Punk and Spolia

Thursday, July 29th, 2010 by Bill Caraher

Over the last week or so, I’ve been listening again to the Detroit Cobras and thinking about some of our first conversations on Punk Archaeology.  The Cobras specialize in what they have called “revved up soul”.  They make this wonderful noise by covering (mostly) lost classics of the MoTown era over the  driving rhythms of punk and the fuzzy, distorted lo-fi sound of the punk blues movement.  Rachel Nagy’s voice succeeds at being both smooth and abrasive at the same time.  Some critics have called their sound “Garage Soul”.

Their first album, Mink, Rat or Rabbit covered songs by 1950s and early 1960s bands like The Marvelettes, The Shirelles, Irma Thomas, The “5” Royales, and The Shangri-Las.  Later albums continue this tradition.  (They’re first two albums – Mink, Rat or Rabbit and Life, Love and Learning – are, to my ear, their best.  (Notice the absence of the “Oxford comma” in both titles.)

The point of mentioning this somewhat obscure band is to consider the relationship between punk and spolia.  Spolia is a technical archaeological term for the re-use older fragments of architecture in new construction. It is typically associated with Late Antiquity and was initially regarded by critics steeped in the Classical Tradition as indicative of the lose of technical skills and economic impoverished conditions at the end of Antiquity.  Other saw the use of spolia as a conscious decision on the part of Late Antique builders and, at worst, reflective of a taste for a discordant, disorganized, and, ultimately, decadent aesthetic.

Of course hip-hop music withstood similar criticisms as they cut up and sampled R&B classics to form  rhythmic backdrop for their poetry.  Such reuse of earlier material was unoriginal and indicative of a kind of creative bankruptcy among “today’s generation”.  Punk took their lead from pop music which they sped up and made more up-tempo, raucous and chaotic.  The Cobras occupy a third space recently developed by bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys where punk, R&B, and blues infused with the DIY, lo-fy sound of the garage (which represents a more austere and suburban version of the venerable lo-fy Juke Joint).

The epicenter of this music has been Detroit (or the Rust Belt more broadly) where the punk of the MC Five and the blues Son House and John L. Hooker intersect.  The music here has tremendous symbolic significance, as Detroit has become emblematic of the decline of “traditional America” and images of the ruinous conditions of the factories have become images of the decline of America’s fortunes as a manufacturing power.  The photographs are archaeological in their attention to detail and the need to accommodate history.

The music of the Detroit Cobras provide a counterpoint to the haunting, archaeological photographs of abandoned Detroit.  Fragments of the city’s earlier days come through in their music, but rather than critique the declining fortunes of America’s industrial heartland, the music calls forth the continued vitality of those days in much the same way that spolia maintained a conscious connection with earlier architecture.

The archaeological impulse in of punk rock of the Detroit Cobras reveals a kind of native archaeology of the American city which draws backwards on its unique history to produce critical memory.  Such work is the work of archaeologists both of the past and the present who sought to communicate something meaningful from the fragments of the past that remained visible in their present.  The spolia preserved in the music of the Detroit Cobras presents a musical museum in much the same way that the fragments of the past in produce meaning in the context of a physical museum today or in the context of monumental architecture in Late Antiquity.

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Punk Archaeology, Squatting and Abandonment

Monday, February 22nd, 2010 by Bill Caraher

I spent part of the weekend exploring Thurston Moore‘s and Abby Bank’s evocative book, Punk House. The book largely features Abby Bank’s photographs of punk houses across the U.S. Thurston Moore, of Sonic Youth fame, provides a short introduction where he talks about the punk house phenomenon, the practice of squatting associated with the most radical expression of the punk lifestyle, and the aesthetic of the punk interpretation of the DIY approach to home decoration. All of these practices speak to the radical politics behind punk rock as a movement. The rejection (or total disregard for) private property made squatting an appealing alternative to ownership, and the collective house represented a more domesticated (and less risky) alternative.

