Monday 27 May 2013


”... on the interweb, at the close of season 7B, when no blogger can speak falsely or fail to post comments, a question will be asked — a question that will very belatedly be debated: 'what was that all about anyway?' “

Trenzalore (Don't Go There!)

Truth to tell, reader, this isn't the way I planned it. I meant to write an overview of the most recent season in general but somehow ended up focusing on the final episode. I shall post this now and perhaps get back to the rest later, though I'm not exactly a lord of time right now.

Perhaps it's a good up-point to start on. For given that I wasn't over-enamoured by this series in general, and given that the much-heralded 'event episodes' normally disappoint, I was surprised to find so much to enjoy in 'The Name of The Doctor'. It was inventive, fittingly atmospheric, allowed the high drama to overlap with the comedy without jarring, contained genuine surprises and even made some sort of sense. (Note the qualifier there.)

True, the Great Intelligence is hardly a major villain. The Yeti episodes are chiefly remembered for... er... the Yeti. The fuzzy background bad guy is less of an eternal foe, more a tiebreak question in nerd quizzes. After all, disembodied brains manipulating brainless bodies like remote limbs, they're a sort of a staple. There's probably plenty of them in the Whoniverse alone. (The Animus in 'The Web Planet' for one.)

We've tolerated his somewhat sketchy nature in both 'The Snowmen' and 'Bells of St. John', despite the two episodes not seeming to have much in common with each other. 'Bells of St. John', though the lesser episode overall, probably used him the best by giving him a fresh twist. The old Great Intelligence mastered robots. The new one uses people as machines.

The last word in the division between mental and manual labour becomes a kind of skit on contemporary corporate capitalism. White collar drones have their mentalities tweaked up and down by handheld devices, a combination of the way companies give their employees feelgood motivational sessions while treating them like extensions of the software they use. His henchwoman/ avatar Miss Kizlet even gets to sound like Baudrillard: “The farmer tends his flock like a loving parent. The abbatoir is not a contradiction. No one loves cattle more than Burger King.”

We tolerated this sketchiness because we fancied it to be foreshadowing. Our fancy however was forlorn, for this time round he's different all over again. The Whisper Men are neither robots nor human slaves, they're more like extensions of him. Ir should be said that symbolically, this works rather well. It's a story which focuses on the Doctor's life and hence on his many identities. “Bodies”, he says, “I've had loads of them.” A bodiless antagonist is therefore quite fitting. And while they're not greatly dissimilar to the Silence the Whispermen do feel like the sort of foes which should be showing up on 'Doctor Who.' Not aliens, not even really monsters, but appearing without explanation like they stepped out of some truly twisted nursery rhyme.

But whatever was his motivation supposed to be? Suddenly, the great manipulator's entire purpose in life is to rid the universe of the Doctor. When did that ever come about? And he's even willing to sacrifice himself to do it, showing great selflessness in service of the greater bad. Maybe he's called the Great Intelligence for the same reason Woody Allen got dubbed the Brain in 'Small Time Crooks.'

The clue comes with his reference to the Doctor's “bloodsoaked history” and having “other names before the end.” In this series, which recycles enough plot ideas to keep the Green Party happy, we are back at 'The Pandorica Opens', just with a tomb instead of a trap. The stars go out again. And River saves the day by doing something supposedly only the Doctor can do. Again.

Except of course the pieces are being forced. Before, all the Doctor's major adversaries had gained good reason to see him as “a goblin... a trickster... a warrior... the most feared being in all the cosmos” and so were willing to unite against him. This time, the Great Intelligence getting all vengeful over Solomon the Trader? Excuse me? Nuh-huh.

Then again, as they say in the old rhyme “Do not look for plot holes/ For plot holes there will be/ If you look for plot holes/ Then plot holes you will see.” The Great Intelligence is of course merely a panto villain who turns up to get the show on the road to Trenzalore. So let's start our way down it...

What's In a Name?

The ending... well, of course it wasn't one. However much they with-held then telegraphed that title, it was obvious from the outset that they were never really going to name the Doctor. He already has the name he needs to make the show happen. The Doctor isn't Superman or Spider-Man, with some secret identity to be kept concealed from foes. He's more like the Spirit or the Lone Ranger, his old Gallifreyan identity 'dies' the day he heads off travelling and he's reborn as someone else – a change deeper than any reincarnation.

