PRINT December 2006

Rachel Kushner

I’LL BEGIN WITH THE BULLET HOLES. They were small, but by no means discreet, and surely everyone who visited the UCLA Hammer Museum in early 2006 saw them, pocking the lower flanks of Jean Prouvé’s prefabricated steel-and-aluminum Tropical House, 1951/2005–2006, which had been retrieved from its original site in the former French Congo and reassembled in the museum’s courtyard. At first glance, the structure had a quaint dioramic quality, like a life-size colonial dollhouse for a make-believe attaché, an impression that was only enhanced by the leafy bamboo plants that surrounded it. But then I noticed the holes, ominous punctures in the logic and presentation of an otherwise perfectly self-contained architectural relic. Given the meticulous restoration, it was clear the perforations had been left intentionally unrepaired, as if to preserve the contradictions inherent in memorializing such a prototype, whose innovations and “functionality” pertain pointedly to France’s colonial past: Prouvé’s “machine for living” was easily shipped, quick to put up or take down, and equipped with a ventilation system that promised comfort to the European unused to equatorial climates.

A museum press release acknowledged the damage, but only in a parenthetical aside, citing it as testament to the building’s “hard life” amid “endless civil war.” In fact, the holes suggested something more complex, and even uglier: imperial hangover. Even without knowing the history—for instance, that French petroleum investment played no small part in the “endless civil war”—the bullet holes unmistakably resonated with our own government’s disastrous foreign occupation. The thirty-foot bamboo stalks (a permanent feature at the museum) further complicated the whole affair. On the one hand, the simple fact of the structure’s modularity worked to neutralize its identification with any single (and singularly problematic) locale, meaning it could easily belong here, in a city with its own proprietary claims on midcentury design. Then again, the bamboo suggested sites that were all too historically specific—this mobile prototype resituated in, say, Dien Bien Phu?

As it turned out, the year, or at any rate, my year, was to revolve around a cryptic Paris-LA axis articulated by Prouvé at the Hammer and “Los Angeles 1955–1985: The Birth of an Art Capital” at the Centre Pompidou, and presaged, in late 2005, by a screening of In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire), Guy Debord’s 1978 lamentation for a Paris that “no longer exists.” The long-awaited box set of Debord’s films was not yet available, and the screening, organized by artist Marie Jager and Semiotext(e) coeditor Hedi El Kholti, was a bootleg affair at the Mountain Bar in LA’s Chinatown. Those who wandered in for a quick drink wound up staying, mesmerized by the pitiless immediacy of Debord’s voice as he disparaged ’70s consumer society (“paltry”) and the moviegoing public (“mystified ignoramuses . . . with the delusion that their vote means something”) and then segued into reflections on history, loss, and the misrepresentation of his own ideas. “The petty people of the present age,” he says, “seem to believe . . . that I am a builder of theory—a sort of intellectual architecture which they imagine they need only move into as soon as they know its address, and which, ten years later, they might even slightly remodel.” He seemed to speak directly to those in the room—an artistic community that has repeatedly turned to his notions of psychogeography and drift, and labeled what often seems mere appropriation “détournement.” The attraction is easy to understand, even as the desire to find a way out of “spectacle” leads to a cul-de-sac—Debord commodified and vulgarized along with everything else. The second, autobiographical half of the film is narrated over a montage of Hollywood reenactments of horrific battles (specifically Little Bighorn and Balaclava), alternated with images of Venice canals. In girum imus nocte’s two great themes, Debord explained in a 1977 production note, are water, which he equates with time, and fire, which he describes as “the bursting of the instant” in the form of “revolution, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, youth, love . . . and the unfinished endeavors in which men go to die.” Fire, he says, is always borne away and extinguished by the water of time.

Watching the film, I wondered, Where is the Debord who identified himself with Custer? Who studied Clausewitz’s military strategies and invented a game, Kriegspiel, to illustrate them? Instead, what is so often invoked is a fictively ludic figure. “How about the Debord,” a friend recently asked, “who came of age intellectually during a war France was fighting against a Sunni Muslim population?” This is a Debord I’d be interested to see, given a careful accounting of difference between France’s “savage war of peace” in Algeria and ours in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is rich material to be mined here, provided the proper critical distance is maintained. But Jutta Koether painting one of his slogans or Brandon Lattu maneuvering between the “questioning” and showcasing of spectacle isn’t going to cut it. These aren’t the worst offenders, but simply examples of what is perhaps inevitable: radicality as value-enriching “content.”

