Stainless-steel subway cars, known as R32s or Brightliners, at the Grand Street station in Manhattan in 1967. Patrick A. Burns/The New York Times

Competence porn


Cosmo Bjorkenheim: Under the Hays Code, methods of crime were not to be explicitly presented in the movies, but ever since at least Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties there’s been a sort of sub-genre of crime/heist movie (that I’ve heard called “competence porn”) that lays out criminal techniques in forensic detail like a how-to guide (Rififi probably being the classic example). In his recent book on Bresson, Brian Price even praised Pickpocket for teaching the audience “how to live outside of the system of capital.” Can you think of other examples of this sub-genre and what its political/practical value might be, beyond merely fetishizing technique?

Luc Sante: Jacques Becker’s Le trou, which makes you think that you, too, could escape from prison, and many of Jean-Pierre Melville’s movies have this quality, too—Bob le Flambeur, Le cercle rouge, Un flic… It’s a quality I associate more with French movies than American ones, maybe because of the Hays Code, maybe because of the Cartesian method every French person receives intravenously in school. On the other hand, there’s Ulu Grosbard’s tremendous Straight Time and even David O. Russell’s flawed but interesting American Hustle, so I could just be misremembering. In any event, the great advantage to this sort of approach is that it turns the picture into a narrative machine. It invites suspense—waiting for something to go wrong—but also its inverse, the satisfaction of watching gears mesh and billiard balls fall into their pockets. This putative subgenre treats crime as work and the accomplished criminal as an artisan, and watching difficult work done well and smoothly is a great pleasure that has otherwise been insufficiently exploited by cinema. I should also say that Kurosawa’s crime pictures have this quality in spades. I sense that Johnnie To would also be adept at depicting work, but he kills his characters before you get a chance to find out.

CB: A lot of classic crime fiction is being reevaluated as “literature” tout court (Richard Stark’s Parker novels being republished by University of Chicago Press, Highsmith by Norton, Simenon and Manchette by NYRB). Does this simply reflect haphazard market forces, or is the canon expanding for some other reason?

LS: I think we’ve come to realize in the past twenty or thirty years that the very notion of genre is a myth, a holdover of nineteenth-century bourgeois prejudices. There are great crime fictions and great science fictions—and there are lousy coming-of-age and breakup-of-marriage and identity-crisis stories. Because of the economics involved, there is of course an enormous amount of subpar crime and sci-fi (and Western and aviation and so on). Writers were paid small amounts and enjoyed little prestige, and often had to pump out a novel every month to pay the rent. The ones who managed to transcend those limitations in their work were relatively rare. Those who succeeded more often than not—Westlake/Stark, Highsmith, Manchette, Simenon, Chester Himes—were simply phenomenal. And even those whose generally huge output was generally spotty but who now and then wrote a great book—e.g., Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Frederic Brown, Charles Willeford—seem slightly miraculous.

CB: Jim Thompson is one of my favorite hardboiled writers, because apart from probing the minds of psychotic law-enforcers, he teaches us a lot about working life in America, having experienced it first-hand. Who do you find to be the most honest crime writers in this regard?

LS: Here it’s time to mention Elmore Leonard, who wrote wonderfully crafted books, with expert pacing, perfect dialogue, and ingenious plots, that nevertheless evaporate so quickly in my mind that I’ve been able to reread them as avidly as if I were an amnesiac. He’s very good on the subject of work, as is Willeford. What they have in common with Thompson is that they all held all kinds of jobs, whereas most of the others named above were always writers. Simenon could research the hell out of most areas of life, but for all that his psychological acuity was second to none, you don’t actually feel the sweat and sinew of manual labor in his prose. 

De Quincey between stone and flowers

The prevailing tenor of De Quincey’s writing is upwards: a spirit of lightness pervades it. He was famously fussy and fastidious (Coleridge spoke of his being ‘even to something of old bachelor preciseness accurate … in all he does’). He was also incurably facetious and apt to flippancy. Children adored him, not excepting his own. In his writing persona, he turned all this to advantage. The material conditions under which he wrote may have caused him excruciating stress, but the writing itself came naturally to him. His command of the symbolic order of grammar was his answer to the disorder of his life. On the page, he could shape himself as he wanted to be known and believed himself to be, turning the traits which brought him censure and reproof into a source of entertainment and the occasion for applause. Both parts of the Confessions [of An English Opium-Eater] celebrate a life of truancy and delinquency: the first part, in telling the story of how he ran away from school and went wandering about Wales, and of his time as a young down and out in London; the second, in its picturesque account of his opium experiences, topped off by the rehearsal of his artfully scary dreams. Through writing about himself, De Quincey salvaged the wreck of his existence and fashioned unusual and amusing artworks from it. But whatever his subject, he performed himself in every sentence he wrote.

