Metal Machine Music

Monday, April 27th, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

In 1975, Lou Reed released one of the most radical albums in rock history. Metal Machine Music consists of looping guitar feedback, orchestrated dissonance, 65 minutes of noise. Released a year after the pop-oriented Sally Can’t Dance, the album has puzzled historians. Was it a joke? was it a redemptive avant-garde gesture? did it fulfill an earlier record contract? However skeptical some critics may have been, this monumental double album had a huge influence. Not only did it invent New York’s Post-Punk “No Wave” movement but also a new rock genre known today as industrial music. It also aligned Punk with contemporary classical music, the rarefied mechanical universe of Ioannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. In an interview with Lester Bangs, Reed points out that he originally sought to release the album in RCA’s classical division.

In 2007, the German ensemble Zeitkratzer performed the piece with Lou Reed and released it on CD. See Pitchfork interview (Sept.17, 2007). Last Thursday, Reed performed Metal Machine Music once again at the Blender Theater in New York, with Sarth Calhoun and Ulrich Krieger (who first transcribed the work for Zeitkrzatzer). See review in New York Times (Apr. 25, 2009, p. C1)

It’s amazing to think that 34 years have passed since the album’s original release. Excluding Sonic Youth’s success, the dissonant New York scene of No Wave is completely unknown to the general public. The situation might be changing, however, through a bibliographic explosion. In 2008, Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth) and Byron Coley have published a documentary visual history, No Wave: Post-Punk Underground. New York. 1976-1980 (New York). Two other books were released in 2007,: Mark Masters, No Wave (London); Paula Court and Stuart Baker, New York Noise (London). A biography of Sonic Youth has also just been published: David Browne, Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth (New York, 2008). In so many words, the New York punk scene has found some solid scholarly footing in the last couple of years.

There have also been some serious attempts to document the visual tradition of punk rock. While attending the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meetings in Chicago (January 2008), I got a chance to see, Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll since 1967, an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art that tried to present rock’s visual tradition after 1967. I must admit that the exhibit was disappointing (for a variety of reasons that I won’t get into here) but at least it made me contemplate the difficulties of trying to display the connection between art and music. At least, it inspired me to design a class on Punk Aesthetics (which I doubt anyone would ever let me teach). For those that missed the show, the catalog is just as good, see Dominic Molon and Diedrich Diederichsen (Chicago, 2007).

Although not explicitly connected to Punk, a relevant show just opened in New York, believe it or not, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Pictures Generation 1974-1984 reflects on artists like Cindy Sherman that flourished at the hey day of Punk. Some of the artists were also part of the music scene. Robert Longo is a good example. He designed The Replacements’ album cover Tim (1985) and shot music videos for New Order and R.E.M. Robert Longo’s Men in Cities painting series (1979) stands out as the greatest visual statement of Post-Punk aesthetics with which I grew up (left). The Met show includes another work by Longo, a three-dimensional leaping man, American Soldier (1977). Holland Cotter uses Longo’s leaping metaphor in his review, “At the Met Baby Boomers Leap on Stage” (New York Times, Apr. 23, 2009). It’s unusual that this shows takes place at the Met, “a fusty backwater for contemporary art and an object of scorn in the art world” (Cotter). But the change is very much welcome. The Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the Guggenheim have become so annoying with their “contemporaneity” and steep admissions. The Met for me has become a default in the good old world of public service.

The Pictures Generation show at the Met runs parallel to a new “Generational” series at the New Museum. The Generational: Younger than Jesus surveys a new crop of artists born after 1976 (hence younger than Jesus when he was crucified). The title is so annoying. For Harold Cotter’s review of this show, see “Young Artists Caught in the Act” (New York Times, Apr. 9, 2009). The Generational series at the New Museum are trying to out-do the Whitney Biennial.

The object of this blog posting was to offer a general overview of recent phenomena in the historization of Punk. The bibliography is growing. Biographies, photographic archives, new performances, and museum exhibits entrench Punk deeper into the halls of academic legitimacy. Still, however, there is little on Punk Archaeology. If the reader had the slightest doubt that Punk has accumulated an institutional patina, consider the following. On November 24, 2008, Christie’s held its first Punk Rock Fine Art auction. You can see all the 236 lots (and respective prices) on Christie’s website here.

Finally, congratulations to Holland Cotter, who has won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. His reviews in the New York Times have been a guiding light.

For links and images, see copy of this posting at

Punk and Place

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

With Lux Interior’s death last week, I offered a short post on The Cramps’ concert at the California State Mental Hospital on our Punk Archaeology blog.  It got me thinking about the close relationship between punk music and place.  I haven’t thought systematically about it, but in fragments, as I tried to link it to the importance of place within archaeology.

Punk as much as any other music played with place.  In their efforts to defy social conventions and question the accepted practices of the music industry and bourgeois society, punk rockers challenged expectations with their concerts.  The engaged in theatrical, chaotic performances openly rejecting the polished and choreographed sets associated with pop music.  By rejecting the systematic in their performances, they embraced the spontaneous and contingent.

This is not to say, however, that their shows were accidental or random.  There was an aura of intentionality.  The Cramps’ show at a mental hospital was full of meaningful references ranging from the tradition of performing to shut in of various kinds to (as Kostis noted in his comment) Antonin Artaud’s Theater of the Absurd and Marquis de Sade’s famous efforts to direct plays while imprisoned at the hospital at Charenton (one could also note M. Foucault’s Madness and Civilization). The former evoked B.B. King’s great live album at the Cook Country Jail and Johnny Cash’s concerts at Folsom Prison and San Quentin (as well as a series of other well-known performances to inmates).  While these performances have been seen as acts of compassion by Cash and King, they also make explicit the link between the dire nature of their music and the dire state of the inmates.  In fact, the power of these shows derives, in part, from the authenticity of the performances.  The inmates as audience have actually shared the tortured stories of the performers.  It speaks of an intimacy that is absent from shows where the audience, the musician, and the music dwell separately from one another. 

