04.16.2015

I’ve been rewriting this essay i composed in the fervor of cultural shock last summer about the multifarious crises of identity endemic of the phenomenon of an expat repatriating to his country. I name the state i was in with an adjective because the lion’s share of recognitions I suffered upon returning were not of my own ineptness or maligned social habits, but rather the obvious shock everyone else in that country (i.e. this country) seemed to be suffering from.

The subtle niceties seemed unnecessary, the etiquette insidious. My mother’s house, filled with pictures of her (recently deceased) mother and family which had long ceased to exist represented the structure of my mother’s psyche; a model that was synecdoche to the kind of humanity I was choosing to live amidst. And what kind of people were these? Repressed, individualistic in an old, impractical way. Inexorably sentimental and convinced of the superiority of linear identity, of always returning to the same versions of oneself, the same old story: the King sent his son away; he’s gone, but he’s coming back that old boy, he’s coming back to take revenge on the big bad Tyrant. Behold, he’s returned and he’s strong enough to win. I always knew that child would take his rightful place. But the new King has a child who is sent away again by the power of that throne which is really the center of the cycle of life and death…

In a word, I’d returned to the Empire of the Oedipal, and I seemed to be the only free mind here. But I wasn’t an idiot. I reneged the temptation to solipsism by assuming that this home of mine is far too clever to not have a place for this sort of blemish on the psychological landscape, a trail forged by other wacko artists whose foray back into this field of mechanical people was in all likelihood already eaten up, branded and redistributed by the advertising sector of a dollop of corporate presses and other visually syndicated media.

But this metanarrative became my identity; one who will have been nothing more than a remembrance of people who’ve passed, one who was free to float on with (mostly) unmeditated plans for the future, one not responsible for one’s own story, because it will inevitably become something that’s been done before. It’s a little disappointing to know how much of last summer I let go by without making any headway because I was afraid that any progress made wouldn’t be novel enough for “me.” I had my metaphysical thumb stuck out, hitchhiking the psychohistorical current for a lift to somewhere more fascinating. Somehow I landed in New York.

But what I’m looking to resurrect while rewriting that Return for an immodest new zine called BTLG is the non-unitary, potent, radically liberated pathos I enjoyed and suffered those first few nights back in the USA, after I sobered up, but before I stopped not believing the land I was seeing, because it allowed me to exist as pure thoughts and emotions, because the imago formed during this time had neither my past in Vietnam nor the future in the States in mind; my retention and protention were futile by fiat, and I liked it, because somehow (it seemed that) to exist out of common narrative was to exist out of time.

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a tardy review of a show at yoko and a critique of expat cultural production that earnestly reads like a rather dated cry for better abstract expressionism

the review      

Stepping into the redesigned Yoko, I greet the doorman with a nod, and look up. A skyline of stolid silhouettes jerked to unsyncopated rhythm, pulsing with each tremolo scratch. The experimental pastiche is pulling their heads forward in random cycles, as if some monstrous question were being exorcised from the audience. Hanging off of the white walls are comic-portraits of John Lennon, Kurt Cobain and the like, each framed with a single-served quote-to-enlightenment.

Everything is black, or blue from the artist’s five meter runway of synthesizers and record players. I look up to see the introvert’s nest I remember retreating to last year. Empty space has replaced the loft.

fitting

fitting

I also notice an apparently non-functional A/C. Take a deep breath. The air is thick, watered down. I can smell bodies, perfumed and not. Also, whiskey? From the entrance, the bar’s bland white fluorescent light spills over more silhouettes in the far-out right. The customers stand there, no cash in hand. I continue up the stairs and navigate through a plethora of pillars decorated with woven wood-urns, dying candles and brand-new ashtrays. Conspicuous cosmopolitan eyes guide me to the menu. It’s as thick as a magazine, all done up and gleaming with the white light’s reflection. Unfortunately, perhaps pretentiously, the beer is 69K VND and up. Oh well, I thought, there’s cheap beer across the street and as long as I look beneficially busy, no one will object to externally purchased booze. I decide to splurge and buy a G&T (120K). The servers speak English fairly well, although it took an awkward exchange to learn that my Viet-accented English was unnecessary.