Squatting, Archaeology, and Abandonment
Squatting is essentially an archaeological phenomenon; archaeologists are squatters who occupy and savor the abandoned corners of a society. While archaeology tends to be a form of high impact squatting which often leads to the destruction, punk squatting represents a whole series of ephemeral practices that can go almost undetected by subsequent visitors to the space. Like archaeology itself, the practice squatting challenge any simple view of abandonment and in turn challenges the notion of ownership, possession, and use that are vital in some way to our understanding of function within an archaeological context. So while archaeologists are squatters, like punks, the practice of squatting undermines basic assumptions that allow archaeology to function. Archaeologists, like squatters, put spaces in the margins of the mainstream world into use.

Recent attention to the practice of abandonment both within the archaeological record and in the American cities wracked by the recent economic downturn has tended to view the spaces of abandonment as tragic expressions of the ultimate futility of human efforts to transform the landscape or the false optimism of progress. Abandoned monumental architecture – especially hospitals, prisons, factories, churches, or public works – provided evidence for the cynicism of the punk world view as well as the backdrop for their ability live without these amenities.

Archaeological evidence for so-called squatters in the period of history that I study, Late Antiquity, almost beg such ideological questions. Were the Late Antique squatters in the monumental architecture of the earlier, Classical, era proto-punks who recognized and celebrated the futility of their predecessors? Should we view their re-use of abandoned spaces as critique?

At the same time the modern archaeologist as squatter likewise searches for fragments of the past – something useful among the neglected corners of society – in a utopian and ideological quest to produce a singular, uninterrupted world.

Formation Process and Provisional Discard
Bank’s photographs capture the layered, weathered, look of group houses that both support the impecunious lifestyles of their punk residents as well as the chaotic, multi-generation application of DIY practices. The rooms that Bank’s photographed were filled with objects out of context – junk – deployed to support lifestyles at the margins of capitalism. The houses stand as living testimony to the value quintessential archaeological practice of provisional discard. The pattern of occupation produces a stratigraphic space as each resident adds a layer of interpretation to what went before.

These houses take what archaeologists have sometimes seen as an almost subconscious or deeply structured processes of discard into a performative critique of society. Short term habitation practices, in turn, transform a series of practical choices into the chaotic pastiche of lived stratigraphy.

Music
The link between these houses and punk music is clear. As we have observed before, punk music is a nostalgic, utopian, critique that seeks a more profound authority than punks observe from the world around them. The punk houses, the temporary residence of squatters, and the archaeology of a stratified, provisional existence, forms a physical counterpoint to the archaeological overtones in punk music.

Ruins: Feedback

Thursday, February 11th, 2010 by Kostis Kourelis

The last couple of postings on punk archaeology have produced some wonderful comments on Facebook that I cannot resist from sharing. Thanks to my supportive friends. You make blogging a satisfying endeavor (one always wonder if anyone is reading out there).

STEPHENNIE MULDER

“Kostis, hard to put into words the emotions this evoked for me, especially since I spent my teenage years running around with a bunch of kids who (thought they were) punk and hanging out in ruins too. Since I grew up in Salt Lake, they were not these nineteenth-century East Coast Gothic-tinged ruins, but, still. I often wonder if the same deep melancholy I got in those spaces, the heavy and intoxicating sense of past lives, ordinary and mundane, their loves, deaths, celebrations and Thursday night dinners, was somehow related to my interest in archaeology. Ruins have the ability to conjure a certain type of melancholy that is like nothing else in human experience, I think. Did you know mourning over ruins is a major theme in Arabic poetry? One of my favorites:

At the way stations
stay. Grieve over the ruins.
Ask the meadow grounds,
now desolate, this question.

Where are those we loved,
where have their dark-white camels gone?

-Ibn Arabi

Thanks for this, and I spent a long time looking at the photographs you linked to, as well.”

Stephennie is a friend from UPenn Art History. She is professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas, Austin and specializes in Syria. We’ve recently reconnected thanks to the power of Facebook.

