by Drew Martin In the Pacific episode of Stephen Fry in America, Fry visits Jonathan "Jony" Ive, Apple's design guru. Fry engages Ive on a rooftop overlooking San Francisco Bay:
It could be said that the two most influential Britons in the past thirty years are Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the world wide web, and you, who have given us the iPod and all the train of Apple products. And yet you both choose to live and work in America. I wonder if that says something about Britain or more importantly about America.
With a modest stutter, Ive responds: I think there is a conspicuous lack of cynicism and skepticism. Ideas are so fragile aren't they? It is so easy to miss an idea because they can be so quiet, or to snuff an idea out. I think that the sense of the inquisitiveness and willingness to try is so important for design; for developing those tentative, fragile ideas into a real product.
by Drew Martin Tomorrow is Patti Smith's 65th birthday. I did not know much about her - she was simply a figure carved into America's cultural landscape with Dylan, Hendrix and Kerouac. On Monday, I watched Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff + Robert Mapplethorpe. Interviewed in this documentary, Patti was pivotal in these men's lives and influential to the evolution of photography as art. The next morning, I watched her online Princeton University lecture: Picturing Robert: Remembering a friendship and artistic relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and then a friend and I talked about her and we listened to her songs. We went out for a late lunch and midway through our meal Patti walked right by our window, smiling and wet from the rain. What made an impression on me about her in the two videos was not her relations with Mapplethorpe and Wagstaff, or her music and their photos, but hearing her talk about her first aesthetic experiences; wanting to have her hot chocolate in a delicate china cup instead of the synthetic ware her mother used and also understanding how different a Vogue photo was compared to her class photos.
My neighborhood for the past dozen years came with a serious Peeping Tom. He is an older, married man with kids in college. Interestingly, he is also a very visual person - an industrial designer. I think it is instinctual to look at a lit window, like moths to flames. I try not to do it when I am running every morning before sunrise because there is something naughty about it but mainly because what I typically get a look at are bald (albeit hairy) ugly men doing their thing in the bathroom. That being said, about a month ago I was running a little later than usual (because I had the day off) and just as I ran by one home a naked woman stepped up to her window. It all happened in the split second I ran by - I probably even ran faster so as not to be seen as the voyeur - but there was a part of me that was piqued. In many regards all photography and art, movies and television shows, people-watching and surfing the web is a form a voyeurism, which has various social responses and legal actions. I define it as a matter of intention and interaction. If you go out of your way or change course or slow your pace to indulge, then you are hooked. Pictured here is Edward Hopper's Night Windows from 1928.
by Drew Martin I have written a few times before about dreams as media. In a time when they are taken less seriously for psychoanalysis, I think they still hold their own as media; they are free, require no production, no system/machine of distribution and they are never boring. Last night I had several dreams that took me to new, open landscapes and cities where the citizens swam in narrow canals. The dream I remember most vividly was one in which I went on an evening date with Anna Netrebko. We went to a grand hall and she started singing. A middle-aged man in a tuxedo joined her in duet. He had golden hair and golden skin, which was darker than his hair, and bright, straight teeth. I went outside the hall to the lawn, wondering if I should get Anna's car, some kind of silvery, sleek sportscar but then she slipped out a second-story window and I carried her in my arms to an overlook. She had on her red dress from La Traviata; I still remember the crisp material. We looked out over a valley of city lights, as numerous as the stars, and she said I could be with her forever. I told her that all of the lights reminded me of all the possibilities there are in this world, and with that the dream ended.
by Drew Martin I recently had the pleasure of meeting the director of the Mingei International Museum of folk art, craft and design in San Diego. Conversations about the museum's collection and then (less than two days later) flying over the Grand Canyon and other breathtaking western landscapes reminded me of a Princeton University lecture I watched/listened to online several years ago by Allen Weiss from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Weiss went to Japan to study Zen gardens and became interested in tea ceremony pottery, the glazes of which he compares to the abstraction of aerial landscape photography and what the poet Gary Snyder called the 'gleaming calligraphy of the ancient riverbeds.' Pictured here is a detail of Fujisan, the world's most famous raku tea bowl, from the early 17th century by the potter HonamiKoetsu, which captures the snow and fog on Mount Fuji. Weiss speaks of experience through a synesthetic matrix and Japanese aesthetics: "Large revelations often occur in very, very small places and they are very often the result in a radical shift in scale and perspective."
by Drew Martin This past week I was in San Diego and Los Angeles. I drove up Pacific Highway 1 at sunrise; the waves were bobbing with surfers. At sunset, I drove east into the desert and passed through valleys of dry, contorted earth and fields of tall, white windmills, which were spinning wildly. The next morning, I woke up surrounded by the arid mountains of Palm Springs. I flew east and switched planes in a blizzard in Denver, Colorado where people wore shirts with images of wolves and were dressed like outdoorsmen. By the evening I landed in a fair, damp Queens, New York. In the morning, I went for a run through the woods in New Jersey and felt enveloped in layers of life, compared to the fragile spattering of scrub brush in the desert. Yesterday, I returned to SoHo and got my haircut underground in Chinatown while listening to a Chinese opera. Usually it feels like everything is the same and that we change at an alarming rate, but the past few days I feel like I have been the constant and a million things have changed around me; the air, the temperature, the sights and sounds. While our minds are always open for new experiences, it feels like our psyche tries to anchor us in a sense of one-self, otherwise we could never navigate this vast sea of transformation.
