September 29, 2011 § Leave a Comment
In the boiler house at Mass MoCA, you can hear the detritus of the building’s industrial past cry out to visitors. Thanks to sound artist Stephen Vitiello, that voice will become more audible.
Vitiello has crafted a sound installation for the space, utilizing the talents of local author Paul Park for a spoken word component that features the voice of former Sprague Electric boss John Sprague drifting in and out of the aural experience.
The piece, “All Those Vanished Engines,” opens on Sunday, Sept. 25 at Mass MoCA.
“The text was really important to making the piece, but when you hear the piece and you walk through the building it’s not front and center,” Vitiello said. “Just every once in a while a voice will come from different places, sometimes very expected places like big speakers, but other times comes out of little pipes or tubes or a broken tank.”
Vitiello devised his portion of the work out of sounds that he gathered in order to match up the experiences in the text and create a kind of timeline that he could work off of. His approach saw him considering the building, with its tubes and pipes, as a dormant, giant instrument begging to be played.
“A lot of the sound are soft, warm, muted percussion sounds,” said Vitiello. “But actually what they are is me walking through the building with a rubber mallet and tapping and playing parts of the building and recording that and playing it back in various forms in the installation back into the building itself.”
The complete piece is a 16-minute long loop, sent out through 20 audio channels into 30 speakers, almost all of which are invisible to the eye.
“Every speaker is a distinct channel so as you move close you might be hearing something that’s very different from what somebody’s hearing a level above you,” Vitiello said. “It really does change as you move through the piece and the piece is always changing, so you could come three times and experience it very differently each time.”
Vitiello gathered his sounds almost entirely from North Adams, which include recordings of trains and voices. He also utilizes analog synthesizers that create a bed of electricity within the piece, as well as manipulated voices. Sometimes Vitiello would use a high tech mic system designed to work like a stethoscope, picking up sound from vibrations as he touched the surfaces in the building.
“I don’t tend to tap into a library as much as create a library for each project,” he said.
Vitiello thought of himself primarily as a musician until 1999, which saw a residency in the World Trade Center that introduced him to the power of sounds wrought by a partnership of wind and human structures. He found himself concentrating on and recording the sounds of the building creaking and swaying with the furious wind, the sounds of airplanes in the background. It was an artistic awakening for Vitiello.
“That was a big milestone for me in my career,” Vitiello said. “For the 10 years leading up to that residency, I had been doing a lot of soundtracks for video artists and choreographers and filmmakers and having that residency at the World Trade Center was really this time where my whole practice changed to becoming my own artist rather than being a collaborator, and to dealing with site-specific approaches to sound rather than always responding to somebody else’s project. And so having that studio and listening to the building and listening to the building as an ongoing field recording really set up the future of everything I do.”
When the buildings were destroyed a couple years later, Vitiello was living near them and his relationship with them grew deeper long past their end.
“All the rescue workers entered and left every day, my daughter being newborn at that time, so it’s beyond the larger impact — the personal was there as well,” he said.
Vitiello made a conscious choice not to record any of the sounds during that period despite ample opportunity. His gut reaction was also to decide that he would never use the sounds he recorded during his residency ever again, and even ignored publicity calls seeking them out.
A month later, however, a number of the artists who had held residency at the World Trade Center came together at the performing arts center The Kitchen in order to share their work inspired from their time there. Vitiello decided to share his recordings there with the plea that they not be shared or exploited in any way.
“The way the audience responded was overwhelming,” said Vitiello. “They said ‘you’ve got to keep those out in the world, but you have to be careful how you put them out there and how you contextualize it.’ ” In 2002 Vitiello presented a recording from the building made after Hurricane Floyd broke as part of the Whitney Biennial and it became the first work of sound that the Whitney had acquired in three decades. The piece will be included at PS1 in New York City as part of a show commemorating the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the towers.
One of Vitiello’s most recent works involved a trip to Australia, where he combed the Outback for sounds that became part of an installation in Sydney. Vitiello utilized his recordings with three abandoned kilns and 13 tons of red earth from the center of the country to create a symphony of wind, wildlife and water.
“When I was there it was purely to work on field recordings,” Vitiello said. “Other projects will integrate more language or other kinds of instrumentation, but field recordings have definitely been a large part of my work for about 12 years now.”
With his sound work occupying such a personal space in his life, Vitiello must work to pull himself out of soundartist mode and keep himself in a human one, not analyzing sound, but taking them naturally.
“Sometimes I can slip and let that happen just in terms of knowing a lot about music production and a lot about sound design for cinema,” he said, “and suddenly finding that I’m listening to a record but I’ve stopped paying attention to the song and I’m paying attention to how cheesy the reverb is or I’m really aware that those people are not singing together. And that spoils the illusion of enjoyment, and I don’t want to interfere with my own pleasures at times.”
“Hopefully when I do listen really carefully — or listen for work or listen for pleasure or listen to make sure there’s no rabid dog chasing me through the park — my ears have been attuned maybe more so than others who haven’t paid attention to sound as much as I have.
September 29, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Dylan Gauthier and the collective Mare Liberum are a bit like art pirates, building boats from scrap and reclaiming the waters around New York City as useful public art space.
Gauthier will team with fellow collective members Ben Cohen and Stephan von Meuhlin, as well as another boat-building artist, Kendra Sullivan, for a one-day workshop — “All Hands On Deck” — on Friday, Sept. 9, as part of The Bureau For Open Culture project that has been housed at Mass MoCA for the summer as part of “The Workers” show. The crew will be on site from Thursday through Sunday.
Gauthier’s hope is for a communal experience in boatbuilding that will bring people together to create and, hopefully, pass along the experience, as well as the fruits of it.
Mare Liberum is based in the Gowanus area in Brooklyn and specializes in maritime and boat-themed art projects. The group tries to get together annually and craft a new boat shape each time, built from whatever scrap material is available. Their intention was to forge some sort of relationship with the water that was part of everyone’s daily lives in the city, but with which there was little personal interaction.
“The place we’re working in had a lot of water,” Gauthier said. “The people who lived here didn’t necessarily interact with it all that often — or other than very formal ways aside from crossing bridges and looking down at the East River or looking out at the Hudson and saying ‘Oh! The Hudson!’ ” The Gowanus had been under a big gentrification plan that was halted because there was an EPA superfund site that got reinstated on the whole canal. The group works around this set of issues and often gets their material from the actual labor involved in gentrification, redirecting the materials in order to build the vessels through which residents might interact with the water.
“We had gone and talked to people in construction sites and they gave us their cast off plywood that they were using to pour concrete floors and things like that, so the project got started down there,” said Gauthier.
The group began about eight years ago, procuring a 64-foot, mahogany Naval rescue boat from the Korean War and using it for open studio space. This overlapped with other work that Gauthier was doing at the time, which involved reclaiming unused space in the city for art projects. The waterfront was one place in the urban setting that someone could stake a claim, even temporarily, and fashion an autonomous site. That is what the group has been doing to some degree ever since.
“From there, we’ve been getting into smaller and smaller boats, and making them more portable,” he said. “This project that we’ve been working on, which has to do with these bamboo kayaks, is the pinnacle of that. They end up weighing 30 pounds and are just bamboo wrapped in canvas and they allow for a single person to get out on the water wherever they choose.”
The group taught themselves how to build smaller and smaller vessels by consulting books from amateur boat builders dating back to the 1950s that were popular at the time, particularly those of John Gardner, a boat builder at the Mystic Seaport.
At the core of their plans was to not keep their efforts to themselves.
“Our intention was to try and do this not just on our own as artist adventurers,” said Gauthier. “But we actually wanted to make this technology or these techniques available to other people, and so there’s a component of this where we’ve always printed plans and stories and gave people advice how to do this and held workshops.”
The group eventually devised their own dory that they could build using simple power tools and sheets of plywood.
“They’re not marine-grade plywood,” Gauthier said. “They’re fairly heavy and already used, so we had to adjust the shape of the boat to suit that. This was all done through experimentation and making a few that failed before they got out of the studio because you could just tell that they weren’t holding together.”
The group has upgraded the technology of their planning, now using 3D modeling software which allows a little improvisation — required depending on the materials available — to work along with the strict planning. This is the tactic planned for the North Adams appearance.
“We’re going to show up with a certain amount of materials ready to pull together,” said Gauthier. “But that said, the materials that we’re working with are unstable by nature, and we have bamboos that we’ve foraged and harvested and will be drying out as best we can, as best we figure out how to — try to cure it so it’s actually usable — and we’ll be taking some materials from the museum.”
Gauthier’s hope is that the result of the day’s labor will find it’s way to a body of water — obviously the Hoosic canals are out of the question, though he admits to wishing he could give them a shot. The ultimate goal of Gauthier and his collective are to pass along the experience and help others create further channels for collaborative seafaring.
“People would actually be in the end hopefully making something that they would want to take with them,” he said. “However many we end up making, the idea is that we give them to whoever wants them and we figure out a way to have an auction or barter with people who are interested in taking them and taking care of them.”
September 28, 2011 § 1 Comment
It’s not really my usual practice to review many regular, floppy comic books — I would do this on a very select basis when I was comics reviewer at Worcester Magazine, but I more often opt for full graphic novels or collections. This is for various reasons, not the least of which is my interest in them – or lack of. But when piles of DC Comics’ New 52 titles started to show up on my doorstep – review copies graciously provided to me by DC – I felt the need to do something in return, so have been tweeting mini reviews of the titles. This may be like looking a gift horse in the mouth for DC, because I can’t say I’ve been especially delighted or even kind about most of it.
It did occur to me, though, that because of the girth of titles, this was an opportunity for an overview of certain constants I began to notice and thought I would jot these down.
To begin with, I’ve divided up the titles into four groups that are pretty self-explanatory, but I will add these comments to the headers I’ve given the groups. “Have Potential” means I liked it, but it needs more than this issue to sell me on it. “Acceptable Time Wasters” is mostly reserved for unadventurous but inoffensive and readable books – standard fare, with various degrees of good and bad lumped in there. “Total Snoozers” might be boring or bad or tiresome – Batman titles had a bad habit of ending up in this category. “Loathsome” goes beyond bad, where the very concept and execution point to something totally offensive. Each title is followed with the original Twitter comment.
