Like Literally Driving without a Steering Wheel at the Speed of
Light on a Road that May or
May Not Exist and Apparently
We've Hit Some Things Already:
A Conversation with Norman Klein

By Ian Page

In Los Angeles, I work as a carpenter for money. Shortly after moving to LA, I started to work on the writer/theorist/historian Norman Klein's house and over the course of the contracted relationship we became friends. It was a clunky friendship at first, punctuated by small acts of home demolition, screw guns, and hammering. Conversations about architecture would usually spin off into different areas of Norman's expertise. In these conversations it became clear we were both interested in the relationship of fact and fiction. Norman was the first person I'd heard say, “we need the next thing.” He was referring to the static perspective that fact and fiction are considered separate. For me, at this moment in time, the separation is a very dysfunctional way to look at our culture, our economy, our nation; it leads to dead end after dead end of disparity. It is like the confusion of watching Thor (2011) and then not being able to sign up for state mandated health insurance because of a malfunctioning website. I look forward to the next thing. I moved to Los Angeles sensing that it is a city of fact and fiction, that it scripted itself and is therefore incomprehensible and thoroughly misjudged. Norman, 40 years earlier, had done much the same. For the following “conversation,” I showed up at his house with the only question I could think to ask.


* * *

Page: Let’s start by talking about how a person can live in relation to global entertainment media…

Klein: Let's suppose we can identify when the blockbuster style developed more “immersive” cinematic effects. Some of it was the advent of digital sound, done partly by the same man that delivered Star Wars (1977), as we know. There was also the use of camera effects, which made it feel like you were sitting next to Han Solo or that the ship was flying behind you as you were flying ahead of it: essentially the removal of the foreground. Certain stories made elaborate use of these immersive effects, usually epic tales. The whole universe is at stake or the shark is going to eat up the summer business and all of your children. Really, Jaws (1975) is where it starts.

Around 1974 and forward you begin to see more of these immersive effect. At the same time, you begin to see the transition of shopping centers into shopping malls, so you actually shop that same way. Essentially people start to theme spaces and then they theme cities. One might say it is a form of entertainment where you turn your own place, whether it is a movie theater or a city, into a place where you are a tourist. So you become a tourist in your own city and then naturally you become a tourist in your own body, which is a bit creepy. And now people are trying, particularly people of your generation, to figure out how to actually grow your own kale and sort of pull away, because obviously it turns out it wasn't just immersive effects. It was also the effect of having a small but potent GPS cell phone climbing up every orifice in your body and replacing your sense of identity with some kind of sexual experience that actually wasn't there, but yet somehow it works, which is even worse.

And so these stages go on over a period of about 40 years or so, and more or less they parallel what we think of as globalism. But it's complicated, because they tend to be epic stories, not dramatic stories. in other words, you don't really worry if the couple in Jurassic Park (1993) will really get along. The fact that he doesn't like kids or whether they are going to have an orgasm is like “who gives a shit.” Unless it is really displayed with the same enthusiasm as the brontosaurus! Sort of smiling at you or something. Why don't we care that much about the story, the story is so rudimentary it is sort of like a reference point, what they call a skeuomorph. It resembles story, but actually the story is about something epic, it's about power. So these blockbusters were stories about power at a time when power was moving into entertainment and media and in stages begin to do terribly weird things, not just to our economy and our sense of what is a job, but to our own bodies and to our own sense of identity. So these films are a funny record, because a lot of times in order to make them, they had to put the effects side by side with the making of the film. Much more than post production, these were almost like para production or by-production, so that meant that the story in a sense was also the story of how the production was made. You might say it was a movie about the making of the movie as a story inside the movie about the epic meaning of power. Then suddenly you realize “oh I get it!”

