The Crop

At some point in the late 1980s my father came home with a painting by Paul Delvaux. He’d never really been into Surrealist art. On the contrary, at the time he was collecting work by Photorealists, a painting style that at first glance emulates the gloss and shine familiar from photographs, and relies on ultra-realism to make its point. But this painting fascinated him. Simply entitled Tête de Femme, it was a beautiful face of a woman, her shoulders rising and suggesting that her arms are aloft, like so many other women in Delvaux’s paintings. It’s smaller than most of Delvaux’s work, who used to paint relatively large canvases. There’s a reason it’s smaller.

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Apparently he was unhappy with the painting, or at least the direction it was going. Delvaux cropped the head out of the canvas, and discarded everything else. I have always wondered what else there was. I’ve seen plenty of Delvaux’s work since, but the light on the face is unlike any of his other work. It’s not a painting he attempted again, nor are there any pencil sketches or water-colours of a related motif. Because Delvaux was a Surrealist, almost anything could have been happening right beyond that frame. It lit up my imagination, but the lack of information also frustrated me. I wanted to see the rest of the painting!

So when I began to reduce my own work down to various crops that held my attention, I realized that some of the images might be visually compelling, but I feared they would become meaningless without context. At the same time, I found a conflict between the elements I found visually compelling, and the narrative. The story told by the image may be interesting, but sometimes the beauty is in the smaller details.

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The image above is one of two Paolo and Francesca pieces. The original image I created around the two lovers was very tall, the two of them laying spent at the bottom of a tall frame with soft fabrics rising high up into the darkness. But the two of them seemed lost in it, and it didn’t tell the story. It is hard to depict the trance two lovers enter into after they consummate real love with deep lust. So the image was cut down to leave only the lovers, impossibly folded into one another after they had exhausted themselves. I found their hands beautiful, they said so much about the moment, but after cropping two reduced little frames I felt there was nothing left to connect them to the story I had set out to tell. They had no context. I decided to retain parts of the image, but to present them differently. You can read about the physical production in my previous post.

Two nights ago I was sitting with my creative assistant Lars Theuerkauff, we were arguing over whether crops without context work, whether they sufficiently communicate the intended moment. He felt strongly they did, but I told him that context is key. If we know the image, then a visual abbreviation is all we need. We can mentally reduce an image to its visual shorthand (pun intended!) if we know what happens around it. Ironically enough, the Taverna we were sitting in near Kollwitz Platz in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg had this poster hanging from a cross-beam above the entrance:

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But Lars made another valid point. As beautiful as Baroque religious art may be, most of it was illustrative in nature. Its goal was to tell a story to people who couldn’t read, not to communicate a feeling exchanged in a moment. Those paintings rarely elicited a sense of beauty and recognition within the eye of the beholder, but told a story while imbuing their viewers with a sense of awe. My goals are lot more earthly and simple.

…and sometimes, you simply can’t trust a crop.

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The Easy Life

We have all heard about the casual easy life that artists get to live. Get up at noon, have a long breakfast while re-reading Infinite Jest, then meander over to the studio. Late night work with nude models, organic cigarettes and art-house dub-step…

Yeah, not really.

If you’re serious about being an artist you have to pay attention to the details, and push yourself out into the world. This notion that an artist toils away in a rarefied world of exquisite isolation is a wonderful idea, but it doesn’t work. No one is going to just discover you one day, then lift you out of obscurity. Those days are over, and I’m not sure that ever really actually happened. Unfortunately no one is going to do this work for you, so you have to do it yourself. It is a LOT of work to stay in touch with people in your network, to let people know what you’re working on, and to present your work at the appropriate time in the best venue.

Being an artist isn’t just making wonderfully creative work. The hard part is often the execution. If you paint you better have clean brushes, stretched canvases, and access to good framing. You need your tools to make art, and to present it. The same is true in every other discipline. As a photographic artist, I need my gear to be ready. But the most time-consuming work is printing. It takes inordinate amounts of time to find the right paper, to profile it correctly, and then to fine-tune the images until they look they way you envisioned them.

Preparing the Hanjo book right now is even more difficult, because it is a collaboration between several craftspeople. The printer is helping me evaluate different papers and the way the ink penetrates the surface of the hand-made paper. The carpenter is building the very detailed and exquisite boxes, silk screens are applied to the outside, and a book-binder is assembling the leporellos. The graphic lay-out requires fine-tuning, and the business around it needs to be put in place. Display stand, limited edition certificates, and shipping crates are all being made to get everything to Japan in time for Tokyo Photo 2013. Unfortunately none of these people are even in the same city, so everything needs to be shipped back and forth, or picked up and driven half-way across Brandenburg, before it can get on a plane to Asia.

All of this has me pretty frazzled and stressed. This is how I felt yesterday afternoon…

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But I’m not complaining loudly. It’s being managed by my publisher at Galerie Vevais, I’m just high strung and hyper nervous.  And honestly…? This is the good stuff. This is what it means to be an artist in this genre. Yes, we love to create images, to sketch out new ideas, or to pin mood boards to Pinterest. It’s the emergence of the image from a great data file into the physical world that lifts it into a new realm. I envy my friends who shoot Polaroids or Collodions… they end up with a piece of art much faster.

Artists in Love

Summer reading recommendation: Artists in Love by Veronica Kavass. A marvelous photo art book with a few pages on thirty different artist couples.

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Relationships are about interlocking personalities, and few personalities are as exposed as those of artists. The work that is created is powerfully personal because it is a manifestation of that particular psyche, and the experiences that make up a personality.

I believe every artist wishes his life partner was a fellow artist. It gives a second vocabulary through which to communicate, another way of being in this world with someone who understands you, who can push you, forgive you, inspire you… and to continue the call-and-response that makes the early years of love so compelling.

Confluence

I’ve recently read a number of books by Joseph Campbell, as well as Douglas Rushkoff. They’re very different writers, but both comment on society. Campbell explores the common symbols of Western religions, and reinterprets them in the context of world mythology. He is a historian, and focuses on comparative religions. One of the things he stresses is that modern humanity needs new myths. The old ones served as guiding stories, to give a sense of what is right, and to provide a map as men go through their rites of passage. What is missing today are these rites, the opportunity to become a man in our modern culture. The common religious rites have been watered down to become meaningless rituals that show obedience, but they do not offer a test. So the stories that were in many ways a guide have no relevance any longer. Campbell argues we need new myths, new stories in a global time. The minute we landed on the moon and could see the whole earth was the time when it became clear the old stories were no longer relevant.

On the other hand, Rushkoff points out that we live in a post-narrative society. There are almost no stories anymore, and the way we consume media is untethered from traditional story arcs. Reality TV or video games, snippets on Vimeo and endless-scrolling FB Timelines have removed stories from our regular lives. When we watch a show and the plot becomes too threatening or boring or emotionally complex viewers switch to another program or device. Our politics is made for people who won’t want to follow the whole thread, they want the soundbite and then move on.

Both writers have affected the way my newest project is unfolding. When I began the Sacred & the Profane a year ago, it was very much about exploring the literal interpretations of Judeo-Christian stories, but Campbell summarized my discontent. Rushkoff makes me realize how meaningless yet another photographic image has become in a time of Tumblr and Pinterest in terms of telling a story. The project has taken a turn to the more abstract, but also to a larger scale. It will include a lot of images, and the physical presentation of the most important images will go beyond a simple edition print.

Stay tuned…

 

Observations from an Exhibition

Milan Image Art Fair, known as MIA, just ended. I was featured as a Proposed Artist, and showed my Hopper’s American series.The fair has a unique format. There’s about one hundred booths, of which ninety are set up by galleries from around Europe. The kicker is that each booth may only showcase one artist. Those galleries who want to represent more than one artists arrange for multiple connecting booths. The remaining ten booths are granted to artists who are selected from a large number of submissions, and I was chosen early last year, before I had gallery representation. Between my selection and this recent show I found representation by CAMERA WORK, one of the top ten Photo Art galleries in the World. I discussed the opportunity with my gallery here, and ordinarily a represented artist does not host his own booth at a fair, but they felt it would be a good experience for me to go. Though I’ve been to many fairs as a buyer, fan, artist, and general aficionado, it is a different ball of wax entirely to experience that part of the art world first hand.

It’s not easy. The hardest part is standing there for eleven hours a day, talking about my own art. Most of the people don’t realize they’re talking to the artist directly, and the comments and questions run the gamut. My work is very good, and I got a lot of compliments. Many of the people who attend photo art fairs really know the genre, and it was great to hear so much validation. The nicest moment of course is being bought by someone who really understands my particular style. To be added to a collection by a collector who has Gregory Crewdson, Cindy Sherman and Sandy Skoglund is a huge compliment.

More frustrating are the large huge number of hobby photographers who come to these fairs and want to talk endlessly about camera gear. They will bore you into the ground with questions about lenses, paper, and post-production issues, with virtually no interest in the artwork itself. But I’m professional enough, and can keep smiling and answer all questions.

Equally frustrating are the people who want to talk about naked models, without realizing that my work means something to me, that it’s more than just pretty pictures. The Hopper series is important to me, and all my work has happened in some personal way, whether it is obvious or not: The Hoppers documented a major change for me… I had a third son, we had moved from Los Angeles to Berlin, and most of all I was dedicating myself to this form of art. The images I created were about that moment just before or after something happened, with uncertainty over whether it was a good thing, or a bad thing. The images are melancholic and dramatic, because that is how I was feeling at the time. And as always, I use the language of fashion photography on purpose: it breaks down the image filter that modern people have acquired. So when occasional booth visitors dismisses the images as just “pictures of hot chicks” they completely miss the point of my work.

Of course there were also critical comments. Some of these had merit, and came from people who really understand photography. They focused on the complexity of the process, and the nature of the image. One I liked was a visitor who confided in me that he’d seen the artist’s newer work, and that it was even better than this older series. Others showed me elements of my work that I had never fully considered before, and that will flow directly into the newest series. A few told me in quite diplomatic but articulate ways why they dislike my style. It’s a matter of taste, and I respect their choices. But some of the criticism was quite off-center and tangential. Fortunately I’m a grown-up, and have honed my thick skin through online communities and other forums. But let’s just say that the hundreds of people who show up to a Photo ART Show with fully packed camera gear bags are not going to be talking about art and feelings.

The real reason to go is to connect with new galleries, publications, and collection advisors, and to build a list of people who are genuinely interested in my work. This part of the mission was highly successful. There were many galleries who came by to speak to me, or took me over to their booth to discuss their approach to art. But many of them don’t have the scale that I’m looking for. Simply put, I am very committed to my path as an artist, and I want to work with galleries that are equally serious about their business. But there were three galleries on my list before going to Milan, and all three conversations went very well. I expect a few interesting shows in the next eighteen months.

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I will say this… I am extremely grateful to a huge team of people that I work with. I know I made a major impact at this show. Call it hyper-confidence, but my work was some of the very best on show. I mean that in terms of creative content, execution, and technical efforts. Everything from my printing and framing, to materials, and of course the images themselves. I am coming home more sure of myself and my art than ever before. Call it pompous, but I like where my work is going, and those who know me will tell you that I spend plenty of time wrestling with my demons and self-confidence.

See you at Photo Tokyo in September  😉

Interview – Stilbruch – German TV

One of Germany’s better cultural round-up programs is Berlin’s Stilbruch, an excellent weekly show that reports on cultural events going on in town and around the city. I was invited to provide context and offer differentiation between pornography vis-a-vis fine art nude imagery as part of Berlin’s Museum für Fotografie‘s new exhibition Die Nackte Wahrheit / The Naked Truth.
Be warned. It’s about nude photography in the early days. And it’s in German. And they used a funny walking sequence of me for some reason at the very end.

Here’s the museum’s blurb on the show:

At the dawn of the last century, photographs of nudes could be found everywhere. The exhibition ‘The Naked Truth and More Besides’ presents the astonishing diversity of photographic depictions of the disrobed human body that existed around this time. It was an age in which the foundations were laid for the development in the public domain of an extremely varied type of image, which, more than any other, continues to inform the world in which we live today.

Most striking of all, the photographic nude appeared as a reproducible medium – on postcards, cigarette cards, posters, in magazines and in advertising, as inspiration for artists and an incentive for sportsmen, as instructional material, and as collector’s items. From the vast array of material, it is possible to identify several distinct groups that fall under such headings as: the mass produced, visual pleasures (arcadias, eroticism, and pornography), the body in the eye of science (ethnography, motion-study photography, medicine), the cult of the body (reform movements – especially in German-speaking countries – naturism, ‘Free Body Culture’, and staged nudes from the world of sport and variety shows), and, of course, the nude in the artistic context (art academies and the Pictorialist tradition of fine-art prints). The most important characteristic of the image of naked people during this time is the inseparability of nude photographic production and reproduction.

The trade or exchange in nude photographs was widespread across the whole of Europe. This is reflected in today’s exhibition, which not only features many treasures and rare finds from the Kunstbibliothek’s own Collection of Photography, but also includes important loans from several European institutions, ranging from the Bibliothèque nationale de France to the Police Museum of Lower Saxony.

MIA – Milan Image Art Fair

MIA, Milan’s Image Art Fair has become one of the major art fairs focusing on photography. It has a wonderfully elegant approach that is quintessentially Milanese. There are 100 booths, and each gallery may only show one artist per booth. If they want to feature more than one of their artists at MIA, they need to apply for a second booth.

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A small number of booths are reserved for featured artists that are selected from a very large pool, and I have been selected to show my work in one of those eight booths. Please come and visit me, either to buy one of my Hopper’s American series that I’ll be showing there, or simply to chat.

Private Preview is on the 9th, let me know if you are interested in tickets, I have a few left for collectors and those serious about photographic art.

