Empire State of Mind

Andrew Hultkrans on “The Return of Schizo-Culture” at MoMA PS1

Kim Gordon at “The Return of Schizo-Culture” at MoMA PS1. (All photos: Charles Roussel)

“MEDIOCRITY IS THE NEW BLACK, PEOPLE!” Bemoaning New York’s postmillennial makeover as a “luxury vitrine for the rest of the world,” as Semiotext(e) founder Sylvère Lotringer put it earlier in the day, Penny Arcade exhorted the young, attractive crowd of art-world punters to reboot themselves into an earlier, more oppositional iteration of the city’s arts community. The occasion for the packed VW Dome at MoMA PS1 last Sunday afternoon was “The Return of Schizo-Culture,” a six-hour, multiparticipant, multimedia event that attempted to evoke the spirit of the Schizo-Culture conference, an anarchic four-day colloquy of French theorists and American radicals organized by Lotringer and Semiotext(e) at Columbia University in 1975.

An umbrella metaphor for the “revolution in desire” heralded by the work of Deleuze & Guattari and Michel Foucault, among others, “ ‘schizo’ does not refer here to any clinical entity,” as the press release for the original event defined it, “but to the process by which social controls of all kinds, endlessly re-imposed by capitalism, are broken up and opened to revolutionary change.” The Schizo-Culture conference brought together (and, in some cases, rent asunder) Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, Jean-François Lyotard, William S. Burroughs, R. D. Laing, Arthur C. Danto, Ti-Grace Atkinson, John Cage, Judy Clark, Richard Foreman, and others, all charged with presenting papers, panels, performances, and workshops on institutional and semiotic systems of control and strategies to evade them, focusing on the oppression inherent in psychiatry, prisons, language, and the patriarchy. (Foucault’s Discipline and Punish had just been published in France.)

The cross-cultural (dis)connections of the weekend were amusingly encapsulated by Danto, the American philosopher and critic, recalling the conference in 1997: “Sylvère, for some reason, put me in the same slot that first evening as Lyotard, a man who has what I think of as the true gift of incoherence. The rest of the French have been trying to achieve it, but he was born with it, like perfect pitch.” Guattari was booed off the stage by Atkinson and her supporters; Foucault and Guattari quarreled throughout the weekend; Lyotard was snubbed by his French colleagues; Burroughs aired his suspicion of intellectuals; fights broke out in the audience during talks; and provocateurs from Lyndon LaRouche’s Labor Committee loudly and repeatedly accused Foucault (and other presenters) of being on the CIA payroll. (The second time the charge was leveled, Foucault was ready, telling the provocateur, “You’re entirely right. I was paid by the CIA, R. D. Laing was paid by the CIA, Lotringer himself was paid by the CIA. The only one here who hasn’t been paid by the CIA is you, because you have been paid by the KGB.” At which even the heckler laughed and sat back down, duly disciplined.)

Left: John Giorno. Right: Schizo-Culture catalogues.

At this distance, these huffy internecine squabbles seem little more than apt instances of Freud’s narcissism of small differences, ably parodied in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in the form of tiny anti-Roman resistance groups and their contempt for one another: “Judean People’s Front? Pigs! We’re the People’s Front of Judea!” But the fissures were real; the American Left was already fragmented by 1975 and would atomize even further in the coming years.

Fast forward to 2014: I found myself sitting on the floor of a geodesic dome hosted by MoMA, on the site of a former public school, in an event series sponsored by Volkswagen, watching Lotringer and roughly thirty friends and colleagues, mostly from the New York arts underground of the 1960s–’80s, as they tried to “recreate chaos” by presenting a “series of singularities” that might, at least for one afternoon, destabilize our increasingly professional, culturally conservative city. (For a musical lesson on how New York has changed since the ’70s, compare the Rolling Stones’ “Shattered” to Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York.”) “We’re part of a machine that you can’t attack anymore,” Lotringer lamented in his introductory remarks. He described Semiotext(e), longtime cult publisher of continental theory and other avant-garde writing, as “always close to the art world but not part of it, separate from careerism and institutions; not the art world, but art.”

After a paint-peeling performance of bagpipes accompanied by an abrasive electric violin, master of ceremonies Penny Arcade announced, “Once gods bestrode New York City; one of these was Richard Foreman.” The experimental theater veteran took the stage for a Q&A, still resembling Harvey Pekar after all these years. Foreman said that we should celebrate Lotringer for bringing a whole trend of thought to the US (French poststructuralist theory), which offered Foreman a “way to reframe a world that I didn’t like.” “It’s over now,” he admitted, “everyone’s dead.” “Theory is a training of the mind,” he said, allowing one “to become a different person and then write as that different person.”

