30 September 2012

I Have Sniffed the Future, and It Smells Like Pittsburgh

Circa 1932:
"When you stand on a hill along the Monongahela River, looking out over miles of steel mills, hundreds of stacks belching flame, you are experiencing an emotion. You may have had the same experience in a chateau in France, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or when looking at a piece of furniture, or even at a fragile wineglass. Likewise, if the sight of the Akron or of Man o' War leading the field down the home stretch excites you, you are reacting to an emotion. When automobiles, railway cars, airships, steamships or other objects of an industrial nature stimulate you in the same way that you are stimulated when you look at the Parthenon, at the windows of Chartres, at the Moses of Michelangelo, or at the frescos of Giotto, you will then have every right to speak of them as works of art.

Just as surely as the artists of the fourteenth century are remembered by their cathedrals, so will those of the twentieth be remembered for their factories and the products of these factories."

From the opening chapter of Norman Bel Geddes's Horizons, reproduced -- with alternated illustrations -- at The Charnel-House. Geddes having been, for the unfamiliar, the designer who would a few year later envision the General Motors-funded "Futurama" exhibition for the 1939 New York World's Fair. Geddes was one who was "of name" back in the day, a definitively forward-thinking designer for his time, a designer of influence during the postwar years. His 1940 publication Magic Motorways is said by some to having influenced the design of what would be implemented as the Interstate Highway System.

Still, the introductory chapter -- including its evocation of an industrial sublime -- is absolutely the most bewildering read I've come across in quite some time; the sort where (or me, anyway) every other sentence drips with so much unintended, retrospective irony that I nearly find myself rolling over with guffaws. Not the least of which is the assertion that the designer would never conscionably lend a hand in designing shoddy goods, never be party to any sort of industry whose bread and butter hinged on narrowing and calculated degrees of planned obsolescence. Or the part where the author offers a casually fantastic revisioning of art history, and by doing so effectively places himself as an equivalent of a Renaissance Man, with his corporate sponsors as the modern-day Medicis. And there's the seventh paragraph, which in some ways almost anticipates some aspects of Warhol by almost 3 decades...

"Until recently artists have been disposed to isolate themselves upon the side of life apart from business; apart from a changing world which, in their opinion, was less sympathetic because its output, in becoming machine-made, was losing its individuality. The few artists who have devoted themselves to industrial design have done so with condescension, regarding it as a surrender to Mammon, a mere source of income to enable them to obtain time for creative work. On the other hand, I was drawn to industry by the great opportunities it offered creatively."

After which follows an extended spiel of self-aggrandizing bombast. Other chapters in the same volume sport the tiles, "Speed -- To-morrow," "New Houses for Old," "Architecture for the Amusement Industry," and "What Price Factory Ugliness?" And while the chapter on speed at least sounds like it might be promising, in the end it winds up being little more than an extended sales pitch for the author's own design for a new class of luxury ocean liner.

Full text of Horizons available via the Archive-org. Plenty other background info on Geddes on the web, but here's an interesting side item courtesy of The Believer.

29 September 2012

An aside

China Miéville, writing this past March on another incident and in another context, yet summing up a point that that should've been raised in recent weeks, but largely (rather appallingly) wasn't:

"Indeed, an astoundingly small proportion of arguments 'for free speech' and 'against censorship' or 'banning' are, in fact, about free speech, censorship or banning. It is depressing to have to point out, yet again, that there is a distinction between having the legal right to say something & having the moral right not to be held accountable for what you say. Being asked to apologise for saying something unconscionable is not the same as being stripped of the legal right to say it. It’s really not very f-cking complicated. Cry 'free speech' in such contexts, you are demanding the right to speak any bilge you wish without apology or fear of comeback. You are demanding not legal rights but an end to debate about and criticism of what you say. When did bigotry get so needy? This assertive & idiotic failure to understand that juridical permissibility backed up by the state is not the horizon of politics or morality is absurdly resilient."

