Friday, November 13, 2015

The Slowest, Dumbest Genius You'll Ever Meet

by Drew Martin
I watched a documentary today about Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway (no, he did not die by driving one off a cliff). He is also the founder of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, which brings out the engineers in students through arena-style robotic competitions) and the SEE Science Center, a hands-on learning museum in Manchester, New Hampshire.

The documentary is called SlingShot, which is the name of a water distillation machine he hopes to distribute and install around the world in order to bring clean water to communities who are in need of potable water. He chose the name SlingShot because of the story of David and Goliath, which fascinated him as a kid. While most people focus on the small, less-powerful David overcoming Goliath, his giant adversary, the take-away of the story for Kamen was that technology (the slingshot) is cool, and empowering. It also complements one of the many adages he expresses in the documentary: that a really big person helps everybody else be big and to not keep them small.

Kamen has devoted his life to technology; specifically to technology that saves lives, including SlingShot as well as a home dialysis machine, which actually led to the development of SlingShot in order to provide medical-grade water for dialysis. Like most of us, I probably looked at the Segway as more of a recreational scooter, but Kamen approached it as a real people-mover in order to solve the problem of car-congested/polluted cities and as a segway between walking and driving.

While technology is king for Kamen, and he has filled his dream house in New Hampshire with beautiful machines such as a 150+-year-old steam engine from an old tugboat, and a real helicopter in a glass-walled garage, which he flies around, he does see shortcomings to its promises, such as the social contradictions of how it is used as well as unattainable dreams including his desire for a time machine. Another adage he says is that truth is transient, especially with technology.

To this point Kamen suggests that we do not have an education problem in America, but rather a cultural problem in that we do not pay much attention to the great minds that contribute to the betterment of society but are amazed that someone can perform slightly better in a sport, and get a basketball in a net. He says that unless you are doing something that inspires you and wake up ready to embrace each day, you are cheating yourself of a happy and meaningful life.

Kamen's intelligent humor shows through in many moments of the documentary, such as when he takes off the housing of a SlingShot model to explain its inner workings and points to the location of its expensium, unobtainium, unreliabilium, and icantmaketwoathem.

While he has had many successes, he also explains the difficulty of implementing innovation and warns his staff at his company DEKA of resting on their laurels, which he expresses as taking a nap on the bear-skin rug before you are sure you shot the bear.

Kamen is concerned by an attitude towards aid work that something of no cost has no value but his drive to solve world problems through technological solutions is unyielding, and with his wit promises that he will be an overnight success in twenty years.

On a hallway wall in his house he has hung drawings of great scientists and thinkers, which his father drew: Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, and Albert Einstein, who he refers to as Big Al. While responding to a comment about his own genius, he is flattered but explains he is a very slow learner with dyslexia. He says..If I am a genius then I am the slowest, dumbest genius that you'll even meet.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

33 Artists in 3 Acts

by Drew Martin
I recently finished reading Sarah Thornton’s 33 Artists in 3 Acts. I was immediately hooked on Thornton’s writing when I first read her Seven Days in the Art World; a clear-headed, and clearly-written look at the art world. 33 Artists in 3 Acts continues her inquiry into what makes the art world tick, through her anthropological approach, which spares the reader from art-speak and breaks from what she calls the binary way of thinking typically expressed by reviewers.

The premise of the book is to tease out of artists what it means to be an artist. While Thornton likes one response she got, that the artist is a myth, she is still fascinated by the individuals who adopt and perpetuate the myth. I liked reading this book very much but while Thornton gathers interviews and anecdotes of creative personalities, she never quite cracks the nut. You never get into the mind of an artist as you do with writings such as Keith Haring’s Journals, Anne Truitt’s Day Book, or particularly Robert Irwin’s Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees

I think there is a myth of the stereotypical artist, but I would never deny that there are individuals who are propelled to create, and or interpret the world around them in a new and meaningful way. A proof of this is the very essence of the book. If you are an artist, you have a particular way of thinking, and your conversation with another artist has a very different feeling than Thornton’s writing. For example, a conversation with my friends with whom I went to school, or with whom I have exhibited is typically, and creatively about source and process. In most cases, the most creative conversations have nothing to do with “art” but are about the nature of things. 33 Artists in 3 Acts reads more like conversations heard at art openings about a lifestyle, status, and a product (even if it is a performance). There is a desire to be artistically creative by association, which is what I feel has fueled Thornton’s writing career with the arts. In my mind she is a welcome guest and I totally appreciate what she adds to this booming art world. The problem here, however, is in the selection of her character studies. I think there is a fantastic range to show what kind of artists exist, but it’s not the right gathering of individuals to dig deeper and really answer her question. 

