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Monday, January 4, 1999
By Paul Ford
Sick of writing, I write about being sick of writing. Result? The audience is sick of me.
Tonight was the first night this new project has become a burden. I am exhausted, but committed to writing, so I'll write about what I'm up to with Ftrain. It's difficult to know that I have an audience; in many ways I am back where I started with the Subway Diary, but there I was privileged to work in total obscurity. There aren't many of you, but you matter to me, and I seek to please you. I am sad when I fail.
I have a few fixations, thoughts that consume my spare time. The first is me, especially my inner workings. Whenever I discover one clearly spinning emotional gear, I oil it, then label it, and always uncover another one, the gear that powers it, transfers its energy. Somewhere, there's a motor, fueled by some unknowable fluid, and I can hear it hum when I'm calm enough, but most of the time I only see its transferred power, exercised in some performed kindness, or in some carping statement, in the reaction to a movie or a lover, or the way I spend money. This writing, of course, is the manifest of that long chain of gears, but it also has the best chance, for me, of showing me a path, a diagram, to get back to the motor.
That is how tired I am, that last paragraph. I am past editing, I am so sleepy.
To be fixated on myself is not strange; my other fixations are different, vectoring me into some group, choosing my career ahead of me, volunteering my services. The first is advertising, and branding, and the uses of the language to persuade, the pure commercial fire on the tongues of copywriters and brand experts. I read about advertising in my spare time, studying its history, the first appearance of ads in the West (in the 1400's, a printed piece of paper nailed to different walls, hawking a "cheype" book of indulgences or some other religious stuff), the expanding use of language, color, material, the growth of Madison Avenue, the history of printing techniques from woodblock to lead type to Linotronics to phototypesetters to vector typography to this, the total abstraction of thought into symbols, a screen for paper, pixels for letters, but still words.
So I am fixated on rhetoric, pure and applied language. How does one use words as one might use a wrench, or calculator? How can they prove, disprove, influence, or destroy an idea? To me, advertising, branding are the pure studies of this world, the least apologetic and the most relentless. Read a marketing survey, and you'll see how much the language bends towards the light of spent dollars; you'll discover that 6% of beer drinkers wear only white socks, but 60% in Denver, and then you must consider: how do I co-brand white socks, how do we reach out to the white-sock-wearers to make them buy more beer, and vice versa? What do they want to hear? Suddenly, then, you're meeting with company reps in Denver, and with a hosiery company, looking for connections, sewing the beer logo on the sock, offering socks free at the brewery tour, giving cans and gift certificates to people buying shoes, anything, all held together by a stream of memos, proof-of-concept demos, editing sessions, chats with designers, and ultimately bound up with only language, below all the images and ideas, the scripts that make up the compulsing stream of letters, the letters compiled into TV commercials, brochures, placemats, coupons, radio spots, and then discussed on cellular phones.
I once tried to write everything I could think of about a Diet Coke can, and I couldn't. That's what we have made that extraterrestrials will find so fascinating upon their arrival, even more than great art--the profusion of endlessly decorated common objects, not the limited pieces of sculpture and painting, but products sold for spare change, like the Diet Coke can, a pure example of the ridiculously complicated processes used to decorate and expand upon the properties of objects. Think: the can is printed on aluminum. Smelting, strip mining, shipping were all involved. The designer had to consider how to wrap the design around the cylinder. The materials specialists had to decide exactly how thick the can must be, with thinness meaning money saved, accommodating for the gentle pressure of carbonation, so that the aluminum might not smash in the vending machine. The scientists had figured out a way to print color separations reliably on aluminum, so that the halftone dots on the can will always be there, the colors synced and familiar. The branding experts have chosen white for the caffienated Diet Coke, and brown for its caffeine-free brother. The logo, of course, is Red, but not the swirly pigstails of the ancient Coke bottle; it has been modernized, through a million hours of futile meetings, meetings where people were trying to come up with something to say, something to explore. I'm not getting it across, because I can't go into that much detail, but: every sip of that black fluid is a billion hours of work, a million names over thousands of years, smelters of aluminum, managers of mines, plant supervisors, graphic designers, brand experts. And that's one thing on the supermarket shelf. Art belongs to one person, one originator who writes or thinks things through for us, but our products are for everyone, ambivalent in their aspect, a space for common capitalist ritual.
I wrote all that, and a page more, about Diet Coke in a white heat, and still had only taken a brief drink on the topic. Everything you handle in your hands, every day, is a million years old, is filled with stories of triumphs, but also everyday power struggles and lusts. The notebook by your desk, the light in your lamp, each have 1000 stories of invention and failure behind them.
There is another fixation which I won't try to explain here--and that's the representation of art as data. I am amazed by programs, like one called CSound, that allow you to write programs that generate music and sound, that layer reverbs and add noise to anything. There are programs which allow you to take images, sound, and video and transform them, by applying tokens, small commands in a sequence, into art, or a kind of art. I don't want to write any more about this; it's exhausting, and I can't think.
These are the things I think about most. Ftrain is my final fixation, the thing I hope will glue them together, a grouping of ideas. Maybe not tonight, but sometime in the next few months, I hope these narratives will begin to grow, to intertwine, as my fascinations expand.