by Norm Ball / Bright Lights Film Journal
With five absent years stuck on our eyes times two, the new David Bowie single and video “Where Are We Now?’ struck with a quiet vengeance in the wee hours of January 8, 2013, the performer’s 66th birthday. The entire music world, rail-thin from a diet of Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars, devoured the event. Overdetermination and clue-sifting began in earnest. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a ten-day cease-fire until all facts on the ground could be assessed. I thought I’d get a jump to pitch a few thoughts.
The song fulfills its primary task as a communiqué from a long-lost correspondent. Bowie is sentient. Few chord structures could spoil this news. Thus, poring over musical hooks and bridges on such an auspicious occasion seems akin to criticizing the color scheme of an alien spacecraft. We’ll not go there here. Profuse audiophilia will commence in earnest when the full album arrives in March.
Besides, the video in many ways provides the more evocative leg of this particular Bowie outing, not so much for its technical feats as for its savvy depiction of artistic intent and that whole kibosh known loosely as life itself. Director Tony Oursler does a great job shepherding the metaphysics through while keeping up appearances. Oursler’s “back-lot clutter” shot offers a glimpse into the mind. This is your brain on reminiscence or how it might look if a picture could be managed of it — neither a discrete memory per se nor a picture in a photo album, but the album itself, the process of looking back. The still, captured midstream (and from Bowie’s line-of-sight), is POV examining the mechanics of POV; content as form; process as snappable keepsake. So I was intrigued to discover Tony Oursler worked similar terrain very recently at the Gallery Paule Anglim with some sculptures the gallery describes as “concrete pictures of thoughts and psychology. So diminutive they would practically fit into a human skull, they address the workings of the brain, and the strange and familiar in human behavior.” Certainly the far-flung detritus we see here speaks to the eclectic composition of the Bowie life-collage. Of course, the moving beauty of movies is that nothing is a freeze-frame forever. The same can be said for its more prosaic cousin, video. Sit still long enough and some outcrop of Black Country Rock is bound to rock your boat.
Surrounded by the forward-out accoutrements of projection and emanation (the image-making apparatus of lights and screens) sit two inert heads where, just moments before, we’d watched Bowie and a female companion project animation onto the same featureless orbs. Oursler is renowned for what I’d call installing video within the shot, a tactic he characterizes as being “in opposition to a film grammar, which is about looking outward and attempting to replace the eye.” That’s right. Video walks among us and it’s looking for a little respect. There’s a lifeless glass eye on the floor staring back at us — video taking a dig at film?
Phillip Glass says music is a place. Sound time-stamps space. The Berlin footage in the background helps orient the soul’s position in the soundtrack of life. We’re in love, luv, circa 1977 like a comfortable pair of slippers, all stitched at the hip. (For the uninitiated, 1977 was the year of Bowie’s self-exile to Berlin, and the general locus of his so-called Berlin Trilogy of albums Low-Heroes-Lodger.) Visuals wash over visuals. There’s a triptych of them: the video “facelets,” the screened film within the video, and the overarching video itself. Of course, life’s a stage too and we are all its . . . well you know that movie-house. Reflective surfaces are everywhere: panes of glass, glass counters, glass eyes, glass ears, crystal objects, the bobolink-heads, a cacophonous Hall of Mirrors.
The moment you know, you know, you know . . .
Bowie is a first-order image propagator that the Gordian knot of media, gossip, and culture buzz dutifully replicates. This essay is but one repeater site, you know. Think of Burroughs’ word-virus mutating off the written page into sound and vision hybrids, autonomous video organisms, ear worms and culture-memes. Consider too the path of social transmission: The clock strikes midnight. Without fanfare or formal announcement Bowie drops a petri dish on the cement laboratory floor. At exactly 12:01 pm, January 8, son (and film director in his own right) Duncan Jones serves as Twitter’s Typhoid Mary. Thereafter, social media is the germ station. Thousands catch the bug, pass it along. Preoccupied with seasonal flu vaccines, whole cities swoon within hours. Replicants appear with breathtaking speed — satires, covers, and the like. Major symptoms of the disease? Runny superlatives, chronic Ziggy references, and hacking hacks.
