Friday, April 29, 2016

How Many Seconds Old Are You?

by Drew Martin
I was born in the 60s. Ok, it was in the last four and a half months of 1969, but I can still claim a little of that turf. The 69 always messes me up when I have to actually think about how old I am. Am I 46 or 47? 

I am horrible with math, too forgetful of my actual age, and a little indifferent to the whole matter. 

There are a bunch of apps and websites out there designed for people like me, which I decided to consult. The two websites I looked at for this post are pretty bare bones but each has its own advantage. 

The age calculator on breaks your age down separately into years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds and it tells you when you next birthday is in days, hours, minutes and seconds but it does not give you a precise age as in years+months+days+hours+minutes+seconds. One other drawback is that when you put in your time of birth you have to adjust for your time zone. I was born in California so I had to add three hours to that time.  The coolest feature of the calculator is that it has a live, ticking display of exactly how many seconds old you are.

The only other site I looked at was, which is nice because it does tell you your age as a combined years+months+days+hours+minutes but it lacks the fun of the seconds details.This site also works with time zones, which is a little more sophisticated but you have to select from a drop down, and in this particular case it felt wrong to click on Los Angeles, when I was born up north.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Cosmic High Fives to High Tides

by Drew Martin
As a kid, my grandparents’ vacation spot at a creek near Williamsburg, Virginia was the most remote place in the world for me. My relatives had either small cabins or trailers in the thick woods and we were miles from civilization. We fished, spent time on boats, or shot at cans with BB guns or sling shots during the day and played cards at night. It was a place to kick back and spend time with relatives, but I never imagined I would have a profound, worldly feeling there. 

On a recent trip to Virginia, my brother arranged for my family stay at his own cabin on the same creek. I got up before everyone else in the morning and went out to his dock. A text from him (he was back at his house in Richmond) mentioned it must be high tide. I said it was and sent him a picture of his dock (top). Then I ran with my older son to our old stomping grounds at the creek. The water was the highest I had ever seen it so I texted my brother and asked if it had something to do with global warming. He mentioned that the tides vary with many factors. 

In that moment I looked around this marshy area of the meandering creek and I felt like I was on top of an observatory mountain in Hawaii. All of these years I never thought about how perfect of a place this was to observe the influence of the moon and sun's tractive force on Earth. Unlike the ocean coasts, the creek is undisturbed by crashing waves and blasts of wind. And unlike a steady flow of a river, the creek flows in different directions based whether it was rising towards high tide or lowering towards a low tide.

I had always felt overwhelmed by nature at the creek but that was because of water snakes, spiders, and ticks - this was a cosmic connection. Since our recent stay at the creek, I have looked at a lot of detailed tidal charts of that area and compared them to moon phase charts. What I keep reading is that tides are a "Complex Phenomenon."

They are barely noticeable at the equator and range only about a foot at high sea, but in other areas they are extreme. At the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia, Canada tides vary as much as 44.6 feet!

Although the time between high tides is (normally*) constant, around 12 hours and 25 minutes, the heights of high and low tides vary because of orbital path of the moon and how it aligns with the sun - the sun adds to the moon's gravitational effect. The bulge of the Earth's body of water is greatest when there is a new moon (when the sun and moon are aligned on one side of the Earth) or during the full moon (when the moon is on opposite side of Earth from sun). 
The gravitational force of the moon is actually only one ten-millionth of the Earth’s gravity [to things on Earth]. And the sun's gravitational force is only 46% of the moon, but when combined with the Earth’s centrifugal force created by the spin of the Earth, the effects are increased. The Proxigean Spring Tides are the highest because they are when the moon is closest to the Earth. Neap tides, the weakest, happen during quarter moon phases, which diminish global water bulging because the sun and moon are perpendicular with respect to Earth. The illustration here (bottom) is much simplified but is one of the better ones I found online.

*Click here to read more about this "Complex Phenomenon", which includes such morsels:

The world ocean is a complex dynamical system. The natural velocity of a water disturbance depends on the depth and salinity of the water at each point it passes. When bodies of land circumscribe bodies of water, they produce a collection of resonating systems that favor water oscillations with certain frequencies over others. From among the 300+ harmonics that can be measured, every port and coastal location has its own unique signature depending on its latitude, longitude, water depth and salinity. The result is that the 'two high two low' tide rule can be strongly modified so that the time between successive high tides can be greater than or less that 12 hours in many cases. The result is that for some locations, there can be days when only one high tide occurs.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

007 Leagues Under the Sea

by Drew Martin
I have always appreciated how BBC nature documentaries develop a narrative for the animals they are observing. Perhaps it is at times too forced and scripted (as if for a children’s story) but it draws you into the fold, or pod, or whatever. Last night I watched the first episode of Dolphins: Spy in the Pod. As Brits are also famous for their spy culture, this two-episode program combines onsite observation with camouflaged espionage.

The show follows a couple different pods of bottlenose and spinner dolphins in various oceans around the world. The dolphins are filmed swimming, hunting and foraging for fish, mating, rearing their young, and above all, playing.

