The basement of the houseboat is dark, almost dingy. Like a proper dive. And like a proper dive, the bar serves only watered-down pints with the mildly soapy aftertaste of dirty keg-lines. When the crowd starts jumping, you can feel the pressure of the water undulate through the floorboards, as if standing on a wooden water-bed. The question “how can a houseboat have a basement?” can be explained in simple, if not surprising, engineering terms. But the question of why this booze-filled underwater coffin on a Parisian river is filled with humans and cigarette smoke at 11pm on a Wednesday?

The answer to that lies centre-stage. He is silhouetted in smoke, and his curly blond hair is halo’d by stage lights. Erik Bandt. Behind him the rest of the band, only visible as shadows, take their positions. The smoke clears and without saying a word, the quartet launches into an energetic musical ear-orgy of Chinese stringed instruments, groovy bass-lines, furious pentatonic finger picking and syncopated drum-patterns. The crowd starts to dance. And oh, does it dance. Arms, legs, heads flail. Between songs, Robbert Verwijlen, the keyboardist, yells at the crowd in broken French. The crowd, not understanding in the least, roar back enthusiastically. Spilled beer and sweat mingle on the increasingly soppy floor. Smoke machines pump and lights illuminate joyous revelry as the band, speaking a language entirely instrumental and entirely universal, riles us all up until we are left, four hours later, sweaty and exhausted and elated, to filter back up, through the houseboat, and into the night from which we came.

I came away from the evening with a slightly sore throat and a renewed appreciation for drumming. The band was Yin Yin, an East Asian-inspired psych-rock / disco / dance group hailing from the Netherlands. The show was excellent — but MAN was the drumming good. Kees Berkers, the percussionist, dressed in a fabulous one-piece that his girlfriend had sewn patches and strips of glitter into, played flawlessly, passionately, at times maniacally, like a man possessed. With sticks, arms, and legs ablur, he banged out math patterns, funk patterns, soul patterns. He played Mozambique, bongos, and jazz snare. I was so fascinated that I sat down the next day and spent an afternoon reading about drumming on Reddit. He played with the precision and looseness and pliant confidence of someone who has taken complete ownership of their craft through interminable rigor and discipline. Also, the onesie was awesome.

Kees, Erik, Robbert, the whole crew hung out at the record table after the show, selling vinyls, pins, and stickers from rolling suitcases and chatting with exhausted stragglers. We all shook hands, hung out, bullshitted a little. I left with some signed records and a shared new appreciation for the tribulations of independent touring (“I’m pretty poor right now” said Robbert when I told him I worked at a fancy restaurant in the second arrondissement. We had that in common).

I am reminded of a recent Threads… thread? that popped up in my feed recently about software versus hardware drums; that drumming has become mechanized so successfully that a machine is now more capable than the most technically proficient human drummer. The author’s observation: “I was a drummer before AI, and I’m still a drummer after AI.” Put another way: it’s not really about being perfect.

To me, the more interesting question when it comes to the arts is whether technical perfection was ever the point. There has been much hand-wringing over the invasion of AI tools into cultural creation, particularly into music and other quasi-digital arts. Yet, such anxiety seems to miss the fact that technical perfection in the arts is only ever a means to an end. It is impossible, after all, to practice art in any real sense if one has not mastered the basic underlying craft. But technically perfect, meaningless art isn’t art at all — it’s just pretty fluff.

Which is fine. But as anyone who has spent their lives making the real thing will tell you, truly compelling work always has something to say. Sometimes it’s a statement (Marcel Duchamp and his fountain spring to mind), but more often than not, it’s a question… and that question goes something like: “what will happen if I do this?”

Embedded inside that “what will happen” is a vast field of vulnerability and effort, but also of possibility. And because the answer might be “nothing” or “no one will care”, art (really, any type of public creative performance) is an inherently dangerous and risky undertaking.

Of course, none of this can be “learned by” or “taught to” machines since sentience is a necessary precursor to genuine inquiry and lived human experience is a precursor to vulnerability (aside: the presumption that AI can become sentient seems a little misguided. No matter how “smart” our models are, they are still just pattern matching algorithms working with big data).

Also, ironically: things created by humans contain within them the real drama of human experience, part of which is imperfection — for example, consider the savage energy that a sweaty, furious, slightly-off-key human brings to the entertainment quotient at a rock show. There’s a magnetism, an immeasurably compelling “something” there that beats the drum machine every time, no?

Mark Rothko, a monumental figure in abstract painting movement in the sixties, had this to say about his work:

I would like to say to those who think of my pictures as serene, whether in friendship or mere observation, that I have imprisoned the most utter violence in every inch of their surface.

