Saturday, December 31, 2011

I am not a Post-Modern (an essay written in real time on Twitter)

I've never liked the term #PostModern - not because of the styles & Ideologies it is attached to, but because I question the premise. 
#PostModern is founded on the premise that there was a fundamental change made durring the post War Years: a "paradigm shift." 
Thomas Kuhn defined a paradigm shift a fundamental break in understanding between to regimes of understanding - in science.
Late 70s theorist like Jean-François Lyotard & Rosalind Krauss began using the term paradigm shift to describe cultural changes.
Since then, Paradigms have bifurcated historical periods at an exponential rate. Shifts became devalued - obviously meaningless.
Even periodizing modernity, as Early (1500-1800), & Late (1950-?) presumes we are towards the end of modernity,feels premature.
Fredric Jameson periodizes modernity since the late 1800s into fifty year cycles according to technological means of production.
Jameson's 1st boom/bust cycle ends with the 'European Spring' (1848) and is marked by the spread of handcrafted steam engines.
Jameson's 2nd cycle of modernization, marked by the spread of machined steam engines, ends in the 1890s.
Jameson's next boom/bust cycle ends with WWII, and is marked by the spread of electric and combustion engines.
Jameson's final period is the third marked by the spread of machined electronic and nuclear systems. (see Hal Foster, RotR)
Jameson's periodizing presumes a late phase of modernization, & makes no allowance for less material /cultural/ factors.
There are 3 cultural periods that are profound & rise to the level of true paradigm shifts: Prehistoric, Premodern, & Modern.
These 3 paradigms are marked by changes in the human immune system - changes that have to do with population density & wealth.
The most common challenge to spare populations of Prehistoric peoples was/is parasites.
The denser settlements of Premodern life made infectious desease the greatest burden on human immune systems. 
Chronic deseases, like heart disease and cancer, are the major cause of death in modern societies.
These 'epidemiological transition' are truly profound and are accompanied by very different systems of authority. 
We are deeply embedded within a modern moment - Late modernity is a long way off.
The majority of nomadic Prehistoric bands probably toped out at 150 individuals - groups this size require no hierarchy.
Larger Premodern societies of kin groups would have had stable hierarchies - what Francis Fukuyama calls the Tyranny of Cousins.
Later, tribal bonds extended kin group bonds, requiring formalized property & systems of justice.
These orders Prehistoric & Premodern political orders are categorically different from one another - they are true paradigmes.
Likewise, modern State formation, which began in Europe in the late 18th century is a radical break with the past. 
The Shift between the premodern & modern can also be marked by the Columbian Exchange (1492): biologically reunited the globe.
The Columbus Exchange also marks the beging of the spread of the dense urban life pioneered by Europeans.
I can imagine all sorts of ways to further divide the cultures of the Prehistoric, Premodern & Modern - true paradigm shifts. 
The cultural changes of the Cold War - Consumerism, Civil Rights, Feminism, etc - were profound, but not paradigm shifts.
The cultural changes of the Early Modern - the scientific method, the State, secularism, democracy - were just as profound.
Late Modern, High Modern, and most of all #PostModern, are all obviously premature - the last 40 years have made us More Modern, not less.
In 1978 cities, the State, democracy, science - all modern institutions appeared to be failing. All trends appeared negative.
Thanks to trend spotters like Gordon E. Moore, Kevin Kelly, Steven Pinker, Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett, we can see a rise.
That is not to say we don't face problems as profound as the moderns who came before us.
It is only to say that we are moderns, and we are up to the challenge. Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Future of Art: Your Mom is the Product 2

Artificial Companionship: Kitchen phone; Paro 
(Part 1)
Imagine you walked into your mother's kitchen and you found her on the phone. She was gossiping to a friend about family business. She was telling them about your grandparents, your aunts and uncles, your cousins, you and your siblings - no one was spared, and everything from marital status to financial well-being was on the menu. Most of us would give grandma a pass. She and her friend are keeping each other entertained; working things out with one another in a way that is harmless. On balance, most of us would feel it's healthier for mom to talk her worries out with friend than to fret in isolation. But how would you feel if you realized that your mother was speaking to an Artificial Intelligence - an algorithm created to make your mother feel like she was speaking to a friend?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Future of Art: Non-Optical Media 1

