Peter Aspden

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In Peter Aspden’s Financial Times profile of clock-watcher and turntablist Christian Marclay, the talk turns to how digital technology has refocused our attention from product to production, the process itself now a large part of the show. An excerpt:

When did the medium become more important than the message? Philosopher Marshall McLuhan theorised about the relationship between the two half a century ago — but it is only today that we seem to be truly fascinated by the processes involved in the creation of contemporary art and music, rather than their end result. Nor is this just some philosophical conceit; it extends to the lowest level of popular culture: what are the TV talent shows The X Factor and The Voice if not obsessed by the starmaker machinery of pop, rather than the music itself?

There are two reasons for this shift in emphasis. The first is technology. When something moves as fast and as all-consumingly as the digital revolution, it leaves us in its thrall. Our mobile devices sparkle more seductively than what they are transmitting. The speed of information has more of a rush than the most breakneck Ramones single.

Digital tools also enable the past to be appropriated in thrilling new forms — “The Clock” would not have been possible in an analogue age. Marclay has said he developed calluses on his fingers from his work in the editing suite, echoing the injuries once suffered by the hoariest blues guitarists. “The Clock” is a reassemblage of found objects: that is not a new phenomenon in artistic practice, but never has it been taken to such popular and imaginative heights.

It is the art of the beginnings of the digital age: not something entirely new, but a reordering of great, integral works of the past. “A record is so tangible,” says Marclay when I ask him about his vinyl fixation. “A sound file is nothing.” Sometimes, I say, it feels as if he has taken all the passions of my youth — records, movies, comic books — and thrown them all in the air, fitting them back together with technical bravura and, in so doing, investing them with new, hidden meanings. I ask if his art is essentially nostalgic. “I don’t think it is,” he replies firmly. “But there is a sense of comfort there. These are things we grew up with. They are familiar. And that is literally the right word: they are family.”

The second, less palatable, reason for the medium to overshadow the message is because of a loss of cultural confidence. We are not sure that the end result of whatever it is we are producing with such spectacular technological support can ever get much better than Pet Sounds, or Casablanca, or early Spider-Man. This does lead to nostalgia; not just for the old messages but for the old media, too. Marclay tells me there is a cultish following for audio cassettes, as if the alchemy of that far-from-perfect technology will help reproduce the magic of its age.


Marclay re-making music in 1989. 

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The director and artist Steve McQueen is a dizzying, demanding, daring talent, doing a rare thing in these times: making films from an adult perspective. Two excerpts follow from a new Financial Times profile by Peter Aspden, one about his allegedly irritable personality, and the other about his depiction of male sexuality in Shame.


The best way to describe the relationship between the two means of expression, he says, in a comparison he has made before, is that “the movie is the novel, and art is poetry. Not a lot of people appreciate poetry, and it is the same with art. It is a more specialised form. That’s the difference.”

But the two impulses are forever “expanding and contracting” in his mind, he says. I ask if it is difficult to shift between genres. It is the rarest of things for a video artist to convert to Hollywood film-making. “Not at all. It is not as if I am jumping into different states of mind. It is all about finding what you want to say, and then how you want to say it.” Is that very clear to him straightaway? “Oh yes. But these things are incubating in my mind for a long time. I am in 2007 right now.” I look for a hint of a smile as he says this but he appears deadly serious.

McQueen, who turns 45 this week, is routinely described as a prickly man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but I wonder if that is confusing his seriousness and unrelenting intensity for a kind of social awkwardness. He gives every impression to me of enjoying the interview process, watchful and concentrated while he is listening to the question, like a batsman steadying himself during a bowler’s run-up. When Kirsty Young brought up the same subject in a recent edition of the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, asking why he was so unfairly portrayed, he replied simply: “I am a black man. I’m used to that. If I walk into a room people make a judgment. I don’t care.


He seems to relish plunging into controversial subjects, I say. Shame, his second feature film, was an extraordinarily candid view of the unheralded extremes of male sexuality. “That’s still not sorted,” he says quickly. “That is unfinished business. I really want to come back to that.” Why was that? “It is an extremely fascinating subject. But no one talks about it. Let’s get real! So many important decisions in the world are connected with the sexual appetites of important men. Whether it is JFK, or Clinton, or Martin Luther King. That is what we are. That is part of us. But sometimes people are embarrassed by their pleasures.

‘It is a huge subject. So many people came out after that film and sent me anonymous letters, a lot of thank-yous, and some crazy stuff too.’ What did women think of it, I ask? ‘I don’t know how much women know, or want to know, about men’s sexual appetites. A friend of mine went to see it with his wife, and she asked him, ‘Do those things really happen?’ And he was, like, ‘No, no, it is just a fantasy, it is just the movies.’” McQueen’s laugh suggests otherwise.•


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Remember album cover art, that thing that was important before we could fit record stores in our pockets? The most famous example of the form–and perhaps the best–was Peter Blake’s design for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band theme album, which was a collage of famous, disparate figures–Lenny Bruce, Sonny Liston, Oscar Wilde, etc.– that disappeared the line between high and low art. In a Financial Times piece by Peter Aspden, the now 80-year-old artist reflects on his career (though not much on his most famous work): An excerpt:

“There is a tall, forbidding figure tucked inside the entrance of Peter Blake’s west London studio. It’s a waxwork model of Sonny Liston, the heavyweight boxer whose fights with Muhammad Ali in the early 1960s made him one of that decade’s most controversial sporting celebrities. The look on his face is distant, and a little scary. It is impossible not to think of him as a bouncer, guarding the treasure trove of artistic wonders that lie behind him. To anyone familiar with the iconography of popular music, he is also a recognisable figure. The model of Liston is present in Blake’s most renowned work, and one of the most famous pop images in history, standing solemnly among the motley collection of celebrities on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

For many people, Blake’s inspired collage summed up the frenetic times. Its improbable placings of modern history’s cultural icons – Lenny Bruce next to Karlheinz Stockhausen; Fred Astaire rubbed up against Edgar Allan Poe – could not help but make you smile. It was a playful fantasy, a light-touched piece of artistic mischief that could not hide its disregard for the pomposity of postwar ‘adult’ Britain. Very 1960s; very Peter Blake.

Blake today does not much care to talk about Sgt. Pepper, not necessarily because of his feelings towards the meagre reward he received for his art work (said to be about £200) but because he finds it a little boring and tires of strangers walking up to him, asking him to sign half-a-dozen copies, and instantly putting them on eBay. But the spirit of that irreverent cover is still vividly alive in the artist.”

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From Peter Aspden’s Financial Times piece about the slate of recent hand-wringing books about the future of cinema, a passage regarding the creative destruction that technology has brought to cinema:

“It is one of the most famous one-liners in the history of cinema, which also turned out to be an inadvertent prophecy. ‘I am big,’ says the slighted Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950). ‘It’s the pictures that got small.’

She had no idea. The past half-century has seen the pictures get smaller and smaller, to the point that we wonder if they can ever be big again. From television screen, to laptop, to smartphone, the ever-shrinking movies reach a greater part of the world than ever before. But what have we lost along the way? On a recent flight, I downloaded the relatively well-received Marvel spin-off The Avengers to watch on my iPhone. It was, of course, a ridiculous venture, this squeezing of monumental themes on to a miniaturist canvas, lacking in textural detail, atmosphere, communality of experience. But it was easily accessible, convenient and cheap. Is the trade-off worth it?”