The Messy Fascination of Repulsion: Blackie, Basquiat, The Widow Party

by on Nov.15, 2010

Some more thoughts about “messy” aesthetics (see Adam Jameson’s comments to John’s Fort Thunder post) and the 1990s…

I often get these chain-mails on Facebook asking me for the 15 most influential albums/books/paintings etc for me. One of the most influential artistic experiences for me was going to a show with the band “Blackie” at the speedboat gallery in St Paul some time in the mid 90s. Nobody’s probably heard of them except for me and my friend Tyler, who brought me to the show because he was friends with some of the band members.

But “band” is not really correct. These were like 10-15 folks in their mid-to-late 20s who played together once or twice a year. And “played together” is not exactly correct either because they hadn’t rehearsed and while some of them seemed to know how to play their instruments, some of them didn’t, and some of them were playing strange instruments (plastic whistles, stuffed birds, their arms). The result: The squirrels bled and we heard armchairs with soft hair on them.

The star of the show was the singer, a guy dressed up as college boy – polo shirt, baseball hat etc – but it seemed to be a college boy in drag. He didn’t sing but recited poems/chants while filming himself and the rest of the band with a toy-looking video-camera. One of the songs ended with the singer repeating “We’re in Spokane/We’re in Spokane/We’re in Spokane” for several minutes while writhing – excited, sweating, possibly horny – on the floor and filming himself straight into his screaming, sweaty face. Definitely: “Body possessed by media.” Sweaty with media.

Perhaps performing “the star” as the opposite of Warhol – performing stardom in a dank basement in a frozen Minneapolis. These kinds of situations generally lead people to view themselves as “geniuine,” but there was nothing genuine about this guy. Everything was fake. And yet it all felt tribal, perversely erotic (like watching someone masturbating), bodily. Things that are, again, usually associated with feelings of genuine.

Part of the show was also the setting: the dusty old couches of the basement, the musty basement darkness. Something about the performance invoked the space. Perhaps because there were so many band members, possibly because it wasn’t clear who was in the band and who was just showing up to watch, possibly because it wasn’t clear that there was an audience, that this was being performed, but not being performed “for” someone. Or because the singer held that camera. That camera was not an accessory but the center of the artwork – an eye, a gun, the eys of Laura Mars. Except he was killing himself. His whole body was convulsing. It was a dull gun, dull blade. It didn’t do the trick. Everything was shit.

I hate all the rhetoric about “democratic” performances that involve the audience, or texts that make the reader a “co-creator” – this wasn’t one of those things. I had been pulled into the art work but it was totally against my will… We’re back to “coercive aesthetics.”

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After the show I was walking around in Rainbow Food looking for bagels with Tyler and I had this strange realization, I said “Tyler, I’ve had this sensation since the show and I haven’t been able to pin it down but I think I feel filthy.” And he just started laughing. But I felt also really exhilarated and inspired. I was filthy with art. And when we got home I scribbled down the line “I beat the bang-bang sheets with urine” in my notebook, and for some reason that line keeps coming back to me.

And I still think about that show. The “singer’s” “poems” were not “good”: they were not tasteful; one couldn’t put a whole lot of “pressure” on individual words or lines or even whole pieces (I think of increased pressure as the key component of the U of Iowa aesthetic); but there was something much more inspiring about the show that a lot of the poetry I was reading in class and certainly than 99 percent of the poetry I was seeing in Mature Poetry Journals in the bookstore. It wasn’t because of a romanticized notion of amateur genuineness, though that might be the knee-jerk response. If anything there was too much performance , too much form about it.

The singer’s body was fascinating: something about the “college-boy-drag” seemed to connected to the constant video-ing of himself, connected to his repetitive poems, connected to the spasmodic writhing on the floor. He had a video body.

It was fascinating. It doesn’t matter if it was “good” or not.

*

A few years later I started watching Mr Roger’s Neighborhood for the first time and I loved it, found it inspiring. Obviously it wasn’t “good art” but it was fascinating and odd. Perhaps Blackie taught me to disregard evaluative standards when it comes to approaching art…

That was in graduate school. I would watch Mr Roger’s in the morning and Kenneth Anger at night. And my girlfriend at the time had collected mad people’s mad letters to Hearst Publications, where she copy-edited, and these I loved and read and hung up on my wall which was covered with chicken-wire, to which I had affixed various dolls and deterius-ish materials, all of which had a huge influence on my feelings about art.

