October 4, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Attitudes toward food can reflect both folly and necessity — in that regard, author Adam Gopnik really believes you can have your cake and eat it, too.
Gopnik has been a writer for The New Yorker since 1986, and is the author of several books, including his memoir of living in Paris, “Paris To The Moon,” his meditation on the writings of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, “Angels and Apes,” and the juvenile fiction adventure “The King in the Window.” His upcoming book, “The Table Comes First,” is a collection of his food essays.
Gopnik will appear at The Place of Taste: An Exploration of Food, Culture and Community, a day-long symposium at Williams College.
His main concern for the talk is the idea that our relationship with food as a culture, with the understanding that culture changes through history: How can we embrace our culinary indulgences while also accepting that they may be — and most probably are — fleeting?
“What I’m going to try and look at is the enduring problem that we have faced at any time in life or history that we feel very passionately about and are convinced are right,” Gopnik said in an interview this week. “Right now, for instance, those of us who care about such things are convinced that sustainable farming and local eating and organic food are all right — the things we ought to be eating, the tastes we have. We turn our mouth tastes into moral tastes, but we also know that these tastes change all the time. If we have any historical awareness at all, we know that the best taste of 25 years ago always look weird and the best taste of 50 years ago always look indigestible.”
Gopnik’s concern is the reconciliation between the personal and the sweeping. He acknowledges we are creatures of time but doesn’t see why that should invalidate our personal experiences in that journey forward. He believes the choices we make are arbitrary and without any value when measured against the expanse of historical experience.
“It’s true that all tastes are framed by time, but it’s also the case that we can feel passionately — believe in those tastes without being merely the fools of time, without merely being the victims of our time,” Gopnik said. “We need to have enough detachment from our taste to be ironic about them while still getting enough emotional satisfaction from them to see their value, to see their purpose. “
Put simply, Gopnik’s view is that you should allow yourself to enjoy the moment you are in but not let go of your reasoning — something he finds true far beyond the realm of the culinary.
“Allow yourself to be bathed in your fashion without drowning in it,” he said. “You have to keep your head above water about the reality that what we think is — in any field, not just food — but in anything we do, the best taste of our moment will not be the best taste of our children’s moment. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be indifferent or cynical about it.”
Part of embracing that moment involves looking to the past and seeing how others’ moments were also embraced, even to the point of absurdity.
“If you look at the tastes of gourmets, people who prided themselves on loving food 50 years ago, they all believed in three-star French cooking, and they all got sick after they ate it,” Gopnik said. “You read Kenneth Tynan or Bernard Levin, and they all thought that the getting ill the next day was a sign of the quality of the food. Those are the kinds of perversities of pleasure that are built into anybody’s taste, and we have to search for our own perversities of pleasure.”
He points out that one of the perversities of pleasure embedded in our current view of food is that it is not always based on what tastes good, or what our palettes tell us we like, but on what our conscience tells us we should like. This is tied to the view of unchanging regularities in nature, of the idea that there is the natural and the unnatural, and the best way to eat is to go back to the former.
“We should eat locally because that’s the way our bodies and our civilization are meant to eat — there’s a real, true, nature taste that goes beneath all the changing fashions of food,” Gopnik said.
“This is a very old belief — the notion that there is this natural taste — which I trace to Jean Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher of the 18th century. The idea that there’s this natural taste underneath the changing fashion is an old one, and one of the things that makes it so strange is when you think about what the natural is at any moment. Nothing changes so fast as the natural.”
According to Gopnik, even what we think of as natural may not be strictly natural — it may just go back so far in its present state that it seems natural through our experience. All of agriculture is the result of centuries of manipulation, the first, significant technology of man, and one that changed the landscape and the nature that inhabited it.
“In the broader sense, the natural diet of mankind is not food at all, because in the state of nature, famine is a common feature. You have no nature to escape into,” Gopnik said.
As a writer for The New Yorker, Gopnik’s career has been built on the delicate balance of observing the amusing absurdities of current societal trends and looking for the depth of their meaning as well as amusement of their follies.
“It’s very much like our feelings about childbirth, for instance,” he said. “We recognize that the way we have kids now — all the rituals and all the worrying and MRIs and Lamaze classes — are part of the comedy of manners of our time. We recognize that there’s something deeply universal about childbirth and also something comically contemporary about childbirth. Keeping those two things in balance and recognizing that both of those things can be true at once is the secret to understanding the event and its meaning.
“The same thing is true of eating, the same thing is true of reading, and the same thing is true of looking at pictures. The mistake we can make is thinking that because we believe in it, it must be true for all time. Or else believing that because it isn’t true for all time, it can’t have any truth at all.”
Gopnik has tackled numerous subjects in his career — art, philosophy, travel, psychology, child care, paleontology, football, the Bible, Winston Churchill and multiple strange slices of life in Paris and New York City. He says he sees the thread that winds through all of his work as “the rituals and rhetoric of bourgeois liberal civilization,” with an advocacy for ironic detachment toward the very things your society embraces.