OMUR HARMANSAH

Pogue Harrison on the sight of ruins:

“One could say that, in its world-forming capacity, architecture transforms geological time into human time, which is another way of saying it turns matter into meaning. That is why the sight of ruins is such a reflexive and in some cases an unsettling experience. Ruins in an advanced state of ruination represent, or better they literally embody, the dissolution of meaning into matter. By revealing what human building ultimately is up against -natural or geological time- ruins have a way of recalling us to the very ground of our human worlds, namely the earth, whose foundations are so solid and so reliable that they presumably will outlast any edifices that we build on them.” Robert Pogue Harrison, The dominion of the dead 2003: p. 3.

Omur is an old friend from UPenn. He is a specialist in the architecture of the ancient Near East and professor of archaeology at Brown University. Among his many specializations, Omur is especially active in archaeological theory. See, his Theoretical Archaeology Group here.

RYAN SANDER

“Hey Kostis. Are you familiar with Jeff Brouws work? As a photographer he follows the in the New Topographic lineage looking toward the landscape as cultural product/artifact. http://www.jeffbrouws.com/series/main_discarded.html

Ryan is an MFA student in photography at the University of North Dakota. His work explore the nature of place/space through artistic and liturgical lenses. Ryan discusses his work and process on a great blog, Axis of Access. Last summer, Ryan was the artist-in-residence at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project in Cyprus. His work in Cyprus is currently exhibited in Topos/Chora: Photographs of the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project at the Empire Arts Center, Grand Forks. It was an honor to be invited to write an interpretive essay for Ryan’s exhibition. I’ve never met Ryan in person, but the blogosphere has brought us together.

Camden: Whitman, Smith, Vergara

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010 by Kostis Kourelis

Walt Whitman spent the end of his life in Camden, N.J., not far from where Patti Smith spent her childhood. While growing up at Germantown, Philadelphia and then Deptford, N.J., Smith would visit the Whitman Hotel in Camden and imagine that her poet hero once inhabited the spaces. Whitman’s trajectory of American poetry extends to William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, both from Paterson, N.J.; interestingly enough, Williams was Ginsberg’s pediatrician and wrote the introduction to “Howl.” From Ginsberg, the trajectory continues to Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, an inheritance that neither musician undervalue. The celebration of the every-day, even if it smells of sweat and dirt, is central to Whitman’s Amerian tradition. This is what architect Louis Sullivan called the “physiology” rather than the “physiognomy” of American life. Sullivan, who coined the “form follows function” equation was himself not a reductivist; his functionalism was “physiological” not technocratic. If American life has been suffering economic ailments, its physiology is evident not in the great skyscrapers of the spirit but in its ruins of its post-industrial cities.

Patti Smith is not alone to bring us back to Whitman’s Camden. Camilo José Vergara, the Chilean-New Yorker photographer has devoted his career in documenting America’s fallen urban condition. His American Ruins (1999) was a landmark publication, appearing at the same time that a California school of sociologists (Edward Soja and Mike Davis) turned Marxism’s attention from the superstructure to the base, from a functionalist view of the city to a consideration of space. Vergara’s photographs have appeared in numerous publications and exhibitions since then. But I would like to highlight one particular project, Invincible Cities, where Vergara turns his attention directly onto Camden. Vergara has been producing what he hopes will culminate into “A Visual Encyclopedia of the American Ghetto.” Invincible Cities offers Camden as a case study. An interactive database allows the viewer to navigate through Vergara’s photographs across space and time.

Vergara has been photographing the American ghetto since the 1970s. His perseverance matches Jacob Riis, while his methodology combines the sociologist’s lens with the documentary rigor of Bernd and Hilla Becker. Invincible Cities takes Vergara one step further. I suspect that Patti Smith would find Vergara’s lens a little too literal. Walt Whitman might protest the slickness of the digital colors (he would prefer the texture of male sweat). Even if sensibilities differ, Camden needs revisiting and Vergara has let us perform the very kind of scholarly voyeurism that could lead into action if not the transformation of our civic psyche.

