Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Category: Visual arts Page 1 of 13

Clearing the mind in these troubled times

Run! It’s Guilala!

Sure, I’m watching. The Trump presidency looks like one of those time-lapse videos of a dead pig, where you see it being consumed by decay and maggots. Fascinating and terrifying as it is, I sometimes have to walk away for my own peace of mind. I seek normalcy through culture.

Music. I often have Pink Floyd on the stereo when I’m writing, which is happening right now. But a few minutes before this typing started, I was listening to a new piece of vinyl I picked up today at Record Archive. “John Cage presents Variations IV” sounds like a man trying to find a station on a dashboard radio while driving the car with the windows down, adding ambient sounds from the street to the mix. This is Cage trying to shake us of the notion of what composition is generally understood to be. The liner notes on the back of the album suggest this is a “music-as-experience” experiment. The sounds supplied are of each musicians’ choosing; a chart prepared by Cage creates random opportunities for sound to be applied.

It is not conducive to writing.

Books. Which one I’m reading sorta depends on what room of the house I’m in. Ron Chernow’s “Grant” is in the living room, where I can usually find a block of an hour or two to focus on this amazing story. It’s going to take me a few more months to get through those 1,000 pages. Because upstairs, on the nightstand, waiting, are the final few pages of George Saunders’ experimental novel “Lincoln in the Bardo.” It gets a little easier once you understand that most of the main characters are dead.

Oops, sorry, I’m a little late on this spoiler alert…

And then there’s the book My Friend Michele gave me, Richard Preston’s “The Wild Trees.” That’s the one I read on the bus on my way to work. Or when I’m taking a lunch break. And when I’m on the bus on my way home from work. It’s the kind of book you can pick it up, set it down, and pick it up the next day and you’re right back in the redwoods. I am learning so much. Like, what happens to the human body when it falls 50 feet out of a tree (a lot happens, none of it good.) And redwoods are the largest living organisms on the planet, unless you count the mostly underground fungal mass, three square miles big, in the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon. And some biologists prefer to see that fungus as many individual mushrooms.

That kind of stuff is what biologists talk about at cocktail parties.

Cuisine? I will not eat anything until I have confirmed that it is dead.

But this self-inflating narrative that builds my case for Renaissance Man completely falls apart when the discussion moves to film. Because, I really like bad movies.

Oh, not just any bad movie. You couldn’t get me to sit through one of those Hallmark Channel things if you propped my eyelids open like Malcolm McDowell being drugged with illness-inducing drugs and forced to watch violent films in “A Clockwork Orange.” No, I want 1950s movies where the careless spread of radiation from nuclear bomb tests creates gargantuan insects. I want slow-moving actors in lizard costumes crushing Japanese cities.

Like “The X From Outer Space,” from 1967. I watched it last week. That one has it all. A team of scientists on an expedition to Mars encounters a flying saucer, which attacks it by spraying it with spores. The Earth scientists gather one of the spores and take it inside their ship, which offers the familiar, non-science special effects: Flames erupting from the rear of the spacecraft, with fumes curling up lazily, like a cigarette sitting in an ash tray. When the spacecraft returns to Earth, the tiny spore soon grows into an armor-plated chicken with glowing red eyes, 200 feet tall, weighing 15,000 tons. Not again! Poor Tokyo! Excellent use of model tanks and aircraft. Lots of tense dialogue, delivered with gritted teeth and easy-to-read subtitles. Men who dress like generals point at a huge wall map, tracking the creature’s movements with a red cut-out of the monster that they happened to have in a drawer somewhere, perhaps from when the last monster flattened Tokyo. They’ve even named it, Guilala. It moves on from Tokyo, kicking over things – what the hell’s wrong with these creatures? Now it’s up to the same team of astronauts and scientists who carelessly brought this thing to Earth to stop it. Which they do, with jet fighters – at least the ones Guilala doesn’t swat out of the sky – dousing it with something called “Guilalanium.” Which shows you how ahead of its time “The From Outer Space” is, as we haven’t even invented the stuff yet. All with a superbly out-of-place jazz soundtrack, and one of the female love interests wrapping up the film with an inexplicable comment about Guilala teaching her about love.

One year later, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” was released. The technological gulf between the special effects of these two films is immense.

But I don’t clear my mind with 90 minutes of lousy science fiction because I’m interested in learning something new about space travel. Or to discover how easy it is for a 15,000-ton creature to sustain itself by feeding on nuclear fuel, which is plentiful and poorly stored throughout the Japanese countryside. No, I’m here for the stuff that you never see in movies that take themselves too seriously. I’m here to watch astronauts slamming down a few cocktails and dancing on the moon.

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Sisyphus, and the point of video games

Aubrey Anable explains the most-important art form of the 21st century.

