Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day

In the global supermarket of culture, fragmented individuals choose at whim from a bric-a-brac of beliefs and values. People are split into tribes, families into households, ideologies into aphorisms and cultures into clips. This build-it-up, break-it-down civilisation is what writer (and banker -- he's somewhat fragmented himself) Jacques Attali calls CiviLego.

This new word sets me wondering: could we talk about IdentiLego too? Could we see our identities as something to be broken up and rearranged like the snappable lock-fit children's toy? I think of the Lego Santa I saw in a shop window in Berlin's Alexanderplatz two weeks ago. I immediately enjoyed its jaggy computerish look, its 'digital' nature (the Lego blocks are like zeroes and ones, they put corners on the continuously variable lines they're trying, perversely and inaccurately, to represent). But the 'digital' little plastic bricks are subordinated to a somewhat perverse task: the representation of an ancient folk image, the figure of St Niklaas, or Santa Claus.

Glocal Santa

Shizu and I are in Lappland. It's early December 2000. After I've delivered my lecture at Rovaniemi University's Department of Media Studies, our host Mauri Yla-Kotola (author of 'Philosophy Of Pet Shop Boys' and 'The Integrated Media Machine') takes us to see Santa. We drive through the snow to the Arctic Circle Centre, a sort of Lappish theme park outside town where Santa holds court in a log cabin surrounded by reindeer meat restaurants and gift shops. There are no visitors when we enter his lair. Shizu talks to him in English, but he replies... in Japanese! This Finnish Santa has lived in Japan, on one of the country's remote northern islands.

Santa is local, and yet global too. He's Glocal, a word coined by Roland Robertson if you believe some or Philippe Queau, director of Computing at UNESCO, if you believe others to show that the tendency of turbo-capitalism and the internet to take all significant activities up to a global level does not contradict or endanger local cultures and communities. The global economy is, like Santa, simultaneously rooted and folksy, universal and ubiquitous. Local and international. Before the internet fused the microspecific with the placeless, Santa was doing it, from right here in Lappland, with only a few reindeer to help him.

When Shizu tells Santa she lives in America he jokes (still in Japanese) 'Ah yes, America, turn left at the North Pole. There are very few good people there.' We all laugh at Santa's joke, and a computer takes our photo.

Glitch Folk

I'm in the East Broadway public library, back in New York after my travels in Finland, Germany, France and Britain. It's a sunny day just before Christmas. An Arctic air mass and a 20 degree wind chill factor make this library full of Chinese children a welcoming refuge.

With a little gasp I notice, in the video section, the spine of a tape marked American Patchwork. It's the name of my prototype glitch-folk record label. For a moment I forget that I took the title from a TV series folk music collector Alan Lomax made in the late 80s. I've only read about this series, but now here it is, ranged on the shelves of my local library. Spines catch my eye one after another: 'Dreams And Songs Of The Noble Old', 'Cajun Country', 'Appalachian Journey'. I borrow them all and, feverishly excited, run home and put them on.

Lomax is an engaging and affable host, a somewhat relaxed, gnome-like man with a squared-off white beard, twinkling eyes, a huge knowledge of his subject, and an admirable tendency to drop in high culture references (Jules Verne, George Bernard Shaw) even when he's discussing the roots of Louisiana cajun music. (Not something the gruesome twosome who've cornered this part of the media in the UK -- Andy Kershaw and Jools Holland -- seem willing or able to do.)

I'm particularily excited by a section of the cajun programme in which Lomax describes the Buena Vista Social Club-like moment when he introduced cajun music to the Newport Folk Festival. It went down well with the affluent and influential east coast audience, and as a result the authorities in Louisiana changed their attitude. French, once a punishable offence in New Orleans schools, was put back on the curriculum. The old men with the accordions and fiddles were feted at ceremonies of public recognition in baseball stadia. With great pomp and ceremony, the Folk became Fake.

The Mardi Gras sections are also interesting. People dress up in masks, act badly, drink wildly, kill chickens, and receive symbolic punishment. It's an IdentiLego orgy.

