Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Drink To Us (When We're Both Dead) -update-

This morning I met with Ian Millar (whose title at Glenfiddich is Global Brand Ambassador & Master Distiller, I believe) for the first time. We've been communicating via email and his suggestions have been invaluable. He toured me around a warehouse I hadn't yet been to, and gave me an extensive history of the whiskey barrel. I also learned more about the strict rules of the Scotch Whiskey Association (who, just a few months ago stopped a Nova Scotia company from using a name that sounded too Scottish).

Apparently if a distillery wished to switch to square shaped barrels, to aid in storage and stacking, they would have to prove that there is a traditional precedent, otherwise their product cannot be called Scotch Whiskey. The SWA acts almost like a union, protecting the industry, but seems to operate on a heritage mandate. Presumably this means a big part of any Research and Development team would have to be historical research - as the onus is on the company proposing an innovation to prove it is based on historic precedent.

We talked about planning to re-cask the spirit after fifty years, and also revisited the idea of burial. I proposed this a few weeks back but it was rejected as the whiskey would not be able to breathe underground. Ian's suggestion today is that we bury among stones, which will allow breathing but prevent evaporation, allow a cool temperature and reduce storage costs (the added benefit of 'excavation' in a hundred years time is almost incidental). To move forward with this I will need to have a letter of comfort from the Customs Excise, who are located in Elgin. Their main concern during inspections is to ensure that the spirit cannot be taken from the site (they require barred windows, doors mustn't have exterior bolts, etc.), thus depriving them of future duty. Presumably a buried barrel is as safe as any, especially in a secure warehouse.

I asked where I might find these 'fist-sized stones' that he proposes and he suggests the bed of the Fiddich river, and points me in the direction. Below are a few photos from along the way, my first tourist shots here, really. I'll post more to Flickr shortly.

Two Toronto publishers

Bywater Bros Editons began eight years ago with the publication of this multiple by David Shrigley. Titled Swan, it's a signed, unlimited edition, selling for $250. A similar cast-resin piece by Euan Macdonald followed the year later and subsequent editions include Annette Kelm, Jonathan Monk, Tim Lee, Johannes Wohnseifer and Richard Prince. Bywater has also published books by Kelm, Monk, Shrigley, Wohnseifer and Prince, as well as a co-production (with the Power Plant) of Pure Consciousness by On Kawara. Yesterday they launched a brand new website, which illustrates all of the editions, many of which are still available for purchase.

Paul and Wendy Projects began last year and have already published three excellent prints, with another three projects on the way. The site features available silkscreens by The Royal Art Lodge, Michael Dumontier and, most-recently, Neil Farber. Forthcoming editions include Tucker Nichols, Jason McLean and Micah Lexier. The first three are all priced at $250, with the RAL print (pictured below) almost sold-out.

File-sharing Article in the Guardian

Today the Guardian published "Illegal filesharing: A suicide note from the music industry" by Toronto author/activist Cory Doctorow, condemning the recent collaboration between net providers and the music industry (there they're often the same here in the UK: Virgin) to punish file-sharers. This will involve serious invasions into our privacy (which the War on Terror has acclimatized us to) and eventually will see service providers cutting off customers who engage in file-swapping. I always imagine a parent who works from home to support his/her family discovering s/he no longer has access to the internet because one of the kids downloaded a few too many albums.

Potential abuses of this new power of surveillance are frightening, also. Of course there are industry assurances that it will only be used to monitor downloading, but that rings a little hollow, given recent stories about the NSA terrorist suspect list topping a million Americans, or security camera operators found mostly zooming in on women in skirts. When police tazers were introduced we were promised they were a humane addition the officer's arsenal: now he could use non-lethal force to subdue a suspect. However, there are frequent reports of Tazer deaths, including just two days when a 19 year old boy was tazered 19 times after falling from a bridge and breaking his back.

As Doctorow suggests, "A gun on the mantle in act one is bound to go off by act three."

I'm bracing for this type of agreement in North American, particularly if the Democrats take power. The entertainment industry might be to the Democrats what Big Oil are to the Republicans: big campaign donors, expecting something in return.

Running Through the Museum

Jean-Luc Godard's Bande à part (1964)

Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers (2003)

Martin Creed's Work no. 850 (Tate Britain, 2008)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Nothing Else Press

The Nothing Else Press is publishing three new editions this fall (August & September? not sure yet): a new collage by Paul Butler, a new photograph by David Shrigley and an altered postcard by Alex Snukal (based on an alteration by Dieter Roth to a Yoko Ono postcard). We're taking an ad out in the next Border Crossing Magazine, which we've just designed today. It looks like this:

Another Oak Story

Visingsö is a 14 km long, 3km wide island in the southern half of the lake Vättern in Sweden, 30 km north of Jönköping and 6 km west of Gränna. According to legend, a giant named Vist created the island by throwing a turf of grass into the lake so that his wife, full from a large picnic lunch, could use it to step over the lake.

The main tourist attraction is the Ekskogen, a 360 hectare oak forest, the largest in Sweden. It's origins became known in 1980 when the Swedish navy received a letter informing them that the wood that they had ordered was now ready. Naval authorities checked their records and sure enough they found a record from 1829. The Swedish parliament had perceived a (very distant) threat to the country's defense: ships were built from oak, but oak trees take 150 years to grow and mature. Construction needs were making use of most of the country's oak forests and so the anticipated need for replacement ships in the 1990's called for the immediate planting of 20 000 young oak trees on the island. Of course ships are no longer made of wood, so the strategically important timber is not required. However, the forest is now considered "a priceless source of wonder, relaxation, and contemplation."

