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.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

What if every project we had was an Idea Project?

As you can see from the space between postings, my inspiration level has dipped in the last few weeks. I've lately been wrapped up in my own to do lists, from hacking away at this dissertation proposal to moving houses to sorting the lingering dust from the playa still white and ripe in my psyche. Between the mundane yet arduous task of packing books and books and more books (thank you to all my friends who came to the book packing party!), I kept getting emails from the ever persistent Cooper Bates. They said things like - and I quote - 16 days away from Idea Project! We're giving away art as a badge! Your life might change in ways unimaginable! And I kept responding with such lame, but true, resistances like: I'm surrounded by boxes, I'm behind in my work, I'm traumatized by moving, I'll come if I can. Until finally he said, Are you coming on Saturday? Tell me you are. You will be oh so happy afterwards, I guarantee it. How can you turn down such sincerity and hope backed with a guarantee of happiness, knowing most certainly that the boxes at home had nothing nearly as good to offer? So, yesterday I attended half - it was the best I could do - of LA Idea Project, and left extremely happy, completely inspired, and an even more committed Cooper groupie.

LAIP is sort of a local version of TED, the global event "where the world's leading thinkers and doers gather to find inspiration." If you haven't yet started your addiction to the TED website where you can watch any of the exactly 18 minute lectures for a mini-inspirational retreat, get started here and browse. There is no shortage of humor, genius, or mind-blowing inventiveness. LAIP was more intimate a gathering, with an audience I would estimate between 150 and 200. I missed the morning option of yoga, meditation or tai chi and what I'm sure was a great session of speakers entitled "Imagine". But I did catch the three afternoon sessions, and they completely lived up to their titles of Rethink, Envision, and Hope.

Dr. Aditi Shankardass, a neurophysiologist, spoke about her research in charting brain waves to more accurately understand the mental disorders of children diagnosed as autistic. The rising numbers of autistic children, she says, are actually due to inaccurate diagnoses rather than a boom in autism. If looked at more carefully, many may not be autistic at all but may instead be suffering from mini-seizures that cause behavioral activity that mirrors autism symptoms. Looking at the activity of the brain directly rather than the behavior of the child exposes the more precise problem. Sharing three test cases, she showed how the proper diagnosis and then treatment for the seizures allowed the misdiagnosed kids to restart their development at a near normal pace, learning to speak, think, and play in ways they and their parents had thought impossible. This was my first 18 minutes of LAIP.

Carmen Rizzo talked about his musical collaborations with the throat-singing Russian Tuvans and shared phenomenal images of this remote and rugged landscape near Siberia. Patri Freedman prophesized seasteading, the creation of colonies in the ocean (for real) where rather than living by the limits of capitalism, socialism, or communism - the miniscule number of governing ideologies we have actually tried to date - new settlements are encouraged to try alternative and hybrid versions on the tabula rasa of the ocean in the hopes of discovering a real utopia. Ann Johansson showed her phenomenal imagery of Sierra Leone, where the child mortality rate below five years of age is 28%. Bill Shannon demonstrated the Shannon technique of crutch dancing (see image) which takes break dancing, skateboarding, and sheer physical motivation and turns a disability into adept and fluid physical street poetry. Videos and other cool stuff here. Bill Larson touted his company, Simmatec, leaders in automated parking and perhaps the most practical idea shared of the day. According to Bill, if we were willing to get out of our cars and let a machine park them, we could save the planet, reduce violence towards women, eliminate child parking accidents, and save the 1/3 of a year we each lose if we continue to spend 15 minutes per day looking for parking.

Anne Murray Paige, a news reporter who found herself a victim of breast cancer, became the topic of her own documentary, The Breast Cancer Diaries, which she spoke about and shared beautiful, sad, and inspirational pieces of with the audience. Ian Shive is an entertainment industry person turned photographer, which seems a common enough story around LA these days, until about 8 minutes into his talk where he surpassed the aesthetics of national parks and nature images and started discussing conservation advocacy. Not only does he make beautiful images, but he lobbied congress with these images to show evidence of the habitat and ecological damage brought about by the construction of the nonsensical US/Mexico border wall and his since been successful in helping to halt HR 2076, putting a freeze on border wall construction. The day ended with Sekou Andrews and Steve Connell, performing some high energy spoken word tailored to the theme and mood of LA-IP - hope, love, inspiration, action. I also met the guy who first hacked the iphone who seems to have had a million new jobs since then and a new friend who will one day soon break all the electronic boundaries currently keeping the world wide web from being accessible to all the wideness of the world. Imagine the democratic possibilities. When he is on the cover of TIME, I can show everyone the silly photo I took of him for his iphone contact image and say I knew him when and that I met him at LAIP.

The note I wrote to myself at the end of yesterday was this - Hey, me, stop wasting time. The bottom line of it all is that you are what you do. For some it is a trauma or a tragedy that causes an action. For others it is a life change, a passion, a person. Whatever it is, you can't wait until you have more money, more degrees, more family, more reasons. There is now, that's all there is, so do what it is you are meant to do, or what the world means you to do, and do it soon. The LAIP theme this year was 'Suffused with Promise'. It's a bit 'first world' rhetoric, but it's true and thoughtful - we are suffused with promise, the hint (or more) of lime that is adventure or creativity or activism or empathy that runs through our blood and through the blood of our ideas. A good idea is a good thing, but a good action based on that good idea ripples out into the world and hits other shores, raises other tides, and rocks other boats. LAIP rocked my boat this week. Thanks, Cooper, for being so persistent and persuasive and committed to the cause.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Truth About Burning Man

