Nettime -- Interview with Norman Klein on the New Canon -- 10.02.07

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Interview with Norman Klein on the New Canon
by Jelle Bouwhuis

Exactly a decade ago, around the time that the Guggenheim Bilbao
opened its doors (October 1997), the phrase 'Disneyfication' was
not only used for society in general, as it was introduced by Jean
Baudrillard in the 80s, but became also a fashionable denominator to
characterize the latest trend in museum policy - usually negatively.
However, the process which we casually call Disneyfication, also in
the field of the arts, is inevitable, says Norman Klein. Klein is
a Los Angeles based cultural critic and author of 'The History of
Forgetting - Los Angeles and the erasure of memory' (1997) and 'The
Vatican to Vegas - A History of Special Effects (2004), among others.
The first is centered on the devastation of the quarter Bunker Hill in
LA from the 60s until the 80s. Through evocative sources such as film
history, novels and 'docufables' Klein describes how this once lively
neighborhood with 250.000 inhabitants erased from memory. In the
second he describes how special effects and 'scripted spaces', spaces
that put the spectator in the center to please, amuse and direct him,
became a substitute for feudalist power relations since the Baroque
and continue to do so up and to the current Bush administration in the
United States. Especially since the 50s the art world sees itself more
and more confronted with what Klein calls the New Canon:

I am convinced that the art historical models we set up during the 1920's,
let us say, or even the 1950's - both following a kind of Enlightenment
sense of evolutionary culture - have worn out. In brief, there seems to be
no way to go from the Enlightenment to Disneyland in 1955, much less toward
this illusionist culture that is so essential in 2007.
There are various strategies for taking us to 2007 more easily. For example,
I write about the seventeenth century as an instructive parallel, to help
explain the eras in the arts since Pop, or the mid-fifties. Other models
simply begin with Pop itself, much the way that art historians used to begin
the modern with Manet, or David.

A flock of new shows on LA Pop (Centre Pompidou, 2006 - JB), on LA
Cool (presumably 80s/90s artists such as Mike Kelley, Christopher
Williams and Stephen Prina - JB) suggest the same response, to locate
a new point of origin, to reinvent the American place in the post
1955 art history. Among museums, curatorial buying over the past
thirty years has brought Conceptual Art forward to the cutting edge of
blue-chip indicators - in art pricing, and even art nostalgia.

So what meaning can we build out of this trend? I'll try as follows:
In effect, the history of the last fifty years is increasingly
about the crisis in representing space, from conceptual space to
virtual space to cyberspace to cinematic space to public space to
intimate space/identity. And the era when these Scripted Spaces,
these narratized, themed illusions began to take over begins around
1955. And not only in the fine arts, of course, also in architecture,
in urban planning, in themed environments. And finally, in media
environments - directly into the internet, games, media art. At last,
we begin to see the new canon emerging, for as surely as the stock
market opens every Monday, a canon must emerge in the art world.
Even if it is an anti-canon. But is it an anti-canon really? Instead
of abstraction, we have the ironic staging of space. Instead of
Enlightenment traditions of ontological real, we have Artifice, the
art of the handmade illusionistic space.

And even museums are being redesigned, reinvented as cultural tourism.
Space is problematical, an allegory for global madness, a soothing
journey into a sublime nowhere, a re-enactment of the invasion of the
self by entertainment, which stands in for global economic authority.
The canon then will be more architectonic, more about themed illusion,
trace the end of irony, let us say, from Pop into hyperbolic home
entertainment. Both Pop and Minimalism are potential points of origin,
not the post-modern moment, but rather a post-war paradigm as starting
point. Pop is the figurative scripted space. Minimalism in the victory
of entertainment/design.

It is only a matter of time before this emerging canon - and canons
are always problematical, and anti-canonical - becomes a standard
place to start a conference. We may think this is an evasion, but
isn't canon always something of an evasion? It is a discourse, not
an answer. This new canon, post 1955, will only be valuable if it
generates its own problems effectively. After all, modernism and
postmodernism may be over, but dialectical logic is still the best way
to keep art history alive.

If Scripted Space is the key term for the new canon, or anti-canon,
why should it start in the 50s? In 'The Vatican to Vegas' you make
perfectly clear that it already functioned in the Baroque era.

Clearly all spaces are scripted to some degree (designed as narrative
journeys for the viewer). But in the US, at any rate, from the mid
fifties on, vast shifts in how public spaces were scripted can be
seen. I'll set up a skeletal map of the larger process:

1. Themed environments, from Disneyland to the first modernist
expansion of Las Vegas, to fast food companies like McDonald's, to
early shopping centers...

