Friday, December 31, 2010

a note on sickness

In Samuel Butler's satirical novel EREWHON (1872), the main character, Higgs, finds his way to a civilization where the understanding of moral behavior and physical sickness is reversed. For example, when people forge a check or rob someone with violence, they are taken to the hospital where they are said to be suffering from a "severe fit of immorality." Friends will come and visit solemnly and hope for a quick recovery. Physical sickness of any sort, on the other hand, is often hidden by those infected as it's looked on as a weakness of character, and those afflicted are punished with stints in prison (which, of course, often makes them worse).

George W. Bush also seems to inhabit a moral universe where many things are reversed, and I thought of the world of Erewhon recently when I heard him say in an interview that he once woke up with "the remorses."

More than just being a jab meant to mock George W. Bush's verbal ineptitude, what I mean to say is that, for George W. Bush and his ilk, "remorse" is a malediction, a disease of the mind to be snuffed out or cured. (Remorse often stems from compassion.) And more than that, in W.'s political world there was no remorse because there were no mistakes.

eureka roeg hauer erewhon
hauer reading erewhon eureka
Rutger Hauer reading Erewhon in Nicolas Roeg's Eureka (1983)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Hope & Despair: a Valedictorian Speech and a Commencement Address

Here is a video of a speech Erica Goldson gave at her Coxsackie-Athens High School (the best high school graduation speech ever given?). She was the valedictorian. The speech is uncommonly insightful for someone in her position but it also made me wonder when exactly she had these realizations -- obviously it's unfitting to have carried on as she did throughout high school knowing what she knows.

The recording starts a little after the speech has begun. The following text is what's missing from the video, with the line in bold noting where the video picks up.

"There is a story of a young, but earnest Zen student who approached his teacher, and asked the Master, "If I work very hard and diligently, how long will it take me to find Zen?" The Master thought about this, then replied, "Ten years." The student then said, "But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast – How long then?" Replied the Master, "Well, twenty years." "But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?" asked the student."

The speech can be read HERE.

In an interview given at a later date, Goldson mentioned how the thought of never having a "B" on her report card caused her to wonder why she cared so much about her grades and why she tried so hard in school. Unfortunately she left it at that, with no hint as to what her conclusion was. From what I've been able to gather from another video, it seems like most of her thoughts only began to crystallize once she sat down to write the speech. Determined to express something she truly felt rather than bull-shitting her way through a standard type of meaningless, cliche ridden valedictorian speech, her unformed feelings finally congealed into words and made their way into her notebook. (The cliche ridden model is the very type of speech she gave her principal to read over for approval.)

Though Goldson quotes John Taylor Gatto in the speech, I came to find out that she didn't even know who he was until her favorite teacher, Donna Bryan (whom she has remained close to since the tenth-grade), recommended him to her after reading her first draft. (Bryan, who Goldson mentions by name in the speech, has subsequently been removed from teaching tenth grade honors. Aside from that, however, it sounds as though she is doing quite well.)

* * *

The following video is a commencement speech Chris Hedges gave at Rockford College in Rockford, Illinois. It's from 2003, and history has shown Hedges' remarks to be spot on. That's the audience's problem, of course. Hedges is trying to drag their heads through the veil of feel-good fantasy that permeates American culture, and many of them simply aren't having it! (4 parts, 5 minutes each)

"Hedges' microphone was cut twice and two young men rushed the stage to try to prevent him from speaking. Hedges had to cut short his address and was escorted off campus by security officials before the ceremony was over. An editorial in The Wall Street Journal denounced Hedges for his anti-war stance on May 24. His employer, The New York Times, criticized his statements and issued him a written reprimand for "public remarks that could undermine public trust in the paper's impartiality." Shortly after the incident, Hedges left The New York Times..."

The patriots demonstrated all one needs to knows about how they truly feel about freedom of speech that day, and a certain prank by Sacha Baron Cohen immediately came to mind while I watched the whole fiasco unfold.

Many people have already seen the following video, but, for those who haven't, it relates to the Hedges video in that it shows how a certain American audience reacted when confronted with a performer whose content and ideas were truly ridiculous and reprehensible. But then again, it is a catchy tune!

The juxtaposition of the two events seems very appropriate to me: a truth-teller ridiculed and a prankster applauded.

"The masses have never thirsted after truth... Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim." --Gustave Le Bon

Friday, December 10, 2010

(wikileaks) terror, terrorism, and terrorists: part 1

note: this isn't meant as a stand alone post, but due to its length i've reordered it a little and broken it in two.

* * *

"Assange is an active enemy combatant who is engaged in information warfare against the United States. What he is doing is going to have incalculable damage to this country. It is going to have a number of innocent people killed, a number of our allies killed. It is going to put Americans at risk... This is an act of war against the United States." —Newt Gingrich [X]

"This guy's a traitor, he's treasonous, and he has broken every law of the United States. And I'm not for the death penalty, so... there's only one way to do it: illegally shoot the son of a bitch." —Bob Beckel, Democratic Fox News analyst [X]

"Whoever in our government leaked that information is guilty of treason, and I think anything less than execution is too kind a penalty." —Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas [X]

"Strange how most right wingers and others such as Joe LIEberman and Bob Beckel are using the same tactics that Islamic extremists used against Salman Rushdie when he criticized their religion." —MeritisDE (youtube comment)

* * *

"WikiLeaks is not the only publisher of the US embassy cables. Other media outlets, including Britain's The Guardian, The New York Times, El Pais in Spain and Der Spiegel in Germany have published the same redacted cables.

Yet it is WikiLeaks, as the co-ordinator of these other groups, that has copped the most vicious attacks and accusations from the US government and its acolytes. I have been accused of treason, even though I am an Australian, not a US, citizen. There have been dozens of serious calls in the US for me to be "taken out" by US special forces. Sarah Palin says I should be "hunted down like Osama bin Laden", a Republican bill sits before the US Senate seeking to have me declared a "transnational threat" and disposed of accordingly. An adviser to the Canadian Prime Minister's office has called on national television for me to be assassinated. An American blogger has called for my 20-year-old son, here in Australia, to be kidnapped and harmed for no other reason than to get at me." —Julian Assange [X]

"Prosecutors have used the Espionage Act to convict officials who leaked classified information. They have never successfully convicted any leak recipient who then passed the information along, however, and the Justice Department has never tried to prosecute a journalist — which Mr. Assange portrays himself as being — under either a Republican or a Democratic administration." —New York Times [X]

"I certainly believe that WikiLleaks has violated the Espionage Act, but then what about the news organizations — including The Times — that accepted it and distributed it? To me, The New York Times has committed at least an act of bad citizenship, and whether they have committed a crime, I think that bears a very intensive inquiry by the Justice Department." —Joe Lieberman, US senator [X]

"I don't want to get into specifics here, but people would have a misimpression if the only statute you think that we are looking at is the Espionage Act," Mr. Holder said Monday at a news conference. "That is certainly something that might play a role, but there are other statutes, other tools that we have at our disposal."


Meanwhile, according to another government official familiar with the investigation, Justice Department officials have also examined whether Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks could be charged with trafficking in stolen government property.

But scholars say there might be legal difficulties with that approach, too, because the leaked documents are reproductions of files the government still possesses, not physical objects missing from its file cabinets. That means they are covered by intellectual property law, not ordinary property law.


