Information and Play in the Postindustrial City: A Mixtape
by John Talbird
In Italo Calvino’s story, “The Garden of Stubborn Cats,” his protagonist Marcovaldo follows one of these titular cats to the upper-class Biarritz Restaurant where, through ankle-height transoms, he discovers a strange and wonderful world, the five-star restaurant. He watches an elderly waiter in tails following a wealthy patron to a glass tank full of trout. The waiter carries a little net “as if he were going to catch butterflies” calling to mind the comic trope of loony bin workers arriving with nets to take away the crazies. A world where a man points out a particular fish to be captured, cooked, and brought to his table must seem, to a post-war Italian like Marcovaldo—a man who works arduous hours in a warehouse and makes so little that he, his wife, and six children must sometimes skip meals—the height of insanity. And so, just as Chaplin’s Little Tramp might, he behaves logically in a crazy world: With fishing pole, he catches his own trout from the restaurant’s fish tank.
As I read these stories—Marcovaldo cutting down “trees” (billboards) on the side of the superhighway for firewood in a bitter winter, mistaking an international flight for his tram home on a foggy evening—pop singer Martha Wainwright’s song “When the Day Is Short” is playing on the computer, narrator reassuring her lover “I’ll be all right,” as she talks them into taking her home even if that person doesn’t love her tomorrow. Despite his poverty, his unpayable debts and his alienation in the postwar city, we sense that Marcovaldo, the main character in Calvino’s linked story collection Marcovaldo or The Seasons in the City will also survive. He might not have enough to eat, but the use of the word “survival” is more than simply getting the necessary nourishment or breathing air, it’s more fundamental, it’s living, a thing Marcovaldo does with humor again and again against bitter odds. So much of pop music deals with this kind of survival—addressing love or youth or the trivial day-to-day with the sincerity of the survivor—likely because so many artists, in order to make it, move to big cities and, once there, have to confront living in this space which is, for the most part, inhospitable and indifferent to their presence. If they’re not there to make music (while they serve burgers, wait tables, sell records, etc.) then someone else will take their place and the city couldn’t care less. In Animal Collective’s track “Daily Routine,” the next song we’re shuffled to, we are given an image of the urban struggle at its most banal starting with the first lines of the song and the first seconds of the allegorical city day as one struggles with an alarm clock: “Just a sec more in my bed / hope my machine’s working right / when it’s just precisely tuned / how it turns out so nice,” the words coming out amidst Beach Boysesque psychedelic pop filtered through the aural prism of contemporary electronica.
We skip tracks laterally—not chronologically, but aesthetically—to the Beatles’ White Album, the schizophrenic, post-psychedelic masterwork of the 60s, to the noisy pre-punk of “Helter Skelter,” the cough syrup pop of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” Even the sucky songs—the idiotic “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” the bogus pastoralism of “Mother Nature’s Son”—help create the overall effect of the White Album, the aural equivalent of the best collection of short stories you’ve ever read, the collection you know you’ll reread all your life, your desert island book of songs. Few great bands have been allowed to explore their full potential in the way the Beatles did. Thank god they broke up after Let It Be, because it’s all downhill from there (and don’t you dare blame Yoko). Conversely, one of the greatest and saddest unrealized bands of all time is Big Star. You can hear both their magnificence and also the early seventies sounds of Memphis in their very pretty “What’s Going Ahn,” hear it in the stabbing drums of Jody Stephens, Alex Chilton’s over-dubbed acoustic and electric guitars, his plaintive voice singing, “I liked her face and oh those eyes / she left today oh goodbye / and looking at you I’m drained outright / and isolated in the light,” the song ending with Chilton wailing “Oh no!” like a suffering echo, so much pain in those simple “oh!”s. The city is pressing down on all of these songs as it so often does.
