Archive for the ‘art’ Tag

Doguccino

A brief and irrelevant diversion: Yesterday afternoon when grabbing a shot of caffeine at Epicenter, I had no choice but to admire the barista’s foam styling skills — a doguccino unsolicited, but a fine one nevertheless, constructed simply using the tip of a beverage thermometer:


If doguccino doesn’t do it for you, perhaps Doga does.

Robert Redford and the art of activism

Robert Redford usually draws media attention for his annual Sundance Film Festival in snowy Park City, where despite the accumulation of Hollywood hype he continues to champion the art of filmmaking. Less often remarked is his other great passion: the art of activism. Recently, Redford decided to make the Bay Area a new hub for his continuing work as a defender of social justice and the environment. Given the legacy of progressive politics in this region, it seems a natural choice for his new Redford Center, located in the heart of downtown Berkeley.

Earlier this month, during the center’s inaugural event at the Sundance Kabuki Theater in San Francisco, Redford honored two accomplished community leaders. Victor Diaz, the principal of Berkeley Technology Academy, spoke with a quiet kind of ferocity about his efforts to help at-risk minority kids get a better shot at education. Also impressive was teenager Avery Hale, who at age 13 started a project to deliver shoes to impoverished children in villages in Latin America and beyond.

Redford and Diaz conversing onstage, Feb. 4, in San Francisco. (Photo by Peter Klueger.)

Redford spoke at length about the crossroads of grassroots activism and the arts. At 73, he’s been at it for four decades. He made clear that his bet is now on those many decades his junior, emphasizing the creative potential among youth and “the small acts that lead to big results.” In considering where progressive change can come from, he pulled no punches about the “cartoon behavior” going on at present in Washington: “There’s not a whole lot to be optimistic about today, politically. You see how constipated it is at the top and nothing is getting done — it’s an embarrassment to this country. We’ve lost so much already, we’re losing more by the day.”

Global warming continues to trouble him — as it did in 1987, when he first took it on, traveling to the Soviet Union during Perestroika for a conference on the then relatively unknown issue. He recounted inviting a high-powered Soviet delegation to Sundance for further talks, which eventually resulted in a joint document, in 1989, aimed at reducing pollution. In hindsight, it marked both a high point and a low point. “It was too early,” Redford said. “I made a terrible mistake: I was naïve to think that it was such a verifiable document, that all I had to do was send it in to [the first] George Bush and Gorbachev. It was, ‘Thank you very much’ and stuffed into a drawer, and no one ever really heard about it.”

But Redford’s stark views on national and global politics were tempered by a focus on inspiration and action at the local level — the raison d’etre of the Redford Center — and ultimately his message was a warmer one of rebirth. He pointed to the youngest generation, including his grandchildren in the audience. “They’re the ones that are about to inherit what’s left of this earth,” he said, “and I sense that this new generation of young people coming on really does want to do something. And I hope they will.”

Big bake sale for Cary Tennis and King Kaufman

Around the turn of the year, two friends and former colleagues of mine at Salon, Cary Tennis and King Kaufman, were hit with serious health emergencies. In November, Cary announced in his beloved advice column that he was diagnosed with a rare cancer, sacral chordoma, and would have to undergo surgery, which took place on December 17th. Vividly and eloquently, he has been keeping friends and fans apprised of his situation on his Open Salon blog.

In early January, King was suddenly taken ill and hospitalized for a rare, devastating ailment, Guillain-Barré syndrome, the cause of which is essentially unknown. Fortunately, after three weeks in the hospital and a physical rehabilitation center, he is now back home with his wife and young kids, on his way to what his doctors say is likely to be a full recovery.

For most people nowadays, a serious health crisis inevitably brings with it some financial strain. Friends of Cary and King have rallied to put together a terrific auction on eBay, the proceeds of which will go toward supporting these two great guys through their difficult times. A throng of talented and accomplished Salon alumni have contributed: Dave Eggers, Zach Trenholm, Heather Havrilesky, Keith Knight, David Talbot, Scott Rosenberg, Kate Moses, Larry Smith and Laura Miller, to name a few. The array of items up for bid include signed first editions of books, photographs, paintings and other original artwork. More details about the project on this Web site set up by the talented and generous Mignon Khargie.

The auction begins on Tuesday, February 9, and runs through the rest of the week; please check it out here and bid on any of this great stuff in support of Cary and King.