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Of course between these two time periods, I fell in love with Basquiat. The same girlfriend first saw Basquiat’s work in the background of a photograph in an interior decorating magazine and said “Johannes, there’s an artist that paints just like your poems” and showed it to me and I immediately sought out Basquiat’s paintings and went to gallery shows etc.

Just watched “Radiant Child” a new movie about Basquiat:

It seems part of the problem with Basquiat was that his work was so fascinating; it didn’t have the necessary “difficulty” of Taste. Or rather, it was so fascinating people didn’t see the incredibly learning of those image. The result: he turned into kitsch.

Not helped either by the fact that he was an immigrant child: the immigrant is, as I”ve shown repeatedly, kitsch. Exotic trinkets.

*

I did go to a Nirvana show in 1992 but I passed out and nearly died. Last thing I remember clearly was: “This kid is dying!” And then I was hoisted up in the crowd, which threw around my limp body for an hour or so before dropping me down in the back and I went out and then I woke up from somebody pissing on me. That wasn’t nearly as good of a time as the Blackie show, but it was also about repulsion.

*

When I started to think about Blackie last week (in response to the “messy” Nirvana/Pavement/comics conversation), I started to think about the performance piece Widow Party, which I was part of at Links Hall a couple of years ago:

Here’s what Josh Corey wrote in his review of the piece:

“If the Rodrigo Toscano pieces I took part in last weekend were Beckettian in their spareness and painful humor, The Widow Party is like a rock musical co-written by Brecht and Joyce. Filled with disturbing images of violence (mostly sound images), it obviously wishes to challenge the audience and implicate us in the piece’s mashed-up war-discourse (there’s a character-persona called “You,” an aspiring film director). Yet I didn’t feel much in the way of an alienation effect; I was instead supremely entertained by the sheer verve of the language and the nutty energy of the poets. We even get to dance at the end! I went home from Friday’s performance wondering about the place of pleasure in this sort of theater. Certainly Johannes and Joyelle didn’t seem disappointed when I told them how much I’d enjoyed it, but I wonder if the information the play seems to want to transmit about the violence of our spectatorhood doesn’t require a more didactic hand.”

*

I started thinking about this show again in connection with thinking about Blackie. I think Josh is absolutely correct in his analysis: this was not a show about distance, it was a show about fascination and coercion. One pervasive thing about contemporary poetry that I don’t like is this idea that we need “distance,” we need “critiques” in order to understand, as if, granted this distance, we can make sense of it all, we’ll be whole, we’ll have agency. At this point I’m not obviously talking about Josh or even the guy who wrote that my aeshetics were coercive in the Coldfront review, but what I sense as a kind of general view – one that involves Marxists (it’s immoral to fascinate) and Traditionalists (it’s tasteless to fascinate).

Mostly what I think I loved about Blackie was that they didn’t give off the necessary markers of Taste (whether that was their intention or not); that they create a completely fascinating experience and my body was covered in hair and it was like the hair of bees (as Walt Whitman said about his dead lover).

*

Of course a big omission in my post so far is that Blackie is in fact connected to Basquiat by this link: a 1980s, “downtown art scene” kind of aesthetic.

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8 comments for this entry:
  1. John Dermot Woods

    Really glad you wrote this, Johannes. Personal aesthetic histories are fascinating. I think I’ll write something about clowns (and maybe even juggalos).

  2. Johannes Göransson

    Interesting to bring up clowns. If I may be more autobiographical. I remember being in MFA school and a visitor asked what kind of poetry I wrote and this other student said “poetry about killer clowns.” I remember thinking about this a long time because I’ve never written a single poem in my whole life that featured killer clowns (or even clowns), but something about my writing suggested to him that I occupied the same strata as that serial killer who painted clowns, or perhaps the Insane Clown Possy. He meant it as an insult, but I’m OK with that, the same way I think lara is OK with someone trying to insult her by calling her “hot topics surrealism.” It’s kitsch, lowbrow, but of course it’s also “killer” clowns – ie there’s something violent about the kitsch.