A concert at a mental hospital depends upon the understood link between the audience and the music established by folks like King and Cash, but turns it on its head.  The Cramps, with their theatrical stage shows, absurdist lyrics, and chaotic, raucous sound, depend upon the place to define their music.  They play the music of the insane.

“And we drove 3,000 miles to play for you people… And somebody told me that you people are crazy, but I’m not so sure about that. You seem to be alright to me.”

The playfulness with place has deep roots in the punk movement.  The moniker “garage rock” locates the entire genre of music in the informal and marginal space of the garage. The garage is also a symbol of suburbia and the dislocation of domestic space from the place of work and the urban center .  When punk bands played CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City (the name itself is another play on place) in New York, the garage band sound made explicit their critique of bourgeois values; when the suburbia came to the city, they presented not the well-ordered, picket-fence houses, but a sonic dystopia.

As I posted earlier, punk rock played with time by evoking, manipulating, and mocking nostalgic themes in American music.  The Cramps dedicated their album A Date with Elvis to the late 50s/early 60s rocker Ricky Nelson.  They also drew heavily from the informal “low-fi” sound ironically insisting on a kind of musical authenticity to underpin their blatantly silly lyrics and ridiculous stage shows. Their songs show strong influences of both rockabilly and surf rock.  The Cramps’ sound formed the foundation for later bands like The White Stripes or The Black Keys or Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion who ironically and playfully employed the authenticity of low-fi sound to highly textured, remixed, and produced albums.  

Time and space remain central archaeological concerns.  Punk rock willingness to play with nostalgia and authenticity and use place as a form of social and musical critique provides foundations for a far more radical appreciation of archaeological contexts than traditional chronological or functional analyses allow.

Punk in Context

Friday, February 6th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

R.I.P Lux Interior.  The Cramps concert at the California State Mental Hospital is a landmark in Punk Archaeology.

Here’s a link that works still.

Punk, Nostalgia, and the Archaeology of Musical Utopia

Friday, January 23rd, 2009 by Bill Caraher

Last week, Kostis Kourelis initiated a collaborative project designed to explore the concept, experience, and potential of punk archaeology.  As we had bantered about this very topic over the space of our two blogs, he invited me to contribute.  The format is completely experimental and part of a greater goal to find those points of contact between intellectual life and scholarly life.

My first contribution to this project is completely in the spirit of punk rock.  It’s raw, garage-band quality thought and seeks to question the relationship between nostalgia, archaeology, and the punk aesthetic:

One thing the Kostis’ post on the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” reminded me of was the nostalgic tone to so much popular music.  This is not exclusive to the 1960s British invasion bands, nor to punk rockers, of course, but it does intersect with a key characteristic of an archaeological preoccupation with the past.  Archaeologists are in some ways nostalgic (in the same way that they are often secretly utopian in aspiration).  We hope that excavating the past we can reveal the deeper significance or truth in some fragment of the contemporary world.  The fragments of the past become recontextualized in within our contemporary sensibilities — reassembled and redeployed to capture a kind seemingly authentic past full of utopian innocence and beauty.

The rediscovery of the American blues, whether by the 1960s British pop music scene or the later 1960s American folk rock scene seems to capture a similar craving for authenticity, a desire both to appropriate a past reality and recreate it in the present as a utopian critique of the plastic, mass-produced, insincere present.  The mid-1960s blues revival craved this authenticity, and in this was both genuine and, to a certain extent, naive.  (And in some way, this is what made the intersection between these two groups so potent.  Here I’d refer a reader to Sonny Boy Williamson’s date with the Animals or, more haunting still, Alan Wilson’s (of Canned Heat) work with Son House in the mid 1960s).  It’s possible at times to detect (over the ironic, post-everything din) the quest for a kind of primordial authenticity still echoes in the blues inspire guitar rock of the White Stripes (see their version of “Death Letter “from De Stijl) or the Black Keys.

Punk rock’s engagement with the archaeological stratigraphy of music reveals a more post-modern disposition.  While on the one hand, the punk movement continued to champion a kind of a kind of musical authenticity.  The low-fi, garage band postures and sound spoke to a more basic and visceral kind of musical experience.  “Always leave them wanting less.”  On the other hand, when punk musicians dug through the stratigraphy of past music and excavated classic pop songs from just a generation earlier, they regarded them with a new spirit of ironic detachment.  These songs no longer deserved the kind of authentic (re)productions embraced by the blues revival but a new reading that revealed by the potent gaze of the punk rocker.  The very name of the iconic early punk band, The Velvet Underground, invokes the seedy underbelly of the domesticated suburban life in the same spirit that the Germs raucous versions of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round” or Johnny Thunders version of The Commodores (and perhaps as significantly the Dave Clark Five) “Do you love me?”

I am not positive how this relates to archaeology, but in the spirit of garage band ramblings, I offer this:  The most recent trends in archaeology have pulled back from romantic dalliances with the idealized symbols of pure “Classical” past (think: alabaster temples and philosopher-filled stoas) and dedicated themselves to uncovering and subverting such idealized symbols through the study of the more mundane objects and spaces.  Over the last several decades serious research has recovered the significance of domestic structures, rural installations, and coarse and utilitarian pottery.  By appropriating the mantle and methods of Classical archaeology and its associations with utopian visions of the past, a new Mediterranean archaeology recontextualizes the research of a generations of scholars romanced by the illusory notions of authenticity offered by monumental, urban, elite architecture, sculpture, and ceramics.  The Punk Archaeologist shifts the attention from such elaborate acts of nostalgic commemoration toward a sustained and subversive effort to appropriate the notion of the Classical in the spirit of social and political critique.  The goal is less to preserve the Classical world, than to use it as weapon against itself.