Engaging Stares: HAL 9000 (1968); Marina Abramovic (2010)

A while back the New York Times art critic, Roberta Smith, complained against what she called "the New Modern." The current historical narrative being pushed by the MoMA, Smith feels, is a " giddy, even desperate, embrace of the new and the next, of large-scale installation and video art, as well as performance art, and generally of art as entertainment and spectacle." Smith finds the focus of the Modern's curators "a symptom of something more than a little scary about where contemporary art is headed, or where the Modern is taking it. (Hint: Conceptual Art is the new Cubism.)"

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Looking at Modernism with David Brin -6

Sith Architecture: Le Corbusier and Star Wars 
(Return to Part 5)
When I originally sent David the link to my essay, Star Wars: A New Heap I knew he was an unlikely fan of my ideas about Star Wars. I understood what he disliked about the film's plot and the franchises influence on the world of scifi publishing. In no way, shape, or form, did I think I would change David's judgment of the movie (or even wanted to). But because he counts himself a contrarian, I hoped he would enjoy the spirit of my project. I was ecstatic when he replied to my email and have enjoyed the polite sparing of our sporadic correspondence ever since. The subject of our sparing hasn't been Star Wars, however, its been modernity and Modernism. David has made it very clear on a number of occasions that he believed that both art and architecture (but mostly architecture) had gone off the rail some time ago, and has never recovered:
Not the scientists and engineers and science fiction authors, who kept faith with Modernism as a central force for the enlightenment, but by the very communities that you most associate with "Modernism".... the artists and architects, who betrayed the movement absolutely, despicably and almost mortally, at the very level of personality. By preening and flouncing and calling themselves wizard-guru-masters, everyone from Le Corbusier to Wright to Warhol gave in to the old temptations and turned Modernist art and architecture away from the enlightenment's most fundamental notion -- modesty and accountability.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Looking at Do Ho Suh with David Brin - 5

Rachel Whiteread, One Hundred Spaces (1995); David explaining Do Ho Suh's Home Within Home prototype (2011)
(Return to Part 4)
After having seen the Richard Serra and Nick Cave shows, David and Cheryl and I then walked a couple blocks north to see an the two installations of two over-size doll houses colliding in two very different ways by the Korean artist Do Ho Suh at the Lehmann Maupin Gallery. Of the three shows I took the Brins to see, this last one is where I had the most fun, because it was there that David grabbed the reigns from me and his story telling took over. Not long after we had entered the show I was no longer explaining the work to David, he was explaining the work to me and Cheryl and complete strangers; whatever I had hoped might happened when I invited the Brins to look at art with me, this was better.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Kitchen of the Future: Vermin

Mouse Trap vs mind trap

For those in the US: Happy Thanksgiving. I just wanted to put up a short Kitchen post today for those sneaking away from the family for a moment of peace and quiet.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Looking at Nick Cave with David Brin - 4

David Brin's Postmen; David Brin with Nick Cave's post-men 
(Return to Part 3)
After visiting the Serra installation at Gagosian I took David and Cheryl next door to the Mary Boone Gallery to see Nick Cave's show of "Soundsuits." Of the three shows we saw together, this was the artist and art I knew the least about. Unlike Serra, who's shows I have been visiting since I first moved to New York 15 years ago, and who I've been thinking about ever since (I had a Richard Serra anxiety dream once), I saw Cave's work for the first time only a week or so before meeting the Brins. What I could see I did know walking into the show, was that Cave was clearly not a sculptor in the same sense as Richard Serra. The Modernist consensus was that David Smith was America's greatest sculptor - with Smith setting the bar, both Serra and Cave are solidly (and somewhat confusingly) Postmodernist. What I did know for sure, was that it was a great show, and one I felt certain the Brins would enjoy.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Looking at Richard Powers with David Brin - 3