Burroughs, Tell

In 1951, author William S Burroughs and his wife Joan were living in Mexico, trying to outrun a US statute of limitations on a marijuana possession charge. On September 7th they were visiting friends, drinking, when he announced, "it's time for our William Tell act." Joan balanced a glass of gin on her head. Burroughs took out his gun, aimed and shot. He missed the glass and shot his wife in the forehead, killing her almost instantly.

He spent less than two weeks in jail for the crime. Officials were bribed and he was released on bail. A ballistic expert, also bribed, was set to testify that the shooting was an accident, that Burroughs had been cleaning his gun. But his trial was delayed when his attorney himself killed someone and fled the country. Burroughs soon followed, traveling thru South American and then North Africa. He was convicted in absentia and sentenced to two years, which was suspended.

I'm reminded of this story again after stumbling across the shortest novel ever written. I like music that lasts years, but admire concision in writing. In 2003 I contributed a piece to a book edited by Josh Thorpe called Very Short Stories, which required the writers tell their tale in one hundred characters or less. It's bested by Steve McCaffery's William Tell: A Novel. This work tells the story of the legend of William Tell, who was forced to shoot an apple from his son's head with a crossbow, or they would both face execution.

The story is told in a single character. Well, a single altered character - a conflation of the lowercase i and the colon.

Free of Distortion

There's something dissatisfying about The Magnetic Fields' 2008 release Distortion. Somehow the songs Stephen Merritt writes don't mesh well with the Jesus & Mary Chain-style production. It almost seems as though the goal was to challenge the accepted notion of distortion=authenticity, which is admirable, but I don't think they pull it off.

Today Pitchfork has a live-in-the-dressing-room clip of Merritt performing one of the album's best songs, sans amp, solo on bouzouki. The Nun's Litany imagines a monastic rethinking her vow of chastity. The clip, which also features a performance of This Little Ukulele, can be found here.

Terror Group Stats

The RAND corporation, the US think-tank that I mentioned a few posts ago (Other Residencies, #3) have recently issued a report that advocates a different approach to the war on terror. Apparently the likelihood of stopping al Qa'ida with military force is less than one-in-ten.

Their analysis also found that:

religiously motivated terrorist groups took longer to eliminate than other groups but rarely achieved their objectives; no

religiously motivated group achieved victory during the period studied.

size significantly determined a group's fate. Groups exceeding 10,000 members were victorious more than 25 percent of the time, while victory was rare for groups below 1,000 members.

terrorist groups from upper-income countries are much more likely to be left-wing or nationalist and much less likely to be motivated by religion.

The full report can be read here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

This is currently my favorite song

Other Residencies, 4

Jem Finer is a founding member of The Pogues, and still performs with the band at their intermittent reunion gigs, often with the accompaniment of his teenage daughter, Ella, who replaces the late Kirsty MacColl on songs like Fairytale of New York (the best Xmas song ever, which Finer co-wrote with Shane MacGowan). Joe Strummer once called him "the Bill Wyman of the Pogues", but I think he meant it as a compliment.

Between October 2003 and June 2005 Finer was Artist in Residence at the Astrophysics Sub-department of the University of Oxford, which resulted in the creation of a number of works. On Earth as in Heaven is a book and online project consisting of 22 alternate constellations based on the incidence of star names on websites. The Centre of the Universe, is a large-scale spiral tower supporting a radio dish, created by working closely with scientists at the University.

Most interestingly, he formed a band with members of the astrophysics department, named after a Captain Beefheart lyric.

Here he discusses his time in residency:

JF: I'd been thinking for a while I'd like to be an artist in residence somewhere. I liked the idea of going somewhere with a very open brief and just submerging myself in the life of the place. And after having made 'Longplayer', which was dealing with time and space on quite massive scales, I got very interested in the opposite, in quantum physics, and made a few works that were based on the idea of things very small and transient. Then it suggested itself to me that astrophysics was a place where these two extremes meet.

DR: What was the role you had in the department?

JF: Well, they couldn't give me any money but they very generously made me a member of the department. I had my swipe card to get in and out, a computer account, I could go to lectures, I used the library - just being a member of the department. They had no idea what I was doing there (and initially, nor did I), which was wonderful - there was nothing prescribed that I had to do. They were very puzzled because I think they imagined there'd be paintings going up on the walls, but all I seemed to be doing was going around talking to people. I wanted to get an overview of the work in the department and just see what worked successfully.

I got interested in their offices - some were like mad scientists' labs, some were formal and tidy and so on. I started photographing their offices with this cheap Russian panoramic camera that I had. The first lot I had processed I brought in, and there was relief on their faces. It was 'oh thank God, he is an artist after all'. That melted relations a bit. I noticed that a few people had guitars in their offices, so we started this band called 'Big Eyed Beans from Venus'. The band had two rules: one, that everyone had to come from the Astrophysics Department, and the other rule was that all material had to relate to astrophysics through its title. That was the start of my time there.

Oak and Long-Term Responsibility

I'm sure I've bitched about Boing Boing here before. It's my least favorite site, that I visit daily. Only periodically is there something of interest, but when there is, it is often of considerable interest, like today's feature on the Long Now Foundation. (But why do their 'web-TV' spots feel the need to ape every convention of regular TV segments? Is that all the progress we have - the migration of content from one media to another?).