He took pains over the task of capturing his voice on the page, writing slowly and calculating his effects with a meticulous eye. He’d been thinking about the technical aspects of writing since he was a child. Born in 1785, he learned to write in schools where study of the classics dominated a curriculum that hadn’t changed in essence for centuries and wasn’t to change for a while yet. Clever and competitive, he excelled in the construing and pastiche of Greek and Latin texts and in the rhetorical techniques required to write model essays on set themes. By the time he was in his mid-teens, he could run effortlessly up and down the scales of late 18th-century idiom.

Prose style arises out of an accommodation between the competing claims of brevity and ornament. Everything we write tends either to the epigrammatic or to the periphrastic, the terse or the expansive, the lapidary or florid, stone or flowers. De Quincey was on the side of the flowers. Stone had reached its consummation in Johnsonian apophthegm. Amplified and projected onto the world by Boswell, it would exert its influence for decades after Johnson’s death. De Quincey grew up in the Johnsonian force field, but resisted it, developing a style that took its sustenance from pre-Augustan writers such as Jeremy Taylor and Thomas Browne. It was as if he had struck water from the Johnsonian rock, liberating the spirit of loquacity from the inert and massy block in which it had been imprisoned. Humour is integral to this radical and insurgent turn and, if we want to place De Quincey in a tradition, he flows with the current that streamed from Sterne to Dickens and onward to Joyce.

For De Quincey, writing, like conversation, was a social stage. ‘De Quincey talks to us,’ Wilson writes, ‘in the way people talk after dinner, several bottles down, when the table is cleared and the night is young.’ He thought that good prose should consist of a ‘graceful succession of sentences, long intermingled with short, each modifying the other, and arising musically by links of spontaneous connexion’. But writing also has to perform the act of thinking. Tucked away in a footnote to his essay on rhetoric, published in Blackwood’s in 1828, we find this: ‘Every truth, be it what it may, every thesis of a sentence, grows in the very fact of unfolding it … Hence, while a writer of Dr Johnson’s class seems only to look back upon his thoughts, Burke looks forward, and does in fact advance and change his own station concurrently with the advance of the sentences.’ For De Quincey, Wilson writes, ‘to see a thing grow was to catch it in a state of grace.’

De Quincey returned to the idea of writing as an organic process in an exuberant excursus on the nature of his own writing practice, at the beginning of his Suspiria de Profundis, an autobiographical essay published in 1845 as a sequel to the Confessions. Responding to ‘cynical’ and ‘surly’ readers who objected to the narrative arrangement of the earlier work, he launched into a thousand-word digression on the virtues of a digressive style. Kind readers, he said, would understand that the childhood narrative in the Confessions was included not for the ‘mere facts’ of the case ‘but because these facts move through a wilderness of natural thoughts or feelings; some in the child who suffers; some in the man who reports; but all so far interesting as they relate to solemn objects’.

Spectacle as an architectural tactic

On May 3, A/D/O hosted an exploration of how two distinct tactics of architectural intervention can use spectacle in the service of subtle social commentary. Moderated by Karen Wong of NEW INC and Ideas City, the talk contrasted the approach of the architectural collective Assemble with that of artists Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe. The large-scale but palpably DIY projects included Assemble’s transformation of a gas station into a cinema and Freeman and Lowe’s environmental sculpture, in which a sprawling fictional world was created from whole cloth, hidden in a desolate building in Marfa, Texas.

Assemble’s projects often explore how freeform architectural collaborations can reanimate otherwise deserted public spaces. Wong asked Hall how she characterized their practice: do they think of themselves as community organizers, or social therapists? Hall considered. “We call ourselves builders,” she said. The ad hoc approach to their gas station as cinema was designed to entangle its construction with the public: “We spent one month building the whole thing on-site with a number of volunteers.” The project emerged out of the intersection between material necessity and public feasibility. “This was the only drawing we did,” Hall said, “a description of how to cut scaffolding board in the most efficient way.”

