Back in the late 1950s, a group of young Parisian students and artists, led by filmmaker Guy DeBord, started a movement called Internationale Situationist, a heady blend of anarchism, dadaism and Marxism. Though it started out as an anti-art, anticommercialism movement, it soon morphed into something more: a political project out to achieve an urban utopia, one in which people were freed to realize their true selves.
The official purveyors of the Situationist movement disbanded in 1972; but while the movement has dissolved, there are still artists, musicians and ordinary people out there practicing what the French preached more than 30 years ago. (There always have been -- the situationists were a huge influence on Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren.) Casey Spooner and Warren Fischer, together known as the electronic art-rock outfit Fischerspooner, are among those carrying the IS torch today. Only they don't really know that.
"I have to be perfectly honest -- I'm not really as learned about those topics as I probably should be," admits Spooner, taking a break from recording the duo's sophomore album. "But I think that [Fischerspooner is] indulging in something but it is in a way influencing something, which is pop culture. So I think there is something defiant about it, but I also think it's very dangerous because we could just be absorbed into commercial culture."
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The spectacle as just another markdown at your local discount superstore: For Fischerspooner, who bring their self-described "Riot of Glitter and Feathers Tour 2003" to town on September 28, it's both a problem and a party.
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The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images. -- Guy DeBord, The Society of the Spectacle
"It all adds up to some sort of media illusion," explains Fischer in the documentary DVD that accompanies the long-awaited American release of #1, the duo's debut album. "It's amazing how powerful pop culture is. All it is, is a couple of images, a couple of songs, good photography, good production values, and creating the illusion that something is actually happening when very little actually is."
What's really happening with Fischerspooner is a constant critique-cum-valentine to popular culture. Fittingly, the project got off the ground in an East Village Starbucks in the late '90s, when Spooner and Fischer, art-school chums who met in Chicago, performed one impromptu song to the surprise of many patrons just wanting their daily cup of corporate joe. It's a moment that captures the band's mission perfectly: to penetrate mundane commercialism from an experimental, left-of-center place and see just how far it will go.
From that one-off performance, the project mushroomed into a full-scale visual and sensory assault on the art world and its outer limits, spilling over into pop-music stardom on the Continent and eventually in the States, with Spooner and the group's wildly diverse troupe of dancers and backup singers as the eye candy and Fischer as the self-taught computer jockey whose duties, outside of composing the cheeky, trashy electronica, is to "just push play," as Spooner implores him from the stage.
The spectacle is both the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production. It is not something added to the real world -- not a decorative element, so to speak. On the contrary, it is the very heart of society's unreal reality.
There's a moment in the video for "Emerge," the group's first single, when it becomes clear exactly what Fischerspooner is up to. When Spooner's large, garishly colored costume, which is reminiscent of something MC Hammer would have worn back in the day, is ripped off, leaving him clad only in glittering bikini briefs and a Fabio wig, the spectator realizes, through the giggles, that everything he has just seen is a mockery. The intensity, the choreography, the meticulous makeup jobs -- all of it is swept away with this big slobbery raspberry blown at all who would take these things seriously.
The problem, of course, is that this mockery of all things pop has set a trap for the two men.
"Whatever criticism I have of pop culture, it gets revenge on me by making me sympathetic," says Spooner. "Now I'm like, 'Oh, right, that's why that happened.' So, when you have a hit, that means you're imprisoned by it. Oh, okay! Poor Mariah, no wonder! So even though she's got a big fat bank account, she can't use it because she's tortured."
The spectacle is the chief product of present-day society.
In the past few years, it has been possible to see Fischerspooner perform at outdoor festivals in Europe, in nightclubs everywhere, on a stage constructed over a pool at an art collector's private home, at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center and in a fake apartment set in an art gallery.
"The material hasn't changed, but the context is constantly shifting," says Spooner of performing the same material ad infinitum for years on end. "One way that it's always remained interesting and refreshing is that it's always in a different world."
The difference in context, of course, depends on the audience and how it reacts to the setting. When a person is a spectator in an art gallery -- or a library, for that matter -- she is a different person in everything from her mind-set to the way she holds herself. Conversely, in a nightclub, that same person is likely to be much more outgoing. These are the differences that Spooner finds the most interesting about his current trip.
"That's the fun of it, is that it's absolutely the same wherever we go, so it's interesting to see how it's perceived differently, even though it's pretty much the same intention. [When] you're not working in a traditional venue, it's a blank canvas, no pun intended."
The spectacle's function in society is the concrete manufacture of alienation.
"There is something weirdly contradictory about the idea of a movement, because it inevitably becomes uniform, and it weirdly becomes self-defeating," Spooner muses. "We're definitely not anticommodity or anticorporate, because we're participants. It feels like there is something defiant in [what we're doing]. There's a peculiar relationship in that we're constantly commenting on the thing that we're participating in, and yet indulging in it and working hard to make it a cool and exciting thing."
Then again, how much of what Fischerspooner is doing is really stinging commentary, and how much of it is two artsy geeks pulling off a fleece job for the ages, getting paid to rub shoulders with glitterati from the art, fashion and music worlds in the process? Fischer himself has copped to as much in his claims that there's nothing more at play here than a bunch of glitter, skin and wind machines.
"What's interesting is the idea of play," Spooner points out. "I'm extending my playfulness as long and as hard as I can. Maybe it doesn't need to be some heavy-handed, theoretical, conceptual dissertation. Maybe it is all that it is and maybe that's all that it should ever be."
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