Friday night was one of indulgence. Not for the sake of partying into the early hours of the morning in some lower east-side warehouse, but that rare thing – a night in. A selection of alcohol, greasy food and internet / TV at my fingertips. As a 30 year old, what once seemed boring has become an indulgence. Don't get me wrong, I like a night out as I did in my 20s, but I can't help thinking something has changed.
A central part of that evening's viewing (I admit, a little doughy-eyed due to a dram or two of scotch), was Iara Lee's documentary 'Modulations'. This was originally posted by The Offline People's, Achylles Brown. As he puts it, a 'great documentary about the domination of electronic music in the 90s', and I wholeheartedly agree. However, I was even more intrigued by Mr Brown's reaction to this doc – he is quick to reprehend himself for indulging in this hour long trip down memory lane.
I didn't think much else of this reaction until I visited the Guggenheim a couple of days later to see 'Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective'. The majority of the exhibition consists of large format photograph portraiture, though the standout work for me was a video piece: 'The Buzz Club, Liverpool UK (1996-97)'. In it we see a simple projection of teenagers, one-by-one taking it in turn to dance in front of the camera. They are dancing to the club music heard behind them. They are not actors, but 'real' teenagers, pulled directly off the dance floor and thrust in front of the lens.
It is obvious that these videos are intentionally about self-expression, however I'm more interested in their inherent nostalgic quality and the effect on today's 2012 viewers. The dance music, clothing and hairstyles are glaringly 90s and I found my immediate connection with the video a little disconcerting. I was validating the work without even thinking about it – surely it can't be that easy...
Mark Lecky: Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999)
90's sub-culture is nothing new in today's art world – Mark Lecky's 'Fiorucci Made me Hardcore' is a perfect example. A schitzophrenic mash-up of words, sounds, music and images of dance culture from the 90s. According to Mr Brown, if nostalgia is disgusting, this will empty your stomach! I suppose both Lecky's piece and 'The Buzz Club' have a personal resonance, as they both originate from my homeland – the northwest of England.
It is a well known fact that fashion moves in 20 year cycles. As we move deeper into the teenage years of the 21st century, so we are reminded of our own youth from the 90's and I think this is an important point to note. Nostalgia is not necessarily about the clothes we wore or the music we danced to, but more broadly and ultimately it is about 'youth'. Since our 'formative years', this 20 year gap is close enough to connect with, but far enough removed, to allow a degree of objectivity and perspective.
I'm aware that this is not a groundbreaking observation but I find it interesting that these trends are being leveraged by today's artists.
It is only in recent years (I would argue since the dawn of the YBAs in the early 90's) that living artists have been given full validation (...and retrospectives!). The old-school idea of hierarchy and privilege found in art history is diminishing, to put it bluntly, you don't have to be dead to be great.
In fact today's younger artists have the luxury of being able to tap in to the common psyche with a degree of immediacy. We live in an era of increasingly instantaneous gratification - and personal experience (Tracy Emin's published sexual conquests tells us that much).
In the Guggenheim, this thought became more concrete as the main spiral of the building was dedicated to abstract past-masters, Rothko, Pollock, De Kooning etc etc. Aptly enough, this show was called 'Art of Another Kind', and indeed it was. Pleasure here is not derived from nostalgia (for the most part). These paintings induce a different form of adoration. They represent untouchable totems, Cartesian objects to be respected from a distance. A distance not just physical but temporal. It's difficult to imagine that in their time these artists had any sense of urgency and context - but the history books and audio guides tell us so.
By no means am I commenting on the validity of either era, but I think that these questions are important. This juxtaposition begs the question; are we finally shifting away from a post-modern condition to one of nostalgic indulgence? This for me, is a question of critique and self awareness. Perhaps an increasing instantaneousness is starting to deprive us of the ability to step back, to analyse and to most importantly, to define.
As nicely demonstrated in Djikstra's video, self definition is a human necessity, the way we dress, how we dance and what music we listen to. Our modern Facebook culture has taken this notion to the next level. Desperate to publish and manipulate every inch of our daily profiles, ironically this diminishes any sense of self. Without the ability to separate ourselves from our current condition, no matter how hard we try, definition in realtime is impossible. Thus we inevitably turn to the only tangible remnant, our (instagram-ised) past.
I'm aware that this theory poses a retroactive conundrum: Is nostalgia a choice or a condition? My instinct is the latter. Therefore Mr. Brown, don't beat yourself up about enjoying the 90s dance music documentary, I have a feeling that it was never your choice in the first place.