Hospital Ruins: Patti Smith

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010 by Kostis Kourelis

Rebecca Solnit‘s ruined hospital experience reverberates in Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, which, last week climbed to the 7th spot in the New York Times nonfiction best seller list. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were regular visitors to Coney Island at a time when the side shows were still surviving. They saw Snake Princess Wago and a flea circus at Hubert’s on 42nd St., which closed in 1965. They also visited a small museum with body parts and human embryos in jars. Robert Mapplethorpe became obsessed by the idea and sought to find some of his own specimen. The search lead them to a ruined hospital. The experience seems straight out of a magic realist novel. Patti Smith writes,

“He [Robert Mapplethorpe] asked around where he might find something of that sort, and a friend told him about the ruins of the Old City Hospital on Welfare (later Roosevelt) Island [picture left]. On a Sunday we traveled there with our friends from Pratt. There were two points on the island that we visited. The first was a sprawling nineteenth-century building that had the aura of a madhouse; it was the Smallpox Hospital, the first place in America to receive victims of contagion. Separated only by barbed wire and broken glass, we imagined dying of leprosy and the plague.

“The other ruins were that left of the Old City Hospital, with its forbidding institutional architecture, finally to be demolished in 1994. When we entered it, we were struck by the silence and an odd medicinal smell. We went from room to room and saw shelves of medical specimens in their glass jars. Many were broken, vandalized by visiting rodents. Robert combed each room until he found what he was looking for, an embryo swimming in formaldehyde within a womb of glass.” (p. 68)

On the walk back to their home, “… just as we turned the corner to Hall Street, the glass jar slipped inexplicably from his hands and shattered on the sidewalk, just steps from our door. I saw his face. He was so deflated that neither of us could say anything. The purloined jar had sat on the shelf for decades, undisturbed. It was almost as if he had taken its life. ‘Go upstairs,’ he said. ‘I’ll clean it up.’ We never mentioned it again. There was something about that jar. The shards of heavy glass seemed to foreshadow the deepening of our days; we didn’t speak of it but each of us seemed inflicted with a vague internal restlessness.” (p. 69)

Hospital Ruins: Rebecca Solnit

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010 by Kostis Kourelis

Rebecca Solnit helped me articulate some threads of Punk Archaeology in her essay “Abandon,” in A Field Guide of Getting Lost (New York, 2005, pp. 87-109). Solnit describes her own discovery of punk at the age of 15, “Punk rock had burst into my life with the force of revelation, though I cannot now call the revelation much more than a tempo and an insurrectionary intensity that matched the explosive pressure in my psyche.” Solnit’s revelation was more than a musical discovery, it was a shift in incorporating the city within the realms of the natural wilderness. Punk directed Solnit and thousands of other youngsters in the 1980s to connect the surrounding post-industrial decay and the inner self. After all, isn’t that one of culture’s primarily roles, to negotiate between exterior and interior worlds? In the 1990s, selected neighborhoods went into choreopraphed reinventions. New York got Dinseyfied and hipsters became just marketing demographic. Attention shifted from archaeological realism (a desire to see things as they are and adjust aesthetics accordingly) to historicist melancholy (a desire to relive earlier generations’ angst through self-fashioning). Such developments make the 1980s seem like a distinct cultural period, where punk and archaeology united.

Reading through Patti Smith’s memoir made me re-read Solnit’s essay (read tomorrow’s posting). There is one particular detail that unites the two experiences, namely the incorporation of hospital ruins into a search for meaning. Solnit begins her essay with an adventure that, in retrospect, seems like a classic punk pursuit, searching for abandoned buildings and seeking to incorporate them into aesthetic life through photography, music and film.

“The most beautiful thing in the abandoned hospital was the peeling paint. The place had been painted again and again in pastels, and in the years of its abandonment these layers flaked into lozenges and curled scrolls, a different color on each side. The flakes clung to the walls like papery bark and piled up like fallen leaves. I remember walking down one long corridor illuminated only by light from distant doorways. There the paint dangled from ceiling and walls in huge wafers, and my passing stirred the air enough that some came drifting down down in my wake. The movie we made there was was too grainy to show such delicate details, but I remember one passage in it where I was coming down such a corridor and the shafts of light behind me were so strong on either side of my neck that my head seemed at times to detach from my body and hover above it. I had become its haunting wraith.

