March 23, 2011 § Leave a Comment
In its examination of the labor culture in China, Lixin Fan’s “Last Train Home” pierces a delicate sheen of worker pride by by using the personal tumult of one family as a measure of how the wider picture creeps into the intimate ones.
Focusing on the largest human migration on the planet and the after effects in family circles, Fan chronicles one couple’s journey home during Chinese New Year, an annual exodus of 130 million migrant workers from cities to their home villages. The Zhangs both work in Guangzhou in factories, having left their children to be raised by grandparents as they earn money for all of them. The journey home by train is a fierce one — overcrowded and treated like cattle, the migrant workers are faced with the dangling temptation of one visit home tainted with the almost debilitating complication.
Having run the gauntlet of the journey back to the village, personal problems also chip away at the surety of the parents’ sacrifice. Older child, daughter Qin, feels as though her mother abandoned her as a child in the name of money and wants to move forward to her own freedom by migrating to the city herself. Her rebellion erupts at several points and the Zhangs’ frustration level reaches the tipping point in regard to it. Another year spent in the city only increases the rift, with animosity careening into explosive confrontations following a nightmarish and physically destructive train journey home that is more like a scene of refugees escaping a deadly war zone.
Altogether, “Last Train Home” is a jarring indictment of the way political realities and the need for survival seep into the lives of families and rip them apart — quite beyond each member’s control and without any discernible bad guy.
The lives of Chinese workers are presented as that of personal sacrifice in the name of getting by, with no preferential choices, just that of the most gain and least pain. The lumbering onslaught of workers trying frantically to board trains home after a week of delay — as dangerous as it is desperate — functions as a huge metaphor for a society turned into industrial process. The people are just more gears in the process and this is what happens when you let those gears run free for a week — it’s a frenzied free for all that creates little personal time bombs. Your own home and family relationships become the resulting mine fields.
What’s most amazing is the level of intimacy that Fan’s camera captures — whether it’s a frightening family argument or the destructive trampling of would-be train passengers, Fan is right in the middle of it and works as an anchor for the social and political circumstances at play here, as well as the historical ones, and “Last Train Home” is a powerful statement about the real, personal cost of industry over workers, and a timely one as the citizens of Wisconsin fight for their workers to retain their collective voice of defense.
March 23, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Seeing is not necessarily believing, and artist Joanne Green has fashioned a series of digital images that takes that to heart.
Green’s work is currently on display at Greylock Arts, 93 Summer St.
“CONtext” pulls from photographic journalism sources and twists them into a mind-bending — and eye-bending — digital collage.
The work began following an experience with knee surgery. Green’s surgeons took internal photographs of the entire process, and she was able to use these images to realize a series that would address several things she had in her mind, among them the vocabulary of the Iraq War. She had been reading about the jargon of war — particularly in regard to the conflict in Iraq — and began to devise ways to utilize the phrases through linked images of surgery.
Green took news photos and juxtaposed them to surgical ones, inserting not only the military language she had been introduced to but also technical language about her surgery to create a puzzle in which different forms of violence become harder to separate from each other.
“I started to mix them up together so that it becomes less and less clear as you go through the series which refers to fighting war and which refers to war on the body in the form of surgery,” she said.
Green’s ideas for the series had been brewing in her head for a time prior to the surgery — she had been developing
them through imagery with her earlier work, but they had never all come together in a perfect thematic moment before. Several circumstances and encounters collided to create a big bang for the work that would become “CONtext.”
“Because I have had physical pain for most of my life, it’s been something that I have been trying to come to terms with,” Green said. “That particular surgery was extremely high-tech surgery — they literally harvested tissue from one side of the joint and transplanted it into the other side of the joint, which was basically crumbling.
“When I read about the surgery and about how technologically sophisticated it was, and then had my physical therapist, the first time she looked at my knee, say that orthopedic surgery is the most violent of all surgeries, it all started to fall into place for me. This was the way that I was going to develop my thinking further. And then with the Iraq War, and coming across these dictionaries of war jargon that were developed just for the Iraq War, that’s where it all came together for me.”
As Green crafted the images, digital manipulations began to pile on in various forms. This created deeper abstractions that blurred the imagery and focused on her concepts about the commonality of violence and healing, both of which are meant to create wounds for different purposes. To craft this visual dialogue, she made patterns out of war images and used them to bleed one image into the next and the next and the next.
“As you move through them, they contain bits of each other,” she said. “That is a reference to my thinking about memories and how memories are formed in the brain, and how by repeating certain thoughts, memory becomes encoded in the brain. I’m thinking here about patterns of violence or patterns of thinking and how repetition engraves marks in the mind of individuals and of society about the other.
“I’m also thinking how it’s necessary in some respects to think about the Iraqis as the other or think of a part of my body as the other, because people have to distance themselves in order to do violent things to the body, both in war and in surgery.”
As the viewer moves through the images, the scenes of surgery Green uses begin to look less like medical imaging and more like planets, eyeballs, even eggs. The perception of what is being shown changes, just one aspect of the metamorphosis that she sets up with the series.
“They become more and more vibrant as well in terms of color,” Green said. “They go from a monochromatic tone to extremely vibrant contrasting colors and then towards the end become almost monochromatic again. I have predominantly purple, green, yellow in some of the last ones. That’s just from my years of working with difficult imagery.”
In creating this series, Green took aesthetic cues from some of her earlier work created while in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, where she learned of the strange cross-sections between beauty and horror.
“I spent years and years thinking about what being a political artist actually means and whether art that has a certain level of aesthetic beauty to it can be political,” she said, “because I use color in this particular series as a way to seduce people. You’re pulled in because of the beauty of the colors and the contrast of the colors and the patterns behind them, but the actual message that I’m trying to get across is much more brutal.”
Any one image in the series stands on its own, but the real power of the work is realized by viewing them sequentially, which presents the message as a whole. The sequence creates the metamorphosis that is crucial to Green’s intent. Even as it obscures the clarity of what the image actually is. It’s the muddle that’s the message.
Photography has traditionally represented a raw and inarguable truth, but Green maintains that is not necessarily the case. What a photograph actually depicts has a direct relationship with the context given to it. This has been played out perfectly in the U.S. government’s case for the Iraq War itself when Secretary of State Colin Powell famously gave a slide show to the United Nations that misrepresented the subjects of the images as bioweapons mounted on trucks.