Jeff Koons, for instance, is not an artist. He is a businessman who manages a portfolio of art products. Sure it’s a creative role but part of his elusiveness is an inability to think as an artist, which is why you only get sound bytes from him, and art-book-entry references. I think he wanted badly to be an artist as a kid because he liked what he saw of that lifestyle and the attention it earned so he found a way to call himself an artist through a very formulated process. Ai Weiwei is also not an artist. He is first and foremost a political activist who uses art as his form of communication. Of course, there are artists in the book; I am not going to go through them all. The most peculiar entry is of Lena Dunham. Thornton includes her parents Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons, and even her sister, Grace. The whole section of this family clan seems like a personal favor, and that of Lena, in particular, as if she is trying to be a cool mom, or to appease and pull in the audience of Lena’s godparents Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith, two of the most-read art reviewers in the world. There are other instances of nepotism, such as Gabriel Orozco, who I really like, and am happy she included him in two of the acts, but Orozco has the soul of artist.

I have a gut reaction to many of the people she interviews. Thornton does too. For example, there is mistrust of Koons, and tension with Damien Hirst that is felt in the temper of her writing. My personal reaction to and judgment of Thornton’s roster is actually the best part of the book, although I do not think it is by her design. By this I mean that as I read her book, my own ideas of what and who is an artist were stirred up and challenged. One of my favorite results of reading this book came from a passing comment about Tracey Emin. I was familiar with a few of her pieces, but with a closer look, especially in one presentation she gave at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Australia, I quickly grew to appreciate both her work and her way of thinking about art:

In conclusion, there is no grand theory, or formula, but rather a diverse splattering of answers about artists and art such as…

A conceptual artist is a leader, a painter is a peasant.

Art is not a job for an artist, just as religion is not a job for a priest.

Art is not supposed to repeat what you already know. It is supposed to ask questions.

You can take photographs or you can make photographs.

Artists have varying degrees of repetition compulsion or a drive to repeat a singular impulse over and over again, trying to get it right, or “righter.”

The most fun time to be an artist is when you are young, and when you are old.

There are good real artists (i.e. Bruce Bauman), bad real artists (i.e. Jasper Johns), good fake artists (i.e. Francis Alys) and bad fake artists (i.e Ai Weiwei)

If the critics don’t like something, just make more. [Warhol]

The public is in need of experiences that are not just voyeuristic.
Artists should be the oxygen of society.

The function of the artist in a disturbed society is to give awareness of the universe, to open consciousness and elevate the mind.

An artist is a myth. Most artists internalize the myth in the process of their development and then strive to embody and perform it.

They say that there are three kinds of artist: the perverse, the neurotic, and the psychotic.

One of the core fantasies of artists is unconditional love and the associate unconditional value attributed to anything that we produce. It’s about love, attention, recognition, regard…and freedom from shame.

I can teach someone to make my last artwork but not my next one.

Craft can be taught but whereas art is about self-realization.

A lot of artists are really bad craftsmen and most craftsmen are really bad artists.

The big burden for artists working in the art world is self-consciousness. We’ve lost our innocence. We’re constantly looking at ourselves making art. It’s one of the many appeals of outsider artists; they don’t give a damn about what people think.

There are moments when artists are artists and then they are not anymore. When they are not thinking, they become craftsmen of their own art.

Humans want something beautiful to live with. That is not a shallow desire. It affects our well-being. With decorative art, this is a need to aestheticize and exteriorize their thoughts and feelings.

While a desire to communicate is a key artistic motivator, a fear of being too direct or didactic also prevails.

A category of an artwork is a “ghetto” or prison.

I’m not unique. I’m just a particular instance of the possible.

And, one of my favorite, not in the book, which an older artist friend of mine in Poland once told me, “Anyone who is not an artist is crazy.” 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Stellar Show

by Drew Martin

The Frank Stella retrospective at the Whitney is an impressive fifth-floor-gallery-packed show that opens your eyes to a lifetime of his work. I have appreciatively walked by Stellas a few times a day for the past fifteen years in my lobby at work, which could stand in for very similar pieces in this show. Stella’s work moves from precise, flat, minimalist paintings, to high-tech, space-hogging, carbon-fiber sculptures. The in-between is an explosion of colorful, intensively-constructed works that straddle the fields of painting and sculpture. Sometimes they are constructed as sculptures but work as paintings. Other times they are sculptures disguised as paintings. After circling the gallery with a friend last night, she remarked, “I am surprised you aren’t taking pictures.” I happened to have my good camera on me so I circled the gallery again and took up-close shots of the work to detail his mastery of materials.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Getting Snowed In

by Drew Martin
Ed Snowden's last name is relevant to me in this day and age considering that we used to call the static of television snow; when no distinguishable information was getting through.

I just watched Citizenfour, the documentary about Snowden's whistle-blowing on the National Security Agency, for whom he worked via Booz Allen, and where he was involved with extensive the metadata-driven information gathering on (basically) everyone. The film documents the arranged meeting in a hotel room in Hong Kong after five months of encrypted correspondence with filmmaker Laura Poitras and lawyer/journalist Glenn Greenwald. I have not been following this case so it was amazing to get the bulk of the story served up as it was originally captured before the information became top news.

