“What a Time You Chose to be Born!” — Seth Price’s "Title Variable"

by Ross Sappenfield
…an item of the "just-past," as represented in our current digital archive, may have originated during the lived experience of the viewer. This produces the shock of the uncanny: this artifact is clearly the same as it always was, and yet it is also entirely different. This shock is the registration of the recognition that any changes have actually occurred in the viewing subject, who is suddenly positioned as an archaeologist sifting through the strata of his or her own experience…this personal experience of lived history is an intimation of one’s own mortality. (1)

In the early 2000s, Seth Price began a project entitled Title Variable (2001–ongoing). It began with a mixtape of early video game soundtracks, Game Heaven (2001), continued with mixtapes of New Jack Swing, NJS (2003), Industrial, Industrial Fist (2004), early 1980s academic synthesizer music, Akademisches Graffiti (2005), and, in the last installment to date, an eight-hour mix of dance music, 8-4 9-5 10-6 11-7 (2007). Price wrote essays that comment upon each of the genres included in the mixes, some of which were published in music collector publications, and some in other contexts—he has specified that the work as a whole comprises the essays and the multiple forms of distribution of the music mixes (CDs, vinyl, digital). Title Variable addresses the influence of digital technology on culture—one of the key themes in Price’s body of work—as well as Price’s own autobiographical nostalgia, which also recurs throughout his work.
Seth Price "Title Variable" covers.
Seth Price "Title Variable" covers.


Price has stated that he specifically chose music genres in Title Variable that were strongly influenced by changes in digital technology. In his essay for Title Variable, Price taxonomizes one genre: “What a time you chose to be born! The short-lived musical genre known as new Jack Swing is just old enough to be vaguely embarrassing. It hasn’t attained classic status, and may never do so.” (2) Excepting the academic synthesizer music of Akademisches Graffiti though, Price’s choice of musical forms may not be a strictly impartial analysis of technological change, but rather an exercise in autobiographical nostalgia: “My interest in obsolescence per se doesn’t go too far; it’s a guilty pleasure, something to do with nostalgia. But interesting things happen around the moment of obsolescence.” (3) For example, Price’s description of an Industrial concert, published as part of Title Variable, reads as an autobiographical narrative:

Take Front Line Assembly in 1989 at The Roxy: the crowd all in black, with half-shaved/half-long hair, topknots, and dyed fringes, combat-boots, fashion's take on bondage, fey boys in eyeliner. A mawkish, unglamorous bunch, possessing little of the fashion sense of the punks, and more style than a sea of hardcore punks. Picture that sullen kid, reading Semiotext(e) or Re/Search, maybe Society of the Spectacle, although he swims in anti-intellectual waters, so publicly he totes books on Manson, Satanism, criminal pathology, and Nazis, in keeping with the deadpan morbidity inherited from seventies Industrial. (4)

The concert described may be the October 21, 1989, Wax Trax records showcase at the Roxy in New York, headlined by Suicide, with support from Front Line Assembly and Meat Beat Manifesto. (5) It could in fact be one that Price himself attended (at age 15), making the anonymous bookish fan he describes into a nostalgic self-portrait. That interpretation would align with Price’s 2003 drawings of an Industrial fan circa 1988:
Seth Price, "Industrial Culture, Upper Body," 2003.  “The kid with the crossed arms is a veiled self-portrait, circa late ’80s.”
Seth Price, "Industrial Culture, Upper Body," 2003. “The kid with the crossed arms is a veiled self-portrait, circa late ’80s.”
(6)

The video-game soundtracks in Game Heaven correspond with Price’s late childhood and early adolescence—were they perhaps games he himself played? As for New Jack Swing—was Price an Industrial teenager who transformed into an R&B fan a few years later, or is that genre simply a time-marker? Unlike Industrial, New Jack Swing was a broadly popular genre that could designate a moment in time even for those who weren’t fans.