What’s different about this documentary's approach to turning the lens on nature is that it tries to remove the presence of humans by using synthetic spy creatures whose eyes, and sometimes mouths, are outfitted with high-definition cameras. There’s Spy Turtle, Spy Tuna, Spy Nautilus, Spy Dolphin, Spy Squid, Spy Clam, Spy Puffer, and Spy Ray, all with a unique way of getting around and filming.

One advantage of the various aquatic agents is that they pique the interest of the ever-curious dolphins and attract them for up-close photo opportunities. Sometimes the spy creatures fit in too well. Spy Squid is preyed upon by a monstrous potato cod, and while filming a couple of mating olive ridley sea turtles, the female switches her attention to our voyeur and makes her moves on Spy Turtle. When the narrator announces that Spy Turtle has to stay focused and has a job to do, as it moves off, you feel a little sorry for him, even though he is just an android.

While the spy creatures might seem like a gimmick at times, and you might question how effective they are from traditional underwater filming when you see them putter out of commission, they do make some amazing finds. Spy Trout captures the coming together of two large pods to form a never-seen-before mega-pod of more than 3,000 dolphins. 

Also filmed is a garland mating dance/play initiated by male dolphins who present wreaths of seaweed to interested females. One of the spy creatures even captures the dolphins at a spa – they must get rid of their most outer layer of skin every three hours to stay hydrodynamic so the dolphins will revisit coral beds where they can exfoliate.

The spy creatures, when looked at as art objects, are pure Dada, and surreal, and remind me of a post I did about pigeon surveillance cameras, tree stump listening devices, exploding coal, and other quirky tricks of the espionage trade. For more on that, read I Spy.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Chuck Norris vs. Communism

by Drew Martin
Chuck Norris vs. Communism is a great Romanian documentary about the role illegal VHS video tapes had between 1985-1989 in the downfall of brutal communist regime of Romania when video players were hard to come by and cost as much as a car.

The video tapes were smuggled in often by bribing border guards, then illegally dubbed, copied, and distributed to individuals who would have secret screenings in their apartments.

The three people who had the most influence were 
Teodor Zamfir, the ring leader of the business, Irina Nistor a professional interpreter for the state television who illegally moonlighted in Zamfir's basement studio, and Micea Cojocaru another interpreter who also dubbed movies for Zamfir but turned out to be secret police - which actually saved Zamfir when his house was raided and he was able to whisper a special password to call them off.

The documentary is a mixture of reenactment and interviews with everyone from Nistor to the people who attended the apartment screenings. They recall the movies they watched and how much it changed their lives and empowered them to bring down the government. Nistor continued to do the dubbing even after things got dangerous for her because she said the films were her oxygen. And her fans appreciated her - they said that if they heard a film dubbed by Cojocaru or anyone else they considered it a rip off, and they fantasized about what she looked like. One older viewer described her voice as being shrill but at the same time pleasant and expressive, and that she went beyond the role of dubbing and really acted out the roles.

Most of the films they watched were American action films but they got much more out of them than the brawls and explosions. They understood the idea of fighting the bad guys and felt empowered. The younger people from the audience would go out in the street after the screenings and have a more "disciplined" way of playing - acting out scenes from Chuck Norris, Rocky, Rambo, Van Damme, and Bruce Lee films. They also watched films such as Dirty Dancing, Pretty Woman, and other lighthearted movies where everything had a different meaning for them - a typical shop scene would show the abundance of products in America, and common street scenes would show them cars they had never seen in person.

The censors who Nistor worked with at her dayjob with the state television axed everything for a range of reasons. The meat locker scene in Rocky displayed too much meat available for consumption, and a rabbit carrying red, yellow, and blue balloons in the Russian kids cartoon Nu, pogodi! was canned because those are the colors of the Romanian flag and they thought it might send a message that Russia had too much control of them.

By 1989 Nistor had dubbed more than 3,000 films. When Zamfir first asked her what pay she would require for each film, she suggested the amount it would cost to get a smuggled bar of Austrian chocolate. He doubled it. When people reflected on how it all happened, even despite all the bribes and payoffs to high-ranking officials, they suggested that in the end the video cassette seem so trivial that no one could image that it might actually contribute to the downfall of Nicolae Ceauşescu's regime.

Autism in Love

by Drew Martin
Today I watched Autism in Love, an interesting documentary about autism and love. It follows a few people with various degrees of autism: a couple that gets engaged during the course of the documentary, a man who is married but loses his wife to brain cancer by the end of the film, and 
a young man looking for love.

It is an interesting look at love because with autism there are challenges in expressing oneself as well as comprehending how others are communicating to you. Their cues for and signs of love are hardly verbal so people with autism sometimes have to rely on other aspects.