Made entirely of materials reclaimed in Central London, the Cineroleum as it was constructed presented an urban paradox. The cinema — normally an insulated, air-conditioned envelope — could be woven into the fabric of the city. “You are part of the cinema,” Hall explained. “Whilst you’re watching the film, the world around you is going by. It’s on one of the busiest streets in London, and throughout the film you hear the cars go by, the surrounding noises.”

“At the end of the film, the curtain rises — and the audience becomes the spectacle,” Hall said. Made of reflective Tyvek, the Cineroleum’s curtain became a porous membrane between theater and street life, symbolic in a sense of the way such contingent structures could perforate the interior and exterior, and play them against each other. “We think of spectacle as a tactic.”

The Cineroleum was as much a product of the transformation from petrol station to theater as it was the transformation of an artifact of urban banality to one of social invigoration. “A lot of the process is throwing something out there and seeing how people react to it as a space,” Hall said. The motions of film-going becoming a theater of the commons public in real time. “It’s creating that moment.”

In contrasting Assemble’s architectural experiment with Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s more sculptural installation, Karen Wong posed the question: “Are they artists? Are they architects? Do we even care?”

Freeman and Lowe’s Hello Meth Lab In The Sun (2008) employs the tools of both professions, confounding the geometry of an existing volume by obscuring its size and filling it with a dense accumulation of aesthetically freighted material. “The gallery space at was an old ballroom,” Jonah Freeman recalled. “Converted into one gallery. We went in and built twenty-six rooms in it.” From weary-looking entry hall to ominous meth lab to surveillance closet, the serial transformations were staged like a series of dramatic scenes. “The sequence is everything. The size of the volumes — a tight room that opens into a larger room is a kind of jump-cut. Your sense of time begins to be manipulated.”

Sun tubes piped in outside light, but otherwise the rooms were designed to baffle any connection to the outside world — entering Hello Meth Lab was a portal to a densely-imagined world increasingly distant from the outside world. To prepare, Freeman and Lowe produced photoshoots and shooting scripts to direct the physical execution of the project, providing it with enough imaginative material, in fact, to fill twenty-six more rooms. “We were asked to do another iteration of it,” Freeman said. “That became the ‘extended dance remix’ — Black Acid Co-Op at Jeffrey Deitch.”

Whereas Assemble’s Cineroleum invited visitors to reconsider their relationship to their public commons, Hello Meth Lab was posed as a hermetic descent into a parallel reality. But both challenge the complacency of expectation.

The patterning of obscure symbolism that played out through the space and the recurring cult-like fascinations would reappear in different forms in later works. Freeman and Lowe share a running joke that their graduate student seminar, if they had one, would be called “Community, Ritual, and Group Psychosis.”

Assemble’s first studio was called Yard House. Built cheaply as a light industrial building, its residents included metalworkers, textile designers, illustrators, artists. Hall reflected that Assemble’s projects always seem to develop half-way between the designers and their neighbors: “It’s a fluid boundary between a work in progress and something that’s finished.”

Hall remarked on the contrast between the presentations: Assemble’s experiments were shown filled with social activity while the artists’ were packed with the detritus of habitation but no actual people. Wong wondered if, for Assemble, visitors were stakeholders, whereas for Freeman and Lowe, they were more like actors. Lowe weighed the comparison. “The public is a crucial part,” he said. “But we don’t think of these projects as being interactive. They’re sculptures — the visitor enters into a physical environment not to be utilized, but to be explored.”

In both projects, the sense of an “abandoned building” as an inert tract of urban decay was turned on its head. The spectacle of that transformation demonstrated that disused spaces could present, as Hall put it, “an experience that people construct together.”

The Taste Makers (2009)

At the end of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Wonka tells Charlie Bucket that an adult could never run his factory. “Mind you, there are thousands of clever men who would give anything for the chance to come in and take over from me, but I don’t want that sort of person,” he says. “I don’t want a grown-up person at all.” But Wonka surely would have hired Hagen. Her office resembles a walk-in high-school locker, if such a thing existed. The walls are covered with magazine clippings, photographs, and Post-its; a clock-size Swatch with a blue kangaroo painted on it; and a dry-erase board with lists of words meant to inspire flavor creation (“baobab,” “jujube,” “mamoncillo”). Tacked here and there are paint chips from Benjamin Moore, which she once used as aides to memorize the aromas of approximately a thousand chemicals. California Lilac was ethyl isovalerate; Mellow Yellow was gamma octalactone.