All Star Western “Jonah Hex is good – as ever – but Dr. Arkham in 19th Century Gotham City deserves his own series.”
Aquaman “Delightful! I didn’t know they made these sorts of superhero comics anymore!”
DC Universe Presents: Deadman “Reliable Deadman with solid supernatural superhero angst. Mature in the right sense of the word.”
Demon Knights “Fun!”
The Flash “Barry Allen is back! This is a fun reboot!”
Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE “Now THIS is a comic book! With the Creature Commandos! Jeff Lemire saves the day! More like this.”
Justice League Dark “Cancel the other JL titles and just run this one – it’s different and well-realized and fun.”
Storm Watch “The one I liked”
Animal Man “At least the last panel is intriguing”
Batwing “good premise, interesting art, an African superhero in Africa has promise for something different, at least.”
Batwoman “Much better than anything Batman’s in. I wish Batman would go away. This has more potential.”
Grifter “Okay you have my attention now go somewhere with this, might be cool”
Hawkman “Fun superheroics and superdramatics- actually feels like a bit of a throwback to the Golden Age version of the character”
I, Vampire “More conversation disguised as story but at least offers some intrigue as a prologue. Art is moody.”
Resurrection Man “That’s interesting in a way. I guess. Makes me appreciate Animal Man more, though, which was actually gentle.”
Swamp Thing “Nice if unimportant”
Acceptable Time Wasters:
Action Comics “Is this a nod to Smallville or something? Never did watch that show.”
Captain Atom “Old fashioned fun. Superhero vs volcano! I can’t really insult it.”
Green Lantern “Fine standard GL story.”
Green Lantern Corps “A reasonable GL effort, nothing special, fits like a reliable old t-shirt with stains you can ignore.”
Green Lantern New Guardians “More intriguing than I expected when I opened it up but bided its time too much.”
Justice League “a conversation masquerading as a story”
Legion of Superheroes “For a so-called new beginning this sure is confusing. All the references to what happened & no real explanations sucks.”
Mister Terrific “Horrible costume, likable superhero”
Red Lanterns “Monlogue masquerading as a comic book adventure – more story!”
Static Shock “Not something I expected to enjoy but there was something old fashioned about it. Surprise!”
Superboy “Sf plot shoehorned into Superman backdrop that it could really do without. Is this a reboot?”
Supergirl “If she must be rebooted then at least this adds some interest. I wish the character were still silly, tho.”
Teen Titans “Likable as this sort of thing goes but having read Superboy the continuity confusion was intrusive. I like Kid Flash.”
Wonder Woman “They’ve never known what to do with WW and still don’t. Not so much bad as just … eh. A lot more needed to happen”
Batgirl “Higher heights in mundanity”
Batman “Better than the other 2 Batmans I read which ain’t saying much. Enough. Why are we fixated on this one note character?”
Batman and Robin “Is Robin supposed to be a precocious unlikable prat? Cause that doesn’t help the comic much.”
Batman: The Dark Knight “From ‘Fear is a cannibal that feeds upon itself’ to ‘You can call me One-Face now’ it’s like a freakin’ parody.”
Birds of Prey “Boring.”
Blackhawks Nonsensical action and soap opera. This stuff might work in movies, but in comics it’s plain boring.
Blue Beetle “So boring I couldn’t finish it, but at least there seemed to be a story for a change.”
Detective Comics “Took us years to get here? Alright.”
Firestorm “This character has always been boring and he’s carrying on that tradition here.”
Green Arrow “Unreadable”
Legion Lost “I can’t read this, I really can’t.”
Hawk and Dove “Higher heights in mundanity”
Justice League International “Higher heights in mundanity”
Men of War “Higher heights in mundanity”
Nightwing “Holy crap the 1st person narration sent me dozing. I’m tired of all the 1st person in these New 52 books.”
Superman “I tuned out and then just skipped to the end.”
Catwoman “I actually had to rub disinfectant in my eyes after reading this. Proof that you can actually poop out a comic book.”
Death Stroke “Preposterous nihilistic machismo posturing.”
Red Hood and the Outlaws “Speedy never knew Starfire was a slut even after all the time in the Teen Titans? What an offensive & smarmy book this is”
Suicide Squad “Well that was an unpleasant bit of torture porn.”
Voodoo “The ending wants to make us think it’s a horror comic but it’s really a dumb story about a stripper doing a lap dance.”
The Larger Picture:
What struck me more than any escalation of violence or sexism – which are the hot ticket discussion items for the titles – is that first person narration, monologues or conversations are used far too much in these books. They run rampant throughout the line.The point is that they are utilized for easy exposition, with a way to wrap some action around them. I find this cuts off the possibilities for suspense that could sustain any of these titles better, and smells of cookie cutter technique. I don’t know if this is something weak writers fall back on or if it’s an editorial command, but I don’t generally like it.
Also, as a genre that has been mired in continuity and continuity correction, I have found that the act of starting over but not giving precise moments in time when these are taking place – at least, not in the actual titles – to be confusing. Why do some characters get total reboots and others not? Why is the Superman cast so young in Action Comics? When is JLA supposed to take place anyhow? Why is The Flash so new and Green Lantern so established? After being such control freaks, I find it odd that the relationship between many of these titles is so confusing – and if it is not confusing to long time readers, then why bother to start with a new slew of #1s in order supposedly entice new readers? I thought that was the point – the fresh start. The best way to approach these, I suppose, is to ignore the cross title continuity and enjoy each title on its own – as it always should be, in my belief, just not what they have practiced since the 1980s.
I was also struck at how unspecial many of these were. Many seemed like they could be issue #22 or #329 or, worse, #2. The sense of specialness was in the marketing more than the products themselves.
That said, there were some with a sense of humor and an air of friendly playfulness that surprised me immensely, and to me are exactly what superhero comics should be like if they’re going to insist on existing anymore – Aquaman, The Flash, Hawkman, Captain Atom, Mr. Terrific were all examples of various qualities. It was as if human beings wrote these, which is sadly not the feeling most superhero comics leave me with.
The best titles, to me, were the ones that weren’t mired in the DC Universe but so much on the edge of that they could include nods to it without requiring much knowledge of it or affection for it in order to enjoy the titles – they were given their own context. Demon Knights, Frankenstein, Storm Watch, these were my favorites in this area, but there were others that succeeded in this, as well.
And now to the Batman issue- and I know I’m alone in the dark with this, but never more than through this bonanza of titles have I felt the company’s over-reliance on that character and the peripheries of the property is deadening to the soul. The character has had nowhere to go for years and most of these titles tended to take us exactly there. I’m estimating there are 11 Batman-related titles – including team books and off-shoots like Batgirl – and with the exception of Batwoman, Batwing, and Justice League Dark – the ones that don’t center around the character or his mythology as much and offer some new scenarios – it’s mostly the same comic over and over and over, as it has been for the past 20 years. No wonder I can’t even bring myself to see the Dark Knight movies. Too much, overdone, please, go away.
All in all, I don’t know that this huge gesture really offers any opportunity that wasn’t there before, but as a symbolic marketing move, it is a way to highlight that some of the books have changed and become easier to access, and I guess it’s worthy for that.
September 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Kevin Clash might be one of the most famous people in the world, but you probably wouldn’t recognize him or even know him by his voice. He looks much different on television.
Clash is best known for his work on “Sesame Street” as the red Muppet superstar Elmo. He will appear at Images Cinema in Williamstown as part of “Muppets, Music and Magic,” a festival of film and events beginning Monday, Sept. 19, and running through Sunday, Sept. 25. Clash will make several appearances on Friday and Saturday.
Clash began his fascination with puppetry as a kid, famously taking the lining out of his father’s coat and fashioning it into a workable puppet. By the end of high school, he had secured two positions as a puppeteer on local shows in Baltimore, working with his mentor Stu Kerr — “Caboose” and a religious show called “Mr. Rainbow’s World.”
Clash had grown-up watching the Muppets on Sesame Street, but it wasn’t until seeing Muppet designer and builder Kermit Love on an episode of a kids’ show named “Call It Macaroni” that Clash even considered the possibility of working with Jim Henson’s Muppets. Clash’s mother became proactive and, through Maryland Public Television, got Love’s phone number and gave him a call about her son.
“He told her if I’m ever in the New York area to look him up, so he gave her the address and the phone number,” Clash said. “Fortunately, because of the timing, I was actually going up. It was on a 12th grade school trip that I got to actually meet him.”
Clash showed Love some tapes of his work and shortly after found a place in a professional development program that had “Sesame Street” bring up puppeteers to observe the filming of the show for a week. The hope and belief in Baltimore was that Clash would stay on there.
“I was so excited about it that I had told the station and they were thinking, ‘well, if they’re doing all of this, we still have ‘Caboose’ on, we’re probably going to need another puppeteer because Kevin is now on his way to New York to work on ‘Sesame Street,’ ” said Clash. “The local station, one of the anchors came down and interviewed me about how excited I was about going and starting all that. Stu went on and auditioned and hired another puppeteer for ‘Caboose’ and I went up for a week and it didn’t happen then.”
Instead, Clash ended up working on “Captain Kangaroo” during its final years, a job that mentor Kerr had helped broker through his friendship with the Captain himself, Bob Keeshan. For Clash, it was a fortuitous opportunity, as well as a magic one.
“It was amazing, just amazing. Lumpy Brannum, the man who played Mr. Greenjeans, he was exactly what you would think, doting, funny, he had a great sense of humor,” he said. “He would come in on Fridays and have an overabundance of tomatoes and cucumbers that had grown in his garden.”
During this period, Keeshan would have a stroke and the show would be revamped into another format that saw Clash still around, but moving onto “Sesame Street” when it ended. He entered that show with a group of new faces that were brought in as Jim Henson and Frank Oz were less involved in the Sesame Street set and more on other productions.
All that was left was for Clash to settle into some characters.
“There are always ‘A.M.s’ — which are Anything Muppets — or monsters or what have you that’s written in the show,” said Clash. “So the producers would look at the script and say, okay, Kevin would be good for this and tell me that, then I’d get the script and mark what Pig or A.M. or Grouch or whatever it is I’m assigned.”
“They tried a bunch of different things. The one thing that stuck was Hoots the Owl. That was one of the characters that they wrote in and had me work out, because it was an original character. There were some characters that they tried with me that just didn’t work. It was a process that all the puppeteers went though, which was really the miscellaneous characters in the scripts that were written in.”
It’s a long process to a puppeteer’s chance to make a character work for him. It starts with the writers work up scripts, pulling from the curriculum that the show wants to teach and figuring out which characters will be available to use for that script. Following a stint in research, where the particulars of teaching aspect are checked and improved, a director is assigned and props are created or procured. Finally, a puppeteer is informed that he is cast.
“Once you do that, you get on the floor, you block it out with the director, or he blocks it out and you do a camera blocking, and then we shoot,” Clash said. “The process of developing a character is very short for us. There’s not weeks to do it — there’s literally minutes to figure out what you want to do.”
With a demand for such fast development on the part of the puppeteers, improv becomes a key tool to finessing a character.
“Once we get on the floor, we start to play around and off of that, the humor starts,” said Clash. “Some of that’s in the script, some of that’s just playing around with the performers. We’re just trying to make the crew laugh and if that happens, for the most part it’s encouraged, and it’s not kiboshed.”
“So it’s always a constant development going on. The script is not the Bible. It becomes, I feel, like 80 to 85% the script and the rest the performers take on and start to make these characters three-dimensional instead of one-dimensional.”
Clash says the process of finding the right fit hearkens back to the earliest days of Muppet creation when Hensen and Oz worked to configure who would be Ernie and who would be Bert.
“Ernie and Bert’s relationship was Jim and Frank’s relationship,” Clash said. “They were best friends, they both had different personalities. Even at the beginning when they were both developing the characters, Jim tried on Bert first and Frank tried Ernie. For some reason it didn’t feel right so they switched and that’s when the puzzle pieces fit together.”
Clash’s signature character Elmo wasn’t originally his, but handed over to him after two other puppeteers gave it a shot and didn’t think their portrayal worked. For Clash, it was instantaneously the perfect Muppet for him.
As the character’s fame grew — the Tickle Me Elmo phenomenon pushing him over the edge of stardom — Elmo began to figure into the show’s plans more. This culminated in the unprecedented move of giving him a final, extended segment of “Sesame Street” that functioned much like a show within a show. This was a response to not only Elmo’s popularity, but a growing demographic for the show and the reality that he was the best Muppet for the job of speaking to that audience.
“We do a lot of research — we go out and talk to kids, we talk to different educators, we talk and find out what’s needed,” said Clash. “One thing that we found was that our audience was getting younger, and so the writers decided to think of what character could talk directly to that age group and that’s how Elmo’s World was developed.”
Over time, Clash’s role as Elmo has put him in a very unique position. He makes personal appearances with him and talks to children as him. This gives him an opportunity that few adults achieve — through the vehicle of Elmo, he can speak to kids on their own level, as a trusted equal. Sometimes this gives him insight that you wouldn’t expect a kid would offer Elmo.
“The one thing that really blew us away was that I would do shows and kids would come up to Elmo and they would do an Elmo picture and give it to him before they left,” Clash said. “When 9/11 happened, some of the cast and the puppets went out and did some songs and the pictures that they were giving Elmo were of the Twin Towers and a plane hitting one of them. The change was very, very saddening for all of us — and then trying to figure out how to say something that would be worthwhile to the child through their best friend from Sesame Street was a challenge.”
That’s how powerful and alive the characters become for kids, and Clash says that they constantly have to straddle a line that they don’t feel they can go over, not to overstep the boundaries that parents might have in regard to their own kids. That’s part of the reason “Sesame Street” is also aimed at grown-ups, to give them part of the insight gleaned and offer some televisual mentoring in how to effectively speak with their own children.
The one fear parents have is that the illusion will be spoiled, but Clash says they have nothing to worry about.
“We’ve had celebrities who said, ‘I don’t want to bring my kid because I don’t want to break the illusion for them,’ ” said Clash, “and I say, ‘you have nothing to do with that — your child keeps their imagination and uses their imagination for as long as they choose to.’ All you have to do is observe and see where they’re at, but you’re not going to break that illusion for them.”
September 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Not everyone in the world has descended into the realm of Christian crazy like America — or, at least, America as seen through the filter of the Republican presidential nominees — and the Dutch have gotten a lot more sane in regard to religious thought than anyone I have seen.
I discovered the Rev. Klaas Hendrickse through a BBC report. His Exodus Church teaches a fascinating form of secular Christianity that says, according to Hendrickse, “God is not a being at all Š it’s a word for experience.”
Concurrently, Hendrickse expresses the notion that Jesus was a mortal — though Hendrickse isn’t positive the guy actually existed — and there is no life after death. In essence, Hendrickse is relying on his Dutch congregation to understand metaphor, which is but one reason this would never fly in America. We don’t like metaphor very much. In the Netherlands, 15% of Protestant clergy are actually agnostic or atheist. Considering so many of us do jobs that we don’t believe in and some of us are clever enough to adapt the jobs to suit our ideals, this doesn’t seem surprising to me.
Compare Hendrickse’s mode of thought to what we have in the spotlight here in America. This election cycle has given a spotlight to the Christian whackjobbery of Dominionism, which somehow sees crackpots like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann being taken seriously as a Presidential nominee.
Dominionism is the radical Christian call to invasion, the idea that Christians have a divine call to control all institutions on our little blue planet and effectively turn the place into an unwilling theocracy. It has its roots in a 1960s Christian sect that believed secular law in the U.S. needed to be replaced by laws as laid down in the Old Testament. This was Christian Reconstructionism, the work of one R. J. Rushdoony.
This Christian practice seems fringe at best — it’s certainly outside my mainstream and, I suspect, the mainstream of most of my religious friends. It’s like someone found a Jack Chick religious tract and transposed it serious thought.
Remember back before the Internet, when you’d find plodding typed pages with cut and paste graphics xeroxed and given letterheads with names like “Heralding In The Truth Ministries” handed out on street corners and in free bins at Salvation Army? Well those people have started to move up the ranks of the Republican Party.
I wouldn’t say I’m all for fiscal conservatism, but I have to ask if this what any of you old-style Republicans want — theocratic dictators? I thought you just wanted your flat taxes and right to arms.
There is one way to combat this movement, but I’m afraid I have to step aside at the idea that people like me would be effective in the fight at all. People like me are the worst spokespeople against it.
No, the pressure is on my casual church-going friends who need to get loud and take their religion back. People like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann have co-opted your sacred beliefs as part of a power grab. Their desire for control is so ultimate that it’s going to effect your church-going habits as much as gay marriage, abortion or anything else.
That’s been the major disappointment for me since Reagan. I know plenty of people who believe in God, who define themselves as Christian, but who are reasonable, caring, intelligent and not of the mind to infringe on others. For some reason, though, this doesn’t lend itself to visible public outrage. There has been no serious Christian opponent to extremism in our country.
And it’s time for that to change. It’s time to take charge of your churches.
As for me, I’m all about Rev. Hendrickse’s push for symbolic thought in regard to the divine, because I’m beginning to think the idea of truly effective activist liberal and progressive Christians really is magical thinking.
September 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
With his retrospective at MCLA Gallery 51, artist and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts art professor Gregory Scheckler doesn’t just look back on 21 years of work – he’s mixing it up a little bit.
“Remixed Messages: Artworks by Gregory Scheckler from 1990-2011″ opens on Thursday, Sept. 29, with a reception at 6 p.m. at MCLA Gallery 51, 51 Main St. Coming in as his 100th exhibit, the show will celebrate Scheckler’s art-making with an emphasis on his efforts to mix and match images to bring out new meaning and relevance.
“The main idea is to smash things together,” he said.
Scheckler’s work has been building up to this moment over the last few years, with his Collision Course series best exemplifying the movement of his visual concepts. And Scheckler does exactly that.
By pulling from art history up to modern times, Collision Course features images such as “That’s No Moon,” which references Magritte, Titian and even George Lucas. Scheckler’s painting plays on Magritte’s “The Treasury of Images,” which famously proclaimed that “this is not a pipe.” Instead, Scheckler includes the Death Star from Star Wars and offers “this is not a moon.” It’s Scheckler’s update of Mag-ritte’s cynical idea that pictures can – and do – lie.
“It’s perfect for today’s world, where we are surrounded by millions of images everyday: ads, logos, photojournalism, film, YouTube, web pages, artworks,” said Scheckler, “and, of course, we still have all the war and nationalistic propaganda that Magritte was against. I mean, just turn on the television and watch a couple of commercials. They are all instant surrealism, full of impossible magical things.”
Scheckler says that even some of his paintings, less likely to be grouped in with the idea of remixing, fit the bill, such as his series capturing single birds.
“They are composed from combinations of life and nature studies, compositional studies, color studies, concepts steering the poetry of the title, and the placement in a gallery or a home,” he said. “With these, there’s the raw creativity of finding the initial image, but to that is added the creative aspects of editing and organizing the image, and conflating the titles with science ideas. These are a less obvious remix than the larger, compound narrative paintings.” Mixing the arts and sciences has been a major center of Scheckler’s movements in mixing disciplines over the years.
“To me, pulling together varying forms seems a natural response to the world around us, and is realistic,” Scheckler said. “The human imagination stems from the human brain, which itself consists of many different and sometimes competing processing centers.
“Visual perception, for example, is a suite of abilities borne out of more than 30 different segments of the brain. We mix and remix, filter and re-filter, every image by seeing and thinking about it – multiple interpretations is the way our minds work.”
Part of Scheckler’s remix technique comes from his training as an academic realist painter through the general practice of copying artworks from the past. Part of smashing things together relies on if not total irreverence for the works, at least the ability engage with some portion of that. For “Silly Dances plus O-Ring Problems,” Scheckler looked honestly at a painting by 19th-century painter Bougeureau while working to recreate it.
“He chose dopey subject matter. Look at this fake woman: she’s totally unbelievable, entirely unrealistic, the wind just so and she is floating on her tippy-toe,” he said. “This isn’t even a good, rich erotic fantasy – it’s about as tantalizing as ads for healthy yogurt. All the skill for something so, so silly. And Bougeureau wasn’t really aware of that silliness, his work was supposed to be a very, very serious icon of beauty.”
Frustrated by the painting, Scheckler began to look for ways to change it and noticed that the spiraling form of the nude in the painting stood out. Scheckler eventually decided to include in the background a cloud formation that resembled the forms from space shuttle explosions, while the woman spins on through art history in the foreground.
“Contemporary artist defaces antique sentimentality, just as real accidents trumped nostalgia for the space program,” Scheckler said.
Scheckler says his idea of fun would be to bring some paints to a museum and rework certain portions of famous paintings, and he points to the online frequency of digitally tampered-with variations of famous art as a sign that other people surely feel the same.
Still, behind the Scheckler’s jokes is a serious question that he asks himself and others who define themselves as realist painters: What parts of human experience and knowledge are you going to be realistic about? “What do you edit out, what do remove from view, and can you be realistic about anything if you edit too much or too little?” said Scheckler. “Is it just that you’re copying what things look like, or translating them into intentional artistry? Or are you going to investigate how the mind works, what we feel about things, what’s happening in the world today, or what contemporary science tells us about realities that you cannot experience directly but for which you need a microscope or telescope or difficult mathematics? How will you, the maker of visual pictures, make visible the things that we cannot see but know to exist?”
At the center of Scheckler’s queries is the question of what exactly is real. Scheckler believes this can best be addressed in forms like a remix that takes into account the diversity of artistic reality in the 21st century. There is no longer one way to interpret anything, nor one discipline with which to eke out an interpretation.
And while Scheckler’s images might not provide clear-cut answers, he never meant them to any how – that’s work for the viewers to do.
“As an artist it’s not really my job to tell people what the truth is,” Scheckler said. “It is my job to prompt the imagination to get us out of the box of the status quo a little bit.”
September 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Iran may be one of the more oppressive countries in the world, but it’s also one that finds itself very high profile despite its efforts and not just in the world of journalism.
Fiction has been a rich breeding ground for our impressions of the country’s truths and alongside film, graphic novels have been at the forefront of some of these investigations, most notably the work of Marjane Sartrapi.
Add to the list “Zahra’s Paradise,” a fictionalized account of a missing person in Tehran and his family’s search for him. The story is not a compilation of facts, but of experiences – the book’s creators have fashioned composite characters and situations to craft a representational story of people operating under a religious fascist state.
Mehdi took part in street protests in 2009 and following his disappearance, his brother and mother take advantage of as many official channels as they have access to in order to track him down. What they find is not only a trail of deceit enacted by their own government, but program of shame and denial toward the victims of the tyranny, as a result of a dictatorship that utilizes religious extremism as the basis of its control.
The book began life as a web comic in 2010 – its creators choosing anonymity for fear of reprisals – and garnered much attention, resulting in awards nominations and this print version from First Second. It’s a skillfully told slice of horror that retains its humanity and humor in the face of the monolith of political terror. As a primer for the possibilities
September 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Artist Jane Philbrick has taken the back area at Mass MoCa, next to the Route 2 overpass, to create The Expanded Field, a sculptural green space that will serve as a gateway to the museum from an entirely new vantage point.
The area will open to the public on Saturday, Sept. 24.
At the back of the Expanded Field is a stone wall, the remnants of a building that was razed in 2004. On top of the foundation, weeds and debris have been removed and mirror- finished stainless steel floor boards will be installed on beams. The bottom tier of the three story foundation contains a series of built-in seats – the Body Pockets – for people to sit in. Philbrick has made them various sizes to accommodate any grouping.
“I’ve composed it so there are social spaces for three people, places for two people, and for poetical reflection, one philosopher,” she said.
The garden area is filled with native grasses, Elfin Thyme and wild flowers, with large round cylinders, called The Rounds. These are made of rammed earth or dry stacked stone and contain little pocket gardens next to trees.
The Asphalt Meadow is actually the old back access road to the museum. Philbrick has jackhammered patterns into the asphalt, as well as made use of cracks that were already there, and planted wild flowers to create an industrial meadow.
The field will be accessible from downtown North Adams through the Route 2 underpass, which features a mural designed
by Philbrick and a sound installation – 12 channels with three in the wall and nine in the ground – that begins the space and served as the initial inspiration for the entire work. This work was done in conjunction with Roomful of Teeth and composer Caroline Shaw.
“It’s working with the pentatonic scale, which is this subliminal invitation,” Philbrick said. “How does the human subconscious work? Pattern recognition. Pentatonic scale is considered to be one of these things that are hard wired into us. You begin it and have to finish it.”
The project really began in Sweden, when Philbrick was creating a similar work for the Wanas Foundation in Sweden on a moss-covered, 15th-century wall, surrounded by a castle estate and a working farm.
“I just loved this wall,” Philbrick said, “and when I was invited to do a project there, they have a big sculpture park and I was like, ‘Please, may I have the wall?’” It was during this time that Philbrick met Mass MoCA Director Joe Thompson and asked him for some help to procure a cathedral in Paris for recording purposes. That never materialized, but Philbrick eventually showed Thompson how her wall project came out and his gears started churning.
