I. Introduction: Test Specimens
- The blinking icon you see above is called a "test specimen."
Wide-eyed bears with murderous grins, drawn alternately as symmetrical,
disembodied heads or frantically sketched, stiff-limbed figures, they
art of the music group Radiohead, from CD packaging and packing slips to web site
images and promotional stickers.
Although directly analogous to easily recognizable character-mascots used to
establish a product's unique brand identity, the bears function like painter
Philip Guston's hooded men, with a difference (see Guston's "City Limits").
While Guston's figures, versions of Ku Klux Klansmen, gave a disturbingly organic
shape to American civil unrest and racial injustice in the late 1960s and early
'70s, Radiohead's test specimens are protagonists in a self-referential aesthetic
that pastiches the band's commodification and the operation of capital at
In what follows, I explore the bears' appearances in QuickTime computer-animated
music video shorts released concurrently with Kid A, the band's
critically anticipated fourth album.
Titled "antivideos," or "blips," the short
videos (10-30 seconds in duration) were released only on the internet, a
virtually inexhaustible distribution channel. Via this medium, the antivideos
provide a useful plateau from which to consider popular art's current state and
future potential in the age of electronic reproduction.
II. Commodified Culture, Culturalized Commodification
In The Fragile Absolute, or Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting
For?, Slavoj Zizek observes that "today's artistic scene" consists of two
opposed movements. The first is the "much-deplored commodification of culture
(art objects produced for the market)," while the second, and "less noted but
perhaps more crucial opposite movement," is "the growing
'culturalization' of the market economy itself." He elaborates:
With the shift towards the tertiary economy (services, cultural goods), culture
is less and less a specific sphere exempted from the market, and more and more
not just one of the spheres of the market, but its central component (from the
software amusement industry to other media productions). (25)
We can add to this latter list the music industry. The paired phenomena of
culture and a culturalized market are nowhere more evident than in the
music business, and it is these movements of commodification and
culturalization that Radiohead's antivideos thematize.
- Originally released on the band's web site (<http://www.more-radiohead.com/alps.html>)
several weeks before the 2
October 2000 release of Kid A, the antivideos jettison the standard
hierarchy between song and music video as elaborated by media critic Jody Berland.
According to Berland, "the 3-minute musical single" is a music video's
unalterable foundation, its one unconditional ingredient. A single can exist
(technically, at least) without the video, but the reverse is not the case. As if
in evidence of this, music videos, almost without exception, do not make so much
as a single incision in the sound or structure of the song. However bizarre or
disruptive videos appear, they never challenge or emancipate themselves from
their musical foundation, without which their charismatic indulgences would never
reach our eyes. (25)
As if in direct response to Berland's phonocentrism, the antivideos do
what music videos do not and/or should not: make radical incisions
and changes to the sound and structure of the songs they promote.
The web site's title introduces the antivideos bluntly as "brief films
promotional material." Immediately, visitors are alerted to the antivideo's
situation within a matrix of capitalist exchange, an unusual acknowledgment in an
industry that regularly denounces any discernible trace of commercialization. As
music critic Lawrence Grossberg has noted, "Rock fans have always constructed a
difference between authentic and co-opted rock. And it is this which is often
interpreted as rock's inextricable tie to resistance, refusal, alienation,
marginality, etc." (Grossberg 202). Authentic rock has as its ideal a
"collective, spontaneous creativity," in the words of Kalefa Sanneh, critic for
the New York Times, that is unfettered by the crass demands of
capital. Co-opted rock, however, is an example of what Zizek calls the
"much-deplored commodification of culture (art objects produced for the
co-opted rock is commercially successful music with an international distribution
that fails to hide adequately its commodification, thus opening itself up for
censure. Radiohead's music, videos, cover art, and packaging, however, expose
its commodification and culturalize it.