The Burning Man festival is every single stereotype you've heard of and absolutely none of them. Logistically, it's a (seemingly) instant city in the middle of the desert three hours north of Reno inhabited by 45,000 people for the week leading up to Labor Day. Actually, it's a year's worth of prep and months worth of labor, surveying the concentric circle of streets, the chronological spokes, the outer pentagon, the playa, the plazas, center camp and public utilities (toilets, medical stations, ice sales). Participants stream in beginning midnight the Sunday before, with bikes, tents, coolers, shade structures, art cars, every form of IL and LED lighting, lounge chairs, RVs, gourmet bars, tiki torches, geodesic dome parts, giant playing cards, fabric, wire, trampolines, balance beams, saloon doors, solar panels, duct tape, you name it. The unprepared and the insane try to sleep in their cars (hot, cold, hot, dirty, and impossible) and the luxurious lounge in air conditioned airstreams or shower in RVs. Most pitch tents, rig up as much shade as possible, and illuminate at night. On Saturday, the man is burned; on Sunday, the temple is burned; then the vast landscape is scoured for MOOP (Material Out of Place) by all of us and the Burning Man Department of Public Works (wearing my favorite new discovery - the utilikilt!), and it goes back to being a sandy blank canvas until prep time next year.

Hearing stories and glancing at photos, you might think it's Mad Max meets a late 80s rave meets Woodstock without the music (no, there are no musical acts at Burning Man). Burning Man is actually, as the 10 principles proclaim, a radical exercise in self-sufficiency, creativity, consciousness, and generosity. The exchange of money is banned other than their own sales of ice and coffee (one out of necessity, one I imagine out of furthering community and a coffee culture addiction). The primary focus is radical self-expression, which takes the form of art strewn across the 4 1/2 square miles of vast desert playa; art cars - all of which have to have permits from the Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV) - which roll around the alphabetical streets by day and illuminate the ethereal swirling sands by night; and clothing, or really, costuming, free from all the restraints of conservatism in default world and all the worries of a society emasculated, efeminated and suffocated by the demands of a media driven body image. There is nudity, most certainly, but it is what the nudity - and every variation between it and a polar bear costume - means that is by far the more interesting point. What you wear or don't wear at Burning Man expresses the absence of creative limitation, the body as a form of communication, and an opportunity for personal responsibility and empowerment. Hot pink fishnet hose with LED wire is an art project, a trust exercise, a membership rite, an open door, a sense of confidence and playfulness, and the feeling of gender/body/life freedom that we are not regularly allowed, even in places seemingly as garb-liberal as West Hollywood. Burning Man is trend free, and style full.

I fell in love with the utilikilt (, and the more I know about them, their makers, and their wearers, the more I love them. Founded in 2002 in order to fund a mobile global art project of double-decker buses "putting on an interactive road show of music, dance, video art, and drama, and leaving change in its wake", the utilikilt was one in a series of 'Form Follows Function' products that branched into a phenomenon. The company follows a 'business with a conscience' model, promoting social, environmental, and economical responsibility where profits are measured by community impact as much as financial balance, and where preconceived limitations are unacceptable. Of equal if not greater importance, though, is the sheer quality and functionality of the product - attention to detail, rugged, tool-holding, pocketed, comfortable (or so I hear), and durable. The utilikilt is an amazing garment hybrid of self-expression, liberation, and cultural ritual meets workhorse. Having gone to a LACMA event this week with a man in a utilitkilt, I have to say, they also have an impact in Los Angeles.

The art at Burning Man is not 'high' art or 'low' art, fine art or folk art, not created as an expression of self or ego, but as a contribution, as a gift of interaction or inspiration, and as a way to proactively make community. Many of the hundreds of pieces on the playa - which I only had time to see a fraction of - require user input. These are sound or light pieces, making poetry on a six foot stool and a 1940s typewriter, metal that breathes fire, painting. There are sculptural pieces that are viewable and not overtly interactive, but often those become nodes of the city where gathering occurs, or landmarks that provide direction, or meeting locations for a cell phone-free world. Even the majestic temple is there for writing reflections on, adding notes and remembrances of burns and burners past, getting married (where strangers show up with hand made flowers and gifts and volunteer photographers document).

The complete non-monetary society, as AlexG pointed out during the three hour exodus, shifts the focus of exchange from the object to the relationship. By no longer trading stuff for stuff - money for trinkets, say, or even trinkets for trinkets - the exchange itself becomes the gift, a gift of presence and interaction, a gift of your efforts, a gift of the time, place, and conversation you choose to have with your fellow citizens. The man on the ice cream bike gave out and received a lot of love with each scoop of cookies and cream. All art cars - space permitting - are public transportation. That rolling front porch towing an outhouse took me from Inherit to Evolution, while a woman in an apron cut red peppers in her half a kitchen just like she was home. Dance buses roam the playa playing techno music. Giant fish, a three story reel-to-reel, pirate ships, the Brooklyn Bridge, and hundreds of others all circled the Man at the Burn like a cadre of animated kids at a campfire. In these interactions with strangers, the medium is not the mundane symbol of wealth, but the very non-mundane act of connection.

The other objective which truly shapes the experience of Burning Man is the 'leave no trace' policy. Everything that comes in with you, also goes out. Everything. Not just tents and bikes, not just leftover food and garbage, but whiskers if you shave, soap suds if you shower, toothpaste spit and drops of hand sanitizer. No matter how many times people encourage you to conserve water by turning off the spout while brushing your teeth at home, the degree of waste is far more apparent when you limit yourself to two ounces from the gallon jug, which, once filled with spit and toothpaste, you must drink, evaporate and separate, or take back out in your car. Other than highly significant hydration, your grey water creation very quickly dwindles to near nothingness. You cook what you plan to eat, you pour what you plan to drink, and you save and reuse and recycle and gift as much as you possibly can otherwise.

Formally, as taken from the website, the principles are as follows:

Radical Inclusion

Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.


Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.


In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

Radical Self-reliance

Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.

Radical Self-expression

Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

Communal Effort

Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

Civic Responsibility

We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

Leaving No Trace

Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.


Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.

I read these before I left, but, like all the proclamations and expectations, they ring a bit hollow and even hokey from the outside. What is truly amazing about being there is what abiding by these principles actually does to the participants, which, in turn, does to the society at large.

They say 'welcome home' when you arrive at the gate, and what they mean is - welcome to a world that is somewhat optimistically utopian, where we are able to shift the values and priorities to those that are human and meaningful, if only for a short time, if only in this place, if only for those who are willing to drink their spit and pee in a portajohn and get filthy and hot and breathe dust for a week. I hope I, and thousands of others, have brought back with us the spirit of generosity, creativity, and responsibility that Burning Man seems to foster, and that it infects our neighbors and friends and everyone we know and everyone they know, and so on. Welcome, welcome, welcome indeed.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

the other "10"

I first wrote about Street Soccer USA on October 12, 2008 when the US team made up of 13 homeless men and women were on their way to the Street Soccer World Cup in Melbourne, Australia. Founder Lawrence Cann now runs Street Soccer USA out of HELP USA in New York, an organization whose primary mission is seeking housing for the homeless, but which recognizes the need to be flexible and responsive to the changing causes of homelessness. In recent years, they have also added early childhood education, after school, and mentoring programs. When research began to show domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness, they created support centers, shelters, and scholarship programs. With rising unemployment rates, HELP USA has begun developing job placement and vocational training programs. And, of course, they are the new home base for Street Soccer USA - "Soccer for social change...ending homelessness through sports."

The US Cup, where the finalists for the team that heads to the World Cup will be chosen, begins in 5 days. According to Lawrence's statistics, the program has an overwhelming success rate. "Since 2005, 28 of our 32 National Team alumni have moved off and stayed off the street since being part of SSUSA. And to date, over seventy-five percent of the participants change their lives for the better including securing full-time jobs, long-term housing, and freedom from addiction and mental health afflictions."

This year the Street Soccer World Cup is in Milan beginning September 6th. It costs $1000 per team member to travel and participate, it's roughly 10,000 miles to get there, and they need $10,000 total to fund the trip for the team. All equipment is donated and most of the programs are run by volunteers. Once the final players are chosen August 2nd at the US Cup, they have two weeks to purchase tickets, meaning the deadline to raise funds is August 15th.

Utilizing the significance of being a "10" on the soccer field - being a leader on the team - and the multiples of 10 listed above, Street Soccer is seeking donations in $10 increments (though more is always welcome) to reach their $10,000 goal. So far they've raised $1,181.

In LA at least, and probably in many towns across the country, you can't even see a movie for $10, get a good glass of wine, or eat a hamburger anymore. For those of you living in a city with a competing team - Ann Arbor, Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Charlottesville, Chicago, Fort Worth, LA, Minneapolis, Montgomery County, New York, Richmond, Sacramento, San Francisco, St. Louis, Washington DC - $10 is a small gift for someone else doing the hard work of life affirmation, self-esteem reinforcement, socialization, and caring for your neighbors in need. For those who live in cities without a street soccer team, Street Soccer needs your input and support to grow and expand further.

So, here's my idea. Say a group of you and your friends decide to go see the new Harry Potter movie this week. In LA, that's about $12 a person, $20 a person if you want to see it at Grauman's Chinese Theater in the new moving D-box seats. You know pretty much what's going to happen - there's some magic, some special effects, the good guys win and I hear Harry finds a girlfriend. Skip the movie, send $10 each to Street Soccer, and go home and play a game of Scrabble instead. Not only do I guarantee it will be more fun (particularly if you play with Nassau Boulevard rules), but you get to talk to each other, to have quality interactive time, and you can appreciate both friends and home and the qualities each provide that you simply can't imagine living without.

To be a number 10, or to read more about the program, click here.
For information on HELP USA, click here.
To become a fan of Street Soccer USA on facebook, click here.

A brief follow-up on the 826LA fundraiser regatta that I mentioned last week. The winning team, Ink Invasion, raised $2,100.23 in support of literacy programming at 826. The second place team from GOOD magazine raised $2,067.54. I attended the regatta which consisted of costumed paddle boaters circling the Echo Park lake being cheered on by fans and strangers, mostly cutely dressed twenty-something Echohipsters. In sunny LA fashion, it was a perfect afternoon of tanning, crazy sunglasses, and smiles. According to the website, it looks like over $25,000 was raised! Congrats to 826LA and all the participating teams.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

It seems everyone is talking about infrastructure. For someone who has spent decades trying to get people to see the road as something other than a utilitarian space, it's an exciting change of focus.

Robert L. Reid in January 2008's "The Infrastructure Crisis" defines infrastructure as "that vast system of highways, bridges, airports, rail lines, pipelines, power lines, dams, waterways, water treatment plants, parks, schools, and other publicly owned or publicly regulated facilities that make it possible for Americans to enjoy what is widely regarded as the highest standard of living in the world." His "Special Report", published in the online magazine of the Society of Civil Engineers, is a response to the now much-publicized Report Card for America's Infrastructure which graded the "condition and capacity" of our fifteen primary infrastructure systems.* The star student was solid waste (landfills, recycling) with a C+, meaning +/-78% of all engineer-evaluated solid waste systems were in good working order. Bridges were next with a C, Parks and Recreation and Rail each received a grade of C-, and everything else (other than an Incomplete for Security) was D-rated or below.

This less then mediocre status of our national networks typically goes unnoticed until a system failure occurs. At the local level, that can be as small but inconvenient as a downed power line or a traffic detour for road repair. At the regional or larger level that can mean chronic airline delays or the collapse of a major connector bridge. As I say in my recent article in Places magazine, "Infrastructural Optimism", we expect the visible components of our infrastructure to construct our cities formally and symbolically as well as functionally. On roads in particular, "In addition to providing access, streets establish a sense of order and hierarchy, orient us within urban networks, and, at the neighborhood scale, operate as spaces for social connection." The loss of the functional, formal, and symbolic - as in the collapse of levees and flood walls from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita - raises the system failure to the level of catastrophe.

New Orleans is most certainly a primary example cited when considering the sorry state of our public works, yet seeing the Gulf disaster as an infrastructural failure is often muddied by the compounded catastrophes of nature, government inaction, media, and human loss. Infrastructure failure was but one slice of that awful pie, one that seemed unfortunately inevitable against the mounting and compounding of odds. Yet a more isolated event like the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis where 13 people died and over 100 were injured can be seen as a direct result of lax standards of maintenance, upkeep, and replacement. As cited in numerous reports, the I-35W bridge was noted as "structurally deficient" since 1990, yet "engineers with the Minnesota Department of Transportation did not believe that the bridge was in danger of imminent failure" (Reid).

Said Patrick J. Natale, ASCE's executive director when addressing the 2007 ASCE Annual Civil Engineering Conference (as quoted in the same article) “Years of deferred infrastructure investments and maintenance and [the] failure of public officials to act on infrastructure needs place the public at risk and hinder our country’s economic growth and competitiveness. It is a true crisis.” According to the ASCE report card, an investment of $1.6 trillion over a five year period is needed (as of 2007) to adequately address the already existing deficits of neglected infrastructure.

Reid makes an explicit argument, category by category, of the growing needs in miles traveled, flights taken, energy used, security demanded, etc. Where China and India spend 9% and 5% of their GDPs respectively on infrastructure, US spending had dropped to a paltry 2% when he wrote his essay in January of 2008.

As Stephen Flynn, author of The Edge of Disaster, argues, "the only way to solve the nation’s infrastructure problems 'is with presidential leadership that uses the bully pulpit to help make the repair and maintenance of our infrastructure a national priority.' In January of 2008 this seemed a near impossibility, and now, just a year and a half later, we have the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, part of which aims to invest $150 billion in new infrastructure, enacting "the largest increase in funding of our nation’s roads, bridges, and mass transit systems since the creation of the national highway system in the 1950s".

The fear, of course, like the TARP and a million other good intentions before it, is that these billions will go to shovel-ready projects without them being truly shovel-worthy. Referred to in the press as the new WPA, it is most certainly the hope of architects, urban designers, landscape urbanists, and planners that what comes from the Recovery Act and the new Infrastructure Bank takes into account a design-consciousness not seen since the WPA combined necessity with creativity to produce a built legacy of projects that were intended to fulfill functional needs and lift the spirits of a suffering and sluggish populace. These ambitions are finding their way to the surface.

The June 14th issue of the New York Times Magazine was entitled "Infrastructure!* (it's more exciting than you think actually)" and is filled with musings on high speed rail, prisons that work, hybrids of power and public space, and datatecture, all illustrated with line drawings by Christoph Niemann that are playful, thought-provoking, and fun.

The kick-off story is on the new I-35W bridge, replacing the one that collapsed in August of 2007.** The new Minneapolis bridge is both good looking and smart, using temperature sensors to control the application of antifreeze and imbedded devices that monitor corrosion, cracking and potential overloading. According to the Times article by Henry Petroski, thse smart additions increased the cost of the bridge less than 1% and will ultimately save money, not to mention possible lives.

Manuel Castells and Laura Burkhalter recently published "Beyond the Crisis: Towards a New Urban Paradigm" which calls for a reconsideration of zoning; a broadened selection of mobility options including layered roads for streets, bikes, and transit; a reinvestment in public space; a reconfiguration of housing prototypes; and - one option that is appearing everywhere - a new look at green space, particularly urban farming and community or home-based agriculture. On that last note, see such great solutions as Fritz Haeg's Edible Estates: Attacks on the Front Lawn, LA's Fallen Fruit, or any number of recent articles on guerrilla gardening. Another of my favorites, a road-garden hybrid, is Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis's truck farm, covered last weekend on KCRW's Good Food. After making the documentary King Corn, they turned their work vehicle into a mobile food provider using green roof technology, soil, and seeds.
Small moves, yes, but so was the first pc.

John King, writing for the San Francisco Gate, is following initiatives that turn inactive lots, often stalled by the current financial crisis, into productive alternatives. Some are home to temporary sculpture exhibitions or parks, farmer's markets, or event locations. One particularly brilliant proposal by Doug Wildmon of Friends of the Urban Forest aims to connect empty lots with youth programs to run urban, profit-generating tree farms. The city loses CO2 and blight and the kids gain profit and experience. Win win.

REBAR, San Francisco based inventors of park(ing) day (coming up in September again!) created "The People's Public Works", a "carnival midway with infrastructure as the theme." Says Rebar's John Bela quoted by John King in "Designers who see more than an empty lot":

The pit would offer an array of ad hoc nooks where people could explore the nuts and bolts of city building. Explorers might encounter a workshop on pothole repairs, celebrations of public servants, participant games and artists-in-residence - all amid surplus piles of such urban arcana as backhoes and orange cones.
Ideas are changing a lot faster than concrete or steel. If we can sponsor a more participatory infrastructure, people might take more ownership in the conditions around them.

Nirvana for people like me. Infrastructure is in -- way, way in.

So, what can YOU contribute? Of course you can follow along at, where they are fulfilling their commitment to web-based transparency by posting state-by-state and project-by-project funding allocations. You can communicate with state and national officials and be a voice in the debate regarding the prioritization of projects, pushing for quality, sustainability, and creativity over the status quo.

Or, if you're a design professional or a design student, you can enter the WPA 2.0 competition. In full disclosure, I'm working with cityLAB on this competition, but that doesn't make it any less of an exciting opportunity to present your best ideas to a stellar selection of architects, engineers, and landscape architects including Liz Diller (of the newly opened High Line), Walter Hood (the hippest Landscape Architect around), Stan Allen (Princeton Dean), among others. Registration closes this coming Friday - July 24th - and digital design sketchbooks that present schematic proposals are due August 7th. There is also a student competition - WPA 2.0 (SE) with a fall schedule - registration closes October 16th, entries due November 2nd. All finalists will be invited to a symposium in Washington DC on November 16th where jurors, finalists, policy makers and members of the public will join in debate on the most innovative ideas presented for the next generation of infrastructure projects.

So, if you're interested, see our website, join our mailing list, or follow us on Facebook.

The competition has generated global buzz. WPA 2.0 has been on blogs from Japan to Spain to Sweden, and all over the US, geographically and disciplinarily. I can't wait to see what the world's most ingenious minds create.

Until then, I'm hitting the road.

One local note: Next Sunday, 826LA, a non-profit organization that helps students 6 to 18 years old improve their literacy and writing skills, is hosting its annual paddle boat regatta in Echo Park to raise money for its tutoring programs. More information is here.

Infrastructure meets altruism. Hope to see you all there.

*aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy (national power grid), hazardous waste, navigable waterways, public parks and recreation, rail, roads, schools, security, solid waste, transit and wastewater

** This article revises the level of needed funds over 5 years from 1.6 to $2.2 trillion, meaning the billions in the stimulus package still falls far short.

Monday, July 13, 2009


I've been working on this entry on and off for three weeks. In that time it has started and stopped and grown, veered, screeched, righted itself and changed direction, but never really gotten anywhere. Near the beginning it took on the theme of 'survival' as I read more and more about General Motors, the growing jobless and homeless, uprisings in Iran over the recent election, and a girl who fell from the sky and lived to tell about it. What does it mean for us to survive (as an economy, a political system, a globalized world, an individual)? And, more importantly, where lies the line when surviving turns to thriving, or vice versa?

Then, amongst these global questions, came a rash of high profile deaths - literally. First David Carradine, under the most exposing of circumstances, then Ed McMahon, who could no longer be saved by the cash rich and taste poor Donald Trump. Then Farrah, who seemed to be resisting her cancer by playing it out in a made for TV movie with the hopes of a happy ending. And then, within hours of her death, the King of Pop.

Unlike the others, Michael Jackson's death is rapidly transforming into a new and greater form of survival. The gaps in his home life are being filled in by previously absent film clips of a near normal dad playing chess with a near normal child -- except this marble and gilded chess set cost nearly $90,000 and the two year old, shockingly blonde child is wearing a white satin tux. His musical life, which was heading down what some people thought was a comeback dead end, has magically and beautifully been resuscitated. What a bittersweet treat it has been these last two weeks to rediscover the sound of his musical innocence in the air all of a sudden like dandelion seeds. Or to remember again the flood of altruism and awareness that "We Are the World" initiated.

Think back. Angelina Jolie, queen of global star causes today, was 10 when those 45 artists led by Michael, Lionel Richie, and Quincy Jones responded to the famine in Ethiopia with their greatest, creative arsenal. The single sold 7.5 million copies in the US alone, 3 million in album form, and went on to raise over $63 million for African famine relief. The door might have been cracked open by Band Aid and Farm Aid, but "We Are the World" was as much strategy and scheduling miracle as song.

I remember seeing the video for the very first time and recognizing immediately the intentional musical merging of black and white, pop and soul, old stars and new. There is a democracy to the voices through the structure of duets, singles, duets, chorus, and the alternating intensity of crescendos and lightness. No line is completed by a single singer, but started by one, shared in the middle, finished by a second. Stevie Wonder joins Lionel Richie, Paul Simon completes the thought; Kenny Rogers joins in, then takes over. Tina Turner, her usual rowdiness deferred to God's great big family, is paired -- magically, surprisingly, beautifully -- with Billy Joel, channeling a long lost John Lennon perhaps -- you know love is all we neeeeeeeeed.

Then, the chorus starts in quiet, shiny solo -- a toe tapping, glove wearing, angelic sounding Michael Jackson at his not-yet-old and not-still-young best self. We are the world, we are the children, we are the ones who make a brighter day so let's start giving. And as he glitters in brocade jacket, eye shadow, perfectly shaped curls and delicate, high pitch voice, you really believe that it makes complete sense - that we ARE the children, that we ARE the world, that we CAN make a brighter day if we just start giving. Jackson's voice is not heavy with intensity or emotion like everyone else's is, he's simply calm, silvery and certain.

His seraphic chorus floats over to Diana Ross, who briefly takes the lead, then Dionne Warwick mixes with Willy Nelson (!), joined next by Al Jarreau, and then the great, gravelly voice of the Boss, who looks 25 years old, fresh from New Jersey, if he's a day. Kenny Loggins meets up with Steve Perry (Steve Perry!?!) who's joined by kiss-on-my-list Daryl Hall, Huey Lewis, and Cyndi Lauper (who supposedly had to redo her part because her clanging jewelry made so much noise). White, black, blonde, red, afroed, mustached, smiling, grimacing, loud, soft, famous. Cyndi Lauper's yeah yeah yeah yeah-s capture perfectly the sense of individuality expressed solely in service of the far more magnificent and significant collective.

Bob Geldof had tried to duplicate his "Do They Know It's Christmas?" fundraising single with US stars, but, much to his frustration, it never materialized. As quoted in a March, 1985 article in the LA Times, reflecting on the "We Are the World" recording, "I shouldn't have had to call them in the first place. After they heard what we did with Band Aid...., they should have been calling me. I don't care what they had to do, even if it meant canceling shows. Lives are at stake."

Somehow, that's just not how we seem to work. Go to central London for any length of time, stand in the ruins of John Soane, and you realize, in cold hard stone, America is an adolescent nation by comparison - not yet old but not quite still young. In some ways, it is a huge relief, just to see how far we have come in so short a time. Perhaps it is our capitalist democratic frontier roots, but we don't flock to the cry of necessity so much as wander slowly towards need like a light, a kind of 'build it and they will come' mentality of altruism. "We Are the World" was a success because it was so good, not because it was such a good idea.

Forty-five artists participated in "We Are the World" and at least 50 others who expressed interest were turned away. Prince never showed up; Pat Benatar and Madonna were otherwise engaged. When Quincy Jones sent out the demo tapes he also included the now famous directive to "check all egos at the front door". The fact that that happened was as much of an accomplishment as simply getting 45 of the most famous singers of the mid1980s in the same room at the same time, happily.

People die all the time, shocking and sad as it may feel, but those who are famous are often displayed - in life and in death - as role models and stereotypes for the rest of us. Who do we want to be like, who do we see as influences, who do we shun? In this media saturated world, we are quick to judge what is given to us shallow, free, and often unfiltered. If the comeback "This Is It" tour would've been a disaster, would we ever have returned to the innocence of "I'll be There"? What is survival for each of us, and how do we make certain that we do our best to not live at that low limit, but to thrive as individuals in support of the larger collective?

Is it true, as a friend of mine recently reminded me, that "every man's death diminishes me" (MVF via Ernest Hemingway via John Donne)? What are we to make, then, of this month of loss, ending not so insignificantly with Dr. George Tiller being gunned down by a hypocritical pro-lifer? What are we to make of the deaths in Iran, the willingness to sacrifice for the cause so much bigger than oneself? Maryam, a 36-year-old woman flashing peace signs to passing cars and yelling for her candidate, says to a TIME magazine reporter, "Let them beat me. My country is going to waste. What am I in comparison?" Or of those in Iraq still, and Afghanistan? Somewhere between Maryam, Dr. Tiller, and Michael Jackson -- but not equivalent to any of them -- lies the balance we are willing, and able, to fight for. No, we are not embarrassed, nor should we be, by our individual successes and accomplishments, but as I've told many aspiring and talented students, it's not what you have, it's what you do with what you have that really matters. It's not where you go (Harvard University or Santa Monica State, New York City or Tulsa), it's what you do once you get there that counts.

We must be the world, without being the whole of the world. We must be the children, without being children. Our better day must be a better day for everyone, large and small, young and old, black and white, gay and straight, disco, pop, blues, country, and techno -- and everything in between. Life all of a sudden seems very short, and simultaneously infinite, beautifully eccentric, and very, very full of possibilities.

See the video here.
Read the LA Times article here.
Read the Wikipedia entry with stories, participants, and disputes here.

The image is my diagram of the first verses and chorus of "We Are the World", the way duets and singles lead, overlap, part, and rejoin. As an architect, it's the way I make sense of things.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Mobile Stories

My favorite hour of the weekend comes three times in LA. The brand new, non-repeat version of This American Life is played on Saturdays at 10am (on KCRW), again at 1pm (on KPCC) and a third time on Sunday nights at 6 (also on KPCC). Then, if I'm really itching for another good narrative, or I missed it the weekend before, I can listen to last week's show at 11am on Sunday. Of course, you can hear the entire archive on line, but there's something compelling about a compulsory pause in life's regular racket when you have to stop, and just listen. It took all three broadcasts of 'Origins' this weekend for me to really hear parts one through four.

A few weeks ago, my friend Whitney and I got tickets to the sold out live screening of the one hour This American Life television special. Now a half hour Showtime weekly, host Ira Glass was screening the "John Smith" special episode for Emmy consideration at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Presented and discussed by Ira and his fellow producers and writers, the story follows not one man named John Smith, where it would be impossible to document the events of a life span in a month's worth of production, but six John Smiths each at different stages of life to make up a John Smith whole. Baby John, who was expected to be a girl, was 11 weeks old. Young John, minor delinquent turned short order cook, was 23. Yuppie John was a software engineer with a new baby of his own and a taste of mortality, loss, and love through his mother's illness. Middle aged John, 46, was struggling with his son's return from Iraq and his desire to be personal and emotional in a world, both military and small town, where that is at best uncomfortable. Retired John Smith, in his late 70s, volunteered at the airport after a long life of hard work and taking care of his son who had recently succumbed to AIDS. And, finally, John Smith in his 90s in a nursing home, surrounded by his large family, who died while the show was filming.

They showed two other regular length episodes as well. One a visually fascinating time lapse day of senior portraits at a local high school, the other the story of a boy growing up with a degenerative disease who, by the time of the filming, had barely the use of his left thumb, with which he spelled words on the computer as his primary form of communication, and his eyes. Two long blinks for yes. He, Michael I think his name was, had a rebellious personality, streaks of dyed red hair, black painted fingernails and a pierced eyebrow. He had a girlfriend he met on Craigslist and an adventurous personality. That story was as much about his mom and her commitment (often over-bearing in Michael's eyes) to his health and well-being as it was about him and his adaptability.

Ira asked him, semi-jokingly, who should be his voice in the television show if they could get any star at all. Ed Norton or Johnny Depp, Michael typed. Ed Norton never returned their calls, yet Johnny Depp, the larger star, begins reading Michael's words, and his eyebrow piercing and black fingernails are so filled with the cool of a young 21 Jumpstreet undercover cop, that you can't help but admire the tenacity, and the tongue in cheek arrogance of it all.

After the three pieces, the producers and writers chatted and answered questions. Ira's love, obviously, is telling good stories, and telling them in a way that is highly crafted, expertly produced, and strategically orchestrated.

Their more amateur counterpart, I would say, is StoryCorps. StoryCorps, as told on their website, "is an independent nonprofit project whose mission is to honor and celebrate one another’s lives through listening. . . By recording the stories of our lives with the people we care about, we experience our history, hopes, and humanity." StoryCorps began in 2003 with a StoryBooth in Grand Central Station. A simple concept, two people who have an interesting shared story, one more the interviewer and the other the interviewee, reserve an hour slot for a self-directed, narrative conversation. That conversation is recorded for the StoryCorps archive and also provided in cd form to the participants. Tens of thousands of stories have been recorded, archived, edited, and aired to date.

After the tragedies of September 11th, a second StoryCorps booth was dedicated to collecting the stories of anyone affected by the events in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Included are the stories of firefighters, volunteers, survivors, rescue workers, witnesses and family members of 9/11 victims. In a two day session, over thirty stories were collected from those at the Pentagon. The archive will be included in the 9/11 memorial and held in the Library of Congress.

In July 2006, StoryCorps launched an initiative to capture the stories of those suffering from memory loss. In 2007, they began the Griot Initiative, the largest African American oral history project since the WPA slave narratives of the 1930s. A compilation cd of these interviews is being released some time in June to honor the 100th anniversary of the NAACP.

The objectives of StoryCorps are ambitious:

StoryCorps is a public service... StoryCorps reminds us of the importance of listening to and learning from those around us. It celebrates our shared humanity. It tells people that their lives matter and they won’t be forgotten. Through StoryCorps, we hope to create a kinder, more thoughtful and compassionate nation. . . . We hope to build StoryCorps into an enduring American institution.

Near and dear to my heart was the 2005 launch of two MobileBooths, housed in airstream trailers and traveling from city to city to capture the grassroots, often missed relationship tales from over 100 cities in 48 states. Right now the MobileBooths are in Wenatchee, WA and Berlin, NH. Next they go to Rochester, NY; Erie, PA; Paonia, CO and Akron, OH. In October, a MobileBooth arrives in San Francisco.

Which brings us to the cause of the week this week.

StoryCorps is trying to raise $100,000 to keep the MobileBooths operable in 2009. To date, they've raised $68,000 with another $32,000 to go. You can donate to the fund directly between now and June 30th by clicking here.

You can also buy the book, Listening is an Act of Love, or any of their cds, and all of the royalties benefit the project. You can rent a StoryKit to facilitate your own series of interviews.

Or, you can sponsor an on site recording day for six or more where a trained staff member comes to your site with professional equipment to record for a reasonable fee.

Like all of public radio, you can also listen on line for free.

I have no idea how many of these stories I have heard. Most of them are distilled into only a few minutes, so they seem to sneak in in the cracks between the stories we think we are waiting for. The stories are about adoption, cancer, anniversaries, meetings, love, survival, perseverance, history, family, strangers. It is a great democratizing effort to prize every person as equal, every relationship valuable, and every story worthy of presentation in our national public space via a road quest of American telling.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

How shopping for a bathing suit is really studying for my exams

Lyn H. Lofland, sociologist and scholar, defines the public realm as the place in the city where we interact with strangers. Her definition of the city is intentionally broad and inclusive - "a permanently populous place or settlement" - and her definition of stranger is two prong. There are both "cultural strangers . . . those who occupy symbolic worlds different from our own" and "biographical strangers . . . those we have never met before". In other words, the latter are simply people we don't know, the former are those who somehow see or live in the world differently than we do. Richard Sennett - sociologist, scholar, and Guardian-appointed "public intellectual - discusses in his book The Fall of Public Man the key occupier of this public domain, the cosmopolite. A cosmopolite, as derived from the French usage in the 1730s, "is a man who moves comfortably in diversity" (the gender specificity is an entirely different dissertation).

The public realm was once a realm of necessity, when the world's population was largely illiterate and news traveled via the town crier and passed by word of mouth. The public realm was where all entertainment, if there was time for any, happened and all commerce was conducted. Everyday movements between sustenance collection and waste disposal happened in the streets - the city's most regularly and necessarily occupied public realm.

For the ancient Greeks, the public realm was the realm of freedom. The private realm was weighted with the minutiae of daily living, including the hard work of being in charge. But the public realm was a zone of equals, a place to express opinions freely, of intellectualism, debate, and the development of individuality (again, gender, slavery, and land ownership are their own dissertations). Aristotle as interpreted through Hannah Arendt, philosopher and cultural scholar, differentiates the pre-political from the political public realm in that the former was a place where decisions were made through violence and the latter where decisions were made through speech. The public realm was a place where we learned to negotiate, where we developed what Lofland calls "political maturity" and what Sennett elaborates as a place where "men can act together without the compulsion to be the same."

Much of the literature on the contemporary city discusses the death of public space (here - particularly as architects, urbanists and planners - we are assuming that the public sphere or public realm is geographically grounded in an actual place, public space). Books like Sennett's The Fall of Public Man and Michael Sorkin's edited volume, Variations on a Theme Park: the New American City and the End of Public Space talk about the postmodern city and the militarized, thematized, and commodified versions of pseudo-public space we most commonly find today. Disney theme parks are referred to in nearly every book on the subject, as they are the example in 3/4 scale of the sanitized city where everything - from experience to speed - is branded, polished, duplicated, and sold. Lofland, Sorkin, Ed Soja, Margaret Crawford are all asking some version of the following question - what is public space today? And, is this the public space we are destined to have? Is The Grove (substitute your local mall/waterfront development/downtown revitalization project here) the best we can do?

