Saturday, February 26, 2011

I Spy

by Drew Martin

In the song Paper Planes, M.I.A. sings, "Yeah, I've got more records than the K.G.B." It's a witty line, which plays with the extroversion of singers and the secrecy of spies. But then again, for such a covert profession, spying is very high profile in American culture. It has been popularized by comics, books and movies...not to mention all the peripheral toys and merchandise.

James Bond, especially his more sophisticated/dapper older incarnations, is the ultimate secret agent. The real experience is probably closer to what is portrayed in A Beautiful Mind about the Nobel Prize winner - John Nash's schizophrenic experience, that of delusion and losing oneself in a world where the lines of truth and reality are blurred by distortions of trust. Although his problems were medical and his espionage simply a farce, the psychological burden of real-life spying must be overwhelming.

This past President's Day weekend, my family drove down to Washington D.C., the city with the most spies in the world. Despite all that the amazing Smithsonian museums had to offer, my kids were most excited about the privately run (for-profit) International Spy Museum. It is a couple blocks from the Mall but not entombed in a grandiose building.

What the Spy museum has going for it is its engaging displays and interactivity. From the start, each visitor chooses a "cover" and memorizes details of a mission, which he or she is later grilled on by a computer. If you get one of the details wrong, the "suspicion meter" jumps. I was Dimitri Ivanov, a 48 year old "fisherman" from Kirov, Russia and the computer was none-the-wiser.

The Spy museum is dense with images and artifacts in intimate spaces. This is quite a departure from the Smithsonian museums, which were built to impress and dominate space. That model now seems old fashioned. The newer National Museum of the American Indian, which follows suit, is a handsome structure but is too much building and the exhibits seem lost to the architecture. The National Air and Space Museum, the most visited museum in the world, seems to have become more of a grand lobby for its IMAX theatre, where most of the visitors were gathered when we walked by. One could argue that today's viewer needs to be spoon fed but I think this is a much greater cultural shift, away from the do not touch object to the hands-on experience.

That being said, the objects at the Spy museum are fantastic. If the theme of espionage is not your thing, the art viewer can take on this space as a pure Dada or Surrealist experience. Magritte, Dali and the master of the common object, Duchamp, would be thrilled by many of the artifacts, which include the pigeon surveillance camera, a tree stump listening device, an umbrella gun, a coat buttonhole camera, the lipstick pistol, escape boots (pilot boots, which resembled civilian dress shoes) and, my favorite, explosive coal; a hollow shell, resembling coal, packed with explosives.

It was used by the OSS. (the American Office of Strategic Services) during WWII to find its way into locomotive furnaces and factory boilers. The most interesting part is that it came with a camouflage kit so the operative could paint the device to match the local coal color.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Meet the Press

by Drew Martin

In the fall of 1992 I traveled as a photographer with a young British journalist to Ostrava, a Czech coal mining city on the north-eastern border with Poland. Our assignment was to cover a science fiction literature convention but it was also an excuse for me to venture into Poland for the first time, after I completed the shoot.

When we arrived at the venue, we went to the registration desk to ask about accommodations. The organizer told us the price of the room, which probably was not a lot of money, but I was naively shocked. With confused, but honest, astonishment, I said something to the affect of "But we are journalists!" This was followed by a shuffling of paper, a look of casual enlightenment and then the prompt handing over of keys for a complimentary room for the two of us, accompanied by a muttering of apologies.

The only other time I played the press card was when I went to the Armory Show (March 6, 2010 at Pier 92 and 94). I already had free tickets to it but I was carrying my two-year old son on my back and he was getting heavy and restless. The show opened later than I had expected but press got a jump start so I went to the press office and told them I wrote for this blog. They looked it up and checked it out and gave me a press pass for the event.

This past weekend my family of five met up with my parents, my sister-in-law and one of my nieces at The Whitney to see the Charles LeDray (work, pictured left) and the Edward Hopper exhibits. My brother's wife flashed her VMFA (Virginia Museum of Fine Art) docent card and got two free tickets. I sheepishly inquired about entrance for the press and the young man at the cash register asked if I had a press pass.

