“What does this guy think he’s an Indian?
What is he a goddamn asshole? what the fuck is he doin’?
This thing is a song, a work of comedy, a video on Youtube, and a hyper-linked index of particular social schema. It is an object which has proven an uncanny ability to reintroduce itself repeatedly within various contexts of my life, infrequently by my own choosing. Nearly a decade after the creation of Drinking out of Cups, I have an acquaintance with a corresponding seahorse tattoo, and another who’s Facebook moniker is “Johnny Hammerstix”, an improvised entity mentioned in the piece. Relevant catchphrases, formerly relegated to a small, localized cadre have trickled down into vastly disparate corners of my social reach.
Instead of locating Drinking Out of Cups as a singular subject to be deconstructed, I use it as more of a matrix, a loci of various intersections between aesthetics, politics, human actors and technology. The significance of the video can be grander and livelier than any one perspective, and as such multiple methodologies will be deployed in its explication. The text itself should be read as a networked document, referencing both internally and externally indexed media. As part of an effort to build a sensuous, lived symmetry alongside similar internet-enabled objects, the ideal version of this essay is consumed in html form and read through a browser with broadband internet connection. This object has no immediately emergent tactility, and as such, is best emulated and enacted through analogous mediated forms. The footnotes are not superfluous, normative academic requirements here. They are present to enliven the document, to encourage interruption and deepen experiential play. Please, click through the various registers of links present. They serve not only as a means to contextualize the analyzation, but also to contemplate the virtual, hyper-linked object by approximation and lived experience.
Shared History (Get Older)
Dan Deacon’s work found its way into my periphery through a confluence of factors. We share an alma-matter, and he was present in both the banal and performance arenas on the SUNY Purchase campus experience circa 2004/05. I’d entered college at a time when file-sharing as means to distribute music wasn’t only ubiquitous, but a truism of media consumption amongst peers. Present were the well known file-sharing networks of Napster and Limewire, but key in this narrative were the widespread use of local ISP networks in dormitories and university servers to host/share files. Long before I’d ever encountered Dan in performance or social capacity, I’d become aware of him through communed presence in my peers’ hard drives.
The investment in the work was at first nearly entirely social. Deacon’s unique brand of absurdist musical provocation proved an apt window into divining those with like-minded sensibilities from others. The ability to talk about his music amidst some cultural outlier brinksmanship was a badge of honor, a particular claim to my own naïve outsider status particular to this liberal arts campus proudly wearing alterity on its sleeve. Drinking out of Cups, an eminently strange, stream-of-conscious recording consisting purely of Dan’s voice, became an objet du-jour, quoted widely amongst friends and shared with those like-minded outside the campus bubble. Dan Deacon appeared to be wonderfully befuddling and beautifully strange. No one seemed to be sure just what Dan was doing or why, but we all laid some claim to him as one of our own.
Dan was a graduate student, working on an MA in electronic composition at the music conservatory in tandem with a beguiling number of extra-curricular activities. Sweaty, neon, dada-esqueperformance acts were commonplace on the weird-inclined campus, and Deacon acted as a force of cohesion within. Dozens of loosely associated artists and musicians (many of which would later move to Baltimore under the Wham City banner) shared a matrix of aesthetics: day-glow lasers, cartoons, noise, synthesizers, absurdity, improvisation-centric, and community celebratory fun. Groups performed under black lights wearing self-crafted foam heads. Keytars and hacked thrift-store Casios were deployed. Candy and popcorn was thrown at unsuspecting crowds. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was once performed in its entirety, resplendent with jubilant singing sex toys, only to be followed the next year with Jurassic Park: The Musical. There was a palpable consistency to the frames of madness, a now normalized type of wonderment, play, and follow ever-present in the community.
Alongside these performances, Deacon was regularly putting on classically informed exhibitions of his music as any conservatory student would be expected. Entrenched in computerized music from early on, sine-wave generators, pitch-shifters and auto-tuned synthesizers were entered into a cosmology of violas, clarinets, and French horns. In tension with the controlled, punk-informed ethos of his regular shows, the electronic-based pieces in concert hall settings allowed for contemporary compositional influences like Terry Riley and Steve Reich to be discerned alongside Kraftwork or Raymond Scott.
By the time I’d graduated in 2008, Dan and the rest of the Wham City Collective had relocated in large part to a notorious squat in Baltimore and begun releasing albums on established independent record labels. Conspiring with the spread of broadband, Youtube was becoming a cultural institution. As I grew older, the social deployment of my familiarity with Dan and his work took on a new morphology. He’d become an established artist in the independent music scene, andDrinking out of Cups had gone “viral” alongside a corresponding youtube video featuring a talking lizard.