He says himself “my name, my real name - that is not the point. The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, is like... it's like a promise you make.” We're talking about the crucial distinction between names and titles. As I've said before, “the epitome of the emblematic hero is the Vow... The mask and costume don't just disguise the old identity but replace it – depersonalise the figure, make it into a symbol.”

But of course Moffat isn't just playing with misdirection. Even if it doesn't out him, speaking his name still has the same sting as would unmasking Peter Parker. Symbolically, reciting his name doesn't just open his tomb, it enables his tomb. Speaking his name turns him back into his name, stops him being the Doctor. Like weather vanes, the two cannot coexist.

So his name... his true name, well of course we knew it all along. It's the Doctor. By the time you get there, it doesn't feel like a let-down so much as a re-establishment of the character. We'd have been reasonably happy for it to end there...

The Anti-Doctor which point we get the twist. Skeletons get put in the closet for a reason. The figure we encounter at the end - he's not the non-Doctor, the anonymous stay-at-home Gallifreyan. This figure is something else. The anti-Doctor.

Which is why, despite incessant speculation in some quarters, he's not going to turn out to be the Valeyard. His defence “what I did, I did without choice... in the name of peace and sanity,” accepted by the Doctor, that hardly sounds like something the Valeyard would say. (Besides which, the Valeyard doesn't have the cachet of the Master. Only the fans have the faintest idea who he is. And the fans don't like the episodes he appeared in very much. Which sounds like two pretty clear indications that bringing him back would be ratings suicide.)

A slightly more sensible suggestion is the Time Lord Victorious. Towards the end of the Tennant era, there arose hints of an emerging Annakin-like Dark Doctor. Though these were swiftly served away from, the notion kept bubbling under the Eleventh. (For example, with the Dream Lord.)

This is the view noted Who sage Andrew Rilstone seems to be taking: “Are we actually getting the pay off on five years of hints about the Dark Doctor and setting up mysterious man at the end as a new ongoing baddy.”

But I don't think that's it either. The same “peace and sanity” quote which ruled out the Valeyard would seem to work equally against the Dark Doctor. This guy seems less like the Doctor's Nemesis (a role already filled by the Master), and more the embodiment of a suppressed memory. While the other Doctors scuttle about the place, saving this and rescuing that, he is still and glowering. That thing you did... that thing you had to do... which you now don't want to admit to. That's him.

So I'm going to go with Cavelorn and say this is all about what the Doctor did in the Time War. (Which, as we all know, was to commit genocide.) And rather than “a new ongoing baddy”, as the Zygons will appear in the next special, my guess would be they give the anti-Doctor his chance to redeem himself. He'll reorient around the gravity of the two already-Doctors and will get welcomed back into the family just in time for Christmas and cracker-pulling.

Overall, a fresh twist and a genuine surprise. In many ways it's effective, ingenious and displays an understanding of the DNA of the show. But part of me still thinks – the Time Lords are dead now. Get over it. They were boring buggers anyway, wasn't that part of the point of ditching them?

In a show that prides itself on it's ability to reinvent itself, it's still a surprise found from within the existing parameters. The series is circling a set of ideas rather than advancing or developing them. The Time War. The Doctor having some kind of shadow side. The Dark Doctor... of course he won't finally be unleashed at all, this is just another feint at it until the next time.

In fact the show seems caught in this. Its underlying premise has always been that the ordinary and extraordinary coexist, and one instance of that is its insistence that ordinary people have something extraordinary within them. Ian and Barbara were two schoolteachers who blundered quite randomly aboard the Tardis, and a few weeks later were toppling Dalek empires. The implication was that any other schoolteachers, any other decent English sort, would have taken to the adventuring life the same way.

But with Rose, with Donna, with Amy, with Clara, there had to be something special about them. (The one companion who didn't have this, Martha, was the one whose backstory didn't seem to take off at all.) The companion is no longer the average person, with whom we're all asked to identify. The companion is now someone pretty special, with which you're asked to identify. The companion was waiting for stardom to strike all along. This is the old show rewritten for the 'X Factor' generation, and is a pretty direct violation of things in itself. But worse, it infects what's around it by upping the ante on the Doctor. If the companion is now someone pretty special, the Doctor then has to become very special indeed.