After several “excuse me’s” and bright-eyed smiles, I hugged my German Viet-kieu friend at the front of the crowd and saw the spectacle I’d come for.  It took a few seconds for me to realize why Yoko had changed. Or rather the kind of venue it might become. On the screen, images of average Saigon sights; xe oms, food stands, and other small businesses. I began to wonder why only businesses with no upward or downward momentum were chosen.

not yoko, but the feeling's parallel

not yoko, but the feeling’s parallel

As my thoughts began to dive into postindustrial squalor, the image was cut out, piece by piece, and lines of static appeared at the top and bottom. Imagine an old VCR fast-forwarding long enough to achieve sentience. A rainbow of colors and fractal effects begin to fill the bodies, overwriting them one organ at a time. The next few minutes feature traditional Viet hats resting on a Fibonacci sequence resting on a hoodie proclaiming “USA #1.”

This show wasn’t just entertainment; it’s a reproduction of a city casually reinterpreting its place in a possibly non-mutual consummation with neo-colonial markets. A regular cannibal’s Babel, Yoko is. Two obligatory femme fatals shook their stuff to the left of the screen, baiting me to join in. A tall blond man to my right smiles and gives me a thumbs-up, nodding, to dismiss any doubt. But before I could bite, the projector switched functions, and suddenly the crowd was displayed on screen: silhouettes of static noise, fractals and bubbles pushing and melting into everyone’s crossed arms. Only the girls moved like the screen. Everything was scratches with velvet and perfume. A dolly shot of five ambiguous bubble-shadows standing in a semicircle. The girls and their go(o)ds. Scene.

the critique

Bringing experimental noise music into a venue like Yoko, where the object of the show is either to dance or talk, creates the same familiar paradoxes accompanying entertainment universally. Here you have long, Wagnerian moans and pulls laced with absolutely spontaneous tremolo scratches and effects generally not heard above the radio spectrum. But still those scantily clad femmes’ goods were shaking to their best guess of a rhythm.

Anticipating the crowd’s response, the DJs gradually alter the soundscape until some base rhythm achieves a veritable omnipresence. But why? My contention is that they have three at-hand choices on stage, or three ways to respond to the polemic of production. Giving the artists the benefit of the doubt (in that they are not putting on a show only for fame and fortune, but actually have something to express), there are three kinds of audience members:

i) the avant garde, listening not to be entertained, but to study, interpret, travel-with, suffer; listen.

ii) the entertainers, who analyze the production for value alone, be it financial or sexual.

iii) the entertained, who cheer or jeer only in conjunction with passing levels of jouissance or alienation, note with this last group, their actions have less to do with the production than with their happiness.

These three types are not rigid in the sense of being composed of the same individuals at all times-there is always the contingency of psychological transformation or perturbation. and there’s death.

But so the question begged is: which audience do the DJs play to? Are they purists, abstaining from the cupidity of entertainment and shock-value in full fidelity to artistic expression? Perhaps, but then, if they really are there for the art alone, and bland bloodless repetition for entertainment’s sake is the abject, then those of us poor fools suckered into one of the last two categories (and i’m fully aware of the religious irony here) must be saved.

But here they realize in order to save us from blind entertainment, in order to overcome entertainers, they must Entertain. This is already weird enough to signify some sort of cyberpunk continence. In order to hold the entertainers in a symbolic chain capable of eschewing business par usual, to Rising Above Entertainment, the producers (if avant garde) must keep the girls’ goods swaying, keeping the entertained profitably distracted, leaving the entertainers’ minds in a good space to Listen.

From what space-or continence or whatever-can someone really Listen? A place where they are willing to be (although not necessarily always are) beside his-or-herself. An element of amnesia is required, but this must be one of forgetting the short-term hyperactive emotional affirmation of the now (à la Dionysus); the entertaining quality of the production must not rely on happiness, or any quick derivation of some other easily triggered emotion.

the production must induce amnesia of something

The entertained must be just that (i.e. entertained) until the entertainers forget their existence as such, in favor of a deeper, more impassioned self, willing to experience anything-even boredom, for the sake of experiment and expression (or to speak Sartrean, transcendence). Since the entertainment of the entertained is primary, the production must first induce amnesia of the drawn-out, big-self identity that the artists, the avant garde-is always striving to be.

the production must cloak the producers

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for “d’auteur”

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