Month of November, 2009

Berlin: Wieland Speck's Berlin Off/On Wall at Exile Gallery

Wieland Speck's Berlin Off/On Wall

In 1978 a man climbed a tower onto the Berlin wall, walked along, sat down, and played his harp. Wieland Speck was there filming his action, the curiosity of the onlookers, and the annoyed befuddlement of the border guards. Speck later found the file devoted to this action, called The Harp Player, which contained a long write up and Stasi photographs documenting the action. This fall they are together for the first time in two rooms in an interior courtyard gallery Exile in Kreuzberg, Berlin.

The video is unedited footage of a man dressed in white climbing and sitting to play with the kind of calm, absurd naivete that could have made him a martyr had one of the border guards been particularly vengeful. Certainly it is impossible to watch without apprehension. The Stasi photos in the felt like '70s performance art documentation afterthoughts -completely unremarkable- until the context of the prints was revealed in the viewing room. It is hard to not go back to the prints and look at them as incriminating evidence, and to gaze in attempt to understand the Stasi gaze. What was all this looking and documentation for, just building the future case against a naive artist? And what was the motive of the harpist and Speck? To be in the middle, making art...for sure...but also to perform for the camera, for their files, for the guards, for the spectators who would circulate the story, and for a history they never thought would come to pass. History's closed case on Stasi survellience, the polite gallery audience experiencing their naivete and bravery vicariously.

Czech dissidents from a woman's POV, Zemský ráj to napohled!, C'est La Vie

Sunday, movie night with my friend Christina. We went again to Slovenske Dum to see Zemský ráj to napohled, a film set between 1968-1977 and meant to tell the story of the normalization and dissident culture from a woman's point of view. Unfortunately, the film (directed and written by women) still manages to portray the strong female lead characters as only involved with the big P politics through their romantic relations rather than through their own direct action, which undermines the potential for the film to overturn the strongly (and wrongly held) portrait of the dissident movement as men-only. One of the more interesting moments for me was when the thinly veiled Havel character confesses his love for the sappy ballad by "C'est La Vie," sung by the official culture pop music hero Karel Gott. While the one party scene had what I believe to be a live recording of Plastic People on as background, this moment of the Havel character drunkenly singing along to Gott while his protagonist/mistress does a strip tease (with her two daughters, ah ha def. not an American film!) shows what I think must have been a more honest portrayal of how dissidents dealt with "official" music and culture in general. Even if it was garbage in lyrics, production, and politics, it could sometimes manage to strike deep chords with even the most oppositional listener – some things had to stick, even if listened to ironically. Gott's chanson poses a few glimpses of the moments from the sensitive artist's live as he struggles against an uncaring audience, resolved with the "c'est la vie" refrain. It's a bit of precious self-aggrandizement mixed with existential melancholy, sung with more subtly than the usual Gott belt (and a great, subtle arrangment with hot accordion!), but as the last refrain picks up, it's possible to hear him smiling through his teeth: the whole thing is in some kind of quotations, a farce. And that is how the film's character is portrayed, always carrying with him in his leather bag the essentials for his arrest. When he finally does, his lover comes to the prison and plays not the Velvet Underground, but this Gott song. C'est la vie.


In other, related news, the fifth finalist night of Cesko Slovenská Superstar was Karel Gott + Duets, and the longhaired Slovak Miroslav Šmajda sang "C'est la vie." Karel said of his performance "you chose well" and the first judge "agrees with the master," calling it "the best performance of the night" and the David Crosby looking judge said "I'm not surprised, I have long thought that you were not a rock singer, but a chansonist, a comedienne....showbusiness is key

Thanks for coming out to the BMW 2009 reading

I just wanted to formally thank Greil, all the readers, and the audience for making Monday's Best Music Writing reading an outstanding success. Here's a short photo blog from New York Noise's Shirley Braha about the event.