Oursler knows you can’t stitch a young woman to the hip of a married older gent without begging all the wrong questions. Curiosity reaches fever pitch when it’s a reclusive culture figure at the center of it all, or at least to the right of it all. In real life, it’s the director’s wife, painter Jacqueline Humphries, but is she acting in the role of cameo, composite, Shakespearian Dark Lady, or a universe of others, his and ours? Perez Hilton, nobody’s Socrates, is dying to know whether they’re still a co-embroidered entanglement and ripe gossip item. Perhaps “they” were nothing more than a minor fling embedded in a Berlin Trilogy, two sawn-out holes in a shuttling montage of Others. A Hermione here, a Coco there, and pretty soon the ghosts stack up. Oursler’s not above enlisting celebrity gossip for effect, or what he calls: “a combo of supermarket tabloids and personal experience, mostly things that I picked up aurally from others. I was like a narrative antenna in the early work, studying and collecting urban legends, fables, folk tales. The only unifying factor in these tales is that they never really happened. They are always told second or third hand” (from “Talking Back: A Conversation with Tony Oursler,” By Elizabeth Janus and Tony Oursler, Published in Williams College Museum of Art, Apr. 4, 2010).
Nowhere does urban legend lie more thick than around Bowie’s Berlin. Who’s to say what’s real and what’s mythos? Someone call Iggy Pop for a clear-eyed accounting.
In the end, the stubborn plaintiveness of the song foils all media-celebrity fixations. The recognition is human, all too human: Oh, how we need other people. Surely the problematic “existence of others” can be worked around to help keep the bed warm? Of course, as soon as you know, you know, who needs Bertrand Russell? The passage of time further erodes real-time existence much like a double-blind on a Doppler train. Some late-night college philosophocolizing seems inevitable. Cartesian Doubt at 3 a.m. always clears the room. Yes, her hand felt real enough, warm. But was I even really there?
Let’s hobble Descartes for a moment and agree that sun, rain, fire, and you are elemental forces for me to reckon with. I’ll grant comparable sentience to you. That’s right. I’m making an exception and allowing other minds. Fair enough? Suppose Oursler’s artistic depictions are correct and video simulations are now endowed with a similar motive power (perhaps due to some Frankensteinian mishap in Oursler’s studio-laboratory — I wish he’d own up). That would make video complicitous. Gendarme, have that frame arrested! Bowie’s 1995 album 1. Outside was premised on Art Crime and murder as a new underground art form, so the crossing of a once-sacrosanct line has been abundantly prefigured in both artists’ prior work. Of course, we know from reams of media studies and hyperreality philosophers that there no longer is an Outside. Today we suffer the collapsed garden wall.
Do I leap wildly? Sandy Hook’s Adam Lanza lurks within Oursler’s video creatures that the latter defines as entities “exist[ing] in between the interior and exterior worlds.” Make no mistake. The media circus ensnares lions and tigers in an illusion where they only appear to be tame. Sandy Hook was about a kid trained to mistake children for zombies. His consciousness was a bifurcated accident waiting to happen. So we have a murderous young solipsist pushing through our market-square to do battle with diminutive holograms, except his nemeses turned out — in reality — to be living, breathing six-year-olds. Bring us the quicksilvered image kings. Their inhuman velocity thwarts respectful preparation of the bodies. Where are we now on the necessity of last rites?
When video becomes flesh, all vectors lie. Lanza is an Ourslerian chimera, an art-crime perpetrator with one foot in and one foot out, no longer fully human, yet a walkabout member of the primate tribe. Dissociated stranger in a strange land, he punctures (an Oursler term) the chaste fabric of the schoolyard with his game-dream-reality. At one point Oursler says, “I am really interested in how one’s own narrative history is created: what you did, what was done to you. Somewhere there is an inner guide to good and evil.” Of Lanza, I want to ask, my God, what was done to your inner guide to allow such wholesale holographic commandeering? In recent months, there have been too many mass killings with distinct video game aesthetics to deem the condition anomalous. Clearly the game has escaped the entertainment-petri, setting its sights on us, which is to say, it’s no game anymore, boys and girls.
No great slight is caused Bowie to suggest he’s never been an ardent moralist, not in any traditional sense, and hardly a religionist. He’s in the Philip Larkin vein of English poets, which is to say he’s quintessentially English. When Larkin in “Church Going’ (1954) reflects on an abandoned country church as having “A shape less recognisable each week/A purpose more obscure,” we sense a nation’s mounting ambivalence and ebbing religious vitality, evidenced by one of the lowest church attendance rates in Europe. British rock and blues (of which Bowie’s Church of Man is a denominational offshoot) owes the velocity of its acceptance precisely to this spiritual void. Rock isn’t a cohesive worldview. It’s an opportunistic void-filler, an interregnum with teeth. It won’t let go until something else arrives.