You can even transplant country music from the rural to the city and it will smell of the metropolis, of its garbage-strewn alleys and dog-piss-soaked streets, of its desperate people trying to make ends meet while keeping their dignity, of its consumers consuming things and food and experiences and quickly replacing those things with other things. Although country-folk-postpunk artist Will Oldham makes music which might sound like the kind of tunes played on rickety porches in Appalachia, the songs he puts out on Chicago’s Drag City label have the dissonant guitars and clumsy drumming of the most jaded of city punkers. Listen to his remake of the 19th century Scottish folk ballad “Loch Tay Boat Song,” performed as “Ohio River Boat Song” under the band name Palace. The same heartbreak as the Big Star tune lurches out of the song in its last lines: “And her dance is like a gleam of the sunlight on the stream / and the screeching blue jays seem to form her name when screaming / but my heart is full of woe, for last night she made me go / and tears begin to flow as I sing the whole day through.”
Pop music, even when it’s packaged as “post-punk” or “indie” or whatever, takes itself seriously despite its primary audience of teens to early thirty-somethings. With the exception of the Animal Collective song or “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” all of these compositions have little of the play and humor we find in Calvino’s stories. There’s urgency in their grimness. But in Calvino, the solemnity simply floats away. Although his stories deal with suffering and poverty and inequality, the deprivation of postwar Italy and the alienation of the city with its advertising and conspicuous consumption, they are deceptively simple urban fairytales, just like Chaplin’s silent films. Marcovaldo scavenges mushrooms (which, sadly, puts the whole family in the hospital) and cuts down billboards for firewood, the Little Tramp lights out to the great unknown in Alaska and eats his shoe. We have to go to country music to see this kind of humor in poverty such as in Johnny Cash’s “Five Feet High and Rising” in which a family is flooded out of their home with, first the line “Two feet high and rising” then three, then four, moving all the way to five and dot, dot, dot. Country music, though, is mostly a fiction, evoking the plains or the prairies, the ranches and the backwoods, while recorded in metropolitan areas like Nashville or Memphis or New York by artists who often live in these places and then travel from one to another urban environment to perform their music with the occasional stop-off at the county fair.
There is a tension between the city and the country in much modern art. You can see it in Colombian artist Doris Salcedo’s sculpture in her recent retrospective at the Guggenheim. A city artist—born, raised and currently living in Bogotá, a metropolis with five million more people than New York City—she evokes the violence, war, and terrorism of her country, much of it happening in the provinces, in the mountains and on the farms, the struggles and wars and low-level acts of terror as the government-sponsored military fights it out with communist guerillas and drug dealers. In her piece A Flor de Pel (2011-12) she has woven hundreds of rose petals into a 12” x 92” shroud so delicate it seems that an errant breeze will rip it apart. The work commemorates the death by torture of a young nurse, her body dismembered, the pieces dispersed and never found. Patrons tiptoe around the shroud which lies on the floor in one of the Guggenheim’s tower galleries. Here the voices are hushed though this is the pay-what-you-wish night and the museum is packed with people looking to avoid the usual $25 entrance fee, the majority of the visitors moving up and down the ramp in the central atrium where the less impressive, fragmented, multi-artist “Storylines” exhibit shrieks out a bunch of conceptual gibberish.
Around the same time I see Salcedo’s shroud of roses, I spend an afternoon in a less haughty venue, PS1 in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens, looking at the paintings and sculpture of the unlikely named L.A. artist Math Bass. She makes primary colored artwork firmly placed in the 20th century, no earlier, no later. Viewing her work—cigarettes with cartoon puffs, p/op art designs, orange flowerpots, white dog shapes—it’s hard to imagine that she’s ever looked at any art made prior to the 20th century, hard to imagine that she could even imagine Millet’s The Gleaners. Her artwork is not unpleasant, not bad, but as the sixty-four-year-old Doris Salcedo is a novelist of the art world, Bass is a pop singer. Like Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York,” a song which owes more to the advertising world than it does to the history of music, Bass’s artworks are pleasant, but hard to remember afterwards. Just as a magazine illustration of sliced lemons on a cutting board next to a butcher knife evokes lemonade on summer days, art like this can be useful, but we don’t really care who makes it, whether it’s a real person or a computer or some corporate entity. That’s what separates art of the city which recognizes the pastoral even if it’s in the form of a dream or joke and art which doesn’t, which is cut off from everything that isn’t manmade.