“The truth can be manipulated and is every single day,” Green said. “It’s got to the point now that you can’t trust photographs at all because you never know, especially online, you never know how much anything has been edited.”
On one hand, this might seem like a paranoid view, but it’s really one in which our imaging technology merely reflects the restrictions of our biological mechanisms. Memory in eyewitness accounts have been shown to be unreliable — there is no ultimate truth to be found through our eyes and brains. The same goes with cameras and computers, through which we are creating a common human replication for our biological limitations in perception. Cameras and computers can now mirror our own fog rather than correct it.
“I worked on these images in Photoshop,” Green said. “I could change anything I wanted to change. The deal is now that supposedly something uploaded directly from the streets of Libya to YouTube, we still don’t know who’s shooting it, whether they’re giving us the full picture of that moment in time or if it’s just one person’s very specific point of view.”
In this way, the truth is still featured in the image, but it is at best a representative truth, a more dynamic heightened truth that stands in for the one that can’t be gleaned through clinical means. Sometimes this technique is reminiscent of propaganda, which might still be the most direct way to impart political information.
“There’s no ambiguity; it’s just they represent truth or nothing,” Green said. “When I was in the anti-apartheid movement, it seemed to me that the most effective art as far as that was concerned was art that really did serve the purpose of propaganda — poster art where the message was completely clear. There was no ambiguity to it; people were told how to think.”
In political terms, this is a way of keeping people’s neurology on message, not to get cluttered by the complicated considerations any one issue might deserve in your thought.
“In a political activism context like that, that’s really important,” Green said. “You don’t want people to start thinking about all of the gray shades. You want them to think in terms of black and white. In a place like South Africa, because it was a race issue, it really was literally about black and white.”
Green mixes up the jargon of aggression from several eras into a disturbingly playful poetry on some of her images. She links the phrases blue on blue and blue on red, which have to do with friendly and hostile fire, with more racially loaded juxtapositions like black on black and black on white.
“The phrase ‘blue on blue’ during the Iraq War was meant to replace the term friendly fire,” Green said. “It’s a throwback to the Cold War because the reds were the communists and the U.S. was the West and the blue. In those days, it was blue on blue versus red on red, and both referred to troops killing their own brothers.”
For Green, just as the images evoke violence across years, situations and disciplines, so do words. Together they create a propaganda that stands a process playing out the techniques they also criticize, while playing with the coded double and triple meanings implied by usage. Visual or verbal, Green manipulates the language of control in order to free those who view it by offering her imagery as a primer to understanding how propaganda works.
“In South Africa, black-on-black violence had a very, very specific negative meaning to it,” she said. “It was used by the apartheid regime to convince white South Africans that blacks were so uncivilized that they were literally killing each other because they really didn’t know the difference — or turning on one another because they just weren’t intelligent enough to realize that by turning on one another they were defeating themselves. So I’ve used words a lot within the series to bring out certain meanings in these specific contexts.”
March 14, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Music production legend Joe Boyd has a tale or two to tell about the musicians he has worked with — legends like Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd.
Since the release of his book “White Bicycles,” he’s taken to the stage to read passages, reveal his own personality and provide a springboard for friend and former Soft Boys, singer Robyn Hitchcock, to wind through musical memory lane with him.
Boyd will perform with Hitchcock for “Live and Direct from 1967!” at Mass MoCA on Saturday, March 12, at 8 p.m.
Boyd is part of that form of old-style music industry figure who has done it all — he oversaw Dylan’s electric debut at Newport in 1965, he managed a psychedelic night club in 1960s London, he discovered and nurtured acts like Fairport Convention, Pink Floyd and Nick Drake and a whole lot more.
“It depends on the mood that catches us on that particular day, what we decide to do and what Robyn feels like singing,” Boyd said during an interview this week. “I’ll adjust what I read and what I talk about based on the set list that we work out 10 minutes before we go on stage.”
The show has its popular subjects — Nick Drake, Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd’s Sid Barrett are the top three, according to Boyd — but he leaves the actual song choice up to Hitchcock, with a few exceptions.
“Sometimes I’ve gone to him and said I feel like it would be nice to read this passage, how do you feel about singing a song by The Move?” he said. “He’ll say, ‘Let me think about that; let me go back to my Move CDs and see if I can learn a song that I like.’ And so now Robyn enjoys, or at least he pretends to enjoy, singing ‘I Can Hear The Grass Grow,’ which is great for me.
“I have to confess that I haven’t yet asked him to sing a Blind Gary Davis song or a Muddy Waters song. I think I might throw that at him one night and see how that goes, but I don’t think that’s necessarily Robyn’s comfort zone. I don’t read anything that doesn’t have a musical punchline.”
The show, as with the book, is more about the subjects than about Boyd himself — what he saw and heard, what went on behind closed doors with some of the legends of ‘60s music.
“Obviously in those stories, you reveal something about yourself; it’s unavoidable. But the fundamental approach of the writing of ‘White Bicycles’ is not the inner torments of a record producer,” Boyd said. “It’s what the record producer saw and heard, but obviously you can’t help the revealing of yourself in that process — but it’s not front and center and it’s not overt. It’s more by implication.”
The performances began four years ago at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, when Boyd and Hitchcock performed an impromptu bit together. That followed with a more fleshed-out performance at a literary festival in England. They’ve performed the show 10 times since and are now taking it on an East Coast American tour.
The reading tour with Hitchcock is just one more iteration of a varied career. Although Boyd has his claim to fame, his later career also saw some passions meld with business that are more unexpected to the wider music audience, but revelatory nonetheless.
“My difficult second book is about world music, and it’s taking me a very long time to write because it’s a very complex, complicated subject,” Boyd said. “But that’s been the area that I’ve been more involved in over the past years.”
He had followed up his years as an independent record producer by starting his own label in 1980, Hannibal Records. He originally envisioned a rootsy, alternative label, but the realities of the market brought to light something far different, and it pulled from his own eclectic taste.
“I always had a big collection of what you might call foreign music,” Boyd said. “In the ‘60s I got these Pakistani classical singers records, and you’d get stoned and listen to South Asian, trippy classical music. I listened to ensembles from Bulgaria: Smoke a joint, put the headphones on, and here’s these amazing Bulgarian women and these incredible harmonies. It wasn’t an academic interest. It was ‘wow, what a sound!’”
That’s exactly the path that Boyd’s brother suggested Hannibal take, pushing the virtues of musicians like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Mysterious Voices of Bulgaria instead of the typical American rock or folk acts. At first, Boyd scoffed at the idea — he loved the music but didn’t consider it a very practical business plan. Then he took a hard look at the business realities of the time.
“It became clear to me that I didn’t really have the juice, the financial clout, to really break a band or a singer/songwriter,” he said. “It was difficult. You needed more oomph than I had as an independent label. If you’re putting out a record by a guy from Cleveland, Ohio, who plays guitar and sings songs about his middle class life, you’ve got to really work hard and have a lot of breaks to get ahead of the 37 other singer/songwriters whose records have been released that same week.
“However, if you put out a record by Martha Sebastian and say ‘this is the greatest singer in Hungary — this is the best singer of Hungarian music ever,’ nobody can really argue with you. It’s true, and there’s no competition if somebody’s interested in Hungarian music. In a way, for an under-financed indie label, going into niches, going into more obscure corners was actually the only way to survive.”
Diving into the world music business also made intellectual and spiritual sense to Boyd, whose passion was for travel and learning about other cultures. His interests, including his business ones, were converging.
“As time went on, I got bored a little bit of what I started to refer to as WPSEs — White People Singing in English,” he said. “How many more variations of that can you find?”
He did respond to the call of a couple of WPSE bands he did appreciate — REM and 10,000 Maniacs — in order to help out the label financially, but changes in the payment systems of the industry changed the work dynamic as he existed in it. Beginning that decade, contracts worked in such a way that record labels gave more advance money to bands to hire their own record producers. The producer, therefore, became an employee of the band rather than of the label. It was not a situation Boyd felt comfortable with.
“I had been used to a relationship where I worked for the label,” he said. “I was contracted by the label to represent the label while I worked in the studio, so I had the imprimatur of the A and R department of the label at my back when discussing with the artist how they would make this record. I had a role that’s been delegated to me by the record company, or in the case of Hannibal, I am the record company, and then the artist is bringing their artistic point of view to the table and we sit down and talk about it. We’re all on the same side and moving in the same direction, but we’re going there arm in arm in a way, with each bringing their own particular perspective to the situation. But when the artist is hiring you, and your job is effectively to accomplish the artist’s vision, that’s a very different thing.
“I scraped through the records I did with that relationship without anything terrible happening or getting into terrible fights with anybody, but it just was definitely different. I didn’t like the idea of being an artist’s employee.”
Continuing changes in the music world entice him even less to return to it in a production capacity. Primarily, Boyd doesn’t even see that the sort of producer he was really even exists anymore.
“Using Pro Tools or putting things on layer by layer, making sure everything’s perfect — that’s not a process that I’m interested in or that I think is very good for the music or that I would be any good at,” he said. “You don’t really need a producer with my kind of approach — you need an engineer, you need a technician. The result of that, when you hear records that have been made that way, in which everything is cleanly played and there’s a click track been involved at some point, all that kind of phenomenon that you started to hear a lot 15 years ago — I’m not interested in those kind of records; they don’t do anything for me. That eliminates a huge swathe of contemporary output.”
Even the wave of current bands that have been heavily influenced by the soundscape he helped create in the 1960s and ‘70s have failed to interest him.
“There haven’t been too many records coming out of the contemporary world that have grabbed me by the lapels and startled me,” Boyd said. “I’m interested in a lot of things. I think Arcade Fire is kind of interesting — and Vampire Weekend.”
At the root of this are Boyd’s views on the way music is disseminated in bands and sounds are handed down. He prefers musicians who, rather than aping the generations of the same the same that come before them, immerse themselves in exotic and exciting sounds firsthand — musicians who do their own archaeology rather than an armchair version. He is fascinated by bands today that dive into African or Latin or Eastern European sounds, even as they try to create music that reflect their own, less exotic world, than those who might adore Fairport Convention and do some variation on that sound.
“Fundamentally, the middle class doesn’t invent anything — never did,” Boyd said. “All they can do is beg, borrow and steal from below and occasionally from above. Generally, it all bubbles up from the soil — the peasantry, the working class, the people who live lives in the front lines of our society and aren’t self-conscious about the way they perform music. And that process to me is more interesting when you go straight to the source than when you go to somebody who in their term goes straight to the source.”
For Boyd, these concerns are the past, and the future isn’t about what he’s doing for others so much as for himself. For the first time, he’s the big draw, he’s the guy on stage, and he says he’s having the time of his life being that.
“I think the people who know me are aware that I’ve always enjoyed shooting my mouth off. I like talking,” he said. “One way of looking at all this is that over the years I’ve either produced or managed the careers of a lot of artists, and all of them followed some of my advice, but none of them followed all of my advice. Finally I’m actually managing a performer who follows all of my advice, which is myself. That’s kind of fun. I’m managing myself and figuring out fun things to do.”
March 14, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Antoine de Saint-Expury’s book “The Little Prince” stands on the edges of classic children’s literature partially because of its obtuse nature.
It’s not as simple and dazzling as the Oz books, nor as plainly absurdly funny as the Alice stories, nor as self-reverential as the Narnia series. In depicting a young visitor from another planet, it is often as alien as its subject, mixing wry observation and philosophy into a contemplative mix of fables.
As small a book as it is, it is also a bit of a conceptual monster. French writer/artist Joann Sfar is at the top of his game right now, and adapting “The Little Prince” may not seem the obvious choice for a man who took his literary achievements like “The Rabbi’s Cat” and translated them into cinematic ones. He directed the recent biopic of French singer Serge Gainsbourg, which wowed the audiences at Cannes.
That film might reveal the flow that led to “The Little Prince,” however. Sfar’s work, as personable as it is intellectual, may be the perfect nesting place for French culture as it is presented to an international audience. Sfar may be the world’s best translator, providing works with not only warmth, but also less sprawl.
Certainly his achievement with “The Little Prince” is to fashion a concise version that just might be — and I accept that this could be heresy –
better than the original.
The story follows a pilot who becomes grounded in the middle of the desert and rather than repairing his plane, becomes preoccupied with a little boy who visits him and claims to be from another planet.
What ensues is more a philosophical conversation as the Little Prince relates the story of his journey to Earth and his encounters with various other beings, all of whom represent the abstract absurdities of adult civilization.
These tales lead the pilot to embrace the Little Prince emotionally as well as intellectually, as he is guided through simple, yet wise, observations on the absurdity of capitalism and the illusions of ego, among other lofty topics.
As the encounter moves along, the Little Prince begins to resemble the pilot’s lost childhood — the lost innocence we all mourn — and an attempt to reconnect with that, amidst the complexities of the adult world and the often arbitrary whims of civilization.
Sfar has one weapon in his arsenal that allows him to achieve clarity — the sequential art form. This takes the place of the winding language of the original and, with the openness of the imagery, the ideas unfold as well.
This is a great triumph for Sfar, who has already proven his own ideas are equally up to the ones explored in The Little Prince. That’s the power of the pairing — an adapter who is equal if not superior to the originator.
More than anyone else working today, Sfar is the creator poised to suggest the graphic novel form as legitimate and sometimes elevated to even the loftiest critics and readers.
March 14, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Randy Newman once declared that “short people got no reason to live,” but thanks to artist Adi Marom, the vertically-challenged can be talked down from the ledge.
Marom has invented a pair of elevator shoes that work like an actual elevator — one that is remote-controlled by an iPhone. Her project “Short ++” is part of the “Greylock’s Anatomy” show opening at Greylock Arts, 93 Summer St., tonight at 5:30.
Marom — who measures in at 5 feet, 1 inch tall, can reach up to 5 feet 8 inches with her special shoes on. She is an Israeli-born designer who has been featured on the Discovery Channel and in Scientific American.
Her inspiration for the mechanical footwear came from her personal experience as the shortest kid in the class, which made her feel younger than everyone else. She was further nudged by thoughts of high heels and platform shoes and their inherent silliness, as well as their debt to a form of evolutionary survival that has passed humans by.
“I was seeing how different organisms have these different unique mechanisms that allow them to change their size on demand, like pufferfish that can grow to look more impressive and scary,” Marom said during an interview this week. “With that in mind, I was thinking, what if human beings also had this ability to change their size on demand whenever they want to be stronger or taller.”
This idea of human evolution on demand seemed right when Marom considered the future of technological
body modification as a part of it. If true cyborgs are what lie ahead — and some form of them likely does — then she could get in on the forward movement early by strapping her mechanized shoes to her feet and making them a part of her.At the center of her concern was how such real-time modifications would intrude on personal interaction. She had noted that height seems to make a difference in many areas of life, most notably in politics, where it can signal power and advantage.
“There are a lot of leaders in the world that are short, and we’re always looking for different solutions,” Marom said. “The French King Louis XIV was wearing red high heels, and he didn’t allow anyone else to wear high heels because he wanted to protect his height advantage.”
Even in the 21st century, height can be an issue on the world stage.
“When French President Nicolas Sarkozy gives speeches, he’s standing on a little footstool behind the podium,” Marom noted. “I guess it’s something that short people are still struggling with — there’s still something out there. I saw that with Sarkozy. They were hiring short models to take photos with him. There are different things in history that you can relate to it, and it’s really funny that height would be disturbing to people.”
Marom saw her shoes as a way of humorously addressing not just height, but also other physical inequalities to which human beings attach importance in their interactions
“It’s a way to create a dialogue about how height is still an issue in interaction, or how different other physical features, not just necessarily height, could have an impact on interactions between people,” she said. “But, of course, the fact that it’s dynamic and not just someone standing on some platform makes it a different situation.”
The shoes were designed for her thesis at the Interactive Telecommunications Program, a division of New York University that has been at the forefront of inventive interactive technology.
Even though the mechanism looks simple — a folding platform that elevates itself — the physics of it presented a challenge for Marom. She needed something that was compact and wasn’t so heavy that it could be comfortably worn as shoes, within reason, but was still strong enough to hold about 100 pounds of human and then lift it half-a-foot smoothly.
“I did a lot of folding mechanisms before, but this was a big challenge,” Marom said. “Lifting a person’s weight, even if you’re short, is big and needs a really efficient mechanism and a lot of torque to push the weight up. It wasn’t obvious.”
She did an initial model in wood, and once she settled on an effective mechanism, began fabricating it in metal. Much to her surprise, it worked perfectly on the very first test.
The only obvious indication that she is wearing machines on her feet is the noise the shoes make.
“It is noisy, but I love the sound,” she said. “For people who listen to it, it’s like this cyber experience where you’re really integrating between body and machine.”
The current model is made out of aluminum and requires a battery pack to be attached to Marom’s back, but she’s considered a newer version with more expensive and lighter materials.
“I don’t think this prototype is really practical,” she said, “but I do get interesting comments and e-mails about this project, so it seems like something for the future when cyborgs will be all around us, and it will be a little more of an efficient mechanism, I think it is something that will be possible, but not at the moment. It’s not comfortable enough to carry around and walk with.”
Prior to her stint at the Interactive Telecommunications Program, Marom lived in Japan, where she designed foldable furniture, a job that has fueled her aesthetic and conceptual interests over the years.
“The idea was how users can fold and change the artifacts, the furniture, according to their changing needs,” she said. “When I went to ITP, I really wanted to learn new technologies, like sensors and actuators, and integrate them into my work in order to make my work more responsive — so it doesn’t require the user to change things, but the things respond to them.”
Her work hints at a preoccupation with manipulating the body with technology into more mechanical forms. Her 2008 project “Fold U.S. Candidate” involved creating finger-puppet designs of Barack and Michelle Obama, John and Cindy McCain, Joe Biden and Sarah Palin that people could download, print, fold and build — and, at Marom’s encouragement, stage humorous debates featuring the puppets to post on YouTube. So simple a project meant the intricate work of adapting the human form to a kind of origami that would fit fingers.
Similarly, her sculptures “Huff and Puff” and “Parasite” attempt to duplicate what nature so seamlessly accomplishes. “Huff and Puff” utilizes pumps, pistons and motors to create a couple of man-made puffer fish. “Parasite” is a mechanical creature that responded to its own environment by expanding and contracting in the presence of viewers via a servo motor.
Marom admits to being fixated by the field of biomimicry — the study of natural systems and processes in order to apply them to human problems — and this was the focus of her thesis while studying in Japan.
“I’m fascinated by nature’s motions, so I guess I’m fascinated by nature’s different solutions to interaction and the kinetic mechanisms,” she said. “I try to translate them into interactive artifacts, responsive environment and responsive artifact.”
Marom’s tools in this investigation are technology of varying ages — everything from origami to mechanical design to networking and circuits and digital imaging.
“The integration of high tech and low tech and the mixing of different mediums is something I’m very fascinated by and I think that comes up in all my work,” she said, “so ‘Fold U.S. Candidate” was very traditional folding techniques, but also animation and YouTube and allowing users to upload their own campaign. I like to create new platforms and new opportunities to interact by combining different technologies.”
By mixing up the mechanical and the biological with some form of digital, Marom’s work invites participation from the viewer — that may, in fact, be half the work, and certainly constitutes the final portion of the integration between the technological and the organic.
In some of her other work, the mechanical is utilized to translate the digital into our material world, as in “Machinema,” which offered a large-scale digital animation of a mechanism that visitors could control with an actual mechanical crank. With “Living Shade,” Marom created an automated window shade system that made real life look digital by creating moving shadows that look like pixels. Two worlds — the digital and the real — collide.
“It’s interesting to see how people have this feeling that it’s a living thing, even though it’s just a mechanism with sensors,” she said. “But their responses are as if it’s a living thing because it’s imitating natural behavior.”
These ideas reach a nexus in Marom’s shoes, which don’t exist as machinery for people to stare at, but combine with her as part of a package that people encounter. When approaching someone, she and the shoes become one, the result of a triangular relationship between the scissors jack mechanism, her iPhone and her body — and that actualization of the future may affect conversation as much as the adjustment of height.
“They’re like an extension to my body,” Marom said. “The fact that it’s real time change and not just a woman standing with a platform next to you — the dynamic change creates different interaction, that’s for sure. It’s a way to create a dialogue about how height is still an issue in interaction or how different other physical features, not just necessarily height, could have an impact on interactions between people. But of course the fact that it’s dynamic and not just standing on some platform makes it a different situation.”
March 8, 2011 § 1 Comment
Indie folk band The Low Anthem might look to the past for inspiration, but its path is pointed forward thanks to an embrace of experimentation with tradition.
The Low Anthem will perform at Mass MoCA on Saturday, March 5, at 8 p.m.
The band’s new album, “Smart Flesh,” is marked by the differences in sound since it recorded the acclaimed “Oh My God, Charlie Darwin” album in 2008. One difference is the inclusion of a new and important member — multi-instrumentalist and harmony vocalist Mat Davidson — alongside Jeff Prystowsky, Jocie Adams and Ben Knox Miller.
Another is that life on the road — the band played hundreds of shows on tour — shaped the members’ audio desires, shifting them from a more intimate sound to something much bigger.
“We knew that we loved playing in these large halls and letting the sound fill the hall with the pump organ and acoustic guitar, and harmony vocals just filling this large space and listening to the harmonies as we amplify them into the room and then hearing the sound decay,” said bassist Prystowsky in an interview this week.
Their interest in capturing that sound in recordings gave them a concept that would shape their next album, as well as a mission: to find the perfect setting for this concept to wrap its way through their songs.
“We set out to make a record in a natural space,” Prystowsky said. “That was the idea. Let’s find a
building that has its own kind of reverb, its own sound, a unique sound that we find beautiful. Find that space, and let’s see if we can make a record there without having to use any artificial reverb to simulate a larger space — actually record in the larger space and use different microphones to add various distances from the instruments and capture that sound — a band playing live in a room and have it be more of a unique sound.”
The band’s solution was to set up an impromptu recording studio in an abandoned pasta sauce factory that stood as one gravestone in a large cemetery of industrialism in Providence, R.I., where the band is from. It was a harsh environment to record an album, and the immediate surroundings as well as the wider ones — the space was in a complex of abandoned factories — shaped the mood of the music that entered the microphones.
“It wasn’t cushy at all,” said Prystowsky. “It was like if you want to do it, you’ve got to do it, because there was no one there, just us and our engineer friend, and there’s no one around. All these buildings are abandoned. Just us and our gear trying to really focus on these songs and trying to make them sing, trying to make them live within that space.
“When you go into a Nashville studio, you walk in and it’s just tailored for music. The room sounds are so beautifully acoustically treated, and there are speakers everywhere and pictures of musicians and all these beautiful instruments there, and people who recorded there. There’s a history there, and they make you feel good. You’ve got coffee and tea. When we would walk into this space, it was a factory building — a freezing cold factory building that was in ruins. It was a very different place to work, and I’m sure that that affected us.”
On first arrival, the caretaker of the buildings let the band plunder the detritus in other factories in order to not only further the creative ambiance, but also to find a few items that allowed the musicians to experiment with their sound, as well as to bond with the industrial past.
“We had this giant fan that we took the cover — this brass, large, some kind of metal, large metal covering of the large industrial — we hung it from the ceiling, and sometimes we’d strike that thing and use it as some kind of bell or gong,” Prystowsky said. “There were certainly artifacts from the space that were gathered and struck on. We would find all this kind of wood that was strewn about, and for one song we tried sawing through the wood and using that as our percussion track, like a rhythmically timed sawing.”
The band took advantage of the space, as well as the acoustics of various rooms that lent a quality to the music that no professional studio ever could.
“The ‘Love in Alter’ track was recorded in one of the factory side rooms,” said Prystowsky. “It was all concrete and still had the same high ceilings, but had a smaller space one-20th of the size. It had a brighter and quicker reverb to the room. That’s where those harmonies were recorded.”
The space was a blank slate for the band to build on. The members set up their studio, threw in some beds and couches and tried to get as comfortable as possible — not easy since they had to turn off their heaters for the actual recording. Although the acoustic quirks and natural noises of the space could elevate a song, they could also tear it down.
The band is releasing 11 tracks on the new album but recorded 30, each with several different arrangements, as the members worked with the space to shape the album as if it were an additional engineer.