Stole "Moab" Stojmenov for Migos


James Wright: 'A Poem Recreates Itself'

John Berryman was a very great poet and I think his work is going to endure. And not just because he was a good craftsman, but because he was demonstrating in his poetry, I think without realizing it completely, the fact that a poem is not only a single thing that can be made and very beautifully constructed, but that poetry is also something that can go on being made and it can almost reach a point where it recreates itself. By the growth of his work, and he never stopped growing, he was showing that there is something about poetry in the human imagination which is like the spring.

Tolstoy worried about this question. He was asked in a letter by a pacifist group if he could give them a definition of religion and, if he could do that, to explain to them the relation between religion, that is, what a person believes, and morality, that is, the way he acts in accord with some notion of how he ought to act. Tolstoy worried about this letter, and then as I recall it, he said: “I can only go back to myself. I look around myself and I see every year that, no matter what people do to themselves and to one another, the spring constantly renews itself. This is a physical fact, not a metaphysical theory. I look at every spring and I respond to it very strongly. But I also notice that every year the spring is the same new spring and every year I am one year older. I have to ask the question: what is the relation between my brief and tragic life and this force in the universe that perpetually renews itself? I further believe that every human being asks this question. He cannot avoid asking it—it is forced upon him. And his answer to that question is his religion. If he says the relation between me and this thing is nothing, then his religion is nihilism. As for morality, what ought I to do? I wish I knew.”

…There is another tradition I’d like to mention. It is based on sheer arrogance, the determination to live. Poetry can keep life itself alive.

Benjamin's "Arcades" at The Jewish Museum

Mary Reid Kelley, Charles Baudelaire, 2013, ink-jet print, 22 × 16”.

For Walter Benjamin, Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century, not only a center of cultural production but a capital as metaphor—a metonymy for modernity more generally. The contrast between its chaotic street life and the orderly arcade passages that framed its shop windows became the structural concept for his last work, the unfinished Arcades Project, written between 1927 and 1940. This compilation of quotes and original writings is, in turn, the organizing principle for this show combining wall texts by Kenneth Goldsmith and works by Walead Beshty, Andrea Bowers, Nicholas Buffon, Cindy Sherman, Mungo Thomson, and others.

Benjamin’s book is organized into chapters he calls “convolutes,” with headings ranging from “The Theory of Knowledge” to “Idleness.” Curator Jens Hoffmann has matched each of these with an artist. Thus, four photographs from 2009 to 2011 titled New York City by Lee Friedlander are grouped under “Convolute M: The Flâneur.” Friedlander’s camera captures mannequins glimpsed through shop windows. The interior layering with the cityscape is captured in reflection—an equivalent to how Benjamin’s flâneur might have seen the arcades of Paris. “Convolute J: Charles Baudelaire” is represented by a Mary Reid Kelley ink-jet print portrait of the poet (Charles Baudelaire, 2013). If Arcades had a hero, it was the ragpicker, a person who Baudelaire championed as the custodian, and curator, of Paris: “All that the city has rejected, all that it has lost, shunned, disdained, broken, this man catalogues and stores. He creates order, makes an intelligent choice . . . he gathers the refuse that has been spit out by the god of Industry.” The conversation, literal and ironic, between these widely varied works and Benjamin’s text is an argument for W. B. Yeats’s claim that “the living can assist in the imagination of the dead.”

The myth of Kramer-Grotesk

That two though

From James Schuyler’s “Unlike Joubert,” c. 1970 (?):

…All that is
clear on this shadowless day under
a sky like a shadow is that the first
thought was gray, a harshly bright
blue-gray, a piece of too highly colored
slate, while the second was gray
as some roses are, or hair you see
was once red, a gray with the charm
and warmth to it of an intimate and
not overly cozy room, one with woodwork
by Pajou, or like worn upholstery, or
your first biplane. As different as
day from night, and as alike,
just as their connective—the nothing which
may not have been—was also a gray,
creamier, lighter, and shifty-eyed
as the sky or a big flat button
cut out of a seashell, the polished
off husk of oyster, perhaps:
subtle days in winter when thought
sinks down in the presence of an absence.