June 19th, 2008

4 Horsemen of the Serial Slasher, and 1 Real Deal

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Clockwise from top left: Freddy Krueger, LeatherFace, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees

I am looking at these masks for an upcoming performance video featuring the horror genre monster men with faces obscured by heavy scars or masks. Since they are masked, they could be anyone, and in fact the identity of Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th is used in the original by his mother and in one sequel by a local man inspired by his methods. Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and Hallowe’en – all iconic slashers – have lots in common besides the monstrous freaks that terrorize their protagonists. All feature hapless teenagers lopped off one by one, a triumphant female scream queen who outsmarts or at least outruns the badguy, and a behind the scenes mega sequel generator.

Though all are fictional stories, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was originally presented as a true story. Some horror theorists suggest the story, or at least the family butcher compound, was based on police findings at the home of Ed Gein, a serial killer from America’s Dairyland, Wisconsin. So gruesome were Gein’s heinous acts that they inspired not only the Leatherface butcher character but also Psycho‘s Norman Bates and Silence of the Lamb‘s Buffalo Bill. A few nights ago on The Chiller Channel I watched a made-for-TV style film, Ed Gein The Butcher of Plainfield, which is not for the feint of heart. The acting is flat, classifying this as a horror film is truly tasteless, and the director Hollywoodizes the physically unremarkable Gein – reinventing him as the towering husky Leatherface character. From Youtube, a real documentary:

June 19th, 2008

Title This

better living through reality tv

The title Better Living Through Reality TV, by Laurie Ouellette and James Hay, drips of sarcasm in the ears of those like myself who inherently harbour suspicion of the media, especially TV and advertising.

I am not a fan of Reality TV programming, but I am interested in the enormous fan base and the genre as an example of expanded (though controlled) participatory viewing – the new model of media entertainment. I am also fascinated by the compulsion to participate in the game of voting, and the more complex game of contestant-hood, where the stakes are high and the 4th wall increasingly thin. The variety and discomfiture is enormous in Beauty and the Geek, Joe Millionaire, Tila Tequila, The Biggest Loser, and The Swan – to name just a fraction of Reality TV’s offerings, each upping the ante on the next.

Beyond voyeuristic impulses, viewers have long desired to participate, to be the star of TV drama – however tawdry and brief. Talk shows like Oprah and Phil Donahue in the 80s and 90s aired a nation’s laundry, never wanting for guests with dirty secrets and viewers with eager appetites. Artist Bjorn Melhus’s operatic installation, Primetime from 2001 dissects this drama brilliantly and with uneasy humour.

melhus

The book, which I have only just begun, delves head first into the political, educational (yes educational), economic, social, and ideological affects of the phenomenon that is Reality TV. TV as a privatized and homogenizing body now purports to speak to the public good. The TV shows and their agendas essentially become a replacement for the government’s interest in social programming, providing entertainment and a resource for self-improvement, albeit with the hefty price of commercial endorsements. In the introduction the authors write, “It is a sign of the times that, in the absence of public welfare programs, hundreds of thousands of people now apply directly to reality TV programs for housing, affordable health care, and other forms of assistance”. Sign of the times? Sounds like high time to petition the government and vote in a candidate who truly stands for public good before the poor are washed away in the next natural disaster -slash- act of god. I’m not sure that a designer wardrobe, liposuction, jaw implants, and dental veneers (a modest example of The Swan contestants’ prizes) are going to help the public good.

House makeovers, the perfect mate, and extreme elective surgery are not beyond the reach of the disenfranchised, but only the precious few are awarded a chance at the prizes. American Idol was for a time America’s #1 TV show in the ratings – the prize there a recording contract awarded for the performance of unoriginal music. Anyone can do it!

Reality TV is presided over by moderators, consultants, and experts – the authors argue that they are patronizing yes but empowering too. These roles champion an active, self-possessed, and entrepreneurial citizenry – “at a time when privatization, personal responsibility, and consumer choice are promoted as the best way to govern liberal capitalist democracies, reality TV shows us how to conduct and “empower” ourselves as enterprising citizens”. TV has become “the quintessential technology of advanced or “neo” liberal citizenship” (17). The authors weave In Foucault’s view of government and the self-governing model. TV takes governance into the home through a hard-hitting educational stance – but there is no place in this model for individuals who wish to reject femininity or masculinity as presented on screen, or who prefer a subcultural lifestyle (p 116).

Some shows speak to the political process – your vote counts. Polled by Pursuant Research, Inc, 35% of American Idol voters in 2006 believed their vote counted as much or more than their vote for the president (p 215), and an Idol moderator claimed that the 2006 winner received more votes than any president in history. Maybe the government should take notes – this is what the people want – voting at home, popular (generic) music, and big self-improvement prizes. The media pays attention – fans are the customers.

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Another TV genre that lets contestants dream big, financially if not cosmetically, is the game show. In related news, Mark Kostabi’s latest vanity project, Title This. For those unfamiliar with Mark Kostabi, he is a New York artist whose Kostabi World factory workers churn out endless dime-a-dozen paintings. He’s infamous for this factory approach to art making (not unlike artstar giants Jeff Koons or Damian Hirst), lack of originality, selling works on eBay, and his media persona.

