Sunday, May 16, 2010

the good critic

For several weeks I've been trying to write a blog entry about criticism, criticality, what it means to be a critic. As final reviews approached at architecture programs around the country in the beginning of May, and I prepared for the last visit as the outside thesis critic for the graduate students in the school of architecture at UNCC, I was considering both my responsibilities as a critic and the students' responsibilities to be critical -- or, more broadly, architectural criticism and critical architecture.

The first delay in writing this piece came from a possibly misguided attempt to combine concepts that may or may not actually fall under the same umbrella. Early research for the piece led me to Reinhold Martin and George Baird's published cry and response circa 2005 on what was identified at the time as a disciplinary movement into a post-critical era.[1] Referencing primarily the texts of Peter Eisenman (the poster child for critical architecture), Michael Hayes, and Rem Koolhaas (the self-proclaimed poster child for post-critical architecture), their arguments seemed to me to intentionally obscure the delineation. This quote from Koolhaas supports that notion: "The problem with the prevailing discourse of architectural criticism is [the] inability to recognize there is in the deepest motivations of architecture something that cannot be critical..." And to continue, "if it turns out that 'criticality' constrains efficacy, then to that extent 'criticality' must give way."[2] Koolhaas, arguing for an architecture that is first and foremost an effective product, can still hardly be identified as an acritical producer either in his weighty (literally) books or his influential constructions. In the end, the divide between the Martin/Baird argument that resides in the realms of high academic discourse and top tier critical architectural production (if that's not an oxymoron in itself) and grad student end of year design reviews seemed vast and unbridgeable -- perhaps even unrelated -- so I let it slide. Sort of.

At the reviews, an energetic and rigorous faculty member referred to me at some point as the 'thesis police'. My job throughout the course of the semester had been to remind the students that these are not simply design projects -- which certainly have their own degrees of complexity and demands -- but are thesis projects which should be, by definition, critical. A thesis, unlike a project, asks a larger question which must then be interrogated, tested, and substantiated. In the case of the UNCC program, the given structure of the thesis year demands that the student first produce a text that outlines the theoretical framework of the 'hypothesis', research relevant precedents, initiate a quick 'test' case, develop longer partial 'experiments', and then frame a larger and more extensive test case that can lead to some set of conclusions. Spelling this out, it sounds rather social sciencey, but in reality the hypothesis, experiments, tests, and conclusions range from the rather empirically (and sometimes quantitatively) based acoustic, light, or material experiments, to very abstract, even experiential, 'experiments' in drawing, design charrettes, site research, cultural explorations, etc etc etc.

My use of the terms question, hypothesis, test, and experiment are in no way literal or rigid, but are broad methodological categories of interrogation. For example, one of the more fascinating projects of this year studied the spatial relationships of break dancers and break dancing, using youtube videos as 'data' for design research, analyzed through diagrams and models. Her final 'test' was to interrogate the relationship between such radical street use and sites of resistance by designing a break dancing space, based on her extensive research, at the site of a Harlem Starbucks. Design, in this case, remains the strategy by which the hypothesis of a relationship is tested. For another thesis, three personas -- archeologist, architect, and artist -- were adopted for experiments in site analysis. The methods utilized were the multi-disciplinary tools of the accumulated trades -- collecting, categorizing, archiving, measuring, mapping, photographing, filming, drawing. The final test case was an ensemble site analysis of a particular location in southend Charlotte. These kinds of theses are not about proof per se, but about critical interrogation and response, with rigorous analysis, that is not limited in applicability to a single set of site and programmatic parameters the way a design project typically is. The 'hypothesis' may fail if the tested strategies and experiments are unable to be applied to a larger test case or if no conclusions are able to be drawn, but the thesis student only fails, in my mind, if he or she fails to push the design question to its larger potential ramifications. One way to fail is a lack of rigor, another is to allow the thesis to revert to a project. If we expect architecture to be possible as a form of critical practice, then some combination of rigor and knowledge must be leveraged for deep inquiry.

Yet architecture as a critical practice and architecture as a form of criticism are not inherently equivalent. As an organizer of the WPA 2.0 competition, those projects overwhelmingly related data to design solutions. The flexibility of the competition -- no given site or program -- demanded that each team substantiate their problem statement before they could even begin to solve it. The best projects developed a clear response to a data-supported, often environmental, need, yet in no way did the solutions come across as inevitable or predetermined. In other words, between the data and the solution was our disciplinary expertise -- design. And design, I believe, is never quantifiable. Even in this age of supposedly technologically-generated answers (parametrics, mass customization, infinite degrees of measurability), someone is making informed decisions behind the curtain and someone, if an effort is being made for good design rather than merely efficient solution-making, is still transforming the mechanical to the meaningful. This is probably why the most empirical theses are the least successful -- they often rely on data for solutions, when data are actually most useful in the defining of the question. The tricky -- and interesting -- part of the Border Wall as Infrastructure project, one of the WPA 2.0 finalists, was its conflicted relationship with its own proposition. The project was both a form of research about energy use, habitat, water, risk and culture and a conflicted need to be critical of the border and the building of the wall. What the Border Wall team came up against, as Koolhaas identified, is the difficulty in being simultaneously critical and productive. This difficulty, I would argue, is exactly where the firm of Diller, Scofidio + Renfro find themselves today.

In the above mentioned George Baird article, "'Criticality' and Its Discontents', he identifies Diller and Scofidio (before Renfro was added) as "a 'late' triumph of 'criticality'". Their early work, which dominated the Whitney retrospective of the firm (2003) that Baird refers to in the article, landed heavily in the blurry space between art and architecture, between exhibition and commentary. Their 42nd Street installation, where they placed enticing videos in the windows of old Times Square movie theaters, was a commentary both on the gentrification (truly a Disneyfication) of an area previously known for its edgy, semi-lovable grunge and issues of buying and selling as related to gender and power. Baird wonders in his essay if their built work (just beginning to be substantial at that time) will "meet the more difficult test of being critical 'in the street'."

And now we have the lovely, poetic, scenic, peaceful and spotless High Line, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro's (along with Field Operations) renovation project of the previously abandoned elevated rail in Manhattan's meat packing district into a linear urban park. Is the High Line critical architecture? Does the High Line, as Koolhaas called for, prioritize its own efficacy over its potential for commentary? Is that a good thing, a bad thing, does it matter? It's hard to not notice the controlled and limited messiness of the place preserved originally for its beautiful roughness and miraculous urban wilderness. Aesthetically, they have recreated both Joel Sternfeld's phenomenal photos and their exact competition-winning renderings, which makes the High Line a kind of themetazation as art and a simulacrum all at the same time. Yet, in humble Liz Diller fashion, it is done with not a trace of irony. In that sense, it may be post-critical, but it is also post-pessimistic, which is something else entirely. Landscape urbanism, the emerging field of design (born from the cross-breeding of landscape architecture, urban design, ecology, and architecture), is also a self-proclaimed response to the pessimism of postmodernism -- both the regressive period of architectural design and the militaristic and privatized period of urbanism. The other irony, then, is the boon to economic development the High Line has since generated. Started as a preservation movement by a couple of guys who saw the value in the history and beauty of the relic, that has long been overshadowed by the uber-expensive peep show that is The Standard Hotel, the explosion of architectural icons along the path of the old rail, and the hours-long wait at the bars and restaurants in the immediate vicinity.

The icing on this ironic cake, though, is the restaging of Mr. Brainwash's 2006 LA show, Life Is Beautiful, just about to open in the shadow of the new High Line. If you have no idea what I'm referring to, don't worry. I didn't either. And then I saw Banksy's new movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop. Life is Beautiful was a 500 piece extravaganza of works produced by Mr. Brainwash, the obsessive filmmaker, adoring fan, and accidental protégé of the mega and anonymous British graffiti artist, Banksy. Mr. Brainwash, a kind of modern day Andy Warhol, is an appropriator, an opportunist, and an accidental artist with a payroll of graphic designers, production assistants, and promoters. The 2010 Life Is Beautiful -- which was closed for mid-run enhancements while I was in New York -- is the gentrified graffiti show, a cleaner, tidier, giganticer, mass-produced art monolith retransplanted back into New York from Los Angeles via the renewed fame of the big screen.

According to the film, Mr. Brainwash learned everything he knows from Banksy and Shepard Fairey (the other graffiti artist who became pop culture famous when his Obama HOPE poster hit it big). Yet even though Banksy is often accused of selling out for fame and fortune, he is critical in a way Mr. Brainwash will never be -- precise, surprising, unique, disciplined, smart and skilled. As proof, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a master work of criticality, a film that is both a highly successful product and a compelling argument that leads the viewer through history, precedent, experiment, test, appropriation, and commentary. What it leaves for the viewer is conclusions. What exactly is being critiqued here, and by whom? Fairey calls the film Banksy's latest 'exploit'; one of the interviewees in the film calls the whole thing a complicated joke, with an uncertain victim and uncertain punch line. Yet, it's more complicated than both of those. I see it as a kind of graffiti thesis project, packed full of data, experiments, and analysis, yet left open for participant interpretation, for experiential conclusions, for intelligent debate not just on the film, but on the state of art, capitalism, cities, interdependency, production, beauty, and criticism itself. In that way, it is what critical architecture might strive to be -- not obtuse or compromised, but full scale intellectual proactivity, produced through a highly refined skill set as an act of social participation.

How is this entry a cause? Well, it started out in an effort to define what a good critic might be in an attempt to be a student advocate. Over the years, I had witnessed so many critics that were not operating in the service of the students, but were grandstanding, self-promoting, or ego-boosting, using the jury format as a platform for their own positions. Happily, though, at least where I've been in the last few years, the necessity for student advocating seems to have dissipated. The reviews I participated in this year and in the last few years have been fully critical, in the best sense -- intelligent, attentive, respectful, informative, and informed. They have not been easy; they have been demanding, but in the best interest of the students -- and of the participating faculty -- in an effort to promote not a thicker skin, but a stronger mind. In that regard, I don't see a post-critical era so much as a post-cynical era. Yippee.

In that spirit, I used my time on the High Line to talk politics, government spending, and the state of architecture education with a former student and to look out at the fabulous view of the river. I call that a pretty good project, one that provides a platform for criticality and plenty of blank surfaces for Banksy-like exploits.

[1] George Baird, "'Criticality' and Its Discontents", Harvard Design Magazine, Fall 2004/Winter 2005, Number 21.

Reinhold Martin, "On Theory: Critical of What? Toward a Utopian Realism", Harvard Design Magazine, Spring/Summer 2005, Number 22.

[2] As quoted in Baird, 2-3.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

iLove, iAct, iDo

Dear Google

I love you. I have loved you from the beginning. You have given without me asking. You have fulfilled my dreams before I dreamt. You are everything I've ever wanted, and everything I did not know I wanted.

Our nation has arrived at a historic moment, where we are reaffirmed as equals, two persons. Now it is time for me to give to you.

Google, will you marry me? For all that you have done for me, please accept my vow to be your loving, faithful and sincere wife.

Forever yours,


On February 4th Xárene, a Los Angeles-based media artist, delivered the above marriage proposal to Google. Using "the best of paper from France, black ink from Italy, luscious silk ribbon from India and perfumed wax from England" to craft her written proposal, she created a video reading of it, dressed in all white, her hair adorned with a perfect, giant orchid, then hand-delivered the original artifact to the Googleplex in Mountain View, California. The sealed letter was addressed to the Board of Directors with a carbon copy sent to Mr. Kent Walker, Vice President and General Counsel of Google. As of today, Valentine's Day, lovesick Xárene still awaits a response.

Xárene's piece is simple and beautiful with powerful and complicated implications. Her first real piece of activist art, she describes its intent as follows:

The proposal, sincere in its message of love and commitment, is also a statement on personhood in the United States of America. Will marriage equality extend to legal persons (corporations with personhood)? Can a natural person and a legal person of opposite sexual identities carry the same rights as heterosexual persons?

Ideally, Xárene was seeking a response from Google -- hopefully a YES -- that could then instigate a larger public (perhaps legal) debate on the definition of personhood and the rights afforded individuals within our society. If, after all, the recent ruling by the Supreme Court rolling back hard-won, bi-partisan campaign finance reform grants freedom of speech rights to corporations as if they are individuals under protection of the constitution, then why would we not treat them as individuals in other aspects of law? If corporations are protected by the constitution as equals, then why are homosexuals not? Is it as simple -- and as simply tragic -- as coming down to money and power? Those who have the most have the most rights, and those with less suffer.

The 5-4 decision is full of shocking arguments that attempt to frame corporations as victims of mass silencing, invoking censorship arguments and condemning the McCain-Feingold law of restricting "persons" from "the freedom to think for ourselves." Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion says "Because speech is an essential mechanism of democracy -- it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people -- political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it by design or inadvertence." In many of the excerpts I have read of this majority opinion, it is "the people's" free speech that demands protection. But who is it, exactly, that our Supreme Court is out to protect? Who are they calling "the people"?

The response has been well-deserved outraged. Said Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, as quoted in The Huffington Post, "We are moving to an age where we won't have the senator from Arkansas or the congressman from North Carolina, but the senator from Wal-Mart and the congressman from Bank of America." In defense of the real "people", Anna Burger, treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, was quoted as saying, "Unlimited corporate spending in federal elections threatens to drown out the voices of the people who should really be at the center of the political process, i.e., voters and candidates. Unleashing corporate spending will only serve to distort and ultimately delegitimize the electoral process."

I'm certainly not a legal expert and when I did just the tiniest bit of digging on what I think to be a move of artistic brilliance, my budding lawyer friend explained that Kennedy's argument was based on corporations being considered "associations of individuals". However, according to him, this very premise is false: corporations are actually fictional legal entities with more power than mere individuals or an association of individuals, alternatively generating -- quite the opposite of the ruling -- a public interest to limit free speech of corporations because of their very ability to drown out the voices of the rest of us.

David Corn highlights a few excerpts from Justice John Paul Stevens' dissent:

* Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters.

* The Courts ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution.

* The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Courts disposition of this case.

Xárene's proposal impresses me in so many ways. First, it ignores the convoluted legal logic and deals directly with common sense and human emotion. Through that common sense, it points to the idiocy of the current high court to interpret the law blatantly in favor of big business and against the rights of individuals. In light of that, the ripples of her artwork bring into question the definition of personhood, the rights of individuals. By this I mean not only the rights of marriage and the protection of freedoms, but also harkening back to the very basic rights of all individuals to exist, in essence bringing in public space rights and, by extension, the rights of the homeless. If taken to fruition, art becomes activism, and what starts as poetic, beautiful and instigative might actually impact social change.

In an opportunity to provide a greater platform for her proposal, I asked Xárene to expand on her intentions. As a guest on cause of the week, here is Xárene's more elaborated explanation of personhood and how she was compelled to become Mrs. Google.

The idea came from a series of snide remarks my boyfriend and I exchanged regarding the Supreme Court ruling, one which was that 'corporations would probably have the right to marry before gays'. My first reaction was "Wow. I can finally marry Google." I have a history of "falling in love" with Google and had written previously about humans falling in love with companies -- basically an exaggerated form of brand loyalty. I tend to find exaggeration an interesting way to get a message across, so I combined my corporate devotion with this strategy of exaggeration as a way to expose the slew of problems emerging from corporations gaining human rights. Why not exaggerate the ramifications of rulings like this and actually prepare a marriage proposal to see what questions then arise?

I took the marriage proposal seriously. In an ideal situation, Google would say 'Yes' and we would begin a battle alongside gays and lesbians for marriage equality. Then it is a race to see who gets a ruling first: human + human or human + thing. Just the absurdity of it all was a good enough place to start.

In doing all this, I did not expect to get a response from Google. The larger problem is not about corporations gaining rights, but about humans being denied their rights. There are numerous historical documents to begin describing the situation at hand. By situation I refer to this: Corporations are persons and citizens, and as "legal persons" they are granted human rights, such as--gasp--freedom of speech. The first is the United States Constitution of 1787, which opens up the problem of property as person. Because slavery was banned in England, America's founders avoided using the term 'slave', and defined, instead, 'slaves' as owned persons--in effect, turning property into person. Second, is the U.S. Bill of Rights, specifically the first amendment -- Freedom of Speech, Press, Religion, and Petition -- meant to protect us from the potential oppressiveness of our Government. Third, is the 14th amendment, which fixes the 'slave' problem by formally defining citizenship and protecting a person's civil and political rights. In reality, as shown in the current case, it becomes a tool for corporations to assert their position as persons.

At the core of this situation is the question: what is a human? What are the "human rights" and "civil liberties" we've shed blood for and, in many cases, are still fighting for? The latest right currently garnering activity and debate is the right to marry whom you love. While gay and lesbian rights advocates are gathering signatures in California to abolish Prop 8 which approved an amendment to the State's constitution defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, the Supreme Court re-affirms the personhood of corporations and the extension of their rights to a right at one time reserved for humans. (Corporations were originally granted free speech rights in 1947. The latest January ruling extends their right to free speech in elections.) It does not matter what that right is or does, what matters is that the corporation has been given a "human" right. A non-living entity, a thing, is given a human right, while concurrently, citizens of this nation, humans by birth, are denied human rights.

Human rights are the qualitative measure of living which human beings carry to the full extent upon their birth (refer to the UN Declaration of Human Rights). These rights are not something bestowed upon a newborn, but come into existence with the birth of that child. However, human-ness is also quantitative, meaning that sadly one person has more, or less, rights than another person because some State has decided to "grant" or "repeal" a portion of their rights. When new definitions of 'person' are introduced, misused and intentionally misinterpreted, this quantitative aspect of carrying rights becomes an issue we need to address. If a slave can go from 'thing' to 'person', is it true in reverse, that a 'person' can become a 'thing' when stripped of rights? If a homosexual person does not carry the same rights as a heterosexual person, does that therefore expel the homosexual person from being a human being? Is s/he in effect an entity of no life value?

The issue of right granting/repealing is a deep problem that goes beyond fearing corporations gaining more rights (or the dilemma of a human marrying a corporation). It is indeed about the larger persecution of the human being, about the limit to which the body is extended or compressed by law. Freedom of reproductive choice is another such question of rights and laws. My fear, if our highest courts continue on such a path of disregard for the rights of select individuals, is that of the unborn fetus gaining personhood separate from the body who produced it. Then my own body could turn against me and perhaps have the law on its side.

For the press release, go here.

To see the marriage proposal video, go here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

WPA 2.0 -- design for the public realm

"What is remarkable about this moment, and exemplified by the WPA 2.0 work, is the momentum from within the design disciplines and the federal government to begin to challenge the last half of that argument, [that the road is our most extensive and most under-used public space]. Our communication with government officials as both citizens and professionals needs to push forward an agenda for visionary, legacy-building public works...The current crises — economic and infrastructural — together provide a rare opportunity; as the Obama administration continues to invest in infrastructure as a form of financial stimulus and urban recovery, we designers need to be not just creative but also creatively loud."

Read my full reflections on the WPA 2.0 competition and symposium here.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Two Women in Little Rock, 1957-2007

"We must come to see that the society we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience."[i]

The 170 images in the current Skirball exhibit, Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956–1968 range from images I had never seen before, like the discovery of the bodies of the Mississippi three -- James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, one black and two white voting rights volunteers murdered by the KKK, to quintessential images of MLK in Washington, DC and the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Bruce Davidson, who I had always associated with a gritty, subway-riding New York gang culture, was there when Viola Liuzzo's car was discovered on the side of US-80 and made a riveting image of her blood-stained seat and discarded shoes.[ii] It's the James 'Spider' Martin image, also in the exhibition, of the standoff at the base of the Edmund Pettis Bridge between marchers led by Hosea Williams and John Lewis in suits and overcoats on one side and troopers in riot gear on the other that has repeatedly reinforced my long-held position on the road's significance as a critical public space ripe for the contestation of civil rights. That moment before the countdown began, before its premature abandonment that resulted in the chasing and beatings now known as Bloody Sunday, seems almost civil.[iii]

These images undoubtedly bear the burden of documentation. Some, particularly those with visible historical notations typed or handwritten across the top or bottom of the image, are more journalistic than artistic, yet are nonetheless driven by the infinite, if nearly immediate, decision-making of the creative eye and mind. I had seen an image before of the first day of desegregation at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. We visited the site on the second Mobile Studio trip where the long sidewalk and imposing steps seem more powerful reminders of the risky distance between segregation and equality than the immobilized commemorative statues of the Little Rock Nine. The picture in Road to Freedom, though, is from a different angle. In the more famous version, Will Counts' image, where the photographer stands to Elizabeth Eckford's right (she's the first of the nine black teens to arrive for class), there is a semi-circle of space between her and the aggressive resistors. Beyond that spatial cushion she is visually connected, almost along a line from waistband to waistband of their slightly cinched dresses, to the vitriolic Hazel Bryan, directly behind Elizabeth, sneering, yelling, virtually spewing racist hatred. In the image in the exhibition taken from Elizabeth's other side, Hazel's mouth is wide open, almost as if she could be singing, and the right arm of the girl behind Eckford is swinging just a bit forward, with a look of determination, as if, perhaps, she's trying to catch up. There is no more than a centimeter in the image between the sunny white arm of that woman and Eckford's smooth black left arm, holding a single notebook, connected to an upright silent body, looking composed, proud, and stylish in comparison.

What if, I thought while standing there, that ring of women in the new image, instead of hurling venomous hatred at an innocent and brave teenager in many ways their peer, were actually stepping forward, grabbing Elizabeth Eckford's arm, and then walking her into her first day at Little Rock Central High School. What if Hazel Bryan, Mary Ann Burleson (carrying a purse to Hazel's left) and Sammie Dean Parker (wearing the dark dress to Hazel's right) had decided that day to be proactive agents of change, leaders in a call to civil action, role models for their peers. I thought this knowing little about those three girls other than feeling the embarrassment of their harassment. Sammie Dean, it turns out, was "one of the ringleaders of the segregationist students" while Mary Ann was "largely along for the ride." In Counts' image, the one that flooded newspapers and archives, Sammie Dean has turned back towards the crowd, thereby granting herself a kind of anonymity and invisibility, and Mary Ann looks forward rather blankly. It is Hazel who stands as a symbol of hatred, anger, and bitterness. Will Counts' image -- quite accurate of the day -- shows a hopeless division between black and white, a segregationist moat bridged only by the acerbic language stabbing Elizabeth Eckford in the back again and again and again like the shove of an unrelenting hand. The other image opens the door to a new possibility, an alternative action, a road that in the end was untaken.

Searching for these images on line I came across a Vanity Fair article that traces the fascinating fifty year history of these inextricably linked protagonists. Hazel Bryan, many years later, tracked down Elizabeth Eckford to apologize for her actions on September 4th, 1957. Both had struggled over the years with the way that single image had defined them -- as individuals and as symbols. In some ways, Eckford felt used by the civil rights movement and spent years dealing with depression. Her high school experience had been an abusive test of endurance, isolated from potentially supportive peers and hiding the extent of the abuse from her mother for fear she would be forced to give up her role in the fight for integration. For years Hazel and Elizabeth became friends. Though trying to make amends, Hazel was also condemned for that image and the role she played in perpetuating the racist stereotypes of the south. It was President Clinton's reference to the inspiration the Little Rock Nine had provided him that encouraged Eckford to begin speaking to school groups about desegregation and equality and when Clinton awarded them the Congressional Gold Medal, both Hazel and Elizabeth were in attendance. By then, though, their friendship had waned, each beginning to accuse the other of various falsities and disingenuousness.

The cover of Will Counts’ book on the Little Rock Central High desegregation is this image of Hazel and Elizabeth from that first day of school in 1957. Its title -- A Life is More Than a Moment. Though that is certainly true, we each have moments that define us and we hope those moments are representative of who we choose to be, what we choose to make of ourselves and our world, and how we choose to be influential. It is unfortunate to be caught at our worst and often a long battle to combat those errant moments. Like that first tattoo, we are often scared that if we commit to something permanent and risky, we may regret it later. I seem to have that fear with my dissertation topic. Is it big enough, bold enough, important enough? I know I am not Hazel in a vitriolic state, but I don't want to be anyone at all in that crowd, trapped behind the moat of even a hint of indifference. We may not be defined by a single moment, but we have only so many moments at our disposal, moments where we can choose action over inaction, right over complacency, and risk over comfort. Yet we are also pawns in the photographer's game, where one image may show us in light, another may show us in shadow, and the best we can do is be poised and ready.

Any exhibit, any single photograph, that can stir such grand emotions is worth a short trip and even a small exhibition price. Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956–1968 runs through March 7, 2010 at the Skirball. More information can be found at their website.

[i] The museum was closing, it was nearly 5:00, so I typed this quote quickly into my phone as the guards checked their watches. I missed recording the credit, but I'm pretty sure it was Martin Luther King Jr.

[ii] Viola Liuzzo was shot by four men driving alongside her as she and another volunteer, a young African-American man named Leroy Moton, were shuttling marchers back to Selma after the completion of the march to Montgomery. One of the men in the vehicle that shot her was an undercover FBI agent.

[iii] The marchers were given a two minute warning by the troopers to abandon their march and disassemble. Roughly a minute and a half into the warning, the troopers began chasing, beating, and spraying the marchers with tear gas.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Behind every great man is a great woman.

I've always found this aphorism to be irritating and condescending. It's like a conservative uncle patting you on the back with an open pocket knife in his hand -- patronizing, dangerous, and creepy. There are numerous problems with the actual phrase, the most obvious of which are the implications of the word 'behind'. This woman is not only behind geographically, she is likely behind economically, socially, politically, and in every other way that matters. This woman is 'behind' this man as his support system, which means she has likely sacrificed her own needs for his, or at the very least, her own success, notoriety, or status. Being 'behind', she is also blocked from view, cast in shadow by his colossal glow, made invisible.

Luckily, I don't feel this way. Ever. Nor do most of my female friends, those attached in some way to men or not. We are powerhouses in our own right, just as comfortable leading the way as following, and preferring some kind of shared trail blazing. My male friends certainly don't feel this way either, nor would I likely be friends with them if they did.

As a matter of fact, we so infrequently consider gender as a dividing line of equity in our own lives that when it does come up, it tends to be a bit shocking. When the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was passed in January of 2009 (2009!) women were still making 78 cents for every male dollar. Which means we probably still are. The Center for American Progress Action Fund maps the career wage gap between men and women over a 40 year period which, in places like Wyoming, can mean a $700,000 difference. In California the gap between men and women across 40 years of earnings who both have Bachelor's Degrees or higher is $674,000; $277,000 if your education stopped at the end of high school.

But money is only the easiest metric.

On November 18th, Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon died in New York City. Known typically as only Jeanne-Claude, I wondered as I read her obituaries if anywhere near as many people know of her as they do her more famous husband and collaborator, that global wrapping sensation, Christo. The Daily News headline read, "Jeanne-Claude, wife of Central Park Gates artist Christo, dies at age 74." The New York Times did better, though a bit clunky, with "Jeanne-Claude, Artist Who, With Christo, Wrapped Objects Large and Small, Is Dead at 74". According to the Times, "To avoid confusing dealers and the public, and to establish an artistic brand, they used only Christo’s name. In 1994 they retroactively applied the joint name 'Christo and Jeanne-Claude' to all outdoor works and large-scale temporary indoor installations. Other works were credited to Christo alone." According to their website, other than the mildly confusing branding efforts that ended in the 90s, and his production of the drawings and collages, they were fairly equal collaborators for 51 years. Someone let the Daily News know that 'wife of Central Park Gates artist' is not a very accurate description of her official role.

Two weeks before Jeanne-Claude's death, I attended an afternoon symposium at LACMA on the New Topographics exhibit entitled "What's at Stake? New Topographics: Photography and the Man-Altered Landscape" (it's just now that I'm even noticing the odd gender-specificity in that title supported by a day of all male speakers talking about an exhibit of all male artists, with the single exception of half the Becher team). James Venturi, son of Bob Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, spoke about the documentary he created of his very famous parents, Learning from Bob and Denise. The documentary was quite clear on the fact that Las Vegas as a worthy place of study was all Denise's doing and though Bob became plenty invested in its analysis over the years, he was hooked by seeing the glow of the prosaic through the eyes of his partner. After two decades of collaboration, the Pritzker Prize was given to Bob Venturi alone in 1991, something that stings enough still for James to spend more than a sliver of his 15 minutes discussing.

How often do we perpetuate that disparity of notoriety by leaving out co-conspirators?[i] How much of Frank Lloyd Wrights' Wasmuth Portfolio, or even the conceptualization of the Prairie Style itself, was really Marion Mahoney's work? What of Lilly Reich and her prominent role in designing the Barcelona chair? I've always been amused by the idea that she is the symbolic woman represented by the Kolbe statue at the Barcelona pavilion, embodying some unbalanced light cocktail of inspiration and oppression. Jose Quetglas in "Fear of Glass: The Barcelona Pavilion" says this so compellingly:

From the corridor, at the back of the pavilion, one discovers the Kolbe statue trapped and inundated by an avalanche of light -- a terrible light, more brilliant and clear by virtue of its contrast with the half-light of the corridor at the end of which the statue appears, rudely dislodged from its reticent and protective obscurity. Sunrise, the first light of the approaching the woman, the only solid form in the entire pavilion, the only possible interlocutor for the visitor. But the woman does not radiate this light; rather she is crushed by its weight, oppressed by this corrosive force that melts and dissolves her, and she tries to fend it off with her arms, covering her face to protect it with a precarious shadow. At her back, at her side, at her feet, three mirrors of marble and water double and fragment her presence, with each reflection more tenuous -- but the mirrors themselves are halved again by the reflection of their own pattern. At the feet of the woman who is melting, the darkness of the pool grows, picking up her dissolved form...

Of course many a great Ivy League theorist has made a life of studying the role of gender in architecture.

The Barcelona Pavilion would not be the same piece of architecture without this voluptuous counterpoint. Alba (meaning dawn), is the real linchpin of the pavilion, the anchor that binds the modern grid of infinite space to the luscious greens and rusts of the marble planes; the open sky to the plinth of travertine and water. She is the human presence, but more.

