The inexplicable charisma of a publisher: 1. As I stated yesterday (ambitiously, audaciously), I wish to make a book for the catalogue of Swiss art publisher JRP-Ringier. It’s not an entirely unrealisable ambition; I’ve published books with Dalkey and Sternberg, held art shows in New York, written for Frieze and Art in America. I am the kind of person they publish. That kind of person includes figures I know and admire: Luke Fowler and Stuart Bailey and Liam Gillick and Jonathan Monk. (On my last visit to Motto in Berlin I thought to myself: “If art is a board game, Jonathan Monk has won.”) The Wikipedia page about JRP-Ringier states that the house publishes “at an ever-increasing rate and currently releases one book a week”.
2. I would like to propose to JRP-Ringier the publication of an expanded and redacted series of transcripts of the performative lectures I’ve been delivering recently at places like Image/Movement in Berlin, the Glasgow School of Art, and the FIAC Art Fair in Paris. The title would be The Book of Emotional Lectures.
3. Although JRP-Ringier publications clearly emerge out of the wealth of Switzerland — they have about them something of the atmosphere I noticed in Zurich during my visit last month, an atmosphere of pleasant privilege, clean air and buffered comfort — they’re not something you’d do for money. I imagine them to be “rich enough to be post-money”. Their wealthy background allows them to ignore commercial concerns completely. They work because things are inherently worth doing, not for money. They seem, in that sense, aristocratic, and lofty like the Alps. This is the impression I get, anyway, and it’s how I choose to live my life too. Life is too short to let money dictate what you do, which is why having money is important. Money frees you from money.
4. Nevertheless, it did cross my mind that there may be in place some sort of arrangement by which commercial companies like Bless, or state-subsidised art exhibitions, actually contribute to the production costs of their JRP-Ringier publications.
5. The covers of JRP-Ringier books (mostly art-directed by Geneva-based studio Gavillet & Rust) convey a graphic energy and an austere glamour. They are obliquely gorgeous, and suggest a greater-than-usual sobriety and introversion, yet, at the same time, an inner vigour of deep originality. The Swiss-American Zak Kyes produces a similar effect in his work for Sternberg and the Bedford Press. (Zak’s studio is right now coming up with the cover for my Book of Japans. I expect my expectations to be exceeded.)
6. I’m interested in the implicit world these books evoke. They’re books you’d find at Pro-qm in Berlin or Printed Matter in New York, and those stores also gain their power by evoking an absent, super-sophisticated world: a cleverer, more advanced world, both more restrained and more acerbically original than the one we know. In this world, highly intelligent curators and artists mingle, assemble projects, “parachute in” to biennials, sit alone in their studios, mingle more, drink a bit, then head off on their own to observe the world through eyes far more sophisticated than the eyes of newspaper reporters. A process of super-filtration is implied in this world: the filters remove, for instance, Anglo-Saxon commercial editors with dyed blonde hair and a preference for embossed covers. Those people with blonde highlights are implicitly snubbed by these books, or super-filtered. So are — for instance — cynical crabs on message boards, conspiracy theorists, mainstream music journalists and TV producers.
7. At various times I have collected things I found “talismanic”. When I was a kid, it was the magazine Look and Learn. Later it was copies of The Listener magazine and Penguin paperbacks. Later still, records on the 4AD and Factory labels. These things had a strong and charismatic collective identity. They had, at least for a while, a highly correct and compelling play of the x-axis of variety and the y-axis of similarity, or, if you prefer, the x-axis of collective strength and the y-axis of individual strength. It wasn’t necessary to read them in depth, just to collect and admire them.
8. These collections, as their charisma allowed them to gain momentum in culture, became productive: one suddenly found, within oneself, a surprising and not-before-present desire to contribute to the catalogue. There grew in one a desire to fit and yet not-fit, to be included in the catalogue and yet to expand it. My first publication happened in exactly such circumstances: I contributed an album to the 4AD label, adding to a catalogue I already fetishised and revered. In retrospect, I can see that I made the mistake of being too individualistic: I passed on the offer of a 23 Envelope sleeve (which would have inscribed my album with full visual legitimacy into the 4AD canon) and insisted instead on making my own botched, eccentric jacket, one which went against the grain of the label and condemned the record to anomaly status.
9. I want to stress again the productiveness of the catalogue. It’s not that one has a pre-existing “thing to say” and that any publisher will do. It’s that certain publishers give you a glimpse of — and have already created — an implicit world in which a book or record you wouldn’t otherwise have thought of making could and can exist, enhancing you, the publisher, and the world in the process. It doesn’t matter if this implicit world is a lie. Is the world created by Peter Saville, Tony Wilson and New Order a lie? It’s a fabrication. Factory makes it a fact. The context then takes over, with a creative and productive impetus of its own.
