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Long live the Letterist chisel!
Common to the avant-garde in general is the Letterist conviction that any conventionalized language, by itself, is insufficient; therefore these artists engage, in the course of establishing as broad-based a platform as possible, in the visual arts, music, performance and theater, dance, film, architecture and the minor arts, in which they find an equivalent "plan of evolution" for art. For Isidore lsou, the evolution of art could be characterized by two phases, amplique and ciselante. The first seeks its limits in its enlargement into other domains, the second, in its narrowing its research to the "particles" from which an art may be developed anew.
Letterism leapt onto the stage in the 1940s—sometimes quite literally, as when Isidore lsou interrupted a Dada performance to read his own poems, and immediately claimed a place in the succession of artistic movements in the West. In the initial theoretical manifesto of Lettensm, lsou traces the lineage from Baudelaire to himself, accepting a place of equal Importance With Rimband, Mallarme, Valery, Jarry, Apollinaire, Tzara. These poets represent for lsou the watersheds of four different creative currents that lead fairly directly to him. To understand the rationale that leads to this assertion, it is useful to review the evolution of art forms as outlined by lsou: Like a giant sigh, arts experience a period of expansion, taking in oxygen, sunshine and other nutrients which are transformed into rich lifeblood. lsou calls this phase amplic.
The second phase is like a huge exhalation, the part of the sigh which signifies the consumption of all usable oxygen, expelling the carbon dioxide, muscles full of lactic acids and the brain fatigued. lsou calls this period in art the chiseling phase. Chiseling is the activity of artists who cut away at the accomplishments of the amplic phase.
As a first step Baudelaire replaces the poetry of narrative anecdotes with a plastic image; next Verlaine and Rimband reduce the poem to lines and words, Mallarmé and Valéry then chisel words into space and sound; finally Breton and Tzara complete the annihilation of words. At this point lsou discloses the use of letters as meaningful particles smaller than words, and Letterism undertakes the culmination of the chiseling phase.
Two of the most interesting concepts in Letterist theory are those just presented: the idea of the amplic and chiseling phases, and the notion of the power of letters. The first of these has the strength of sweeping generalizations that allow people to organize their knowledge and feelings. Like the concepts of classicism/romanticism, apollonianism/dionysianism, male/female principles, and Eastern philosophy/Western philosophy, the amplic/chiseling dichotomy suggests all sorts of new critiques of art. As seen in Frederique Devaux's essay on cinema, it can be applied to all fields of artistic endeavor, and it provides a basis for devastating attacks on those unlucky enough to be in the wrong phase. Of course even Letterism itself will experience both phases.
The reduction of language to its smallest particles—written signs, spoken syllables—is not a nihilistic gesture, for lsou has illustrated that these units, atoms of the language, retain an expressive force far greater than their size suggests. By comparing a series of visual compositions it is possible to recognize a hierarchy of signs that illustrates this principle: If an abstract work contains one natural, representational element, our attention is drawn to that object; in a representational painting such as a landscape, even the smallest intrusion of a human being becomes the focal point; and in a portrait any letters—for instance, on a tattooed arm—dominate the visual field. Letters are thus proposed as the most powerful elements to be used in any composition, whether poetic, pictorial, musical, or cinematic.’
Variously referred to as "metagraphie," "post-ecriture," "hypergraphie," or "superecriture," Letterism is not a language, is not poetry, is not music, says Maurice Lemaitre, one of the movement's early and major spokesmen. Rather, the letter is perceived as a "constituent" of a "new art" which offers an informative model for and, in cases embraces, all the arts. It is in many respects similar to what we now designate as " intermedia."
Rip it up … and start again
The leaders of the Scottish neo-pop uprising Orange Juice formed in Glasgow in late 1976. Originally dubbed the Nu-Sonics, the group comprised vocalist/guitarist Edwyn Collins, guitarist James Kirk, bassist David McClymont, and drummer Steven Daly; following the formation of the Postcard label by Collins protégé Alan Horne, the quartet renamed itself Orange Juice in 1979, adopting the new moniker as well as an aura of romantic innocence as a direct reaction to the increasingly macho aggression of punk.
As Postcard's flagship band, Orange Juice quickly distinguished the label as a leading proponent of independent pop music; their 1980 debut single "Falling and Laughing," recorded for less than 100 pounds, garnered massive critical acclaim, and subsequent releases like "Blueboy," "Simply Thrilled Honey," and "Poor Old Soul" further established the group as a major new talent. Soon, sessions began for a full-length album; however, in the midst of recording, Orange Juice left Postcard to sign to Polydor, which funded the LP's completion. After the 1982 release of the album, titled You Can't Hide Your Love Forever, ex-Josef K guitarist Malcolm Ross joined the group, hastening the exit of Kirk and Daly (who went on to form Memphis) and paving the way for Zimbabwe-born drummer Zeke Manyika. As a result, the new line up had a polished, more angular sound. In 1982 they released, Rip It Up.
