SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2003

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Studio Visit
Yun-Fei Ji‚s Classicism Documents China‚s Modernization
by Mel Watkin

THE NEW EVANGELISM

Fischerspooner‚s Infiltration of Pop

by Joseph Whitt

January 2002. I just wrote this in a letter to someoneųa comment in regards to a recording contract:

The whole idea behind FS was to make something accessible and popular. Not indie! I still want to disrupt the pop system. I mean, I openly fucking lip-synch, and these people who we‚re working with are trying to make it mainstreamųif that can happen, there is hope! I‚m getting old and I would rather take a big crazy risk than slowly slink up the entertainment ladder, when the truth is I don‚t give a damn about the music business. It was not my lifelong dream. I can always retreat to my holier-than-thou avant-garde shelter of excuses once I have failed grandly. And, I want it to be a GRAND failure. I need to think about why I love this ideaųwhy everyone is fascinated by failure. And, why is it such a constant, thrilling theme throughout history?

Crazy. I guess I was describing why or how I can be so cavalier regarding „real entertainment.š

I‚m just freaking out at how insane all of this becomes each day. For instance, I think I just agreed to fly to Miami to meet with all of the presidents of BMG worldwide. I feel like an imposter! I can‚t believe the charade works all the way to this level!

I‚m actually nervous, because this really is the performance of a lifetime. I am performing the image of a burgeoning pop icon! I think I will just keep writing and describing what is happening and how I feel and together we will find the truth of the process.1

Roe Ethridge/FS Studios, Casey Spooner, 2002 (courtesy Deitch Projects, New York City).

Fischerspooner is a smart bombųGuy Debord‚s unsatisfied soul injected into the teenybopper-friendly, middle-American trinity of Best Buy, MTV and Internet file sharing. It is an experiment in overexposureųan end game of sorts for popular entertainment perpetrated by an army of actors, dancers, photographers, stylists, designers, musicians and publicists. If you‚ve ever wondered what would happen if, one day, the editors of Rolling Stone, Artforum and Vogue joined forces, like samurai in a Kurosawa film, and decided to replace the stars with themselves, take notice. A Frankenstein is afoot, an overdue deconstruction of hype and fame born out of just such a takeover bid.

Until this year, experiencing Fischerspooner in print has been a distant business, especially for those of us outside New York. In lieu of the real thing, media accounts of the group‚s pomp and pageantry often felt one step removed, or filtered... a bit like poetry appreciated through Morse code. This filtering isn‚t necessarily bad. For years, such interpretive gaps have lent themselves to the process of celebrity building on itself. Try Google searching someone „famous for being famous.š Download their résumé and cross-reference a few bibliographical sources. If coattails exist, critics ride and hide them here. More often than not, the process of „creating and maintaining buzzš is a snowball effect, with hearsay as precedent for fact. And in the industries of art and entertainment, nothing incites an editorial like the second or third-hand reception of an experience.

If show business has one cynical precept, it is that gossip breeds exoticism, but success usually depends on a reliable model. Now, if this „ruleš is meant to be unexpressed, like an implied moral standard, and always eclipsed by the spectacle in question, then Fischerspooner are troublemakers from hell. Their performances offer up the ultimate transgression against entertainmentųformal familiarity, honesty regarding to process, and contempt for politesse. On stage, on record, in interviewsųeverywhere, they joyously expose the ins-and-outs and the ease with which it‚s done. Operative word: „it.š Meaning „the process of becoming famous.š If this is beginning to smell of teen spirit, it probably should; except... well, try to imagine Nirvana as Duran Duran, now, and without the irony. They project an opportunism that could only be called „Brechtianšųafter Fischerspooner, it is hard to imagine the fourth wall of a Britney Spears concert (or career, for that matter) reading in quite the same way... at least, from the vantage point of a Carson Daly demographic. They offer up an infectious brand of integrity that can only come with having nothing to lose. Except that they do! Ask gallerist Jeffrey Deitch, who has funded the group‚s appearances to the tune of $500,000 a show, or James Palumbo, the Berry Gordy of Britain‚s electronic music scene, whose label Ministry of Sound shelled out over two million dollars last year for multimedia distribution rights overseas. The patronage is growing. What was once an excuse for „homemade social intervention and boho community outreachš has expanded to the world stage from the safety net of the New York art world in the course of five years.2

Fischerspooner, Performance at Deitch Projects, New York City, May 2002. (courtesy Claudia Brown/Glamour Pimple, NYC).

