February 22, 2010
Hosting virtual seminars, lying parallel worlds into being and loving Japan: Colin Marshall talks to musician, artist and ex-blogger Nick Currie, a.k.a. MomusBetter known as Momus, Nick Currie has, since the mid-1980s, led parallel careers in music (with 21 albums out so far), prose, art and journalism, exploring the nexuses between them while traveling the world and examining his favorite cultures. He has most recently turned toward traditional ink-and-paper publishing with two volumes, The Book of Jokes and The Book of Scotlands. Since 2004, he has written the blog Click Opera on his life, work and art adventures, which he closed on February 10, the eve of his 50th birthday. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]
I was thinking, reading your final post, about Brian Eno's diary that he published, at the end of which — just a year of daily personal diary entries — he says, "Oh, it's so good not to have to write this damn thing tomorrow." Is there a similar feeling with the much larger effort you have just put the cap on?
It's not a relief at all, because blogging is the best thing I've done in years. I feel like it's the ending, and maybe the happy ending, or maybe the sad ending, of a very enjoyable thing. It's become an ingrained habit in me, so as soon as I knew I was putting the blog to bed, in came a great story, a conversation I was having with Ezra from Vampire Weekend and I thought, "Wow, this is a great update to that Vampire Weekend story we featured last year." Then I thought, "Well, I can't do it, because the blog ends tomorrow." It's frustrating.
And your introduction, calling me a former blogger; in a way, one reason I'm ending the blog is so that I don't get called "Nick Currie, blogger" anymore. But actually, it's even sadder to be the former blogger Nick Currie. I'm hoping that'll be a very brief interim period, and then I'll be known as Nick Currie, something else.
I could include more things that you've done in that introduction, but I do think, when I read that, considering the region of the world you have your origins in, that's not the sort of thing appreciated by the UK, is it? When you do a lot of different things?
There is a tradition of dilettantism. It's an Italian word; in Scotland we probably have a less polite word for it, like you're a "thrawn" or a "tosspotter." Scottish people are also able to be leisurely and expansive in their interests, and we had a period of Scottish humanism; the 18th century was full of amateurs and dilettantes in Edinburgh. You can be a jack of all trades and a master of none, or you can be an amateur, with its roots in the verb "to love." I think enthusiasm's tremendously important, and the blog was a way for me to find things to be enthusiastic about out there on the web every day.
It was, but I was a little bit worried because I was approaching a one-to-one ratio. In other words, the things you would talk about and the things you would do would approach equality. Every single thing I would do in real life would end up getting written about. There is this saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. I forget who said that, but, actually, you know, it is worth living. You mentioned earlier that people would say "Nick Currie, blogger" and there was some sadness to seeing that title appended to your name. Is there something uniquely sad about the word "blogger" that no other word that could be put after your name has?
Maybe this is a different full circle, like I was kidding myself that I was part of this populist swell, this upsurge of populist energy that the internet represented. But the early internet actually was a fairly academic and elitist place. When there were very few people on the internet, when I started my web site, for instance, in 1995, when we were using the Mosaic browser and you would have maybe two people who would send you e-mails in the whole world, they would usually be academics. They would be on the ARPANET or whatever it was.
The internet allows you to do this; it allows you to filter and to go back into your own ivory tower, your own peer group, your own little group of me-and-my-friends. In one sense the internet's getting more demotic and populist and like the real world. In another sense, you don't have the same kind of interactions you'd have with unlikely strangers on the internet — unless you're using one of these horrible new random video chat program.
From that point, I was on Compuserve. Somebody actually friended me on Facebook recently, an academic in Scotland, and said, "We used to exchange e-mails in the early nineties; you probably don't remember." I certainly don't remember, because I didn't even have e-mail in the early nineties. As far as I recall, it all started in '93 for me, and there was no looking back.
That was around the time I uttered my famous phrase, "In the future, everybody will be famous for fifteen people." I think that was based on messing around with my word processor and seeing how you could edit things with digital tools. Then the early days of Compuserve, communities, chat rooms, whatever. I've never been big on trying to meet people through the internet, but I am interested in it as a kind of sounding board, a kind of virtual seminar room where interested people from all over the world could come in and you could have a talking shop, a bit like these old Greek men who sit outside cafés drinking black coffee and talking about politics.