Pictured here the man who eventually proposes to his girlfriend, explaining his formula for love. L + P + 2T is Looks + Personality + 2 x how he or she treats you. He continues to explain that how someone might be ugly but scores high overall because he or she is a nice person. You want all of the people filmed to have meaningful relationships but you see the frustrations. In one moment the girlfriend of this man is explaining very soulfully how necklaces are a shield for her and instead of engaging further into the conversation, he reminds her that the weather is on and would like to watch it.

The man who loses his wife is the least communicative. He visited his wife regularly during her hospital stay but never really had a full conversation with her and later explains very practically that he cannot love her after she is gone because she is not there. It is painful to watch but at least you know he lived and loved.

The young man is the one you are most concerned about, and hope he will find someone to share a life with. In one part he explains about how he does not see women anywhere, and he says (to show how dire the situation is)...

It's like I feel like if someone came up to me and said "Would you want to go to a woman's prison for a week?" I'd probably say yes. "Would you go to a woman's jail for a week and be the only man there?" I'd probably say yes.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Overturned Kübelwagen on the New Jersey Turnpike

by Drew Martin
Overturned Kübelwagen on the New Jersey Turnpike is sculpture I made this morning that ties together a meltdown I had as a passenger last week on the New Jersey Turnpike after an 11-hour drive up from North Carolina, a recent conversation and contemplation I had about the "Jersey barrier" (I am from Jersey), and the affects of wars - years after they have ended.

I live in a small, crowded house with five people, so when I find myself alone I have a couple options: sleep in peace, write in peace, or go into the magical zone of creating art. So this morning I had a couple such hours and I decided to make a sculpture. I try to make sense of all the toys left in the wake of my growing children, as well as other objects sitting around the house - especially in my basement.

A six-foot-long wooden plank started it off as a good "road" project, which I could incorporate some of the Matchbox cars in our house. I had old house paint for the road and white acrylic paint for the road stripes. I researched the standard: 10-foot white stripes, six inches wide, 30 feet apart.

I thought about 3D-printing the Jersey barrier but that would take a long time and I am cautious of using it too much because of the fumes. So I designed and 3D-printed a negative cross section of a Jersey barrier, which I planned to force clay (which I found in my basement) through and cut into lengths. I pictured it working like a macaroni-making device, but no such luck: the clay just got stuck. So I ended up making a snake of clay and hand-sculpted the Jersey barriers.

One of the toy cars I found was of a WWII Kübelwagen. The front wheels were missing so that inspired me using it as a vehicle in the accident. I had just finished The Civil War Ken Burns documentary and one of the themes is about the continuation of the affects of war long after the final surrender: psychological effects and economic hardships. So the idea of WWII enemies actually causing a modern day traffic jam on the New Jersey Turnpike is the quirkiness of the piece.

Ancient Wound

by Drew Martin
I just finished watching (the entire) The Civil War from 1990 by Ken Burns. This nine-episode, 11-hour documentary is a detailed yet personal approach to the American Civil War that raged between April of 1861 - May of 1865.

Calling it a civil war plays down some of the dynamics because this was not a power struggle by the "rebels" for "the country." The South had, in fact, politically seceded from the United States by forming its own government with its own president, Jefferson Davis. In their minds they had their own country for four years: the Confederate States of America, and the military action of the North was treated as an invasion of their country by Yankees whose directive was to bring them back into the Union.

When Yankee soldiers first encountered runaway slaves, they sent them back to their southern owners as they were instructed to do because they were fighting for unification, not the abolition of slavery. President Lincoln would have agreed to a solution even if it meant letting slavery continue. He later entertained the idea of colonizing the slaves on an island somewhere. It was not until hundreds of thousands of soldiers died that he turned the war into a fight for freedom.

The documentary is an amazing display of black and white photographs. It was the first war to be photographed. I once had a book of American Civil War photographs and remember many of the dead soldiers pictures, such as the middle one here from Gettysburg. But I do not recall seeing pictures of the devastation caused by Sherman's Union army. The pictures of the destroyed cities of Atlanta, Charleston, and Richmond (top) look like bombed-out Dresden or Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I had no idea that flightless 19th century armies could even logistically do such damage.

My mom's father, "Granddaddy" was a proud southerner who I still recall shaking his head in his Richmond apartment and saying with a proper southern accent, "It's a shame we lost the war." He was born less than 40 years after the war so he would have heard old timers firsthand accounts. I remember some of our families stories of the Yankees invading and what they did but I never felt connected to the events even though I went to Virginia at least once a year to visit my grandparents. I have always felt a connection to Virginia because of my family history, which dates back to 1619 Jamestown, but It was not until I started The Civil War series that I began to think much more about the war itself and how much physical and psychological damage it did. I always thought the South would remain as I remember it but on a recent trip to Virginia and North Carolina, it seems to be slipping away into a gentrified mishmash of transplanted professionals.

William Faulkner once said that history is not "was" but "is." In many ways the American Civil War is still unresolved. The Confederate States of America compared the defense of their land to the Revolutionary War, while the Yankees set up America as a shoot-first-ask-questions-later culture of invasion, which takes a horrible toll on humanity with often indirect reasons.