So important a song that Simon Reynolds titled his history of post-punk after it, Rip It Up (“and start again”) was not only Orange Juice’s only Top 40 chart hit, but in many ways represents the high-water mark of an entire heterogeneous movement in clever, witty, arse-kicking music that stormed the battlements of rock tradition. By 1983 after four Polydor flops, the band had a new lineup comprising Collins, McClymont on bass, Josef K’s Malcolm Ross on guitar and Zimbabwean Zeke Manyika on drums. But they had all but given up on hope of a breakout single. With its Chic-inspired scratchy guitar riff and squelching Roland TB-303 synthesiser bassline – the first such use of the soon-to-become iconic device in a noteworthy song, and thus an accidental ancestor to acid house – out of nowhere, Rip It Up stormed to No 8 in March 1983, a success Collins put down to “regaining something of the old Postcardian positivism”. Throwing shade on the “humdrum” state of the early 80s music scene, it’s a classic Collins mixture of rock’n’roll retroisms, arcane wit and cheeky hubris: refrains do not come much more gloriously arch than “I hope to God I’m not as dumb as you make out”. Capping it all off is a neat little lyrical and musical quote of Buzzcocks’ Boredom and a wailing sax solo. Orange Juice had finally become proper pop stars – albeit for a short while. It didn’t help that they were banned from Top of the Pops after a visibly inebriated McClymont fell off the stage live on air.
You asked about Orange Juice and my book title. Apart from being one of my absolute favorite singles from that period, the song's chorus "rip it up and start again" was so perfect because it suggests both postpunk's destructive impulse to reject tradition, and also its constructive, forward-looking side—people starting independent labels or embracing new technology like synths. Rip it up/start again was the dynamic running through the entire era, the motor of constant change: Whenever things settled into orthodoxy, there'd be a schism, a new fork in the path—anything just to keep things moving. So postpunk reacted against punk's rock 'n' roll traditionalism; then, a few years later, when postpunk itself became codified as a style of dour, difficult music, you had the "New Pop" movement—groups like Orange Juice, Human League, ABC—who embraced melody and brought back the love song. And a few years after that, when New Pop itself got bland and bloated, musicians took a whole bunch of new directions in response, such as Goth, or the new rock of "glory boy" bands like U2 and Echo & the Bunnymen.
The song "Rip It Up" itself was written when Orange Juice had grown disillusioned with how New Pop had degenerated into the vapidity of Wham! and Duran Duran. But almost all these groups, even Duran Duran actually, had some connection to punk—it was the Sex Pistols, typically, that had fired them up in the first place. Which is why I feel that 1978-1984 is one unified epoch, "postpunk." It's just that the New Pop phase was a revolt against a certain narrow definition of postpunk that had set in—bleak, racked by existential angst or political guilt, puritanical. A revolt into hedonism and positivity.
Writing for Film Culture in 1962, Manny Farber coined the term “termite art,” which he opposed to “white elephant art,” establishing the value system that would define his critical concerns—as well as his pursuit as a painter—for the remainder of his life.
Farber’s push for the termite celebrates a kind of negative economy, one marked by squandering rather than progress. White-elephant art, on the other hand, was “masterpiece art, reminiscent of the enameled tobacco humidors and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago.”
The termite is an economic model that is seemingly at odds with the narrative of modernist progress, though it imagines squandering as a kind of productivity that is potentially useful to an artist. The termite’s work is simultaneously subtractive and additive. The “product,” however, is not found in the end state (which may never arrive) but in its ceaseless becoming. His termite keeps busy, constantly in motion, even if whatever its doing is a kind of undoing: “a peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art,” he notes, “is that it is always forward going eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”
“The important trait of termite-fungus-centipede art,” Farber noted in 1971, “is an ambulatory creation which is an act both of observing and being in the world, a journeying in which the artist seems to be ingesting both the material of his art and the outside world through a horizontal coverage.” On the one hand, what he describes here suggests a spatial understanding of the termite—it’s ambulatory nature, its relentless speed. On the other hand, this model could only be temporal: “an act both of observing and being in the world” occurs in time, over time.
In the film Routine Pleasures, Jean-Pierre Gorin following Farber’s lead, describes a termite that is indifferent to whether it is devouring the Sistine Chapel or a hangar at the fairgrounds in Del Mar, California. In the essay “The Farber Machine.” Gorin and Patrick Amos explicitly position the termite as an embodiment of [Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s] rhizome. The rhizome, like Farber’s termite, like Steinberg’s flatbed, operates horizontally. Its force is centripetal rather than linear. Farber’s paintings represent nothing if not a termite-like working-through—a horizontal processing of films, books, images, history, his own handwritten notes, the debris of everyday life, and whatever else lands on his table. Thought emerges through an engagement with the muck.