To wrap this all up in some kind of even less tidy package, last night I saw George Clooney's latest film, "Up in the Air". To say it is 'George Clooney's' latest film is both true and not. If "Thelma and Louise" was the first buddy movie with women buddies, as it is known to be, then it's possible that "Up in the Air" is the first completely mainstream movie where George gets out-boyed by his female counterpart. I won't give anything away, but I will say it's kind of a movie about the irrelevance of gender -- which means our entertainment and our health care debate are going in exactly the opposite directions. There is one humorous scene where Natalie Keener, the young and ambitious new hire, has a relationship trauma where she consults Ryan Bingham's (George Clooney's) love interest, Alex (both tidy, androgynous names), and dutifully thanks her for all her generation has done for women's equity. Of course it's a very funny, generationally misplaced, pc-generated gratitude that takes a great comic jab at what it means to be a liberated woman, particularly at 23 and 34 in 2010. An abundance of frequent flyer miles? Independence? Options?

Yes, but more. What we want it to mean is that gender just doesn't matter. That all men and women are varying degrees of both masculine and feminine, and that we all should get paid, recognized, and adulated equally for equal contributions.

We should also all have equal access to legal health care.

No woman should be denied coverage for legal procedures because someone else bargains their moral posturing like a poker chip. That 22 cent difference per dollar - that $125,000 per decade - that men earn over women is partially attributed to their not choosing to leave the work force to start a family. Pregnancy is the great unequalizer, in more ways than one. Only women run the risk of absolutely having to quit their jobs for this reason even when they may not want to. Bart Stupak and Ben Nelson -- two of our anti-choice legislators demanding limitations on women's reproductive rights in health care reform -- make that tragic life course (having to make decisions rather than choosing to) even more likely for women in or near poverty. Their moral chip is that stab of the knife, that heel of the shoe kicking back from higher up the ladder. Would the conversation be different if there was still a Senator Clinton? I don't know. Would she choose to cover 30 million uninsured at the cost of weakening the rights of women to determine their own futures? She must certainly be torn, watching her life's investment in health care reform come down to such a vile bit of bargaining.

If behind every great man is a great woman, then there is also a great woman in front of that man, and a great man behind that last woman, and a man to her left, and a woman to his left, and so on and so on and so on. Sure, clusters form in this giant grid of humanity. They are supposed to. We are not equally spaced apart, nor are we moving in the same direction or at the same pace. Some days we need our partners closer than others, and some days further away. Some days we need to work at our greatness all by ourselves, and some days we really, really need help. Real equity is the right to make all your own choices, and to have the rest of the world respect the choices and the outcomes as your own. It doesn't mean we all aren't connected - the grid disintegrates if broken into a million individual points - but it does mean that each point, every point, in varying versions of Alba, is a powerful anchor in its own right.

Carmen Herrera, a 94-year-old artist who gained recognition for her work only after the death of her husband is quoted today in the New York Times as saying this: "Everybody says Jesse must have orchestrated this from above. Yeah, right, Jesse on a cloud. I worked really hard. Maybe it was me."

[i] Steven Izenour, the third and almost always left off author of Learning from Las Vegas, probably proves that credit is not only an issue of gender.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

What dollars and notes can buy

Someone told me recently that Paul McCartney was busking on the subway not long ago, playing for change. Not because he needs it, but I would imagine it was one way for him to reconnect with what he loved about music in the first place -- the way voices and instruments together explore emotion and make connections that speech simply cannot. Why is it that lyrics are so much more than words and melodies so much more than the sum of their note parts? There is something timeless, primeval, and universal about music. Some of my most intense emotional moments have occurred in small rooms with live electric violins, or large, cold fields with guitars. Perhaps there is something about an upright bass or a bongo or a banjo that refuses to be pessimistic or cynical and playing them requires a degree of openness, generosity, even vulnerability that we are rarely willing to broach in public otherwise. One of the things I miss about Charlotte is the Tosco Music Party. Who can stay doubtful of the world when John Tosco organizes four hours of musicians who each perform one or two songs interspersed with hokey audience sing-a-longs? For those willing to play along, music unites us on ground that is virtually uncontestable.

The 'Playing for Change' videos and mp3s have circulated on the usual digital rounds. In the videos, musicians from all over the world, recorded in their home countries and often in their own languages, perform the same song in virtual collaboration. The mobile recording studio and crew traveled from Santa Monica, where the project started, to New Orleans, Barcelona, Capetown, Tel Aviv, Dublin, on and on to create a montage of global sounds, created live, typically outside, often in rural or poor locations, and compiled via the magic of digital editing. Their objective is "to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music." Regardless of background or birthplace, 'Playing for Change' believes that music has the ability to cross boundaries and break down barriers. What they realized as well is that the popularity of their viral project had an untapped potential to give back to those willing to share the generosity of their musical talents, which led the originators to develop the Playing for Change Foundation. Musicians involved with PFC now perform shows around the world to raise money to build art and music schools in underserved communities "in need of inspiration and hope."

