Sunday, June 26, 2011

Marlene Jess' book “ Bucolic Battery “ reviewed by John Luna

Marlene Jess’ book Bucolic Battery is based on a blog of the same name Jess kept up for a year. I had something to do with the name in fact, having supplied it inadvertently in an e-mail when Jess and her partner Michael first moved into an apartment on Battery Street near Beacon Hill Park. At the time I was thinking of how of sundry lowlife pastoral associations the location had for me: Shakespeare in the park’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, the alternative wildlife lantern festival, petting zoo, peacocks, homeless dozers and homosexual hook-ups, Battery Street’s lent echo of San Francisco’s North Beach neighbourhood (and Beats), the entry into James Bays’ gently decrepit heritage-designated city blocks built on the mud of tidal estuary. Of course Marlene would turn this into a model of exemplary dynamism: bicycle as battery, artist as current.
The writing in Bucolic Battery is, in Jess’ words “maintaining the guise of the self-propelled commuter, under the guise of a red-helmet-wearing-market-researcher […encompassing] urban subject matter with specific references to convenience culture.” The narrative issues from atop Jess’ bicycle, and though it has moments of confessional digression, it really doesn’t fix to be narrative at all, but instead describes through diagrammatic explication. Short-lined stanzas convey the fragmentation of banal realities in an urban setting under continuous construction to lower case calligraphic fragments coordinated and collated with a certain percussive tenacity.
3 men dig out
tree remains on cook street
in the middle of traffic
the fellow holding the stop slow sign
is texting.
many people
seen wearing hard hats.
goose/lochside trail
upwards view under bridges
in the blackberries
at the murals
conglomerate constructions
mountain range
heritage sites
ravines. (1)
Space and pace by Jess’ bicycle are low-key, continuous and smooth, textured by incident that brings together the animal side of human encounters with the mechanical energy of grids, sirens, alarms, governance of passage and traffic control. A lot of what we come to admire is Jess’ sense of balance and discretion, her compositional skills in neither controlling or being overturned by what Rosalind Krauss called, “the powerless, aimless, feckless particular.”(2) The variety of the day-to-day character of blog writing is evident and part of Bucolic Battery’s charm, but there is also an unmistakeable limit to the compass that becomes apparent, as if Jess has set a game for herself with rules that allow for her to be generous - but also scrupulous- with her inclusions. Passages range from curt lyrical imagism towards a horizon of reflexive becoming embodied by rare moments of matter-of-fact poesia concreta:
montreal street
triumphant sakura bloom
in japan, they symbolize clouds. (3)
Jess’ language is often directed at small effects. The theatre (or let’s say solicitation) of its minimalism is her discretion in negotiating the banality of her subjects and her own self-conscious aestheticizing of them. Bucolic Battery’s subjects are organized in irrational, categorical tables of contents and appendices. This ordering demonstrates an interest in encoding and decoding as activities that engender interest in and around her collections, a sharing out and swapping of relative values.
we walk along the park
to reach plenty on fort street
there is a perfect, round
green elastic on the the stoplight
a red elastic turned over once
making 2 oval shapes.
at pandora by a church
a skin coloured elastic
twisted in every way possible
with 2 humans nearby
shooting a substance into their knuckles. Along a curbside
the top third of a cigarette pack reads:
on a pavement parking lot
across beacon hill drive-in
a cloud shaped white elastic.
a blue elastic folded long
on the black counter top of our flat. (4)
The elastics in “rubbers” for instance string disparate scenes together and might act as prophetic objects or a leitmotif of flexibility, lassitude and duration, but they also make it possible to discuss gourmet groceries and heroin addictions at the kitchen counter. Susan Sontag wrote that, “banality strictly speaking, is always a category of the contemporary.” (5) Stand this pronouncement (from Sontag’s very applicable “Notes on Camp”) to John Berger’s assertion that the banality of nakedness at the moment of intimacy becomes the necessary groundwork for shared subjectivity. (6) The nakedness now.
the key cutting attendant confesses:
“it’s hard to work with a sprained knee.”
when members
of the victoria police force
are in eye
how does one generally feel?
while watching ducks plunge
we hear rustling
in the bamboo intense bushes
what animal is making its homestead?
a human. (7)
Jess cites 19th-century wanderer-voyeur-poet-critic Charles Baudelaire as an influence, and there is a transit in her activities from his model of artist as ‘man of the crowd’ to millennial prophet Jean Baudrillard’s recognition that in contemporary events perceived mostly via mass media, “the crowd becomes a kind of medium.”(8) A lot of the tweaking of particulars in Jess’ writing tugs at the resistance of the screen to yield up authentic experience; her organizing of anonymous features of the social landscape into distinguishing yet arbitrary patterns and alliances reflects our own tendency to fall back on a soft-focus summary of events, and be enchanted (or hazarded) by the rhythms that emerge from all that data-watching. Advertising has a voice in Jess’s narratives as one more component of curious call and response, waywardly pinging in and out of concert; These can seem like invasive, reified refrains, accumulating Orwellian drag (not so much 1984 as Keep the Aspidistra Flying), but they rarely acquire that much agency. Instead, their own informality gets them lost in a greater colloquy of Jess’ nowness: aloof yet sensual, ascetic, parasitic and sybaritic. This nowness could be characterized as an egalitarian acceptance of anything that gathers along the road as both scenery and structure, an aestheticizing of experience that is total in its acceptance. To paraphrase Alan Solomon speaking of Robert Rauschenberg, Jess treats rude, crude and execrable material, “not as intruders but integral components.”(9)
money mart sign:
cash 4 cheques
and receive a free gift card!
deeper into spring
wild characters accumulate
in the downtown core.
james bay starter vegetables:
three dollars for starters.”(10)
The multivalent character of the word “contract” (which might mean a binding document or the catching of measles) reminds me of the titling of early combines by Robert Rauschenberg, another influence on Jess’ curriculum. Titles that act as both nouns and verbs may (like Rauschenberg’s master switch, the word ‘combine’ itself) be understood as creative imperatives for relating to objects as fields of potential experience, (“monogram”, “satellite”, “bed”, “pilgrim” ) or likewise, forms of measurement, reference or contextualization (Rauschenberg’s “collection”, “gold standard”, “rebus”, “factum”, “octave.”)
These dictums (and their being objectified as standards) are important clues to a preoccupation common to both Jess and Rauschenberg: the so-called boundary between art and life. This phrase has been coined so often, it’s worth being specific. In an interview from 1966, Rauschenberg refers to “an unbiased documentation”, “letting the area of feeling and meaning take care of itself”, and holds up as an example the immediate aesthetics of New York City taken at face value (“I mean that literally: I felt an excitement at being in a city where you have on one lot a forty-story building and right next to it, you have a little shack. There is this constant irrational juxtaposition of things that one doesn’t find in the countryside.”) I mention this to illustrate the particularity of both art and life in this context. I think Jess aims to be equally direct and literal about Victoria, which goes some way towards explaining how her work can offer both cryptic irony and avid enthusiasm.
needle exchange building wall
both bright white on beige
an image of an antelope
above it
an image of Stephen harper’s head. (11)
Oddly, for all the roughness she expedites, Jess is a dandy, unifying taste and sensibility, and it is the scope and scape of her proclivities that underscore a formula in which aestheticism via vitalism sponsors agency. Her game is circumspection and connection. Her continuous reconnaissance serves not to search out causation but to monitor and correct circulation. Sometimes prescriptive, with a disembodied certitude reminiscent of John Cage’s Zen-tinged Neo Dadaism, it returns in any event to the mundane keeping of quotidian assignations, as an ever-recurring occasion to empathy. Isn’t that enough?
look up
look around
take a breath.
the person you are meeting
will arrive too. (12)