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The Feminine Magic

Some insight into my current thought process… It’s not clear, so I am trying to parse it out here, and will hopefully elicit some dialog.

I have been reading a lot of Joseph Campbell, and find myself softening ever so slightly on the total disdain I have for religion. To some degree I have always given a lot of people a pass. I understand that Ritual gives people a chance to participate. It also perpetuates a culture, which isn’t always a bad thing. The self-righteous Yoga-Vegans fill their own lives with rituals, which lose their meaning for those who inherit or assume these rituals, but didn’t create them. This is how “organized” religions are ultimately born. Take the laws of Halal or Kasher – they sanctify an action. They remind a person that they make a choice, and that raises them above animals. But it also separates them. At its highest form, that is no different than the smugness felt by the modern shopper leaving a Bio-Organic supermarket. But a choice has to be conscious; the minute you follow rules and rituals blindly they become meaningless, and only benefit the system, not the person.

Religion is filled with stories of heroes, prophets, apostles, and saints. In many ways, people need myths and heroes to describe the magic they invariably feel in their life. But more importantly, myths illustrate the moments of our lives that move us through our changes.

The saints, the apostles, the prophets, the kings… the stories should serve as metaphors. They aren’t literal, but they are true – True in the sense that they reflect back to us feelings that we might encounter as well.

Those feelings – the love, the fear, the anger, the lust – that is where the Divine lies, that is where we become Gods. It is as much in the virtues as in the sins. And the great stories tell those moments, and challenge us to see ourselves in those stories.

So how does that come up in my work?

I’ve photographed women and nudes for a long time. I have had a fascination with the Feminine for years. But I am not interested in just taking pictures of hot naked chicks. I find that absolutely mind-numbingly boring, and the pages of large Taschen books, not to mention the internet, are full of quasi-artistic images which purport to celebrate goddesses and muses. They don’t. They’re just erotica. If I create an image like that, there must be a reason, a place it comes from.

I have been reading the stories of St Agatha, or St Catherine, or St Barbara, or any of the other female saints who were martyred for not submitting to a man in the way he wanted. The story is always the same… A man wants something from the woman, but she refuses. In his anger, he decides to hurt and destroy her. This two thousand year old story is no different than the man spraying acid in the face of a girl in Afghanistan for not marrying him. In the beatific saint stories the woman was always saving herself for Christ, of course. But that is just religion repurposing human tragedy to suit its own narrative.

These stories were tools for establishing the patriarchy in the early monotheistic days. Humanity began losing its magic then, as a very male form of society began taking hold. A religious/societal rule-set created for governance, for expansion, for reinforcement and confinement. It sought to replace the irrational, the inexplicable, the magical, much of what was feminine in nature. We lost our Goddesses then… Astarte, Ishtar, and all the others… relegated to martyred or motherly roles, or entirely re-envisioned as the embodiment of evil and the arbiter of original sin. But magic persisted will into the Renaissance and beyond. Anna Göldin was decapitated for witchcraft near Zurich in 1782, an era when brighter minds were already deep into the Age of Reason. Enlightenment, with its rigor around debate, and study, and evidence, did not defeat religion. If anything, it is the second version of a patriarchal system. It remains a male way of looking at the world, and if anything, has taken us even further from the Feminine. I scoff at religion as mindless superstition, but it occurs to me now that Reason and Enlightenment – though less superstitious and more egalitarian – does nothing to return us there.

I’ll grant that every little bit helps. Maybe those pictures of wannabe soft-core porn and beautiful erotica help restore some femininity into a massively male world, however coincidentally and circumstantially. And maybe life freed from patriarchal religion allows us to sneak the Feminine back into our interactions, into our perceptions, into our lives.

All this makes me want to tell myths, not tear away at the stories of others. It makes me want to bring the Feminine further into my work. Yet my resentment for religion, my disdain for its current popular form remains. The Gods did not make us in their image… we made them in ours. And it is time to make Gods and Goddesses that fit our time. Heroes that illustrate our stories. Saints that give our sacrifices a contemporary context.

I can’t stop right now, and I feel a little out of control. I want to consume information at a pace that is unrealistic, like over-eating knowledge. I’m gorging on books and wikis and video lectures, and I can’t seem to find a way to stir all of it into my images. My “Sacred and Profane” project seems to be changing into something entirely more complex than I set out to accomplish initially, and I am quickly accepting that the overall series may show these thoughts, but I can’t expect every single image to cover every aspect.

…and I need to stop gorging. Because when I get this way, I don’t only over-consume knowledge, i over-eat, too. One part of me says “Fuck It, it doesn’t matter if you’re a little heavier, you’re a Man not a boy…” but then my internal photographer and aesthete walks past a mirror… and is mortified. So keep the Amazon boxes coming, but chill on the Turkish food deliveries. And keep an eye open for Saints and Goddesses.

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One of my many attempts at Goddess… Here the Venus of Willendorf. For more information please visit my website and see the Forest Project.

Criticize Religion

What is wrong with inciting intense dislike of a religion if the activities or teachings of that religion are so outrageous, irrational or abusive of human rights that they deserve to be intensely disliked? To criticize a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous, but to criticize their religion, that is a right. That is a freedom. The freedom to criticize ideas, any ideas – even if they are sincerely held beliefs – is one of the fundamental freedoms of society. A law which attempts to say you can criticize and ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed.

Rowan Atkinson

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An image I shot a few years ago in Los Angeles.

Art will remain

Archaeologists have not yet discovered any stage of human existence without art. Even in the half-light before the dawn of humanity we received this gift from Hands we did not manage to discern. Nor have we managed to ask: Why was this gift given to us and what are we to do with it? And all those prophets who are predicting that art is disintegrating, that it has used up all its forms, that it is dying, are mistaken. We are the ones who shall die. And art will remain. The question is whether before we perish we shall understand all its aspects and all its ends.

Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, Beauty Will Save the World

Tumblr Mixtapes

I remember in the 1980s I’d make Mixtapes for girls I had a crush on. Sometimes I even delivered them to the girl I had in mind. I don’t remember that ever working out they way I had hoped. Sometimes I made tapes that reinforced a feeling I had. Music to be angry to. And of course, a lot of melancholy.

I believe the power is shifting from the content creators to the curators. Whole genres of music are no longer about the band, it’s about the label or the DJ. And when I look at certain Tumblrs, I wonder if they’re a love letter to someone. Or a wish. Or hate mail.

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… an image I shot many years ago.

Photography is not that easy

“Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do” said Edgar Degas.

Degas’ insight is just as easily applicable to photography. Cameras have become ubiquitous over the last few years, as have endless little applications or plug-ins that make it easy to create images that look like expired polaroids, or older Medium Format cameras with light leaks, or any other myriad of effects that became highly fashionable on the social networks. People with creative streaks thought the leap to fine art was a few clicks away, and the visual social media platforms – from Instangram to Tumblr – began filling with artsy Hipstamatic photos.

But as much as I like to complain about some of the extremely wanky conceptual photography that I’ve seen in art schools and even on the walls of certain galleries at Paris Photo or MIA Milan Image Art Fair, I must point out that the fine art photo world still places a premium on craft. The images that truly succeed are executed with very high skill, and must deliver context (and concept!) while still being well shot. Planning an image, shooting it, and then processing it in the dark room or retouching it digitally requires attention to detail.

At this point I’d love the show you some of my new work, which I’m pretty proud of, but I am holding back until I premiere the project in the appropriate environment. I’m proud of the images, and what my team has been able to put together.

Soon.  In the mean time, here is a new version of an image I’ve shown before.  🙂

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Brunhilde beobachtet Günther, an image from my new Series “The Sacred and the Profane”.

72 Objects

This is one of the many great pieces that Marina Abramovic has created. In 1974, seventy-two objects (including a gun and a bullet) were laid out on a table for the spectators to use on the artist in any way they chose to use them.

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“Abramovic is no stranger to giving much of herself to her work, to her spectators and to performance art as a whole, sometimes even putting her body in extreme danger.” 

In the course of the performance, Abramovic’s shirt was ripped off and a rose stuck into her chest by its thorns. Despite a signed document releasing the public of any accountability in the event of injury, the performance was cut short when police were called because a loaded gun was aimed at her head.

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“The experience I learned was that…if you leave the decision to the public, you can be killed… I felt really violated; they cut my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the public. Everyone ran away, escaping an actual confrontation.” —M. A.

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…now think about how people conduct themselves when they have the anonymity of the internet to shield them from interaction with the other person, and from facing actual personal repercussions.

Story Teller

Fine art photography works best when it starts a story. An image doesn’t have to tell the whole story, but as a kick-off point few things can beat an interesting picture. Obviously this is what we expect of documentary-style photography, but it is even more acute when creating narrative images from nothing.

One thing I have learned about my style of photography is that it requires a personality. It is impossible for us to be small and grey, because we have to work with so many people to create the image.

Take a look at this wonderful video about Eleanor Antin and her recent series Inventing Histories, and you can see how much fun she is. Of course as an artist working in this particular medium you have to be deliberate, you have to know exactly what you want, and leave just enough to photographic coincidence to allow for magic.

The same holds true for Gregory Crewdson. In spite of the melancholy and pensive images that he creates, Gregory is a gregarious and generous person. On set all of us get a little bit more tense (and intense) than at other times, but working with a large team still requires the leader of this creative endeavor to hold it all together, to get people to do what needs to be done, and to stay creative throughout it.

Erwin Olaf may not seem unusually charming in this particular video, but I think it’s important to see how hands-on we have to be to get the shot. You have to do all of it… fine-tune the set, perfect the clothes, set the perfect final angle of every light. But where we obviously agree the most is our complete disdain for television and the obvious emotion, and our respect and homage to the great painters.

To create photographic images this way is a lot like painting. Every item must be justified, and then placed perfectly. Why is there a telephone in the picture? And is that the perfect spot for it? But unlike paintings, you can’t really paint over it afterward.

Antin references the Neo-Classicists, Crewdson told me he got a lot from Edward Hopper (I know that feeling!) and Olaf emulates Vermeer and probably the whole slew of other Dutch painters that used soft light so marvelously.

The other artist who draws a lot of inspiration from painters is David LaChapelle. I will admit that he is the exception to my observation that it requires huge personalities… Those of use who know him or have met him understand why that is.

I bring him up to make a final point: we all try to make beautiful images. If you have a deep understanding of the painters that came before you, and you’re going to create images out of nothing, you can bet that they will use Beauty as a key weapon in its visual arsenal. I have written about ugliness in contemporary photography before. I find it to be an admission of creative bankruptcy.

International Art English

Being an artist is something I’ve returned to. I studied photography via photo-journalism, but after finishing university I focused on business. For a couple of years I was selling syndicated television shows and advertisement in New York. I left the City and returned to Berlin within weeks of the wall coming down, and worked with my father developing office properties during the day, while building my own business at night. D’Vision Records was a techno label, and it was one of the great and important experiences of my life to live through two parallel booms simultaneously. During those first years of unification real estate exploded in Berlin, while the city also became the epicenter of music and everything that came with it.

I’m not going to go on with an autobiography here, suffice it to say that I moved to California after a while and built some very exciting software companies in the course of my thirteen years there, which gave me the chance to experience yet another boom first-hand. When I moved back to Europe in 2007 it was because I had taken over a hotel refurbishment, briefly putting me back into my real estate mode.

The reason I point all of this out is because every business comes with its own distinct jargon. There is a certain lingua franca to every industry. It serves as a certain shorthand for concepts that are well established and don’t need to be reiterated at every point in the conversation. But honestly, a lot of language helps define a community, and acquiring the proper vocabulary is a rite of passage amongst younger people entering their particular world. Bright eyes filled with eager hope will parrot back words that barely make sense to anyone outside of the anointed circle. As you get older you take more pride in finding commonalities and analogies between practices, and then of course there is the smarmy self-confidence of business school graduates who force a language of their own on everything because in their mind, business is just business. Who needs details and experience if you can describe the template?

But no language is weirder, more insular, and as contrived as International Art English. Just read the artist statements in galleries, and you will quickly see what I mean.

Read the User’s Guide to Art English in the Guardian, which summarizes a study conducted by David Levine and Alix Rule. It’s fabulous. They conducted an investigation into thousands of artist’s statements and published their report on Triple Canopy. They call IAE “a unique language” that has “everything to do with English, but is emphatically not English. It’s oddly pornographic: we know it when we see it.”

The Guardian cites a great example. I’ll skip the artist and gallery’s name because I know neither, and don’t want to disrespect work I’ve never seen simply because some eager Gallerina wrote up a text to impress her fellow art-school alumni, but the article describes the work, and then cites the statement in full International Art English:

[The work is a] dozen small pink skulls in glass cases face the door. A dozen small bronze mirrors, blandly framed but precisely arranged, wink from the walls. In the deep, quiet space of the London gallery, shut away from Mayfair’s millionaire traffic jams, all is minimal, tasteful and oddly calming.

Until you read the exhibition hand-out. “The artist brings the viewer face to face with their own preconceived hierarchy of cultural values and assumptions of artistic worth,” it says. “Each mirror imaginatively propels its viewer forward into the seemingly infinite progression of possible reproductions that the artist’s practice engenders, whilst simultaneously pulling them backwards in a quest for the ‘original’ source or referent that underlines [her] oeuvre.”

Awesome. Mission accomplished … and that wasn’t even that bad or incomprehensible. Nonetheless the general audience feels stupid, while insiders can use the same language to reference work by other artists, thus eliminating the need to interface with the work on hand. It’s wanky, it’s called playing to the curator, and is a prime example of how language can be exclusionary.