“Space also had a limiting factor on it all, because there were songs that didn’t make it — we couldn’t get them to sound good,” Prystowsky said. “We tried five times; we’d try all week, and the space ate it up and we’re like, OK, well wethought that was going to be a central song on the album, but we can’t get it to sound good in here. Oh well. There was that limiting factor — just like if you had someone in the band who wasn’t quite grooving on a song: You have to say OK, I guess this one’s not going to work.”
Their previous album included a few rowdy numbers and that was where the factory drew the line in song choice and ultimately dictated that the new album have a quieter, sometimes ambient, quality, even as the songs elicit anything but soft emotions.
“It just sounded muddy when you tried to play rowdy songs,” said Prystowsky. “Everything was like, that sound from going to live shows, and it’s not in an acoustically treated room, and you get a lot of drums and electric guitar, and everything is muddy and you can’t hear the divisions, the timbres of the instruments. It had that kind of effect with some of those kinds of songs when we tried to play them in the factory building.”
For some songs, though, it seemed like no other recording space could ever match the moments.
“A song like ‘Ghost Woman Blues’ — that was unbelievable to lay that down in that space,” Prystowsky said. “I remember that night very well. We just all huddled around this piano — I mean huddled — because it was freezing in that space. We’re talking winter time in an abandoned factory building. No heaters, because they made too much noise. We’re in our winter coats, huddled around this upright piano with a few mikes, and we sang this song. We listened to the decay of the sound in this room.”
Prystowsky embraces decay as one of the central themes of the album’s conception and realization, as well as the world the music inhabits.
“Decay is an interesting word to use because it refers to both the sound decay and, literally, the space was decaying,” he said. “We started to realize that we were recording in this space that represents another kind of decay — here’s this building that used to be this bustling factory with lots of people working there, lots of jobs being had, and what is it now? It’s this vacant building. It’s kind of spooky and haunted. It started to represent the decay of capitalism, late capitalism and what can be some of the side products.
“When we looked out of these huge windows that were on all sides of the building, what did we see but other abandoned factories. This factory is part of a complex of nine factory buildings, all of which were abandoned, so it was this ghost town of factories. It was an amazing place to work. It was really a charged environment.”
Prystowsky doesn’t think the band will record its next album in an abandoned factory, but he’s sure its members won’t want to settle into a traditional studio either. It’s change and experimentation that keeps them going, and they’re already itching to get started back on that path.
“We’ve already started to talk about some new ideas and where we might go, but yeah, we’re trying to surprise ourselves, trying to stay in touch with what excites us about music and about records,” he said.
In the meantime, the skeletons of the industrial past continue to fascinate the band, and Prystowsky sees the show at Mass MoCA as a perfect pairing for a concert.
“Certainly in Providence, where we live and record, they are everywhere — abandoned mill buildings,” he said. “It used to be a town that was thriving in jewelry making, knives, metal working, and that boom then subsided, and now we’re living in the remnants of that.
“I think it’s completely fitting that we’re playing Mass MoCA with this record. I think it’s going to be a really good show — we’re probably going to have echoes of the pasta sauce factory, and it’s probably going to come out in some way that night, so I’m pretty excited for that show.”
March 8, 2011 § Leave a Comment
A labor of creativity for the past seven years will finally make its debut this week, as photographer Aida Laleian moves from medium to medium, and mixes them into something entirely her own.
Laleian will show her new work — along with that of her husband, Steve Levin, at the Williams College Museum of Art, starting Saturday, Feb. 26. The show marks a change from the work she was previously known for, which included photographic montages that combined self-portraiture with the fantastic.
“I used to construct hybrid creatures out of myself,” she said during an interview this week. “I used to use myself for the human end and construct centaurs and things. I was always interested in that in visual narrative — never really interested in telling a verbal narrative visually. It’s not like I was trying to illustrate the Greek myths or anything, but I find myself when I look at imagery constructing narratives. I do it even with abstract work. For me, that’s a way of approaching image making.”
Laleian’s work stems from an intuitive process that moves forward with few preconceptions of what the work will turn out to be. The finished product is drawn from imagery she creates, but the journey to the final product has become more and more visceral as she has gotten older. Her imagery is something that comes from so deep within that there is barely a language for her to translate or describe it — the work is its own artistic statement.
“I really love visual stuff,” Laleian said. “I like words, too, but I really feel very strongly that if I could put it into words, why would I bother to make it into a picture? And part of the reason I make pictures is because I can’t put it into words. Pictures — I feel much more comfortable manipulating them.”
Her body of work began to take shape at the turn of the century as a response to the fact that digital technology began to live up to its potential in photography and allowed Laleian to dive into the possibilities. Suddenly, she was no longer confined to photographic paper as her presentation medium.
Although she had been working digitally for years creating collages in Photoshop, the final presentation wasn’t as open as the production of the work itself — and the use of a digital camera just altered the conception and flow of the work that much more. This was coupled with her decision to no longer take photos of herself — every aspect of her work was changing.
“I had photographed myself for some 20 odd years,” Laleian said, “so it was a matter of not only finding media and understanding what was for me this very new media, but also trying to find the subject matter. I had lost my subject matter when I stopped photographing myself.”
As digital processes replaced her work in the lab, her hands began to miss the more tactile qualities of photography and in their search ended up with embroidery, which she applied to her photographs. The idea for adding embroidery to the work began seven years ago, when she noticed that the scrim she was using to print her digital photography on was very similar to embroidery cloth.
“I started putting thread to it and I thought, oh, this is really weird, and then just for therapy, I started embroidering,” Laleian said. “I printed these large things and started embroidering them. My husband was like, you’re nuts; this is going to take you forever. It takes hours to do a couple of inches. But I just did it.”
Her husband was correct about the time element, and several years later it began to frustrate her — but then came the realization that she was on the right path, even though it was a long one.
“I got disgusted with how long it was taking after a few years,” she said, “and I unrolled it and hung it up, and I realized that it was really cool. When you’re sitting there embroidering on the embroidering frame, you’re just working very close, so getting it off the frame and hanging it up was a real revelation.”
Laleian became fascinated with an effect she hadn’t expected: Parts of the cloth that she hadn’t embroidered but which featured an image was very transparent, and she realized she could use this in her designs. With that also came the realization that sometimes the back of the embroidery turned out to be more interesting than the front.