This Friday, November 13th, Playing for Change performs in Los Angeles at Club Nokia. Yes, there's something slightly odd about this intimate, grassroots, heartfelt effort playing in a place like LA LIVE with 2300 of your closest friends. But in the non-cynical spirit, there's also something great about great music, great projects, and great causes supported in great numbers. After LA, there are shows in Anaheim, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. Each one of these twenty plus shows might just equal a new school. You can also donate on their website, if you so choose or add them to your social network page to spread the virtual word about the work and the foundation. In a slightly less global and less overtly activist way, you can also choose to support local live music or tip those poor guys on the street corner trying their best to be musically heard. Both build optimism through beauty and shared experience and value -- through action -- those magical notes and lyrics that say just the thing you could never say without them.

**image borrowed from the documentary Playing For Change: Peace Through Music

Sunday, November 1, 2009


I can only imagine what trends in Halloween costumes might say about the state of our union. I had heard that the 'Kate kit' (of the over-fertile reality show - John and Kate Plus 8, now sans John) was a sell out. Of the narrow sliver of the 500,000 people wandering West Hollywood last night that I saw, there was only one Kate. Peacock flared hair, sunglasses on her head, Day-Glo white teeth. In the dark and the chaos I couldn't see if she had somehow abstracted the talk show tears, the raging lunacy of her estranged husband and his train of girlfriends, or the little cake-eating 8, but she looked way happier than she ought to.

Halloween in West Hollywood is not so much a rebel rousing holiday as it is a photo shoot. There is no actual 'parade' from what I can tell, but there is a promenade, and it is full of wannabe actors seeking the artificial adoring attention of anyone with a camera. There is more posing than drinking, which says a lot for an all adult street party in Los Angeles.

So, what were the trends and what might they mean? One Kate is a good sign - she's out. KISS is most definitely back, as is Wonder Woman. There were many witty, complicated costumes I had to think twice about . There was an iPod touch and his friend, the Tetras square, in a dialogue about technology. There were the pigs in blankets, who this year also had swine flu. There were amazing twenty foot skeleton puppets with red and blue blinking eyes and creepy, reaching articulated fingers. One guy had half his body sticking through a large white board, and I can only imagine he might be that rat that appeared recently on YouTube stuck in a crack in the sidewalk in New York.

The costume of the year, though, was Kate's replacement - the silver balloon that had no boy inside. Luckily for branding's sake, it was an odd shaped balloon, more like a space ship meets a blimp, oval and bulbous with a tumor balloon attached to its belly in the shape of a basket. This was the Heene family hoax, where teary parents pretended their child had climbed aboard a weather balloon and floated off to 10,000 feet. An emergency personnel search ensued, planes were launched, cameras arrived and rolled, and, like Geraldo's opening of the tomb, the thing turned up empty, the boy in a box in the attic at home the whole time. It's an atrocious story of fame-mongering, and a Halloween costume that I wish I could've seen close up. Clearly, the unique shape of the balloon was a necessity - any plain silver balloon and the costume (and media stunt) would have been unrecognizable. I saw three of them from a distance, two floating and one headpiece of a balloon, but couldn't see the rest of the get up from where I walked. Was there a commentary on the insanity of media coverage? the lengths to which people will go for something that mildly resembles fame? the state of child rearing in America? the gullibility of viewers? This is LA, so I'm going to say there was. We are not shy here about having harsh opinions, and using our bodies and our holidays to broadcast them.

In costuming and otherwise, creativity is a platform. We say something about ourselves and our world whenever we put our creative efforts out for others to experience. Which brings me to pie.

Evan Kleinman, host of KCRW's Good Food radio program, has been baking a pie a day since the beginning of the summer and talks about them and other food-related issues each Saturday on her 11am show. This week, though, she talked about Pie Lab. Pie Lab is a place that combines pies with causes. They recognized the powerful combination of baking and community and started sharing pies to make relationships with their neighbors. As their tagline says, PIE + CONVERSATION = IDEAS ; IDEAS + DESIGN = POSITIVE CHANGE.

According to their website:

PieLab, an initiative of Project M, is focused on community development and engagement in Hale County, AL.

PieLab is a welcoming community space on Greensboro’s Main Street that provides delicious pie and coffee, as well as retail and hospitality job training for local youth through the YouthBuild Program. More than simply a pie shop, PieLab operates as a community design center focusing on community development projects and small business incubation in Greensboro and the surrounding five counties.

If your ears don't automatically perk up at the reference to Hale County, AL, this is Mockbee territory. This is the heart of the Rural Studio. This is one of the poorest counties in the country, where Walker Evans came to photograph for the FSA and William Christenberry captured decades of rotting barns.

At the end of November they will open a permanent location for PieLab in Greensboro. It will be one the first new businesses to open on Greensboro's Main Street in years. I've been to Greensboro, Alabama, and this is a great idea. This would be a great idea anywhere.

Project M, the umbrella organization, describes itself like this:

We just want to change the world.

Sure, we may not be known in the in circles. We may not fill the pages of design annuals. And we may never see our names in lights. But, we do know how to save the rain forest with a waterproof book. We do know how to build a park with a postcard. And we know how to bring water to a community with a few pages of newsprint.

We are part of a design movement. We believe that ability equals responsibility. And we are not the only ones. So, we built a lab where designers like you can make a difference. We are building the tools that will build the future. And this is where you come in.

I believe it too, and it sure beats pretending to lose your child to get on a reality TV show. I might just go there and have me some pie and, while we're eating, help these guys in Southern Alabama continue to change the world.