Andrew Rilstone (who, as I may have mentioned, is a noted Who sage) has pointed out: “Increasingly, what [the Doctor] pulls out of his pocket is himself: the very fact of his Doctorness defeats the enemy... The Doctor doesn't have a deus ex machina: the Doctor is a deus ex machina.”

There was nothing in the old show to suggest evil wasn't being fought elsewhere, quite possibly successfully. There wasn't even anything to suggest there weren't other Doctor-likes, wandering space at the same time as him. We were just seeing a section of infinity each week. Things could have been really hotting up on Metebelis 2 for all we knew. Now he is not only unique but we're supposed to suppose that he's needed by the universe, or all those stars just cease to twinkle.

This specialness feels like the way you'd structure a story told to tots. “And then the goodie turned up, and he was so good that all the bad stuff just kind of withered away. Now sleep tight, and don't forget to tune in again next week.” The same story, told to adults or even older children, will do nothing but dull the senses.

But more, it feels like a violation of the character. The Doctor should be part mysterious stranger, part everyman. Though the Tardis is being made more and more a character in it's own right, it still signifies him. And, just like he is both human and alien, he is both big and small. In the (actually very good) prior episode 'Family of Blood' Joan comments “I must seem very small to you.” To which of course he answers “no.” It's not that he chooses not to see her that way, but that he doesn't. It's simply not the way his perceptions work.

Fresh soldiers are being brought in to battle because this is a show at war with itself. The Big Doctor, the sheer embodiment of good in the universe, is such a violation that the scripts themselves cannot help but produce antibodies which try to dispel it. His foes gang up, River tell him he's become a warrior, he tries being dead for a bit, he flirts with badness... this time a whole suppressed incarnation turns up. When they appear, which is the moment we're in right now, we become hopeful. But by precedent this will be another wave of antibodies whose efforts are dashed, a medicine long worn off. The Doctor used to ask “have I that right?” Now the scriptwriters ask “should we even be doing this?”

Behind Every Great Time Lord...

In other news, what of Clara's impossible thing? The blogsphere used up many gigabytes pondering that one. Except, like “Doctor who?” it wasn't really the question at all. The real question was – which old ending is due to be recycled this time? As it turns out, the first season. Where Rose became Bad Wolf, lived out of time for a bit and created ontological paradoxes which sorted everything out, especially Daleks. Oh, and nearly died doing it. Except Rose's main contribution to foreshadowing was to stick up loads of graffiti over the past season. Clara ups this by going back not just to her Doctor's beginnings but the Doctor's beginnings.

Which admittedly throws a twist on things. Bad Wolf was no longer really Rose, but an entity as or more powerful than the Doctor. (The meaning they went for the first time they recycled it, by making Donna temporarily smarter than the Doctor.) But Clara isn't an ex-companion who gets promoted. Instead, she gets stretched - symbolically, she becomes every companion in the Doctor's history, all at once. When she enters the Doctor's timeline she notably sports appropriate companion clothing for each incarnation. It's Moffat being metafictional again. She's not the soufflé. She's the recipe. She's the archetypal companion.

Now this doesn't... wait for it... really make a lot of sense. Clara is able to turn up visibly three times, to give useful help and advice. The rest of the time... perhaps she's supposed to be giving individual nudges, like a guardian angel, but it's not really explained. Except the first time she meets him is at the very start, when he first steals the Tardis. Of which he seems to have no recollection. And the Clara of 'Asylum of the Daleks' was no guardian angel, but her own person living her own life with no knowledge of an outside timeline. (Some of it as a Dalek, but no-one's perfect.) While the Clara of 'The Snowmen' seemed to be some sort of secret agent, investigating events within the episode and so running into the Doctor by accident. One doesn't match the other, and neither fits with the retcon explanation.

(Neil Gaiman has given away that Clara's impossible status was decided fairly late on in the day. Presumably the Clara of 'Asylum of the Daleks' was originally a standalone character, retro-fitted into her story arc. Even if it meant forcing the pieces.)

Perhaps this doesn't matter too much. This is pretty much a fairy story, where we're better off looking for the symbolic sense. Besides, some fan somewhere will be reversing the polarity of it all until there's some convoluted explanation. Or until everyone regrets asking, whichever comes sooner.