The internet is like a peanut gallery, of course. It's like a stocks in medieval village, and people are pelting you with vegetables. You just have to come up with zings and be able to respond quickly and try not to be as nasty as they're being to you.
A sense of humor certainly is valuable. I've noticed that your responses to others' comments, the fabled anonymous comments that would litter your posts, they always seemed quite a bit more diplomatic than those from, especially — and this is a contrast I'll bring up a few times — other established people, shall we call them, who come to blogging after having already become famous elsewhere. Do you know what I mean?
This is maybe something about the suitability of substance to form, but a lot of people who do one thing and then blog don't quite know how to handle themselves. How have you avoided that?
I think it's a great intellectual exercise to make people think the unthinkable and to use what Georges Bataille, who was a great hero of mine in my twenties, called "transgression." I wanted to look into those parallel worlds, and Brian Eno, whom you mentioned earlier, influenced me a lot in that sense. He was on TV in the eighties and had like one minute to say something that would interest people, and he said, "Often, art is just about telling a lie that creates the parallel world in which that lie is true." Those were not his exact words, but that's how I remember.
It's essential to what I'm doing, what I want to do. I keep coming up with possible scenarios for my next novel, and I think the really hard thing is to write about honorable people, sympathetic and empathetic people. I wrote a kind of nasty book called The Book of Jokes, which was all about dirty jokes happening in a family. Just the most terrible, awful things one after the other. In a way, that's transgression in the easy register.
The really hard thing would be to transgress against that very nihilism and say, "Let's create a world where people are actually nice to each other." But then the provocateur inside me comes along and says, "Yeah, let's make that nice world where everyone's nice to each other, but let's set it in North Korea. That's gonna really annoy people." It's very, very hard for me to escape from this kind of impish perversity.
It is, and I continue to be fascinated by Japan. I'm just back from one of my many Japan trips, and I'm organizing an exhibition in Britain for 2012, timed to coincide with the Olympics in London, called Aftergold. The theme of that exhibition is a post-materialist theme; it says, "We're after gold." Maybe after gold medals or after gold in the sense of money, but there is a time after gold, when you've won the medal and you say, "What matters now?" Or maybe you've reached your midlife crisis and say, "What the hell is life about? What am I gonna do with the rest of my life?" That's another aftergold moment. Or you've got a lot of money and you were so ambitious when you were earning the money, and when you get it you don't know how to spend it, and you realize you have no talent for quality of life, just quantity.
Is this Japanese sensibility toward acquisition, toward wealth, the reason why, even when I look at documentation of Japan at its poorest moments of the 1990s — and there were some bad ones — it never looks like a poor country? It never looks bad; it never looks wrecked.
I have, because it's fueled by a love of Japan, but also because there's a constantly replenishing source of kids. My nephew, who's like sixteen now: just in love with Japan, the same way I've been all my life. I don't know why I got interested in Japan. It's a mystery to me. I don't know where I heard about it in the British media in the sixties and seventies. There wasn't very much about Japan. But my nephew — obviously there's been video games, computer games, anime, manga. All that stuff has really interested his generation. On Livejournal especially, which has got this reputation of being for teenagers and young kids who love cute icons of Sailor Moon or whatever it is, those people were a natural audience.
I'm going to sound like Marie Antoinette, but I don't know what other peoples' lives are like. I've never had a day job, really. All I know is this pop lifestyle where you're touring in a tour bus or whatever. That's what I knew in my twenties, and that developed into more, you would go and do art things in particular cities or you'd travel for other projects.
I don't know. Is that very unusual? I think there is a danger — this is one of the prolepses I've developed, that I've learned how to anticipate objections because of trolls and anonymous people — one of the things I've found is that people say either you're a hypocrite if you're saying people should do something that you don't do yourself, or you're a narcissist if you're saying that people should do what you do because you do it. It's very hard to hit a medium between those two.
I'm very touched by some of the comments on the last blog entry, people saying, "You really made me realize possibilities for my own life," or, "You made me see my problems differently and see how overcome my problems," a lot of these testimonial-type comments. I always hoped I would have that kind of inspirational effect, but I was never arrogant enough to take it for granted that I did.