House of the Rising Sun

Thursday, January 1st, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

The House of the Rising Sun is one of the best known rock songs, a landmark across many genres: American blues and folk, the British Invasion, garage rock and even punk. Its origins are complicated and contested; people still argue whether it was Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, or The Animals who ushered the song into the popular mainstream. It probably dates to 18th-century American folk tradition but entered ethnographic fact on September 15, 1937, when folklorist Alan Lomax taped a 16-year-old miner’s daughter, Georgia Turner, performing the song in Middlesborough, Kentucky. Since then, many have rendered their own versions, from Roy Acuff (1937), Woody Guthrie (1941), Lead Belly (1948), Glenn Yarbrough (1957), to Bob Dylan (1961). The song, however, did not become a classic until 1964, when the The Animals from Newcastle, Britain made it into a number one hit.

The song refers to a New Orleans house of prostitution with a contested archaeological history. Some claim that 826-830 Louis Street is the original location of the house, originating from the name Marianne LeSoliel Levant, the brothel’s Madam from 1862 to 1874. There is no proof of this lineage. An 1838 newspaper mentions a Rising Sun coffee house on Decatur Street, and a Rising Sun hotel stood on Conti Street before it burned down in 1822. The latter site was the subject of a 2004 excavation by Shannon Lee Dawdy, now assistant professor of archaeology at the University of Chicago. Dawdy could not conclusively prove whether this was the famous House of the Rising Sun. For Dawdy’s fascinating work after Katrina, see John Schwarts, “Shannon Lee Dawdy: Archaeologist in New Orleans Finds a Way to Help the Living,” New York Times (Jan. 3, 2006).

More interesting than the song’s real archaeology is its idealized archaeological projection. The Animals performed their number one hit in the 1965 music film Pop Gear, surrounded by a fantasized archaeological cage, stripped down in groovy mid-modern minimalism. The clip (seen here) is absolutely stunning. The artistic level of its production is so superior that it makes one wonder what happened to the integration between popular music and the visual arts.

The set design is based on an Ionic colonnade built by purely white thin boards through which The Animals circumnavigate. A yellow wall (matching the band’s shirts, beneath their 4-button suits) forms the background and receives both the white thin columns and their intense gray shadows. I’ve tried to capture the dynamism of this imagined House of the Rising Sun in a sketch at the beginning, but much of the energy of the video comes from the movement of the mobile musicians (Burdon, Valentine, Chandler) around the stationary musicians (Gallagher, Steel), the close ups on Burdon, and the movement of the camera behind the colonnade providing a peculiar (both thin and thick) sense of depth. The set reconfigures the porch of southern domestic architecture, its classical vocabulary, as well as its papery thinness. The composition, however, is entirely modernist with Cubist composition, Constructivist combinations and an Expressionist sense of light.

The L-shaped elements may also remind us of the hang-man games we played as children and, thus, suggest connotations of lynching. Without a doubt, The Animals were aware of Billy Holiday’s Strange Fruit. A fascinating song in its own right,Strange Fruit was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish school teacher from the Bronx. Meeropol cited Lawrence Beitler’s graphic 1933 photograph (click here) as inspiration for the lyrics, which he published in a school-teacher union magazine in 1936. Holiday performed the song at the first integrated night club in Greenwich Village in 1939. But this is only a slight, if not sublimated reading.

Overall, The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun is pure form. Like the British Invasion in general, the clean-cut gentlemen from Newcastle distilled the southern blues, and repackaged them with a sleek force that could bring down the walls. Cleaned up, the House of the Rising Sun stops being an item of ethnographic “authenticity” and becomes pure libidinal force. Much more than the legendary Beatles, Eric Burdon and The Animals offer the building blocks of a raw subversiveness that leads straight to The Clash. One can clearly see that the architectural style of Deconstructivism begins in 1965. Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, Daniel Liebeskind and other paper-thin superstars suddenly seem derivative. Are The Animals so important? I hope to study more Pop Gear clips and see how other peer groups contributed to punk archaeology. This includes performances by Herman’s Hermits, The Four Pennies, Matt Monroe, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas and other slightly forgotten pioneers of what we now group under the category of garage rock.

I must thank my 10-year-old nephew Sean Gray for introducing me to Pop Gearinadvertently. Grandparents Terry and Brenda Gray got Sean a guitar for his birthday in July. During the last few months, Sean has become a studious guitar player, giving his first public recital in Albuquerque, of the House of the Rising Sun. He emailed The Animals video to his uncle and aunt, in case they had never heard of the song before. Since I also got a guitar last Christmas (thanks to Terry and Brenda), I have taken up the challenge of the Rising Sun. Sean is much better than me, but Popi is enjoying the finger picking across the classic Am, C, D, F and E7th chords.

Origins 1901

Monday, November 10th, 2008 by Kostis Kourelis

Generation X, which just came of Presidential age on November 4th, is perhaps the most archaeological generation in American history. From the perspective of a personal narrative, I’ve been exploring the thesis of Punk Archaeology (see other postings under this heading). Leaving aside the solipsism of my own decade (80s), I would like to note a chapter in American history that prefigures rock ‘n roll altogether. I think I’ve discovered the earliest intersection between archaeology and American popular music, namely Charles Peabody’s excavations in Coahoma County, Mississippi in 1901. Peabody developed an interest on the music of his workmen. Three decades before the ground-breaking musicological fieldwork of John and Alan Lomax, the Delta blues were discovered in the collaborative toils of excavation.

