Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Gilded Age

Cairo’s mega- projects of new concrete push ever further into the surrounding desert relegating the colonial era downtown to a traffic encircled, smog enshrouded, dusty artifact, though it still sports a spectacular collection of European architecture. Countless beaux art, art nouveaux and art deco facades line the avenues. But all the beautifully articulated, complex ornamentation has an unintended consequence of trapping the airborne dust of the desert giving the downtown an aged but otherwise timeless embalmment.

The majority of windows in upper floors are never opened- to keep dust out and consequently the city center is dark above street level. The facades are eerily lit from below by the bustling street, or glow in color from huge neon billboards atop the buildings. The lighting’s mood is one which western eyes readily associate with Ridley Scott’s cinematic vision in Blade Runner- sans rain. The combination of that futuristic conception, mixed with the European architectural time capsule in a Middle Eastern city is disruptive of clearly discernible temporality.

One day as I walked past a darkened art supply store I noticed a wall of green drawers all ajar adjacent to the front door. There was a measurably thick layer of the incessant Cairo dust, like sepia snow, precariously balanced on the rims of the open drawers and handles. Within drawers I glimpsed indistinct piles of objects. An archaeological curiosity instantly drew me to the concealed possibilities evidently lying so long untouched. I swerved into the gloom to receive a warm greeting in English from the proprietor sitting behind a manual cash register. He conducted business in the rest of the store and had simply abandoned that cabinet to the dust, which I asked to explore. He chuckled and sat back to observe. Just what would this crazy foreigner find interesting?

I slowly pulled drawers open and could make out their deeper contents only slightly dusted: rows of rock hard paint tubes, baked enamel palettes stamped from tin, ink bottles with a dried nub of color rattling inside, other bottles still liquid but sealed by a glob of wax, sheaves of yellowed paper. It was peering into the first half of the 20th century. I fancied parasol-toting visitors over the years outfitting themselves to sketch the monuments, perhaps pith helmeted soldiers of empire heading letters with a flourish of color. Amidst the scatter, a corner of gold was eye-catching. A row of small metallic paper envelopes emerged from powdery cocoons and I pulled one out. It was the size of a matchbox and wrapped awkwardly around its contents. The front read “Illuminating Water Colour- Fine Gold”; below a Winsor & Newton logo.

The owner was uninterested in my “find”. He knew he couldn’t sell it to current customers. Apparently he enjoyed my protracted search and repeated, amazed extractions, for he refused any money, happy that I seemed happy with my little envelope. As I wandered off, I wondered if this antique paint had value for containing any real gold, who knows? But I certainly was not expecting what I later found.

Sitting on a hostel balcony, Corinthian capitals flaking at my back, I carefully pealed open the envelope. Into my hand plopped a mussel shell- blue and iridescent. Turning it over- revealing smooth mother of pearl on the inside, a dried smear of gold clung to one rim. Years later I learned illuminating paint is still called “shell gold” because it was once sold this way. Cairo’s architecture offers a window to a past and contributed to preserving this little shell in its package, but I propose the shell actually offers a view into a future and has also influenced my practice.

We live in an era where containers are as common as products. Centuries ago someone solved the pigment packaging issue with natural containers that are free and inert. Modern materials with the advantage of flexibility are now readily available and have supplanted shells. Is the mussel shell an anachronism or is it possible that one day they will be used again? Not as a return to some imagined utopian past; Cairo’s colonial era buildings are a reminder that the past is not some ideal that should be returned to. Moving instead to a vision of the future, one again comes across the dystopian vision in Blade Runner that the architecture so readily conjures. Envisioning mussel use in the future is not necessarily about a catastrophic collapse of infrastructure necessitating impoverished receptacles. Consider a product on a mall shelf voluntarily packaged in a shell: it necessitates dramatic changes in attitude from both store and purchaser; they would have to consider shells acceptable. In the past, there was tolerance of variations between shells and this is needed if shells are to be used again. To generalize, this future requires a cultural toleration of an increased range of variation in certain domains, after mass production has long since reduced deviation to imperceptible levels.