Art needs language, as much as we want to insist that it should speak for itself. It is rarely given that opportunity. And invariably it will require esoteric terminology, and words that are shorthand for entire concepts. I understand that this is easier to do in hindsight, and careers or whole movements are clearer than individual pieces or series. It’s been only a week since I asked for help defining my particular style of narrative photography. There is a need to express what we do as artists. But there is no need to veer into deep bullshit. And believe me, I’ve seen worse. I read an artist’s press release recently that was describing the work to be shown in Miami while Art Basel’s Miami fair was going on. It sounded like a compilation of Scrabble winners served over a bed of Hollywood dot-com blather… No, I’m not gonna link to it.

But… if you’d like to have some fun, here’s a link to Arty Bollocks, a site that will generate a statement if you’re having a tough time writing your own. And just to “keep it real” I’ll link to one of my own wankier concepts.

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Caravaggisti

I am a fan of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. I have been since my first tastes of art history in boarding school, but as a photographer it has taken me many years to get to a point where it was clear how I would approach this subject matter. It is a challenge on so many levels. There is the technical aspect of dealing with darkness and how to transition out of the backgrounds into the subjects. There is the need to build minimal sets that provide a setting, but don’t dominate the image. His work was always about the characters, rarely about the setting itself. Casting has to be right, the poses need to be deliberate, and then finally – and most importantly – there is a fine line that must be crossed again and again between beauty and content. If you are going to play with Renaissance light, then you also need to tell stories, and they must be beautifully told.

Caravaggio’s narrative and dark style attracted many artists. Unlike other painters at the time, he never set up a formal school or studio where artists could apprentice. Frankly, the man was too busy living the good life. He was attractive, talented, considerably wealthy, popular, and maintained a sultry bad-boy image. He loved hanging out with wealthy patrons as much as the sketchiest fringe members of society. His followers, dubbed the Caravaggisti, were propagators and defendants of their founder’s style, and many were inventors in their own right. Some of his most famous Italian followers include: Artemisia Gentileschi and her father Orazio, Mario Minniti (one of Caravaggio’s former models), and Giovanni Baglione… Caravaggio’s fame spread internationally, and his followers include such personalities as Peter Paul Rubens, Georges de la Tour, Valentin de Boulogne, and Gerard van Honthorst (read The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr!) Spain boasts impressively popular Caravaggisti: Velazquez, Ribalta, Ribera, Murillo, and my other favorite, Francisco de Zurbaran. Many Caravaggisti established and deserve fame and recognition in their own right. One you’ll definitely have heard of is a Dutch painter called Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.

Baglione and Caravaggio got into a really nasty feud. Caravaggio loved the good life, and enjoyed getting into sword fights (and is accused of murder) whereas Baglione was a blow-hard religious painter for whom violence was considered below his station. At some point Caravaggio was accused of circulating some nasty scatological poetry. Actually, rather than defend himself Caravaggio trash-talked Baglione’s work in front of the magistrate, which led straight to jail for Caravaggio… for two weeks.

How did this start? There was a general harsh rivalry between artists at the time. The well-timed put-down was as much appreciated as the witty repartee. Much of it was ultimately good-natured, but Caravaggio and Baglione hated each other. At some point, Caravaggio painted a wonderful image called Love Conquers All. It shows a beautiful boy as Amor, happy with his arrows and a mischievous smile. It became the pride of the patron’s collection, who displayed it proudly…

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But moralists were outraged. The model had previously been featured in a religious work, and there wasn’t sufficient conscience of piety for their taste. Baglione, a conservative painter, created a counter piece… for the brother of Caravaggio’s patron no less, a cardinal! Baglione’s Triumph of Heavenly love over Earthly Love shows the original Amor being slain by Heavenly Love. So much for conquering all.

Heavenly love triumphs over eartlhy love

It didn’t work. If anything, the attempt to humiliate Caravaggio backfired. Baglione’s patron ignored the rivalry, and the Caravaggisti scorned and insulted him. Baglione then created a second painting, nearly identical, but he changed the faceless sinner at bottom left into Caravaggio as the Devil, ostensibly interrupted by Heavenly Love as he was in the middle of sodomistic acts with the young Amor.

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This is what ultimately led to Caravaggio distributing leaflets with tawdry poetry about Baglione, but it was hardly the only example of creative competitiveness. And just because one artist hated another, it was no reason to give up a certain style.

I will show my own work in October 2013, although I’ve already teased out a few work-in-progress images on this blog. For better or for worse the world has become too big for real artistic rivalries, and frankly I respect and admire the few artists out there doing narrative photography.

But one final comment… I live in Berlin, a city known for its art community. We have more writers, musicians, photographers, and painters per capita than any other place in the world. But through a number of very odd circumstances, Berlin also has one of the biggest collections of classical art in the world. We don’t quite have the Louvre, but in terms of numbers, and certainly in important and well-known work, the Gemäldegallerie is one of the top museums in the world.

BUT… the place is empty. No one ever goes. I go all the time, I have an annual pass, and I will just go and wander the big halls for hours by myself. When I read the story that I just repeated here, I realized something… both these paintings are here in Berlin! Hanging next to each other. Here’s a picture I took with my phone yesterday afternoon:

caravaggio and baglione Berlin

Come visit Berlin. And visit the Gemäldegallerie… because the plan is to convert this museum and replace the work with modern art. I’m a realist, I get that Berlin is well-known for contemporary art as well as modernist, surrealist and expressionist work from the early 20th century, and that we need to show the collections the city has. But no new home has been found yet for these classic masters, and chances are they will disappear in storage for years to come.

Long Reads

I love to read, and have always been a fan of long-form journalism. As much as the internet has destroyed the newspaper and magazine business, one positive note is the resurgence of the well-researched article. Unlike a 5-W article (who-what-when-where-and-why?) the longer articles have quite an extensive shelf-life, The topics they can cover in researched detail remains relevant for years to come, and have created a whole new business model. Unfortunately newspapers are no longer printing them… a Pulitzer is still nice, but who has the time or money to pay journalists? Well, the internet provides a world-wide readership for interesting pieces. It’s really good stuff… and perfect for reading on long trips, or before bed.

I have an app on my iPad called Pocket, and there are companion plug-ins that I have installed in my browser. So when I find an article I like, I simply click a button and it gets added to my Pocket app so that I can read it later. The same thing exists for Android tablets of course.

The mothership source for good articles is a website called Arts & Letters Daily. It’s a little on the heady side, but also links to important op-ed pieces and book reviews. Another site is the appropriately-named Longreads, which will pass donations to support some writers. And then there’s Byliner, which is really focused on the new model of long-form journalism. A good place to get started is their Top List of 102 articles.

Remember: reading is hawt.

Anti.Mono.Stereo

I don’t like sharing a studio. I’ve tried that, but to be an artist you need to be an alpha-type person. And two alphas don’t share well, and it’s even worse when one artist is serious about work and the other just wants to smoke pot all day and make a lot of declarations and promises. I know there is that clichée of the lone artist toiling away in a studio somewhere. That may actually be true in the creative phase, but the rest of the time being an artist means being a cultural entrepreneur. As an artist I need to work even harder than a businessman. If I build a business, I can identify a need for my product or service in the marketplace and try to meet that need. But no one needs art. So I have to hustle twice as hard.

Not surprisingly, the artist-as-slacker vision is most convenient to slacker-artists. Berlin is filled with photographers, painters, writers and musicians who spend all night drinking and all afternoon in cafés complaining about the lack of paid work, publishers who don’t “get it” or amateur gallerists. Many believe that working hard is somehow anathema to the arts, and a form of selling out… or at least find themselves overwhelmed by the fun to be had. Read James Coleman’s article “In Berlin, you never have to sleep” to see what I mean.

So I no longer share my studio space, but I am also very busy,  and I need my space for my own work. I have assembled a very talented team, and some of the members will occasionally utilize the space for their own creative efforts. I frequently get asked whether my studio is available for rent, and the answer is an unequivocal NO! But every once in a rare while I will lend my space to a photographic artist who is working hard, has a creative vision for a specific project, and is also a friend.

All of that was just a long preamble. Here’s a video that Tomaso Baldessarini put together to show a portrait project that he has begun. It’s called Anti.Mono.Stereo. I believe he works very hard, and I think his portrait project is interesting. The few images he’s shown look very different than this video, but I believe he is after a certain mood, and is capturing faces devoid of emotions. The face is a person’s most powerful tool in the expression of feeling, in the communication of self, but what does that tool look like when it is not being used?

Tomaso shot this at my studio, and is shooting again in a few weeks. And I’m in the video because I am one of the faces in the project, and that’s why I’m sharing it on my blog. I’ll link to his work again when he’s ready to show the work in a proper gallery.

 

 

Academic Art

I have been involved in a master class for photographic artists for some time now, but have decided to terminate my involvement. I must admit I find the conversations very interesting, and I really love the focused dialog between artists that really doesn’t happen in every day life. You need to seek out people working in the same medium, but that alone is not enough. They need to be mentally in the same state, and regular weekend retreats enable that. Even artists have days when they have to do their taxes, take the kids to the dentist and test out new gear… so not all days allow for the freedom of mind to drill into the importance of the work.

But the academic art world, and especially the specialized world of fine art photography coming out of the art schools, tends to be extremely fixated on its own belly button. The last weekend was a combined class with graduates from ENSPA, the École Nationale Supériore des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The students meet every four months, and present their work in relation to a theme that was assigned previously.

Of course there was some highly creative work on view. Some of it was quite clever, and had an interesting take on the assigned theme. But most of it was so conceptual that it required a long essay to be read out loud before the work was presented, and that barely made the images more comprehensible.  It also seemed like most people had the same ideas, including five who used Google Earth as the basis of their project, and several more who recontextualized images by photographing existing pictures or capturing various screens, posters, or paintings. This has been done ad nauseum, and it has been done well. I will admit that one or two of the works were quite smart.

Two weeks ago I attended Paris Photo, the annual pinnacle of photographic art fairs. I am always surprised about the number of galleries that specialize in representing the work of such students-turned-artists. The galleries’ primary business is selling art to large insurance companies, energy consortia, and major banks, who in turn have funded trusts dedicated to building up art assets. These funds are being curated by other art school graduates, who in turn are seeking consultation from other former art school graduates. Outside of the art world this is called a circle jerk. There is an insularity to the art being sold for large sums, but ultimately that art has not withstood one of the tests of art: does it work?

One test that academic art has failed consistently is in the market place. Can money validate art? Its an age-old question, but one fact to consider in whether importance is artificially bestowed should be that 85% of the conceptual work did not hold its value once achieved in previous auctions.

Sean O’Hagan poses some other interesting questions in his article On not answering the Question: what makes a good Photograph over at Photoworks.

So I am terminating my flirtation with academia. It lacks passion, and it lacks lust. And frankly, none of my heroes and role models emerged from academia, and that may say the most.

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Tired of the Fear

I have been working on a new project for months now. I am only really getting started, because I want to take my time finding the right visual language, but also want to make sure the images I create provoke thought. I don’t want them to be provocative without reason, I am too old for that.

The new project deals with religious iconography, but uses the language of beauty and fashion. I don’t do that casually, I believe that models have become our modern-day angels in terms of the visual language. I do not men that as a compliment. They are unattainably perfect creatures that serve to remind us that we are not “good enough” in the eyes of ourselves. The use of fashion models, dancers, and character actors in my work serves another purpose: it questions the viewer, and demands attention. Yet no product or service is being sold, and so the plasticity of the image requires attention beyond the immediate medial digestion system.

I have created about fourteen images so far, and have many more planned. Not all will see the light of day, because as I refine the purpose of the project, and get more comfortable in this visual language, some of the images will simply seem out of place. There will be many images that are simply beautiful… I could never just make message-pictures, that’s not my style… but certainly the project will have some key pieces that set the mood for the series.

Here are two images that I am willing to show right now.

I presented the series for the first time today at a photographic art masterclass in Paris, at the École Nationale Supériore des Beaux-Arts no less, one of the most acclaimed art schools in our time. Although the work was well-received, I was shocked by the childlike expression of fear over possibly angering religious fundamentalists. I will admit that the bulk of the work is provocative, it was created with the purpose of questioning our respect for religious imagery while using the baroque language of art to echo back a contemporary theme. But I was shocked and dismayed to find such timidity amongst fellow artists. Especially the older, more successful ones that were leading the class were mostly worried about the response amongst the ultra-religious.

How much longer must we all live in fear? Why do we – as enlightened people – fear the thuggish religious so much that we are willing to forego our rights simply to appease them? How long are we willing to let mullahs, rabbis, and the Holy Sea dictate to us what is acceptable when they contribute nothing to the progress of society?

Leave me your thoughts, or better yet just write to me at info@roth-photo.com and I will discuss it, though I may not answer right away.

Hopper’s Americans… the alternate selection

One of the great frustrations of a good photo project is making final selections… here are some images that didn’t make the initial cut, were not included in the book, and then ultimately have yet to be exhibited at a show…. they’re a lot better as large prints, but I thought you might want to see them as little web files for now.

Part of the official selection can be seen by clicking Projects above and going to Hopper’s Americans.


…and guess what: there’s another 30 images that remain unpublished…

The Wrap Project

One of the artists I became aware of first in life was Christo (& Jean-Claude, as I was corrected later in life.) His (their) early work helped me understand one of the basic tenets of contemporary art. I was always impressed by the sheer scale, and the desire to do something just because it was possible. His wrapped buildings, surrounded islands, and divided valleys exist solely because they are compelling.

Particularly exciting is that we are only a few weeks away from Christo’s latest large scale project, a lake covered in floating pontoons in northern Italy.