And the Best Album of 2010 goes to…

How uninspired, all the obligatory end-of-year rehash — the Best of 2009 This and the Top 10 Yada-yada of That. It’s all so… last year. But, the good news: This dog from the future just did a quick dash to December 2010, and I’ve brought back with me the easy winner for the Best Album of Next Year. It’s already here.

One of the benefits of having your own blog (aside from some capacity for time travel) is that you can favor whatever you want, with impunity. Even so, that the acclaimed psychedelic-country-folk-rock band I See Hawks in L.A. are good friends of mine has nothing to do with the fact that their forthcoming album, “Shoulda Been Gold,” takes the aforementioned honor. Hands down. It’s a dazzling collection from their deep trove of music produced and performed over the past decade — a greatest hits record, as they like to put it, that contains no hits. It comes out officially on January 26 from Collector’s Choice Music, but you can be one of the first to get a hold of it right now, right here.

And you most definitely should. The album contains 17 tracks of vivid aural history, its harmonies and insights drawn from an American decade of relative desolation. The Hawks are one of the great original bands you shoulda heard by now, if you haven’t already. Don’t just take my word for it, you can look ‘em up on The Google: There have been volumes of critical acclaim for their four albums dating back to 2000, from the Los Angeles Times to Spin to USA Today. (The latter notably sidestepped cliché in praising the band’s “versatility, variety and power” and “intriguing dystopian science-fictional bent in the lyrics” — that is, this ain’t your garden variety country-rock band, folks.) There are cult favorite non-hits here such as “Humboldt” and “Highway Down,” but I’m particularly partial to several of the new and newly released tunes, among them the plaintive yet incandescent title track “Shoulda Been Gold” and the Cajun-inflected twirler “Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulet.” You’ll definitely start your new year out happy if you get your hands on this stuff.

The “Mcfarthest” spot, mass air traffic and a Minnesota-size memory

I’ve always loved maps. They reward the longer gaze. Especially in these digitally frenetic times. Whether depicting authentic truths or questionable claims, or one of many shades in between, they tend to provoke expansive thinking about the world. Or they zoom you in on something unexpected and compelling. Their borders inherently are porous to the imagination. And they can be just plain cool to look at — hand me a copy of Oxford’s Atlas of the World and I’ll be entertained for a healthy chunk of time flipping through those oversized pages. No iPhone necessary.

Of course, digital media allow mapmakers and collectors to take things to a next level. The Strange Maps blog is one great place to browse. A recent post featured the work of blogger Stephen Von Worley, who decided to chart America as fast-food dystopia by depicting McDonald’s ubiquity from coast to coast. The nagging question that was his point of departure: What’s the “McFarthest” one can possibly get from a Big Mac? Unsurprisingly, not very far at all, even in the relatively unpopulated West:

mapping-McDonalds

According to Von Worley’s calculations (per the summary at Strange Maps):

There are over 13,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S., or about 1 for every 23,000 Americans. But even market penetration this advanced doesn’t mean that McDonald’s is everywhere. Somewhere in South Dakota is the McFarthest Spot, the place in the [continental] U.S. geographically most removed from the nearest McD’s. If you started out from this location, a few miles north of State Highway 20 (which runs latitudinally between Highways 73 in the west and 65 in the east), you’d have to drive 145 miles to get your Big Mac. (If you could fly, however, it’d be only 107 miles).

If you did decide to fly, you’d be contributing to some incredibly congested air traffic, especially if it’s during daylight. See this nifty depiction of 24 hours worth of planes flying the global skies:

Also worth watching is this feat of mapmaking by Senator Al Franken, who from memory composed one of the United States (while taking questions, no less) at the Minnesota State Fair:

Now if he and his comrades could only draw up a health care plan with such facility…

The world according to Flarf

After I posted about the strange poetry of search yesterday, I was happy to receive an email from my friend Alex Davis, a poet and former classmate in the MFA program at University of San Francisco, with some clarification about the realm into which I had stumbled. Turns out there is a whole literary “movement” built on search engine detritus. (Of course there is.) It’s known as Flarf. It dates all the way back to the beginning of the millennium.

Apparently the method of the flarfists “was to mine the Internet with odd search terms and then distill the results into often hilarious and sometimes disturbing poems, plays, and other texts.” This was hardly a new artistic impulse. But its digital extension — a kind of Cut-up 2.0, if you will — certainly seemed to capture the tenor of these times. According to flarf’s Wikipedia entry, “Early or ‘old-school’ flarf is marked by a certain distinctive tonal ‘dialect’: it is often peppered with phrases like ‘aw YEEEAHH,’ intentional typos, mildly offensive language (e.g., childish references to bodily functions), oblique political ‘statements,’ and incongruous animal imagery.”

