June 29, 2008 § Leave a Comment
In the realm of music I just cannot listen to anymore, The Beatles ranks high. They’re fine as bands go, I have nothing against them really, it’s just that they are overplayed at the expense of so much other music that has been ignored for decades, and that they often provide a sad stopgap in the creative imagination of the musically interested. For too many people I have encountered, The Beatles tend to function as a highpoint in Western pop music that stops the journey cold and focuses the enthusiasm right there, only to stagnate through repeated listenings of the same songs and, goodness me, rarities upon rarities.
It’s a surprise to me that someone can come up with a new way for me to hear The Beatles — and NOT a Beatles cover version. WFMU provides a bunch of Beatles songs totally backwards</a> in an attempt to uncover some of the Devil’s messages and also figure out once and forever if Paul is Dead (if you’ve heard any of the man’s music for the past couple decades, his demise is old news, to be sure).
The Beatles played backwards is a good thing, but it’ll take more than this to get me to listen to The Who.
June 27, 2008 § Leave a Comment
Jarvis Rockwell is easily one of the biggest reasons our family fell for the Berkshires — we first encountered him at his Maya show at Mass MoCA about 7 years ago. Jarvis’ work redirected my eye in both photography and everyday life and really got my brain going in making philosophical connections via his most widely publicized medium — action figures. I’ve mined that territory ever since encountering his work and it’s really my photographic passion.Over time, I’ve had a couple opportunities to talk with Jarvis — he’s Norman Rockwell’s son, in case you didn’t realize — but he devised Maya 3 in downtown North Adams for a big summer project and that gave me the excuse to talk at length with him and hang out, shoot some video and even contribute a small bit to the new pyramid (geeky of me, but awfully exciting — you can imagine the scenes I set up involved a lot of Doctor Who figures).I will post the straight interview eventually, but in the meantime here is the article that resulted from our talk, as well as this little video I put together of some impromptu footage I shot (I wasn’t really planning on doing it, I didn’t bring my DV camera, so this was all shot on my little tiny Nikon Coolpix).
Anyhow, I’m glad to be able to get to know Jarvis better — he’s a great and funny and fascinating guy. He’ll be hanging around the gallery in downtown North Adams this summer doing a wall drawing and he’s very approachable — I highly recommend checking him out!
June 27, 2008 § Leave a Comment
The phrase “comic book journalism” isn’t one that is bandied around very often, but Joe Sacco has proven it can be done and in such a way that it puts a good bit of traditional journalism — as it exists today — to shame.
“Safe Area Gorazde” was duly lauded when it was first released — it was a New York Times Notable Book in 2001 and Time Magazine named it “Best Comic of 2000.” Sacco, who had previously won acclaim with his book “Palestine” has moved on to work for publications such as Harpers and The Guardian UK, in which he chronicles the War in Iraq.
This new edition of his timeless report on his experiences in the Bosnian War mixes cold facts and analysis with heartbreaking biographies, amusing slices of life and disturbing depictions of worst in human nature to present something of fearless compassion and scholarship. And as skilled as Sacco’s writing is, it’s his artistic prowess that draws you in, whether he’s rendering the friendly faces of the people he hangs out with or the intensity and destruction of the war that has hijacked their lives.
Sacco is generous with clear explanations of the situation in Bosnia, covering the history, the factions and the troop movements, as well as details of the kinds of atrocities so many thought had disappeared with Nazi Germany. He brings it all down to earth by chronicling his daily life in Gorazde and presenting his lighter moments with the denizens. As you get to know these people, he brings in their stories — it’s a jarring narrative construct as you witness these friendly people struggling for their lives as their own neighborhoods fall down around them. It’s a depiction of war as something that happens to real people — an example of what it would be like for you, the reader, or for the people out there trapped in wars now, whose lives are an abstraction of the wider implications of any conflict.
Sacco’s tale is also one of Twilight Zone absurdity at its most grim level — what if those you once called friends and neighbors suddenly want to wipe you and all your people out of existence, sadistically punishing you prior to your murder and waging the genocide in your own homes? What if your grandmother’s house was turned into the scene of a military battle in order to save the existence of your entire nationality? No zombie tale can compare for sheer terror.
This new edition is a timely revival, a reminder of the pre-Bush years and the gray world that existed before this one of absolutes, a work of elegant power that demands your attention.
June 27, 2008 § Leave a Comment
Much like his father Norman Rockwell, Jarvis Rockwell employs iconic images that reflect something very personal about his world view — but no one would ever confuse one’s creative work with the other’s. Rockwell, 76, has gained renown for a very unusual artistic medium — action figures.
His use of these as material coalesced in “Maya” — a huge pyramid of containing hundreds of action figures — at Mass MoCA in 2001. That was repeated as “Maya II” at the Scottsdale Center for Performing Arts in Arizona and now sees new life as “Maya III” in downtown North Adams. The hope is that another pyramid will crop up in Arizona soon. The structures are just more investigations into the order that comes from disorder, the patterns of randomness and the results of a chaotic universe that swirl through Rockwell’s efforts for decades — the action figure collecting didn’t start until 1979, following his father’s death and years of creative exploration in other forms.
“I went to Kmart in Great Barrington and they had Battlestar Galactica figures and some vehicles,” said Rockwell. “That’s really where I started, with those.”
It would take another couple decades before his mass toy purchases — he’s got over a million figurines and action figures — made their way into Mass MoCA. His drawings in 1950s San Francisco might have been from more of an obvious direct line to his father’s sensibility than any other era. Rockwell decided to pursue socially conscious art.
“I tried some socially realistic drawings like a person, a single figure, striving against something in a very general way,” Rockwell said. “They didn’t come to much.”
Rockwell would create these works using the back of a suitcase as his drawing table — it was all he had brought with him. He began exploring fantasy and “super-real” subjects before mixing it up a bit — the abstract as a method to lead to images that seemed more systematic.
“I’d take bottles of colored ink and put a piece of white illustration board on the floor and dribble ink on the thing or just let it flow out of the bottle and then let it dry and then work with what I had,” he said. “In other words, find within that what my drawing would be. That was interesting for awhile.”
Rockwell continued this method for a while in between travel, but his ideas soon began jumping off the two-dimensional illustration board and literally winding around the physical world with Rockwell as the maestro. One incident saw Rockwell wielding large balls of thread — orange, yellow and blue — in the woods in the backyard of his house.
“I just let it unroll and attached it to trees,” Rockwell said. “When sunlight hit it, it would glow. I just walked around the woods and made designs with this color thread. So I worked on an 80 by 80-foot space. I would take this ball of thread and throw it as hard as I could straight up in the air. It would go up and over and go over a branch and then come down — it was a marvelous feeling.”
Rockwell had just been doing what came naturally to him and found that he wasn’t the only creature with this urge.
“One time I was working there and right next to me, there was a spider doing the same thing,” said Rockwell. “Although he had a different idea, he was trying to capture a different thing, so to speak. He was trying to capture a fly and I was trying to capture an idea — which may be similar, I don’t know.”
Rockwell’s artistic career has been one of going with the flow and doing what he wanted in a spontaneous manner. His artistic journey was a unique one, the result of a mix between his singular way of looking at the world and the presence of his father, Norman Rockwell, whose stature in America goes well beyond fame — to some people, Norman Rockwell defined our image of ourselves. In that way, Rockwell can see a connection in his current work with action figures and his father’s cherished output — they both work with icons and archetypes, it’s just that Jarvis Rockwell takes those that have already been created and puts them in a different context.
“My father was always involved in the mass market and I think that also interested me, I was naturally interested in it, but in a different way than he was,” said Rockwell. “I think there’s some connection. It’s the father-son, we’re in the same family thing. I think it’s somewhat natural.”
Rockwell says that his father was always very supportive of his artistic pursuits, even if he didn’t always understand them. His father supported him through the years and made it possible for him to explore the world artistically and would attend gallery openings of his work.
“He bought one picture from me,” said Rockwell. “It was this colored ink and I had drawn onto it. There was a circle that was an inch, an inch and a half high just at the bottom, just below the center, and my father, every time I’d go see him, he’d say, ‘Jarvis, I don’t know what that white circle is.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, that’s what it is, you don’t know — it’s the I Don’t Know!’ But he wasn’t used to that, that wasn’t the way he worked. He didn’t paint what he didn’t know, he painted what he did know — which was understandable.”
Rockwell says that his father was sometimes conflicted about supporting him and one time even took him to visit Dr. Robert Knight, the founder of the Austen Riggs Foundation, for help addressing that concern. At the same time, Rock-well’s father often seemed happy to leave him to his own devices.
“He thought that it’s not good for a person to be given money, they should work for it, all that kind of thing,” said Rockwell. “It’s probably true, I don’t know — the threat of it was enough for me. Sometimes that worked for a while, so I wouldn’t need the money. He supported me for quite a time.”
Having Norman Rockwell as a father is understandably an inescapable gorilla in the room for an artist and Rockwell has dealt with it through affection and humor. People who encounter his work are often surprised that he is in “that” Rockwell family.
“I like the fact that some people are very amused by it,” said Rockwell. “There’s a large group of people that all they can say is, “Your father.” And they’re saying it as though they are in church or something. I know what they mean and I shouldn’t really mock them, but it is funny to hear them say it. It gets a little old, it goes on and on, I get tired of it.”
Some of Rockwell’s earliest action figure work can be viewed as a demented alternative universe of his father’s images. Originally, Rockwell fashioned dioramas with the action figures in bizarre domestic scenes, their bodies sometimes mixed and matched and usually some macabre mischief going on — perhaps a gathering of heads in a living room or a naked dinner party of some sort. He did a large version at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City in 1984, and years later included several smaller dioramas with “Maya” at Mass MoCA.
If buying action figures with the family fortune seems child-like and mischievous, consider Rockwell’s latest and greatest artistic passion — drawing on walls. If ever there was a clear-cut seeming reaction to the restrictions of childhood — and the joys of bursting past them — it’s this.
“It’s naughtiness,” said Rockwell. “And you don’t have to worry about where you’re going to show it, because it’s just there.”
Rockwell will work on a wall drawing in his “Maya 3″ space — he did one previously at Mass MoCA, as well as other venues. His most complicated work in the medium, though, is one in the entrance hall of his own house. He’s been working on it for four years now, from floor to ceiling and up the stairway. It began as a kind of whimsical project after he survived colon cancer.
“I came downstairs one morning, my wife was in the kitchen, and I had a pencil in my hand and I said, ‘Do you mind if I draw on the wall?’” said Rockwell. “She said, ‘Go right ahead.’ I was being funny, the walls are white, but I just started drawing. I just started doing that, I draw on walls.”
Rockwell’s wall drawings show reveal his tradition obsessions with structure from chaos. They are always improvisational, sometimes focusing on stylized human figures or faces, other times reveling in an Escher-like collection of shapes and structures. It’s the ultimate graffiti and a self-tribute to a mind that focuses both on the details and the wider picture that data creates.
Rockwell fixates the nuances of anything and everything, and this is most apparent when he examines the figures he owns — the smile on a Japanese girl figure or the great details in the feet of Star Wars Ewok figures both elicit delight. He gets amusement from Egyptian figures, which immediately jogs his memory about the Bangles hit “Walk Like an Egyptian.” In creating the Maya projects, Rockwell usually prefers to lets others do the bulk of the work and sits back and watches the show as if it were one of his own creations come to life.
This week he took the time to install some of the figures on the pyramid himself and each figure he worked with brought on a memory or an observation — and the placement of each figure brought an intensity of concentration to putting them down just the right way. It’s a small example of the way Rockwell’s mind works — each thought references a fact, one thing is aligned with many, the devil, as Rockwell chases him, is in the details.
“I have to do something with the money Dad left me,” said Rockwell. “It’s not like I own a pickle factory to spend it on or anything like that.”
June 21, 2008 § Leave a Comment
Catching fireflies in a jar is well-mined childhood territory for many people — but in a technological world where so many experiences are becoming virtual, it’s no surprise that one designer has created a networked, wireless simulation of the final product. John Schimmel, an adjunct professor at the New York University Interactive Telecommunications Program, has networked three Mason jars to communicate with each other — taps outside one jar trigger blinking of one color LED in all the jars. The jars work like any home wireless computer network — realized in modern technological terms, but based in nostalgia. The idea began as a class project spurred on by a conversation with his sister about their firefly catching activities as kids.
“We’d keep them in our bedrooms and by the morning they were all dead, but for that night, there was something nice about that,” said Schimmel. “There’s a connection, we each had a jar in our room or we each had a little plastic butter dish in our room, full of these little blinking lights. I thought it would be a nice project to take on.”
Originally, Schimmel envisioned an interactive project that worked over the Internet — he would have one jar in his apartment in Brooklyn and his sister would have another in her house in Pennsylvania. Eventually, he decided to localize the project for his class.
Despite his work to recreate the magic of the memory, Schimmel was hesitant to uncover the science behind the fireflies, instead wanting the wonder of the natural occurrence to find itself way into his Mason jars.
“I have no idea what fireflies actually blink for,” said Schimmel. “Some people say it’s mating, some people say they blink before they die. A lot of people try to tell me different things, but I’ve never looked into it. I consider it a childhood mystery and I sort of want to leave it that way.” « Read the rest of this entry »
June 20, 2008 § Leave a Comment
Omac by Jack Kirby (DC Comics) The 1970s was a great decade for weird science fiction — in fact, it was probably the last time that clunky pluck and scrappy strangeness combined with doom and gloom social satire in order to create some real oddities. By 1977, “Star Wars” had ushered in a more facile and flashy vision of science fiction that took hold and never went away — once the genre of ideas, no matter how clumsily realized sometimes, science fiction became the genre of toys bolstered by smarmy marketing.
Jack Kirby’s comic book “Omac” was a creature of these times, one of several charming and short-lived titles of the time that tread this territory — now reintroduced in a handsome hardcover collection. In Kirby’s energetic tale, Omac stands for “One Man Army Corp,” a futuristic riff on his more famous creation, Captain America, and an indictment of a country gone wrong. Thirty-four years later and there are more than a few similarities between Omac’s world and George Bush’s America.
In “Omac” a normal man — amusingly named Buddy Blank — is chosen by the masked participants of the Global Peace Agency to be transformed into a super law enforcer by the intelligent satellite Brother Eye. The peace agents, you see, aren’t allowed to be violent and need to create Omac to circumvent their shackles and take care of the high-level criminals who service millionaires in the otherwise crime-less world.
The problem is, they don’t bother to ask Blank — they just do it. Shades of “they’ve given you a number and taken away your name!”
Omac sets to work right away — rich people are up to no good and are using the poor for eternal youth, renting out cities to go on lawless sprees, harboring killer super germs and trying to control all the water resources in the world. Through Kirby’s typically stylized and bombastic visuals, Omac barrels through a future where the rich are free to be greedy and corrupt and the poor must serve themselves up for money.
It’s very heady stuff for a kids’ comic and to Kirby’s credit — as well as the fact that this was the 1970s — he never gets academic or preachy and keeps the action flowing with his subtext as fuel. Sadly, the comic only lasted eight issues, but they’re all in this collection, which stands alongside “Howard the Duck” as one of the pioneering political and social satires of that decade, as well as a throwback to a lost era in popular culture science fiction that is missed more every time George Lucas burps up another property.
June 20, 2008 § Leave a Comment
Musician Jay Farrar has made a career out of embracing the sounds of the past — particularly those of country music — and ushering them gently into the present, with the hope that he’s still honoring a musical form that Nashville may have long dispensed of. “For the most part, you don’t hear too much pedal steel guitar in country music anymore,” said Farrar.
Farrar has been a mainstay in the realm of alt country for two decades now — in fact, many agree that it was his band Uncle Tupelo that pretty much invented the genre. Alongside songwriting partner Jeff Tweedy — who has now achieved fame through his band Wilco –
Since splitting from Uncle Tupelo in 1994, Farrar has helmed Son Volt, a band that continues to give Farrar an outlet for his musical obsessions and whimsies. Farrar has also released several solo albums and at least one side project, Gob Iron, which updated blues songs about death. The thread through Farrar’s work has been a desire not to replicate the sounds that he came to love, but to translate the songs to a modern audience, giving them a new context and appreciation while still honoring the original form and keeping it as genuine as he can. He came to praise country, not to bury it.
“I don’t think there was ever really any serious thought that we could do it pure,” said Farrar. “Interpreting it was always the best way, I don’t think, especially early on, we weren’t as advanced, our abilities were more rock. We didn’t know people who played pedal steel guitar.” « Read the rest of this entry »
June 13, 2008 § Leave a Comment
A new CD from pianist Melissa St. Pierre hopes to traverse diverse musical arenas using the avant garde technique of prepared piano and bringing it to the pop masses. St. Pierre released “Specimens,” a collection of eight songs (and one video, it’s an enhanced CD) that has her banging away — sometimes rhythmically, other times in opposition to the expectations of rhythm — while the sounds that build around her piano collide together in a cacophonous celebration.
St. Pierre was living in Provincetown when she got the call from her old associates Table of the Elements/Radium, a label that specializes in avant garde sounds and features releases from artists like John Cale, John Fahey and Thurston Moore. St. Pierre has a six-year history with the label, working in various capacities involving management and production. This time around, they wanted her to be the center of a release, something she was already poised to do.
“I was thankfully living in this great, cute little beach house in Provincetown with a piano, so I was doing a lot of composing at the time, and I had a bunch of stuff to give them,” said St. Pierre. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 12, 2008 § Leave a Comment
I spoke to Rick Piltz in regard to his appearance in the film “Everything’s Cool,” which chronicled the efforts to get information on global warming out to the public and past the Republican propaganda machine. Piltz was a senior associate in the Climate Change Science Program Office under Bush — he started under Clinton — a science policy expert who soon became so disgusted with the censorship and altering of data that he went public, an insider who came out.
The film chronicled Piltz’s process of blowing the whistle — I spoke with co-director Judith Helfland about the film — in 2005. Soon after Piltz’s resignation, Philip Cooney was revealed to have been editing government reports on climate change to reflect not the scientific data that was originally in the reports, but the Bush administration’s policies.
Piltz created Climate Science Watch following his life as a civil servant for the purpose of monitoring climate science news and the workings of the government in that regard.
JM: “Everything Cool” manages to be funny and sad at the same time.
RP: They have such a unique filmmaking style, it was so interesting to work with them, I’ve never done anything quite like that before, but I never found myself in a situation quite like that before. I take it as fundamentally being a piece about citizenship, citizen activism, through these personal stories. They get certain things really right, like the focus on this orchestrated disinformation campaign to stall action on global warming, I think they have a really important point, essentially right, in the movie. There’s a very non-cynical take on the value of speaking up, speaking out, and taking action, a very unjaundiced view of that. I appreciate that in them.
JM: When you talk about this disinformation campaign, it is a wider thing other than just global warming — it’s very much a game plan on all fronts.
RP: Sometimes I think, particularly how I’ve criticized and watch dogged the Bush Administration in particular, it seems to me that I have focused on the global warming climate disruption issue because it’s the thing that I’ve been both engaged with here and where I’ve bumped up against the politicization of science directly, so I speak from that direct experience and expertise. It seems to me that I’ve been covering the global warming beat of a more general pattern and the administration has had a pretty cavalier attitude in regard to misrepresenting the intelligence in different areas in order to suit their political purposes. I think that really until a bit into Bush’s second term, people really tended to think “Well, what’s going on here is just a debate about policy.” If that’s all it were, there would be plenty to debate, but these guys were willing to misrepresent, in a variety of ways, the scientific conclusions about climate change in order to conform the message to what they wanted to make happen politically, and that sort of interference introduces a whole different level of problems around integrity and censorship and accountability that I thought really went over the line.
Global warming is not the only area where the evidence is one thing and the politics is something else and it leaves the nation in a tough position, because if you don’t understand the problem and you don’t have a political leadership that is willing to talk about it straightforwardly with people — what the risk is, how we’re going to manage it — then you have a breakdown of the country’s preparedness to deal with problems. Then you have the aftermath in Iraq, then you have the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — failure of preparedness, failure of preparedness — and we’re doing the same thing on climate change, it’s just a more slow-rolling disaster, so you don’t see it happen quite so fast.
June 11, 2008 § Leave a Comment
Why do Americans love censorship so? We fight against fascists and dictators and communists, and yet we revere John Adams and the sedition act as a model for dealing with words and works we find uncomfortable. From Dixie-land music to hip hop, popular culture has been at the forefront of the threat against American culture. One of the ugliest — and least documented — movements in American censorship has been in regard to comic books, a recurring effort that resulted in the gutting of an industry populated by Jews, immigrants and women in the 1950s.
In “The Ten-Cent Plague,” author David Hajdu documents the dismantling of an American art form, where moral concerns — often misguided ones — bullied a vibrant, street level, populist creative format that eventually blossomed into the biggest selling entertainment in America, read by kids and adults.
Before the 1950s, comic books were not synonymous with superheroes — instead, it was populated by a multitude of genres, as well as pure drama and comedy, and millions were sold each month. Hajdu reveals the medium’s contribution to the post-1950s culture of America where, even as aboveground culture continued to maintain a choke hold on creativity, alternative and youth culture wanted something more than the prefabricated, canned artistry that was offered to them. Comics helped build that sensibility.
Almost from the beginning, comics were derided and fought by segments of the population — sometimes, it was assaulted by arbiters of the national morality, but other times by the judges of the national literacy and many others. Hajdu tells the sprawling tale of a creative industry’s fight against its opponents and of the gritty characters that helped build its success. Not only is it a history of a derided segment of American publishing, it’s also an examination of the American desire to limit exposure to dangerous ideas — and to some citizen’s betrayal of the principles on which the country has stood.
Although the final battle was in the 1950s, the fight against censorship was an ongoing one through decades — it was a process of chipping away that ran concurrently with any and all other efforts to censor other art forms that cropped up through the years.
In post World War II, ordinary citizens were burning comic books in bonfires — to the sharper social critics of the time, it was a sad commentary that only several years earlier, Americans were appalled by Nazis who did the same. When the fight against the scourge of comic books moved past the realm of pop psychology and religious fundamentalism and those sphere’s attempts to explain juvenile delinquency, it moved into the halls of government. Parallel to the McCarthy hearings, comic book creators were called into question not as enemies of the state, but as immoral scum. By the mid ’50s, the moralistic Comics Code Authority was enacted as a self-regulating device to get the government off the industry’s back, but it doubled as hari kari which was to dismantle the form.
By the time the code took control in the 1950s, it was used as a strong arm to put publishers out of business, to incite fear of prosecution for distributors and news stands and to push a conservative social propaganda in the stories. Comics involving Black Americans were often censored — romance comics, once a safe haven for tales of independent females became a shill for the institution of marriage as the result of all emotional journeys. No political criticism was allowed, no questioning of authority, so sexual deviancy — only good, American, Christian values. Consider-ing comic books were the num-ber one form of entertainment amongst American youth, is it any surprise that a decade later, youth would explode into a revolution against adult control of their entertainment?
If there is one hero in the book, it is William Gaines, publisher of EC Comics and, most importantly, Mad magazine. If Mad seems a little trite and superfluous now, that is because we live in the world Mad created, a world where satire and criticism are commonplace. In the 1950s, these were far less the norm, but that didn’t stop Gaines from pursuing the entirely American value of free speech. With actions that would make Thomas Paine proud, Gaines fought Senate committees and censors, using his publications for a political voice to kids who had no say otherwise. Gaines publicly and valiantly compared the Red Scare censors to the very Communists they were against and comes off as a fallible but brave American hero who ended up inspiring more American youth through Mad than any of the now-forgotten political shills who tried to tear him down.
“The Ten-Cent Plague” is an important and entertaining book, documenting the lively personalities who helped build the history of comic books, which are as important to American popular culture as movies are, though still maligned due, largely, to the efforts of the censors. The residue has not totally dissipated in half a century, but through the rise of graphic novels, it’s finally happening. Hajdu’s effort reveals the rich history of the form, as well as possibilities of its future, partly due to its resilience despite the efforts of conservative social engineers.