Saturday, April 27, 2013

Trans-Siberian Tokyo, Lost in Transition

by Drew Martin
I just saw a really interesting documentary called Girl Model (by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin), which actually works extremely well as a fictional movie. It left me with a haunting feeling, like I had just seen Rosemary’s Baby or something equally twisted.  There are two main characters, Ashley Arbaugh, a former model turned model scout who specializes in finding fresh teenage faces from Russia to bring into the Japanese fashion market, and Nadya, a noodle-thin Siberian girl who gets plucked from obscurity in Novosibirsk and sent to Japan to bunk with fellow Russian, Madlen. The two young girls are like fish out of water in Tokyo. They go to casting calls but get little work, and finally return to Russia, downtrodden and more than $2,000 (each) in debt to their agency.

The saddest part is that they come from beautiful, loving families, and a simple lifestyle. Nadya grew up sharing a bed with her bright-eyed grandmother, and takes saunas at home with her mom, who informs her that the Japanese sometimes only have a shower stall in their apartments. It is an absurd idea that makes them laugh.

The scout, Ashley, is a mid-thirties wicked witch of the West, who hated being a model but now fuels the inferno. She is pretty, but frigid, and lives alone in a spare modern home in Connecticut, shared only with two rubber baby dolls. She talks about wanting to have a baby but what we witness is something quite unsettling and a little freakish. Ashley has an operation to remove a large fibroid and cyst from her reproductive organs. She describes the fibroid as being the size of a baby’s head, and then shows a picture of a huge cyst: her egg developed so much on its own that it is topped with blond hair.

After going through the whole tragic cycle with Nadya, the film ends with Ashley back in Russia explaining to a small, local film crew that she is looking for new faces to bring to Japan. She promises “…every model has success in Japan, unlike other markets, where they might go into debt; they never do in Japan, they only win.” We see her selecting her next model, Maria, a 13 year old from Novosibirsk. It is like the final scene of a horror film, where the villain walks off in search of his next victim.

Click here to watch the trailer.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview

by Drew Martin
I am not an Apple fanatic or a Steve Jobs fan, but yesterday I watched a fascinating interview with him, Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview. It was discovered in 2012 and features Jobs in 1995, a year before he returns to Apple. At the conclusion, a text screen reads: What followed was a corporate renaissance unparalleled in American business history. With innovative products like iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad, and Apple Stores, Jobs turned an almost bankrupt Apple into the most valuable company in America.

When Jobs speaks about Apple standing still after his departure, and that it is slowly dying without him, it is hard not to think he is speaking from the grave with all of the negative press about plummeting Apple stock and much criticism over its behemoth new headquarters construction project.

This interview is fascinating because he digs deep to reflect on the previous successes of Apple. He returns many times to the concept that there is a lot of craftsmanship between a good idea and a good product.

When asked about his vision, "How do you know what is the right direction?" Jobs gives one of his most thoughtful answers:

Ultimately it comes down to taste. It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done. And then try to bring those things into what you are doing. Picasso had a saying, he said 'good artists copy, great artists steal.' We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas. And I think part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians, and poets, and artists, and zoologists, and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world. But if it hadn't been for computer science, these people would have been, you know, doing amazing things in life in other fields. And they brought with them - we all brought to this effort - a very liberal arts air, a very liberal arts attitude that we wanted to pull in the best that we saw in other fields into this field. And I don't think you get that if you're narrow.

I love the simple influences he mentions that shaped him. One example is of an article he read in Scientific American when he was much younger about the locomotive effectiveness of all creatures on Earth. Humans scored poorly, in the lower third of a study that ranked the condor above all other animals. But, as Jobs marvels, someone had the brilliance to include a human on a bicycle, which blew away the condor. He used this as a metaphor to promote computers as the amplification of our mental abilities. An early advertisement for the company referred to Apple as the bicycle of the mind.

Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview is a must-see for all designers, start-up entrepreneurs, and business leaders. There is a lot of advice and warning in his responses. He says people and companies get confused when they get bigger because they try to replicate their initial success; they think the magic is in the process, so they institutionalize the process. Process is mistaken for content, but it is the content that makes a great product.

Monday, April 15, 2013

How Much Does Your Building Weigh?

by Drew Martin
In the April 8 - 14 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek there is the article by Peter Burrows, Spaceship Apple. The introductory blurb reads,

Steve Jobs hired architect Norman Foster to build the greatest headquarters known to mankind. As construction nears, the project is behind schedule, a billion over budget, and shaping up as an investor relations nightmare.

