Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives Pt. 2: The Supermarket

Perspectives on the same shot converge and run parallel but never merge. The strict geometry of the video shot is used to convey the flow of understandings.

Perspectives on the same shot converge and run parallel but never merge cleanly. The strict geometry of the video effects is used to convey the flow of understandings.

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A “problem” can be many things, frequently at once. The escapism of “pop” narratives is often the escape into more desirable problems.

When I’m driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I’m listening to is a discussion of sports. These are telephone conversations. People call in and have long and intricate discussions, and it’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on. These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief.

In part, this reaction may be due to my own areas of interest, but I think it’s quite accurate, basically. And I think that this concentration on such topics as sports makes a certain degree of sense. The way the system is set up, there is virtually nothing people can do anyway, without a degree of organization that’s far beyond anything that exists now, to influence the real world. They might as well live in a fantasy world, and that’s in fact what they do. I’m sure they are using their common sense and intellectual skills, but in an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence and affect because the power happens to lie elsewhere.

Noam Chomsky

EPISODE 2: THE SUPERMARKET: THE GERRYMANDERING OF ILLITERACIES WHEN EVERYTHING IS LANGUAGE

(Check out our review of Pt.1 here.)

Episode 2 further explores the place of words but this time as means by which the Russian doll structure of manipulation works in capitalism. If they’re just a swirling around a nothing/everything, how do we use them to control others or to internalize the control others hold over us? Through the lens of an old couple at the supermarket explores the Droste effect of this reasoning. Lines like “our work with/our bodies is to move rocks our work with/our minds is to dignify eating (museums’re a good example)” and “he gets attached to ideas a certain arrangement/of words like a certain arrangement of the furniture/can be good enough to suggest happiness in a way” work simultaneously as open ended portraits of a system of control. Triangle imagery, to suggest a pyramid and the coming to the invisible implied expanse at the end of a horizon line is repeated in the episode to the point where it’s easier to count the shots that don’t contain it. Words, when they’re written on the screen, are put into this pyramidal shape to draws shifting parallels, refracted unities, within the landscape, the experience of the consumer, and the dreadful limiting spirit of their shared architecture and geometry.

Language in part one was a bulwark against the uncertainties of the self, in part two it exists as a self-reinforcing mechanism of control. The pyramid is one of power and is only inverted in an image of a mirror in the grocery store intended for surveillance.

The wide field of the farm, open and expansive, is made an implied triangle by the positioning of the old couple.

The wide field of the farm, open and expansive, is made an implied triangle by the positioning of the old couple.

The shot of the field, where some of the food in the supermarket comes from, has its rigid geometry mirrored in cattle pens. The older couple similarly comes closer toward the camera/the base of the triangle.

The shot of the field, where some of the food in the supermarket comes from, has its rigid geometry mirrored in cattle pens. The older couple similarly comes closer toward the camera/the base of the triangle.

Finally they walk through an even tighter shot of the grocery store itself, still framed as a pyramid. They're still in the mid-ground though.

Finally they walk through an even tighter shot of the grocery store itself, still framed as a pyramid. They’re still in the mid-ground though.

Finally the pyramid completes itself visually with the grocery store owner at the top. The shoppers can only see themselves in the reflection of the surveillance device.

Finally the pyramid completes itself visually with the grocery store owner at the top. Note the icon portrait behind his head, and the fact Ashley himself plays him, a joke on the fact that for these fictional character Robert Ashley is their watcher and God, the same way the visual of the fictional “world” keeps shifting back to the image of the work producing itself in the hands playing the piano and the “actual” Ashley performing. The shoppers can only see themselves in the reflection of the surveillance device.
“He counts on cruelty among the oldsters to keep things in order,
there’s something about the honor system and the mirrors and the spies and the,
finality of the checkout that keeps the oldsters subjugated definitely” (note double sense of “definitely” as an an assertion but also to evoke the linguistic “definition”)

Words mark off a boundary of protective illiteracy against the unknown thing we feel comfortable not knowing, the unwanted experience a marked off illiteracy of which we’re proud. So proud, we call it a literacy. We think literacy is an accumulation and not a Newtonian correspondence with equal and opposite illiteracies. The English program at any university and moreso the more prestigious the university, is a training as much in illiteracy in the language used outside the college as it is in literacy in the preferred rigid stylistics of the academic. This applies x10 for grad programs.The ways the army “dehumanizes” the enemy in basic training come down to forceful assignment of rigid meaning to terms and behaviors; to bowdlerize Chris Hedges, reading is a force that gives us meaning.

Ashley is not coming at any of this from a place of judgment though the ugliness of the thing in itself(s) will slip through often enough to suffice as such. This is the most angry segment of the opera but at the same time its most pitying. And regarding that last sentence, to use a “but”, replace with “and”.

The supermarket owner doesn't show up here. The person left only with the paranoia of their own reflection.

The supermarket owner doesn’t show up here. The person left only with the paranoia of their own reflection.

Measurement doubles as self-defense and confinement. “The difference a decimal point of rat hairs and other things/we protect ourselves against all possibilities”. As the interjections of the chorus in the first part work on the truth value of things that turns out to be much more dynamic than fixed, so the choral interjections in this installment work as defenses against the infinite but through different tactics. They are the language of political identity that has been handed down and of distraction by the multitude of the products that, if they were read by their strict intents would say little more than “buy me.” It starts as nearly nonsensical listings of supermarket products or their self-promotions (“proper fold/extra teeth/in a bowl”), the vernacular arguments for their greatness and the greatness of the American epoch of mass production (“the choice of baked beans or in the choice of/cleansers or in the choice of pet accessories”), then shifts to make the political implications explicit (“all that freedom all that freedom/all that freedom all that/freedom all that nice thought Jack”.) It continues to the social relations imbued by this relation to the product which is shown as constantly reifying itself in mirrored levels (“how are you/say hello/take the role”). The final pronouncement of the chorus that closes the episode is finally the rat’s maze of identity statements again, corked with an ironic pleasantry (“home is home/love is love/how I’ve grown”.)

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The older couple are boring and relatively unpleasant; they seem unhappy and infantilized. It’s implied both in the text and more explicitly in the visual that they clash with each other as consumers and continue to reproduce their misery due to a blindness in part enforced from above but with a maintenance they must nurture as though it were a child in rationalizations that amount to meaningless identity statements. “Well, it is what it is,” they might say if we were to meet them in our reality.

Literally dueling each other with empty shopping carts. Note that the triangular composition with the apex pointing to the top of the screen is interrupted in this shot.

Literally dueling each other with empty shopping carts. Note that the triangular composition with the apex pointing to the top of the screen is interrupted in this shot.

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4 comments

  1. […] (Check out Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 here and here.) […]

  2. Seeing that the speech that resulted from having Tourette’s could not be controlled, it was a different aspect from producing music that is deliberate and conscious, and music that is performed is considered “doubly deliberate” according to Ashley.

  3. That’s an interesting point. I never encountered Ashley discussing deliberation but I haven’t gotten my hands on Gann’s biography yet (very much want to.) The word “deliberation” itself is very telling (de-liberation) and suggests the layering component of phenomenological/linguistic freedom/constraint that’s very much key to the opera and is discussed in various ways throughout my reviews so far.

    If know where I can find said discussion with Ashley I’d love to read it though I’m sure there’re probably a lot of Q and As that may or may not have been transcribed. This comment definitely gives me some ideas for where to go with the last two reviews. Thanks for reading!

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