I’m currently at work on a response to the question: why (more) Katy Perry? Which also is a lecture, illustrated with chart-toppers, on the use of consumer-behavior data and neurobiology research in the production of pop songs that are guaranteed to be pleasing to as many listeners as possible—and to avoid confronting listeners with songs that they haven’t already been conditioned to like. The producers of hits like “Roar” and “Can’t Feel My Face” might design insipid products that manipulate our basic impulses, but they also devise an emotional Esperanto that merges all our voices into a single chorus. In the lecture, I ask: do I want to hear a song that perfectly conforms to a numeric representation of my personality? Or a song that transports me to a club where nearly all of humanity mouth the words and grin as if just graduated?
In March, I published Measuring Device with Organs (Triple Canopy), an LP that asks you to become a listening machine, an essay on the universalization of tastes, a life shaped by Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.” (Navigate to Triple Canopy’s website to listen to an excerpt and purchase the LP or digital files.) The forty-minute audio work, which ranges from essay to soundscape, bildungsroman to musical composition, begins with a typical “expert listener”—a middle-aged, white audiophile with a passion for classic rock—undergoing a test meant to determine what sound should sound like. Measuring Device with Organs hinges on the recordings used in such tests, conducted by stereo manufacturers and agencies like the International Electrotechnical Commission, reliant on the ability of humans to act like listening machines. As the test proceeds, the expert struggles to train his ears on the frequency response of the audio files, to vanquish the memories evoked by Spanish guitar riffs and snippets of ABBA.
In April, I published “‘Whose Roads Lead Everywhere to All’: Notes Following a Conversation with Lorraine O’Grady,” an essay on the myths made by institutions and artists, in Art, an Index to (see also Politics). The book was edited by Carin Kuoni and Amanda Parmer and published by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, where I was a fellow from 2013 until 2015, on the occasion of its twenty-fifth anniversary. The essay reflects on—and is meant to continue, for readers—a conversation with the artist and critic Lorraine O’Grady, who also was a fellow at the Vera List Center. Below is the entire essay with illustrations, which is not yet available online.
In the December issue of Art in America, I published “They, the People,” an essay on representations of the people in art and populist movements, and how each responds to the other. The essay covers Hank Williams Jr.’s halftime show, Tomas Rafa’s videos of European nationalists and refugees, Jacques-Louis David and Phrygian caps, Ronald Reagan’s heroics (as assimilated by Steve Bannon and dissected by Pablo Sierra and Pacho Velez’s The Reagan Show), Ferhat Özgür’s take on the imperial vision of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the culture of the popular front, Shepard Fairey’s claim to speak for everyone, Ken Loach’s ads for Jeremy Corbyn, and Lawrence Lek’s Sinofuturism. I also dig into recent writing on populism by Jan-Werner Müller, John Judis, Chantal Mouffe, Cas Mudde, et al.
For the exhibition “Publishing as an Artistic Toolbox: 1989–2017,” on view at Kunsthalle Wien (Vienna) from November 3, 2017, until January 28, 2018, Triple Canopy was commissioned to make Dear Future Reader (View Contents of Folder). The video, shot at New York University’s Fales Library & Special Collections, is a message from an archivist. He explains contemporary publications to the future reader, given the potential that, decades or centuries ago, screen-based devices may have been replaced by biological computers, the English language (or even writing) may have become obsolete, paper may have been superseded by holograms, and alcohol and song may have been banished. Dear Future Reader (View Contents of Folder), which I worked on with C. Spencer Yeh and Jessica Y Lee, is now viewable as a digital project on Triple Canopy’s website.
In October of 2017 I was an artist/writer in residence at Para Site, the venerable and remarkable independent art institution in Hong Kong. While at Para Site I was thinking about conspiracy theories and how to take them seriously as symptoms of political exclusion and alienation—as well as sources of cohesion for those who participate in their narration and dissemination (and in so doing puncture the view of reality formed by an official consensus or elite opinion). I’ll return for the second part of the residency in the fall of 2018.
For the third issue of Oberon, which came out in the fall of 2016, I published “Be a Cutting Machine,” a fiction on the cult of instruction. I make use of the language of acting manuals, writing gurus, and self-help guides, and consider the power of those who effectively mobilize that language. Some tangents: what handwriting reveals about the self, Vaslav Nijinsky’s graphomania, the history of writing machines. “Be a Cutting Machine” was written in response to the artist Boru O’Brien O’Connell’s “Reaching for a Soft Structure,” a project that appears in the preceding pages.