Marlene Jess, Bucolic Battery Volume 1: en route impressions via self-propelled transport  (ClipBoard Publishing Co., Victoria, 2011)
[NB: This review of Bucolic Battery coincides with Marlene Jess’ involvement with Greenw∞sh at Open Space (see Greenw∞sh Continues through July 23rd.]

1. Jess, 47
2. Rosalind E. Krauss, The Optical Unconscious, (Cambridge and London, the MIT Press) 103
3. Jess, 35
4. Jess, 7
5. Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp” (1964)
6. John Berger, “3”, Ways of Seeing, (New York and London: BBC/Penguin Books, 1972) 58-60
7. Jess, 49
8. Jean Baudrillard, “The Work of Art in the Electronic Age”, from, Artists, Critics, Context: Readings in and Around American Art Since 1945, edited by Paul F. Fabozzi (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2002) 486
9. Alan Solomon, “The New Art” from, Artists, Critics, Context: Readings in and Around American Art Since 1945, edited by Paul F. Fabozzi (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2002) 81
10. Jess, 74
11. Jess, 169
12. Jess, 155

1 comment:

  1. Nice review John, I think you captured the tone of the Bucolic Battery perfectly. The other thing I enjoy about the book is how it fits in the hand and one can imaginatively wander with Marlene as you move from page to page. Copies are available for sale at VISA if people are interested... or if they just want to drop and check out our library copy...