From the Flying-J to the Backrooms and back again
I just spent a week in Northern California for book research, and while both my copilot (thanks Matthew :) and I have done that drive many times, it was the first time we had since the pandemic began, lending a weird novelty to even the allegedly boring but efficient I-5 route (as opposed to the slow but psychedelically beautiful Highway 1). Things like the once familiar signposts of Pea Soup Andersen’s in Santa Nella and the perversely named Pleasant Valley State Prison in Fresno felt surreal this time; each solitary Live Oak silhouetted against a heat-bleached hillside looked more like a DALL-E rendering of a Steinbeck book cover than actual landscape. On the return leg, we stopped at the Flying-J near Lebec, always a pretty average Grapevine truck-stop up until July when it became the site of one of the biggest jewel heists in history. Read more about how a team of master thieves robbed a Brinks truck of between $10-100 million dollars in gems and jewelry while one driver slept and the other was getting food, and how the mystery has only deepened since, with Brinks claiming physically-impossible timelines of transit in their official statements. If you’re a Heat fan, it’s hard not to become a little obsessed with following this story, and see the dusty Motel 6 and Wendy’s of the Flying-J in a new Dante Spinotti-esque light.
More on the trip itself soon, I hope, but the brief snap of true autumn up in the Bay was a nice reminder of the seasons changing, and how it’s been a while since I sent one of these (and how, like everybody who sends out their newsletter approximately thrice yearly says, I’d like to do it more often 🙃).
Back in June, I wrote about the creepy online folklore of “The Backrooms” and it's expansive (and contested) narrative subcultures. It’s been fascinating to watch this debate continue over the months since the piece was published, and to see more installments uploaded to the YouTube channel of cinematic wunderkind Kane Pixels whose work sort of splits the difference between the camps. If you are interested to check out his ongoing series, I suggest this playlist “The Backrooms (Kane Pixels In Chronological Order” (made by another user) which presents all his episodes in sequence (including unlisted easter eggs like the one that [spoiler alert!] suggests the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake was triggered by the creation of The Backrooms by shadowy government experiment).
“An Institution at the Intersection” (Hyundai Artlab)
I also wrote a short article reflecting on the history of LACMA’s pioneering Art + Tech program and its recent reincarnation, mainly to have the chance to mention one of my favorite projects that was part of the original 1971 edition: the unlikely residency of artist John Chamberlain at the RAND Corporation.
Chamberlain conducted his residency [...] as a form of trickster performance art, at one point circulating a famous memo to the baffled (and eventually hostile) think tank staff reading “I’m searching for ANSWERS. Not questions! If you have any, will you please fill in below, and send them to me in Room 1138.
I didn’t get to mention in the piece that one of the best replies he received was as follows (and you can view at the link):
“AN ARTIST IN RESIDENCE SOOTHES THE CONSCIENCE OF THE MANAGEMENT”
All the Flying-J heist saga made me recall this lovely recent profile of the Mann himself, which includes this great quote about systems thinking and the experience of incarceration:
Like many of Mann’s protagonists, I remarked, this man seemed to have a bird’s-eye view of his position amid various superstructures. Mann nodded. “If you’re an experienced convict,” he said, “you have a systems analysis.”
Handbook of Feelings (October Journal)
A must-read essay by filmmaker Tiffany Sia on the ever-tightening political and artistic climate of Hong Kong, which ends on so powerful a note I don’t want to spoil it here. If you can’t get around the paywall and want to read this (as I highly highly recommend you do) just email me.
The remaking of the city unfolds as a gradual erosion. “It’s actually happening quite fast,” my friend ▇▇▇▇ said recently. “Every week it’s something. And sometimes daily.” Every quarter brings a seismic headline: forty-seven pro- democracy politicians and activists arrested in a single day; the newspaper Apple Daily raided and then pressured into folding; the teachers’ union, which had a membership of 95,000, disbanded under political threat. And yet there is another, less visible front line of the crackdown: the bureaucratic process of censor- ship, the regulation of public spaces and licenses, and the films and artworks the public does not hear about that are never screened or exhibited. You cannot know about what you cannot see.
