Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
At the end of my tour with Stereo Total I spend a week in LA. I want to find the answer to a simple question. Do I love LA, or hate it?
I Lovehate LA
Saturday, 65 Degrees, Cloudy
The moment our tour van stops on Hollywood Boulevard I jump out and take a taxi to Beverly Hills, where the Gagosian is hosting the opening of Instant Gratification, an exhibition by British artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster. The self-styled 'new barbarians' are showing big illuminated signs. One says 'Forever' and takes up a whole wall. It looks like a fairground light. Upstairs there's a room of dollar signs, and there's one trash sculpture in the back room.
Tim looks good with a shaved head and stubble, Sue has dyed black hair. I don't know them very well. Tim greets me as we pass on the stairs. I say, with some American-style sincerity, 'This work is very uplifting, we need that just now, thanks for being here to give it to us!' To which Tim replies 'Thank you for being here too!' and ushers some wealthy customers towards the dollar signs.
An e mail just came in from my New York friend Young Kim. She embodies the ambivalence of Europeans and East Coasters to this city:
'I hate (well, maybe hate is a strong word) -- don't really like LA. I find it provincial, suburban and boring. I hate (really) the driving -- so much, with such frightening highways -- so badly marked, with crazy drivers. And of course, you can't even go out for a drink because you have to drive back home. I was, however, impressed by the lemons on lemon trees -- so fragrant, I never imagined. And pomegranate juice.'
My last show with Stereo Total. My dirty dancing cameo in 'Love With The Three Of Us' is particularly crazy tonight: I'm dancing bum to bum with Bretzel when he swings me up onto his back and holds me aloft. My legs wriggle in thin air, then we collapse to the floor with a bump.
When I arrived this May in Tokyo, I found the metaphor of Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles a useful key to the mixture of strangeness and familiarity I felt in that enchanted city. Leafing through a copy of Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, I find this elegant English apologist reaching for the same book to frame his bewitched admiration of his adopted city:
'If Los Angeles is not a monolithic Protestant moral tyranny -- and it notoriously is not! -- it is because the Mid-western agrarian culture underwent a profound transformation as it hit the coast, a sun-change that pervades moral postures, political attitudes, ethnic groupings, and individual psychologies. This change has often been observed, and usually with bafflement, yet one observer has bypassed the bafflement and gone straight to an allegory of Californiation that seems to hold good from generation to generation -- Ray Bradbury in the most fundamental of his Martian stories, 'Dark They Were And Golden Eyed', where the earth-family are subtly transformed, even against their wills, into tall, bronzed, gold-eyed Martians who abandon their neat Terran cities and the earthly cares and duty they symbolize, and run free in the mountains.'
Sunday, 70 degrees, sunny
I spend the first night at my usual Hollywood hotel, the Roosevelt. The next day I take a stroll along the touristy star mile. There's a new shopping centre at Hollywood and Highland, an audaciously pretentious recreation of Babylon as portrayed in D.W. Griffiths' 'Intolerance'. When I'm done photographing the rampant elephants, I catch LA's expensive, semi-empty metro downtown to Little Tokyo, where I take in two shows at the MOCA Geffen Contemporary; videos by Douglas Gordon (I've seen most of them before) and a thing about cutting edge LA architecture. Unlike New York, which has almost no architecture from the last two or three decades, LA is a city in which it's still possible to build new and fantastically improbable structures.
Reyner Banham again:
'The lithe, brown-skinned Martians, with their 'gold-coin eyes'... are to be seen on the surfing beaches and even more frequently on the high desert, where communities like California City sprawl beside shallow lakes under the endless dry wind, and are Bradbury's Martian ecology to the life. If the famous vision of a totally automated house, that will go on dispensing gracious living long after the inhabitants have vanished, has a prototype in existence it is probably over in Sherman Oaks, and if you seek a prototype of the crystal house of Ylla, look among the Case Study houses or in the domestic work done by Neutra in the fifties.'
From now on los angeles for me will be Wendy and Amy, the angelic sisters who run the Westwood branch of Modernbook. They take turns to drive me around when they aren't working at the bookstore. It's impossible to do anything in LA without a car.
At a wedding party in Chinatown where the DJ is Matt Fishbeck of the Push Kings, we drink cognac and dance like idiots. It feels like a school disco. Afterwards, the girls deposit me at Amy's apartment at Pico and Crenshaw.
I've asked for accommodation instead of money for my Modernbook performance, and this is what I get. There's no heating, no useable bath or shower, no phone line, no cooker or stove. Just a mattress on the floor. But I like it. There's a fresh coat of white paint, shelves where I can range my CDs, a little boom box. Spindly palms lattice the view of the Hollywood Hills beyond the curly grille on the kitchen window and sunshine floods through the french windows each morning. I hear only one gunshot my whole time here.