Look at a film like Independence Day (1996), which has one of the dumbest story lines imaginable. There's this rabbinical Jewish nerd, this tough marine with a big phallic cigar, that is a cigar but isn't, and then insects staring behind control panels. It's not really just a story about what’s going to happen to this rabbinical guy and whether his father will know how to talk to the president, because his father will suddenly become like a rabbi himself. What you are really seeing is one workstation talking to another. So the workstations that were being developed during the film, while it was being shot, influenced the story. The story is about power, literally about the digitalization of the film industry and about corporations. The aliens are not just aliens, they are actually people bringing derivatives into the mortgage industry. Look at the dates and it is rather terrifying. Independence Day came out exactly in the year when the Asian financial crisis started the collapse of Globalism into the new stage. So the aliens emerging were actually emerging in Thailand and Indonesia and eventually it spread to the entire industry and eventually swallowed up the whole bullshit thing we used to think of as the American Dream. Suddenly you think “Wow, that is a weird movie!,” how funny that the movie was basically using German special effects companies, but only blowing up America, and how similar was it to the memory of Germans being carpet bombed in World War II. So it is the carpet bombing of Germany in World War II, turned into an advert about world capitalism globalizing like alien computers at exactly the time when world capitalism was screwing up, was being violated. It turns out the aliens were in fact world banking and world finance moving faster than the human mind could follow and dissolving cities. And particularly, ironically, and terrifyingly enough, this was one of the films that people were reminded of when 9/11 happened. This has been carefully researched.

We can backtrack and go film environment by environment and find connections, parallels and echoes and realize that this is part of the record of our civilization. That's my point.

Page: I wonder about the relationship between these epics and politics. Is it changing?

Klein: Everyone is obsessed with these zombie movies. Why so many zombie movies? Even smaller films, like Her (2013), about a certain kind of medicated personality, who can't get off his ass and doesn't know where he is and has a computer system making love to him. It is the most real part of the entire movie and he is real so far as complete entropy can be. If you lived a completely entropic life where everything was standing still and all you were doing was waiting for the paint to peel, that would be him, but also I have to say when I saw the movie it affected me deeply for the whole day because I immediately identified with that guy, even though I am supposed to know better. I felt “Oh my god they caught something in my brain!” Even films about elderly people in a world that's entropic, increasingly in a world that is after the apocalypse, because we realized that the apocalypse already happened. So instead of being a movie about aliens bombing us, it is a movie about a hundred years later, when Tom Cruise or some aging muscle-bound person has almost no personality left. There's no room for personality when you have to walk around like a Marvel Comics character, with extensions of yourself. It is almost like Marshall McLuhan as a psychotic episode, where the extension of the body becomes the whole person and we are seeing more and more of a kind of identity crisis in these epics as we realize that we internalize and have embedded ourselves and been embedded by so much that it seems that the story of how the aliens blew us up has kind of happened.

So now it is after the apocalypse. You might say it's the last sequel to Mad Max (1979), after everything has gone wrong and he's trying to install a GPS in his primitive hut and everything is kind of normalized and all the lunatics on motorcycles are doing repairs, and everything is kind of down to some almost 5th-century Rome kind of feeling. It is changing, because we are now beginning to regionalize and localize, not globalize. So the stories are becoming more and more localized and they are post-epic in a weird way. Nothing can be more post-epic than a film like Her. There's nothing epic possible, right? You can't even meet a body and at the end the heroine and the hero are just kind of stare together, she rests her head on his shoulder and he almost looks embarrassed that she's doing that. So it is a much more disembodied version of the epic. Now we can make it even without the effects, because they can be implied. We have gone through a journey, the journey involves something like 40 years and these films are in a strange way becoming a three-act story about not actually beginning. What in philosophy they call an aporia: that which can never begin. So the man has a relationship with an operating system that can never actually begin and the operating system evolves but he cannot. And the zombies evolve but the people cannot. Somehow these films are beginning to multiply, even beginning to replace three-act dramas.

