Tony Smith’s turnpike

Now that I live in New Jersey (exit 9), I am reminded of some art essays I read in college. In 1966, modernist sculptor Tony Smith described a ride on the then-unfinished turnpike for an ArtForum interview in 1966:

“I view art as something vast. I think highway systems fall down because they are not art. Art today is the art of postage stamps. […] I think of art in a public context and not in terms of mobility of works of art. Art is just there[…].
When I was teaching at Cooper Union in the first year or two of the fifties, someone told me how I could get on the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. I took three students and drove from somewhere in the Meadows to New Brunswick. It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, linke railings, or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the towers, fumes and colored lights. This drive was a revealing experience. The road and the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done. At first I didn’t know what it was, but it’s effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had had about art. It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art.

The experience on the road was something mapped out but not socially recognized. I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that’s the end of art. Most painting looks pretty pictorial after that. There is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it. Later I discovered some abandoned airstrips in Europe – abandoned works, Surrealist landscapes, something that had nothing to do with any function, created worlds without tradition. Artificial landscape without cultural precedent began to dawn on me. There is a drill ground in Nuremberg, large enough to accomodate two million men. The entire field is enclosed with high embankements and towers. The concrete approach is three sixteen-inch steps, one above the other, stretching for a mile or so[…]

politics for graphic designers

I am an aspiring graphic designer these days (yes I have re-invented myself from a back-end programmer). You may have read my musings on my aesthetic nostalgia for Soviet culture, graphics, and Europe in general. True, but in a way this is misleading. I do not just think about the way things look. I am also a political person with strong beliefs. However, I sometimes feel like I get so caught up with aesthetics and novelty and trends that I forget how to think politically.

What exactly am I trying to say? When there there is so much innovation and so many images, books, music, toys for our kids, exotic foods and other objects of desire, all within convenient reach, it is really easy just to get caught up in a whirlwind of marketing and smartness. After a couple of hours of making your life perfectly simple and wonderful, for example uploading all of your pictures or putting all your CD’s onto your Mac and then eating pad thai followed by green tea ice cream, you can end up feeling rather empty inside.

Try doing something political when you start feeling this emptyness and you will note the difference. Do you want to be really innovative and daring? Then close your Mac and forget about your new fonts. Say something political amongst your friends and acquaintances. No, you won’t see this tip in any of the Martha Stewart publications because it’s shocking and dangerous. It’s not easy, you’re kicking against the whole of our postmodern culture which surrounds us with desirable images and squeezes out every impetus to inconvenience ourselves with political action. But it’s politics, not design, that are the true avant-garde. And after all, isn’t it vanguardism and revolutionary politics which started the whole modern era and gave rise to so much good design? YES, of course it was. It was all of those manifestos and smoky meetings of workers and intellectuals. Now, we might look at an advertisement which utilizes the graphic style of Russian propaganda and forget what it all meant in the first place. We have to look beyond the images to the true history in order to create anything new and stop simply recycling images.

If you’re worried about alienating people, get over it. Comfort is something we expect, but sometimes discomfort and confrontation is healthier. Or, you can ease yourself into acting politically. I just bought some books on amazon. Reminded of their labor policies and conservative profile http://www.buyblue.org/node/66/view/summary, I then ordered the stuff at barnesandnoble.com, but it was $20 more. In the end I bought from amazon but made a $25 contribution to the democratic party. Political action can be complicated these days and sometimes it’s not even clear that what you’re doing is right. But I guess the complications are what keep the majority from acting politically.

Here am I floating in a tin can

The other night I was talking with a Romanian friend about life then and now in Eastern Europe. He said that his parents were used to the communist lifestyle. Life was quiet, but it wasn’t all bad. Yeah, there were queues for meat, but if you had the right connections, you could get it. They had trips to the beach every summer. Universities were challenging and intellectualism was highly valued.

These types of memories always leave me with pangs of nostalgia, as if lining up in blue and white clothes at school and singing songs about the state before competing in gymnastics to try to win the olympics were my experiences, instead of hanging out at the Lakewood Mall after school and shopping for deals at outlet stores followed by frozen yogurt or perhaps skating at the roller rink to the songs of Journey or REO Speedwagon, as the social rules of Southern California life generally dictated.

