Knowledge Commons #5 – If you can’t find it online, draw it

I’ve been working on a new short story commission which will be published in both ebook and print formats in early 2011, about which more information in due course.

For reasons that will become clear later, I’ve been trying to source a particular kind of lightning flash graphic which for something so familiar and — as I thought — ubiquitous was proving quite a challenge. I even found myself going to the laborious lengths of grabbing, flipping and rotating various dingbats and ‘special characters’ only to find that they were simply not quite right, not to mention that the results were too low-res to be of any real use.

It was only when I’d wasted loads of time on these fruitless attempts to approximate something digitally that I thought, well maybe I should simply try and draw it.

This scan is of my first attempt, which is a bit wonky here and there because the wood grain of the kitchen table showed through the paper that I was leaning on, but it’s still far better than anything I could find online or adapt from any existing image or font resource. It is also certainly good enough to reduce and use as an ornament in the print edition.

‘If you can’t find it online, draw it,’ I thought, without quite realising until later that the reason this formulation sounded slightly familiar was that I was paraphrasing the title of a track from Laurie Anderson‘s 1983 performance of United States I-IV: a piece — I just looked it up — for tape and cartoons dedicated to Ludwig Wittgenstein and called ‘If You Can’t Talk About It, Point To It.’

Not so obscure as it sounds. Those performances were quite a big deal at the time. Anderson had just had a huge hit in the UK with ‘O Superman’, and her epic performances over two nights of the 8-hour United States I-IV were promoted by the ICA at the Dominion Theatre, London in February 1983. I went along. Here is a scan of the programme. It has probably survived the years so relatively unscathed because I stored it inside a record sleeve.

There was a great kind of home-made quality to Anderson’s work up to and including this period, even when she was using or ‘talking about’ technology (in as far as she ever really talked ‘about’ anything directly, which would be almost never; prefering as she did to tell oblique stories). This home-made quality very quickly disappeared though as her studio recordings went mainstream, only to be replaced for a while with what felt, feels, to me like an instantly kitsch, almost generic NY arthouse hi-life style; cue what seemed at the time to be the inevitable Adrian Belew guitar solo (impossible to better after this highpoint). Via the music- and art-press interviews and features accompanying her hit single ‘O Superman’ and those performances of United States I-IV, it had been Anderson’s references that had switched my teenaged self on to writers like Gertrude Stein and Thomas Pynchon, but by the time she returned to the Dominion Theatre in 1990 for the ‘Empty Places tour’ it seemed that the same old anecdotes were being trotted out in every interview (albeit to audiences that were never anything less than appreciative). Strange to say perhaps, since the recitation of anecdotes was a big part of her work, but it all started to feel a bit repetitive.

If you don’t know it, ‘If You Can’t Talk About It, Point To It’ is a short and very slight instrumental — almost like a sketchbook piece, which I mean in a good way — in which a small number of taped voice ‘samples’ are effectively sequenced to form a few seconds of shrugging, breathy funk which has both the reduced range and the percussive quality of an instrument like an mbira. It is odd to be reminded of and writing about a piece of music that was insubstantial even 30 years ago, but since I am, I suppose it is worth registering that the title is also an obvious Wittgenstein gag i.e. you don’t have to pass over in silence what you can’t talk about, you can also point to it.

Maybe I am also picking up on some media traffic following Anderson’s use of an appearance on US TV show Letterman a couple of weeks ago precisely to point at something, in this case the Gulf oil spill disaster, through a topical rewrite of her recent song ‘Only An Expert’. (Something that a number of UK artists have been doing recently too, by contrasting, for example, BP’s activities in the Gulf of Mexico with the company’s domestic sponsorship of the arts, particularly through the Liberate Tate movement.)

A .png of the Art Not Oil website

There is a nice quote in the programme accompanying those 1983 United States I-IV performances. ‘In this work,’ Anderson writes:

‘I have tried to make a distinction between art and ideas. Because ideas have a direct line to the brain; but art sneaks in through the senses. It drifts in. So there isn’t time to analyze it…’

It is a bit of dialectical whimsy which seems to fall somewhere along the same spectrum as her distinction after Wittgenstein between talking about something and pointing to it.

It is interesting looking at a significant and monumental art work like United States I-IV across the digital event horizon; looking back to those pre-internet, analogue days. There’s a prophetic line in her Burroughs homage, the song ‘Language is a Virus’ (or at least there is in the the United States I-IV-era live version of the song; it is missing from the overproduced and nonsensically cheery version on her album Home of the Brave). In the former Anderson tells of attending a science lecture. ‘So I walked in,’ she writes, ‘and there were all these salesmen and a big pile of electronics [...] And they were singing: We’re gonna link you up [...] We’ve got your number.’ Which, I suppose, they did and they have.

‘Picture a Christmas tree,’ they tell her, ‘with lots of little sparkly lights.’

So now that we are all ‘sort of hanging off the same wire‘ and I often find that even when I’m working, writing stories, much of my time is spent doing little more than simply pointing at stuff (albeit sometimes clicking, too), does that distinction between talking about it or pointing to it, between ideas and art, still hold? Or does the pervasiveness and the myriad ubiquity of information and media mean that it is ideas and information that sneak in ‘through the senses’, while art has the more direct line? It certainly felt that way when out of exasperation I drew this lightning flash and a couple of others for the cover of a forthcoming short story.

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