I was a bit confused because I thought that was something they would give me. I asked if he could look up this blog and he apologized and asked me again for $18, which I un-reluctantly paid. The money was not the issue (even though I think it's too steep) but I was a bit confused by it all. I asked myself "What is a press pass in this era of blogs galore?"

So after walking around a bit, I went back to the entrance to find out more information. The same man I had spoken to before explained that you can make your own press pass. He said "Just print one out and laminate it." Really? Ten minutes prior he made it sound like a Brahman birthright that I, the Untouchable, would be eternally denied, and now he was telling me to DIY. I thanked him and laughed at/to myself.

Curiously enough, when we were leaving and I was waiting for family members to get their coats. I heard another employee at the register say "Don't you have a current press pass?" There were two European men, one holding out an old, tattered press pass and the other by his side, empty handed. The employee honored the pass without further questioning but said they changed the policy; the press pass is only good for one ticket. The other guy chimed in, "I am with the press too!" But, like me, he couldn't produce a pass or even a business card. At that point she just gave him a free ticket anyway. Behind my composed self was a much more reactive version of me flinging out my arms and spouting "WTF?!"

It was an important moment for me because I realized it had nothing to do with the flimsy press pass. Not only was I not prepared with a silly-ink-jet-patch-of-assumed-authority-sandwiched-in-clear-plastic but I was not even sure enough at that moment about myself and my pursuits. I barely supported myself. I was spineless.

I am not sure of each museum's policies but it is apparent that anyone can make up a pass, no matter how bogus, just to wiggle in. So it really comes down to integrity and conviction. Do you believe in what your represent? Does it contribute to the discussion? Is your blog unique or as insightful as The New York Times, Art Forum or whatever else it is you hope to emulate or even surpass?

It is certainly a question of the validity and future of new/social media. A person with a popular Facebook page might have more eyes scanning his or her words than a newspaper columnist and a quirky blog with only a handful of followers may be digging deeper and asking more relevant questions than a big-name arts magazine.

Yesterday I took a couple minutes and made up my own press pass so now I am legit.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

It's a Colorful Life

by Drew & Olympia Martin

I just finished reading a book, which my 12-year-old daughter, Olympia, recently completed and recommended to me: A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass, published in 2003. It is a fictional story told by a 13-year-old girl/character, Mia Winchell, who has synesthesia: she sees colored shapes when she hears sounds/music. Names have colored attributes and every number and letter has its own color.

The correlations Mia mentions are:

2 - cotton-candy pink
4 - baby-blanket blue

a - sunflower yellow
b - brown
c - red
d - hot pink
f - bright purple
j - shimmering green
x - ripe cherry maroon
y - gray
z - robin's egg blue

One would think math would be a thrill for her, but it's quite the opposite, especially with algebraic formulas where letters, such as x, are treated as numbers. It's quite confusing because x is maroon, but there aren't any numbers that are maroon for Mia. To save herself from flunking, Mia devises a creative way of cheating by writing formulas on her jeans as color-specific rainbows.

While color serves as a motif throughout the book and a metaphor for life, the story is really about discovering yourself and being understood by peers and parents. Synesthesia is an interesting theme to choose for a young adult book and Mass does a wonderful job weaving the condition into an out of everyday life and much heavier topics such as death, which is always present here.

The town graveyard is frequented by Mia visiting her grandfather's grave and her best friend, Jenna, visiting her mother's grave. While the death of loved ones (humans) happens before the book begins, pets are lost to teen mourning within its pages. Mia coincidentally waits in a veterinarian office as a classmate's dog is put down and the death of her cat, Mango, is both climatic and touching near the end of the book. It sounds corny and fantastic-dramatic to write here (because it's quite moving and captivating in the book) that the devoted father not only attempts to fly the dying cat to the vet in his helicopter (they live in a rural area), but he goes so far as to attempt mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the expired feline when Mango dies before take-off. (It reminded me of a time in my own youth when I was trying to revive a pet hamster, through a straw).