There's No Folk Without Fire

We've got to remember, though, that folk art in traditional societies and folk as a piece of the pomo CiviLego are different things. Traditions you cannot escape are very different from traditions you're free to choose randomly from, ranged on a supermarket shelf. The first encourages capitulation, the second dilettantism.

We can listen to a folk song about a wedding, but, if we're modern people, we can never decide to have traditional arranged marriages ourselves. We can't, as the Chinese traditionally do, invite all our friends into the nuptial bed to tease and tickle us until we touch for the first time. Where the social context has been destroyed, you can't cherry pick folk art and claim that, thanks to your curation, a whole culture is surviving intact. The folk that survives in the global era does so because it's capable of becoming plastic and taking its place on the supermarket shelf.

The Modern period destroyed folk culture wholesale, streamlining and centralising it out of existence, sending world wars to raze the soil around it. Postmodernism enjoys its unthreatening decoration, fragments it, renovates and fakes it, turns it into kitsch. We can snap a piece of it into our personal IdentiLego, but it won't make us tribesmen or Hugenots. We'll be back to the supermarket soon, hungry for some new escape. Our desire for otherness will keep us, in fact, inside the system. Our longing for straw, wattle, warmth and belonging will, in fact, keep bringing us back to that alienating utilitarian building in its grey concrete lot.

We're all Des Esseintes now. All good shoppers resemble the hero of Huysmans' novel of aesthetic escapism, A Rebours. Dilettantism is our fate, but we should remember that our escapism has to fit in with our fragmented post-capitalist society. Everything is for sale, including the broken-up fragments of traditional culture. It looks unlikely, though, that we'll be reviving clitorectomy any time soon.


Shizu and I are in an Indonesian restaurant on Allen Street. We're talking about Takashi Murakami. Shizu says 'Japan is embarrassed by its otaku class, the sickly collectors and fetishists who are so typically Japanese. But all we have to do to make them trendy is export them to the west then re-import them again, as we did with the kimono, which you now see in funky young girls' magazines like Cutie and Zipper. It's only trendy because people in the west started using it as an exotic fashion accessory. It's the same old kimono, exported and then re-imported. We could do that with the otakus. In fact it's already started. Jean-Jacques Beineix made a film called 'Otaku' and Murakami is talking about them and using their imagery.'

'Hmm,' I muse, 'it seems that once upon a time the Japanese were just Japanese, slightly insecure about the things they made, the things that surrounded them. But now they've become Japanese orientalists. Alienated from their own traditional culture, they begin to find it as exotic as everyone else does. Import and export of cultural goods is like IdentiPlay at a national level. It's like a nation looking at itself in the global mirror and saying 'Why you're not so ugly after all, you rascal!' Self-consciousness and recontextualisation changes everything.'

Then we have a discussion about schoolgirls. At what point, I ask, does a real schoolgirl playing a schoolgirl in a Japanese 'sailor' porn AV become a fake schoolgirl? (I use the cute Japanese word for fake, nanchatte, partly because I like how it contains 'chatte', which is the french word for pussy.) I draw a series of circles within circles on a paper napkin. Can the girl be a real schoolgirl and a fake schoolgirl at the same time? Is she a real schoolgirl on some streets and a fake schoolgirl on others? Does she have a number of identities competing for the lead role (the 'master role', as symbolic interactionists would have it)? Does she play with her IdentiLego as well as her sexual parts? We have a long conversation which ends up chasing its own tail. My attention wanders to my scraped ice dessert with red bean paste and sweetcorn.

Plushies and Cosplay

We're in Paris, at the revamped Beaubourg centre. Philippe Vergne (Toog's friend from Marseilles, we met him last year at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where he now lives) has curated a show called Au Dela Du Spectacle -- Beyond Spectacle. It's a big, bold, childish and colourful show. Some Murakami 'superflat' figures dominate it -- a fearless masturbating superhero spouting an improbable plume of sperm, a part-mechanical idol singer with huge eyes and square robot shoulders, missing a leg and an arm.