2. The City of Circulation: Massive freeway programs across the US
after 1953; puncturing the centripetal city; vast erasures of downtown
areas, and so-called "blighted" inner city neighborhoods, often to
speed up circulation, to diminish the power of older urban centers.

3. Suburban takeoff, the vast haemorrhaging of American inner cities
becomes apparent after 1955.

4. Massive growth in home entertainment, as television leads a
series of technological replacements for the public space. The movie
monopolies are broken after 1948, hit bottom by the mid-fifties. For
decades, movie viewing goes down, until Hollywood learns to form
alliances with home entertainment, and with suburban multi-plex,
themed mall culture.

5. The coming of age of adolescent culture, rock 'n roll, etc., a
very different staging of public life, of celebrity, of glamour-- far
beyond the bobby-soxer thirties, forties.

6. Variations of Pop across the fine arts, in response to the sudden
hegemony of this much expanded entertainment economy.

7. Minimalism, as the twin of pop, aestheticizes what becomes the
designer culture for a much larger technologically driven consumer
culture.

8. The takeoff point of the NATO economy across Western Europe and the
US marks a beginning of what we understand as globalization today.

9. The shocks of post-colonialism become increasingly apparent,
in East Asia, the Middle East and Africa after 1955. Thus another
starting point for what we identify as the global economy-- and its
crises.

10. In Europe and the US, key texts on media theory and structuralist
(then post-structuralist) examination of the production of space, etc.

11. Essential research toward our nano culture today: transistors;
precursors to the Internet; early games; advanced simulation systems;
wire-frame design, etc.

Thus, 1955 (or should I say, 1953-57?) is a knot that helps clarify
what became the culture of themed, electronic Baroque spaces. Circa
1955 is becoming a point of origin increasingly in art theory about
the consumerist, themed entertainment economy. And at the heart of
this transformation, we find the victory of home entertainment, of
games and gaming, of staged, immersive illusion across the media -
the culture of Artifice. We also find the road to marketing culture
utterly changed: Any art form that cannot also join cultural tourism
or home entertainment will suffer shrinking markets over the next
generation. The scripted space, whether on the i-phone or at the
museum becomes the crucial paradigm for success - also the key to
distribution - profoundly altering literature, theater, the performing
arts and museum culture.

Taking your book 'The History of Forgetting' and the subsequent
dvd-rom project 'Bleeding Through' (2003, shown in ZKM Karlsruhe) as
an example, in them there is a good portion of criticism traceable:
criticism against brutal capitalism, modernist destruction, ignorance
of history. At the same time the work breathes a nostalgic air,
whereas nostalgia seems an important ingredient of 'the society of the
spectacle' (see Las Vegas). How can cultural criticism survive from
the scriptedness of the spectacle, with its evasive and destructive
qualities?

On nostalgia in my work: I always begin every project by admitting
that I am in love with high urban decay, and with what cannot return.
It is essential for a critic to never feel superior to the subject.
Better to locate where you are part of problem than pretend that
you are pure in any way. Indeed, it is very difficult to remove
nostalgia from our urban criticism today, since so much of the public
culture of the city has vanished, and will continue to disappear.
Clearly, home entertainment as well as the depleted public investments
by national governments and the impact of globalized capitalism -
have all but removed the cities that I knew as a child. And to make
matters even trickier, there is a century-long tradition of viewing
cities nostalgically, from the boulevards down, even the nineteenth
century metropolises (Paris 1860-1914; New York 1920-1970; Berlin
1890-1933; Buenos Aires 1890-1930, etc.). We have tended not to study
the quartiers, the neighborhoods with the same enthusiasm as the
boulevards. We study avant-garde entertainment and class warfare, but
not material culture (again, myself included)

To reverse this nostalgia, one can argue that the boulevards and
arts districts were the birth of the mass entertainment that has
overwhelmed urban culture - of scripted spaces and spectacle.
Cosmopolitanism was, by definition, nostalgic, the perverse standard
of excellence, in Simmel, in Kracauer, obviously in Benjamin,
in Certeau, even in the Situationists and Lefebvre, in Marx.
Cosmopolitanism, by definition, is a history of forgetting.

