1/31/2008 5:32:35 PM
In the midst of a long winter with its landscapes of white on white, strolling through the rooms of vibrantly colored flowers at the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in St. Paul begins to feel something like being inside the morning cartoons. The conservatory is one of those rare places in my native Minnesota this time of year where you can get close to nature without wearing three layers of clothes. Inside this poor man’s tropical vacation, pores open, eyes brighten.
I spent most of my time taking in the Holiday Flower Show in the Sunken Garden, the conservatory’s version of a rotating gallery. The show features poinsettias every year, and this year’s installment was filled with varieties bearing names like “DaVinci,” “Monet Twilight,” and “Premium Picasso.”
Jill Heim, one of three gardeners who help maintain the Sunken Garden’s exhibits, says the inspiration behind the artist theme was (foremost, of course) to delight the general public, but also (more guiltily) to keep the show fresh and engaging for the gardeners themselves.
Only a few breeders in the world are working on new poinsettia varieties, Heim says, striving to draw out new colors and patterns, better performance, and more vigor. The conservatory’s gardeners noticed that a number of new varieties bear renowned artists’ names, and voila—a theme was born.
Even the accent plants, delicate bursts of purple called ageratum, were included because recent series bear names like “Artist Blue” and “Artist Purple.” I pointed out that this tie-in wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the show—didn’t that make it kind of an inside joke for those garden nerds able to pick up on it? Chuckling, she said that while that wasn’t exactly the gardeners’ intent, she supposed there might be something to it. Sometimes it’s the little things that help get us through winter.
1/31/2008 4:38:00 PM
In the paper-folding contest that is life, I recall the tiny origami box I once constructed as a personal coup. This achievement fails to impress, however, when judged alongside Robert Lang’s six-inch-tall, free-standing moose, pictured here.
Lang, a former physicist and engineer who now devotes all his attention to the venerable Japanese art of origami, has crafted hundreds of original designs, from battling insects to a hermit crab, that can be seen on his website. His skills have also found pragmatic applications. As documented on Damn Interesting, Lang has collaborated with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in designing the successor to the Hubble Telescope. This new long-range telescope will comprise two large lenses that can be folded up for easier transportation into orbit—via gigantic paper airplanes, I hope.
1/31/2008 3:51:29 PM
Eels frontman Mark Everett has been seriously busy of late. Not only does his band have two new CDs out, but Everett also recently narrated a BBC documentary about his father, Hugh Everett III, a well-known quantum physicist. The defining theory of Hugh Everett’s career was based on the idea that there are innumerable universes paralleling our own. He argued that every time the universe splits, which it is constantly doing on the quantum level, a new universe is born. In 1957, when Hugh Everett released his seminal paper on the subject, his ideas were met with criticism and even derision by the quantum physics community. He was so frustrated with the response that he withdrew entirely from academia and his family. An article for the BBC looks at the estrangement between father and son, a major motivation for Mark Everett in making the documentary. The film follows him across the United States as he interviews colleagues, followers, and critics of his father, who died in 1982, in an attempt to understand his father’s studies and, he hopes, the man he never knew.
1/30/2008 5:24:44 PM
In the world of editorial illustration, Steve Brodner is a giant. Many magazine readers will recognize his work from the New Yorker, the Progressive, Mother Jones, the Village Voice, Esquire, and others. Brodner is best known for his political art, in particular his fantastic caricatures. What distinguishes him from the countless other caricature artists out there is his deep understanding of the American political landscape and his passion for the subject. He recently teamed up with the New Yorker online for the Naked Campaign. Go there and watch Brodner while he talks about and draws the 2008 presidential candidates. Then check out his Person of the Day blog, where Brodner shows that images can express concepts in ways that words simply cannot (but don’t tell my editors).
