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What’s Happening?

The Confusion is Now

Last Wednesday, Harvard University Art Museums (HUAM) and the Humanities Center inaugurated their joint lecture series, “The Church of What’s Happening Now,” with a conversation with wunderkind video artist Paul Chan—which I think is hysterical.

The program itself is fantastic. Helen Molesworth, HUAM’s curator of contemporary art, organized the series to be the lecture equivalent of that underground music club that you trust to get awesome acts, regardless of whether you’ve ever heard of them. Chan definitely set a great vibe—he’s young, he’s hip, he’s the apotheosis of Now.

But church? No.

Chan is of the post-post-modern breed of iconoclasts. Whereas the original version wanted the utter annihilation of authority, Chan and his tribe just want to spin it around until it falls on its ass. The Vietnam generation has aged out of vogue, and it turns out that anarchy is unpleasant. Chaos, however, is fun.

Three of Chan’s dizzying works are currently on view at the Carpenter Center: Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier) is an animated adaptation of the alternative Bible written and illustrated by “outsider artist” Darger (church indeed) and read through the work of utopian philosopher Fourier. Baghdad in No Particular Order, shot over two months just before the start of the Iraq War, presents scenes of the city’s glorious and disturbing heterogeneity in a 51-minute impressionistic jumble. Finally, there’s 5th Light, part of a series of “lights” that call into question the images and rules of modern life.

During the talk at Harvard, Chan got flowery and philosophical when talking about his artistic process, the way his work plays with silence and absence, how he tries to create a space for “articulate speechlessness” and “dumbfoundedness” (he balked at one point when Molesworth accused him of sounding “churchy”)—and then denied any unique insight into what it all means. I quote, “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Now that is really something—something Now. How am I supposed to know any better than you? And, for that matter, how are you supposed to know any better than I? You may have the power, but I’d be glad to show you where you can stick it.

The whole thing reminded me, believe it or not, of the NBC series 30 Rock. Granted, “articulate speechlessness” is about the last thing you would find in this, one of television’s talkiest programs, but what in the realm popular culture is better at innocently taking the mickey out of the Man? Take the “cat anus” sequence in last week’s episode: The archetypal boss Jack Donaghy, crazed with career disappointment, announces that his new professional goal is to make sure that Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemon can say the phrase “cat anus” on the show she writes for not twice an episode, but three times. “Cat anus, cat anus, cat anus!” Later, to bolster his sagging spirits, Lemon reminds him of his heroic quest. “Remember? ‘Cat anus?’” That’s five “cat anuses” total on the program. Could this be NBC’s actual “cat anus” limit? I’d bet money.

In its nerdy way, 30 Rock calls all the bluffs. The show is all about losing to the Man, but, in taking defeat with a wink and a finger, it’s built up enough trust with its audience that they win anyway. In winning, the Man loses—how confusing for him. And how satisfying for us.

If there is a Church of What’s Happening Now, Paul Chan and Tina Fey can be its anti-priests. At the start of every mass they’ll stand up, give a “hey,” and then open the floor for sardonic stories and masturbation jokes. Perhaps they’ll have prepared a video presentation, in which a family of young hermaphrodites skips around an Elysian paradise shouting “cat anus” and winking at the camera. Laughter will abound. Everyone over 40 will feel uncomfortable. At the end of the sermon, you’ll ask yourself “What just happened?” and feel mischievously empowered when you don’t care what the answer is.

It’s no coincidence that Chan and Fey both work in video. Culture curmudgeon Theodor Adorno wrote that the consequences of television “will be quite enormous and promise to intensify the impoverishment of aesthetic matter so drastically, that by tomorrow the thinly veiled identity of all industrial culture products can come triumphantly out into the open.” Yup, that sounds about right, except it’s Chan and Fey’s triumph, not the industry’s. And industry is still trying to figure out what happened.

Jillian J. Goodman ’09, a Crimson arts writer, is an English concentrator in Quincy House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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