Friday, October 21, 2016

Free the Ripple

by Drew Martin
I just started reading a book about the origins of music and at the first mention of amphitheater I thought about the logo for this blog about the arts and media. The rings represent how, as a kid, I visualized the radio and television waves pulsing out from New York City to my suburban New Jersey town, and they also speak to the cultural periphery around the creative nucleus of Manhattan. So when the author mentions that amphitheaters of the ancient Greeks and Romans were semi-circular, circular and oval, I wondered how the original design came about. 

Were the shapes and ringed seating inspired by watching how water ripples expand and understanding the relationship of air to water, or was it more conceptually and mathematically worked out as a matter of equidistant practicality? Perhaps it was just a progression from the natural world to the built environment by experiencing and then mimicking the vantages of bowled landscape and hillsides overlooking the sea as one witnessed either a battle or a sunset. 

I would like to believe that it was a more personal and intimate evolution, and that it has something to do with how crowds form around the action, and that the tiered seating copies how the observers naturally jockey for position with the shortest people and kids shouldering their way into the front ring so as to be able to see, while the tallest of the tall can stand at the perimeter and still get a full view from where they are. 

The semi-circle formation would favor a performer who could act out into a fan of people and even hide elements of surprise behind him or her. The full circle or oval shaped theater would give the upper hand to the audience with the advantage to see the performers from all angles as those performers would need to rotate to address everyone, or would naturally be in motion during a display of athleticism or a small combat. One would naturally favor theater and the other would be better for sport. You could imagine how the simple difference in design might even influence the future of a culture. 

So what would be the reason for building an oval arena when a circle seems to be a more obvious shape? The problem with a circle is that the bigger you get the farther the very center is from everyone. With an oval you can expand sideways to give more seating and greater field/performance space but then certain “midfield” seats would still be close to the action. In practical terms the available footprint of a city might have influenced the design but the other thing is that with running events, and horse and chariot races you would want to create a space that allows for long straightaways and then a great enough of a curve to not slow down the competitor because of angled running, centripetal force, and a greater discrepancy of lengths between inner and outer lanes. 

If you look at the 6th century BC marble wonder of Kallimarmaro (the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens) there is much more straightway than turns as we have on today’s tracks, which have a 1:1 straight to turn ratio. Even in the most distorted versions of theaters, arenas, and stadiums it is hard to not see the a manifestation of sound in the shape of the venues, the rippled arrangement of seating, and how they either favor the outward audio projection of the performer verses the inward cheers of the crowd.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Thin Blue Line

by Drew Martin
I have seen temporary purple lines painted down Christopher Street in Manhattan for the gay pride parade, and temporary green lines down the center of Central Avenue in Pearl River, NY for their St. Patrick’s Day parade. Now there are permanent blue lines being painted in northern New Jersey towns between the double yellow lines in the center of the streets to show an appreciation for the police. Previously, in other parts of the country there have been red lines painted in support of the fire department, and in Rhode Island there are red, white, and blue lines in the streets of some locations for patriotic flair.

The “thin blue line” refers to the mental demarcation that separates law-abiding citizens and criminals. The recent display of the blue line on roads is a reaction to the public outcry towards the few officers who have shot and killed (specifically) unarmed African Americans. For measure, in 2014, the FBI reported that more than 50 law enforcement officers were ‘feloniously’ killed in the line of duty, with about that number who died in accidents. The count may be higher as reported by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund: 126.

I grew up with respect for police because in my experiences they always seemed to be at the right place at the right time in my home town and NYC. For the most part, New York cops were unconcerned with petty offenses, such as jaywalking, so it was a surprise for me when I went to school in Santa Barbara and saw police officers hiding behind bushes on mountain bikes so they could ambush and ticket students who they saw riding their bikes on the sidewalk - a far cry from the swagger of CHiPs, which I liked to watch as a little kid. And after a very recent trip to Berkeley, CA I found a new appreciation for my local police in northern New Jersey. Berkeley’s town parks look like lawless refugee camps for homeless people who defecate in the bushes and heckle passersby. The small-town network of Bergen County, NJ means a police force for every town, which is more expensive in terms of taxes but it also means better paid and better trained officers, and greater stewardship. 