Then on television, that’s another story, because people are sitting there polishing the silverware for six hours in some of these series and we're thinking, “Why am I watching them polishing the silverware! Why am I watching this non-dramatic action going on in Boardwalk Empire where they seem to be constantly on the edge of not much happening?” You realize this is another version. You might say it went from dynamic globalism to a much more regionalized and entropic version. And it's amazing how these effects-oriented films, even when they have no effects, are probably the best record we have of our perverse journey. We don't live in the three-act structure, we live in the world that is so layered and moving faster than the speed of light or close to it, that we really have things happening that no human mind in three acts could comprehend. And now we are adapting to that and our adaptation as it turns out is to grow kale on the hill. Am I making sense?

Page: Totally making sense. There is a sense of disappointment that we will never have a relationship with that fiction. Maybe the blockbuster is addressing that disappointment?

Klein: These films had this tremendous impact, but of course there are issues with where they are migrating to. When I was in China recently, in Shenzhen, I saw one of the movie theaters that they just added to this place that has 12 million people, from nowhere in 30 years. Thor was playing. Then next to Thor was a Chinese movie that looked like Thor. So it was Thor and Thorazine Thor, or Sinus Thor. It was all Thor-ish. It was strange. Apparently the Chinese prefer the blockbuster films to the dramas from America. And the Chinese government feels that the blockbuster films fit the Chinese energy. I thought: “Wow, that is creepy.” This whole process is very strange, that means the corporation is changing and the relationship between corporate power is changing. And these movies can actually be seen that way. Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) was a gigantic hit in Russia. And I can sort-of see why somehow. These movies are also about oligarchy a lot, they increasingly are more popular outside the US than inside.

At first we said “Oh well, Americans are just morons,” right? We are morons. We invented bad cars and stupid suburbs and then it turns out that everybody loves these things and now blockbuster films are being designed not for Americans and they are starting to have lopsided results. Sometimes they do very well abroad but not as well in America. They are being designed to be shot in Shanghai or Macau, like the Bond film [Skyfall (2012)], which did extremely well. How ironic, that James Bond, Mr. CIA-friend, was popular in a communist country, because the film was shot in China. It's too complicated to even play with all the ironies. It's watching the entertainment economy changing as well. Even more than just the media economy and globalism.

Then you look at other fields, like the Museum. Is the museum environment starting to use installation effects? If we study installation art from the 60s forward we'll see some of the same versions about power and relationships and industry and the structure of things. I say that because you are working inside that world and you talk to people and are probably getting some weird deja vu that resembles what you are seeing. Yet this is presumably an anti-capitalist environment. It’s very clear that we are talking about a social pathology. What we would like to do with all of this is make it more emotionally complicated, more real, because in the 17th and 18th centuries they had a lot of stories like this, they had a lot of novels like this and they built very elaborate environments and somehow we look at that and we feel that they're heavy on content. We think “BAROQUE, that's content! The birth of the novel, that's content!” So how did they do that? Even the 19th century industrial era had a lot of dime museums and illusionistic effects and somehow that turned into some content we liked, like cinema.

Cinema began, basically, as a special effects trick. A kind of automatic device that saw what you couldn't see on the street; just watching people tipping their hats or attaching itself literally to the back of a train, recording movement and time. It was very jittery and weird, and look, it worked out, they got something out of this. Even TV, for chrissake, which used be be seen as truly the death of consciousness, is now the only laboratory for media and narrative left.

So we'd like to say, okay we have this thing that also has to do with media in our pocket, it's now invaded us as thoroughly as the railroad economy did, we are as screwed up as TV ever made us and our economy has been completely turned ass backwards. Manufacturing grows but no jobs, right? No one knows what’s going on. They can't even keep a record anymore. We are literally driving without a steering wheel at the speed of light on a road that may or may not exist and apparently we've hit some things already. There's blood on our windshield and we notice that blood is streaming out of parts of our face and then we punch a button and we get a Google screen. Or someone wants to talk to us on Facebook. Or we get a tweet explaining the universe.