On the other hand, Jason Rhoades’s Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret Macramé, 2006, where I encountered a truly weird Situationist citation, was so saturated with its own alien glow that questions of “enrichment” seemed moot. A few companions and I attended this invitation-only installation/speakeasy in a Filipinotown warehouse one night in June, and found the cavernous space occupied only by Rhoades and a German friend of his, the two of them standing around like they were the last two bachelors at a trashed after-hours club. At one point during the evening, the German friend casually mentioned that he knew Gianfranco Sanguinetti. Sanguinetti, the Italian Situationist? Yes, he said, explaining that Sanguinetti had even written a text, “La chatte, hier et aujourd’hui” (The Pussy, Then and Now), for Rhoades’s book 1724 Birth of the Cunt. As the artist played host (by serving yogurt out of a boot) and my cohorts got a poker game going in a clearing amid the towering shelves of cowboy hats, dream catchers, and other Rhoadesian crud, I pondered the fact that this important member of the SI—founder of its Italian wing and author of a famous hoax-polemic “advocating” state terrorism as the “last chance to save capitalism”—was now penning odes to the chatte. What does Sanguinetti say about Rhoades, or even the cunt, whose apparent birthday, 1724, is also Kant’s? Alas, the book was published as a limited collector’s edition, and at $2,000 a copy it’s unlikely I’ll ever know. The larger imponderable, of course, is how the late, possibly great Jason Rhoades, who died in August at the age of forty-one, was going to proceed. Like Sanguinetti’s advocacy of terrorism, Rhoades’s lunatic embrace of consumerism was to be taken with more than a grain of salt. He once toyed with the idea of putting bar codes on all his artworks, and did put them on some; he drove a Ferrari, though the pedals, he said, were too narrow for his puffy leather Nikes. But Sanguinetti was embroiled in high-stakes politics, a very different world from that of Rhoades’s swaggering gestures and prodigiously scoped projects, which were never meant to be instrumental, but instead irreducible, mysterious and absurd, claiming not only their own opposite but numerous things besides.

IN MARCH, MANY OF US WENT to Paris (existent or not, by Debord’s standards) in search of a bygone Los Angeles, courtesy of the Centre Pompidou. Though a dazzling exhibition, “Los Angeles 1955–1985” offered a few suprises unless it was the fact that the show’s panoramic perspective, offering as it did the chance to assess the genealogy of the city’s art scene, led me to wonder if from the radical milieu of “Helter Skelter” we’ve now moved on to a kind of efficient guild structure in which younger artists reverently study their teachers’ originality before being funneled into the gallery system. Los Angeles was not just at the Pompidou; it was everywhere. Ed Ruscha at the Jeu de Paume. Mike Kelley at Galerie Ghislaine Hussenot. But the real connection with LA was an undeniable political parallel that suddenly erupted between the two cities. France was facing its largest political demonstrations since May ’68. On the morning I arrived, the university was barricaded, and along the perimeter of the closed Place de la Sorbonne were hundreds of police officers, waiting for demonstrators protesting the CPE, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s much-maligned youth-employment law. The state, more or less invisible in daily life, was “making its show of strength,” as Chris Marker says of the events of May ’68 in his 1977 film Le Fond de l’air est rouge (A Grin Without a Cat), “with all kinds of gear and contraptions you didn’t know existed.” Meanwhile, on the front page of the International Herald Tribune, there were unbelievable photos from home: half a million people flooding the streets of downtown Los Angeles—California’s massive Latino population, emerging to demand immigrants’ rights. Of course, far more was at stake for the newly consolidated Latino bloc than for the French protesters. The Angelenos were taking a stand against a future in which they would be deemed felons by virtue of their presence on US soil. Conversely, the French students, adorable as they were, are from a class that wants to preserve its place in the status quo, and in a way they represent precisely what the Arab casseurs (wreckers) who blazed through Paris in November ’05 were rejecting: La France, postcolonial and stratified by class, a nation in which immigrants and their children are guaranteed no place at all. In any case, there was one inarguable commonality between the mobilizations in both cities: They were equally anticlimactic. In France, the CPE was scrapped, but its defeat enabled Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy—head of the conservative UMP party and nemesis of the casseurs—to consolidate his position on the right. Here, the debate over immigration amnesty has all but vanished, and instead we’re somehow getting a fifteen-foot wall along the border with Mexico.