Gorin again uses Farber’s metaphor to describe the work of the essay film, but also, to describe a broader attempt at a type of work that is constantly attempting:
The essay films are thus condemned to playfulness. Their need to delay pushes them constantly outside of themselves… the essay film does not labor toward the creation of a sui generis image as do fiction and documentary. It feels perfectly at ease quoting, plundering, hijacking, and recording what is already there and established to serve its purpose. And it feels perfectly at ease doing that twice or three times over, so that the same elements switch into new configurations. It is the rhizomatic form par excellence, forever expanding and finding no better reason to stop the exhaustion of its own animating strategy. The essay is rumination in Neitzche’s sense of the word, the meandering of an intelligence that tries to multiply the entries and the exists into the material it has elected (or by which it has been elected). It is surplus, drifts, ruptures, eclipses, and double-backs. It is, in a word, thought… it flirts with a range of aesthetics but attaches itself to none. It is, both in form and content, unruliness itself, “termite art” and not “white elephant art.” - Jean-Pierre Gorin, “Proposal for a Tussle”
Helen Molesworth’s final exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, focused on Farber and his termite network of friends and former students (which includes Molesworth). During her “heady college days,” Molesworth writes in her catalog essay, “I, like so many others, developed a crush on the twentieth century’s call for art to broker an arrangement with life. . . . Now, I find my attraction to the everyday to be a form of defense against what I perceive to be the near total eclipse of criticism by the market values of art as an asset class, the demand for museums to produce blockbuster shows, and the apotheosis of profit as the primary marker of cultural value that I see embodied in the frictionless finish fetish of Jeff Koons, the narcissistic grandiosity of Damien Hirst, or the production of charm without affect by Takashi Murakami.”
While it seems like a dichotomy, the MOCA exhibition worked to break down the divide between termite and elephant, to take a termite-like approach to the idea itself. “By the way,” Gorin says, in an exchange with Molesworth about Manny Farber that’s included in the catalog, “he said he hated ‘White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.’ I think he hated it in part because people tried to tether him to it. He knew the article was fundamentally flawed, and what’s flawed about it is the ‘versus.’ ” Molesworth agrees. “Of course!” she writes. “The essay is structurally flawed by a false antinomy, an either/or scenario doomed to generate opinions rather than dialogue. Anyway, who wants to have an argument that only has two sides?” More than any debt they owe to Farber, that kind of willingness to wander, beaver-like, into the thickets, in search of nothing in particular—or nothing at all—is what the best artists here have in common.
The sand harmonogram is made with a twin-pendulum Harmonograph. The spirals, ellipses, and figure eights are graphical records of Ivan Moscovich's swinging pendulums. Patterns of this sort—depicting two simultaneous oscillations in two dimensions— are known as Lissajous figures. Each pattern captures a record of the pendulums’ motions: The bigger the swing, the larger the figure; the slower the oscillations, the closer together the lines. As the swinging dies away, the trace shrinks.
In orbital mechanics, a Lissajous orbit, named after Jules Antoine Lissajous, is a quasi-periodic orbital trajectory that an object can follow around a Lagrangian point of a three-body system without requiring any propulsion. Lissajous orbits are utilized by certain spacecraft that are required to be in a stable position relative to the Earth and Sun while making long-term observations. In a Lissajous orbit the spacecraft follows a natural (but complex) motion that requires the minimum amount of energy for station-keeping. Lagrange points are locations in space where gravitational forces and the orbital motion of a body balance each other. They were discovered by French mathematician Louis Lagrange in 1772 in his gravitational studies of the ‘Three body problem’: how a third, small body would orbit around two orbiting large ones.
There are five Lagrangian points in the Sun-Earth system and such points also exist in the Earth-Moon system. L1 and L2 in the Sun-Earth system are stable and most used. L1 is located about 1.5 million km from Earth, between the sun and Earth, along a line from the sun to Earth. L2 is located about 1.5 million km from Earth along the same line, but on the other side of Earth.
After all, a satellite in a Lissajous orbit around the Sun-Earth L2 point is basically in a circular orbit around the sun. Except that it's going faster than it should (due to the Earth's pull), and it has little ripples (also due to the Earth). For me at least, this is a lot easier to understand than these loopy shapes. It's sort of like when the early astronomers saw this apparent retrograde motion in orbit of other planets and came up with super complicated models to try and describe it. When they realized that everything orbited the sun, everything became much more clear. While they were completely wrong about the geocentric model, they weren't imagining the weird motion of the planets. From our perspective, the planets sometimes move 'forwards' and sometimes move 'backwards' simply because they aren't orbiting us.
Similarly, the weird shape of a Lissajous orbit is partly a result of relative motion with the Earth. It's much easier for me to think of the satellite as travelling around the sun alongside the Earth. Sometimes it gets a little further ahead, and the Earth pulls it back a bit, and sometimes it gets a little behind, and the Earth pulls it forward. The same thing happens for changes in inclination. Depending on the periods for the ahead-behind motion and the up-down motion, you get Lissajous curves.