It is a cautious tale of the creepy utopic vision shared by two control freaks, and it makes you feel like you are bearing witness to a dying star, which first explodes in great volume before collapsing upon itself.

Today I watched How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?  Foster's mentor, Buckminster Fuller asked a dumbfounded Foster this question. This inquiry led to a second act of architectural exploration with projects such as Hearst Tower in Manhattan, which was designed as a diagrid that uses 20% less steel than a similar sized skyscraper built with a conventional box structure.

Fuller, not Foster, is the person who coined "Spaceship Earth," which the title of Burrows' article references.

How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? is a beautiful film. It is clean and precise. It is a designer's dream vision and a classic tale of rags to riches. Design and architecture are often inspired by the arts, and in this case there is a nod to the role of drawing:

Norman never stops drawing. He communicates in the most effective way through a sharp pencil and a beautiful block of paper. In his cars there are fresh notepads and freshly sharpened pencils just in case something comes to him. He is always drawing; drawing, drawing, drawing. It's the way he thinks. It's the way he argues points. You can see the buildings take shape. His lines are very spare, but very expressive, in a very economical way. Just like Norman.

Click here to watch the trailer for How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Intergalatic Nemesis

by Drew Martin
I remember discussing the future with my middle school friends as we walked around the quiet streets of our suburban town in New Jersey during the mid 80s. We all knew exactly what we were going to do. I was going to be an artist, and my good friend Jason Neulander was going to be an actor. Jason was multi-talented and was in all the school plays. When we were even younger, in elementary school, we used to collaborate on books. He would write them. I would draw them. We went our separate ways for college on different coasts and never really kept in touch after that.

I am so proud to say that Jason is living the dream. He wrote, and now  directs a live-action graphic novel called The Intergalatic Nemesis, which combines comic book visuals projected on a big screen and live stage performance in a radio play style. The Intergalatic Nemesis just wrapped up a week of performances at The New Victory Theater on 42nd Street in Manhattan is now moving on to Canada, Scotland and around the United States.

Click here to watch a trailer of the performance and to see more information about The Intergalatic Nemesis.


by Drew Martin
Today I watched Buskers, a documentary about the acts and lives of street performers. It is a pretty candid portrayal of the scene. It takes a certain kind of person to endure the harsh conditions of this day-to-day, dollar-by-dollar (euro by euro, etc.) existence where a good "spot" is defended tooth and nail, and the future means tomorrow. All the buskers say they do it for the freedom, as well as the interaction with the audience. One guy compares it to an extended orgasm. Another guy says it is the only way he can interact with people. During and after a good act, they feel liberated and loved. Some even say they feel god-like. A bad act creates a feeling of complete dejection because street performers are selling themselves so it is a very personal rejection. A few people call it a house of cards. Bad weather, by-the-book cops, and homeless guys who run off with a day's earnings are a few reasons to think twice about ever wanting to depend on street performance for a living. But the liberty, whim of travel, and the fact that this is most immediate way to perform keep most buskers hooked. One busker spoke about the magic of showing up on a nondescript slab of concrete, setting up his act, and performing as a higher calling.

My own brush with busking started at school. I invented and made the typar, a 40+ stringed instrument constructed from an old, manual typewriter, piano pegs, guitar strings, a tiny amplifier and  scrapwood. I played it by typing on the typewriter and it sounded something like a twangy sitar, hence the term I coined, typar. I made it and showed it in my honors program exhibition in 1991 at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and I played it at a few gigs around town, but those seemed too prepared so I took it out in buskers' fashion and played it on campus. About a year later, in Europe, I created a snake-charming act with a puppet snake in order to make money after being mugged. I think what I liked most about it was plopping down in a buskers' zone where the performances were pretty routine. My act was quirky and poked fun a little at the kids who performed Beatles songs all day to shake the tourists of their money. I never made a lot of cash but was most amused when I got coins from countries where real snake-charming was an actual thing. I performed mainly in parts of Spain, and then in Prague. I did it a couple days in Amsterdam as well. Once I was walking down the street in my get-up and an American woman saw me and remarked to her girlfriend, "I love Amsterdam!" The biggest rush was getting over the fear of performing in public, until it became routine. It is a pretty empowering feeling to break the rules of how you are supposed to conduct yourself in public. Seeing Buskers today sent shivers down my spine. I do not know how people can maintain that way of life for long.