But today, this nostalgic tradition has become particularly dangerous
- in urban planning, in urban analysis. Very obviously, the future
of urban culture cannot not simply track its upscale lifestyle, from
downtowns to fancy newly urbanized suburbs. However, as the other side
of the same coin really, noir nostalgia is also evident in critiques,
about squalor in megacities for example, and about shrinking cities.
It is very easy to exoticize the poverty as much as the boulevard
glamour. Urban pain is not a neo-noir movie. In fact, how a poor
neighborhood survives is probably more important to study than how
new lofts and scripted spaces emerge. We still are living more inside
a crime movie more than in the urban facts. We are even looking back
sadly at how run down various neighborhoods used to be. As always,
lurking beneath our attempts at being objective (myself included), we
tend to fantasize about what cities once were, and contrast that with
what they are becoming. As a result, attempts to imagine alternatives
often reinforce the very process we want to stop: the relentless
erosion of infrastructure, of neighborhoods high and low - replaced
by shine and shopping, by upscale enclaves that camouflage more than
uplift cities. Fantasies about pedestrian life will not clarify
or enhance. A bigger trolley system and more mixed use, a few new
galleries, and better design control do not restore American cities;
they help shrink the middle class, and police the growing poverty.

A shrewder question would look more like the following: if future
cities are indeed going to be new social organisms, more about
ethnographic niches, overlapping neighborhoods, shrinking public
culture, and depleted infrastructure, then we must research much more
specifically. We must study the historic patterns of each city era by
era, be very alert to how each city has responded to social pressures.
Amsterdam is a unique grid, a unique ethnographic mix, has its own way
of responding to crisis. One cannot hold up Amsterdam's approach as a
paradigm, any more than Manhattan, Los Angeles, or Shanghai or Mexico
City.

With these ironies in mind, let us briefly look again at what the
new "scriptedness" of cities will bring, now that these scripts
include social imaginaries about the "good old" industrial era. We
want to return to Berlin 1925, New York 1950, etc. Every city has
found its year of cosmo origin, its ur moment. Then we reshape the
very districts that shrank during early deindustrialization to look
like that moment, circa 1920, whatever. But it is probably more like
1320 than 19230: We are returning cities to their medieval roots, to
moments when they were walled in. Cultural tourism is rapidly turning
the remnants of arts districts into themed environments. Museums are
beginning to feel like monasteries during the Carolingian Renaissance,
like an archiving of the end of the Roman Empire, while urban culture
evaporates into something else. How's that for nostalgia, along with
better cafes and afternoon concerts?

All this serves a political purpose as well. It allows for a future
when the middle classes in western Europe and the US will be much
smaller, more like 1880 than 1980. Also for the moment when home
entertainment will be colonizing city streets much more. In a decade
or so, if your cultural object cannot be accessed at home first, then
it may be impossible to keep it alive on the streets themselves.
Increasingly, in fancy districts, traces of home entertainment will
be much more obvious as design elements on these streets. Inside
neighborhoods, often we will find niches with branding and scripting,
at least in the middle-class districts.

In short, at least in the US, a social imaginary of boulevard circa
1910 will spread to neighborhoods and suburbs. As a result, there will
no longer be a place in the city where cultural trends can be found,
as historian Margo Bistis explains. That does not mean the end of
cities, merely the end of cities as arbiters for cultural innovation,
in the arts, etc. The fine arts will still continue inside cities,
but the new forms may not emerge through galleries and museums,
for example. That is not the end of the world, not even the end of
civilization. Our nostalgia for the past is a problem between us and
our therapists. Critics must accept these new conditions scrupulously,
and build new potential from there.

Thus, I remain utterly convinced that the future histories of
forgetting can be astonishing. Can be... I will not accept the death
of urban culture as the death of western urban civilization. I am
nostalgic enough to believe that new forms are more necessary now than
ever before. But where and how? What modes of engagement make sense,
do not play with nostalgic ideas of restoring the urban avant-garde,
or post-Pop/Minimalist neo-retro Kantianism? Or worse yet, pretending
that second life is avant-garde?

Global entertainment culture will not generate a new avant-garde. Something
that combines home entertainment with a fierce urban honesty may do better,
to turn niches into engines for discourse, etc. New kinds of novels, new
kinds of art intervention, new kinds of music - as it were early rather than
late, more like 1820 than 1920.

Do not assume that any aspect of the Enlightenment will survive. We
must reshape models from top to bottom, in order to begin to reinvent
cities once more from the bottom up, to re-engage. This will probably
not be a golden age, but it can give permission to great strategies
in the future. But only if we admit our nostalgia, face the facts
bluntly, and plunge into a world where western cities will no longer
be the vertical centers of innovation. But that also means removing
all nostalgia about computer culture as well, about its freedoms. No,
we must be tougher on line as well, more explicit, more honest. And
that means questioning what we wish for and why, before we leap into
new platitudes (again, myself included).

I am busily trying to imagine the future of forgetting across media
and across western cities. It will be gloriously ridiculous in
many respects, but fierce in others. Now to capture those foolish
contradictions honestly, in criticism, fiction and through new media.
Or at least give permission to the new generation, suggest workable
strategies.






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