Thursday, September 24, 2015

Shove Thy Neighbor

by Drew Martin
Love Thy Neighbor is always interpreted as an open-armed, peaceful embrace but I have never heard objection to the premise, which is one of land-ownership and material isolation that is bound in the word neighbor. This word does not exist if there is no unnatural division.

I have tried to love my neighbors but there are physical boundaries such as property lines, doors and walls, and cars; and, there other boundaries such as elitism, unsynchable schedules, loaded guns in their closets, and fears. The fears are about losing things that were accumulated and about what life might be like without one's personal bunker - nothing short of Mad Max. So what we then have is a justifiable yet unwarranted prestrike of self-defense: a constant defensive life.

My daughter who is soon to turn 17 recently said to me that humanity ended once people settled down and started developing towns. It is something she read, and it is actually quite true. The compromise of our freedoms starts with land ownership and division of territory, and it leads to slavery, unfair accumulation of wealth and territorial warfare. Sounds awful, but at the same time it is hard for us to imagine what life would be like without the boundaries of time and space.

For the most part, when we speak of nomadic peoples we are discussing ancient humans, or movements that have been extinguished in the past century, such as the shepherds of southern Poland.

Fortunately, for humanity, there are some humans walking the earth, and sleeping in a different spot each night. Each day is more important than the past or future. Fortunately, for us, a young French traveler named Raphael Treza, has documented the Hindu Kalbelias tribe of Rajasthan, North Western India with his film Cobra Gypsies.

At times it feels more like a music video than a documentary, but it is hard to say that Treza romanticizes their lifestyle even though it often reads that way, especially coming from a Westerner, who in one part of the film drums up the European colonist fantasy: to be the first white man these natives have ever seen. 

None-the-less Treza's closeness with and acceptance by the Kalbelias is endearing and, after all, for our voyeuristic benefit. It is more like he presents us with carefree but hardworking nomads in such a raw way that we, ourselves, automatically idealize them. I think this feeling has less to do with the exotic, and more to do with a genuine freedom they have combined with great artistic whims and style.

Watch the full documentary here:

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Loudest Silence I Have Ever Heard

by Drew Martin
There is a big place in my heart for the Amish people, which has nothing to do with their direct religious belief and their rules, but rather about how this translates into their simple lives, and their relationship to the land. I connect with that more than our explosive entertainment culture, constant distractions, and self-importance. And so, any time I see a decent-looking Amish documentary online, I pull up the ironing board and watch in fascination. Tonight I watched The Amish: Shunned...Your Freedom or Your Family, which takes a close look at the shunned Amish who, as one of them expresses, is "lost between cultures." 

The title of this post, The Loudest Silence I Have Ever Heard,
 is a quote from a shunned former Amish woman who attended her father's funeral (typically not permitted for people who leave the community) and how powerful the silence was when she and her non-Amish husband passed by the open coffin with more than 400 Amish looking on. This woman, and others featured in the film, plays a role in the periphery of the community by taking in younger Amish people who leave their families and need a place to stay and a surrogate parent. Early on in the documentary she comments on how the Amish do not permit to have pictures taken of them and how hard it is for our culture to comprehend what it means to only have mental pictures of your loved ones.

One of the ex-Amish featured in this film is a young woman who felt it was God's calling for her to become a nurse. She comments that while putting herself through college to become a nurse makes her a good daughter/person in our culture, it led to her own shunning from the Amish community.

One thing I have found interesting about a lot of the ex-Amish I have seen in such documentaries is that they remain quite religious. They want to know more about Christianity and to interpret the Bible on their own. They question the Amish rules, not the foundation of the faith.

From a media perspective, I think they have a unique understanding of worldly media. Is our abundance of images of each other more important than a good mental picture? While I certainly appreciate such documentaries who is the real audience?

Watch the full documentary here:

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Past, Present, and Future of Computer Games

by Drew Martin
I recently watched two good movies about computer games. The first is Video Games: the Movie, produced by Zach Braff, a documentary which explores the past, present, and future of video games, and the influence of the Atari games that marked the adolescence of my generation. It validates the medium as a rich, interactive story-telling art form, and demands the same level of respect that the movie industry gets for its participating careers. There has been more buzz around the film Atari: Game Over, also made in 2014, but Braff's documentary is a much better watch, if you have to choose. And if you have all the time in the world, then watch both but also check out Indie Game, which is the best of the three in terms a compelling narrative, and is an all around slicker film. 