Mass does not seem obsessed with mortality, but has simply created a book that can help kids through such difficult moments. That being said, in all of its seriousness, death is not always so grave, Mia once quips to herself that the term supernova is "an astronomer's way of saying dying" and she and Jenna have memorized the Edward Gorey (the Master of Macabre) poster of kids, with names A-Z who meet unnatural deaths (The Gashlycrumb Tinies):

A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.

B is for Basil, assaulted by bears.

and so on...

Mass researched synesthesia for her book and gathered testimonials from synesthetes who chimed in on a website. It is hard to tell at times what is Mass' creativity and what might be a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction contribution to her efforts. This seems to be the case with a passage that includes an email from a new penpal and fellow synesthete, Adam, who is 14:

If I'm eating a piece of chocolate, I'll see a rectangular patch of pink with a green stripe at the bottom. It just appears in front of me and kind of looks like a flag waving in the breeze. If it's dark chocolate, the pink will be almost red.

The book is full of great syesthetic expressions. Baby hollers appear to Mia as...silver spears shooting across the room. Screeching chalk jagged lines in air. Principal Duner's name is the color of freshly piled hay.

Mia likes to paint. Sometimes she paints figures, such as a picture of her late grandfather with Mango on his shoulder, but other times she just puts on music (Mozart) and paints what she sees...

...glossy red-barnlike color of the violin, the silvery-bluish white of the flute, the school-bus yellow of the French horn.

The sophistication of Mia's synesthesia is best conveyed in the following passage:

On the bus I randomly open my art book to an artist I haven't seen before. I decide instantly that this is the guy for me. His name is Kandinsky, and the shapes he uses in his painting look a lot like the ones I see when I hear noises. His images are all twisted together and overlapping, like when I hear music with a lot of different instruments. The colors he uses are flatter, more primary that the ones I usually see, but they're still pretty close.

Though Mia feels unique, especially before she meets other synesthetes, many of Mass' characters are interesting, with their own special quirks. Mia's teacher, Mrs. Morris, is a germaphobe. She clears the first row of students and has two homework baskets for her marked "ill" for kids with colds to put their work in.

Mia's 11 year old brother, Zack, is superstitious. If their father walks under a ladder, he makes him walk around the house, twice, backward. He is also a little OCD and details on a chart how many McDonald's hamburgers he has eaten in his lifetime. When asked why it is bad luck to walk under a ladder Zack responds (with one of my favorite sentences in the book)...

"It's because you're disrupting the scared triangle of life formed by the ladder, the ground, and the wall."

He is also afraid that if clocks in the house are not in sync, the space-time continuum will be disrupted. Zack's enduring/annual Halloween costume is Spock.

I was going to interview Mass about the book and writing, but thought it would be more appropriate for my daughter to initiate.

Why did you make the brother, Zack, superstitious and why did he seem less superstitious toward the end?

The superstitions were part of his general quirkiness. I think by the end, he was getting older, and had dealt with some difficult issues, and maybe he didn't need the superstitions so much.

What were some ideas you wanted to have in the book but did not include?

There was originally more of the synesthesia stuff in there. I had a scene in the lab where Mia was picking out the colors of her numbers from a big color chart.

Did you have a relative who liked Star Trek, like Zack, or was there another reason you referenced it?

Another part of his quirks. I actually like Star Trek (all incarnations!), so it was fun to make him a fan, too. That's one of the fun things about writing fiction--getting to stick things I love in the books.

When I heard you speak, you said you were influenced by the book The Man Who Tasted Shapes. Were there any other books that influenced you for this book?

That was the first book I read on the subject of synesthesia, and it really inspired me to give the condition to my fictional character. I can't think of any other books that influenced the novel, other than I wanted to write for kids and teens in the first place because of all the wonderful books I'd read when I was that age.

Did you get the idea of Mia writing the math equations as rainbows on her jeans or did you think of that on your own?

I think one of the people with synesthesia that I'd interviewed told me they had done something like that when they were in school. A lot of the synesthesia-related events in the book came directly from real synesthetes.

The experience when Mia lost Mango seemed very real. Did you once lose a pet that you loved with all your heart?

Yes, I had recently lost my cat, and wanted to approach the topic in such a way that it would help others who had either lost their pets, or would eventually.