1/30/2008 5:00:44 PM
I’ve always thought philosophy got a bum rap in the cool department. Pipes are cool. So are full beards and hemlock. Heck, having thoughtful ideas about the world is cool. In an article in Philosophy Now, William Irwin makes a case for philosophy’s coolness, or at least for its relevance in regard to American popular culture. Irwin has made a career of “democratizing philosophy,” editing books that examine and contextualize pop culture phenomena, such as Seinfeld, The Simpsons and The Matrix, within the realm of philosophy. Irwin is careful to point out that, by offering up philosophy to the masses, he is not attempting to dumb it down. His is not a postmodernist interpretation of philosophy or culture, where all parts are necessarily equal. Rather, Irwin takes a democratic, accessible approach to exploring philosophy, with a goal of increasing the collective understanding of a notoriously dense area of study.
Alluding to Plato’s allegory of the cave, Irwin writes, “Those who criticize people for being immersed in popular culture but show them no way out and provide no motivation to seek one, are like escaped prisoners who simply sneer at those still stuck in the cave, haranguing and ridiculing them. Why would they listen?”
1/23/2008 10:53:42 AM
Sesame Street is perfect, and has been perfect for more than 30 years. I admit here, in print, that I still enjoy the odd episode or two, even though I have that counting-to-10 thing nearly mastered. For the rest of you Sesame Street aficionados in need of a fix to ease the doldrums of a Friday afternoon, you can stop your grouching. Sesame Street is now offering clips from past episodes on its website.
This is just one more example of television studios giving fans ways to watch their content legally online. There are hundreds if not thousands of Sesame Street videos on YouTube, all possibly illegal. But now I can sit and watch Sesame Street on my computer and not break any federal laws. Which is A-OK.
1/23/2008 10:33:55 AM
Like all graphic designers, I’m faced with the eternal question: Is Helvetica a typeface I should use? Or should I avoid it at all costs? The film documentary Helvetica, which is now out on DVD, may provide some answers. Helvetica is chock full of legends from the design and type worlds weighing in on the most ubiquitous of typefaces. Not surprisingly, their answers pretty much depend on when they came of age as designers. Designers have alternately embraced and reviled Helvetica since it was introduced in the American market in the late 1950s, and the debate continues to this day. Is it the typeface of capitalism, or socialism? My conclusion from watching Helvetica is that it is both. The designers of the ’50s and ’60s were correct to embrace it for its neutrality, and designers of the postmodern era were correct to reject it for its stodgy corporate connotations.
1/23/2008 9:55:56 AM
A Russian Orthodox church is an unlikely venue for a rock concert, but in Tehran, musicians take what they can get. In These Times writes about a 2001 concert the Iranian alternative rock band O-hum (pictured at left) played to a packed, excited, moshing crowd in the neutral ground of a church. It was one of the few rock shows to have been staged in the country. Iranian alternative music, from rock to rap, has been stymied by censorship and repression.
The country officially bans Western music, so young people usually have to content themselves with illegal satellite MTV and Persian pop produced by Iranians living in LA. Websites like MySpace and Tehran Avenue have allowed the 1 in 4 Iranians who have Internet access a chance to sample native artists like O-hum. But there’s still much work to do.
The life of an artist in America, at once glamorous and poor, seems discouraging enough. But the life of an artist in Iran, where the state actively tries to stop your efforts, must be especially difficult. I wonder: How many potential Iranian Bob Dylans, Mozarts, and John Lennons have been discouraged by censorship and indifference and just gave up?
Curious about O-hum’s music? The band’s LP and EP are available for free download at its MySpace page. Also check out Iranian folk crooner Mohsen Namjoo.
1/22/2008 3:06:18 PM
In an insightful piece for the U.K.-based Prospect magazine, David Goldblatt laments professional sports’ absence from the high culture canon of Western society: art, theater, music, and literature. In an attempt to explain our collective confusion about where sports belong in the cultural hierarchy, Goldblatt describes sports as, among other things, “a religion without a god.” On a whim, I typed “Michael Jordan is god” into Google, and almost a half-million results came up. Keep in mind that Jordan reached the apex of his career more than a decade ago. If Google had existed in 1996, when he led the Chicago Bulls to an NBA-record 72 wins and a championship, I suspect the same search would have easily brought up a million hits. So in the arena of public opinion, at least, sports and professional athletes are a vital, perhaps even sacrosanct, part of our cultural identity.