I learned so much from this documentary. I did not know the Confederates had so many victories despite always being out-manned and out-gunned.The last battle of the American Civil War, in Texas, was a Confederate victory. I was also surprised by the multiple accounts by the Yankees of how they admired the devotion of the southerners, while they themselves were not always sure of why they were invading. It was beyond an educational film for me and really made me explore my own southern connection.

Burns set up the documentary to feature characters from both sides. He points out a couple soldiers from the very beginning and checks in on them a several times throughout. But if there is a personality of this epic documentary, it is the writer and historian Shelby Dade Foote Jr. (1916-2005), whose calming, Mississippi accent relays anecdotes about the lives of the soldiers in a dreamy way. His material is so rich that his presence makes up for almost a tenth of the entire documentary. He explains details such as when you see pictures of dead soldiers with their shirts pulled out and pants pulled down, that you might assume they were picked over for their possessions but that they were, in fact, casualties of the Minié ball - a fairly recent invention and choice of ammunition that shattered bones and tore at flesh. The disheveled appearance of the casualties was from them tearing at their burning wounds in their final moments. 

Towards the end of the series Foote summarizes the effect of the American Civil War with a twist of grammar. He explains that before the American Civil War, people said The United States are... and after, The United States is...

Finally, Burns' narrators recap the lives of the opposing Generals, Lee and Grant, and explains their final days. He also mentions Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who had been in constant pain for the rest of his life after being shot with by a Confederate Minié ball in the Battle of Petersburg. At the age of 83 he attended the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, which he described as a transcendental experience. A year later, he finally died because of his "ancient wound" - the last casualty of the war.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Brain, Brain - Go Away, Come Again Another Day

by Drew Martin
The movie Concussion may have been snubbed at this year's Oscars but it will not be forgotten, neither will Will Smith's performance. I like Smith from what I know of him but his performances up to this point were always a bit smug for me. Not so with this role. He does not mimic Dr. Bennet Omalu, but creates a believable character so much so that I often forgot it was Smith I was watching, and not a passionate Nigerian doctor. That's always my barometer for good acting; when the actor can act past him/herself. True of actors such as Daniel Day Lewis and Kate Blanchett. Not true of people such as Tom Cruise, Matt Damien, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, etc.

Concussion was actually quite similar to the film which won the Oscar this year for best film, Spotlight, which I posted about last month. The energy of both films is generated from the pursuit of knowledge and overcoming the obstacles that get in the way.

Smith's not being nominated for his role fueled #oscarssowhite tweets, and while the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a long way to go to achieve diversity, I think this film was pushed aside for other reasons, inherent in the plot. With the applause for Spotlight, it is apparent that it is fine to attack the church, but Concussion threatens an even holier American industry - the National Football League (NFL).

The difference between Spotlight and Concussion is, however, that Spotlight dates itself and plays off the priest molestation of minors as something uncovered and identified. Concussion is alive and kicking, and the real fallout is in the future. Exactly a year ago the NFL settled (without an admission of wrongdoing) a 2011 class action lawsuit from former players for more than $1 billion over the next 65 years to 20,000 NFL retirees. This was directly related to Omalu's work, who first discovered c
hronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) after performing an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster in 2002, published his findings in the journal Neurosurgery in 2005, and presented the details to the dismissive NFL in 2007. Last week New York Jets left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson announced his retirement and cited the movie Concussion as the impetus.

While the film is titled Concussion, and such obvious head trauma has always been a concern for high-impact athletes, Omalu's work shows that CTE is actually the result of repetitive hits to the head that may not cause a concussion. 
It is a form of tauopathy, a progressive degenerative disease previously called dementia pugilistica (DP). This "punch-drunk" condition was initially found in boxers but is present in all athletes who experience repeated brain trauma, which causes a build-up of tau protein. Other tauopathies include Alzheimer’s disease.

If the NFL feels singled out here, which they certainly are, the film also takes on a certain anti-intellectual side of America. Omalu came from Nigeria where, his character in the movie explains, America is considered a notch just below heaven. He holds eight advanced degrees and board certifications, has a broad range of interests. Despite this he is labeled in the film (as in real life) as uneducated, and voodoo. Omalu is indeed a brilliant man, who Smith potrays with keenness. You cannot help but appreciate a coroner who speaks to his dead subjects with respect and even throws away the surgical knives after each autopsy.

The family name, Omalu, is a shortened form of the surname, Onyemalukwube, which translates to "he/she who knows, speak."

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Behind: the Art Scene

by Drew Martin
A couple years ago I was a little obsessed with Fiverr, a site where people offer a range of services for only $5. Recently, I realized I still had $5 credit so I scrolled through a range of options. I found an illustrator, Alastair Laird,
 from South Africa who did a four-frame cartoon about a woman checking out and commenting on her butt so I asked him to place her in a museum/gallery setting. This is the result:

Museums and galleries are interesting places to watch people. There is always the couple where the guy who is clueless about the art is there merely to comply or, if he is a bit more ambitious, he will engage in the situation as a kind of foreplay. And now, with the ubiquity of smartphones, these places are more about being backdrops for selfies. 