The Long Now Foundation is over a decade old, and I've been reading a lot about their work in the course of research for my project here at Glenfiddich, the creation of a hundred year old barrel of Scotch. In this clip, Alexander Rose of the Foundation presents some early models for the 10,000 year old clock they are hoping to build in a mountain in Nevada, explains some of the mechanisms and displays a series of Tibetan bowls as a prototype chime (borrowing from Jem Finer, presumably). The most interesting thing about the brief interview is a story Rose tells about New College in Oxford:

In the 19th century a student researching a paper on joinery was up in the roof beams of the 600 year old College of St Mary hall and discovered evidence of powder-post beetle infestation. The hard to find, hard to kill wood-boring insects can reduce timber to dust, often without much in the way of warning. The discovery was reported to the College Board, who called an emergency meeting to determine how to prevent the loss of the heritage building. Where would they find appropriate oak to replace the enormous beams, and how would they cover the costs?

The staff Forester was called in and he calmly explained that they had anticipated this problem, in 1379 AD, and planted a grove of oak trees on a bequested plot of land. The information was passed down from one Forester to the next - "You don't cut them oak trees. Them's for the roof of New College Hall!" The trees were milled, the beams replaced, and the field was re-sown with acorns, planning for the next six hundred years.

Oxford's own website debunks this tale as more fable than fact, but it remains a powerful story about long-term thinking.

The clip is here.

Monday, July 28, 2008


A new barebones website was launched recently to announce the forthcoming Brian Eno/David Byrne record, their first together since the brilliant My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in 1981. The previously announced tour with the notoriously stage-shy Eno joining Byrne for a few select dates was apparently a misunderstanding. Byrne will tour the 'songs' of "Eno and Byrne", but Eno will not join him. Here's the brief announcement from the site:

"Brian Eno and I recently finished our first collaboration in about 30 years. For the most part, Brian did the music and I wrote some tunes, words and sang. It's familiar but completely new as well. We're pretty excited. In August the music will be available via this Web site, free for streaming and it will also be available for purchase as both a download and in physical formats. One of the songs will be available free of charge.

In September I will begin a tour, on which I will be playing music from the new album as well as music from our previous collaborations - 3 Talking Heads albums, Bush of Ghosts, etc. If you'd like to be updated as this story unfolds, please add your email address via the box below (we will not contact you for any reason other than to tell you about this David Byrne and Brian Eno project and the tour and we promise not to give or sell your contact to anyone else or even to the government).

The name of the new record is Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.

More news soon

David Byrne

The self-released record is out in less than a month (the 18th) and the site is registering email addresses, with the promise of a free track, Strange Overtones, on August 4th.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Other Residencies, 3

Yesterday I read about a (very old) project so incredibly close to something I’ve wanted to do in Toronto (and, thanks to the diligence of a friend, might actually happen next year) that I began a short blog entry about it. A few hours later the text is up to 2000 words and I’ve completely missed the annual Dufftown Highland Games.

Rather than re-format it for blogger, I’m just going to post a link to here it as a PDF.

Other Residencies, 2

A bit of theatre too good to have been written (though I did edit it down here and there):

Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the opportunity to offer this amendment:

SEC. 801. None of the funds made available by this Act may be used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to employ any individual under the title ``artist in residence''.

This amendment is really about prioritizing spending and fiscal responsibility. Over the last 2 years, NASA has spent $20,000 for an artist-in-residence program. My amendment is designed to prevent or limit that practice in the future.

Mr. Chairman, nowhere in NASA's mission does it say anything about advancing fine arts or hiring a performance artist. In fact, Laurie Anderson, the person that was chosen to perform the role of a performance artist, when she was called to be offered the job, she said, “Sure, what do I do?”

And the response she got from NASA was, “Well, we do not know; we have never done this before.”

One of the first things that I did in 2003 after I showed up as a new Member of Congress is I attended a memorial service for the Columbia astronauts. Certainly, spending money by NASA on a performance artist and an artist-in-residence program does nothing to make sure that the shuttle program gets back into space and prevents such tragedies in the future.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Other Residencies 1

The most candid and concise summary of an experience at an artist residency that I've read came from a slim book called Basta by Bedwyr Williams, who I met at the 2005 Venice Biennale. He was representing Wales, in a small exhibition worth the extra hike to find. The project was set up as a six-month residency, and he produced a thin volume and some photographs documenting his time there. He was presumably the envy of all back home for such a high-profile and glamourous residency, but the book focuses mainly on his homesickness and about being an outsider in a city of outsiders. Two weeks prior to the Biennale I had just completed a residency at the Banff Centre in Alberta, and (though I had a great time there, and here) many of his observations rang true, and were very funny. He talks about artists in residence smelling funny and only having a few changes of clothes and being cranky at how immobile they are.

Everything here has been amazing, from the beautiful landscape to the fantastic hospitality. Andy Fairgreives, who runs the program is excellent, and my project demands a lot of the staff of the distillery, and they've all been incredibly helpful and giving of their time. But I've had a few stir-crazy homesick days lately. And I miss the cinema and having food delivered to my door and drying myself with a towel that didn't itself hang to dry (so fucking coarse). I've been eating a lot of pasta and soup and have (somehow) set off the smoke alarm half a dozen times.

