Monday, January 16, 2023

Arthur Kleinjan | Paris Looks

Arthur Kleinjan
Paris Looks
Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Veenman Publishers, 2001
28 pp., 16 x 10 cm., accordion fold
Edition size unknown

This unassuming artist book - now over twenty years old - reminds me of a scene in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which inexplicably didn't make it into Noah Baumbach's disappointing recent film adaptation. The characters in DeLillo's novel visit a tourist site known as “the most photographed barn in America.” Signs announcing the attraction dot their route, and when they arrive there are forty cars and a tour bus ahead of them, in a makeshift lot. 

“No one sees the barn,” Murray tells Jack. “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn. Being here is kind of a spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.” 

The tourist photographers are not taking pictures of a barn, “They are taking pictures of taking pictures.”

In Paris Looks, tourists pose for the cameras of friends and family, in front of a monument that the artist is perched atop, surreptitiously taking his own photographs of the subjects. The ostensible subject matter of the snapshots - the object they are posing in front of - is missing from these pictures, like the unseen barn. The famously photogenic Paris - a place that consistently ranks atop lists of the most photographed cities in the world, becomes anonymous in Kleinjan's document. 

DeLillo returns to the idea of collective perception later in the book, when discussing the Nuremberg Rallies and Elvis Presley concerts. “They were there to be a crowd.”

Once in my mid-teens I was watching the TV news and during the closing credits clips played of the Rolling Stones' stadium performance from the night before. Jagger and the rest of the band were so isolated from each other, possibly fifty feet apart. A spec on the stage from the cheap seats. The mix was poor, the performance rote and predictable. It looked and sounded terrible. The broadcast then cut to vox-pop interviews with attendees, all proclaiming the concert excellent, some naming it a lifetime highlight. 

I thought about the inevitability of enjoyment in those situations: once you've paid a hundred dollars and drove forty minutes and paid more for parking and you've got a babysitter on the clock at home, you pretty much have to enjoy yourself. The sunk costs are too high. 

What I failed to recognize is that a big part of what they enjoyed was being in a crowd. Being part of something bigger, maybe historic. Not just all of the people in the crowd with them that night, but the "thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future." Because you aren't just in the crowd, you are the crowd. Like the persuasive commuter billboard that reads "You are not in traffic, you are traffic". 

The Rolling Stones were not the product, they were the venue. We are the product. Most big tech companies exploit this.1 We provide the content (on Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, this site, etc.) and they sell it back to us.2

It's a different form of consumerism than the type DeLillo wrote about. When White Noise was written consumerism felt less intrinsic - still something we could step back from and examine. Now it's too much of a given, too entrenched, written into our DNA. Mark Fisher could have been talking about White Noise when he wrote “It's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” 3

Where Baumbach's adaptation fails to rise to the of quality of his best works (like The Squid and the Whale, The Meyerwitz Stories, etc) is that it's too faithful to the book. White Noise wasn't intended as a period piece, it took place at the time it was written. But the film spends considerable resources to set the story in the eighties - tracking down era-appropriate automobiles and stocking the shelves of the grocery store with brands and logos of the time. Why not swap out smart phones for tv sets and have the film take place in present day? 

Surely we are supposed to draw these parallels ourself. The director knows the audience has just endured its own airborne toxic event, and four years of a president who loves nothing more than basking in the glow of large rallies. Why not lean in here, and put a personal stamp on the proceedings? 

The novel has been optioned for years, and was generally considered to be "unfilmable", but trickier titles have been successfully adapted before, with a bit of bold vision. 

Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy was thought to be unfilmable, given that it's a nine volume book with so many digressions that the titular character is not yet born in the first few. But Michael Winterbottom's A Cock and Bull Story employed a film-within-a-film structure to work around the difficulties of the "first post-modern novel", published in 1759. 

“The novel does not obviously lend itself to adaptation for the screen” William S. Burroughs said of his 1959 book Naked Lunch, yet David Cronenberg found a way in by adding elements from the author's life. 

The bold genius of Salo is that Pasolini took a book written in the 18th century and set it in the waning days of Benito Mussolini's regime in the Republic of Salò, during World War II.  The transposition of the setting and era from France in 1785 to fascist Italy in the spring of 1944, is more important to the work than the foregrounded depravity. 4

Baumbach's White Noise is not without its charms. The family dynamic - with each child more TV and media literate than the previous - is well-handled, with the overlapping dialogue threatening to become a type of white noise itself. And I would happily pay to watch a two-hour performance of Don Cheadle and Adam Driver as competing professors, attempting to best each other with the knowledge of their subject (Elvis and Hitler, respectively). 

Unfortunately, the film is riddled with tonal inconsistencies and a third act5 that falls entirely flat. In a novel, good prose can sustain some introspection after a major event, in a film it feels like an extended go-nowhere coda. 

It's clear that I've used this space to unpack a film that I watched last night instead of writing about a little-known artist book from 2001. But I think back often to Kleinjan's simple formal exercise that shares some concerns with DeLillo's concept of the "most photographed barn". 6

His camera captures private moments that are out in public. Their stiff and awkward gestures suggest the subjects are "physically aware of themself becoming a photograph" and are "pulling themselves out of the real and into the performed."7 Kleinjan employs no selection process and the artist doesn't know any of his subjects - they are chosen only because they are being photographed by others. 

What they share is the crowd, they are featured here because they wanted to join the throngs of other tourists - past and present - who were photographed beside the same monument. A picture taken not only to prove that you were there, but to prove that you were there, also. 

1. Art Fairs, too. The galleries pay to display their artists' work and the public pays to come see it. The fair organizers provide only the venue, and reap all the rewards. 
2. Not just through premium subscriptions but via advertising, and the personal data we relinquish. 
3. The quote is actually from Fredric Jameson, though Fisher popularized it and returned to the idea several times in his work. It is also sometimes misattributed to Slavoj Žižek. 
4. As well as drawing a correlation between fascism and libertinage and tackling the abuse of power inherent in both, the film is often read as - like White Noise - an indictment of the dangers of consumerism. 
5. Strangely, the third act reminds me of David Cronenberg's work - with the dreamlike neon, out-of-character violence and chilly synth soundtrack. 
6. The two most-photographed homes in America are said to be the White House and the Brady Bunch home. The Bradys appear in both, in a little known TV movie shot in Toronto called The Brady Bunch in the White House
7. Arthur Kleinjan

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