The turning point came on the heels of a run of performances at Gavin Brown‚s Enterprise in the spring of 2000. In one season, the group became Village Voice-endorsed Chelsea darlings. They were the subjects of ravings in several art magazines and European music publications, whose verbatim pull quotes now wrap (quite literally) their 2003 debut release on Capitol Records. The vast majority of „#1š was recorded four years ago as a piecemeal collection of stark hyper-processed electropop. Compiled as the tracks were performed across Manhattan‚s hipster circuit, it circulated amongst those in the know. Open up the remastered version today and you‚ll see an appropriation of hype so conspicuous and unapologetic that even Michael Jackson would blush. Typeset on the CD itself, lines from the UK‚s New Music Express („the best thing to happen to music since electricityš) sandwich those from Flash Art and The Face („cultural phenomenon!š). Opposite this, serving as an inlay, is a photograph of frontman Casey Spooner, standing on a desolate, freshly fogged stage, spotlit, screaming and wet with sweat. Jeremiah Clancy, Spooner‚s onstage foil, crouches behind him, modeling this spring‚s tour t-shirt of choiceųa white Hanes number emblazoned with the text, „Artists Have More Fun.š You get the idea.

The package is almost perfect for today‚s herd of independent minds. Given our culture‚s tendency to preface most sincere display with a knowledge of „knowing better,š perhaps Fischerspooner were only a matter of time. Their performances brim with sarcasm, second guessing and soliloquy. Cigarettes are lit and dragged over prompts to lip-synch. Arena rock production values are squeezed into gallery-sized spaces and given the same credence in front of an audience that a teenager would give himself during a private bedroom Metallica mime-fest. Whim is everything. Glitter cannons, wind machines, pyrotechnics and costume changes are often timed by audience intervention or Spooner‚s fickle dissatisfaction. His vocals, at least those that are sung, are never live. Warren Fischer, co-founder and sole composer of the group‚s musical output, sees to that by dutifully pressing „playš and „pauseš on a backstage compact disc player, as Spooner instructs him from the stage. Every tried and true trope of entertainment is laid bare, on the table, appropriated and exhausted. Nothing is new. The shock is that nothing feels stale. A transcript of a Fischerspooner show might read like a Janeane Garofalo monologue given to the judges of FOX‚s American Idol. It is comedy, on paperųdeconstructive satire at best. And that is unfortunate, because behind every knowing wink, blatant stumble and misstep, there is an almost impossible earnestnessųa surrender to spectacle that seems to achieve a kind of sublimity when experienced as the sum of its parts. It is more punk than farce, its ideas more indebted to the DIY ethos of situationism than to Sandra Bernhard‚s brusqueness. And therein lies the potential for misreading responsible for many critics‚ knee-jerk comparisons of Fischerspooner to camp. Weimar decadence is there, but processed through the irony-free lens of a Bollywood musical. Society of the Spectacle meets Solid Gold. Seriously.

October 2002.

I‚ve always dreamed of something that would exist in two disparate realms, simultaneously. Something riddled with dualities. Real and artificial. Sometimes it is really difficult for me to remember what my initial intentions were with FS after such a web of changes... it‚s inherently a slippery slope. One that is continually evolving.

Talked to Kylie [Minogue] today about our [Top of the Pops] UK TV appearance on the 31st. Freaky Deaky. She loves Warren‚s mix [of „Come Into My Worldš] so much that she wants to perform it instead of the original and with FS!!! I‚m really trying to figure out how to do this one right. So much to tell! Get this though... I told her that we were going to dress up like fruit, that it was going to be about the „harvestš and pagan ritual. A return to the seasons... kind of like the Fruit of the Loom guys. She was like... „uhhhhhh.š

And then I said I was teasing and that we were doing „Nu Hollywood.š Now, but chic. Basically, I am helping her and her team to knock us off. I love the idea of giving them ideas that we are done with. It is all borrowing from our L.A. shows and the „Sweetnessš film. Which is nice because it will only bring a larger audience to this body of work that is complete.

