October 15, 2013 Letter from Ju-Pong
The image/text above comes from a video installation I did (2005) about the expulsion of Chinese immigrants on the West coast (around 1885-1890’s). I want to begin this round of letters with a community letter. I have been studying colonization, decolonization, nationhood and identity as these ideas are constructed in Taiwanese films and indigenous films. All this reading of film analysis reminds me of the many reasons I couldn't continue on the path of that kind of scholarship. That kind of discourse analysis often misses by a long shot the textured, contextual, complex expressivity of the visual and aural dimensions of film. Much of that kind of academic, text-heavy analysis contributes to perpetuating what Elliot Eisner calls a “technicized cognitive culture.”
I'm also reading about media anthropology, an exciting (to me, anyway), emergent field that asks questions about the conditions in which media is viewed and how viewers construct meaning. I recall that in my graduate school days, I arrived at the same conclusion that media anthropologists are now finding; the means of production and how TV shows and films get funded hugely shapes and constrains the audience's ability to engage critically with and construct meaning from products of mainstream media. I fantasized about creating film circles, story salons, community centers that would offer alternatives to the kind of passive TV & film viewership that is pervasive in North American culture. Reading about media anthropology has rekindled those dreams. I'm re-inspired not only to revive my own practice of performative video, (which has been laying fallow while I doctoralize) but also to disrupt the dominant media networks and reach out to fellow artists to construct our own means of cooperative production and networks of distribution.
While re-editing the video for this installation, I was reading Belinda Thomson’s experiments with mesostic poetry, a form that John Cage utilized quite a lot later in life. My digging around led me to this essay, “The Music of Verbal Space: John Cage’s ‘What You Say,’ by Marjorie Perloff: http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/perloff/cage.html/. It’s a difficult, somewhat belabored essay, but I gleaned some interesting ideas from it that inspired me to experiment with these bits of text. Here’s the excerpt from the end of Perloff’s article with some good kernels:
As such, Cage's sound structure has a decisive semantic import. Unlike most actual art discourse, the mesostic "written through" lecture or essay cannot just continue, cannot move from point to point, from thesis statement to exemplification or analogy, in a logical way. Rather, the discourse must "say something" about aesthetic, using no more than its baseline of 127 words, whose rule-governed permutations take us from from "as it Were" to "a wholE can / peRhaps / wEre.
You may have written acrostic poems in school—poems in which the first letter of each line vertically spells a word. Mesostic is kind of similar, but spells a word or phrase through typography (such as capitalization). In the passage above, the “baseline of 127 words” refers to Cage's interpenetration of musical and textual form in the mesostic whereby the musical idea of duration is applied to the performance of the poem. Mainly what I want to underscore in the passage above is Perloff's understanding of the mesostic as an aesthetic discourse, a nonlinear, maybe nonlogical form of verbal expression. Here's another juicy passage that clarifies:
That it does "say something" is, of course, the work's great feat. "What you say. . . ," what Cage's work "says" takes us back to the famous (perhaps too famous) theorem of "Experimental Music" that the "purposeless play" of art means "waking up to the very life we're living, which is so excellent once one gets one's mind and one's desires out of its way" (Silence 12). Purposeless play is not a matter of making "just any experiment." It does not mean that anything goes, that anyone can be an artist, that any random conjunction of words or sounds or visual images becomes art. What it does mean, as a reading of "What you say . . ." teaches us, is that the ordinary (in this case, Jasper Johns's not terribly edifying comment about his painting habits) can provide all that the artist needs to make "something else." Indeed, the challenge is to take the ordinary--words like "it" and "one" and "function" and "situation"--and "miniaturize" it into "something."
Isn't Cage's understanding of “purposeless play” a marvelous way of approaching artistic experimentation? How are you engaging in purposeless play? Let's share some stuff.