by Drew Martin The nice building on the left in the picture is the Náprstek Museum in Prague. The street on the right is Náprstek Street. I lived down that street, on the left - at the end, for my first eight months in Prague in 1992. This area used to be really run down even though it is home to the church where Jan Hus used to preach. I lived in a squat then and we used to come down to the abandoned buildings around the museum and strip them of things we could use. Náprstek means thimble but the museum and street are named after VojtěchNáprstek (1826 - 1894) who was a Czech philanthropist, patriot and politician, as well as a pioneering Czech language journalist in the United States. The museum holds the collection of artifacts he gathered on his world travels. The first use of electricity in Prague was to light a whale skeleton he brought back from one expedition. Thomas Edison came to oversee the electrical work. I remember reading that Náprstek was considered Czech's greatest diplomat. While reading, thinking and writing about Vaclav Havel yesterday, I remembered him that way, as one of Czech's greatest diplomats.
by Drew Martin In 1968, on the night of August 20/morning of August 21, armies from the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary invaded Czechoslovakia. 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks entered the country. The engineer-turned photographer Josef Koudelka captured the most startling images of that hellish week, including this image for which he took a picture of a passerby's arm and wristwatch, with Wenceslas Square in the background, to show the exact time that troops invaded Prague. It was a repressive era that lasted four decades until the Velvet Revolution led by people such as Vaclav Havel, who died today. I liked Havel. I lived in Czech for five years of his presidency. He was a playwright, a musician and an artist. Culture was very important to him. I remember watching the news one night while he was on a trip to Australia. There was footage of him dancing bare-chested with the Aborigines. His aides and others were appalled - he did not care. I saw him a few times on the street and had the pleasure talking to him at a club opening where I had made and installed a sculpture of a human-sized angel. He even made a point at that time to show up at and support such events.
by Drew Martin I just saw Claudia Muller's documentary About Jenny Holzer, which is quite interesting. Holzer is the mother of text art. Her aphorisms/truisms have been placed and projected around the world on buildings, rivers, individuals and crowds.
Several times in the film, Holzer claims she is not a writer but attributes her form to her Midwestern roots where the spoken language is plain and succinct. The exception, she says, is that Midwesterners would typically be prone to keep things to themselves. Holzer writes with a personal (but not necessarily autobiographical) voice in a public forum.
Holzer started out as a painter and found her way to text by writing on top of abstract paintings. Many of her projects have only existed on moving electronic tables - her trademark LED displays. A friend describes her as a sensualist in the art-making process, which is why she likes projecting onto various surfaces that provide real texture. I do like how the movement of her text can be read as simply motion, which in itself tells us something without words.
by Drew Martin My go-to person for documentary film suggestions is Gabrielle, the constant literary blogger at the contextual life. If I am late getting back from lunch it is typically because we bump into each other outside the building where we respectively work in SoHo and start talking about movies and such. Yesterday she recommended The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. The last movie she told me to watch that I did see was Page One: Inside the New York Times about the tumultuous times at The New York Times. She said I would like the "main character" David Carr - I did. My favorite comments by him were: If you write about media long enough, eventually you'll type your way to your own doorstep.
The real value of Twitter is listening to a wired collective voice.
The medium is not the message. The messages are the media.
by Drew Martin I was tooling around Europe in in early 1990s and wound up in Istanbul for a week. It was uncommon for me to pay for lodging then but I found myself in a $3-a-night hostel next to the Hagia Sophia. I shared a room with the Australian I traveled there with from Greece, a New Zealander, an American and a Turkish woman who asked to stay with us because she said the women in her room were prostitutes.
The New Zealander intrigued me. He was a young sculptor traveling with his small, curious wood carvings. He had recently met up with Hundertwasser in Vienna, who purchased one of his pieces and invited him back to study with him.
It has been 19 years since that time and fortunately he reached out to me this past week. It is always nice to hear from someone so far removed but it was really special to see his matured sculptures. It was as if he had shown me an acorn in Istanbul, which he then planted and watched grow into a beautiful tree.
by Drew Martin I have always thought of Keith Haring's work as simply ubiquitous and repetitive commercial pop art but after watching The Universe of Keith Haring (2008) by Christina Clausen I understand his visual genius. He was perhaps the most spontaneous, consistent and prolific artists of all time. This thorough and admiring documentary shows Haring not only as a virtuosic painter but as a deep humanitarian. Yoko Ono perfectly sums it up when she says,
"Andy Warhol's work was creating something in a meaningful tradition but it was meaningless in a way and he liked the meaninglessness. And Keith was creating something that was looking like meaningless but actually it was meaningful." Haring was greatly influenced by semiotics and his father's hobby with morse code. By his third year at SVA he was advised by a director of the school "Maybe you should try to be an artist instead of a student." To which he replied "Oh yeah, what a great idea!"
I have written about and recommended good documentaries for graphic artists such as Helvetica (about fonts/typography) and Milton Glaser, To Inform and Delight (about design). A third must-see film in this league, and perhaps the best crafted, is Art & Copy (about advertising).
For Mad Men fans, this is a good primer for a more evolved advertising environment to come in the much anticipated fifth season. Art & Copy is about the ad industry, roughly starting with the period when Don Draper is supposed to walk the Earth. That was a time dominated by copy - text-driven ads complemented by illustrative artwork.
All of this changed with Bill Bernbach, the legendary ad man and founder of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB). Part of his strategy was to put the art director in same room with copy writer in order to develop an ad in unison. He was the first to see what concoction this chemistry yielded.
Bernbach was responsible for the timeless Volkswagen Beetle campaign that made the quirky and (at first) unpopular German car an American hit. He did so by cutting through the tradition that had gotten in the way of the art and developed the big idea.
The title of the documentary is perhaps too generic but I do like how it also suggests the idea of making art and copying it, or copying art for advertising.
Lee Clow of TBWA\Chiat\Day speaks about the art of ads becoming part of culture as opposed to some form of "pollution." After reviewing his firm'siPod campaign (silhouette dancers) he says,
These things end up out in the world as art...you know, you go back a couple hundred years to Paris and Toulouse-Lautrec was doing posters that went up around Paris to invite people to the FoliesBergère. It is now considered art. There are now coffee table books made of Toulouse-Lautrec art but back then he was just trying to get people to come and buy a drink, pay the cover charge to get into the FoliesBergère. I think we are in the art business when we do it well.
Jeff Goodby (Goodby, Silverstein & Partners) thinks of advertising as art serving capitalism.
Directed by Doug Pray, Art & Copy features interviews with some of the biggest names in the ad business, who created lines that are now part of American's DNA:
Jeff Goodby: got milk? Dan Wieden: Just Do It. Cliff Freeman: Where's the beef? George Lois: I want my MTV!
These were not belabored ideas but quick thoughts. Goodby offered got milk? as a solution to an presentation board without a title. Wieden skimmed Just Do It. from a newspaper article heading "Let's Do It," the last words of a murderer from Utah to the firing squad just before his execution.
All of these are part of our psyche now and have bloomed beyond their original intention.
I want my MTV! was conceived to pressure cable companies to carry the network. It worked, instantly. The campaign is as demanding as Americans can be. The beef of Where's the beef? has come to mean any and all content and substance. Just Do It. became a mantra to everyone for everything including quitting a job, traveling, asking someone on a date and even divorce. Got milk? has yielded the most spin-offs...got this? got that? It means if you do not have it, you should. As far as product-pushing one-liners, got milk? is pure gold.
Goodby comments, "It's so short and it's almost nothing. It's almost gone before you can say the words." The nice thing about watching Art & Copy, as opposed to just reading about it (here and elsewhere), is to be able to see the spark in the creatives' eyes. Goodby has a kind, good-vibe face. His ideas grace him. Dan Wieden appears to be wicked smart and has a piercing intelligence. Freeman looks like he could sell you anything (he used to be a door to door salesman for encyclopedias). Lois seems more like a boxing coach than an ad man. He throws the equivalent of one-two punches that knock you out in the first round. His unfiltered creativity is simply pure, punkish energy. He thinks an ad should be like poison gas that makes your eyes sting and chokes you. He speaks about grabbing the client "by the balls."
By turning the industry on its head, a handful of creatives really did change the world.
Mary Wells (DDB) arrived at advertising with a background in theatre. Television ads at that time were simply moving versions of the print ad. Wells changed all that and introduced the idea of skits and situational comedy to the commercial. She also single-handedly changed the airlines, using DDB's account with Braniff Airlines. She sold them on painting their planes different colors, she brought in Alexander Girard for design, hired high-end fashion designers to make the uniforms for stewardesses, decorated planes with the flair of the destination. Flying became fun. Stewardesses became sexy.
One thing that really surprised me was some psychological digging in the film.
Wells (pictured left) says her mother was quiet and her father out of sight. He was an ambulance driver back from WWII and clinically depressed. She says he never said a word at dinner. "No one ever talked to me about anything." She adds, "I think people who are loners, who have lives they kind of have to overcome when they are young...I think that they get a strength that is very useful later on." Charlie Moss, a creative director at Wells Rich Greene who created the “I Love New York” campaign, says Wells perfected the combined role of salesmen and entertainer.
The success of the mass media communicators seems to be born in a lacking childhood.
Rich Silverstein (Goodby, Silverstein & Partners) said he guesses it is all about trying to prove to his father that he is worth anything.
Clow (TBWA\Chiat\Day) speaks about being the little guy, David versus Goliath, a small firm versus a big ad agency, creative versus corporate. "Creatives rise up, they can't do shit without us!" is his battle call. He notes that this approach comes from meeker, underpowered times in high school.
The most telling of this psychological condition is from Hal Riney, the man behind Ronald Reagan's reelection ad campaign.
Emotion was always to some degree a part of my life that had been left out and I think...I suspect I let advertising be a sort of an avenue to express some of the things that I might not have experienced in my life. I missed a lot of things and I certainly missed the kind of wonderful families that we all still admire and I think there is a lot of that in my work.