    Which is another way of saying: I look forward to your entry on clowns.

    Johannes

  3. Sarah Fox

    Great post Johannes—always inspiring to be reminded of Speedboat, that wonderfully rancid mothership where Twin Citians assembled to trash the extant culture and invent a new one. Paul D. Dickinson, Speedboat’s intrepid & notorious proprietor, remains a vital force in the poetry/punk/emcee scene here—many of the poets who live in this town, not to mention their endeavors (Conduit, Rain Taxi, Spout, to name a few) would likely be elsewhere, if at all, if not for him/Speedboat Gallery.

    Neither John nor I could remember this BLACKi event, but we assume either Dan Kaneiss, or Sean Smuda, must have been the cross-dresseresque-frat-boy-as-writhing-toy-videotaper you describe(Dan, also of the band 2i— http://www.madebyhuman.com/2iphotos.html—recently contributed to John’s Astronaut Cooper’s Parade project, which is a lot like BLACKi in spirit [if not youthful vim and vigor]—toy or otherwise strange noisemaking devices, assortment of random & irreverent participants, non-rehearsal, etc. See: http://www.myspace.com/astronautcooper)

    Paul D. tells me BLACKi played “all the time at Speedboat” back in the day, and that they still play out from time to time—here’s a website with a few recent photos http://www.madebyhuman.com/blacki.html , and their myspace: http://www.myspace.com/blackitheband

    Also, re: the messy fascination of repulsion, it so happens that we watched (most of) Claire Denis’s film “Trouble Every Day” last night and wonder if a) you’ve seen it and if so, b) how, if at all, it relates to this, as well as body possessed by media, ambient violence, etc. I confess there were two (seemingly endless) scenes I could not bear to watch or listen to, but nevertheless find myself in a state of morning-after fascination/repulsion. Not sure what to make of it just yet… “Radiant Child” is on its way.

  4. Johannes Göransson

    Holy cow, I can’t believe they’re still around. Sean was the guy my friend Tyler was friends with. No, he wasn’t the writher, he was a guitar player, mostly. Thanks!

    Don’t know the Claire Denis film, will have to check it out asap.

    Johannes

  5. Lucas

    This reminds me of another Twin Cities DIY performance group called the revolting queers (one of the many topics I still need write about here). Friends of mine. As the name suggests, the revolting queers are pretty filthy, obviously lots of messy drag, animalism, and critique of marriage; but, as the name also suggests, theirs is a political project aimed precisely at erasing distance. They confuse “private” and “public” space through the body. I think that’s where the political charge of this kind of thing lies, as well as its intoxicating effects. So of course it disturbs people.

    It’s so interesting to bring this lens to poetry. When people are talking about my poems in workshop they often skip over the best words, e.g. “cock” and “anal.”

    As for Marxists, we had a little reading after the 95 cent skool and I think i was the only one not to read bodiless Language-y poetry. Or one of the few. I felt kind of naked, even cheap in a thrilling way, while reading lines about my first ejaculation.

  6. Johannes

    Excellent response. You should definitely expand on this asap in a post.

    That thrilling “cheapness” is exactly the “kitsch” I keep harping on. To erase distance is “cheap”, kitsch, tasteless.

    Johannes

  7. JT

    I hate all the rhetoric about “democratic” performances that involve the audience, or texts that make the reader a “co-creator” – this wasn’t one of those things. I had been pulled into the art work but it was totally against my will… We’re back to “coercive aesthetics.”

    Question about the above. Johannes, are you hating the rhetoric about “democratic” performances because you think the rhetoric is false. i.e. what seems like a democratic gesture toward audience participation is really just a coercive gesture guised as democratic. or because there is something about “off” about audience participation/co-created works. i guess i’m asking if its the rhetoric you hate or the actual gesture. or both.

  8. Johannes

    Good question. I don’t mind collaboration or co-creation; in fact it can be quite thrilling. The democratic rhetoric irritates me for a couple of reasons: yes, it’s false, as you note, but also it seems to be about maintaining a kind of distance; you can’t let the artwork spellbind you, coerce you, push you, because you must maintain your agency, decorum, taste. I think Lucas nails it in his comment.

    Johannes