I love Los Angeles insofar as it reminds me of Tokyo. Both cities sprawl endlessly, seem completely unplanned, have no recognisable city centres in the European sense, contain lush and exotic flowers and plants, boast cutting edge archictecture (Prada is employing Rem Koolhaas on its new store, the Disney concert hall by Frank Gehry recapitulates the dramatic silverfoil cubism of his Bilbao Guggenheim) and cluster communities of creative commercial artists -- digital effects artists, animators, graphic designers, musicians, advertising men -- in light industrial workshops in areas like Santa Monica and Daikanyama.
Monday, 74 degrees, sunny
Wendy takes me to an oriental area off Sunset, where we hang out with the Chinese guys who run the Giant Robot store and magazine. This is like a scaled-down Zakka or Nadiff, dominated by Superflat posters and Groovisions books, as well as the inevitable Yoshitomo Nara T shirts. I've seen most of this Japan-tat elsewhere, but the guys are super-friendly. We eat across the road in the big Japanese supermarket.
Tokyo and LA are cities where districts connect to each other by a sort of random access: the freeway and the internet turn the cluttered claustrophobia of European city centres into a sort of egalitarian sprawl where nowhere seems any more built up than anywhere else. To me it's initially hard to tell the difference between the incredibly poor Hispanic area I'm staying in and the richer areas to the north and west: all streets have palm trees, detached houses and sunshine, all are framed by the towers of downtown, the sea, and the Hollywood Hills.
Olive green, lime green, mustard yellow, aquamarine, orange, burnt umber, smog beige, freeway grey, eggplant purple, cactus green, yukka blue, leopard pink, Jaguar lemon, Santa Monica red...
Tuesday, 65 degrees, sunny
To the Eames Office in Santa Monica. It's really just a bookstore with a tiny gallery attached. They're showing letters from Charles to Ray Eames. I speak with a writer called Kip who works there about Relax magazine, and whether the Eames style is perennial or subject to fashion, especially in Japan, where retro design fashion is already moving on to the garish 80s look of Ettore Sottsas and Memphis.
Japanese magazines like Brutus Casa and Relax often come to Santa Monica and Venice to do shoots and stories. (The other place they go is Sofia Coppola's joint near the observatory.) Kip shows me the story in Brutus Casa that editor Okamoto was setting out to cover with photographer Takashi Homma when I dropped by the publisher's Ginza office in August. Arriving in the tree-lined streets of Santa Monica, with their lovingly-curated design stores, their sensuality and wealth, I'm immediately reminded of certain parts of Tokyo and its fashionable sea resort Kamakura, and dub this style Pacific Rim Relax.
'Both fantasy and public symbolism reached their apotheosis in the great commercial signs, in the style of design that Tom Wolfe accaimed, in his own neologism, as 'electrographic architecture' -- that is, a combination of artificial light and graphic art that can even comprise a whole building.' Reyner Banham
If you're printing a flier in Tokyo, you put a little map in one corner showing, not street names or monuments recognisable citywide, but the nearest subway exit and then the positions, relative to your club, of local branches of conbini chains like AM/PM, or landmarks like McDonalds and Starbucks. This is because most built structures in Tokyo are impermanent, unremarkable, boxlike and forgettable. What marks one from another is its 'electrographic architecture' -- the neon and LED displays mounted on facades, the graphic design of familiar logos draped, often several stories deep, across their blank faces.
It's possible to imagine coming back to Tokyo after a few years away, returning to old haunts to find the brand names changed, nothing recognisable and all your maps, mental and paper, outdated. 'Turn left where they're thinking of building that drive in bank,' intoned Laurie Anderson sarcastically in 'Big Science', '-- you can't miss it'.
We could update Wolfe's 'electrographic architecture' to 'electrongraphic architecture' and call these chimerical cities places which treat their hardware, in the form of buildings, like software, in the form of the lights, announcements, logos and drapings which adorn them. Once you prioritise signs over buildings it soon becomes apparent that, like computer hardware that needs to be upgraded and replaced every time a new operating system gets released, the buildings themselves can be rebuilt to better house newer, brighter advertising, light and logos. By giving the buildings the intangibility and impermanence of signs, the Martians of LA and Tokyo seem to soften and speed the urban fabric so that it takes on the pace of thought itself.
Wednesday, 70 degrees, sunny
Amy takes me to Silverlake. We eat at a moroccan bar then check some galleries in the upcoming Echo Park area. (There's precious little of interest here.) Then we drive up to the Observatory, site of the famous scene in 'Rebel Without A Cause'. This has a small but interesting science museum in it, and of course the best views out over LA (think of the cover of Tim Buckley's 'Welcome To LA', sunshine, smog and all). As dusk falls we head out to Pasadena -- apparently a home of satanism, although all we do is sip tea. We join sister Wendy for a Korean meal, then quaff medicinal cocktails downtown in the rotating bar at the top of the notoriously postmodern Bonaventure Hotel. I've never been in a rotating building before. The hotel isn't very tall, so mostly the view is just this changing vista of the middles of the surrounding office towers. Finally, we go to a bar called the Star Shoe Bar on Hollywood Boulevard, a cool but empty place where they play Magazine's 'Definitive Gaze', which sounds seriously funky. It's not long after midnight, but I guess LA people go home early.