As one example, the CD packaging for Kid A foregrounds its own
commodification. A limited number of CDs contained a supplementary text
beneath the jewel case's polystyrene tray. The untitled booklet by Stanley
Donwood, the band's artist, and Tchock, a pseudonym for Thom Yorke, the band's
lead singer, comprises fragmentary phrases juxtaposed against images of test
specimens posed as either cartoonishly violent corporate sycophants or
traumatized victims of surveillance. Rarely are listeners asked to disassemble
the object that distills a performer's presence for uniform portable consumption,
only to find a text that decries consumption. Radiohead's antivideos work
similarly as agents of disassembly, leading consumers into a labyrinthine network
of hyperbolic images that pastiche commodification.
III. Flying Bears
The first antivideo on the Radiohead site is titled "Flying Bears," a
movie that imagines limitless reproduction with a twist of surreal horror. The
scene opens on two figures, both of which stare up in horror at a murky sky
crowded with flying test specimen bears (see Figure 2).
The movie then fades into an exclusive focus on the flying bears, the brand icons
for Radiohead, while the antivideo's soundtrack plays an excerpt
from the song "In Limbo." Yorke's voice unhurriedly croons the
refrain, "You're living in a fantasy / You're living in a fantasy"
(see Figure 3).
Finally, our view shifts to a close-up of a frightened onlooker, eyes fixed
upward and mouth opened in muted fear. Furiously he clutches a
mobile phone, a device that may be his last connection to the world:
a connection enabled and mediated by an electronic communication
network (see Figure 4).
- The fantasy, then, of which the lyrics speak and that the
onlookers inhabit is not a pleasant one, as the alarmed facial expressions
evince. Instead, it is the ultimate fantasy of the capitalist/Communist
dyad: "unbridled productivity" (Zizek 18). As Zizek notes, it is no
accident that capitalism and Communism rose simultaneously: "Marx's notion
of Communist society is itself the inherent capitalist fantasy--a
fantasmatic scenario for resolving the capitalist antagonism he so aptly
described" (Zizek 19). The bears metaphorize the boundless
commodification that modern technologies facilitate. Radiohead's symbols
threaten to overcome the onlooker. In this way, the antivideo critiques
its own medium--the internet, a technology that allows endless and nearly
effortless production. Once an antivideo reaches the internet, it can be
accessed indefinitely by multiple viewers simultaneously.
The limitless reproducibility of visual and aural art objects that the internet
enables is the apogee of simulation, as it is defined by Jean Baudrillard. Via
digital technologies, "The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices,
and memory banks, models of control--and it can be reproduced an indefinite
times from these" (Baudrillard 2). The real or the authentic ceases to matter,
an inevitability that Radiohead's music and art incorporate.
- Nevertheless, the real is what audiences, music critics
and fans alike, desire. Critic David Fricke commented in Rolling
Stone that despite the experimental sounds of Radiohead's
electronic music, what you actually hear is "real rock singing and chops,
altered beyond easy recognition" (Fricke 48). What Fricke fails to grasp
is that Radiohead's aesthetic undermines the real that he attempts to
recuperate on the band's behalf. This misreading of Radiohead's music by
Fricke and others has a venerable antecedent: Walter Benjamin's "The Work
of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."
Fricke would agree with Benjamin that mass reproduction corrupts the art object's
authenticity, an essential, if intangible, element of art: "that which withers in
the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art" (Benjamin
221). But, unlike Benjamin, Fricke and the sum of music industry rhetoric stops
there. Benjamin's anxiety gains a dimension as he considers the possibility that
the real may cease to exist at all. As he explains in the case of photography,
the question of authenticity "makes no sense" when one can make innumerable
prints from a photographic negative (Benjamin 224). Similarly, the internet acts
as a spectral production line, an immense factory, open to all comers,
that has transcended production's physical limitations.
A fear that authenticity will lose significance animates Benjamin's essay but
does not explain Fricke's naïve praise for a hidden, real rock
music underlying Radiohead's experimentation. The band's music, I
argue, is not a distortion of real rock, but an uncovering of its
absence, its phantasmic structure. Fricke assumes that the real
continues to bloom when, as Baudrillard told us and as Benjamin
knew would happen, it has long since been a desert.