Indeed. Or, as one early practitioner put it, the dominant tenor of flarf could be described as “a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. ‘Not okay.’”

(Lordy, I don’t really even want to touch the later breaking phenomenon of Twitter poetry: “Situations of stimulation often climax I just cant handle your seed Love is held like hidden treasure – 3:41 PM Aug 16th from web”)

"Eventual Slide" (SwBk, issue 3)But let us leap from the realm of theory. Back in 2006, issue 3 of Switchback, the fine literary publication from USF, featured “The Ways to Switchback,” which made flarfingly grand use of phrases that people had entered into search engines to reach the publication’s site. (The image to the left, featured in that issue, is “Eventual Slide,” by artist Jeremiah Stansbury.) See such points of departure as “japanese toilet noise disguise” and “addicted to picking ear wax” and the essay-inspiring “does a chimpanzee dream?”

The spirit of Haida Gwaii

In late August I returned to the archipelago of Haida Gwaii, a place whose ancient, complex culture and astonishing natural beauty are inextricable. Earlier this week, in the village of Old Massett, the renowned Haida artist Robert Davidson hosted an epic two-day celebration commemorating the totem pole he carved here 40 years ago. The pole was raised in the village on August 22, 1969, replanting a vital Haida tradition that had nearly disappeared by the end of the 19th century. It was a privilege and joy to attend the festivities and to participate in documenting them. Here are a few images I captured (please do not reproduce them without permission), though they only begin to suggest the layers of landscape, art and ceremony that were on display.

The many performers included singers, drummers and dancers from Skidegate:
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Spruce-root woven and painted hats filled the community hall:
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The Tsimshian group Git-hoan, or People of the Salmon, were among the guests invited to perform:
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Eagle Transformation Mask, carved by Robert Davidson and danced publicly for the first time by the Rainbow Creek Dancers:
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Robert Davidson’s 40-foot Bear Mother pole (partial view), raised in Old Massett in August 1969:
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Despite devastation from decades of industrial logging, some majestic old trees still stand on Haida Gwaii. (Thanks to the tireless efforts of local advocates and defenders, the land increasingly has come under protection in recent years.) The temperate rain forests are home to towering cedar, hemlock and spruce:
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Along the banks of the Yakoun River, near where K’iid K’iyaas, the legendary Golden Spruce stood until its untimely demise in 1997. Every year the salmon come back to this essential river artery of Haida Gwaii. At least for now.
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Desperate for some digital magic

It seems quite odd at this late date that Damon Darlin thinks serendipity has been lost in the digital deluge of the Internet. In a column in the Sunday Times, Darlin acknowledged that “we’ve gained so much” in the way of information and entertainment. “But we’ve lost something as well,” he says: “the fortunate discovery of something we never knew we wanted to find. In other words, the digital age is stamping out serendipity.”

Huh? When was the last time you went online and didn’t end up encountering things unexpected and interesting?

JamesYangforDarlinNYTDarlin laments what he sees as the fading possibility of perusing friends’ book shelves and CD and video collections in search of new discoveries, with those goodies increasingly obscured inside laptops, iPods and Kindles. It’s a strange line of reasoning to resuscitate, one long ago dispatched by Web thinkers, including author/blogger Steven Johnson three years ago. Back then, was the diminishing use of libraries as engines of discovery something to mourn?

“I find vastly more weird, unplanned stuff online than I ever did browsing the stacks as a grad student,” Johnson wrote in May 2006. “Browsing the stacks is one of the most overrated and abused examples in the canon of things-we-used-to-do-that-were-so-much-better. (I love the whole idea of pulling down a book because you like the ‘binding.’) Thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere’s exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture.”

Darlin’s loss-of-serendipity riff is akin to one that pops up regularly among those warning about the extinction of newsprint. If you’re getting all of your news online, the argument goes, you’ll be deprived of stumbling across a cool story inside those oversized inky pages, one that you might not otherwise ever read.

I still enjoy the ritual of immersing in the Sunday paper to which Darlin contributes, and I usually find interesting stuff in it to soak up, some of it even unexpected. But the fact is, that kind of fortunate discovery happens about a bazillion times more often in the digital realm. As Johnson also wrote:

I read regularly about 20 different blogs or other filters, and each day through them I’m exposed to literally hundreds of articles and clips and conversations and songs and parodies that I had no idea about when I woke up that morning. Many of them I just skim over, but invariably a handful of them will send me off on some crazy expedition from site to site, ushered along with the help of other bloggers, Google, del.icio.us, wikipedia, etc. I’m constantly stumbling across random things online that make me think: what is the deal with that anyway? And then an hour later, I’m thinking: how did I get here? I can’t tell you how many ideas that eventually made it into published books and articles of mine began with that kind of unexpected online encounter.