Renowned musicians sing the national anthem at baseball games, followed by the traditional presidential first pitch of the season. Sports are the subject of award-winning novels and plays. Countless famous pieces of visual art feature athletes. Think of the iconic image of Muhammad Ali standing triumphantly over Sonny Liston. Maybe the idea of sports as being too “common” to truly be art is a uniquely European conceit, as Goldblatt suggests. Yet it seems—when flipping through a history book or strolling the halls of a museum—that this dichotomy of art about sports but never as sports is part of the way Americans view culture as well.
Goldblatt exhorts us to treat sports with “the same seriousness that is accorded to the performing arts.” Although this approach would certainly bring a breed of blue-blooded respectability to such tarnished organizations as the NFL, NBA, and MBL, in practice, it would ultimately damage the accessibility of the game. And as any sports fan will tell you, it’s the game that really matters.
1/22/2008 12:33:40 PM
The grinding Doppler buzz of Minneapolis’ tornado warning siren, tested the first Wednesday of every month, always puts me in mind of the first apartment I occupied in the city’s southern neighborhoods. Even now, I associate the siren’s harsh stutter with the swelter of June 2006. I envision myself sweating in my apartment, studiously applying my energies to a Graduate Record Examination practice test and wondering what the hell 11 lawnmowers are doing careening back and forth by my window. The memory isn’t necessarily pleasant, but it is vivid.
This aural recollection was triggered as I read Anne Matthews’ article “If Walls Could Talk” in the November-December issue of Preservation (excerpt available), a publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Matthews reports on the study of sensory history, a budding field whose purveyors research and reconstruct the bygone sensory content, particularly the sounds, of physical spaces. Matthews highlights not only big-budget reproductions—for example, Philadelphia’s “Lights of Liberty,” a walking tour at Independence National Historical Park that features images projected onto buildings and headphones broadcasting whispers, creaking wheels, and sailing bullets—but also the meticulous efforts of radio producer and reporter Alex van Oss.
Van Oss produces “soundscapes,” sonic essays designed for radio broadcast and CD recording. For a 2005-2006 exhibition on the 19th century architect Adolf Cluss, he coproduced a CD featuring multiple soundscapes of Cluss’s Washington, D.C.-area buildings, including the downtown Masonic Temple. Though the building has been renovated and adapted for modern usage, van Oss generated a recording that pays homage to its sonic past and present.
The soundscape boasts an authentic 1879 Masonic Temple dedication march, played on a contemporaneous piano by the music researcher who unearthed the sheet music. Van Oss also mixed in the sound of footsteps and squeaking floorboards, even multiplying the footfalls to create the impression of an organized gathering: a recreation of the dedication march. Finally, he bookended this historical content with the contemporary sounds, such as automobile traffic, that characterize the Masonic Temple today.
Van Oss has labored to fashion a lasting impression of space across time. He says of the piece, “Truthful? Not really. Authentic? I think so. Evocative? Most certainly.”
Sample van Oss’s recordings and read an interview with Anne Matthews at the Preservation website.
1/22/2008 11:25:54 AM
“The current abundance of cheap consumer technology means that almost anyone can now make films—of a sort. But does it follow that we may all call ourselves filmmakers?” Mark Le Fanu asks in the September 2007 issue of Sight and Sound (article not available online).
This provocative question is inspired in part by the fact that several major international festivals have picked up a 70-minute feature film by Dutch filmmaker Cyrus Frisch shot entirely on Frisch’s camera-phone. Frisch’s Why Didn’t Anyone Tell Me It Would Be This Bad in Afghanistan is a silent film following the paranoiac decline of a veteran of the war in Afghanistan from his own grainy, low-res point of view.
Frisch used an older camera-phone with only a 3.2 megapixel resolution, even though resolutions of up to 10 megapixels are increasingly common. Le Fanu speculates that this aided the project: “[The] impact of Frisch’s film depends on its amateur-looking graininess: the sense of an onlooker at the scene of a disaster, recording what’s happening on the spot.”