Philip K. Dick was as tuned into the art of the city—the “trash layer” as he would write about his own fiction—as he was to the countryside, the wild flowers that one can turn into drugs to mentally and physically enslave city dwellers (A Scanner Darkly). He was obsessed with the interconnectedness of us all here on this tiny blue and green planet and the ways in which we were disconnected and fragmented from our natural and right state. Dick is the yin to Calvino’s yang. Whereas Calvino was a game-player, a member of the French math-loving, puzzle-making group of writers, Oulipo, a voracious reader of fairy- and folktales (check out his big book of Italian folktales), Dick was a California mystic, a reader of arcane and ancient texts. Even Calvino’s sci-fi stories, Comicomics, owes more to the tall tales of the rural and benighted than it does to stories of Martians and time travel. Dick, who was never taken seriously as a writer by the literati during his lifetime, dwelled almost solely in the ghetto of genre. He spent his entire life liquefying our seemingly solid conceptions of reality, is probably more responsible than any Continental philosopher for why so many of us write the word “reality” or “true” with quotes. He played with questions that have troubled philosophers since written language, putting his own Information Age spin on Big Ideas: If we can program androids with memories how do we know our own memories aren’t programmed (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)? Do criminals create the need for cops or vice-versa and How do I know I am me (A Scanner Darkly)? How do we know our reality isn’t a book being read by someone else in some other reality (The Man In the High Castle)? How do we know we’re really alive (Ubik)? And so on. In 1974, he had a month-long mystical experience which might have been fueled by his years of drug abuse or the recent meds he was prescribed for a couple impacted wisdom teeth or maybe simply he was crazy or perhaps even more simply he really did come in contact with what he called Valis, his acronym for “Vast Active Living Intelligence System” (and later wrote about in the novel Valis). In any case, he spent the remaining eight years of his life writing what he called “the exegesis,” an in-depth and scholarly analysis of that month (what he would call “2-3-74”), his subsequent hypnagogic and drug-fueled visions and dreams, his life, his reading, his own writing, pop and classical music, movies, etc. These eight thousand typed, handwritten, diagrammed pages were discovered after his death and published, edited, and annotated, in abridged form, in 2011 by an esteemed gathering of fiction writers, literary scholars, philosophers, and theologians. The reader of the exegesis will realize that the major theme that runs through Dick’s fiction—our reality is an illusion and the fantastic we see in our dreams and hallucinations are real—was what he actually believed. A central irony of this huge tome—which is a fragment of the original—is that no one would care about this massive work if it weren’t written by Philip K. Dick. How many nutjob exegeses have been lost to history?
