Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Philosopher Kings

by Drew Martin
So after watching Examined Life this morning, a film about philosophy approached by some of today's most accomplished philosophers, I watched The Philosopher Kings, a thoughtful film, which examines the lives of custodians/janitors who work at elite universities. If Examined Life questions our existence and lives, The Philosopher Kings gives some answers with the profiles of eight custodians. The stories are told by the janitors themselves and by observing them at and after work. We first follow Michael Seals on the campus of the U.C. Berkeley en route to the Genetic Plant Biology facility to respond to a call to restock a bathroom. Corby Baker tends to the facilities at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington. He gets inspiration from the students and their works for his own art projects. Melinda Augustus is one of 15 kids and had a mother who went into and stayed in a coma during the last delivery. She works at the University of Florida in the Florida Museum were she cleans around the displays and says she likes cleaning and the environment. Jim Evener at Cornell University is a Vietnam veteran who says he has learned more in the seven years cleaning up around Cornell (i.e. the nanotechnology lab) than he did in school. Oscar Dantzler works in the Duke chapel and says that no one can straighten the chairs like he does and is happy to work in such a mystical space. Josue Lajeunesse cleans at Princeton University. He is a Haitian immigrant who sends money back home to dozens of family members and says he works 24/7. Luis Cardenas works at Cal Tech. He lost an arm in a car accident on the way to work but received no compensation for it. He thinks one's life is already written and says the hardest part of his job is changing the office trash bags with one arm. Gary Napieracz also works at Cornell University and says his relationship with the students is amazing. From his brief appearance it is immediately obvious that he also sees himself as a custodian of the students, not just the facilities. This is an authentic film that honors the lives of these eight custodians and has much more emotional depth than Examined Life, that is perhaps too conscious of itself.

Click here to see the trailer for The Philosopher Kings

Examined Life

by Drew Martin
As I am writing this I am watching this film, Examined Life. As the artwork details here, it is a documentary about philosophy: Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor on Interdependence, Kwame Anthony Appiah on Cosmopolitanism, Michael Hardt on Revolution, Martha Nussbaum on Justice, Avital Ronell on Meaning, Slavoj Žižek on Ecology, Peter Singer on Ethics and Cornel West on Truth.

It is also a film about movement, especially walking, the sport of philosophers. Butler and Taylor take a walk through San Francisco. Appiah strolls through the JetBlue terminal at JFK airport. Hardt rows around Central Park. Nussbaum walks along a lakefront. Ronell exchanges dialogue while walking around Washington Square Park in the Village. Žižek ponders while walking around a sanitation yard. Singer walks up and down 5th Avenue. West speaks during a car ride through the streets of New York.

All of these modern day philosophers speak directly to the director, Astra Taylor, who has created with this cast of characters a wonderful film about ideas and thinking. While driving, Taylor asks West in the back seat,

"So, do you have to go to school to be a philospher?"
to which he responds...
"Oh, God no. Thank God you don't have to go to school. No. A philosopher is a lover of wisdom. It takes tremendous discipline. It takes tremendous courage to think for yourself."

Click here to see the trailer for Examined Life

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Heart of Japanese Literature

by Drew Martin
I am reading Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki, which was first published in 1914. Kokoro translates as the heart of things and is a beautiful book that is an ongoing dialogue between a student and an older man who first meet at the beach in Kamakura, the former capital of Japan. The book is simple in style, structure and setting, but it digs into the complexities of relationships and life. It reminds me quite a bit of the Phaedrus dialogue between Plato and Socrates. As the Phaedrus questions the use of writing, Kokoro questions reading:

My thesis momentarily forgotten, I spontaneously asked, Why aren’t you as interested in books as you used to be Sensei?

There’s no particular reason…I suppose it’s because I believe you don’t really become a finer person just by reading lots of books. And also…

What else?

Nothing else really. You see, in the old days I used to feel uncomfortable and ashamed whenever someone asked me a question I couldn’t answer, or when my ignorance was exposed in public somehow. These days, though, I’ve come to feel that there’s nothing particularly shameful about not knowing, so I don’t any longer have the urge to push myself to read. I’ve grown old, in a word.

I love the meaning of the imagery of a passage I read this morning:

Holding the tightly rolled diploma up to my eye like a telescope, I gazed through it, out over the world.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Where the Suckers Moon

by Drew Martin
I just finished reading Where the Suckers Moon: An Advertising Story by Randall Rothenberg (Which I have also seen subtitled: The Life and Death of an Advertising Campaign, as pictured left). 
 I still have no idea what the title means but I do have much more insight about the trials and tribulations of an advertising campaign. Rothenberg follows the ups and downs of Subaru of America as they go through the process of selecting the Just Do It! agency Wieden + Kennedy to create a new campaign for them.

This was a slow, painful read for me. I renewed it several months in a row from my library after only turning a few pages. Finally, this month I decided to take the plunge and get through it. I am not interested in cars. I think Subarus are an ugly, boring product and Rothenberg's incredibly thorough detail of background, meetings and conversations was overwhelming for me even though I was impressed with his diligence and ability to weave it all into a cohesive narrative. What kept me going through the book were the advertising anecdotes, which I found relevant despite the 1994 publication date, and the image of Dan Wieden that impressed on me in the documentary Art & Copy.

Where the Suckers Moon does a good job in setting the stage for a modern tale in advertising:

The Industrial Revolution made possible the manufacture of vast quantities of identical goods, more than could be sold through the inefficient process of local-store distribution....The manufacturer had to distinguish his goods, give them brand names and make those names stand for something. He needed to bypass the retailer and make customers request his goods, so the grocer and the department-store magnate alike felt compelled to carry them....the number of newspapers in America, under pressure from the new communications needs, was soaring from 75 to 1,400 in the half-century after 1790...

Beginning in the late 1970s, agencies figured it out. If there was no longer anything to say about products, they would say something about the people who used them.

What worked about my suffering through this book was that it paralleled the trepidations of the campaign itself. I felt closer to the labors of the advertising industry - beyond the big idea kick-off meetings is the minutiae, ego, bad judgments and differences of opinions. I especially appreciated the idea that there exists the high-level thoughts about a company's image, which is often too removed from the demands of the locals, in this case the dealerships whose only concern is to sell cars.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Beautiful Evidence

by Drew Martin
I mentioned Edward Tufte two posts ago and then realized I have never written about him. Tufte is a statistician and professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University. He is the guru of information design and visualization. He has been called the Leonardo da Vinci of data and the Galileo of graphics I went to one of his seminars about eight years ago and was very impressed. Not only does he pack a venue like a true rock star but he was really into it the whole time. At the lunch break he signed books and had one-on-one conversations with members of the audience. I was working on my thesis at the time, about the relationship of image and text, and he was very attentive and helpful. His books include The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative and Beautiful Evidence. They are all must-reads for designers. "We care about beauty, but beauty is the by-product, elegance is the by-product, of truth and goodness. That’s a bit grand, but these are the ideas I try to deal with in Beautiful Evidence." Click here to see a bit of Tufte's presentation on Beautiful Evidence.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Head in the Clouds

by Drew Martin
I like this encyclopedic image of different kinds of clouds: altocumulus, altostratus, cirrocumulus, cirrostratus, cirrus, cumulonimbus, cumulus, nimbostratus and stratocumulus. My favorite bit is the disclaimer down in the grass which reads: "It is unlikely that all these kinds of clouds would be in one area of the sky at the same time." How unfortunate - I would like to see that. Cloud computing is the in term now but the idea has been around for decades and came from telecommunications companies. I thought Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle, was promoting this a decade ago but when I searched for information about it, what I found were his comments about it being "complete gibberish."

"The interesting thing about cloud computing is that we've redefined cloud computing to include everything that we already do. I can't think of anything that isn't cloud computing with all of these announcements. The computer industry is the only industry that is more fashion-driven than women's fashion. Maybe I'm an idiot, but I have no idea what anyone is talking about. What is it?"

Friday, February 10, 2012

Analog Cabin

by Drew Martin
Although this is a digital picture, its content is "analog" for "I am half-way through with the book I am reading." The receipt of my train pass is folded and holding the place, which - combined with the memory of the spine from my reading it this morning, wedges a space between what has been read and unread, a physical border of the explored and unexplored.

I remember Edward Tufte explaining...or perhaps it was in one of his books I was reading...that the vertical bars in a bar chart often used by companies and organizations to show the amount of profit, loss and other countable things is actually an abstraction of the real thing - coins stacked on a table...not unlike the abstraction of a pie being cut and eaten, which gives us the pie chart. Physical knobs, dials and other such objects of control are giving way to clicks and now voice recognition. I am not nostalgic for the hardware and gadgets of the past but I do appreciate the half-full/half-empty glass, wearing down of soles and tires, buttons, switches, sun dials and clock hands.

The White Bomb

by Drew Martin
The naming of sea-, air- and space-faring ships is a common practice...the Mayflower, Titanic, Zeppelin, Spruce Goose, Spirit of St. Louis, Challenger, Voyager, Enterprise, Apollo . . . more common vehicles such as cars and motorcycles have production names, i.e. Model T, and it is left up to the owner to nickname his or her set of wheels. I just read a section in Where the Suckers Moon about this, discussing cars:

Dan volunteered that his daughter used to call her maroon Pontiac "the Blood Vessel." Davenport referred to his Volkswagen as "the Badass Jetta." Eyes turned back to Jerry, who'd driven them along this tangent, "I call mine," he said dourly, "the Shitbox."

For a large part of my adolescence my mother drove a big, white four-door 1968 Chevy Bel Air. The model is pictured here and that is about the condition she parted with it in the 80's. A lacework of rust barely held the body to the chassis. Her high school students affectionately called it "The White Bomb."