Intellectual property law is not well designed to prosecute what WikiLeaks is doing, cautioned James Boyle, a Duke University law professor who specializes in intellectual property and public-domain issues.

"The reason people are upset about this is not about commercial theft or misusing the fabulous original expressions of U.S. diplomats," Mr. Boyle said. "I think it is the wrong tool. You go after Al Capone for tax evasion rather than bootlegging — fine. But this is a bridge too far." —New York Times [X]

* * *

"The U.S. State Department has imposed an order barring employees from reading the leaked WikiLeaks cables. State Department staffers have been told not to read cables because they were classified and subject to security clearances. The State Department’s WikiLeaks censorship has even been extended to university students." [X]

From: Office of Career Services []

Date: Tue, Nov 30, 2010 at 3:26 PM

Subject: Wikileaks – Advice from an alum

Hi students,

We received a call today from a SIPA alumnus who is working at the State Department. He asked us to pass along the following information to anyone who will be applying for jobs in the federal government, since all would require a background investigation and in some instances a security clearance.

The documents released during the past few months through Wikileaks are still considered classified documents. He recommends that you DO NOT post links to these documents nor make comments on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter. Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government.


Office of Career Services

* * *

Rep. Peter King, the ranking Republican member of the House Homeland Security Committee, wants to designate WikiLeaks as a "foreign terrorist organization."

"They are engaged in terrorist activity. What they're doing is clearly aiding and abetting terrorist groups," King told Fox News. "Either we're serious about this or we're not." [X]

* * *

"After providing 24-hour notification, American owned EveryDNS dropped WikiLeaks from its entries on 2 December 2010, citing DDoS attacks that "threatened the stability of its infrastructure". The site's 'info' DNS lookup remained operational at alternative addresses for direct access respectively to the Wikileaks and Cablegate websites. On the same day, severed its ties with WikiLeaks, to which it was providing infrastructure services, after an intervention by an aide of US Senator Joe Lieberman. Amazon denied acting under political pressure citing a violation of its terms of service." —wikipedia [X]

"PayPal Admits State Department Pressure Caused It To Block WikiLeaks" [X]

* * *

"In an online interview with Agence France-Presse, the hackers vowed to stage cyber assaults against anyone with an "anti-WikiLeaks agenda."

The group has also claimed credit for taking down the sites of PayPal, the Swiss Post Office bank, and other entities that have begun shutting off the WikiLeaks money spigot.

Sarah Palin told ABC News that she too had been hacked.

"No wonder others are keeping silent about Assange's antics," Palin emailed. "This is what happens when you exercise the First Amendment and speak against his sick, un-American espionage efforts." —NY Daily News [X]

"Our primary objective is to protect sharing of digital information and culture, so everybody can access to it, so that implies defending freedom of speech," three of the hackers attacking the Swiss Bank told me in a collaborative online discussion on Monday. (When asked to whom that statement should be attributed, the answer came back: "We are nothing without each other. We all act as one.")

"We will fire at anyone or anything that tries to censor WikiLeaks. The major shitstorm has begun."

"[The] Internet is the only place left where we can communicate freely without any censorship... until now," they said." [X]

* * *

"Every time WikiLeaks publishes the truth about abuses committed by US agencies, Australian politicians chant a provably false chorus with the State Department: "You'll risk lives! National security! You'll endanger troops!" Then they say there is nothing of importance in what WikiLeaks publishes. It can't be both. Which is it?

It is neither. WikiLeaks has a four-year publishing history. During that time we have changed whole governments, but not a single person, as far as anyone is aware, has been harmed. But the US, with Australian government connivance, has killed thousands in the past few months alone.

US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates admitted in a letter to the US congress that no sensitive intelligence sources or methods had been compromised by the Afghan war logs disclosure. The Pentagon stated there was no evidence the WikiLeaks reports had led to anyone being harmed in Afghanistan. NATO in Kabul told CNN it couldn't find a single person who needed protecting. The Australian Department of Defence said the same. No Australian troops or sources have been hurt by anything we have published." —Julian Assange [X]

"Whatever you think of WikiLeaks, they've never been charged with a crime, let alone indicted or convicted. And yet, look at what has happened to them. They've been essentially removed from the internet, not just through a denial of service attacks that are very sophisticated, but through political pressure applied to numerous countries. Their funds have been frozen, including funds donated by people around the world for his—for Julian Assange's defense fund and for WikiLeaks's defense fund. They've had their access to all kinds of accounts cut off. Leading politicians and media figures have called for their assassination, their murder, to be labeled a terrorist organization. What's really going on here is a war over control of the internet and whether or not the internet can actually serve what a lot of people hoped its ultimate purpose was, which was to allow citizens to band together and democratize the checks on the world's most powerful factions. That's what this really is about. It's why you see Western government, totally lawlessly, waging what can only be described as a war on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange outside the bounds of any constraints, because that's what really is at stake here. If they want to prosecute them, they should go to court and do it through legal means. But this extralegal persecution ought to be very alarming to every citizen in every one of these countries, because it essentially is pure authoritarianism and is designed to prevent the internet from being used as its ultimate promise, which is providing a check on unconstrained political power." —Glenn Greenwald, constitutional attorney [X]

* * *

"The state's reaction to the RAF set off a number of anti-democratic developments in the Federal Republic of Germany: the curtailing of civil rights and extensive anti-terror legislation and other laws were passed ostensibly in defense of the constitution. In fact, it was all part of the RAF's strategy to force the hand of the state to expose openly its latent fascist tendencies." —Karin Bauer, In Search of Ulrike Meinhof

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

split affinities (2)

jj cord cutter's way
the fat all the little animals
J.J. Cord (Cutter's Way, 1981) and "The Fat" (All the Little Animals, 1999)

There is a war between the rich and poor,
a war between the man and the woman.
There is a war between the ones who say there is a war
and the ones who say that there isn't.

Why don't you come on back to the war, that's right, get in it.
Why don't you come on back to the war, it's just beginning.

--"There Is a War", Leonard Cohen (1974)

putin sunglasses
cheney sunglasses
Vladimir Putin and Dick Cheney

cutter's way
Cutter's Way (Ivan Passer, 1981)

Friday, December 03, 2010

split affinities

fellini satyricon wall

Fellini Satyricon (1969)

basquiat untitled 1987

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (1987)

samo graffiti basquiat diaz

"SAMO" graffiti (1977-1980) - Jean-Michel Basquiat & Al Diaz

beat street graffiti

"RAMO" graffiti (1984) - from Stan Lathan's Beat Street

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Barnes Foundation

the barnes museum

"The Barnes Foundation is the only sane place to see art in America." --Matisse

After visiting The Barnes on Sunday, I can't say that it's the only sane place to see art in America, but I can say that I've never had a better time -- and a more enlightening experience -- at a museum.

Even though The Barnes exists a mere two and a half hours northeast of my home (by car), it wasn't until watching the documentary The Art of the Steal that I became aware of it. I was very interested in visiting the museum as the documentary progressed, and, not knowing the story or its outcome, I became increasingly stressed while watching (the odds that the museum was still around seemed to dwindle with each passing chapter). Luckily, as I found out at the film's conclusion, The Barnes Foundation is still around in (more or less) its original format. That is, until next year. Time to make reservations.

Until seeing The Art of the Steal I had also never fully realized that what I found off-putting about most museums was the clinical, hospital-like atmosphere: white (usually) sterile walls, spaced out paintings, placards, and everything with a very detached, technical feel. The level of reverence many of these institutions have for the work becomes apparent (if somehow The Art of the Steal fails to get this across) once you think about the fact that most pictures are framed in a way that masks part of the painting (bits of the perimeter). Albert Barnes, on the other hand, placed all of his frames outside of the painting so as to not cover part of their edge, and his museum is perhaps the only one to have done away with the small placards that detail the name and year of the painting (a distraction, he thought, since the paintings surely stand by themselves). Small details aside, what makes The Barnes truly special is its wall displays.

Each wall of The Barnes is arranged very precisely, with paintings from various artists and time periods mingling and mixing freely with one another for the purpose of comparison. Hanging above and around the paintings are metal objects -- door hinges, keys -- often positioned together to create new patterns (occasionally I noticed face-like designs). On the floor in front of the paintings (usually) sits antique furniture of some kind -- typically a desk, chest, or small cabinet (displayed as art in their own right) -- and atop the furniture there is sometimes pottery, small brass sculptures, candles, or other similar objects. The point is for everything to play off of, and highlight, everything else -- teaching as much as showing. For example, the pattern of an antique chest might hint at the pattern in part of a woman's dress in the painting hanging above, while the wooden spokes in the back of a chair sitting in the corner might mirror the branches of a tree in the nearby Cézanne. Some of the paintings (or walls) are arranged so that an accented color builds a pattern in the display: a red flower in one painting can be followed to the red socks worn by someone in another, which can then be followed to the red hair of a figure in another, etc. (Much of this, of course, creates a subconscious harmony, and no doubt Barnes used it as a very good teaching tool.) Other ensembles are arranged so that certain lines continue from one painting to another, zigzagging very subtly across a wall. Another kind of arrangement simply makes influences more apparent: a room with a few Modigliani paintings contains a center display with various African masks -- the very kind that influenced and inspired him -- and after looking at them we see the faces in his paintings a bit differently.

Albert Barnes also made it a point to highlight commonalities and connections between seemingly disparate things. He displays religious works from Africa and the East alongside Christian iconography to perhaps suggest that African images look just as strange to most Westerners as the Christian images look to most Africans. Why then, we're meant to ask, is one supposed to be sacred and the other silly? Thus, the connection -- human spirituality, the longing for purpose -- is what really matters.

There are still other reasons for some of Barnes' particular arrangements. On one of the walls hangs a large Manet (if I remember correctly), a painting of two women sitting near the center, with two red flowers blooming in the green grass below. Albert Barnes viewed one of the bright flowers as a "mistake" since it draws the eye down to the corner and upsets the composition, so he decided to "correct" it by placing a small Renoir above the Manet, a painting (of a woman) which contains a splash of red (in her dress). It's interesting to cover the Renoir with your thumb while looking at the Manet to see what he means. After doing this I noticed how my eyes tended to take in the entire wall at once (or what ever was in my field of vision), while my brain leaned more towards consciously separating each part of the wall into the various individual paintings. This, in a nutshell, is what's so great about The Barnes. Every room is a work of art in itself, and Barnes, their composer, was a great artist in his own right. Each wall demands various viewings/perspectives: up close, to see the individual paintings; at a medium distance, to see how the paintings and objects interact; and from across the room, to see the entire wall as a single piece. Sometimes the walls even echo other walls, with a painting on one side of the room mirroring something hanging in the same spot on the opposite wall. It's endlessly fascinating. I easily spent three and a half hours in the museum (it felt like an hour and a half) and could have just as easily spent more.

One of my favorite ensembles consisted of a play on "arches". I don't remember everything exactly, but on one section of a particular wall was a De Chirico painting of a few horses standing in front of some arches (part of a building or ruins). Above the painting was a hanging piece of metal with two arches, and below it was another painting that had two arches -- some sort of building. On the floor was a wood piece with arches that mirrored all of this. In the same place on the second half of the same wall hung paintings that were not literal arches, but implied arches. The metal work above and the wood work on the floor were the same, but the De Chirico on this half of the wall appeared to have no arches at all -- that is, until you looked closer and saw that the heads and necks of the two horses facing one another created arches. Similarly, in the painting hanging below, arches were created by the heads of two figures standing side by side.

Everything in the museum is done with a stunning attention to detail. Even a smaller version of a painting by Matisse is positioned in a spot in the stair-well (leading to the second floor) where you can see the larger version of the painting, which hangs near the top of the main room (on the first floor), behind it. Not only that, the arches of the small painting rhyme with various mini-arches in the architecture around it. (The painting itself is shaped with three arches. To see the large version of the painting on the first floor (above the windows), click here. This mural by Matisse -- though it is not a mural because it's painted on a piece of cut wood -- was made specifically for Albert Barnes as a gift. edit: this is incorrect - see comments section.)

* * *

the barnes museum renoir chairs
Above: not without a sense of humor, Barnes has positioned two wider-than-average
chairs below these particular Renoir nudes. Note also the curvy metal works hanging above.

Friday, November 19, 2010

To Bartleby, or not to Bartleby


john zerzan work cartoon

john zerzan work cartoon

john zerzan work cartoon

john zerzan work cartoon

john zerzan work cartoon

john zerzan work cartoon

john zerzan work cartoon
(from a poster produced by John Zerzan and Dan Todd, which originally
appeared in the booklet Adventures in Subversion: Flyers & Posters, 1981-85)

* * *


"Based on the fictional character Bartleby, this is a game played between two temps, which the full-time members of the staff can bet on. The objective is for both temps to remain entirely inactive for the duration of their assignment. They achieve this by maintaining an inscrutable 'poker face' whenever asked to do anything. Any actual work done loses points and the stakes can be raised by taking extremely long lunch breaks. These can be matched by their opponent taking monumental tea or cigarette breaks. The winner is the temp who has not done a stroke of work yet possesses a time sheet that will generate a full day's pay." --from The Chap Manifesto by Gustav Temple and Vic Darkwood

bartlebying chap manifesto bartleby work

* * *

"Offices have the distinct advantage of providing fiscal recompense somewhat greater than the minimum wage, which in turn reduces the period of hard labor that you are obliged to endure. But beware, many pitfalls await the unsuspecting. The modern business employs various tactics to break down the spirit of its employees. These include the offer of permanent positions, promotions and bonuses, and sending their staff on 'motivational weekends' in order to brainwash them into thinking that what they are doing is 'team-oriented' and 'worthwhile'. A high level of concentration must be maintained at all times to avoid being corrupted by such frippery. As long as you keep your wits about you, you will soon realise that the world of work simply involves shuffling the world's matter about from A to B and back again, at somebody else's behest and for somebody else's benefit. This 'matter' may take form of pieces of paper, electrical pulses on a computer screen, currency, metal ores or foodstuffs, but essentially the idea is always the same." --The Chap Manifesto

il posto olmi

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What's in a Face? A small moment from AMERICAN DREAM (1990)

There is moment in Barbara Kopple's documentary AMERICAN DREAM (1990) that, for me, distills the entire film into a single, emotional punch. The moment is very small, very quick, very easy to overlook, and seemingly insignificant (maybe it is). Whatever meaning the moment does have resides in a human face, something which surely contains enough mystery to mislead, confound, and confuse all of us on a regular basis. I watched the moment a few more times after the film was over to see if I thought there was something there or if I was just imagining things, and when I felt reasonably sure I hadn't deceived myself I copied the moment to my computer with the intention of using it as part of a future blog post.

* * *

Lev Kuleshov very famously edited together the face of a actor (Ivan Mozzhukhin) with a bowl of soup, a coffin containing a little girl, and a woman. When the actor followed the image of a bowl of soup he appeared to express hunger. Following the coffin he expressed sorrow, lust when following the woman. But the face was static and unchanging; it was the same exact shot repeated over and over. The audience, however, thought it was different each time, and even raved about the acting. What really happened, of course, is that they brought their own emotional response to the images and applied them to the actor.

* * *

A few weeks ago I watched the moment from AMERICAN DREAM again, and this time there was nothing there. I couldn't see what I had originally seen (or thought I had seen). But yesterday I watched it yet again and it couldn't have been any more clear: I was right the first time! There was something there, something powerful and moving. It wasn't in my imagination after all, and I don't understand how it could have looked so different to me a few weeks ago. (But of course I do understand. It's just strange because I am unable to return to how I saw it a few weeks ago.)

Here is the scene. What do you see? (Again, apologies for the choppy video.)


Watch it again. The moment takes place before :14.

Nothing? The woman, looking around frantically, waving the American flag, somewhat energetic, seemingly content...

Watch her again.

Now, for those of you who haven't seen the film, here is some information: AMERICAN DREAM is a documentary about Reagan-era union busting which gives a behind the scenes look at a major strike that took place at a Hormel meat packing plant in 1985-86. The context of the scene is very bleak. The workers have been on strike for quite a long time with no end in sight, and scabs are showing up to fill up the vacant jobs at the plant.

Here's what I saw:

The woman, looking around frantically, waving the American flag, somewhat energetic, seemingly content... Then her eyes, as they dart around -- quickly, just for a moment -- lock with the flag she is waving. As soon as this happens (or just before) she stops waving the flag the same way and her face changes inexplicably. And obviously it's very cold out. Everyone sees these things (more or less).

Here's what else I saw: A profound moment, some sort of epiphany captured. It's as if the woman just realized that what she thought of as America -- how she's seen America her entire life -- has suddenly changed because of the experiences she's recently been through. (We, as viewers, have been through a similar experience, though by no means a comparable one.) When she realizes this there's a deep sadness in her face, a deep resignation, even confusion. A kind of "What am I doing / where am I / who am I?" moment. Something she took for granted vanishes instantly and her worldview no longer makes sense.

The moment is doubly powerful because it's not an actor trying to convey something but an unguarded moment captured without fuss (though, as Marlon Brando was often quick to point out, we're all actors in our day to day lives to some extent). These small realizations are crucial moments in our lives, and how we choose to proceed from them is of the utmost importance. It's where our "character" lives and dies.

Or maybe she just realized she left the iron on. That's important too.

* * *

The first time I watched UGETSU (my first Mizoguchi film) I didn't like it. I didn't get it. I couldn't fall into its rhythms. Because of its reputation I gave it another try the following day, this time with the sound off. The first 20 minutes had me entranced. I put the sound back on, watched the whole thing all the way through, and loved it. When it was over I was sure I had seen a masterpiece.

I haven't seen it since.

I've also had the opposite happen: a favorite film seen a second time leaving me cold.

* * *

There is an unintentionally humorous 4-star review of AMERICAN DREAM on Netflix that relates to the "What am I doing / where am I / who am I?" moments and how we do everything we can to resist, ignore, and forget them. It ends with a threat turned lament.

"I would have given it 5 stars [if it] hadn't shown the pigs/hogs being taken to the slaughter house, then slaughtered and such. I [know] these people were meat packers, but they really didn't [need to] show that part. I just might become a vegetarian now."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

a few comments inspired by something i watched

A quick note: the possibilities I mention below probably aren't really in the video as much as they exist in my mind, but the video gives some idea.

* * *

While watching the video Living in the End Times According to Slavoj Zizek (see below), all I could think about was the possibility of a new kind of cinema-spectacle, one that combines theater, lecture, and live performance with images, text and sound, and which takes place within a dome (or arena) of screens. Or, if not a new kind of cinema, at least a new kind of lecture: interactive, on-the-spot, organic performance essays(?). Such a thing could be filmed in various ways, and, when finished, would exist mostly as something static even though it would be created more organically. (This, along with the abundant use of technology, would differentiate it sufficiently from something like The Living Theatre.)

When the video began and I saw all the screens on stage after reading the premise, I got excited because it -- or what I thought "it" was going to be -- seemed like something Žižek was made for. Standing in a center ring surrounded by screens, I pictured him frenetically jabbing and punching his way through and around a barrage of images while coating the stage with his patented saliva. Since he has the unique ability to speak unendingly (and often humorously, if not insightfully) about practically anything, and because he possesses a great breadth of cultural and political knowledge, Žižek is the perfect candidate for such an endeavor. (He's always reminded me of one of those pull-string dolls, only in his case the string flies into the doll at five times the speed and stretches all the way to Pluto. One needs a pair of scissors to debate him properly.)

If something truly spontaneous, collaborative, and organic was to be made using a similar format, the person controlling the images/screens and sounds would also have to be a quick thinking genius, a visual DJ of sorts spinning and combining things left and right at a moments notice, playing off the reactions and commentary of the "performer" (lecturer, improviser, participant, actor, protagonist, audience) with a near limitless collection of easy to find clips (or entire films from which to select scenes from), text, and audio. A kind of "freestyle filmmaking." (I imagine some things would have to be planned, or at least have some sort of framework in order to ensure that the result wouldn't be a rapid, flashy, nearly nonsensical mess of images, sound, and commentary.)

I wish there was more free association and less direct questioning in the actual video, as well as a better use of the multiple screens and images. Overall it's more standard than the things that rushed through my mind at various moments while I watched (and which I tried to give some impression of above). Most of it, at its core, is unfortunately little more than someone responding to pre-recorded questions and comments.

If 50 minutes is too long, jump around a bit. (And, as is often the case, see the comments section for more.)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Planet Earth & planet Earth

Why are there no oil refineries on Planet Earth?

planet earth BBC

Why are there no polluted rivers on Planet Earth?

planet earth BBC

Why are there no industrial landscapes on Planet Earth?

BBC planet earth

Why are there no clear-cuts on Planet Earth?

planet earth BBC

Why are there no parking lots on Planet Earth?

planet earth tv series

Why is there no Great Pacific Garbage Patch on Planet Earth?

planet earth Attenborough BBC

Why are there no shopping malls on Planet Earth?

planet earth BBC

Why are there no melting ice caps on Planet Earth?

planet earth BBC

Why are there no humans on Planet Earth?

planet earth BBC

* * *

David Attenborough opens Planet Earth with the following narration:

"A hundred years ago, there were one and a half billion people on Earth. Now, over six billion crowd our fragile planet. But even so, there are still places barely touched by humanity. This series will take you to the last wildernesses and show you the planet and its wildlife as you have never seen them before."

He closes the series with this:

"Our planet is still full of wonders. As we explore them, we gain not only understanding, but power. It's not just the future of the whale that today lies in our hands: it's the survival of the natural world in all parts of the living planet. We can now destroy or we can cherish. The choice is ours."

With the statements that open and close the television series Planet Earth, we can assume that everything that lies between them is meant to inspire conservation via an awe-inspiring showcase of beauty and wonder. The problem, however, is that seeking out the "last wildernesses" can just as easily do the opposite. By leaving humans out of the equation and deliberately avoiding human footprints of any sort, Planet Earth obscures the fact that we're living on the edge of one of the largest extinction events in the history of the planet -- and one that's largely caused by humans. It even makes such a thing seem untrue. The fact that the life of nearly everything the series focuses on is at risk couldn't seem like more of a fantasy, and the trashing of much of the planet couldn't seem any more inconsequential.

With its many areas of focus: fresh water, oceans, mountains, caves, deserts, plains, jungles, etc. -- combined with its name, Planet Earth -- the mini-series gives the impression of being a comprehensive picture. Thus, our impact on the environment seems relatively small since there are so many places where Earth is (seemingly) untouched. Even Attenborough's mention that the planet is "fragile" seems to be slowly undermined. Not only does the series create these impressions by choosing to avoid humans, it's made worse by leaving out the mere mention of humans, even in places where it would be more than appropriate. During the episode Shallow Seas, there's a section on humpback whales where Attenborough goes out of his way to avoid mentioning specifically that humans are the main culprits in declining fish populations:

"The polar seas in summer are the most productive on the planet, and the whales gorge themselves 'round the clock. But it may not always be this way; fish and krill stocks are declining so rapidly that spectacles like this might soon be part of history."

Don't get me wrong -- trying to help and encourage people to fall in love with the natural world (while educating them along the way) is certainly a worthy goal, and Planet Earth is certainly an interesting, enjoyable and worthwhile television series. It's just unfortunate that the series seems to work better as a narcotic, something that soothes us and incurs forgetfulness. By focusing on pictures where every frame is packed with wonder and beauty, everything naturally seems fine. Sure, we've been trashing the planet all these years, but, whaddya know, things out there still look bountiful and pristine... damn near unscathed, really. And that's because what Planet Earth shows is not planet Earth at all -- far from it. It shows only the dream and leaves out the nightmare.

This false picture is the least harmful aspect of the series, however. The more damaging aspect can be gleaned from one of the phrases in Attenborough's closing narration: "As we explore them [the wonders of our planet], we gain not only understanding, but power." The assumption being hinted at -- and one that's made more explicit throughout the series -- is that human beings are the sovereign kings of planet Earth. Or, at the very least, beings who exist outside of the ecosystem.

There is a section in the series during the episode Caves that I found to be somewhat strange. We see humans, yes, but not as we would see them in a nature documentary; we see them jumping (parachuting) into a cave. They're treated very much like aliens visiting Earth, recording and documenting what they see:

"[the cave is] deep enough to engulf the Empire State Building," (it's interesting to note that we aren't given a measurement for scale... we're meant to be impressed by understanding that the cave is "great" because it trumps something that was made by humans... Of course it's also true that scale is easier to imagine when you use something people know for comparison, though I suspect few people can picture the Empire State Building any easier than they can picture 1,250 feet; they just know it's apparently a very impressive building. And then there is that word "engulf." Anyway...) "These depths were first explored only two years before men landed on the Moon." (Again, the context is mankind's accomplishments, and this time with an added extra-terrestrial element.)

BBC planet earth

Attenborough views humans as silent observers, scientists who go around collecting information for their own pride and gain. This anthropocentric understanding makes sense and sheds light on the hidden assumptions in the rest of the series. By showing a planet Earth divorced from humans, where the only people glimpsed (very rarely) are scientists, explorers and thrill seekers ("using" the world instead of living in it), humans are understood as existing outside of the rhythms and cycles of the natural world, which further cements our apartness and separateness from the environment. Such a way of seeing the world makes conservation on the size and scope that's needed all but impossible.

* * *

planet earth cartoon

Sunday, October 31, 2010

halloween tale

Don't know if this will be of interest to anyone but my friends, but I was reading over some old computer files and came upon the following story that's perfect for Halloween. It's about a prank that was played on one of my friends. Not knowing my friend (Sean) could give the impression that the prank was cruel... It was not. Also, after re-reading the story I see that it's possible I could come across as, for lack of a better word, a lunatic to some people. That's fine. The fact that I realize this probably means I'm not a lunatic.

Two final things: 1.) The story took place in the spring of 2007. 2.) It's not as interesting as my disclaimers might have led you to believe.

* * *

I was hanging out with my friend Sarah at her house, and while I was there I invited over a mutual friend, Sean, who lived nearby. I had spoken with Sean earlier in the day (online) and told him I had murdered Sarah. I asked if he was going to call the police and inform them, or if he was going to come over and help me bury her instead. He chose the latter but said he was charging me $1,000. This meant, of course, that he did not believe me. (At least I hope that's what it meant!)

Because of the seed that had been planted, a few hours later -- about fifteen minutes before Sean was supposed to arrive -- Sarah and I decided to quickly stage a murder scene to see how he would react. I rolled Sarah up in a blanket just as I might if I had actually killed her, and the plan was for her to lay there motionless pretending to be dead. Next, I went and found a white towel and some red food coloring. I put some food coloring on the towel and also mixed some with water in a cup and poured it over the towel. Then I placed the (now bloody) towel on the blanket where Sarah's lower chest was in an attempt to make it look as though the blood had seeped through the blanket and I had tried to contain it. I took a steak knife from her kitchen and placed it on the table near her. The scene was moderately convincing, but something didn't look right... I realized that a soapy, bloody bucket sitting on the floor outside the "murder room" would likely add another layer of belief; after all, who would go to such trouble for the sake of a ridiculous joke? I made it look really good by pouring some red food coloring down the inside of the bucket (after I had filled it with soapy water), and made sure to splatter some red specks of food coloring on it as well. I sat a bloody sponge atop the water and placed the bucket such that Sean would be sure to see it before peering in at the corpse. The scene still wasn't perfect so we decided to turn the lamp off to make the bloody towel look more real, and I fixed the windows so the proper amount of light was coming in. (Poor Sarah! Why didn't we save the blanket-wrapping for last?) The television was on -- volume low -- as if the murder had taken place abruptly and I didn't have the chance to turn off the TV -- clearly I had been preoccupied with cleaning up! Everything looked pretty good. We decided that it would be best to partially cover Sarah's face with the leftover blanket when Sean's car pulled up so that no accidental eye-twitching could be detected. My plan was to emerge from the bathroom down the hall very casually after Sean had had a few minutes to critique the scene. (Sarah was excited to partake in the experiment, of course. Reading over this I can see how it might sound as though I was torturing her!)

Everything went according to plan. I came out of the bathroom once Sean had been inside a few minutes and, surprisingly, he didn't laugh. I thought for sure laughter would be his reaction considering how it's nearly impossible to change someones perception of what you're capable of.

"A steak knife?" was all he said. I didn't say anything in response and picked up the heavy black flashlight that was sitting in the room and swung it at his head. He uncharacteristically flinched. (I stopped before I cracked his skull, naturally.) After pretending to bash his brains in there was no longer any sense in continuing the charade. He explained to me that if I had used a steak knife I would have surely cut up my hands, and the stab wounds would be so plentiful that there would have been blood everywhere. I hadn't thought of that. In fact, I actually picked the steak knife because I thought it would be less cliche than a giant butcher knife, and thus, more believable. Oh well.

I asked him in more detail what he had thought and he said his reactions took the following line: (upon seeing the bucket) "I wonder what happened. Maybe one of the animals was hurt. Would Tyler really have killed Sarah?" (upon seeing the body in the room): "Maybe he really did it. [pause] That knife, oh, it wouldn't have worked that way." He said that, even though he had entertained the possibility of a real murder for a few seconds, he wasn't scared. I wondered why and came to the conclusion that it was likely due to how hard it is for a friend to change in the eyes of another friend when it requires the ego of the critiquing friend to be slighted in order to confirm the change. In other words: "Sure, he might be capable of murdering Sarah, but he would never murder me; he likes me too much!" This is a comical and cynical reading, but it does make a lot of sense. Anyway, we didn't expect to give Sean anything but a laugh, so the few seconds of strange experience he got made it more than worthwhile.

dali skull surreal women as skull
(there once existed a literal representation
of the above story... alas, no longer!)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Vidal on Vladimir

I'd normally throw this up on the sidebar, but since posts have been scant lately...

Yesterday evening, with a coupon for a free used book in hand, I acquired a huge (1200+ page) fortress-like book soldiered with Gore Vidal's essays. Vidal's reputation as a first rate essayist, along with the wide-ranging selection of topics, made the book an easy choice. I look forward to his characteristic wit, humor, and insight, but also his smugness (which can be delightful and off-putting at the same time).

The book is broken into three parts: literature, or the state of the art; politics, or the state of the union; and personal responses to people, events, old movies, children's books, or the state of being. Here is a selection of the essays I am most eager and curious to read:

Who Makes the Movies?; Remembering Orson Welles; The Fourth Diary of Anaïs Nin (which opens: "Last year, Anaïs Nin cabled me in Rome: Volume Four of her diaries (1944-47) was to be published. She needed my permission to print what she had written about me."); Tennessee Williams: Someone to Laugh at the Squares With; Why I am Eight Years Younger than Anthony Burgess; The Hacks of Academe; The Day the American Empire Ran out of Gas; Pornography; Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy; Oscar Wilde: On the Skids Again; The Sexus of Henry Miller; Sex is Politics; Novelists and Critics of the 1940s; Satire in the 1950s; Norman Mailer's Self Advertisements (especially in light of their contentious relationship (click to see Mailer in very bad form being jostled from all sides)); The Death of Mishima; American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction; On Prettiness; Literary Gangsters; French Letters: Theories of the New Novel; H.L. Mencken the Journalist; The Novel of Ideas; Pen Pals: Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell; F. Scott Fitzgerald's Case; Edmund Wilson: This Critic and This Gin and These Shoes; and How to Find God and Make Money. (The reason for such a long list: if any of the above essays are of interest to anyone -- and cannot be found online -- let me know. I'm not opposed to typing up some of the better ones by request.)

Below is Vidal's short review of Nabokov's Strong Opinions. I wasn't able to find the entire piece anywhere online (only a few small selections), so I've typed it up in full. (Throwing something new into The Bottomless Pit -- or cementing over some cracks in the incomplete, forever under construction Library of Babel (depending on your take) -- is probably one of the better reasons to blog, no?)

Originally published in The Observer (1974).
* * *

"Professor Nabokov's beautiful Speak Memory has now been succeeded by Strong Opinions -- a collection of press clippings in which he has preserved for future classes what looks to be every interview granted during the last decade. Plainly he has not taken to heart Turgenev's "Never try to justify yourselves (whatever libelous stories they may tell about you). Don't try to explain a misunderstanding, don't be anxious, yourselves, either to say or hear 'the last word.'"

Alas, the Black Swan of Swiss-American letters has a lot of explaining to do (no singing, however: we need the swan for many a future summer). In addition to the bubbling interviews, Professor Nabokov recounts the many misunderstandings between him and the French publisher of Lolita, between him and the critics of his translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, between him and various adversaries in the form of Letters to the Editor (by slyly omitting the pretext for each letter, he creates a loony Kafka-like mood). Included, too, are examples of his own bookchat: Sartre's La Nausee "belongs to that tense-looking but really very loose type of writing, which has been popularized by many second-raters -- Barbusse, Céline, and so forth." Finally, he gives us several meticulous portraits of those butterflies he murdered ("with an expert nip of its thorax") during his celebrated tours of America's motels.

Professor Nabokov's answers to the questions posed him by a dozen or so interviewers are often amusing, sometimes illuminating, and always -- after the third of fourth performance -- unbearable in their repetitiveness. Never again do I want to read that he writes in longhand with a hard pencil while standing at a lectern until he tires and sits or lies down, that he writes on Bristol cards which are lined on only one side so that he will not mistake a used card for a fresh card. Reading and rereading these descriptions, one understands why he thinks Robbe-Grillet is a great writer.

Admittedly, interviewers are always eager to know how a writer writes (what he writes holds less magic for them). But the Swan of Lac Léman in the course of what he admits has been a good deal of editing might have spared us so many repetitions. "I demanded of my students the passion of science and the patience of poetry." Superb -- but only the first time. ("Aphoristicism is a symptom of arteriosclerosis.") And of course the synoptic interviews tell and retell the sacred story of all that was lost by the noble family of "squires and soldiers" (perhaps descended from Genghis Khan) in the Russian revolution, and of their heir's hegira (Germany, England, America) and metamorphosis at Cornell from "lean lecturer into full professor," from obscure Russian emigré novelist into the creator of Lolita, considered by Isherwood to be the best travel book ever written about America.

Professor Nabokov's public appearances and occasional commentaries are always looked forward to because he likes to attack celebrated writers. Hemingway and Conrad are, essentially, "writers of books for boys." "I cannot abide Conrad's souvenir-shop style, bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist clichés." Nor can he abide Mann's "asinine Death in Venice or Pasternak's melodramatic and vilely written Zhivago or Faulkner's corn-cobby chronicles" ... while at Cornell, "I remember the delight of tearing apart Don Quixote, a cruel and crude old book..." or "that awful Monsieur Camus," or "the so-called 'realism' of old novels, the easy platitudes of Balzac or Somerset Maugham, or D.H. Lawrence..." The Professor does admit to admiring Borges, Salinger (J.D., not Pierre), Updike, and at one point he pays a nice tribute to several other New Yorker writers while "My greatest masterpieces of twentieth-century prose are, in this order, Joyce's Ulysses, Kafka's Transformations, Biely's Petersburg, and the first half of Proust's fairy tale in search of lost time." Class dismissed.

Strong Opinions reminds one to what extent the author is still very much a part of the American academic machine. Certainly the best bit of material in this ragbag of a book is a description of giving an examination to a large class at Cornell on a winter's day. Although sensibly stern about "the symbolism racket in schools [which] attracts computerised minds but destroys plain intelligence as well as poetical sense," Nabokov himself has become just the sort of writer the racketeers most like to teach. Not only is his prose full of trilingual puns and word-play but "as I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions," there are bound to be symbols galore and much, much more beneath those Tartar arbors, amongst those Scythian mists.

The best of the interviews are the ones with Alfred Appel, Jr. -- plainly a Nabokovian invention -- the "Jr." is one giveaway. Another is that Mr. Appel's questions are often longer and wittier than the Professor's answers. Can this mean that an intellectual comedy team is being discreetly tried out in these pages? A brand-new Stravinsky and Craft? Certainly, the teacher provides pupil with the most elegant cache-cache as well as cache-sexe. Periodically, the Professor is obliged to note that he himself is not repeat not attracted to those very young girls who keep cropping up in his work. ("Lewis Carroll like little girls. I don't.") At these moments, our proud Black Swan becomes an uneasy goose, fearful of being cooked by Cornell's board of regents.

Despite occasional pleasures, this is not a book for those who admire Nabokov's novels. But for students who will write about him in American universities, it is probably useful to have all this twaddle in one volume. For myself, I am rereading Transparent Things, that perfect radiogram of found objects, precisely set in the artists own Time. If only for this lovely work, Nabokov will never be forced to echo an earlier American culture hero who wrote, sadly:
Yet do I find it perceptible -- here to riot in understatement -- that I, who was once a leading personage in and about those scanty playgrounds of human interest which we nickname literature seem now to have become, for all practical results, unheard-of thereabouts.
Readers who can correctly identify the author of the above passage will be given a letter of introduction to Professor V. Nabokov, Palace Hotel, Montreux, Vaud, Switzerland."


Monday, October 25, 2010

random splatterings

I haven't been posting much recently mostly due to the fact that I've been in a state of mental malaise, or maybe it's a case of mild depression. I still forced some writing from time to time which resulted in about ten unfinished posts and ideas for various things (hopefully they'll amount to something).

I've been working sporadically on a short film with one of my friends. We have a well-conceived skeleton in place, with a finalized script soon to come. I'm excited about it.

* * *

paul newman reading genet
(CLICK HERE if you'd like to enlarge)


1.) Who is the seated person in the above photograph? (Answer)
For the next question you'll probably want to view a larger version of the photo: click here.
2.) What book is this person reading? (Answer)
3.) What set was this photograph taken on? (Answer: I don't have the answer to this question.)

* * *

The other night I was driving home from dinner with some friends and we turned down a road leading to a stoplight. It was red, and someone was crossing the street. As soon as our headlights consumed the pedestrian he froze, turning to look in our direction for a moment as we slowly drifted up to the light. He was wearing a hoodie so his face was obscured. Within seconds he broke into dance in front of us. He took his time crossing the street with robotic movements and then, after finally making his way to the sidewalk, burst into a faster, more improvisational dance, jumping off various objects as he ran. It was fun to watch, and it put all of us in a better mood. We talked about how much more fun the world could be if people simply broke out of the routine patterns of standardized behavior.

Many years ago driving home from a friend's house -- it was late, probably around 1 AM -- I came upon a stop sign. In front of me sat a car I had been following for a short distance. It stopped at the sign, but instead of driving through the car-less intersection, the four doors of the vehicle opened simultaneously, and from inside there emerged four teenage boys in their boxers who proceeded to dance on and around their car for a good 2 minutes as my headlights provided them with a proper spotlight. Music was blasting from their speakers. It was funny, especially due to the fact that they were about as bad at dancing as one could possibly be (purposely or not). After finishing they started laughing, hopped into their car, and drove away. It wasn't until I got home that it occurred to me that I should have put my car in park, gotten out, and danced around on the hood of my car in response.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

i'm still here, somewhere

"...This flood of information we receive only flows one way. At times, it cancels out all our efforts to try to live as we really are. Because even within our imaginations, we are raped. They don't just take our resources, our work, and our money, they take our minds too. We have reached the last threshold of the human heartbeat." —Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2006)

millet angelus

"I am filthy. Lice gnaw me. Swine, when they look at me, vomit. The scabs and sores of leprosy have scaled my skin, which is coated with yellowish pus. I know not river water nor the clouds' dew. From my nape, as from a dungheap, sprouts an enormous toadstool with umbelliferous peduncles. Seated on a shapeless chunk of furniture, I have not moved a limb for four centuries. My feet have taken root in the soil forming a sort of perennial vegetation — not yet quite plant-life though no longer flesh — as far as my belly, and filled with vile parasites. My heart, however, is still beating." —Maldoror, fourth canto

dali Millet's Angelus

Saturday, October 02, 2010

five facts

Before becoming a revolutionary, Che Guevara was deemed unfit for military service in his native Argentina.

In 1989, the Republic of Abkhazia (in the former Soviet Georgia) proclaimed independence. To show the world they were rejecting their Communist past, they issued two postage stamps of Groucho Marx and John Lennon (as opposed to Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin).

In 1971, Representative Tim Moore sponsored a resolution in the Texas House of Representatives calling on the House to commend Albert de Salvo for his unselfish service to "his country, his state and his community... This compassionate gentleman's dedication and devotion to his work has enabled the weak and the lonely throughout the nation to achieve and maintain a new degree of concern for their future. He has been officially recognized by the state of Massachusetts for his noted activities and unconventional techniques involving population control and applied psychology." The resolution was passed unanimously. Rep. Moore then revealed he had only done this to show how the legislature passes bills often without reading them or understanding what they say. Albert de Salvo was better known as the Boston Strangler.

Lord Byron reverently kept a collection by which to remember his girlfriends; in various envelopes he placed their pubic hair. "Today in the offices of Byron's publisher in London are a number of envelopes [...] of differently coloured very curly hair beside the names of his girlfriends." Very curly.

The powerful banking family, the Medicis, kept a fully stocked dwarf mansion as a sort of human dollhouse.

groucho marx stamp Abkhazia

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

an introduction with no conclusion

Before and After.

Can you guess which origami object the following fold pattern is for?

A.) B.)C.)
Answer (below):


One more.

A.) B.)C.)


* * *

Whenever I heard the word origami I used to picture the kinds of patterns and designs shown above. Trinkets, cute little objects... A relaxing hobby. Yes, pieces could be intricate and technically impressive, but overall I'd never seen anything that made me give much thought to paper folding as an art. However, my view on this was recently altered by a couple of the people featured in the documentary Between the Folds. And while I still know next to nothing about origami, I figured I'd share /sort through some of my thoughts and discoveries...

The first part of Between the Folds reinforced my impression of origami as (basically) an expression of math -- more science than art. Many of its practitioners are focused on creating and designing objects with the highest number of folds (the average fold count is constantly increasing). This obsession with difficulty level keeps the focus on technical aspects of creation which ultimately leads to the design -- not the finished piece -- being the star. The creation is merely an assembled puzzle, and many designers take pride in creating things that can only be folded by people with incredible dexterity (and many folders take pride in the dexterity that's required). Thus, the design (or blueprint) is the creation, and the creation itself is merely a kind of paint-by-numbers. What usually ends up happening under this model is that the majority of finished products lack depth and resonance (though fellow practitioners who also worship at the Alter of Difficulty must surely stand before the best of them in awe).

For me, the best of these type of objects are the kind of thing I see and think: neat!