What may be more concerning is that a storyline seemingly devised to big up the companion role, to promote her from the ankle-twisting screamer and explanation-receiver, makes her into such a dutiful, self-sacrificial female. “The real you will die,” she's warned. In fact the Doctor's carefree adventuring now seems to be enabled by the self-sacrifice of two invisible women, River and now Clara.

All the talk, all the times the series has boldly coded the companion as a new, sassy, assertive person in her own right. Girl power, yeah! And yet it always seems to end up here.

And, while it's true the new series has taken this further than the old, what's interesting is that this has always seemed the case. Starting with the very first companion, Susan, they were always intending to this time develop a stronger companion character and never carrying through with it. Clara says...

”I’m born, I live, I die. And always, there’s the Doctor. Always, I’m running to save the Doctor, again, and again, and again. And he hardly ever hears me. But I’ve always been there.”

...which, now I come to think of it, sounds a pretty good potted history of the show.

Friday 17 May 2013


Coalition, Brighton, Fri 3rd May

Shortly before the band came on, I observed the typical Death Grips fan to be a youthful hipster, busily texting and tweeting while sporting ironic facial hair. “These young people of today,” I thought to myself, my mind imagining their idea of watching the gig would consist of updating their live feeds while waxing lyrical of hardcore gigs of old.

Scant seconds after the band came on, a huge wave of arm-flinging energy erupted across the crowd - which didn't seem to abate until well after the whole thing was over.

Good for you, young people of today.

If I were so foolish as to reduce the live Death Grips experience to a sound-bite explanation, it would be something like 'hip-hop and drum-and-bass beats, cross-bred with full-on noise then set to attack mode.' Though it's not at all the same type of music, they chiefly reminded me of another band I saw in this very venue – Sunn O))). There's the same single-minded dedication to taking one frontier of music and pushing at it, never pausing even for such a lunch-is-for-wimps moment as a gap between tracks. There's the same deranged decibel level, music so loud your bones almost shake along to it.

Except Death Grips' accessory of choice isn't dry ice but strobes – fired at us pretty much incessantly, and perfectly matching the abrasive, rapid-fire beats. The performing duo are backlit to the point I'm not even sure they actually existed in three dimensions, the singer a perpetual motion machine of aloft arms and jutting elbows.

Live they're considerably less sample-centric than on record. Tracks are stripped right back to their elements, much the way robbers do with shotguns. But there's also a deranged kind of invention to it; things will become almost psychotically metronomic, only for some curve ball to be thrown in. Much like Fucked Up they throw such a dizzying punch live you can't imagine it working on record. Yet when you try them on record you find they're richly rewarding.

Things climax with a good few minutes of squalling white noise. Then the first thing my punch-bagged ears pick up on stepping outside is a security guard talking to another. “They had more rabbit than Sainsbury's.” Which they did.

Like so many styles of music before it, hip-hop went mainstream many moons ago. Rappers present a puffed-up parody of black street life for a mostly white audience, while name-dropping brand names for product placement cash. But at it's inception it was about taking music forward by taking it apart, reassembling it then giving it a kick out of the lab door. (In methods not so different from Krautrock outfits such as Faust.) And it's alternative acts like Death Grips, far from being some wayward offshoot, that are keeping that spirit alive.

In what seems an increasingly common step for hip-hop acts, the 'CD stall' held no actual CDs – just T-shirts and hoodies. (Like Fugazi in reverse.) Their first release, 'Ex-Military', put up on torrent sites, opened with a Charlie Manson quote calling the music biz “a bigger jail than I just got out of.” (On a track appropriately titled 'Beware'.) I didn't believe the promoters' claim that this had become the most legally downloaded piece of music, and yet it seems it's so. After signing to Epic and being told their next release wouldn't appear for over a year, they promptly torrented that as well. (They are, to no great surprise, no longer signed to Epic.)

The first one being free and all that, you could do worse than check it out. This is the opening track with that Manson intro...

West Hill Hall, Brighton, Sat 4th May

These warm-ups/ fund raisers for the (hopefully still forthcoming) Colour Out of Space festival seem to be becoming stalwarts of the local scene. (Though the bohos were too cool and laid back to plug the night even on their own website!)