John Powers. Spiral Jedi (2008); Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1972) 
(Return to Part 2)
As David, Cheryl and I were leaving the Richard Serra show and headed over to see Nick Cave, we were talking about Isaac Asimov and how, like him, David had used the device of using a murder mystery as the back drop for his first novel. David had just solved a small artworld mystery for me about an odd connection I have to Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty via one of his favorite scifi authors, J.G. Ballard.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Looking at Richard Serra with David Brin - 2

Cover art for David Brin's 2nd Book, Startide Rising; David Brin at Gagosian Gallery in front of Richard Serra's sculpture Junction
(Return to Part 1)
To begin our tour, I had David and Cheryl meet me at the corner of 11th Ave and West 24th, just outside the Gagosian gallery. Because over the past couple years David had made it very clear how much he disliked the sanctimonious stridency of the original Modernist artists and architects, I thought the best place to begin would be with contemporary art's most obvious inheritor of that overbearing tradition: the massively overweight installation Junction/Cycle by the sculptor Richard Serra.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Looking at Art with David Brin - 1

The cover art of the first David Brin book I can remember reading: Sundiver; David and I talking on the Highline 25 years later.

A couple weeks ago I gave a gallery tour to the scifi author David Brin and his wife Cheryl. They were visiting NYC for the Singularity Summit, where David had been invited to give a talk. I have been a fan of David's speculative novels since high school. For the past few years I have enjoyed reading his thoughts about today's world unfold in real time on his blog; and more recently via twitter. The tour was my opportunity to meet an author whose ideas about the world I admire. I offered myself, as a working New York artist, to be his "native guide" to the artworld of Chelsea. But it was also an opportunity to make my case for the modernity and Modernism I know and love best: the universe of useless things that make up our visual culture, and the greater part of our built environment - the art and the architecture, that David has dismissed as being based on "grandiose theories [that] serve largely to promote elitist snobbery" - and therefor antithetical to the modernity he loves most.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

For Those in the NYC area:

Clement Greenberg as a Sith; installation view of Make/Believe and Benthic Empire


I am going to be giving a talk on Star Wars and Minimalism this Thursday, November 10th, as part of Performa 11th. For those interested in talking about how awesome and exciting Postwar art and Cold War politics are, as well as picking apart the visual program of the original 1977 Star Wars film, this talk is for you: STAR WARS AND THE RHETORIC OF POWER

Meanwhile I also have two works up as part of a group show called "Full Fathom Five" at the Jenkins Johnson Gallery on West 26th, that is open through December 23rd. I share Jerry Saltz's impatience with the "endless stream of art-school-trained artists trying to crawl up the asses of Andy Warhol, Richard Prince, and Gerhard Richter in order to stake out a microscopic piece of insular, already-approved territory." For myself I enjoy inhabiting the colons of Jay DeFeo, Robert Morris and Robert Smithson. If my art looks like something out of scifi, it is because I believe abstract art is an arm of futurism - additionally I like art that gives the impression that it can defend itself. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Star Trek: A Future Abandon to Clowns & Rubes

Trekky; Trotsky

When I was in my early 20s all my friends were returning from trips to Europe telling stories about what rubes American tourist were and how universally Europeans hated them. The strategy everyone I knew seemed to have adopted, and I was instructed to use if and when I ever 'crossed the pond', was to pretend to be Canadian. I remember thinking that if all the cool, well-mannered Americans posed as Canadians, and only rubes and clowns admitted to being Americans, then who could blame Europeans for thinking Canadians were awesome and Americans crass? "Up to a decade or two ago," wrote Slavoj Žižek in his 1994 book, Mapping Ideology, "everybody was busy imagining different forms of the social organization of production and commerce (Fascism or Communism as alternatives to liberal capitalism); today" he then-continued, "as Fredrick Jameson perspicaciously remarked, nobody seriously considers possible alternatives to capitalism any longer." If only rubes and clowns admit to wanting a better world, dystopias will be the only futures serious people will know how to think about.