By chance I worked with the now elderly manufacturer who figured out how to mass produce the famous Cabbage Patch dolls where “no two dolls are alike”. Here difference and variation were reintroduced as an added value a century after mass production had abolished it. But the insidious thing in this example is that difference was simply a plurality of locations on a grid and millions of fixed points rather than movement, unpredictability and gradation. The mussel shell brings variation as a true continuum. But why stop at the mussel shell as a container- what about a mussel shell in one instance, an old bottle cap in the next envelope and a ferret’s cranium in the package after that.


The first time I went to Egypt, I brought a common western conception of “The Orient” generated primarily by 19th century academic Orientalist paintings. It was a rude surprise when these romantic misrepresentations bore no resemblance to the modern nation I blundered into. Unlike quaint images of deserted ruins beset by dunes blown through abandoned colonnades, I encountered temples surrounded by gigantic impoverished villages ignored by thousands of camera toting tourists confined to clogging the cordoned walkways next to the bright new concrete holding the ancient blocks together. In reaction, I began to sit and draw the temples as a rejection of the speedy, camera mediated version of the experience, and perhaps to recreate the expected visual fantasy that was absent. At best this was a contrarian spirit of escape from a Disneyesque tourist routine, but it spawned a quest for an “authenticity” which I mistakenly believed existed. The result was an experience which moved along a different tangent and still shows in my thinking fifteen years later.

It turned out there was a seldom visited, unexcavated temple outside Dahkla oasis. Over the millennia the oases shrank leaving the temple “stranded” in sand- miles from the contemporary greenery. Intending to find this relic, I headed to the oasis with little information, and upon arriving immediately encountered a faded sign with a crude map of the area. Sure enough a temple was indicated by an image of a gateway far out in the desert.

I set out the next morning on the road leading into “The Great Sand Sea”. Well, the “map” significantly glossed the distances and hours later I was still walking on the empty road. I was surprised to come upon a solitary man heading into the intermittent fields on the right at this still marginal area of patchy cultivation and desert. I gestured the shape of the gate and he pointed out into the desert to the left but also somewhat back the way I came. I had apparently significantly overshot. His indication was a cleft in a ridge out on the horizon. Off I went, by now it was the heat of the day and my water was long gone, but I wasn’t to be deterred. I crossed a huge expanse of deserted and dried fields, which ominously seemed to have lost a battle with the sun. By the time I reached the ridge I was hurrying to finally arrive because I knew without water I couldn’t linger. Cresting the ridge, at last there was the temple off in the distance sprawled majestically amidst the blowing sand. Indeed it was every bit the romantic image from another era. I plunged onward determined that I would look around and quickly sketch something before turning back. I knew how far I had come and I knew it was going to be a long, difficult time before I got any water so I was intent to at least make it all worth it. Finally arriving, distractedly thirsty, I darted amongst the porticos and settled in a sliver of shade under a cornice to draw the main gate. Sketching quickly and anxiously I drew two views as best I could, thinking of nothing but water- then packed up and started moving fast. My outbound route had been indirect because I followed the road and the fastest route back was right across the desert. But after 45 more minutes of infernal heat, slogging over immense dunes and more parched fields I knew I was in real trouble and was genuinely scared. In a worst case scenario I needed to be on the road and not in the desert and I switched my direction straight at it. Perhaps an hour later it came in view and I had only walked a few hundred yards when I heard a motorcycle. I don’t know how I was acting, but I didn’t need to say anything. The man riding just stopped and gestured for me to get on.

In town when I had recovered I went back to my sketchbook to view the drawings. What I saw chilled me. I had made the two drawings offset slightly but superimposed right on top of each other on the same piece of paper despite having had plenty. I was unaware I had done this, and it certainly wasn’t intentional. The fact that I could “focus” on rendering lines of an image and not detect that I was putting a layer of new lines over existing lines is an indicator that my mental faculties were not functioning normally. Dehydration or heat stroke had put me in much greater danger than I realized at the time.

Over the years I’ve often contemplated that weirdly layered image. The unnecessary redundancy of the perceptions and representations on one hand approaches a tautology and on the other is intriguing for exactly that reason. Indeed, the drawings encapsulate issues of representation in general. Are they representations of an “original” or is one a representation of the other in which case which is the original and which is the copy? Does a second instance add any additional information to the first? In the emphatic-ness implied by the repetition, what is still being left out, un-represented? In being repetitions of representations of a single object, signs for that object, what is to be made of any differences between the representations? If a second representation added nothing and thus was empty and tautological, which of the two is the tautology? Perhaps the pair is a botched stereogram, a snapshot of wall-eyed binocular vision? What is really going on cognitively that allowed this split between awareness and perception? What information and codes are steadily sneaking through perception via the senses- but remain below the threshold of awareness, a threshold that was accidentally recorded and exposed by a stupor at the limits of consciousness?