IT JUST SO HAPPENS THAT THE reassembly of Tropical House was documented by LA artist Christopher Williams, whose show at David Zwirner in New York, “For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sur La Societé Industrielle,” overlapped with the Hammer exhibition and included, as one of its “leçons,” a photograph of Prouvé’s sun shutters, stacked and in transit. But perhaps a more powerful lesson was to be found in a book with tin pages and a binding of ball bearings, designed by F. T. Marinetti, who surely would have loved the bullet holes in Prouvé’s house. Marinetti’s mechanical book was part of the Getty’s “Tumultuous Assembly: Visual Poems of the Italian Futurists,” a show (curated by JoAnne Paradise and Annette Leddy) whose fifty-odd works practically sent off sparks, despite the movement’s troubling association with fascism and the uncomfortable correlations between futurist and contemporary predilections for “precision” and violence. The objects seemed not only radical, but a daunting upping of the ante, an exhortation of young LA artists to match the punch and the slap of the futurists’ totalizing conception of aesthetics, as well as their caustic wit—which flung ice water in the face of goth almost a century before its return. (“We hate Wagner,” they announce in the 1914 manifesto “Down with Tango and Parsifal,” not only for his “mystical bog of tears [but also] because he is dead.”) With the current state of affairs, in which interventions in real life take the form of relational dinner parties, what seems most valuable to consider is the futurists’ manner of alloying figurative and literal into a mysterious third substance, in which politics was treated as theater, theater was so politicized that performances ended in bloody-nosed riots, and war was not just the all-too-dubious reality toward which they sped (and from which they returned, if they returned, limbless and limping), but a code word for drastic aesthetic change. Now we have war abroad but no aesthetic rupture at home. No silver bullet is going to revitalize art (even if a bullet—or its trace—may speak mute truths about modernism). But we could sure use the futurists’ dead-serious buffoonery.

ANOTHER WRITER MIGHT HAVE focused on what, of quality, she saw in the galleries this year. Raymond Pettibon at Regen Projects, say, remaining a category unto himself. Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates project, in which suburban volunteers have their tidy chemical-green front lawns replaced by family-size subsistence farms. Or William Jones’s video All Male Mash Up—a montage of “interstitial” moments from vintage porn films, whose cumulative effect is like a ’70s San Francisco version of Proust’s induction into high gay code in Sodom and Gomorrah. (And as cinematic nadir: Francesco Vezzoli, whose “built-in critique,” lately evinced in his “Gore Vidal Trilogy” at Gagosian Gallery Beverly Hills, is more like ecstatic complicity.) As sweetest summer group show, I vote for “Selections From My Wardrobe” at Karyn Lovegrove Gallery in LA, with Mari Eastman, Anna Sew Hoy, Katherine Bernhardt, and Rebecca Morris—the last of whose large-scale painting, White Triangle, 2005, seemed a proposition for a new nonobjective, feminine and strident. I could go on in this manner, but as an organizing principle, annual highlights and lowlights seem to inventory too soon and too recursively market-friendly designations of worth.

Debord’s image of fire, “the bursting of the instant,” is what he shares with Marinetti—the former a final avatar of the avant-garde, the latter one of the avant-garde’s earliest figures, both pressing the question of risk, praising the moment of the charge and plunge, even (or especially) in acts doomed to failure. The two together, in the context of an art world bloated with cash, presented a parallax of attitudes toward war, humor, and violence. “Bring the War Home,” as bicoastal curator Drew Heitzler’s provocative group show (at QED in LA and Elizabeth Dee in New York) was titled, can mean several things aside from its obvious association with Vietnam and the Weather Underground. Marinetti’s method of bringing it home is perhaps best illustrated by his manifestos, which were meant not as discrete artworks but to be taken seriously, as proscriptions for action (odd but true: Gramsci marveling, in a 1922 letter to Trotsky, that “four out of five issues” of Marinetti’s magazine Lacerba had “circulated among workers”). For Debord, the “torpedoing” of society would never be engendered by a theory, but by a “game, a conflict, or a journey.” “Risks must be taken,” he says in In girum imus nocte, “and you have to pay up front to see what comes next.” In a sense Marinetti and Debord were equally militant, but Marinetti remains remote and radioactive, while Debord has been defanged and romanticized.

Who took risks in 2006? And what qualified as risk? Based on these criteria, my best-of-’06 pick, sadly, is an object from 1932, Parole in libertà futuriste olfattive tattili termiche (Olfactory Tactile Thermal Futurists Words in Freedom)—Marinetti’s metal book, which telegraphed astonishing force and originality even in the sterile confines of sun-glittering oil-trust luster. (Grab a “tasteful” beige parasol—complimentary while you’re on the grounds.) The sun prevails here, not just over the Getty’s Pacific Ocean promontory, but everywhere. The only variable is whether one likes it or hates it—a simple matter of taste. Melville’s Ahab wanted to harpoon it out of the sky. Blaise Cendrars called it a wound. Guy Debord, who said revolution brings sunny weather, was perhaps in favor of it. But sunny weather brings no revolution. Not this year.

Rachel Kushner is a Los Angeles–based writer.