Original post here.

28 September 2012

Interlude (Broca's Aphasia Edition)

Hadn't encountered this clip until this past week. Was pretty much floored by the first four-plus minutes of the thing, with the build and Wyatt's vocalizations, before the band launches into the song(s) proper. Reminds me of how Wyatt once said that he'd always been rough on himself as a drummer, because the drummers he admired were the likes of Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, et al. Whereas he never had anything he was particularly aiming for as far as the vocals were concerned. Which maybe explains why -- in Soft Machine's early stretch -- he initially settled into the default blues-rock Janis-Joplinesque causasian wheeze that had the reign of the day, soon progressed to something more richly nuanced soon thereafter, and by the early 1970s was beginning to get all experimental on occasion, doing things that that really didn't have many contemporary parallels, unless you reach for Tim Buckley's "Starsailor" or some of Yoko Ono's more extreme excursions.

The other things that came to mind was that for a brief moment it's almost like Sun City Girls many years before the fact. But maybe that's just because of the headgear.

25 September 2012

Futures Past

It’s not the best app, but I don’t think there’s a better one.  
It’s a good idea, just the interface doesn’t work. 
Uh dudes, are the shuttles leaving us here? 
Try finger-swiping that one part. No, the other.

* * * * *

The above via Hate the Future. Sheer serendipity bumping into it now. Partly because it was originally posted before the recent spasm of gadget-related schadenfreude. But also because a local arts theater has been having a Kubrick month, and this past weekend I joined some friends for a matinee screening of 2001. I had seen the film on the large screen once before, or sort-of seen it. I was 11 at the time, when the thing was making the rounds of theaters in advance of the 10-year anniversary of its initial release. Being a bit too young for it and due to its pacing, I ended dozing off through the better stretch of its latter half, only being finally blasted awake by Ligeti's "Atmospheres" toward the end. And yeah, despite having no idea what I'd just watched, my mind was still blown.

Seeing it again was a reminder of what viewing any Kubrick would demonstrate: That despite his overall unevenness and deficiencies in certain areas, Kubrick was a consummate craftsman and technician, relentless work toward getting a film to look exactly as he wanted it. I was quite impressed with the "Dawn of Man" opening sequence of incidental establishing shots of the veldt. I was also reminded of how for the past four years I've been expected Apple to broker some deal with Kubrick's estate so that they can use this sequence for a rollout of a model of the iPhone...

It'll happen eventually, just you wait.

When Surface was Depth

"Perhaps if the future existed, concretely and individually, as something that could be discerned by a better brain, the past would not be so seductive: its demands would be balanced with those of the future. Persons might then straddle the middle stretch of the seesaw when considering this or that object. ...But the future has no such reality (as the pictured past and perceived present possess); the future is but a figure of speech, a specter of thought. 
...When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very act of attention may lead to our involuntary sinking into the history of that object. Novices must learn to skim over matter if they want matter to stay at the exact level of the moment. Transparent things, through which the past shines! 
Man-made objects, or natural ones, inert in themselves but much used by careless life...are particularly difficult to keep in surface focus: novices fall through the surface, humming happily to themselves, and are soon reveling with childish abandon in the story of this stone, or that hearth. I shall explain. A thin veneer of immediate reality is spread over natural and artificial matter, and whoever wishes to remain in the now, on the now, should please not break its tension film. Otherwise the inexperienced miracle-worker will find himself no longer walking on water but descending upright among staring fish."

- Vladimir Nabokov, Transparent Things

An addendum of sorts, brought to mind by the prior post.

24 September 2012

The Half-life of Ephemera

Or: That which we have now, having never been (Slight return)

Something that used to happen to me fairly often, but hasn't in a long while...

Acquiring a book from either a library or a second-hand bookstore, books that had passed through other hands. A photograph found between the pages, or falling out from someplace therein. A photographs no doubt having been haplessly placed there as a bookmark many years or decades previously, before the reader had returned the volume to the library or sold it off to whomever.