Similar oddly emphatic, near-tautological representations stalk much of my work through the years. This is treacherous terrain of a different sort to traverse. Frankly, too many of my attempts are parched in the dryness of illustration. One series of small interventions is an example that may have run this risk and escaped. I attached business-card sized drawings of infrastructure directly to the objects represented in the drawings. Many were parking meters, others were bus stops, electric switches, cross walk buttons etc. The locations involved the likelihood of people looking at and even touching the images in the course of interacting with the “parent” object. The obviousness of this given lineage rubs against the tautological, perhaps from a “who cares” aspect but also from a “why”? Why do I need a parking meter drawing attached to my parking meter? Why do I need a drawing of a temple on top of my drawing of a temple?


1992, Uganda, East Africa.

Seated along with my brother atop stacks of doors in the back of a Bedford truck, we moved slowly under rainy season skies along the bright red dirt road carved through the intermittent brush and jungle. Visible just a dozen miles away on the right side were the steep, mist-topped foothills of the Ruwenzori mountains, the fabled “Mountains of the Moon” to Europeans. A junction with a few structures came into view ahead where the road headed toward the border with Zaire and the mountains beyond. The truck halted and we dismounted, lowering backpacks from our perch. The intersection didn’t have much going on; this is a very sparsely populated area. A few market stalls, a man operating a foot-pedaled sewing machine and working with rapidity. Ahead an area of several long tables with split-log benches under equally long individual thatch roofs. A few women were preparing food on charcoal fires amongst the tables. Charcoal dust had given the ground underneath a grimy blackness in contrast to the intense red of the soil nearby. The two of us were a noticeable spectacle on account of our huge backpacks as we lumbered forward. A woman approached having navigated the puddles and ruts across the wide expanse of the intersection. Her hand was outstretched and in it a tiny object twinkled. “Does this have any value?” she asked.

My eyes took a moment to adjust from staring off at the mountains to focus on what lay in her palm. It was a hologram. Someone had neatly cut the eagle “security feature” out of a credit card and carefully and symmetrically rounded the edges. The new object was the size of a fingernail. In surprise I blurted out an American answer “oh... it’s just part…” She made a gesture with her other hand outlining the non-existent card perimeter, sighing a bit. My mind sped to reconstructing what may have been going on- she was trying to “sell” the object and had apparently been made aware in prior attempts that it was a fragment. Someone else must have obtained the card, trimmed it to just the hologram and likely pawned it off on this woman with explanations of its immense value. She probably was taken by the object’s physical properties and was persisting in attempts to sell it based on its somewhat miraculous image.

There are numerous themes entangled in the question “Does this have any value?” To whom? My short answer doesn’t even begin to address them. The woman perhaps was left wishing she had the remainder of the card, but the card still has no value in its materiality, it simply records a number, which itself has no intrinsic value, just a use as a link in a payment scheme.

Arthur C. Clark has been famously quoted from Profiles of The Future; “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I recall my own wonder when I first saw a hologram. There was a window of time in America when holograms were rare enough to be a commodity; they could be sold, they had that “magic”. Walter Benjamin would call it an “aura”. This initial response to the dazzle of rare holograms and a resulting sense of value is similar in both American and Ugandan perspectives, with the difference that the American angle has long since subsided due to the objects’ ubiquity through mass reproduction- specifically on credit cards. Strangely, in this instance the “missing” card is actually the structure that propagated holograms thus altering the sense of value, rendering the one in the woman’s hand value-less from an American perspective.

A related story: I was asked to design fancy paintjobs for a set of toy cars. Stores contemplating the cars decided a more expensive “deluxe” version should be added to the assortment. The toy company solution was to vacuum-plate the cars with iridescent chrome to increase their “perceived value”. While not a hologram, the optical refraction of light is similar in its artificial shifting rainbow of colors. As the designer of the originals, I was asked my opinion of the chrome cars. Perhaps the spread of credit card holograms had done its damage: I didn’t think the cars justified the increased cost. But more intangibly, the original little cars with their bright, glossy paint suddenly looked so dull and old-fashioned in comparison. The iridescence had little value in itself but it cannibalized the value of everything non-iridescent around it. From this standpoint that little hologram in Africa was horrifying in the way it turned a lush landscape into a dull backdrop against its flashiness. It was less than value-less to me; it actually devalued its surroundings.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Monday, December 25, 2006


A “derive” is a walk that is guided by the cues an environment contains rather than a preplanned destination. It’s a method of observing the often subtle directives the physical world contains that affect the body’s movements and decisions through space. On my second derive, I set out toward the car-dominated zone north of town. While walking, I took hundreds of quick photos of little details in the surroundings- documenting how my eye was caught by different features. Once solidly within the area where no pedestrians venture, WalMart came into sight and I drifted toward it's glowing sign like a beacon. I moved cross-country briskly stepping over structures that are impassable to automobiles: curbs, yellow lines, lawns, traffic islands, guard rails and decorative plantings.

I was quite certain that I couldn’t take photos inside Walmart but I wanted to be told that; to have the “environment” explicitly delineate any constraints. Sure enough, immediately inside the front door a manager- not a “greeter”, saw my camera and said “no photos”. I didn’t argue and walked right out. I suspect my lack of shopping cued her in that my mission really was taking pictures and she followed me out the door. I was aware of her and chose very deliberately to continue with my pictures because I wasn’t doing anything wrong.

The first picture I took in front of her was of the sign indicating that it was me that was under surveillance. I proceeded over to a fire/police family-day event 100 feet across the parking lot. The woman was joined by a tweed jacket wearing security guy; a GOP looking, crew-cut, thin-faced character. I kept taking my shots among the dozens of other people all taking photos of the police, steadily aware of the now distant gaze of the Walmart pair. I was by then on the sidewalk at the far edge of the parking lot. I entered the weird liminal place next to the road where nobody “normal’ walks despite the nice wide sidewalk. At that moment, the woman immediately left the sidewalk in front of the store and headed into the police area. I gave it a 50-50 chance that the police would actually come, and I made a decision to continue doing exactly what I was doing, knowing that when they did catch up to me I would inevitably be in some other user-unfriendly location.

Moving behind other stores, across railroad tracks, over a creek, through public housing and finally taking a picture of a dumpster. I looked up, sure enough here was “homeland security” driving up in a black SUV. The officer was very polite, said “Hi, can I ask you a question?” Then immediately spoke into the radio “I found the individual over behind…” He said the Walmart woman was concerned that I was photographing their security (which of course I had not- just a picture of the sign informing me that they were photographing me). A state trooper and then a regular cop pull up moments later. The 1st cop had asked for ID while simultaneously explaining to me that I wasn’t breaking any laws but that when someone gets suspicious… ”You know, you just can’t be too careful these days.” I'm intrigued with how WalMart as a corporate entity participates in this culture of fear mongering. Perhaps they have various security directives sent to all six bazillion of their stores. There was unmistakeable visible paranoia on the faces of those two employees. I'd argue that if Walmart "feels" like a target, it's a piece of confirmation that they should be a target. They know their own agenda better than I do. In contrast, I had earlier not just photographed the fascade of Stop&Shop but had photographed up and down the aisles without comment. It's difficult to imaging some owner of a mom&pop shop calling the police if you photograph in proximity to their building. But Walmart as a "target" reflects its proximity to, and collusion with, the state.

In dealing with the police, I knew there wasn’t anything wrong and so was very amused and enjoying myself - “Oh Boy! I got stopped by the cops during my Derive!” It was actually good practice to try and explain to them what I was doing. But a few sentences into my description, their eyes glazed and rolled back into their sculls. I was naturally animated by the struggle to get common words around the activity I had been pursuing and veins steadily bulged on temples as my diatribe seemed to risk being interminable. I could see they wanted to flee but I needed this exercise in conveying ideas. The captive had found a captive audience.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


A simulacrum is defined as a copy which lacks an original. The paradoxical sound of that definition is the point of departure for discussions of “reality” within contemporary culture. If one has assimilated the definition of a simulacrum, one realizes they are ubiquitous in our media based world, but good examples that clearly help one understand the definition in the first place are slightly harder to find. I’m reminded of a friend, Robert Rust who worked at Disney World, repeating the in-joke of “how many bricks are in Cinderella’s Castle?” The answer is of course: none. It’s made of carved concrete and fiberglass. This falsity of materials is only a superficial level of spuriousness. The larger frame is that it is a copy of an image that is a fictional object in a movie. It is a copy that lacks an original in the material sense.