Harvard archaeologist Charles Peabody arrived at Coahoma County on May 11, 1901 and conducted a seven-week excavation season at the Dorr Plantation in Clarksdale and the Edwards Plantation in Oliver. The excavations focused on mounds of the Choctaw people. The work was made strenuous by the damp black soil of the Mississippi River. The team of hired workers, (a group of 9-15 people) motivated their labor by song. Their repetitive and mesmerizing chants caught the director’s attention. Peabody was transformed by what he had heard. Before even processing his own excavation finds, he published “Notes on Negro Music,” in the Journal of American Folk Lore 16 (July-September 1903), pp. 148-152. He was the first academic to discover the blues, hoping for their “future study and classification.” The archaeological publication appeared later, “Exploration of Mounds, Coahoma County, Mississippi,” Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology vol. 2, no. 2 (Cambridge, Mass, June 1904).

Those readers who have an appreciation of the excavation processes will enjoy Peabody’s description of vertical descent and musical stratigraphy: “On their beginning a trench at the surface the woods for a day would echo their yelling with faithfulness. The next day or two these artists, being, like the Bayreuth orchestra, sunk out of sight, there would arise from behind the dump heap a not unwholesome μυγμός as of the quiescent Furies.” (p. 148)

It is noteworthy also to note how Peabody perceived his work as different from the establishment of classical archaeology. If we browse through a 1905 issue of theAmerican Journal of Archaeology, we find articles on Eleusinian inscriptions, on a signed amphora at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, on a terra-cotta figurine at the Cincinnati Art Museum, on the gates of Dimytrias and on stoas in Ancient Corinth. Within this overwhelmingly classical setting, Charles Peabody summarized archaeological activities in North America (including his own project in Mississippi). His implicit defensiveness against classical archaeology is suggested in the opening paragraph and helps us comprehend his receptiveness of the blues.

“A striking difference in the importance of archaeology in relation to other sciences is to be seen on comparing work undertaken in its name in the so-called classical lands with that in America. In the former case archaeology is a more or less independent study… In the western hemisphere, however, archaeology is but one of the sciences grouped under anthropology: ethnology, ethnograpy, folk-lore, and somatology are all nearly equally with archaeology considered in research and report while geology, paleontology, and even meteorology are drawn upon in corroborating or limiting suggestions.” Charles Peabody, “American Archaeology during the Years 1900-1905: A Summary,” AJA 9:2 (April-June 1905), pp. 182-196. An open-ended discipline was, thus, necessary to appreciate the music of its laborers. A classical archaeologist would have never received the blues.

I became aware of Charles Peabody while reading a new book, Ted Gioia, Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music(New York, 2008), pp. 20-22. It was reviewed in the Economist (of all places) and I checked it out (most fittingly) from the public library. A few weeks ago, Bill Caraher got me thinking about the blues from his series on Archaeological Dreams, seeBlindness, Dreams and Relics, (Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, Oct. 29, 2008). On the guitar playing front, I’ve been enduring a hiatus thanks to a slight tendonitis on the left hand (home improvement injury). But the right hand is still good, so I’m thinking about focusing on some finger-picking techniques. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. I’m tempted by the Merle Travis finger style. Mark D. Hanson’s The Art of Contemporary Travis Picking seems to be highly recommended.

Getting back on the topic of Punk Archaeology, I have one more comment to make. If one were to write a book about this subject, Charles Peabody would clearly be the first chapter. For a second chapter, I think one would have to look into the 1930s and WPA excavations. One interesting figure might be John B. Elliott working in Kentucky. Did he intersect with bluegrass? I should also divulge the knowledge that my own mentor, Cecil L. Striker, was a devoted scholar of bluegrass before turning his attention to medieval archaeology. Few people know that Striker was a highly accomplished professional jazz guitarist at Oberlin College.

Lots of new books have appeared on the New Deal. Nick Taylor’s, American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work (New York, 2008) includes a chapter on Kentucky archaeology. There’s also a new biography of Roosevelt with a wonderful title, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (New York, 2008) by H. W. Brands. Given the economic downturns and the election of Barack Obama, books on Roosevelt (and Lincoln) will abound in 2009. See, for instance, Paul Krugman editorial “Franklin Delano Obama?” New York Times (Nov. 10, 2008). Isn’t it amazing that Krugman won a Nobel prize this year?

Athens Street Art

Monday, October 13th, 2008 by Kostis Kourelis

Graffiti Artists Leave Their Mark on Athens“on ABC Australia discussed the rise of graffiti on the archaeological sites of Athens. I thank Tim Gregory who sent this link to Bill Caraher who sent it to me. Indeed, walking through the streets of Athens in 2007, I first noticed the explosion of Greek street art. The Plaka especially is saturated. In an earlier posting, I explored Anastasios Orlandos’ act of resistance by transcribing graffiti from the Parthenon during the German Occupation, seeWriting off the Wall: Transcription as Resistance. I think that graffiti has not been seriously discussed in relation to Greek archaeology. How could Greeks archaeologists categorically condemn graffiti but, at the same time, celebrate Lord Byron’s scratchings on the Temple of Zeus at Sounion? As an archaeologist of post-classical Greece, I find myself closer to the side of the vandals “defacing” the ancient temples than the purists. One of my favorite archaeological illustrations is a drawing showing a tapestry of graffiti at Ramnous; see Ο δήμος της Ραμνούς, vol. 1 , Τοπογραφικά (Athens, 1999), p. 270. Vasileios Petrakos is one of few Greek archaeologists to publish such defacement in a site monograph. My love of graffiti should not be dismissed at face value on account of my period interests (Byzantine over Classical). We tend to associate spolia, reuse and appropriation with the Late Roman and Byzantine periods. Classical Athenians, however, did a fair share of it, too. For details, you must ask my wife, Celina Gray, who labors over reuse in Athenian cemeteries. For my favorite article on Late Antique spolia, I send you to Joseph Alchermes, “Spolia in Roman Cities of the Late Empire: Legislative Rationales and Architectural Reuse,”Dumbarton Oaks Papers 48 (1994), pp. 167-178.