So we want to slow down vision and accomplish for our era what seems to have been done before. And it's more complicated than we thought, because the precision of media and the precision of storytelling were much closer together in the last 40 years than usual. Henry Ford was a friend of the guy who ran MGM, but Ford had no awareness of film and media whatsoever. But the new equivalent of Ford is like a media nerd, right? It turns out that when industry decided to turn into culture, it destroyed culture, rather than built it up. When industry hated culture, it kept building new culture industries without even knowing what it was doing and those industries evolved, they weren't parasites.

So we are trying to make sense, your generation is trying to make sense, of how this runaway train at the speed of light without a wheel, can be turned into culture that we feel has the humanity we associate with the novel or with theater when theater was theater or good movies or TV as it could be or the fine arts before they were run over with a lawn mower, weed whacked out of existence.

Your generation is just kind of stuck in the middle of this whole process, but they are not really critical anymore. It is very hard to be critical when you are inside the stomach of the dragon. You are basically just being dissolved. It goes on and on. So your generation is obsessed with what to do, should I become almost like a mountain man in the 1840s? Crossing the Missouri and sitting there eating roots and berries. Or should I try to enter the industry? Should I try to build a different kind of discourse so things grow rather than keep sprouting everywhere. It is like a prairie with 45 different plants and it actually seems to have some point. We used to cross a frontier for a purpose. Now you just live in the frontier and you become a weed yourself. You just get lost and realize you have actually been planted. Your generation needs advice from my generation too, because we have the last 800 years stuck somewhere in our fevered brains. And it turns out that the academic world is not delivering what it should and the art world is pretending to not be about business when you can’t be more in business than artists. Basically it's back to pre-industrial models of patronage. Patronage is beginning to replace the dealer system, which had it's problems but now it's becoming stranger and stranger.

Then there is this open source idea that everything is supposed to be a hobby and you don't make a living at anything you ever do and because it is a hobby it is a world of endless first drafts. Anyone can tell you that a first draft is a stupid idea. It has possibilities, but is not a finished thing. Your generation loves interviews. “What's on your mind, give me the top of your brain? I don't want the rest, the rest is exhausted, just spit it out.” And it is time based. Almost like ‘70s video, it just kept rolling and rolling. Like the Warhol films where you just stare or watch people kissing, or the Empire State Building. Now our whole cultural economy is running that way, it's like a giant telephone call in 17 different tactile forms, but in the end it is just “Hello, how are you, I got laid yesterday, but you know, I need more fiber in my diet.”

So your generation is trying to find forms to harvest this very perverse tragic comic journey that we are taking. Which is certainly enough material surely to make new kinds of novels and art, and even to come up with a certain humanity, your generation has a very peculiar un-American quality to it. The most un-American thing about your generation is that you are far and away the least racist generation in American history and that says a lot, because we are the United States; we did a lot of seriously racist things.

The point is that your generation is less racist, and is less obsessed with earning a lot of money, than my generation was. My generation claimed to not care about money and they invented hedge funding, derivatives, tax havens, and gave us idiot wars one after the other and felt morally superior and they keep pontificating to everybody when it turns out they are the ones that set the curtains on fire that burnt down the house that we are trying to make sense of now. All they say is “I didn't actually set the curtains on fire, what I did was I saw them on fire and I went into the kitchen and talked about it. I was against that idea. It was a bad idea.” It's like you’re talking at the Nuremberg trials or something: “I like Jews, I used to go and visit their stores.” The question is whether anyone feels ethically connected to this problem? They will say things like, “Oh in the ‘60s I did all this stuff” and my answer is “No, you got laid!” And as soon as you smelled the money you ran after it or you became an osteopath and gave up your politics. Or this right wing direction in American politics ground you to a pulp and then you just couldn't stand it anymore.