10. In the world of the charismatic, super-filtering publisher, things that other publishers would consider sins are considered virtues. Things our highlit Anglo-Saxon editor would strike through reflexively with a blue pencil are actively encouraged. Yes you can be austere. Yes you can be difficult. Yes you can be arty and clever and conceptual. You have creative carte blanche; anything goes. Partly, of course, this is because of the super-filtration: you are singing to the choir, preaching to the converted. And partly — don’t kid yourself — it’s because nobody reads art publications anyway. They just look good on the shelf at the art gallery. They fill the racks at the art school library. They advance the careers of their makers. Carte blanche becomes carte de visite. Nevertheless, if anyone would read them, they’d discover something great, something created by that context, that charisma, and that big white open map.
11. But really, should we even care if the books weren’t read? They’re talismanic, remember. They exist principally as super-filters, as evokers of an implicit world. It’s like ambient music: you may not even notice it’s playing, but it gives you thoughts you wouldn’t have if commercial pop were playing in the background. The books evoke desire, a desire for a better, more intelligent world. They can do that when read, but also when left unread on the shelf, because they are beautiful objects. And, speaking of the importance of their existence as beautiful and evocative objects, I would absolutely not be interested in seeing these books as e-books to be read on an iPad or webpage. Their content cannot be siphoned into more convenient media, because their importance is all tied up with their resistance of the world we know, and their evocation of another, more demanding, better world. They super-filter, and glisten with rarefied implications, like snowflakes falling through Swiss air.
Digital afterlife: Here’s a set of thumbnails of Hannes Grassegger’s Momus profile in the new edition of Swiss art magazine Du, with photos (including one outtake) by Nathan Beck. The cover image is Michael Wolf’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2010).
The issue is themed around “Digital Living: Reports from the Parallel World” and the Momus feature is headlined “Is that Utopian? It’s limiting…” The intro says that, having spent fifteen years “formatting” a public for myself via the web (the idea is that digital tools allow you to take over one by one the tasks of music production and distribution, up to and including the digital creation — via education and spin — of the public the work requires), I’ve become, in the “shrunken” age of Web 2.0, “print-only” and “post-internet”.
Print, paper, professionalism… I suppose it’s apposite and material that I’m reporting here online, in thumbnail summary, at the minimal risk of a spattering of “likes”, the appearance of these ideas in a print-only publication which will appear physically, for money, on newsstands in Switzerland tomorrow. I’m not directing you to an iPad-flippable mag on Issuu, am I? Do we have to talk about Benjamin’s “aura” again? Or Adam Smith’s “scarcity”, for that matter?
Where once it would have mattered to me that my opinions would resound around the web and the usual suspects would have a good old natter about them (including, no doubt, the juicy irony of some shadowy anonymice taking ad hom pot-shots at a “hypocrite” and a “narcissist”), now my first thoughts on seeing something like this Du profile are:
a) Will a German-language publisher read this article and offer me the chance to publish my projected Book of Austerity or Book of the Poet? Someone elegant and arty like JRP-Ringier?
b) Will I be offered, on the strength of this important article, an important teaching post in an important Swiss art school housed in an austere, glacial, bead-like building high in the Alps, from which a small-but-important group of us will pioneer the dominant post-web styles of the 21st century the way Kandinsky, Klee, Gropius, Schlemmer, Itten and Klemm pioneered Modernism a century ago? And will the offer come by email, or in a beautiful hand-written letter?
Crash and Build: In theory I don’t watch TV. In practice I consume episode after episode of the same show monomaniacally. Sometimes I’m watching two shows back-to-back. For the past couple of months it’s been Grand Designs and Air Crash Investigations.
At first sight, Grand Designs and Air Crash Investigations don’t have much to do with each other. Grand Designs (sample episode titles: Newport Folly, Converted Missile Base) is a show in which people build their dream home and live happily ever after in it. In Air Crash Investigations (sample episode titles: Desperate Dive, Racing the Storm) people live out nightmare scenarios on aircraft, sometimes dying in the process. But the more I watch these two shows, the more I feel they’re two sides of the same coin, two aspects of the same show. Aristotle defined tragedy as a play in which “things get worse” and comedy as one in which “things get better”. Grand Designs and Air Crash Investigations are, it seems to me, the same basic plot played out in comic and tragic modes.
