Archive for July, 2009

Toward a Definition of Punk Archaeology

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

I was asked recently what exactly Punk Archaeology is… and aside from pointing to our blog of that name, I struggled to come up with a clever answer or really any answer.  The best that I could offer was that Punk Archaeology was an empty vessel, a conceptual universe opening to being filled by the careening intersection of punk rock music and archaeology (in almost all of its forms and meanings).  So far the vessel is filled with bits of methodology, some history, some archaeology (in a Foucaldian sense) and even some proper archaeological investigations.  This description, however, does not necessarily explain what Punk Archaeology is.

So, here goes a first effort toward a definition of Punk Archaeology:

1) Punk Archaeology is a reflective mode of organizing archaeological experiences.  Punk Archaeology began as conversations between Kostis Kourelis and other archaeologists who admitted to listening to punk rock music or appreciating the punk aesthetic while studying archaeology.  The result was a collaboration between me and Kostis as we made an effort to probe the intersection between these two choices.  Why would we be drawn to punk rock — or any particular music — and how does this musical choice explain or organize or condition our approaches to archaeological research.  Both of us came around to the question of whether there is a totalizing discourse in our intellectual lives.  Is there some strand that makes sense of our varied interests?

2) Punk Archaeology follows certain elements of the punk aesthetic through the discipline of archaeology.  It celebrates, in particular, the things that can be grouped under the blanket heading of DIY practices: various low-fi podcasts, infield improvised devices, and serendipitous inventions that allow archaeologists to document space, place, and the past.

3) Punk Archaeology reveals a deep commitment to place.  Punk with its tied to garage band sound has always manifest itself spatially. The tensions between urban and suburban (e.g. Little London Boys), east and west coast, and the persistent association of certain sounds and styles with cities or even places (some of which are intended to disorient: Max’s Kansas City).  As archaeology is, in so many ways, a “science” of place, its affinity to a musical genre that self-consciously laced the experience of music with the experience of place would seem appropriate.

4) Punk Archaeology embraces destruction as a creative process.  Archaeologists destroy the very object that they seek to study.  Digging through strata removes artifacts from their physical context and places them in the disciplinary context of the archaeologist notebook, database, plan, map, article, or monographg.  Destruction as a creative process echoes in some ways the process of punk which sought to deconstruct musically the foundation of Anglo-American pop music and build in its place a subversive recontextualized narrative of safe and comfortable bourgeois life.  I am not sure that archaeology is always subversive and I don’t even know whether punk rock forms the best parallel for the recontextualizing process of excavation, but there is a certain symmetry between the two.

5) Punk Archaeology is spontaneous.  The one thing that the Punk Archaeology blog is seeking to capture is the spontaneity of the connection between punk and archaeology.  The performance of punk archaeology through the medium of blogging allows for our definition to remain flexible and fluid.  We can reshape our argument and our juxtapositions and even challenge and contradict ourselves.  In short, we can create distortion, noise, and a kind off creative chaos.  That might, like Punk, have value. 

Or not. 

We’ll see.


The Magnetic Age

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

David Thomas, the singer of the legendary Cleveland punk band Pere Ubu has written one of the finest essays on rock music. Thomas takes two ballads, “The Wreck of Old 97” and “Dead Man’s Curve,” and constructs a narrative explaining the fundamentals of American music. It all has to do with the Magnetic Age that started in 1877 when Thomas Edison invented the microphone and culminated with Elvis Presley (“the Homer of the Inarticulate Age”). “The Wreck of Old 97” is a ballad inspired by the 1903 train wreck in Virginia (photo above). The earliest version of the song was recorded in 1924 and it has since been sang by everyone, including Woody Guthrie, Johny Cash and Hank Williams. “Dead Man’s Curve” is a ballad written in 1964 by the rock duo Jan and Dean, who preceded the Beach Boys in creating surf music. The ballad describes another wreck, half a century later, taking place with a car. The technical heroism of the two songs corresponds to the technical craft (magnetic electronics) of recorded music, “a dialogue inside the blurred zone between soundscape and landscape.” Thomas asserts that the Magnetic Age is another way of saying the American Age and it unites seemingly unrelated individuals like Edison and Elvis or Eisenhower and Kerouac.