Utter violence! Rothko’s paintings are vast, luminous fields of color, often in subdued monochromatic or richly tinted hues, and standing in front of one you kind of feel like you are falling into it, like the painting could just enfold and absorb you. To consider his life — that Rothko left his family late in his career and then tragically committed suicide — and imagine violence locked up in his beautiful and whimsical renderings dramatizes the experience and changes it into something else entirely.

The undeniable Story Club writer George Saunders, on emotion in drama (in writing), says this:

“Even a person raised alone, fed by a machine, out in a cave somewhere, exists in this atmosphere of pressure – because that pressure is intrinsic to the human mind. The mind makes the pressure, the tension, the longing, the hope. We want this thing, we get it…and then we want more. We always feel slightly off, somehow. We find ourselves at peace but not the right kind of peace.

And so on.

This is what drama is, really: it comes out of the truth that nothing is ever enough for us, that every human situation (even a quiet one, even a happy one, even a deeply contented one) always teeters on the brink of change, because of the restlessness of the mind.

So human experience is drama, and that drama can be encoded, by us, with our huge-yet-hilariously-imprecise think-nuggets in the artefacts we create, although not necessarily (cheap craft abounds in art, as in any field).

Most major religious myths teach this too — although the line, which is usually translated as “life is suffering”, reads a little differently, it is more similar than not (the first noble truth in Buddhism is better interpreted as “life does not satisfy”; In Christian/Islamic mythology, the central theme of Adam’s hedonic fall from grace is actually longing and discontent).

Speaking of drama, I recently went to see a retrospective of the iconic American portrait photographer Richard Avendon. The exhibition was held at an art gallery in Paris, with over 100 images by the artist hung in spot-lit matte-white frames, some of them towering well above the head in a series of entirely white rooms.

I love Avendon’s work. His high-key black-and-white images had this luminous, soft quality to them; the shadows wrapping, never harsh, alway inviting you to look at the eyes, the mouth of his sitters… I loved how he used his studio as just another tool; the stripping away of external content and environment as a creative constraint. With no environmental “props”, the body, the face, and a piece of white paper were free to do the storytelling… and that minimalism made his images so much more compelling.

Avendon was incredibly prolific during his life, and spent a lot of his career photographing titans of culture/counterculture in the 1960s. Some of my favourites: Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky posed hairy and somber and naked; a 62-year-old Charlie Chaplin beaming demonically into the camera; Marilyn Monroe, beglittered and looking pensively off-camera. But also: Andy Warhol, Twiggy, Ezra Pound, WH Auden, Samuel Beckett, Francis Bacon, even Bob Dylan. Avendon had that rare ability to identify the split millisecond — the one frame in perhaps a thousand possible frames — where the composed artifice of an expression fades just enough to see through. Looking at some of his images you feel like you are looking into the depths of the sitter’s soul.

This was precisely what made him special. The exhibition included contact sheets for some of his more famous images, with red circles scrawled around the “finals”. And just following along on those sheets was like being beside him in the darkroom.

Most of all though, I loved the photo(s) of Dovima and the Elephants — there were a few in the series, although only one of them is well known. I couldn't stop staring at that image, occupying an entire wall next to the gallery entrance. It felt like I was there; Le Cirque d’Hiver, in 1955. The whole scene was beautiful and heartbreaking and... mysterious? Juxtapositions of human and nature, woman and beast; there were chains around the elephants’ feet, and the way their trunks were raised, it almost seemed they were wailing with despair. Dovima in that gorgeous Dior dress just posing (the Dior dress on a pedestal nearby — the first dress Yves Saint Laurent designed for the eponymous fashion house), almost as if she had been caught in some whimsical dance. Freedom and confinement. We are all prisoners, in our own ways, aren’t we? Prisoners to culture, to propriety, and to ourselves, chained to our own intellect.

In one photo, later in the series: the elephants and Dovima move together, as if choreographed. They look more at peace. That Avendon finally chose the more heartbreaking, more dramatic image. Is that a surprise?

Finally, a behind-the-scenes image of Dovima and Richard, at Le Cirque. Dovima is illuminated, staring intently into Richard’s face, which is looking out of the frame. The elephants, cast in shadow, are barely visible in the background. It is haunting.

I left the Avendon exhibition after four-and-a-half hours of intense looking, ready for lunch and a nap. Drama may be central to the human experience, but there is only so much of it a body can handle at once.

I never did get the nap.

Until next time,


P.S. While we’re here: In one of the coolest marketing campaigns ever to grace fast food, Chipotle has started to print 2-minute short stories by some of Americas best writers on its bags — numbering among them are Saunders (truly excellent), Toni Morrison, Malcolm Gladwell, and even Judd Apatow. The whole thing is incredible — and I would gladly pay good money for a collection of these stories in paperback form.