wikipedia page mentioning some of these things, and the corporate gloss that now stands in for a proper account of Modern Painters strikes me as a kind of Orwellian propaganda -- the kind of thing Marxy is always complaining about re: the Japanese Wikipedia, in fact.

But no. Bringing Marxy into it would feel terribly 2005, and bashing Modern Painters would feel wrong too, because they covered me at generous length in 2003. Ha, what about a waspish, self-mocking piece saying that every media outlet that covers Momus is doomed to go on the skids shortly afterwards? Then I could say that failing to respond promptly to Tokyo Art Beat's request for a TABuzz feature recently has been my way to spare the troubled website (currently requesting donations) "the curse of Momus"! No, but that's stirring it, and the TABBERS I met in Tokyo this trip were lovely people.

What about a Japan-themed entry? Aha, there is a stub for one of those. It's about Wim Wenders' late-80s film Notebook on Cities and Clothes, which is about Yohji Yamamoto and video imaging technology. I saw it when it came out, and it fits (along with Chris Marker's Sunless and Elizabeth Lennard's documentary on Ryuichi Sakamoto) into a fascinating subgenre of Western takes on late-Showa Tokyo. There's a really interesting sub-theme in Wenders' ruminative, oblique film about peace-as-war. Yamamoto says that commerce has been, post-war, Japan's way of holding its head up in the world, and that it's pursued like a peacetime war effort. Japan doesn't really have that attitude any more, though maybe China does.

Anyway, blogging about that would be a good opportunity to link to Toog's excellent interview with Elizabeth Lennard. God, how I admire Toog's blog! If people should read any blog after mine stops, they should read his. And Toog himself is really an inspiration: the handmade book of poetry he sent me recently, for instance, the one that looks like a passport to higher states. What an elegant project! To take orders for a book of poems then write each one by hand! It's monklike, it's quirkily humourous, it's exactly the kind of stubborn gesture that commands interest and respect in an age where it's far too easy to launch culture electronically.

Speaking of "too many words", I still haven't settled on a topic to blog about. But maybe -- since I've written about trying to find something to write about -- that's no longer necessary. I can just blog about blogging. The medium is, after all, the message.

Remember that piece I wrote, A cup of tea? Mischa Shoni had written asking "Momus, what should I blog about?" It was 2006, and everyone was supposed to blog. So I did an entry saying you could blog interestingly about anything, even a cup of tea. It was one of the first blog entries to use numbered paragraphs, which later became a bit of a Click Opera signature (I later discovered Alain Badiou did the same thing). It made Mischa happy, and got 80 comments.

Well, I don't think I'm going to blog about cups of tea again -- Click Opera ends on Wednesday, and I don't want to repeat myself -- but it might be a good plan to drink one. For some reason Samuel Beckett's line about how "having nothing to say, no words but the words of others, I have to speak" pops into my head. Maybe that would be a good title for today's entry.

I raise my pink-clad body up out of the vibrating, reclining chair (I seem to have spent a big chunk of the last decade cranked back in this "driving seat", facing the big iMac "windscreen") and head for the kitchen. Instead of the wireless mouse, I click the button on the kettle, and soon the fresh water is chuckling to a boil. It's coming up to 11am, time to post. But what'll I use for pictures?
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2010-02-07 12:44 pm

What's not to self-love?

Am I a narcissist? The question itself is self-indulgent and self-absorbed, but I can't help asking it. Maybe my six years demanding your daily attention here at Click Opera have been nothing but "digital narcissism", a daily seduction, an attempt to put myself at the centre of the world, to spin myself into every story, to make myself the universal prism, the central aleph, the keystone in a grand facade. Has the motif behind every story (and almost thirty years of records, for that matter) really been "me, me, me"?

I think it's clear that I am a narcissist -- God knows, I love and believe in myself strongly enough -- but I'd say I'm also rather guilty about it. I'd say I diffuse my self-love out into so many other things that it becomes acceptable. It's not sticky and repulsive any more, as immoderate self-love tends to be.

Or does it? According to an article on PsyBlog, Why we love narcissists (at first), "despite being self-absorbed, arrogant, entitled and exploitative, narcissists are also fascinating... we are strangely drawn to their self-centred personalities, their dominance and their hostility, their sensitivity and their despair, at least for a while."

The article reports an experiment by social psychologist Mitja Back which found that narcissists make a good first impression because they look, sound and move better. They use charming facial expressions, have a more confident speaking tone, wear more fashionable clothes, have trendier haircuts and are funnier.

Wow, what's not to self-love? Narcissists sound like attractive hipsters! They must get laid a lot!

If they do -- and surely they do -- their relationships don't last long, Back found. Weirdly enough, it's the narcissist-hipster's entitlement and exploitative abilities which lure people in initially: "participants liked narcissists' sense of entitlement most -- of the four aspects of narcissism they studied (leadership/authority, self-admiration/self-absorption, arrogance/superiority and entitlement/exploitativeness) it was the last of these that most predicted liking". However, "narcissists are usually soon found out and shunned since few people will put up with a self-absorbed, authoritarian, arrogant, exploitative friend".

At this point my picture of the narcissist -- with his trendy haircut and funny comments -- became the image of a musician on tour, getting laid every night but exhausting sympathy just in time to move on to the next concert in the next town. But the digital dandy could fit the bill just as well: instead of sticking around long enough for real people to get the message that there's no place in the dandy's heart for anyone but himself, he can simply display himself digitally in the web's shop window.

"Behaving selfishly seems to bring them a rush of admiration which they get addicted to, while devaluing others when the inevitable rejection comes, covering it up by searching out new people to worship them. The reason narcissists fail to spot this cycle may well be that friends and partners never hang around long enough to tell them in such a way that they actually believe it and want to do something about it," the article concludes.

That almost makes it sound like narcissism is being made into a "cycle of abuse", a "clinical condition requiring treatment", and even a "disease". And it might well be a facet of the narcissism of psychologists that they see themselves as the universal prism, the central aleph, the see-all and cure-all. Do scientists have a grudge against artists? Do they want us to be as boring as them? It's certainly understandable that these science types would prefer to vest their own value in something other than cool clothes, immediate charm, and a nice line in chat-up patter.

So, therapy for narcissists. Would it remove their charm and attractiveness, or only their own exploitation and manipulation of it to seduce the easily-impressed? Would the trendy haircut, the nice voice, the funny remarks, vanish after a course of antibiotics? Would the narcissist become one of those English self-deprecators who proudly proclaims his complete inadequacy, stupidity and laziness at every opportunity (surely a kind of "inverted narcissism" even more egregious than the overt kind, since it often comes with a refusal to improve)?

Attacks on narcissists disturb me just as attacks on hipsters do. After reading the PsyBlog piece -- to get the astringent flavour of crushed aspirin out of my mouth -- I watched a lot of Prince videos: Kiss, Sexy MF, Alphabet Street, Cream. You can only watch them on dodgy offshore servers, because either Prince or the media moguls who own his material slap suits on anyone showing them (and I don't mean padded-shouldered, wasp-waisted numbers with peep-holes for chest hair).

The narcissism levels in the Prince vids were off the meter, way beyond the red. I loved them. I imagined that if I'd been born a girl (Sheena Easton, for instance) I'd willingly have served my time as a love-slave in the pimp-imp's harem. The idea of a "normal" Prince cured of his scandalous self-love... well, it's just plain fugly.
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2010-02-06 12:26 pm

Growing old in, and with, Japan

Someone sent me to read John Haffner's interesting blog post Immigration as a Source of Renewal in Japan. It's about Japan "growing old", and it's of particular relevance to me because it's an ambition of mine to grow old as an immigrant in Japan.

Now, I'm not really the sort of immigrant John Haffner has in mind as a solution for Japan's ills. Although English-speaking Westerners do figure in his prescriptions, he sees young, dynamic, entrepreneurial people -- many from surrounding Asian countries -- as the only way to kick the nation off a demographic course which, left unchecked, will see its population shrink from 127 to less than 100 million people by 2050. Niken and Mahesa, two charming Javanese students we befriended in Tokyo in December, might fit the bill better.

Niken and Mahesa plan to go back to Jakarta when their studies are over. But they'd certainly be an asset to Japan: stylish, resourceful, trilingual, full of good ideas, ambitious and friendly, they could represent one future for a Japan even I've reproached for entering a navel-gazing new period of sakoku, or cultural isolation. Other contenders might be the family of Malaysian restauranteurs we dined with in Osaka in early December. Inter-marrying with Japanese, they were bringing members of their Malaysian families up to Japan one by one.

As once-solid mega-corporations like Toyota and JAL begin to wobble badly, as Japan's debt approaches 200% of its GDP, and as China overtakes to become the world's number two economic power, it's clear that something has to change in Japan. As Haffner points out, "whereas 11 workers supported two retirees in 1960, the ratio was four workers to one retiree in 1999, and by 2050 the UN projects that only 1.7 workers will support one retiree. Those workers will face a heavy burden," and "the continual improvement in living standards the Japanese have enjoyed during the last half-century will come to an end.”

After making an enthusiastic case for increasing Japanese immigration, though, Haffner admits it just isn't likely to happen: "The country is likely to do no more than tinker with its immigration levels. By implication, therefore, Japan is also likely to become a smaller, more debt-laden and less productive country in the coming decades."