Goodby, who seems the most immune and well adjusted of the lot, says,
When Americans buy a Hal Riney experience, when they buy into one of his campaigns, I think many times what they are buying is what they wished their lives would be; A feeling for something that happened in their childhood or, you know, something that would have been better if you'd had that kind of dad or that kind of mom or lived in that kind of house or that kind of little town. A time in America that people had wished had happened - probably never did. What people don't understand is that how as a person you are experiencing is actually what he wishes his life would be and he's creating that and it's so evocative and so attractive. You're feeling him, experiencing the man - Hal, about trying to move people by emotions.
Hal Riney is the devil and he's also the angel. Riney always said there is the responsibility on the part of the advertiser for people to know that this was an ad... so that when you are talking to somebody you had to make it clear that you are talking in the form of advertising to them at the time. Well, that world is like long gone. You know a lot of the things that have happened to us in the name of advertising sneak up on us in crazy ways and they seem like something else. It's not about commercials any more. It's about everything. Everything is an ad: a stunt or paint on the wall or a guerilla tactic or a theatre placement or product. It just goes on and on and on and on.
To this Goodby ads, "It's like air and water. It's just going to happen to you." Freeman considers a mutual relationship,
If you communicate in a way that is entertaining people literally get something from it and they literally like you because of the way you sold them something...they are like...(they're American man)…"This is free enterprise you are a hell of a good salesman thank you very much!"
When speaking about the Just Do It. Nike campaign by Wieden + Kennedy, Goodby explains,
The reason why the campaign is successful is that a likable human emotion - the idea that we can get healthier - was suddenly in parallel with a corporate mission which was to sell a whole bunch of equipment to people and we like those two things together. We don't distrust those two things when they are going in the same direction. People don't mind being sold to if they understand why it's happening and they enjoy the process. At the same time I would hope that people understand that brands can be dangerous.
All the ad people interviewed in Art & Copy seem to be sincere about making well made ads.
Jim Durfee explains,
If you can find that kernel, that core of what the product is, so that when you talk about it, no matter how you talk about it, people respond and say "Yes, that's right." Then if you talk about it in a strong, interesting, memorable way they say "Yeah that's right, I'm going to buy it." It's a challenge to say the right thing.
A great example of this is Phyllis K. Robinson's Clairol campaign that that highlighted the me generation. "It lets me be me."
The senior Riney speaks about the creative talent. He says that when he started, creatives were nothing - flunkies. In the agency, the cherished spot was the account guy. He tried it for six months and thought it was the worst job, ever.
One of the most remarkable advertising stories explained in the film is Lois’ campaign for Tommy Hilfiger. After talking about his MTV campaign, Lois looks at his watch and says, “I can make Tommy Hilfiger an important brand in a couple hours.” It sounds cocky, but according to Hilfiger, that is exactly what Lois did. Hilfiger wanted recognition but what Lois offered him was overnight success and Hilfiger was a bit stunned by it. Lois created an ad that compared Hilfiger to three top designers. Hilfiger was reluctant because it sounded like he was bragging to men he considered gods.
If you want to have any name recognition in this business at all, you need millions of dollars worth of advertising over and over and over and over and it will take you years. If you want your name to be known right away and people to go and look at your clothes, we need something unique like this.
Lois believes an ad should be "seemingly outrageous"... because you look at something and think it's outrageous and then in the next two or three or 20 seconds, you realize, 'Wow it's on the nose!'
The most interestingly part of the Hilfiger campaign is that it ended up making him a better designer, working harder, trying to live up to prove naysayers wrong. He says that Lois turbocharged his success.
I do not think Lois is pitching advertising itself when he says,
Great advertising makes food taste better, makes cars run better. It changes the perception of everything. Wells adds,
I think what you can do is manufacture any feeling you want to manufacture. You can create any feeling that you want people to have . She says that she and the other best advertisers are born with a gift for sensing what it is that will turn you on.
Another remarkable case study in the film is about something that would seem like a hard sell, milk. Jeff Manning of the California Milk Processor Board simply wanted to create good advertising for milk in California. He explains that milk is generically marketed and that it is taken for granted. “Nike and Snapple can introduce new packages new bottles, shoes…we sell white milk in gallons.”
The original intent of the new, milk campaign was to express that people should not run out of milk or to buy it before it goes sour and the reality was that the consumption of milk was on a steady decline.
When Goodby offered “got milk?” everyone objected. It was not a complete sentence. It was not grammatically correct. His partner, Silverstein, voiced "That's a dumb ass line. That's bad. It's clunky, It’s not even English."Goodby stood his ground, "No, I like got milk? It's kind of cool."
Silverstein, of course, now recognizes the brilliance of it and appreciates the campaign’s success.
“There is no other kind of communication in the world that is as focused as an ad is. You have got a certain amount of time to engage somebody and you have to do it in a quality way. It's like haiku.” He continues,
I think we are trying to entertain society using clients' products. If a client heard that they'd go, “Wait you are not thinking about my product.” Of course we are but I believe we are here every day to do something kinda special to connect society in some entertainment form.