In a 1995 interview available on Youtube, Bowie hints at the opportunistic, vulture-like quality of popular culture with a curiously palpable ambivalence: “Since time immemorial the two areas that humans struggle with continually are sex and violence . . . and these are the two areas that the church doesn’t embrace. So you’re kind of left with no arena to manifest those feelings of fear and terror . . . that’s what popular culture does . . . soak up the residue that the Judeo-Christian ethic won’t really confront. So I think that’s a perfectly natural thing that happens. That doesn’t condone it. I’m not sure where I would be in condoning it. All I can say is that I find it extremely understandable.”
Can we say the church does confront sex and violence, though in the context of negation and thou shalt nots and — in case the last man in the room hasn’t noticed — with jaw-dropping hypocrisy and a legacy of stupendous failure? Pop culture laughs wickedly at these failures and commercializes them, which is to say the profit motive emboldens and encourages further failure. This heightens the barrier of reentry into the church’s good graces, assuming someone might still desire the approval of this prima facie improbable institution made to look even more improbable through pop culture’s negational strategies. Can’t you just hear the flies buzzing all around? No affirming energy informs pop’s soft parade. Suicide bombers are cheerleaders for nihilism. If you want to call that affirmation, have I got an abyss for you.
A true-blue American, Oursler is more unsettled, doubling back repeatedly to “good and evil.” (In his 2010 interview, the term itself appears four times). He identifies himself as a raised, lapsed Catholic. No doubt the toppled edifice infuses his desire to discover interior modes of morality. If anything, Oursler is more the Manichean, residue again suggestive of a Catholic upbringing (“I tend to see things in black and white”). Whereas Bowie has traditionally seemed more Gnostic-Jungian — a red sail adrift on a sea of grays. The point is both artists toil very much in the shadow of post-religious collapse. The frenetic image-making, rooted in cultural neurosis, is an attempt to paper over this vacuum with a series of transient idols. Nothing in any existential sense is resolved. Social confusion multiplies with each new propagation. Shut up! Shut up!
I confess Oursler’s moral preoccupation perplexed me initially. However, Sandy Hook casts a long reappraising shadow with its own viral paradigm. There is even a counter-narrative coursing through cyberspace conspiracy circles that the whole tragedy was a staged video installation with trained actors. Talk about a homicidal media trope: the New World Order, Illuminati, and all that rot. Our brains hurt a lot. They’re being pulled upon from all sides.
Radically dissociative art and image manipulation tempt their own inward monsters. Many lost souls are groping through the adulterated dreamscape for a clarifying tyrant or an eclipsing emotion. For the lucky ones, love will be the axe that breaks the ice as it demands we say no to philosophical zombies, and affirm a corroborating companion, a lover, an audience, a witness, an Ishmael: You were there too, right? I mean, it wasn’t all a dream? Perhaps we should cease the endless interrogation of life’s meaning and be thankful another’s warm hand rests occasionally on our own. Fear of isolation — or worse, a capitulation to it — is the singular terror that haunts all time corridors. While we might suspect the universe of such cruelty, no one could ever really bear the knowledge of being alone. We pray the soft warm jets and pleasing apparitions never fail us. Should the lights not come back up at movie’s end, at least a succession of ghosts helped us through. In the absence of faith, knowledge comes with death’s release. Or it doesn’t. I can live with that.
Our eyes follow Bowie’s, now a spectated spectator, settling in upon those two sublime globes, center-screen (at 3:39) — between scenes, between personae — companions in something short of spectacle. We are illicitly peering into a dressing room. Like mannequins shorn of wigs and face-paint, two souls now ponder their next projection. A roomful of sharp mechanisms — props, chains, shards — seem poised to pierce their hovering unadornedness. Oursler has referred to his little video-creatures as seers. But here we are seeing them at unflickering rest like souls caught in a pre-imaginative, pre-holographic state; yes, souls, I like to insist, if you’ll indulge a hugely discredited, romantic term. Applying a Berlin spin, they are Cold War-era lovers huddled amidst collapsed brick and mortar — and they are asking of their brave new world (our hurtling din of freedom), where are we now?