One of these I can remember quite well. A black & white snapshot, with the blank white frame of a border. A man and a woman leaning against the side of a broad and bulky car. Behind them, beyond the car, a few homes marking the point where a short stretch of residential block gives way to an open vista, the road receding to the horizon over a terrain of rolling hills. The model of the vehicle and the man and woman's hair and clothes suggest that the photo was taken no later than 1952. The landscape and the sky have me thinking the location might be the outskirts of San Francisco or possibly Seattle -- some place like that, someplace coastal and right off the water, in California or the Pacific northwest, back when large portions of that region were still thinly and spottily populated, when many of the roads had only recently been laid down.

 Despite the fact that someone had them stand against the car -- to stop just here for a moment, so that someone could capture an image of the occasion -- they position themselves toward the camera quite loosely, but can't really be bothered to fully, formally face the camera. Their posture is relaxed and casual. The man grins, the woman appears to be on the verge of laughter. The way they are interacting suggests that they are something other than lovers or man and wife. Perhaps instead an old dear friend or sibling was visiting from elsewhere, making the rare trek across a large expanse of the country, for a few days of catching-up and spread over several days. With the photo having been taken in that last hour before the visiting party had to say goodbye, departing homeward.

At one point a had a small collection of these photos, amounting to only a few. Don't know at what point -- in which move or purging -- I lost them, but I had them for a while. I kept them as I had encountered them, as physical objects; as flotsam from other people's lives that had been unintentionally (one assumes) set into indeterminate circulation. The sort of photos you look at and deduce what you can from the information they contain. The sort of photos you look at and wonder: Who are -- or were -- these people? What did this moment mean to them? Where are they now?

* * * * *

20 September 2012

A Modest Proposal

In a way, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I've encountered an article by a blogger who seems to have seen this graphic circulating, and mistook a parody for a legitimate item. In terms of pegging the plausibility meter, I suppose it says something about the broad reputation of the publication in question. Probably also says a great deal about the public perceptions about the present state of political discourse in this country, as well. Because really, I'll admit: I've been waiting to see how long it'll be before someone tries to mainstream an argument like this, myself.

18 September 2012

Poesia bucolica

Intriguing little film, circa 1964 by British filmmaker David Gladwell. David Gladwell was apparently known in the UK primarily as a film editor and a maker of many documentary shorts. In the former role, his most notable work was serving as editor on Lindsay Anderson's If.... (1968) and O Lucky Man! (1973). In 1975, he directed the feature-length Requiem for a Village. The above was reputedly shot at 250 frames per second, and featured an electronic score by Ernest Berk.

{ via A Sound Awareness }

17 September 2012

Interlude (Chroma Agnosia Edition)

Notes on posterity:
What would you be if you weren't a musician?
"I'm not sure. I would have probably gone to art school to do sculpture, but I don't know what afterwards. I may have made commercially unsuccessful but very influential pots."

(Tangential gratuity prompted by the prior post.)

Blank Generations

Related to a topic I touched on earlier, and will likely -- in some form or another -- return to again in future posts...

In the latest edition of the e-flux journal, Amelia Groom writing about the legacy of the monochromic tableau, offering a hopscotching jaunt through its various manifestations over the years. From Wittgenstein to White-Out, from Malevich's Suprematist black square to Rauschenberg's Erased DeKooning to Alfredo Jaar’s May 1, 2011. As palimpsest or formalist endgaming tactic, as the result of emptying-out or of everything-at-once, as deliberate and incidental. A musing on what is and what isn't (or once might've been) there, or on what we see when there's no "there" to see.

