Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Tearing a Page from the Book of Ultra-Running History - The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats its Young

by Drew Martin
What do these books have in common?...The Valley of Death, Almost Home, The Body in the Woods, Fool, The End, A Week in the Woods, Damned, The Idiot, and Human Zoo.
Nothing stylistically but their titles are part of the quirky spirit of one of the most off-the-beaten-paths ultra-running races, the Barkley Marathons, which has no website, no publicly available information, requires an entrance exam, plus a $1.60 entrance fee (such events can exceed $500).

First-time runners are required to sacrifice a license plate of where they are from (the collection even includes one from Antarctica), and all runners must bring whatever the race-organizer, Lazarus Lake, needs that year. One year it was white-T-shirts, another year socks, and another year flannel shirts.

There is a race day chosen in the spring but there is no official start time; could be early morning or late at night, so the runners are delighted when they hear Lake blow a conch shell because it means they have one hour to start, which officially begins with his lighting a cigarette (he smokes a lot).

Barkley Marathons is named after an old farmer friend of Lake and it was dreamed up after the 1977 jailbreak of James Earl Ray (Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin) and other inmates from Brushy Mountain State 
Penitentiary in Tennessee. It was said that one might be able to escape the prison but that you could never escape the woods.

Ray was captured within eight miles of the facility. At the time Lake and his other trail-running friends – some of the first of to inspire the current movement, found that distance laughable and said they could get at least 100 miles out. The course has grown to 130-ish miles with a time cap of 60 hours, which is covered with five loops that are one-third trail running, and two-thirds trail-blazing.

The loops are run twice clockwise, twice counterclockwise, and if there are more than one person who make it to the final fifth loop, they are split up to compete in opposite directions. “If” because in the 25 years prior to the documentary only 10 people had finished it. For this reason it is considered the hardest ultramarathons in the world.

Despite the hundreds of applicants who somehow hear about the race and actually apply, only 40 are accepted. Even though people would pay hundreds of dollars to have the chance to compete, the $1.60 entrance never changes to ensure a cast of characters, which seemed to include a number of male graduate students of the sciences – possibly because while long-distance running is a real thinking sport, ultra-running requires a certain level of analytics to endure the physical and mental challenges.

GPS devices are not allowed so the runners have to find their way with printed maps and compasses. In order to check that the runners are roughly sticking to the course, 11 books are distributed as checkpoints. The competitors are given race numbers for each lap and must tear the page from the book that corresponds to their number. At the end of each lap the pages are counted while the runners recharge with food and drink, and tend to their wounds: cracked feet, blistered heels, brier-thrashed calves, and other aches and pains. Returning to the camp is also where many runners give up, which is followed by the playing of taps, as if they died. It is better to give up at the camp because giving up halfway out might require a ten-hour walk just to get back.

While the odds of completing the entire race are against the majority of the runners (some years nobody finishes) many come for the “fun run” a term typically tagged to the kids’ mile run, often held at local 5K events, but here translates as three-loops, about three marathons through the various areas named for their grueling features including Pillars of Doom, Checkmate Hill, Son of a Bitch Ditch, and Testicle Spectacle.

The humor of these names (like the titles of the books that change each year to taunt the runner in some way) is introduced from the start of the documentary. In an early scene, the off-camera interviewer sees the fuel gauge on E and asks Lake, who is driving the old truck, about their fuel status. He explains:

"E" means excellent and "F" means you are fucked.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Truth Be Known

by Drew Martin
I just watched, in flight, Spotlight, which was recently awarded Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It recreates the journalistic efforts by Spotlight - the Boston Globe’s small but diligent investigative team, which uncovered a massive scandal of child molestation and the cover-up by the Catholic church despite a city-wide hesitation to tell/know the whole story, including the tight-lipped lawyers who defended the church, reluctant victims, and even the Boston Globe itself. What started with the knowledge of one sexually abusive priest grew to 13, then 87 during the investigation.