The past week saw a series of events unfold that depict the paradox of simulacra where fiction and the real have collided and the inability to disentangle marks the collapse of any grounding reality.

A movie, The Queen, depicts the events behind the scenes of the royal family in the week after the death of Princess Diana. It is an unkind portrait and perhaps justifiably so. The queen’s husband, prince Phillip is the real loser in this portrayal. Now, this is not a documentary, so it’s just an actor playing Phillip- making him out to be quite a prick. The visual impact of cinema is notorious for replacing our self-generated visual images of texts. Likewise, my image of the Doors will forever be Oliver Stones cinematic re-creation. On this level, Prince Phillip will never be able to escape the identity he has been handed by this piece of fiction. If the fiction has any basis in truth then assuredly, he really is the kind of person who won’t give a shit either. But now the real Phillip has a fuzzy relationship to his own identity where he will forever be measured as proximal or distant to a model that is in fact a copy. This collapse between real and copy, while cogent, is still not as good as the next example.

The busy week of simulation par excellence continues with the TV show “Seinfeld”’s co-star Michael Richards getting into trouble during a stand-up comedy routine. He poured out a tirade of racist filth in response to African American hecklers interrupting his live show. He plays a character on the television show, Cosmo Kramer, though he was not portraying this character during his outburst. The TV show is named “Seinfeld” after its star who is named Jerry Seinfeld in real life. The real life Seinfeld appeared with Richards/Kramer in an apology. In the presence of his TV co-star, is Richards in character or not?- because there is no distinction between the two concepts for Seinfeld, standing next to him.

But this is only the beginning. The character, Cosmo Kramer was inspired by someone who’s real life name is Kenny Kramer and lived across the hall from the TV show’s co-creator, Larry David. The real Kenny Kramer was rapidly contacted by various talk-shows after the fake Kramer’s outburst to get his opinion. They proceeded to ask him if this would affect his business; the real Kramer has spent the last 11 years running “Seinfeld” tours of Manhattan locations that appear in the fictional drama. So the “real” Kramer becomes a model for a “fake” Kramer and then the “real” Kramer capitalizes on the notoriety of the “fake” Kramer by aligning his life to the “fake” Kramer. The real person starts copying the copy of himself.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Slave Trade

Who would think the wall next to your table at a cozy dinner could send you catapulting across oceans and centuries?

A friend recently began managing a new restaurant. Stopped by for a visit, unaware that the “DeWolf Tavern” had just been tagged by Esquire as “one of the 20 best new restaurants in America.” Indeed the place was awash in buzz. I will spare you stories of seared Tuna etc, but I got the guided tour, with some less visible curiosities pointed out.


The building is a very, very old warehouse right on the water, and built of stone which connotes stability and permanence. I’ve spent much of my adult life trekking around the world looking at the remains of ancient cultures- which usually means you’re looking at stone. Quite a lot can happen in the eons that stone sits around, so stone begins to function as a record of events over that time and isn’t as stable as our brief lives would lead us to presume. During the ’38 hurricane a huge ferry was thrown up against the building and it stove in a section of the wall. Walking downhill toward the water, before even knowing where the restaurant was, I saw this section of wall. In the darkness, an orange floodlight was glinting off the gutter of the building far ahead. Our angle of approach was such that we looked along the length of the wall and from this fore-shortened view, the wall curves crazily inward nearly three feet at the second story roofline over a length of about 20 feet. It’s very easy to imagine the side of a ship nestled into that arc. The wall is also about two feet thick, so that’s a lot of displaced stone. One is left to wonder about the repair strategy after the ferry was hauled away- it took a hurricane after all to make the dent, how are you ever going to push the wall straight again? It’s as likely to collapse as it is to straighten. Someone must have shrugged and figured they might as well smoosh cement into all the fresh cracks and carry on with the wall as-is; it’s just a warehouse. There is a very big difference in how this wall “feels” compared to a straight wall. It’s organic and disconcerting, it has a radically different energy than the intentionally curving walls of Gehry fame. One can never get past the knowledge that it was originally straight and is “supposed” to be straight. There’s a tension in one’s persistent awareness of its motion out of alignment- all that energy is still trapped there; the wall has become a verb.


Extensive renovations were needed to turn the warehouse into a restaurant. When the place was gutted, an earlier interior wall on top of the stone was revealed underneath more recent ones. It’s obviously quite old; made of plaster over hand-split, irregular lath. Most interesting- several spots had 19th century graffiti; numerous names, both of individuals and ships as well as dates. There are also several caricatures of faces. Finally there’s the curvilinear drawing of a woman’s stocking-clad legs. Contemporary graffiti tends to be produced by artists who are tremendously skilled in their medium and produce very elaborate images and texts, the ancient practice of just writing one’s name on a wall doesn’t necessarily stir images of artistic skill. But these scrawled names all actually show beautiful calligraphic penmanship. Fortunately the architects appreciated these images and preserved large sections of the old, filthy wall by cutting them out, mounting them behind glass and reinstalling them on the second floor upscale dining room.

As interesting as the graffiti and its penmanship is; I’m intrigued by a less obvious, broader theme. There’s an inversion of perceived value as the interior shifts from stone to plaster and back again. When the structure was built, a readily available, free material was used: stone. No wood to cut and mill, no nails to forge. For a commercial enterprise, the stone is fine because no one cared what the structure looked like. However, at some point the building’s use changed and a more “normal” interior was desired; flat, smooth, white walls and ceilings, which must have taken considerable labor and expense as the wood was cut, fitted and plastered. The idea here is that making the interior “nice” involved visually maximizing its distance from the crude, roughly constructed stone of the exterior. Course stone is easy to build while smooth walls are more difficult to achieve and are thus the more valuable form. Turn the clock forward two hundred years and any hack carpenter can pound together some two-by-fours and slap on sheetrock to give you a flat wall. Meanwhile a huge wall of stone would be enormously expensive to construct, because now you must buy the stone, use lots of labor and heavy machinery to move it around and have skilled workers lay each piece. So when the restaurant seeks to create a rarefied atmosphere, they naturally seek the element that is more difficult to achieve- which today is the rough haphazard stone vs clean, smooth plaster.


There’s one more invisible feature of the stone walls. The DeWolf tavern is named for the original owners, the DeWolf family, who ran the largest slave trading enterprise in Rhode Island. Most people are generally familiar with the infamous triangle trade, where Africans were brought to the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations, molasses from Caribbean sugar cane was then brought to Newport Rhode Island to make rum which was then brought to Africa to trade for slaves. However, this picture of global exchange turns out to be a bit simplistic and buries some agendas. I live in Newport, Rhode Island and until a few weeks ago, only had a superficial knowledge of the details of Rhode Island’s involvement in the trade. Newport’s large Quaker population was seminal in early abolitionist efforts, as one might imagine; this angle of history is frequently played up. Now why would abolitionism be such an issue if Rhode Island was simply a participant in the sugar cane and rum angle of the trade? Within the triangle model, no slaves even touch Rhode Island shores right? This is where the colloquial understanding of the triangle trade tries to bury the fact that fully ten percent of Rhode Island’s population was made up of slaves. Huge numbers of slaving expeditions to Africa that originated in Newport and Bristol returned directly to Rhode Island without ever going to the Caribbean. Slaves were sold in Newport’s quaint Brick Market. The success of Quaker led anti-slave-trade efforts abolished the legal trade in 1807. The DeWolf family of Bristol used their congressional influence to have Bristol declared a separate customs zone and had a slave ship captain installed as customs inspector to insure the trade’s illegal continuation in Bristol.

The round-trip African expeditions that never went to the Caribbean introduce a nuance that I was unaware of. A cargo of rum weighs a lot more than a cargo of human beings, despite the slave trader’s efforts to cram their ships with as many people as possible- which notoriously contributed to the horror of the so called middle passage. What happened on the coast of Africa was the ships piled stones into their holds as additional ballast to compensate the disappearance of the weighty rum cargo. Upon returning to Rhode Island, the stones were ultimately dumped somewhere. You guessed it; the DeWolf tavern is built from these African stones.

When I heard about this detail, my brain fogged up a bit. There is indeed something a little creepy in sitting inches from that wall. I can’t get over the weird equivalence between stones and bodies. Creepiness may not be a good description; perhaps “resonant awareness of history” is better. The idea of something being uncomfortable tends to result in it being put at arm’s length or never being considered. The issue here is that if there is an absence of knowledge of history, or an outright denial of it, people aren’t going to build a world that no longer has this kind of shit. I would argue that it is very important to see the charge in those stones. History throws things, such as the horrors of the slave trade, at a distance and one needs new tools to make the connection across time. I was horrified at Auschwitz by the visible age of the artifacts, the buildings and the landscape. This is not an argument for preservation but rather alarm at the ease with which the mind can push it all away as “old” and thus of fading relevance. Likewise, I visited a ruined sugar plantation and mill in Antigua. “Oh look at the pretty windmill”, meanwhile the soil you walk on is soaked in blood. Slaves walking across that lawn had a life expectancy of seven years. In the discomfort is the challenge not to ignore the dynamic but use it as a point of departure.

If the mental charge coming from feeling an equivalence of stones and bodies connects across the ages, then new avenues for change open up. One result of this experience in the restaurant was to learn about the local history of the slave trade. As an educated, politically radical individual, I was disturbed to realize how little of this history I knew. I was disturbed at how little was ever taught in schools, documented in museums or marked with the ubiquitous plaques and signage found in a colonial city. In the absence of knowing that history we are bound to remain inhabiting a world with the repercussions of its inherent inequalities. The question of what to do emerges from the fresh awareness.

Brown University in Providence Rhode Island is currently wrestling with its own history and connection to the slave trade. They have just produced a lengthy report which of course focuses on Rhode Island’s central place in the slave trade and in particular, my hometown of Newport. Here’s the web address for the report, take a look sometime- though it's a 100 page pdf.

Central to the Brown report’s conclusion is the description of how our culture has never dealt with its slave history and lives with it every day, despite most people’s claims that it’s all ancient history. Any questions about “what to do” and reparations issues come across the fact that the slaves are all dead and the majority of America’s current population comes from immigrants who arrived long after slavery’s abolition. There is no 1 to 1 correspondence between victim and perpetrators and this lack of equivalence in our highly litigious culture breeds the belief that we have no responsibility to address the issue. The provocative rebuttal is that I, white son of recent immigrants, have benefited from the structures of this culture which inarguably were built upon slavery. Meanwhile African Americans continue to suffer from a chain of events directly linked to slavery. If you inherit the benefits of a culture, you inherit its responsibilities.

Because the slaves are dead, any initial atonement must unfortunately be symbolic. Leaving issues of the follow-up concrete actions aside for the moment, the Brown report leans on the power of these symbolic actions as a necessary first step to create a context within which any subsequent action will even make sense. It’s within this need that suddenly there opens an immense space for art. I don’t yet have any particular vision in mind for this kind of project, but the resonance of that stone wall shows the possibilities for objects to cross the centuries and build the foundation for cultural healing.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Hermits and Holocausts

A local pet store was displaying some new wares in the form of themed vitrines for pet hermit crabs. Arrayed on a shelf was the usual mainstream fare featuring colorful Scooby Doo imagery, Spider Man etc, nothing out of the ordinary in our brand-conscious country. But upon closer inspection I saw that inside the vitrine was the real product: an injection molded plastic hermit crab shell with Spider Man’s face emblazoned across it. Yes, your little pet hermit crab will one day out-grow its shell and crawl into the only available replacement which you have conveniently supplied. Your goddamn hermit crab is going to live inside a man-made hunk of ABS adorned with Wilma Flintstone. The number of criss-crossing vectors in this situation is difficult to disentangle- there’s some ghastly mix-up of branding, aspiration, play, animals, plastic, fun and artificiality.

Somehow, the image of a little crab dragging around a picture of the Hulk on it’s back is all wrong. Return to the notion of aspiration, where kids are assumed to want the product because it makes them feel cool or powerful. But in this case, it’s hard to see how the super-hero traits transfer to the kid rather than staying native to the hermit crab in which case it’s just weird or at best funny.