Depending on which of the two shows we’re watching, we’re presented with the basic structuring element: the build, or the flight. We’re shown basic preparations, computer simulations, interviews with participants. We know that soon enough the main dramatic element will emerge: the problem. The problem will interrupt the smooth passage of the build or the flight, and give our narrative its dramatic impetus. Character will emerge under the stress of the problem, which will often concern weather or the elements. Tiny miscalculations will have massive repercussions. Our faith in the architect, or the pilot, will be shaken.
In order to understand what went wrong, we will need to study intricate technicalities. Why did the builders pour ten extra millimeters of concrete, and will they be able to drill it away without damaging the underfloor heating pipes? Will a miniscule extrusion of the filters allow ice to block the fuel lines, leading to a catastrophic loss of thrust?
Grand Designs and Air Crash Investigations are shows about the impact of design on our lives. They show how highly technical, dweeby things really can make the difference between success and failure, life or death. A house stays anchored to the ground, a plane flies through the sky, but ultimately they’re both big, expensive machines that we trust with our lives. We hope they’ll protect us from nature and the elements. We even hope they’ll transport us to the place of our dreams. Mostly they do the job. But sometimes they go wrong, and things going wrong is where compelling stories start.
I think there’s a more personal explanation for my fascination with these crashing and building shows. Right now, I’m living in my Japanese dream house. I didn’t build it, but it’s the first time I’ve had a whole house to myself, let alone a whole house in Japan. At the moment, in order to live here, I’m having to make long-haul flights back to Europe every ninety days. So these two shows are totally relevant to me. Rolled into one, they’d become Design Crash Investigations: a show in which planes crash into dream homes, or a documentary about my life.
Journalism: I write journalism — these days mostly just for magazines I admire — and have a batch of little articles coming out in the spring editions of various quarterlies and monthlies.
Viennese art magazine Spike has its new edition on the shelves already, and features in its Global Art World section an article of which they note: “There’s a problematical beauty in poverty, says Nick Currie, who moved to Osaka’s worst slum.” The piece details my (morally nuanced) appreciation of Nishinari and is illustrated by a couple of my photos of tarp shelters and old men hauling carts laden with cardboard.
Interiors magazine Apartamento — currently printing its seventh edition — also runs a one-page piece in which I meditate on the relationship between happiness and having, and relish the irony in which I jettison a lifetime’s junk in Berlin only to start accumulating again in my new house in Osaka. The article is illustrated by this photo, a shot down the steep stairs of my Osaka home:
Thanks to the hectic priorities of the hungry news cycle, last week’s Scotland on Sunday piece about Japan’s earthquake and tsunami disaster already feels stale and redundant — emotionally and factually out of date — whereas the Spike and Apartamento pieces (written in December and January) touch on wider, more timeless themes and therefore still feel fresh and true.
Seen in the long view, the earthquake has simply become one more source of poverty in the world, another enforcer of austerity measures. In this sense it’s no different to the governments of Britain and Portugal, or 2008’s Lehman Shock. Together, these things signal the end of the frothy design-consumerist-materialistic-aspirational-escapist attitude that magazines used to promote. Asked to write for magazines, I’ve chosen to dwell precisely on the ending of that particular mindset. I’m interested in what magazines might become once that’s gone, because I do still believe in them.
They say that you can cross the whole of Osaka without ever leaving covered shopping arcades. I plan one day to test that. Meanwhile, here’s the Tenjinbashi-suji — Osaka’s longest arcade, stretching 2.6 kilometers to the south — photographed today from the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living. It looks like a train line, a secret highway, a particle accelerator.
When I lived in Berlin, a group of friends and I would sometimes make “religious field trips”, checking out weird religious centres like the Buddhahaus. We even visited some Christian churches, like the Mount of Olives church on the Landwehrkanal.
My pilgrimage to Kobe today was solitary, and I intended just to bulk-buy my favourite brand of Pu-Ehr tea, which is cheap in the Chinatown there (about half the price it is in Osaka). But it was a nice spring day, so I climbed the hill in the Kitano-cho district, planning to visit my favourite Indian vegetarian restaurant.
The place wasn’t open yet, so I strolled round the corner and looked at the mosque, then the Jain Temple. Kobe has long been a place for foreigners, which makes it feel — for a Japanese city — refreshingly cosmopolitan.
The Jain temple is an ornate structure encrusted with tiny elephant sculptures. It looks like a mini-Angkor Wat. Outside the temple there’s a sign telling you to remove your shoes, and saying that women in the middle of their period aren’t welcome.
At the entrance a man asked what was in my bag. “Chinese tea,” I replied, and was asked to leave it on a chair by the door.