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Said Kostabi, “My paintings are actually more interesting than the conceptual hijinks [which he is famous for], but you’d have to be a painter to understand that. It’s much easier to be entertained by anti-establishment intellectual slapstick than it is to understand what’s going on in a painting.” Unfashionable championing of painters as the pinnacle of fine artists aside, Kostabi’s Public Access variety TV show, Title This, is in my opinion, the most interesting thing he does.

To the tune of his own piano playing, he invites celebrity and artworld friends to title his paintings, rewarding them with $25 for successful titles. I have some ideas for the (untitled) image above.

June 12th, 2008

Fog Lust

fog

Fog, mist, and haze, oh my!

It’s either my double Newfie ancestry or my fascination with horror plots – but I think I’m in love, or lust. Who needs an iPhone when you have a Falcon Fog machine??

June 12th, 2008

Toronto’s Condoland and Cancer portraits – not necessarily related

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I was in Toronto last week for a site visit to College Park, where I’ll be doing a project for La Nuit Blanche in October. The fog was ominous the afternoon I arrived, and late at night lightning lit the fabulous view of a purple and red lit CN tower outside my hotel window. I turned off all the lights and sat by the window for hours. My mother never let me do that as a child because it is dangerous, she said. She never elaborated, which is no doubt why I still harbour a slight fear that the lightning will pierce my window and frizzle fry me, zap my eyeballs clear out of my skull, or at least smash the glass and send me plummeting out the window (in this case ten stories high). I eyed the pool below, gauging my chances of landing in the water, should the unthinkable happen.

Toronto has surpassed Brooklyn in it’s outbreak of condoland conversions. Everywhere you look along the lake and downtown areas there are condo towers sprouting and when I say sprouting I mean looming – “reshaping the skyline” in one developer’s tagline, vaguely reminiscent of cosmetic surgery. At least in Williamsburg they are mostly small and less obnoxious, though certainly omnipresent.

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More on that later, it is not the point of today’s story.

When I left my meeting with Toronto City Events planners and curator Gordon Hatt, I found myself at the start of a heat wave on the City Hall plaza with water fountains full blast and electric magenta flowers – it was a remarkably beautiful day, a surprise after the stormy night. Before I crossed the street to check out of my hotel, I encountered an installation of black and white documentary photographs in Nathan Phillips Square, featuring cancer patients and survivors, taken by the people that love them. The exhibition is traveling across the country (it left Toronto June 9), gathering new submissions as it moves.

The photos are accompanied by abbreviated stories about each person, showcasing the tremendous variety of cancers afflicting “38% of women and 44% of men during their lifetime” (Canadian Cancer Statistics 2006). The stories and images are alternately heartbreaking, stunning, funny, casual, erotic, and beautiful – reflecting the diversity of brave people who are their subjects, and their relationships to the photographers. I was choked up by the time I read them all, and almost missed my Airport shuttle.

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Which brings me to the NYC marathon lottery. I still don’t know if I got in, but I’ve been training nevertheless, despite the heatwave. It’s just as much of a challenge as it was last year when I ran my first marathon in Atlanta, perhaps more since this year I’m coming off an injury. This time I plan to run to raise money for cancer research. Nothing to do with the portraits.

June 11th, 2008

Vampire Posers

vampires

How are we to believe these vampires in vogue, sans fangs and the token blood drop at the edge of the mouth? Fashionable vampire beauties seem so 1990. Zombies are the monsters of the day.

Which brings me to Another New Horror Review (sight unseen):

twilight

Twilight
In Twilight, which I have not seen since it is yet-to-be-released in December 2008, the story of Romeo and Juliet meets the magic of Peter Pan. Love Never Dies (à la Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Never Never Land beckons, and the teen dream vampire posers don’t have any good lines, not even in the trailer.

See for yourself, below. I suggest skipping this one.

In related news, Twilight Creations will release a new game in August, called Humans, in which you the player are the zombie, chasing humans! Not sure how this will look any different than standard First Person Shooter games, except you the player will be chomping, not shooting, and conceptualizing yourself as an undead corpse in some stage of decay. That spells “fun”!

June 11th, 2008

New Horror Review (sight unseen)

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The Happening
In the grand tradition of -ing titles for Horror Flicks, after The Haunting, The Shining, The Howling, and The Reaping – I will stop there – comes The Happening. According to my beloved dictionary widget: “when things happen, they come to pass either for a reason or by chance”. That’s a little murkier than your average dictionary definition. Hence a brilliant title for a horror film: horror abhors logic.

Opening June 13 (that’s Friday the 13th for those not following – nu nu nu nu), The Happening stars Mark Wahlberg, former Calvin Klein underwear model and front man for The Funky Bunch, and features crowds of people caught in a typical nightmarish scenario: can’t scream (or talk), can’t move (or run); and ultimately can’t help but propel themselves off the roofs of buildings and flat onto the pavement (perhaps a case of vertigo, or loss of balance). I haven’t seen it, as my blog title proves, but what could be more frightening than a horror film with no monster at all but the paralysis of fear? After all “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” quoth FDR.