When Kim Kardashian's butt graced the cover of the Winter 2014 issue of Paper magazine, and "broke the Internet," the Metropolitan Museum of Art joined in the public conversation. Their it's-nothing-we-have-not-seen-before twitter response was accompanied by a 6,500+ year-old bootylicious fertility statue.

So I like Alastair's cartoon here, catered for my request, because he plays with that updated meaning of self-reflection, and also pulls in the hapless fellow.

Related articles:
Freedom from Want: Kim Kardashian's Buttocks
The Jeff Koons Retrospective At The Whitney: Shiny Reflections But No Self-Reflection

Interestingly, as a cartoonist myself, I have never really done cartoons about art except for my posters for Freak Show and Freak Show II. It is a new thing for me - to pay for someone else's creativity and work. As an artist that is always from within.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Tearing a Page from the Book of Ultra-Running History - The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats its Young

by Drew Martin
What do these books have in common?...The Valley of Death, Almost Home, The Body in the Woods, Fool, The End, A Week in the Woods, Damned, The Idiot, and Human Zoo.
Nothing stylistically but their titles are part of the quirky spirit of one of the most off-the-beaten-paths ultra-running races, the Barkley Marathons, which has no website, no publicly available information, requires an entrance exam, plus a $1.60 entrance fee (such events can exceed $500).

First-time runners are required to sacrifice a license plate of where they are from (the collection even includes one from Antarctica), and all runners must bring whatever the race-organizer, Lazarus Lake, needs that year. One year it was white-T-shirts, another year socks, and another year flannel shirts.

There is a race day chosen in the spring but there is no official start time; could be early morning or late at night, so the runners are delighted when they hear Lake blow a conch shell because it means they have one hour to start, which officially begins with his lighting a cigarette (he smokes a lot).

Barkley Marathons is named after an old farmer friend of Lake and it was dreamed up after the 1977 jailbreak of James Earl Ray (Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin) and other inmates from Brushy Mountain State 
Penitentiary in Tennessee. It was said that one might be able to escape the prison but that you could never escape the woods.

Ray was captured within eight miles of the facility. At the time Lake and his other trail-running friends – some of the first of to inspire the current movement, found that distance laughable and said they could get at least 100 miles out. The course has grown to 130-ish miles with a time cap of 60 hours, which is covered with five loops that are one-third trail running, and two-thirds trail-blazing.

The loops are run twice clockwise, twice counterclockwise, and if there are more than one person who make it to the final fifth loop, they are split up to compete in opposite directions. “If” because in the 25 years prior to the documentary only 10 people had finished it. For this reason it is considered the hardest ultramarathons in the world.

Despite the hundreds of applicants who somehow hear about the race and actually apply, only 40 are accepted. Even though people would pay hundreds of dollars to have the chance to compete, the $1.60 entrance never changes to ensure a cast of characters, which seemed to include a number of male graduate students of the sciences – possibly because while long-distance running is a real thinking sport, ultra-running requires a certain level of analytics to endure the physical and mental challenges.

GPS devices are not allowed so the runners have to find their way with printed maps and compasses. In order to check that the runners are roughly sticking to the course, 11 books are distributed as checkpoints. The competitors are given race numbers for each lap and must tear the page from the book that corresponds to their number. At the end of each lap the pages are counted while the runners recharge with food and drink, and tend to their wounds: cracked feet, blistered heels, brier-thrashed calves, and other aches and pains. Returning to the camp is also where many runners give up, which is followed by the playing of taps, as if they died. It is better to give up at the camp because giving up halfway out might require a ten-hour walk just to get back.

While the odds of completing the entire race are against the majority of the runners (some years nobody finishes) many come for the “fun run” a term typically tagged to the kids’ mile run, often held at local 5K events, but here translates as three-loops, about three marathons through the various areas named for their grueling features including Pillars of Doom, Checkmate Hill, Son of a Bitch Ditch, and Testicle Spectacle.

The humor of these names (like the titles of the books that change each year to taunt the runner in some way) is introduced from the start of the documentary. In an early scene, the off-camera interviewer sees the fuel gauge on E and asks Lake, who is driving the old truck, about their fuel status. He explains:

"E" means excellent and "F" means you are fucked.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Truth Be Known

by Drew Martin
I just watched, in flight, Spotlight, which was recently awarded Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It recreates the journalistic efforts by Spotlight - the Boston Globe’s small but diligent investigative team, which uncovered a massive scandal of child molestation and the cover-up by the Catholic church despite a city-wide hesitation to tell/know the whole story, including the tight-lipped lawyers who defended the church, reluctant victims, and even the Boston Globe itself. What started with the knowledge of one sexually abusive priest grew to 13, then 87 during the investigation.

In 2002, the Spotlight team published nearly 600 stories about the scandal and set up a hotline to receive calls from other victims, who are estimated to be upward of 1,000 people. Eventually, 249 priests and brothers were publicly accused of sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese. These stats are listed in the credits, along with 102 archdioceses around the United States and 101 around the world where scandals of other major sexual abuse of minors were uncovered. The cast is an ensemble of decent actors who pulled together nicely to make an excellent film that harnesses the energy of the pursuit of a news story and the multitude of obstacles that must be overcome. More importantly, it reaffirms that the need for good journalism and truthful writing is crucial for a transparent and democratic society.

A couple days ago I watched Je Suis Charlie, a documentary about the 2015 storming of the Charlie Hedbro headquarters in Paris by fundamentalists who massacred 11 staff in retaliation to the paper’s publishing of numerous cartoons that poked fun (often vulgarly) at the prophet Mohammed. After the attack I wrote a post that tried to balance freedom of speech with good editorial review, basically saying that the cartoons had crossed a line into hate speech. This documentary makes me think a little differently now, less prudent about that point. It is made up almost entirely of intimate interviews with the slain cartoonists’ coworkers, who were often, typically, their closest friends. 

The attack at Charlie Hedbo led to a world-wide rally Je Suis Charlie, to honor the lives of the cartoonists and confirm the need for freedom of speech. Despite the outpouring of support, and an unheard of spikes in publication sales, the newspaper is protected by armed guards. The question is then raised, how free is the freedom of speech now that it must be guarded by men with automatic rifles. The greatest concern expressed is that perhaps the young journalists will not take on more difficult topics because they do not want to stir the pot too much.

And finally, the third  production I want to mention in this same breath of journalism is the documentary about one of the greatest American street photographers, Vivian Maier, who took more than 150,000 photos, developed very few of them, showed hardly any to anyone, and died in obscurity after working as a nanny her whole life. Finding Vivian Maier is documentary by John Maloof about this intriguing person. Kudos to Maloof for his obsessive multi-media investigation into her photography and life, which discovered her talent, and pieced together a rich and complicated person from boxes of letters, receipts, personal belongings, and interviews with the families that employed her.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Cata Cata Cata Caterpillar You Glow Inside My Head

by Drew Martin
The shows at the Kate Werble Gallery are starting to feel like manifestations of my recent conversations. First, there was LIVESTRONG by Christopher Chiappa with 7,000 egg sculptures, which I stumbled upon less than an hour after a conversation with a coworker about bioengineering down the size of egg yolks. And now this: Sugar Computer/Electrocate, by Brock Enright with a motif of caterpillars, which I visited the day after another coworker had me look at hundreds of caterpillars on her screen (poem research).

The exquisite variety of caterpillars only make up a fraction of the Enright's work but they share the quirky assemblage of the free-box materials used throughout. There is nothing deep or insightful in this show but it is a nice detour from reality - not in a fantastical surreal way but rather more like a hipster Dada pause: dry wit, and a little snarky. The deliberate placement is short of categorical, which saves it from being too academic, but arranged in such a playful way that it raises it a notch above being scrappy. One artist that some of the work (hairy things in clear plastic balls) reminded me of is Montecito-based Joan Tanner, but with a little less maturity. None-the-less it is a delightfully peculiar entrapment with lots of little systems of imagination and creative juxtaposition.

There are two raked poppy seed Zen gardens, one in each room of the gallery, but their scale left me wanting more, as if I could feel that the artist envisioned them at a larger size but made a compromise. It is hard to compete with what has already been done for "bulk material" projects, such as Ai Wei Wei's one billion handmade porcelain sunfower seeds at the Tate Modern in London, Ann Hamilton's 750,000 honey-bound pennies at the Capp Street Project in San Francisco, Walter De Maria's 140 tons of dirt in Dia's Earth Room in Manhattan, or similar type wall-to-wall installations by a multitude of artists such as Brooklyn-based Tara Donovan. I could not scale the poppy seed plots up in my mind to match the famous rock gardens of Kyoto which I have seen in person (and Enright is referencing) because they actually make me think more about the miniature sand versions people have on their desks at work. It is another curious move by the gallery to relate to Japanese art that borders on cultural appropriation. The last show, Duplify, had a reinterpreted, multi-media tokonoma. That being said, the poppy seeds are a beautiful material to use. I have not seen them in art but they bring back good memories of my favorite pastries from my days in "Eastern Europe." They also have the feeling of volcanic cinder, and I guess I could even entertain their opiate effect and look at the work as the musings of a doped-up artist.

The only pieces that actually took me past their object status and sent me on a tangent were variations of coiled garden hoses, Green Sex, and Breathe in breathe out, which are accented with numerous colorfully beaded pins, like micro-banderillas (the barbed sticks used by banderilleros in bullfights to enrage and at the same time weaken the bull prior to the matador's entrance). They remind me of the cover for A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, the semi-fictional novel about a recovering junkie in rehab, which caused outrage with Oprah and many other people who felt duped because they had expressed great sympathy for Frey since he had the published the book as a memoir but it was later revealed as a sensationalized revision of what he actually experienced. My thought on this was that "Am I lying or telling the truth?" transgression doesn't really matter in the art world any more because we no longer look to artists with great expectations since what they produce is less and less about cultural enhancement and more and more about amusing themselves and visual entertainment.