As usual, things were pretty unusual. Tuluum Shimmering played a succession of folk and ethnic instruments, laying each upon the others like some totem pole of sound. It probably rests upon a formal feature of folk instruments, that their open tunings are closer to drones than modern instruments. Which means each new layer could grab at your attention, as if bursting into the room like a surprise witness, only to quickly flatten down into the shimmering sea of sound as soon as it was usurped. It was like you perptually felt yourself at the pinnacle of something, only for the totem pole to grow another step higher.

Getting carried away as usual by this virtuous combination, I started to conceive the piece's internal harmony as evoking the ongoing folk tradition – growing like coral, building upon itself. Of course us commie types should eschew such notions of smooth historical continuity, and I should probably have introduced an element of rupture and struggle by invading the stage. Luckily there wasn't one, so I could just sit back and enjoy it. I also loved the way that, after such a mesmerising set, they immediately stuck Slayer on the PA. That's the way to do it...

Another of the edited highlights was Avarus (pictured, but from another occasion), a Finnish free psychedelic outfit with a floating line-up involving ex-members of Pylon. Despite those geographic origins to me they most resembled a latter-day Krautrock act, improvising inventively around a metronomic groove like the spirit of Ash Ra Tempel still lies over us. True they took a little while to really hit their stride, and alas they were restricted to a fairly short set. (The venue is in what's known as a “residential area” so curfews are firm.) They showed every sign they could have kept going all night, something I'd very much like to see. Check some out (albeit from another time, another place)...

Friday 10 May 2013


”Keen melted, burned and blew up objects around him to realise his art.... [He] revelled in a wild spirit of anarchic play, revealed a fascination with Surrealism and demonstrated true love for pop culture. ”
- Gallery guide

Secret Origins

I thought I knew Jeff Keen.

After all, I'd been there. From the Eighties, up until his untimely death last summer, I'd attended his semi-regular series of gallery shows and film nights. He'd throw up works, crosses between action paintings and graffiti art, often on shaped pieces of cardboard or other extemporised materials. Like some irrepressible force of nature, he'd often churn these out during the event. Once I saw him drawing live on the screen while a film was still being shown.

These always felt like bright bursts of fresh air against the post-conceptual codswallop that normally passed for the Brighton arts scene. If the 'artwar' schtick, the day-glo bursts of popular culture sometimes seemed a little one-note, it was a good note.

As it turns out, I didn't know the half of it.

To see his earlier works was, to borrow one of his recurrent phrases, like discovering his Secret Origins. Pen-and-ink work from the Forties and Fifties, such as 'Agonised Figure in Landscape' (1949) are influenced by Surrealists such as Miro but put through an English filter, like Spike Milligan's Goonish doodles. They look spontaneous, automatic drawings, the framed pieces scarcely different from the open sketchbooks placed by them. Admittedly, those influences are a little too clear-cut for Keen to emerge as an original at this point. But patience, reader...

Poetry in Flames

As befits British culture, it was the Sixties and Seventies that brought colour to Keen's work. He seems to strike at the canvas with every weapon available - the graffitist's spray-can, Pollock's swirling trails of paint, the mass-producer's stencils and his own hand-lettering. Yet the superimposed images somehow never fell into clutter, were always impactful. Check out for example, 'Secret Origins 1' (1967, above). Through using these various media all at once, there's no clear distinction between Keen's paintings and his collages, such as 'Atomic Rayday' (below).

Ever-ambidextrous, Keen was also a surprisingly good cartoonist with a strong and effective line. A work like 'Laff' (1966, below) prefigures the bold iconic style later taken up by Kaz, Peter Bagge or Malcy Duff. It's pure comics – less a drawing than a cutaway map of a figure, displaying a tangle of vibrantly active but entirely imaginary body parts, a spaghetti junction of innards.

Now developing a distinct line, these days that seems the goal of every emerging alternative cartoonist. Yet, while excelling in this, Keen clearly also loves the commercially produced nature of comics. He reproduces the perfect outlines, the bold flat colours, so at odds with the human touch insisted upon by the art world. Commercial comics have a strange interaction between hand-made and mass-produced, perhaps best summed up by the perfect signature - such as Disney's elegant swirl, simultaneously handwriting and act of branding. Notably Keen imitates this in 'Jeff Keen Photoplay' (1972, below).