What Dick knew which I think most serious artists know is that making art is a kind of subliminal communication of the most important kind, an attempt to awaken the mass of sleepwalkers in their totally convincing simulated realities. Over the course of thirty years and over fifty books, he explored the alienation of modern humans from the natural world in hallucinogenic plots. Sometimes, you see similar types of aesthetic exploration even in the work of the very young whether they’ve read Dick or not. I was fortunate to see sculptor Andrew Ross’ artwork in his first solo show, “Dog Chases Rabbit” at Brooklyn’s Signal gallery when he was just twenty-six. Smiling anthropomorphic frogs posed with balloons atop scaffolding which merged the organic and the manufactured, birds perching on branch-dowels, billboards for logos which don’t exist coming apart on the walls. But New York City, where I live, is teeming with art that bridges the natural and the manufactured. Around the same time, I saw Parisian Pierre Huyghe’s installation at the Met which, at first didn’t look like an installation or any kind of art, just some half-completed construction project, the Met’s rectangular paving stones pried up to reveal dirt beneath, sprigs of weed pushing up into the summer air. Unobtrusively in the corner of the roof, hemmed in by Central park greenery and buildings scraping the firmament, was an object as mysterious as the monoliths from 2001, squatting and humming with potential. Just as I was about to turn away from it, the glass top two-thirds of the structure defrosted to reveal a huge chunk of lava floating, tiny life forms of tadpole shrimp and a lamprey eel flitting in the clear water there. Within seconds, the glass fogged up and I felt as if I had dreamed the entire image and was, once again, looking at a structure as opaque as Kubrick and Clarke’s monoliths. This opacity is what Dick thought reality was showing us all the time except for in those fleeting moments when we broke through with effort (or drugs). He thought we were all prisoners living in a Black Iron Prison (BIP) and the only way to escape this illusory world and emerge into the real (without quotes) world, what he called the Palm Tree Garden (PTG), was to become aware of our own illusory natures and perceptions. Despite his own sudden revelation of the PTG in 2-3-74, he didn’t think there were shortcuts into this world, that the process took a lifetime of study and thought and, yes, play.
I think Dick would be disturbed by the direction the world has evolved in since the ‘60s and ‘70s, a time he was convinced that mystical forces of good had intervened to both end the Vietnam War and eject the criminally corrupt and crypto-fascist government of Richard Nixon, though he wouldn’t have been particularly surprised having, after all, witnessed the beginning of the Reagan Revolution of big business, Ayn Rand-style abandonment of the poor and defenseless, and the degradation of the planet in the name of bigger profits (one of his biggest concerns in the final years of his life, his fear manifested in the form of nukes). He would be appalled by the hate played out in the images of white cops shooting unarmed black civilians, maniacs exercising their 2nd Amendment rights while acting out their action movie delusions of grandeur, and in the images of “revolutionary” terror groups raping and decapitating their way across the Middle East and Africa, capturing their deeds on grainy, and sometime high-def video, sharing it with the world, using it as an increasingly effective recruitment tool in our empathy-challenged BIP, unapologetically bragging about their atrocities unlike the US who prefers to execute its prisoners behind curtained glass at the chime of midnight or even pre-conviction by remote control. Dick would be revolted that we’ve turned into a nation of consumers, searching for the perfect ride, the perfect experience, the perfect pant or shirt and that we’ve outsourced all the dreary production of these items to the developing world, letting our own poor clean our houses, serve our food, and cut our grass, antebellum days redux without all the messy and unpleasant connotations of words like “indentured” and “slavery.”
Scholar Richard Doyle, one of the annotators of the Exegesis, has said that one of Dick’s biggest concerns was the fact that we were so overwhelmed by information that we couldn’t reach true consciousness. Of course, in the age of the internet, this inability to pay attention has increased exponentially. In a TED talk Doyle gave in 2014, he quotes from theorist Herbert Simon: “What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention…” Doyle goes on to say that we all think we’re DJs in control of the information, but really, the information is controlling us. Dick was trying to find a way out of the BIP—through reading and writing, through thinking and mediating, and, just like Calvino, through play—and he was hoping to bring as many of his readers along as he could.
John Talbird is the author of the novel, The World Out There (Madville) and the chapbook of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar). His fiction and essays have appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Ploughshares, Potomac Review, Ambit, Juked, The Literary Review, and Riddle Fence among many others. His work has been nominated for the Best of the Net anthology several times and cited under “Notable Essays” in Best American Essays 2021. He is a frequent contributor to Film International, on the editorial board of Green Hills Literary Lantern and Associate Editor, Fiction, for the online noir journal Retreats from Oblivion. A professor at Queensborough Community College-CUNY, he lives with his wife and their two sons in New York City. More of his writing can be found at johntalbird.com.
Image source: Gritt Zheng/Unsplash