“Our taste in food tracks and mirrors our changing taste in life,” he said. “That’s not cause for a kind of cynical mockery. It’s simply a fact about what it means to be people living in social groups. This will sound a little bit pretentious, but it’s always been a theme of the stuff I have written that you can always simultaneously see how enshrined any set of manners are in a particular place and a particular time, whether it’s New York City or Paris — and without thinking this makes them less valuable. You can put them in a frame and still recognize that frames are what show us what to look at in the picture.”
Gopnik likens the prospect of speaking about these ideas in any concise way to being overburdened by a sumptuous meal — something that recently happened to him and now stays with him whenever he stands in front of an audience rather than sits behind a keyboard.
“I had the chance to go to El Bulli, the famous restaurant outside Barcelona that’s closing. They give you 37 courses, and one of the things you realize is that no one could eat 37 courses,” he said. “After you’ve eaten seven courses, you forget about them, and then you eat the next seven courses and forget about those. By the end of 37 courses, you’ve had a great experience and have absolutely no memory of anything you’ve eaten. I fear that this lecture will be similar. You’ll get 37 ideas and absolutely no memory at the end of what I said, but I hope it will be tasty along the way.”
Gopnik realizes that even if the format of public speaking might not be the most effective way to pass along specific knowledge, it’s a terribly good way to communicate your enthusiasm for ideas. His thought is, if he can just get that across, then the real thinking will go on later — long after the audience has left sight of his podium. At that point, he hopes his central message is considered and possibly applied to the parts of his listeners’ lives that don’t involve the dinner table.
“The choice is never between rejection and embrace,” Gopnik said. “The secret of life is to recognize the absurdity of our own values while still getting enough emotional satisfaction from them to give them their proper due.”
March 19, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Filmmaker Penny Lane has taken her experimental video-making and passed it along to her students at Williams College — as with any good experimental art, she was surprised by what her students came up with.
Lane’s class, “Experimental Television Production,” gave her the chance to pass on her expertise in the area — and discover how differently those younger than she viewed television as a medium.
The students created the experimental comedy show, “The Mountains,” which aired on Willinet Community Access and can still be viewed online.
“I really think that the students were unconsciously thinking about what television is in the age of the Internet,” said Lane, “because what they really made was a lot of Internet videos, and they could show each one separately — each one stands on its own.”
“The Mountains” was the result of Lane’s efforts to teach her students traditional live television production in their Williams studio and the students’ decision to ditch the formal lessons in favor of a format that reflected their generation’s standards.
“They were good, and they learned it, and they did all the exercises, and then they pitched their show to me, and it had nothing to do with the studio, absolutely nothing,” Lane said. “I was like oh, OK, so you don’t want to do anything in the studio, and they said, ‘No, it’s kind of outdated. We want to do a reality TV show.’”
Specifically, the students wanted to do a collection of shorter comedy videos that were strung together — they later worked on a framing device for the show — rather than the more traditional cable-access type format, like a public affairs discussion show or some form of call-in show.
Lane — who viewed herself more as an advisor on an independent study than a teacher harnessing her students into a set curriculum — helped them divvy up into groups to arrange the production and usher it into reality. While the format of the show didn’t turn out quite as she expected, the spirit of the creativity did.
“You have this impression that television is slick, and you have this production value that’s required, and all these rules about what TV can and can’t be, and I really wanted them to embrace the cable-access aesthetic — the DIY, whatever you can do is what you can do, embrace your limitations and make something of them anyway kind of idea — which is not an idea that my students are used to applying to TV,” Lane said. “Maybe to video, but not to TV, so they were really excited that there was a local station where they could make work that would air it. It became very much about ‘experimental’ in terms of not being bound by what they thought TV was.” « Read the rest of this entry »
May 8, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Artist Steven P. Levin’s paintings are swirling and artfully cluttered collections of small images that create a kind of super-image from the components. Inside the design on the canvas you can find animal parts, human figures, plants, man-made objects and abstract, decorative motifs all mixed together into a whole that well represents the man behind the image.
The paintings are figurative versions of the 17th-century phenomenon known as wunderkammers — or cabinets of curiosity, as Levin prefers. Twenty-five years ago, Levin’s work began as more literal still-lifes of wunderkammers of his own invention and has evolved into the current form over the years. Levin’s interest began with the allure of painter William Harnett, whose imagery of hunting paraphernalia and cluttered table tops entranced him. Levin soon found a precedence for in the early 17th Century — more obscure artists who depicted actual wunderkammer collections rather than figurative ones.
Inside wunderkammers could be found the breadth of human knowledge at that point in time — a typical collection would include exotic specimens from nature and examples of technological achievement, as well as art and antiquities.