Benjamin's anxiety is the emotion that animates the onlookers' faces in "Flying
Bears." The antivideo's countless test specimens are the epitomic image of
electronic reproduction, specifically, the internet's realization of the
fundamental capitalist fantasy of unimpeded production. But here the capitalist
dream is refigured as a nightmarish scenario of flying bears looming over
frightened mobile phone users. However, the precession of simulation, to use
Baudrillard's phrase, is that capital desires its own undoing, as I argue in the
IV. "I'm not here / This isn't happening"
The fourth song on Kid A is titled "How to Disappear Completely."
The lyrics, while supposedly based on a dream, eerily narrate the
singer's subject position as experienced by the listener: "I'm not
here / This isn't happening." The point is so simple as to go
unnoticed: when I hear Radiohead's music the band is not here, where
I am at the moment of listening; and the performance is not
happening, and may have, in fact, never happened. Like Miles Davis's
Bitches Brew, an achievement not of instrumental
virtuosity but of production technique ahead of its time, Kid
A is the record of a performance never performed, an electronically constructed collage of disparate
studio recordings, found sounds, drum loops, samples, and other
forms of noise.
While Kid A challenges authenticity, the antivideo "Screaming Bears"
pastiches it. "Screaming Bears" casts the test specimens as performers
furnishing what spectators crave--an authentic performance. Gradually, five
agitated bears (notably, Radiohead has five band members) appear from stage-left
on a flat, desolate landscape (see Figure 5) populated randomly by pyramids,
resembling Cy Twombly's Anabasis. The performance is blatantly
pointless: the bears enter, the bears leave.
Nevertheless, the bears' performance is more compelling than what the performers
of Radiohead offer. In "Morning Bell," Thom Yorke plays a piano, face averted
from the camera and downcast, in a lonely, possibly domestic setting. We are
given an authentic band member, but the authentic person, compared to the
screaming and dancing test specimens, is far less thrilling. It is the
simulation that captures our attention, not the authentic. The intimate, if
artificially staged, mood of "Morning Bell," signaled by the black and white film
and overhead film angle--the common position of surveillance cameras--is
more akin to voyeurism than to spectatorship (see Figure 6).
Whatever authenticity "Morning Bell" lays claim to is dissolved by
"Yeti," another antivideo that calls attention to the band's role as
victims of surveillance and status as objects, or rather of an
institutionalized gaze so well given voice by David Fricke, above. To return to Fricke's assessment, Radiohead's music is "real rock singing and
chops" (48). Fricke's desire to establish the band's music as real rock
is a near-death symptom of capitalism. Capitalism, especially its
embodiment in the music industry, frequently reminds us of "its
foundations in real people and their relations" (Zizek 16).
Underneath the mysterious celebrity-identity there is a real person,
which the hunched-over Yorke of "Morning Bell" perfectly signifies.
Another example proves instructive: on 8 August 2001, fans had the
chance to chat online with Jonny Greenwood, the band's lead
guitarist and keyboardist. An event hosted by the Yahoo! web site,
such a promotional move is not unlike another that Zizek describes:
"Visitors to the London Stock Exchange are given a free leaflet
which explains to them that the stock market is not about some
mysterious fluctuations, but about real people and their
products--this is ideology at its purest" (16). Being able to chat
with Jonny Greenwood in real time: this, too, is ideology at its
But this reassertion of the real, Baudrillard argues, is capital's attempt to
calm its characteristic powers of "abstraction, disconnection,
deterritorialization" (22), the very powers that now threaten it.
To confront the oceanic elision of difference it inaugurated,
capital re-injects the real, but to no avail:
It is this reassertion of the real that "Yeti," the next antivideo, pastiches.