Le Fanu writes that the limitations of the technology translated well in this project, because it matched the main character’s confused state. However, Le Fanu dismisses the camera-phone’s lasting cinematic impact: “It would seem...that the closer mobile phones get to the clarity of ordinary cameras, the less interesting they become as artistic tools.”
But Le Fanu dramatically overstates this point. Cinema benefits from film technology being more ubiquitous, as the beautiful, now-classic films of the French poetic realism or Italian neorealism movements demonstrate. Directors outside of the big-budget mainstream will and should use any available technology to make moving pictures, and I, for one, eagerly await the next crossover camera-phone auteur.
1/11/2008 1:52:05 PM
Did you need yet another reason to bemoan the record industry? Not only does much of the actual music suck, but the sound quality of our recorded music is the worst since the Edison steam cylinder. Robert Levine writes in Rolling Stone that there are two big reasons why recorded music sounds so bad. The first is what producers call “dynamic range compression.” This effect irons out all the quiet parts of a song, making the experience one long, loud groan. Why is it done? Well, silence is for wimps. If your song’s louder than the other songs, then people will listen, right? Engineers have inadvertently stumbled into a loudness war, wherein they continually master their recordings louder and louder. Anybody who breaks with convention and makes a recording with more range loses out.
The second problem Levine brings up is that we’re listening to MP3s. MP3s strip recordings of sounds barely audible to humans. This is done so you can fit more songs on your iPod. Now, Levine and other audiophiles deplore MP3s for massacring the sound quality of music. But it’s not so clear that most people can tell the difference between the medium-quality MP3s that most of us listen to and higher quality MP3s that preserve barely audible sounds.
Dave Munger at the popular science blog Cognitive Daily put this to the test. He asked his readers to listen to music encoded at different qualities to see whether people could tell the difference, and only a few people could actually tell the difference between medium-quality and high-quality MP3s. Which suggests that the distinction matters only to people with quite sensitive ears.
This is good news, and it brings to mind an insight about snobbery. People have different capacities for sensation. There are people called supertasters who, perhaps because they have more taste buds (the actual mechanism is unclear), can taste more than other people. For supertasters, certain foods taste extremely bitter. They tend to hate olives, for instance, and would probably be disgusted by the kimchee, coffee, and beer that I delight in gobbling.
But I think there’s a difference between discernment—having good taste—and being sensitive—or tasting more than others. We might think supertasters, in pursing their lips at olives and anchovies and other heavenly things, are simply picky. By the same token, the fact that people who have better ears than mine can tell the difference between the MP3s I listen to on my computer and the unadulterated joys of vinyl doesn’t mean that I should think less of my cheap MP3s. Those MP3s, with their poor sound quality, let me listen to 14.7 days’ worth of music on my computer wherever I go. And I will surely sacrifice miniscule benefits in sound quality so I can have more music.
1/11/2008 12:33:47 PM
Director Martin Scorsese recently released The Key to Reserva, a 10-minute Internet-based commercial for Freixenet champagne provocatively billed as an adaptation of a “lost” Hitchcock manuscript. The short has two storylines. One tells the truncated tale (owing to an incomplete manuscript!) of a man anxious to find a key that unlocks a box containing a bottle of fine champagne bearing a top-secret message. The second, hidden in the open as they say, is the story inside the story: a supposed making-of “documentary” that sets up the drama—a lost Hitchcock script found! Scorsese directing it!
The film is shot in a very recognizably Hitchcockian style, and Hitchcock references abound. Some are glaring, like the classic Bernard Herrmann score and Saul Bass-style credits. Many more require an expansive knowledge of the primary sources—like the R.O.T. initialed handkerchief (North by Northwest), the brutal stabbing (Dial M for Murder), the camera’s red flashes (Rear Window), the key and the bottle of Freixenet (both Notorious), and the Hitchcock blonde (don’t even get me started). But beyond being just a shower of references, more impressively, Scorsese pulls off stylistic allusions—like the crane shot backing out of the orchestra (Young and Innocent) and the overhead shot of the protagonist’s ascension of the stairs (Vertigo).
