Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Conduct Of Life

Oh boy, all kindsa random tangents to talk about!

I was pointed to an "Indie culture roundtable" at TO:C last week, although eulogy might be a better word than roundtable. Indie culture is apparently on the skids and TimeOut rounded up the most morose bunch of motherfuckers they could to mourn it.

Far as I'm concerned, it's a pile of crap: as has been pointed out elsewhere, the mean age of this roundtable is 38. The representation of indie culture is an average of 38 and certainly no younger than 33. With that knowledge in hand, it's not as surprising that the roundtable sounds a bit weathered around the edges and entirely unexcited about the prospect of indie culture, but is this really what we're going to roll out as a feature on the subject, TO:C?

Let's break it down:

The panel starts out with both feet on the brakes by refusing to even fall under the heading 'indie'. Three of the five panelists flat out refuse to use the word in their organizations and a fourth makes a very strong distinction against it, all touting the horrors of 'indie' becoming a marketing term/genre/style as opposed to the politically engaged 'independent' (though I would argue against the idea of crowing about oneself as an "economically independent, noncorporate venture" as being tremendously political anymore, but that's an argument to be taken up in a few minutes). The point of the roundtable is set-up quite soundly in this first question: Indie is a dead, corporate-riddled corpse, let's bemoan the fact we are still associated with its name. It's a sad, tired argument that any minority cultural movement either dies by or slogs through at some point.

There's an underlying case of refusal to adapt in this discussion. J.C. Gabel, the youngest and thus most disappointing of the snarkers, in between quips about Urban Outfitters, makes a comment about the discussion really being 20th century vs. 21st century. I agree, but what we have here is a panel of 20th century representatives, with perhaps the exception of Shawn Campbell, who seems less jaded but doesn't get a substantial word in edgewise. When a question on whether it's possible to be 100% independent anymore gets raised to this group of people, I would expect a resounding yes and a discussion about the drastic drop in production and distribution costs in the internet age, that anyone can make their own music, film, etc. and provide it to a potential audience of millions at the drop of a hat. And that they can pull a Thom Yorke or a Trent Reznor and do it with what I'm convinced will be the starting point of a new 21st century business model: free at the baseline. Instead, what I got was hemming and hawing that boils down to one bitchy complaint: "People don't give away free money anymore." Are you fucking kidding me? This is our indie... excuse me, independent culture? We're so goddamn independent that we won't even use the word indie and our primary complaint is that corporations are no longer giving us free money? If that's the case, I'll welcome the death of indie culture and we can find something new to call what's happening now.

For real though, read the responses to the last question in the article -- can anyone make heads or tails of what exactly is going on? On the one hand we have (Pitchfork.com's!) Scott Plagenhoef saying that there is no nationwide delivery system, one of which -- and it isn't drastically far from being an independent version of the dreaded Clear Channel -- many would argue he heads. Of course, I understand that he's more concerned that there's not a single delivery system that hits every household. What I don't understand is why he has a problem with this. The entire panel seems to be ruing the (possible) loss of a monoculture, sorrowful that there is an arrival of more diversity through more outlets, which I read as less of a solidified 'mainstream'. Is our indie culture really mourning the cracks in the walls of mainstream distribution, or are they attempting to speak towards the loss of some sort of independent monoculture? Has there ever been an independent monoculture? Did they just drop all pretenses by the last question, throw up their hands and admit that the darn internets provide too many options (most of them tres independent)? How does one justify saying that the world is no longer wired to have a shared reaction the likes of the one caused by Michael Jackson's death mere weeks after the world had that exact shared fucking reaction? What the hell does Michael Jackson have to do with indie culture anyway? It makes me really fucking upset, it does, because it's a wasted opportunity to explore the new independent on TO:C's part. If anyone from TimeOut happens across this, I sincerely ask you to do a follow-up comprised of twentysomethings. See if you don't get more conversation, more ideas, and more ingenuity. And a lot less pissing and moaning.


Of course, my follow-up to this is the fact that there was no theatre representation on the panel. For that, I don't blame TO:C, I blame us. Theatre doesn't really fit the indie culture bill. I don't know that theatre even has a subset that fits the indie culture bill. Which is ironic because there's a ton of 100% independent theatre work being done in the city, primarily because no corporation in their right mind is going to fund a venture with such little commercial potential. Some of the problem as I see it is we ain't moving much in either direction. We aren't finding ways to make ourselves prone to more commercial potential, but we also aren't saying 'fuck it, we're not a commercial venture' and letting that free our work up. It's this midpoint limbo that's killing us, this sense of following the right way of doing things to be financially successful without any actual promise or payoff of the financial success.

My unfortunate example is the last show I saw: Tooth & Nail's The Conduct Of Life. (The link is to a review; as far as I can tell, Tooth & Nail doesn't have a website.) It seems as though director Marti Lyons has plenty of ideas about this script: from the omnipresent live band to the accompaniment Butoh usage, Lyons is attacking this beast (and thematically, it is a beast) from a number of angles. But the whole thing still ends up as a very presentational, very just outta the gates, very we got the Viaduct now how do we use it, very serious play that our friends and family can still appreciate product. I don't think I particularly liked it. But I also don't know, because I don't get the sense that anyone bringing innovative ideas to the table ever really cut loose with them. In the long run, I'm not really sure what was a choice and why or what wasn't and why not.