Monday, October 17, 2011

2001:Play Time


I am home from a symposium on visual communication called Look Better where Jordan Tate (who has a great blog) invited me to present a "silent lecture". I joked with friends that it was inevitable that I would one day be paid to not-speak. It turned out however, to be harder, and take much more consideration to say nothing that I ever imagined. I have uploaded a short segment of the project I presented called, 2001:Play Time - it is not embedded here because of copyright. (Which I edited with the generous help of Erik Spooner and Spencer Holstein.) Instead of illustrating an idea (what I originally set out to do), it tests a theory: I suspect there is a relationship that exists between Jacque Tati's film, Play Time, and George Lucas' original Star Wars film. No one has told me this, and I can't find a single mention of Tati by Lucas, but Play Time bridges a gap between Star Wars and a film that Lucas does site as an influence: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Star Trek: Utopians at War

HG Wells, JT Kirk

"This is now a war for peace" wrote the Radium Age scifi master, H.G. Wells, in 1914, "This is the greatest of all wars, not just another war - it is the last war!" In 1932, as if answering Wells directly, but also predicting the rest of the 20th century, the Nazi jurist Carle Schmitt wrote "Such a war is necessarily unusually intense and inhuman because, by transcending the limits of political framework, it simultaneously degrades the enemy into moral and other categories and is forced to make of him a monster that must not only be defeated but utterly destroyed."

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Star Trek and Satiability

Binge Drinking: Evil Kirk and anti-Occupy Wall Street

Critics of consumerism, on both the Right and Left, usually count it as one of capitalism's sins. But according to Richard Wilkinson, modern consumerist societies require some level of relative income equality for good health. The laissez faire capitalism of the 19th Century (the brand championed by Rupert Murdoch's media outlets and the Koch brother's lobbying industry), made no concessions to address income disparity (I will leave it to Slavoj Žižek to explain the inadequacy of charity.) The socialism that rose up to challenge that era's unrestrained capitalism's misery was a demand for complete economic equality. Star Trek is often described as a socialist utopia, but that hides its greater aspect. David Simon, who grew up in consumer culture and is now as the creator of The Wire, is one of its most successful creator-class, argues beautifully in a recent talk, "If you believe in group insurance you are a socialist." But that leaves the question of what you believe in if you are a consumerist. There is a simple ethical test that delivers a very peculiar answer: What would Kirk do?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Star Trek: A Diamond Age Social Contract

Debating the future: Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (1969); Occupy Wall Street (2011)

In his new book, The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama writes that, "In tribal societies justice between individuals is a bit like contemporary international relations, based on the self-help of rival groups in a world where there is no third party enforce or rules." This is the bread and butter of libertarian thinkers in the mold of Friedrich Hayek, who believe that the formation of the rule of law was an organic and incremental process. But "Hayek was simply wrong about certain of his historical facts" Fukuyama observes that; and that "although law did precede legislation in many societies, political authorities frequently stepped in to alter it, even in early societies." He also points out that Hayek makes "not a single reference to, yet religion is clearly a critical source of legal rules in Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Muslim societies." Fukuyama's point is not only that religious text form the bedrock of legal systems, but that the kinds of things people believe, the stories they tell to one another as a society, for better or worse, shape the directions societies take. Star Trek is exactly that sort of story (for better); Hayek's libertarianism another (for worse).

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Star Trek and Gluttony

Deseases of excess; Captain Kirk, Ayn Rand


My friend Guan asked where "rugged individualism" fits into my understanding of the American Dream and pointed me to a post by J. Bradford DeLong. "What has survived throughout is the American myth of rugged individualism," DeLong writes. "The power of this myth has meant that the United States is not, and never will be, a European-style social democracy. People may come together for barn raisings, but America is still the land of upward mobility and opportunity, where the most common questions are, I've done it, so why haven't you?" But the truth is almost no Americans have "done it". Jeb Bush, who is the grandson of a US Senator, son of one US President and brother of another, once claimed to be a "self-made man". Most of those who claim to have "done it" usually mean: "Fuck you, I got mine." Any Rand, "famously a believer in rugged individualism," but after a lifetime of heavy smoking and venomous opposition to government social welfare programs, Rand became ill with lung cancer and accepted Social Security and Medicare payments.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Star Trek and Postscarcity Consumerism

James Doohan and Simon Pegg as Scotty

Even if many Americans have lost track of the full promise of the American Dream - the dream that a nation's wealth is measured not simply by how great it is, but how greatly it is shared - our cousins in Scotland have not. I have no idea what they're putting in scotch eggs these days, but between Charles StrossKen MacLeodGrant Morrison and Mark Millar, the Scots have a lock on myth creation at the moment. The Godfather of this second Scottish Enlightenment is Iain M. Banks, who describes his Culture novels as his own "secular heaven". But while Banks says that he "could [n]ever write in someone else's universe like Star Wars or Star Trek, as it would be too restrictive" his Culture series clearly picks up where Roddenberry left off - projecting into a distant future where the United Federation of Planets has grown into a galaxy-spanning civilization of multiple humanoid species and massively powerful artificial intelligences. 

