The Ok Go video I noted last week continues to tug at me. It is an arresting piece of work, but I can’t say why, exactly, it should exercise fascination. On its face, it’s dorky guys engaged in a dorky project. (Perhaps 90s in this way but still, surely, too dorky actually to fascinate.)
At first, I thought that the power of the video come from the juxtaposition of synchronized dance and a rock band. Rock bands are obliged never to exhibit anything so ordinary as coordination. Cool in our time has been consistently defined by a refusal of anything so individuality-killing as this. For instance, the Beatles were the last band to wear a uniform, and no band in recent times has worn anything coordinated except as a rather good joke.
But no. I think there is something else going, and if you will indulge me I am going to see if I can figure it out. (I am in the LA airport as I write this, and I think God I remember to bring my earphones which now just barely protect from the roar given off by TV sets and travellers.)
There are two kinds of synchronization going on in the video: one is between the band members, the other between the band members and the treadmills they use to such good effect.
I didn’t see it at first but these treadmills are arranged so that they run in opposite directions. There are 4 or 5 of them, and each reverses the direction of the last. This means that the walk ways have been side by side to make a walk way that runs back to front. Clever! The band member uses each walk way for a brief moment of transport and then steps off to avoid being carried away. The video is among other things a study in person and machine interaction which consists of careful, fleeting and exquisitely organized articulation.
I had the feeling I had seen this somewhere before, and then it occured to me that this looks a little like the relationship between person to person conversation and email communication. In the first, I am obliged to take your call when you place it, and you are obliged to take mine when I place it. (I will ignore for the moment the function of answering machines, and much telephonic conversation is, really, machine to machine, not person to person.) The power of email is that it allows me to lodge my communication when it is most convenient to me and you to deal with it when it is most convenient to you. This is a kind of synchronization that fragents the conversation into shards and sees to their insertion as and when it is most opportune. Or, in the language of the video, I get your video as and when I step into a time frame I can best content with it. This is not only a matter of ease of access, but frame of mind. I can entertain emails in the intellectual, conceptual, identity view corridor best suited to the demands they make of me. (I’m thinking about this last issue thanks to Brad Berens [iMedia Communications] and a conversation we had yesterday.)
I think this is what contemporary culture must look like, ever more efficient synchronization that allows us to dispatch the various and pressing demands made of us (and rise to the demands of multiprocessing of multiple projects), even as we are free to engage in our own more or less lunatic enterprises (as these expand in kind and number as well). (This is another way of saying that the new technologies and "lifestyles" will be designed to accommodate both of the individualisms identified by Daniel Bell: the instrumental and the expressive.)
This might be why the OK GO video is so fascinating. It captures both these things. So there are two things to observe about the video for anthropological purposes. The first is that it plays out an emergent issue of the contemporary world, and this is I guess one of the things we hope art will do. But, second, and more endearingly, OK GO get to make this contribution to contemporary culture only because they were prepared to break one of the principal rules of contemporary music, what we might call the anti-uniformity rule.
Tip to travellers
I just spent a week doing research in LA. I stayed at the Los Angeles Athletic Club downtown. If you have a taste for faded grandeur, this is the place for you. The neighborhood is unsavory. The club is stuffed with great rugs, pretty good art, and a certain wainscotted comfort that is somehow ennobled by the fact that the club is no longer the beating heart of elite commerce and LA fatcat chumminess. There have been several spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to renovate and redecorate and these too have the effect of making the grand dame more noble and more interesting. The staff are charming and courtesy. The rooms are simple but plenty good enough. And the prices are not to be believed. You will have to belong to a university club somewhere that has reciprocal privileges, but I think the LA Athletic Club would be a good reason to sign up.
oh grant …
you never where one for simple explanations. where you?
it also reminds me of something. but more of a chaplinesque or keatonish scene.
well, maybe these are our “modern times” and the in/out rythmn of our mailbox is the 21st century equivalent of the steam-machine or the assembly line…
to me the key to the sensation lies somewhere slightly different.
we watch the video AND we immediately ask ourselves: “what is wrong? – why can’t i trust my senses?” The question stimulates us – and hooks the intellectuals (as we can clearly see). – the irritation attracts us (as always).
where does the irritation – in this case come from?
a combination of three factors
A) we know how treadmills work
B) we know how the mechanical functions (legs and arms) of the human body work
c) we know what level of animation we can expect from a trashy home video – …not much
what we realize: here are three quite simple elements combined – but the outcome is not simple at all…
personally i also had a closer look at the mechanics of this video. – i assumed that they changed the running direction of the treadmills during the performance.
with quite some amazement i found out that the trick was even more simple.
quite similar to what we in german call “Konkrete Kunst”.
we seem to know what we see. – every detail is familiar.
yet the result not.
how does that get together? – we do not know (HERE LIES THE TENSION – HERE LIES WHAT DRAGS US IN)
and we want to find out.
“For instance, the Beatles were the last band to wear a uniform, and no band in recent times has worn anything coordinated except as a rather good joke.”
are you calling devo, the hives, (arguably the white stripes) and other bands in uni’s (calling steve portigal, help me out with other names here) a joke?
(i think this marks the first time a silly emoticon face has appeared on this blog)
Long time. And great analysis. But I contend that it’s even simpler (you artists can make big meaning out of white paint on a white canvas). 🙂
Treadmills are well-known to us, and our experience with them visceral: if we close our eyes for a moment, get distracted, etc. we fall off! So we are intrigued both by the mastery and creativity, but, like watching a car race, we’re secretly waiting for someone to crash. :-0
Grant, you certainly make us think. Thanks.
The bodies move when the feet don’t, and don’t move when the bodies do. This causes a perceptual dislocation, a visual play on words, that opens up our awareness to the feelings and rhytms of walking, and so on.
It’s an art thing, really. As for why they did it in such a structured way, maybe that was the choreographer’s syntax limitation? If one were paid to spin these things, rather one would link this insistance of multiplicity of views with Muybridge photos, as it is a looking anew at human movement.
Burt, brilliant, thanks, Grant
Ok Go was named mtvUs house band. They have videos, live performances, and interviews at this link: