February 24, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The spectacle of last week’s contraceptive hearings by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee reminded some people of the Middle Ages. Considering the church it was centered around, no one should be surprised, since it often seems stuck in the Middle Ages as it covers up child sex crimes, steals property from its own parishioners, turns away believers based on their sexuality, refuses to ordain women as priests and looks further back than most in the area of women’s rights to birth control.
At current issue is the requirement for Catholic institutions to offer contraception coverage to employees as part of the Obama health care rules, though it was made a freedom of religion issue despite the fact that 57 percent of Catholics support the new policy and despite the fact that religious institutions are still expected to follow the law.
Alongside the church stands the Republican Party, who never heard of a position that Obama took that they weren’t against after little to no thought on the matter. It’s just part of their scorched earth policy that reveals them as so desperate to bring down the Obama presidency that they don’t care if they take out the whole country or even set their own political party into a downward spiral with the president. Let God sort them out!
Some of the rhetoric going around would have you believe that what Obama is doing is akin going door to door and personally forcing condoms on all good Catholics. No one’s complaining that he’s forcing blood transfusions on Christian Scientists, however, because that’s not likely to win any votes.
As usual, it’s all about the suppression of women, stripping them of their individual control and hearkening back to the central tenets of the Judeo-Christian belief system.
Enlightened Christians understand that times change and women deserve say in their own health issues, but those aren’t the Christians currently at war with contraception.
Remember, these are proud Bible literalists we’re speaking of, and you only have to read the Bible from a woman’s point of view to see where they are coming from. Just take a look at the Book of Genesis. Bible literalists believe in Adam and Eve, Noah, Lot, all of it, so they must believe the basic lesson of Genesis is that women should obey men and have their babies and if they don’t tow the line, they can just get cast out of Eden or turned into a pillar of salt.
The only time a woman’s honor is defended in that work is in context of being a man’s property — often as one of the several wives from the bigamist forefathers of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Ever wonder why Newt Gingrich gets so worked up about Paganism? Because it doesn’t offer an exclusively male-dominated belief structure like Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Women don’t have to fight for respect in any given Pagan structure. They can just make up their own damn goddess and get it right away. The ancient switch to monotheism was an orchestrated effort to cement male-dominated society and knock women off equal bearing on a cosmic level — the modern embrace of it carries on the tradition.
For those of us who don’t subscribe to a religion, rather varying degrees of spirituality and total disbelief, it’s as if a bunch of silly fairy tales were being held up as important and allowed to take precedence over the law of the land. The Catholic Church doesn’t approve of contraception? Or abortion? I don’t care. Lots of people don’t care. I also don’t care what Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Shintos, Buddhists, Norse or any other worshippers think of abortion and birth control. They are not above the law and have no right to use a collection of political and social fables written thousands of years ago and masquerading as a history book in order to pull selective rules out of thin air.
Since we’re basing political policies on arbitrary nonsense that only some people believe in, we should begin to take into account the views of people who believe the Easter Bunny and Bigfoot are real or that Elvis is still alive or that vaccines will actually hurt you or you can be allergic to electromagnetism when we’re deciding health policy. And don’t forget homeopathy.
February 17, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Whitney Houston was dead for all of a couple hours before it was all over my Facebook feed. I had no clue that Houston was on the radar of so many of my friends, yet here they were, posting laments about a life ended too short.
I confess I haven’t thought about her in ages and when I did, it probably wasn’t much of a thought anyhow. And, as a rule, I have little nostalgia for dead celebrities, though ever since John Hughes, I try to keep my mouth shut about it. I guess you can sort of qualify it as respect if not for the dead, then for the people who are touched by the celebrity of the dead in some way that I don’t understand or feel.
Sony wasn’t so respectful, however. They said nothing nasty, but deeds always speak louder than words, don’t they? Sony is, of course, one of those companies at the forefront of the fight against piracy, and they do so vigorously in the name of the artists. Sony, no doubt, never puts profits before the artist — except, apparently, in the case of Whitney Houston, where the company transformed almost instantly from a knight on a white horse to the most ghoulish sort of swindler.
By the time the news had hit the press, someone at Sony had realized the feeding bonanza that was to come from instant Houston nostalgia and upped the wholesale price on her digital music, which, in turn, pushed up the retail.
This is usually what they call price gouging, and Sony was all too happy at first to let the blame fall at the iTunes store’s feet — defaming Apple is all the rage these days, after all — though the company has since apologized, though it surely would’ve been much better not to do it in the first place.