While public road markings are supposed to be uniform, there are no rules about what goes between the lines. It’s up to the state, county or municipality to decide. In the Village of Ridgewood, where I live, the blue line is painted in the center of the road for a couple-hundred-yard stretch in front of our library, town hall, and police station. I was running this morning very early, just after 4am, and took this picture. At that moment two police cars sped off on a medical response while everyone else was sleeping.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Dirty Pictures

by Drew Martin
I just watched an interesting documentary called Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, which brings one closer to the earthworks of the artists who started the movement including Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria, and Robert Smithson. The film was a treat for me because I have not been out to the desert to experience their grandest works, which I have only seen in photographs. The documentary offers great views of Heizer's Double Negative, De Maria's The Lightning Field, and Smithson's Spiral Jetty, and it surveys the land art movement with interviews and anecdotes about the artists who left the New York gallery scene behind in order to redefine what modern art could be.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Max Beckmann's Manual Labor

by Drew Martin
If you can tell a lot about a person by his or her hands then you can tell even more about an artist by the way he or she depicts them. The hands in Max Beckmann's paintings caught my attention tonight at the preview of his show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a way, the hands are a summary of the paintings, microcosms unto themselves. They not only capture the style of each specific work, but they are manifestations of how he feels towards the subject. They are typically not the delicate instruments with which we manage our most dexterous tasks but rather: meaty gloves, fleshy pistols, arthritic claws, and sometimes so fine that you want to reach into the painting and hold them.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

You Belong to the Universe

by Drew Martin
There is a special place in the heart of our curious culture for outside artists, offbeat thinkers, and genius visionaries because they break us from run-of-the-mill tradition. Dr. Bronner, the cure-all soap prophet, comes to mind as one such character. Similarly, and more famously, there was Buckminster Fuller, the self-professed “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist” who had a six-decade-long mission to “make the world work for 100% of humanity.” He is best known for promoting geodesic domes among his multitude of inventions and insights. 

Fuller has been dead for more than three decades but a recently published book breathes new life into his ideas that challenged the woes of transportation, housing, and warfare. The title of the book, You Belong to the Universe, comes from a ‘voice’ that spoke to him as he was about to take his life. At the age of 32 he felt that he was a failure. He was a new father without career prospects. One of his soulless gigs was as even an asbestos flooring salesman. He figured that his wife and child would benefit more from his life-insurance policy than his existence. So he walked down to Lake Michigan to drown himself but then he heard a voice say “You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe.”

The author, Jonathon Keats, tries to tease fact from fiction that still surrounds Fuller. One thing is tragically true: the death of his daughter at the age of four pushed him farther into his mission to fix the planet. Everything became a solvable problem. Weaponry could become livingry, and almost everything could be worked out through biomimesis, by copying nature. One problem, was that the human mind was not expansive enough to comprehend everything, which is where his notion of something like the Internet would prevail. His “two-way television” would be a “mental prosthetic” for humankind. MOOCs (massive online open courses) would replace schools and decision-making computers would supplant politicians. His ideas were at times far-fetched, and often pure fantasy. They were so design driven that they ruled out other human decisions other than his own. And often, his ideas simply did not work. His geodesic domes leaked. Modern materials such as plastic were toxic. His famous three-wheeled Dymaxion car crashed and burned. Even his 80-hour documentary never got very far.

Fuller was very interested in education. He toured the country giving lectures, which might run eight hours long and were said to have "a raga quality of rich nolinear endless improvisation full of convergent surprises." On learning, he questioned the impact of specialization.

"Society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking."

A concern with comprehensive anticipatory design is understanding all the consequences that emerge from the original approach of a new idea; the whole life cycle. Fuller noted that "the most natural technology can wreak havoc on the habitat that nurtured it." 

At times I wish Keats would have gotten more personal with Fuller's life, but even so I often enjoyed his own input such as this note about design and information.

"People find the simplicity of infographics seductive, a comforting respite from the deluge of data. In the name of convenience, judgement is outsourced to statisticians and designers rather than being taken as the responsibility of each viewer. As a consequence , the increased amount of data is paradoxically making more people less knowledgeable. And it's happening as the complexity of the world around us makes personal engagement more urgent."