Dan was now a topic discussed by others without my prompting, and my tact vis-à-vis invocation of him had turned to that of informative origin narration, regaling the under-informed with a somehow increasingly exaggerated closeness to the artist. I’ve been to numerous performances since, two at Lincoln Center (“classically” oriented shows in performance halls) and one at the Hayden Planetarium (Dan’s mainstay, a “pop” oriented show). Most recently, his show Lincoln Center was broadcast live and coast-to-coast on many syndicates of NPR. Additionally, he’s composed the score for the most recent Francis Ford Coppola film, remixing the music in live collaboration with the director.
De Wall’s method of combining biography with the life of an object inThe Hare with Amber Eyes makes clear the power of giving said object a social history. Taken alongside other registers such as aesthetics and economic flows, a personal trajectory (especially that of the author of a study) hopefully gives a reflexive dimension and an insider’s window into the subject. I use this account to function as a useful anchor, a narrative thrust through which the audience can identify and contextualize the analyses. In particular, the discussions of aesthetics, networks, or distinctions betwixt object and thing which proceed are to be refracted through my experience.
Psychedelia / Ephemera / Networks
“In 2002 i recorded myself watching television with the sound off doing a character that was meant to embody long island culture (where i grew up). I was NOT on acid when I made this piece. I have NEVER DONE ACID.
While I have no problem with psychedelics and think that they are important to human culture, I do want it to be known that i was not on any psychedelics or any drugs while making this piece. it was all stream of conscience, reacting to watching the TV, changing the channels, with the sound of, talking to it as if it were a person communicating back to me.”
Drinking out of Cups should be realized alongside its many aesthetic-related entanglements: related artistic output, co-contributors, histories of sampled/remixed imagery and aural characteristics. They’re all imbued with a monastic quality and a certain appeal towards psychedelia, some rather overtly. I use the term purely in the Huxleyian sense of the “soul manifest”, that of a certain core truth underlying the surface. Psychedelia here, as both aesthetic and method functions as dialogic: 1: a practice-based claim to the assemblages with which an emergent understanding of things may lie, and 2: the more overt aesthetic movement arising out of late 1960s counter-culture.
The “lyrics” of the work are improvised, a stream of inspiration in a darkened closet: a conspiracy of Dan, a flickering, channel-changing television, and an unidentified remote control steward. For two minutes and forty three seconds the imagery is anchored around a core narration of a talking lizard, the words becoming manifests of object and setting. Seashells, cups, headdresses, crowns, and vulgarities themselves emerge in material form, conjured from somewhere. The video grows increasingly surreal as beings (Mr Walkway and the dancing kid) are invoked betwixt half-way gibberish. A walkway with legs emerges. There’s an earnest paean to seahorses. A lot happens, and nothing really happens at all.
What to make then, of its power to resonate with millions of people? There is something hallucinogenic here watching familiar imagery arise out of ostensible chaos. This sensation is not particular to this video, considering his oeuvre. Why might I, upon perusing the catalog of the artist I’m tangentially interacting with, be perceiving insects, flowers, and phalluses manifest in mandalas of Arnold Schwarzenegger and warplanes? There is repetition of visual and aural forms, fractals of light and sound. Things in the imagery begin to reveal themselves as chance encounters with the familiar, the randomness and context of the event lending itself to metaphysical invocations of divinity intertwined with chaos. There’s both a procession of meaning-making and a mockery of it all together as one.
A kinship with Baltrusaitis’ remarks on the relics of entheogenic marble and wood is to be found here. Both play on multiple registers of thought and the experience of an emergent duel materiality out the singular. Where might we find the locus of the truth-making process, the core of some identification process between the complex web of artist, object, and audience? What is the role of chaos, of the perceived randomness between producer and audience, and the role of chance? What role does the individual play in terms of locating the emergent? Jurgis Baltrusaitis, in Aberrations, writes of random, naturally (in)formed hybrids of artist and found material. He interrogates the interlocution of context, object, audience, and creator. What does this interaction mean in the context of Drinking Out of Cups? Where can we, amidst absurdity and relatively emergent/contingent forms, begin to find relational truth or identification (sight, sound, or otherwise) locations they empirically could not be? What role might nature (or culture) have in the creation of the aforementioned meaning-making practices for us as individuals or groups?
In certain material terms, Drinking Out of Cups exists purely as data, and manifests itself through vast networks of hyperlinks, protocols, and service providers. Google, the owner of Youtube, has roughly a dozen data centers set up throughout the United States. Servers of unknown (though undoubtedly vast) quantities are housed in shipping containers and contain back-ups for both data and electricity. This is only part of the story. To exist outside the data-form of ones and zeros, to be manifest in audio/video form, Drinking Out of Cups must be called for, clicked through, beckoned by hyperlink.