as soon as [capital] wishes to combat this disastrous spiral by secreting a last
glimmer of reality, on which to establish a last glimmer of power, it does
nothing but multiply the signs and accelerate the play of simulation. (22)
In "Yeti," a test specimen bear is caught on camera, much in the same way the
appearances of supposedly mystical monsters, such as Bigfoot and the Loch
Monster, are captured on videotape. To reinforce the antivideo's relation to
surveillance footage, the movie begins with and is interrupted by moments of
static (see Figure 7). Most often a nuisance, the camera's disruption of
its intrusion as creator of artifice into a reality that would ideally otherwise
remain unaltered, here signals reality. Between these staged disruptions, the
camera slowly pans across an empty snow field (see Figure 8) and eventually
a test specimen (see Figure 9) who flees upon realizing that he has been
Like Sartre at the keyhole, hearing footsteps approaching from behind, the test
specimen turns in shock: "Someone is looking at me!" (Sartre 349). Presumably,
the test specimen escapes into the forest; the antivideo ends before the bear is
captured. We are left with a noisy image of the bear running away (see
Surveillance video, the electronic gaze with which authorities establish
incontrovertible fact, is used frivolously--to follow a cartoon bear.
Comparatively, this antivideo renders the ostensibly authentic scene of "Morning
Bell" artificial and thus simultaneously lampoons authenticity more generally,
exposing capital's covert insistence that commodified celebrities are real
V. Is a Music Video Without Music a Music Video?
Slavoj Zizek tells an interesting personal story in The
Fragile Absolute worth quoting at length. During a trip to
Before recounting the story of what he terms a blunder, Zizek contextualizes his
confusion, citing the example of a recent art performance in Potzdamerplatz in
Berlin, where the movements of several gigantic cranes were orchestrated for an
art performance. A similar performance, he fails to note, happened in Helsinki
in the early 1980s.
noticed along and above all the main streets numerous large blue tubes and pipes,
the intricate cobweb of water, phone, electricity, and so on, was no longer
hidden beneath the earth, but displayed in public. My reaction was, of course,
that this was probably another of those postmodern art performances whose aim
was, this time, to reveal the intestines of the town, its hidden inner machinery,
in a kind of equivalent to displaying on the video the palpitation of our stomach
or lungs--I was soon proved wrong, however, when friends pointed out to me that
what I saw was merely part of the standard maintenance and repair of the city's
underground service network. (n. 13, 162)
In this context, Zizek's confusion in Berlin is understandable, and, I argue,
symptomatic of the postmodern era. What begins to emerge is that postmodernism
cannot be regarded merely as a set of objective attributes for which objects can
be tested, but might instead be considered a perspective, a condition of the
subject as well as objects. Not a radical thesis, by any means, but an important
one that marks the difference between Jean-François Lyotard and Fredric
Jameson: the former promoting distrust of metanarratives, a subjective state, as
distinctive of postmodernism (Lyotard xxiv), the latter elaborating a stylistic
description with architecture serving as the "privileged aesthetic language"
- Another example of confusion symptomatic of
postmodernism is my own. Thirteen of sixteen antivideos released in June
2001 in support of the band's fifth album, Amnesiac, are
musicless. These latest antivideos, to reuse Jody Berland's vocabulary
quoted above, emancipate themselves from their musical foundation so
thoroughly that the foundation is abandoned altogether. My initial
response to these musicless antivideos was to declare myself in the
presence of a postmodern pastiche of John Cage's revolutionary
At 8:15 p.m. on 29 August 1952, an audience gathered at the Maverick
in Woodstock, New York to hear the pianist David Tudor perform John
Cage's latest composition. They heard nothing, a nothing entitled
4'33''. Inspired by Robert Rauschenberg's
three-paneled White Painting of 1951, Cage's
handwritten score indicated a silence of three movements. Music
without music: is it still music? Cage, of course, thought it was.
Cage's modernist aesthetic was heavily influenced by Eastern
philosophy. The point of the performance of 4'33'' was
to force the listener to listen closely, to close read his or her
immediate sonic environment. The common
reference to 4'33" as Cage's "silent piece" is, from the
standpoint, a mistake. For one aim of the piece is to underscore Cage's
belief that silence does not in fact exist (Cage 8).
Radiohead's aesthetic, then, in this instance, was Cage's impulse turned against
the commercialization of music through the relentless promotion of
music videos. Music videos are promotional materials, but without
music, what can they promote? Nothing, and by promoting nothing they
become advertising simply for advertising's sake. Further, the
resulting affect isn't modernist shock (what have I endured!?), but
what Jameson termed the postmodern sublime: a panic-boredom (I have
to endure this for how long!?) (37-8).