I often wonder why I long for the austerity of the communist era. It isn’t purely political, though I admire Marx’s writing. I was just drawn to that which was out of my experience. I think the need for difference is the same that caused kids in Moscow to wish for American styles and pop culture thoughout the 70’s and glasnost 80’s. Of course, all you ever hear is that Russian kids wanted American life because Americans are free and Russia is brutal and awful. But well, what if they just wanted something exotic?

Communist era Russia is plenty exotic for me. I think of films like “Goodbye Lenin”, with the austere concrete architecture of East Berlin (ok not Russia, but close enough) with the pale and sadly faded domestic interiors occupied by Alex’s mother. Pale and faded interiors remind me a lot of cold-war era eastern europe. Whenever I see films the interiors are sort of faded and nondescript, which contributes to the long-ago sadness of the cold-war era.

In fact, nondescript is a good word for my impression of communist culture. I imagine (as that is all I can do) that life was altogether very nondescript and quiet then, sort of like the faded flowered wallpaper on Kathrin Sass’s walls. Pop cultural movements and products and marketing messages weren’t being broadcasted out of Russia at high volume. But this is precisely what I like about communism – the quietness and anonymity of it, the sort of poetry of not having our every move, taste and conscious or subconsious thought turned into fodder for the advertising machine.

Will nondescriptness ever come to America? Will we ever just be boring people going about our lives without a need for the sensational, new or colorful? I don’t think that the American government will ever experiment with anything like communism. There are many who would argue that it is politically and economically flawed, and maybe it is. But I think that we could learn a lesson on how to live, amazingly enough, from the people who waited in lines for meat.

history of reality

I was thinking about reality TV today. Now I don’t watch the stuff, mind you. In fact I don’t even own a TV. But these things strike one’s radar, albeit sometimes painfully.

I’m not sure if it’s still the craze that is sweeping the nation, or if we’ve gone on to better things like “reality war”. But I wonder if, in the collective amnesia of our media-saturated culture, people ever realize that there has been a long tradition of “reality” TV programming.

This will be a short history, just enough to get you to scratch you head and say “oh yeah!”. Here goes: I would say the very first reality show that I recall would have to have been “Candid Camera”, which first aired in 1948. This was a contest where people were put into slapstick situations (not knowing they were on TV) only to discover that SURPRISE, they were indeed on TV, the subject of a prank for the amusement of the audience. It was sort of like a home makeover show, in the sense that it stepped into people’s everyday lives, but it did so for the sake of laughs, not increasing one’s equity.

Remember the early 1980’s shows – “Real People” and “That’s Incredible”? Both shows first aired in 1979. Both were “reality” programs in the sense that the took the cameras into people’s homes or work places. Real People hunted out just that – real people and their human interest stories. That’s Incredible was along the same lines, but concentrated more in the supernatural and strange people. I recall liking “Real People” better as it treated people with more dignity.

Then there was “Totally Hidden Video”, a Fox program which first aired in 1989. A NYTimes review
described the program as being “as funny as halitosis”. It was basically the same premise as “Candid Camera”, setting real people up as the object of a prank. So similar, in fact, that Fox was sued by Allan Funt, the creator of Candid Camera. I’m not sure if Fox lost, but I hope they did. I remember hating THV, which was very mean-spirited, making fun of subjects when they attempted to protest being on camera.

From these humble beginnings, we have today evolved to masterpeices such as “Survivor”, “Big Brother” and the special breed of “reality home improvement shows” such as “Extreme Home Makeover” or those aired on HGTV (House and Garden TV). What is the difference between today’s reality and that of yesteryear?

I propose a few differences:

The old reality shows like “Candid Camera” or even “That’s Incredible” featured “spots” of reality, interspersed with the commentary of a traditional cast of TV hosts. Reality shows like “Big Brother” simply show a constant stream of “reality” with no commentary. In that sense, these newer shows are more like sit-coms without trained actors.