So that's the change we're most likely to see: shrinkage, decline, deflation. Ha, exactly the same processes I expect to see in myself over the next thirty years! Maybe Japan will be the perfect place to grow old!

Given that we're not likely to see a sudden immigration-powered economic miracle in Japan, or a sudden massive baby boom (despite the government basically paying people to have kids), is there a silver lining to Japan's likely silver age? I think there could be several. Let's list them.

* According to Iwao Fujimasa, a demographer with the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, depopulation could depress the real estate market and affect the financial standing of banks dependent on real estate prices. In other words, cheaper house and rental prices in Japan! Yay!

* Fujimasa thinks that population decline will boost gender equality, break down generation gaps and bring a more relaxed way of living. Land prices will fall, people will be able to afford bigger homes, and the daily crush on trains will be lessened. (Population decline not all bad news, Japan Times)

* Then there's the argument that we need to stop promoting endless economic growth as the only goal. As Sakamoto put it: "The current economic system has required people to be busy trying to achieve growth -- it's as though they're continually riding a bicycle. People have to do things fast to meet the demand for excessive efficiency.... I think it would be better if Japan became a beautiful third-rate country. It would be nice if Japan was a place of delicious food, beautiful scenery and abundant nature. If that were the case, I think it wouldn't matter if one had little money."

* This could, in other words, be Japan's midlife crisis, and the best thing about a midlife crisis is that it's an opportunity to ask some basic questions: "Is that all there is?" and "What really matters to me?" Trying to catch Japanese artists in the act of asking these questions is the whole premise of the Aftergold art show I'm currently putting together.

* Interviewed by De:bug magazine in November for their Japan special, I was asked to clarify my views on immigration in Japan. The editors had been troubled by some comments I'd made, and said they had a different definition of multiculturalism from mine. I responded that while I'm very much in favour of immigration to Europe, I felt that many of the things I value about Japan are only possible because of the high level of trust, harmony and homogeneity that exists there.

* "To impose exactly the same sort of multiculturalism worldwide would not be multiculturalism at all, but a kind of monoculture. It would result in a decrease in diversity," I added. "Japan is not a hegemonic power in the world today. The US is. Therefore, I see the maintenance of Japaneseness as a form of resistance struggle. It opposes the homogenising globalisation which proposes the US model as the one we must all follow."

* It's also important to remember that there is a conflict between internal population diversity on the national level and global cultural diversity. Global cultural diversity can only flourish if there are distinct "flavours" and identities, which are often maintained by the restriction, on a national level, of diversity. This is a swings-and-roundabouts argument. Just as Japanese women may benefit from the lack of immigrants on the Japanese job market, so the failure of internal diversity may be the success of international diversity.

Let's be clear: I'd love DPJ prime minister Hatoyama's cherished personal vision of an Asian monetary and political union modeled on the European vision of Jacques Delors and Count Coudenhove-Kalergi to be realised. I'd love Japan to be filled with young, visionary and dynamic people like Niken and Mahesa, or like Hisae's Korean mother, for that matter. I think these immigrants do and would continue to expand Japan's culture in interesting ways. And I have an obvious personal interest in Japan's visa requirements getting loosened so that people like me can "flood in" and "swamp" the nation.

But realistically that ain't gonna happen. Not in my lifetime, anyway. So all I'm saying is that the alternative is interesting too. Japan will get cheaper, smaller, poorer, purer, wiser, more itself. Rather than forging new forms of industry and commerce (same old thing, same old bling), Japan will from now on be pioneering new ways of living; post-industrial, post-materialist, post-wealth, post-growth. This is something the world doesn't know much about yet. How to live longer, live better, yet live cheaper, live smaller. How to live for the pure joy of living, not for the grim accumulation of money. How to "decline successfully". How to be wise. Show us how it's done, Japan!
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2010-02-05 10:43 am

Mr Pantouffle's self-fab skyhut

I escaped yesterday from winter-glitched Berlin (grit, dark, dirt, slush and slither) into the warm, clean capsule of sunlight-and-elsewhere which is the Walther Koenig bookstore. Soon I found myself flipping through an interesting architect's-coffee-table book by Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham, Portraits from Above: Hong Kong's Informal Rooftop Communities.

Up on the roofs of Hong Kong buildings you often find them: corrugated shacks, little huts, self-built structures which replicate, up in the air, rural Chinese villages. "Informal" means, of course, that they don't meet any building standards and don't have any legal status, so living in one of these skyhuts is a precarious business in every sense; a government inspector will sooner or later mark your dwelling with a fluorescent ink stain which means that you have a minimal window of a day or two to vacate before they pull the place down and chuck its constituent parts onto a skip thirty stories below.

Wu (the Chinese-Canadian who did the meticulous cut-away drawings) and Canham (German, photographs) asked themselves the same questions I did: Who lives here? How do they live? Do they have wifi? Do they have running water and electricity? What's it like in there? Luckily, the pair were invited in quite readily, and allowed to document the living spaces.

Did I tell you I once lived for a year in a hen hutch? Well, it wasn't really a hen hutch, more a garden shed behind a house in Torry, Aberdeen. It was my last year at university, and I actually really enjoyed living there. I put a picture of Alexander Pope on the wall, taught myself Brel songs, warmed myself with a two-bar heater, and, when I had to use the loo or the bath, let myself into the adjacent house belonging to my landlady, Mrs Ross. So that's what I imagine living on a Hong Kong roof to be like.

Humble, fleeting, homemade, ramshackle and cheap, the self-fab skyhut is admirable in all sorts of ways. Okay, so the toilet appears to be in the kitchen in some of these photos, and they wouldn't keep the cold out if Hong Kong ever did get cold (today it's 20c, perfect!). But from the point of view of density, recycling, efficiency and sustainability these structures -- built in a spirit of dung-beetle bricolage -- have a lot to teach us. Up on the roof it's cooler and quieter, you're out of people's way, you have good views out over the city, you can befriend the birds and watch the sun set. You haven't used up any extra land, and you haven't spent a ridiculous amount of money on construction. You're up on the roof, hurting no-one, minding your own business, listening to the aircon.

The nice thing about books like Portraits from Above is that they provide a detailed decor into which you can insert characters of your own. Yesterday, after playing Grand Theft Auto for a while at the Transmediale hub, I invented a character called Mr Pantouffle. He's a semi-retired clown with a heart of gold, always being cheated by the people he meets down on the ground. Only up in his skyhut, with his beloved avifauna around him, is Pantouffle free. He hums, he feeds the birds, he works on his clown act, he scatters fresh rice into his pink plug-in cooker and flips the switch.

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2010-02-04 02:01 am

Regal Zonophone

My City vs Your City is a fascinating information widget designed by Michael Schieben. It takes data from LastFM and organises it so that you can compare the Top 10 most-listened-to artists in any two cities of your choice (as long as they're on LastFM's list of cities, and have active listeners). The clean and attractive interface then gives you a percentage overlap between the two cities.

After using the widget to make some fairly trivial observations (Kings of Leon do better in Protestant countries than Catholic ones! David Bowie is more popular in London than New York!), I found myself most interested in comparing how many domestic artists different countries have in their Top 10s. You might expect pop songs in local tongues, from local artists, to sprinkle the most-listened-to playlists of all nations fairly equally, but that turns out not to be the case at all. What emerges very strongly, in almost all the cities you care to look at, is an Anglo-Saxon monoculture. Cities all over the world list the same artists in their Top 10s: Coldplay, Radiohead, Lady GaGa, The Beatles...

It's almost as if someone or something has got to them. The same "someone" who commands people all over the world to wear blue jeans seems to be laying down the law, or subtly inveigling its norms into people's desires. THOU SHALT HAVE A MAXIMUM OF THREE DOMESTIC ARTISTS IN THY LASTFM TOP 10, this "something" says, UNLESS THOU ART FRENCH OR JAPANESE.

Yes, according to this widget it is only cities in France and Japan in which we find people willing to go beyond this unofficial "30% local cap", this unwritten "commandment of monoculture". Paris boasts 40% domestic artists in its list (Gainsbourg, Air, Phoenix, Daft Punk), while Tokyo charts a massive 70% of homegrown talent. That's almost complete self-sufficiency! No need to import any foreign music except the odd Beatles and Radiohead mp3!

Nowhere else can match this extraordinary Japanese achievement (which could be a fantastic blow struck for autonomy, or a kind of navel-gazing autism, depending on your perspective). Even in China -- confident, fast-growing China, which just took Japan's place as the world's second richest nation, and is on track to be its richest within ten years -- LastFM users are only tending to let one single measly Chinese track into their Top 10s.

Muslim Turkey stretches to three domestics, Mexico has none. Religion seems to count for more than money: the Anglosphere's cultural hegemony seems to be outlasting the financial dominance of the US, although slightly less so in Muslim countries. (Here we have to strike a note of caution, though. This is all based on data coming in via LastFM, a Western service. It's perfectly possible that Chinese music-sharing services would feature more Chinese music. Or possibly not.)