It is fascinating to virtually be in the hotel room with the three of them discussing the strategy for how the story would be revealed by Greenwald through The Guardian. The core questions of freedom, freedom of speech, surveillance, and privacy come to a head in this film.

That being said, knowing that my electronic correspondence and conversation is being gathered for national security reasons is less offensive to me than the day-to-day information gathering that results in spamming emails, and advertising. My mother called me while I was watching this documentary to see if I was coming over her house tomorrow night for lasagna. I am totally fine with someone capturing that information if it also means a terrorist act can be avoided. I just don't want to see a targeted ad the next day for lasagna noodles and pasta sauce when I go on the Internet.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Occidental Tourist

by Drew Martin
A good friend invited me last minute to an art opening today that his girlfriend organized for Giuseppe Blasotta, an Italian artist who lives in Heidelberg, Germany where he paints and also studies classical philosophy and Italian literature. I brought a friend from work and to our surprise the show was in a hotel room, where Giuseppe displayed a couple dozen paper fashion bags that he had painted in an abstract style.

I would not have thought much about them in passing, other than their being pleasant to look at but earlier today I read an interview with his fellow countryman Maurizio Cattelan, the infamous prankster artist, which prompted me to approach the work with a curious eye. 

I engaged with Giuseppe - a very animated, youthful, and dapper man in his early 40s. We had a good conversation about his work and my minor insights were met with an enthusiastic "Bravo!" every so often. Artists, who so often have to explain themselves, love to not only be understood but to be expanded upon.

So let's approach these painted paper fashion bags from a different angle. They actually pose a very interesting question: does a painting diminish itself by existing on an object meant for fashion shopping that is in fact disposable? Yes, and no.

A deeper thought I had in front of the pieces was more about abstraction. Opposite to the illusion of "realistic" painting is that there really is no such thing as an abstract painting because your brain is always actively trying to make connections and once it believes it sees a meadow, a tree, a body, etc. that image ruins the abstraction.

It's interesting that the traveling Giuseppe is carrying around these objects meant for carrying other objects. I think it says something about the history of bags and crossing borders. For some reason my thoughts jump to a list of food items I once saw that my father's relatives had to bring with them for their ocean crossing from Europe to America in the mid 1800s: sacks of potatoes...and how we first perceive these bags to have practical and functional real-world presence but they are actually more like concepts of bags when compared to burlap sacks.

What I like most about Giuseppe's use of the bags is how they are both flat paintings when fixed to the wall, and at the same time sculptural objects when opened. Additionally, I like how the string handles look so purposeful when taut and used to hang the bag, but then silly and pointless when flopped over and flaccid, which you can look with Eva Hesse's work in mind.

When Giuseppe told me the show is called Made in Occident, I thought he was trying to say Made by Accident. It is this kind of understanding by misunderstanding that serves as a sub-theme of the show. It's an idea that perhaps we should approach art not from what we know or want to know but what we come to understand about something, somewhere, someone. Bravo Giuseppe!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Humanity of Humans

by Drew Martin
I had a very out of body experience on Friday at work, which may have had something to do with only having two hours sleep the night before. I was sitting in a meeting with some pretty smart people and although I was engaged in the conversation, I felt like I was watching it happen. I was consumed by the thought that our ideas were formed in and projected from what's inside our skulls.

It's quite remarkable that inside our thick skulls, there is a handful of gray matter that makes thought possible, and organizes our bodies through eye contact, speech, hand gestures, etc. to express our thoughts. This all came to me as I listened to one fellow across the table from me. I was most surprised by all the space around his head. It's like our brains are living planets in an otherwise vastly empty universe. 
I started thinking of the brain less as a central thought generator, or even the hub of a human conscious-style Internet, but more of a processor of one's total environment.

The human brain is still such a mystery. Even though we are getting a much better understanding of how it functions, the extremes of what it can do are mind-boggling, to say the least. In the past couple days I watched two films that made me think quite deeply about what makes us tick.

The first documentary I saw was The Drop Box, which is about a South Korean pastor and his wife in Seoul who have a drop box at their house for unwanted babies. Dead babies found in the trash and the alleys of Seoul, and abandoned babies left outside their gate on freezing cold nights inspired the drop box as a way to save the little, helpless lives. Most of the mothers who leave their babies in the drop box (and then take off before they are seen) are teenage girls. And many of the babies have Down's Syndrome, mental issues, or are physically deformed. It is a heart-wrenching film.

The second documentary I saw was Project Nim, about the 26-year roller coaster life of Nim Chimpsky (yes, after Noam Chomsky) who was taken from his chimpanzee mother and raised by a series of human surrogate mothers and teachers as part of a Columbia research project to see if a chimpanzee, given the right nurturing human environment could acquire the ability to communicate at a human level through sign language. Doomed from the start, the physicality of the maturing male chimp brought a swift end to the project, which began a personal hell for Nim: first, being returned to a prison-like environment, and then even worse - being sold for a scientific research project where he was used as a lab animal for testing Hepatitis and AIDS drugs.

Both films explore the depths of what it means to be human through the cruelest actions to the most compassionate souls.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Shove Thy Neighbor

by Drew Martin
Love Thy Neighbor is always interpreted as an open-armed, peaceful embrace but I have never heard objection to the premise, which is one of land-ownership and material isolation that is bound in the word neighbor. This word does not exist if there is no unnatural division.

I have tried to love my neighbors but there are physical boundaries such as property lines, doors and walls, and cars; and, there other boundaries such as elitism, unsynchable schedules, loaded guns in their closets, and fears. The fears are about losing things that were accumulated and about what life might be like without one's personal bunker - nothing short of Mad Max. So what we then have is a justifiable yet unwarranted prestrike of self-defense: a constant defensive life.

My daughter who is soon to turn 17 recently said to me that humanity ended once people settled down and started developing towns. It is something she read, and it is actually quite true. The compromise of our freedoms starts with land ownership and division of territory, and it leads to slavery, unfair accumulation of wealth and territorial warfare. Sounds awful, but at the same time it is hard for us to imagine what life would be like without the boundaries of time and space.

For the most part, when we speak of nomadic peoples we are discussing ancient humans, or movements that have been extinguished in the past century, such as the shepherds of southern Poland.

Fortunately, for humanity, there are some humans walking the earth, and sleeping in a different spot each night. Each day is more important than the past or future. Fortunately, for us, a young French traveler named Raphael Treza, has documented the Hindu Kalbelias tribe of Rajasthan, North Western India with his film Cobra Gypsies.

At times it feels more like a music video than a documentary, but it is hard to say that Treza romanticizes their lifestyle even though it often reads that way, especially coming from a Westerner, who in one part of the film drums up the European colonist fantasy: to be the first white man these natives have ever seen. 

None-the-less Treza's closeness with and acceptance by the Kalbelias is endearing and, after all, for our voyeuristic benefit. It is more like he presents us with carefree but hardworking nomads in such a raw way that we, ourselves, automatically idealize them. I think this feeling has less to do with the exotic, and more to do with a genuine freedom they have combined with great artistic whims and style.

Watch the full documentary here:

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Loudest Silence I Have Ever Heard

by Drew Martin
There is a big place in my heart for the Amish people, which has nothing to do with their direct religious belief and their rules, but rather about how this translates into their simple lives, and their relationship to the land. I connect with that more than our explosive entertainment culture, constant distractions, and self-importance. And so, any time I see a decent-looking Amish documentary online, I pull up the ironing board and watch in fascination. Tonight I watched The Amish: Shunned...Your Freedom or Your Family, which takes a close look at the shunned Amish who, as one of them expresses, is "lost between cultures." 

The title of this post, The Loudest Silence I Have Ever Heard,
 is a quote from a shunned former Amish woman who attended her father's funeral (typically not permitted for people who leave the community) and how powerful the silence was when she and her non-Amish husband passed by the open coffin with more than 400 Amish looking on. This woman, and others featured in the film, plays a role in the periphery of the community by taking in younger Amish people who leave their families and need a place to stay and a surrogate parent. Early on in the documentary she comments on how the Amish do not permit to have pictures taken of them and how hard it is for our culture to comprehend what it means to only have mental pictures of your loved ones.

One of the ex-Amish featured in this film is a young woman who felt it was God's calling for her to become a nurse. She comments that while putting herself through college to become a nurse makes her a good daughter/person in our culture, it led to her own shunning from the Amish community.

One thing I have found interesting about a lot of the ex-Amish I have seen in such documentaries is that they remain quite religious. They want to know more about Christianity and to interpret the Bible on their own. They question the Amish rules, not the foundation of the faith.

From a media perspective, I think they have a unique understanding of worldly media. Is our abundance of images of each other more important than a good mental picture? While I certainly appreciate such documentaries who is the real audience?

Watch the full documentary here:

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Past, Present, and Future of Computer Games

by Drew Martin
I recently watched two good movies about computer games. The first is Video Games: the Movie, produced by Zach Braff, a documentary which explores the past, present, and future of video games, and the influence of the Atari games that marked the adolescence of my generation. It validates the medium as a rich, interactive story-telling art form, and demands the same level of respect that the movie industry gets for its participating careers. There has been more buzz around the film Atari: Game Over, also made in 2014, but Braff's documentary is a much better watch, if you have to choose. And if you have all the time in the world, then watch both but also check out Indie Game, which is the best of the three in terms a compelling narrative, and is an all around slicker film. 

One thing I do appreciate about Video Games: the Movie is the discussion about gamification. One of the people interviewed in the film suggests that social media apps such as Facebook are really just forms of video games. This makes a lot of sense since there are actions one makes in return, hopefully, for points...or in the case of Facebook, likes or friends. Thinking about this term today, which is a buzzword now, made me realize that it is simply a human trait that has always existed both at a playful level but also with more gruesome consequences, such as collecting scalps, or marking on a fighter plane how many enemy craft a pilot shot down.

The second movie I want to point out is Computer Chess by Andrew Bujalski from 2013, which I watched last night. It is a brilliant film about a fictitious computer chess tournament set in the 1980s. It is shot with analog video camera and Bujalski cast computer techies for many of the roles. There are one or two characters who broke the illusion of it as a period piece and their presence made the film feel more like a contemporary low-budget Los Angeles indie film, but despite a few distractions in the acting, it is really an amazing film. I love the non-actors he cast and the different levels in the film. Yes, it is a dry comedy that focuses on a 1980's computer chess tournament but it is really an existential film. The tournament occupies an event room at a hotel (where they are all staying) but the same space is used in the early mornings as a couples therapy group led by a spiritual guide from Africa. 

The participants from both events overlap and the limitations of the 64 squares on the chess board are debated. One of the younger computer chess programmers at the tournament has the most thinking to do since he orbits both the seduction of one of the therapy couples who want to sexually liberate him, and the only female computer programmer at the event who also has her eyes on him. He discovers that his own chess program, which has been plagued by suicidal maneuvers throughout the tournament, actually does not want to play against other computers but rather with humans. When he suggests this to the professor lead of his team, a conversation begins about confirmation bias "where you're blind to all the things that will refute your theory and you're fixating on the things that will support it."

Friday, September 11, 2015

Dia:Beacon: Getting Into Robert Irwin's Excursus: Homage to the Square3

by Drew Martin
Dia:Beacon is one of the best places to contemplate some of the most important contemporary art. It has the space and solitude it needs to exhibit large works that other museums simply could not manage. The rooms devoted to Richard Serra, for example, are magnificent and his works there are breathtaking.

Dia:Beacon is only an hour or so from my house but it seems too far of a trip to casually make. Prior to yesterday I had only been once before but I was driving back to the New Jersey from a funeral of an artist in Connecticut and so it was a place to stop and remember this fellow, as it was on the way home.

I could write about this museum forever, but I want to bring attention to a current exhibit (up for two years) by Robert Irwin, the artist who designed the transformation of the museum space from an old box factory to what it is today.

Excursus: Homage to the Square
by Irwin is the kind of installation that a viewer might typically walk through in a minute and sigh "I get it" or "I don't get it" with the same apathetic tone. It consists of 18 ghostly scrimmed rooms that lead into one other at the corner posts. In the center of each translucent/partly transparent wall is a lit vertical florescent tube (four to a room) which are identically accented with colored gels in each room, but are slightly differ from one room to the next. The effect departs from the influence for the piece - Josef Alber's original color study series - and enters the realm of coded language somewhere between a visual Morse code and lightning bug signals. They are mysterious light spectra that could be the readings of the gases of distant stars or some kind of emotional feelings.

The scrimmed walls allow you to see all the way through the exhibit but at the same time they also have the illusion that they are reflecting what is behind you, which plays with one's depth perception - a sensation that Irwin wants you to experience, but not obviously. 

While the cubic structure of the space is a simple arrangement, it has a maze-like complexity. This labyrinth is not constructed with a no-way-out design but rather by a mesmerizing gravity that pulls you back in. The rooms are structurally identical but their arrangement within the whole installation means that some are on the perimeter, while the others are totally interior. Dia:Beacon's press release for the installation says there is no beginning, middle or end but this is not exactly right. There is no particular place to enter or exit but it begins as you approach it and ends once you leave the installation. In the middle there is no duration. It is a timeless space that extends into an infinite future.

The first time I saw it yesterday I walked by rather quickly, but then I returned and spent well over a half an hour in the space. And then I returned again to spend more time. It is meticulously constructed with the perfectly taut scrim, which is precisely stapled to the thin wood stripping (painted white) that define the perimeter of the walls. All the staples on the sides of the doors are vertical and evenly distanced from one another. All the staples on the top of the doors are horizontal. On the top corners, the staples are at 45-degree angles, leaning toward the open space. It is a detail that marries the intention of the artist with the care of the museum staff and the respect of the viewer.

Excursus: Homage to the Squareis best to experience when you are alone, void of other museum goers, but that being said, it does change the space in an interesting way when there are other people present, and it would be interesting to explore with someone you intimately know; to lose and find and lose and find again in this overlapping place of time and space.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Ungentlemanly Art: A History of American Political Cartoons

by Drew Martin
I just finished reading The Ungentlemanly Art: A History of American Political Cartoons, which is a fascinating look at American history through the eyes and minds of political cartoonists, and the influence on the artwork due to various reproduction methods and schedules of more timely publications. While I am not particularly interested in American history, this book was a great approach because of the details covered in the illustrations and the opposing points of view that the artists offered.

Benjamin Franklin's Join, or Die snake is a topic of discussion concerning its first appearance in 1754 and then multiple uses thereafter. I did not actually know this was by Franklin's hand, and I was clueless to the meaning behind the severed creature: a superstition at that time that if you cut up a snake and were to stick its parts back together before sunset, it would be whole again.

Thomas Nast, a German-born illustrator, had such influence with his cartoons that once he set his sights on William M. Tweed, a corrupt mid-1800's New York politician and the "Boss" of Tammany Hall the political machine that controlled New York State, he was offered $100,000 to go "study art" in Europe. Nast bid up Tweed's offer to half a million dollars but then declined it so that he could stick around and put Tweed and his cohorts behind bars. 
Tweed demanded...

"Stop them damn pictures. I don't care so much what the papers write about me. My constituents can't read. But, damn it, they can see pictures." 

In this The Tammany Tiger Loose cartoon which ran in Harper's Weekly in 1871, Nast depicts Tweed as emperor who watches his mascot tiger maul Columbia, the symbol of the American republic at that time.

The Ungentlemanly Art also traces this switch from Columbia to Uncle Sam as the symbol of America by way of Brother Jonathan, a character who was a bit of a country bumpkin.

The caption of the Jim Crow themed illustration here by the Pulitzer Prize winning Bill Mauldin is "I've decide I want my seat back." Mauldin ridiculed the southern redneck in many of his cartoons and championed Civil Rights in the 1960s.

While The Ungentlemanly Art is a refreshing and very visually attentive approach to American history it of course also casts a wider net. Many of the cartoonists in the United States were actually European immigrants - some of them excelled, while others never adjusted to the cultural climate - and many of cartoons were about world events. One of the interesting notes was that while the political cartoonists were typically the avant-garde of political commentary and were insightful about their subjects, most of them got Adolf Hitler wrong, seeing him at first as a bit of a clown, and not the dangerous dictator that he was.

One of my favorite aspects of The Ungentlemanly Art is beyond its pages and references. I loved thinking about these artists; pre-computer, and often pre-electricity. While there are great technical skills needed for etching and engraving, the mind of the artist was perhaps more independently critical to the product as it was less about being an operator of program needed to obtain the result. But this is true of political cartoonists and editorial illustrators today too and is what separates them from graphic artists. I often think about the ratio of idea to execution in art so I was pleased to read a passage in the beginning of the book that addressed this:

One of the finest American newspaper cartoonists during the years between the World Wars, Rollin Kirby, may have solved this paradox when he said in 1918 that a good cartoon consists of 75 per cent idea and 25 per cent drawing.

Another appreciation I have of this book is that it was published in 1968, the year before I was born. Unfortunately that means the history of American political cartoons ends a bit prematurely and misses out on nearly a half a century of work but the flip of this is that is a more patiently developed book and is better written than it would probably be if it were assembled today.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Down Periscope: Amanda Oleander's Body of Work

by Drew Martin
The late art critic Robert Hughes said of a "self satisfied" Jeff Koons that he “really does think he’s Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him." Hughes compared Koons' work to that of Seward Johnson (I thought it was also to Damien Hirst) and said discussing their work was “like debating the merits of dog excrement versus cat excrement”. 

I wish the cantankerous yet highly intelligent Nothing If Not Critical Hughes were around to chime in on a new phenomenon that has breached the levees of social media reality stars into the art world, which can only spell disaster. The Internet and social media have launched careers in the music and entertainment industry but have only been venues for artists to show off their work and get connected. The new reality is quite different. Think Rebecca Black meets the art world.

On my last post I wrote about my fascination with Periscope as a medium but since then I became familiar with Amanda Oleander, a 25 year old who jumped on board from the beginning and is on her way to drumming up half a million followers. She is backhandedly called the Kim Kardashian of Periscope and its first star. I would be fine with another LA-based starlet making it big based on her looks and self-promotion but this time it's coming to a gallery/museum near you. I don't think there are any news-worthy shows planned yet, but there will be, unfortunately, mark my words.

Prior to the Oleander phenomenon, mediocre artists were contained to sites such as DeviantArt but Periscope has become a way to overcome a bad portfolio with good looks. Left alone on the other platforms Oleander would have not had a chance but the ubiquitous phone camera turned on her glaringly white teeth, Disney-character looks, youthful glow, short-shorts and off-the-shoulder fashion gained her the attention that her artwork could not do on its own. As she admits "It took me four years to get 2,000 followers on Instagram. And I did this on Periscope in four days?!"

The difference between Koons and Oleander has a lot to do with Marshall McLuhan's infamous statement, the Medium is the Message, which he made half a century ago. Koons hired agencies to curate his image and plan his promotion in order to strategically insert himself into the art world and to tell us what we should think of him. Oleander moves very differently in a Periscope-controlled environment. She constantly blocks viewers who go too far in commenting on her looks (which draws them there in the first place) or who aren't telling her how good she is as an artist. What you are left with is an incredibly censored mass of flattering followers and a very superficial discussion about her work.

In all fairness Oleander has some talent, as does Koons. I think it is safe to say Koons invented a casting process based on an inflatable device, and that he is a perfectionist, which helps in his sculptures but makes it impossible for him to create a decent painting. Likewise, Oleander, who is originally from Florida and got her BFA from UNC in Charlotte, would be an OK illustrator for children's books but she only has one cartoonish style and not a lot of thought behind her work. I turned to my 16-year-old daughter, who is a much more talented artist, for feedback on Oleander's scopes and asked her prove me wrong, but she concluded that neither Oleander or her work have a lot of character and are boring: personality without character - enough said.

A few hours after posting this article with the top three images, I was alerted by Periscope to a new replay of a broadcast by Oleander. I watched as much as I could handle. It starts out with her phone streaming her reflection. She is wearing a gangsta panda T-shirt from her "fine art clothing collection" which is more about her showing off her belly than anything else. A screenshot from the broadcast is the fourth picture here. Later, she talks about this animal series. She shows a painting of a rhino holding an iPhone 6 and she explains that she put the iPhone 6 in the painting as a time capsule for future generations so when the owner of the painting passes it down to his or her children or grandchildren they will realize its place in history because she "predicts" that people in the future "won't even be using iPhone 6s." The day before in a cafe she shows off smartphone charging keys that you plug in and place on a charging mat. She says she came up with the idea for this six months ago (the technology has been available for some Droids much longer than that) and finally someone has been able to match her vision. It's the kind of ego-centric delusion that Hughes refers to with Koons, only that it is immediately followed by viewers texting "you are amazing"... "you are so inspiring" etc, followed by a signature Oleander "Thank you so much. I love you guys." 

Sept. 19 Addendum:
I stopped bothering to pay attention to Oleander's broadcast alerts and replays but a couple days ago I saw a replay titled: Life of an artist in Los Angeles: ripping up priceless limited edition panda prints.

Priceless?? Really?? I thought this was going to be a tongue and cheek piece but it was actually Oleander taking herself more seriously than I imagined was possible. She ripped up a couple prints of the amateurish painting she did of the gangster panda with as much suspense as she could muster as if they actually were priceless. She spoke about her integrity as an artist and how should could sell these for thousands of dollars (after saying they sold for $20 each) but there were flaws with these prints that only she could detect. Then she sat down and started pasting/gessoing them on a store-bought canvas and explained how she would make something new from the torn pieces. While she was busy and not deleting the critical comments a couple piled up that I thought were interesting and tied in to the original body of this post, such as this one from a guy...

"I am not a fan of your art, but I am a fan of your personality."

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Up Periscope

by Drew Martin
A couple years ago I looked into the url availability of periscope for a cartoon I did about a submarine but is used by a creative agency. My favorite social media app now is Periscope at, which uses the .tv domain country code of Tuvalu that the company dotTV operates and is 20% owned by the country.

Periscope, if you have not been on it, is a live video streaming app purchased by Twitter for $100ish million in March 2015. 
Ironically, despite the big purchase @periscope is still the Twitter handle for the agency, with @periscopetv for the app.

My first encounter with Periscope was last week at an app meetup party on the rooftop Monarch in Midtown Manhattan for The Vane fashion/weather app and the TWIP like-minded peple travel app. I was there as the UX/UI designer for another app that is being developed. Covering the scene was Vicki Winters (@MyBigFatMouth), a youthful 58-year-old scoper with unbound energy who never missed a beat.

Later that night I stripped the replay video of us from Periscope and checked out the app. The possibilities and functionality of Periscope make other apps such as Snapchat look like old typewriters. At any moment you can scan the world for who is broadcasting and you can text-comment on the live video and tap the screen of your phone to send hearts to the scoper, which appear in the color of an overlay on your profile picture during the broadcast. There are never more than a couple dozen broadcasts going on from each continent at any one time so it is pretty easy to manage the world view. Additionally, the zoom function is pretty smart by how it shows the number of broadcasts in a region but then splits up into more specific places as you zoom in.

You can follow a scoper, and are alerted when they start their broadcast. The US and Brazil have the most live broadcasts from the Americas (Canada is almost nonexistent) and several countries in Europe are using it. Surprisingly, there is a big turnout in Russia, Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula.

Unfortunately most of the broadcasts from the farther flung regions are just a person, typically a young woman, staring at the screen while men swarm in, like spermatozoa around an unfertilized egg. They text lewd things, the most innocent of which is the hilariously bad English command, open boobs, in hopes that the lady with flash the phone camera. The goodnight broadcasts of young women get the most ogling eyes. One that I watched last night of a naked-ish Swedish woman under her duvet saw viewers go from 0 to 1.6K + in a matter of seconds. That being said, n
o matter how mindless a broadcast, seeing someone's kitchen or bedroom in Baku or Astana is still fascinating.

After watching a lot of crap, I realized that Vicki Winters was really on it and I am glad she introduced me to Periscope. Perhaps the app will wallow in the more senseless broadcasts but there are a few that I watched that caught my eye. One of the more casual broadcasts that I really liked was by Christian Tido, a college student out of Cameroon, who claims the broadcast I tuned in to was the first Periscope feed out of Africa. He and his friend, a cool young lady, fielded questions and endured silly comments as they looked out over his balcony to a nice neighborhood, and gave a brief tour of his house (upon my request). 

Periscope, because it is owned by Twitter, uses your Twitter ID. Christian's profile @tidochrys has the tagline "Hey, let's just all share the same eye!" followed by a little, Africa-prominent world emoji.

By far the scoper that I absolutely love the most and think is the best one out there in terms of the give and take is an early 30's American woman, Lauren, from Scottsdale, Arizona who has been living in Japan for the past 11 years as a high school English teacher. She shares a small flat in Yokohama with her Japanese husband Ryuji, two dogs and a cat. Lauren (JPUS Lauren USJP @starkodama) has been broadcasting regularly for the past month. Sometimes she gives Japanese lessons (her Japanese is excellent) or she might just spend the time talking about a subject such as HULU in Japan. There are also shorter broadcasts where she will take a walk around her neighborhood or let us join her as she walks to meet Ryuji after work. My favorite broadcasts (I have only seen two of this type - the first of which got me hooked) is where Ryuji sits off to the side with a dry erase board while Lauren fields requests from the viewers of what he should draw. Their chemistry is great, and the drawings are laugh-out-loud funny.

Aside from the topics and personality of Lauren's broadcasts, what I like most is her dexterity with the medium and the new talent it requires, which is all about covering her theme while constantly and cheerfully greeting the viewers as they join, and commenting on the rapid-fire texts that pop up. She is a pro at engaging the viewer and diffusing any erotic comments with her quick wit that turns the poke into a joke. That being said, she has the most respectful group of followers I have ever seen. 

On one broadcast Lauren calls Jiro (of Jiro Dreams of Sushian asshat for misogynistic comments he has made (like he does not hire women because their hands are too hot and also they cannot properly taste sushi when they are menstruating - which Lauren jokes that her hands are always cold, and that Jiro's own taste must be affected by his heavy smoking). A minute later she complains that she wants to take off her sweater but that her tank top underneath is too boobiliscious. With a viewer's suggestion, she titles the following broadcast #boobilisciousasshat.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

In the Moog for Electronic Music

by Drew Martin
Earlier today, in a little more than an hour and a half, I got caught up on four decades of electronic music and the history of the modular synthesizer by watching the documentary I Dream of Wires. As a story of differing East Coast vs West Coast approaches to a topic, this is as good as it gets.

The modular synthesizer was born in the sixties on both sides of the United States, and was quickly divided between the East Coast Philosophy and the West Coast Philosophy. The East Coast synthesizer, developed by Bob Moog uses a traditional keyboard, which appealed to the music industry 
because it was familiar, stabile, and could play Western scale notes

The West Coast synthesizer, developed by Don Buchla, was keyboardless and sought to redefine how music was approached and performed. It was based on metric loops in sequence, potentially forever. This experimental approach to music had a broader social context because "nonconformism and music go together" and it sought to avoid "the rules and suits and ties of the East coast." But those rules "listened to the client base of professional musicians and was ultimately able to deliver a relatively reliable product to the marketplace."

This next passage is acoustically over my head, but it sounds great...and maybe that's because the early Buchla has a red panel that was allegedly dipped in LSD so the person using it could lick it to get some inspiration:

With an East Coast Philosophy system you find rich waveforms, like saw, square, pulse, noise - harmonic rich waveforms to start with and then a big fat four pole filter to get rid of harmonics and sweep the resonance around to create the temporal shifts, to make the sounds more interesting.

In a Buchla you find oscillators that have waveshapers, but very simple filters after them. In most patches in a West Coast synthesizer, there isn't even really filtering going on. If you want to create the harmonic interest in the sound, you have to use the waveshaper. You have a sine wave that's been folded over on top of itself a bunch of times to create something really dense. It's like a completely different way at looking at synthesis. It's not subtractive synthesis in the traditional sense. There's a certain sound quality it gets that is totally unique, and it's just not possible to do it on any other system.

The documentary is about the success of the Moog system over the Buchla system, the abandonment of the modular synthesizers due to the introduction/competition of smaller, lighter, cheaper synthesizers with presets, and then the eventual return of these analog electronic systems through Acid House music and continuation in this era of "an explosion of ideas."

The return of the modular synthesizer is met with great optimism as one of the interviewed subjects explains...

I think as human beings we have a lot more fun than we'd like to acknowledge. It is fun. It's fun to make cities, automobiles, musical instruments, and huge sound systems. And we do a lot of things just for the pure pleasure of it. When generations listen to previous generations' manifestions, they want to get involved too. They want to dance with it, use it. And I think every generation ought be be absolutely ruthless about stealing the best of everything from previous generations. It's their duty, they have to do it.