Hyperlinks are the sinew of the world wide web, the feasible paths charting through impossible amounts of content. The “link layer” of the massive network heuristically called “the internet”, has existed in design from before the famed Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency initiative of 1972. A continuation of communication techniques afforded by the telegraph, hyperlinks first rose out of the privately funded Xanadu Project in the 1960s. Radical from inception, the project took inspiration from a Vannevar Bush article, “As We May Think” in The Atlantic from 1945. Bush, surveying a bevy of post-war technology, forecasts a growing consolidation of information, a networked archive of images, forms, and information into one set of machinery. The aesthetic of the network supposed is one of relationality, of mass assemblage, of form applied to chaos:
“It affords an immediate step, however, to associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another… The process of tying two items together is the important thing. When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. At the bottom of each there are a number of blank code spaces, and a pointer is set to indicate one of these on each item. The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined.” (Bush, 6)
The move is towards organization, with an eye towards the bounty of time afforded to science and intellectuals at large. Specialization, in the sense of labor, becomes less apt. Efficiency reigns, and as a prologue to the coming cybernetic movement, machinery and communications are said to ape the form of the human mind. Logic of a particular kind becomes very important to the flows of information, and the ways of the new machines become everyday. The exactitude forecast, the intensely rational workings of these new automatic devices, is astutely summated. Bush misses something in his prescience. All the static, the noise, and a new kind of confusion.
Provocation / Offense / Noise
There are many among us for whom the life force is best represented by the livid twitching of one tortured nerve, or even a full-scale anxiety attack. I do not subscribe to this point of view 100%, but I understand it, have lived it. Thus the shriek, the caterwaul, the chainsaw gnargnashing, the yowl and the whizz that decapitates may be reheard by the adventurous or emotionally damaged as mellifluous bursts of unarguable affirmation.
Written as a letter to a friend (Composer Francesco Balilla Pratella), Luigi Russolo’s The Art of Noises argues a radical alternative to classical western music pantheon. Citing massive changes in post-industrial revolution, sound ecologies, Russolo critiques traditional orchestral instruments and formations as inept in translating the spirit of modern life. Harmony, as traced from ancient Greek Pythagorean tetrachord mathematics, has sprouted into complexity from a palette of but a few consonant intervals unfolding in time. Noise is highlighted not only for it’s contemporary ubiquity, but for it’s forward looking and seemingly infinite temporalities and sounds. The power is not in the mirroring of the contemporary, but in the provocation, in the process of creating sounds of alterity. Russolo gives six families of “Noises for the Futurist Orchestra”: Amidst hisses, roars, explosions, scrapes, and creaks; family number three: “Whispers, Murmurs, Mumbling, Muttering, Gurgling” (Russolo 4).
Western music, though clearly following a trajectory of complexity over time, remains confined to notions of harmony and chord structure until the 20th century. The arrival of shifting pitches, atonality, and a focus on altering the temporality of sound became integral in the forms of music concréte, free jazz, hip hop, punk and heavy metal. I raise the history of noise in a musical context not only to illustrate one aesthetic component of Deacon’s work (though his use of sampling, pitchshifting, and sometimes harsh sounds certainly carries this tradition) but to highlight the role machines played in the rise of this particular form of sound. Noise manifests itself as an intrusion or interference, the opposite of resonance. Noise cannot exist in itself, only in opposition to a system of expected transmission and routinized reception. Lester Bangs, the eminent rock music critic, lays this to bare in the quote which introduces this section. Noise, in it’s antithesis to a dominant paradigm of taste, embodies a kind of blunt critique of normativity and contemporality. Drinking Out of Cups fits this description of sound several times unto itself. Dan’s voice is mediated by the remote control, the television, the recording device, and the player. It is both gibberish and the perfect manifestation of power, accrued in its lack of local context, stark otherness and reclamation. The noise aesthetic is portable to describe medium as well, to articulate Youtube ephemera, to render absurdity and offensiveness.
There was a particularly revelatory moment in February at Merkin Concert Hall while watching Dan premier an hour-long piece, Frog with Opal Eyes.The work was broadcast nationally by WNYC through hundreds of National Public Radio affiliates. Swaths of discordant, grayed drones emanated from the stage, repurposing nine classical musicians by auto-tune. Amidst the thick, breathy mix of sound, it was impossible to differentiate among the individuals onstage. The keys rippled on a player-piano, fed live sine-waves by Dan on the fly. Although mesmerized by the spectacle, I’d become weary of the sound, and a quick glance around the room revealed the limits Dan seemed to be testing pushing the audience to. The sound became massive and imposing, stuck in a kind of Pendereckian slide. The very harsh cyclical movement spiraled into perpetual discordant filigrees. My heart rate increased, a physical manifest of the anxiety I was processing as art.