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Coming to Power: 25 Years of Sexually X-Plicit Art by Women

by Drew Martin
Coming to Power: 25 Years of Sexually X-Plicit Art by Women is a show at Maccarone, which closes in a few days. It is a restaging of the show by the same name from 1993 at the David Zwirner Gallery. Typically, at such sexually explicit shows, I find myself objectively taking it all in and then criticizing myself at a level because I know I am not comfortable enough to be so bold. But maybe it’s in that process of creating this kind of art that does the emboldening. But then I wonder why anyone would want to be so blatant. Is it just a kind of power trip? Is it liberating? Or is it just for shock-value? What was different today was that not only did I feel like I did not have to question myself (maybe because the “by women” part precluded me as a creator/contributor) but I also enjoyed a kind of honest truth behind it during this political madhouse of oscillating moral values, repressive half-truths, and carnal energies. Even though the exhibit had blackened doors and walls that hide the show in a down-a-dark-alley adult world, there was a very easy-going, unashamed feeling to it. And while a lot of the artwork is titillating, I was most attracted to the work by Louise Bourgeois (Janus and Janus in Leather Jacket, 1968) and Yoko Ono’s Object in Three Parts – Revolution from 1963: a white diaphragm, condom, and birth control pill on three black pedestals next to the entrance.

Cinemagic: Fish Tank, and Me, Earl and the Dying Girl

by Drew Martin
I saw two films last week that I liked a lot. The first, Fish Tank from 2009, is a gritty look at England through the eyes of a 15-year-old girl, Mia. She and her little sister are raised by a single mom who parties through her problems. The mom’s new boyfriend, played by Michael Fassbender, simultaneously grounds Mia and enrages her. Things fall apart he makes love to Mia, dumps her mom, and sneaks back to his suburban house, wife and daughter.

While I typically can't stand when Europe does hip-hop anything, it works well here. One of my favorite scenes is when Mia says goodbye to her mom, perhaps forever, which ties in so many different elements of the film.

I also liked watching Me and Earl and the Dying Girl from 2015. It’s an atypical high school movie. For one thing, it’s filmed in Pittsburgh, which is a nice change of scenery, and the often trite film-within-a-film theme is differentiated here by references to Werner Herzog and the fact that the main character, Greg, and his “coworker” Earl make a film that literally kills someone. This is the trailer for the film done by the main character:

Thursday, October 6, 2016


by Drew Martin
As an adult there are things you recall about your childhood that upon revisiting at a later age confirm your life-long remembrances but make a little more sense with your personal experiences. I often think about the other-worldly performances of Mummenschanz so I recently checked out a disc from my local library of the first season of The Muppet Show in 1976 because I noticed that one of the episodes featured Mummenschanz. I watched that show when I was seven years old, and seeing their performance forty years later still weirdly disturbed me but knowing now that they are a Swiss group helped me rethink their art form. Not only because they have a European sensibility, which favors mimes, but because Switzerland is the birthplace of Dada art.

The name Mummenschanz is a German concoction for mummery,  a play involving mummers - an Early Modern English term for a mime artist. The group formed in Altst├Ątten, Switzerland in 1972. The 1976 Muppets performance opened them up to a wider American audience and in the following year, they started a three-year gig on Broadway.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Picture Worth 500 Billion Dinara

by Drew Martin

I just finished reading a book that jumped out at me from the shelves of my local library. The Art of Money seems like the title of something penned by Dale Carnegie but it is actually a beautifully-printed and lively survey of the art on money from around the world, throughout the ages, as well as an interesting history of American cash. It was listed in the top 10 notable art books of 2000 by The New York Times.

The author, David Standish, keeps the writing as crisp as a dollar bill but at times it feels a little unedited. Twice he comments that Uganda is east of Kenya. So that made me question a lot of his other fun and interesting facts. Was the US Coinage Act of 1792 really start the first use of the decimal system for money as he says?

One of the currencies he shows is the 20 korun note of Czechoslovakia. It’s one of my favorite pieces of money, and something quite familiar to me since having one in my pocket back in Prague in 1992 meant I could go to a pub and get a warm bowl of gulash, some fresh bread and a cold, draft beer. But he writes that it is the only note that depicts a wedding with a couple holding a bible. The front features a portrait of Jan Amos Komensky, a 17th Century Czech writer, scientist and father of modern education. The back side, pictured here, features a young couple reading from a book, but they are not getting married as he claims.