In 2002, the Spotlight team published nearly 600 stories about the scandal and set up a hotline to receive calls from other victims, who are estimated to be upward of 1,000 people. Eventually, 249 priests and brothers were publicly accused of sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese. These stats are listed in the credits, along with 102 archdioceses around the United States and 101 around the world where scandals of other major sexual abuse of minors were uncovered. The cast is an ensemble of decent actors who pulled together nicely to make an excellent film that harnesses the energy of the pursuit of a news story and the multitude of obstacles that must be overcome. More importantly, it reaffirms that the need for good journalism and truthful writing is crucial for a transparent and democratic society.

A couple days ago I watched Je Suis Charlie, a documentary about the 2015 storming of the Charlie Hedbro headquarters in Paris by fundamentalists who massacred 11 staff in retaliation to the paper’s publishing of numerous cartoons that poked fun (often vulgarly) at the prophet Mohammed. After the attack I wrote a post that tried to balance freedom of speech with good editorial review, basically saying that the cartoons had crossed a line into hate speech. This documentary makes me think a little differently now, less prudent about that point. It is made up almost entirely of intimate interviews with the slain cartoonists’ coworkers, who were often, typically, their closest friends. 

The attack at Charlie Hedbo led to a world-wide rally Je Suis Charlie, to honor the lives of the cartoonists and confirm the need for freedom of speech. Despite the outpouring of support, and an unheard of spikes in publication sales, the newspaper is protected by armed guards. The question is then raised, how free is the freedom of speech now that it must be guarded by men with automatic rifles. The greatest concern expressed is that perhaps the young journalists will not take on more difficult topics because they do not want to stir the pot too much.

And finally, the third  production I want to mention in this same breath of journalism is the documentary about one of the greatest American street photographers, Vivian Maier, who took more than 150,000 photos, developed very few of them, showed hardly any to anyone, and died in obscurity after working as a nanny her whole life. Finding Vivian Maier is documentary by John Maloof about this intriguing person. Kudos to Maloof for his obsessive multi-media investigation into her photography and life, which discovered her talent, and pieced together a rich and complicated person from boxes of letters, receipts, personal belongings, and interviews with the families that employed her.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Cata Cata Cata Caterpillar You Glow Inside My Head

by Drew Martin
The shows at the Kate Werble Gallery are starting to feel like manifestations of my recent conversations. First, there was LIVESTRONG by Christopher Chiappa with 7,000 egg sculptures, which I stumbled upon less than an hour after a conversation with a coworker about bioengineering down the size of egg yolks. And now this: Sugar Computer/Electrocate, by Brock Enright with a motif of caterpillars, which I visited the day after another coworker had me look at hundreds of caterpillars on her screen (poem research).

The exquisite variety of caterpillars only make up a fraction of the Enright's work but they share the quirky assemblage of the free-box materials used throughout. There is nothing deep or insightful in this show but it is a nice detour from reality - not in a fantastical surreal way but rather more like a hipster Dada pause: dry wit, and a little snarky. The deliberate placement is short of categorical, which saves it from being too academic, but arranged in such a playful way that it raises it a notch above being scrappy. One artist that some of the work (hairy things in clear plastic balls) reminded me of is Montecito-based Joan Tanner, but with a little less maturity. None-the-less it is a delightfully peculiar entrapment with lots of little systems of imagination and creative juxtaposition.

There are two raked poppy seed Zen gardens, one in each room of the gallery, but their scale left me wanting more, as if I could feel that the artist envisioned them at a larger size but made a compromise. It is hard to compete with what has already been done for "bulk material" projects, such as Ai Wei Wei's one billion handmade porcelain sunfower seeds at the Tate Modern in London, Ann Hamilton's 750,000 honey-bound pennies at the Capp Street Project in San Francisco, Walter De Maria's 140 tons of dirt in Dia's Earth Room in Manhattan, or similar type wall-to-wall installations by a multitude of artists such as Brooklyn-based Tara Donovan. I could not scale the poppy seed plots up in my mind to match the famous rock gardens of Kyoto which I have seen in person (and Enright is referencing) because they actually make me think more about the miniature sand versions people have on their desks at work. It is another curious move by the gallery to relate to Japanese art that borders on cultural appropriation. The last show, Duplify, had a reinterpreted, multi-media tokonoma. That being said, the poppy seeds are a beautiful material to use. I have not seen them in art but they bring back good memories of my favorite pastries from my days in "Eastern Europe." They also have the feeling of volcanic cinder, and I guess I could even entertain their opiate effect and look at the work as the musings of a doped-up artist.

