Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing by Benjamin Nugent

Better than even Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith provides a case study of the effects of fame. Though his rise was just as mercurial, the changes wrought were more profound and more eerie. Benjamin Nugent treats this flight to fame with a delicate touch, showing as many sides of Elliott as he was able to access. The result is a book about the pitfalls of the rise to public attention, its effects on friendships, and a man who fought against everything to maintain the one thing he truly lost: control. Nugent’s book follows Elliott from his growing up in suburban Texas, where his tumultuous home life pushed him inward and toward music, to his beginnings as a performer in Portland, Oregon, then through his chaotic brush with mass consciousness, to his unfortunate suicide in Los Angeles. Continue reading “Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing by Benjamin Nugent”

How To Draw a Bunny Directed by John Walter

Ray Johnson has been called the “the most famous unknown artist in the world.” He was an unsung Pop Art innovator, collaging, mailing, and performing his way through the mid-twentieth century New York art scene. As artist Billy Name says in one of the interviews in the film: “Rauschenberg was a person making art, so was Andy (Warhol). Ray wasn’t a person. Ray was art… That’s why he’s an artist’s artist.”

How to Draw a BunnyHow To Draw a Bunny documents Ray’s life as best as it could be done. Many were acquainted with him and his work – and many over long periods of time – but no one seemed to know who Ray was. His entire life was a performance. And so too, it appears, was his death (the mystery surrounding his apparent suicide opens the film). He never went to openings, never had his own art show, despised galleries, was meticulous about his prices, and truly worked outside the art system his entire career.

Ray Johnson started or helped start many of the techniques and trends for which other artists are known: the use of copy machines and collaging; using images from advertising, brand logos, and pop culture icons; and mail art, or as he called it, “correspondence art.”

How To Draw a Bunny is a fun collage in itself: a collection of interviews of artists who knew Ray, including Chuck Close, Christo and Jean-Claude, James Rosenquist, the aforementioned Billy Name, and Ray Johnson himself; many great photographs; and, presented mostly in black and white, the film maintains the opening mood of mystery throughout. It’s a fun and intriguing look at an artist about whom one may not have heard, but will certainly be better off with his acquaintance.

Under the Overpass Written and Directed by Gariss

In this short but fascinating film, a wheelchair-bound homeless man, Michael, begins his day when he wakes up under an overpass, slowly maneuvers into his wheelchair, and heads to a local coffee shop. After cleaning up the sidewalk out front, collecting his pay (a cup of coffee), he makes his way to another overpass where he sips his coffee, and pulls out his flute. Unbeknownst to the hurried passersby, through his music, Michael is transferred to a world with able legs: legs able to run, jump, and leap with joyous abandon. Continue reading “Under the Overpass Written and Directed by Gariss”

The Laws of Cool by Alan Liu

Even with as many texts as have come out exploring and explicating our so-called information age, there has yet to be a more exhaustive account of just what the hell has happened than Alan Liu’s The Laws of Cool (University of Chicago Press). Nevermind the misleading title. This isn’t another exposé on “cool hunting” and finding out what the kids are into. This lengthy tome is about how most of us came to be knowledge workers in the factories of information.

The Laws of CoolTo call this book “exhaustive” is an understatement. I can’t stress the reaches of Liu’s research or the sprawling implications of his book enough – and reading it is quite the lengthy process. Every time one thinks that Liu has found his bounds, the next chapter opens another door on which one wouldn’t have even thought of knocking. Yet, it’s a cohesive work, written with unwavering wit and erudition.

Exploring the Foucauldian climate of the corporate control culture, set off by IT and the mainframe, Liu shows how managers came to be “seduced by the system” (as Ellen Ullman put it in her book Close to the Machine). They used the abilities of their information systems to keep tabs on their workers – even where there had previously been no problems. His use of temperature-related tropes (e.g., “hot,” “cold,” “warm,” and especially “cool”) is confusing at first, due to the previous uses of such terms (i.e., as slang or as in McLuhan’s ubiquitous probes). These temperatures eventually come together to illuminate the weather of the twenty first century workaday, from the stifling of hot emotions by the cold machine to the warmth of friends and family and the cool of today’s assimilated, yet über-hip “knowledge workers” (“We work here, but we’re cool,” quoth Liu).

Taken whole, The Laws of Cool is a high relief, topographical map of the workscape of the early twenty first century. Couple this with Ken Wark‘s A Hacker Manifesto and you have a crash course in post-Marxist labor studies.

Chris Ware by Daniel Raeburn

In the much-maligned medium of comic books, Chris Ware is one of the artists that justifies — even as he transcends — the medium. His work encompasses aspects of typography, graphic design, fine art, Joseph Cornell-style cabinet-making, story telling, and, of course, comics.

Chris Ware Daniel Raeburn’s book is the first to explore the expanse of Ware’s work. The book itself consists of a brief biography including in-depth interview sessions with Ware, and an extensive selection from all aspects and eras of Ware’s work. Included are pieces and layouts from Ware’s Acme Novelty Library series, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, and Quimby the Mouse, as well as drawings, sketches, paintings, toys, display cases, etc. In addition, Raeburn has assembled many of the work of artists who influenced Ware, and many catalog pages from which Ware lifted some of his layout ideas.

Chris Ware represents a brief but thorough overview of one of the most important visual artists working today.

Chris Ware comics

A Hacker Manifesto by McKenzie Wark

A Hacker Manifesto is the Big Picture of not only where we are in the “information age,” but where we’re going as well. Adopting the epigrammic style of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, as well as updating its ideas, Ken Wark establishes so-called “knowledge workers” as an unrecognized social class: “the hacker class.” Wark also updates Marx and Engels, Deleuze and Guattari, Nietzsche, and a host of others: Continue reading “A Hacker Manifesto by McKenzie Wark”