As for whether Scorsese succeeds in making a Hitchcock, well, no—though I would argue that he has succeeded in pulling off a terribly funny joke about making one. The manuscript claim is sold convincingly, and Scorsese, to his credit, never shoots us a wink. Ultimately, the very preponderance of references foils the ruse—not to mention that Scorsese’s pacing is too fast, which underdevelops the suspense.
As for the much-anticipated Hitchcock cameo: Scorsese’s Spellbound poster would hint that Hitch should be playing a violin, and the orchestra, frustratingly, seems to bear a large percentage of portly, bald men—certainly a staged distraction. This is a tough one, but just when you might have given up, hold it right there—in the production room scene with Scorsese, is that an uncredited Pat Hitchcock, Hitch’s daughter? Now that would be clever.
And what about that picture just outside the balcony door? Is it a young Scorsese? Or maybe cameos are just for the birds.
1/11/2008 12:06:00 PM
If the raw footage for that iconoclastic short film is still collecting digital dust on your hard drive—good news: The kind people at Arts Engine are taking pity on you. The deadline for entries in the Media That Matters Film Festival has been extended to January 18.
This is the eighth year of the festival, which features short films (no more than 12 minutes long) that tackle big social issues. Selected films will premiere early this summer in New York City, then make the rounds through an “international, multi-platform distribution campaign—DVD, broadcast, streaming and hundreds of community screenings.”
To see what the fuss is about, check out last year’s films.
1/11/2008 11:34:01 AM
It’s a brilliantly simple idea. Artist Christopher Locke purchased scissors that had been confiscated by airport security screeners, then bent and welded them into metallic sculptures of spiders. One of his more recent models is even articulated and poseable.
Some of the scissors were permitted by regulation but had been deemed a possible threat by Transportation Security Administration screeners, who have wide latitude to confiscate. If these scissors posed an ambiguous threat before, Locke clarified it. Peruse the portfolio on his website and, aside from the imposing arachnids, you’ll discover bug sculptures made from confiscated multi-tools and Swiss army knives.
In all, Locke’s sculptures put me in mind—as they may be intended to—of the period after the September 11 attacks, when the descriptor “low-tech, high-concept” was applied to the use of aircraft as missiles. By manipulating mere scissors into blade-wielding spiders, Locke has sculpted an emblem for our association of terror with the reshaping of everyday objects as extravagant weapons.
1/10/2008 5:41:57 PM
After moving to New York from Paris, Miwa Koizumi was astounded by the piles of garbage that lined the city’s streets. And, in the eco-aware tradition of artists like Chris Jordan, she wanted to do something artistic about it. Faced with a low budget for art supplies, an abundance of free trash, and a fascination for sea creatures, Koizumi started converting plastic and glass bottles into beautiful, complex, and surprisingly lifelike jellyfish sculptures, which are featured in the Fall 2007 issue of Theme magazine.
Koizumi uses a number of tools to painstakingly craft her sea creatures—unfortunately, the sculptures don’t reproduce as quickly as their underwater brethren—but on the upside, her costs probably stay relatively low. “I have as much material as I want,” she writes on her website, “just by fishing in the garbage.”
Photo by Dylan Griffin, courtesy of
1/9/2008 4:34:37 PM
Anyone who’s cracked open a supposedly groundbreaking graphic novel in recent years and found themselves bored silly by panel after nearly identical panel depicting an endless parade of young-adult ennui: You’ve got an ally in Ted Rall. In a recent commentary, Rall hauls Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, and other darlings of the art-comics world to the woodshed in an acerbic takedown. Describing how the New York Times’ foray into art comics, The Funny Pages literary supplement to the New York Times Magazine, has been a flop, Rall summarizes Ware’s serialized work “Building Stories” thusly:
“Anticipation yielded to disappointment as Ware, in his typically mannered and obtuse style, rendered the paint-drying anti-drama of a dowdy middle-aged, one-legged . . . spinster wallowing in self-inflicted depression in a hundred thousand earth-toned squares. Unless you count phony, plot-less, generalized angst, nothing happened in ‘Building Stories.’ Ever.”