So, you’ve stopped the final zombie with a perfect kill shot to the head. Congratulations. You’ve won the battle. But your high score doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve won the war.

Aubrey Anable was at the University of Rochester’s Rush Rhees Library on Thursday to, as she puts it, “defend video games from cultural commentators.” In other words, those who dare to call “Angry Birds” a vapid waste of your time.

Video games, she insists, are the most-important new art form of the 21st century.

An assistant professor of film studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Anable’s contribution to what she calls “an emerging scholarship in the field of game studies” is her book, Playing With Feelings: Video Games and Affect.

Affect. In this case, the word means the experiences of feeling and emotion. For Anable, a guest speaker of UR’s Neilly Series Lectures, video games serve the same purpose as the poet Virgil in Dante’s The Divine Comedy: They lead us through today’s complex digital landscape.

Anable, who received her PhD in Visual and Cultural Studies from the University of Rochester, reaches back to the 1930s, and the impact the relative new art form, cinema, had on the public. How those on-screen images spoke to audiences about the radical, new social emotions being generated by their rapidly evolving world. Affects. And how today, video games are now in that same role, a “ubiquitous part of our digital environment.”

“Video games,” she says, “have inherited and significantly revised the role of cinema.”

Anable recalls the early computer scientist Alan Turing’s question: “Can machines think?” And the follow-up question from the father of affect theory, Silvan Tomkins: “Can machines feel?” Questions that cannot be answered, Anable says, from the perspective of “the simplistic idea that computers work like human brains.”

Human brains indulge in risk taking. They revel in achievement. Affects are biologically-based categories arranged by Tomkins, such as interest-excitement. And even shame-humiliation. Useful concepts. Shame, Anable says, helps to uphold social norms.

She traces the origin of video games to Cold War computer labs, where 1958’s “Tennis For Two” and 1962’s “Spacewar!” taught us how to feel about thermonuclear war. The mechanics of the computers of that day were beyond the reach of the average person – the hardware on these gadgets filled a room. So these games were intended to be ambassadors, created to make this intimidating technology “friendly and accessible,” Anable says.

The circuits we’ve traveled since “Tennis For Two” does have contemporary applications. For Anable, video games help make “techno-cultural conditions accessible.” They are “giving expression to how our lives are lived in the digital age.” They are extensions of email, social media and creating a word document, “ordinary activities imbued with the possibility of play.”

“Those interactions,” she says, “are necessary to how we live our lives already.”

Interactions that are less destructive than our often mean-spirited social media because, “The stakes are lower.”

Aubrey admits she’s less interested in big-budget, super-realistic, immersive games such as “Call of Duty.” She finds “casual mobile games” as a more-useful gateway into our digital era. Those include the various solitaire games, Suduko, Extreme Road Trip. Games played in short bursts.

“Video games are not an escape,” she argues, “but pull us into the world.”

Useful applications can be found at some level in even the most seemingly lightweight of escapist video entertainments. Anable cites “Plants vs. Zombies” as your gardening skills pitted against The Undead. And the zaniness of “Frogger” reflecting today’s age of “too many things coming at once.” More to her point, video games are also portals into pornography, art or learning skills such as math. “The video game,” Anable says, “is not just about one thing.”

But most importantly, Anable argues, just as cinema in the 1930s was a societal-teaching tool, video games are as well today. They are teaching us the rhythm of digital labor.

She talks of ergonomic shifts, people juggling multiple tasks simultaneously, creating an easy flow, a rhythm between work and play. With phone in hand, we are now constantly connected to work. We are now in an age where our minds are slipping from one activity to the next. In this digital age, it is putting to work our short attention spans.

At this point, cultural commentators will step in and ask: Is this an improvement over a sustained focus?

Going to her laptop computer, Anable summons a video game and projects it on a screen for her audience in the Hawkins-Carlson Room at Rush Rhees Library. The game is “Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment,” with amusingly primitive graphics by today’s standards. By manipulating a couple of keys, the player becomes Sisyphus of Greek legend pushing a boulder up a hill. Inevitably, the boulder rolls back downhill, and the player must start over. “There is no way to successfully complete the task,” Anable says. Your only choice is to give up and close the browser.

This is where the high score does not win the war. We have reached a key affect of video games, she says. An affect we must tolerate and dwell in. An affect that is a necessary step to success. An affect that even our system of capitalism can accommodate in tremendous amounts, she says, so long as the possibility of success exists.

That affect?

“All video games,” Anable says, “are about failure.”

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What’s behind ‘The Yellow Wallpaper?’

Nikki Joshi, theatrical percussionist.

Nikki Joshi raises the knife: Oh no, we are all thinking, holding collective breath. Don’t kill it. Please don’t stab… that red balloon.

And then, to the relief of the audience, about 25 of us in a darkened Todd Theater on the University of Rochester campus, Joshi spares the red balloon.