Clash covers

I was never a huge fan of The Clash, possibly because the early-teen nightclub I went to in the 80's (named after a Bowie song but presumably referencing it's just-pubescent clientele, it was called, uh, Changes) played Should I Stay Or Should I Go all the time. It's a shit song to begin with, but, with it's excelerating tempos, it has no place on the dance floor.

However, my two favorite covers of the moment are both Clash songs, and I'm actually looking fwd to seeing the new Joe Strummer doc. The first is Clampdown, by The National, who slow it down, strip it down and remove the twitchy riff. The second is a series of versions of the Guns of Brixton. The most recent is by Santogold and Diplo (who played Mercer Union's New Years Eve party a few years ago). It's available here, but probably only for a while. They've renamed it Guns of Brooklyn. The others are by Arcade Fire (decent, but bad sound quality, a live recording), Nouvelle Vague (surprisingly okay, from the first album, before the novelty wore off) and Calexico (not overly inspired, but competent as one would expect from the band).

Found Art

Sure, I'm a fan of Found Art and the readymade, but I'm becoming more and more interested in found performance art (see William MacGonagall post below). According to Jacksonville News, 18 year old James L. Harris has been arrested and charged with stealing three public transit buses, dressing as a driver and driving the buses along their routes. He picked up and dropped off passengers along the way and returned the buses at the end of the day. He did not attempt to steal the money from the fare boxes.

Were it an intentional artwork, it would also fit in my my favorite types of interventions - invisible ones. When I was on the board of the 7a*11d International Performance Art Festival the best proposal I ever saw was by an American artist named Chris Wildrick. His piece was that he would come to Toronto and spend the day dressed as a superhero that he created, but dressed as that superhero's secret-identity alter-ego.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Drink To Us (When We're Both Dead) - another update

Today I had a meeting with David Stewart who, I've just learned while searching for the photo to the left, is the industry's longest serving Malt Master. He's been working with Glenfiddich for forty-five years.

We discussed the various proposals to ensure that there is still Scotch Whiskey in my barrel in a hundred years time. They included burying it in the ground (which he nixed, it won't breath properly*), having it rotate on a spit (would probably cause more evaporation than it would prevent) and using the feints as the starting point. When distilled spirit comes off the stills there are three spouts in the spirit safe (a beautiful contraption, see below). The middle is the spirit they use - the porridge goldilocks eats , essentially. The other spouts are the feints and the foreshots, which contain spirit at a percentage either too high or too low to use. These are further distilled until they reach the desired middle cut portion of 71%. Feints come in at a percentage in the mid-seventies and the foreshots are typically low sixties. I wondered if we were to start with the feints would we stand a better chance in a hundred years of having a percentage at or above the (current) legal limit of 40 years?Otherwise it's not Scotch at all. Apparently we could start with rubbing alcohol but its not going to taste very good. So we'll go with the middle cut, but not add the standard water, which usually brings it down to 68%.

The barrel will be a large, third use sherry cask, made from Spanish Oak. A first or second use would probably be too intense - the oak would overpower the taste, with it being left to mature for so long. The decline of sherry consumption/production is actually impacting the whiskey industry, with the cost of these barrels skyrocketing. If possible, the barrel staves will be thicker (less porous) and we might reinforce them with stainless steel hoops. I'll have to check with the Cooperage department. (Another thing I've learned - much the way if your name is Smith it is likely someone in your family tree was a Blacksmith, those with the name Cooper likely once made barrels. Fassbinder (as in filmmaker Rainer Werner) means the same thing in German - barrel binder.)

We'll store the barrel in a cool warehouse, with an earthen floor and numerous other casks. The more the better, I'm told.

We also talked about less traditional methods to ensure the spirit meets the legal requirement, things such as cling film on the barrel, wax sealant, etc. etc. I'm of the opinion that you could vacuum seal it and send it the moon and you might get legal whiskey, but we want good whiskey. For whomever it is that gets to drink it.

*there are differing opinions on this. Some think that if it were buried in stones, it would be okay, others worry that water damage to the barrel could still occur.

The photo below is not from Glenfiddich, where photography is discouraged for safety reasons. I'll get some shots during production, but in a monitored, controlled environment. I didn't wanna be a pain in the ass so early on, taking snapshots all the time.

Short Itunes Rant

Why would anyone pay the same price to download a movie from Itunes, as to buy it from the store? Now that net providers are charging by bandwidth, it actually costs MORE to own a crappy digital-file version of the film than it does to own the DVD. The industry has unloaded all of the production and distribution costs onto the consumer, while offering nothing in the way of a price break. If I want to make a back-up, it's my blank disk I have to use. If I want to label that disk it's ink from my printer. And I have to store it in a case that I purchase. Not to mention the cost of the computer, printer and service provider. And presumably we are left without extras like audio commentary, deleted scenes, short documentaries, etc.

Also, if it's a DVD I own, I can loan it out, and I can sell it later on if I no longer want it. Neither of these possibilities are possible thru Itunes. It's no wonder people are stealing content.

I'm prepared to move away from from cumbersome DVDs, and I'm even prepared to pay for downloads. But I'm not prepared to pay the same price as I did for a disk. Maybe half.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lisgar Street (2001 - 2008)

The final public event at 37 Lisgar is a closing party. No theme this time, no cover, just a chance to say goodbye to the location that served Mercer Union well for more than seven years. Mercer is known for throwing great parties, with only a few rare blemishes (St Patricks Day a few years ago was pretty lousy) on an otherwise perfect track record. I'm sure it's gonna be great. Wish I could be there.