Yet, however much comic fans will find themselves propelled into his work, Keen was never likely to become a full-fledged comics artist. There's something always slightly off, slightly distorted about he way he takes up their language. And as so often in art, what is wrong comes out as what is right. He sometimes fixates upon the grammar of comics, dividing a work into panels, crossed with arrows and strewn with sound effects - such as 'Secret Origins 2' (1967, below).

The withholding of narrative throws emphasis on the formal elements, which are normally passed over by the reader - as unobserved as punctuation in a novel. Interestingly, this paralleled developments in the then-current world of underground comics, with artists like Victor Moscoso or the early art spiegelman. (Meanwhile, to pursue an earlier argument, an artist like Lichtenstein eliminates the grammar of comics the better to make them appear illiterate.)

And even when he uses characters, they work more like recurrent motifs. A work like 'Dr. Gaz' (below) reminds me of the home-made comics I churned out as a kid; characters ceaselessly invented and as-soon discarded, never quite lined up into storylines. In the best possible way, Keen never really grew up, he was always able to pull up pails from that bottomless well of imagination.

'A Mythic Universe'

Perhaps one of the key underpinnings of Keen's work is his omnivorous multi-media approach. When the show says “he combined film screenings with live performance and poetry,” 'combined' is key. He wasn't a painter and film-maker and zine producer and poet. Like his overlaid images and rapid-cut films you need to take them all together as components of a greater whole. You need to drink deep from Keen, not sip at him.

His paintings worked like posters to his films, his zines spin-offs, and they were often intended as precisely that. Like some one-man marketing campaign for his own imagination, he also produced objects from his characters, mid-way between promotional items and medieval saints relics, such as 'Vulvana's Fingernail' (1970).

In fact one of my few critiques of this show would be the way the films are largely segregated into a room at the end. Though this was probably down to practical limitations, it still doesn't seem in Keen's spirit and has led to me concentrating more than I should on his visual art here.

Yet one feature of his film work which should see mention is how much of it's actually video work. Of course low-budget film-makers everywhere soon migrated to more affordable video. But with Keen there's an extra element. If Modernism was about accentuating the form, finding what could uniquely be done in painting, sculpture or architecture and pursuing it, Keen pursued video - emphasising it's pixellated graininess, it's off colours. It looks simultaneously verite, video being the delivery medium of the news, and murkily otherly. It seems his primary approach was to try out whatever the manual told him not to, an approach programmers call (rather deliciously) 'video illegal'.


Above all, much like Blake, Keen had his own private mythology. And like Blake you would go mad before you gleaned any of it. Comics scribe Tim Pilcher and Keen's former assistant Damian Toal gave a talk at the Museum which unpicked some images and did manage to shed some light into Keen's mind. (For example, the way he associated airplanes with Apollo; look back to 'Secret Origins 1'.)

Yet you'd never get that on your own. You sense it's all there, in the same way something in your ear can discern that a foreign language has more structure than mere chatter. But foreign the language remains. Better to let those recurrent phrases linger with their irreducible mystery - “the breathless investigator”, “poetry in flames,” “the shorthand typist in the wilderness.”

Seemingly paradoxically, that non-approach might even take us closer to the heart of it. Keen was insistent his films should be paced too fast to follow. Having served in the war, he constantly used war motifs, such as rounds of staccato machine-gun-fire as soundtracks. Yet though seeing war might have informed his worldview, his 'artwar' wasn't a commentary on war or of media presentations of it. It was more based around the way we now live in a state of information war, and have learnt to exist among sense bombardments like soldiers in trenches. His art was both response and contributor to that ongoing war.

But mostly, in another reprised theme for this blog, the exhibition shows the sheer inadequacy of the term outsider art. The exhibition comments how Keen “distanced himself from existing movements in the London arts scene and the wider world of avant-garde cinema.” True, he was never an outsider artist in the formal sense, and even attended Art College! Yet his work has so many elements from what we assign to that category, such as the private mythology or tendency to work with the 'wrong' materials such as cardboard over canvas. The show describes him as “emphasising his role as a lone hero-warrior,” taking the two-fisted comics protagonists as avatars, self against surroundings.