Suddenly, a personal realization of scale. The performance was much larger than those in the room, beaming out the synchronized anxiety through hundreds of NPR syndicated radio stations across the country.
“The monologue of standardized, stereotyped music accompanies and hems in a daily life in which in reality no one has the right to speak any more. Except those among the exploited who can still use their music to shout their suffering, their dreams of the absolute and freedom. What is called music today is all too often only a disguise for the monologue of power. “ -Jacques Attali “Noise and Politics”
The politics of the situation changed immediately. The possibility of radio dials either moving away or (better!) accidently falling upon the walls of jarring sound. The vastness suddenly became very present. The inclusion of the webcast potentially networked an audience across the globe. I clung to the notion of someone, somewhere, happing upon the shared struggle as the movement shifted into something brighter and inclusive.
Dan had introduced the musicians that evening alongside a half-joking apology, and would offer a mea culpa to the audience once the performance had ended. A year prior, at the very same esteemed performance hall, Dan treated the audience to (in part) nothing more than the sound of soda bottles rigged with microphones, releasing hissing air for 8 minutes. Dan’s art, in addition to its aural capacities, clearly needs to be held up amidst qualities of provocation, pushing, testing, and prodding the audience. There’s something to be explored in this assemblage of composer, musician, technology, and audience, a relationship involving a clear pull and push dichotomy. Dan seems savvy enough to know that he gets a larger allowance as the self-deprecating, absurdist techno-dance ringleader than as the self-serious modern composer. There’s a sneakiness to the move, putting wink and smile either before and alongside the act of provocation. This is proper context in which to take the verbiage and visual aesthetics of Drinking out of Cups.
“Yeah right. Yeah right.
This guy’s a faggot.
This guy’s some sort of faggot Indian in the teepee.”
The language in Drinking out of Cups is wholly inexcusable, and certainly offensive/hurtful to some audiences. The viral nature of this video might rightly be problematized by historically victimized members of either homosexual or indigenous populations. That discursive work will not happen here. Given the generally whimsical aesthetic of the piece alongside Dan’s established penchant to prod his audience, I do not find it productive to analyze the work purely in terms of a moralized and determined political rhetoric. I feel confident the project was never intended as any sort of hate speech, and the greater contextualization of a working relationship with the surreal establishes a more complex analyzation of it’s effect is in order. What’s more interesting is to hold it up alongside his clearly articulated habit of provocateurship, and put it in the context of an artist working within the domain of multiple registers of meaning, layering irony and absurdity in the art-object for a particularly context-savvy audience.
There’s a parallel in the aesthetics of several registers here. Drinking Out of Cups, in particular, arises out of a pool of millions upon millions of Youtube videos. Behind only Google and Facebook, Youtube is the 3rd most visited site, capturing 800 million people a month watching video uploaded at a rate of one hour uploaded video per second. That’s nearly 3 million hours of footage video uploaded per month, and the rate is accelerating. The sheer numbers begin to overwhelm notions of genre, form, or calculated aesthetic. Roughly half of all youtube videos do not receive ratings or comments, suggesting a glut of neglected videos with a micro or non-existent audience.
There’s a noise in the glut of contentto be found here, a complex gathering of homogenous home videos, sermons, presentations, art, archives, and virtually any other communications one could imagine. The move is generated by a proliferation of technology, allowing two things quote novel: 1) a flattening of distribution models to the point where content can be tailored (and found) by a very small audience and 2) the chance for content which would never have made it through old methods of broadcast to be consumed by massive quantities of audience.
Chris Anderson, writing of this phenomena as “The Long Tail” for nearly the last decade, asserts digital modes of content distribution as fundamentally having new economics and a drastically different qualities than that of broadcast media. Broadcast technologies such as cable television are able to offer a relatively small variety of content, bound to expectations of assemblages between multi-national corporations and expected audiences often in the millions. Costs of creation and dissemination, now afforded by new technologies, approach negligible amounts. The requirement for large audiences now wanes alongside profit margins. Formerly niche content becomes much more prominent, propped up by an arguably horizontal mode of viewing and finding media. Anderson’s Long Tail is famous for providing financial justification for many niche services formerly relegated to economic impossibilities. What is also affords is a possibility of measureable success for content formerly unfathomable. Drinking Out of Cups would never have played on MTV or any other outlet. It’s too weird, too far outside genre, too uncalculated. It’s hard to predict.