In his early work, around my birth year 1968, Christo created a number of sketches of wrapped women. These were very organic shapes, within very hard-edged landscapes. Obviously this appealed to me, because so much of my work is about the human figure in hardscape, and this abstraction provided a whole new creative opportunity.

EEEBy Christo Wrapped woman project.

I decided to create a photographic homage to this early work. My team and I shot in Berlin, over two days. I rarely do location work, so it was a wonderful change of pace for me. Most of this had to be done relatively guerilla-style. Although we did not need location permits, setting up a wardrobe truck was not an option, so my stylist would simply begin wrapping the models on site. Because it was summer, the tourists that walked around us made for a supportive audience, even if they couldn’t quite figure out the point of our photo shoot. We were wrapping naked women in itchy plastic on extremely hot summer days. Twice Berlin policemen stopped us to tell us that we really shouldn’t shoot here because technically it wasn’t allowed. Each time we asked to simply finish the image, and they were happy to help us, one even asking people in the background to step out of our frame for a couple of minutes. Gotta love Berlin!

After posting these pics to my Facebook Page, I was viciously attacked by a small group of people. Closer inspection showed that they were primarily offended because one location was the memorial of the fallen Soviet soldiers, and their respective Facebook profiles showed Cover Pictures of Che Guevara and other notable Communists, which leads me to believe their other accusations were intended primarily to provoke and insult.

The man wrote (in German)

“Ich habe mich mal drangemacht und mir den rest deiner fotos hier angeschaut und diese bestätigen auch mein urteil: brutal, aggressiv, frauenfeindlich, kitschig, romantisch (im deutschen sinne), anonymisierte gewalt, schlichtweg menschenfeindlich…”

Translation:

“I’ve gone ahead and checked out the rest of your photos and they confirm my judgement: brutal, aggressive, woman-hating, kitschy, romantic (in the German sense), anonymous violence, simply misanthropic…”

I must admit I was flabbergasted. I can’t really defend myself against charges that are completely off-mark. And as much as I initially took a small pride in having my first group of Haters, I can’t help but notice that my lead opponent’s initial anger was directed at the model, whom he accused of deleting his post. He was wrong, his comments was still there, and it turned out to be  a spurned suitor or ex-boyfriend who was stalking her.

Poor girl. As if laying wrapped in plastic on a hot summer day wasn’t enough to deal with…

Art Manifesto

Art must have four things to matter: concept, craft, discourse and aesthetics.

Art without concept is simply decoration. The world is filled with pretty pictures, clever drawings, and cool stencils, but without an underlying concept it is meaningless. Conversely, art cannot live by concept alone. The idea must be graspable. Hyper-conceptual art may curry favor within a very select circle of art crit MFA candidates and those seeking to justify the curatorial choices they have made, but it does not stand the test of time.

Out of this concept must arise discourse. The viewer must engage with the piece. It is not enough for it to be clever. Art must be a trigger, it must elicit an emotional response, an intellectual response.

Art without craft lacks respect. The coincidental arrival at a strong piece of work is not a deliberate choice. It reflects the moment, not the artist.

Art must make an aesthetic choice. It should appeal, or repel, or intrigue – on purpose.

Beauty in an ugly World

My frustration with current fine art photography is the insistence on ugliness when depicting human subjects. There is a clear mistrust when it comes to beauty, with the simple implication that the use of beauty is a form of pandering to a broad audience. I was in Hong Kong for Art Fair in May, and David LaChapelle was accused of the same thing. The person who spoke was genuinely pissed that LaChapelle had used Naomi Campbell in his piece “The Rape of Africa” in which he recreates Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars” but pushes the narrative toward a contemporary topic. The critics argument was that an ugly, broken, thin woman should have depicted Africa, not Naomi Campbell…. that by using a fashion model, it can’t possibly be art. The argument was unrelated to Miss Campbell’s penchant for dictator’s diamond gifts.

LaChapelle is re-positioning himself as an artist, having permanently abandoned commercial photography. He owes no one an excuse, but he was happy to offer an explanation. His argument was that beauty offers a gateway into the work, that people are more inclined to spend time with an image, and to consider its purpose. Is that pandering? Seems to me that pandering would be simply creating a beautiful image with no consideration for content, which makes his next argument even more pertinent: Art needs Concept. Without Concept, the work is simply Decoration. I think he is right. There are wonderful, interesting pieces available at Lumas and a number of other photo galleries, but the vast majority is simply decorative art… stuff you could hang in the office or on hotel room walls. Art needs an underlying reason, it can’t just be pretty. And LaChapelle’s new work is steeped in Concept.

I admire LaChapelle greatly, he is one of the three photographic artists I constantly cite as creative role models. The other two, Gregory Crewdson and Izima Kauro, also use beauty as part of their visual language. Though Crewdson does not use fashion models, he certainly creates beautiful images.

So I am taking a stand for beauty, for concept, for elegance, and I refuse to create work that doesn’t hew to my little manifesto. It is possible – even necessary – to create work that has some magic in it, that isn’t simply a distortion of reality. Photographic art does not need a funhouse mirror filter to achieve authenticity. In an ugly world, it is an artist’s opportunity to reflect beauty back into the darkness.

David Foster Wallace said it better, and I’m happy to read that we feel the same way about BEE.

If what’s always distinguished bad writing— flat characters, a narrative world that’s clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.— is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then [Bret Easton] Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

Go find beauty. But mind you… the Pursuit of Beauty is not for the Faint-of-Heart.

Dubai

It’s been a long week in Dubai, and rarely have I disliked a place this much. It is impressive, there is no doubt about it. In the last five years they have built a hundred skyscrapers, each fifty floors tall. One of them, the Burj Khalifa, is the tallest building in the world. Everything here is a superlative – Dubai has the largest mall, the biggest aquarium with the most species, the oddest-shaped man-made islands, and more high-end sports cars than a teenage boy can fantasize about. In fact, Dubai has everything. The people who live here insist on pointing out that anything is available, all the time, and that the things you can buy in New York or Paris are available here, too… around the clock!

But is completely meaningless. Dubai is an orgy of consumption, with no production other than banking products tailored for converting Arab oil revenue in leveragable assets, and real estate projects that need to be syndicated to hapless fund managers and small time investors. More than any other place in the world, people seem to define themselves by what they buy, because there is virtually nothing else to do.

There isn’t a single sidewalk. It is virtually impossible to get from one area to the next without taking a car. “Knowledge Village” may be next to “Internet City” but you can’t walk from one to the other without taking your life into your hands amongst untrained drivers in high-powered vehicles. When you get there, be it the Jumeirah Beach Resort walk, the Marina bay, or the Financial District, you can spend time in architecturally wonderful plazas. But to me they are unbearable, because the giant air conditioning intake vents and heat exchangers are built at ground level, and there is a constant loud din that builds up a tension in your mind and body. You don’t become aware of the noise until you step inside and suddenly experience silence.

The building boom continues, and Dubai seems too big to fail. The projects will continued to be financed, and there is a tacit agreement to keep the Emirate humming because the investment banks and other service providers have too much at stake to let the place go. There is an inevitability to it. Everyone assumes the oil will run out sooner or later, and they will disengage just in time… let’s just not rock the boat while fees can still be generated.

Dubai is built on the backs of foreigners, and there are clear tiers of importance. There are the Gulf Arabs of course, who are the only ones allowed to own anything. They walk with a swagger through crowded malls, and drive in a seemingly constant state of road rage. Next are the Expats from Europe and the United States who enjoy the tax free environment, career opportunities, and cheap staff. Right behind them come the economic and intellectual refugees from the failing Arab countries – the Lebanese, the Syrians, and wherever else incompetent dictators or violent Fundamentalists make like intolerable.  There are smiling subservient Philippinos and Indians who have jobs in the service sector and cater to the Expats in clubs, restaurants, and around the offices. And then there are the Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, and Africans who do the manual labor, without any social net. Construction continues 24 hours a day, and the thermometer only goes to 49 degrees Celsius (120 F) because above that no one has to work… officially. But God forbid they break a leg or slip a disk, there is no quality health care, or paid time off.

Dubai encourages businesses to hire people from other poor countries to come here and work. They have them sign contracts that are a decade long and then take their passports.  Even though taking passports is officially illegal, the government knows it happens and does nothing to enforce the law. These poor people are promised a certain pay, but the companies neglect to tell them they will be deducting their cost of living from their paychecks, leaving them virtually penniless – that is, if they choose to pay them.  Companies hold back paychecks for months at a time. When the workers strike as a result, they are jailed. Protesting is illegal, but apparently this is one law that is actually enforced.

These people will never make enough to buy a ticket home and even if they do, they do not have their passports.  They live crammed in portables with many others, in highly unsanitary conditions. The kicker: they are building hotels that cost more to stay in for one night than they will make in an entire year. Things are so bad that a number of laborers are willing to throw themselves in front of cars because their death would bring their family affluence in the form of diya, blood money paid to the victim’s family as mandated by the government.

The laws are applied unevenly, and several people who live here have told me there is no point in contesting anything if an Arab is involved. If there’s a fender bender in traffic, guess who’s fault it is? And a Bangladeshi’s life is cheaper in a car accident than a camel. The replacement cost of the camel is higher than the money you’d have to pay to the dead man’s family… if he has one that can be located back in his country.

If this place disappeared tomorrow, and everyone simply had to walk home, there would a be a big collective shrug. This place has no soul, and very few would truly mourn its disappearance. But in the mean time it remains the Victoria Falls of the oily River Nile, a breath-taking stop close to the source of all the petroleum wealth, and everyone who can get a piece will participate. But we’ve seen the bankers and the accountants, and most don’t know when the bubble is over. They won’t get out in time, and let’s just hope they don’t pull us down with them.

Bijin Tokei

Leave it to the Japanese to come up with something this obvious, and relatively cool. It’s a website (and an iPhone app) that has 1,440 images of (somewhat) attractive Japanese women holding up a sign that tells you what time it is. One picture for every minute of the day.

Check out Bijin Tokei. It apparently means Hot Girl Clock in Nippon. Many of the girls have their full personal data listed, including measurements and blood type. Odd.

Meet Miss 18.33:

There are so many obvious variations possible to this kind of clock… it becomes kind of fun. Fine Art nudes, pictures of cakes, celebrity mug-shots with that little ID Number…  It’s like a modern day calendar in some ways. Wish Pirrelli would come up with a version of this, I would probably get an iPhone just for that app.

Better yet would be a customizable app into which prolific photographers and other designers could simply insert their own images. It would certainly solve my Valentine’s Day problem of what to get Karen, I would create a clock for her of just ME pictures!! Oh well, jewelry and another Birkin bag, like every year… NOT.

Cookie Monster

Amidst the whole celebration around the wall falling twenty years ago, people can be forgiven for missing Sesame Street’s fortieth anniversary. I am fully of the Sesame Street generation. In one of my earliest memories, I distinctly remember my father coming home, at what was “my” first house on Seebergsteig. He declared excitedly that a friend had told him about a great show on television, and that it was on RIGHT NOW! We bustled over to the TV, and there it was on AFN, a local channel in Berlin catering to the military that was stationed in Germany. My dad had to throw a little toggle switch on the back of the unit to receive the NTSC signal on our PAL/SECAM unit, but we were able to watch it! I don’t remember what specifically was on, but I do remember feeling like I had won some kind of great prize – Television! And the grown-ups thought it was good for me!

It seems like I knew all the characters instantly, and that they stayed with me forever. I have three sons now, and tried to kindle in them the same love for the show, but somehow it didn’t take root. There are too many other programs on, there is no real story to follow on Sesame Street, and only the youngest are fascinated by the mundane stuff that is shown – let’s go buy shoes, let’s walk to school, let’s go to the dentist. Elmo, a newer character invented for the very young long after my time, definitely grabbed Isaac by the virtual lapels, but that passed quickly.

The show’s had a number of great celebrity guests on, including Michelle Obama. No coincidence, as her husband is considered the first President “from Sesame Street.” But slowly the show is losing its urban edge, as political correctness creeps into a program that was created by people completely outside of the system. The Southern Baptists suspect Ernie & Bert of having a gay agenda, some of the puppets have been taken out of circulation for being racially stereotypical or simply too scary, and the animated segments celebrating certain numbers or letters are considerably less psychedelic. Cookie Monster, the original addict and physical embodiment of pure unbridled desire, has been forced to pass up cookies in favor of healthier fare such as fruits and vegetables.

cookie_crap

Oh well, it remains a great show, and I still love watching it. As Theo begins his inevitable relationship with TV, I will sit with him. I don’t like the German version, it was a castrated show from the beginning, designed by German “Pedagogen” who have raised a generation of soulless, humorless Love Parade attendees… No, it will be the US version, preferably some of the older shows.

I also have the full Electric Company on DVD, but the kids liked that even less. But for those of you who remember the original Sesame Street, let me make one recommendation: go see Avenue Q. The characters have been changed just enough to protect the innocent, but to an experienced viewer they are clearly recognizable. Imagine our favorite characters growing up, retaining their sense of humor and ability to sing, and combine that with drugs, internet porn, and Broadway soft-shoe. Brilliant!

Fun Protest: Stadtschloss

Berlin has some lovely old buildings, which always impresses tourists, especially those from the U.S. coming here in the hopes of experiencing something distinctly different than the suburban enclave they usually steer their Prius into. But like many European cities, the second world war led to substantial destruction. The English and Americans, fed up with Germany’s unwillingness to quit, decided to carpet-bomb the city centers because just hitting the industry was not sufficient. Frankly, in those days manufacturing and industry was still in the cities anyway, rather than somewhere on the outskirts.