- My theory of the antivideos along these lines was
disturbed, however, by information I received from the primary artist
responsible for Radiohead's antivideos, Chris Bran, one of the self-titled
Vapour Brothers. In July of 2001 I interviewed Bran via email.
Responding to a question regarding how and when the Amnesiac
antivideos were created, Bran wrote that they were "just out takes, left
overs, works in progress. they were all created for the current radiohead
project I am doing. we just decided to put these online and try to build
up a gallery of video ideas" [sic]. When asked specifically why
a majority of the shorts do not use music, Bran referred to his earlier
response: "as i said these are all works in progress, unfinished ideas or
out takes." The last comment Bran added was, "check out radiohead.com in
the next few weeks." What was to come was the release of "I Might Be
Wrong" (available at <http://www.radiohead.com/009.html>),
an internet only, traditional music video constructed from the various
musicless antivideos and created entirely on a laptop computer.
What Bran's comments required of me was to erase the earlier response, or at
least to rewrite that response, in this way: the soundless
antivideos are not the postmodern descendents of John Cage's famous
silence; they are, instead, waste, leftovers--in a word,
excrement. While Bran's comments frustrate the genealogical connection
to John Cage, his they open up a new set of theoretical
problems. Waste, in its various forms, is now routinely handled by
critical theory and theorists.
Zizek, leaning on the work of his former mentor and analyst Jacques-Alain Miller
(the son-in-law of Jacques Lacan), offers a compelling description
of what material condition is historically particular to
postmodernism: waste. Late capitalism, Zizek writes, has "introduce[d] a
breathtaking dynamics of obsolescence" (40) that generates
massive mounds of waste. I quote Zizek quoting Miller:
Along these lines Zizek notes that
The main production of the modern and postmodern capitalist industry is precisely
waste. We are postmodern beings because we realize that all our aesthetically
appealing consumption artifacts will eventually end as leftover, to the point
that it will transform the earth into a vast waste land. (qtd. in Zizek 40)
Perhaps the most famous example of this is Chris Ofili's 1996 painting "The Holy
Virgin Mary," a portrait of the religious icon as a black woman decorated with
elephant dung. The painting was featured in the 1999 Museum of Modern Art
Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection," an exhibit former Mayor of
New York Rudolph Giuliani called "sick stuff."
in today's art, the gap that separates the sacred space of sublime beauty from
the excremental space of trash (leftover) is gradually narrowing, up to the
paradoxical identity of opposites: are not modern art objects more and more
excremental objects, trash (often in a quite literal sense: faeces, rotting
corpses...) displayed in--made to occupy, to fill in--the sacred place
of the Thing? (25-26)
Back in Berlin, the aesthetic wonder Zizek felt at seeing the innards of the city
exposed need not necessarily be considered a blunder. The actual
of any situation, the ultimately phantasmic Real, is, as Lacan instructs us, only
a fantasy that has yet to be unveiled. Instead, what we witness in Zizek's
confusion (which was, interestingly, submerged in a footnote--the
of the book, the book's waste products) and in my own is the epitome of the
postmodern condition--the subject thrust into a state of perpetual awareness,
never knowing where art will come from next.
VI. In Place of a Conclusion: A Myth
- With the release in June 2001 of Amnesiac, the
band's fifth album, the test specimen bears of Kid A have been
replaced by crying minotaurs. While the bears were adaptable to various
situations, the minotaurs are unambiguously and consistently modeled as victims.
In one interactive portion of the Radiohead web site <http://www.waste-game.com/hogger/numeeja/minotaur.html>,
visitors can participate in "Experiment #6: Torturing the Minotaur"
have a chance to inflict pain upon a crying minotaur using a small trident. The
game, if it can rightly be called a game, is in the tradition of Stanley Milgram's
psychological experiments conducted from 1961 to 1962. A somewhat milder
the same experiment is available at Capitol Records' Radiohead site, <http://hollywoodandvine.com/radiohead/>,
a separate site not directly maintained by the band. At the top of the main page,
one click will cause a minotaur to weep while a continuously depressed mouse
button intensifies the minotaur's sorrow, prompting him to ruefully rub his
tearful eyes as he shakes his head.