Friday, September 30, 2011

Star Trek and the American Dream

Ben Fry, All Streets (2009): David Brin, Pyramids and Diamonds (2011); Star Trek, Spectre of the Gun (1968)

According to Kevin Kelly "The uber American dream is to build your own comfy place on the edge of wilderness with your own hands." And indeed, that is the national myth; Manifest Destiny that begins with the founding fathers and goes right up to the returning vets of WWII settling the first suburbs. On his site, the author David Brin points to a very different aspect of the American Dream: "The founders started by banning primogeniture, so no family fortune could sit and accumulate, undivided, as a lordly demesne at the pyramid's peak. Instead, they would get divided among the large numbers of children that folks had then -- an intentional act of "social engineering" and outright 'levelling.'" Star Trek had some Manifest Destiny in the mix of its myth - but the greater part of the story it told was the promise of leveling.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Anglo Spring: Why We Fight

Love in the social network free riots of Vancouver; Hate at the Twitter and Facebook fueled UK riots.

When the riots broke out in Tottenham this summer two very different stories leapt to mind. One was Jonathan Franzen's commencement speech tirade in which he warned a group of freshly minted BAs against, consigning themselves "to 10 years of merely taking up space on the planet and burning up its resources." He was warning them against being - "in the most damning sense of the word" - consumers. Franzen railed against the shallow narcissism of "liking" on social networks and triumphed the greater depths of real world "love" (giving the example of the un-commodifiable love of bird watching). "Sooner or later" he explained about love, "you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight."

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Anglo Spring: Sociopathocracy

Wisconsin's "unseemly circus"(2011); Gustave Courbet, The Burial at Ornan (1850)

When Gustave Courbet showed his painting, The Burial at Ornan, in 1850 it upset his Parisian audience. The historian TJ Clark explains that Courbet refused to depict peasants at pious and simple, instead he "painted worship without worshipers." But more maddening still, Courbet painted the peasants fashionably dressed, undermining the Parisian's patronizing vision of country people. Adding injury to insult, Courbet's massive canvas rubbed his audience wrong because of their own diminished prospects, burial had become a privilege that most Parisians could no longer afford: "Thus burial took on barbed and complex meanings; it became an institution, a privilege, a matter of envy and dispute." It now appears escaping justice is and institution, a privilege and a matter of envy and dispute. Those are the conditions that Socrates branded the "justice of a band of robbers."

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Anglo Spring: It is time for this unseemly circus to stop.

Downton Abbey (2010); Irascables (1950)

The painter Jasper Johns famously observed that, “artists are the elite of the servant class.” What Johns fails to note however, is exactly which servant artists most resemble. In the BBC series Downton Abbey we are reminded how clearly the roles of butlers, footmen and maids were defined. Each has very particular expertise and places within very old and explicit hierarchies. The only premodern equivalent to role of the modern artist meanwhile is a class of servant that withered away at just about the same moment as the first modern artists were appearing. Artists are jesters. 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

White Walls, Consumerism (A Conclusion)

Consumerism's carrot and stick: Jobs vs. no jobs.
This summer, as I watched the DSK prosecution stall and collapse, Right-wing ideologs turn the debt ceiling debate into a crisis that cost American tax payers billions, and the riots in England, I found myself experiencing far more than my usual level of disgusted with capitalism - but perversely defensive on the part of consumerism. Capitalism is nothing more than a bundle of mechanisms for distributing wealth: markets, property and financial instruments are a part of a group of technologies that have been developing over the pst few hundreds of years. Proponents of capitalism like to think of it as a meritocracy, but capitalism only promises enormous wealth to the lucky few and that is because it is a creature of Malthusian economics - the bedrock of its logic is scarcity. Capitalism favors the creation of mega-wealth and super-elites. Consumerism meanwhile, is a creature of the Industrial Revolution, and more particularly of Postwar America - it is an ideology built on the experience of post-Malthusian economies of scale - it's bedrock is abundance: the very modern promise of wealth that increases the more it is shared.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Forty Part Motet and the meaning of art after September 11th