None-the-less Standish is an engaging writer so I want to believe all the other facts that he peppers throughout the book, which kept me hooked. Such as:
  • To pay, comes from Latin pacare to satisfy.
  • The word money comes from an incident in 390 BC: a flock of local geese noisily flew away from their turf around the Temple of Juno when a group of Gauls attempted to raid the place, which doubled as a mint. Their taking flight alerted the guards to be on the defense and ward off the invaders. It was thereafter called Juno Moneta, Juno the Warner.
  • Paper money was invented by the Chinese eunuch, Ts’ai Lun in 105 AD.
  • The early paper money of China was a little suspect so it was embellished with silk threads and perfume to make it more attractive.
  • Genghis Khan adamantly continued the Chinese paper money system. He seized everyone’s silver and gold and gave them paper money, thus monopolizing a government’s control of precious metals.
  • Marco Polo brought the idea of paper money to Europe where people were most intrigued that not accepting paper money in the East was punishable by death.
  • The word dollar comes from the valley tag –thal to locations (i.e. Neanderthal) – the silver dollar was invented by Count Stephan Schlick in Joachimsthal, Bohemia in 1520. They were naturally called Joachimsthalergroschen, then thalers for short. (tallero in Italian, daalder in Dutch, etc.) 
  • 1600’s goldsmiths in England became the first bankers mainly because they had safes and they would give out bank notes for the value of the precious metals deposited.
  • Bucks, as in five bucks, comes from the use of deerskin in early American trading (as it was in 100 BC China when approximately 1’ x 1’ squares of decorated deerskin became a substitute for metal coins).
  • Beaver pelts, musket balls, and even iron nails served for early American trading exchanges.
  • In 1619 tobacco became legal tender in Virginia.
  • A wampum factory was set up in 1760 in New Jersey to aid a fledgling economy, which was active until the Civil War. 
  • Wampum inflation occurred when the steel drill bit was invented, which made wampum much easier to produce because it required drilling a hole through the shell.
  • Queen Elizabeth II is the most ubiquitous face on money, gracing 37 different currencies.
  • The highest denomination of any currency was the 500 Billion dinara note of the former Yugoslavia.
  • The highest denomination of a United States note was once a $10,000 bill.
  • The “bill” part of dollar bill is left over from when paper money in the US was originally referred to as a bill of credit, meaning the government owes you money (silver or gold) and that it was only a short term public loan to the government to be paid to creditors, often soldiers. The pretense was dropped in 1972. 

This book made me consider the strong correlation between printed writings and printed money. Renaissance Europe had an upperhand on the startup printed word industry not only because of the abundant olive and grape presses that could be easily converted to printing presses but because European character blocks (alphabets, numbers, and punctuation) could be managed much more efficiently than in other parts of the world such as China. Europeans only needed a hundred or so movable types whereas the Chinese need thousands. One thing I learned was that the famous Gutenberg Bible from 1455 does not bear the name of Johannes Gutenberg anywhere because he could not pay his loans for the press and operation so the banker foreclosed and turned over the business to his own son.

While Standish carries his whit trough a lot of pages with pictures of money and his captions, he is most enjoyable when he gets rolling on a subject. He thoroughly explains how US dollars became so drab but delights in the history of the pre-Revolutionary War rise of money and the messages they carried such as a $6 Continental note depicting a beaver gnawing at a tree. It is accompanied by the Latin word Perseverando (by persevering), which serves as a metaphor for toppling the British empire.

“The aesthetic revealed in these images seems a visual embodiment of America’s puritan heritage in the best sense – simple, direct, but resonating metaphysics as well. Together with the sentiments expressed in the Latin mottoes this Continental currency is rather brave and stirring. The revolutionaries were, it should be remembered, taking on the world’s most powerful empire.”

Standish rolls up the sleeves of America's early printers/turned legends including Ben Franklin who included the message "To Counterfeit is Death" in the early money his shop printed, and he creates an image of Paul Revere pulling "all-nighters" to print money. Revere actually used the back of the plate of his famous Boston Massacre etching.

Standish includes images of some of his favorite American cash such as this $2 bill which is of Science presenting Steam and Electricity to Commerce and Manufacturing. 

And this one of Electricity all grown up.

Standish breaks down the graphics of international currencies into a series of categories including National Heroes, Tough Guys, Topless Money, Agriculture, Transportation, and International Zoo. While he explains in National Heroes that local heroes remain pretty local, he does mention the international cultural significance of former French notes, such as the 100 francs devoted to Paul C├ęzanne.

My favorite category Artful Tender, which is devoted to eye-catching designs. It includes the 20 korun note of Czechoslovakia as shown at the top of this post as well as some other beautiful bills.