Groom's account largely favors the white version of the monochrome -- the proposal of the blank, or emptied, tableau as a sort of pictoral "degree zero." Recurring through the history of 20th-century art in various contexts, the monochrome is often cited as the most extreme exemplar of modernism's alleged "puristic" impulses. But aesthetically, the monochrome has always has a theoretically slippery legacy -- constituting more of a neither/nor than as an either/or proposition for the viewer. Despite her passing mention of "Modernity’s dream of the tabula rasa," Groom suggests as much by citing earlier precendents, particularly by including the parodic monochromes done in the 1880s by Paul Bilhaud and Alphonse Allais of the Parisian Incohérents group. For instance, Allais titled his all-red monochrome "Tomato Harvest by Apoplectic Cardinals on the Shore of the Red Sea," a sort of forerunner to what would become a recurrent cartoonists' joke in the century that followed...

In some ways, the monochrome can be seen as a theoretic hybrid, the irresolute product of two competing strains of early modernist aesthetic thought. The first part being the rationalist, reductive formal logic of High Modernist "pure abstraction," replete with all its Neo-Platonic positivist baggage. The other part is that of an earlier impulse -- the mystical, Romantic, skeptical and anti-rational sensibilities of Symbolism. Each could be said to aim ultimately for a certain sort of "transcendence" or another; yet each tendency plotted different routes, since each having conceived of the destination in unlike terms. The former's claims to rationalism and objectivity, versus the latter's aesthetics of the sensate and subjective correlatives, the unknowable sublime, ineffability and metaphysical uncertainty, and the like. In keeping with that neither/nor nature, it inherently (and invariably) amounts to a visual paradox.*

The everything-and-nothing trope that runs throughout Groom's essay prompts me think of another, even earlier, precursor -- the famous "black page" from Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Sterne's black page has been interpreted as serving two purposes. By one account, the page is regarded as an assertion about the limits of language and of thought itself -- the inexpressibility of grief, the incomprehensibility of death and non-existence -- as the narrator contemplates the passing of the character Parson Yorick. (That which surpasses articulation, devours the page, the mode of address momentarily giving way to an excess of alingual signification.) Yet, at the same time, the page exemplifies something else. That being a bit of proto-pomo monkeyshines on the part of the author; of Sterne not only setting challenges for the book's typesetters and publisher, but also a "meta" exercise in drawing the readers' attention to the format of the printed book as an object, as well as to the artifices of the literary narrative itself.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

* I suppose one could reduce these two conflicting positions under the respective rubrics of philosophic versus the poetic tendencies. And one could argue that there's a third aesthetic thread interwoven with this history -- the more literalist and archly materialistic impulse of the Constructivist orientation. What's more, it could be argued that it's ultimately this Constructivist approach that served and the underlying principle behind the monochromes frequent reappearance throughout the 20th century. Groom's article, curiously, allows almost no room for considerations along these lines. Admittedly, my account above is couched exclusively in terms of the history of painting, where Groom cites it in the context of more contemporary, non-painterly media. But since she makes no distinctions to this effect, I suppose the divergence is neither here nor there.

11 September 2012

The bubbles of certainty are constantly exploding.

+ + + + +

"Ownership, like money, withered on the vine. After all, who can really be said to 'own' a building you downloaded from Tumblr after someone reblogged someone else's reblog of someone’s take on a cover version an intern made of a file copied from Frank Gehry’s computer, subsequently shared on Wikileaks and linked by the New York Times? In 2008 Koolhaas declared that his motto for globalisation, ¥€$, would henceforth be replaced by the thumbs-up Facebook 'like' symbol.

The more advanced architects quickly began working for likes. Koolhaas said, for instance, that for his plans for the remodelling of Dubai he negotiated a payment of 13 billion Facebook likes, one of which he later used to like a new concert hall Frank Gehry released via his Twitter feed, relayed to his Facebook page (Koolhaas subsequently 'unliked' the building after visiting it via an Instagram snap). Following the financial collapse of 2008, the new Dubai was built not in the United Arab Emirates but in the pages of architecture blogs, where it exists for all to enjoy, share, and like."

Excerpt from a post at the tongue-in-cheek architectural blog Parallel Lies. { via }

images: Cécile Hartmann

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