Monday, October 13, 2014

The Stratified Future

Ralph McQuarrie matte painting of the desert and the void (1977); Skyscraper Index - up to 1974.
 Preparing for a talk at Whitman last week, a post on ello by @doingitwrong that mentioned the Skyscraper Index brought to mind a talk I gave a few years ago at Performa 11 in which I broke the visual language of the Star Wars "used future" down along lines of three stratified machine ages. I was looking for a way to explain to the students some of the things that I felt made the film so original, it occurred to me that while geeks love to play the gotcha game of spotting some imagery, predating Star Wars. That C3P0 is a copy of Fritz Lang's robot Maria, is an obvious example. The gist of the game is that Star Wars is derivative. But what the game misses is that C3P0 means something very different than Maria. If Lucas and his crew had attempted to build a stratified past for their futuristic world - something that had never been done on film before - it would have overwhelmed 70's audiences. What they did instead, was to appropriate an existing past: Yesterday's Tomorrows.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Update: The Star Wars Logo Actually Is fascist.

I'm giving a talk on Star Wars at Whitman College next week, so I was excited to see Chris Taylor speak last night at Seattle's' Town Hall about his new book, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe. It turned out to be the first stop on his first book tour for his first book, and he focused his talk on the first ten minutes of the film - starting with the carton that showed before the original print of the film (Duck Rodgers in the 24 1/2th Century). He is an engaging speaker, went into great detail, and repeatedly stumping a group of obviously die-hard fans. The biggest surprise for me, was very early on, when he got to the appearance of the Star Wars logo and he told us it was designed by a woman named Suzy Rice who says she was told by George Lucas to make the logo "very fascist... something to rival AT&T." It's an amazing bit of trivia, but what surprised me wasn't Ms. Rice's claim - I wrote about Suzy Rice's claim on this blog in 2010 - it's that Taylor chose to include her story in his book.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

2H2K - July 2050 - “Chuck Close”

iAroki walking Benji, the family dog (1977)

Chuck Close was a small, compact, terrier-mutt with a shaggy coat of coarse dark grey hair and a slight under bite. Although she herself had never had the courage to kill one, Chuck was the descendant of working animals, British rat-catchers. Her line had arrived in the colonies in the early 1700s in the form of  pregnant bitch named Molly. Three hundred years later, none of Molly’s brood remained on the mainland, but a few dozen still dotted Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Like Molly, Chuck had a long muscled torso, a six inch inseam, and carried herself with the characteristic jaunty confidence of a small dog that had no idea she was small.

2H2K - July 2050 - Artificial Animals and Artificial Comfort - An Introduction:

Westinghouse's "Elektro" at the 1939 New York World's Fair. via Paleofuture

About the time Greg Borenstein and I began working on 2H2K, my father fell ill and was dying. I spent a lot of time with him, in rehab centers and hospitals, watching the ways he was treated and trying to help. One of the comforts now offered to the sick and dying are dogs. Specially trained and certified animals are a part of our most modern medical facilities. The pleasure they brought my father, who, towards the end, could enjoy very little, was a great comfort to both him - and therefor to me. But the "comfort dogs" only came once a week at most, and only for very short visits. So between tests, procedures, meals, and whatever else took up my father's last days, I would hunt for videos of dogs on YouTube. I thought of these home movie snippets as comfort dog prosthesis. When I was growing up, I'm sure he told me about the dog he had as a boy, but it was only as he lay dying that he admitted that he had been needlessly hard on the dog, taking his own boyhood unhappiness out on the animal, seventy some odd years later, he suffered terrible guilt over hurting that dog. As my father's illness progressed his appetites shrank, for drink, for food, for books. The very last thing I can remember him telling me that he wanted, was how much wanted to have a dog again. Not long after the old man died we got a puppy. Until very recently, the vast majority of dogs throughout human history were working animals, expect to earn their keep doing skilled physical labor as shepherds, rat catchers, or hunters. The comfort my dog has given me is a profound and valuable for of emotional labor, it is a deep animal connection that machines will ever be able to reproduce. But something I can imagine machines doing, relatively soon, is facilitating the emotional labor of animals.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Peace Dividend: Dystopia Now

Ferguson Missouri, 30 years after George Orwell's dystopian future of 1984
Over the past week I've been watching the police crisis in Ferguson Missouri horror. From the very beginning, when an officer shot an unarmed boy six times in broad daylight, in front of witnesses, the authorities have reacted with overwhelming force; their actions better characterized by blind rage than any concern for public safety. It's a bit like watching keystone cops who have been issued body armor and sniper rifles. In the midst this outbreak of real world distopia, Michael Solana's posted an anti-dystopian screed that is as muddled-headed as it is badly timed. (I say muddled, because Solana wrongly equates dystopias with an anti-technology sentiment - he needs to familiarize himself with utopian Luddites.) In response to Solana's essay, Brian Merchant posted a defense of dystopias. But while I felt Merchant's rebuttal was smart, I agree with Solana conclusion, if not his reasoning. We need to get back in the habit of telling stories about the future that are not dystopian.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


Urban Think Tank's Grotão Community Center in San Paulo Brazil.

"There is a famous scene in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead where Howard Roark , the archetypal modernist übermensch, is waiting for the phone to ring. His rent is overdue and he is desperate for his banking client to call with a commission. Howard Roark is not an activist. An activist does not wait for the phone to ring. If there is a precondition to activism, it is being proactive. Your client does not even know you exist, cannot afford your services and has come to expect no help from yu anyway, because your client is the urban poor." - Justin McGuirk, Radical Cities

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Lego's "Girl Problem" Hasn't Changed, It's Multiplied.