It's the same as making art. I make stuff, I put it in people's faces and it changes them and hopefully it enriches them and feel something. And it's real a rush to have it happen to millions of people at once. I have always made a distinction about things that you experience as a single person and you go “Wow, this is cool I want to go tell my friends about it” and things that you experience as a single person and you know millions of other people are seeing it at the same time. It’s a mass communal happening and not too many things offer that in life.
While watching the documentary, I was most impressed by the wisdom of Dan Wieden,
Creative people need this sort of duality; of feeling very secure in some deep sense enough that they can be very risky and put themselves into the work. What I've tried to do is focus on the environment, which people work here and let them relax and be themselves and be adventuresome. I think most creative people are so damn insecure that they want to think that they know everything but they know deep in their hearts that they are in deep trouble from the minute they get up in the morning. So if you can tell them "That's the way you are supposed to be,” sometimes that's kind of liberating.
The whole trick of this business is to stop pretending you are an advertising agency and help the client forget that he is a client and just sit down at the table go 'so what are we going to do...how are we going to turn people on? A lot of people think of risk as challenging convention and that's one form of risk I think the real risk comes in being willing to try to be authentic. The interesting idea about branding is that you are giving an idea not just to the customer but also to the company itself of who they are and a sense of themselves (you know what I mean) and a sense of their role and their responsibility in the greater economy. That's at least like being at least a midwife to something. For a business often associated with lying in order to sell, there is a lot of discussion throughout the film about the truth. (pictured above, left is a "fake" Nike ad, meaning Nike did not create it, and yet it is still advertising for them)
Liz Dolan, former head of marketing for Nike admits, He always terrified me, Dan Wieden. He's always going to tell you exactly what he thinks. Making great advertising is very much an emotional, very much a difficult process and it is not for the faint of heart.
If there is a truth in it, it is not about the product and it's not about your relationship to the product when you buy it. This sounds crazy but you are really saying is that I am part of the people that get this humor. I am part of that group, they want to become part of that community. Clow voices,
I think we have higher aspirations for our clients and are more passionate about what our clients can be, should be to try to be then they are. We are trying to tell them - Hey you can be more than just a car company. You can be more than just a pet food company. You can aspire to loving dogs rather than just feeding dogs. While the Art & Copy shows advertising as an interesting and creative world, Goodby offers a more sobering view,
It is a business of rejection. You start working and then you kill ideas for yourself. You show it to your partner and then he or she kills a few ideas. And then you show it to the client and the client kills a few ideas. Then you show it to some people in a focus group and they kill a couple of the ideas and then you come back again to the client again and he decides he did not like after all because his wife saw it. That can sometimes take a year, that process. It can take a year. It is very stressful and depressing to have those ideas killed and so there has to be a nurturing environment because people have to get themselves up off the floor and do this again. There is also something reverential about these people... (Riney)
This business is not a work of committees. It's about a few really good people and if you are lucky enough as I have been to have a few of those people around you can probably succeed because there aren't a whole bunch of them.
Can I say one other thing? I don't think any organization or any career succeeds if there isn't a goodly amount of old fashion love involved and a deep sense of affection for each other and the people you work with. And if you can hold onto that and make your decisions with those things in mind even when they are hard decisions you have to make, I think it is a big difference.
(Wells, pictured right)
I don't get tired. Maybe because I am not afraid. I think fear is a very powerful depressant.(Lois) I think creativity can solve anything...anything...anything!
Art & Copy is littered with statistics (from the time it was made in 2009): The global advertising business will exceed $544 billion by 2010 Food companies spent $32 billion on advertising last year Car companies spent more than $15 billion Political advertising over $2.6 billion in 2008 44% of all satellites launched are for commercial communications 75% of global satellite services revenue comes from television 70% of U.S. tv broadcasting revenue comes from ads In the 1970s, the average city dweller received about 1,000 advertising messages every day. today it's closer to 5,000 There are 450,000 billboards across the US $7 billion is spent on billboard advertising per year. The average American watches 8 hours a day of TV Last year Time Warner sold $8.8 billion worth of advertising A 30-second ad on American Idol costs $750,000 A 30-second ad during the Super Bowl costs $2.7 million Michael Jordon's value to Nike has been estimated at $5.2 billion There are 565 satellite-delivered TV networks in the U.S. There are 1,353 HDTV satellite channels around the world today. 75% of U.S. homes have 3 or more televisions Americans see 61 minutes of ads each day on the Internet, TV, and mobile screens 65% of Americans believe they are constantly bombarded with too much advertising Advertising agencies employ 182,600 people in the us there are about 26,000 ad agencies worldwide 80% of all advertising is produced by only four global holdings
I once wrote a paper about extraterrestrial communication and structural Marxism, which questioned why some people want to communicate with (potential) aliens and why they would expect aliens to want to communicate with them.
Thinking about this paper recently, I recalled two books that have interesting comments on the arts, media and outerspace; 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Arthur C. Clarke and The Martian Chronicles (1946) by Ray Bradbury.
In 2001, astronaut David Bowman passes time in a manner that is the equivalent of surfing the Internet:
He would have six off-duty hours, to use as he pleased. Sometimes he would continue his studies, or listen to music, or look at movies. Much of the time he would wander at will through the ship's inexhaustible electronic library. He became fascinated by the great exploration of the past...
The reference to "Odyssey" appears in the continuation of that passage:
... and he began to read the "The Odyssey," which of all books spoke to him most vividly across the gulfs of time.
What prompted me to return to 2001 was remberance of this passage:
During the last three months, David Bowman had adapted himself so completely to his solitary way of life that he found it hard to remember any other existense...
At first, needing the companionship of the human voice, he had listened to classical plays - especially the works of Shaw, Ibsen, and Shakespeare - or poetry readings from Discovery's enormous library of recorded sounds. The problems they dealt with, however, seemed so remote, or so easily resolved with little common sense, that after a while he lost patience with them. So he switched to opera - usually in Italian or German, so that he was not distracted even by the minimal intellectual content that most operas contained. This phase lasted for two weeks before he realized that the sound of all these superbly trained voices was only exacerbating his loneliness. But what finally ended this cycle was Verdi's "Requiem Mass," which he had never heard performed on Earth.
The "Dies Irae," roaring with ominous appropriateness through the empty ship, left him completely shattered; and when the trumpets of Doomsday echoed from the heavens, he could endure no more. Thereafter, he played only instrumental music. He started with the romantic composers, but shed them one by one as their emotional outpourings became too oppressive. Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, lasted a few weeks, Beethoven rather longer. He finally found peace, as so many others had done, in the abstract architecture of Bach, occasionally with Mozart. And so Discovery drove on toward Saturn, as often as not pulsating with the cool music of the harpsichord, the frozen thoughts of a brain that had been dust for twice a hundred years.
Coincidentally, the section of The Martian Chronicles that I have also thought about is titled: June 2001: - And the Moon be Still as Bright.
An American crew has landed on Mars only to find a great civilization recently wiped out by chicken pox.
A member of the crew, Spender, is horrified by how his fellow astronauts are behaving so he leaves them to find out what great culture they had missed.
Spender says to his captain:
We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things. The only reason we didn't set up hot-dog stands in the midst of the Egyptian temple of Karnak is because it is out of the way and served no large commercial purpoae. And Egpyt is a small part of Earth. But here, this whole thing is ancient and different, and we have to set down somewhere and start fouling it up. We'll call the canal the Rockefeller Canal and the mountain King George Mountain and the sea the Dupont sea, and there'll be Roosevelt and Lincoln and Coolidge cities and it won't ever be right, when there are the 'proper' names for these places."
The captain responds:
"That'll be your job, as archaeologists, to find out the old names, and we'll use them."
Spender also offers:
They (Martians) knew how to blend art into their living. It's always been a thing apart for Americans. Art was something you kept in the crazy son's room upstairs. Art was something you took in Sunday doses, mixed with religion perhaps.
They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle. They never let science crush the aesthetic and beautiful. It's all simply a matter of degree. An Earth Man thinks: 'In that picture, color does not exist, really. A scientist can prove that color is only the way the cells are placed in a certain material to reflect light. Therefore, color is not really an actual part of things I happen to see.' A Martian, far cleverer, would say: 'This is a fine picture. It came from the hand and the mind of a man inspired. Its idea and its color are from life. This thing is good.'
In another passage:
He (Spender) put down the thin silver book that he had been reading as he sat easily on a flat boulder. The book's pages were tissue-thin, pure silver, hand-painted in black and gold. It was a book of philosophy at least ten thousand years old he had found in one of the villas of a Martian valley town.
Hogancamp's "The Ruined Stocking" is a bar in Marwencol, Belgium where everyone gets along because the men who frequent it are satiated by flowing booze and beautiful women. The bar is named after the owner, Mark Hogancamp (center at the bar), a recovering alcoholic who downs cups of coffee instead of shots.
"The Ruined Stocking" refers to the many staged cat fights that take place there; gorgeous women wrestle each other for the patrons, who are mainly British, American and German soldiers.
Hogancamp is married to a woman named Anna, but DejahThoris, the Belgium witch of Marwencol, competes for his love. She even took him back in time (in her time machine) before he met his wife, but his love for Anna prevailed. Hogacamp is well liked in his bar and aroundMarwencol but every so often the SS storm through the town and kill or torture people. Even Hogancamp was taken captive and beaten in the town church but was saved by pistol waving babes who shot all the SS except for the division leader who was dragged through the streets of Marwencol and kicked by the townspeople before being shot. The law of the land is that everyone gets along. If it is breached, it is eye-for-an-eye Hammurabi's code.
Mark Hogancamp is a real guy but he was never pummeled by the SS. The fact is, he had the shit kicked out of him by five guys outside a bar. He was beaten so badly that he went into a coma and his face required reconstructive surgery. When he came to, he had to relearn how to do everything; eat, walk, talk...His brain damage was so severe that he lost every single memory prior to the attack.
