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.

video editing

For some reason, I’ve become addicted to Linux video editing. I’m using an analog video camera to get the footage. Then I burn the video to a DVD using a Liteon DVD recorder. Then I import the DVD on to my computer and edit it using Cinelerra (wonderful program). It’s really fun but way too many late nights. Here is my first little Quicktime movie, which shows off my prodigious video editing skills. Take a look!

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.

Heaven or Las Vegas

I really like this album by the Cocteau Twins. Yeah, I know it’s a later one and early stuff like “The Pink Opaque” or “Blue Bell Knoll” is thier canonical best. I like just about everything by them. But the light poppyness and ethereal vocals of “Heaven or Las Vegas” really suits me right now. I can’t take my music too dark or intense these days as I’ve got small kids and life’s intense enough.

Anyway, Camilla is proving to have good taste in music, and this is the other reason I write about HOLV. Whenever I put on the album, she starts swaying and dancing! This is not something she does to all of my music. She doesn’t do it to Brian Eno. But she likes the Cocteau Twins! Maybe it’s because of Liz Fraser’s light, high-pitched voice. Perhaps it appeals to babies. Maybe it’s because the Cocteau Twins music is so angelic and Camilla (like all babies) is a little angel. Whatever it is, it’s very cute. I hope Camilla grows up having lots of tastes in common with me.

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. Of or relating to the intellect.
2. Rational rather than emotional.
2. Appealing to or engaging the intellect: an intellectual book; an intellectual problem.
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.


Whenever I read about a postmodern book or some postmodern art, it is always described as being “about” memory. Memory is big in the arena of postmodernism. I can understand why. If Frederic Jameson described postmodernism as a state of being surrounded by free-floating symbols and images, with no connection to the past, then we become increasingly dependent on our memories to create the context and narratives of our lives. This allows us more creative freedom, but less of a common experience. I have been reading a “postmodern fiction” book, entitled “The Emigrants”, by W.G. Sebald. The book is wonderful. Sebald creates a story entirely from his memories and the memories of his characters. It is not an “official” story or account of anything or any official history though the story is roughly interconnected by the experience of emigrating from Germany and Switzerland at the time of the Nazi movement, and roughly about the experience of German Jews. At times it’s vague and foggy, like memories are. It’s also very personal and chronicles little details of life, instead of big important events like battles or political movements. I really enjoy it.

The book also makes me think of the importance of my memories in my own time and place. It seems like some memories are acceptable, while others are discouraged, if not downright insurgent. For example, I am welcome to laugh and share in the good-natured criticism of tacky late-70’s styles while looking at “retro” advertising or a “retro” film like Napolean Dynamite. If a corporate creative department encourages me to remember, that’s ok. But what about my real memories of a period? For example, I have memories of airline travel during the late 70’s, having been lucky enough to be able to fly to Greece as a little kid. I remember being treated like royalty on the airline, given free food and top-notch service, etc. Of course, if I bring these memories up to an airline rep today as evidence of a decline in service, they treat me like I’m wasting their time. I know because I tried it once.

So go ahead, share your real memories with people, even if they’re critical. The real memories of individuals are far more interesting than the official memories with which corporations and entertainment industry would like to program us.

favorite songs

Here are some of my favorite songs. I’ll explain why later:

Scott Walker – “Sleepwalkers Woman” from “Climate of Hunter” LP. This song is like the wind. That is how I would characterize it. Strong and elusive and it makes you feel as if you’re transcending the world. Prog rock? I don’t know. But I like it a lot better than “Larks Tongues in Aspic” by King Crimson, which to me just sounded like them experimenting with different instruments. Scott Walker was an American who got lost in Europe and subsequently lost all of his American-ness. I think that makes him more European than most Europeans, but probably more American too in an ironic way.

Japan – Nightporter – geez I love this song. It just suits my whole Euro-melancholy, Marxist pseudo-intellectual zeitgeist (notice I use the work zeitgeist instead of “vibe” here). This song just evokes sad cafes along rivers in Paris, candles, angst, cabarets and walks down broad boulevards on rainy days in long coats. And David Sylvian’s voice is just so rich and sad….but not gothic, definitely not skulls and vampires and Tim Burton. The song has an adult sound too. It’s poetic and rich with imagery, but not harsh or relentless or gimmicky. Ugh. Descriptions of songs never sound as good as the music itself.

Bowie – Station to Station – this song, along with “Wild is the Wind” from his wonderful Station to Station LP, is for being whisked around in the ultra modern, progressive subways of East Berlin or Moscow during the 70’s when these places thought they would technologically progress beyond America because they believed in the idealogies under which they were created. Maybe they didn’t progress technologically, but their technological and cultural achievements are certainly more evocative than those of the Western world.

Roxy Music – Song for Europe, Mother of Pearl – “Here as I sit in this lonely cafe”….a nother melancholy cabaret song. This one just pulls chords in my heart, as does everything by Roxy Music.

Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights – Leave it to Kate, the eternal romantic, to write a song based on Heathcliff and Katherine in Bronte’s great gothic romance, Wuthering Heights. And while many female pop singers sing only about their own loves, Kate tells the story of a great literary love affair. That’s what sets her apart.

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 “ΓΈ”. 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?