“In putting together the collection, you were summarizing — here’s the natural world, here’s the man-made world, here’s the world of the sciences, the artistic world,” said Levin. “It was a model of the whole world and all of human knowledge put together in this cabinet.”
Levin liked the format, but saw the opportunity to put his own personality into the wunderkammer format. His version was far less lofty.
“My own paintings were never anything like that — the furthest thing from it,” said Levin, “but I would see things and think that this is kind of a marvel, too, even though it’s something that came from Wal-Mart rather than someplace more refined.”
Levin began setting up his own mini-cabinets — made of handmade boxes and objects within — but over time the structure of his art began to change. The first big alteration was that he started to keep a sketchbook of objects that he saw in museums that he could later place in the paintings. Some time after that, the boxes he utilized in them began to slowly began to evaporate from the imagery.
“The box started to become less and less important,” said Levin. “Occasionally, the box would be there, but it wasn’t very well defined, and pretty soon there was no box there. The stuff was just floating right on the surface of the painting. It was this move away from the idea of the kind of completely rational structure.”
At first, the metamorphosis was a bit of a mystery, but Levin eventually realized his movement to a looser structure on canvas had much to do with his newfound collecting obsession. He had begun to amass scrapbooks from the 19th Century and study their design with as much attention as he had wunderkammers previously. The notion of compiling information became the thematic link between the two forms and Levin’s paintings became the surface on which they met.
“They had rather few things at their disposal and they would sometimes very, very painstakingly cut out pictures that were of interest to them for whatever reason and they’d put them together on the pages,” said Levin. “Occasionally you’d get someone very orderly and the pictures would be put together in a nice, symmetrical arrangement and were thematically grouped — and those were completely uninteresting.”
After a time of structuring orderly paintings that reproduced the actual physical space within the boxes being captured, Levin found a kind of beauty in the less precise scrapbooks.
“You’d have the ones that were just people who were little haphazard, maybe just a little more hurried in the way they put things together,” he said. “They would put things on the page in a way that wasn’t strictly geometric and ordered — they would just clip out everything they liked and see if they could they could find a spot to squeeze it in on the page and if they could it went on.”
Once Levin figured out that his paintings were taking on the characteristics of these wild collages from the past, he forged ahead with his altered aesthetic.
“They were more about this idea of accretion,” he said, “that you have something and then something else gets added to it and then something else gets added to it, etcetera, etcetera, until you’ve filled the whole void until there’s not a bit of void left. A couple of the paintings got frighteningly so.”
Those particular paintings took the crowded pages of the scrapbooks Levin loves as a means to sometimes transform into unmanageable monsters.
“I’d say, okay, there’s that bird head, let me mix up a little bit of red because I’m going to change the color to this red, so I’d go to my palette and mix my color, and then I’d go back to the painting and spend 20 minutes trying to find where the damn bird was again,” Levin said. “It was getting so completely covered with stuff that I had to literally search through it to find stuff. That’s the one where I started to feel that there is actually a limit to this. You can’t keep adding and adding and adding forever until the thing gets so clogged like this. It was a little over the top.”
Levin’s artwork is representative of another passion in his life — collecting objects. His house is an amateur museum of items, wall-to-wall examples of his personal passion.
“The house is filled with shelves and all the shelves are crowded with objects,” Levin said. “I’ll find someone selling an old display type case and use that to fill up another case with more objects. People would say that the house looks a little bit like a very low rent natural history museum and I think that would be fair. People have pointed out that the house looks like my old cabinet paintings and vice versa.”
It’s become hard for Levin to tell if the paintings beget the objects or vice versa.
“I actually think I took up the idea of still life as an excuse to collect stuff,” said Levin. “I like objects a lot and I’m a very avid collector, but not of valuable and highly sought after things.”
Levin’s home is filled with taxidermy, insect specimens, musical instruments and loads of figurines — and their arrangement through the house is similar to their arrangement on his canvases.
“I like the look of everything being dense — that’s the part that drives my wife crazy,” he said.
What Levin’s taste in decor also shares with his work is their importance together. It’s not so much that Levin likes an item — he likes an item when it’s next to another one. Like the wunderkammers of old — and the content of his paintings — the reality of the objects in union is more important than any single piece.
“I like the range more than I like any particular one object,” said Levin. “I’m not so different from those people with their curiosity cabinets. I like this idea of a representation of the whole world, that you could have a collection so big that it includes everything — not literally, but metaphorically.”
July 11, 2008 § Leave a Comment
From his work with his band The Books to his own creations, artist/musician Nick Zammuto pursues the idea that you can see sound. Zammuto’s upcoming installation at the Williams College Museum of Art, “Laser Show: Six Perspectives on a Chaotic Resonator” is the latest incarnation of this pursuit. In it, Zammuto employs six lasers, a screen, a hand-fashioned mirror, a speaker and low frequency soundwaves to create a collaboration that has the lasers put the soundwaves into visual form.
For the piece, Zammuto has mounted six lasers onto the speaker. The sounds from the speaker cause vibrations that move the lasers, which are aimed towards the oddly-shaped mirror that he has create from flexible mirror material that you can get at any auto parts store. Different frequencies cause different types of vibrations — when the beams bounce from the mirror to the screen, it creates patterns to be viewed from the other side.
“It draws pictures in a screen, a rear projection, so when you walk into the gallery you see a screen with fixed laser points and they’re all moving,” said Zammuto. “When you look at these six pictures relative to one another, you can tell that they’re related, they’re looking at the sound from different perspectives.”
Zammuto has found that he can predict pictures, it just takes research and testing to figure out what sounds make what movements — from there, he’s moved onto combining sound in order to get more complicated imagery, as well as create patterns that will change. He then uses audio software to catalog what visual each sound causes in order to create a rhythmic, visual composition.
“If I’m just using sine waves, I can get circles or figure 8s, pretty simple lines, depending on the frequency,” said Zammuto. “If I put another sine wave on top of it, say two octaves or three octaves or two and a half octaves above that, then I can get a second frequency riding on top of the first one, so there’s a flower-shaped thing, that’s the combination of two simple frequencies. I can change the volume over time to create pictures that are either growing or shrinking and I can ramp the frequencies up and down so the pictures change over time.” « Read the rest of this entry »
July 4, 2008 § Leave a Comment
A new book co-edited by a Williams College professor offers insight to the world of Japanese science fiction — not only in the popular anime form, but also lesser-known fictional works. Christopher Bolton, an assistant professor of Japanese, teamed with DePauw University professor Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. and Takyuki Tatsumi, an English professor at Keio University in Tokyo, to compile a scholarly study of the genre, which has seen a boom among American teens in anime films and manga comics. The aim of Bolton and his colleagues was not only to study the texts themselves, but draw a line between the current popular Japanese science fiction and its more obscure prose ancestors. Japanese animation is of such an interest to students in the United States that it gets taught in colleges among the Japanese literature classes.
“We thought at the same time that it would be interesting to look at the history of prose science fiction, because that is much less well known in the States, very little has been translated and not many people have written about that side of things,” said Bolton.
Rediscovering early sci-fi
The book traces early works by authors such as Yumeno Kyusaku, an avant garde detective fiction writer whose work often explored the darkness of technology, Yano Ryukei, who was heavily influenced by Jules Verne and Abe Kobo, whose “Inter Ice Age 4″ is one of the seminal Japanese texts that has actually made it into English translation. These early works map out themes that continue through the string of Japanese science fiction — an examination of technology’s relationship with humanity, how the lines blur, the national identity of the Japanese in regard to militarism and the island’s relationship with the Pacific Ocean, all aspects of that most famous of Japanese science fiction figures, Godzilla.
Bolton finds that as he and his colleagues study these works, they are sometimes expected to over-simplify what they reveal about Japan and its culture, particularly its fabled relationship with technology, which many Americans believe is closer and more open than any other country’s, what Bolton describes as the “Robot Kingdom of Japan” viewpoint.
“That’s not an idea I really subscribe to myself,” said Bolton. “I think that’s an idea that we like to have of Japan because it makes them into an appealing alien civilization. In other words, whenever you talk about this stuff, there’s always a tendency to science fictionalize Japan as Western authors and to see them as exotic, as in the 19th Century, when that exoticism was centered around traditional culture like geisha and the warrior culture and so forth. Today it’s centered around this consumer product culture and technology. That’s a kind of Orientalism or exoticism that I am trying to avoid.” « Read the rest of this entry »
June 1, 2006 § Leave a Comment
In his new novel, author Paul Park has brought his home and job in Williamstown into the realm of fantasy. Park’s young adult novel “A Princess of Roumania” takes place at Williams College and tells the story of 15-year-old Miranda, who is whisked away to an alternate Earth filled with monsters and magic — and revelations about her station in life. Released in summer 2005, this month will see the paperback version of the book, as well as the hardcover release of its sequel, “The Tourmaline.” There will be four books total in the series, with one released every summer.
Park pulled from his own childhood fascinations for the backdrop of Miranda’s adventure.
“I have always been interested in Roumania ever since I was little, I don’t know why,” said Park, “and it’s probably not because I had a very clear idea of what the real place was, I’ve never been there, but for some reason it conjured up this rich sort of mythology in me.”
Park’s novels pull from the traditional fantasy story in which young people discover the world is not what they thought after being whisked away somewhere far from home — whether kidnapped by pirates or blown away by a cyclone or whatever — a territory more recently explored by authors like J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman.
“You go to some analog of the real world and often there’s a connection,” said Park, “there are figures in the real world that show up as symbolic analogs in the fantasy world and then you come back at the end. On some level, this is about the anxieties of coming of age. A lot of the things that happen in the fantasy world are connected to those anxieties in some ways.”
These are the themes that authors like Park work with as they walk a literary tightrope that involves pulling from a tradition of familiar tales to comfort the reader, while recasting these in a totally original and exciting environment.
“Ideally, you want to have some sort of combination of that,” said Park, “so that there is something comforting about the books because it seems to connect with other texts or other emotions and feelings and also something that’s remarkable or astonishing or unique about them.”
Park notes that there are many ways that an author can use the archetypes while still fashion something new, for instance create a strange landscape for a more familiar plot to unfold upon. An author can also play with the relationships between characters and deliver something unexpected — for instance, avoiding the romantic relationships between characters that have become so conventional or presenting the idea that “good” characters don’t always do “good” things or that adventures don’t always end safe at home.
“It’s like chess games,” said Park. “So many chess games, the first 10 or 12 moves are identical and then all of a sudden it takes this turn and it’s in some completely new place.”
Young adult fantasy books can sometimes play it safe because of adult expectations of what is appropriate for younger readers. This is something Park works against, especially since the genre is as popular with adults as with the target age groups. Park feels that these books should reflect the experience of his younger readers — by approaching it with such honesty, the older readers will follow.
“Even more so than adults, young readers’ experiences are full of broken hearts and feelings of inadequacy,” said Park. “It’s so hard to grow up with a sense of your own power, your own good qualities, so I think it’s a natural thing for young readers to be drawn to different kinds of stories than the ones their parents think are necessarily appropriate for them, with strong moral role models.”
Park points out that the archetype of young people in a strange land exists in fantasy for a reason — it’s a message that resonates whether you are a 15-year-old in 1906 or 2006. Certainly, it’s one that George Lucas recognized, that such stories document a proving ground for kids, where they present themselves as individuals.
“The reassuring part is that the world you’re in is mysterious and your place in it is mysterious,” said Park, “but there’s this other dimension where it’s clearer, the role you’re supposed to play and what is expected of you and the criteria for success would be and that will clarify your role when you go back to the world that you come from. You’re looking for reassurance that your life has some kind of significance and your choices have some kind of significance and that’s something that’s not obvious as you’re growing up.”
Park is now winding down the series, currently halfway through the fourth book. Once that book is published, it will mark the end of a decadelong process that, much like the characters who populate the genre he is traversing, allowed Park to explore new worlds, as well as himself.
“More so than other things I’ve written, these are more a part of a genre of established books,” said Park, “either as a counterpoint or, on some level, inside a tradition, so they have to deal with that tradition and be aware of that tradition in one way or another, whether it’s subverting the traditions or conventions or whether it’s echoing them in some way.”
April 27, 2006 § Leave a Comment
After years of focusing on parts of bodies, Williams College art professor and sculptor Amy Podmore is giving equal time to the sum of those parts. Podmore’s sculptures often incorporate legs and feet that transform into something else entirely as they form upwards. In various works, they have transformed into water jugs and teddy bears. Sometimes, they have been bisected by the gallery walls.
Podmore’s new project is a collaboration with Bang the Can All Star violinist Todd Reynolds, combining a full body sculpture by Podmore with video of Reynolds performing music that he wrote especially for the piece.
“It just naturally evolved into a much more collaborative piece than I had initially envisioned,” said Podmore, “which I was really happy about, because I’m getting more than I ever envisioned at first that I needed for the piece. It’s much more than that, it’s been perfect.”
Podmore’s only previous video work was a shorter one that combined sculptural costumes with choreographed movement, but she looks at combining a sculptural piece with video and audio the logical extension of things she has done previously.
“I’ve used motors in my pieces before, I’ve used water pumps,” said Podmore. “I’ve sworn off it so many times and yet I always do it again and each time I think, ‘This one will be simple,’ and it never is. So I wonder what that is and you’re making sculpture and you want to communicate with the viewer and, on some level, I must have this desire to animate them from time to time. Initially, it was the motors and now it’s the video.”
Podmore likes the manual work of sculpting and happily experiments with unlikely materials like hair, tea cups, and teddy bears, among other objects. Podmore has noticed a difference in reaction to her appropriation of materials with emotional connotations between parent and child.
“With my work, I find that sometimes adults are more freaked out by it than kids, which is always startling,” said Podmore. “That piece with all the hanging stuffed animals, kids loved that piece, they’re not traumatized by it at all. Kids lay under it and like to find the figures and they look at the shadows on the wall and they see the feathers and swords in the shadows. I’ve gotten packages of drawings that kids have done from some of the museums that have shown it, but grownups see a desecrated teddy bear.”
It’s the exact kind of dynamic that Podmore looks for when producing her work — a child has no predisposition to dark images. To a kid, images are just images and though a kid might search for the meaning behind the object they are looking at, they are less likely to have as much of an enormous attached history to the component. In that way, a child is approaching darkness on their own level, rather than with the fears an adult puts into it.
“I think that a lot of adults don’t want to be confronted with thinking about anything that’s difficult or dark,” said Podmore, “and I just don’t get that because there are lots of dark things in life and that doesn’t mean it is going to bring them on to talk about them or face them.”
Sometimes it helps to get away from cultural boundaries that affect artistic expression and for Podmore this took the form of a sabbatical to Mexico a few years back, during which she and her family immersed themselves in a yearlong adventure of discovery.
“We had never been to Mexico, so we really didn’t know anything,” said Podmore. “We didn’t speak Spanish, we didn’t know anything, we brought our kids, we threw them in school, they became fluent. It was very strange and it was pretty strange when we drove across the border and we just had no idea what we were getting into, but it all worked out really well.”
Though bonding with her neighbors and making close connections, professionally Podmore faced some challenges to her usual experimental workflow and part of the process was adjusting her discipline to work regardless of these factors.
“You can’t go into Home Depot in Oaxaca and buy supplies,” said Podmore. “When I’d go into a hardware store, it was just a counter, so you have to know exactly what you want. You can’t just look around and go ‘Hey, what does this wire do? This is good wire, I like this!’ You can’t point to what you want because it’s all in the back. So I’d be walking around in my studio and when I needed a piece of wire, I’d just go outside and find one in the dirt.”
Podmore’s connection with Oaxaca has gone past her sabbatical. She’s taken Williams students there for a January term and has hosted visitors from Oaxaca who have come for education purposes, either to teach or to study.
“It turned into quite an unexpected larger component of my life than I initially expected,” said Podmore.
It was in Mexico that she first did video pieces, which involved designing costumes that would dispense milk and flour according to her movement. The situation demanded a low-tech approach and Podmore was happy to embrace it, making her own version of wheat paste on the stove, for instance, since it wasn’t something she could purchase where she was. Such an approach continues into her current work, where, even though she is working with digital editing software, there is still plenty of hands-on sculpture that needs to be done.
“I don’t think I’ll ever stop with the physical aspect because there’s something I really get from that,” said Podmore. “The time I spend with the sculptures and the discoveries that are made just through those hours spent with the labor, I think it ultimately informs the piece. That goes into video, too.”
March 27, 2006 § Leave a Comment
A new film by a Williams College alumna will be making its television debut on PBS this summer. Adele Horne’s documentary “The Tailenders” examines the missionary efforts of an evangelical audio company that translates Bible stories and lectures into extremely obscure languages and dialects — and then creates contraptions that will play them without electricity for the remote indigenous populations they are given to.
Horne first encountered their ingenuity as a child in an Evangelical Christian family in the 1970s, in the form of a record player made of cardboard packing that could be arranged to manually spin an enclosed record on an embedded needle.
“It just made a huge impression on me,” said Horne, “because it’s this kind of miraculous object that plays without speakers and electricity.”
Years later, in art school, Horne remembered the item and hoped to make an audio installation using them. She found out from her parents about the manufacturers — a company called Gospel Recordings, now Global Recordings Network — and felt compelled to pursue a documentary film about their work.
Horne spent a lot of time in the Gospel Recordings offices, particular its engineering division, which was filled with makeshift gadgets of cardboard and tape. It also was loaded with manufactured technology that had been rigged for other purposes, like a microwave oven utilized to stop mold from growing on delicate recording tape.
“They had this funny cardboard contraption in their office,” said Horne, “and on the side of it, somebody had stuck on a plastic handle and written on it ‘handcrank.’ That’s when I learned that they had this funny term that they applied to everything that’s a handmade, do-it-yourself, make-something-out-of-nothing kind of thing.”
Among their premier “handcrank” mainstays were cassette players reworked to be physically cranked to play.
‘Handcrank’ is an ethos that the missionaries apply to other aspects of their work, from procuring rejected fruit to going through the trash for useful items. They fashioned a “Media Mobile” — a converted bus that could be optimized according to the personal and technical needs of the trip.
“I felt like I could take a page or two from their book,” said Horne. “This Media Mobile, I just thought was amazing, what a great idea, a do-it-yourself presentation mode. A lot of my artist friends would probably love to do something like that.”
The group does embrace computer technology when useful — it records audio on solid-state recorders and edits them on Pro Tools.
Horne followed missions to the Solomon Islands, Mexico and India and observed not only the way the recordings are given, but the way they are gathered. The missionaries’ goal is to have recordings in every language and dialect in existence in order to get their message across. They audition and hire local readers in villages to do the work — niche marketing at its best.
Vast audio library
As a result, Global Recordings Network has the largest and most thorough audio library of languages and dialects ever assembled.