It's not just logos in the sense of commercial brands which dominate this city, but also the logos in the sense of 'the word'. LA is designed to be legible to people driving past at 55 miles per hour.
Now this is evil. Because, like all reductions to verbiage, the reduction of a real place to the minimal legibility of logos and the logos is a betrayal of sensuality, a travesty of the sacredness of the tangible, the textural and the actual (qualities celebrated in the Japanese animistic tradition of Shinto). Cognition is reduced to recognition. Instead of paying attention to particular landscapes, we see only generic features flicking by. Glassed into cars, we can't smell anything. Place is betrayed by idea, more specifically by the idea we call brand. Coke tastes the same everywhere, and on the paper cup even the word 'smile' is trademarked. There are no longer particular smiles, just one uniform, registered Coke smile. This is the radical impoverishment of capitalist monotheism: instead of many gods, there is just one, and the name of the god is Brand. Brand is to be worshipped with recognition.
In this way a whole city becomes as bland as American FM Radio, with its succession of canonical and accommodated 'classic rock' hits. The question is no longer 'What does this record sound like?' but 'Where have I heard it before?' Habit, as Samuel Beckett said, is a great deadener.
Of course, LA had no landscape, no flavour, no 'spirit of place' to be betrayed in the first place. There were no trees here, no people, just the endless boring and arid scrubland you see just fifty miles to the north, beyond the mountains. On the radio there's no news, just weather, rock classics, smog checks and traffic reports. Welcome to the Hotel California, a place where nothing ever happens.
Thursday, 75 degrees, sunny
Against this reductive and uniformising tendency we can offset the sensuality of both LA and Tokyo. Design, the sea, the sun. Kamakura and California meeting up.
When I'm not with the Yaos, I sit on the sunny terrace in 'my' apartment on Pico and 4th, reading an anthology of Clement Greenberg's criticism and listening to High Llamas and Stereolab. This neighbourhood is odd, it's totally central on the map of LA, and yet really quiet and suburban. It's rare to see people on the sidewalks. The few stores, heavily fortified, are owned by Koreans. The people who live here are Mexicans and blacks, including a notorious gang called the Bloods. A couple of black girls come into a shop where I'm the only customer (trying to pick up a packet of nuts without getting a spiderweb all over my hands) and ask me for money as I'm paying at the till. I'm a bit nervous, since the wallet I'm waving around contains a thousand dollars.
'My first impression of this place is rather awful,' said Kurt Weill in a letter to Lotte Lenya in 1937. 'The scenery is magnificent, with mountains in the background, like Salzburg. But what they've built into it! It looks exactly like Bridgeport.'
'They should flatten the whole place,' said David Bowie, after exchanging California for Berlin. 'Hollywood, I mean, not Los Angeles. Unfair to Los Angeles.' Bowie's time in the city was spent in a coke-induced haze of paranoia in which he became convinced that his swimming pool was occupied by a devil and that covens of witches were trying to kidnap him for his sperm.
On the beach at Santa Monica. Wendy and I sit watching a bizarre group of African dwarf drummers at the end of the pier. Dolphins and pelicans sport in the water. It feels like a scene out of Fellini. But the smog, the tyre-tracks on the beach, the hovering police helicopters, and the queue of planes taking off from LAX tell us we're in California, not Italy. We watch the sun slip hurriedly into the Pacific, somewhere in the direction of Kamakura.
Abbott Kinney Avenue in Venice. The Eameses worked for most of their lives in a big workshop at 901. It's now a thriving hub of little bungalow stores selling New Age arts and crafts stuff, digital film effects companies, rather yukky art galleries.
There's a more interesting strip of new galleries in Chinatown, but they're all installing right now. One of them is Alleged, which moved here from New York at just about the same time that Tokion magazine took off from LA to the Lower East Side. Aaron, who runs Alleged and is married to artist Susan Ciancolo, comes to my show at Modernbook. He says he's getting lonely in LA, where people are very isolated and it takes a lot of effort to set up meetings. It's not like New York, where you run into people every day on the street.
This isn't entirely true. Sometimes you can have chance encounters by car. As we're driving past the Eames Office, we see a reading going on. It turns out to be the Eames grandson, Eames Demetrios, launching a new book about Eames Design. Afterwards there's champagne in the courtyard. The Eames great-grandchildren, an unruly troupe of kids between eight and twelve, hold an ice cube war, hurling their cold missiles over our heads and splashing us. Nobody tells them to stop, they seemed charmingly wild and spoiled. They must have grown up in the Eames house in Pacific Pallisades. Probably wrecked it, little tykes.