Often I felt like I was just this awful kind of poncing poseur. I was made to feel that way by a lot of people, and, you know, why not? It was fine. They felt that strongly. Everything is true; I think that everything people say is true about you, but it's just a partial truth. It's really nice to see the sweetness that's coming out now that I've ended the blog, but who knows? Maybe I'll live a very quiet, unobserved life now, or maybe not. Knowing me, I'll probably want to keep showing off.
Especially toward the end of Click Opera, you wrote about how much time the blog had consumed and how it had become essentially a full-time job for you, but one that also had quite a number of rewards to it. Did you, in 2004, foresee at all that this would become the core of what your career would be in the 2000s?
Not at all. I'm just a bandwagon-jumper. In 2003, people were all, "Oh, have you seen Friendster?" In 2004, it's, "Oh, this thing, blogging." I must have asked somebody, "What is blogging?" They said, "Well, it's from this word 'weblog': it's a log of all the web sites you visit." I sat down naïvely and copied this rather slavishly: my first Click Opera entries are just like, "Today I went to this web site, and then I went to that web site, and here's a list of them, and that one was quite good, this one's a bit boring." That's what I thought you were supposed to do, then, very slowly, began to develop, elaborating my own interests.
Sparring with people was really important. I got a really sweet message from Marxy, David Marx, who's the editor of the CNNGo web site in Tokyo. We had some big sparring in 2005; sometimes it was bitter, and other times it was helping increase traffic to his blogs and web sites and things. He left this message saying something like, "It was great sparring with you, my friend." I thought, "That's really sweet. We made up in the end." It was all about forming community and giving people the emotional compulsion to come back every day.
What was at the center of the drive to make your blog posts, even if they were short, actual essays that always appeared to have time, and perhaps revision, put into them? Increasingly — and it's even rarer now that you've finished Click Opera — toward the final years of the blog, everything around it in the blog landscape started to wither. Not in terms of there being fewer blogs — certainly there are more — but in terms of content per post, perhaps, or effort per post, has been slowly, or maybe rapidly, falling. Was it a hold-the-fort mentality for you to keep the quality up, or is it just an instinct, that that's the way you've got to do things?
Things are relative, and they always seem to be going to the dogs, falling and declining from a golden age. When I started blogging, I had been doing, before, these huge essays on my web site which were much longer. They would be 3,000 words or something. Blogging seemed almost like tweeting does today. "Okay, I'll do mini-essays on a blog every day instead of these maxi-essays, these huge dissertations," which I was doing maybe once every two weeks, every three weeks on the web site. It seemed like the lazy option, but it developed into more of a daily essay.
I'm very aware that life is short, and that you don't want to waste life just being phatic. You know this word, "phatic," which just means, "Hey, how you doing?" I'm not really into that, because life is just to short to say, "Hey, how you doing, things good?" "Yeah, things are good." Nobody actually communicates anything of substance. Nothign has changed. Nothing is thought about. I've always really wanted to, even if it upset people a little bit or challenged their feelings or thoughts, just go a little bit deeper into things.
I think I'm quite an essentially superficial person. A lot of the content of my daily blogs was just "Google spawn," I call it. I'd copy and paste stuff that I found interesting and put a little commentary and context around it. It was classic cut-and-paste journalism, but in the end you can see that it all reflects my concerns. I was doing what a lot of smart people do on the internet, which is that you just repackage content which is already out there, but ultimately you become the ouroboros if you do that. The ouroboros is the snake that swallows its own tail. It's an old symbol. You start tasting your own tail a little bit too much.
You seem to be, regardless, a lot more comfortable with what the internet has changed as far as creating things, distributing things. Certainly a lot of the post-materialist lifestyle discussion that has gone on on your blog seems that it would not have been quite as possible without the internet. A lot of musicians, especially those who got popular before the internet was big, they're not so comfortable. They think of the greater ability to exchange content, data, information over the net as a problem more than a solution. You seem to be singularly enthusiastic. Is that an accurate perception?