I‚m really dancing with the devil now, but I‚m not scared. The only way to exorcize a demon is to confront it. 3

Fischerspooner, Performance at Deitch Projects, New York City, May 2002. (courtesy Claudia Brown/Glamour Pimple, NYC).

To say that Fischerspooner have found a new way of „keeping it realš for people who hate „keeping it realš comes as close as anything in describing the group‚s dichotomous approach. But it also raises several larger questions about our culture. For starters, what does „realityš mean when governed by entertainment media? Why do we so often associate our collective notions of „authentic experienceš with the absence of „production valuesš? And where did the recent slew of „reality televisionš come from? The answer begins with an orthodoxy of speech that exists in modern marketingųa sameness caused by designers‚ access to increasingly similar resources. In other words, everyone‚s sharing the same toolkit and it shows. The immediacies of „cut-and-pasteš construction and PowerPoint-style delivery have created formal interchangeability in presentation and packaging. Surf the net, read a magazine and watch TV all at once, and see. An MTV News blurb about Madonna shares the same sexy veneer of rounded translucent neon as... an Internet pop-up window, a Revlon ad, an Ikea chair or a Karim Rashid rug. The contrast between shows such as Cops, Jackass and Survivor and their intermittent commercial breaks serves to jar viewers from one version of „realityš to another. Fischerspooner might argue that the „truest realityš lies in an active grasp of this schizophrenic mediation. In fact, if the group took this philosophy to its most nihilistic end and formed a Fight Club, Roe Ethridgeųarguably the group‚s most important silent collaboratorųwould be its first member. 4

Ethridge made a name for himself a couple of years ago with a grisly head shot of indie rocker Andrew W.K. In the widely-publicized image, reproduced on the cover of W.K.‚s album I Get Wet, a massive nosebleed cascades down the musician‚s face and neck. The blood‚s plausibility notwithstanding, its effect was an intrusion of reality, similar to one that would surface the following year in Ethridge‚s Untitled (Self-portrait)ųa C-print depicting the photographer‚s own preppy face marred by an almost perfect black eye. Unbeknownst to viewers, the injury was acquired during a climbing accident. „The bruise was actual, but looked fake,š the artist says. „The colors looked too vivid to be real. As a society, I think we‚re skeptical of things that look too artificial or created; and maybe that‚s what made me want to make a record of this experience. In a perverse way, it felt like something too good to be true.š5 In both cases, Ethridge‚s works serve as total interruptions given the larger context of their reception. I Get Wet‚s cover is still blacked out across America at every mall shop and Wal-Mart; and the photographer‚s black eye (in addition to being a perfect double entendre) has broken the flow in notable photography group shows for over a year nowųits ambiguous origins leaving the audience queasy and the artist morally questionable.

Roe Ethridge/FS Studios, Casey Spooner, 2003 (courtesy Deitch Projects, New York City).

Ethridge‚s chief strength lies not in shock but in his portrayal of truths that read as stagedųa sensibility that melds perfectly with FS‚s raison d‚être. In an ongoing suite of portraits done in conjunction with the group‚s make-up and costuming team, the photographer runs Spooner through a battery of frontal set-ups that reveal, at once, Spooner‚s total sense of individuality and his slavish service to historical archetypes in art and fashion. The Hefner-esque lounge lizard, boy next door, pasty-faced glitter-goth, Van Halen-era hair farmer, and Bollywood-style sheikųall surface in fresh, updated ways. They read as stiff portrayals or character studies, but document something much deeper and more personal. They are soulful in the same way as a child‚s dream. Oscar Wilde‚s famous axiom that „men, given masks, will tell you the truthš speaks to the heart of this work. As does his historic double reading of earnestness. The dandy is least himself when made to speak in his own person, and is often most innocent inside his satire.6

„Roe‚s shots are meant as a series,š according to Spooner. „The ones that we‚ve just finished kind of take the cliché of őcelebrity iconoclast‚ and turn it on its head... or push it to the őnth degree.‚ We‚ve presented them in a gallery context as large-scale editioned photographs; and they mean one thing there. But now we‚re releasing them to the mainstream, chronologically, in the packaging for the singles [from ő#1‚]. My goal is to release everything through art venues first. I‚d love to perform a record only in the art world for six months, and then release it to Best Buy, so it‚ll have this crazy exclusivity for hyper-linked suburban teenagers in... say, Topeka... who‚ll road trip to Chelsea and have bragging rights that it‚s old hat before everyone else. It‚s so interesting to watch how meanings change in these different worlds.š7

Fischerspooner, Performance at Deitch Projects, New York City, May 2002. (courtesy Claudia Brown/Glamour Pimple, NYC).