One thing I do appreciate about Video Games: the Movie is the discussion about gamification. One of the people interviewed in the film suggests that social media apps such as Facebook are really just forms of video games. This makes a lot of sense since there are actions one makes in return, hopefully, for points...or in the case of Facebook, likes or friends. Thinking about this term today, which is a buzzword now, made me realize that it is simply a human trait that has always existed both at a playful level but also with more gruesome consequences, such as collecting scalps, or marking on a fighter plane how many enemy craft a pilot shot down.

The second movie I want to point out is Computer Chess by Andrew Bujalski from 2013, which I watched last night. It is a brilliant film about a fictitious computer chess tournament set in the 1980s. It is shot with analog video camera and Bujalski cast computer techies for many of the roles. There are one or two characters who broke the illusion of it as a period piece and their presence made the film feel more like a contemporary low-budget Los Angeles indie film, but despite a few distractions in the acting, it is really an amazing film. I love the non-actors he cast and the different levels in the film. Yes, it is a dry comedy that focuses on a 1980's computer chess tournament but it is really an existential film. The tournament occupies an event room at a hotel (where they are all staying) but the same space is used in the early mornings as a couples therapy group led by a spiritual guide from Africa. 

The participants from both events overlap and the limitations of the 64 squares on the chess board are debated. One of the younger computer chess programmers at the tournament has the most thinking to do since he orbits both the seduction of one of the therapy couples who want to sexually liberate him, and the only female computer programmer at the event who also has her eyes on him. He discovers that his own chess program, which has been plagued by suicidal maneuvers throughout the tournament, actually does not want to play against other computers but rather with humans. When he suggests this to the professor lead of his team, a conversation begins about confirmation bias "where you're blind to all the things that will refute your theory and you're fixating on the things that will support it."

Friday, September 11, 2015

Dia:Beacon: Getting Into Robert Irwin's Excursus: Homage to the Square3

by Drew Martin
Dia:Beacon is one of the best places to contemplate some of the most important contemporary art. It has the space and solitude it needs to exhibit large works that other museums simply could not manage. The rooms devoted to Richard Serra, for example, are magnificent and his works there are breathtaking.

Dia:Beacon is only an hour or so from my house but it seems too far of a trip to casually make. Prior to yesterday I had only been once before but I was driving back to the New Jersey from a funeral of an artist in Connecticut and so it was a place to stop and remember this fellow, as it was on the way home.

I could write about this museum forever, but I want to bring attention to a current exhibit (up for two years) by Robert Irwin, the artist who designed the transformation of the museum space from an old box factory to what it is today.

Excursus: Homage to the Square
by Irwin is the kind of installation that a viewer might typically walk through in a minute and sigh "I get it" or "I don't get it" with the same apathetic tone. It consists of 18 ghostly scrimmed rooms that lead into one other at the corner posts. In the center of each translucent/partly transparent wall is a lit vertical florescent tube (four to a room) which are identically accented with colored gels in each room, but are slightly differ from one room to the next. The effect departs from the influence for the piece - Josef Alber's original color study series - and enters the realm of coded language somewhere between a visual Morse code and lightning bug signals. They are mysterious light spectra that could be the readings of the gases of distant stars or some kind of emotional feelings.

The scrimmed walls allow you to see all the way through the exhibit but at the same time they also have the illusion that they are reflecting what is behind you, which plays with one's depth perception - a sensation that Irwin wants you to experience, but not obviously. 

While the cubic structure of the space is a simple arrangement, it has a maze-like complexity. This labyrinth is not constructed with a no-way-out design but rather by a mesmerizing gravity that pulls you back in. The rooms are structurally identical but their arrangement within the whole installation means that some are on the perimeter, while the others are totally interior. Dia:Beacon's press release for the installation says there is no beginning, middle or end but this is not exactly right. There is no particular place to enter or exit but it begins as you approach it and ends once you leave the installation. In the middle there is no duration. It is a timeless space that extends into an infinite future.