Takashings, Sky Blue Sky (2011); Janet Cardiff and George Bures, Forty Part Motet (2001)

I know exactly why Janet Cardiff and George Bures' Forty Part Motet has been included in MoMA PS1's show to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I know because I happen to have participated (along with hundreds of other museum goers) in making the association between the two. I attended the opening of Cardiff's show when Motet was shown for the first time in NYC, just a month after the 2001 attacks. I didn't know Cardiff's work before the show. I remember thinking the little theaters she makes with her collaborator George Bures were tricky but not much more. I entered the gallery where Motet was installed, and was relieved that the miniature theater portion of the show had ended (not my thing). But unlike the theater pieces, I didn't know at all what to make of what I heard and saw. Motet was nothing but an oval of forty plain black speakers, each mounted head high on black iron stands. Entering the gallery, the view from the windows immediately overwhelmed the minimalist aesthetic of the piece. The long wall of windows on the gallery's west side faced Manhattan. The sky was a beautifully clear and bright - the same cloudless blue as the morning of September 11th. "A sky blue sky" Laurie Anderson might of called it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Brick Moon

The Pageos Satelloon (ca 1966); Piranesi, Carceri (ca 1750)

The other day I found a copy of Arthur C. Clarke's 1968 edition of The Promise of Space one of my neighbors had thoughtfully placed on his stoop along with a collection of equally ancient self help books. In it there is a spectacular image of the "Pageos satellite" and a brief description that I had been planing to email to my satellooon loving friend Greg Allen
For simplicity it would be hard to beat the "balloon" satellites, of which the Echo 1 was the first and most famous. On June 24, 1966, NASA launched singularly perfect specimen, the 100-foot-diameter Pageos, which looks like a giant highly polished ball bearing. Made of Mylar film 0.0005 inch thick, Pageos weighed only 120 pounds and when inflated in orbit was half a million times larger than the canister into which it had been skillfully packed. Moving in a polar orbit at an altitude of 2600 miles it is easily visible to the naked eye.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Kitchen of the Future: Meatspace

Norman Rockwell, Freedom From Want (1950); Jennifer Rubell (2011)

Most often, when the word 'modern" is used in a generic lower-case sense - i.e. modern warfare, modern aeronautics, modern audiences - it is being used in one of two ways; either to mean 'best practices' or 'early adopter.' At the moment modern cuisine is most strongly associated with the best practices of locovore organics championed by the Californian school of Alice Waters' Chez Panise; the minimalism of Mark Bittman; and the fundamentalism of Michael Pollan. The early adopter equivalent to the haute cuisine of Chez Panise and Bittman's minimalism are the 'molecular gastronomy' of Ferran Adria's ElBulli and Wylie Dufresne's WD-50. These chefs use the techniques of industrial food scientists at an artisanal scale. The alternative to Pollan are the industrial food scientists themselves. While Pollan urges us to eat only things our grandmothers would recognize as food, these early adopters, high and low, point to a future of food as removed from your grandmother's kitchen as conceptual art is from a Norman Rockwell painting.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

White Walls, Apartheid (an aside)

American History X (1998); The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011)

I often use the word "apartheid" to describe pre-Civil Rights America. I have, in the past, felt a bit uneasy in my appropriation of that word; after all it has a very specific meaning from a country with a very different history from the US. But after attending a screening of The Pruitt-Igoe Myth a couple weeks back, followed by a Q&A with the film's director, Chad Freidrichs, I no longer feel any unease what-so-ever. Apartheid was a uniquely hateful experiment intended to urbanize South Africa without allowing poor black families a place to live in cities. American apartheid was different in the details of its programs, but its intentions were similar enough and its effects just as destructive to the family life of those unlucky enough to have lived within it.