Click here to watch the trailer for Buskers.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Falling Man

by Drew Martin
The opening credits of Mad Men is of a suited man falling past glassy skyscrapers as billboards. By the sixth season of the show this falling man image has culturally usurped the specific reference, Robert Longo’s 1980s' series Men in the Cities, for which he photographed, projected, and then trace-drew sharply dressed friends in contorted and collapsing positions, which commented on the corporate decadence of the 80s. When Mary Harron adapted Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, starring Christian Bale, she made the focus of this cocaine-snorting Wall Street banker’s swanky flat a couple of oversized prints from Men in the Cities.  It was perfect d├ęcor for this button-down character who we later see chasing a hooker around his apartment building with a chainsaw while wearing only a pair of white tube-socks. Longo’s images took on a very different meaning on 9/11 by zooming us in on the many traders who jumped to their deaths from the burning Twin Towers. The casualties of Longo’s black-suited men moved from personal and moral conflicts to victims of terrorist acts. The opening credits of Mad Men combine the 9/11 reference with Longo’s imagery to comment, and perhaps predict, the decadence and moral fall of Don Draper and his colleagues as an updated fall of Icarus.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Into the Mild

by Drew Martin
When we talk about civilization and the domestication of animals, we often forget that the two go hand in hand, and that the civilization in this union is not about permanent houses and social order but the personal taming of man. The past two nights I had peculiar dreams about animals. The first night I dreamt that I was swimming in a southern creek as I did as a kid, but the creek I know is murky and slithering with water snakes and other creatures, which used to brush by my skinny kid legs as they dangled in the water from the black rubber inner tubes. The water in the dream creek was clear and void of the alligators I was anticipating. On an island formed by the creek, I could see flashes of naked white humans walking through the dense, wild growth. When I awoke from that dream, I ran up into the hills of my town just before sunrise. I ran under a large wild turkey, which was perched on a low branch, just above my head. It gobbled a crack-of-dawn call. Last night I dreamt that I had to spend the night in a large barn-like attic room with wild animals. They were all hairy beasts; wolf-like, bear-like, carnivorous pack hunters. But as I walked by their Birkenau-like bunks, they did not growl or show their teeth. I imagined these creatures coming alive and acting on their wild nature once the lights were out.

Monday, April 8, 2013


by Drew Martin
I ran past my town’s bicycle store yesterday and spotted a hipster-marketed, fixed-gear bike with flat-black paint, which was branded as Beatnik. Later in the day I watched the 2010 movie Howl, which shares a narration between a reading of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and asides from Ginsberg, played by a too fresh James Franco.

I like what the film could have been but the safe acting and Disney-like cartoon interstitials dumb down the poem and the era. The angle is the trial of Howl’s publisher who was arrested and charged with disseminating obscene literature, but these scenes are so poorly acted they do nothing for the film. Jon Hamm plays the defense attorney but he is no different in character than Don Draper from Mad Men.

The film does work as a simple primer of the poem for people who do not know anything about this period and how it relates to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Franco's Ginsberg asides are interesting. I liked most the line that the artist and writer need to be as open and honest with his or her muse as he or she is with his or her best friend. I listened to Ginsberg reading Howl in its entirety after the film. It has the desperate romance of Thomas Wolfe, the rambling of Walt Whitman, and a drunken sobriety of Rumi. To use Howl as a template would most likely yield bad poetry but I like this style as a way to review and synthesize, but not analyze, thoughts and experiences.

Click here to watch the trailer for Howl
Click here to listen to Allen Ginsberg read Howl

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Recommended Suggestions: Two Czechs vs the Met and the Culture of Ponying Up

by Drew Martin
The news of two Czechs suing the Metropolitan Museum of Art for not making it clear that the $25 entrance fee is only a recommendation sparked jeers from New Yorkers and headlines such as "Cheapskate tourists sue the Metropolitan Museum" and their action was profiled as a "Stupid Lawsuit of the Day."

The lawsuit seems very American but the complaint is entirely Czech. In the mid 90s I worked with a mason in northern Czech for a day. For a bricklayer and a Czech at that time, he was well traveled; he had just returned from building kilns in Kuwait. The thing I remember most about him was that he bragged about eating the food of the countries he traveled to. This seems like something that comes with the territory but it was not uncommon for Czech travelers to bring all of their provisions with them for trips to neighboring countries where food and beverages might be at least ten times more expensive then they would pay back home.