Any kind of ready-made automatically calls to mind Marcel Duchamp (urinal, snow shovels, etc) but the multiple piercings of these objects render them functionless as water-carrying hoses and made me think about Chris Burden, the early-on struggling artist Chris Burden, who would make sure he could return his materials after the show. In one lecture he gave that I sat in on in the early 1990s he explained that he took all the money he got for an installation and bought a diamond, which he suspended by a thread and singularly lit in a dark room. After the show he sold it. Even though Home Depot has the best return policy in the world I don't think they would give Enright his money back for these hoses...maybe instore credit.

Kate mentioned that she likes how the hoses remind her of "infinity loops" but I would not go there; they are not that profound.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Numero Zero

by Drew Martin
I recently finished reading the last, thinnest, worst-reviewed book of the late, great Umberto Eco, Numero Zero (set in Milan, 1992), and yet it was my first time completing a work by him. My plan was to just absorb it all without a need for a blog post, so I did a normal read (without copious notes) and promptly returned it to the library. But then I started reading reviews of it and everyone, across the board, politely excused it as a lesser work or flat-out trashed it, especially the readers who had been enthralled by his previous works such as The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, and The Prague Cemetery. I felt compelled to defend what I liked most about it even though I too wish it could have been something more, so I checked the book out again and captured here why it is still a worthwhile read.

Let me be clear, the second half of it was a bit numbing for me because it is all about Mussolini's final days and a conspiracy theory that his body-double was murdered/brutally beaten while he was snuck away to Argentina or (perhaps) the Vatican. The first half of the book is great and even gave me enough momentum to roll through the Mussolini stretches. 

I like the double meaning of the title, which refers to the 0/1 - 0/12 dummy issues of the experimental newspaper, the Domani (Tomorrow in Italian, and a dig at "evening" news) that the unseen publisher, Commendator Vimercate, wishes to use as a kind of blackmail in order to have access to "the inner sanctum" of the financial and political elite. Numero Zero is also not numero uno, which points out the below-average talent of the skeleton crew gathered together by the editor in chief, Simei, to create the 12 issues over the course of a year. They are second-rate journalists: a crossword puzzle creator, gossip columnist, other dirt diggers, and the main character, Dottor Colonna, a 50 year-old who has waddled in provincial papers. There is even a staff member who Simei is certain is a spy but does not let on because he values the man’s deeper resources from the secret services.

Vimercate is the benefactor of this journalistic experiment and owner of multiple properties including homes for pensioners and the infirm. His other shady dealings include TV channels strewn with home shopping infomercials and risqué shows, and more than 20 low-brow publications with titles such as Peeping Tom and Crime Illustrated.

Simei is so sure of Domani’s ultimate failure that he has hired Colonna to ghostwrite Domani: Yesterday: the memoirs of a journalist, which is "the story of a year’s work setting up a newspaper that will never be published.” Colonna is tasked to write how Simei labored away for a year to create a model of journalism and failed because it was impossible to have a free voice, and to show that Simei is a journalist of highest integrity. Simei believes his book will secure his financial future through royalties. He decides to not let the other staff know about the book so Colonna is positioned as the assistant editor.

When Colonna asks Simei why doesn’t he write the book himself since he has a journalistic bent (he ran a sports weeky, and a men’s monthly “for men alone, or lonely men, whichever you prefer”), Simei responds: 

Running a newspaper doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to write.

Despite the hack journalists, and doomed future of the paper, Simei has a mission and gives the staff a true purpose to report, in the words of the New York Times slogan: all the news that’s fit to print….and maybe a little more. He explains that newspapers are always telling you what you already know, which is why sales keep falling. “We’ll be talking about what might happen tomorrow.”

Most of the reviews I read about Numero Zero got it wrong about the paper’s slant. It is not that the staff are simply writing about the news that already happened but rather they are instructed to write in a style of inquiry, knowing what they know, that embraces the potential of the evolution of news, and to try to capture that in a predictive manner.

Because of limited staff each dummy issue can carry whatever date we fancy, and it can perfectly well demonstrate how the newspaper would have treated it months earlier when, let’s say, the bomb had gone off. In that case, we already know what will fall, but we’ll be talking as though the reader doesn’t know yet know. So all of our news leaks will take on the flavor of something fresh, surprising, dare I say oracular. In other words, we have to say to our owner: this is how Domani would have been had it appeared yesterday.

…let it be understood that the newspaper is collecting other evidence, and say it in such a way as to put the fear of God into those who will be reading our issue number 0/1 knowing full well what has transpired since [February].

Numero Zero, would serve well as a humorous Journalism 101 read, and it captures the creative interactivity of a newsroom, such as this prompt by Simei.