This is theater percussion, and a piece called “Scratch,” by the avant-garde Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin. Avant-garde is the operating phrase on this Friday night. You don’t wander into a local music club and find this kind of stuff: a woman in punk black plucking petals from a red rose and dropping them into water-filled bowls, which she taps with sticks, eliciting a different pitch from each different-sized bowl. No, you must seek out these curiosities. A darkened theater on a college campus, that’s a good place to start.

Joshi, a Toronto musician, plays chimes to several portions of California composer Christopher Adler’s “Zaum Box,” in which she chirps Russian Futurist poetry. She moves on to Annea Lockwood’s “Amazonia,” a work by the New Zealand-born composer, now teaching at Vassar College. A piece for snare drum, Joshi drags a mallet across the drum head to produce a disagreeable growl, taps the sides of the drum, then loosens the drum from its stand and sets a few marbles on it, tipping the drum so they roll around the edge like a ball on a roulette wheel. She adds vocals, like a purring cat.

All the time, I tell myself, it’s important to remember: Don’t over-analyze this. Just go with it. These pieces are nothing that can be danced to, but I know a lot of drummers whose world would be turned upside-down by this exhibition. Sound that challenges expectations. These are no verse-chorus-verse compositions. You only know the piece has been completed when Joshi looks up at the audience and smiles.

She moves on to the Greek composer Georges Aperghis’ “Le Corps Á Corps,” sitting cross-legged on the floor with an African djembe, reciting words inspired by a manic motorcycle race: The words pour out in a staccato speed chatter, a violent struggle of gasping poetry:

Before ten o’clock, around the body, they were already dispersed all along the track, on both sides, packed shoulder to shoulder. The only visible actions occurred at the finish line, from which from time to time a chariot emerged – seizing the shining helmet, leaping up, injuring his arm – blasting out of the cloud of dust, and staggering down from his motorcycle, which the maintenance team rushed to refuel and launch back onto the track, with a brand new rider on it. From the fresh wound on his arm the blood flows. Immense cries arise.

Joshi stands, smiles, and bows. Now we know the piece is over. Time for a break, before the main event: A performance of Eastman School of Music professor Matt Curlee’s interpretation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s intense 1890 Gothic interior-decorating horror story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

This piece will require some explanation. And for that, up steps Jessica Lacher-Feldman, assistant dean of the UR’s Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation. She talks about “the connection between archives and the arts,” and the importance of “connecting people with stuff.” Archives, she says, are jumping-off points, or entry points, to creativity. She points to her own archival research into the 1954 novel “The Bad Seed,” by William March. Exploring his notes, she discovered the back story of this tale of a murderous little girl: Much of March’s inspiration for “The Bad Seed” was drawn from detective magazines.

Accessing archives for a work at hand raises the interpretation to a visceral level. You can smell it, listen to it, Lacher-Feldman says. And so it is with “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

The story is told in the form of journal entries, inspired by Gilman’s own claustrophobic existence after she is confined to a room by her husband and doctors’ misogynistic solutions to what they diagnose as a woman’s “temporary nervous depression.”

Curlee calls this “a found-object piece,” built from thrift-store acquisitions. Wearing a black Victorian dress, and often with a maniacal expression on her face, Joshi rummages through a life spread out on a desk. Her percussion raises the drama of Gilman’s words, as she rattles the pills in a bottle and her strings of pearls, beats on glass bottles and vases and candlesticks, tickles them with her fingernails, and speaks into a pewter pitcher, then snuggles with it as though the pitcher were a baby – post-partum depression. She rages against the men who are imprisoning her on a medical pretext. But her words always return to the wallpaper, and her examination of its patterns. Soon, she believes she sees a woman behind the paper’s intricate patterns. “I fancy it is the paper that keeps her so still,” she says. And then, the paper moves because the women crawling behind the pattern is shaking it.

We know wallpaper is a traditionally dangerous interior-design choice in the literary world. The last words of Oscar Wilde were supposedly something along the lines of, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.”

The story of those being Wilde’s last words is probably fiction, as is “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Yet the imprisoned woman tearing down the wallpaper is a handy metaphor. “She’s taking charge of her own life,” Lacher-Feldman says. As Gilman did in real life. The UR recently acquired a collection of Gilman’s letters and illustrations, and they show someone who was much more than a woman marginalized by the men around her; she escaped her demons to become a writer, commercial artist, editor and lecturer.

So the story has a feminist direction. And was ahead of what was commonly produced in its time. More than a century after “The Yellow Wallpaper” was published, it’s the idea of a woman taking charge of her life – even in the face of a debilitating mental illness – that resonates today. To the point, Lacher-Feldman says, that the University of Rochester is developing a class in which “The Yellow Wallpaper” will help explore women and their reproductive rights.

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