In this posting, I wish to discuss neither the archaeology of graffititi nor the graffiti of archaeological sites. Rather, I want to highlight the burgeoning scene of Greek street art in a positive manner. Its cultural relevance should be taken seriously. It is Greece’s greatest public art and one of the few instances of constructive civil disobedience. I will start with a simple question, which is more than rhetorical. Is modern graffiti inferior to classical art? Of course, classical art is more important, but can we be so sure? One way to test the relative relevance of disparate art forms is to gauge contemporary interests. Although my methodology is by no means scientific, I decided to test cultural value in my local Border’s bookstore by conducting a simple statistical study. So, on my way back from work last Tuesday, I stopped at Border’s at New London’s Crystal Mall. The store contains a modest art selection, covering 18 shelves, or the equivalent of 54 linear feet of shelf space. Scanning carefully all the shelves, I was surprised to find absolutely NO books on ancient art. By the way, my job at Connecticut College is teaching ancient and medieval art (incidentally as Joe Alchermes’ sabbatical replacement); my informal survey obviously devastated my sense of academic value. I was disheartened to see that antiquity was found sparingly only in a few general books. I concluded that, similarly, my ancient survey will be the only exposure that my students will ever have to this material. At Border’s, a little more than 2 linear feet were devoted to street art, that is 4% of the total shelf space. Thus, we can conclude that for a general American audience, street art is infinitely more important than ancient art. Modern Greek graffiti, moreover, is highly respected within those publications. An excerpt from Nicholas Ganz’s, Graffiti World: Street Art from Five Continents (New York, 2004), pp. 128, 162-163, best summarizes the Greek scene:

“Greece and its local activists were thrust into the limelight through theChromopolis project. Concentrated in Athens and Thessaloniki, the movement is enjoying a boom, particularly in pieces. Over the fast few years, pioneers such as Bizare or Woozy have continued to make their mark, and new artists are emerging, often working with stencils or characters.” Have the archaeologists quoted in ABC missed the movement altogether? Most likely. Reading the official condemnation of graffiti might give us the impression that street art is strictly an underground subculture. This is another misrepresentation. Preparing for the 2004 Athens Olympics, the Ministry of Culture went hip-hop by sponsoring Chromopolis, a project organized by graffiti magazine Carpe Diem. In the summer of 2002, Greece invited 16 internationally acclaimed graffiti artists, including OsGemeos, Besok, Codeak, Bizare, Mark1, and Loomit. The artists created large scale compositions at 10 sites (image above). The works were proudly included in Greece’s official Cultural Olympiad and elevated graffiti with venues such as the archaeology of Minoan and Mycenaean food at Birmingham, or a Post-Byzantine art exhibit in New York.

Although by no means would I promote vandalizing archaeological sites, the recent growth in archaeological graffiti seems to fit a larger pattern, the explosion and international prestige of Greek street art. In the American context, it would be difficult to ignore the prestige of street artists like Shepard Fairey, who designed one of the most desirable images for Barak Obama’s presidential campaign; see my posting “Punk Archaeology: Glue.” The recent press on Fairey is more concerned about his mainstream status; see Melena Rizik, “Closer to Mainstream; Still a Bit Rebelious,”(NYT, Oct. 1, 2008). The elusive Bansky also seems to have made a surprise installation in SoHo, and the press went wild, see David Itzkoff “A Could-Be Bansky Appears on a SoHo Wall” (NYT, Oct. 1, 2008). I fall in the group of people who worship those idolatrous artists. And judging from the 4% coverage at Border’s, I’m not alone.

The fans of Greek street art are harder to find. But I’m clearly not the only archaeologist of Greece to see cultural vitality in modern Greece beyond the national love of the Parthenon. Guy Sanders, Jan Sanders and Petros Sandamouris administer a wonderful Facebook Group, “Alternative Athens: Beyond Your Comfort Zone.” It’s defined as follows: “Εκτός των συνόρων: how can you find a real Athens beyond your hotel or institution or group? A member of one Athens based institution has likened their closed community to a huge sow to which its piglets return and suckle year after year. How do we find out about the life beyond our Comfort Zone? This group is intended to be a place where venues outside the bubble are shared and evaluated.” Some of the Group members (Jess Hackman, Eva Akashi, Sara Lima, Isabela Sanders) have been photographing Athenian street art and adding it to the communal images. What we need now is a systematic survey, the archaeology of Athenian street art, the mapping of Greece’s newest masterpieces. The Wooster Collective is such an organized venture documenting street art globally. I’m waiting for the Essential City Guide to Athens!!!! I had started photographing street art in Philadelphia, but that was a few years ago. One of my objectives had been to record locations through time and show the temporal nature (both deterioration and addition) of this art form. The survey of Greek graffiti must take inspiration from the Geocaching craze, a hobby that unites GPS, Google Earth and treasure hunting. Deb and Colin Stewart introduced me to this and I look forward to joining. A search under Athens, Greece, produced 91 caches in Athens alone. What are we waiting for?