So, Colonna, please demonstrate to our friends how it is possible to respect, or appear to respect, one fundamental principle of democratic journalism, which is separating fact from opinion.

Take the major British or American newspapers. If they report, say, a fire or a car accident, then obviously they can’t indulge in saying what they think. And so they introduce into the piece, in quotation marks, the statements of a witness, a man in the street, someone who represents public opinion. Those statements, once put in quotes, become facts – in other words, it’s a fact that that person expressed that opinion. But it might be assumed that the journalist has only quoted someone who thinks like him. So there will be two conflicting statements to show, as a fact, that there are varying opinions on a particular issue, and the newspaper is taking account of this irrefutable fact. The trick lies in quoting first a trivial opinion and then another opinion that is more respectable, and more closely reflects the journalist’s view. In this way, readers are under the impression that they are being informed about two facts, but they’re persuaded to accept just one view as being more convincing. Let’s give an example: a bridge has collapsed, a truck has fallen over the edge, and the driver has been killed. The article, after carefully reporting the facts, will say: We interviewed Signor Rossi, age forty-two, proprietor of a newsstand on the street corner. ‘What do you expect? That’s fate,‘ he says. ‘I’m sorry for the poor driver, but it’s the way things go.’ Immediately after, there’s Signor Bianchi, age thirty-four, a builder working on a nearby construction site, who’ll say. ‘The local authority’s to blame, this bridge has had problems, they’ve know about it for some time.’ Who is the reader going to identify with? With the one who’s being critical, who’s pointing the finger of blame.

Later in the book Colonna reports, “I read the first drafts of the articles, tried to give them a uniformity of style and to discourage overly elaborate expressions. Simei approved: “We’re doing journalism here, not literature.”

For other page fillers, they are inspired to create horoscopes with optimistic predictions "lasting happiness will suit everybody" and crosswords with hints such as “husband of Eve” or “the ruler of Germany during WWII”. And the staff is egged on along the way with tidbits of journalistic comments and advice:

Readers thinks that people generally are lousy workers, which is why we need examples of professionalism – it’s a more technical way of saying that everything’s gone well.

And above all, apologize….You musn’t say the Church has revised its original position on the rotation of the Earth but rather that the pope apologizes to Galileo.

And ultimately,

Newspapers teach people how to think.

Saturday, February 20, 2016


by Drew Martin

The other night I had an adventure. It was an evening of trying to get home from an event in Manhattan that ended in a swanky bar, and it involved a cast of characters: a group of Weill Cornell medical students on the panoramic 65th floor of 30 Rock questioning me about my prostate, a young Palestinian man who I met in the bowels of Port Authority after midnight and was studying something like liberation theology, Nora - a young waitress with whom I rode the last bus out of New York (1:30 AM) who told me about her Mayan ancestry and the Mayan words mixed with the Spanish they speak in the Yucatán, and Darren - a super nice bus driver, who told me that I looked like I lost my best friend when Nora got off the bus. Darren said he used to have a pest control business and would fumigate apartments in Brooklyn including the actor John Turturro's place. I thought about those famous people who avoid paparazzi but do not think much about people like Darren snooping around because they do not actually think of them as people. Darren drove me to my town, where we finally arrived at 2:30 in the morning. The last twenty minutes we were the only ones on the bus - driving through dark, wooded suburbia. We could not place the accent of the middle-aged cleaning lady passengers on their way home from their night shifts. One of them, a strong-bodied bleach-blonde, was the last of them to get off. When I offered that perhaps she was from from Albania, or somewhere in that region, Daren coolly replied, "I do not know where she is from, but I do know this: she has got a nice body." Typically I do not like when other men "go there" about women, but Darren said it with a special kind of admiration, and most men would not have looked twice at this woman. He told me a story about the night prior - a young man fell asleep and missed his stop, one of the first on the route, and did not wake up until the last stop, my stop. Darren did not want to let him off because it is a conservative town and the young man was "goth" so Darren took him on the bus to another town where he would have less of a problem and let him off at an all-night diner so that he would have a place to stay until the buses started running again. When I was getting off Darren reached to shake my hand and said, "Andrew, I hope to see you again." I warmly shook his hand and said, "Yes, but not on this bus." The evening had undertones of failure, starting with my not being able to get home to my family at a respectable hour (which I felt led to a chain of other events) - Nora and two of the medical students had been ballet dancers, and fell short of their dreams. Nora was divorced and one of the medical students told me in shock of how her hedge-fund boyfriend of three years had just kicked her out once she started talking to him about having kids. And that led to my remembering a line from a recent show I had seen in which the character says, "Your kids will always disappoint you." I thought about this long and hard as a father of three and as a son myself, and the affects of the successes of one on the other. I carried the idea over to the art world and the first work that came to mind was Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters from 1885. Though it has glimmers of hope, it is a painting about disappointment. And then, for some reason, perhaps because I looked at Giorgio de Chirico's The Melancholy of Departure from 1914 the other day, I had a dream about explosives being transported in bananas.