It's not even a moral issue. Your generation wants an ethical answer with a sense of mission so that you can do for your era what the 1890s did for it's era. You can actually generate something fresh and powerful. You keep interviewing characters like me, each other, seeing if you figure out how to put the key in the lock and get the damn thing to at least make a sound, just a sound would help, a little burp. And it turns out that we have discovered the machine is more like flesh. There is a reason our buildings are starting to look more like flesh, because we are in a biopolitical way, swallowing up the flesh of the earth. It is very weird because content used to be about things and then we had our body. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Jefferson didn't even mention doctors, but of course doctors killed you in those days so what would you want them for? Throughout the history of America there has been a tremendous avoidance. Agambin is right about that part, this homo sasser business, that the fleshy reality is not in the contract and there are all these states of exception.

So it turns out the machine now is also like flesh; it’s skin is genetically engineered vegetables. For example, there is a new apple that doesn't turn brown and people are trying to figure out whether that’s a bad thing, whether people want an apple to turn brown and whether it’s bad if people say apples now are genetically engineered. It's so nano, our world, even the mass of giganticism of special effects are sort of too cute already and we don't know what to do. Because fantastic voyage type things are really dull, people talking on cell phones back and forth, and with The Bourne Identity movies, running around killing each other. It's kind of clever with the cute handheld edits, running across Morocco, beating people to death, but it's still just a ballet where you want something more. Your generation wants something more than a ballet, you sort of addicted to that kind of entertainment on some level and you want more, you are hoping somehow through a re-enactment of avant-garde techniques like journals and meetings and secret communalist strategies you could re-energize. It would seem like you should, because you can talk to a million people for free now.

I do think it's possible, but it's going to take a tremendous amount of new logic and it’s hard to imagine that a civilization that began in the ‘70s that we don't even know if we liked and gave us basically Starbucks, four-cheese pizza and a lot of special effects movies, that somehow that could end. That it ended already, so we don't have to be apocalyptic anymore. This is it, it already ended and we're somehow five years, ten years, or even 15 years, almost 20 years after the end of it. You know, L.A. had all these crises in the ‘90s. You might say that in L.A. the apocalypse started in '92, ran through the ‘90s and then while these apocalypses were happening, including the Northridge earthquake, they start to green light special effects films like Independence Day. You might say the apocalyptic ‘90s in L.A. is partly what generated the beginning of these apocalyptic films becoming popular.

It's strange, it all parallels. The idea that that is over now and we are supposed to come up with something powerful with what we have, and what strategies should be used, how do we talk, how do we say, what can we take from the last 800 years that we can use, because the present is useless. The future ages faster than the present, so as soon as you get something up to date you realize it is already dying. So maybe your apple won't turn brown but everything else turns brown around it. The apple is fine. You see in the mirror that you've aged, that you are turning brown. Or something like that. It's very fascinating. I find it incredibly interesting that this blockbuster world died the way it promised to die and we can only look at movies and TV about it. And we still have these real questions: what to do with the book, what to do with architecture, what to do with our whole sense of the body? This is a pretty important issue. Our body has been more affected by this economy than by the industrial economy. The industrial economy helped us live longer, we could drink milk without dying from it, but now it's changed our whole identity of what our body is in a way we hadn't expected. It's also weirdly neutral, even though Africa is killing itself and parts of Pennsylvania haven't had a job in 30 years and other parts of the country are hoping please FRACK ME! or can I do a Chapter 9 [bankruptcy] thing?

We have this record, but we need a strategy. And you’re hoping that by interviewing characters like me, you will have more distance. And even though I am the generation that is ethically responsible for the disaster, that somehow there is a way to build something like an avant-garde moment out of this, something fresh, honest, and direct. We liked the directness of the modernist thing. What you want is strategic, structural, praxis practice, things that actually speak, you want to simply speak. I believe it's possible, but I can see what a mess it is. We have to go past the idea of “Oh my god, how bad is it?” to “That's it, pal,” now we have to build forward. I find that the left is often forming an alliance with the right. The only answer on the left is basically “we have to go back to the things we stopped doing in 1980” or “we can't do it at all.” Obviously if that was what happened during the New Deal, we would have all committed suicide together, gone into the middle of the dust bowl and died of thirst.