A sensitive and beautiful essay about celebrity, death, and the desire for greener burial practices (emblematized by the charismatic but apparently not-quite-functional art piece/invention known as the “mushroom death shroud”).
Luke Perry knew about desire, having been buried in a laundry hamper to escape it. He also knew it as the holder of a notion about physical erasure from the planet, that our bodies don’t have to harm the earth when we die. We all know desire. Death is a muse, but desire is a blunter sort of thing.
If you haven’t yet read Jarrett Kobek’s two-part meta-investigation of the Zodiac Killer mythos (which may have accidentally solved the case - yes, really), I hope this recent overview in Los Angeles Magazine will convince you to pick up “Motor Spirit” and “How to Find Zodiac” asap.
At this point, the man was becoming a troubling distraction. Kobek had set out to write a cultural study that explored notions like uncertainty, historical revisionism, and self-validating leaps of logic, not to lose himself in rabbit holes of his own making. But each new bit of information, rather than excluding Doerr, as Kobek expected, seemed to deepen the connections.
Tacita Dean Interview (Vogue)
I liked this interview with artist Tacita Dean on filming in Los Angeles for her many witty lines (“When I first drove up to the Getty, I thought, “My God! It’s like the afterlife”), but especially because it introduced me to this Walter Murch quote I had never heard before:
Walter Murch asked, “Why is it if you shoot an empty room on film, it looks like someone’s going to arrive, [and] if you do it with digital, it looks like someone’s left?” It’s something to do with the anticipatory nature of the medium.”
Thou Old Serpent! (LRB)
Reviewing a 2021 book about exorcisms (“The Penguin Book of Exorcisms”), this essay had this great aside on how the history of exorcism is tied to the development of theatre and performance:
Exorcism has many theatrical qualities, which are sometimes explicitly embraced in non-Christian examples: illusion is the domain of spirits. Among Christians (as Stephen Greenblatt has observed) these qualities are more problematic. Mimetic art – especially theatre – has troubled many Western thinkers, Christian or otherwise. Christianity is founded on a series of truth claims – the gospel, the saving act, the Church’s access to supernatural knowledge – and mixing these claims into a theatrical display is a precarious business. In its golden age, exorcism was a ritual with all the trappings of theatre, but what was happening was taken to be real in a way theatre was not.
This piece came to mind again recently with the release of Nathan Fielder’s “The Rehearsal”, and the equally-if-not-more amazing and discomfiting graphic novel by Nick Drnaso, “Acting Class” (one of my favorite books of the year so far).
Fantasize in the Extreme! (Gawker)
The serendipitous timing of the two and their similarly ominous explorations into the nature of “performance” is covered well here:
The joy of Drnaso’s Acting Class rests on a similar propulsion: when we’re watching each other closely, odd and terrifying things happen.
Doc 079: Matthew Specktor (Interlude Docs)
Also slightly related to the topic of mysterious doppelgangers and detection as a form of performance itself, Matthew wrote this palm-sized essay about an enigmatic business card found in his mother’s archives after her death. It reads:
sub rosa specialists”
One of the best bands in the world is playing Los Angeles on October 3rd! The Mauritanian diva Noura Mint Seymali and her psych-rock band are touring internationally for the first time since COVID, and the experience of seeing them live is not to be missed. Show info here, and the road-trip-ready video for one of their singles from 2016 below:
These images are all from late Japanese artist Akira Kurosaki (黒崎 彰, 1937-2019). Known for his “darkly reverberent” approach to color as a prolific painter and print-maker, he also apparently dabbled in video art? Wish this 1979 video piece held at MoMA was streaming online! There is at least this rad clip of him teaching print-making class in Seattle in 1980 which, for my money, sees and raises Bob Ross ASMR any day of the week.
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