Czechs are not tippers; it is not built into their personal economies or social graces. At the same time they, especially taxi drivers, hoteliers, and restaurateurs, gouge tourists with exorbitant prices. Even in untouristed cities, public places such as swimming pools charge neighboring Germans much more for access to their facilities. I know this first hand, when I often had to argue to pay Czech prices even though I spoke the language and lived there for five years with permanent residency status.

At lot of this has to do with the poor economic hangover from communism, but I would even argue it is embedded in their entirely phonetic language where every letter is used, as opposed to French where half the letters never even make it out of one's mouth.

The lawsuit seems two-part: a frugal and efficient people, as well as a hurt feeling of being duped as tourists in the game they play back home. Personally, if I am checking out an exhibit for a few minutes at the Met, I will pay a dollar. I have paid the full price many times before, and I work in New York and pay their taxes. If you have enough money to fly across the ocean to spend a week in New York and are going to spend a day at the Met, pay the full price.

Yesterday, in lieu of going to my Manhattan office, I took a free shuttle from my New Jersey hamlet to another town where my company has a satellite office. I told the coworkers about the service and a Jamaican friend told me to make sure I tip the drivers. Simply put, this is a cultural difference, and my coworker is right. Maybe the Met can change their entrance to resemble the New York Subway, with nominal fees to enter the system, and cops waiting on the other side to nab people who jump the turnstiles and shake them down for $100.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Vice Versa

by Drew Martin
I am not sure what to make of the proper New Yorker giving press to the naughty Vice magazine in this week’s issue with the 10-page spread The Wayward Press, The Bad-Boy Brand, The Vice guide to the world by Lizzie Widdicombe.

Vice has been one of my favorite magazines for the past few years. It is edgy and alternative; intelligently improper with a zine-like vibe in a slick, square magazine. Vice’s attitude sets it apart from other publications but this is also its biggest fault; it breaks all the rules only through a hipster code and formulaic cool.

The attempts at guerrilla journalism often settle for informative entertainment but its ‘do stupid in a smart way and smart in a stupid way’ leaves the reader with a good gnawing feeling because it is more experiential than news. One of the exclamations of Widdicombe’s article is about Vice's success as an ad magnet YouTube content provider, envied by big media companies.

I had only seen one or two of their videos before yesterday so I watched a few more: Hunting the Radioactive Beasts of Chernobyl, Interview with a Cannibal, Westminster Dog Show on Acid, Death of the American Hobo. These curious subjects act more as tabloid newspaper headlines than as video titles.

For the Westminster Dog Show on Acid video, a young man with poodle hair takes LSD for his first time and then goes to Madison Square Garden to interact with doggers (a term he coins on the spot). It is witty and funny, more about the young man’s experience than the event. The Chernobyl and Hobo videos are lacking but the Cannibal video is overwhelming and hard to forget. A slight, well-dressed Japanese man in the latter part of his life explains how he shot, raped and ate a young Dutch woman when he was a student in Paris. It is graphic but the most haunting thing is how accepting the camera is, without any interjection from the Vice crew.

Click here to watch:
Hunting the Radioactive Beasts of Chernobyl

Interview with a Cannibal
Westminster Dog Show on Acid
Death of the American Hobo

Monday, April 1, 2013

Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui

by Drew Martin
I saw Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui yesterday at the Brooklyn Museum. It is definitely worth schlepping out to Brooklyn to see this beautiful body of work, in lieu of a visit to MoMA or the Met.

El Anatsui was born in Ghana in 1944 and now works out of Nigeria, where he employs a couple dozen young locals to pound, poke and loop thousands of liquor bottle caps and canned milk tops into metal tapestries. This is Anatsui’s first solo exhibition in a New York museum, and he pulls it off with ease.

Most people talk about Anatsui’s process as recycling but he does not like that term because he does not return the material back into the manufacturing cycle. He transforms discarded utilitarian objects into contemplative art objects. Anatsui speaks about his work as data, and leaves the decisions with the curators to be made at every level. He understands that viewers might approach his art as African textiles, but can also see in his rich, metal fabrics other influences and eras such as Klimt and the Vienna Secession.

Anatsui warns to not stop there. This work is not simply decorative. His use of the liquor tops is a commentary on the European slave trade, which exchanged drink for slave labor that was sent to the colonies to grow and harvest sugarcane in order to make the liquors. He is also quick to challenge the Western concept of ocular beauty, explaining that in Africa beauty is more a matter of character than surface.

Click here to read more about the show, Gravity and Grace.

Click here to watch an Art 21 documentary about El Anatsui.