That could be pure arrogance. It could be the attitude that mythologization is important for people who are actually not as interesting as they seem to be. I'm not going to mention any names — Billy Idol, Marilyn Manson, whatever, no names there — I just think there's a certain kind of old-fashioned rock star who, the less they got to speak — a bit like when the talkies came along and half the film stars just dropped out of sight because they had bad voices or didn't really have the charisma when you heard them. I was always jumping up and down eagerly, saying, "I can do this! I won't disappoint people if they hear me talking." That's probably just because I'm a teacher at heart. I really like engaging with people and changing the way they think.
How effectively do you think you have been able to do that, specifically through the medium of blogging? I've been made to see, myself, many of the perspectives you've put out there, and I've seen some in the comments as well: people who admit to being swayed by your own type of reasoning. How optimistic can one be about the changing of minds via something like a blog?
I certainly change my own mind, just by thinking things through much more carefully than I would have done. When you're in public, you're under the full glare of scrutiny; potentially the whole world is paying attention. You said something stupid and you have to find a way of taking it back without looking like you're totally eating your words. That's really good intellectual training, because you have the emotional compulsion — which is probably based in your vanity and narcissism — to get things right, so you engage much more vigorously with things.
What sort of a community did you find — if you can characterize it in any way — formed around Click Opera? What can you say about the character of your readership?
I think they're smart, first and foremost. They knew, often, more about the things I was blogging about than I did. There was always somebody who'd correct me or send me off to an interesting web site to learn more about things. For god's sake, I don't even speak Japanese and I was blogging so much about Japan and I was then going head-to-head with people, having arguments about things that they knew much more about because they could read the Japanese media directly. I would have to run into the other room and say to my Japanese girlfriend, "Quick! Can you translate this? What does this say? Paste it!" In the early days of my blog, five, six years ago, Google Translate was not very good, you had Babelfish or whatever. You would paste Japanese stuff in there and try to get it into English and it would just be gobbeldygook.
I think I learned on the job how to conceal my defects a little bit better. I always admitted that my Japanese was just totally not there. In a sense, it was a projection, what I was doing with Japan, projecting my love and fascination with its otherness. I was an old-fashioned Orientalist in the style that Edward Said said was really a terrible thing to be. I'm not convinced by the thesis that it's bad to be Orientalist; I think it's just bad to be a mean Orientalist.
Is Japan a place you could actually live? You've talked about the prospects of moving there, why it's hard to move there. Let's say that any financial and legal issues were resolved and you could just move there. Could it be a place you could simply live in?
It could. It's like playing roulette; it increases the stakes. There's potential for great misery in Japan, for a foreigner, which is the alienation, the exclusion, the sense of being incompetent and being stared right through. You're really ignored. Japanese people are much more comfortable dealing with other Japanese people than with foreigners. It's like you're a ghost some of the time; you're just not there. On the other hand, there's huge potential for ecstasy, for fantastic fascinations. There's beautiful landscapes, fascinating cityscapes, they world's biggest city, Tokyo, which is still for me the most exhilarating place to be. New York is like number two; Tokyo is definitely number one.
Yes and no is my answer. In a sense, I'm happy just visiting Japan every year. That allows me to keep my distance and value it also. It doesn't become something I take for granted, as it might if I lived there. But it also allows me to avoid the slight sense of cabin fever you get, or the sense of detachment you get, or even the sexual excitement of it. I don't know if you're wired like I'm wired; it's the only country where walking down the street is almost an overwhelmingly sensual experience. That can be great, and that can also be horribly distracting and dangerous.
You write quite a bit about place on Click Opera, and the effects of cities where one chooses to reside. I found most interesting what you said about how cities can or cannot foster subculture. You mentioned New York and Tokyo as places that are on the pricey side, as far as being able to encourage the creation of subcultures, and Berlin, where you live, as the opposite, sufficiently cheap that anything can arise there. Is that actually an obstacle in Tokyo? Is it something you would run into if you happened to base yourself there?