The big challenge these days seems to be figuring out how to better handle the fire hose of content flow. It can indeed be frustratingly easy to forget what you set out for in the first place, to get lost down the endless digital byways. (Hah — how, exactly, did you end up here?) Yet, whatever nostalgia aside, when it comes to print vs. digital (or albums vs. iTunes, etc.), I don’t think we’re facing a zero-sum equation.

On unsettling ground in Israel

Even after working for years with several deeply knowledgeable, insightful writers to cover the morass known as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, perhaps the only thing that’s really clear to me right now is this: It is ever atop the list of the world’s most daunting problems. And while no problem is more fraught with righteousness and political posturing (on all sides), at the heart of it is the long-running battle over facts on the ground. Sometimes that battle is more open, sometimes it is more clandestine — but always the struggle for the land, that seemingly tiny yet politically enormous sliver of it.

Despite my strong desire to see the region for myself, I’ve not yet had a chance to visit. And that’s one reason why Eric Orner’s recent piece, “The Land Grab out My Front Door: A Memoir of Jerusalem in Pictures,” grabbed my attention.

land grab - orner

In a subject realm where anger and outrage are the norm, Orner’s work is an understated and intimate account of what’s happening on the ground in Jerusalem’s Abu Tor neighborhood, where Orner has been living.

“Israelis call Abu Tor ‘mixed’, meaning both Arabs & Jews live here,” he writes. “This doesn’t really capture the reality of the place, though. Well-off Jewish American ex-pats live in fancy condos at the top of the hill… while Arab families live further down the street as it makes a twisty descent towards the valley floor…”

He goes on to depict what appear to be dubious actions by Israeli authorities to demolish an Arab community that apparently stands in the way of developing “an archeological theme park” in a coveted part of Old Jerusalem. Such a development, Orner notes, is likely to draw lots more “Euro-Yankee tourist Shequels.” (Not to mention what it would add in terms of Israel-favorable facts on the ground.)

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Check out the whole piece (at the above link), both visually engaging and eye-opening.

Meantime, while there seem to be some hopeful signs of progress for Palestinians in the West Bank these days, according to a report from the Times’ Isabel Kershner, few people believe that the right-wing government of Bibi Netanyahu is sincere when it comes to the Israeli prime minister’s recent talk of peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has been under pressure from the Obama administration, particularly on the issue of Israeli settlements.

But as Kershner reports, “even senior officials and prominent figures of his conservative Likud Party have been busy explaining, privately and publicly, why they think there is not likely to be a Palestinian state any time soon, in ways that raise even more questions about the current government’s commitment to reaching a final peace accord. And Mr. Netanyahu’s diplomatic turnaround was greeted by a notable silence among the Likud firebrands and hawks, widely interpreted here as a sign that they feel they have nothing to fear.”

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Netanyahu claimed this week that Jerusalem is an “open city” that permits all its inhabitants, Jewish and Palestinian, to purchase homes in both its eastern and western parts. “An examination by Haaretz, however, presented a rather different situation on the ground,” reports the paper, under the headline “Most Arabs can’t buy most homes in West Jerusalem.”

Haaretz also reports: “Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said Tuesday that Israel had an ‘indisputable’ right to build anywhere in Jerusalem, including East Jerusalem, following international calls on Israel to halt construction in the disputed area.”

The political picture apparently has grown tense enough that a senior aide to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany — whose country usually displays staunch support for Israel — commented in a German publication that if the settlement building does not stop, Israel is running the risk of “gradually committing suicide as a democratic state.”

Dave Eggers, Peter Orner and more

I’m at work on a couple of freelance projects that will soon take me back to the great northwest. More bits here in a couple of days; in the meantime, I must recommend a visit to The Rumpus, a great online culture mag launched a few months back in San Francisco.