Monday, July 11, 2011

White Walls, The Gold Standard (Part 10)

The Fifth Element (1997); Satellite Photo of Earth at Night (2000)
William Gibson has observed that "The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed." And indeed, high-technology can be mapped out as the very uneven distribution of urban light seen on the earth's night side, as the overlap of high pollution emissions and GDP, or as telecommunication traffic. All are expressions of modern wealth. Those of us who live in the brightly lit, heavily trafficked spots on the map enjoy a greater portion of the future, but still bear a full portion of the past. If he were still alive to answer Gibson, William Faulkner might have said that the past is very evenly distributed. To understand what hi-tech whiteness means, it is crucial to see not only that it is a prestige color. Like the conspicuous consumption of lighting the night sky, whiteness is a marker of wealth. Blackness is not its opposite number however; the two are equivalents. An actual alternative; a true foil, is one that belongs as completely to the past as whiteness belongs to the future: gold.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

White Walls, Abundance (Part 9)

Apple's whiteness device guru, Jonathan Ive; Weissenhofsiedlung door bell
There is no greater contemporary symbol of modern economies than the smartphone; objects, dollar for dollar, millions of times stronger than the room-filling computers used by those early Cold Warriors to send men to the moon. Vernor Vinge, a reliable and fearless prognosticator, says that no one could have predicted how fast cell phone technology has spread; that already, more that half the population of the planet now has access to a phone. Additionally smartphones are blowing the curve of the already exponentially speeding curve of More's Law. The average shelf life of a new smartphone was 3 years in 2007, now it's just 6-9 months. This is an expression of a purely modern phenomenon: abundance.

Monday, June 20, 2011

White Walls, Soft Wear (Part 8)

Whitey on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, looking exhausted; Gil Scott-Heron, mad as hell.
(Return to Part 7)
Had NASA engineers been less enamored with AX hard suits, the most glamorous failure of it's military-industrial culture of design/production, and more conscious instead of the success born out of that failure, the soft complex layering of hand-sewn textiles actually worn on the moon by Apollo astronauts, perhaps when it's systems engineers turned to urbanism they may have approached the "problem" of the city with a bit more humility and flexibility. But I doubt it. The engineer-urbanists were primed by decades of wrong-headed idealism espoused by authorities like Lewis Mumford to "solve" the blight of "metropolitan centralization," and "remedy... increasing congestion" of cities like London and the "dingy railroad metropolis of Chicago" by turning them into country estates.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

White Walls, Crime Waves (Part 7)

Peter Seville, New Order, Substance (1988); Matrix Code (1999)
The art blogger, Hrag Vartanian, pointed out at a party recently that there is a disconnect between the whiteness fashioned for the Apollo missions and the whiteness of hi-tech today. For a time the look of the future was black diode screens with carbled green fonts. He is right, whiteness, as a marker of hi-tech  cool, seems to have disappeared sometime in the late 70s and only reappeared recently.

Monday, June 13, 2011

White Walls, Hard Wear (Part 6)

Parthenon Frieze; Telephone Switchboard
When Corbusier wrote in 1923 that, "Architecture can be found in the telephone and the Parthenon," he was not thinking of whiteness as part of an inheritance of immutable visual meaning like Albert Speers and other devils who dreamed of white neoclassical cities, he was thinking of whiteness as a way to express a modern system. In his book, White Walls, Designer Dresses, Mark Wigley observes:
The Parthenon has to be thought of as a system of communication like the telephone. And the telephone is has to be thought of as a means of production of space like the Parthenon. The telephone, like all systems of communication, defines a new spatiality and can be inhabited... Like the coat of paint, the telephone is a form of clothing that can be occupied, but not by the preexisting culture.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Cathy de Monchaux is a Jedi

Padmé Amidala looking uninviting; Cathy de Monchaux, Red (1999)

The other day I was thinking about a sculptor who's work had made an impression on me in the 1990s. I've tried to remember her name a number of times over the years, but because she used a lot of S&M imagery in her art, without her name, I couldn't think of any way to google for her without wading through hundreds of pages of violent porn (not my thing).

