Wednesday, December 29, 2010

From Here to There: Alec Soth's America

The Walker Art Center exhibit, From Here to There: Alec Soth's America, is up until January 2nd. I haven't seen the expression used in any of the ephemera from the Walker, but in NY terms this would be a mid-career retrospective - a vague term which isn't meant to be the mid-point of someone's career (or one hopes it isn't). At first I thought the exhibit seemed rather small, but when I tried to make a general count of the images, there's a LOT.

My guess is that the initial minimal effect was the result of deep-seated memories of images from the books Sleeping by the Mississippi & Niagara, which were missing. Although both bodies of work are well represented - less can equal more in this case. & while the books can be the defining forms for groups of images, there are very cogent relations between all the various projects, in discreet mural prints on the white cube walls of the museum.

The writer Marguerite Young would pontificate about the Midwest as a psychic landscape, as being one step away from a great void, on the edge of a sea of nothingness. Civilization is thin and provisional. One is cut off from one's home or past, yet one always in proximity to them.

Marguerite Young comes to mind in looking at Alec Soth's work, as I find it suffused with a great deal of anomie, a sense of dread even, although usually balanced with amazing arrays of resilience. Another title I could give to the work, cribbing from Ken Jacobs, would be Little Stabs at Happiness.

Soth's projects are given provisional geographic barriers. Besides the Mississippi & Niagara work (both sites more prominent in 19th century culture) there is a very sad little book, of 4x6 prints with text, entitled The Loneliest Man in Missouri, which was shot in parking lots, in motels, outside strip bars - the landscape one could find in the Maysles Brothers' film Salesman. In tandem with the book there is also a video of a middle-aged man reading aloud The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, with a stripper next to him, with overlaid sound of a recording by T.S. Eliot (a St. Louis boy after all) reading the poem as well. As absurd as the video is, it still carries a great deal of intensity - that sort of paradox, which can make me laugh as much as sense a great emptiness all around, seems the general theme of the work.

The work is full of a great deal of wit & observation, so perhaps my description of its existential cries can seem ridiculous, but I think the tension between levity & gravity are what inform it.

I was also struck by the language of the ephemera from the museum stressing the "eccentricity" of the "outsiders" portrayed, like the cast in a film. "Different" in the Midwest can be synonymous with wrong or bad or just plain crazy. I guess what seemed odd about that to me as I have always been struck by how deeply ordinary the people in Soth's photographs are - my sense is he just listens better than most people, & he's not interested in people clinging to convention as much as mutating in them. Each person can narrate a different cosmology. There is something very sensitive about how the people are photographed - the photographer is very present in the images, the interactions are apparent. In various interviews Soth describes himself as shy. Which doesn't mean uninvolved. I don't know if any of this means much - institutions like the Walker have to frame their artists in a general way, so the viewer can make a meta-narrative of the excesses of work.

The most anomalous image is of William Eggleston at home - anomalous in his fame, that is - Eggleston is also at home in Memphis, on the Mississippi, after all. Given the various celebrity treatments of Eggleston, this is immaculately composed, but shot from the shadows, behind French doors, almost like a surveillance image. It shows us an Eggleston who is very elegant, but not there to engage with the viewer or to enact himself for the camera. It reminds me of the last line of Touch of Evil: What can you say about a man? He was some kind of a man.

The last body of work is for the upcoming book Broken Manual. The images are not geographically bound, but all involve an idea of leaving society, going to the woods, running away, for contemplation, safety, disappearance. Monks. Conspiracy Theorists. A nude guy w/ a swastika tattooed on his shoulder. Treehouses. Graffiti. The books will be small books concealed inside large books, hidden, like their subjects, like contraband.

If I think about what is in the show - isolation, anguish, boredom, frustration, depression, rebellion, destruction, aversion to the social or the status quo; all are dealt with in a contemplative manner which give it all a curious lightness.

I've been isolated for the past 4 months, high above Cayuga's waters. Happy am I to have found this show.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

greetings from Ithaca, NY

What hath God wrought? was the message Samuel Morse telegraphed between Washington DC & Baltimore in 1844 to demonstrate the efficacy of the technology. The telegraph lines were built by Ezra Cornell, who built a great fortune from such construction, which, in turn, funded the university where I will reside for 2 years.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

RIP Christoph Schlingensief

Germany mourns loss of director Christoph Schlingensief

A day after the passing of divisive and provocative German director Christoph Schlingensief, the country's art and culture communities continue to mourn the loss of a truly innovative artist.
The eclectic and influential theater and opera director Christoph Schlingensief died on Saturday, August 21, at the age of 49, after a two-year battle with lung cancer.

Schlingensief directed numerous movies, plays and operas, including an internationally recognized production of "Parsifal" for the Wagner summer festival in the southern German city of Bayreuth in 2004.

He was a star of Germany's state-funded theater world who gained a name for himself with guerrilla-style performance art on city streets by his own acting troupe that puzzled shoppers.

Complex artist

The divisive figure often sought out controversy in his works, and was considered "one of the most important artists in the country," according to the director of the Museum for Modern Art in Frankfurt, Susanne Gaensheimer.

Germany's state commissioner for culture, Bernd Neumann, also recognized Schlingensief as among the most multi-faceted and innovative artists on the country's culture scene. He said that Schlingensief had had an immense influence on German-language film and theater.

"Provocation was not a rare part of his stylistic device," Neumann said. "With this he sought to trigger controversy and irritation."

Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit said on Saturday that "a major talent in theater has left the stage."

Works remembered

Meanwhile, the Berlin Academy of the Arts, which recently assumed control of Schlingeneif's archived works and was planning a public exhibition with the artist, has spoken of the loss of a man who wove together the many fabrics of German society.

Schlingensief contained an "immensely explosive force, artistically and politically," said the academy's president, Klaus Staeck.

"In all his works, beginning with his first cinematic attempts right up to his great opera stagings, it was about the exploration of the relationship between politics, art and society," Staeck said. "And so we are now responsible for his archive, which has found a place in our academy."

Life dedicated to controversy

Schlingensief made headlines after casting neo-Nazi skinhead amateur actors in his rendition of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," burning an effigy of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, and wearing a placard with the message "Kill Helmut Kohl," in reference to the former German chancellor.

In Vienna, Schlingensief created a television show called "Auslaender Raus!" ("Foreigners Out!") which denounced the rise of populism and racism.

The program was a send-up of the Big Brother reality TV show in which asylum seekers lived inside containers similar to those that deported Jews during World War II. Every week the public would vote to evict an asylum seeker not from the show, but from the country.

In 1998, Schlingensief founded the political party "Opportunity 2000" and took part in national elections, asking people to vote for themselves.

He also invited people to join an anti-chancellor swim in the then-chancellor Helmut Kohl's holiday retreat in Lake Wolfgang in Austria. His aim was to cause the lake to overflow with six million people in it, the number representing Germany's unemployed at the time.

Author: Darren Mara (AFP/dpa)
Editor: Toma Tasovac

| | © Deutsche Welle.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Leon Levinstein at the Metropolitan Museum

A gift of a large collection of prints by Leon Levinstein is the basis for a very intriguing summer show in the Howard Gilman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum. Levinstein's images appear in anthologies about Coney Island, or vintage (post WWII) street photography in New York, but never in a way that foregrounds his work. One image in particular, a very modernist composition of the back of handball players in the Lower East Side, which has an almost Bauhaus formality to it seems to be the most reproduced, but it gives little indication of the salty character studies which distinguish his images, primarily. The modernist compositions can seem related to the lightning-reflexes of someone like Henri Cartier-Bresson, also the sense of the image passing into a scarily iconic passage which can also border on morbid caricature. & yet unlike Cartier-Bresson in which the remarkable composition seemingly unearthed by the camera has a redemptive, essentialist "Family of Man" aspect - the same skill set in Levinstein's hands reveals a much more misanthropic & isolated social perspective.