This is why all the hipsters and the creative artists like Ryan Trecartin move from New York to Philly. Actually, I think he's from Philly — not a good example. But people have to get out of New York. It's not that you can't be creative in these big, expensive cities; it's that it's a different type of creativity that you have to do. When I lived in New York City, the people I knew who were in at that time fledgling electroclash bands like Fischerspooner, they surprised me by having day jobs with Marc Jacobs, MTV, corporate media like that. They would do their music stuff in the evenings and weekends and try to fit it all in. Of course, they had to be superhuman to have all the energy to do both. You need it just to make rent. You needed to work really hard for those big corporations.
It's not so much the case in Berlin. We don't have the big corporations here; we don't have the option to do it. If you're an artist, you can make the work in Berlin because the space is cheap, but you can't sell it here because there are no rich collectors here. You have to sell it in Munich or London or somewhere else. Japan is generally an expensive country, but there are little pockets of cheapness. If you go outside the cities it's much cheaper, obviously. Food is actually very good and quite cheap in Japan, so you can sustain yourself very well.
I was sort of talking myself into maybe living in Osaka, saying, "Well, it's a bit like Berlin in the sense that you can slum it." It's the old boho thing: you can live like a bohemian aristocrat, live cheaply but live well. My favorite music comes from Osaka; there's an underground there, a noise underground, a very funky underground. I went this last trip to a building in the center of Osaka, a really run-down office building which has been converted into small bars. There's a gothic lolita bar next to a Hawaiian surf bar, these amazing little one-man operations. A lot of the music scene in Osaka is coming out of places like that, where you can have a really cheap bar with a really low rent. There's a grungy subcultural feel to it which you don't really experience in Tokyo.
How have you yourself historically managed to avoid the "meaningless hackwork to make rent" you discuss on the blog. Have you always gotten out of that, by the way?
I've dabbled a little bit in it: I've done music for Nike, or when I was living in New York I took on some commercial music and stuff like that. But very little. I think it helps to be mean and Scottish, because I pare my needs down to the bare minimum. I actually enjoy that; I enjoy the ratio of effort to effect, the efficiency of being able to get by on very, very little money. People think my parents are supporting me or something — absolutely not the case. Not really the case. They've helped occasionally, but very, very little. I just don't eat very much; that's why I'm skinny.
How much does the internet help you lead this lifestyle? Obviously entertainment is essentially taken care of if you have a net connection. How much could you do this life, what you called the "low-calorie lifestyle" in reference to something you said as a kid, without the net?
The net has been a huge help. It lowered the cost of access to self-publishing media enormously. When I started in the eighties, you'd have to get a tool die cutter to make your master pressings for your vinyl. This was major industrial equipment: recording and recording studios. Very few people had home studios. That all changed. The late eighties, the early nineties: digital stuff came along that was very cheap and very capable, much better than the quality that people were used to in professional studios. Then, of course, the internet, which became the digital distribution network which was virtually free.
It's got a downside, which is that people expect everything free now. They expect everything to have zero overhead, cultural items basically free because they cost nothing to produce. That means it's tough to get people to part with their money for you to live as an artist. The way you do it is play live shows. You have a real-world event, because people still need to get away from their computers. Paradoxically, now, you have to escape from this digital media which was so great initially. You have to say, "We're having a concert, come along, pay the entry fee, buy a drink, we'll take some of the bar cut and we'll make a happening. You'll actually be in physical proximity with other people, not stuck in front of your computer. That's now the unique selling proposition for artists: get people away from the computer.
How confident are you that these real-world happenings, these decisively non-internet events one can stage, will be, to put it grandly, the salvation of the worried artist who thinks they won't be able to live any longer in this post-internet world?
It's a one-two thing. You use Facebook to tell people your happening is happening, and then you milk them of the entry fee when they come in and you live on that money. It's both. It's not like we're all going to become totally detached from the internet. A lot of people thought, when I announced I was ending my blog, that Nick Currie has left the internet. Elvis has left the arena. It's not like that at all; I'll be totally present on the internet in lots of different ways. It's just that I was a little bit overexposed, and the blogging was just too damn good. It was such a satisfaction for me every morning to post something and to have comments. I would spend all day dealing with these comments, fielding them, thinking of witty things to say. Your life slips by and you realize you were looking at this single electron scanning very rapidly in front of you. You're in Plato's cave. You're trapped down there, looking at shadows dancing in the firelight.
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.
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