Berlin used to have a city center with tiny streets and densely-clustered buildings, but a major firestorm toward the end of the war pretty much gutted the area around Alexander Platz. After the war, the Russian-influenced DDR decided to model Communist-Germany’s capital along the new Socialist architecture that ensured the State was perceived as larger and more important than the individual. This meant wide-open spaces, a lot of cement, and the complete removal of anything cute and Euro-urban. It would have been our 6e Arrondissement, but instead turned into our La Defense – but without tenants.

Near Alexander Platz was a big Baroque monstrosity called the Stadtschloss. It grew organically from a small river castle to a formal Palace over the centuries, and at one point was given a large extension with a pretty facade. It served as the seat of Prussian power, and was host to a number of historical events.

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But after the First World War there was no royalty, and the palace was turned into a quasi-museum. It got badly damaged during the bombing runs of world war two. Finally the Communists tore down the ruin, using the site to build their own Palace of the Republic, thus participating in a long line of linguistic misuse. What they built was neither a palace, nor was it for the republic. It was an asbestos-filled rubber-stamp structure (with cool lights, by the way) that was torn down over the course of the last few years.

800px-Palast_der_Republik_DDR_1977

NOW some Berliners (mainly tennis-club members who never enter the city much deeper than Charlottenburg) have bamboozled the State and some private donors into rebuilding the original Stadtschloss. Or at least some modern-day samizdat version, the way VW’s New Beetle or the New Mini are supposed to resemble their 1960s versions. No one needs a €600M+ building, and so it required a committee to come up with a usage. It was decided to name it the Humboldt Forum, to tie it to the university across the street, and to vaguely dedicate it as a cultural exchange program. There have been endless lawsuits around this Reconstruction, and the current plan is on hold as it turns out that the winning architectural office is too small to build a garden shed, never mind the defining structure of Berlin’s city center.

stadtschloss-berlin-110909-540x304

Over the weekend there was a protest on the spot where the palace is slated to be built. The current plot is covered in a lawn and a temporary modern art museum. The protesters had some fun and put up an inflatable play-pen, declaring that the only good castle is a bouncy castle. It also subtly made the point that the children would be the ones having to pay off the debt incurred by this useless building project.

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What Berlin actually needs is a museum for Contemporary Art. Insane as it sounds, Berlin doesn’t really have one. There are a number of private collections being shown, and we host traveling exhibits at the Neue Nationalgallerie, but the City doesn’t have the one museum that actually showcases what we’re known for around the world: art created in the 20th Century. What we really need is Zaha Hadid or Santiago Calatrava to come to Berlin and put something truly awesome and psychedelic right in the heart of the city. That is worth spending money for.

Joe Jackson and his smoking diatribe

I couldn’t sleep last night, so around midnight I snuck to my computer for a little late-night browsing. I ended up at The Local, an English-language news site covering Berlin.

Imagine my pleasure when I found an editorial written by one of my favorite musicians, Joe Jackson!

Imagine my excitement when I read that he’s been living in Berlin for several years!

Imagine my disappointment when I realized the man is an idiot!

First off, allow me to quote his editorial in full. You can always click over to The Local, and read the article embedded in its home page… but it’s not going to make it any less crazy.

Steppin’ Out for a Smoke

Having lived in Berlin for the better part of three years, I’ve been asked to write something about my ‘right’ to smoke here. But I’m not sure I have one. The real question, I think, is: who has the right to forbid me to smoke, and on what grounds? Consider the following:

(1) Tobacco is legal in Germany.
(2) Smokers are adults.
(3) Smokers contribute enormous amounts of tax revenue.
(4) Pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants are private property.
(5) If some people don’t like smoke, this is a matter of taste and therefore for the free market to sort out, not the government.
(6) A decent modern ventilation system can render smoke virtually unnoticeable.
(7) ‘Second-hand,’ or ‘passive’ smoke hurts no one anyway.

This all seems pretty obvious to me, but the last point may need some explanation. Seven years of research has convinced me that the potential risks involved in smoking are currently hugely exaggerated, for reasons which have more to do with politics than health.

In the case of ‘second-hand’ smoke, though, anyone who really looks at the evidence – how the studies are done, who pays for them, what the statistics really mean – is soon reminded of the old story of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

You remember the one: the Emperor thinks he’s wearing a fabulous invisible costume, and no one has the nerve to tell him he’s naked because, well, he’s the Emperor! We’re not so impressed by emperors these days, or by priests or popes or politicians. But we seem to practically swoon at the sight of a doctor’s white coat. That’s why, more and more, it’s the uniform of choice for anyone in authority who wants to nag you, bully you, raise your taxes and generally push you around.

In Germany, the ‘official’ figure for yearly deaths from ‘passive smoke’ has been, for the last four years, exactly 3,301 – two-thirds of whom, incidentally, are supposedly over 75 years old and one-third over 85. This comes from a cancer research centre in Heidelberg. How do they know? Well, they don’t. They have just cherry-picked a few dubious statistics from a few trashy studies, and done computer projections from them. They can’t actually prove even one death.

I’m happy to say there seems to be a bit more (healthy!) skepticism about this sort of thing in Germany than, say, the UK. I’m delighted, too, that in the face of court rulings, fierce resistance, and half-hearted enforcement, smoking bans are unravelling in Berlin and the rest of the country.

Very few people, it seems, wanted them in the first place, and even most non-smokers favour some kind of freedom of choice. After all, a Berlin Eckkneipe, or corner pub, is typically a place where the owner, the bartenders, and most of the customers smoke. How far are authorities willing to go to stop them? The Nazis were fierce anti-smokers, but even they did not ban smoking in pubs.

There are bigger things bothering me than some nebulous ‘right to smoke.’ Basic democratic principles (freedom of choice, property rights, free enterprise, tolerance) are increasingly regarded, by politicians and lobby groups acting in the name of ‘health,’ as nothing more than obstacles to be scornfully swept aside.

People need to look beyond their personal prejudices and wake up. The phenomenal recent success of the anti-smoking movement is evidence not of the ascendancy of a noble cause, but of phenomenal infusions of cash. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been extorted out of the US tobacco industry in behind-the-scenes deals like the Master Settlement Agreement. Add to that punitive taxation and especially, the enthusiastic support of the pharmaceutical industry – which wants to sell nicotine products and antidepressants to the world’s 1.2 billion smokers. This is how a fairly small network of prohibitionist fanatics grows into a juggernaut which simply intimidates any opposition into silence.

Anti-tobacco in Europe is driven to a large extent by the World Health Organization – in an explicit partnership with three of the world’s biggest drug companies. AIDS, typhoid and dysentery are rampant in developing countries, and two million children a year die just from lack of clean water. Yet the WHO now prefers to bully the generally healthy citizens of prosperous countries over ‘lifestyle’ issues such as tobacco, alcohol, diet, obesity, and road safety.

Every aspect of our personal lives is being dictated, more and more, by unelected and unaccountable bodies like the WHO or various bit of the EU bureaucracy. If you don’t smoke, you may think it’s none of your business. But don’t kid yourself. If you’re a few pounds ‘overweight,’ or drink more than two government-defined ‘units’ of alcohol per day, or eat ‘unhealthy’ foods, then you’re next in line to be scapegoated and stigmatized, denied health care or insurance, denied jobs or housing, forbidden to adopt children . . . the list is growing daily.

These things are already happening in nanny states like the UK, Canada and Australia, and Germany can’t be so far behind. Nevertheless there is some cause for cautious optimism here. Germany, at least, won’t be the first country to sleep-walk into a joyless, squeaky-clean, socially-engineered future. So light a cigarette, raise a glass, and drink to that healthy disrespect for authority which is still alive and well in the bars of Berlin.

This man borders on the paranoid. A grand collusion of the pharma industry to outlaw smoking… so they can sell nicotine gum? Die he actually use the phrase Nanny State? His juvenile Me-and-Mine approach to rights is reminiscent of the most primitive wing-nut Fox News watchers.

The Germans have a lovely Neu-Deutsch phrase called Fremdscham – it’s New German for being ashamed on behalf of someone else… like when you see someone make a complete ass out of himself without realizing it. This is a version of empathy I’m feeling for a former larger-than-life star in my personal pantheon of 1980s hipsters.

I’m a smoker. Occasional smoker in any case. I don’t mind people smoking in my house. I don’t even mind it in most restaurants, but after the ban came into effect I noticed the air got better. I like it, but I’m not militant about it. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a hard habit to kick. But with all the real problems in the world, Joe Jackson makes his grand stand on the barricades of the pro-smoking struggle. Cigarettes are a product marketed to 14-year olds, most of whom figure out relatively quickly that personal insecurity can be compensated through more effective ways than posing in the school yard like a member of the Sharks or the Jets. Grow up, and quit smoking. Don’t sell it back to us as an infringement of your rights and a conspiracy of NGOs.

Joe, unclench.

Live Dead

“If I told you ’bout all that went down, it would burn off both yer’ ears…”

This weekend The Dead played Madison Square Garden. Most of us have always called the band the Dead, but of course they were formally known as the Grateful Dead until Jerry Garcia died in the summer of 1995.

It’s hard to quantify what the band meant to me. In high school, and especially in college, I found myself sucked into a vortex that revolved around the music, the lifestyle, and the people in my life – a self-fulfilling cycle, to be sure. The more time I spent within its ban, the deeper I went into it. But I was happy there, and made a lot of friends. Tommy Rosen, a very good friend of mine, wrote a piece for the Huffington Post that describes it extremely well:

On October 15th, 1983, I went to the Hartford Civic Center to see the Grateful Dead for the first time. People were friendly, funny, silly, self-deprecating and loving. Life felt exciting. There was possibility and openness. The music was so different than anything on the radio. I danced with strangers as a sixteen year old boy that night in a way I had never before. To dance with others spontaneously, ritualistically was thrilling. We danced in sync with one another and it deeply moved me. Though I did not know it at the time, I had been searching for this my whole life to that point.

The only difference I can report is that my first show came two years later, in the Spring of 1985, followed by many more. It’s difficult (and possibly self-incriminating) to describe some of the most memorable moments… but let me just short-hand a few for those who were there: the week in Teluride, the Holiday Inn in Hartford, the highly-fueled drive to Red Rocks, the Mescalero Bandit, and losing our shoes in Boston.

At some point I drifted out of the scene… it was becoming a little unhealthy for me. After I moved back to New York I rediscovered other music, other styles, and realized that long hair was not conducive to my dating efforts. It is where I made the Big Change, and Tommy is one of the few people who knew me before and after, and someone who made the same Change.

It’s been seventeen years since my last show. A LOT has happened since.

I guess you had to be there.

yoram-at-gd-show

That’s me with the striped pants. Tommy’s top left.

I know you can never go back, but I would have loved be at the reunion. I know at least fifteen people who were at the show on Saturday, possibly even more. Everyone’s been posting pictures on Facebook, and it looks like a lot of good clean fun was had by all.

Yesterday we had some friends hang out with us at the house for a lazy Sunday. All the kids were playing Jedi Ninja around the tree fort, the sun was out, and later that afternoon Karen made her excellent whole-wheat pizza. Later, when I was in the kitchen cutting tomatoes for the Quinoa salad I put on some music. I was a little sad to have missed the show at the Garden (and the reunion of so many friends), so I picked a bootlegged Dead show from ’77,  one of my favorite years stylistically. As I lost myself in memories it occurred to me that none of my friends in Berlin, not even my wife, could know what I saw, what I experienced, what I felt back in those days. There is a part of me they will have never met. Not only would I not be able to go back, it was something I would never be able to share.

Nonetheless, it’s nice to know that I’ve had experiences in my life that are so positive and memorable. I’ve had a fantastic life thus far, with no boredom in sight. There have been a number of life segments that are beyond description, and I have resigned myself to the fact that they are beyond sharing.

I moved to Berlin just as it stumbled out of the Cold War and became one of the coolest cities in the world, while being deeply embedded in Germany’s Techno music scene that happened in the 1990s. Not only was I a participant, as a founder of a record label I had the chance to shape it. But all the stories and pictures from that time still can’t let someone know what it was like – it was our music, our fashion, our parties that the world was trying to emulate.

From 1996 into the new millenium I found myself owning a software company in the heart of the tech revolution, a period that changed the world more thoroughly – and quickly – than any other development thus far. It’s where Karen and I met, but our friends that weren’t there can’t imagine the positive energy that swept everyone up at the time… and the insanity that enveloped everyone as it was reaching its bitter end for many of the late-comers.

I guess the ultimate personal experience is family and children. Though many of us face the trials and tribulations of parenthood, it is always a small and intimate circle that shares it with you. God knows it will never be entirely perfect. But if your vibe is right and your partner is kind, all you remember are the good times. Just like my time with the Grateful Dead.

And for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about… here’s a track called “Eyes of the World”. This one was recorded at the Winterland Arena in San Francisco, on October 19th 1974.

Fair warning, it’s nineteen minutes long, and may lead to dancing.

Dialoge 09

What a great night. There are events that reaffirm my love for Berlin, and the joy I feel living here again.

Sasha Waltz has built up one of the world’s leading modern dance troupes. The movements live from contact between the dancers, and the way the bodies move into one another and then break apart again. It is hard to tell how much of the work is choreographed, or whether it is improvised from of a certain physical language. Over the last 15 years she has had the opportunity to fill new spaces with original dance work, such as the opening of the Liebeskind structure for the Jüdische Museum in Berlin (in 1999) or the opening of her husband’s Radialsystem V (in 2006).

Last week was the opening of Berlin’s most impressive museum building yet. David Chipperfield has restored the Neue Museum, and it is a masterpiece. His resurrection of a 150 year old ruin into a modern building is perfect, and clearly visible in every room, on every surface. It is a flawless combination of Stüler’s original intent, evidence of room-by-room combat in the final days of World War II, and a flawless modern gallery space.

neue-musem-stairs

Tonight I got see Sasha Waltz and her dancers fill this awesome space with movement and music!