“There are predictions that in 100 years, half of the languages that are spoken now won’t be spoken at all,” said Horne. “We’re at this point in history where it’s accelerated tremendously, and so there is a poignancy to that archive. It’s not necessarily the intent of the archive and it’s not clear how useful that archive would be, but there is some trace left of languages that might otherwise have no record.”
So far, the company has only had ethnomusicologists use the resource. The missionaries also record music by natives, with religious songs translated into local melodies. The company has a large room filled with reel-to-reels, but has digitized the entire collection.
“It was really awe inspiring to sit there and listen to these voices from all over the world,” said Horne, “from really remote places, and for them to be so distant, and yet there’s a vibrancy to the voice. Some of them really had a personality that really came through, even if you don’t understand what they’re saying.”
However, the religious conversions don’t always continue as expected. In some places, Christianity mixed with local tradition, leading a whole new mix from two belief systems. In others, the conversions shifted the local economies and social orders, isolating Christians from others. The point of physical transfer of the objects and its effects afterwards interested Horne greatly.
“Whether the missionaries want it or not,” said Horne, “they are often bring commercial and industrial capitalism, and they bring these commodities. These recordings, not only are they biblical spiritual recordings, but they’re physical objects that are an immediate commodity and that’s part of how people see them.”
On one hand, the natives were touched and shocked that someone would go to such extremes to present them with these items, especially in their own language. On the other, there is the possibility that the transaction that is leading to language preservation is also hastening its end by introducing the first salvo of outside influence into the community, access to technology and, thereby, power and money.
In many ways, a cardboard record player and a Mexican migrant worker have more in common in the eyes of the missionaries than is initially apparent.
“It’s funny, because they would talk about converting these gadgets,” said Horne, “converting a consumer product into something else, and that connection is there between something being transformed and used in surprising ways.”
March 11, 2006 § Leave a Comment
A new documentary by a Williams College professor follows the lives of people in Kabul, Afghanistan. “It’s about how people cope in a broken city,” said co-director David Edwards, “how they adapt and rebuild their lives while they rebuild the cities.”
“Kabul Transit” was directed by Edwards, a professor of anthropology, and Gregory Whitmore, a Williams alumnus.
“The main character is the city of Kabul itself,” said Edwards, “so the camera moves around the city and we encounter various people and in each case the focus is really, rather than doing sit-down interviews, is watching then and engage with them as they are doing things in their normal lives.”
Through the course of the film, Edwards and Whitmore introduce the audience to both Afghans and foreigners, from college students to medical professionals to Canadian peacekeepers.
“There was a real difference in dealing with Canadian peace keepers and American military,” said Edwards, “because the Americans were there to kill Taliban and the Canadians were there to keep the peace and many of them had been in Kosovo and Bosnia and other places on previous peace keeping missions.”
One Canadian peacekeeper is a prominent figure in the film and he expresses a suspicion that is shared by others the filmmakers encountered, that there is no plan in the big picture. Edwards found that many foreigners and Afghans felt this way, but that it was prominent in the peacekeeper’s minds since there sole purpose in the country was to carry out a mission that they were confused by.
“They had difficulty making sense of it,” said Edwards, “knowing the point of it, why they were there, and how their various efforts added up together.”
Edwards also found that there was a backlash against the foreigners and this was adding to the confusion. It is not surprising, however, considering the shape that the country was left in by the Taliban.
“It is a shattered society,” said Edwards. “The infrastructure hasn’t been maintained for a generation now, so the electric grid is broken. It’s mostly an agricultural country and the irrigation system is broken, but there’s also a real tremendous resilience in the people and unlike the situation in Iraq, the Afghans wanted us to be there.”
Despite the hopefulness, Edwards found that a lot of Afghans felt a little displaced by the events which followed the liberation of the country and are still waiting for their country to be rebuilt.
“I think that there is a lot of disappointment in the way the reconstruction has happened,” said Edwards, “and how a lot of promises were made and half have been followed through. Most the money that has gone over there has been for military support against the Taliban and not for reconstruction. Ultimately, if you want to defeat the Taliban and what they represent, you have to provide economic assistance to this country.”
The Taliban is still a problem for the rebuilding of Afghanistan, especially now that they are using violent tactics that have never before been practiced in the country.
“They have learned a lot, in fact, from Iraq,” said Edwards. “They never before used explosive devices, they never before used IEDs or suicide bombing, none of this ever happened in Afghanistan, but some of this is beginning to creep in now as one of the unintended blow backs from the Iraq conflict.”
The other half of the Afghan double whammy is the lucrative drug trade, a largely rural problem which seeps into the cities in the form of pay-offs and government corruption — money talks and the drug lords are the ones with the greatest power of speech. At the one point in the film that the issue really does creep in, a police officer voices his frustration about the difficulties of working within such a corrupt system.
“The only crop that is providing any sort of income for Afghans right now is opium,” said Edwards, “and that has fueled an alternative economy that is far more powerful than the open economy. It has a lot more revenue and a lot more resources than the government does at its disposal.”