Thursday, May 26, 2011

White Walls, Foundational Garments (Part 5)

The look of control: Alen Shepard suiting up (1959); Offutt ICBM Air Base Control Room (1957)
(Return to Part 4)
In the postwar year Émigré Modernist architects abandon the exterior whitewash that they had made a requirement on their first collaborative housing estate, because it had aged poorly. In an America, the lines between corporate, government, military, and academic cultures had begun to blur. It was an America that meant business. These were the first Cold Warriors. For security reasons military officers dressed in identical uniforms of dark business suits and crisp white shirts and their company men peers. A uniform so ubiquitous in the American corporate business world, in a recent video, Management Science expert Barry Franz recalls the strangeness of meeting an IBMer dressed in a brown suit. A key element of the look these new organization men aspired to was the Playtex girdle.

Monday, May 23, 2011

White Walls, Tighty-Whities (Part 4)

Charlie's Angels (2000); Bauhaus
The architecture theorist Mark Wigley argues that architects designing white buildings today, like Richard Meier, are reacting to an illusion of whiteness that never existed in the white housing estate built above Stuttgart in 1927. White exteriors and flat roofs the only two conditions for the architects participating in the showcase. The lineup included Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, all of whom would go on to be leading lights of the modernist movement. Wigley fails to explain what photography might have meant to the original architects before they were leading light. He is however very clear about what whiteness meant to them: "the central role of whiteness in the extended history of of the concept of cleanness. Modern architecture joins the doctors white coat, the white tiles of the bathroom, the white walls of the hospital, and so on." Wigley believes that just as the buildings were not as white as they look in photographs, the whitewash was less about actual cleanness and more a mater of "a certain look of cleanness. Or more precisely, a cleansing of the look, a hygiene of vision itself."

Saturday, May 21, 2011

White Walls, Double Negative (Part 3)

The hand of the shooter; Jacob Riis, Scrub Woman (1892); Unforgiven (1992)
(Part 2)
The post War embrace of the NEW was a very real need to drive out all shadows, to forever wipe away the disorder and corruption of the old world that had produced the Great Depression and the two world wars. The Modernists promised to make an orderly clean world. For a time they were able to deliver on that promise - but in no way could they do it if they had stuck with a program of white exteriors as they did in Wiessenhofsiedlung.

Friday, May 20, 2011

White Walls, Elgin Marbles (Part 2)

Full Metal Jacket (1987); Parthenon (438 BCE)
(Part 1)

The eighteenth century archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann was aware that the Parthenon had been painted flamboyant gaudy colors but chose to ignore the ugly truth: "The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is as well," he wrote. "Color contributes to beauty, but it is not beauty. Color should have a minor part in the consideration of beauty, because it is not [color] but structure that constitutes its essence." That is creepy Speerian stuff, and for sure, the rhetoric of white is larded with stuff like that. In his book, White Walls, Designer Dresses, Mark Wigley writes that "The white wall is taken for granted. At most a generations of commentators have referred to it in passing as 'neutral,' 'pure,' 'silent,' 'plain,' 'blank,' 'ground,' 'essential,' 'stark,' and so on."

Thursday, May 19, 2011

White Walls, Saturn Rockets (Part 1)

Sigourney Weaver, Aliens (1979); Otto Apel, Former American Embassy, Frankfurt Germany (1955)

A day or two before Apple announced they would release the long delayed white iPhone 4 my friend Joanne McNeil wrote me because she was working on a piece about the concern and confusion elicited in strangers by cracked face of her black iPhone. The cracks had not effected the phone's interface and because Joanne had liked the way her cracked screen made her phone easy to identify from other's perfect, and perfectly identical iPhones, she had decided not to have the cracks repaired. But the imperfection was troubling to those around her. Strangers, afraid she would cut herself would urge her to have the face replaced. Joanne would explain that the screen was still smooth and worked fine, but still the anxiety (in others) remained. Even after she explained it's personalizing utility, her choice not to repair the imperfection flummoxed smartphone Samaritans. Joanne's phone is black but thinking about perfection lead her to wonder about the "hi-tech look" of white. She was wondering if I had any thoughts about where/when that all began.