The first time I saw it yesterday I walked by rather quickly, but then I returned and spent well over a half an hour in the space. And then I returned again to spend more time. It is meticulously constructed with the perfectly taut scrim, which is precisely stapled to the thin wood stripping (painted white) that define the perimeter of the walls. All the staples on the sides of the doors are vertical and evenly distanced from one another. All the staples on the top of the doors are horizontal. On the top corners, the staples are at 45-degree angles, leaning toward the open space. It is a detail that marries the intention of the artist with the care of the museum staff and the respect of the viewer.

Excursus: Homage to the Squareis best to experience when you are alone, void of other museum goers, but that being said, it does change the space in an interesting way when there are other people present, and it would be interesting to explore with someone you intimately know; to lose and find and lose and find again in this overlapping place of time and space.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Ungentlemanly Art: A History of American Political Cartoons

by Drew Martin
I just finished reading The Ungentlemanly Art: A History of American Political Cartoons, which is a fascinating look at American history through the eyes and minds of political cartoonists, and the influence on the artwork due to various reproduction methods and schedules of more timely publications. While I am not particularly interested in American history, this book was a great approach because of the details covered in the illustrations and the opposing points of view that the artists offered.

Benjamin Franklin's Join, or Die snake is a topic of discussion concerning its first appearance in 1754 and then multiple uses thereafter. I did not actually know this was by Franklin's hand, and I was clueless to the meaning behind the severed creature: a superstition at that time that if you cut up a snake and were to stick its parts back together before sunset, it would be whole again.

Thomas Nast, a German-born illustrator, had such influence with his cartoons that once he set his sights on William M. Tweed, a corrupt mid-1800's New York politician and the "Boss" of Tammany Hall the political machine that controlled New York State, he was offered $100,000 to go "study art" in Europe. Nast bid up Tweed's offer to half a million dollars but then declined it so that he could stick around and put Tweed and his cohorts behind bars. 
Tweed demanded...

"Stop them damn pictures. I don't care so much what the papers write about me. My constituents can't read. But, damn it, they can see pictures." 

In this The Tammany Tiger Loose cartoon which ran in Harper's Weekly in 1871, Nast depicts Tweed as emperor who watches his mascot tiger maul Columbia, the symbol of the American republic at that time.

The Ungentlemanly Art also traces this switch from Columbia to Uncle Sam as the symbol of America by way of Brother Jonathan, a character who was a bit of a country bumpkin.

The caption of the Jim Crow themed illustration here by the Pulitzer Prize winning Bill Mauldin is "I've decide I want my seat back." Mauldin ridiculed the southern redneck in many of his cartoons and championed Civil Rights in the 1960s.

While The Ungentlemanly Art is a refreshing and very visually attentive approach to American history it of course also casts a wider net. Many of the cartoonists in the United States were actually European immigrants - some of them excelled, while others never adjusted to the cultural climate - and many of cartoons were about world events. One of the interesting notes was that while the political cartoonists were typically the avant-garde of political commentary and were insightful about their subjects, most of them got Adolf Hitler wrong, seeing him at first as a bit of a clown, and not the dangerous dictator that he was.

One of my favorite aspects of The Ungentlemanly Art is beyond its pages and references. I loved thinking about these artists; pre-computer, and often pre-electricity. While there are great technical skills needed for etching and engraving, the mind of the artist was perhaps more independently critical to the product as it was less about being an operator of program needed to obtain the result. But this is true of political cartoonists and editorial illustrators today too and is what separates them from graphic artists. I often think about the ratio of idea to execution in art so I was pleased to read a passage in the beginning of the book that addressed this:

One of the finest American newspaper cartoonists during the years between the World Wars, Rollin Kirby, may have solved this paradox when he said in 1918 that a good cartoon consists of 75 per cent idea and 25 per cent drawing.

Another appreciation I have of this book is that it was published in 1968, the year before I was born. Unfortunately that means the history of American political cartoons ends a bit prematurely and misses out on nearly a half a century of work but the flip of this is that is a more patiently developed book and is better written than it would probably be if it were assembled today.