There are, of course, two nations who listen almost exclusively to music made within their own borders: the US and the UK. No, make that three, because Japan does too. Where the US and the UK differ from Japan, though, is that they export their local culture all over the world. Nobody outside Japan is listening to Japanese music. Japanese music isn't a hegemony, and Japan is not a music hub.

I must say, I find the picture that emerges from My City vs. Your City a deeply depressing -- and sadly familiar -- one. What this widget makes visible is the same one-way cultural flow I described in (Don't want to live in a) hub and spoke world and Culture flows through English channels, but not for long. In the terms used by airlines for their route maps, culture is flowing in a clear hub-and-spoke pattern, radiating out from a strong central point, rather than in a point-to-point way.

Comparing Porto in Portugal with Porto Alegre in Brazil, I'd have hoped to see a little point-to-point cultural action going on based on the fact that these two nations share a language, Portugese. But no, neither Porto nor Porto Alegre is using LastFM to listen to anything in Portugese. If they have anything in common, it's their love of Metallica and the Arctic Monkeys. You can only "fly" from Portugal to Brazil via LA or London.

Another way to look at what's going on is to say that we live in a world in which global pluralism is "asymmetrical" rather than "symmetrical". Many are not speaking to many on a level playing-field; someone is at the centre, speaking, and all the others are ranged around that "someone", listening, and mostly inaudible, even to their immediate neighbours. In the words of the Barclays Capital slogan, this is "global reach, built around you". As long as you're an Anglo-Saxon.
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2010-02-03 10:11 am

"If I commit suicide with someone, I'd like it to be you"

1. This is the trailer for a new Japanese romcom coming out in April, My Darling is a Foreigner. It looks harmless enough:

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2. The trailer made me think back to the very different -- and much less positive -- way Japanese-Westerner relationships are represented in a french film made forty years ago, Domicile Conjugal (Bed and Board), the fourth in François Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series, released in 1970.

3. The film is up on YouTube in its entirety, so I watched it again. The relevant part of the plot begins at the end of the fifth slice, when Antoine (played by the beautiful, mime-like Jean-Pierre Léaud) is visited at his absurd job (directing model ships around a pond by remote control) by a rich Japanese family; a burly businessman and his wife and daughter (both dressed in kimonos). Antoine is given the job of accompanying Kyoko, the daughter, to the bathroom. They fall -- silently, like two mimes -- for each other, and Kyoko drops her bracelet into the pond deliberately, so that Antoine will have to return it in person.

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4. Now, Domicile Conjugal is a great film -- I love Truffaut's lightness of touch, his combination of charm and realism -- but Kyoko is not a great character. As far as representations of Japanese women on the screen go, she actually makes Kissy Suzuki, the double agent in the 1967 Bond film You Only Live Twice, look well-rounded. Kyoko (played by the slightly-too-old Hiroko Berghauer, announced in the titles as "Mademoiselle Hiroko", and never seen on movie screens again) is, frankly, bizarre, a bore and a bitch; both stereotypical and weird, gracious and rude.

5. This is a romantic comedy, so stereotypes are forgivable, especially in the secondary characters. Kyoko draws on the 19th century imagery of Madame Butterfly, of course -- Antoine's wife Christine calls her that at one point, and even dresses up in a Butterfly-ish Japanese costume when she finds out about the affair. But could she also draw on the late-1960s stereotypology of Yoko Ono?

6. There are parallels. Released a year after The Beatles released their breakup single The Ballad of John and Yoko, Domicile Conjugal shows Kyoko breaking up Antoine and Christine. Christine finds out about the affair when some paper phrases -- half-Fluxus, half-Shinto -- pop out of a bouquet of flowers Kyoko has given Antoine. KYOKO LOVES ANTOINE, SHE IS CALLED KYOKO AND SHE LOVES YOU, COME WHEN YOU CAN BUT CAN SOON, SHE SAYS GOOD NIGHT AND THINKS OF ANTOINE, they say. Later, when Antoine's disinterest in Kyoko becomes too obvious, Kyoko also uses a note to tell Doinel to go fuck himself. It's written in Japanese on a piece of coloured paper, for all the world like a Yoko Ono instruction painting. ("Make three phonecalls to your wife. Return to your table. Examine my empty chair. Go fuck yourself.")

7. Kyoko is kooky, obsessional, determined, bitchy, rich, spoiled, aesthetic. She's living in France, but stays locked within her own culture, alternating kimonos with sexy black leather mini-skirts. She shares her apartment with Maki, a Japanese roommate Kyoko pretty much throws out onto the street when she wants to seduce Antoine over dinner. Sexually predatory, she lunges (amidst spooky pseudo-oriental music by Antoine Duhamel) to kiss Doinel when he delivers her lost bracelet.

8. Kyoko's Japanese lifestyle presents little interest or pleasure to Antoine. Although we see him lying in bed with Christine reading a tome entitled Japanese Women, Kyoko's apartment -- scattered with floor cushions, decorated with wind-chimes, ukiyo-e prints, a huge low-hanging paper lantern, and a groovy1970-style kotatsu table -- presents him only with discomfort (he keeps his shoes on and can't find a comfortable sitting position), and the Japanese food she serves seems to hold more horror than delight for him.

9. Kyoko soon begins to frighten Antoine with weird, fanatical utterances: "If I commit suicide with someone," she tells him, "I'd like it to be you" (this statement is followed by a dramatic chord on the soundtrack, part samurai movie, part horror film). When she isn't suggesting self-harm, Kyoko is boring Antoine to death by sitting silently, spinning meals out longer than he can bear, making him smile silently so long he gets lockjaw. Soon he escapes back to his wife.

10. Now, I very much doubt that My Darling is a Foreigner will trade in imagery anywhere near as negative and xenophobic as this. Imagine the Japanese film showing its American character as a kooky, unscrupulous fanatic, and the trans-cultural relationship as boring and doomed! From the trailer, it seems that the script of My Darling is a Foreigner concentrates, instead, on the happy couple's righteous struggle to overcome the prejudices of elderly family members.

11. My Darling is a Foreigner is clearly a nicer film, gentler in its treatment of its characters, and much more like the kind of scenario we'd all like to be living out in our cross-cultural relationships. I very much doubt, however, whether it's a better film; despite its unkindness to Kyoko and its very old-fashioned pessimism about cross-cultural relationships, Truffaut's film is artistically very strong indeed.

12. But Truffaut, with his portrayal of Kyoko, may have muddied his image in Japan. All the Japanese people I know love Godard; now I think about it, I've never heard one mention Truffaut. If they talk about Jean-Pierre Léaud, it's for his role in La Chinoise, or the darker, more complex, more obscure films of Jean Eustache.
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2010-02-02 09:17 am

Look! A kitten! At Motto!

(Assumes David Shrigley-esque voice). Things that are popular on the internet:

1. Naked attractive people.
2. Cute kittens, jumping.
3. Opportunities to call strangers "asshole" and "douchebag".

89,374. The sort of things that Momus writes about on his blog, like arty bookshops in Berlin.

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As a matter of fact I was planning to write today about an arty bookshop in Berlin, Motto, knowing full well that almost nobody would pay any attention whatsoever, and preparing to console myself with an insight of the Dalai Lama: "If a practitioner thinks I hope people admire what I'm doing, expecting to receive praise for the great effort he is making... these are mundane concerns that spoil one's practice, and it is important to ensure that this does not happen so we keep our practice pure."

But then something remarkable happened. As I was browsing at Motto, making notes of interesting things they stock -- a book called L'Humanisme de Michel Foucault quirkily illustrated by Isabelle Boinot (whose work is really quite reminiscent of Shrigley's), some short stories art critic Jeff Rian wrote about Paris for Purple magazine (Purple Years, which in fact you can download for free as a PDF file here), a book by Margot Zanni about film locations rather excellently designed by Swiss designer Corinne Zellweger (it made me want to produce a much more illustrated and designed book next time), a British magazine called The Mock which proclaims, in its second edition, that anecdote is the new theory (you can read the issue free online here), and the gorgeously-designed (by Zak Kyes, natch) Exhibition Prosthetics co-published by Bedford Press and Sternberg -- I was suddenly attacked by a small black kitten.

Akiko Watanabe, who runs Motto, has just acquired this captivating beast -- a white-pawed small black cat, two months old, with huge pupils and a miniaturised instinct to murder. For this kitten (I didn't discover its name), Motto's piles of arty, gorgeous, intelligent and obscure books are nothing more than rocky outcrops in a tiny landscape, a "killing fields" populated by "mice" and "birds" evoked by a playful customer's wriggling, darting hands. For the kitten, a free handout advertising an art event, rattled in the air overhead, is enough to make a half-convincing sparrow.

Like a masturbating internet-user or the audience at a Keiji Haino concert (I saw one last night), the kitten is willing to suspend its disbelief in the interests of having a more exciting and fulfilling life. Yes, that's almost a real naked woman on my screen! Yes, Haino really is flexing, thrashing and swishing his blond mane around in an orgiastic access of Bacchic excess, and not faking or formularising it! Yes, that really is a sparrow, flying around the shop at such a low height that I could plausibly catch, kill and eat it, staining my furry black kitten lips with warm, red bird blood!