Another corner of the show has a scattering of large felt animal heads ranged on low foam benches. Members of the public are invited to become plushies by pulling on a giraffe or a lion mask. It's remarkably similar to a little room we saw a few days before in the Mitte district of Berlin, at a gallery called Kunstwerk. In a sandbox are children's costumes. The public tries them on, becoming fabulous, bizarre and exotic in the process.

It's tantalising, this game of what they'd call, if this were Japanese porn, cosplay (costume play). You strain to imagine a society in which you could walk down the street looking like this. And yet you like yourself in your pink get-up, you feel interesting and fresh. It seems that you aren't as free as you thought you were when you walked in here, because this identity is one you can't buy, and can't take home with you. It would be easier to buy the world than make it a place fit for your fabulous temporary identity. Your game of IdentiLego comes with a built-in sadness. It makes you realise that you can't really play IdentiLego unless, somewhere in the world, people are making compatible shapes with their CiviLego.

Tokyo Quake

It's Christmas day. I'm at JFK saying goodbye to Shizu, who's going back to Japan. Behind my Chanel shades I'm crying. We talk seriously about me moving to Japan next year. This adventure will continue. Tokyo has always been in my mind as the next city I want to try living in. I ask Shizu to find me a nice flat to flit to. We can share it with some of her friends.

But what will it be like? Will my personality change in such an unfamiliar environment? Will I find, as I did in France, that enjoying a country's cultural exports -- its films, books, magazines, records -- is not the same thing as enjoying its daily lived reality? Will I find that the true soul of Japan is vested precisely in export products which, at home, remain unpopular and ignored?

One of the first things I did on arriving back in New York was to make for Zakka, my favourite Japanese goods store on Grand Street, SoHo. There I browsed for a long time in a book called Creator's Style, a lavish set of photos of the work spaces of Japanese creatives from photographer-designer Hibiki Tokiwa to the Hiropon Factory. (There's a cut-down version of the same idea in the recent 'Tokyo Quake' edition of Composite magazine, which also features a short article about the Momus art show.) This is my seminal Japan, a place of private urban workspaces, small but incredibly hip companies making commercial art whose intricacy and daring blows a lot of fine art out of the water. But who knows whether my experience of living in Japan would contain much of that atmosphere. Perhaps, frustrated by my inability to master the language, I'd hang out with Australians at the Cafe Las Chicas.

The Portable Momus

Anyway, a change might do me good. I'm getting addicted to this snap-up, snap-down existence. Destroying each environment as soon as I get comfortable with it is the only way I can keep being me. Continents skip by for me rapid and quixotic as a Markus Popp CD. Jet planes are my subway trains. Mitte joins up with Menilmontant, Hoxton with Harajuku. I'm a musician, what the hell, I ought to be used to it by now. By making my life portable, collapsible, packable and repackable, I've found a way to snap the CiviLego together in ways that suit me, or at least the me that I've painstakingly built out of the coloured blocks that came most readily to hand.

What you find is that there's permanence amidst impermanence. You're like a character in a platform game, running on a permanently collapsing floor. Or you're the Michelin Man in an inflatables show at the Vitra Design Museum in Berlin, changing hands, changing shape, shifting loyalties, becoming ironic, then populist, then elitist, feted here (in Conranworld) as an exemplary brand, there (atop an Indian lorry cab) as a minor Hindu God.

Or you're Momus in a Finnish newspaper, described as 'almost domestic' because, like Zelig, you manage to appear Finnish when in Finland, Japanese when in Japan, and yet always and everywhere Momus. Metissage -- mongrelism -- predicts Serge Gruzinski, will offer humans of tomorrow 'the privilege of belonging to several worlds in a single life'. Metissage, fakeness, impurity.

It's the same for Momus as it is for the Groke of the Moomintrolls, embroidered on a pillowcase or rendered as a plastic model in a Finnish gift shop. Or the Santa of the Alexanderplatz, for that matter. Whether he's made of pipe cleaners, pixels or Lego, whether he speaks Finnish, Flemish or Japanese, he's still Santa. Identity, I suppose, is destiny. All the more reason to break it up and start snapping the stuff together in new ways.

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