The picture of the staircase is not the best example of Chipperfield’s “complementary restoration“, but imagine modern expressive dance in such a space. Sasha Waltz’s dancers performed different repeating pieces in every room, accompanied by odd sirens, glass-bottle percussionists, thick tribal drumming, or string quartets performing music by a dozen different contemporary composers.

The dance was heavy and physical, and being amongst the dancers meant hearing their grunts, sensing their heat, and getting jostled occasionally. There were choirs reciting vocal cantatas that sounded like Gregorian monk chants, but rhythmic and modern, filling a space acoustically while dancers climbed up walled enclaves or hung from door frames.

Sometimes the dancers would come together in the larger rooms, the central atria, or the big staircase, and perform dances as a large group of 30 or 40 dancers, and then spread across the building again in smaller ensembles or as individuals.

This kind of evening – a new museum, cutting-edge dance, contemporary music – would not have the same quality in any other city. It felt natural and un-self-conscious. There were no VIP sections or sponsored bars, no roped-off areas, but also no artsy aloofness or pretense.

It’s going to be a good Spring in Berlin! And tonight was a great start into the season.

All – New Math

Craig Damrauer is posting these on the All-New Math site. Think of it as philosophy plus graphic design minus big words. There’s a lot more at his site.

Enjoy:

modern-art

compassion

first-impressions

nepotism

uniqueness

brunch

silence

Points given for remembering the episode which explained that brunch comes with a slice of cantaloupe.

Where The Wild Things Are

So… they’re turning “my” book into a movie.

Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak was my favorite book as a child. My generation had a lot of interesting books and shows, but not the overwhelming deluge that vies for our children’s attention nowadays. It was easier for us to fall in love with a character, to stay with the story and weave it into our lives.

Well, this one was mine.

I have been reading this book to the boys for several years now, but it’s just another title in their library. They know I like it a lot, but that doesn’t dictate their personal taste and choices. There are other books they’re attracted to. I’m pleased that they prefer books which aren’t simple ancillary revenue opportunities for a movie or TV show. They really like Die Drei Räuber by Tomi Ungerer, or Walter The Farting Dog. Really, who can blame them? I know flatulence is funny, but the book is actually pretty sensitive.

Nonetheless I’m a little sad. Turning “my” book into a movie will make it just another media product. It will become simply another DVD to watch on long distance flights or a cereal at the supermarket. The ray of hope is director Spike Jonze, who’s work is as cool as his contrived name suggests. Let’s hope he doesn’t screw it up.

where-the-wild-things-are-poster

…and if they do screw it up, there’s a good chance it will sink into oblivion. Die Drei Räuber are a good example… I just found out they made a movie out of that too, which was apparently so bad it disappeared without damaging the book’s appeal.

Let the rumpus begin!

Harry Potter and the Elders of Zion

My friend Josef Joffe published a piece on the Middle East Strategy at Harvard forum last week. MESH is a virtual think tank, an arena in which the smartest minds work together and publicly discuss various topics, giving policy makers access to information and ways of interpreting situations that might otherwise be unavailable to them. The good thing about a virtual think tank is that you no longer need to invest in fancy buildings or big libraries. Everything is available online nowadays, and most people prefer to write from home.

When Joe told me about the subject I had to laugh. It sounded so bat-shit crazy that it had to be true. In a nutshell, the Iranians have produced a film in which they explain that the Harry Potter series is a Ziono-Hollywoodist Conspiracy.

I didn’t make up that phrase, they did.

So, here’s the video, followed by Joe’s article.

It was high time that anti-Semitism would find something hipper than those dusty Protocols of the Elders of Zion, concocted sometime between 1895 and 1902 by Russian journalist Matvei Golovinski and then used by the pro-Tsarists to discredit reforms in Russia as a Jewish plot. Egyptian and Syrian state media have turned the Protocols into television series, trying to modernize the plot and bringing it forward into the 20th century.

Iranian TV has beaten them hands down with “Harry Potter and the Ziono-Hollywoodist Conspiracy.” (If you cannot view the clip embedded above, click here.) J.K. Rowling, that English (and no doubt, fully Aryan) rose, as avatar of the globe-encircling Jewish kraken? Yes, though the evidence is a bit disjointed as the clip unfolds on YouTube. The basic visual argument is hardly as compelling as the original Protocols which, after all, have real-life Jews who have real faces and names, working out complicated plans to conquer the world and pollute the race. You only get Harry and his buddies and professors flitting in and out of the picture while the voice-over proclaims a story line that actually has nothing to do with Messrs. Voldemort and Dumbledore.

It is “Witchcraft and Brainwashing” that spreads the “evil essence of Zionism.” This is how the logic apparently works: Since Harry Potter movies are all about W ‘n’ B, they are a Zionist tool. Along with “devil worship,” W ‘n’ B will corrupt “innocent children and youth” around the world. Why is this a Zionist tool? Because witchcraft was invented by the “rabbis of ancient Egypt.” Now we get a few seconds from the Order of the Phoenix even though it does not contain witchcraft-mongering rabbis. But wait. Aren’t those longbearded faculty at Hogwarts kind of Jewish-looking? Didn’t we see Jewish symbols in every Harry Potter movie? I swear, the kids were playing with dreidels in The Philosopher’s Stone. And when they assembled for a meal in The Order of the Phoenix, they were actually celebrating Passover. You thought the matzohs were crackers, eh? Whenever the kids joust and fight, they are actually preparing for the Last Battle that will do in or enslave all the Muslims.

As we hop along this warped path of Iranian TV logic, we also learn that the world faces a “cultural crusaders’ war” that is more powerful than any military assault the West has engineered in, say, Afghanistan and Iraq. How will the Jews attain world domination? By hastening Armageddon, the “End of Days,” which will deliver a kind of Jewish endsieg, the Nazi term for “final victory.”

What does this have to do with Harry Potter? Well, because in the next volume, Iranian TV intones, he finally wants to face down Voldemort. That will be the mother of all battles, to coin a phrase—a secret metaphor (and call to arms) for Armageddon.

Personally, I find this insulting to the Jews. Previously, the Iranian propaganda line painted the “Little Satan” as mighty regional superpower. Now, this TV clip puts down Israel/Jewry as a bunch of losers who no longer have the will and wherewithal to subjugate the Muslims directly and by force of arms. Now, they have to rely on a bunch of kids—on Harry and Hermione—to execute their evil designs.

What has the Jewish Conspiracy come to? This member in good standing feels so dissed that I will enroll in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the fall to learn how to turn Mr. Ahmadinejad into a toad.

Too funny. What Joe seems to have forgotten is America’s Christian Right assertion that Harry Potter was un-Christian because it promoted witchcraft. Maybe we can round up all the religious crackpots, and herd them into a movie theater – my grandfather used to own some… wait, he was probably part of the conspiracy!

OMG, I’m gonna grow up and be and Elder of Zion…

The Rest is Noise

I have gotten myself completely lost in orchestral music over the last few weeks.

I read a lot, and usually have several books going at the same time. That sounds a little pompous, but it didn’t happen on purpose. After the move to Berlin I just couldn’t find any television shows I liked, and without TiVo I ended up using the big screen for the PlayStation and an occasional DVD. Karen is still frothing at the mouth about something called SlingBox, but I can’t say I miss TV that much.

That leaves a lot of time for reading, but I have found that I need to mix it up and can’t just read one book at a time. I still need to change the channel occasionally. There’s usually some fiction, some kind of book about politics/economics/history, and then I like to read something about the arts. I try to keep some creativity in my life, but it can’t just be photobooks all the time.

I just read a book by Alex Ross called The Rest is Noise. Cut-and-paste Blurb:

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century is a voyage into the labyrinth of modern music, which remains an obscure world for most people. While paintings of Picasso and Jackson Pollock sell for a hundred million dollars or more, and lines from T. S. Eliot are quoted on the yearbook pages of alienated teenagers across the land, twentieth-century classical music still sends ripples of unease through audiences. At the same time, its influence can be felt everywhere. Atonal chords crop up in jazz. Avant-garde sounds populate the soundtracks of Hollywood thrillers. Minimalism has had a huge effect on rock, pop, and dance music from the Velvet Underground onward.

The Rest Is Noise shows why twentieth-century composers felt compelled to create a famously bewildering variety of sounds, from the purest beauty to the purest noise. It tells of a remarkable array of maverick personalities who resisted the cult of the classical past, struggled against the indifference of a wide public, and defied the will of dictators. Whether they have charmed audiences with sweet sounds or battered them with dissonance, composers have always been exuberantly of the present, defying the stereotype of classical music as a dying art. The narrative goes from Vienna before the First World War to Paris in the twenties, from Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia to downtown New  York in the sixties and seventies. We follow the rise of mass culture and mass politics, of dramatic new technologies, of hot and cold wars, of experiments, revolutions, riots, and friendships forged and broken. The end result is not so much a history of twentieth-century music as a history of the twentieth century through its music.

I love music, but a person call only learn to love something that he interacts with. Ross covers all the music I’ve always heard of, but never listened to. He tells the story of Schoenberg and his Second Viennese School, the way Stravinsky shocked Paris, Sibelius losing it in the forests of Finland… you name ’em, they’re in there. Dvorak, Debussy, Berg, Webern, Shostakovich, Ashkenazy, all the way to Britten, Copland, Adams, and the music being written right now somewhere nearby… where most of us will never hear it or know about it.

What makes the book really fun is that Ross is modern enough to provide us with the music to appreciate what he’s writing about. Some things are easy to write about – murder-mysteries and the Penthouse Forums seem to need little multimedia help – but other topics cannot be covered in words. Food writing is attempted by few and mastered by none, and describing a musical piece – especially an atonal orchestral piece – is virtually impossible. Thankfully, Ross has provided us with excerpts to every relevant piece on his site, and an abridged playlist is available via iTunes. I ended up buying a lot of the music (via Amazon’s brilliant collection of DRM-free download section) but you should check out Ross’s exhaustive set of samples.

Alex Ross: Chapter Guide, with musical samples

A simple iTunes Playlist

Simply put, The Rest is Noise is a rare opportunity to be taken on a tour of unknown territory by a gregarious and eloquent guide. It’s a chance to delve deeply into a topic that is virtually inaccessible.

He doesn’t really answer the final question: “Why bother?” To some degree, orchestral music, like Richard Strauss, seems to have outlived itself. Almost any mood, no matter how complex, can be musically sketched with a different set of tools nowadays. Dissonance, atonality, and the interweaving and repurposing of ethnic and multicultural sounds is so common as to have become part of the global musical vernacular. We hear jazz, hip-hop, bangrha and sampled sounds everywhere we turn. But I think of composers like Sean Shepherd or Dan Visconti, both fellows at the American Academy, and they remind me of photographers working with Large Format view cameras. Yes, it’s arcane, and you can fake almost anything with one of the new pro-level DSLRs… but it’s never quite the same. There is distinct pride in having mastered a complex, antique piece of equipment. The process is much more deliberate, and the final image can be breathtaking in a way that could only be born of its tools. Or to complete the circle, Ansel Adams, the father of landscape photography, taught us that the image is the score and the print is the performance. But if you write small, you’ll sound small.

Read the opening pages of The Rest Is Noise.

Lloyd Philipps at C/O

Friday night Lloyd Philipps opened his show at C/O Berlin. He is not a professional photographer, in the sense that he actually makes his living as a film producer. But his pictures prove that he started professional life as a photojournalist. He’s been in Berlin for a long time, shooting The International together with a friend of ours, which just opened the Berlinale Film Festival. He’s still here, now producing Inglorious Basterds, Quention Tarantino’s next exercise is timeless juvenile cinematic wank.

Phillips usually captures images during a production, and then gives them to the cast and crew after the shoot as a book compilation.

The photos were taken during the production of The International and, to counterpoint the film’s rapid-fire action sequences, they are a mostly serene and atmospheric look at locations in Istanbul, Milan, New York and, of course, Berlin.

Stephan Erfurt, the founder of C/O, said that Lloyd’s work could keep up with masters like Sebastiao Salgado. I think that might be reaching a little, but I do agree that his images were very strong. His images are a good example that a simple subject with tense composition can create a serene picture.

Why do I bring this up? In some way it makes me feel a lot more comfortable about my own work. I’m trying to find the time to put together my own first series, though it’s still tough to find the time to shoot. I’m jealous of his opportunity to shoot in exotic cities with an entire crew there to clear and clean up the location… or getting to rebuild the best parts of New York’s Guggenheim at a Studio here in Berlin.

So because I can’t find a good shot of his series from The International, here’s an image from a series I’m working on called “Arrivals and Departures”, about airports, bus terminals, and train stations.

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Inflatable Bag Monsters

New York is actually pretty clean these days, but one thing that is unavoidable are the flimsy plastic bags that blow through the city, and get caught up at the subway airshafts and the big air vents of large office buildings.

Joshua Allen Harris noticed the bags dancing around in the hot air, and saw something very different. Check out the video:

Rock in the Red Zone

There seem to be a lot of people who don’t understand why Israel feels the need to go into Gaza and to root out Hamas there. Over the last eight years, terrorists have been sending missiles into the southern area of Israel on an almost daily basis. The city that gets targeted the most is called Sderot. The Israelis, being highly technical, have deployed a system which gives a 15 second warning to get to a safe place. Hamas in turn continues to build stronger and more accurate missiles.

Imagine, fifteen seconds in which to seek shelter. Sometimes 50 times a day.