There are some problems with forcing an animal to inhabit a piece of plastic, but while we’re on the subject, c’mon couldn’t they come up with something better? How about a shell with rivets and armor plate, wings and thrusters, turrets and biohazard logos? What about a little house with molded chimneys and windows? But the larger issue isn’t one of design, but of process. This product didn’t just manifest out of thin air but rather is the result of a series of decisions. At some point in time a bunch of real people sat together in a room and agreed “hey, here’s a worthwhile idea…” Now what the hell were they thinking? Perhaps there’s an over zealous application of branding into inappropriate, or downright irrelevant domains, but hiding here in this silly product is something slightly sinister.

My mind works in funny ways by leaping across gulfs to draw connections between arguably totally unrelated entities. The image of those shells resonated and when mulled- drew
my thinking far, far afield. I can’t shake the image of a meeting of individuals around a table. Anyone by themselves can be deluded into thinking they’re pursuing a worthwhile project, but other people entering the picture should be a system of checks and balances to provide an additional external view of the value of one’s undertakings. I suppose people who work in offices are used to “meetings” where all manner of idiocy gets propagated. Indeed somewhere there must be meeting notes saying “plastic hermit crab shell- APPROVED”. The reality is that somehow groups of humans can collectively agree on terrible ideas as readily as good ideas. Several recent books I’ve read discuss the ethics of allied strategic bombing in WWII. They depict circumstances of decision where individuals sat around a table and arrived at a course of action. Just the type of physical situation I envision resulting in the commitment to make branded snail shells. I’m frankly reminded of the Wannsee conference where a bunch of bureaucrats sat around and planned the extermination of millions of innocent people in concentration camps. In each case one’s assumptions about people providing some degree of oversight of each other have to be abandoned.

Yes, all that from a few shells. People will agree on bad ideas about a living animal as readily as they’ll agree on bad ideas about air fresheners. This line of thinking provides a dim prognosis for our world when natural systems are pitted against groups of people sitting around tables making decisions. That little shell embodies a proprietary relationship to the natural world which will eventually destroy it.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Gold Farming

Here’s a phrase that many people haven’t yet heard. Gold Farming sounds like an alchemical notion: generating the good stuff from the more base metals. Perhaps it conjures an image of a greeting card aphorism: sowing coins into the earth to reap later rewards? In fact “gold farming” refers to some recent video game developments. First another esoteric phrase: MMORPG- which stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. Rather than a conventional game that starts and stops when you play, these games have what’s called a “persistent universe”. The idea being that thousands of other players are interacting with the same game universe online, and when you go to bed, other gamers continue to play and thus alter the game’s state of affairs during your absence. This simple idea, which essentially mimics the rest of life, breeds addictive play because those who spend the most time playing end up with the most power, gold or best stuff. This un-level playing field has in turn spawned a virtual economy. If you haven’t got the time to build up your game character’s experience/ power or find gold to buy equipment, well, why not pay real dollars to buy a character or some gold that someone else built up over weeks of play? The gold in the game enables you to get some all-powerful sword or some-such; thus allowing you the fun of kicking the butts of weaker opponents. This is all a simple enough extension of the persistent game world and indeed various virtual items from these games began to appear on e-bay early on.

Enter Chinese cheap labor. When someone in Asia can be paid aprox $4 per day, suddenly the notion of selling goodies from the game turns into a business. Thus gold farming refers to the practice of real world businesses hiring kids to play the games for 10 hours a day to find gold in the game world which is then sold for real-world US dollars to more dilettante players elsewhere. It should be noted that some of the game manufacturers are fighting this practice as a bastardization of their game, while others actively encourage it in the interests of running a giant experiment. This isn’t nickel-and-dime stuff either. One game; World of Warcraft, is reported to have involved 180 million dollars changing hands over the past year as a result of these practices. The game “Second Life” posts a daily tally of US dollars changing hands within the game environment and it routinely tops $300,000 every 24 hours.

It reminds one of descriptions of Darwinian competitiveness: the natural world being a stump packed solid with nails and any new organism/nail must force its way in or displace existing ones. All of a sudden, someone has dropped a new log adjacent to the old one and in moments the surface is covered in shiny new spikes as competitive zeal explodes in hundreds of ways across an untapped surface. Though, there’s something desperately sad in what it says about our world when the global economy can drive the flower of Chinese youth to eke out a meager living serving up digital “gold” to lazy gamers. But on the other hand, I’m inspired by the sheer creativity- a vision of human ingenuity as a liquid running into the cracks between all those intractable nails.