Also, Kevin Hegge is one of the DJs (best Myspace name ever - Kevin Knows I'm Miserable Now) and it'll be his birthday. You could make his day, I suspect, by requesting track seven from the Smiths' swansong.

Dada Questionnaire

1. Does pachelbel ever vary his bass and his harmonic pattern in canon in D major?

2. Bohemian rhapsody vinyl original 1975 - how much is it worth?

3. What Alan Jackson song was played simultaneously in america in april 1996 in respect for his dad?

4. The similarities of davidians and polygamy?

5. How many people were at the last supper? jesus

The preceding questions were all entries into Google that led people to my website, for some reason or other. I love that searches are still phrased as questions, as though someone reads them on the other end and proper grammar is important. I can recognize where one of the above comes from (an essay I wrote about Candice Bretiz refers to the Queen song someone is trying to price) but the others are a mystery to me.

The most common phrase that brings people to my website is "Nude Workplace". On my CV there is a listing for a performance I did with Jordan Sonenberg years ago called Gloria Poses in the Nude (the title of an episode of All in the Family). The event took place at Workplace and therefore the two words come together on the CV as "Nude. Workplace". There was once a time when I was the top response when the phrase was entered into a search engine, but I'm now bumped down to fifth.

Bicycles, cows

My cottage is actually on the outskirts of Dufftown. I can see the "Welcome to Dufftown" sign from my front door. It's about a half mile into town, all up hill. It makes cycling there very difficult and cycling home far too easy (I tested to see if I could get home without a single rotation of the pedal. I got within a block of the cottage, but then the road flattens out for a bit). Along the way I pass what appears to be fields of big, hairy bulls, casually grazing with only a very small wire fence between us. It seems dangerous to me, but I wonder if my notion of them as the more threatening and aggressive of the domestic animals comes from watching too many cartoons. It turns out that my ignorance is much more substantial. I learn that all cows are born with horns, but farmers have them removed. But the horns of HIghland Cattle (also known as, ah, Hairy Coo or Shaggy Coo) are left as is.

Kenneth, a Scottish poet here on residency, noted that the hill is so steep he stashes his bicycle in the bush at the halfway mark, and returns for it later. I get worried enough parking my bike outside the shop for ten minutes while I get groceries. Apparently no one locks their bicycles here.

I mention in passing that Toronto is known as one of the worst cities in North America for bike theft, which is greeted with some surprise. Then today I read online that Igor Kenk was arrested last week and charged with masterminding the largest bike theft operation in the history of the city. He was caught, ironically enough, stealing a locked bike while the Police were maintaining a sting operation nearby, with an unlocked one. Kenk was seen pointing to the bikes and paying the person who cuts the locks, later identified as his girlfriend. On the following day his shop, and several others, were raided and 2000 bicycles were recovered. A local business offered up an empty warehouse to display the bikes for victims to identify and apparently upwards of a hundred people have claimed back their stolen bicycles.

Kenk has long been viewed as a suspicious character, running the shady Bicycle Clinic on Queen West. During the raid cyclists gathered at Trinity Bellwoods Park across the street to watch the police remove the bicycles, cheering them along.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

W. McGonagall

At dinner the other night Andy and Kenneth were discussing the legacy of the nineteenth century poet William McGonagall, of nearby Dundee. Kenneth called him the anti-poet, which is when my ears perked up. I'm not sure why, as I'm not particularly drawn to camp or art that is "so bad it's good". I've never been a fan of Ed Wood, for example, and have no need to hear William Shatner sing Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (though I do stand by the Shaggs as not only brilliant, but infinitely listenable). But somehow the best of the worst poetry rivals the best of the best. And I don't say that to disparage poetry. I have dozens of volumes of poetry on my shelves, but I think the one I'm most happy with is called Cop Poet. It's written by a police officer who worked in Cabbagetown, Toronto, and was marketed in the mid-seventies as a gimmick - a cop so sensitive he writes poetry. Amazon has one last copy, I suggest you snap it up. It's selling for forty cents.

Born in Edinburgh, McGonagall was working in Dundee as a handloom weaver (a then-dying trade he learned from his father) when, in 1877, his "body got inflamed, and was instantly seized with a strong desire to write poetry". A voice in his head cried ""Write! Write!" Though this epiphany or visitation occurred when he was fifty two years old he set about his task in earnest. His first poem was published in the Weekly News, and the impulse of a journalist would run thru all of his work, recording local events for posterity. Oblivious to the general opinion of his poetry, (despite the pelting with eggs he received) he fancied himself worthy of the title Poet Laureate and walked 60 miles of mountainous terrain during a thunderstorm to ask Queen Victoria for the title. He was informed that the Queen was out and sent home. Variations on the story have him threatened with arrest.

Like his hero Shakespeare, McGonagall was also an actor. When he performed the title role in Macbeth (a privilege he apparently paid handsomely for) the theatre was packed with curious locals and his opening line was met with a standing ovation. Reportedly, he felt that the actor portraying Macduff was attempting to upstage him, and refused to die in the final scene.

As these stories are being told I remember an old Monty Python sketch about a Scottish poet named Ewan McTeagle, who I now recognize must've been a parody of McGonagall. The short sketch showed an always broke McTeagle writing and mailing poems, all of which were requests for money, such as

To Ma Own beloved Lassie.
A poem on her 17th Birthday.
Lend us a couple of bob till Thursday.
I'm absolutely skint.
But I'm expecting a postal order
and I can pay you back as soon as it comes.
Love Ewan

or an 'earlier' work so concisely brilliant it rivals a certain red wheelbarrow:

If you could see your way to lending me sixpence.
I could at least buy a newspaper.
That's not much to ask anyone.