Media coverage of this terror is low because fortunately the death toll has not been catastrophic. But it is terror, and no one can pretend it is a peaceful, civilized way of living. In what has become a well-rehearsed routine, Sderot’s residents run for cover when the Color Red air raid sounds. Every person in this close-knit community has experienced a Qassam exploding nearby, and has known one of the victims. Several thousand people are being treated for shock and other psychological effects. Sderot’s children, many of whom know no other way of life, show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. As the rockets continue unabated, however, “post”-trauma is not an accurate diagnosis, because these are not events isolated in time… it just goes on every day. Over the last seven years many people have died, many more have sustained life-changing injuries.

But here’s what’s so interesting:

Laura Bialis, a film maker from Los Angeles, moved to Sderot to document this life. But what she discovered was an incredibly vibrant music scene that has grown there. In some weird way Sderot turns out to be the Seattle, Washington or Athens, Georgia of Israel.. at least musically.

As Bialis explains:

Musical sounds and instruments from all over the world meld together in this place at the crossroads of East and West. As they try to live normal lives, and realize their careers, the musicians write about their daily struggles and the harsh realities of living in Israel and especially, Sderot. Their music captures their fears and challenges, the feeling that the world has abandoned them, the uncertainty of this place. Through Hip-Hop, Folk, Middle-Eastern, and Rock n’ Roll, they express their desperation and determination.

To many, the questions about Israel and the Middle East are abstract. But the people of Sderot are at the tip of the spear — they live the battle on a daily basis. To them, peace in the Middle East is not a question of roadmaps or diplomatic initiatives, it’s just a day that goes by when they don’t have to run for cover.

So check it out if you can. Below is the trailer, go digging around the movie’s website.

Clay Break

For months now I’ve seen pieces on various image and art sites of “The Clay Breaks” as I’ve come to call them in my mind. I finally had some time, and searched the internet to learn more about them.

Nothing.

The image seem to be hosted on some anonymous data dump site, and there is no information about the artist, or the process. In many ways, this has been a recurring topic of my all-time favorite author William Gibson… art that appears out of nowhere, enters the collective consciousness, and then gets tracked to the most unlikely of sources. Just read Pattern Recognition, for instance.

I love these images. I like how the fragile breaking of these Hummelesque figurines undermines the poses of strength – the characters are all in classic Chinese warrior stances.

I’m sorry I’m unable to credit anyone with this work. Please write me should you know who makes these.

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The last one is my favorite.

I don’t know the process – are there multiple figurines that the artist makes, and then drops until s/he captures the right image? Are these entirely created as drawings on a computer? Or does the artist hand-break the pieces and then collage them using an editing software?

If I could get prints of these works, I would want them relatively small, and framed ornately, so that they maintain the feeling of the little China dolls they originate from.

JPG calls it quits

A bit of sad news on this first business day of 2009. JPG Magazine is shutting down. It was a brilliant concept from a creative point of view, and I am proud to have been part of it.

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JPG was a hybrid website & magazine that was based on monthly thematic photo competitions. Topics like “Travel” would get hundreds of submissions by various talented amateur photographers. We would then vote and comment on the images, and the best ones were published in the monthly magazine.

It’s a simple concept, but I’m not surprised that it didn’t work as a business. The participants (us) weren’t that interested in a magazine subscription because we’d already studied every conceivable image ad nauseum. And the typical consumer buying magazines off a news stand is looking for “gear porn” – which camera has the most megapixels and the newest lens. These buyers are not interested in the art of photography.

So go peruse the site while it is still up and running. The email I got this morning says that JPG will even take down the site, they don’t even have the resources to keep it going.

Below is one of my own favorite images that I had submitted to JPG.

Click on the image to see a larger version.

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Woman at Berlin Hauptbahnhof waiting for train

EDIT: Jan 11th late at night:

Just got this email:

We couldn’t ask for a better community. In the week or so since our last email, the outpour of support has exceeded our wildest expectations. Your efforts, such as starting SaveJPG.com, writing blog posts, commenting on Twitter and Flickr, and generally making your voices heard, have provided exciting new opportunities for us.

We’re thrilled to say that because of you, we have multiple credible buyers interested in giving JPG a home. We will be keeping the site up after all, and hope to have a final update in the next week or so on who the acquirer will be. Thank you for making all of this possible.

Laura Brunow Miner
Editor in Chief

Stolper Steine – Stumbling Blocks

On Monday night I attended a presentation by Leora Auslander at the American Academy in Berlin. She is Professor of European Studies at the University of Chicago, but is a Fellow at the Academy this semester. She gave a great talk about the effectiveness of memorials. Her focus was on monuments, memorials, and museums focusing on the Shoa in Germany, but it served as an interesting think-piece on what makes a successful memorial.

She mentioned one of my favorites, the Stolper Steine by artist Gunter Demnig. His work is quite subtle. Most German sidewalks are still made up of cobblestone. Demnig will go to the listed address of Jews that were murdered during the Holocaust, and replace a cobblestone in front of the door with a brass block that gives the name, date of birth, date of arrest or deportation, date of death, and the concentration camp in which the person was killed. You can find these all over Berlin now, and apparently he’s also placing them in many other European cities.

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Like any memorial, most people walk past them once they’ve embedded them into their mental map of their environment, but these “stumbling blocks” are more effective because looking at them will force you to focus on them. It can’t be done while in motion, or simply passing by.

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Some houses had many Jews in them. One of the most depressing things is to see that families were arrested on the same day, but killed in different places at disparate times. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must have been like when children were taken from their parents…

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I will try to contact Demnig. My father was born here in Berlin, and he lost his grandfather, his uncle and aunt, and his cousins in the Shoah. I would love to put some stones down for them in front of their house… especially now that my third son carries one of their names.

Klassik Radio

I’ve got a number of radio stations programmed in my car, and pending my mood I usually try and underscore it with the appropriate music while I drive. I don’t always succeed though. There’s a number of good stations in Berlin, which is a lot less rigidly formatted than the U.S. radio market. But often I can’t get the right groove, or I just don’t find the available music to be intellectually stimulating.

So I end up listening to a lot of talking radio. I purposely don’t use the phrase Talk Radio, a uniquely American media product in which angry people talk about issues without consideration of facts, in an effort to get other people just as angry. No, I listen to Info Radio,  a 24-hour German news station, or to NPR World-Wide, which broadcasts here in Berlin. I try BBC periodically, but I just don’t need that much information about African politics. The question of whether I listen to English or German programming is really only driven by whom I’m having a meeting with next – I speak both languages throughout the day, and sometimes it helps me get my linguistics oriented before entering the room.

Occasionally, I will also listen to one of the two local classic music radio stations. Much like Los Angeles, we have two stations in this market – the rather high-brow Kulturradio, and the more plebian Klassik Radio. Both these stations are well programmed. Kulturradio doesn’t just do classical, they’re actually quite close to the U.S. NPR-style mix of programming. They have some good talking radio, but like a lot of mid-market Public Radio stations it features a solid block of classical music as part of its repetoire.

The other station is the aforementioned Klassik Radio, a guilty pleasure for me. I know it is considered low-brow, and I have to admit their breathy slogan spoken in that quasi-sexy spa commercial voice “Bleiben Sie entspannt” is a real turn-off. Sometimes they make it seem like classical music was the original New Age hot tub music.

There’s a lot that a true classical music fan disdains about the station. Forget for a moment that they pick-and-choose their pieces. They won’t play entire symphonies, but instead only the Greatest Hits movements – those minuets or allegros that are well known and loved. And then there are pieces like Ravel’s Bolero, which gets a work-out more often than is comfortable. Worse, they’ll only play accessible composers, none of that difficult stuff or over-complicated arrangements.

But their worst transgression in the mind of an aficionado – and the ultimate reason I like them – is because they play film soundtacks. I hear my dear readers gasping as they reel at the implication of what was just written. John Williams mixed in with Josef Haydn? Danny Elfman intermingled with Franz Schubert? Michael Kamen on the same playlist as god ol’ Freddy Chopin? What is the world coming to?

It’s actually not that far fetched. Allow me to take a personal detour here: It begins with a curmodgeonly record store guy with hairy ears, back in the late 1970s. As an adolescent boy I had recently begun buying music, and was at the Europa Center in downtown Berlin, trying to buy a certain record at Bote & Bock. Let’s forget for a moment that I was trying to find the rather embarrassing “Hooked on Classics”, a remix of everyone’s favorite orchestral pieces as nightmared by Niles Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, resulting in a treble-intense mash with hints of David Shire’s “Night on Disco Mountain”… So, with a wave toward the wooden racks at the center of the store, the hairy-eared musicologist manning the manual cash register explained to me that calling “all of that” Classical Music was a mistake – you can’t just bunch several centuries of non-Pop and non-Jazz onto one long shelf, and declare it a genre.

He had a point. There are infinite variations, and Renaissance music (for instance) has little to do with the large complex music being created by Russian composers at the beginning of the 20th Century. And his classification stuck with me over the years. What frustrated me about classical music was how seemingly stagnant it appeared. In some way, a certain segment of the listening audience obsesses over playful nuances the way two Grateful Dead tapers might discuss a Garcia solo – these are differences virtually inaudible to a casual participant. Dealing with a grey crowd of grown-ups was somewhat daunting, too. My father helped a lot when he decided to kick-start that particular part of my education by buying me a copy of Who’s Afraid of Classical Music.

On the flip side of the usual crowd, you have music being composed by contemporary musicians that is really hard to listen to. I had dinner with Sean Sheppard a few months ago. He had just conducted a series of pieces here in Berlin that he had written, and in one of the program notes he poked fun at himself – he wrote that he “might commit the ultimate taboo, making the music pretty.” Well, God knows he managed to avoid that particular trespass successfully, but he never told me exactly what would be so terrible about writing pretty music.

So on one side you have stagnant repetition being listened to by the geriatric set, and on the other you have music for the intellectual in-crowd that eludes the rest of us.

Well, a few years ago, when I was still living in Los Angeles, a friend made a rather bold late-night wine-fueled argument that LA is the most important city in the world for classical music. Oh really? His argument was simple – most classical music nowadays is the large orchestral kind, and nowhere in the world are there so many working orchestras as in Hollywood. Why? Well, they’re scoring all the feature films and big TV series. And further, he argued, that Hollywood is the only place where a composer can stretch his creative wings and really write some interesting music.

So I began listening to soundtracks differently, and with newfound respect. I’m not sure whether the need to underscore a story provides the greatest creative opportunity, but the chance to conjure up an original work within certain confines is always a challenge. I have to admit I’ve come to love certain pieces, and would gladly go to see some of them performed live. A family favorite has always been Michael Kamen’s Don Juan De Marco score, and now that the boys are so deeply into the Star Wars lore, I have found new affection for John William’s score. “The March of the Emperor” is now the ring tone reserved for calls from my wife.

Go dig out Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator score, and see what I mean. It’s pretty cool.

The Daily Beast

I’m pretty excited. Tina Brown’s new site finally launched. It’s called The Daily Beast, and seems to be a modern linky mix of Vanity Fair and Perez Hilton, with some heavy A+L Daily for that extra braininess. I guess it’s our lefty version of Drudge, but for people with the required attention span to read, and a desire for design.

Here’s what the FT had to say:

Another scoop for Tina Brown as she swaps print for web

The struggling US magazine industry is losing one of its biggest cheerleaders to the web as Tina Brown trades the glossy pages and lengthy essays of her past career for the hyperlinks and blog entries of a new site called The Daily Beast.

The former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and the short-lived Talk launched a trial version of the site, funded by Barry Diller’s IAC new media empire on Monday.

Named after a fictional Fleet Street newspaper in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, the site is pitched as both a home to original commentary and a “curator” of other sites’ highlights, putting it in competition with an ever-growing list of bloggers and news aggregators.

According to Ms Brown, however, her site has appeal because of the very fact that the market is so crowded.

“What’s been lacking for the overwhelmed but smart reader is an intelligent guide,” she said in an interview. “The time is right to do a site which cuts through the noise and cuts through the clutter.”

Rather than worthy “eat your peas news”, The Daily Beast will offer political, cultural and celebrity coverage with “a unique editorial sensibility”, she said.

Ms Brown’s fabled networking skills have pulled in contributors including Nigella Lawson, the British celebrity chef; Christopher Buckley, the US satirist; and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch politician.

Her foray into internet publishing, which she admits was “terra incognita” before she started work on the site in July, comes as many online outlets are seeing the same pressures on advertising revenues as have weighed on print publications.

Talk, the magazine, book and film venture she launched with support from Hearst and Miramax in 1999, folded in the post-9/11 advertising slump, but Ms Brown said she was “as confident as anybody can be” about The Daily Beast’s prospects.

She would not disclose what investment Mr Diller had supplied but said The Daily Beast would sit alongside a portfolio of “emerging” internet businesses within the “new IAC”, created by this year’s spin-off of companies such as Ticketmaster and Lending Tree.

Caroline Marks, general manager of the site and a former Comcast Interactive Media executive, said it would rely on advertising and sponsorship revenues, but would benefit from promotion from Ask.com, IAC’s search engine, and traffic deals with other portals.

The site, edited by Edward Felsenthal, a former Wall Street Journal deputy managing editor, would target “higher end advertisers . . . who have a natural affinity with publications where Tina worked before,” Ms Marks said.

Mr Diller’s proposal for the site was put on hold for two years while Ms Brown finished The Diana Chronicles, her biography of the Princess of Wales. She is now working on The Clinton Chronicles, and remains a consultant to HBO, the premium television channel.

But the “open beta” launch, after which users can recommend improvements, has been brought forward as Ms Brown chafed at having to watch an unfolding financial crisis and the US presidential elections from the sidelines.

“You don’t know how it killed me not to be up during the primaries,” she said. “It may be a horrible economic time, but it’s a wonderful journalistic time.”

