(J&L Books, 2018)
To witness the vulgar, Zap Comix–inspired panorama in Manuel DeLanda’s 1979 film ISM ISM—its blubbering testicle-breasts and segmented-plumber’s-pipe phallus scrawled in marker on the tiled walls of a Manhattan subway station, just to start—is to share in the brief, bewildering encounter a commuter may have had with street art before the soap and cleaning brushes arrived. With frenzied pans and zooms, the film is too fleeting to tsk-tsk or revel in such perversities yet striking enough to brand the brain. In about eight minutes it provides an anarchic documentary survey of DeLanda’s activities upon arrival in New York from Mexico City in 1975. Shot and edited at a breakneck pace that reflects both the rhythm of straphangers’ lives and the psychotic spirit of the filmmaker’s urban interventions, ISM ISM whacks the viewer over the head like a cartoon mallet. As a cultural document, it begs a degree of contemplation, but, speeding by, there isn’t necessarily the time. This new book published by J&L, Manuel DeLanda: ISM ISM, hits the brakes, dicing the reel into stills—essential frames we can hunker down with as a photo essay.
When DeLanda first arrived in New York City, he thought the subway graffiti was a specially commissioned public art project. “When I found out a lot of it was done by Puerto Ricans and blacks, I saw it as a third-world reaction against not having surfaces to speak on,” he tells editors John Klacsmann and Andrew Lampert. The film ISM ISM was conceived as a document of his attacks on advertising posters. Prowling city streets in the dark of night with an X-ACTO blade and adhesive paste, he would return by day to the scene of his crime, armed with a Beaulieu Super 8 camera to capture reactions of passersby. These cut-and-paste blitzes predominantly consisted of grotesque and often hilarious collages made on cigarette ads. Disproportionate, misdirected eyeballs, noses, and teeth, frequently slathered in neon paint, converted the carefully touched-up visages of Aryan advertising supremacy into a freak menagerie. As his graffiti-artist contemporary SAMO—Jean-Michel Basquiat—scribbled next to one of these creations, it was “the real psychotic graffiti that everybody should be doing.”
Meanwhile, DeLanda also left messages in drippy multicolored phrase bursts contorting around corners, up stairs, into adjacent dumpsters, and across pillars—each smattering of lettering requiring a specific position and parallax in order to be read. Provocative and mysterious in isolation, they would constitute a complete idea stretching across city blocks when read sequentially: OPEN UP GAPS / IN THE PERVERSE BODY OF THE CITY / SO UNCONSCIOUS DESIRE / CAN BURST OUT / AND SHORT CIRCUIT / THE SYSTEM OF MEANING.
As the book’s accompanying interview illuminates, these texts point toward DeLanda’s drift away from film and toward philosophy. He grew fascinated by the “production values” of dreams—that is, their construction of scenery and narrative in a filmic sense. Finding Freud’s Oedipal or Lacan’s linguistic explanations of the unconscious insufficient, he focused on the “intensities” that constitute dream space, “burst[ing] out in the gaps between words or sentences, as well as between states of consciousness.” Today, DeLanda is well known as a philosopher working in the traditions of Deleuze and Baudrillard, publishing books like War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991) and A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (2006). Having by and large left visual art behind since 1983, he remains revered for his bona fide underground film classics such as Incontinence: A Diarrhetic Flow of Mismatches (1978) and Raw Nerves: A Lacanian Thriller (1980). Each is a colorful acid-laced quasi-narrative freakout tearing at the splices with hand-drawn wipes and slashed frames.
But ISM ISM, with its threads of LSD, alternative comics, busted city infrastructure, and ubiquitous advertising—not to mention that it was assembled for a film class taught by avant-garde film scholar P. Adams Sitney, and boosted by a late-night editing session with legendary animator and musicologist Harry Smith (who had only stopped by to buy weed)—really captures the spirit of the time. This book might, in DeLanda’s own terms, burst the film open, opening gaps where the freaks can shine through for some intensely gratifying oddball anthropology.