Anyone can appreciate the design and time that when in to creating the finished product, especially when one considers the fact that it was made from a single piece of paper (with no cutting or gluing). But if the finished objects are art, they're the art of the puzzle designer. The art of the problem solver. The art of the technician. The art of the engineer. The art of the computer.

Blade Runner (1982)

I found a little more to like in some of Eric Joisel's paper sculptures. He improvises as he goes (no two finished pieces of his are the same), and this comes across in his work. On the whole, there's something warm, organic and uncalculated about his pieces when compared to ones that are more focused on a mathematical approach. (Joisel is not a purist. Sometimes he uses more than one sheet of paper, for example.)

Snail (single sheet)

Along with a focus on technical details, much of the origami community (at least as it's presented in the film) is obsessed with realism. This is not surprising. People geared towards math are adept at numbers, patterns, puzzles, etc., and, using these strengths, they can figure out how to replicate something that already exists, treating it like a problem to be solved. Thus, they're likely to value realism highly because it's something they can excel at and because they know how to measure (and judge) the result. What they're less good at (of course I'm generalizing) is non-technical, less-practical, and what might even be called irrational forms of creativity. (I don't want to say that mathematics doesn't require creativity; surely it does. But it's creativity of a very different sort.) Left brained thinkers, on the whole, are more literal and less imaginative(?), and their take on origami seems to reflect this. Again, the result (at its worst) is work that's cold, mechanical, and literal minded (however technically impressive). When I see this kind of origami I see hours and hours of folding and (usually) little else.

This approach to paper folding has already begun its next logical step: people are using origami to express certain mathematical theories. The result is a more abstract origami, an origami that appears to be the opposite of one in which objects are measured by how closely they resemble, say, a specific animal. But such abstractions also fit within this logic-based way of seeing and interpreting because the results can still be easily judged. If not in terms of realism then in terms of their practical or theoretical application or expression.

I'm speaking very generally, of course. No approach is automatically better or worse than any other approach. "Computational origami" can be beautiful too.

(above) "MIT Professor of electrical engineering and computer science, Dr. Erik Demaine, creates computational origami with attempt to reveal the mechanism of how pleated paper self folds into specific circular surfaces. His math sculptures are built on explorations started at the Bauhaus in the 1920's in the classroom of Josef Albers (below)."

On the whole I think the abstract pieces are more successful as art than their more realistic counterparts because the content better serves the form (and vice versa).

The first person the documentary shows breaking away from the pack and pushing aside the rigid rules of tradition is Paul Jackson. (Erik Demaine (above) breaks off in his own way as well, but he's featured last in the film). Jackson articulates -- especially through the examples of his paper sculptures -- everything I had always disliked about origami, and I started to see that there were various groups, theories, and philosophies behind paper folding. What I used to think of as "origami" was just a small part of it.

Paul Jackson: "In the mid 1980's, dissatisfied with the origami world's twin obsessions of complexity and literal representation, I began to experiment widely with technical and philosophical alternatives to folding paper as a model making activity. I wanted to make people ask 'why?' rather than 'how?', and to make objects that were aesthetically pleasing, not just clever."

Eventually the question of what can be made with a single crease started to interest him. It was a question originally meant as a casual joke, but after thinking about it he decided to take it as a challenge. One crease? Who could make anything with one crease? He started to experiment.

"This was my first series of explorations -- an attempt to examine what would
happen if only one crease was made on a sheet of paper. This may appear to be a ludicrous notion, but I found that it revealed unexpected riches. Eventually, it became not just a novel technique, but a complex philosophy of folding in contradiction to most of the tenets of model making origami.

The photos below show work folded from single uncut sheets. The red pieces are wet folded from 50cms squares of watercolour paper, brushed with raw watercolour pigment. The cream pieces are folded from 20cm squares of photocopier paper."

Below: a paper sculpture by Giang Dinh.

Jackson then moved on to what he calls "Organic Abstracts."

"This series was begun in the early 1990's and continues to the present day, with over 250 different pieces having been made. It arose from a combination of circumstances -- a technical discovery of how to make apparently curved ribs and a desire to make work which could be exhibited. I later realised I was not the first to use the 'rib' technique (a few origami creators had used it as a small detail in a complex model), though I have explored it with much greater rigour and it is now indelibly associated with my name.

The pieces are technically similar, though differ substantially in the detail. This creative focus on 'variation' rather than on a long series of unique models is intended to shift my attention somewhat away from the left-brain 'how?' of folding, towards a more right-brain focus on colour, shape and meaning. In this way, the pieces have a different creative emphasis to almost all other paper folded (origami) work, being less technical in concept. In my pieces, the technique is the servant, not the king.

Inspiration for the pieces comes from organic forms such as bacteria, seed heads and shells. Controversially for many origami purists, the paper is coloured with charcoal or dry pastel and sealed to create a surface with a matt lustre. I do this because the simple truth is that for me, untreated paper doesn't have the 'presence' of paper customised with pastel. This customisation of the surface somehow changes a model or a craft object into an art object.

The photographs below show work folded from single uncut sheets."

Here are three paper sculptures formed by pleat tessellations. They were created by math and computer science professor Goran Konjevod, who cited Paul Jackson's work as his inspiration.

Below: a mask by Joel Cooper.

Jackson then went on the explore "crumpling."

"After the minimalism of One Crease I explored the opposite -- a sheet of
paper full to bursting with as many creases as it could hold. Actually, the sheet must be crumpled in a precise and controlled way, but when done well has extraordinary elastic properties.

I confess that I've not fully explored the limits of this technique, but I regularly
teach it to Fashion/Textile students who have used it to create some excellent work in the manner of the Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake, but with a much greater vocabulary of form.

The undisputed master of this crumpling technique is the French paper folder Vincent Floderer. I taught him the rudiments of the technique in Paris in 1996, since when he has produced a series of folded pieces of increasing sophistication and beauty. I thank him for acknowledging me as the originator of the technique, but I salute his remarkable artistry and creative vision."

Vincent Floderer is part of a group who call themselves "Le Crimp." They're dubbed "The Anarchists" in Between the Folds because their philosophy (which breaks with tradition and, on the surface, looks to be chaotic) is vastly different from the majority of paper folders. One of the things I liked most about viewing the documentary was seeing how various people were able to figure out how to bring their own personality and point of view to something as simple as sheet of paper, even going as far as creating new techniques in order to better express themselves.

Some samples of Vincent Floderer's work.

The technique can also be used for realism.

Being slightly less ignorant about origami after watching Between the Folds, I've come to realize that a lot of the art of origami is indeed contained in the process. Some works can be bland and uninteresting as finished pieces but amazing and fascinating while they're being made. One of my favorite folders profiled in the film was Chris K. Palmer. He focuses on tessellations -- something that falls into the "puzzle" or "math" category of origami -- and seeing his finished products by themselves would have only reinforced my impression of origami as cute objects, sterile puzzles, etc. But watching him create his pieces was great. He folds and re-folds them in various ways, opening and closing them, repositioning them, forming various layered objects... Impossible to explain. I found it fascinating to watch him fold, and none of that exists or comes across in his finished products (which I don't really like). Palmer says that people looking at a finished piece of origami are only seeing 50% of it because the other half is about the process, and with his work this is particularly true.