“He said, ‘You talk so much about the ephemeral and the moment, would you be all right if this was a permanent piece?’ And I said ‘I’m fine, it’s fine,’” said Philbrick.
“The wall in Sweden is achingly beautiful and I thought I had done the wall of walls, and when he said that he had a wall in mind, I was like, ‘Uh huh, okay, sure,’ and then when he showed me this, I was like, ‘I’m very interested.’ ” That was in 2006, and over the last five years, Philbrick has had to get a lot of work out of the way in order to get to North Adams and start on the wall. The initial idea didn’t stay put over that time and the project grew.
“Somehow, between that initial 2006 and now, the project has grown from a 14-channel sound piece to an acre and a half,” Philbrick said, “which is a rare moment in contemporary life where patience is truly rewarded.”
The offer was actually a dream come true for Philbrick, who had been desperately interested in working on an installation for the museum since its opening. Her first thought had been a sound piece that would utilize the noise of the traffic moving past on Route 2.
“It’s an interesting thing about how you should dream, and be careful where you dream, because it is possible those dreams come true,” said Philbrick. “When I came and was offered this, it was very much about the wall, but I had that personal pre-history of always thinking about this place and what could one do if one could do something here. Maybe that had some sort of psychic influence.”
Philbrick’s technique often involves pulling from different disciplines as part of her palette. Architecture in general – and museum architecture specifically – has been a major area of ideas that has had her exploring the ideas of what museums are and what that means to her space.
“The poetical architects, it’s so interesting how they talk about museums they have built,” Philbrick said, “and the importance of a garden in being a place that alerts the senses and prepares you for the sensual experience of viewing art, which isn’t just a cognitive download, and that answers my question of what is a museum.”
“You can scroll around online and download the images and such, it is the primary experience of being present with the art and to reach people as they approach the museum and be a place where they can process and digest and just have that experience in an environment which gives them time and space and sensuality.”
In that context, Philbrick tends to look at all the parts of the space as one whole existence, and in sync with anything else that is displayed in Mass MoCA.
“I don’t even really talk about it as a garden,” she said. “I know the museum does. I really talk about it as a site and, to me, this is really one big sculpture.”
Though it’s set to premiere over the weekend, the work itself is in progress that will continue long after the public debut. It’s the physical manifestation of an idea that continues to expand beyond the first contemplation that birthed it.
“It’s a growing thing,” Philbrick said, “and it will take a couple of years to mature.”
September 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
His current music may not have the pounding energy of 20 years ago, but Nick Lowe’s new release captures the same spark as he mines further territory in his own particular brand of charming gentleman music.
Lowe started out in the ‘70s as a great-uncle to the punk movement — raw energy was the family trait they shared — and this had him operate as a close cohort to acts like Elvis Costello and Squeeze, among many others. His own style could never quite reach the career heights as Costello’s intense — and on occasion, pretentious — dramatics. Lowe had his own road and it was if not rocky, then pretty damn cobbly, but it’s never been one you didn’t want to walk.
“The Old Magic” self-reflecting his lot as a 61-year-old rock survivor with equal parts country and lounge styles — is that a Wurlitzer I hear? Probably not, but it should be. Tossing off lines like “I’m on lonely street but nobody told my feet” in the sweet song “Somebody Cares About me,” the man hasn’t lost his touch, just his tempo.
The whole album is relentlessly sweet, even as it wraps itself around the reality of old man dealing with another love gone wrong. “House For Sale” brings a Johnny Cash wanderlust to the break-up, while “Sensitive Man” reveals Lowe as an old softie with a pop ‘50s piano tinkle. He even tackles Costello’s lovely “Poisoned Rose,” which taxes his aging pipes, admittedly, but also frees his growl to run wild. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Mr. Lowe.
September 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
In this massive, 600-page graphic novel, Anders Nilsen begins by asking the big questions promised in the title and then promptly stops, instead choosing to let the answers play out in their own time in the form of one flock of birds’ reaction to a deadly freak calamity.
Nilsen begins by setting up a very precise universe that centers on a flock of birds, whose multiple members dart in and out of the story as in accordance with the dangers of nature and man, and whose personalities are visually interchangeable but deeply individual beneath the line drawing. Together they create one consciousness that reacts to an old woman and her mentally disturbed son, some angry squirrels, a cryptic snake and a group of bullying crows.
Calamity comes in two parts, each involving the appearance of technology on the landscape and the birds reaction to it. As with any society, the birds have their own forms of superstitious and mystical mumbo jumbo in order to explain the intrusion, as well as desperate philosophies to qualify the tragedies that follow.
A novel of absurdist philosophy on the scope of the likes of Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon, “Big Questions” reads as important and mesmerizing as anything that might slip out of any of those authors’ typewriters, but with a visual element that brings
in a filmic element. This allows Nilsen to dispose of the grammatical clutter that can be off-putting in heady offerings and embrace a simplicity and silence reminiscent of early Peter Weir films that portrays very difficult ideas as something not complicated at all.