While the kitten calculated this, I was calculating myself. "If I make a short video of this kitten," I reasoned, "I could post it to YouTube, and in no time at all rack up something like eight million views. Because kittens -- along with Magibon not even bothering to hide her product placement -- are what YouTube users love more than anything else!" Then, I calculated, I could simply add the URL for Motto Distribution and I'd be transforming the Motto kitten into a very successful and effective viral sock puppet ad.

What would be in it for me? Well, I'd find a populist peg to hang an unpopular blog entry on, for a start. Look, a kitten! But also, by making a free viral ad for Motto, I'd lessen my guilt about the freeloading way I tend to use the store myself: browsing the interesting paper publications Akiko has curated, noting the most intriguing names and URLs, then going home and downloading free PDFs and JPGs of the stuff off the internet. Look, everyone! A kitten! At Motto!
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2010-02-01 12:16 pm

The undiscovered continent needs a festival!

1. Although you, my dear Click Opera readers, will never know the 50-year-old Momus "directly" (I'll have slung my blog hook by the time I turn that corner), this unlikely person is arriving, and imminently. I wonder what it will be like to be such a farcically old age? I read in today's Guardian, in an interview with Martin Amis, that there's a "thickening out" of life that comes after 50 – "there is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being," he says in The Pregnant Widow, "like an undiscovered continent." The exact nature of this "thickening out" and this "undiscovered continent" isn't made explicit; I suppose you have to buy The Pregnant Widow to find out, or turn 50 yourself.

2. Stephen Moss also says, in the same article: "Amis is fascinated by the way he has changed since what he admits was a midlife crisis in the early 90s. At its simplest, he has discovered the purity of love, love without ego... Women, trophies to the early Amis, have become redeemers." Which all sounds very nice, but we need more detail. Or something else: a ritual!

3. Yesterday I posted a photo to my Facebook page and captioned it "I've decided to enjoy my midlife crisis". Someone called Aki Tudor commented: "Just don't get a red Porsche:)". You could say that Aki's response -- to reach for the stereotype of the red Porsche or Ferrari as a recognised sign for substitute testosterone, a kind of symbolic Hormone Replacement Therapy -- is so conventional that it's almost ritualistic. Repeat this kind of formula enough and it becomes a reflex refrain, like shouting "Bless you!" when someone sneezes.

4. An Anon wrote yesterday on Click Opera: "A side note: it is funny that puberty seems to mean a lot on nature's terms but nothing in legality's terms." That made me think of how, just as we're always creating new taboos, we're also always creating new festivals. Sometimes it takes an artist to "design" them.

5. The artist Chad McCail created a new rite in a screenprint published by Edinburgh Printmakers. It's called Relationships Grow Stronger, and -- rather in the manner of my Book of Scotlands -- it imagines a parallel world where things are done differently.

6. Here's how Chad McCail explained the print for "This is part of some local event that the people round about have created to mark the fact that these children, who are all about the same age, are becoming adults. It's marking their passage from childhood to adulthood; they've become fertile, they now have serious responsibilities, they can create children. And they're not fudging it, they want everyone to acknowledge that this is happening. And of course we do fudge it. We don't talk about it, we don't mark it, we don't like to acknowledge that it's happening, really. And that's difficult for children, so I wanted to make a picture where maybe it was being acknowledged." McCail's picture shows a tree outside a suburban house, garlanded with model penises and vaginas, a sort of sexual Christmas tree.

7. I thought of McCail's print on the second Monday in January. We'd been late getting away from Onomichi, and I was tired after a couple of hours piloting the Daihatsu Naked up the expressway towards Kansai. Out on the freeway it's every man for himself; headlights, tunnels, passengers sleeping, sipping coffee from a pet bottle to stay alert. When we arrived in Kobe, I didn't notice them at first: girls in kimonos, brilliant as humming birds, swarming around the railway stations. Yoyo, waking and rising from the back seat, explained: today was a national holiday, Coming of Age Day, Seijin No Hi. It's a festival in which everybody who'll turn 20 this year dresses up and drinks at one of the big parties held to celebrate their ability to drink, and vote, and smoke.

8. Although Seijin No Hi doesn't feature penises and vaginas balanced on Sexual Christmas Trees, it is at least halfway towards Chad McCail's vision of a parallel world in which the "seasonal" changes in human life are socially recognised and pleasantly ritualised. For me, coming to a pleasant halt (it was impossible to drive through the crowds of excited young people, asserting their newfound power over passing motor traffic) in the centre of Kobe was a magical and mood-lifting experience. After the weary modern tension of the expressway, I felt the ritual celebration take me somewhere else: somewhere youthful yet timeless, thronging and joyful, dense and urban yet pre-modern. As if the energy of youth culture had been harnessed to some kind of primal-aristocratic court culture obsessed with the fragile beauty of transition. As if adults and children -- and individuals and society -- were looking at each other with shared knowledge.

9. Seijin No Hi reminded me of what a successful society Japan is. Japan succeeds, at moments like these, for the same reasons Chad McCail shows the West failing. We fail because we make important life-seasonal transitions secretive, leaving them for individuals to discover and cope with in solitude (perhaps with the aid of therapy or art or the occasional parental lecture) rather than providing something as joyful as a festival or ritual for it.

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10. Watching BBC4 documentary The Waughs, Fathers and Sons last night, I noted a similar theme, again to do with coming of age. Part 3 begins with a letter Victorian patriarch Arthur Waugh wrote to Alec, his son, who'd been caught wanking in the chapel at Sherborne School. "Every time seed is lost from the body, the backbone is slightly affected," Arthur wrote. "If one feels weaker after a natural loss, it follows that a forced loss of seed, such as self-abuse entails, is much more mischievous. It is indeed a deadly danger, because it undermines the very seat of life. The result of self-abuse, if carried on persistently, is first weakness of body and mind, and finally paralysis and softening of the brain."

11. "But I suppose, in a way, it was rather wonderful of a father brought up in the Victorian age even to be writing to his son at all about this sort of thing," says Alexander Waugh, who agrees with his grandfather Evelyn that the worst thing is "being brought up in the dark". Perhaps... but a luminous ritual or a festival might have saved them all the embarrassment.

12. I'm off now to invent some "turning 50" rituals. Let's see, what did David Bowie do? Didn't he dress up like a Tibetan and ask younger singers to do his songs? The thing is, you can't just invent a single ritual, or even a single festival. You have to invent a whole surrounding culture to depersonalise, dignify and perpetuate your rite of spring, your welcome to autumn, your Whitsun Weddings. If it's not cultural, it's just a party.
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2010-01-31 12:46 pm

The nihilism of cold

Seven months ago, while holidaying in Athens, I made an argument about The nihilism of heat. Citing solid empirical data from reputable sources like Camus' The Outsider, Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Greene's The Power and the Glory, I stated that there was little doubt that a clear, demonstrable link existed between heat and nihilism. In the light of chilling new evidence, I want to revise that statement.

To recap my argument: A sense of rationality and fairness prevails where it's cold. Human life is worth more, and humane values flourish. "In cooler, more northern countries a fundamental sense of fairness informs the idea that sidewalks are for pedestrians," I wrote. As a result of this, traffic accidents are less common and less dangerous where it's cold, I claimed.

I want to change my mind. It's not that I was wrong about the nihilism of heat, or the cultural connection between hot places and a certain moral insouciance. It's that I didn't give the whole picture. There's a nihilism of cold too.

Let's start with the traffic stats. Sure, in general there are fewer accidents in more northerly countries. But when it gets cold and icy, when road and pavement alike are white, accidents happen. The BBC reports that "heavy snow and high winds have caused traffic chaos across Germany with at least three deaths reported nationwide. Conditions closed some motorways and caused long traffic jams on many others. Public transport in some areas has been shut down and police have advised people not to travel if possible." In these conditions, even getting into your car is dangerous. Let's not even talk about the slithery time I had on my bike yesterday as I traversed treacherous ice and snow to see the new exhibitions at NGBK and Kunstraum Kreuzberg. I'm lucky to be alive.

In sweaty Athens I may have painted too rosy a picture of the thrillingly chilly life of winter, evoking freedom organised with Scandinavian efficiency and cheerful fishermen reeling the umpteenth plump fish up through their ice holes. But how could anything other than nihilism and despair greet the news that snow and temperatures of minus forty have killed over a million livestock in Mongolia this winter, and threaten to grip the Mongolian people in a downward spiral of hunger and poverty?

It's not that I was wrong about nihilism and heat, it's that this winter has shown me there's a nihilism of cold too. I could cite all sorts of Russian literature to "prove" this with literary "data" and establish a correlation between extremes of temperature and states of the soul. But, to be quite frank, I can't be arsed. My fingers are too cold to turn the pages. The ink in my pen is a black solid, and my computer keyboard is sputtering out. It's minus ten here today, and I'm stocking up on orphans to feed the brazier.
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2010-01-30 12:34 pm

Web 2.0? Job 2.0!

Web 2.0? It's more like Job 2.0 sometimes. Have you updated your Flickr page? Put a witty new status update on Facebook? Have you responded to the 29 invites awaiting your attention there? They come from real people, you know! And hey, your editor wants to connect with you via Linkedin! Then there's the blog... Are there enough hours in the day?