She also found she could print more and then cut them out of the scrim and sew them into others for a cloth collage — and so she soldiered on.
“I have no training in textiles,” Laleian said, “but that was the thing that was really seductive about printing on the scrim and introducing thread: It just became a lot of fun.
“It was kind of drudgery while I was embroidering — just mindless matching of color. In the art world, you would have gotten someone from the Third World to do that part, but I did it myself. I figure Romania is enough of the Third World that I could do it myself.”
Laleian keeps a database of imagery that she can pull from for her work but still takes plenty of photos as well. A recent trip to the Everglades found its way into one of her pieces, combining Native American souvenir shacks and alligators — as well as some oddities from her own home — into one her elusive visual narratives.
“Sometimes I go places specifically thinking I’m going to find imagery; other times I just happen to be traveling and I have my camera and shoot,” she said. “I’ve always been very, very interested in ornament and the way that ornament comes to life.”
The creative journey for Laleian has been as much about the mediums she uses as the subject matter of the work — and the turns in technology have given her the opportunity to study the past and present methods and the relationship between them. She teaches photography at Williams College and notes that this is the final year she will teach traditional and digital photography in one class — sadly, since Laleian tends to stress the importance of both. Part of that relates to her own digital journey, decisively figuring out the place of digital photography in her own work and in the art world at large.
“I still feel like I’m trying to figure out digital photography because so much of what is out there,” she said. “In terms of what is being done, digital is especially in the fine art world; it’s a lot of simulacrum of what film photography does and with few exceptions.
“I don’t think there’s a whole lot of really digging into what it is about digital that’s so different from film. There’s a lot of ‘oh isn’t it great that we don’t have to use chemicals’ and I just think that’s stupid. I also think there’s a place for film photography. I don’t see it in a linear fashion that digital is usurping film.”
Laleian sees digital photography as a different medium from film photography, used for a different purpose rather than merely a replacement for an old method. Her own work speaks to this philosophy, and by wrapping other mediums and crafting endeavors into her work, it builds a strong line that links her output through the years rather than highlights the difference in them.
She used to hand-color her printed photographs, then she moved onto digitally manipulating scanned photos. Now she adorns digital photograph in textiles — different mediums for different needs — and the demand that an artist be in control of them all.
“I really think it’s important for students to think about the difference and not think about it as film is old and digital is new,” Laleian said. “I think of it more like watercolor and oil paint — it’s just a different medium.”
March 8, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Artist Anne Lise Jensen became inspired by the public gardens of New York City to create work that both reacted to and with their existence — and empowered the communities that worked in them.
Jensen’s original project, “A Lot of Possibilities,” has been transformed into an exhibit at MCLA Gallery 51 that functions as the art version of transplanting a crop in another garden, with the hope that it will lead to further iterations.
The community gardens in New York City began in the 1970s, when the city went bankrupt and buildings and lots were abandoned. Citizens began to make use of the space.
“People within the neighborhoods started building the gardens, not just from scratch, but from having to clear out a lot of garbage and debris and what other people were throwing out of their windows,” Jensen said during an interview this week. “Sometimes people would be literally throwing garbage out of their window and into the lot.”
In the 1990s, there was a similar scourge sweeping the city — partially economic, but also social, with crack overtaking some neighborhoods. Jensen’s apartment building — and the community garden her apartment overlooks — is situated in Manhattan Valley, which is close to Central Park, north of 96th Street, and at the end of the 20th century, considered a marginalized neighborhood. It was at that time that Jensen first encountered the garden.
“I was literally spending a lot of time on my fire escape trying to absorb having actually made the move as well as taking in what it was that was going below, because I couldn’t quite figure it out,” she said.
Soon, she ventured out in the garden and began writing about it, which was a springboard to social interaction and joining the community.
“I began to get to know my neighbors that way, through talking with them while writing about the garden,” she said. “It was also my own tool for interacting with people, period.”
Jensen discovered that the city wanted to take back a lot of the gardens, since the properties they inhabited were once again becoming lucrative. The communities that overhauled the properties and built the gardens — thus transforming their own neighborhoods into livable environments — weren’t happy about this, and a movement began to try and save the gardens. Yet, across the city, they began slowly to disappear.
“The garden was used for both gardening and urban farming as well as social activities,” Jensen said. “It really is a place where people interact and become a community. I was trying to think of different strategies of how it could be preserved. They have social capital; they have green capital, but there is this skepticism amongst the city politicians, especially because we’re in a recession.
“I thought, what if we add cultural capital in terms of making it a cultural site? It’s a lot harder to demolish an area that’s also a cultural site, so it was also using art as a strategy as well as genuinely really loving the idea of making them into sculpture gardens.”
Jensen’s first move was to set up her own apartment as a gallery space, in which she exhibited artists who made art about the community garden outside her window. The following year, she secured a grant to begin placing artists in gardens. That movement grew, and the idea that these were spaces that a community was entitled to — and through which the city benefited — caught on.
With the show at MCLA Gallery 51, the idea is to transplant that idea — like a seedling — to another location, with the hope that it doesn’t stop in North Adams and helps to build botanical connections that stretch from the personal to the universal and connect communities through art and gardening.
“It is exactly what you can do with vegetation and plants,” said Jensen. “You can take it as a concept in a city like New York, where it’s so varied where people come from. They will often have and grow things in the garden that remind them of home — some herbs that they used for healing or doing that with or plants that are a reminder — so that’s transplanting your memories into this lot. You’re going in the present and forging new bonds with people in the present.”
She sees the power of that idea in its adaptability — that it can move from urban to rural, from outdoor to indoor, and mix up the cultures that partake of the movement.
“It can be what it is but also really adaptable, so that people can put in their own things,” she said. “It’s a very specific situation in North Adams, both in terms of the space as well as the fact that land is much more readily available. But it can still be a trigger to reevaluate how you go about these areas that you take for granted, that might be empty or might have no value.
“You overlook it, but suddenly it can be a site of ideas where you then take the idea and start to realize it with people. So hopefully it will be inspiring on a multitude of levels.”
At center, Jensen sees the show — and the ideas it portrays — as a call to unity in whatever communities public gardens, and the accompanying art, take root. She sees the show as integral to this — a reversal of the process as she accomplished it in New York City, and a testament to the power of people working together.