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Relevancy of Irrelevancy

by Drew Martin
Don Cornelius' death last week sparked remembrances of his Soul Train. Not only was it a great and groundbreaking show, but when it started in 1971 there were only a handful of television stations per any region and this was before MTV. I am reading Where the Suckers Moon: An Advertising Story, which is a very thorough 460+ page book about a campaign for Subaru. Even more obscure, it was published in 1994. So what does my reading a dated, 18 year old book about a car with an image problem have to do with Soul Train? I read a section yesterday about the founders of the Just Do It! agency Wieden + Kennedy. An introduction to David Kennedy covered his time at Leo Burnett in Chicago:
David seethed inwardly over artistic slights and the pettiness of agency politics. Although he found some respite working with a few politically charged creative boutiques that opened with the Creative Revolution, hung out with a contingent of radical Irish admen and helped produce the first six months of the black television program "Soul Train." David had no respect, let alone love, for what he did.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

ESL for Hippos

by Drew Martin
Pictured left is William, the nearly 4,000 year old Egyptian sculpture of a hippopotamus and the mascot of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I have been discussing hippopotamuses with friends recently and so last night I had quite an encounter with one in a dream. I had a three-part dream of water...starting with a river and ending at the ocean. The middle dream was in a delta region of Africa. I was with a Crocodile Dundee kind of a character who was tagging cranes around the water. We were wading near a small island (about the size of a minivan) when a big hippo came up behind him from the murky water. They tumbled together into what turned out to be a hug. Then the hippo got up on land and started talking to me in perfect English. He said it was his second language; he had first learned an African dialect. I was intrigued by this creature and asked him when he first realized that language was more than just sounds. The hippo replied that he was being used in movies and they kept telling him the same commands over and over and that he finally understood that words had meaning. While I was still in the dream, I kept thinking it was like a mash-up of Barney, Planet of the Apes, and The Miracle Worker.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Throw Down Your Heart

by Drew Martin
Yesterday I watched Béla Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart, a film about the American banjo player, Béla Anton Leoš Fleck (named after Béla Bartók, Anton Webern and Leoš Janáček). Fleck's wanted to bring the banjo back to Africa, where it originated and to play and hear good music. He tours Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Mali and plays in all of these places. Most of the people he encounters have never seen a banjo and they seem quite interested in it. He jams with a tribe in Uganda who have a huge xylophone dug into the ground, drops in on a family of musicians in Gambia, plays at a club in Dar es Salaam and has recording sessions in other parts of Tanzania and Mali. I like films/stories about international cultural exchanges such as this. Another documentary in this genre, which I think is a much more interesting/fascinating film is Genghis Blues - a movie about Paul Pena, a blind American singer who travels to Tuva where he competes in their throat singing contests. While Fleck is quite guileless and does not know who the Maasai are before going to East Africa, Pena, by contrast, learns Tuvan (via Russian) and is immersed in their culture before he even makes his journey. (Click on the titles above for their respective trailers)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Double Expresso: The Aesthetics of Prosthetics

by Drew Martin
When I worked at BMW as a graphic artist, my smokey, bear-hunting/Vietnam-vet boss would swagger in each morning, throw himself in his chair, take off his synthetic leg, lay it on his desk in front of me and rub the stump of the leg he lost test-riding one of their motorcycles. It was not a pretty sight. Amputations are typically not pleasing to the eye but I was always fascinated by them. One of my earliest memories of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was seeing a young woman in a tank-top with an artificial arm and hook. She wore it proudly and I thought it was really cool. In middle school, I obtained a copy of an amputation procedure manual from my Spanish teacher whose husband was a surgeon. My science projects and term papers were about prosthetics and the only thing I had to show BMW of related work in my interview was an exploded view of an artificial leg I designed for athletes when I in high school. It has been amazing to see what has developed since my childhood. The carbon fiber "blade runner" makes it possible for double amputees to compete in world-class track events and athletes including Aimee Mullins (pictured here) and Oscar Pistorius helped established a new Pan-like aesthetic of the human form. Both of them are models as well.

A Man With A Beard...

by Drew Martin
I caught myself staring at a man's beard on the subway last night. It was not a scrappy beard or anything too wild. It was a well-kept beard that did not hang from his face but worked into an overall mane. The man was probably in his 50's. He wore glasses and peered down at the book he was reading while standing by the train's doors. The first thing to cross my mind was what the native Americans must have thought about the hairy Europeans when they first saw them. Did the beards offend their smooth-faced aesthetics? Or were they intrigued by this growth on these bewhiskered and smelly white some kind of hybrid of bear and man? Some tribes did believe that beavers were their deceased ancestors, returning in another form. It is suggested that a young Pocahontas fancied Captain John Smith (pictured left) and it is fact that she married John Rolfe, both of whom would have been rather woolly. I wonder if some of the first-contact natives assumed that the European women, who did not make the first voyages, were also bearded or did they consider their models in nature that the male exhibits different plumage, antlers and such? My grandfather used to shake his head when he saw a man with facial hair and say aloud "A man with a beard has something to hide."