William McGonagall's best known poem is The Tay Bridge Disaster, which recounts the story of, ah, the Tay Bridge Disaster of of 1879.

‘Twas about seven o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-
“I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

McGonagall's work undergoes periodic reevaluation, and it's this dedication to reportage (along with his sincerity, his deft self-promotion and enormous self-confidence) that he will be seriously remembered for. I've just ordered a 1971 biography from ABE books and I'm hoping to answer the question "could it have been a hoax?" The poster below seems to indicate a self-awareness in the line "Positively For This Night Only" and it would take a self-importance bordering on delusional to mistake hurled tomatoes at a reading for respect and admiration (he is rumoured to have carried an umbrella as protection from the barrage of rotten fruit and vegetables routinely thrown at him).

If so, he might be the missing link between, say, Diogenes of Sinope and contemporary performance art. Or at least Andy Kaufman. He was certainly a performance poet, and his readings often caused riots. City magistrates eventually banned them in the interest of public safety. So he set out for other cities, such as Glasgow, London and New York.

His works is sadly out of print now, but only a couple of months ago some of his original poems sold at auction in Edinburgh for just short of 7000 pounds.

He died penniless at the turn of the century and is buried in an unmarked grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh, which I intend to visit mid-August. Less than a decade ago a grave-slab was installed to his memory. It reads

William McGonagall
'Poet and Tragedian

"I am your gracious Majesty
ever faithful to Thee,
William McGonagall, the Poor Poet,
That lives in Dundee."

Blueberries are also not

Last night at 10pm I stared at a pink sky as the sun set behind the ruins of a castle, while eating huge raspberries* picked from the backyard. It would be easy to assume that the sounds of bagpipes and drums playing in the distance were imaginary but it turns out that the local region rehearses nearby on tuesday nights, just beyond the trees.

This is a photograph found online but it could easily have been taken from the cottage where Ming stays, which is incredibly close to the ruin. His backyard looks onto cows grazing on a hillside, with dozens of wild rabbits hopping around them. Being the larger of the 8 artist residencies, he offered to have the rest of us over for dinner, which was prepared by Jin Feng, who cooked an elaborate feast which took two days to prepare. A really nice night, lessened only by the fact that when I got home I discovered that I didn't have any running water. A pipe burst a few blocks away and anyone not on private water supply was out. Luckily someone from Glendiffich had driven around and delivered bottles to all the homes. I brushed my teeth with water from the kettle.

*I had read earlier in the day that raspberries are not berries, but tomatoes are.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A few fast Bookmarks

Carl Wilson notes two Matmos related events, including a reading from Drew Daniel's new 33 1/3 Book on Throbbing Gristle, which starts in Toronto in a few hours, at This Aint The Rosedale Library, which is now in Kensington Market (?? things move quickly when you're away).

Artfag takes down Thrush Holmes and Terence Koh's Sobey nomination. They also print a retraction after learning that Koh was raised in Ontario (Mississauga, I think). However their main criticism still stands - that Koh's career wasn't made in Ontario. It was made, like a disproportionate number of international art careers, in New York City. So with little (any?) exhibition history in the province, is he ill-suited to represent Ontario for the Sobey Award?

Mercer Union Hall is now a staff/board blog. I like the Kirk Cameron videos recently posted. He's such a diligent Christian crusader now.

Psychology Today has a story about monkeys, marshmallows and money. What's a blog without Monkey news?

I think Cory Doctorow on Boing Boing has finally stopped plugging his new teen fiction book. The steampunk posts continue, however.

D.A.P. updates its catalogue for the first time since last September. Still no word on that once-reported Martin Creed book.

Last year Pitchfork essentially kick started the career of the Black Kids by reviewing the band's Myspace only songs in the coveted Best New Music section. They were then touted as the next big thing and within days had a record contract and signed with Arcade Fire's management. The much awaited follow-up was released last week (I haven't yet heard it) and today is given a single line review with a rating of zero-point-zero. Expect music bloggers everywhere to weigh in with their response in a matter of hours.

A Drink To Us (When We're Both Dead)

I am working on the text for the contract that will accompany the sale of the 100 year old scotch (or spirit, or whatever we have to legally call it). The challenge will be to have it cover every possible eventuality (prohibition in the future? drastically changed taxation? barrel leakage? etc. etc. ) while still still suggesting some of the themes that the work aims to address.

I am also waiting to hear back from the company that will provide me with the packaging. Not sure what the hold up is. I want a form fitted wooden box, which opens on hinges (called a 'casket' fittingly enough). It is inspired by an existing model but will distinguish itself in a number of ways. The box and contract (with some possible photo-documentation) make up the bulk of the edition, which we haven't decided on a price for yet. Obviously the price would be substantially less than the going rate for the current fifty year, given that the buyer will never taste it. Medical advances notwithstanding, it seems unlikely anyone able to buy it now (legal drinking age, a certain degree of disposable income) would live long enough to claim the bottle in 2108 (the oldest age on record is an unverifiable 120).