Well, there might be if I just give you a Flickr slideshow today of some (only half so far) of my Japan trip photos (annotations on the Flickr page), accompanied by a rough scratch mp3 of some of the sounds I encountered on my travels (including Oorutaichi and Doddodo concerts)!

Japanscratch (7.5MB stereo mp3 file, 23 mins 41 secs)

Play them together!
imomus: (Default)
2010-01-29 10:17 am

Crap is a load of books

1. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 1951

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2. Don't read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who's yellow and keeps the store
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.

Philip Larkin, A Study Of Reading Habits, 1955

3. You can read lives and obituaries of Salinger and all that Wikipedia crap elsewhere; I'm interested in the word "crap". It sits like a sprung trap right there in the first sentence of The Catcher in the Rye, the first word that really establishes the tone, the snare that catches our attention. If, in the glib formula, Salinger really did "invent the teenager", it's that surly, dismissive, deliberately anti-literary use of "crap" which starts the process. Like Prometheus making a man out of mud, Salinger creates the teenager from "crap".

4. So the teenager gets born with a jibe at poor old Charles Dickens, and poor young David Copperfield! It's understandable; by 1951 it was as important for a new writer to distance himself from the 19th century novel as it was for a teenager to distance himself from a pre-teen, or for an American writer to distance himself from a British one.

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5. No reciprocal need was felt. British writers, post-war, weren't as interested in rejecting American idioms and models as the Americans were in rejecting theirs. In fact, British and American writers were more likely to find common cause in their embrace of a new informality, a new escape from the "fusty" literary past, and a couple of swift kicks at the dead shin of Dickens.

6. And so -- not for the first or last time -- a British artist makes the exact same gesture as an American one, a couple of years later. Larkin -- like Salinger, adopting, as a literary technique, a non-literary voice and a persona -- tells us that "books are a load of crap". Later, also following Salinger (who has Holden report some "fuck you" graffiti in chapter 25 of Catcher), Larkin will unfurl his own f-word, telling us that "they fuck you up, your mum and dad".

7. They seem unlikely rebels, the preppy Jewish recluse from New England and the bald Hull librarian. They bring swearing into literature almost against their will; Larkin tells John Betjeman, in the 1964 BBC Monitor documentary that peppers this page: "I read that I'm a miserable sort of fellow writing a sort of Welfare State sub-poetry, doing it well, perhaps, but it isn't really what poetry is, and it isn't really the sort of poetry we want. But I wonder if it ever occurs to the writer of criticism like that that really one agrees with them. That what one writes is based so much on the kind of person one is, and the kind of environment one's had, and has now, that one doesn't really choose the poetry one writes, one writes the kind of poetry one has to write."

8. In other words, these were not radical writers who loved swearing and could sing the praises of what Ken Tynan (the first man to use it on TV) called "the sweet word fuck". They were rather cautious conservatives with strong misgivings about the modern world, but men who nevertheless believed so strongly in literature's empirical duty to reflect reality that they had no choice but to use in literature the sweary words that people use on the streets.

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9. The shock for readers wasn't so much in encountering words like "crap" and "fuck" as seeing them printed on a page published by a reputable and legitimate publishing house. The sword cut both ways: literature got some street cred, but swearing also received a literary blessing of sorts.

10. And with that mutually-beneficial exchange the whole game began to shift, and the values to invert. When I read The Catcher in the Rye in the 1970s it was already a literary antique, its street slang ("crumby", "phoney", "lousy") faintly quaint. The cutting edge quickly became more recent, more radical American authors like Kathy Acker. Far from disparaging Dickens, Kathy Acker sat down and rewrote Great Expectations, appropriating him word-for-word in a section headed "Plagiarism" then quickly branching out into her own tale.

11. In Acker's version of Great Expectations, published in 1982, "literary" and "street" reach a new settlement. You could say that Acker skips the 1950s empirical-street-literary model and goes back to the biggest, baddest European rebel writer of the 1940s, Jean Genet.

12. And this is where I have to chime in and say that I'm with Acker and Genet, rather than Salinger and Larkin. In a world in which informal has become the new formal, jeans and rock are the universal signifiers of normative respectability, couture kowtows to pret and the street is the new salon, the "subversive" thing to do is to resurrect and re-invent the maligned category of "the literary". My Book of Jokes (which has a chapter featuring the characters from Genet's play The Blacks) adopts -- as Genet did -- a deliberately high-flown literary tone all the better to contrast the obscenities and street smut it trades in.

13. As for Dickens and his "David Copperfield crap", I'm interested in getting closer to it. Dickens is actually a key part of the "signature specification" for my next novel, codenamed Super-Empathy.

14. The informal, empirical "street" tradition isn't dead, though. Writers can still shock us by putting clumsy everyday things into published books. Since the new street is the internet, the author currently doing this most shockingly -- and best -- is Tao Lin, who filled Shoplifting from American Apparel with apparently-inconsequential Google Chats. If you want today's J.D. Salinger, look no further.

15. Have a listen to Chris Harrald's radio play Mr Larkin's Awkward Day on BBC iPlayer. It isn't crap.
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2010-01-28 09:19 am

Portrait of the artist as a young snob

We're coming to the end of our time together, dear Click Opera readers, and it strikes me that there's a huge amount you don't know about me. Really basic stuff, too; the kind of thing that would be in the first couple of chapters of an autobiography. Just how major, traumatic and formative an event it was for me, for instance, to be transported from Athens (where my family had been posted by the British Council) to boarding school in Scotland at the age of ten. I spent three years in an Edinburgh Academy boarding house, wishing profoundly I were somewhere else.

I remember two things I said back then, one to my friend Thomson and one to myself. To Thomson I compared Edinburgh with Athens and called the Scottish capital "a cluster of shacks on the horizon". Now, this wasn't true at all; Edinburgh holds up well against Athens, objectively speaking. But it expressed my need for a here / elsewhere binary in which the elsewhere had the starring role. I was a Romantic, a little Lord Byron. I even started telling some of the boys I was Greek, not Scottish. I loosened my Scottish accent, adding some Thames Estuary vowels just to confuse people.

The other thing I remember saying -- to myself this time -- is: "I will be try to be less influenced by my surroundings". In Mackenzie House I was very aware of the pressure to conform -- to use the same slang as the other boys, to mimic their jokes, to read what they read and listen to what they were listening to. In some instances I let my resistance crumble; in the padded music rehearsal rooms and up in the Senior Common Room I was introduced to T. Rex and David Bowie, and saw no good reason to block them out.

But I very much wanted to hold myself apart from the culture that surrounded and threatened to engulf me. Books provided the secret, premonitory, consolatory world I could escape into: Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood, Eliot's The Wasteland, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. If the bildungsroman offered an idealised portrait of myself, the political dystopia could mirror the "total institution" I was living in rather well, and offer methods -- more or less successful -- for resisting it.

Boarding school convinced me that males (the other boys and the masters) were ultraviolent bullies or vulgar clowns. They had power over me, but didn't have my best interests at heart. They were often out-of-touch; the housemaster, for instance, knew what a transistor radio was, but not what a cassette tape recorder was. When he caught me, down in the changing room one day, listening to a tape, I explained that the school rules banned radios but said nothing about tape recorders. "It's a radio!" said Quack Mendl, and confiscated it, just as he'd confiscated my American army cap, my copy of The Little Red Schoolbook, the Hair songbook, and even Roget's Thesaurus. He caught me reading that after lights out one evening by torchlight under the blankets. (Yes, I read the Thesaurus for pleasure. Yes, I was weird.)

Something else I resisted from an early age was relaxed, American-style populism. It made me shudder to hear The Beatles singing "yeah, yeah, yeah". The proper word was obviously "Yes". "Yeah" seemed vulgar and cravenly opportunistic to me, a caving-in to Americanism. It was the same with "Hi". Why couldn't people say "Hello" instead? If people said "Hi" to me I answered "Hello" back. As for television, it's just as well my parents forbade us to watch the commercial channel, ITV. It would have horrified me with its familiar vulgarities.

Where am I going with this? Oh, I remember now. I wanted to talk about the internet, and how odd it is that I still, quite often, want to take a hot shower after exposing myself to it. How could that be? Surely the internet is a place where you determine your own "programming"? No longer do you have to say "I will be less influenced by my surroundings"; on the web, your surroundings are whatever you make them. No longer do you have to practice subtle tactics of evasion; what you click on is entirely up to you. If you "watch" life-cheapening rubbish on the internet, there's no condescending programmer to blame, no idiotic audience of undiscriminating morons dragging everything down to the lowest common denominator. You chose this stuff. The moron is you.

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So why do I know more than I want to know about the feud between Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien? How did Apple manage to make me so excited about a new product announcement? Why did I read stories about a comedian called Andy Dick, and watch the above video of him pissing on someone called Steve-O? Why did I read the entire saga of the feud between Alan McGee and Drowned in Sound?