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It’s got entertaining and informative and sexy stuff of all sorts. (Disclosure: A few of my posts have also been published there.) Editor Stephen Elliott recently interviewed Dave Eggers, who has a forthcoming nonfiction book, “Zeitoun,” about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as seen through the eyes of a Muslim-American family in New Orleans. I was struck by Eggers’ comments about his collaborative (and exhaustive) approach to the project:

With a book like this, I think you get the most accuracy when you involve your subjects as much as possible. I think I sent the manuscript to the Zeitouns for six or seven reads. They caught little inaccuracies each time. They have to live with the book, of course, as much as I do, so I needed their approval. With What Is the What and with this book, I consider the book as much theirs as mine. So they were intimately involved in every step, as were their extended families. We had many months to get everyone’s approval over everything, to make sure it was accurate.

Eggers recommends an edition of the Quran to read, discusses why he’s optimistic about print in the digital age (“Do we all want to look at screens from 8am to 10pm? There’s room in the world for both online and paper”) and describes some intriguing plans for McSweeney’s to put out a newspaper.

thelonelyvoiceAbsolutely also check out Peter Orner’s new column, “The Lonely Voice.” His appreciative ruminations on the art of the short story are as engaging and illuminating as any literary writing you’ll find online. (Or in print, for that matter.) Not to be missed.

Daphne Merkin’s literary depression

There is a peculiar quality to “A Journey Through Darkness,” Daphne Merkin’s memoir of chronic depression published this week in the Times Magazine. Her intimate account of lifelong struggle with the disease, centered on her latest stint in a Manhattan psychiatric facility in 2008, evokes the perspective of a highly intelligent, sensitive, deeply troubled soul. Even if the trappings are familiar from numerous other written explorations of the subject, her story seems to shed light on the dark terrain of mental illness by way of an intense personal account.

But an intriguing question sits at the margins: Who, exactly, is telling this story?

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Merkin is a skilled writer with a clear command of technique. Memory has been and always will be a writer’s imperfect tool. But something about her in-depth reflection feels a little too… artful. It begins and ends with the bright imagery of ocean beaches, neatly bookending the tale of her latest debilitating episode. There is elevated language and metaphor all over the place. “Soggy as my brain is from being wrenched off a slew of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications in the last 10 days, I reach for a Coleridgian suspension of disbelief, ignoring the roar of traffic and summoning up the sound of breaking waves,” she writes of an attempt at mental escape from the hospital grounds.

And: “Depression — the thick black paste of it, the muck of bleakness — was nothing new to me.”

And: “When I was awake (the few hours that I was), I felt a kind of lethal fatigue, as if I were swimming through tar.”

And: “I felt as if I were being wished bon voyage over and over again, perennially about to leave on a trip that never happened.”

And: “In truth there was more uncharted time than not, especially for the depressives — great swaths of white space that wrapped themselves around the day, creating an undertow of lassitude.”

As with that last flourish, there are other assertions of truth telling. Which is not to say her story is untruthful.

Merkin has in the past written publicly about her experience with depression, and to her credit here she points at a vexing problem of distinction — it’s almost as if she’s questioning her own reliability as narrator:

Whatever fantasies I once harbored about the haven-like possibilities of a psychiatric facility or the promise of a definitive, once-and-for-all cure were shattered by my last stay 15 years earlier. I had written about the experience, musing on the gap between the alternately idealized and diabolical image of mental hospitals versus the more banal bureaucratic reality. I discussed the continued stigma attached to going public with the experience of depression, but all this had been expressed by the writer in me rather than the patient, and it seemed to me that part of the appeal of the article was the impression it gave that my hospital days were behind me. It would be a betrayal of my literary persona, if nothing else, to go back into a psychiatric unit.

Certainly a writer aims to convey an experience as vividly as possible. Merkin’s work gives the sense she is deeply invested in sorting out her experience, both for herself and for her audience. (Having that audience, as she seems to know, could be a particularly complicating factor.) Yet as carefully constructed as it is, something about her story feels distinctly blurred.

Maybe it’s of a piece with a vexing question about the treatment of mental illness, one I’ve often puzzled over when concerned for people I know who are afflicted: Where, exactly, is the line between the physical and the psychological?

In that respect Merkin’s deliberate prose does little to help us out of the dark.

Seeing Obama’s burden, the drug war and more

Even in the loquacious realm known as the blogosphere, it is possible at times to lack words. Or to feel that there are simply too many of them. Either way, Daryl Cagle’s Political Cartoonists Index offers a pleasing alternative. Here are three recent entries that caught my eye.

Hajo (Amsterdam), on President Obama’s economic travails:

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John Cole (Scranton, PA), peering into journalism’s truncated future:

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Pat Bagley (Salt Lake City), a potent take on the Mexican-American drug war:

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