I read something once in which genius was described as the ability to see a scene or problem in it's entirety; to step back, zoom out, and see the solution click together with perfect clarity before your eyes.
It's a nice idea, and it stuck with me. But those kind of moments come rarely. Answers are discovered by accident as much as by design. Knowledge systems have a life of their own, in which multiple perspectives are a necessity, everything is contingent and subject to change, absolute truth is a fallacy and a complete understanding of anything is impossible.
It's the human condition. Being created without asking, hurtling towards death at unknown velocity, and frantically juggling the endless mass of situations, ideas, experiences and stimulus along the way.
And it's great when you come across a piece of art or music that has taken some or all of this into account. I was recently converted to the cause of Oakland's Why? for this reason. Watching Yoni Wolf spit his dense OCD lyrics in the flesh, I came to realise that what I had perceived as wise-ass meandering was actually an endearingly human attempt to hold all that knowledge and memory and to make sense of it, rationalise it, and reprocess it as something understandable. Why? stopped being annoying right there and became an expression of what it is to try and hold back chaos.
Casiotone For The Painfully Alone takes the approach via a kind of poetic anthropology, in which we get fleeting glimpses of characters across America, each with their own back story, their own concerns and their own problems. Individual lives are dotted through his prolific output like stars across the sky, and a tiny event like a string of pearls snapping and scattering in a nightclub becomes heartbreaking in his hands.
Installation artists like Mike Nelson and Tomoko Takahashi use a chaos of objects as their medium. Nelson creates maze-like networks of rooms in which you might find yourself stepping from a completely authentic-looking office reception into a garden shed, complete with damp wood smell and rusty tools, into a velvet and mahogany funeral chamber. The significance we project onto spaces is illuminated, and innocuous objects become loaded with meaning.
Takahashi celebrates chaos and colour, packing galleries with countless objects in garish colours, squashing meaning and significance together until they are no longer recognisable. Her installations are a fireworks display in which all objects are equalized in a joyful melee.
Martin Creed's minimalism uses the opposite technique to reach the same conclusion. By removing everything from the gallery, he leaves us with a meaning vacuum that explodes like a split atom upon examination.
A direct attempt to grapple with information overload comes from Simon Bookish on his new album Everything/Everything. Released on Tomlab late in 2008, it's a dizzying proto-jazz record in which the flood of information and knowledge is portrayed first as a threat, but ultimately as a liberating force that can yield the answers to everything, especially when the finite human lifespan is taken out of the equation.
I don't remember where the idea I paraphrased in the first paragraph came from, but it's out there somewhere, on paper or some server. It could have been a previously unread internet diary or the work of a great Greek philosopher. I'll probably never find out.
But whatever it was from, the idea emerged from the chaos and stuck in my head just like the sounds and ideas all of these musicians and artists did, and a picture starts to form...
WORD BY JOHN BRAINLOVE