The Marwencol, Belgium that Hogancamp knows is actually in his yard in Kingston, New York. The buildings and the people (dolls) are 1/6 scale. DejahThoris' time machine?...Hogancamp made it from a junk cell phone, an mp3 player stand and a VCR that ate one of his best porn tapes. As Hogancamp explains, he had no other choice but to sacrifice the machine to save the film.
Marwencol is a documentary by Jeff Malmberg about Hogancamp and the pretend world that he maintains as his mental therapy for dealing with what happened to him and his physical therapy for restoring his fine motor skills.
What makes Hogancamp's situation remarkable and takes it beyond being a tragic victim to the realm of artistry is that he photographs every detail of his played out imagination.
The looping adventures in Marwencol create an endless narrative, which Hogancamp records in countless photographs. The images masterly display Hogancamp's intense involvement and belief in his imagination. It is as if he works less as a man with a camera telling a story and more like an embedded photographer recording everything he sees.
The magic happens in the photographs. They act as a kind of proof that this world exists beyond his mind. This is an interesting concept because the pictures Hogancamp drew prior to the attack were used in court as evidence to show the affect of the beating. So while his life and consuming pastime seem delusional, his visual narrative is so strong that it pulls the viewer into his world as only the best directors, artists, writers and musicians can successfully do.
Hogancamp's 1/6 scale reality is not a schizophrenic trap. It is a social blueprint for a fuller life. His unhealthy obsession is actually an incredibly sane desire, to be liked and have purpose. His doll interacts with dolls that have been made to resemble the people in his life but in Marwencol, Hogancamp is much more engaging.
For this reason, the details of his world are made as realistic as possible. The tiny guns have functioning triggers and clips. The soldiers bags are not simply stuffed with cotton, but carry small grenades and military caboodle. When four characters jump in a Jeep for a ride, he makes sure they are carrying enough fire power to come out of an ambush in one piece.
One of the reasons why Hogancamp has Jeep rides is because the model vehicles he gets from a hobby shop or in the mail have new tires. He complains about their newness so instead of distressing them with sandpaper and dirt, he put hundreds of miles on them, which he calculates as thousands of miles at the smaller scale.
This patient documentary is a work of art. It is brilliantly crafted to take the viewer into Hogancamp's world. While Hogancamp is dressed in normal attire for most of the film, we learn that he also occasionally dresses in WWII outfits. That is not too hard to imagine.
A scene of him sunbathing ends with a closeup on his left foot; his toenails are painted and he wears a toe ring. This segues to a scene of him opening up a closet with 218 pairs of "women's essence," high heels. The shoes were all given to him by women but more than having a shoe fetish, Hogancamp is also a cross dresser. He was before the attack. In fact, the beating happened because he told some guys at the bar that he was a cross dresser, which they took as cue to bring him outside to "teach him a lesson."
Hogancamp's private world is actually quite public. He frequents a local hobby shop, talks to neighbors and has a job a few days a week at a local restaurant. The people in his life know they are characters in his fictional life too. A photographer named David Naugle eventually saw him pulling his Jeep along the road. It sparked an artworld fascination with Marwencol. With the help of Tod Lippy, editor of Esopus, Hogancamp had a show at White Columns in New York in 2006. It was a big decision for Hogancamp. The documentary shows him thinking it over while making meatballs and looking at three of the dolls he has on a small bench beside him: Anna, one of himself and DejahThoris. Despite their presence, it is a very lucid scene. He speaks aloud and talks about how it is something that will take courage:
"Women want to meet the artist. They don't want to hear that the artist couldn't make it...I am still afraid to go to the city but that's were courage comes in. Courage, I was taught, that courage is to face the thing to do the thing...even though I have such great fear of doing it."
Hogancamp deliberates what he should wear for the show. Perhaps a suit, though he would rather wear a dress. He settles for men's casual and asks the film crew on the day of the show "Do I look like a beatnik artist?" Fidgeting, he complains "fuck'n man's shoes." As the opening of the show winds down, Hogancamp laments to a woman at the show that he would rather have worn a pair of stilettos and she responds that it is not too late. With almost everyone gone and the gallery floors being mopped, he changes into them and walks out of the gallery.
Hogancamp's success in the artworld is reassuring but at the same time that acceptance falls short of real, healthy relationships. What one would hope to be a reconnection with a former life actually seems to spiral away from that. His conversations at his opening about putting on high heels and being married to a doll do not go over well, and the documentary ends with Hogancamp's doll needing to create a miniature reality in order to deal with his SS beatings. As Hogancamp remarks before revealing his women's shoe collection, "It gets stranger by the moment, doesn't it?"
Typically an interview is conducted in order to learn more about a person and for insight on a particular topic but this interview was originally designed to help decide what to do with a unique collection of advertising artwork.
Michael Barson is the Senior Executive for Publicity at G. P. Putnam's Sons and author of a number of well-received books on American popular culture, including Red Scared!, True West, Teenage Confidential, The Illustrated Who's Who of Hollywood Directors and Agonizing Love.
We regularly cross paths on the PATH, the subway system between New Jersey and New York, and we work in the same building in SoHo. A typical PATH train encounter has Michael pretending to trip over me, or nonchalantly dropping his satchel on my lap while demanding I give up my seat for him. The passengers are shocked and appalled at his rude behavior, which pleases Michael to no end. (He is very easy to please.) I turn red, squirm and try to diffuse the situation by making it known that I am familiar with these juvenile antics before he is escorted off the train by security. But Michael maintains this is high-level meta-comedy.