Unlike Milgram's experiments, however, these opportunities to torture a minotaur
test not our willingness to obey, but the limits of curiosity--our
desire for knowledge. However, like Milgram's experiments, and more
significantly, "Experiment #6" is a simulation. We torture nothing.
We instead simulate a torture, a process far more dangerous
according to Baudrillard. Comparing a simulated and a real hold-up,
Capital attempts to stabilize its power through the maintenance of reality.
reiterate Zizek, "is ideology at its purest" (16). Simulation resists this
the latter does nothing but disturb the order of things, the right to property,
whereas the former attacks the reality principle itself. Transgression and
violence are less serious because they only contest the distribution of
the real. Simulation is infinitely more dangerous because it always leaves open
to supposition that, above and beyond its object, law and order themselves
might be nothing but simulation. (20)
However, the band's reflexive aesthetic effectively disrupts naïve consumption,
confronting the listener with music and art that adhere to opacity versus
authenticity as a guiding principal. As the novelist Nick Hornby wrote in a
New Yorker review deriding Radiohead:
That a listener would be given pause by a mass-produced art object troubles
Hornby, who prefers not to enter Radiohead's maze of possible meaning.
You have to work at albums like Kid A. You have to sit at home night
after night and give yourself over to its paranoid millennial atmosphere as you
try to decipher elliptical snatches of lyrics and puzzle out how the titles
('Treefingers,' 'The National Anthem,' and so on) might refer to the songs. ...
Kid A demands the patience of the devoted .... (qtd. in Dettmar)
Thus, explicitly evoking the myth of the minotaur with Amnesiac,
Radiohead has found an icon more fitting than the test specimens. A
limited-edition CD of the album is packaged in a cloth-bound book. Inside we find the
following disclaimers: "This book is to be hidden. Labyrinthine structures are
entered at the reader's own risk. Nosuch Library and Lending Service cannot be
held responsible for Misuse." Radiohead's music and art are, finally, as
acknowledges, a labyrinthine structure that, once entered, baffles with its
While Radiohead's music and art together sustain a significant critique of
capitalist ideology, the band has no pretension of saving the world
single-handedly. Instead, their web site at <http://www.radiohead.com/00.html>
recommends links to alternative
news and information sites with similarly worthy, if unattainable,
goals: to revise the relationship between consumer and commodity.
The goal of both Kid A and Amnesiac,
however, is far more modest: to revise our relationship to popular
music and forms of popular culture more generally, a goal that
Radiohead, I argue, achieves.
Department of English
University of Washington
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1. I follow Fredric Jameson's assertion that,
in postmodernism, pastiche eclipses parody. His definition is useful: "Pastiche
is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a
stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such
mimicry, without parody's ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without
laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something
normal compared with which what is being imitated is rather comic"
(Cultural Turn 5).
2. Kid A, which received a Grammy
Award for Best Alternative Album in 2000, was highly anticipated due to the
success of OK Computer, the band's 1997 album which was among the
top-ten highest selling albums in Great Britain. In 1998, OK
Computer received a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album (Hale 127) and
the band was nominated for four MTV awards (133). Comprehensive indexes of the
band's album reviews and awards are available in both Jonathan Hale's
Radiohead: From a Great Height and Martin Clarke's Radiohead:
Hysterical and Useless.
3. This echoes Jameson's claim that "aesthetic
production today has become integrated into commodity production generally"
4. Discussants' questions remained
throughout the chat. At one point, Greenwood comments, "Apparently 90%
of your questions are about hair."
5. A now-famous anecdote tells of Cage
NASA's soundproof room at Harvard University. Expecting absolute silence, he
instead heard two sounds: "one high and one low" (8). The first, he was told,
was his nervous system, the second his circulatory system. Even silence could
not be silent.
6. One antivideo, "minotauralley," makes an
excellent case for Jameson's postmodern sublime. For 46 seconds the viewer
watches a cartoon minotaur weeping with inexplicable calm in a deserted, wet
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