December 2002.

Just got back from Miami (and a privately commissioned performance at the home of [contemporary art collector] George Lindemann). Sleeping and eating are overrated. I partied to the break of dawn almost every night, drank tequila and felt like a real cult hero. Bands of adoring youths hosting me about town in the wee hours. All Cuban, cute and hipster. It was real. Really real. It also renewed my love for all the people I work with. Everyone was pushed to the max. No hissy fits, no idiocy. All of us barely fed or given water! I am so thankful for these people.

We‚re leaving on a secret night club tour of Cologne, Rome and Frankfurt next week... trying to finish a DVD. „Fameš better get it‚s shit together ASAP.

Just wait until I tell you about the customized eighteen wheeler!!! 8

What can you say about an action that reveals itself completely? Only that it does. It exists, and dialogue arises from its consequences. Spooner‚s forthrightness with his strategies might seem self-defeating to those with vested interests in the celebrity system; but when read over time, his onstage rants, bitchy press commentary and carefully situated photo ops narrate one of the most powerful collective dreams of the western worldųthe dream of what it‚s like to will oneself into stardom.

At a recent Atlanta performance on the group‚s first full-fledged tour, Spooner‚s mother was spotted crowd surfing, and the Fischerspooner frontman seemed almost teary-eyed when the audience‚s stomping made the backstage CD player skip. Nowhere in the mythology of rock has the disillusionment of the viewer felt so appropriate, complete and joyous. Atlanta was a homecoming show for Spoonerųa native of the South, with a lilt and manner still intact after his travelsųand his performance seemed to complete a circle for all peasant immigrants to Babylon bred one-step removed from the action, on magazines, television and teenage fever dreams.

May 2003.

The longer that I‚m on this rollercoaster, the more I feel the consequences of our honesty. Especially in these venues where people come expecting a kind of fiction, something indescribable is happeningųrifts in the audience that feel so... right.

The „indieš world is full of terrified peopleųall playing prescribed characters dominated by empty signifiers from past subcultures. From the beginning, the show has always felt like a collective disregard of that... of what we‚re supposed to accept or enjoy in a traditional live show. Now, that impulse has expanded exponentially! Expanded to the point where FS and perhaps half of our mainstream audience is saying, together... „Yeah we know the world‚s plastic, but fuck it. We‚ll embrace it, rule it, revel in its honest artificiality, and love this lie‚s ability to reveal the truth.š With every show we do, I can feel repercussions.

The Warhol Museum wants us to stage something site-specific in October. Capitol wants a new record out by February to coincide with A WORLD TOUR! We‚re talking Asia, South America, Europe. America again, preemptively, this fall. That‚s right. FS are going global. So Warren‚s hard at work. We‚re all hard at work.

Like MJ said, ő„somebody‚s gotta save the children.‚š9

NOTES

1,3,8,9. Casey Spooner, excerpted from e-mails to the author, 2002ų2003)

2,7. Interview with Casey Spooner, New York City, October 2002.

4. Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (Henry Holt, 1999).

5. Roe Ethridge, artist‚s talk in conjunction with The Bow, Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, Tennessee, December 2002.

6. Paraphrased from Oscar Wilde‚s Wit And Wisdom (Dover, 1998). The Importance of Being Earnest mocks „earnestnessš in that its insincere characters are rewarded with love, and are eventually proven to not have been acting dishonestly at all.

JOSEPH WHITT is an artist, writer and visiting assistant professor of visual arts at the New College of Florida. An exhibition of his recent work closes this month at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis. Nashville‚s Ruby Green Contemporary Art Center hosts his first curatorial effort, „Superheroes,š in October.

 

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