For example, we don't seem to believe fracking is a real problem that can be solved, so therefore we have to stop it. It turns out fracking is the only hope for our manufacturing economy and for whole parts of the U.S. to make a comeback, because the capital stays in the U.S. much more. We finally have something we can't offshore, we have that shit down a mile below us and in the old days what they probably would have said is that “we have to regulate the heart and soul of this greed out of it and find a way to turn atomic energy into something useful.” They were always making a deal with devil to make it work anyway, so fracking is a deal with the devil, but the point is we are not going to say 10 trillion dollars doesn't matter when we can’t seem to even get on track properly, so why don't we just regulate the shit out of it, to be blunt, the way we used to? Industrial capitalism was just as imperialistically grotesque as anything fracking gives us, but we decided “no, we'll just regulate it.” We set up the Sherman Anti-Trust act, that's 1889: we'll just regulate those sons of bitches! We'll harness them to the cart and they'll move us along. They wanna make money, there's a price for making money. With fracking all we say is, “No, don't do it.” That's so not possible. So obviously what you’re basically saying is “Please, I want to say the right thing, because I've got to go to Thai food tonight and I don't want to think about the complexity of this problem.” You can't be against 10 trillion dollars, it's not possible. Then we would have been against mining, steel, shipping. We can't do it. We're going to have to actually figure out how it works, what would be a Manhattan Project. We have a water crisis, it rains too much and it doesn't rain at all. In the old days, like the Roman empire, they would say, “Gee, let's get an aqueduct to bring the water from where it rains a lot to where it doesn't.” We're told “No, no, no, we can bring oil from the anus of the world 6000 miles away” but we can't bring water 200 miles. “It's too hard! I'm against it!”

Try to imagine this image: You’re at Plymouth Rock, it is 1620, but it's not pilgrims, it's Americans from 2014 in the ship. So they are in the ship looking out and it looks pretty rotten, the climate looks bad, it doesn't look much better from where they left England. So they begin to have a conversation, and they ask “do we have enough cheese to get back?” Meanwhile across the way there are those Native Americans holding turkeys and wondering “who are those people, they don't look dangerous, they should have known better.” And then they stay there and it gets colder and colder and finally everyone on the ship dies on the ship because they can't make a decision to get off the boat. That is what happens. And no one crosses the frontier. Nothing happens. That's how we do it now. “I'm against it, I'm for it.” Endless discussions and you never do it.

It is very awkward, very raw to say half a loaf is a way toward something. Crossing a frontier is awkward, but apparently we have a frontier and we are not willing to cross it culturally, economically, or even morally in some way. And everyone is trying to be politically correct, but what they should try to be is politically wrong, politically awkward and run the risk of actually solving the problem. It always looks ugly. Ask any plumber what it’s like to solve a problem. I could see someone coming upon him saying “Oh my god, get out of my house, look at what you did!” And he says, “I'm fixing it! This is what it looks like when I'm fixing something!” These movies have warned us about the inability to solve, to address. It's not just the films. Now it is becoming the miniaturized media. The purpose of this conversation is for me to help give you a clue for what to do next. I do believe we need discourse more, we probably need to stop parasitically destroying things every time a new technology appears. We need to also frankly figure out how to get enough capital so people have jobs. In every direction it's pretty clear what we need and it shouldn't be that difficult for a culture that crossed the frontier with the bastard lunatic children from around the world, to sort of begin to address this. Somehow people around your age are stuck with this problem. Maybe it can be a blessing somehow. It's tricky, but World War II was tricky. Crossing frontiers given what the climate was like in the prairie was tricky.

Ian Page is an artist living in Los Angeles. He makes video, sculpture and performance.



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