Of course, taking any of Price’s statements at face value is always problematic. For example, the same article describing the Front Line Assembly crowd also includes an account of a driving trip where “I even dragged my son” through northern Indiana to visit the Wax Trax records store in Chicago, listening to the “new” Revolting Cocks record Big Sexy Land—but that record came out in 1986, when Price was only 12 years old. The synthesizer music in Akademisches Graffiti was produced when Price was in early grade school, and so to the extent it would have actual nostalgic value, it would be related either to the time he first discovered that music, or to an imagined past like the fictional road trip.

The subject of nostalgia has recently become an area of copious research in the field of social psychology. (7) Not surprisingly, researchers have found music to be a fruitful area for research into feelings of nostalgia. One seminal paper examined research subjects’ musical preferences, finding they follow a curve relating the age of the subject to the time of songs’ popularity, with preferences peaking at songs that were popular when subjects were 23.5 years old. (8) Researchers in the field have attributed a multitude of benefits to subjects’ engaging in nostalgic reminiscences, including offsetting negative mood, loneliness, feelings of meaninglessness, and existential awareness of death. Returning to music’s connection with nostalgia, researchers have also found that subjects who were given song lyrics to read that they had earlier identified as having nostalgic value subsequently scored higher on tests that aimed to measure how meaningful they felt their lives to be. (9)
NJS Megamix (original appearance as a review in Sound Collector Magazine), 2003
NJS Megamix (original appearance as a review in Sound Collector Magazine), 2003


The phrase “What a time you chose to be born!” appears on a number of occasions in Price’s writing, first tinged with Price’s trademark ironic false earnestness, but later implying genuinely earnest nostalgic feelings about his coming-of-age. He first uses the phrase as noted above in “Journalistic Approach to New Jack Swing” (2002), and then again in Dispersion (2003):

With more and more media readily available through this unruly archive, the task becomes one of packaging, producing, reframing, and distributing; a mode of production analogous not to the creation of material goods, but to the production of social contexts, using existing material. What a time you chose to be born! (10)

It then reappears in the press release for the 2005 show “Grey Flags”:

Magic is a process that always uses the most advanced technologies at hand: in the stone age this meant fire, fur, bone, blood; in the middle ages, the crucible, the alembic, the chalk circle. Today it is images, a thickening web of images that amounts to a magic circle through which the citizens of this age have passed, never to return. What a time you chose to be born! (11)

And in Price’s 2003-2005 Décor Holes, it becomes explicitly autobiographical:

I once recalled someone standing by a keyboard, blurting out “I don’t know what to say!” The phrase belonged to a female character on an early Cosby show, and was spoken into a new sampling keyboard demonstrated by Stevie Wonder, who appeared as himself…A quaint memory. What a time I chose to be born! (12)

The original source of the phrase appears to be the dubbed Samurai film Shogun Assassin (1980), probably via its sampled use in the hip hop track “Cold World” by the GZA, from the 1995 album Liquid Swords. (13) Importantly, the GZA’s use of the sampled dialogue situates it in a dystopian context:

[Intro sample from Shogun Assassin]
I had a bad dream
Don't be afraid, bad dreams are only dreams.
What a time you chose to be born in
[Hook: Life]
Babies crying, brothers dying, and brothers getting knocked
Shit is deep on the block and you got me locked down
In this cold, cold world (14)

The nature of the environmentally driven birth-trauma that Price was addressing with musical nostalgia is made precise in his 2015 book Fuck Seth Price. Although published as a “novel,” as Price noted in an interview, “I’ve written a novella, called Fuck Seth Price, that’s due out this spring. It’s not my ‘voice’ but it’s close enough.” (15) He writes that what for an earlier generation was the most important, world-shaping event, “World War II” (as shorthand for war, genocide, state socialism, cold war, etc.), has been supplanted in the contemporary era by the advent of “the digital”: “…our era was unable to get over the digital in exactly the way that a prior era had been unable to get over the twentieth century.” (16) And for Price, the effect of the digital era is personal; as he noted in a 2007 interview, “I’m interested in the effect of digital technologies, and they reached the marketplace sometime in the 1970s. It does happen to line up neatly with my own lifespan.” (17)
Seth Price. “Brown Benton,” 2004.<br />
Seth Price. “Brown Benton,” 2004.