Ouch. As a syndicated editorial cartoonist himself who is unabashedly topical and political, Rall is of course wide open to the charge that he just doesn’t get it, that his hit-you-over-the-head style is itself flawed and unfunny, or that he’s simply swinging back after the art-comic tastemakers at Comics Journal called him an “utterly worthless political cartoonist.” But at its core Rall’s critique must sting because there’s a bit of truth to it. “When a reader doesn’t understand a cartoon, it isn’t because he is stupid,” he writes. “It is because the cartoonist has failed.”
Now that’s something for a comic artist to be depressed about—and to turn into a novel, of course.
Image from the New York Times, by Daniel Clowes.
1/2/2008 12:26:27 PM
The last year or so has played host to several milestones for U.S. women—in politics, of course, but also in academia, religion, and nuclear physics.
Here’s one you may have missed: This fall, Marin Alsop became the first woman to lead a major U.S. orchestra. The Baltimore City Paper has a feature, by Geoffrey Himes, on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s transition to Alsop’s leadership and its first couple of months under her baton.
The BSO’s previous music director was Yuri Temirkanov, who is about as different from Alsop as an orchestral conductor could be. Himes explores these differences in depth, discussing the new strengths and weaknesses Alsop brings in terms of programming, rehearsal techniques, baton gestures, and communication—with only passing reference to the fact that she’s shorter than Temirkanov and wears a blouse. (The piece would be useful required reading for mainstream media reporters.)
Alsop is a great talker, and the piece is full of interesting quotes. Here’s one:
“Art has to be a reflection of the times you're living in,” Alsop insists. “All music was new music at one time. The nine Beethoven symphonies were all new and they created an uproar . . . But as the Romantic era became so bloated, people lost faith in that mode of expression and went to the other end of the spectrum—the music became all about pattern and ideas. We went through this unfortunate period when the less emotional, the less expressive, the less accessible the music was, the better it was regarded. It was the old Brussels-sprouts syndrome—if it's fun, it can't be good for you. I don't agree with that—I think art should be fun, and by that I don't mean trite.”
1/2/2008 12:10:15 PM
As everyone knows, guilt and shame act as essential parts of our contemporary information diet. From foibles to felonies, we absorb the mistakes and missteps of our fellow humans with an alacrity that borders on outright glee. It was, therefore, with great excitement that we laid the first bricks of the information superhighway, which we supposed might provide an innovative resource for gawking and pointing. Boy howdy, were we right!
Take a gander at Dear Rockers for the latest success in public guilt-airing. The site is great, and its mission, like all great missions, is twofold. First, it posts letters to musicians written by illegal downloaders and nonpaying concert-goers. (Guilty parties actually photograph their snail-mail letters, so you get to see handwriting, stationery, and all.) Each guilt-stricken letter-writer also reimburses the musician to the tune of $5. Second, the site offers help finding contact information for musicians you’ve sinned against. It’s a forum and a public service.
In general, the tone of these letters is calm and apologetic, though occasionally it veers into pointed commentary or plain old spite. Just like the letters Mom used to send.
1/2/2008 11:39:38 AM
Radiohead, as you probably know, is a Very Influential Band. Now that it’s sold its In Rainbows album online by letting fans name their price, should we expect everyone else to do likewise? Will Wilco do it, but from a distinctly American starting point? Will Coldplay give its music away in a manner that’s kind of pretty but far less interesting than when Radiohead did it?
If they did, it wouldn’t keep them from making rent. Not so for lesser-knowns. In Philadelphia Weekly, musician Michael Alan Goldberg enters the debate with a particularly lively “open letter to Thom Yorke.” He describes his view of the post-In Rainbows scene:
I can’t tell you how many MySpace messages I’ve gotten in the past couple weeks asking, “Radiohead gave away their new album for free. Why can’t you?”
Because it’s what I do for a living.
The other day a kid came up to the merch table where our new clearly marked $8 CD was and said, “I’ll give you $2 for it.”
This isn’t Priceline, bozo. I gotta eat.
A few weeks ago, Radiohead removed the album download from its site. It may be that music history will judge this episode as groundbreaking, like OK Computer. Or maybe we’ll forget about it entirely, as we’ve already forgotten Hail to the Thief.
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