Viral ad campaign by Lego didn't do much to comfort those put of by Lego Friends.

I got in a bit of a dust up on twitter this week, which caught me off guard, because not only was I not looking for a fight, I wasn't disagreeing. But some subjects are thorny, they invite misunderstanding and defensiveness. Gender roles is one of those subjects. Lego's "girl problem." The problem is an old one: Lego can't figure out how to sell to girls; 90% of their toys sales are to/for boys - and I bet that that number is low. It's a problem for Lego because they have saturated half their market and can't break into the other other half - until recently, and that's where the new girl problem starts. A couple years ago Lego released a pink-washed line of doll-house themed building sets called Lego Friends, and according to NPR, has tripled their sales to girls. The source of yesterday's misunderstanding, was that I hadn't realized the "girl problem" had morphed from a question of how to get girls to play with Legos to one of how to get girl to stop playing with pink toys. But to my mind the original "problem" remains. Three times almost nothing does not a market share make. My guess the sales of the pink-washed Lego Friends sets don't reflect numbers of girls playing with the toys now that they are pink, but rather they reflect the fact that aunts, uncles, grandmothers, mothers, fathers, and girls themselves feel comfortable buying a toy for a girl that looks unambiguously like a girl's toy and comes from one of the most respected toy companies in the world. To my thinking, any marketing scheme built around structured-narrative sets (ie sets that come with instructions intended to build a specific narratives of firemen, spacemen, housewives or veterinarians) are going to be gendered, but they are also going to continue to fail with the girls and "outlier" boys who aren't playing with them now.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Art As War

Dr Strangelove (1964)
From time to time, as tensions rise in one part of the world of another, someone will bring up the idea replacing war with art. I had a friend who took that idea and ran with it. He wanted to top ICBMs with "art-heads." So for instance, his suggestion was that when diplomacy broke down, and it was time for action, that a group of artists would be at the ready to sculpt, paint, code, cook, whatever - a response, calculated to shaping events. Their art, rather than atomic payloads, would then be loaded onto missiles that would be fired into the enemy combatants. Culture "artwar," fought by means of conceptual bunker busters, new aesthetic daisy cutters, and social practice fat man and little boys. My friend's idea was absurd but attractive. An actualization of artistic avant-gardist pretension. Artists as actual shock troops. It occurred to me today, remembering my friends idea, thinking of Crimea, Syria, Afghanistan, et al, that we are already fighting wars by means of art; that intercontinental missiles, loaded with cultural content are flying over head. Movies are the nukes - weapons of mass-illumination. Music is another artistic weapon of mass-reproduction. Contemporary visual art, is a wholly conventional form of artfare - targeted mostly at elites.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Art, Then Disruptive Technology.

A year or so ago, right around the time of the Armory art fair, I began to think of the international art fairs in a new way,  rather than market strategies or some such, I began to imagine them as a "disruptive technology." We tend to think of technology as discrete gadgets. Smartphones are technologies. Driverless automobiles are technologies. The internet is a technology. Art fairs are too; they are a cultural technology, and they are upending the artworld. But BE WARNED: This is most definitely NOT another screed about how money is destroying art. If art has a single attribute that separates it from all other commodities, it is that it is the "ultimate commodity." Art has no upward price limit; that men (it's always men) will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a piece of cloth dabbed with paint, by some guy who lived in a coal miner's hut is amazing - but it is not the subject of this post. The wackiness of the secondary market has been with us long enough that I it no longer fits under the definition of technology as "everything that doesn't work yet." Art Fairs don't work yet.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Critical Analytics: Show Us The Territory, And We Will Find Our Own Way.

Ed Winkleman (looking for leadership?); William Powhida, Turning in Circles (2014) detail
"Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion." - Francis Bacon
I avoid the academic practice of starting essays with a quote from a great thinker because more often than not the quote is obscure and it does less to illuminate the topic of the essay it hangs above, and more to reflect glory from the great thinker,on to the less-great author of the essay. But that Francis Bacon quote goes a long way to sum up my reaction to a post the gallerist Ed Winkleman wrote on his blog called, "Looking for Leaders..." Ed argues that the flood of speculative cash has thrown the artworld is in a "death spiral" and its up to artists to lead us out of the trap. I Liked Ed's post a lot, even though I found myself strongly disagreeing with its key points. First, that the source of the artworld's problems are auctions, and second, that artists can lead the way to fixing those problems. "Someone will chime in to suggest all we need is enough idealistic dealers who dig in their heels" Ed predicted, "show quality work without compromising, and they'll begin to change how things are heading." But so far, all the responses I've seen have been along the lines that everyone needs to do their part. I don't agree with that either. Right now we are at least twice removed from truth; probably the most we should hope for is to move to an environment of error from the state of confusion we inhabit. Ed's post is a move in that direction. But I don't think leadership is what we lack at all, artists need good data.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Future of Sport is not Team America

Putin on the Ritz via Dru
Watching the ceremony this week, I looked at all the people - almost every nation of the world represented - and I felt proud to be an American, proud to identify with such an excellent people. My friend Sandra had invited me to share the moment that she became a US citizen along with more than 200 others in a Brooklyn Federal court; and if the Judge is to be believed, those new citizens represent almost as many nations as marched into the stadium at Sochi. An average morning for the Brooklyn swearing in ceremony. I wish I felt as proud of our role in the Olympics, but I don't. I feel ashamed.