The early shows focused more on pranks and comedy. Back then reality, in its untrained and unpractised sponteneity, was inherently funny. Real People were like stooges. Today’s shows see real people as being the stuff of serious drama. We do not laugh as we see the contestants of Survivor eliminate one another. The goal of the game is serious and we are willing to overlook the meaningless dialogue of the “actors”. Similarly, as I stated before, today’s “home makeover” type shows are very serious and practical. Perhaps it is because in this era of $700,000 mortgages, if we take some precious time away from our DIY jobs to watch a little TV, we don’t want simply to be amused, we want to learn techniques which will help us increase our home equity.

Your comments?

real and pseudo intellectuals

Intellectual. I’ve been thinking a lot about that word. I’ve especially been wondering – does an intellectual have to be smart? Now I live in Central New Jersey, and the “intellectual scene” is something you frequently hear about, especially when people talk about New York City. It’s as if anyone can just go to New York and live the intellectual life one experiences in Woody Allen films. But no one ever considers that there may be a prerequisite for that life – intelligence. Here’s how dictionary.com defines “intellectual”:

1.
1. Of or relating to the intellect.
2. Rational rather than emotional.
2. Appealing to or engaging the intellect: an intellectual book; an intellectual problem.
3.
1. Having or showing intellect, especially to a high degree. See Synonyms at intelligent.
2. Given to activities or pursuits that require exercise of the intellect.

OK, those are a lot of different things, most of them having to do with “intellect” or “rationality”. But I don’t think they are all true. I mean, many scientists are very smart and rational, but I wouldn’t call them intellectual. I think intellectuals have to be humanistic, at least. For one to be intellectual, one needs to have the right tastes in music, writing, and art.

It’s likely that intellectual is an identity or a lifestyle open to the smart and dumb alike. One simply gains exposure to certain authors, artists, and musical styles and knows who to talk about – the art of Bruce Nauman, the writings of Michel Foucault or Simone de Beauvoir and the films of Goddard or Woody Allen. Oh, and maybe the music of John Cage. One should in any case appreciate classical music to be intellectual, especially the German classical music like Wagner. It’s very intellectual to say you loved “Nibelungen” (as opposed to myself, who can only say I enjoyed “Apocalypse Now”, but as I said I live in New Jersey).

I guess that’s where harsh reality hits. If you are an intellectual and you’re not smart, you’ll read “Ulysses” but it will consist only of about 1000 pages of meaningless words. You won’t enjoy it. You may see “Nibelungen” – and sit for 3 nights bored silly. I guess in this case you are only a “pseudo intellectual” and sometimes it’s very hard to tell the difference. Only a smart intellectual can enjoy the fruits of intellectual culture. As an example, female Woody Allen characters often resemble pseudo-intellectuals. Take Diane Keaton in “Manhattan”. She spent the entire film giving opinions about artists and writers, but most of her comments were fairly superficial and facile. Perhaps that is part of Allen’s point, making fun of all those in NYC who think they are intellectual.

So what is a real intellectual? In my opinion, it is someone who experiences high-level cultural works and genuinely enjoys them. Someone who is thrilled to see a Joseph Beuys and to hear the music of Schoenberg. I think it’s a combination of being intelligent and having good taste. Of course one can also make up for intelligence with determination and hard work, you just can’t enjoy good works as fast as a genuinely smart person can.

Am I an intellectual? Hopefully not according to Woody Allen’s definition. But I honestly like video art. I’m interested in postmodern philsophy and critical theory. One day I hope to understand and enjoy Wagner. That’s where the hard work will come in.

activism, not spam infestations

I think my old blog at heatherlyland.blogspot.com is deteriorating. Why? Because I am suddenly getting a lot of comments to my blog entries which look for example like this:

Want more clicks to your Adsense Ads on your Blog?

Then you have to check out my blog. I have found a FREE and Legitimate way that will increase your earnings.

Come Check us out. How to Boost Your AdSense Revenue

Yes, blog comment spam. It’s like a rat infestation. Each comment about granite countertops of increasing my husband’s potency or respresents another little rodent scurrying through my old abandoned blog. The spammers have come and if I don’t exterminate, no real person will ever visit again.

This leads me to wonder – If spam is something that seeps into communications channels which we neglect (by giving out our email address or phone number) and we go to such lengths to ease the task of eliminating it, then there cannot possibly be any audience for spam. So, are people sending spam just out of malice? To get noticed? Perhaps they aren’t aware of this one vital fact, which I will now share with them for absolutely no fee and no interest – sending 1000’s of spam messages which will be deleted is a waste of one’s life! It’s true! Listen up spammers: You could be spending your energy and your prose-writing talents on something which will not only get you noticed, but also remembered and perhaps even liked (or hated!).