Been reading it while eating Sauer-Scharf Suppe, which I consider a salute to the tone of the new site. Huzzah, I wish you much success!

Women are Heroes

I’ve never really been a fan of grafitti, even as a teenager it struck me as primitive. I understood that certain elements were tribal, that it was a way of letting everyone know exactly who’s ‘Hood they were in, but it also had something desperate about it. “Tagging” was somehow canine, a dog marking his favorite route.

But Street Art is a slightly different thing – it is usually less destructive and less scattershot. I guess you could also consider it Environmental Art, in the sense that it gets placed into our everyday surroundings.

But what I really like about Street Art is that it eschews the usual cycle of mega gallerists, celebrity artists and big money collectors. Simply put: you can’t really own street art.

One project I really admire is called Women Are Heroes. It’s done by a 25 year-old artist who goes by JR. He photographs women across the world, in this case in countries like Sudan, Sierra Leone, but also Cambodia and Laos, as well as Brazil. Then he prints extreme enlargements of the images, and wallpapers the sides of buildings in the neighborhoods of the women he documents… but then also posts them in a very large format in Western cities.

As the site explains:

The Women project wants to underline thier pivotal role and to highlight their dignity by shooting them in their daily lives and posting them on the walls of their country.

On the other hand, by posting the same images of these women in Western countries, the project allows everyone to feel concerned by their condition and connect through art, the two different worlds.

Check these out:

…and here’s one in Brussels…

These images are all from a favela in over Rio called Providencia. Check out JR’s site to learn more. Really impressive work.

Burning Man

Well, I’m back from Burning Man.

First, a primer for those of you who haven’t been:

Burning Man is an experience in communal living. For two weeks every year, a complete city arises in the desert, and then completely disappears, leaving no trace.

It’s a modern-day post-cyberpunk Mad Max quasi-hippy Love Parade experience. For about a week or two, people gather in the desert – a dried alkali lake in Black Rock, Nevada, and celebrate an independent life-style. It’s been held in earnest since about 1990, and in the last few years it consistently draws about 40,000 people in the course of the event. Everyone who comes must be entirely self-sufficient. You need to bring your food, water, shelter, clothes, and anything else you might want or need. No money is allowed, everything must be traded or gifted. People come in elaborate tents, motor homes, and other temporary structures.

And you need a bike, because the place is huge. It’s several square miles!

Now, keep in mind this is the desert. It is a 100 degrees in the day, and at night it drops down to 50, and sand storms whip up regularly, but without notice. It is harsh! It’s also far away from anything – about three hours from Reno. And it’s pretty expensive – $300 to get in, plus at least $100 or more per day in supplies – and most spend a LOT more. All of this means that the crowd is pretty grown up. The typical age bracket is 30 – 35 years old, but it goes way up in age. Also, the cost means there’s few voyeurs – if you’re going to spend a day getting there, you’re not just there to gawk at the naked people… you’re gonna be there a while, and you’re gonna have to get into the spirit of things.

Burning Man is a temporary city – actually, the second largest town in Nevada during Labor Day weekend. It’s perfectly circular, and in the middle is a vast expanse known as the playa – and in the middle of this playa is a 60-foot high wooden sculpture of a “man”… and on the last Saturday night, it gets burned to the ground.

The vibe is a tribal-peaceful-happy-“don’t fuck with me”-dayglo-leftist-anarchy mixture, liberally sprinkled with hash and hallucinogens. And a lot of loud trance music.

But that really tells you nothing.  You have to see it to believe it.

…and I have to admit, I thought it was wonderful.

I would tell you about all unbelievable mobile art – giant pieces that drive around in the desert, larger than two buses. I would tell you about all the weird performances, and all the fire. I would describe to you the music, the dancers, and everyone’s costumes. And then I would tell you that everything gets an order of magnitude weirder after dark.

…but my story wouldn’t really begin to do it justice. And as much as I consider myself a good photographer, I came away with very few good pictures. I was too busy experiencing everything to take any decent ones.

So in the spirit of sharing at Burning Man, I will take other’s images and videos, and link to them here.

And when you’re done watching these, go to YouTube and search for Burning Man. Or do the same thing on Google Images. Have fun.

See you there soon, I hope.

Muxtape down

Those of you of a certain age probably remember the mixtape. If you’re younger than me you probably only had CDs, and if you’re older chances are you didn’t have the MC – the micro-cassette. It’s what we now call tape, but of course it’s a small version of those cool reel-to-reel systems that were such a difficult mess to use.

Like a lot of boys back in the late 70s and early 80s, I slaved away over my cassette deck (hooked up via my amplifier to my turntable) and cranked out carefully composed mixtapes. They served as every conceivable soundtrack – cool tracks to listen to while getting dressed for a “night” out on the town, angry or sad music for general teenage angst, and of course a series of loving tracks supposed to convince various girls that I’m tough, sensitive, cool, clever, and good-looking all at the same time. Sometimes these particular mixtapes were handed to the adored girl in question, but just as often they simply stayed in my Walkman… Either because I liked the tape too much, or the girl was no longer interesting to me, or because I expected rejection anyway, so why bother give up a tape that took me hours to compile.

Of course, in the internet age, everything is different.

You could dump a bunch of MP3 files on to a CD-ROM, but that is sooo… nineties.

No, nowadays you can go to any number of Mixtape sites, upload your songs, and send the result as a link to the girl in question. Then she can listen to it anywhere, including streaming it off her iPhone. Now that’s good technology! I think I would have handed over a lot more mixes would it have been as easy as clicking Send to get the mix into her hands.

These sites, like Muxtape for instance, are pretty much illegal of course – you’re using someone else’s Intellectual Property to create content without compensating the various parties that own and control it – the musicians, the record label, and the publisher.

And of course, the RIAA shut it down fast.

Who is the RIAA? The record labels and music publishers are represented in the US by the RIAA, the Recording Industry Association of America. They’re a lobbying group that is the de facto representative of the world’s music industry. These people – and more importantly, the companies they represent – have been unable to come up with a single new way of earning money in the internet age. Instead, they have focused all their energy on shutting down anything that doesn’t lead to CD sales. Apple was too big for them, or they’d try to shut down iTunes as well.

Believe me, I am the great defender of Intellectual Property rights. I’ve owned a record label, I own film rights, and I’ve built a software company. I know all the arguments surrounding content distribution. But shutting down Muxtape? The RIAA already has the reputation of a thick-skulled mob enforcer.

Of course, a mixtape was always “illegal”, even 30 years ago the average Joe was not allowed to redistribute music without consent. We all did it anyway, because the law was unenforcable. No one was making any money off these tapes.

The music industry needs to figure out a new definition for “fair usage”. There has always been a disconnect between the rights of the creator and the owner. Theoretically, I’m not even allowed to play a song at a party without prior consent from the publisher.

As Navneet at Scrawled in Wax writes:

This question – of how copyright either enables or restricts cultural expression – is both ubiquitous and tricky. After all, in some sense ‘copyright versus culture’ is a false dichotomy: the ideas that underpin copyright law – ownership, private property, accreditation and individualism – are cultural linchpins as much as they are legal ones. But Muxtape’s intuitiveness, the simple fact that it ‘just works’ in both a technical and a cultural sense, renders the question in a somewhat different light. Though the disjunct between content providers and users is clear to anyone who has ever heard of DRM, to what extent does Muxtape highlight the contradictory, even antagonistic relationship between intellectual property laws and what people actually want to do with media and art?

The music industry would be better served by letting sites like Muxtape flourish, and to study how their customers use music. Then it will be easier for them to weave a revenue model into these new technologies, rather than trying to emulate a pre-existing ways of doing business.

Little People

Over the last year I occasionally found images online of an artist working with miniatures out on the street. I had been thinking about the project and started Googling it furiously last week, but could not remember what it was called. In some weird serendipitous way, Bobby at +Kitsune Noir posted a story about it, and I was reconnected.

Little People is the work of an artist who goes by the name of Slinkachu. He creates tiny scenes and places them in plain sight – if you notice. Some are mundane while others are highly surrealistic.

A typical project is Dear Son somewhere in London, where a miniature mailbox is placed in front of a regular one, and a tiny man is seen dropping a letter.

Others are far weirder, like the work entitled The Feast, where a fly is seen feeding on a person.

Slinkachu says that typically his work will disappear after a few days, but some of it has apparently survived unnoticed for months.

He has recently expanded his work to a project called Inner City Snail. Note the cool Grand Theft Auto-style logo!

Go check out his websites. The sites are not that good, but you get to see a nice selection of his work, and you can follow the link to Amazon where he will soon be selling his first book about the projects.

Meatpaper!

I am so happy to be in New York City. I am no tourist here – we’ve had an apartment for almost 25 years, I went to college here, had my first job over on 3rd Avenue, and feel quite comfortable around town. The Upper West Side has grown with me, and around me.

About 10 years ago a large Barnes & Noble bookstore opened up at Lincoln Center. I know there is much to lament regarding the rise of the large bookchains, but this is their flagship store, and it is wonder to behold. I could spend a weekend in there – thanks in part to the Starbucks on the 4th floor. The store is like a giant public library, but finely tuned to the consumer’s attention span. That’s not meant as a snide derogation. The audience is highly literate in this particular branch. The Upper West Side buys more books than the rest of the country combined. (That’s not a real statistic, I made that up – but it’s a large component for 90% of published books nowadays.)

The store also has a giant magazine section, upstairs next to the Barristas working the expresso machines. They carry pretty much every magazine still in print, probably in excess of 10,000 titles.

And – lo and behold – in a lower rack, somewhere in the back where the light forces you to squint – I found the perfect magazine for me. In the Arts section I found Meatpaper: Your Journal of Meat Culture. It’s a magazine of art that features meat. Not only that, they have a website. And no, it’s not some kind of weird one-of-a-kind meditation on modern culture in a sarcastic wrapper. They’re serious about this. Note their mission statement:

Meatpaper is a print magazine of art and ideas about meat. We like metaphors more than marinating tips. We are your journal of meat culture.

It’s a great magazine. They cover art, the politics of farming and immigration, and even the Slow Food movement. And as if that isn’t enough, there’s a poem to blood sausage – “Ode to Boudin”, by Kevin Young. I will tease you with this opening line:

“You are the chewing gum of God.”

Life is fabulous here in the City! As soon as we’ve packed the last kid off to college, The List Maker and I are moving to New York.

House of Cards

I found this interesting video by Radiohead today. It was shot without cameras or lights, and simply uses a new technology based on a high-end scanner rotating on an axis. It captures data, and then uses computers to recreate the scene by placing pixels in a 3D space, and attributing a basic amount of color and light information to each pixel.

The result is actually highly fragmented, and looks like what it is: grainy data. But I can see that once the digital horsepower is available – data capture, data transfer, and finally, the ability to render the data on the user end – this could be a very interesting technology. This is only a few thousand pixels with a few colors, but imagine millions of pixels at full 16-bit color depth. It could conceivably enable real-time map displays, or allow video games to be played within real environments… virtual golf-cart race through the Vatican, anyone?

Anyway, the song of the video is gently reflective and a little sad, which I must admit appeals to the emo kid in me.

Check it out.

Oh, and you can actually play with the data at Google’s Data site.

Fulgurator

Julius von Bismarck has invented one of the coolest little devices I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a flash projector gun – a flash mounted behind a slide (sitting inside a camera body) which flash-projects at the same instant as an unsuspecting tourist takes a picture. The snap-shot photographer fires off a camera with flash, which triggers the Fulgurator to instantly project an image – modern flashes can be used as triggers for other flashes, it’s one way that studios sync up their flash systems.

For coolness reasons (I assume), the thing is shaped like a gun.

Anyway, there are obvious motifs, like the Reichstag building in Berlin, for example. Well, when a tourist takes a picture of that building at dusk, their automated cameras often try to use their little built-in flash – which results in crappy dark pictures, by the way. But the Fulgurator gets triggered by this little flash, and projects an image on the building… a burning window, for instance. So when a tourist looks at the digital image on the back of the camera, or later at home on a computer, the image will be different than what was really there.

Like many Berliners who are creatively-socially-politically active, Herr von Bismarck seems to lack the humor gene, but his project deserves kudos nonetheless. What I particularly admire is that he has chosen to patent this technology, to ensure that over-eager marketers don’t use it to project product advertisement into people’s holiday snaps… and being a von Bismarck, he may figure out at some point that poverty is overrated, and then he can still sell his technology when he grows up.

Here’s an assembly diagram:

…and finally, Herr von Bismarck himself, in action with the Fulgurator:

Jen Stark

I wasn’t able to find out much about Jen Stark, an artist working primarily with cut colored paper, but somehow I find myself having an incredibly strong response to her work. Art always fascinates me most when I enjoy the work itself, but can also appreciate the process.

In this case, it also reminds me of when I was a kid at boarding school, and one rainy day began slicing up a phonebook with a box cutter left behind by some furniture guys.

Check out her work at her site, it’s quite something. I’m not a fan of her animations, but the sculptural work is fabulous.

US Embassy opening

I got an invitation to the opening of the new US Embassy here in Berlin. Yesterday was the 4th of July,  an appropriate day for such an event. What was disappointing was their chosen menu. Obviously it’s hard to feed 4,700 people, but was it really the best representation of America’s diversity to have food from Coca-Cola, Burger King, and McCafe – which I found out is a distinct and different brand than McDonald’s, although they’re usually in the same buildings. Having girls walking around with baskets of Snickers and Mars bars was embarassing – just when the US has a reputation as lacking in sophisitication under W, they drive the point home, instead of coming up with something classy.

A missed opportunity.

Something I heard

Pablo Picasso said “I do things I know nothing about. That way, I get to know something about them.”