At first blush, they appear vulnerable. Except they are indestructible. “Keep coming up with love,” slashed but not quite torn asunder. “Where Are We Now?” feels like an oblique love song on more than one level. In a rough division of responsibilities, Bowie’s handling the tender missive while Oursler’s video composition is tackling the Larger Questions. This is not to say Bowie isn’t playing a collaborative hand in the high concept. Oursler has suggested he did. However, one senses a distinct parallelism between the personal and the philosophical.
We are whatever we are as we begin and whatever sticks to the pan as we really cook, move, through. I mean, “If you think you’re gonna make it, you better hang onto yourself.” But that’s the amazement and the affirmation. Nothing changes us in any essential way. It was all just a series of flesh wounds with a lot of cinematic bleeding. Don’t you see? There’s something about us that doesn’t go anywhere. I think we’re gonna make it.
Yet there are casualties in the dream-reality Videodrome, at least on this temporal plane. As image stalks reality with increasing swagger, the symptomology of the stragglers transcends mere mental illness, crossing over into soul-disease. It remains to be seen whether the affliction reaches epidemic proportions. I’m saying there’s real blood on the viewfinder. Who’ll take moral responsibility for that?
But back to the movie. For the moment, we have one irreducible soul imposed across light and journey and a companion — episodic, interchangeable, perhaps, but a real soul too, I’m wagering, or else all love’s for naught and great sex is a fucking hologram. Soul-mates are lovers impervious to time and place.
The performance artist’s universe is a synaptic warehouse of cast-off vignettes. The packhorse’s provisions lay strewn all about the place. Again, the artist is also a double-blind as his bric-a-brac becomes ours too. There’s a diamond. And a dog. Two dogs. What see ye, Sherlock? All so compelling at the time — how we identified ourselves with such naive conviction! — veritable rubble now, an Anthem without a Wall. Pity too, as the Wall was such an unassailable go-to for good and evil. What can possibly replace it? Or should we be asking, need it be replaced at all?
For, while great minds dithered, the Internet erected a whole-cloth surrogate, the Illuminati, the conspiracist’s culminating Savior Machine, really a paranoiac’s wet dream. Hardly a fly drops today that isn’t swatted down by this Black Hand. We have replenished the need for an externalized locus of evil — ba-ha-ha! — enlarging it with a vengeance. The Wall fell down. Now we suspect evil of omnipresence like a pervasive atmosphere. Such a lost opportunity too, as we’ve averted Jung’s appeal for psychic healing yet again, only to answer (like perfect fucking cowards) Oursler’s bedeviling, timeworn question — is evil out there or in here? — with a redoubled out there and behind every bush!
We can no longer escape ourselves, nor remain inside to avoid wolves at the door. Outside is an imploded myth. Today’s wolves are migratory vapors that travel with impunity through radio frequencies, firewalls, and joysticks. Human immune systems are encircled and interpenetrated. Uncle Bill’s language-virus has been stampeded into movement, a condition media types insist on calling film and video. Evil is a virus as venerable as the flu. The artist is the mortar and pestle. He grinds both strains together, creating ever more pernicious admixtures. Who’s running trials and charting reactions? The Art-Crime Registry will spring from the loins of Patriot Act III with a garish public service announcement: Those who lack psychic immunity against certain convergent strains of media expose the larger community to grave harm. The security of the homeland is dependent upon your efforts. Please report all criminal art in your neighborhood.
The power of one is diabolically infinite. Singularity is how the universe began and how we will end. It is the army too small to find, let alone fight. Just ask Typhoid Mary or Duncan Jones. We’ve reached the grim terminus of a radically asynchronous world heralded all along by Judeo-Christianity’s monotheistic shadow-form. The lone gunman, historically trained on one iconic figure, has democratized his lethality. He is now a single madman armed with a vial of lethal smallpox. Whole nations lie within his sites. There’s nothing between us anymore. The best endure the worst at cellular proximity. The Illuminati needs to get its shit together and clamp down. So why does totalitarianism dither in the wings? Where’s our brave Apollo? Oh, he’s coming boys and girls. You can bank on it. And you will surprise yourselves. You will bathe his feet in kisses.