“You could also have it in reverse, where there could be an exhibition of work that would then go — instead of traveling to another city or a warehouse somewhere — but go into the gardens and start them that way,” she said.
“That’s where the adaptability comes in. It has a real set purpose, but the idea is to not be close to any platform to help this happen.”
March 2, 2011 § Leave a Comment
With a photo book, i-D Magazine celebrates its 30th birthday by compiling all of its iconic covers and revealing the stories behind them, as well as the magazine itself.
The trouble here is that while the images fulfill all the aesthetics of my use of that word “iconic,” it’s hard to really portray that magazine as looming large enough in the American pop culture to really merit that word – and yet it truly does deserve the designation.
Part of the reason i-D deserves the “iconic” tag is that its covers from the 1980s capture a truth of the era that is often lost in nostalgia. It really was the last era when DIY sensibilities weren’t co-opted as something to sell. The other is that the magazine somehow has managed to use that to create an infinite present without flaw.
i-D began life in 1980, the brainchild of the former art editor for British Vogue, Terry Jones, who envisioned it as a street-level fashion magazine that reflected the way real people dressed themselves. It’s hard to imagine now – and even harder with the modern lens through which we view the past – but the 1980s were less about celebrities and more about what the celebrities were stealing from real people and sticking in their music videos.
It was an era of high-profile club kids and one-hit weirdoes, of street art hitting the galleries and fashionistas looking to the kids for their designs. It was a free-for-all that was not ruled by a digital shadow world – and i-D was the official fanzine.
My own encounters with i-D came in the form of long subway rides from Manhattan to Brooklyn after a night of carousing. The routine was the same – 45 minutes on the train and all-night newsstands meant that my girlfriend (now wife) and I would pick up some magazines to read on the way home. For me, it was sometimes Spy, other times The Face. On occasion, though, I opted for i-D, and I would spend the next 45 minutes looking through what amounted to a magical window into a world I stood on the outside of.
I wasn’t a club kid, didn’t much want to be, and I wasn’t very fashionable, but damned if that wasn’t all around me, damned if I didn’t know people who were in that world, and damned if I didn’t find it fascinating.
The book starts up in that world, then brings us effortlessly into our current one and shows a continuation from where we were to where we are. Fashion, in its strictest sense, is what is happening now – and the present is awfully hard to sustain. Somehow, i-D does it, and it shows through the covers that, somehow, it is always now and now is evolving.
The imagery i-D chose to serve as its face to the world offered a casual and natural feeling amidst the design. The faces of the models look far more comfortable than they should be on the cover of a fashion magazine, and that speaks to what i-D has stood for – the idea that fashion and fabulousness need not be alien and exclusionary.
Part of the reason for that lies in the story of the staff. Read many of the behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and you’ll find i-D was a place where the young and the ridiculous were often given a chance to dictate content, make a mark.
Throughout the years, one consistent feature of an i-D cover has been the wink. In 1984, Madonna – still not that far away from being a club kid – winked for the cover and was followed over time by the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog in 1992 and Lady Gaga in 2010.
In between those were scores of other celebrities, sure, but also varying models, club kids, lookers discovered on the street and members of staff, all winking, all acknowledging in a playful way that we are in on something together.
Such is the movement of alternative culture, vivid in its niches, even as the world outside keeps the same old practices in new packages.
i-D is a fun and gorgeous pantheon of tiny reality and proof that sometimes fun, pretty things do endure without becoming crass.
March 2, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Elegant and bittersweet, Sylvain Chomet’s “The Illusionist” is an adaptation of an unproduced screenplay by French comedian Jacques Tati. You don’t have to be a Tati fan to enjoy it, but if you are, you will find the emotional biography satisfying even as it unfolds concurrently with a skillful and playful pantomime of Tati’s own delivery.
The film follows stage magician Tatischeff through a series of performances, both pathetic and comedic. His series of well-worn tricks – conjuring something in his hand, pulling a nasty-tempered rabbit out of his hat – are now being overshadowed by a new generation of entertainment. The impending doom is represented by a Beatles-like band called The Britoons, whose buffoonery on stage only elicits teenage screams of awe.
One engagement in a little pub on an island in Scotland changes everything. Tatischeff makes the acquaintance of a girl who accepts him as truly magical, and she follows him home. Letting her stay with him in Edinburgh, Tatischeff becomes wrapped up in impressing her and keeping her happy, at cost to his craft. Meanwhile, she becomes involved in a sad world of burlesque performers about whom she wears rose-colored glasses. The film unfolds at a delicate pace that very much mirrors actual Tati films, although Chomet has less indulgence for protracted scenes of pantomime. It’s hard to know if this was the choice of the director or if Tati just never wrote such things into the original script.
It’s a noticeable departure from formula, however, and it serves the story very well. The central tale of a tender friendship that must deal with a great divide – he knows how the real world works and she does not – isn’t one that you’d want to steer the audience away from, particularly since the film has very few words spoken in it. That is Tati’s usual way of doing things, but for a modern audience to care, it requires less attention to intellectual laughs and more to the meat of the characters. Chomet accomplishes this skillfully while still creating a movie that retains all the qualities of the time in which it was originally written, sometimes so intensely that it might be curious to anyone not used to the beat of that sort of bygone comedy.
There’s no mistaking this for anything other than downbeat, though. That’s largely because the message of the film seems to be that it’s the whimsy that gets you through the constant gloom of reality. Small giggles sustain you through the sadness.
Tati originally wrote the script as an homage to his daughter, although there is some dispute as to which daughter it was written to – his youngest, whom he didn’t see much due to his work, or his eldest, illegitimate and estranged from him all her life. The fable works with either one. What becomes obvious is that this is an examination of the distance between people, and an opportunity to address it in regard to someone Tati had this sort of relationship with.
Chomet has managed to create an animated world of such depth and beauty that the villages and cities Tatischeff wanders through become characters in and of themselves. They also function as extensions of his sadness, which couples with a sense of absurdity to present a world not unlike the one we inhabit. “It’s a sad and beautiful world,” Roberto Benigni lamented in the Jim Jarmusch film “Down By Law,” but when he did it, it was as funny as it was true.
“The Illusionist” captures that sad and beautiful world with the same intentions and quality as Benigni’s moment.