Price’s broader body of work has revealed other facets of his concerns with time, as exemplified by the Calendar Paintings (which are actual calendars) and by his frequent use of the dates of works’ production as elements in the works themselves, such as in COPYRIGHT 2006 SETH PRICE (2006), itself a nostalgic evocation of the Reagan era. Nostalgic references (from the Reagan era, to 1970s modernist playground equipment, to mid-1980s TV ads for food) abound in Price’s other video works as well. Price’s explicit “date-stamping” and nostalgia appear to be founded on a fear that “the digital,” in the form of the internet, may be eliminating time itself. As a character states in Price’s Books of Ice (2016),

She smiled. “Yes. The problem is, there’s no sense of time on the web, yes? Everything is new, bright, contemporary. So there’s no hint of decay, no static, no light-burns, but also there is no mystery. Just the present of your own monitor. No place, no time. And if you take away our sense of time, the world basically loses all meaning….” (18)

In the end, Title Variable reveals an “intimation of one’s own mortality” in its archive of outdated technology-driven musical genres, but at the same time, it offers nostalgic comfort by re-establishing time-dependent meaning in the “personal experience of lived history.”

.+*

Ross Sappenfield is a writer based in San Francisco.

Notes:
(1) Seth Price, Industrial Synthesis, The Museum Of Modern Art: Video Viewpoints, May 14, 2001.
(2) Seth Price, “Journalistic Approach to New Jack Swing,” 2002, published on sethpricestudio.com. Adapted from an article published in Sound Collector Audio Review , 2003.
(3) Seth Price, as quoted in Gwen Allen, “Interview with Seth Price,” Art Journal (Spring 2007): 82.
(4) Seth Price, “Journalistic Approach to Industrial Dance Genre, ” 2003, published on sethpricestudio.com. Adapted from an article published in Sound Collector Audio Review, 2003.
(5) Jon Pareles, “Pop/Jazz; What's New, What's Hot, On the Live Music Scene,” New York Times, October 20, 1989.
(6) Seth Price, Drawings: Studies for Works 2000–2015 (Koenig Books, 2015), 44.
(7) For an introduction, see John Tierney, “What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows,” New York Times, July 8, 2013.
(8) Morris B. Holbrook and Robert M. Schindler, “Some Exploratory Findings on the Development of Musical Tastes,” Journal of Consumer Research 16 (June 1989): 119–124.
(9) Clay Routledge, Tim Wildschut, Constantine Sedikides and Jacob Juhl, “Nostalgia as a Resource for Psychological Health and Well-Being,” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 7/11 (2013): 808–818.
(10) Seth Price, Dispersion, booklet published in association with In The Public Domain, Greene Naftali, 2003. Also released in numerous reprints, as well as in free PDF format on Price’s website. Note that, in later versions, Price has effaced many of the original graphic design elements and section headings.
(11) Seth Price, press release dated February 8, 2006, in Grey Flags (New York: SculptureCenter, 2006), the publication for the exhibition of the same name curated by Anthony Huberman and Paul Pfeiffer, May 7–July 30, 2006. Also used as press release for Gray Flags at Petzel Gallery, July 1–August 12, 2006.
(12) Seth Price, Décor Holes, 2003–2005, 42, n.6. The reference is to “A Touch of Wonder,” The Cosby Show, Season 2, Episode 18, originally aired February 20, 1986.
(13) See Robert Barry, “Shogun Assassin, GZA's Liquid Swords & The Sound Of Militant Dysphoria,” thequietus.com, November 25th, 2010.
(14) See https://genius.com/Gza-cold-world-lyrics.
(15) “Seth Price,” in “Artists Who Make New York,” Elephant, Spring 2015, 20.
(16) Seth Price, Fuck Seth Price (New York: Leopard Press, 2015), 115.
(17) Seth Price, as quoted in Gwen Allen, “Interview with Seth Price,” Art Journal (Spring 2007): 80.
(18) Seth Price, Wrok, Fmaily, Freidns, aka Books of Ice, the Tark Ones (The Wrok Fmaily Freidns Chronicles, Episode I) (Los Angeles: Ooga Booga, 2016), unpaginated.