In the meantime, our feet are being held to the fire by Oursler’s video seers. Like surrogate consciences, they are whispering: Until you resolve the monsters within, we will project their murderous designs onto the faces even of perfect innocents. Either Jungian integration points the way forward or you had better fall to your knees in a quivering wreck of old-school fear, loathing, and teeth-gnashing, motherfucker. There are powerful camps for both views. This has been a rousing speech. Human nature will ensure nothing changes.
While the timeless questions fester as usual, X Factor moves in to fetishize the latest aftermath and Perez Hilton clicks away at celebrity skulls with nihilistic glee. And is it just me, or does “Heroes” deserve a good walling-off as its sonics are slowly being driven into pabulum? Gone too is the Wagnerian Sturm und Drang of the arriving Station to Station locomotive. Oh the lost drama of it all! Think of that portentous train consigned to a heap on the studio floor. We find the Thin White Duke now a Gray-Jeaned Earthling pondering quotidian departures and arrivals. Where went Kether and Malkuth? “Had to get the train from Potsdamer Platz“ is the mother of anticlimactic commuter lines.
Life is an enmeshment of traps and snares easily mistaken for existence. Something hangs around, namely all that we started with, before life got on with itself in a blur. Call it a soul. That’s what I do. This is cause for optimism and, strangely, the prospects for some vestige of survival at movie’s end. The brain is a medium for consciousness, an Ourslerian sculpture, a way station, not an originating wellspring. We might yet get out alive when the brain stem finally kicks it in the head.
The reminiscence is shared by our erstwhile Hero as a myriad of emotions flits across the ending credits of his face. He’s an actor trying to convey a lifetime of movie within a few frames of video. It looks real enough. He appears wistful, perplexed, vaguely regretful, perhaps weighing the veracity of all that has transpired, perhaps weighing his complicity in all that has washed across the globe at his instigation. Okay, I’m still here (or if you prefer Dylan’s negation, I’m Not Here, same thing in a half-empty sort of way) but what was the whole purpose for moving through? If that isn’t the million-dollar question, then what is? The soul-full gaze is unlit by artifice and lightning bolt; just a man exuding mortality as he surveys a waste land of dull, pedestrian life punctuated by the occasional inspired image-manufacture, Trent Reznor’s empire of dirt. His back’s to the wall, but not in arch-defiance or retreat. He is simply nearer the end than the beginning. The window on the future is shuttered. His tee-shirt logo, The Song of Norway, is somewhere between a defunct cruise line and a distant flame, journey derailed in either case. Such jigsaw pieces make Bowie’s mini-sojourns that much more fun.
However, we mustn’t overdetermine the image in the artist’s image. It’s a common mistake to think otherwise, but Bowie knows little more than we do. He simply has a gift for presenting our questions with acute awareness. For the moment we’re in a perpetual interrogatory phase until the moment we know — when, by definition, there’ll be no further questions. During this period, it’s fun to bang heads with him in a sort of art-dialectic. I’m just thrilled he’s still here in all his adroit befuddlement.
For anyone familiar with my prior Bowie excursions, 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World album and eponymous song especially are the most irreplaceable in the entire oeuvre for a host of reasons. The half-ascended man on the ladder at 2:55 (the ladder whose rungs frame our perspective at video’s outset) is the timeless sojourner on the stair. The montage of the unmanned staircase weaves in and out from video to film, dream to reality, past to present, teasing the song’s central question. Bowie’s still the man who sold the world on a most peculiar genius. There’s a bulging shopping bag at his feet. Subliminally, you’ve been fed, then instructed: go buy my back-catalog. Thank you for shopping with us.
I think I’m getting this Day After business. It’s the day sandwiched between heroism and death, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the calendar, when all Action Men worth their prior antsy pants relent to circumspection. He’s taking notes, making a bemused accounting perhaps for the next bardo. And what a movie it’s been up to now. At the risk of sounding dirge-like, thank you Mr. Bowie for a riveting spool of loops, ducks and whirls. If it all never happened, well, you could have fooled many of us. And you did. May you continue to question whatever it is we could have sworn just happened, and for a long time to come.
NOTE: Oursler quotes taken from Talking Back: A Conversation with Tony Oursler, by Elizabeth Janus and Tony Oursler, Published in Williams College Museum of Art, Apr. 4, 2010. David Bowie lyric quotes and references pervade the text.