People catalogue all kinds of things. My dear friend jules, for instance, catalogues built-in ashtrays. Although she doesn’t see it archaeologically, she is creating the only existing database of this extinct socio-type. In fact, if you have more instances, send them to me, and I’ll send them to BUILT-IN-ASHTRAYS. Needless to say, this is the pet project of a reformed smoker and quite the social thinker.

Curious about street art bibliography? The least that I can do is share what I found at Border’s in a measly New London mall. You can map that, too; click here. In the spirit of free art, I bought nothing but browsed to my heart’s content. In browsing order: Tristan Manco, Street Sketchbook: Inside the Journals of International Street and Graffiti Artists (San Francisco, 2007); Josh J. MacPhee, Stencil Pirates: A Global Study of the Street Stencil (Brooklyn, 2004); Roger Gastman, Caleb Neelon, and Anthony Smyrski, Street World: Urban Art and Culture from Five Continents (New York, 2007); Nicholas Ganz, Graffiti World: Street Art from Five Continents (New York, 2004); Eleanor Mathieson (ed.) and Xavier A. Tapies, Street Art and the War on Terror: How the World’s Best Graffit Artists Said No to the Iraq War (London, 2007); Stephen Powers, The Art of Getting Over: Graffit at the Millenium (New York, 1999), Steve Grody, Graffiti L.A.: Street Styles and Art (New York, 2007); Ryo Sanada, Suridh Hassan, Rackgaki: Japanese Graffiti (London, 2007); Jon Naar, The Birth of Graffiti (Munich, 2007); Bansky, Wall and Piece (London, 2007).


Goodbye AC/DC

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008 by Kostis Kourelis

The Australian band AC/DC had fans across the musical spectrum, including my own adolescent admiration. It used to be that punk and heavy metal occupied two irreconcilable positions in rock, although, in the 1990s, hybrid genres like thrash metal dissolved the great divide. AC/DC had an incredible ability to stand on a tight rope between a most conservative (classic rock) and a most radical (punk, heavy metal) audience. I was reminded of this fact last week, while tuning into my satellite radio station devoted to Punk (Sirius 29) and confronting the station’s take over by AC/DC. Although I occasionally tune in, I had always been a little ambivalent about Sirius’ marketing definition of punk. My sense of the genre fits more comfortably somewhere between Little Stevens’ Underground Garage (Sirius 25), Left of Center (Sirius 26) and First Wave (Sirius 22). The occasional dose of Back in Black or Hell’s Bells is good for the soul, but the AC/DC take-over is unfortunate and, as it turns out, quite insidious. 

Unfortunately, my AC/DC nostalgic listening must stop not because they are loud and immature but because they are old, desperate and they’ve just sold out big time. Desperado classic rockers like the Eagles and Journey are by definition exhausted, a lazy conservative brand befitting Wal-Mart, who has possessed exclusive distribution rights on their records. AC/DC has joined the ranks of the Wal-Mart musical monopoly, see Robert Lane, “Wal-Mart wins Deal on Album and Game,” New York Times (Sept. 30, 2008) p. E1. AC/DC has signed a contract to release their new album exclusively through the giant retailer. It gets worse. MTV has partnered along in producing an AC/DC version of their popular Rock Band video game to be sold exclusively through Wal-Mart, as well. The Wal-Mart family wasn’t able to buyThomas Eakins’ Gross Clinic, but at least they got the little short-wearing rockers.

Unfortunately, my AC/DC nostalgic listening must stop not because they are loud and immature but because they are old, desperate and they’ve just sold out big time. Desperado classic rockers like the Eagles and Journey are by definition exhausted, a lazy conservative brand befitting Wal-Mart, who has possessed exclusive distribution rights on their records. AC/DC has joined the ranks of the Wal-Mart musical monopoly, see Robert Lane, “Wal-Mart wins Deal on Album and Game,” New York Times (Sept. 30, 2008) p. E1. AC/DC has signed a contract to release their new album exclusively through the giant retailer. It gets worse. MTV has partnered along in producing an AC/DC version of their popular Rock Band video game to be sold exclusively through Wal-Mart, as well. The Wal-Mart family wasn’t able to buyThomas Eakins’ Gross Clinic, but at least they got the little short-wearing rockers.

Unfortunately, my AC/DC nostalgic listening must stop not because they are loud and immature but because they are old, desperate and they’ve just sold out big time. Desperado classic rockers like the Eagles and Journey are by definition exhausted, a lazy conservative brand befitting Wal-Mart, who has possessed exclusive distribution rights on their records. AC/DC has joined the ranks of the Wal-Mart musical monopoly, see Robert Lane, “Wal-Mart wins Deal on Album and Game,” New York Times (Sept. 30, 2008) p. E1. AC/DC has signed a contract to release their new album exclusively through the giant retailer. It gets worse. MTV has partnered along in producing an AC/DC version of their popular Rock Band video game to be sold exclusively through Wal-Mart, as well. The Wal-Mart family wasn’t able to buyThomas Eakins’ Gross Clinic, but at least they got the little short-wearing rockers.

Goodbye AC/DC. I am sad to see one of the greatest living proponents of male adolescence join the ranks of the Eagles and Journey. On its last tour the band featured its Malcom and Angus Young, still wearing shorts in his 50s. Founded in 1973, AC/DC has gotten old as have its listeners, who have pushed adolescence into an older age. I think that all of Wal-Mart’s AC/DC products should be accompanied by a complementary copy of Gary Cross,’s Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity (New York, 2008). Cross is a culturla historian at Penn State and his readings of contemporary manhood are great; see interview on Radio Times (NPR, Sept. 30, 2008). All news from the rock world are not negative. It has just been announced that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band will entertain the half-time show of Super Bowl XLII in Tampa, Florida, February 1, 2009. Truth be told, as a youngster I hated Bruce Springsteen. I saw him as a commercial stadium rock musician; these were the days of Born in the U.S.A. (2004). Almost a decade later, I listened to Nebraska (1982) and realized how wrong I had been; Springsteen is in the same league as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joe Strummer and the Minutemen. These days, he has shown the world what it means to age gracefully. Maturity has not left us entirely; some acts cannot be monopolized. The revolution will not be merchandized.