It seems that I need vulgarity. I'm fascinated by it. The things I disapprove of define me as much as the things I approve of. Sure, I could spend all my internet time reading my digital copy of The Wire, watching the films on ("all avant garde, all the time"), or listening to Arte Radio. But, even given the opportunity to be my own curator, my own programmer, I throw in some stuff that's compellingly appalling, some stuff I love to hate. Otherwise, what would there be to rebel against? How could I enjoy my trek to the cultural high ground? What would be the point in showering?
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2010-01-27 12:33 pm

Comrade Pim is a good man

1. Outside, ice glazed the dark jagged rocks, but in the small mining hut lit by fluorescent tubes, decorated with old newspaper pages and heated by three blue kerosene stoves, a dozen of us clinked soju glasses. We ate spiced cabbage and ginger pork, drank the fierce, raw rice liquor, and shouted, sang and laughed until the windows were beaded with condensation.

2. I'm interested in the aesthetics of empathy. I find it easier to project empathically on Eastern people than Western, on poor people than rich, on people from other cultures rather than people from my own, and on people from the past rather than people from the present.

3. The images punctuating this page come from the wonderful NHK documentary The Silk Road (1980), in which a Japanese team -- helped by Chinese soldiers and officials -- travels to inaccessible sites along the Silk Road. Music is by Kitaro, a sort of one-man Japanese Tangerine Dream.

4. I've been watching hour-long segments from The Silk Road all week. Some of the commentary sounds like propaganda -- this was a Japanese-Chinese co-production made in a time when China was still very much communist. The script has clearly been vetted to eradicate any reference to tensions between the Chinese and Japanese, and to make Chinese achievements (like the "Happiness Railway" simulated in film 9, and actually activated before its completion by the Chinese government specifically for the NHK documentary) look good.

5. I don't mind that something is propaganda, in other words is an obvious lie. It can still serve my purposes, for instance embody a kind of plot in which cynicism and negativity has been completely, consciously excluded. It matters less whether something is true or false than whether it takes me somewhere.

6. "A toast to Comrade Pim!" called a colleague dressed in blue jacket and grey cap. "Without him, we could never have discovered the magnificent copper seam!" "To Pim, the model worker!" came the cry from a dozen throats.

7. During last year's Asian Women's Film Festival, the North Korean films fascinated me. I was very interested in how the machinery of plot works when you remove all negativity. I was particularly interested in plots which worked to establish the self-effacing goodness of a character, then showed this character passing due respect on to someone even more benign, diligent, indigent and self-sacrificing. Insofar as conflict drove these plots, it was the conflict of two people insisting on each other's greater worthiness.

8. I demurred, smiling, and held up a hand for silence. "It is our collective diligence that has achieved this breakthrough," I said. "Who built the tunnels that I crawled along to make my lucky discovery?" Comrade Jun smiled and looked at the floor. "Who operated the lift that brought us to the place where fresh copper was just waiting to be discovered?" Comrade Bu grinned bashfully. "And who toiled at ground level in always-difficult circumstances, maintaining the camp in this inhospitable place?" Here Comrade Pi ruffled his own hair, as if in confusion.

9. In a way, altruistic virtue is our society's final taboo. I was interested to read an entry on my Friends List today entitled I am not the weirdo here. Lucy, who wrote this blog, reports that a friend criticized her recently, saying: "You're just too nice. You think people are essentially good and decent." Lucy went on to say she made no apology for being nice, or believing the best of people.

10. "Nevertheless," cried out the foreman, "this great achievement, which came at enormous physical cost to yourself, Comrade Pim, and in the face of great risk, will be reported to the chairman of the mining committee, and he will report it to the local party chief, who will in turn send an electric dispatch to Victory City, where word of this will surely reach the Dear Leader himself!"

11. I assembled a counter-argument in my mind, something I might tell Lucy. What if we weren't simply looking at the dimension of Good - Evil, but also of Boring - Interesting? Might goodness fall on the wrong side of that sometimes, the boring side? Had Lucy read Blake's hellish proverbs ("Energy is eternal delight!")? Had she read Sade's Justine? Or even seen Brecht's plays, with their message that niceness is a luxury most people cannot afford yet? What about TS Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, with its very Christian awareness of the temptations of martyrdom and sainthood, its caution about spiritual pride?

12. It's not nice to hate, but what if the nice hate the interesting for not being nice enough, and the interesting hate the nice for being boring?

13. Adam Curtis, in his Century of the Self, showed how Cold War games played at the Rand Corporation fed into a Cold War mindset (you can see it in James Bond, The Man from UNCLE, and a thousand other places) of slick mistrust based on the calculability of mutually-assured destruction. He showed that the most dangerous thing, in the eyes of the architects of post-war paranoia, was the altruistic public servant, someone motivated by something other than self-interest. Altruism actually fucks up the economic self-interest and gamesmanship models by making individuals act on the behalf of others.

14. And all glasses were raised to the framed, faded photograph of the Dear Leader, whose eyes seemed to twinkle, now orange, now blue, in the light of the kerosene stove.

15. I'm interested in the challenge of writing (of me writing!) about "old-fashioned" values like altruism, diligence, honour, responsibility, virtue, trustworthiness and empathy. But a devil on my shoulder whispers: "And what if virtue is simply the behaviour -- a sort of non-behaviour -- of those who lack the imagination or the courage to get into trouble? What if nice people are simply too wishy-washy, cautious and conformist to be assholes?"
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2010-01-26 09:26 am

The incredible iPad

As the tech-savvy amongst you will know, Apple is set to make a major new product announcement tomorrow at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Most observers have guessed that Steve Jobs will be unveiling Apple's new tablet computer, and I can confirm that this is indeed the case.

How do I know? Because, since early December, I've been one of a tiny group of privileged iPad beta-testers. The day before I left for Japan, a high-security van -- the kind normally used for delivering cash to banks -- drew up at my house, and I signed for a package about the size of a pizza box, elegantly decorated with splashes of paint, the Apple logo, and the word "iPad". I also had to sign a non-revelation agreement, but since the final date for my period of public silence was listed as January 25th (Apple originally planned to unveil the iPad today), I'm free to speak now. This will all become public knowledge tomorrow anyway.

So, where to begin? The first thing to say is what an incredible machine! If I hadn't been using this gadget myself for the past two months, I truly wouldn't believe its specification possible. Imagine an iPod Touch with a ten-inch screen, running Mac OSX 10.5, and featuring a powerful projector that lets you blow up whatever's on the screen to a bright wall-projection which can rival, for resolution and brilliance, a cinema showing a 70mm film print.

Above you see me using the iPad as a Kindle (the text on the screen is The Book of Jokes), but its abilities so outstrip Amazon's device that it's not even funny. The Apple iPad, for instance, not only shows you the text of a book, but reads it to you. It also has what Apple calls "active catch-up"; if you lose your place in the book, or need a recap, or don't understand the plot, the iPad (in a soothing voice supplied by critic Frank Kermode) gets you up to speed, reminding you what's been happening, and what everything means. It's the semantic version of GPS: you need never be lost in a text again!

But that's just the beginning of the iPad's capabilities. It doesn't stop at reading; this machine can write too! I don't just mean via its touch-screen keyboard (though that's a vast improvement on the stabby, haphazard typing experience of the iPhone / iPod, of course). No, the iPad can actually compose. At the touch of a button marked "create text", the machine will generate any text required, from a blog entry to a technical report, a novel or a poem. Apple has developed a system of "predictive semantics" which learns as it goes along, so it pays to write a few things by your own hand first, just so the machine can get a grasp of your style and your recurrent concerns. After a month or so watching me write, the iPad grasped that I love to use the literary technique known as "lying"; to be honest, it's writing this entry for me now.

There are other powers hidden in the incredible iPad that you probably won't believe until you get your hands on one yourself; for instance, if you can tuck your bum onto the ten-inch tablet and hit the right button, the tablet computer readily transforms into a cross between a hovercraft and a flying carpet. You know how I claimed to have flown to and from Japan via a Finnair Airbus A330? Well, I can now reveal that I went on the iPad, whooshing merrily along a mile or so above Siberia. It was cold, but beggars -- and beta testers -- can't be choosers.

As for the repercussions of all this, we'll have to wait and see how they unfold when the machine goes public. Apple is anticipating big sales; they expect to build ten million iPads in the first year alone. Not everybody will be happy if this machine succeeds, though; travel agents and airlines, literary critics and authors -- not to mention cinema chains -- will all be joining Amazon and Microsoft, crossing their fingers and hoping fervently that each and every Apple iPad crashes, sooner than later, into a mountain.
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2010-01-25 10:13 am

Neato: the literal video meme

Take a look at this video, in which a man called Dustin McLean (Dusto McNeato) has resung the Tears For Fears track Head Over Heels so that the lyrics reflect the actions in the video:

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Now, Dusto has done a neato job here. Not only is his parody executed excellently (it really does sound like Orzabal singing the absurd actions of the video as they happen around him), it's a classic piece of Web 2.0 satire, or even art; something that couldn't really have existed -- and certainly not at this amateur level -- before the existence of YouTube and cheap video editing tools. Dusto has noticed something interesting about pop music: the fact that the concepts in the video are very different from the concepts in the lyrics. Video ideas are often a lot more eccentric and creative, whereas lyrical ideas usually reflect normative, conservative and "universal" sentiments. Here's the original, for contrast:

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To put that another way, when a universal theme (such as being "head over heels" in love) has given a pop song commercial viability via an appeal to reproductive normativity (heterosexual reproduction, the contractual language of love and marriage), a certain kind of delirious excess and eccentricity can be permitted in the video, which can become -- as if to offset the slightly humdrum normality in the lyric -- thoroughly carnivalesque. It's almost as if the zany and expensive goings-on in the video conform to Bataille's idea in The Accursed Share that humans have an underlying need to conspicuously waste money and resources -- an impulse at least as strong as their need to manage their affairs and reproduce genetically in an orderly fashion.

