Saturday, April 9, 2011


I'd never noticed the similarity before, but last night while watching the new Blu-ray release of Soylent Green (1973), I realized how its opening montage sequence provided the blueprint, or set of instructions, for Godfrey Reggio's later film Koyaanisqatsi (1982). The opening montage of Soylent Green begins with a series of late nineteenth-century photographs depicting rural, agrarian (pastoral) life in America, quickly displaced by images of growing industrialization, clogged superhighways, urban clutter, and a polluted environment—Eden despoiled. The entire logic of the montage of Koyaanisqatsi is sketched out in a conveniently truncated fashion. The opening of Soylent Green also employs the same rhythmic montage followed by the later film as well.

Moreover, like Soylent Green, the true focus of Koyaanisqatsi is what is usually the background: the background has become the foreground. The collapsed infrastructure, the streets in which people live in abandoned cars (an index of overpopulation), the oppressive heat caused by the so-called "greenhouse effect," the environmental catastrophe that eventually explains the terrible secret behind "soylent green," all point to the film's actual subject, ideological failure. In addition, both films address oppressive social conditions by means of a process that Slavoj Žižek calls the paradox of anamorphosis:

If you look at the thing too directly at the oppressive social dimension, you don’t see it. You can see it in an oblique way only if it remains in the background. . . . This fate of the individual here remains a kind of prism through which you see the background even more sharply.

Although Koyaanisqatsi was first released on the film festival circuit in 1982, like Soylent Green it is a Seventies film. Soylent Green was filmed the late fall of 1972 and released in May 1973. Koyaanisqatsi was created 1975-80, with virtually all of the footage shot for the film (excluding the found footage) done in the 1970s. Although both films depict the consequences of industrialization, arguably the event linking the films is the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, the destruction of which (pictured above) forms a key montage sequence in Koyaanisqatsi (one of the movements in Philip Glass's music is named Pruitt-Igoe). Pruitt-Igoe was a federal housing project built in St. Louis in the mid-50s intended for poor and low-income families, consisting of roughly 2,800 apartments in 33 eleven-story buildings. By the late 1960s, the crime and squalor associated with Pruitt-Igoe had become a national embarrassment, and the project was closed. In early 1972—only 16 years after construction was finished—the federal government began to demolish the complex, a process eventually completed by 1976. Pruitt-Igoe has lived on, symbolically, as an emblem of failure. It has been immortalized in documentary films and in fiction (J. G. Ballard's High Rise, 1975). Both Koyaanisqatsi and Soylent Green were made in the years following the ideological failure represented by Pruitt-Igoe. Moreover, both films employed technical advisors from the world of academia actively engaged in addressing social problems: Frank R. Bowerman (Soylent Green) and Langdon Winner (Koyaanisqatsi).

Žižek uses as an illustration of anamorphosis Holbein's famous painting The Ambassadors: if looked at straight on, there is a noticeable "stain" or blur in the lower center of the painting, but when looked at from from the proper lateral standpoint, that is, from an anamorphic perspective, the blur reveals itself to be a skull. In Koyaanisqatsi, the background becomes the foreground, allowing us to approach reality anamorphically. The time-lapse photography used in Koyaanisqatsi, for instance, in which an endless stream of automobiles is transformed into a stream of light, is an example of anamorphosis, allowing us to see contemporary life not in its actual form, but as it really is.

Of course, unlike Soylent Green, Koyaanisqatsi also draws on several cinematic traditions, some of them dating to the cinema’s origins in the late nineteenth century: its use of the phantom ride, for instance, and its use of photogénie. Nonetheless, while I haven't yet decided on the validity of the association, I was struck by how similar the viewer of Koyaanisqatsi is to Sol Roth during his assisted suicide, as he watches spectacular film clips of an Edenic Earth while listening to light classical music.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Optic Nerve

Both music and perception are psychophysiological processes (psychophysiology studies the relationship between physiological processes and thoughts, emotions, and behaviors). In the same way that Op Art (short for Optical Art) exploits the illusions or optical effects of perceptual processes, the echoes and reverberations of psychedelic music suggest the illusory interior space of a medieval cathedral. Despite the fact that album covers are now celebrated as a form of art (an expression of art-as-object), with only a few exceptions Op Art, surprisingly, never especially influenced rock album art during the Psychedelic Era (unlike, say, the sculptural illusion of Trompe l'oeil, as revealed by the many rock album covers of the time featuring the work of M. C. Escher), even though Op Art was popularized in 1965 and is characterized by the perceptual ambiguity favored by the psychedelic artists of the Sixties. Several sources indicate the term Op Art was first used in an (unsigned) article in the 23 October 1964 issue of Time magazine, and was soon used to distinguish two-dimensional structures which suggested potential, but not actual, movement (in contrast to Kinetic Art, often lumped together with Op Art). The first Op Art exhibition, curated by William C. Seitz and titled "The Responsive Eye," was held 23 February - 25 April 1965 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (See Mike Wallace's interesting documentary on the MOMA show here; Brian De Palma also made a 1966 documentary short about the exhibition, also titled The Responsive Eye.) Significant Op Artists included Bridget Riley, Richard Anuszkiewicz, and Josef Albers, but it was the latter who actually created album covers, all of them for Enoch Light's Command Records label, and all created before the popularization of Op Art in 1965. In 2009, the Minus Space Gallery in Brooklyn held an exhibition of seven album covers designed by Josef Albers for Command Records during the period 1959-61. Interestingly, the exhibition also included additional Command Records album covers designed by other artists, such as Charles E. Murphy, Barbara Brown Peters, and Gerry Olin. The album covers displayed in this exhibition reveal the application of Op Art to album cover design, as revealed, for example, by the cover for Vibrations (1962, pictured, but not by Albers), the lines and reiterated shapes suggesting the energetic pace of modern life. As noted on the Minus Space Gallery webpage posted in connection with the Albers exhibition, Enoch Light