Writer Ann Rower followed, reading a funny, autobiographical piece about a lesbian couple in Las Vegas, visiting the area to attend the Semiotext(e)-related Chance Conference in 1996 (which I covered for Artforum as a young freelancer). Downtown poet and Burroughs colleague John Giorno, irrepressibly spritely at seventy-seven, delivered a poem called “Thanks for Nothing,” a less mordant echo of Burroughs’s “Thanksgiving Prayer,” in which Giorno recalled dead peers like Warhol and the Beats but said that he didn’t miss them at all (even if he hoped that they would come back to fulfill our every wish).

Suicide frontman Alan Vega appeared with his wife and son, performing a scatological spoken-word piece (with screams, growls, and “fucks”) over a minimalist electronic loop, his family interjecting words and phrases into the fractured narrative. It’s hard to imagine a less familial man than Vega, but there they were, the picture of a certain kind of domestic bliss. Poet Eileen Myles came next, carrying a red Netflix DVD envelope, which she asked an audience member to mail for her. She read a piece about “mean lesbians, drinking in the ’70s,” in which she gets into a fight with a cop and is maced for her troubles. Penny Arcade muffed Lynne Tillman’s name and occupation, calling her “Liz” and introducing her as a poet. Tillman graciously rolled with this, reading an early piece of hers about random sex with men. She riffed on the statistic that men think about sex every seven minutes (and how difficult it was for her to mimic this), and mused about having sex with actors, but only in particular roles (e.g., Daniel Day-Lewis in Last of the Mohicans).

Left: Lix Lamere, Alan Vega, and Dante Vega. Right: Penny Arcade.

Taking a break from MC duties, Arcade performed her own spoken-word piece over an audio collage of loops of iconic songs from the ’60s through the ’00s, centered on longing for a future analogous to the New York arts scene of her youth, taking great pains to differentiate such longing from nostalgia. (Her performance was emblematic of the entire event, an appropriately schizophrenic mix of Boomer narcissism, “kids these days” finger-wagging, and legitimate but hopeful critique of today’s New York.) Punk godfather Richard Hell read from the “cold-ass genre novel” he’s currently working on, a decidedly prefeminist blast of pornographic machismo reminiscent of Henry Miller (“male sex stuff,” I wrote in my notes). A power trio of young bros played a pair of typically jagged, aggro John Zorn compositions, the composer running out to hug them enthusiastically afterward.

Having just gotten off a plane, apparently, Kim Gordon took the stage in a short orange dress carrying a vintage Fender Jaguar. After reading a short, poem-like piece about a male rock god of some sort (from her description, I imagined Kurt Cobain), she strummed the guitar, which was in an atonal tuning that made Sonic Youth sound like the Monkees, and started enacting rockish gestures with it, swinging it around on its strap, coaxing feedback, banging it on the floor, scraping its strings on the edge of the stage. Her face remained still the entire time. No one does “jaded” better than Kim Gordon.

Except perhaps Gary Indiana, who appeared in a black velour tracksuit with red piping, accompanied by electric violinist Walter Steding, who was wearing a gaucho hat equipped with light emitting diodes on each side. They blinked randomly to no discernible effect. His playing was only slightly more irritating than fingernails on a chalkboard. This was in support of Indiana’s “found poem,” apparently culled from far-flung precincts of the Internet. He claimed that he had once assembled the fragments into some kind of order, but that he lost the plot, literally and figuratively. Scientists, Halloween costumes, Heidi Klum, and instructions for poaching the perfect egg all drifted by in the obfuscatory haze. After Indiana gave up, the violinist played us out with a wah-wah pedal, his hat lights blinking.

Left: Walter Steding and Gary Indiana. Right: The crowd at “The Return of Schizo-Culture” at MoMA PS1.

This was somewhat anticlimactic. I mean, no one fought, there were no baseless CIA accusations, no booing, heckling, or ideological superslams. The foundations of the intellectual establishment had not been undermined, let alone destroyed. Neither MoMA nor Volkswagen was brought to its knees in the face of “nomadism” and “chaosophy.” (To the contrary, MoMA turned the dome into a giant veal-fattening pen, periodically issuing edicts that people were to move forward, move closer, sit, stand, etc. to make room for even more people who wanted to get in. It had a whiff of the carceral so exhaustively explored by Foucault.)

The biggest problem had to do with the stakes of the event, which should have been high given the intensity of the original conference and how badly things need to be shaken up today. While there was a quasi-revolutionary kickstarter mood to the whole thing, it was essentially an afternoon of quirky entertainment. Phallocentrism, complacency, and gentrification were addressed and mildly troubled, but that was about it. Certainly there was nothing along the lines of this pronouncement from Guattari at the original Schizo-Culture event, “We are moving toward control societies that no longer operate by confining people but through continuous control and instant communication. […] Compared with the approaching forms of ceaseless control in open sites, we may come to see the harshest confinements as part of a wonderful happy past.” Put that in your iPhone and smoke it.