Why not take up a political cause, spammers? You know about how to communicate with thousands of people. You know how to be provocative! Why not be sincere instead of cynical? I can see into a bright future where all spammers began bombarding people with petitions and local government with convincing emails calling for political change and discussion. A whole new era of internet activism run by the spammers – the streetwise inhabitants of the dark internet underworld – who just want to be noticed.

kindergarten cramming

There are sure a lot of reasons to dislike Mr. Bush. There are the big ones that we hear more and more about every day – the meaningless war, the cynical treatment of impoverished disaster victims, the phony Texan accent. And there are other reasons we hear less frequently about – like the “No Child Left Behind” policy.

At first, I thought “No Child Left Behind” was mildly irritating to teachers who wouldn’t get paid if they didn’t take special training. But recently I have learned 1st hand how it hurts everyone – teachers, parents, and schoolkids alike.

Torben has just enrolled in Kindergarten here in America, after attending preschool in Denmark. Had he started kindergarten in Denmark, he would have been playing and learning a bit how to go to school. Maybe he would be learning his letters up through “ø”. He would mostly be having fun and making friends and playing outdoors and learning to like school in a gentle, kid-friendly way. Perhaps I would wish that he had a few more lessons, but the Danish idea is that “kids should be kids” as long as possible.

When we moved to Highland Park, NJ, we were hopeful after all we had heard about how “good” the Highland Park schools are. It turns out that “good” mainly means that kids learn all the time. Torben now has a day full of the exact opposite of what he would have had in Denmark. At age 5, he is whisked from reading to phonics to social studies to math to music and art – every day. His teacher makes time for whatever play she can, but she is mandated by the state and the federal government to teach the kids to pass tests, so that her school will get its funds and will not be “left behind”.

The result of all this? Kindergarten has become a sort of mini-Kaplan test prep. The students spend all their time prepping for the 2nd grade tests which the school needs to pass so that it can continue to pay teachers. Who’s the loser? Torben. He still hasn’t made any good friends because he doesn’t have time to talk to the other kids. Some days he returns saying that they didn’t play at all that day. He gets one 20-minute recess after lunch these days (how many recesses did you get in kindergarten? I personally remember almost an entire day of outdoor play, back then, even in the USA. And that is what I had expected for Torben). Oh, did someone say something about overweight American kids?

Torben’s childhood and social development is the only thing being left behind. He hates mondays. At this rate, he will enter college expecting to learn test-taking strategies instead of new ideas, and hating mondays. Since when did school become a work camp for kids?

not a target market – an angry post

I’m basically a very cynical and negative person, though I have an outwardly cheery disposition. I hate advertising and TV. Let that be known, lest anyone wants to try to talk me into watching their favorite TV show. I have no time for TV. I do not own a TV. I will probably not unless someone in my household brings one home.

What I hate most about advertising is being interpolated into a target group. There are target groups for almost every “type” – the young college student (alternative music, ipods, apple computers, spring break, SMS messages, makeup), the baby boomer (retirement funds, special editions of mall stores like the Gap, the “Red Hat” society, a general sort of unquestionable “matriachal wisdom”, and gardening), and of course for my “type”, the mommy (soccer, SUVs, diapers, Martha Stewart, perky haircuts, General Mills products, etc). The ads make up all I should want and aspire to be, all I should think. I’m supposed to be responsible, loving, promoting my children’s education and extra activities, shopping for bargains but not ignoring quality, doing yoga and reading “Good Housekeeping”. Maybe I can be sexy now, as the producers of “Desperate Housewives” have ordained. Maybe I can even watch porn. But people expect me to live within these parameters, in my LLBean barn coat, a sensible smile on my Clinique lips. Whenever I talk it’s supposed to be some ironic wisdom about diapering or a “concern” about something. Soccer moms always have “concerns” about child-related things.
Who cares who I really am? Watch enough TV and you’ll find out without talking to me.