Philly T-Shirts

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008 by Kostis Kourelis


In an earlier posting, I discussed Street Art as urban vernacular. While having some delicious split pea soup for lunch, I watched Martha Stewart, mostly because nothing good is on TV at noon. This week, Martha is featuring various crafts, and today she hosted “crafter Stacy Monakey,” whom she thanks “for sharing this fun and creative craft.” Monakey and her husband, Mark Lyon, run1girl1boy, a T-shirt company for children and toddlers. Watching Monakey’s demeanor on the show, I detected a counter-cultural mode, maybe even a liberal-arts college background much different from Martha’s domesticly neurotic universe. I was happy to discover that Monakey is a Philadelphia hipster and a graduate of Tyler. This confirmed the visual affinities I suspected (Space 1026, etc.)

Martha doesn’t seem to be the only one that is catching up with the art world. Last month, the GAP produced a series of T-shirts designed by 12 artists from the 2008 Whitney Biennial. My personal favorite was Hanna Liden’s design consisting of a diagrammatic sparrow (bottom right). Liden is a Swedish-American photographer and recent graduate from Parsons. Her surreal photographs are much less abstract than her GAP T-shirt, which suggests other vernacular influences (like street art). Both Martha Stewart and the GAP are catching up on an underground art-craft culture modestly peculating in the sewing machines of urban hipsters, such as the makers of R.E. Load Bags in Philadelphia. What might this all mean in terms of counter-culture bleeding into corporate-culture? I’d rather not speculate, but simply affirm Kerry James Marshall’s ambigu0us “Everything will be all right, I just know it will,” displayed on his GAP T-shirt (top right).

And I can’t help but be supportive of all the craft initiatives, like Crafty Bastards, Trenton Avenue Arts Fair, Pile of Craft, which are listed in 1girl1boy’s Myspace page. What children’s clothing company serenades with “Have Love Will Travel” by the Sonics? Drool, Martha, drool!

After lunch, I walked over to my 40th-Street post office. Sitting on the teller’s desk, I saw a beautiful new stamp issue, commemorating Charles and Ray Eames. The series was just released yesterday (June 17, 2008) in San Diego. Come to think of it, the Eames’s are the graphic grandparents of street art aesthetics, particularly their designs for children: Molded Plywood Animals (1945), The Toy (1951), House of Cards (1952), The Little Toy (1952), the film , Giant House of Cards (1953) , and the filmsParade, or Here They Come Down the Street (1952), andToccata for Toy Trains (1953). The U.S. Post Office has produced the most stunning set of stamps, making their 2 cents postage increase fully acceptable. Like the art for children, street art (and its T’s) must elicit quick and memorable experiences, but must also be twisted enough to allow room for fantasy. Children’s fantasy is quite different from consumer fantasy in that it relishes contradiction. Consumer art (the kind that Martha commonly endorses) must be non-confrontational, nice, therapeutic, another orderly space to escape the life’s tensions. The art of children, the Eames’s, street stickers, and Philadelphia hipsters does not brush over. I don’t want to sound like a snob, but the Frankfurt School’s critique of popular culture is absolutely relevant. See Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York, 1972). Too bad the Frankfurt School condemned jazz, and by extension all that Philadelphia is about.

What makes Philadelphia so great for me can be summarized in the following two experiences: 1) The postal worker who helped me at the counter already knew who the Eames were. Her only misconception had been that they were brothers, since Ray is more of a man’s name. She was surprised how popular the stamps had been after their first day of issue. After the P.O., I walked over to the Metropolitan Bakery to get a fresh loaf of bread, and a young hipster working the counter saw the stamps through the translucent envelope. “Wow!” he cried out, “what is that?” So I showed him the stamps, leading to a short discussion on design.

Philadelphia’s visual literacy does not surprise me, nor do I think it’s simply a result of prosperity. Rather, it’s a magic combination of low and high, life and education, institutions and the street. Artists like The Roots, or King Britt (and old high-school friend) , only make sense in Philadelphia. I’m not sure if there is a Philadelphia School (like the Philadelphia sound of the 1960s and 1970s), but there’s certainly a Philadelphia vibe. Good for you, Martha, for tapping into it.

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had an interesting article on a vintage T-shirt company called Destee Nation. I thank Kat Lewis for this tip. This Seattle company sells “real shirts from real places,” T-shirts from independent stores, the type that was vibrant as late as the 1970s and 1980s, but is now more difficult to find. These places are not the usual replica of historical brands (like CBGBs) but actual places. “Destee Nation is not selling nostalgia or hipster kitsch but romance — the romance of the American small business, the neighborhood diner, the old bar, the mom-and-pop shop that has managed to linger into the era of big-box chains.” Although an interesting idea, the company’s ultimate audience are posers shopping at Nordstrom’s and not quite the “been there done that, got the T-shirt” audience. That being said, the graphics are very good and certainly beat the awful pseudo-reality prints from the big sellers, like American Eagle or Old Navy. If the business model works, what Destee Nation will achieve is the distribution of home-grown design to a general audience starving for the types of experience limited to places like Seattle or Philadelphia. The company’s website, moreover, makes the connection between T-shirt logo and commemorated independent business. Plus, there is a blog tracking expeditions in search for cool logos from small places.



Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008 by Kostis Kourelis

Street art has been a vibrant form of the urban underground for the last decade. Back in the 1990s, I began photographing such ephemeral installations throughout Philadelphia, returning even to trace the effects of deterioration or intentional erasure. This documentation, obviously, satisfied my archaeological sensibilities but, more importantly, got me to seriously think about medieval epigraphy and graffiti, a genre that is rarely considered as protest. Interestingly enough, we rarely imagine medieval men and women subverting public space through writing or scratching; we rarely think of them outside the modes of religious expression. Michael Camille’s sign typology–protection, power, publicity, memory, location, public fantasy–does not include political subversion (“Signs on Medieval Street Corners,” in Die Strasse, ed. J. Gerhard, Vienna, 2001, pp. 91-118). I have a suspicion that some Byzantine inscriptions served a subversive role, an idea based on prison graffiti from Corinth, as well as a series of proto-cartographic scratches.

Philadelphia street art (clearly defined as post-graffiti) boomed when I was a graduate student in AAMW (Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World) . Photographing this vernacular art while studying vernacular architecture gave me an excuse for meaningful procrastination. The discovery of street art, moreover, introduced me to the Space 1026 collaborative, which is responsible for producing some of the best Philadelphia street art. One day, I even stepped up the stairs of 1026 Arch Street, met Ben Woodward, explained my project and bought one of his prints, the barking dog with the word LOST. The print was inexpensive enough ($10) that I also bought a copy for my god-son, whom I’ve been intentionally trying to subvert through skate boards, CDs, etc. So a LOST print now hangs in a teenager’s room in Überlingen, Germany, mind you, not glued in the streets but properly framed and hung).

On April 18, I returned to my alma mater and gave a lecture on Byzantium, Modernity and the American School at AAMW’s Archaeology Lunch series. It was a wonderful event in its own right and quite emotional; my last involvement with AAMW was 5 years ago, scrambling to complete my thesis. In my last trip, spring had just began in Philadelphia, offering great opportunities for walking the streets. Although the visit was short and the wanderings even shorter, one image kept creeping up, the sticker you see above. It’s a small red monochrome print juxtaposing a simple figurative image of a small mouse and the word GLUE. The print is wheat-pasted on a street pole near 44th and Pine Streets. In fine Pop Art form, text and image are congruous and incongruous. The subject matter itself is so appropriately regional to Philadelphia’s domestic life, punctuated by the ever-present mouse problem creeping through every row-house. I cannot even begin to list the Philadelphia mouse stories. Sadly enough, mice was the subject of the last conversation I had with my father before he passed away (unexpectedly from a heart-attack), and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Another memorable incident is returning from a trip to Greece and finding a mouse strung around the strings under my mother’s sewing machine (she was a seamstress). The poor baby-mouse had spun itself into its own death. We were gone long enough that the bodily deterioration was complete and what confronted us was a beautifully textiled flat object.

I find GLUE to be such a thought-provoking piece beyond the vernacular associations to West Philadelphia life. I will spare you of my own multiple readings. Flat as it may be, GLUE reverberates with so many references, including images from Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous “Perfect Moment” show (1988) at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art (which, back then, was housed in Meyerson Hall). Most obviously, GLUE is about prey and preyed, animals and humans, wild and domestic, but also about art process and meaning (the piece itself is literally “glued” on a post). Having just heard a fantastic Studio 360 episode, I cannot fail to see connections with Abu Ghraib as well. Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure (2008) just out in theaters and Stephen S. Eisenman’s The Abu Ghraib Effect (London, 2007) are high on my list–Eisenman teaches Art History at Northwestern and he is the editor of Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History (3rd ed., 2007); I received a review copy of this textbook and could not put it down . I have no idea who produced GLUE, but I thank them for articulating so many subterranean strata with economical eloquence.

Whether coming out of punk rock, skate-boarding, or both, the aesthetics of street art have reached national exposure in the last few months. One of its most celebrated practitioners, Shepard Fairey, has donated a portrait to the Barak Obama campaign. Fairey’s CHANGE is sadly SOLD OUT, but you can read more about it in Rob Walker’s, “The Art of Politics” (NYT Magazine, April 13, 2008, p. 27). Fairey was born in South Carolina (which adds another bizarre geographic thread) and became famous through his OBEY THE GIANT signs. Even if you have never heard of Fairey’s name, you have probably seen his work; this is one of the beauties of a genre that is (partially) anonymous but (thoroughly) pervasive. A few years ago, street art was an underground phenomenon integrally connected to other subversive urban grass routes movements. At this point, street art has entered both mainstream political arena and popular culture; Fairey, for instance, has designed the cover of a greatest hits CD for Led Zeppelin. Another artist, Banksy, is equally unavoidable. Last summer, I was so happy to find a copy of his Wall and Piece (Phaidon, 2007) at Barnes and Noble (Rittenhouse Square) to give to my godson when I visited him in Greece . When I walked into my godson’s room in Athens, I saw the very same Bansky book in his library; the book had already been translated into Greek (now, that is globalization). I ended up lugging the (ungiven) gift all the way back to the U.S. and returning it to the Barnes and Noble. Whoever has bought that copy, has unwillingly purchased a much traveled book. Incidentally, my godson has now fully embraced hip-hop (as well as computer hacking) and goes by the nickname Pak. Regardless of its mainstream status, the much-traveled street art of Philadelphia seems potently alive and exciting. GLUE not only made my day happier but provided some wonderful connective tissue across multiple years of punk, art and urban archaeology.

PS. Connected to subversive street art, see the documentation of an ephemeral historiography in Boston, Chrstina J. Hodge “History on the Line, Davis Square, ” Archaeoblog, April 10, 2008.