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The Quiet Earth meets 28 Days Later?
On the other hand Marky Mark may be staging a good old fashioned piece of performance art, which I am all for, having entirely missed Allan Kaprow in the late 50s and 60s. According to Wikipedia, and straight from art education 101, “A happening is a performance, event or situation meant to be considered as art. Happenings take place anywhere, are often multi-disciplinary, often lack a narrative and frequently seek to involve the audience in some way. Key elements of happenings are planned, but artists sometimes retain room for improvisation.”

Either way, this one looks scar-y.

Update June 14, 2008:
Richard Corliss trashed the film in his (sight seen) Time review, calling it “this ill wind, this feeble gust of an environmental horror story.”

June 2nd, 2008

Obsolescence on my Mind

halifax duncan cove jillian mcdonald
halifax duncan cove jillian mcdonald

This week I was a participant in a conference titled Obsolescence and the Culture of Human Invention, organized by Halifax researchers Robert Bean and Ilan Sandler, at The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

Other participants and artists in an accompanying exhibition titled “txt” at Anna Leowens Gallery included David Clark of Halifax, Michelle Gay and Michael Maranda from Toronto, and Luke Murphy and Marcin Ramocki from NYC. California-based keynote speaker Katherine Hayles joined us at the end of the week to discuss code, language, hyperattention and deep attention, and her recent critical writing on transhumanism in science fiction. The transhumanists advocate taking any means necessary, including plastic surgery and sexual selection, to stave off death, disease, gender, undesireable characteristics, and other unpleasant human afflictions. This futurist belief system is championed in novels such as the very strange Mr. Boy.

My interest in obsolescence is in the rise of Free Culture proponents in the face of ever tightening copyright laws, and the obsolescence of past film and television viewing in favour of a more expanded digital cinema and participation-based viewing. I’ll post more on that when I get back to New York.

Although most of the conference daytime was spent indoors in near darkness watching presentations and discussing obsolescence, we took a magical field trip to chilly Duncan’s Cove where Robert cautioned us to stay clear of the ocean’s edge lest a rogue wave sneak up and claim us. Really. We found sponges, urchins, crabs, and mussels washed up along the rocks, some of which we had eaten earlier in the week.

~photos of the expedition by Michael Maranda

June 2nd, 2008

Reading Horror

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I just finished reading The Horror Film by Rick Worland, published by Blackwell. It is superbly written and potentially fascinating even for the horror anti-fan.

Worland discusses social factors that influence what horror films get made and repeated, and the ways in which horror has affected it’s audiences historically. He analyses the production of horror films during wartimes of the 20th century, also applicable to contemporary wartime horror film production.

The author gives excellent analyses of several pivotal slashers including Hallowe’en and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

He writes about horror and humour, referring to Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol which ran from 1897 to 1962 and featured bloody one act stagings of stabbings, rapes, electrocutions, and other horrors. Typically Le Grand Guignol mixed horror with humour. (p 111)
Suggesting that horror and humour can be combined only carefully to avoid a failure of both, he champions the bizarre 80s film Re-Animator for succeeding in creating a balance.

Maybe I’ve seen too many horror films, but the writing is so compelling that this book begs a sequel.

May 25th, 2008

Popping the Running Cherry

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I’ve been nervous about running on the road again, but this evening ran three miles (yes only three miles, but read on), including some hills.

This friend and this one both told me in the past two months that they were inspired by my running. What running?! I thought at the time.

As of this week, I’m back in the saddle after wickedly tearing my hamstring last June. Along the way I experienced some pain and more stupidity (my own), much physical therapy and a lot of strengthening in the gym, plus a little jealousy of Beckley’s upcoming NYC marathon. We ran our first together last March in Atlanta – excruciating and unbelievably exhilarating. I’ve never been in better shape in my life, which was pretty cool.

So I decided this week to prepare for the marathon anyway and if I can’t get in via the lottery maybe someone I know will drop out and I’ll take their spot. :D

Tonight I ran a meandering path in the lovely Qu̩bec City. The only thing missing was the sweet reward Рour traditional high five at the end.

May 24th, 2008

Hudson Haunting

sparkling jillian mcdonald

Last weekend I installed The Sparkling, an interactive video installation, in an abandoned antique shop in rainy Hudson, NY. Being alone in the space with the piece, which I was for the days and nights of installation, gave me the creeps.

sparkling jillian mcdonald

This, in a back room corridor, didn’t help. Okay I set it up but still:

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The project featuring several artists in storefronts and outdoor lots, Plugged In, is curated by Hudson’s Melissa Stafford. Plugged In also features a wonderful installation in an outdoor used furniture lot titled Everything’s Rosie by my good friend Christine Sciulli, and a video piece called Plain Text above and in the windows of a furniture design shop by the quirky and fascinating Fernando Orellana.