went to extraordinary technical lengths, and often great expense, to create recordings of the absolute highest quality possible that took full advantage of new technical capabilities of home audio equipment in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Light specifically perfected stereo effects that bounced sounds between the right and left channel speakers, which was called a “ping-pong effect.”

Hence Light took full advantage of the improved technical reproduction made possible by magnetic tape, which offered him and his engineers a broad range of sonic possibilities. To understand more clearly the significance of what Light was trying to achieve with his Commodore label, I turn to Stephen Struthers' observations in "Recording Music: Technology in the Art of Recording," (Avron Levine White, Ed., Lost in Music: Culture, Style and the Musical Event, Routledge 1987):

The idea of a contemporary musical recording as a reproduction of a real musical event is not tenable as, using a multi-track magnetic tape recording, the final recording is assembled and "reconstructed" from a number of fragments, and so there is no "original" of which that published recording can be a reproduction. Indeed a significant amount of popular music has never existed in a prerecorded stage, being created as it was being recorded, or as a unique combination of previously recorded process first heard together during editing. Many recordings today are made with the circumstances of reproduction uppermost in mind, either on the radio or for domestic listening. (244-45)

Josef Albers cover, 1961
Thus, as Struthers suggests, sounds are made, not "captured." The Enoch Light records are, among other things, feats of engineering. He emphasized the high sonic quality of his records in order to sell his records not to radio stations but to the home stereo enthusiast (here I mean just that, stereo equipment as opposed to monaural). The stereo effects that characterize his records -- sound-as-movement -- have their analogue in Albers' covers, which imbue the two-dimensional plane of the album cover with the optical illusion of movement. Albers' visual configurations allow for imaginary movement just as Light's stereo recordings suggest an imaginary, three-dimensional space ("concert hall") containing music.

I suspect the reason why Op Art was never a major influence on the album art of the Psychedelic Era was because the drug that came to represent the movement, LSD, was rendered through the swirling, Day-Glo, subtractive colors suggestive of a drug trip, very unlike the achromatic colors preferred by Op Artists such as Josef Albers, whose paintings suggested movement created by lines and patterns in black and white. Perhaps the best known album art influenced by the Op Art movement was Mike McInnerney's cover for The Who's Tommy (1969), but by then the influence of the Op Art movement had waned.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Pill Box

Below I present the full text of a statement given to a student reporter who is working on an article on the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s and the issue of birth control. As a result of having trouble arranging a time to meet, I prepared this statement and emailed it to her. Comments are, of course, welcome:

The so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1960s is a misconception, largely because whenever anyone refers to the so-called “Sixties,” they are almost always referring to the end of the Sixties, the period 1967-1970, a consequence of the extensive media coverage of the first “Human Be-In” at the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in January 1967, which introduced hippie culture to genteel, middle-class America. The hippies were what was then called “sexually liberated,” but actually were a very small percentage of the American population, which I assure you did not participate in the presumed “sexual revolution” of the Sixties. In general, American culture remained as Puritanical as it always had been. The Sixties “sexual revolution” was, in reality, a consequence of the widespread introduction of the antibiotic penicillin after 1945, the result of which removed all fear of venereal disease. In effect, you could have sex with whomever you wanted because there was no reason any longer to fear sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis. If you look at the statistics available from the Centers for Disease Control on live birth rates among American women, births among unmarried women compromised 4% of live births in the United States in 1950, up from 3% in 1930. In 1969, at the presumed “height” of the 1960s, that number had climbed to 10%, an increase of only 6% in 20 years (but more than double the increase 1930-1950). One may assume that if there had been a real "sexual revolution," the resulting libertine atmosphere would have prompted a sizable increase in births to unmarried women, which is not borne out by the facts. I suppose one could argue that the birth rate among unwed mothers did not increase as drastically as it could have because of the introduction of the first oral birth control contraceptive in 1960—“the Pill.” But this claim is false. The Pill had virtually no impact on live birth rates among unmarried women during the decade of the 1960s for the simple reason that the Pill was not made (legally) available to unmarried women in all fifty states until 1972. In contrast, preliminary data indicate that in 2008, 40.6% of all live births were to unmarried women. Thus, despite the existence of both contraceptives and of legalized abortion, in the 40 years 1970-2010, births to unmarried women have increased by over 30%, or roughly 15% every twenty years, more than double the 6% rise during the period 1950-1970. If you wish to speak of a sexual revolution, you really need to date it from 1945, as a trend that began after World War II and the introduction of antibiotics such as penicillin.