I hope I have this right, but I understand that fifty bottles of fifty year old scotch are released yearly, and all sell in the first quarter. This is a story from a year ago, when two fifty year old bottles of Balvanie (made here at the Glenfiddich Distillery) were transported (by Brinks Truck, no less) to the Toronto LCBO. The bottles retailed for $30 000 each, and it is my understanding that they have both sold. Fifty year old is the current oldest whiskey released through WIlliam Grant and Sons, though some private stashes exist that reach into the sixties.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


I wasted much of the afternoon searching for rare songs online today. The conventional wisdom is that the chase is part of the fun, but I really think I just want to hear them. Though it might be because I haven’t been book or record (or anything, beyond grocery) shopping in a number of weeks. The wantlist changes weekly but currently I am most seeking the following tracks. Post ‘em if you got ‘em.

A Certain Ratio covering Joy Division’s Heart and Soul or the Work Mix of their hit Shack Up.

The Perry Farrell remix of Yoko Ono’s Kurushi.

The Danielson Family performing Who Are Parents? by The Shaggs.

The movie version of Hey Now by the Talking Heads (the one with the kids singing, from True Stories)

Fall Down (New Orleans version) by the Throwing Muses.

Mudhoney covering the greatest punk rock song ever - We Hate the Bloody Queen, by the Queen Haters.

Thurston Moore and Yoko Ono performing Ono’s Mulberry live.

Xiu Xiu covering Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Jack The Ripper.

Can your Pussy do the Dog, a remake of Rufus Thomas’ Can Your Monkey Do the Dog, by the Cramps.

Deerhoof covering Strawberry Fields Forever.

Frank Black’s cover of The Black Rider by Tom Waits.

Fucking Your Wife by John Cale. (sometimes known as Fucking Your Neighbour’s Wife?)

Louie Louie by Toots and The Maytals, from the This is England soundtrack.

Arcade Fire performing Distortions, possibly the best Clinic song.

Popchor Berlin covering either Gang of Four's Damaged Goods and Mongoloid by Devo. Have you heard their version of Missy Elliot’s 4 My People? It’s excellent.

Recorded Delivery

Michael, one of the other artists in residency here, is engaged with a friend in a mail-art project that involves them mailing pieces of wood back and forth, presumably collecting scratches, nicks and other indicators of its travels. Today on Ubuweb I noticed a recently posted audio equivalent, by the artist Janek Schaefer. It's the renowned sound artist's earliest audio work, dating from 1995, and involves the packing and shipping of a sound-sensitive tape recorder (apparently his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all postmen). You can listen to the sounds of the parcel traveling through the London postal system, the sound device capturing the loudest 72 minutes of the 15 hour journey, here.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Lyre Bird

This is the best thing I’ve seen on Youtube in ages. It’s a clip hosted by Bill Oddie , who I only know as one of the Goodies (and as a punchline on the Alan Partridge Show) but apparently he’s also a respected ornithologist. It features the Australian Lyre bird, which can mimic not only the sounds of other bird calls, but also any other sounds from their environment. The clip ends with the bird brilliantly reproducing the sound of a chainsaw. His habitat is being logged and so, in a way, he is producing the sound of his own demise, or at least displacement.


I've finished a couple of short audio pieces that I like a lot but I cannot for the life of me title them, which now has me obsessively thinking about titling in general. I like definitive titles like I Love America and America Loves me by Joseph Beuys or Zin Taylor's Once The Universe Ends There Will Be Only You and I And Everything We Know, but never use them myself. I also like the way Martin Creed numbers each of his works, which is why I'm desperately waiting for his long-delayed catalogue raisonee. When you number everything you can't later disown it.

One of the reasons I wasn't fully satisfied with the Truck Show is that none of the three new works in the exhibition had titles until a few days before. One of them was perfunctory and fine, but the other two were pretty weak.

I find that a good title usually comes first or not at all. That's mostly been my experience as a curator, too. The first show I organized was called Solo Exhibition (A Group Show) which involved about 20 artists contributing work on the theme of masturbation. The title just occurred to me one day as being funny, and I went with it, and my friend James and I recruited Brad Philips, Will Munro, Jinhan Ko, Paul Couillard, Kika Thorne and many others to contribute work about self-satisfaction.

The title came first for Infinity Etc (though some of the pairings preceded it). The first show I did for Mercer Union I liked a lot (and was probably the best received exhibition I've put together) but has the terrible title of 0.0001 Per Cent Volume. To acknowledge my distaste for the title I never type it the same way twice. I actually have no idea how many zeros are actually intended to be in the title. It came about last minute thru an email exchange between myself and Jenifer Papararo (who was then the Director of Programming, I took over for her a year later after she moved to Vancouver). We started jockeying joke titles back and forth in the hopes that something would make itself obvious. Many of the jokes were quite telling about our interests, actually. The show was mostly invisible, referencing the history of empty galleries (Robert Barry, Ray Johnson, Yves Klein, Martin Creed, Art and Language) and nothing works such as Tom Friedman's cursed plinth, John Cage's silent 4'33", Rauschenberg's White Paintings, etc. etc. I proposed the title Gallery Closed for Installation, and Jenifer shot back with Available for Wedding, Bar Mitzvah's, Parties.

The title of my own work that I like the best also relates to the history of the empty gallery. The work is a power bar with 6 anti-rodent sound devices plugged into it. It was included in a show called Room Tone, in which all of the works emitted a quiet drone (sounding not unlike the sound of mice, actually). The title, however, repositions the work as a piece that is essentially the exhibition of a gallery space free of mice, rats and insects. Titled Nothing (for Robert Barry), it also pokes fun at the popular sixties convention of dedication in titles.