By shepherding this carnivalesque absurdity back into the lyric of the song, Dusto McNeato creates a highly interesting parallel world where the distinction between normality and the carnivalesque is erased, as is the time-lag between "writing the song" and "making the video of the song". In Dusto's version, Orzabal is singing, apparently, his spontaneous reactions to the events happening to him in real time.

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Dusto (a Current TV employee credited by Wikipedia as the inventor of the literal music video, circa October 2008) also erases the distinction between the distinct creative brains of songwriter Roland Orzabal and video director Nigel Dick, and deletes the distance between "what you're hearing" and "what you're seeing" -- a disjunct we're so used to in pop videos that we don't notice it any more.

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In other literal videos by Dustin McLean we see a bit more satire, and diminishing returns; the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Under the Bridge becomes a satire on Anthony Keidis' pectoral vanity, Billy Idol's White Wedding is already so self-parodic it's hardly worth the trouble to take it further, Beck's Loser has unfortunately had its literal video squelched by Universal Music. Aha's Take On Me is enfeebled by the fact that the song and the original video are just as silly (and as hetero-normative) as each other, and a spoken dialogue concerning a fight over a "Magic Frame" gets a bit plot-heavy (though the line about "getting an assful of pipe-wrench" amuses some viewers).

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But let's return to the best literal video, the one for Head Over Heels. According to Wikipedia's page about the original song, "the promotional clip for "Head over Heels", filmed in June 1985, was the fourth Tears for Fears clip directed by famed music video producer Nigel Dick. It is centered around Roland Orzabal's attempts to get the attention of a librarian (played by a Canadian model), while a variety of characters (many played by the rest of the band) take part in shenanigans in the library. The final scene shows Orzabal and the librarian as an older married couple. The video was filmed at the Emmanuel College Library in Toronto, Canada."

I can't dissociate the appeal of the 1985 clothes, hairstyles and spectacle frames from my fascination with this clip; 1985 is bang in the middle of the revival period I called, in The anxious interval, "the goldmine". The parody is also fuelled by the appeal of the original Tears For Fears song, whose lyrics seem particularly opaque, silly and meaningless to me (why is the narrator "dreaming he's a doctor", and why is it "hard to be a man when there's a gun in your hand", and why does "nothing ever change when you're acting your age"?), but whose topline melody, chords and hooks are sort of gorgeous.

Dustin's observations here are, in fact, rather neato, as an ongoing commentary on 1985: he has Orzabal note to the librarian "you have really big glasses", and then confess that he stole the flying index cards idea from Ghostbusters, which came out in 1984. It's as if a cultural historian had turned his commentary on a pop video into a song, or actually become one of the characters in the song himself. It's as if -- in the manner of David Foster Wallace or Alasdair Gray -- footnotes had become part of the text itself. Web 2.0, Postmodernism 1.0!

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The literal video hasn't become as viral as other Web 2.0 micro-forms, partly because it's actually rather hard to do well, and because nobody can quite touch the originator. Tom Vondoom's Safety Dance is okay, but isn't very well sung, loses points for lines like "this is really gay", and has only scored a tenth of McNeato's views. Fever103's Sweet Dreams veers too wildly between literal commentary and far-fetched interpretation, with some strained, lame and vulgar fart and zit jokes thrown in:

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Birdhouse in Your Soul fails as parody, since the original They Might Be Giants song and video were already unbearably whacky and random:

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Deshem's take on James Blunt's You're Beautiful is much better: he strips everything back to Neato's original formula (just sing the actions) and achieves a Beckettian minimalism which made me chuckle quite a bit:

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2010-01-24 11:36 am

Made in Berlin

Today's entry complements and balances yesterday's, which looked at the downside to Berlin. Today I want to look (a little more personally) at the city's upside, and to ask, in passing, a question about geographic determinism: whether we're mere chameleons who take our colours from our surroundings. Underpinning this inner conversation is the question of whether I could do all the things I do in Berlin in Osaka instead. Whether, in other words, Momus is portable and platform-independent.

In the few days I've been back in Berlin, a couple of Berlin-specific work projects have come in. The Wire magazine asked me to review the upcoming Club Transmediale -- "Berlin’s unique Festival for Adventurous Music and Related Visual Arts" featuring "performances by exciting contemporary artists from undefined convergence zones between out-pop, experimental music, noise, art and media technologies". Then the Volksbuehne theatre asked me to stage an evening of performance art at a new event called Baron Saturday at the Roter Salon. My evening will be called Exploding Beowulf and will happen on March 27th.

Now, it would be easy to say that I, and I alone, came up with the adventurous idea of staging an exploded-diagram version of my song Beowulf (I Am Deformed) in which we separate the choreography from the story, interview the monster Grendel, project slides of the wounds and deformities listed in the song, play out alternative endings to the Beowulf story, and so on. It would be more accurate to say that I came up with the idea in response to curator Maximilian Haas' encouragement to put on an event somewhere between music and performance art. And, more generally, it would be safe to say that the city of Berlin (with its radical institutions, its semi-official taste for experiment) coaxed the idea of Exploding Beowulf out of me. "You can go a little further," Berlin seemed to whisper in my ear, "be a little weirder. We like that. We'll pay for that. In fact, if you don't do something like that, we won't pay you and you won't be able to eat at Yam Yam any more."

I recently ended an interview by quoting Kafka's line about "this tremendous world I have inside my head". That's the Romantic view of the artist: that wherever he roams he has this world inside him, fully-formed, just waiting to be birthed. Actually, I'm not so sure. I know myself to feel, and to operate, very differently in different cities. Here, have a read of this interesting essay by Paul Graham, Cities and Ambition. I was tipped in its direction by a piece on The Null Device sparked by the Click Opera entry about Osaka.

Paul Graham wonders whatever happened to the Milanese Leonardo. "Practically every fifteenth century Italian painter you've heard of was from Florence, even though Milan was just as big," he writes. "People in Florence weren't genetically different, so you have to assume there was someone born in Milan with as much natural ability as Leonardo. What happened to him? If even someone with the same natural ability as Leonardo couldn't beat the force of environment, do you suppose you can?"

This sounds like a sort of geographic determinism, but I think there's something in it. The Milanese Leonardo would have left Milan and settled in Florence, attracted by the work being done there, the congregation of like-minds, the buzz and hype resounding around Italy. I did very much the same, moving to London, then other cities, lured by the fact that art and culture offered more possibilities there than they did in my native Scotland. Momus as you know it is a product not just of "the tremendous world I have inside my head", but also the media industries, curators, gallerists, record label bosses, publishers, journalists and other cultural facilitators who made it possible for that world to spill out. They even, to some extent, determined the shape, form and texture of that spill. My life's work is the result of a continuous negotiation between me, these facilitating people, and the cities they were based in.

I'm not saying that I, Momus the artist, don't exist. I'm not saying that I couldn't exist in, say, Osaka (a city where, at the moment, I have no facilitating cultural contacts). What I'm saying is that my work has changed according to context -- according to who let me make it, what their agenda was, and what city we were in at the time. In Cities and Ambition Paul Graham is good on the theme of city-as-agenda: for him, an ambitious city can't really have more than one dominant theme. He boils LA down to fame, New York to money, Cambridge to intellect, DC to connectedness, London to hipness, Silicon Valley to power.

So what's Berlin's ambition-theme? For me, it would have to be the word "experiment". The city asks me for something rather advanced, serious, unconventional, experimental. Whereas London would want me to generate revenue stream or achieve some sort of tacky celebrity, Berlin demands something a little bit Utopian, a little bit experimental and futuristic (the theme of the Transmediale this year is "futurity now!"). It can't pay me much, but that's fine, because neither Berlin nor I require much money to operate. And we both think that making things new and exciting is what life is all about.

I like the me that Berlin helps produce, and I'm very aware that the mes other cities would produce would very possibly be less interesting ones; Momuses who don't write The Book of Scotlands (a product not just of my imagination, but of Berlin publisher Sternberg, Berlin editor Ingo Niermann, and so on), don't make records like Otto Spooky and Ocky Milk, don't explode Beowulf. Berlin has been my context and my creative midwife for most of the past decade, and I'm not at all sure I could easily replace her with a better one.
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2010-01-23 11:27 am

In the kingdom of the vandals

In 455AD the Vandals -- the tribal name people from the area of today's eastern Germany and Poland were called back then -- sacked Rome, which is where we get the modern sense of the word "vandalism", meaning "senseless destruction, particularly in diminution of aesthetic appeal or destruction of objects that were completed with great effort." But wait, we're jumping ahead.