Upstairs, people circled a shrine containing a crude Buddha-like figure (Lord Mahavir, the Jain figurehead, was a contemporary of the Buddha and their ideas overlapped), incense was wafted, scarves were worn around heads, spices were ground and offered, and there was praying. I made to sit down on some chairs at the back, but was asked not to. I was, however, permitted to keep my cap on.
On the way out I picked up a pamphlet and read it carefully over my vegetarian lunch. There was a lot to approve of; Jainism believes in non-killing, truth-telling, non-stealing, celibacy and non-attachment to material things. Also: “Jain Philosophy does not give credence to the theory of a Creator of the Universe. On the contrary, it asserts that the Universe has always existed and will always exist”.
And: “A man in relation to his father is a son but the same person in relation to his son is a father… Jainism declares that in a given situation and at a given time, any thought or theory may seem to be wrong but in the context of other situation and references the same thought or theory may be right. So the student is required to study them from various angles, considering every view point with cool head and without prejudice and arrive at a right decision after very careful thought and research.”
As if to endorse this syncretistic relativism (which the Jain pamphlet calls SYADVAD, or “theory of relativity”), I immediately climbed to a Shinto shrine set high on the Kobe hillside, apparently dedicated to a bull.
Foreigners who escaped from Tokyo to Osaka show “things we saved from the fire”.
Availability nearby of “information by the wordiness leaf” was taken into account.
Kanikosen Boom: We can thank that running-dog lackey of the neo-liberal right, Junichiro Koizumi, for pushing a generation of young Japanese into the arms of the communists.
That’s the conclusion drawn by this article, anyway. Koizumi’s 2002 labour law reforms resulted in an entire generation being shunted from permanent to temporary employment contracts, and therefore forfeiting the security of pensions, medical coverage and unemployment benefit. It’s these furitas (temporary, short-contract workers) who, since 2008, have been reviving communist ideas.
They’ve also spent their free time reading, helping propel the re-edition of a 1929 communist classic, Kanikosen, into the bestseller lists. The resulting “Kanikosen boom” has seen several manga, film and theatre spin-offs. The Crab-Canning Ship (the literal translation of the title of Takiji Kobayashi’s novel) shows a crew set off from Hakodate in Hokkaido to trawl for Kamchatka crabs, introduced by Stalin to the Bering Sea as a source of cheap and plentiful protein for Siberians. It depicts a world of harsh labour conditions and widening income gaps.
This is where the links with my forthcoming Book of Japans come in. My novel opens in Lerwick, Shetland, where Mick Morris is a worker in a crab-canning factory. His job is to de-shell and meat-grade Kamchatka crabs, most of which are exported to Japan. Fed and clothed, effectively, by the Japanese economy, Morris starts getting curious about the country, and is soon an expert in all things Japanese. He’s offered a place on a tribunal panel quizzing twelve local idiots who claim to have travelled to the future of Japan.
Several of the scenarios the idiots bring back from their travels concern a future Japan which has gone communist. In one, keitai micropayments have kept getting smaller and smaller, until they’ve disappeared completely, resulting in an economy run on the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his means”.
Another sees Japan sponsoring African liberation movements:
In the twenty-fifth century, Hitchison explains, the Japanese state has become unashamedly Marxist-Leninist. And, like the former Soviet Union, Japan pursues an active policy of financing and supporting resistance movements in the developing —which is to say the actively underdeveloped and suppressed— world. This African involvement has in turn transformed Japan.
You can’t walk far down a Japanese street without spotting black faces, seeing African restaurants, or encountering Utopian African imagery. Many communist leaders-in-waiting are being educated and sheltered here, awaiting the military coup or popular uprising that will allow them to seize power back home.
The Ministry of Information, always on the lookout for new propaganda opportunities, makes an educational film in which it interviews Hitchison, the “visitor from the past”, about the difficulties he has selling the vegetables he grows on the open market. The propagandists make a remarkably well-researched film about the life cycle of the Shetland Black potato, and show how the costs associated with its cultivation are rarely met by the prices it fetches on a world market dominated by monopoly, manipulation, insider trading and short-term profiteering.
The implication is clear: the Shetland Black is a handy metaphor for the fate of black Africa. Only by collectivising agriculture back home in the Shetland Isles can Scots like the idiot Glenn Hitchison restore dignity and purpose to their work in the fields and ensure that their crops, reasonably priced, feed their own people. The idiot Glenn Hitchison returns to Shetland radicalised, determined to convert his farm to the principles of Afro-Japanese Marxist Leninism.