Super Infinity, made in collaboration with Roula, came together immediately and simultaneously - title and premise. Double Negative Parenthetical Qualifier simply and coldly describes the piece (like an Ed Ruscha book such as Nine Swimmg Pools did), but somehow adds quite a bit, for me.

Untitled (for William Tager) came much later but added considerable dimension to the work. A forthcoming book about the venue where it was exhibited allowed me three pages to illustrate the work or present an artists' project. I opted to tell the story of Tager, who is currently in prison for murder, who might have beaten Dan Rather while screaming "What's the Frequency Kenneth" and who believes he is from another planet and time. He and I share the belief that sounds are being beamed into our skulls without our permission.

Fifteen Minute Fame obviously follows from the pun of it's name, though ended up having some other nice references, including that the original song was one of the first to play with sped up and slowed down vocals. Pop Quiz is pretty straight forwawrd, but precise.

Belly Buttons Need Love Too, one of the earliest works I made and still identify with, is a video made by concentrating on only the navels in pornography. The (mostly bouncing) belly buttons were refilmed from commercial porn with the camera held practically flush to the television screen. Clocking in at nearly an hour, the piece is made up of clips generally no longer than a few seconds (the navel is frequently obscured in porn). For the soundtrack I put live guitar cables into the belly buttons of friends and lovers and multi-tracked the resulting hums, cracks and pops. The cover graphic and title come from a shirt I had as a kid.

Some Recent Photos

This week Glenfiddich started a Flickr page for the visiting artists to upload material to. I've been taking very few photographs (other than backyard rabbits to send to my mother). But here are a few recent shots, and the link.

1. Driving Michel de Broin's pedal car on my last day at Mercer Union. We just had to move it a few blocks and the trip went off without incident (unlike this time).

2. Michael Sanzone working in his studio/residence on one of his assemblage paintings.

3. Filming Basel the dog.

4. Hot dog man from the Sled Island Festival last month.

5. Andy walkin' and talkin' in Dufftown.

Long Term Thinking

Today I had a conference call with some Glenfiddich staff to determine the legalities of the project, including a very helpful and insightful staff lawyer named Andrew. We worked through most of the potential problems and determined that nothing was insurmountable and that we could move forward, tentatively. We will have to have a substantial disclaimer/contract, but it occurred to me that this could actually improve the work. It can be a large framed document to accompany the barrel and edition and can serve as a means to tell the various stories I’ve been learning about whiskey production and law. In that way it will resemble a piece I exhibited last year called The Brown Sound (Lend Me Your Ears), which was a saleable proposition, but existed mostly as a way to share some stories.

I realized on the phone that lawyers are in a somewhat unique position of having to talk like it’s the 1500’s (composing contracts with archaic terms like hereto and wherefore) while thinking about the future. Much of our conversation centred around what laws might exist regarding the sale of spirits in one hundred years time. Will taxation be more or less than it is now? Will 40% still be the defining level of alcohol? Will there be prohibition? Lawyers have to imagine every possible future outcome.

This reminded me of some record contracts I had seen in the past. They very cleverly claimed the rights to distribute the songs on vinyl, cassette, and compact disk, as well as any other as-yet-determined future media. They also staked claim to distribution rights on other planets, just in case before the contracts expired we had populated the moon and the residents there wanted to hear some Rolling Stones.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Shrinking future

I don't usually go in for the type of posts where a found sign is presented for easy mockery. You know, the kind that Boing Boing might post where someone has mistyped the word 'temporarily' as 'temporally' and the writer and readers try to outdo each other with jokes about time travel. Or a Japanese translation that reads "Traveler from to get into by bus". In Toronto "Bernardo's Funeral Home" was a popular one, after a murderer of the same name was caught.

But I can't resist this one. I've been spending time on the site for the Long Now Foundation, an organization that hopes to foster long-term thinking with such projects as a clock that will keep time for ten thousand years. The origins of the project are pretty fascinating -

"When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 2000. For the next thirty years they kept talking about what would happen by the year 2000, and now no one mentions a future date at all. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life. I think it is time for us to start a long-term project that gets people thinking past the mental barrier of an ever-shortening future." ―Danny Hillis

So this recent notification, that a seminar has been brought forward by three hours elicited a self-indulgent laugh. Forgive me.


Some online shopping arrived today including a couple of DVDs: Douglas Gordon's Zidane and Toto Le Heros. Both are unavailable in North America, and both were cheap on Amazon. Somehow I missed Gordon's close-up soccer epic every time it screened in Toronto, and, although I have it on VHS, I've never even seen a copy of Toto The Hero on disk. I remember it as nice companion to my favorite film ever, Jean-Claude Lauzon's Leolo. It's nowhere near as rich or dark, but has some very nice moments. I look forward to watching it here on some rainy afternoon (meaning any afternoon that I am free - it's Scotland, after all).

The parcel also included Paul Morley's Music and Words, a history of Pop Music by the journalist best known for writing about Joy Division (and, ah, those Frankie Says shirts). Morley is kind of a lesser-known Tony WIlson character. Their lives intersected at key moments and it may be fair call Wilson Morley's mentor. Both ran record companies (Factory and ZTT, respectively), both were journalists and television presenters for the BBC and both tend(ed) to view music in the larger cultural context. But both could also often be pretentious windbags, so the book is a bit of a gamble. I'm just grateful Amazon didn't screw my order up and send me the novelization of the Hugh Grant/Drew Barrymore romantic comedy of the same name.