There was some of the most stilted acting I've ever seen on the part of Elizabeth Olson that I like to think, for her sake, had to be intentional. Couldn't tell you for certain, or the reasoning behind it. There were some sections of stage combat that were so horrendously slapdash that I would love to hope might have been a choice, either in comment towards the violence of the script or as a counterpoint to the use of Butoh. I'm doubtful, but again couldn't tell you for sure. Even the obvious choices didn't seem fully fleshed. For me, a big part of the intrigue of the production was the use of Butoh, which ending up being a sidebar accompaniment to monologues rather than actually incorporated into the show -- honest work, it seemed, but tremendously limited and happily so.

And then there's always the 'why?', because I think Marti had one. It seems like there was a reason behind this show, an intended message. But I'm mixed on what it might have been. When the script and imagery were allowed to speak for themselves, it becomes an exploration of the power and appeal within violence. When onstage violence is used, it becomes an exploration on what begets violence. And the final song choice shifts it all into anti-violence gear. Maybe all of these were choices, maybe none of them. But as it is, all my messages got mixed.


A certain Mr. Ed Rutherford has brought up an interesting marketing quandary this week that I'd be curious to hear some further opinions on. Hubris Productions' Bent is running right now, and the show trailer they've created for it mixes production and backstage footage with actual Holocaust footage. (You can see it here, but be warned, it's not for kids... or work.) Where does the ethical line fall on this one?

I personally don't take a lot of umbrage with the use of the footage, but that the footage was used in such a trite manner. There are a number of ways to use this imagery in an effective marketing campaign. Hubris took it and inserted it into a paint-by-numbers "serious" trailer. They could have replaced the footage in question with happy bunny rabbits and still offended my sensibilities as an audience member. Instead they've both offended my sensibilities with an unimaginative campaign and tried to play the "how can you not respect this and therefore our work?" card. It's a guilt trip trailer and that is probably what I take issue with the most.


So, I found that elusive great modernist playwright I was looking for a few weeks back in Michel Vinaver. I just got done with the shortened version of his Overboard. Shortened is a very relative word, because this thing is still a monster, but what a monster it is. You'd still be looking at something nearing a 3 1/2 hour run time with this version, but the world Vinaver creates is so instantly solidified and manages this among such a varied set of characters and situations that it truly flies. He's one of my new favorites, especially in his use of interweaving scenes. I'm trying to hunt down a copy of the full 7 hour version; does anyone have any info? Could point me to someone with some info?

As much as I love you, Chicago Public Library System, I would appreciate a little more interest in my tastes...


There was more stuff. But it's late and my brain has forgotten it. It'll have to wait for the sequel. Or for you to remind me.



rebar said...

>>It makes me really fucking upset, it does, because it's a wasted opportunity to explore the new independent on TOC's part. If anyone from TimeOut happens across this, I sincerely ask you to do a follow-up comprised of twentysomethings. See if you don't get more conversation, more ideas, and more ingenuity. And a lot less pissing and moaning.

I'm about to turn 40 and I had the same reaction you did. I was astounded that not one voice at that table stood up and discussed how the internet has truly created avenues of independent publication - both literary and musically.

Back when I was in high school, we were coming out of the punk era and moving into "alternative"...before it even had that name.

Once it got named, it became "mainstream", so then they came up with "indie."

It's all just fucking labels.

I was pissed that they focused so much on a word versus discussing what being an independent (or formerly independent) artist means in 2009.

I don't think you necessarily need 20-somethings to have this conversation - you just need to invite a different set of guests.

And if that list had folks who were 20, 30 and 40-something? Mores the better.

Paul Rekk said...

Yeah, I knew that wasn't fair when I typed it, but the reactionary is strong with this one.

There are a ton of forward-thinking 30 and 40 somethings plus (and teenagers, of course) -- I think the problem TimeOut ran into is recruiting people for this discussion that likely spent a large chunk of their twenties building themselves to a position of authority in this culture. And now that this culture is shifting, as cultures do, their position of authority is starting to show a few cracks in the foundation.

A panel of twentysomethings was the wrong way to put it. I want to see a follow-up with a panel of people who are building something now and are posed to be an authority in 4-5 years, rather than those who are an authority now. Pitchfork has no place to go but down -- show me what the likes of RCRD LBL and La Blogotheque (or the Chicago equivalents) have to say.

Ed said...

You speak of 'trite use,' and I agree, but for a different reason. While my irritation is exacerbated by the trite juxtaposition of historical footage and their backstage shots, what makes me furious is that in my opinion the use to which the footage is being put overall (i.e., encouraging people to buy tickets to a play) is in itself not a sufficiently serious reason to justify displaying those images. I consider it tremendously disrespectful to the dead people shown. During their last tortured moments, I can't begin to imagine what was going through their heads, but I'll bet it WASN'T "this sucks, but at least some priveleged twentysomethings in Chicago will be able to profit from clips of our abused corpses." Speaking as a marketer I consider the assembly of that trailer to be a tremendously unethical action. Using those images for personal gain (they're giving some of their proceeds to a Holocaust Museum, but not 100% that's for damn sure) seems difficult to me to justify under any circumstances, but the umpteenth production of "Bent" this city has seen sure as hell ain't it. I repeat myself, but putting sad piano music under it doesn't make this respectful use.

devilvet said...

This was one of my favorite blog posts in months of reading.

The problem with asking anyone over 30 about the indie culture is that the older you get the more you realize baby gotsa to eat.

I think it is important to remember that a major of our indie heroes didnt live often above the poverty line.

I think a ton of us thought that the internet was the missing link, the tool that was going to get each of us the word or mouth, audience, distribution, notarity, etc necessary to quit the temp job and still feed baby while pursuing passion.

Most of those folks though utopia was in the offing rather than more years with ramen noodles.