South by Southwest

I don’t realise how much London attitude I’ve got till I’m in the Hourglass Inn and spot a youngish barman sporting a tufty ginger beard and another youngster in a trilby: I’m cursing them already for the sheer affectedness of it all before I remember that this isn’t 93 feet east and sometimes people just wear beards and hats.

Phew. The next morning I find out that in Exeter you can pay what you like for a book, but the bookshop staff don’t get paid (“it’s in the constitution” says the dreadlock on the phone), and that culture exists outside the M25: Spacex have a pretty excellent Cory Arcangel show on.

I’ve been dying to play I Shot Andy Warhol, for a while… it’s based on an old NES game, Hogan’s Alley, one of the first to be played with a light gun. The cartridge has been physically hacked (the plastic sawed away, the chips removed, reprogrammed and soldered back in) to replace the baddies with Andy Warhol, and the don’t-shoot-‘em goodies with Flavor Flav, the Pope and Colonel Sanders. Keep shooting Andy, and eventually you start to feel like Valerie Solanas. As a bonus you can also blast ricochets off spinning Campbell’s Soup cans.

In Sans Simon, Arcangel edits Paul Simon out of a 1960s Simon and Garfunkel performance with his hands, interjecting their shadow between a projector and the wall, which is then refilmed. In Colors, the top line of pixels of Dennis Hopper’s cop drama of the same name is stretched downwards to fill the whole screen, so the soundtrack plays to a rippling curtain of moody greens and purples. The Bruce Springsteen Glockenspiel Addendum takes the few tracks on Born to Run which don’t contain glockenspiel, and adds the missing instrument. The format is a giveaway CD. The track lengths remain unchanged: pop it in a drive and the CDDB will read it as the original. Put it up as a torrent, and the unauthorised version will spread, an invisible virus.

The centrepiece, a couple thousand short films about Glenn Gould, reassembles the first of Bach’s Goldberg variations from the single notes of thousands of YouTube musical performances. Twin screens play separate melody lines, synchronised with simultaneous frame grabs from the amateur movies. For my money, Oliver Laric did this sort of thing better with his ICA piece Under the Bridge in which renditions of the Chilli Peppers’ ballad were similarly stitched together note by note as single frames accumulated in rows filling a four-times-normal-width screen. That piece had something about fandom and guitar-devotion in it that Arcangel lacks.

As media art, Arcangel’s stuff is about the usual clever media art things – the ubiquity of video, low-tech techniques in a high-tech age, the accidentally aesthetic qualities of everyday media. But more importantly, it’s very funny – watching Paul Simon trying to sing from behind Arcangel’s hands, the crappy eight-bit sound as Warhol takes another direct hit, the fact that many of the instruments in the Glenn Gould piece are being played by cats and hamsters: each time, it’s a giggle.

Also made from what’s found, Virgil Widrich’s Fast Film, playing on the closing night of Animated Exeter, takes the archetypal Hollywood chase and projects it onto virtual origami. As the basic forms of the chase scene are animated with the folded-paper forms of racing train carriages and paper planes, each surface has embedded into it carefully-picked scenes from the entire array of movie history. Bond walks along an underground passage: as he passes behind pillars he ripples from Connery to Moore and back again. A woman is fiendishly manacled, but her head rotates on a lever-operated disk: here’s Janet Leigh emoting anguish – click – now Tippi Hedren. The cumulative effect, like that of Cremassticparkinator 3, is to demonstrate how alike films are not only in their plot and structure but also in their gesture and manner. The kiss, the punch, the laugh: all repeated a million times.

Films about other films are fantastic, and it took reading Dubravka Ugresic to make me realise that one of the simple and unpretentious pleasures of postmodern literature is reading books that are about other books. At seventeen, studying it for A-level, much of the emotional impact of The French Lieutenant’s Woman was missing from a work of literature that’s all about other literature. Visiting Lyme Regis for the first time goes some way to exorcising the ghosts of that spine-bent paperback illuminated with dayglo marker pen. However, it’s not the 1860s but the 1970s that are most immediately evoked: there’s a shop where you can still buy backjacks and fruit salads for a penny each.

In fact what’s most striking about the place is not the cobb (crowded, slippy and a bit short) but the long Jurassic cliffs stretching west. Here was once shallow seawater, teeming with spirally little ammonites dutifully dying, falling into mud and getting lithified into cute fossils. Tectonic action has lifted the resulting near-perfectly horizontal strata out of the sea and into cliffs of shale from which the fossils can easily be pried. Carl says that the creatures found in higher levels show clearly higher levels of morphological complexity than the creatures in lower levels, an irrefutable demonstration of the thesis of gradual evolutionary advancement.

How could the heart of a fervent atheist be gladdened further? Sadly, these days it seems to take more than overwhelming evidence for the scientific theory of evolution to prevent even the most po-faced bishop-basher to declare that they like getting Christmas presents anyway. Thankfully, the beauty of mere nature prevails: on the drive back to Exeter, we drive into the most gorgeous of sunsets: a burnished orange glow, filtered through the naked branches of windswept trees.

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