It’s a revealing moment in the life cycle of a celebrity — not the human behind the celebrity, but the legend, the commodity, the business plan. And it got me wondering: Who do we feel sad about, the commodity that was presented to us or the sad person cowering behind it?
As of this writing, I have no idea how Whitney Houston died — there are hints, but no definites — but I do know that like so many other superstars, some aspect of her death will be directly relational to her continued personal misfortune, and that endless tragedy will forever be etched in the public’s brains.
As a human being, I have sympathy for anyone in Houston’s position, so messed up that they could hold the world in the palm of their hands and not be instantly made well by that possession.
And yet, I have to confess, I also lose patience with the parade of people who do have it all in a world where so many have so little and can’t just, out of responsibility to the rest of humanity, keep themselves together and enjoy their good fortune.
But then, you begin to understand how little these people must think of themselves. Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger, Houston, and way on back to Marilyn Monroe, they’re all just biological place-holders for dollar signs that the entertainment industry salivates over.
When musicians like Houston die, their deaths become a future business plan of occasional greatest hits, re-issues, remastered editions, boxed sets, newly surfaced live recordings, unreleased demos and more to sell the fans who can no longer purchase new work by their favorite musician.
Whitney Houston will be put to rest, but Whitney Houston Inc. will continue, with Sony making sure it does.
I watched “Sunset Boulevard” a few weeks ago and found myself thinking that, in regard to celebrity, there is seldom a good outcome. A young death or an elderly descent — it’s all awful.
Seeing the ridicule of Madonna at the Super Bowl only cemented that thought for me. Frequent trips to the grocery store check out line where I get updates on Demi Moore convinced me that maybe it’s time we started treating the desire for celebrity as a mental illness.
As the American Psychiatric Association works hard to update their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, I suggest they spend less time redefining autism to no one’s real benefit and devote that to a more common psychological disorder — the desire to become a celebrity.
Becoming a celebrity is self-destructive behavior, often a public suicide, certainly a compulsion to humiliate oneself and to live with delusions. Being famous is just another manifestation of self-destruction, like alcoholism or drug addiction or self-mutilation, just even sadder because the world is made to watch it.
I guess the difference is that there are plenty of us who aren’t famous and also self-destruct, but we just pass on debt instead of profit. Signing a deal with the likes of Sony may be the first symptom of mental illness. Maybe we should stop encouraging that as a reasonable goal in life and start treating these people instead.
Who knows, we might even get some good reality TV out of it.
February 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
As time moves forward, so many look back and find atrocity upon atrocity heaped on American citizens by its own country, so much so that it is hard to view injustice as an aberration. In that context, it’s hard to look at the country as fair or perfect or even good, but rather a fight between those who want it to be good and those who want it to be as it is. That might well be the definition of the American way of life.
But in many situations, people are willing to forgive institutional injustice and move on because all they really want is to live their lives as they see fit. That’s at the center of “The Loving Story,” the idea that though Richard and Mildred Loving’s story of interracial marriage and their legal battle for legitimacy is part of a larger brush of social history, it is foremost a personal story of people whose lives are affected by the huge monuments of oppression. The Lovings weren’t out to change history in the beginning — they just wanted to be together. At some point, however, they began to see their personal lives in context of the battle — if everyone could come to that realization, we’d be a much more informed nation.
“The Loving Story” will screen at Mass MoCA on Thursday, Feb. 16, at 7:30 p.m., following the film’s Feb. 14th debut on HBO.
In 1958, the Lovings found the sheriff in their hometown in Virginia looming over their bed at four in the morning, shining a flashlight in their eyes and questioning them. They were then hauled away to jail and charged with an illegal marriage — he was white, she was partblack and part-Native American. A trial found them guilty, though instead of imprisoning them, the couple spent the next decade fighting for their right to not only return to their home state, but for their marriage to be recognized.
Enlisting the help of the ACLU — if you ever wondered the purpose of that organization, then this film can go a long way to explaining to you — the couple fought all the way to the supreme court against the backdrop of a racist society that justified its actions by evoking the word of God as the final one in the reasons for segregation.
The story is mesmerizing and powerful on its own terms, but director Nancy Buirski draws you in thanks to a miraculous wealth of original footage — TV reports, interviews, a filmed roadside meeting with lawyers debating about possible arrests, telephone consults, home movies and even the audio for the case being argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court — that not only meticulously paints the world the Lovings lived in, but brings them to life as rich characters in their own drama. Richard Loving is reserved, rendered mildly awkward by the attention, while Mildred is the epitome of grace and the heart of the film — her kind eyes, her patient tone and her friendly smile in the face of such a stressful struggle speak volumes to the strength that was contained within her.
It’s a lesson worth remembering in our current era when gay rights and marriage are hot topics, and the tolerance of which is prescribed as anything from the end of marriage to the end of the world. There are still plenty of people who fixate on their own arbitrary prejudices in order to manipulate justice in order to cling to power — and following the day when gay citizens don’t have to fear for their rights or their safety, there will be another group of people who have to fight for what should be basic. With any of these oppressed, most of them will only partially care about the big picture — so many of them will be motivated by the desire to live their own lives in a free society.
I don’t know when America will ever get to that point, but when it does, I hope it doesn’t ignore the battles fought to achieve the perfection it always pretended it had.
February 11, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Like any consuming American, I have my preferred brands, and I’m happy to share them as a recommendation for what I consider to be a product worth the money spent.
For cameras, I prefer Canon. For various electronics equipment, JVC has always been my number one, except in turntables, where Technics rules.
For cars — for practical reasons, not for flash — I’m inclined toward Toyotas. Sneakers? Vans. Hard drives? Western Digital.
You never know when you’ll be in a conversation and when you’ll find yourself making a recommendation — it’s a verbal transaction we all make, from both sides of the exchange, and one that is mostly seen as helpful.
Except in the case of computers.
My preferred computer manufacturer is Apple. OK, start in on me. Over the years, my allegiance to JVC has never once elicited the angry insults that my appreciation of Apple has.
If I say, “You’re in the market for a turntable? You should check out Technics. Mine still works great after two decades,” the reply is usually, “Oh, thanks, I’ll look into that.” If, instead, the sentence is, “You’re in the market for a computer? You should check out Apple. Mine still works great after six years,” that’s when the frothing at the mouth comes.
I’m drinking the Steve Jobs Kool Aid. I’m an Apple zombie. I’m a snob. I’m bourgeois. I’m all about style over substance. I’m proselytizing. I’m pushy. My favorite is that I’m wrong — my personal experience and customer satisfaction is, actually, completely misinformed. I should buy a Dell and stop giving my opinion. Or so I’m told.
Lately, there’s been one more insult in the barrage: Now, because of all my iGadgets, I’m single-handedly dooming the workers of China to squalor and doom. This is because Apple, according to the headlines anyway, is the only American company with Dickensian business methods in China. And if I point out that other companies do it, too, that is seen not as an indictment of other companies, not as a finger pointed at the American system of raping workers in other countries, but as a defense of Apple’s practices, a way of excusing them as “everybody’s doing it.”
So, before I go on, let me just make plain that I do not think any American company, including Apple, should exploit or mistreat workers anywhere in the world. And the fact that other companies do the same does not excuse Apple.
But it does point the finger at the self-righteous ones that jump on the bandwagon to single out Apple.
It has been widely reported by multiple news sources that Apple’s manufacturing partner in China, Foxconn, is the center of poor working conditions and pay, which has resulted in a number of worker suicides. Almost every single article trumpets Apple’s involvement and downplays any other company’s.
Buried deep in most of the articles is some mention of the other companies who also partner with Foxconn — other companies who are also guilty. A CNN report is a perfect example, mentioning Apple in the headline and opening, but waiting several paragraphs in before revealing that Amazon’s Kindle and Microsoft’s Xbox are also made there.
Did you know that Hewlett Packard is the second largest profit maker for Foxconn, but somehow they’ve escaped the headlines?
The list of other tech companies that use Foxconn is very impressive. Included are Barnes and Noble, Cisco, Dell, Intel, IBM, Lenovo, Logitech, Motorola, Netgear, Nintendo, Nokia, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba, among others.
That’s pretty much everyone of note in the computer industry. If you own a Nook or a Playstation or a Dell Streak or a Galaxy or just about any other tablet, cell phone, bit of stereo equipment and more, you are as complicit in the conditions at Foxconn as anyone carrying an iPhone.
The point isn’t that Apple shouldn’t be called out for its culpability, because it should. The point is that all guilty should be called out, manufacturers and consumers. By pinning everything on Apple, we’re not addressing an actual problem with our country and its business practices; We’re making it another PC vs. Mac bit of nonsense. And that’s wrong.