Despite the turmoil that has defined life in Afghanistan for the past 30 years, Edwards was happy to get back. He first visited the city of Kabul as a young man in the 1970s and, at the time, decided he was going to devote his anthropological career to it.
“It was a place I fell in love with,” said Edwards, “and my original plan after becoming an anthropologist was to go back and work in a village in Afghanistan, but one year into graduate school, the communist coup happened and my research reoriented towards refugees and politics and Islamic activism and all the rest of it.”
Edwards managed to visit the borderlands of Afghanistan in the 1980s and 90s, but Kabul remained an impossibility until after the recent U.S. invasion. Being able to become reacquainted with a city he loves has been a major part of his joy in working on the documentary.
“It was a peaceful city,” said Edwards. “It was a city where western influences were coming in gradually but still incredibly exotic and romantic for a twenty-one year old American from the mid west. Even within the city you could go to the old city and it was like being in a Central Asian market and in a city that wasn’t like anyplace I have ever been before.”
February 18, 2006 § Leave a Comment
A Williams College graduate has used her concern over surveillance and privacy as inspiration for art and citizen action. Tiffany Holmes, currently an assistant professor of art and technology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, channeled her interest to create “Your Face is Safe With Me,” an installation that animates images pulled from closed circuit television networks within the gallery, mixed with images of surveillance sites from the Chicago area.
“What the viewer will see is the computer playing video games against itself for no purpose,” said Holmes, “and the surveillance images, which are fairly recognizable, come up from time to time in the games.”
Holmes incorporates real video games so that the surveillance images of the gallery patrons becomes fodder for Pac Man to consume or the very bricks that imprison the player in Breakout.
“The games parodied attempt to refer the proliferation of these closed-circuit television networks and their potential to create these enormous databases of images,” said Holmes.
Surveillance and privacy have become major issues since 9/11 and are currently making the headlines in the form of wire-tapping. The fervor toward protection from dangers both real and imagined has lead to a climate where some members of the government, as well as private citizens, argue that some loss of liberties is mandatory to security and safety — good news to companies in the surveillance industry, for whom mass suspicion is the best advertising they could get.
“We’re told repeatedly by the media to protect ourselves, that public safety is an enormous concern,” said Holmes, “and folks who are actually in the closed circuit television industry have benefited quite a bit by this because more and more people want to put in security systems in their homes or cameras at the workplace, cameras outside to monitor their establishment’s street access.”
Ironically, as technology gets better and allows for more precision surveillance, privacy faces more of a threat. Video resolution has improved over the years, allowing much clearer images, particularly at night — this, of course, makes any intrusion more crisp, which might be helpful to police in identifying suspects, but also raises possibilities for other sectors of society with a different sort of use in mind. Sometimes all it takes is one skilled computer hacker with the desire to circulate images online.
“I read in the New York Times, a group of parents who were suing their daughters’ high school because the school had an IP enabled surveillance camera in the locker room,” said Holmes. “People could actually stumble across them online if they punched in the proper Javaforce codes of that particular camera. The images were actually publicly available if you knew how to look for them.”
The future of airport security includes scanning technology that will display nude body silhouettes for the purpose of uncovering weapons, but there are many concerns about the images once they have been generated for official use. Recently, as part of Operation Disruption, the city of Chicago channeled money seized in drug-related arrests into a system of surveillance cameras in high crime zones. The cameras, which are equipped with sophisticated panning and zooming capabilities, are manned by retired police officers at a central location and have sparked a lot of heated conversation among citizens and public officials.
“The moderate view is that these cameras can perhaps be useful, but everyone’s just a little bit concerned about the footage,” said Holmes. “Is the footage deleted after a certain period of time? Who has access to it? Is it being duplicated, is it not? None of these questions in my mind have been really answered in a satisfactory way, there’s still a lot of mystery around how the system works. Who’s actually in charge of this? We know that the Chicago Police is in control, but it’s not clear where the footage goes, how it’s maintained, and where it’s archived.”
Holmes’ personal activism has resulted in her involvement with the group Open-Loop, largely comprised of a group of students who Holmes works with. Its purpose is to map all the public surveillance cameras in Chicago and make that information available online. The group updates their information every year and makes maps and images available on their Web site.
Holmes has approached her own work with the same set of concerns she directs to the surveillance networks she critiques—the images she takes in during an installation is grabbed and held by the hard drive for a total of ten minutes in order to be featured in the animation, and then is deleted.
Recently, Holmes has worked on a related project for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, creating an animation that takes its data from the monitoring system in the building that is designed to measure and control water and energy use—information usually relegated to basements and boiler rooms, now put front and center in the building’s lobby, freely dispensing the levels of consumption by the workers in that space.
“It’s all about the hidden data that is within the bowels of our buildings that typically people are not really exposed to, they’re not really looking for that.” said Holmes.