“That was when I was twenty, half my life ago, and a boy my age made the most politely democratic proposition I ever received: would I like to make a move with him in the ruined hospital near my San Francisco home? I would, we did, and we spent the next six years together in amazing tranquility and stayed close for a few years thereafter… It was the early 1980s, and looking back I can see that it was a sort of golden age of ruins.

“Coming of age in the heyday of punk, it was clear we were living at the end of something–of modernism, of the American dream, of the industrial economy, of a certain kind of urbanism. The evidence was all around us in the ruins of cities. The Bronx was block after block, mile after mile of ruin, as were even some Manhattan neighborhoods, housing projects across the country were in a state of collapse, many of the shipping piers that had been key to San Francisco’s and New York’s economies were abandoned, as was San Francisco’s big Southern Pacific rail yard and its two most visible breweries. Vacant lots like missing teeth gave a rough grin to the streets we haunted. Ruin was everywhere, for cities had been abandoned by the rich, by politics, by a vision of the future. Urban ruins were the emblematic place for this era, the places that gave punk part of its aesthetic, and like most aesthetics this one contained an ethic, a worldview with a mandate on how to act, how to live.” (pp. 87-88)

The image at the top is a photo by Camilo Jose Vergara, who will be the subject of a post later this week. The photo, “Henry Horner Homes, 2051 W. Lake St., Chicago, 1995” was featured in Vergara’s recent Slate article, “American Ruins: Nature is Taking back These Buildings,” (Jan. 15, 2010).

Patti Smith: Archaeology of Life

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010 by Kostis Kourelis

In addition to the memoir (Just Kids) and the Steven Sebring documentary (Dream of Life), Patti Smith has produced another kind of life narrative, articulated through objects (see earlier posting here). An exhibit, Objects of Life at the Robert Miller Gallery features 14 objects that have been significant to Smith and her collaboration with Sebring. They include Smith’s childhood dress (left), her Land 250 Polaroid camera and a tambourine made by Robert Mapplethorpe. I hope to catch this show on its closing day (Feb. 6, 2010), when F&M takes its Art History majors to New York.

The exhibit is the first of three that will focus on various themes in Smith’s art (see press release). The film Dream of Life shows Smith obsessively engaged with objects. Objects of Life takes the documentary narrative into a different curatorial and archaeological dimension. Unlike traditional archaeological presentation, Sebring/Smith’s 14 objects point to inter-subjectivity possibilities and relate to the curatorial themes that Orhan Pamuk raises in the Museum of Innocence.

Patti Smith: Life as Narrative

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010 by Kostis Kourelis

Over the Christmas holiday, I chanced on the Patti Smith documentary that I had heard about on Studio 360. We had just unloaded the U-Haul, moving to Philadelphia, and the WHYY feature somehow reaffirmed the move to an an urban capital. Patti Smith herself has roots in Philadelphia, a fact that she talked about at length when I saw her perform exactly 8 years ago, at the Keswick Theater, Dec. 27, 2001. That was a special concert for me. I went with my best friend Yorgos and we were both amazed by the number of older people (like us) in the audience who even brought their children. Smith’s own mother, who lives nearby, was in the audience and both Smith’s sister and son played with her onstage (see a review here).

Soon after Patti Smith lost her husband (Fred Smith of MC5) and her brother (Todd) in 1994, REM’s Michael Stipe caller her out of the blue to offer condolences; he also recommended a photographer. Steven Sebring entered Patti Smith’s life a that moment, documenting the experiences of an ordinary human being rather than the legendary “godmother of punk.” Sebring’s filming became the documentary Patti Smith: Dream of Life that premiered on Dec. 30, 2009 on PBS’s Point of View. Dream of Life is hauntingly beautiful capturing the creases in the artist’s life. I also enjoyed Sebring’s focus on Smith’s children, especially Jackson Smith who is married to Meg Ryan (of the White Stripes). In many ways, Patti Smith’s story after her marriage to Fred Smith is a life centered around Detroit (Saint Clair Shores). Documentaries on rock musicians tend to follow generic lines. Dream of Life breaks away from the mold and becomes a creative enterprise in its own right.