It's cold in Berlin. Very, very cold. Today's maximum temperature here is forecast to be minus 11c, and its minimum temperature minus 15c. This is colder than the seasonal average, and a lot colder than Osaka, my last city of residence, which today is ranging between plus 1 and plus 9 centigrade. I'm suffering from culture shock.

Dirty ice and crusty snow weighs heavy on Berlin; the pavement might have a little plowed catwalk you can mince cautiously along if you're lucky, but mostly you just have to slither and plod across it. The bushes outside my living room window were unlucky enough to develop a canopy of snow which kept getting heavier until the plants caved in completely. They now lie crushed under a massive snowdrift. Step outside and you're apparently wearing no trousers, and someone's apparently spraying hydrochloric acid in your face.

In these conditions you try to avoid going out into the Muscovite murk, the Martian perma-grey. You avoid the pain and hassle of the city. When you do make a trip outside, there's a palpable sense of exhaustion; Berliners have been facing these conditions for almost two months now, and they might continue for two months more. The novelty of snow soon fades, leaving a certain kind of Siberian despair in its wake.

That's the attitude of the downtrodden-looking middle-class majority, dowdy in jeans and boots and fleece jackets. But -- compared with Japan -- Berlin is also full of "underground people" who seem, in winter, to be more mad and desperate and poor than usual. The squat types with their big dogs look more embattled, the illegal U-Bahn ticket-sellers won't take no for an answer, and the alkies are drunker and more intrusive.

Coming back from my Brel interview at the BBC bureau at the Schiffbauerdamm yesterday -- on a weekday at lunchtime -- I shared a carriage with a shouty bunch of youths who'd obviously been drinking too much, because one of them vomited continuously on the floor while the others whooped with laughter, egging him on. Soon the whole carriage reeked sickeningly of the acid insides of his stomach. I got off as soon as I could only to board another train with a set of drunken youths on it. One of them sat next to me and suddenly began tugging my hat off, patting my trousers, and asking me which of the embarrassed women opposite I'd prefer to 69. "You've been drinking, haven't you?" I asked, in English. "It's not impossible," replied the geeky thug, in German.

My trips to and from the Berlin airport at either end of my Japan trip were characterised by similar encounters. On the way to Tegel in early December I was menaced by a madman who shouted (rather presciently) "Japan! Japan! Okay? Okay?" at me, but in a super-threatening way, as if I was personally insulting him. (I was dressed in Japanese style, with tenugui and cloak.) On the way back, on Monday evening, it was people shouting "Pirat!" My nerves were frazzled by 12 hours on jets, and having to lug heavy suitcases across the snow (the bus-driver decided, just two stops from the airport, for reasons of his own, to dump us at the kerbside), and I felt a sudden urge to pile into the idiots shouting at me. Six weeks in Japan had raised my standards for public behaviour to levels that Berlin doesn't come anywhere near.

It isn't just random, drunk rogue males on trains who menace you here. There are also petty officials to deal with. At the building the BBC shares with Reuters and other media companies I entered by the wrong door and stood in a corridor ringing a non-functioning bell marked "BBC". A German security guard approached, seeming highly skeptical that someone like me could possibly be a BBC interviewee. Even when I'd given him the name of my contact and explained that I was here to be interviewed, his manner didn't change; I was still some kind of intruder.

When the time came to exit the building the lady at the front desk called out a challenge so peremptory, rude and familiar that I assumed it couldn't possibly be for me, and walked straight past. Alarmed that she hadn't signed me in, she was in fact demanding which company I'd been seeing. It was her tone, though, that was so brash, entitled, authoritarian. I wish I could say she's a one-off, but there are times when everybody in Berlin seems like that. You go into a shop, just back from Japan, and expect the local version of a cheerful irrashaimase! Instead you get a sort of scowl that seems to say "What the fuck do you want, you weird pirate-looking guy?" Even when you say "Guten Tag!" you may well get no response.

Of course, the commercial classes mistrust the customers because the customers are often the very thugs and hooligans, alcoholics and shoplifters I've described tangling with on the trains; a class of people who, in the name of some ill-defined "anarchism" or "anti-globalism", smash shop and bank windows at any opportunity, and start drinking at breakfast.

It would be lovely to paint it as principled protest, but let's face facts: some Berliners have a self-righteousness about their incapacity, their unemployment, their non-participation in what they call the Scheisse-System. It's an attitude of arrogance-in-failure you just don't encounter in Asia. Osaka has a lot of poverty, but you sense that everybody tries their best, and that there's a warm glow of positive affect towards society, and towards collective property. The ugly tagging and name-scratching (and what could be a better symbol of the assertion of an ugly, arrogant individualism over collective property?) that blights every available surface (except, inexplicably, private cars) here is largely absent from Japan, where clear train windows and pristine plush fabric seat covers are still possible. In Berlin the council covers windows and seats with ugly patterns designed to deter taggers and name-scratchers.

It's white Germans who are the worst -- totally disinhibited, arrogantly lazy, proud of not fitting in, beer bottle in hand, ready to assail and insult strangers. The immigrant quarters are oases of responsibility and industry; in predominantly-muslim Neukolln alcohol is shunned, which is already a huge step towards a more civilised urban environment.

"Goths and Vandals, a rude Northern race," wrote the poet Dryden of the sack of Rome, "did all the matchless Monuments deface." I'd love to say it was a groundless, baseless stereotype, but here they still are today, these rude northern people. They ride the trains, they grab your hat, they deface the walls and windows of all available public (but not private) property. It's odd that they get so antsy in the midst of their long, harsh winter, because winter is the time when we realise how dependent we are on society, on co-operation, and on harmony for our basic survival. Even the proudest and bitterest of us must raise our hands to the Scheisse-System, thankful for its heat.
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2010-01-22 07:23 am

Contra takes it NXTLVL

Hey, there's this band called Vampire Weekend, and they're actually pretty good! Oh, you knew about them already? I see, I see. Yes, I'm always a bit late picking up on these things. Now I think about it, I was vaguely aware that Contra, their new album, isn't their first release. There was a bit of excitement a couple of years ago around their debut, wasn't there? In fact, it even reached Click Opera, didn't it? It's all coming back to me now. Rostam from Vampire Weekend sent me their first album, and I wrote a piece entitled Fan mail to the future.

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Now, that particular month (February 2008) you weren't allowed to be lukewarm about Vampire Weekend -- you were either supposed to love them or hate them with a passion. So my response to their debut album got relayed by various music publications to an astounded, incensed world as Momus to Vampire Weekend: Bugger Off!.

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In fact, I was far from saying "bugger off!" What I actually said was much more muted and tentative: "I haven't really had my Vampire Weekend moment yet. They've sent me their album, and I've listened to it, and I can hear the basic appeal -- the directness, the economy of means, the well-written lyrics, the happy feel. I get a weird sense that there are possibilities in this music ("Wow, pop can do this!"), and yet the possibilities are all in the past. Taken a bit further, this bit could become Talking Heads, this bit could become The Beat, this bit The Police, and this bit Prefab Sprout... Perhaps Vampire Weekend will work with a producer who gives them enough experimental edge to make my penny drop."

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After reading this, Rostam wrote me back: "Perhaps in a weird way I expected as much, but in fact it's inspiring because it means things aren't nxtlvl enough on our end..." Unlike the music press, he got exactly what I meant. Pop music has to keep taking things to the next level. Otherwise it begins to die.

My own "next level" with Vampire Weekend was meeting vocalist / lyricist Ezra Koenig in New York on May 18th, 2009. Ezra chose a vegetarian Indian restaurant called Saravana Bhavan, where we each dipped a big dosa into a delicious array of little sauce dishes. Ezra told me he was thinking of calling the next Vampire Weekend album "Contra" and asked what my immediate associations with the word were. I said: Oliver North (Iran-Contra), The Clash (Sandinista!), Hegel (the Hegelian dialectic of thesis and antithesis, which would mean their third album would have to be Synthesis) and the idea of the internet troll or contrarian. The following week several Vampire Weekends got the table of honour at the three-hour Momuthon concert I played at the Highline Ballroom.

And now Contra is out. I don't have a copy yet, but the tracks I've heard on YouTube -- the ones splashed across this page -- bode very well indeed. I think my favourite is the most experimental. This is called California English:

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And this is California English Part 2:

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The "disorienting autotune" effect reminds me of an early version of my song Zanzibar, A Canterbury Tale, but VW have a more zingy chorus and better production. In fact, it's the production on this album that excites me most. There's an excellent use of space, an avoidance of rock sludge, some wonderfully crunchy percussion rolls which nevertheless drop away to leave some good space when they're finished, and a nice early 80s synth bass sound which reminds me of The Passage:

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There are still, of course, reference points and influences. From Afropop, from Paul Simon, from The Police, from Two Tone ska, from Elvis Costello circa Armed Forces, from Talking Heads. But my fuzzy feeling this time is much warmer, and not just because of Ezra's charm offensive. This sounds to me like a band taking old things and making them new, making them brashly fresh. It's rather like seeing the way Japanese culture takes things from the West and recompiles them just askew enough to make them fresh, appealingly strange, and unmistakably Japanese.

To my ears, from what I've heard so far, Contra is more original and innovative than the first release, without losing the infectious, accessible pop edge. Vampire Weekend did indeed take things NXTLVL.