Driving through Silverlake, Wendy and I spot and gatecrash an opening of an art show in a clothes store. It's of flowers made of human hair. The artists are all dressed up as Victorian gentlemen, in top hats and tails. It's a bit gothy. Outside on Vermont Avenue there's a vibrant Williamsburg-like scene. We eat at a retro diner place called The Bearded Egg, where everyone seems to have a bouffant hairdo, ironic prim librarian glasses, and be a kind of 50s throwback, Ghostworld-style. It's odd, because this retro-50s aesthetic was trendy in the 80s, but here in LA it seems still to be going strong. Just like the 4AD Dead Can Dance prim goth look being touted in the store nearby. Thow in some body art, some skate stuff, some New Age aromas, some air-kissing actor chic and a lot of gasoline and you have LA style.
I can't ignore the fact that this city is about communication, performance, and fame, three things which are pretty important in my job. Driving down Sunset, I'm fascinated by the vast posters of Lenny Kravitz and Britney Spears, objective correlatives for the stars' inflated sense of their own importance. I don't, in principle, disapprove of such indulgence. Nietzsche, after all, would have enjoyed a society where artists and musicians loom larger than emperors. But the kind of communication originated here is pretty alien to me. I don't consume anything the LA film, music and TV industries make. MTV and awards ceremonies leave me cold and dirty. I might enjoy 'Shrek' or 'Monsters Inc' as inflight movies, but I've never seen 'Star Wars', 'ET' or 'Baywatch'.
I know I'd suffer the same fate, as a creative animal in LA, that befell Bertolt Brecht, who lived for three years in Santa Monica making diluted (if well-paid) contributions to films like 'Hangmen Also Die', whose directors invariably left his distinguishing vision on the cutting room floor. 'In almost no other place,' Brecht noted in his journal, 'was life harder for me than in this showplace of the easygoing.'
Friday, 68 degrees, sunny
Wendy takes me to lunch with her Vietnamese friend Ann in Silverlake, and we drive over to an unassuming little taco bar on a strip nearby. This turns out to be a hang for young local musicians, who all look like Beth Orton and Beck. A band called Frisky Whiskey, baby hipsters in cornerboy caps, describe in hushed tones a visit to Ronnie Scott's jazz club on a recent trip to London. 'There's all this wood panelling, it's so old and mellow, man, you can just feel all the jazzers who've gone through that room...'
Gigantic white label outside the Chiat Day advertising agency:
'Ad Agency, 2001
Anarchists, schmoozers, dictators, grandstanders, purists, malcontents, philosophers, lollygaggers, visionaries, cheerleaders, accountants in gray and yellow structure
On loan from The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles'
To the Chiat Day building in Santa Monica. Eric Voegele, who used to work at No Life Records and knew me from an instore performance a couple of years ago, has invited me to contribute to a presentation they'll show at the next Apple Expo to celebrate four years of iMacs. In the sprechgesang manner of Dirk Bogarde, I reel off the words to my song 'Mai Noda': 'I am Mai Noda's strawberry iMac, switch on my screen...' My only payment is a tour of the building, but that's well worth it. It's incredible, a huge lemon and ash-coloured aircraft hangar full of elevated internal walkways, little conference cabins in the manner of Atelier Van Lieshout, full-sized billboards and antique Nissans, a basketball court, fish tanks, and a row of leather punch bags decorated with the faces of the partners for disgruntled employees to sock in lunch break. The whole place -- zany capitalism, surreal props, acid colours, creativity -- resembles a set from the Monkees film 'Head' or a Bond villain's lair.
Spend my last LA evening in Westwood with David Lynch's 'Mulholland Drive'. What nonsense! Despite recapitulating some of Lynch's earlier, more resonant scenes and moods, the film substitutes absurdly menacing symbols for any sort of coherence. The director's personal language has refined and removed itself to a place we can only call mannerism. Lynch's love of European surrealism has brought him full circle to the kind of casual, irrational, druggy satanism (the worship of evil for cheap thrills) Hollywood has always turned to for no other reason than that, here at the end of history, under the permasun, reality doesn't quite penetrate, and here at the edge of the Pacific, on this arid, flat plane of ticky tacky houses, life can get so damned boring. Apart from citrus farming, feverish imagining is all you can do here.
Mafiosi film producers, a wheelchair-bound Mr Big dwarf, a gorilla-like homeless man in a backlot, a horrible deformed corpse lying prone in a bungalow, a scary red plush room, some sort of horrific magic show, a sinister spectral cowboy... These demonic images are my final impression of the city of angels.
I lovehate LA. If I'm good I'll come back here. If I'm bad I'll come back twice.