The only pieces that actually took me past their object status and sent me on a tangent were variations of coiled garden hoses, Green Sex, and Breathe in breathe out, which are accented with numerous colorfully beaded pins, like micro-banderillas (the barbed sticks used by banderilleros in bullfights to enrage and at the same time weaken the bull prior to the matador's entrance). They remind me of the cover for A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, the semi-fictional novel about a recovering junkie in rehab, which caused outrage with Oprah and many other people who felt duped because they had expressed great sympathy for Frey since he had the published the book as a memoir but it was later revealed as a sensationalized revision of what he actually experienced. My thought on this was that "Am I lying or telling the truth?" transgression doesn't really matter in the art world any more because we no longer look to artists with great expectations since what they produce is less and less about cultural enhancement and more and more about amusing themselves and visual entertainment.

Any kind of ready-made automatically calls to mind Marcel Duchamp (urinal, snow shovels, etc) but the multiple piercings of these objects render them functionless as water-carrying hoses and made me think about Chris Burden, the early-on struggling artist Chris Burden, who would make sure he could return his materials after the show. In one lecture he gave that I sat in on in the early 1990s he explained that he took all the money he got for an installation and bought a diamond, which he suspended by a thread and singularly lit in a dark room. After the show he sold it. Even though Home Depot has the best return policy in the world I don't think they would give Enright his money back for these hoses...maybe instore credit.

Kate mentioned that she likes how the hoses remind her of "infinity loops" but I would not go there; they are not that profound.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Numero Zero

by Drew Martin
I recently finished reading the last, thinnest, worst-reviewed book of the late, great Umberto Eco, Numero Zero (set in Milan, 1992), and yet it was my first time completing a work by him. My plan was to just absorb it all without a need for a blog post, so I did a normal read (without copious notes) and promptly returned it to the library. But then I started reading reviews of it and everyone, across the board, politely excused it as a lesser work or flat-out trashed it, especially the readers who had been enthralled by his previous works such as The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, and The Prague Cemetery. I felt compelled to defend what I liked most about it even though I too wish it could have been something more, so I checked the book out again and captured here why it is still a worthwhile read.

Let me be clear, the second half of it was a bit numbing for me because it is all about Mussolini's final days and a conspiracy theory that his body-double was murdered/brutally beaten while he was snuck away to Argentina or (perhaps) the Vatican. The first half of the book is great and even gave me enough momentum to roll through the Mussolini stretches. 

I like the double meaning of the title, which refers to the 0/1 - 0/12 dummy issues of the experimental newspaper, the Domani (Tomorrow in Italian, and a dig at "evening" news) that the unseen publisher, Commendator Vimercate, wishes to use as a kind of blackmail in order to have access to "the inner sanctum" of the financial and political elite. Numero Zero is also not numero uno, which points out the below-average talent of the skeleton crew gathered together by the editor in chief, Simei, to create the 12 issues over the course of a year. They are second-rate journalists: a crossword puzzle creator, gossip columnist, other dirt diggers, and the main character, Dottor Colonna, a 50 year-old who has waddled in provincial papers. There is even a staff member who Simei is certain is a spy but does not let on because he values the man’s deeper resources from the secret services.

Vimercate is the benefactor of this journalistic experiment and owner of multiple properties including homes for pensioners and the infirm. His other shady dealings include TV channels strewn with home shopping infomercials and risqué shows, and more than 20 low-brow publications with titles such as Peeping Tom and Crime Illustrated.

Simei is so sure of Domani’s ultimate failure that he has hired Colonna to ghostwrite Domani: Yesterday: the memoirs of a journalist, which is "the story of a year’s work setting up a newspaper that will never be published.” Colonna is tasked to write how Simei labored away for a year to create a model of journalism and failed because it was impossible to have a free voice, and to show that Simei is a journalist of highest integrity. Simei believes his book will secure his financial future through royalties. He decides to not let the other staff know about the book so Colonna is positioned as the assistant editor.

When Colonna asks Simei why doesn’t he write the book himself since he has a journalistic bent (he ran a sports weeky, and a men’s monthly “for men alone, or lonely men, whichever you prefer”), Simei responds: 

Running a newspaper doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to write.

Despite the hack journalists, and doomed future of the paper, Simei has a mission and gives the staff a true purpose to report, in the words of the New York Times slogan: all the news that’s fit to print….and maybe a little more. He explains that newspapers are always telling you what you already know, which is why sales keep falling. “We’ll be talking about what might happen tomorrow.”

Most of the reviews I read about Numero Zero got it wrong about the paper’s slant. It is not that the staff are simply writing about the news that already happened but rather they are instructed to write in a style of inquiry, knowing what they know, that embraces the potential of the evolution of news, and to try to capture that in a predictive manner.

Because of limited staff each dummy issue can carry whatever date we fancy, and it can perfectly well demonstrate how the newspaper would have treated it months earlier when, let’s say, the bomb had gone off. In that case, we already know what will fall, but we’ll be talking as though the reader doesn’t know yet know. So all of our news leaks will take on the flavor of something fresh, surprising, dare I say oracular. In other words, we have to say to our owner: this is how Domani would have been had it appeared yesterday.

…let it be understood that the newspaper is collecting other evidence, and say it in such a way as to put the fear of God into those who will be reading our issue number 0/1 knowing full well what has transpired since [February].

Numero Zero, would serve well as a humorous Journalism 101 read, and it captures the creative interactivity of a newsroom, such as this prompt by Simei.

So, Colonna, please demonstrate to our friends how it is possible to respect, or appear to respect, one fundamental principle of democratic journalism, which is separating fact from opinion.

Take the major British or American newspapers. If they report, say, a fire or a car accident, then obviously they can’t indulge in saying what they think. And so they introduce into the piece, in quotation marks, the statements of a witness, a man in the street, someone who represents public opinion. Those statements, once put in quotes, become facts – in other words, it’s a fact that that person expressed that opinion. But it might be assumed that the journalist has only quoted someone who thinks like him. So there will be two conflicting statements to show, as a fact, that there are varying opinions on a particular issue, and the newspaper is taking account of this irrefutable fact. The trick lies in quoting first a trivial opinion and then another opinion that is more respectable, and more closely reflects the journalist’s view. In this way, readers are under the impression that they are being informed about two facts, but they’re persuaded to accept just one view as being more convincing. Let’s give an example: a bridge has collapsed, a truck has fallen over the edge, and the driver has been killed. The article, after carefully reporting the facts, will say: We interviewed Signor Rossi, age forty-two, proprietor of a newsstand on the street corner. ‘What do you expect? That’s fate,‘ he says. ‘I’m sorry for the poor driver, but it’s the way things go.’ Immediately after, there’s Signor Bianchi, age thirty-four, a builder working on a nearby construction site, who’ll say. ‘The local authority’s to blame, this bridge has had problems, they’ve know about it for some time.’ Who is the reader going to identify with? With the one who’s being critical, who’s pointing the finger of blame.

Later in the book Colonna reports, “I read the first drafts of the articles, tried to give them a uniformity of style and to discourage overly elaborate expressions. Simei approved: “We’re doing journalism here, not literature.”

For other page fillers, they are inspired to create horoscopes with optimistic predictions "lasting happiness will suit everybody" and crosswords with hints such as “husband of Eve” or “the ruler of Germany during WWII”. And the staff is egged on along the way with tidbits of journalistic comments and advice:

Readers thinks that people generally are lousy workers, which is why we need examples of professionalism – it’s a more technical way of saying that everything’s gone well.

And above all, apologize….You musn’t say the Church has revised its original position on the rotation of the Earth but rather that the pope apologizes to Galileo.

And ultimately,

Newspapers teach people how to think.