Thomas is not simply retelling a generic version of America’s love for speed, cars and trains but constructs a paradigm through which to interpret rock music. In the spirit of art critic Clement Greenberg, Thomas brings attention to the materiality of the medium. Dan Graham (see Rock My Religion posting) placed punk’s origins in the religious experiments of Protestant America. Thomas places punk’s origins of the magnetic medium–the microphone, the vinyl record, the hi-fi system, the speakers, and the space inside our ears. I’ve been thinking a lot about the texture of dissonance and distortion that characterizes the project of punk archaeology. I have been listening to a lot of Sonic Youth lately–especially their brilliant new album, Eternal– and I’ve been reading David Brownes’ Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth (2008). I’ve also just received a library copy of another interesting new book, David Sheppard’s On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno (2009). Eno is truly the glue between the Magnetic Age and punk. In 1977, Eno collaborated with David Bowie in the album Heroes, the final record of the Berlin trilogy. It includes the song “Sons of the Silent Age.” I wonder if the Magnetic Age and the Silent Age are not but synonyms of the same mechanical predicament.

David Thomas’ essay is called “Destiny in My Right Hand,” and it appeared in The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad, ed. Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus (2005), pp. 161-174. The book contains 23 essays interpreting some of the most fundamental American ballads. The authors range from R. Crumb to Luc Sante and Sarah Vowell. While reading this book, it’s mandatory to listen to a parallel CD with the songs under discussion. I’ve been reading The Rose & the Briar on-and-off since 2005 and just hit David Thomas’s essay.

Sonic Youth and Pere Ubu are the inheritors of the Magnetic Age. David Thomas does not talk about punk in his essay, although he credits Dead Man’s Curve with a dose of “punk snottiness.” On the dissonate end of the Magnetic Age, see my earlier posting on Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. I have just listened to Thurston Moore’s solo project Trees Outside the Academy (2007). The CD inner sleeve contains many pictures from Moore’s youth. Among them, you see a teenage Moore strapped with headphones listening to Metal Machine Music (left). Now, in the 21st century, we should have witnessed the full demise of the Magnetic Age by the Digital Age. Nevertheless, old rockers like Sonic Youth, and even younger ones like Jack White (note his new band, Dead Weathers) remain purists in the Greenbergean sense. Craftsmanship of the Magnetic Age (i.e. the 8-track recorder) seems to have endured in the Digital Age, which might after all be a mere Post-Magnetic Age that claims an ironic self-referential stance to its predecessor.

Rock My Religion

Saturday, July 18th, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

One of Punk Archaeology seminal documents is “Rock My Religion,” the 1984 video by Dan Graham. Although better known as a conceptual artist, Graham was ingrained in New York’s punk and post-punk music scene. “Rock My Religion” makes a historical argument, attributing the origins of punk to the radical religious experiences of early Puritans like the shaking of the Shakers. Many have followed Graham’s line of thinking. Generally speaking, punk as a movement has rejected the hippie ideal of communal idealism. Bypassing the 60s, however, some punks have aligned themselves with older vernacular forms like folk music. The LA punk legends X, for example, also had a parallel folk project, the Knitters. Billy Bragg is another example. Cowpunk, country punk, or folk punk are recent labels for an older tradition.

“Rock My Religion” is screened at.the retrospective exhibition Dan Graham: Beyond, originating at MoCA in Los Angeles and currently at the Whitney Museum in New York (June 25-October 11, 2009). The show will travel to Minneapolis, at the Walker Art Center (October 31, 2009-January 31, 2010). Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth) and the Feelies (recently reunited) performed special tributes during the exhibition (see video here). If you cannot make it to New York or Minneapolis, “Rock My Religion” can be previewed here. For the exhibit’s catalog, see Bennett Simpson and Chrissie Isles eds. Dan Graham: Beyond (MIT, 2009). Graham’s essays have been published in Rock My Religion: Writings and Project 1965-1990 (MIT 1994). One of my favorite Graham projects, “Homes for America” for Arts Magazine (1966-67) is a provocative series of photographs documenting the vernacular landscape of New Jersey. Suburban American architecture and punk rock provide inspiration for Graham’s work that has never been successfully branded under a particular art movemnt. Graham is also known for a series of glass and mirror pavilions that link him more directly with the work of Robert Smithson and minimalism.

For reviews of the Graham exhbition at the Whitney, see Roberta Smith, “Bouncing Around a Visual Echo Chamber,” NYT (July 3, 2009), pp. C19, 21, and Randy Kennedy, “A Round Peg,” NYT (June 28, 2009) pp. AR 1, 24. Kennedy begins with a question that best typifies the difficulty of categorizing Graham: “Here’s a good art-world quiz question, one that could stump many an astute insider: What do Sol LeWitt, Sonic Youth, Dean Martin, Mel Brooks, Mel Haggard, Hudson River School painting and midcentury New Jersey tract housing have in common? The answer, Dan Graham.”