It seems strange if not downright disrespectful to suggest someone's death might contain an upside, but at the same time it's retrospectives which tend to put the art world in gear. Keen's already had a film-showing at the Tate's Tanks, and there are rumours that this exhibition might go on to tour. Let's hope all this is a springboard to him becoming better-known. Shoot the wrx!

Sunday 5 May 2013


“The immature artist imitates. The mature artist steals.”
- Lionel Trilling
”Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it.”
- Guy Debord

Sometimes these things have a way of working out.

Back in June, after Brighton-local maverick artist and DIY film-maker Jeff Keen died, I posted a short, somewhat-hastily-written obit in which I commented his work was “not pop art in the Lichtenstein sense of isolating images from pop culture and making them contemplative... there's an engagement with pop culture, even if sometimes a critical one.”

Then what should happen but Keen receive a retrospective at Brighton Museum at almost exactly the same time as the Tate devote a show to Lichtenstein!

Lichtenstein's appropriation of panels from American comics into his paintings has traditionally had us fans in uproar – and this has been no exception. At a specially convened panel at the most recent Comiket critic Richard Reynolds and artist/designer Rian Hughes took him to task, while David Gibbons has produced a parody of one of his more famous works (both below). Comica's Paul Gravett has provided this handy summary.

In general I feel that comics folks correctly smell something off about Lichtenstein - but are not always great at converting their gut feelings into words. Keen provides a useful comparison for, while his work also made frequent use of comics panels and motifs, I don't think it would produce as hostile a reaction.

In some literalist sense, both Keen and Lichtenstein are plagiarising the work of others. Of course it's true that comic artists took from each other all the time. Yet we're no longer talking about jobbing artists swiping the easier to hit deadlines, the equivalent of borrowing a fiver until pay day. Lichtenstein (if less so Keen) gained cash and acclaim for his copycatism.

To which I'd counter with Led Zeppelin, who infamously stole numerous old blues numbers which they reaccredited to themselves. While it was common practise in blues for practitioners to pinch licks and filch lyrics from one another, it's clearly another for a million-selling white rock band to turn up and claim to have written those songs.

Yet this is an ancillary critique - of the band's business practise alone. It doesn't prevent blues fans such as me likingwhat their music actually did when it took up those blues tunes. We just wish the credits on the cover read differently. Meanwhile, I have not the slightest intention of seeing the Lichtenstein show in London. Not while there's something so much better on here in Brighton.

To see Keen in the same light as Led Zeppelin, let's try taking Pop art at it's word. Meadows and haywains aren't really part of our daily life like they once were, so art has to respond to what's replaced them. Pretty much every day, I must walk into a newsagents. So pretty much every day I'm confronted with a cluster of magazines, each using dynamic layouts, gaudy colours and shouty fonts to try and win my attention. Its an ever-escalating arms race.

Lichtenstein abstracts one panel from that melee, and blows it up on the gallery wall (above). He puts it somewhere safe where it can be contemplated. (See this comparison site for how he systematically drained the dynamism and expression from the images he took, the very things which you think might draw someone to comics.)

While with Keen, let's look to the covers he produced for his “secret comic”'Rayday', for a kind of shorthand summary to the direction of his work. No. 2 (below) is dynamic enough, peppered with starbursts and sound effects. Yet look ahead to No. 4 (below below) for the gutters between text and image to be well and truly burst, a riot of overlaid images. Keen's work is about looking at that vibrant, cacophonous display and saying “let's make it louder, let's make it faster.” He's not cool but fevered, his foot's on the accelerator not the brake.

There's an old Wodehouse story where Bertie Wooster sings a blues song in his strangulated English, correcting the grammar as he goes. And we've all heard clueless clods singing the blues that blues-less way. Similarly, Lichtenstein drains all that is blue from blues while Keen gets in the spirit of it. Lichtenstein is appropriating. Keen, even as he borrows, is contributing.

More on that Jeff Keen show here...

Wednesday 1 May 2013


"The present state of civilisation is as odious as it is unjust. It is the reverse of what it ought to be, and it is necessary that a revolution should be made in it. The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together."
- Tom Paine

(Photo - 24 hr strike in Greece)
More info on May Day stuff round the world here
The history of International Worker's Day (clue: no connection to tank parades or the Soviet Empire) here