Instead of passing along the guilt to just the manufacturers, we, as consumers, have to take part of the blame and also pledge to take action. We hold the power in that we hold the money these companies seek. Surely that is some sort of bargaining tool to make not only Apple, but also Amazon, Dell, Toshiba and all the others do the right thing.
Or you can just keep being snarky about iPads and pretend your Sony Android Tablet is great for the Chinese workers. It’s useless, but it will make you feel better than me.
February 11, 2012 § Leave a Comment
In his new book, “We Are The Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball,” illustrator Kadir Nelson discovers not only a voice for baseball heroes of yesteryear, but for his own transition to author.
The book recently won Nelson two American Library Association awards. Nelson’s previous work is on display at the Eric Carle Museum in “Testing the Ice: A True Story About Jackie Robinson” through May 6.
Nelson first became aware of the existence of the league in the 1990s, when he was commissioned to do a painting about it while still a student at the Pratt Institute. Doing research lead him to the Ken Burns documentary about baseball, particularly the episode “Shadow Ball,” which featured former Negro League manager and player Buck O’Neil talking about his experience. Nelson was immensely taken by O’Neil’s experiences.
“I wanted to know more, and I wanted to paint more than just the one painting I was working on,” Nelson said. “I ended up working on several.”
Work on the series would be sporadic once Nelson graduated and had to find work, but that didn’t stop him from continuing at any pace he could muster.
“Lo and behold, over a span of 12 or so years, I ended up creating a large series of these paintings,” he said.
On a post-graduation trip to New York City to meet with publishers, Nelson ended up selling three of these images to run in Sports Illustrated. Eventually, someone asked him if he had ever considered making a book of the paintings, and that suggestion stayed with him. Nelson envisioned a book that would tell the story of the Negro League along with his visuals, and began looking for a publisher, with the thought that since he wasn’t an author — and had no experience at writing a book — he would have to find an interested collaborator for the words.
“I learned that it would be very difficult or would take a long time to get an established author to write the book for me in a way that I wanted it to be written,” Nelson said. “That wasn’t appropriate, for me to tell an author what and how to write. After chewing on that, I realized that maybe I could try my own hand at it, so I asked my editor if it would be okay if I gave it a shot and, to my great surprise, she said yes, so I had to figure out how I was going to write it.”
Nelson chose a warm narration of a colloquial bent that would function as a collective voice of the league itself, partially based on the way interviewees addressed the topic when asked about it.
“Everyone spoke in this voice as if it was a collective voice of we,” said he said, “and it made sense to me to tell it that way, as if it were a great story, which it’s a really great inspirational story about a group of players and managers who wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Writing the book took plenty of research, but it never matched the art for difficulty.
“Doing the paintings, that was the most challenging when it came to doing the research,” Nelson said. “There were quite a few books on Negro League history and most of them have the same photographs, so when it came to piecing together the visuals for the book, it was not necessarily easy because it’s like an elaborate puzzle where you’re trying to match up the ages of the players, the jersey numbers, the jerseys they wore, where they played, because a lot of that stuff doesn’t exist anymore. Or it’s in black and white, which is also a challenge. That’s part of the fun, too, making those discoveries.”
Nelson relied on photographs and replicated jerseys and uniforms, visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. Each painting he did had a component of reconstruction and mystery — each image was like starting from scratch and offered a component of discovery that kept things interesting.
“I think the league itself was something of a discovery for me, but, of course, there are a number of players who I had never heard of,” he said. “Anyone who’s familiar or somewhat familiar with Negro League history has heard of the big players, like Satchel Page and Josh Gibson, but like Satchel said, there were many Satchels in the league, many Joshes. Coming to those discoveries was really interesting. There are batters who are just as powerful and prolific as Josh Gibson, but Josh was the one who got most of the attention for one reason or another — maybe he had an aura around him.”
With the understanding that there were plenty of people out there who still didn’t know much about the league, Nelson crafted the narration to appeal to adults, as well as kids.
“That was my hope,” Nelson said. “I wanted to create something that wasn’t age-specific. The only thing that I really kept in mind was, knowing that younger readers would be reading the book, I made sure not to include any of the really colorful language that the baseball players would use. Other than that, my aim was to make a book that would span all ages.”
The challenge there was to acknowledge some of the more mature aspects of the life in the league — racism, girl chasing, crime — within a context that the honesty wasn’t too vivid for a children’s book.
“As long as it’s mentioned tactfully, it’s kind of like hanging around your elders or uncles or grandfather, and they know that you’re there, so they say something along those lines,” said Nelson. “That was the idea, if it were your grandfather telling you what it was like for him. How interesting would that be if your grandfather played baseball, whether in the Negro leagues or in the major leagues, you can go back and listen to his stories. That’s how I wanted to tell the stories.”
The story of the league ends with the end of the league — sad to be sure, but a victory as well, since the ultimate goal of the league was to pave the way for African Americans to be allowed to play in the major leagues.
“In the interviews I conducted, and the ones I read, most, if not all, of the interviewees who were players knew that was the goal and were happy to see it come to fruition,” Nelson said. “And without them, Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson and players of today, like Barry Bonds, might not have had the opportunity to play or given that opportunity. They stand on their shoulders. It’s a great point of pride for many of the Negro League players that they played a really substantial part in making history.”
There could be a bittersweet quality to the ending, but Nelson doesn’t think there is. It was the end of something people loved — and loved taking part in — but it was a precursor to the fight for civil rights that would come, an opportunity for young African-American men to make their way in the world, to experience the possibilities through the ways other nationalities viewed them and to demonstrate the perseverance required to pave the way to equality.
“What helped to quell a bit of that bitterness was that they lead extraordinary lives,” he sad, “because most young African-American men of the time were not doing something that they loved and getting paid for it and traveling the world and meeting a lot of people and gaining the attention of young and old people alike. I think it was a really great life – they were young and free and having a really great time, and it wasn’t a wasted opportunity.”
February 11, 2012 § Leave a Comment
If holidays with your extended family didn’t offer you enough in the way of uncomfortable moments, then Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” is here to give you that experience.
Adapted from her own play by Yasmina Reza, “Carnage” is at it’s most basic, an investigation into the awfulness of people, but it’s the ingredients to that awfulness that provide the true pleasures.
The film opens with a brief assault from one young boy to another — shot at a distance, it’s very hard to tell what transpired. But what you do see is one boy hitting the other in the face with a stick as a crowd of boys stand by.
As the parents of these kids — Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly — meet to discuss the incident and come to some sort of parity about it, we find out the sketchy circumstance behind the moment and the depth of parental dysfunction that has led to this singular moment in time.
As gathered, the couples couldn’t be more stereotyped — Reilly and Foster come on like liberal, intellectual New Yorkers with a passive/aggressive way of expressing their concern, while Winslet and Waltz are an upper class power couple whose snobbishness offers them little capacity to invest in their son.
As the afternoon moves along, though, the types you have them pegged for are both accentuated
and skewed at the same time, creating a harsh stew of humanity revealing how ill-prepared any of us might be to steer younger versions of ourselves through life.
In this gathering, there is no good guy — Foster’s hippie patience is its own kind of oppression, while Waltz’s disinterested lawyer is despicable except for the fact that he at least knows himself and knows that he couldn’t care less.
Foster’s husband, Reilly, meanwhile, is not quite what he seems, and the unraveling of his personality shows that he might be more a victim of a passive-aggressive marriage, lashing out in the bitterness of an emasculation he willingly participated in.
Winslet, as the composed Wall Street type, begins to seem more like a prisoner of her own life, surviving by outfitting herself in a snobbish exterior.
Polanski seems to know this crowd, and perhaps these are the sorts of people he found himself up against in his own legal woes decades ago.
While not defensible, it happened in a world not unlike this and continues through law enforcement nowadays — Polanski no doubt looks at his accusers as the same mix of imperfection and insincerity leading to a stumbling sense of justice and the entitlement that allows them to cast the first stone.
Polanski’s view seems to be that we’re all a bit messed up, so let’s not lean on each other so harshly.
February 6, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Last week proved that political news can provide the same satisfaction as any so-called weird news round-up. This comes thanks to Newt Gingrich with his plans for a moonbase, an announcement that makes him the most appealing Republican candidate ever for those of us with a love of the absurd.
It was pointed out on BBC World News by no less an authority than Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium, that Newt’s plan wasn’t totally ridiculous and may even have a positive side to it, most notably that Tyson vigorously supports a moon colony of some form. Newt got a couple important parts of it wrong, though.
One is that you can’t whip something like that together and just slap it on the moon – it requires a lot more time than he is giving it.
The other is that despite what free market Republicans claim, you do need the government to take the first leap in investment to get the job done, and only then is private enterprise really equipped to follow up and innovate. As Tyson pointed out, think the great explorers, think Columbus – it’s a formula that keeps working.
I’m constantly stymied by Newt’s resurgent popularity – especially considering the public snips that fellow Republicans have taken at him – and have only been able qualify any of it as a mass hysteria. It was extremely surprising, then, that there is currently a case of mass hysteria happening right now in Cornish, N.Y., and many experts qualify it as a classic one.
If we use that as a means of comparison, then Gingrich Fever comes off as less mass hysteria and more mass stupidity.
It seems that 15 students of LeRoy Junior-Senior High School – one boy, the rest are girls – are suffering from some strange outbreak of Tourette’s Syndrome. The small plague apparently started with one girl at a homecoming dance who passed out, did so again a month later, and found herself involuntarily twitching and screeching and flapping.
It should be noted that Tourette’s is not a communicable disease, so there is never a Patient Zero involved.
The original girl was diagnosed with Tourette’s, but that doesn’t explain the other sufferers, which has, of course, brought an onslaught of conspiratorial thinking into the process. Activist Erin Brockovich has gotten involved, claiming it’s the reaction to a train derailment from 1970 and its release of cyanide (though why it is only affecting 15 students and why it took over 40 years to do so is anyone’s guess).
There is also the litany of people claiming it is caused by the side effects of vaccines and even fracking. More reasonable researchers say it’s a classic case of mass hysteria, just like the bad old good old days in Salem. History is spread with examples of it, and this incident’s consistency with that data has led doctors to treat victims for mass hysteria rather than anything else, and it seems to be working.
The most recurring form of mass hysteria in the modern day seems to have environmental claims, often taking the form of the sick building phenomenon and almost always accompanied by reports of a strange smell that is never tracked down.
And though it can be tricky to automatically peg such behavior as hysteria, since historically that has been used to dismiss the concerns of women, it does speak to the power of the mind in regard to our physical health – you can think yourself sick as easy as you can make yourself better through placebos. It’s the hallmark of physical symptoms of depression, and goes some distance to explaining all sorts of mysterious ailments and curious reactions to vaccines, drugs and environments.
Still, plenty of people are screaming that all these girls being sick can’t just be a coincidence, and I think it’s because as a species, humans refuse to believe in coincidence, because it emotionally devalues the people who are victims of it.
This situation has two things in common with Newt. One is that you can’t just ignore scientific reality and claim a truth that is exempt from it. Reality does what reality can do – you can’t build a quicker moonbase and you can’t find toxins in bodies where there are none.
The other is that sometimes there is no conspiracy, no plan. It really is just a coincidence that all these people have fallen under Newt’s spell – leastwise, I’ve heard no reports of noxious fumes coming out of him from anyone but Democrats.
February 6, 2012 § Leave a Comment
For his new installation at Mass MoCA, artist Sanford Biggers draws on the concept of “Afrofuturism” and mixes that with his own family’s creative past with a jazz-like precision, to conjure a three-dimensional puzzle for museum visitors to wander through.
“The Cartographer’s Conundrum” opens at Mass MoCA on Saturday.
Upon entering Building 5, visitors will be confronted with a geometric sprawl that leads to a visual cacophony climbing to the ceiling – it’s as if any patron is crawling the surface of a larger sculpture that can only be absorbed in increments. This is what Biggers’ calls “The Cartographer’s Conundrum” – it’s the job of the viewer to map the very space they walk on and to draw the lines between the portions. Biggers’ work moves from tiles on the floor – literal pixels of light and imagery breaking up – to a massive construction of church pews that float upward and various parts of a music instruments that cascade to the mezzanine in the room.
Some of the pews are wood, but others are in multi-colored, Day-Glo Plexiglas that takes the light from the huge side windows and casts it, ever changing, through the space.
The instruments – saxophones, guitars, tubas, drums and portions of a church pipe organ – pile up in sculptural chaos. The piano pieces were created by taking two pianos, hoisting them to the ceiling, and then dropping them, destroying the instruments, but creating materials for art, including a sound component.
“We’ll make audio recordings of the pianos exploding,” said Biggers. “That becomes an active moment and the way these pieces destroy and fall, and explode, once they hit becomes a gesture that is frozen and gives an active level to the installation, I believe.”
These sounds will be combined with other brief spurts of audio ambiance that creep up behind the visitor and mix with the soundtrack from a video installation inside one of the smaller rooms in the space.
“This phrase kept coming to mind – ‘a joyful noise unto the creator,’” Biggers said. “For me, that describes what these pianos and instruments that are exploding out of the ground and going upward, a joyful noise in praise to the work that will be upstairs. And also, it’s located in a place the pulpit would be if we were addressing a church.”
Altogether, the room will be a constantly changing sculptural wonderland for visitors to wander within.
“Everything that’s in there is to play with the light and to create illusion and optically challenge the viewer, sometime physically but mostly optically,” said Biggers. “I think every day the experience will be a bit different. There will also be mirrors on the floor that reflect and broadcast light in different directions and angles through the course of the day.”
Biggers’ installation functions as an extension of – or dialogue with – the work of his cousin, the late muralist John Biggers, who was renowned for his vignettes of the Jim Crow South and pre-Civil rights era communities. The piece at Mass MoCA draws from a moment in 1957, when John Biggers visited Ghana and took a leap of creative faith.
“He became very influenced by the textile work he finds there, the geometric patterns in the cloth, and this notion of sacred geometry that is borrowed from Islam, but has migrated westerly through Africa,” Biggers said. “When he returned to painting in the U.S., his figurative paintings had all the instances of geometric abstraction and fractally dividing up the space, so it created an optical illusion as well.”
“But he was able to weave it in because the figure never disappeared, it just became a little more abstract or geometric, or became almost like an architectural element, as well as reverential.”
A reproduction of a famous mural by John Biggers – that’s now in Texas – will be contained on the mezzanine, in which a specific point between the works of the older Biggers and the younger one provide a place for the visitor to become the link between the two and work to map out the connections.
“We’d like this whole exhibition to be seen as if you came into a workshop and discovered this geometric and color abstraction research with references to spirituality and transcendence that’s been conducted by Biggers over generation,” Biggers said.
Biggers’ work at Mass MoCA relates to the concept of Afrofuturism, which – when applied to various creative disciplines from music to writing to any of the visual arts – is a way of examining the history of African and the African American experience by casting it through a technological, almost science fiction-style, filter.
Biggers points to musicians like Sun Ra, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk as good examples of this form within a musical setting, musicians who took semi-standard forms of music and abstracted them for further explanation.
“I think Afrofuturism also a catch-all phrase for a new way of experiencing and analyzing the black experience, which I like to consider the American experience,” Biggers said. “Monk was talking about it in the geography of the U.S.”
One could say that Afrofuturism is an altered state of consciousness that, when mixed with abstracted music and mystical mosaics, becomes a system of symbolic interaction, and a call for the viewer to see things differently.
“In this case I like to think that my works and John Biggers’ works are looking at the idea of transcending the earthly experience,” said Biggers. “When we talk about technology in our world, we always think of the future, the technology of the future, but even Jurassic technologies were futures back then, so it’s a concept of evolution. The work in here I almost think of as protofuturistic, or proto-digital futurism type of thing.”
Biggers’ interests lie less in what he puts to the piece than what visitors do – a keen understanding of Afrofuturism is not required for visceral pleasure within the work.
“I can sit here and tell you some of my thoughts going into this, but ultimately, more importantly, is what other people bring into it,” he said. “That is usually informed by your exposure or your personal subjective life experiences, so the church pews are going to have multiple different reads from people, of course. The colors are Day-Glo fluorescence, low grade psychedelics, the geometry in here reference Sol Lewitt. There are lots of different things.”
“Some things are prompts for me to figure out a narrative to work from. Sometimes it’s important that that be expressed and sometimes it’s not. I could talk about this in terms of astrology and the movement of the earth and the movement of the sun, the solar relationship between the cosmos and the earth, those being futuristic things, there are platforms to speak about that, and that’s ultimately what the work becomes, a platform for different conversations and different dialogues. I just put that out there because I know that’s information that people may not know and might influence or add to their experience. Or they might see something totally different. I’m always amazed when I do a walkthrough of any of my shows and I get to hear other people’s perception of the work and that becomes very illuminating.”
Biggers says that each part of the installation has to work in tandem, including the visitors, so that the three spaces involved come together as one larger, psychological space. The experience of the viewer is one more material in the work, and the movement of the viewer in relating to the work is part of the kinetic energy in the experience of everyone.
“Performance is frequently an element in some of my projects,” he said, “So I do like to sometimes put the viewer in the place of the performer so that the true activation happens when you can see other people viewing the piece, or you yourself are viewing the piece, so you become a very active component to it.”
By then, the work is no longer his, but everyone’s, and to Biggers, that’s exactly the point. “There’s only so much I can say at this point,” said Biggers. “When this thing is done, it becomes its own entity. I’m only proposing things right now, but once everything’s installed, then we really understand what’s happening.”
February 6, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The old aside states that therapists are crazier than their patients, and while this might not always be true, I think we can all settle on a happy medium in regard to the issue. Shrinks are likely to be as crazy as their patients and, in the case of “A Dangerous Method,” shrinks may possibly be patients.
Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg — renowned for, but not confined to, an output of memorable horror films — continues his mature years with a surprisingly sober recollection of the birth of psychotherapy, that is, talk therapy. The story of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is well known to history. She began as a patient of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), became his lover, and then worked her way to becoming a physician and the first female psychoanalyst.
If your expectations are harkening back to the days of “Videodrome” and “Naked Lunch,” the concept of Cronenberg directing an examination of Freud and Jung conjures an almost Ken Russell-like film venture, but that would probably be way too annoying. Cronenberg uses restraint here and delivers a mostly mannered costume drama about some very odd people who talk about some very nasty things. Given to long discussions about the symbolism in dreams or whether the ego prevents action or is totally defeated in love, there’s more scandal than “Downton Abbey,” but with a lot more behind the scenes naughtiness that reveal far more about the players involved than any of their intellectual jabberings.
In this way, “A Dangerous Method” fits in well with the bulk of Cronenberg’s work, at least thematically. Almost any of his films — from “Dead Ringers” to “The Fly” to “M. Butterfly” and “A History of Violence” — hint at the other self beyond the one the world sees, and your private thoughts and fantasies as cascading through chasms of such psychological depth that when they are even momentarily glimpsed by someone on the outside appear absurd and grotesque.
The tale of Sabina’s cure and eventual rise in the world of medicine becomes not one of psychological triumph, but of suppression. In her broken-down state, Sabina is an unyielding and unwieldy psyche made physical. That fury doesn’t disappear under Jung’s care but is merely controlled, swept under the rug in hopes they never creep out. Like any mad doctor in any horror film, Jung cannot resist the forbidden and his affair with Sabina becomes a way that she may acceptably release — and he may acceptably observe — the fury and shame of her inner self.
Meanwhile, Freud — a remarkable Viggo Mortensen — as mentor, looks on in horror at what his forbidden science has wrought, while still wrapping himself within his own dangerous, dominating quirks.
With “A Dangerous Method,” Cronenberg adds to a tapestry that includes films like “The Elephant Man,” stories showing that for all the made up horror scenarios in fiction, there are plenty in lives of real people, and this creates a circle of nightmares within our culture.
February 6, 2012 § 2 Comments
It’s doubtful there has been a rebel that has endured longer than Robin Hood, and part of his longevity is certainly attributable to the fact that, as a fictional and somewhat mysterious character, he is entirely malleable to fit the needs of any age.
In “Robin Hood: People’s Outlaw and Forest Hero,” Paul Buhle takes a thematic approach that, through sheer luck, pairs with much of the political movements going on today. Specifically, Buhle comes from an extreme leftist viewpoint, almost revolutionary, and his examination of the legend of Robin elicits Occupy and Anonymous more than anything else. And the existence of those two entities speak more than anything else as to the continued relevance of the legend of Robin Hood in our society.
Buhle takes an unique approach to the examination, alternating between dense essays and lighter graphic summations. It’s with this tactic that Buhle’s book achieves the very trait it trumpets — populism. There’s plenty of information to be had in the essays — all of it fascinating — but as Buhle winds through the history of Robin Hood — both literary and historically — the short graphic asides become an easy guide to the wider sweeps his essays capture.
In this form, the stories of rebellious preacher John Ball, feisty peasant Wat Tyler and the many manifestations of Maid Marian are laid out simply, and truly do leave you wanting. There’s a ton of material for a future all graphic edition, to be sure, as Buhle looks back the fight to allow normal citizens to read the Bible in England, as battled specifically by theologian populist John Wycliffe, who embarks on a plot with radical Oxford students to translate the Bible into a common language and moves through the ballads, novels, films and TV shows that have portrayed rebellion in the form of one guy in green.
In one fascinating chapter, Buhle traces the links between Robin Hood and the pagan personages within British and Celtic folklore, such as the Green Man — no surprise if you’ve ever seen the Druiderific British television show from the 1980s — and other religious and mystical links. Robin is a social weapon, for sure, but he is also the voice of the land.
There’s so much to be said about Robin Hood that there’s no way Buhle’s modestly-sized work could ever say it all — but in relating a cultural history of Robin of Sherwood Forest, he makes a lot of information accessible at a time when Robin is more needed than ever.