I was at The Grove/Farmer's Market last night, and it was certainly packed with 'public'. More than a mall with limited entrances, tight boundaries, and an inward focus, it does have places to wander, to sit and talk, to meet strangers even perhaps. Because The Grove is connected to the more economically congenial Farmers Market, it is sort of economically diverse. Sort of. At the Farmer's Market there are movable chairs and benches where groups of various sizes can gather, eat, chat. And though commerce happens there, bartering certainly doesn't. And though conversation happens there, debate certainly doesn't. And though there are strangers, they are most likely to be the biographical rather than the cultural kind. And, even if they are the cultural kind, they tend to be a mere skim off the top of the cultural depths that we know live in LA. And, neither The Grove nor the Farmer's Market is either a grove or a farmer's market. So, among the many, many things that keep The Grove and the Farmer's Market from being real public space - including that it's more theme than market and more mall than not - is that it's not held in common, there are no public rights, and it's not where we learn to be good citizens.

Hannah Arendt likens public space to a great collective table - held in ownership by no individual, shared by all who are seated at it, yet also lasting far beyond any meal, any set of meals, any lifetime of meals. The table connects us, yet separates us at the same time. Without the table, there would be no common ground. yet without the separation, there would be no diversity. And, too, the table outlasts us all. Says Arendt, "If the world is to contain a public space, it cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life-span of mortal men.. . . Without this transcendence into a potential earthly immortality, no politics, strictly speaking, no common world and no public realm, is possible."

Secondly, public space supports public rights. At a minimum, public rights allow access and occupation. Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris - urban planner and expert on public realms such as the sidewalk and bus stop - documents in her co-authored book Urban Design Downtown: Poetics and Politics of Form, the way privatized spaces (particularly shopping malls) were initially court ordered to fulfill the public role they seemed to be hijacking from the plazas and streets of the city. Now, the privatized city is more the norm than not and we can't imagine any mall cop in America that would allow a protest, the distribution of leaflets, picketing, or political solicitations on mall property. As a matter of fact, we've reached a point where plazas and streets have developed strict regulations intended to maintain order and keep out the 'messiness'.

Order and messiness are exactly what Don Mitchell in The Right to the City discusses as the very vitality of urbanity. To Mitchell and Anthony Vidler, who writes the introduction to the text, a sanitized city is not a city worth living in. Mitchell asks very important questions about public space - who can be there, when, and what can they do? In other words, who is the 'public' and what rights do we all share? Mitchell focuses on those who are homeless and argues the very salient point that if you have no private space to return to, you are forced to live out the entirety of your life in public. If, then, you are restricted from public space - either formally (laws, regulations, gates, patrol) or informally (harassment, psychological barriers like intimidation, lighting, the removal of benches or aggressive sprinklering) then your very existence is criminalized. In his words you simply have no place at all to BE. Henri Lefebvre, the originator of the right to the city argument, takes that one step further when he claims that we all have the right to the oeuvre -- the right to be a part of the production of the city itself, the right to active participation, to identity, ownership, investment, even play. Iris Marion Young adds to those the right to self-determination and the right to self-development.

Finally, public space must maintain some form of cosmopolitanism. To be cosmopolitan, to live among difference and to recognize its value, produces tolerance. Says Lofland, a "great city is, in and of itself, a settlement form that generates cosmopolitanism among its citizenry; it is a settlement form that produces - by its very nature - a populace that is far more open to and accepting of human variability, far more inclined to civility and less to fanaticism and smug parochialism than are the residents of more homogeneous and intimate settlement forms like tribe, village or small town." In other words, urbanity makes us a more open civilization, more willing to accept -- even invite -- strangers to sit at our common table.

The loss of all these attributes is blamed on everything from the industrial revolution which first separated living space from work space to the car and the computer. The most interesting theories, though, don't wax nostalgic for a pre-technology era but recognize the value of advancement and call for new ways to be public which, in turn, create new geographies of public space. Urry and Sheller who call for a "civil society of automobility" pose one of my favorites.

Which brings me to the point.

A friend of mine posted a link to a 2006 video that I had never seen (though 43 million other people have). It's a completely hokey, tear-jerker of a story, turned movie, turned movement. The free hugs movement. (Click here to see the movie and read the story) But it's also about free speech rights, breaking gender stereotypes, embracing difference (literally), and the risk of urban messiness. What I love about the movie and the movement and the DOING of it all is that it's about making public space. As Lofland also said, the public realm is ageographical until it HAPPENS somewhere. This is one reason big empty corporate plazas are not all that public - there is no one there doing anything and those who are, according to Loukatai-Sideris's case studies, are mostly white middle class males in business suits. Or they were.

Public space is changing for many reasons, but most importantly, because we want it to. Because those same people who don't want to work in a cubicle and hold out for retirement benefits are also a growing collection of mixed race, emergent entrepreneurs who volunteer in Africa and do reverse graffiti.

Because we're looking in new places, too. Street vendors are hip in LA. Tight money means alternative capitalism and it means being more wise with limited resources - space included. And higher gas prices, even though they've gone down since last summer, mean more walking, more public transit, more bus stop use, more biking - more ways to be in the public realm, to mix with strangers. But to become cosmopolitan, you have to choose to recognize and appreciate difference and the responsibility of the commons. You don't have to hug a stranger - though there is something really joyous about that Juan guy - but you can recognize the value in difference, the importance of conversation with strangers - in every sense - and the significance we gain by being actively intermixed with the messiness of the city.


Arendt, Hannah. (1958) “The Public and the Private Realm,” in The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lefebvre, Henri. (1991) The Production of Space. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Lofland, Lyn. (1998) The Public Realm: Exploring the City’s Quintessential Territory. Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine de Gruyter.

Loukaitou-Sideris, Anastasia and Tridib Banerjee. (1998) Urban Design Downtown: Poetics and Politics of Form. Berkley: University of California Press.

Mitchell, Don. (2003) The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York: The Guillford Press.

Sennett, Richard. (1992) The Fall of Public Man. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

Sheller, Mimi and John Urry. (2000) “The City and the Car,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 24(4). 737-757.

image credit: Damon Winter, The New York Times