Levinstein is much closer to the likes of the Poe story The Man of the Street: looking at others in puzzlement which leads to a journey which reveals nothing, ultimately. A wild goose chase into unknowing. This kind of forlorn &, in 20th century terms, existential confrontation with other-ness is perhaps the ultimate theme of most post WWII street photography. The chaos of the streets, the lack of solution, as it were, for what seems random, endless & jarring, is both the horror & appeal of such work. The closest equivalent I can think of is the work of William Klein, but even Klein has an ecstatic aspect in his expressive printing methods & his dynamic book designs, whereas Leon Levinstein presents a portfolio which reverberates with loneliness & despair, with little redemption beyond that. Perhaps a torso or butt which may excite some erotic intrigue, somewhat. The most appealing (if one needs the images to be appealing) aspects border on figures which may or not be of a somewhat outlaw nature. Levinstein worked from the 1950s through the 1970s & one can see social aspects which are almost nonexistent in pre-1968 street photography: hippies, bag ladies (one of the sickest moments in 1970s pop culture were the cretins who made postcards of NYC bag ladies as comical gross figures), inter-racial relations which would have had a different emphasis before the civil rights movement, figures outside any normative formations - no one in his images is ordinary looking yet all seem utterly an everyman or everywoman.

One can see a pre-gentrified New York City in Levinstein's images which now can read as much nostalgic as they could be conceived of as harsh. Glimpses of this can be seen in films such as The Panic in Needle Park (which was at 72nd & Broadway!) & Serpico. This "olde" New York is always in black-&-white. It reached its apogee in William Klein, Diane Arbus, Sid Grossman, Weegee, Peter Sekaer, Rudy Burckhardt, Helen Levitt, Walker Evans, That's such a small list - there have been recent historical shows such as "The Women of the Photo League" exhibit put together by Kim Bouros at Higher Pictures last year which reveal much wider practices at hand, & a future task for the photo historian.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Housed at the Alice Austen House

The Alice Austen House in Staten Island is the former home of the Victorian photographer Alice Austen (1866-1952), which had belonged to her family & which bears the name Clear Comfort. The house was built initially in the 17th century but was updated through the mid-19th century. It is a "gothic cottage" on a lawn sloping down to New York Bay, just north of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which links Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with Staten Island.

The Austen house is absurdly pastoral & quaint in a city not usually known for such aspects. I walked from the ferry terminal in St. George, which took about an hour, & passed through different communities as well as strip malls, industrial areas & areas of such oblique nature I was reminded of the Rem Koolhaas essay "Junkspace."

At the end of long lonely industrial street I walked there was a short fence & sloping lawns & trees & in the midst there sits the white clapboard house, smaller than I expected. The ceilings are low, & the rooms are kept as a museum of Alice Austen's everyday, although Austen in her lifetime lost her family money in the 1929 stock market crash & died in 1952 in a poor house, called the Staten Island Farm Colony. Austen lived with her companion Gertrude Tate (1871-1962) in the house from 1917 until they were forced to move.

The discreet tact of the term "companionship" between Austen & Tate, the impossibility of knowing its exact nature, yet seeming quite clear as a loving relationship (unconsummated old maids? or a Boston Marriage?) informs a very sweet small show of photographs in the house for the summer, entitled Housed, curated by Joseph Maida & Katie Murray. The two key images in the show are a modern print of an Austen image of 2 girls in masks, lighting a cigarette together, dressed in underwear, which is next to a contemporary image by Catherine Opie of a drawing of a house with 2 stick figure women outside it, cut into her back.

There are thousands of negatives extant from the Austen estate. Many of the images are reportage of Staten Island & New York City. Austen also photographed private events. The images are a curious window into times past & unknown social circles. The images are remarkably candid. I find the party images the most interesting as they show a great deal of spontaneity & also a very direct engagement w/ the camera as a thing, as part of a social practice. Most fascinating of all are her staged images, which the masked girls could be considered part of, as well as a series of Austen & her girl friends dressed as men & posing as such. These are remarkably earthy & casual & seem much more modern than studio portraiture or art photography of that time.

The very subtle exhibit, Housed, touches on the idea of the "home" as a kind of private theater of shifting identities & perimeters. In addition to the Austen & Opie images, the other resonant image for me in construing a theme for the show is one of Peter Garfield's images of a destroyed house flying in the air (falling, I am assuming, like the house in The Wizard of Oz - or in the context of the show, a conventional house rent from its foundation, spinning in the ether). Or perhaps it is Peter Stanglmayr's fashion photo of a "girlie-boy" - a very pretty androgynous boy posing for a knitwear company's catalog. These images all show both a sense of an imposed social order & its transformation, for whatever needs that may arise (& these can remain oblique even if they seem very apparent). This is an invigorating show in a truly wonderful setting. All of us at the opening, sitting on the porch w/ a cooler of chilled rose (thanks to Peter Stanglmayr), with people playing badminton & croquet on the lawns, while ships passed in & out of the bay, below - we all commented that we wanted to live there. The Austen house is truly cozy. I found the house such a generous site & so lovely. It's something to think about. A refuge in the general storm of life.

The simultaneous visibility & invisibility of the Austen/Tate household reminded me of other such examples in the realm of photography. There are remarkable images of the actress Charlotte Cushman by Matthew Brady and Southworth & Hawes which are of remarkable gravity & presence, as strong as any of the other "great Americans" photographed by either firm. What is also apparent is Cushman's self-possession & lack of "feminine" mask. & in the 20th century, while working as a portrait photographer in Paris, Berenice Abbott photographed a remarkable array of "Sapphic" characters from the upper classes & artistic spheres. Abbott herself would not associate herself with lesbian feminist groups in the 1970s when approached for support (& also a sense of historical continuity) - despite her long-term household with the photo historian Elizabeth McCausland. I have heard the same of Djuna Barnes, who is the same generation as Abbott, & also a subject of remarkable photographs by Abbott taken in Paris in the 1920s. & the writer I knew in the 1980s, Marguerite Young, by then elderly & outspoken, would nevertheless deliberately obscure her sexual orientation & in fact criticize others (I recall a conversation in which Iris Murdoch was referred to as a bull-dyke, in an emphatically pejorative moment, & she would use the term fairies to describe some men, while always surrounded by a coterie of gay friends).

My former student L., who defines herself emphatically as a "butch dyke," would say "My kind are invisible, but it's not like we're not there." While not quite a contradiction of the inequalities & prejudices of the world we live in, the Alice Austen Houses of the world show us a much more diverse planet, nevertheless.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

flower power

(in memory of Susan Kleckner, July 5 1941 - July 7 2010)

One evening in the mid to late 1980s (I cannot date it any more precisely than 1986-1989) with my friend L., we went out with her childhood friend, Andy Sherwood, visiting town. L. & Andy had gone to the Grace Church School & the Friends Seminary on E. 17th St. They grew up in lower Manhattan in the late 1950s, early 1960s, which from their descriptions sounded like an entirely different city (L. mentioned running away from home & renting an apartment on Avenue D for $13/month).

Andy had relocated to Paris where he taught harpsichord & he also did some photography. Andy knew my friend C. in Paris. C. left NYC for Nicaragua in 1985, returning to Paris in 1986. Andy detested C. & told me so in emphatic tones, which is how the evening began. "Do you really like this horrible person?!"

Andy took L. & me to a loft on Washington St. in the West Village where a couple, the Harris' lived. They had a theatrical background. On the wall there was a poster for The Angels of Light, which was led by their late son George. The poster for The Angels of Light was from a small theater in Paris, the Theatre Campagne-Premiere, which by coincidence had been owned by my friend C.'s father, Andre. George & Ann Harris mentioned that they were owed money by the proprietor of the theater, which, after the circumstances of my earlier conversation regarding C., I did not mention this further connection to them.

Also framed on the wall was a photo of a boy inserting a carnation into the barrel of a rifle held by a National Guardsman. The boy in the photo was the Harris' son George in 1967, outside the Pentagon at an anti-war rally, before George relocated to San Francisco & incarnated himself as the performer Hibiscus.

My memory is rough about this, but I think George may have modeled at some point. There were numerous photos by L.'s friend Andy of young George in the house.

I hadn't thought of the "flower power" photo in quite a while, but it came to mind reading the blog Amber Waves of Brain.

& then, today, 2 days later, Phyllis Levine, "Communications Director" at ICP, where I work, brought in a luscious print of the Pentagon photo from her archive (the photographer's name is Bernie Boston) for possible identification as no one in Exhibitions knew it. The image is not obscure by any means - it was a nominee for a Pulitzer Prize after it was published in a newspaper (the Washington Star), but it brings to mind others, such as a similar image by Marc Riboud.

While I do not have a belief in a greater significance to coincidence or of a secret cosmic order, these immediate serendipities were still somewhat reassuring: I can appreciate an apparent trace of order in what usually seems random & disconnected. It brought back lives I & others have lived, lost worlds & fragile connections.

& it brings to mind the weird potency of photography, how it embodies both the known & the unknown it its stimuli; it shows us something we didn't see & will never be able to see directly, except as a photograph, &  that experience can permeate our memories, or as Siegfried Kracauer would term it, replace them.

Outside of such harsh reckonings, I can admit a kind of succor in such technological fantasies - found in blogs, websites, magazines, newspapers & paper archives as much as my memories. & while I cannot cite Hibiscus with any authority, what a splendid figure to invoke this week.

My friend S. died this week after 6 years of struggling with cancer. S. was a rebellious character - in the hospital her sister said, "I don't know why she didn't teach fighting - she was certainly good at it - " in consideration of S.' past as filmmaker, photographer, performance artist, writer, teacher, & a non-denominational minister (I'm not quite sure what that means). I think of S. as primarily a teacher & her relentlessness in it - she also taught up until a few weeks ago, getting around with a portable oxygen tank.

S. made the daily papers in 1987 when she climbed the Berlin Wall & took photographs from that vantage point, getting arrested by the Germans. The Berlin Wall itself was not that large physically - what was massive about it was the constant policing it required.

I first saw S. in the mid 1980s when I worked at Film Forum when it was on Watts St. & S. spent a year living in the window at Sohozat which was 2 blocks away on West Broadway, just above Canal. I didn't know her then - we met years later. I recall joking to another friend, in crisis about looking for a place to live, that maybe when the window at Sohozat was unoccupied . . . I never saw any of the films S. made with Kate Millett. There were rumors as to what those included (nudity, sex). S. did a partial reenactment of the Sohozat window in the window of New Museum, as part of the Martha Rosler retrospective held there & at ICP - in this case it became a home office.

In the hospital the other day, while S. lay in a coma, a minister from the hospital came into the room for last rites. The minister was shooed away like a nasty pest; instead a friend of S. enacted a ritual w/ healing waters, which we all passed to one another in a circle, making faint streaks on the palms of each other's hands, while someone else read from a book of anti-war poetry from Vietnam from the 1960s.  The ejection of the hospital minister had a comic aspect otherwise absent in the room as we all sat with S. as she expired. The healing waters & anti-war poetry were also hard to take. It made me aware that even in a group I would be mourning alone.

Climbing the Berlin Wall with a camera does not seem dissimilar to the carnation stuffed in a rifle. How lucky we are to have photos of such acts & to have had any encounter w/ those who would do such things.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Marjorie Cameron

Marjorie Cameron's appearance in Kenneth Anger's film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome as Kali, as the many incarnations of Isis, is a great cinematic presence. One cannot say precisely what she looks like - prominent eyes, prominent nose, prominent lips. In the film given the excesses of make-up, wigs & costumes, the hair color is confused, the the specificities of age are rendered moot. There is a nervous tension which marks her on-camera presence - it does not have the serenity of other stars of the silver screen. Cameron dominates the film, upstaging the excesses of Samson de Brier, who plays Osiris, as well as the various deities portrayed in the film - all of whom convene in a drunken orgy in which the young gorgeous Pan, played by Paul Mathison (sp?) is ultimately torn apart in the frenzy. There is a remarkable passage in the diary of Anais Nin about the making of the film, which also invokes Nin's consternation about being upstaged by Cameron, who remains an enigmatic cipher (& ultimately still having the final last non-word) in Nin's florid account of the film - Nin sees Cameron as a kind of negative to Nin's own glorious positive, shunt aside by the perversities of Anger.

As presences go, Cameron could retire after her performance in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, which was filmed in Samson de Brier's modest but flamboyantly colored Hollywood apartment. The film is a curious convocation of various gods meeting, or as my friend K. quoted one of her students writing about The Bacchae, partying in the woods. Anger is a curiosity in his allegiances: Ostensibly a follower of Aleister Crowley & the OTO, he is also strangely iconoclastic about the role playing & the seriousness of what must have been a rather tiresome practice, more difficult than the protocols of any organized church. There is always a sense of mockery & kitsch overriding the "rituals" of Anger's films, which perhaps gives them more credence than if they were party platforms for Satanism, Inc. Anger's films instead cavort in utter deliriousness. Their unruliness is what gives them a charge.

Cameron was no stranger to the world of organized Satanism, being the wife of Jack Parsons, who was one of the inventors of rocket fuel, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Lab, & also an active leader of the OTO in Pasadena CA. Parsons & his colleague L. Ron Hubbard conduced a series of experiments to invoke "Babalon" - the mythic red-headed Whore of Babylon, at which point Parsons met Cameron & they got together immediately. While Parsons may have regarded Cameron as a semi-deity & also a product of his own sorcery, the fact is she was with us until her death in 1995. Cameron painted, drew, wrote & she appeared in 2 films by Curtis Harrington, The Wormwood Star, & his feature film Night Tide.

In Night Tide Cameron has a small & highly mysterious role as a vaguely European femme fatale of occult-ish origins who addresses the female lead, Moyra, a carnival sideshow mermaid who may possibly be an actual mermaid, living under a curse of her dark ancestry. The scene is cribbed from Jacques Tourneur's Cat People, in which the cat-woman Simone Simon is addressed in a restaurant by an oversexed, fur-clad, exotic woman speaking an unknown language (Serbian? Simone Simon plays a Serbian in the film) as "my sister." A member of the same species addressing her. In both Cat People & Night Tide the female protagonist is fighting an overpowering sexuality. In Cat People it is embodied literally in the transformation into a killer cat, whereas in Night Tide it is revealed to be a hoax, but a hoax w/ fatal consequences, for the hapless mermaid. Cameron makes two appearances in Night Tide - in her Cat People-esque nightclub scene, addressing her "sister" & later, the Dennis Hopper character follows her to the sordid labyrinth of Venice CA (before gentrification), losing her. At the end of the film Hopper inquires about the Cameron figure, of whom no one knows anything - mystery unsolved!

A photograph of Cameron appeared on the cover of the first issue of Wallace Berman's magazine Semina. In Semina 1 there is a rather extravagant drawing of a female figure being fucked doggie-style which had the distinction of being confiscated by the LAPD as obscene material when exhibited at the Ferus Gallery. Given the impossible demands of being "Babalon," (talk about a tall order to execute!) Cameron appears most natural as it were as a bohemian artist, with or without occult trappings. I have a catalog from 2007 from the Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery of Cameron's drawings & watercolors. There is a withdrawn, decadent tone to the work, which touches on both Symbolist themes as well as experimental work such as the drawings that the poet Henri Michaux did under the influence of mescaline, which are more process-oriented.

I am reminded of the art historian Philippe Jullian's writings about symbolism & decadence, of themes incarnating in various forms. One can see these in both high & low art forms. From Gustave Moreau to Barbarella. The yearnings are what matter more so than the manifestations.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC

Photographic history is still such a fresh topic, less than 100 years old, basically, that to survey it seems downright capricious, even as it has merited some truly fascinating chroniclers. What is it? Is it a technology? Its economic underpinnings reveal quite a bit about industrialization, & also how industry intersects & affects daily life. Or is it an art? Various attempts to define its formal qualities have also illuminated its visual impact in modern society. What is this weird thing which has made imaging a daily practice, seemingly without a script? A gesture we all do. & yet many of us don't. Is it special or ordinary? Or both? What a paradoxical instrument.

The Museum of Modern Art has been exemplary in collecting & exhibiting photography throughout its history. Along with the publication of texts by Beaumont Newhall & John Szarkowski, as well as that consummate bestseller, The Family of Man, it gave an institutional imprimatur to otherwise disparate materials. Without being hyperbolic, I would suggest that MoMA created the official artistic careers of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander & Garry Winogrand (the 3 participants in MoMA's "New Documents" exhibition in 1967). Another exemplary show & publication were the POP reprints of the unknown E.J. Bellocq by Lee Friedlander - another truly extraordinary gesture. & then going back to the 1930s - there is the truly seminal publication by Walker Evans, American Photographs.

What an outrageous claim for any museum: It basically created its own subject.

The current installation of the permanent collection is an attempt to make a revisionist outline if the very history it wrote initially, but using examples only by women photographers. As a teacher of photo history I have often made fanciful allusions to such a narrative- also stating that it would be curious to make a trajectory out of Black, or gay photographers - or changing continents entirely - a narrative based on Asian or African photographers, as opposed to the French-British-US monopoly of such an imperial timeline. This was a caprice on my part & I was very curious to see the MoMA reinstallation, which will be up for a year. MoMA has truly enviable, deep collections. What would they do w/ such a prospect?

I don't know if the collections show anything we haven't seen before & there is little narrative disjuncture from any previous history, but again, one can see such fine work on display. Among the 19th century work there are examples by Anna Atkins, Clementina Lady Hawarden & Julia Margaret Cameron. Lady Hawarden in particular has emerged in more recent times w/ what were considered private "artistic" views of her lovely daughters, to instead be looked at as a somewhat radical, intense image-maker - is she a dilletantish aristocrat or someone who made distnctly unsettling & proto-expressionistic photography? Part of the fascination of photography is its blurring between professional & amateur skill sets & results. In the long history of criticism this also distinguished Julia Margaret Cameron - often viewed primarily as an eccentric, as opposed to someone who very consciously played w/ the craft of wet collodion negatives & albumen printing, utilizing chance (irregular surfaces, uneven printing, the effects of "accident" in the process) which would be overlooked as an artistic strategy until Diane Arbus began to exhibit prints w/ stains & uneven borders in the 1960s & 1970s. This aspect to Arbus' printing is often overlooked in lieu of her strong subject matter, but is I think integral to its conceptual power - an almost Brechtian sense of the print as itself a kind of meaning. One is always aware that the print is a kind of screen - the image is not direct, although one sees perhaps too much.

My greatest delight may have been in an album by Gertrude Kasebier, who I would regard as among the greatest Pictorialist photographers. Kasebier was both pragmatic & aesthetic, working professionally as well as in an artistic sphere. Kasebier, along w/ Cameron & Hawarden came to photography as a middle-aged person. One could cite that much of her work follows the visual schemata of that time, but I would point out its very tactile sensuality as a transcendence of any convention, & there are some images of a Native American model, Zitkala-Sa, which are amazingly contemporary looking. Consider the source: a middle-aged woman in Brooklyn, working for cash money. Kasebier's resources are so ordinary, but look what she did. MoMA includes a portrait of the self-styled "Baron" de Meyer, born Adolf Meyer - himself an excessively fey, elegant self-creation, looking quite chic & other-worldly, years prior to when he would adopt the spiritualist name "Gayne."

The 20th century view of "women photographers" is much more extensive & includes: Dora Maar, Lee Miller, Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus, & Nan Goldin. I placed these names in a chronological order. Maar & Miller were overshadowed by their romantic affiliations in their lifetimes, but both have done photographic work which merits attention. Maar is often viewed visually as the prototype for Pablo Picasso's "weeping woman" of the 1930s, most prominently appearing in the painting Guernica but also appearing in innumerable other images.Picasso may be the ultimate male artist who besides having "periods" of styles, could also make a timeline of his career using his various lovers as calendars. In any literature, Dora Maar, emerges as a very strange, troubled character, who went from being a member of Breton's surrealists to following the Catholic Church. As someone whose partial education was by French communists who were also devout Catholics (merci, Mme Tool et aussi Sylvie Carduner), I can understand this, although I would say it perplexes me somewhat. Maar's photographs have been seen primarily since the 1980s exhibition of surrealist photography at the Corcoran Gallery curated by Rosalind Krauss & Jane Livingston, "L'amour fou." One cannot locate a distinct style in the images, or a consistency between them, but they can be quite compelling to look at. Maar had been trained as a commercial photographer - regardless of the skill set involved, there is a lively & strong visual intelligence to the work

Also in terms of writing history, I would say history is rewritten, not written - it is a continual process of reinvention & "the history" of photography made by women is but one prism of a multi-faceted crystal.

For sheer extravagance the career of Lee Miller warrants the various books & exhibitions that have been made of it. Miller would be known simply by the many gorgeous photographs made of her, primarily by Man Ray, as well as her presence in the Jean Cocteau film Blood of the Poet.. A girl from Nyack, NY, she had been a fashion model before becoming involved in the Parisian demimonde in the 1920s. While one could cite her role as an artists' model as her primary achievement, a look at her photography, which as a war correspondent in WWII was fairly extensive, shows a very distinctive presence.

War photography is so strange: how does one judge it? by formal qualities? Does that suffice? The gravity of most war photography is very intentional - it has an agenda & it was for a particular publishing purpose. If one were to look at possibly more eccentric examples wherein graphic qualities are brought in - I would cite the work of both Cecil Beaton & Lee Miller. Beaton as a kind of aesthete managed to make highly beautiful pictures of the UK military, as well as ultimately becoming a kind of in-house portraitist for the House of Windsor. Beaton's soldiers are hot - their asses are round & delicious. One gets distracted by their exoticism & their eroticism. Beaton's images are about erotic & aesthetic possibility - his colonialism is as erotic as it is military.

Lee Miller made what is in my estimation one of the greatest photographs ever: her self-portrait, taking a bath in Hitler's bathtub, after his death, in his bunker. Visually it isn't so much, but the absolute weirdness & egotism of it are I think a truly special moment. It is pure concept. & it intersects w/ a global history - most of us feel quite shy about such things. Who enters such a sphere of power via the bathroom? & then treats it as a photo op?

The photo ops of various governments (such as that used by the various Bush administrations) can't hold a candle to this, although they warrant their own study. Lee Miller distinguished herself w/ a social aplomb I cannot imagine (nor do I expect to ever be in proximity to Hitler's bathtub or its equivalent, in my time).

I am curious to see how the years reveal Diane Arbus, now that her archives are at the Metropolitan Museum (which also houses the archives of Walker Evans). My sense is that there is much more work there than one would expect. Arbus was a working magazine photographer, with constant deadlines. The 2 official documents of her work - the 1972 MoMA catalog, & the Met publication Revelations are 2 very discontinuous books. The MoMA catalog is one of the seminal photographic publications & events of the late 20th century. Contemporary students seem a bit unimpressed, but I would cite its publication as one of the truly important moments of photographic history - for my generation (already too young, a full generation later) it was one of the most provocative photographic occurrences available. Lucky are we to have it. Given the potential tediousness of most photography books, this was so skewed, so in depth & so incorrect (outlining all sorts of visual taboos) & it offered no way out - it was entirely unredemptive! LIfe is miserable & strange & if you're lucky, you're retarded! I hate to put it in such bald terms but when I think of what is important about it, is its absolute lack of propriety.

Given the apolitical formalism of much 1960s art, it's emphasis on form, the work of Diane Arbus is like a a kind of mold eating away at any structure. The apartments she looks in in NYC are dirty w/ nicotine residue, they are populated by unhappy sorts. it sucks. NYC is a miserable global city of people who are never quite settled there & are barely in control of themselves. Everyone is in a kind of lumpen hell. If I make may one suggestion, it would be that Arbus' social orbit could be seen as well in the context of the New American Cinema, promoted by Jonas Mekas. The Ken Jacobs film Little Stabs at Happiness may be the most interesting cinematic parallel. But Jacobs & also Jack Smith offer a more holistic vision, & honestly, that's saying something. Neither Jacobs or Smith could be accused of being so hopeful.

There is so much to see in the show. I don't think it realizes any deep revision of photography, but it offers some stunning examples of some great women photographers . . .let's hope that the next history will change history.

Is It Really So Strange?

A few recent viewings of William E. Jones' documentary about Latino fans of Morrissey have brought to mind: Where was I?

As I try to study Morrissey & The Smiths I realize I let a few decades intervene & any reconstruction of what would have been is perilously provisional. My one justification is that in the period in which The Smiths released albums was also a period of extreme poverty for me & one in which I was establishing myself in New York City, in which I was remote from omnipresent media. How The Smiths would have helped me in such a dire situation is unknown, lost, alas. Listening now to The Smiths/Morrissey is pure nostalgia, for something I didn't experience, in which I can wallow in comfortably. I feel like I missed something wonderful. This would have been a tonic I would have craved.

It also reminded me of how technology has become part of the everyday experience. The soundtracks of our lives may be a different & richer experience than that which is viewed.

William E. Jones' film is fantastically delicate about the subject. It is done in a simple format of mostly talking-heads interviews, w/ an array of subjects from the deeply engrossed to the almost supercilious. As someone who knows zilch about the The Smiths/Morrissey I found it to be fascinating. Those interested in WEJ's films may find it of interest for its anomaly among his film work in being shot by him entirely, as opposed to the use of of appropriated imagery which distinguishes his work.

The film addresses the technological phenomenon of fandom. This is played out as well in tabloids & other venues of junk culture. While it can emphasize the tawdry & the fabricated (I think of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon books as an example of hateful wish fulfillment in this), what hasn't really been addressed is the potential for mass media being an actual conduit for change, or that there could also be an important message being conveyed (does mass media have to negate any gravity, any importance in its utterances?). In my august aloofness of utter solipsism I would assume it would be impossible, but maybe not.

This is touched on briefly in the Todd Haynes' film Velvet Goldmine, in a scene w/ the middle-class journalist Christian Bale confronting his mother w/ the fact that an emotional fissure in a stable straight life exists in the sensual, extravagant forms of glam rock pop music, confronting her w/ his ambisexual glam-rock music. He screams at her, "this is ME!" How can mass media, in this case, pop music. extend an message both general & unique? In both Todd Haynes' film & WEJ's there is an understanding that a social sea change can actually occur within the utter dross of mass media, that significant messages can leak through an otherwise rigid autocracy of mass media. Beyond any overt propaganda value, there are social values being stated. The everyday can be reconfigured, in rather seductive terms

While pop music now seems so utterly corporate, fascistic & tasteless to the nth degree, I am reminded that there is a potentially redemptive aspect in what is for the most part nasty business. & that it could have incendiary moments regardless of its economic structure.

WEJ's emphasis on the fans of Morrissey, as opposed to Morrissey himself, is an acknowledgement of the richness in each voice included. This is an admirable form of documentary which explores its depths rather than conforming to a schema. Its simplicity & directness could be seen as an essay in the morality of looking at the world & trying to extract meaning from it; documentary as a subject can be mislead by heroic tendencies, by an overreaching attempt to make a big statement, bigger than the subject at hand. WEJ's film is generous & kind, & lucky for us in our technological age in being able to watch it over & over again, which I imagine, for the fans of Morrssey, must seem like old hat. The song played over & over again, the near ritual of such a habit, so common as to be overlooked. Where are we? What does it mean?

Also I have to bring up the queerness of the subject. While there may be normative-heterosexual responses to Morrissey's music, Morrissey still reads as gay as Christmas (to use a very recherchez expression) in his brooding melancholy. I am so so sorry I missed this in my own brooding melancholic past.

In May I was in Los Angeles. One afternoon in Highland Park I stepped into a coffeeshop on York Blvd at 51st (?) to get an iced horchata w/ a shot of espresso (it was recommended). The song This Charming Man (the only song included in Is It Really So Strange?) was playing. I got goosebumps. As ephemeral as the occasion may have been, there was a grace to it altogether lacking, usually, in my estimation of the everyday. The sun was shining brightly, there were college-age girls giggling behind me in line. I thought: as precious as this very ordinary moment is, it is already lost to me. I took some photos but they alas are simply proof of lost time. How can one express happiness beyond its temporality?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Dennis Hopper, 1936-2010

The cult of actors has been an irritant for me. In the mass media they have been avatars for the exigencies of daily life, surpassing the anonymity of most folks at such a melodramatic height that we're supposed to think it is somehow special. Besides finding it meaningless, it is also a distraction. One forgets one's own position in such a dynamic.

Besides the macabre aspect of actors seen as real as they pantomime reality w/ their reported daily lives, I am also interested in their utter uniqueness in a technological culture - would they exist without tabloids & now the internet? While I can covet the CDVs or cabinet cards of Sarah Bernhardt or Edwin Booth - I can appreciate their reality as a kind of cultural fantasy. & Hollywood as factory of illusions has produced an array of equivalents, along with appropriate shadows, such as Kenneth Anger's volumes of Hollywood Babylon I & 2. But why do I find it otherwise so irritating & useless?

As far as marking the death of the actor Dennis Hopper, what comes to mind primarily for me is his role in the Curtis Harrington film Night Tide, released in 1961. I first saw Night Tide in my adolescent outlet of, under various titles, The Late Late Show, Scream Theater, Thriller Theater, etc on late night TV. Before the advent of cable TV, or into its first years, cheap horror movies found a time equivalent in late nights for the melancholy insomniac, including my teenaged self.

Night Tide, in retrospect, includes a panorama of what would be interests for me: B-movies, lounge & exotica music (a performance by Chaino), the literary supernatural (one could argue the references including both Poe's The Oval Portrait & Goetbe's The New Melusina), allusions to Hollywood satanic cults (the inclusion of Marjorie Cameron in a small but emphatic role), the louche, beatnik culture of LA (keeping in mind the satirical estimations of Caroline Blackwood), the hyperreal aspects to California culture (going to the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo followed by a day at the "Hearst Castle" thanks to Umberto Eco & Karen Pinkus), as well as the supreme erotic aspects of young smooth tight Dennis Hopper who may or may not be consumed by a monster from the deep.

Night Tide gave me a taste of what I would encounter later w/ much delight in the formerly tawdry aspects of Coney Island, as well as tolerance for the extremes of the occult (as well as a skepticism of such). In a way not dissimilar from 19th century German romanticism - the cult of the ruin & the fragment, the object which would transverse time & space in an uncanny way, is all too familiar in this cheap B-movie nostalgia.

Speaking of Coney Island, I am reminded of the years I spent reading there. Going to & fro from the subway, & then on the boardwalk. This was a Julio Cortazar phase - translations of The Winners, Hopscotch, & innumerable stories. We Love Glenda So Much comes to mind in the context of the late Dennis Hopper. How lucky I have been in fairly squalid circumstances to nevertheless find myself "one-on-one" w/ the books of Julio Cortazar. There used to be a bar in the BMT station, the Hollywood Bar & Grill, where I would linger before taking the subway back to the Lower East Side.

Thank you, Dennis Hopper, for aiding & abetting my erotic appetites.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Charles Fréger, Empire

Charles Fréger's work is known in the US primarily through his books, collections of portraits of collective social roles (such as legionnaires, wrestlers, water polo players, majorettes, performers in Chinese opera). To use a term used by dealers & collectors of 19th century photography, Fréger's images would be occupationals - the subjects of the portraits are looked at for what they do. The viewer can see the difference between each face, but the interest is in the repetition of their bearings, not their aberration. Although there is more to be said about that, later, & any fascination which may result.

The book Empire is of various European honor guards (excuse my lack of more precise military terms) in uniforms now so antiquated that they have become exotic kitsch, magnets for tourists, ignorant, like me, of any more precise symbolic meanings. Fréger's photographs are done with a brilliant even lighting of high professional skill, as well as attention to detail in the format, focus & color. This has a bewildering effect in using photography in a very classic descriptive way, which can seem almost retrograde; yet in the intense repetition in the various projects, as well as their unpretentious specificity, I find something which seems different which I would like to explore more.

Fréger's methods which are for the most part frontal, central, posed calls to mind a common technique of commercial photography, as well as serial work by artists such as Rineke Dijkstra, early work by Katy Grannan, or recent work by Deana Lawson. Fréger's subjects are much more distinctly sociological (specific types of athletes or soldiers). Fréger can seem less artistic, more photographic, as a result. But I would argue that that is what gives his work it's particular strength. If looked at as a style only, the subject can seem too heavy, too literal & also weirdly uncanny. This is where my association w/ Deana Lawson comes about as she works with genres which can seem outmoded & highly recognizable & yet the images are so strange to look at & contemplate.

Viewed historically, Fréger's projects bear a strong resemblance to the loose but voluminous archives of August Sander, or the vernacular 19th century portraits of street types & trades, or ethnic types, seen in cartes-de-visites & lantern slides. Such imagery has a pre-photographic history in graphics depicting the same sorts, which was for a cosmopolitan clientele who could view these things from a level of sophistication far from such everyday quaintness.

While the pre-modern "street types" were for an aristocratic audience, the introduction of photography into daily life could emulate the forms yet w/ its unusual emphases on its specificities, it's reality-effect, the photograph would transform a hackneyed social type into something more ambiguous & threatening.

What comes across in the near-taxonomies of Fréger is both a general form & its discrepancies. Any sort of ideal isn't in the person but the trappings which cover or transform him or her. Especially w/ military figures Fréger is unheroic & unsentimental. & yet rather than appearing as meaningless types the subjects have a dignity in their monotonous shells, a kind of nobility that isn't in what they are doing but what they seem to endure.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Judge David Groner's sentencing statement to Kwame Kilpatrick May 25, 2010

Let it be clear that this entire proceeding was precipitated by the actions of you, Mr. Kilpatrick. You were convicted after pleading guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice and no contest to one count of assaulting and obstructing a police officer, all because you lied under oath about your relationship with your then-chief of staff, Christine Beatty.

That lie at the whistleblower lawsuit was part of a broader attempt to cover up your misdeeds while serving as mayor and which led to the wrongful termination of two police officers who tried to perform their sworn duties.

That lawsuit ultimately cost the City of Detroit $8.4 million when you perpetrated a fraud on the city and its citizens by deceptively inducing the Detroit City Council to accept a settlement offer in the case because of your wrongdoings.

Your inexcusable behavior continued when you assaulted a police officer who was trying to serve a subpoena. Third, you, Mr. Kilpatrick, are the one who initially raised the issue of your inability to pay restitution as prescribed by this court, which led to the restitution hearing, the probation violation hearing and ultimately to today’s sentencing hearing.

To use legal parlance, Mr. Kilpatrick, you opened the door to this issue when you contested the restitution payment schedule. However, during the course of the restitution hearing, when this court sought to get a complete and accurate picture of your financial status, it was met at every turn by your continued attempt to thwart the fact-finding function of this court. To quote from the May 8, 2009, order, quote, “The main goal of the order is to ensure that the defendant complies with the terms and conditions of his probation and makes reasonable payments towards restitution. In the interest of full disclosure in determining defendant’s personal obligations and his ability to pay restitution, the court finds that disclosure of defendant’s assets and those of his spouse, is warranted. Therefore the court will reaffirm its order that defendant make those records available to the probation department.” End quote.

You represented to this court that you were the sole bread-winner and responsible for paying the household expenses and, after covering those expenses, your net monthly income was only $6. You then challenged this court’s authority to examine the finances of your family, including your spouse. You attempted to utilize semantics and exploit technical loopholes in the court orders in order to conceal the fact that you and your wife had received a quote-unquote loan, and I use the term loosely, in the amount of $240,000 and a separate gift of $50,000 from various business leaders here in Detroit. As this court explained, under the law, this court is entitled to examine all aspects of a defendant’s finances in order to ascertain the ability to pay restitution, including any and all assets or obligations of a defendant, a spouse and any dependents.

To this day, you’ve continued to assert that this court violated the law by requiring to disclose those funds and that in any event they were intended to benefit your family and not for restitution. Had the court known about those funds, it would have immediately ordered their application towards the repayment of your restitution. Or, at the least, the court would have ordered that you pay 100% of your after-tax income towards the payment of your restitution. In fact, those funds have still never been accounted for. The broader context of this issue is, of course, that your family living expenses including living in a million-dollar home, driving brand-new Escalades, shopping at high-end designer stores and purchasing elective surgery for your wife. You have made it perfectly clear that now it is more important for you to pacify your wife rather than comply with my court orders. The court doesn’t know what your plans were regarding the restitution, however the court does know that when it determined a reasonable repayment schedule, you balked, feigned poverty and misrepresented your financial status. This contemptible behavior was in clear disregard in both the letter and the spirit of the court’s orders, which sought transparency to comprehensively examine your financial status and determine your ability to pay your restitution obligation to the City of Detroit.

Fourth, under the terms of your probation, you were ordered to comply with various conditions, which you failed to do. If you will recall, at the time of your original sentence, you were forewarned about the consequences of violating the terms of your probation. This court explicitly stated, quote, “You need to consult with your lawyers. They will tell you do not violate my probation, because I take my mandate as judge very seriously. And I will not hesitate to impose the penalty of prison if you violate my probation or any order of this court.” End quote.

In reviewing the pre-sentence investigation report submitted by the probation department, this court does not agree with the sentence recommendation of the Michigan Department of Corrections. Sir, you were trained as a lawyer. You served in the state Legislature, where you were entrusted to make the law. And you were the chief executive of Detroit, a major U.S. city, charged with enforcing and carrying out the law. In this case, the court strongly believes that to allow a defendant situated as you are to blatantly disregard the orders of this court, a defendant who was a former public official who violated his oath of office in an obstruction of justice case, who desecrates the basic tenets of our system of justice and seriously undermines the credibility and legitimacy of our legal system, does not fit within the sentence guideline range.

Mr. Kilpatrick, you have asked not to be treated any differently than any other defendant who appears before this court. The problem is, you are different. You were a public servant, and because of your status as a former high-ranking public official, we expected you to set an example. Yet, despite this, you continued to engage in obfuscation and obstruction. You continued to be defiant. And in your letter to this court, you have failed -- actually it was a letter that was sent to the probation department, which is attached -- you have failed to sincerely accept responsibility for your actions. Frankly, your continued attempt to cast yourself as the victim, your lack of forthrightness, your lack of contriteness and your lack of humility only serve to affirm that you have not learned your lesson. Clearly, rehabilitation has failed. You have not adjusted well under probation. Probation is no longer an option. This court must now sentence you in a manner that assures that justice will be served. The terms of your earlier probation no longer apply. That ship has sailed. That plea deal was negotiated by your attorneys and the prosecutor. I only approved what I thought was a lenient sentence because everyone, not only your lawyers and the prosecutors, but also the City of Detroit, urged this court to accept the deal so the city could move on. The city wants to move on. You want to move on. So today we will move on.

This court is satisfied that there are substantial and compelling reasons for a departure that are objective and verifiable. And those reasons are hereby articulated:

• In the present case, defendant Kilpatrick violated the terms of his probation by failing to pay $79,011 by Feb. 19, 2010, which included defendant specifically failing to provide complete accounting of his family finances, failing to surrender his tax refunds, failing to disclose gifts and benefits, improperly accepting dollars from political funds. Furthermore, one of the most troubling aspects of defendant’s conduct occurred during the restitution hearing. You raised your right hand and swore to tell the truth. But many answers you gave were not truthful. When asked about the nature of your spouse’s employment, you replied that you did not know if she worked. When asked about your rent payment, you feigned ignorance. In the court’s opinion, this lack of candor, while under oath, dangerously approached the very crime for which you were already under sentence for. Moreover, the point of the restitution hearing was to determine defendant’s ability to pay the restitution and to ensure that the citizens of Detroit were compensated – at least to a small degree, for the loss they suffered at the hands of you. During the hearing it was abundantly clear that over the course of your probation, you certainly had the wherewithal to substantially pay down the balance of your restitution, which you failed to do and which you clearly misrepresented to this court.

• Again, this court finds that there are substantial and compelling reasons to depart from the sentencing guidelines. Violation of probation, wherein you failed to comply with the sentence agreement to turn over your tax return. You took gifts without disclosure and deposited into marital accounts and never paid 30% to restitution as ordered. And you accepted funds improperly from the Kilpatrick Civic Fund. You lied in your affidavit to this court that you only had $6 per month after expenses to pay restitution when your bank records indicate you had hundreds of thousands of dollars going through the joint bank account. You violated this court’s order to disclose all your bank records, my signed order. But you redacted and provided incomplete records omitting accounts altogether and the court would never have known of your attempts to mislead the court had the people not issued subpoenas. Your testimony in this courtroom amounted to perjury when you stated, “I don’t know if my wife works. I don’t know the amount of rent. I don’t know who pays the bills.” Most substantially, most compelling, is that you lied to this court. You continued to lie, after pleading guilty to lying in court! Obviously, there has been no rehabilitation. You have not changed. So to continue you on probation is not an option. You must understand your crime and consequences now.

This court is satisfied that the initial 120 days incarceration did nothing to rehabilitate you, Mr. Kilpatrick. Because you have violated probation, you lied in the affidavit, your documents were not fully disclosed, you lied in this courtroom. This court is satisfied that incarceration must now correlate to reflect the above substantial compelling reasons to deviate.

Therefore you will serve a maximum of five years in the Michigan Department of Corrections. Further, you will receive credit for the restitution you have paid and the balance of the restitution, $860,000, shall be paid as a condition of parole. What that means is that your obligation … to pay back the city does not go away with this incarceration.

You will receive 120 days credit on the minimum sentence of one and a half years in the Michigan Department of Corrections.

At this time, Mr. Kilpatrick, I’m going to advise you that you have 42 days in which to file an application for leave to appeal this matter. If you wish to appeal and you can’t afford a lawyer, a lawyer will be appointed to represent you. Are the forms available for the defendant to sign?

Mr. Schwartz … could you assist your client, because otherwise I’ll have him sign it in the back. It’s just an appellate rights form…

Sergeant, could you secure the defendant please and take him in the back. Put your hands behind your back, sir. This concludes the matter.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Graffiti artist Banksy leaves mark on Detroit and ignites firestorm


Banksy was here. But what’s really fascinating is what happened after he left.

The British-born art world celebrity and provocateur, who hides behind a cloak of anonymity and whose graffiti paintings have made headlines from Los Angeles to London, has tagged Detroit -- most prominently a crumbling wall at the derelict Packard plant.

Discovered last weekend, the stenciled work shows a forlorn boy holding a can of red paint next to the words “I remember when all this was trees.” But by Tuesday, artists from the 555 Nonprofit Gallery and Studios, a feisty grassroots group, had excavated the 7-by-8-foot, 1,500-pound cinder block wall with a masonry saw and forklift and moved the piece to their grounds near the foot of the Ambassador Bridge in southwest Detroit.

The move -- a guerilla act on top of Banksy’s initial guerilla act -- has sparked an intense debate about the nature of graffiti art, including complicated questions of meaning, legality, value and ownership. Some say the work should be protected and preserved at all costs. Others say that no one had a right to move it — and that the power and meaning of graffiti art is so intrinsic to its location that to relocate it is to kill it.

Detroit’s unique profile as a kind of laboratory of extreme urban dilapidation and nascent revitalization adds yet another layer of complexity. “This may be unprecedented, because in most other cities, you wouldn’t be able to take a wall home,” said Luis Croquer, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, which specializes in cutting-edge art.

“What does it mean to move a wall? And beyond legality, who does the wall really belong to, and now does the art belong to the gallery? To everybody? To nobody? We’re operating in this space where there’s this lawlessness that opens up possibilities that would be much harder to encounter in other cities.”
Stewards or thieves?

The folks at 555 Gallery and Studios know that not everyone agrees with their decision to move the mural, but they’re adamant they did the right thing. They don’t want to sell it or squirrel it away like a keepsake. They want to protect it and keep it on display for all.

“It’s about preservation for us,” said volunteer executive director and co-founder Carl W. Goines. “We’re watching this beautiful city crumble around us and we can’t do anything to stop it. So with this fine-art piece -- and it’s not just everyday graffiti that you might whiz by -- here was our opportunity to do something. It would have been destroyed if we didn’t make the effort.”

Banksy has become famous for his controversial graffiti works around the globe and stunts like sneaking a parody of the Mona Lisa into the Louvre. Some consider him nothing more than a trespassing vandal and publicity hound with a can of spray paint. Others think he’s a substantive artist, clever satirist and savvy trickster, whose mysterious urban legend persona has become an indivisible part of his aesthetic. Some of his works have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction or in galleries.

Free Press attempts to contact Banksy have been unsuccessful, but it’s possible that his sweep through town was related to the documentary about him, “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” now showing at the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak. What appear to be new Banksy pieces have also been found recently in Toronto and Chicago. Arts and culture blogs are speculating that he created as many as four works in metro Detroit, including a signature rat image at 28661 Van Dyke in Warren. But only the Packard plant piece has appeared on his Web site,

It’s unclear when it was painted, but the 555 artists were tipped off May 8 by a friend who saw the work on Banksy’s site and recognized Detroit. By Monday, they had assembled a posse of five to 12 workers and began digging out the work. It took two full days to complete the job.

As photos of Banksy’s Detroit handiwork spread through the blogosphere this week, critics began questioning the 555 group’s removal of the Packard plant painting. At the photo blog, one commentator called them thieves rather than rescuers and wrote, “Banksy put it there for a reason, for anyone who cared enough to enter the death-trap to see it.”

“It makes me cringe that so many are applauding this,” wrote another commentator. “The point of ‘street art’ is for it to exist in its natural environment. It is by nature temporary. Disappointing when a good piece fades away? Yes. But that’s life.”

These arguments cut to the core of almost any discussion of graffiti art, as well as the legality and ethics of trespassing and defiling private property. There is also the complicated question of ownership. The Packard plant, a massive haven for squatters and scrappers — 3.5 million square feet of almost total urban destruction and decay — has been at the center of an epic legal dispute between the City of Detroit and a land speculator dating back more than a decade. News reports have identified Romel Casab as the owner. He could not be reached for comment Friday.

The artists at 555 who engineered the move call themselves “stewards” of the work, but admit they have little idea of what Banksy would think of their actions. For now, the painting, lovingly encased in a makeshift wooden frame that surrounds the wall, is on display outside the gallery on a gritty stretch of West Vernor Highway in the shadow of I-75.

Staff member Eric Froh said that while the painting’s meaning has shifted outside of the Packard plant, it retains an expressive power akin to Renaissance religious artifacts or antiquities uncovered by archeologists and now seen in museums. He also noted that the controversy has already become part of its accumulated meaning.

“The work can now live on for many years,” said Froh.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Detroit Disassembled by Andrew Moore

Andrew Moore: Detroit Disassembledis a picture book of Detroit, of the decrepitude which can be found throughout the city: office towers, theaters, factories, schools, houses. The images were all made with an 8x10 camera, with color film, which has been printed digitally, intensifying the color palette. Moore has published books of photographs of Havana and also Governor's Island in New York City (in tandem with Lisa Kereszi) which is an abandoned outpost of the Coast Guard, a once fully developed community, which is the site of numerous plans for redevelopment.

The city book has been a staple of publishing - a casual list off the top of my head would include Berenice Abbott's Atget Photographe de Paris, her own book Changing New York, Bill Brandt's The English at Home, William Klein's Life is Good and Good for You in New York, Daido Moriyama's Shinjuku 19XX-20XX. The camera, the book & cities are intertwined technologically: each one of us can be an armchair flâneur. (I am ignoring the innumerable glossy tourist volumes about which I have nothing to say, except perhaps that they are the most common examples available).