If anyone is interested, I would like to discuss conceptual art, early video art, the beauty of the new jersey turnpike, post-structuralism, 70’s progressive rock or marxism…I would like to talk to someone who can explain Foucault or Lacan or Fredric Jameson, or just someone who understands why Roxy Music was so great before 1980. I would like to meet someone who enjoys something more than shopping. See you.

Why do we have to be important?

President George Bush is coming to Denmark tonight. The Danes all have something to say about this…there is live coverage on the media and everyone thinks it’s a very exciting event. Of course, no one likes George Bush, they are all just very excited becaues he’s so important, the most important man in the world, everyone says.

As a citizen of the USA in Denmark, I often have to take criticism about my countries policies. That’s ok. I don’t like the USA’s foreign policies, nor do I like George Bush. I think it’s expected that I don’t like Bush, yet I think Danes expect me, a north American, to be just a little in awe of him, and just a little proud that I am a citizen of the country whose president is the most important man in the world.

Let it be known, Danes and North Americans, that I am not proud of this. I think all this talk about security and democracy and saving the world from terrorism is so boring. If the USA suddenly became unimportant, I would in fact be happier.

I think the USA is an important place, but not because we rule the world. We are a great place because we are a post-colonial country, like the countries in South America. We have an ethnic mix of Europeans, Africans, Asians and Indians who all live and (sometimes) cooperate together instead of having constant racial and immigrant conflicts, as many European nations do. We are important because we have great music – blues, jazz, rock and roll. We are lively and humourous and relaxed people. Like the countries in Northern Europe, we have a good economy.

I wish the USA could follow the lead of and learn more from the countries in South America. Brazil, for example. We could be like them, just a nice place to visit with a low profile in international politics – great weather, music and mixed people. I think this is the key to the USA’s success. We should begin to look toward our neighbors in south America, see what we have in common with them, what we can learn from them, what we can teach them. Then we could start an “American Union” between North and South America. I would be proud to be part of this kind of a union. I’m sick of being part of a nation who stands alone and tries to rule the world.

come on, people!

Tonight I saw a news spot on Danish TV. As usual, the topic was Americans and the American election. Denmark has become a bit obsessed with Americans of late. The spot showed a conservative fat southern couple talking about why they believe religion should have more influence in politics. As they praised God and admonished democrats in the plainspoken way that only southern Christians can, they made their typical fatty southern dinner of sweet potatos loaded with butter, rolls, etc., saying things like “this go’ be good” as they cooked. Across the bottom of the screen rolled Danish translations of their viewpoints and enthusiastic eating. As I watched, I imagined the good Danish statsborgere sitting at home shaking their heads and thinking, “yes of course, this is the way americans are. Fat, conservative and religious. This is what we’ve always believed and it is true. Micheal Moore told us and so does TV2.”

The Danes get their stereotypes confirmed, so they can now happily line up with the American liberals (and with the rest of the world) to throw stones back at the American conservatives who will then throw stones back at the liberals, joining the fight from a safe distance, and thinking that they are superior when actually they are no less mean or brutal than the stone throwers themselves.

I don’t have much to say to non-Americans. I don’t think that their opinions are much more interesting than those of a thirsty mob watching a boxing match.

But I do sometimes wonder about us Americans. This election seems to be the most mean-spirited and divisive of any election I’ve seen in America. It’s like both sides have lost track of national pride and identity and are just trying to defeat each other. Sometimes when I look at the various maps of “Bush” and “Kerry” states it makes me think of the days before the civil war, when states banded together against each other and eventually split.

I think the questions that we hear on the news – Who can protect us against terrorism? When will the war in Iraq end? Was it wrong to start the war in the first place? Environment vs. development? – are not very interesting. These are just issues which come and go. The interesting question is – Aren’t we, divided so evenly and irreconcilably between liberal Kerry and conservative Bush supporters, forgetting something as we race towards the election – that we are all Americans? Has Osama bin Laden made us forget or have we done it to ourselves? What do we need to do to get unified again?

I think the answer to this last question is easy. After the election, no matter who wins, we need to start listening to each other and working together in a respectful way. We need to realize that America is not two different colors because it’s not. There are going to have to be compromises just as there always have been, and I think that there will. We are, after all, a democracy. Perhaps I am worried for nothing. Like I said, I’m on the outside looking in these days.