When he dropped his satchel on my lap the other day, I reached in and pulled out a portfolio filled with product labels and movie placards from the early 1900s to mid-century. The common theme of each piece is the Native American, more specifically - stereotypes of Indians. They are fascinating from every angle. The artwork includes commercial illustrations, hand-tinted photographs, movie posters and fruit-crate labels. Aside from a few black and white pieces, everything else is from a four-color press and the artwork has a lot of vivid fields of color along with painterly people and objects.
One of the most bizarre examples is an advertisement for a rubber heel company. It is DaDa and Surreal. In the black and white illustration a huge rubber heel hangs in the sky above a river. In the foreground, an august caucasian man steps forward in a fine pair of shoes and an all but naked Indian kneels before him, clearly demonstrating his awe at the man's wondrous shoes. Or rather, the wondrous heels on his shoes. Michael would define this as a high-level form of meta-comedy as well.
Drew: I know you collect red scare posters, love comics and Spaghetti Western media but these "Indian" works are quite different, more indigenous. Is it an extension to the Westerns or are they simply another piece of your childhood?
Michael: My fascination with the differing ways the American Indian has been portrayed in popular culture is probably an offshoot of my interest in the larger area of the Western, but I would say it is also the most intriguing part. And that is because of the ways our viewpoint regarding Indian cultures (and there were many distinct ones) has ebbed and flowed over the past 150 years.
These items of advertising art that you confiscated from me are in the mode of the Noble Savage - their iconography is essentially our white world worshipping the attributes of the unspoiled Redman. Or he would have been unspoiled if we hadn't already eradicated him, or at least much of his original world.
Drew: Speaking of your childhood. Has it ended? I mean...are your interests in these topics a matter of nostalgia or is it simply a childhood continuum?
Michael: I can honestly say it isn't due to nostalgia alone, since 80% of the materials I work with in my books and other projects are things I never saw as a child growing up in the Fifties. But yes, I do try to mine my memories of the culture in which I was immersed as a kid in order to include those first-hand examples in my writing. I like being able to say from my own experience that I liked Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates on the show Wagon Train more than I liked James Arness as Marshal Dillon on Gunsmoke, and why. But you can't experience everything first-hand, so I also continue to learn about the rest of the pop culture of the day in the course of my research. Which will probably continue until the day I die.
Drew: All of these images are, or at least the use of them is, politically incorrect on so many levels I would not know where to begin. I believe your interest in them is more a matter of campy cultural eras but do you also look them more critically and academically?
Michael: I disagree with that assessment, at least in terms of this advertising art. There is nothing politically incorrect about having a portrait of the nobel Red Cloud on a cigar box label... It may be ridiculous to link the properties of a five-cent cigar with one of the greatest Indian leaders who ever lived, but it is not showing disrespect to the memory of Red Cloud. Rather, it is trying to add class to the product by dint of Red Cloud's legendary reputation for nobility and leadership. To me, that does not really qualify as "camp."
Of course, in other kinds of pop media - movies, comic books, paperback novels - there was plenty of disrespect going on at the same time. That is part of the schizophrenic attitude we have always shown toward the American Indian, which is why the topic continues to fascinate me.
Drew: Is the "Indian" vanishing from magazine pages and movies because of political correctness or is there simply a drop in relevancy and romanticism?
Michael: The recent success of the science fiction movie Avatar demonstrated that our fascination with the mythology and iconography of the Indian is still hard-wired into our cultural consciousness, even if James Cameron's story had to be tweaked and re-packaged into a somewhat different form. Although the eight-foot-tall blue-skinned native people in Avatar were technically aliens, beneath the surface they functioned exactly as the Indian cultures did in such other hit films as Last of the Mohicans, Dances with Wolves (which won six major Oscars back in 1990) and the Disney version of Pocahontas, all of which "donated" major plot elements and characters to Avatar (as many critics pointed out at the time of its release). And most important of all was that the story in Avatar allowed a new generation of moviegoers to see a revamped, re-imagined dramatization of what the United States military (and by extension, our government) wrought upon the original Indian nations during the 19th Century.
The attacks by the heavily armed forces of the pitiless soldiers in Avatar were horrifying to witness, just as their ultimate defeat by the combined forces of the native tribes and Mother Nature was totally exhilarating. By that point, the audience fully identified with the "aliens," rejecting the brutish instincts and violent natures of the white military forces. Hence, the final shot in the movie was one of the most emotionally satisfying I can recall. That said, we aren't likely to see the Western return to its former prominence in pop culture again, in my opinion. But every now and then it can still make its presence felt, thank goodness. Those lessons are ones we should not forget.
Drew: You mentioned pitching them for a book idea or at least an article but what is your true ambition for them?
Michael: Sharing them as widely as possible with others who might be interested is my main ambition, I suppose. And you could say that about all of my books about different aspects of American popular culture. They all contain lessons to be learned about our past, using materials that conventional histories largely bypass.