There's a certain charm in realizing that Detroit has become as exotic as place as Havana, enough so to become a subject of a book(Detroit has also been photographed by Robert Polidori, who also published a book of Havana). American Ruins by Camilo Jose Vergara is a less sumptuous, less aesthetic view of the shrinking industrial cities of the US, but offers more sociological analysis, more tangible data-gathering of the canker in the rose of our formerly grand cities. In 1995 Vergara published an article in Metropolis proposing downtown Detroit become a monument like the Acropolis - the remains of an industrial economy, now defunct, an economy of the past. While his proposal shows a certain irony & darkness, a kind of black humor, it informs my own viewing of both Moore & Polidori's images which emphasize a much more sensual unselfconscious rendering of the truly fantastic environment of the city. In his photographs Vergara also revisits sites over a period of years, which in a bald, inartistic way imparts a time-line of continuous decay and/or demolition absent from the work of others.

As poignant as Moore's images can be, as "extreme" as the dereliction can be, the images are so beautiful, that one is compelled to hope they remain as such, somehow. Both Moore & Polidori's images remind me of the view pictures made in Italy in the 17th century by Canaletto and Giovanni Paolo Panini, which included tourist destinations such as St Peter's, or St Mark's, as well as various ruins such as the Coliseum - which were for a clientele of cultivated travelers, as markers of cosmopolitanism & erudition.

Andrew Moore's images (along w/ Polidori & many others) show a remarkably high skill set & an aesthetic view of what for locals is simply the world in which they live. I am reminded of the state motto of Michigan: Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam, circum spice: If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you. Indeed! Perhaps we (it may be unfair to include myself) Detroiters are now finding ourselves like the Italians in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun - a last vestige of pastoral peasantry interfacing with a decadent cosmopolitan society which has descended on the city in search of artistic inspiration, a nobility of sensibility inferred in the contemplation of the centuries of ruins in and around Rome.

What also comes to mind is that the photograph, like the stereograph in Oliver Wendell Holmes' essay, replaces the thing itself. In our economy this translates into real estate. As gorgeous as both Moore's & Polidori's views of Havana are, I sense an invidious shadow lurking (not on the part of the photographers themselves but of greater corporate powers, which include publishing) behind such fragile worlds of diminished economies.

In Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity by Edward Dimendberg the destruction of Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles haunts (in the future) the use of Bunker Hill in the films Kiss Me Deadly & Joseph Losey's remake of M. One sees a world about to disappear. & that it can be defined as such facilitates its total destruction.

From a distance it may seem as if what has occurred is relatively new, but the upheaval in the city has been an ongoing process for approximately 50 years, at this point. One could cite the development of expressways to Oakland & Macomb counties, beginning in the 1950s, as facilitating an exodus of an emerging middle-class out of the city to new suburbs. The 1967 riot exacerbated the polarities between city & suburb, defining them in terms of race & class. As a child in the 1970s in Oakland County I remember a common bumper-sticker "Visit Detroit - The Murder City." Considering the average dumb-wholesomeness of the average Midwesterner, that's quite a dark message to convey from that beacon of cheap-ass ideology, the car bumper.

My sense is that the hatred of the urban pandemic to the suburbs of Detroit has been a long-term anxiety about more diabolical issues at hand: there has been a continual exploitation of resources, based primarily in the automobile industry, in which obsolescence is always forthcoming. Sustainability & renewal have never been part of an economic equation which has been based in boom-or-bust short term profits. The city government itself has proved itself a kind of thin mask for larger corporate concerns, which ultimately have no specific site. There is no loyalty to place, & the pink slip is just around the corner. The message is: we are expendable.

One of the paradoxes in looking at photos of the "ruins" of Detroit is relative freedom it allows - an ability to experience some solitude, & to look at something in an unguided way. As per Camilo Jose Vergara, one can enter a space built by premises of capitalist expansion of the 20th century, & view it retrospectively, even as it exists still, before us.

It was always dear to me, this solitary hill,
and this hedgerow here, that closes off my view,
from so much of the ultimate horizon.
But sitting here, and watching here,
in thought, I create interminable spaces,
greater than human silences, and deepest
quiet, where the heart barely fails to terrify.
When I hear the wind, blowing among these leaves,
I go on to compare that infinite silence
with this voice, and I remember the eternal
and the dead seasons, and the living present,
and its sound, so that in this immensity
my thoughts are drowned, and shipwreck
seems sweet to me in this sea.

- Giacomo Leopardi

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Death, Destruction and . . .

In conversation w/ D., about the photographing of ruins.

Ruins were common subjects in the first decades of photography: there are exemplary examples of such, as daguerreotype, calotype, wet plate image, etc. As a technical consideration, the immobility of any site, it's stationary aspect, facilitated its imaging by processes which were time-intensive. & in these images one can see a cultural shift in the use of the image to delineate time as a physical residue, residue which can be simultaneously historical & touristic.

We can see the Acropolis or the excavations of Pompeii with the new technological vision of the camera. The sites tend to be much dirtier & unkempt than in our present day, or so it seems - it could be a problem w/ early orthochromatic films. It is as the places do not know how to be seen - how awkward they can seem. Or I think of the views by Roger Fenton of fantastical gothic ruins in England, with tiny figures randomly placed in the overgrown sites. This reminds me of how different it could be to experience such sites, physically, in different times. In Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Tess could run off to Stonehenge in her great solitude, whereas nowadays one would be on a very controlled guided tour.

The photograph also has air of judgement in it's seeming ability to discern what is to be preserved & what is to be discarded. For example, the survey by Charles Marville of Paris before the expansion of the city by Baron Hausmann had obliterated the medieval city is an inventory of what is to be destroyed, after it has been recorded by the camera. This is a concrete manifestation of the assertion by Oliver Wendell Holmes in his article about the stereoscope: Form is henceforth divorced from matter. The image is what is necessary, not the thing itself.

Images of war, as the urgency of the conflict fades from memory, become quaint & fascinating for their visual qualities. From the US Civil War, George Barnard's images following William Tecumseh Sherman's "March to the Sea" have an uncanny solitude, like Pompeii, which in no way imparts the aggressive fury of a military campaign of massive destruction. Such a duality in images - their ability to succor us from the horrors which they represent, is where I want to begin w/ my talk w/ D.

There are 2 photo books out this spring of Detroit - Detroit Disassembled, by Andrew Moore, and The Ruins of Detroit, by Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre. I have my own ongoing photographic project of Detroit, which includes images of the abandoned Michigan Central Station, & Victorian ruins in Brush Park. More on this another time: but is Detroit a "disaster" or the outcome of capitalist logic played out, & played out on home turf? Isn't it about economic obsolescence? An end that is now in sight?

From there the conversation led to Robert Polidori's book of photos of New Orleans, after the flooding of Hurricane Katrina, Robert Polidori: After the Flood.

For D., the viewing of ruins is a romantic activity. & less substantial than, say, the lyrics of Shelley's Ozymandias. No judgement is in the image itself, no (excuse the pun) point of view; the photographer is more a camera operator than an interpreter, with a technological recording at hand. The oblique photograph does not hone one's perspective but instead offers distraction & a puzzlement of meaning. In more general terms, the photograph reduces all to tourism.

Polidori's images of New Orleans are a fairly exhaustive inventory of damages from the hurricane & subsequent flooding, yet do so in a richly pictorial style we know from Polidori's earlier work, with it's sharp focus, rich colors, & intense details. I am partial to Polidori's book of Havana, for example, which although of a poverty on a scale we ignore in the US (& also of a past sumptuousness equally foreign to our more Puritanical shores), does not read necessarily as a kind of victimization except as a manifestation of an Exotic Other (although I suspect it may function as a prospective real estate brochure for those waiting for the fall of communism in Cuba).

The images of New Orleans are structured entirely around the flood; the images also manage to aestheticize the disaster
& have it read as natural. As if it is the high waters & mold lines constitute the issues at hand, rather than the class warfare & bureaucratic neglect which facilitated the true disaster. & this is where the work becomes troubling, in its delectation of a ruined city, for no other purpose than it's aesthetic consumption, in a simplified equation of cause & effect.

That said, I find that the void I sense looking at these images is what compels me to continue to look.