Patti Smith has also just published an autobiographical work on her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1969 booth photo, top). Just Kids was released today (Ecco, 2010). Just as Dream of Life takes us to the period after Smith’s New York apotheosis, Just Kids takes us to the period before. For a review of the book, see Janet Maslin, “Bohemian Soul Mates in Obscurity,” New York Times (Jan. 18, 2010), pp. C1, C8. Maslin points out that Smith’s growing up with Mapplethorpe took place before many of the disturbing pictures that earned Mapplethorpe his late notoriety (and censorship by the NEA). I am looking forward to matching the Sebring documentary with Smith’s own reflections. After all, Smith is just as much a writer as a rocker. Returning to the home where I spent my own growing up, I’m especially susceptible to such stories. It was in this old/new home that I first admired Patti Smith.

London Calling

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

It seems only yesterday that the landmark LP London Calling by the Clash turned 25, an event celebrated by a re-release of the album with new video and footage. On December 13, London Calling is turning 30 this time. And at the ripe age of 30, the Clash turns archaeological. The anniversary will be marked by the auctioning of the Clash’s original art work, the classic album cover with Paul Simonon smashing his Fender Precision bass on stage at the New York Palladium. There’s lots to say about Simonon’s instruments, including a Rickenbacker given to him by Patti Smith, but basically the white Fender Precision was iconic. The 1979 image contains its own archaeology, namely, The Who smashing their instruments in the 1965 performance of My Generation at the Beat Club, as well as, Sid Vicious hitting an audience member with his own Fender Precision bass. The bass that Simonon smashed in the photo had been newly bought in 1979. Simonon regretted destroying this instrument because it proved to be one of his best sounding ones. The very bass has become a relic and it now resides at the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. You can read the entire history of Simonon’s 11 basses (scroll down to Paul Simonon Bass Story 1976-2008 here ).

At any rate, Bonhams auction house is selling the original London Calling art work by Ray Lowry valued at $100,000 (Sale 16905 Lot 26), and two autographed photos valued at $500 and $300 (Sale 16905, Lot 293 & 294). Ray Lowry, unfortunately, passed away in 2008. After the dissolution of the Clash, by the way, Paul Simonon has turned to a career in painting.

Hawass, the Greatful Dead, Beyonce

Thursday, November 26th, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

In a recent biographical article on Zahi Hawass, we learn that the most powerful man in Egyptian archaeology attended a Grateful Dead concert at the pyramids during the mid-1970s, see Ian Parker, “The Pharaoh,” The New Yorker (Nov. 16, 2009), p. 52ff. A couple of months ago, I posted on the Pink Floyd concert in Pompeii (1971), pondering the connections between rock and archaeology. Parker’s reference to Hawass’ pyramids concert attendance made a nice match to the photo on the left, from a few days ago, when Hawass guided Beyonce at Giza. Beyonce’s “I Am…” tour has raised some controversy in the Islamic world, see Art Daily (Nov. 10, 2009). Although I used this news story as a conversation piece in my Islamic class, I will make no comments on the irony of this picture (the Egyptian cowboy archaeologist and the scarfed sex idol). Hawass spent a few years in Philadelphia as a grad student at Penn. His appreciation of American pop culture is not surprising, nor are his own super-star ambitions.

I will simply take a moment to remember the Grateful Dead concert, which took place in September 1978. The performance at the Giza Light and Sound theater was followed by three shows in Cairo. Interestingly enough, highlights of this Egyptian tour were released a year ago, see David Fricke, “The Dead Rock the Pyramids,” Rolling Stone (Oct. 16, 2008). The CD title, “Rocking the Cradle/Egypt 1978,” presumably refers to Egypt as the cradle of civilization. I am not a fan of the Grateful Dead, but I appreciate the inclusion of oud player Hamza El Din in their line up. El Din had appeared in the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, and in the 1980s/90s he taught ethnomusicology in various American universities. The 1978 Grateful Dead concert must be added to the saga of rock archaeology.