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Entries in culture (65)

Tuesday
Dec152009

taking pictures

Norman Foster. Swiss Re Tower under construction, London. 2003

Think you can photograph Foster's Swiss Re building at 30 St Mary Axe?  Think again.  The building features prominently in Martin Vallée's 9-minute video (Comment is Free.  guardian.co.uk, 11 December 2009) where he pushes his right to wander around in public streets photographing things.  Okay, it is England, they have a Terrorism Act, however the police seem to me to be really, really polite.  Here I would be worried that they would rush up and shoot me with a taser.
 
A few years ago I was photographing the public plaza at the base of the Trans-Canada Pipeline building as part of a photomontage for Andrew King's book, building/art, showing where the plaza hit the sidewalk – not bad, cool benches, etc – a security guard hustled out and told me I couldn't photograph there.  Shocked, I said, 'but it is a public sidewalk'.  No go.  I would have to get approval in writing from the owners of the building if I wanted to photograph their plaza, and otherwise he would call the police.  This was Calgary, 2002.  Unlike Martin Vallée, I didn't push it.  It just seemed typical of the new Calgary – bullying and completely intransigent.   It's more though.  Paranoia and punitive public safety legislation have removed our right to act as artists and photographers, observers and lingerers in the public domain.

Do we still have a public domain?  Chris Roach wrote about this in On Site 19: streets. His article Urban Guerillas looks at the work of ReBar, a San Francisco group that practices a kind of urban disobedience.  Disobedience, guerilla tactics, protests -- these seem to be the only actions that point out just how many urban freedoms we have lost. 
´╗┐

Monday
Dec142009

Nobel minds

Alfred Nobel as a young scientist

Nobel Minds on the World Debate, BBC World December 12 2009.  The link takes you to a series of YouTube segments of this program. I can't figure out how to get them in order, sorry.

On Nobel Minds (BBC Saturday), the efficient and amazing Zeinab Badawi powered the physics, chemistry and economics 2009 Nobel winners through a 50-minute discussion of their work, how they made their discoveries, their childhoods, life and work.  Ribosomes and telomeres seemed to dominate chemistry, CCDs and fibre optics the physics and common sense the economics.  Boyle and Smith developed the CCD sensor that allowed digital imaging, 40 years ago at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey.  As Smith told it, Bell put pressure on the lab to come up with something innovative to justify its expense, and after brain-storming for an hour and a half, they came up with the CCD sensor.  Do I believe it happened just like that?  Well, no, but it was his story and he was sticking to it. 

They were all brilliant and ordinary, outstanding and humble.  They stressed that study for study's sake was what they did.  It was curiousity-driven research, not application-driven that led to their discoveries.  Ramakrishnan, one of the three Chemistry winners, also pointed out that prizes are misleading as science is done by a huge community, they all acknowledged the contributions young people in their labs make and how they facilitate the best in their students.  Boyle and Smith are very elderly and very retired and Kao, who developed fibre optic glass, has Alzheimers, but the others when asked if there was life after the Nobel prize seemed aghast at the question.  Of course, nothing has changed, they are just eager to get back to their work.

It occurred to me that in the discussion of any sort of work that is driven by interest, it is the interest itself that is the most difficult to define.  It is not enough to be useful, competant and reliable, clearly one must be driven, and not driven towards worldly success but simply towards the production of knowledge.  Other people will figure out what to do with your discoveries, and certainly do.  There was a certain amount of iconoclasty in these laureates.  They broke new ground because they didn't really care about the ground as it stood at the time.  Elinor Ostrom's work with farmers in developing countries rejected market structures as the model for land management and instead looked at such things as the family unit, or the local community governance structures.  Of course I might have this all wrong, but it appeared that she looked at the smallest units and how they work rather than meta-theory. 

I keep trying to relate such ideas to the discussion of architecture.  There isn't a Nobel prize for an architecture that improves the state of the world and contributes to peace.  There aren't even such discussions.  What actually defines 'interest' in architecture?   

Wednesday
Nov252009

Diderot's Tailleurs

Diderot. Ganterie. Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-72).

Thinking on from Nicole Dextras's Weedrobes, the illustrations for Diderot's  Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-72) come to mind.  This survey of French crafts and trades just before the Revolution, includes such things as how a bodice is made, a riding jacket, gloves, hats – all the patterns laid out flat.  Included are the workrooms for glovemakers, tailors, hatmakers – the spaces of craft and trade: where is the dress cut and stitched?  where does the dressmaker or the tailor sit as they fell a seam?  what is the space like in which the hat is sold? 

In the Encyclopédie they are austere rooms flooded with light from tall many-paned sash windows.  These rooms are never deep and usually have windows on two facing sides.  Because these are crafts and trades, furniture is the work bench, a sturdy work table, open shelves and sometimes a cabinet.  Accompanying the plates illustrating the garment, and the plates showing the spaces, are the plates of tools, the instruments of the craft: a catalogue of needles, of stretchers, of hat presses, of shears.

The sense that an illustration, from illustrare – to light up, can explain a process and the minimal spatiality of that process is something quite valuable.  The end product is no more or less important than the way the buttons are made, or how daylight falls on the work table.  The Encyclopédie is clearly an Englightenment project that does not privilege status, or accumulated meaning, over fact.  Dresses are not about fashion, they are about the people who make the garments.  This is indeed revolutionary, this concentration on process.

It is also interesting, just in terms of women's fashion, that all the panniers, the many-layered gowns, the corsets, the lacing, the ribbons and the embroidery fell out of favour after the revolution, replaced by simple white muslin dresses that hung straight from a high waist.  Domestic interiors, and one can think of the Georgian rooms of the Jane Austen era here, cut the gilded baroque in favour of whitewash and plain, beautiful proportions.

Today, the Couturiere's room below seems quite functional, but it was shocking and indeed revolutionary to have this kind of utility ennobled to the point that it influenced domestic interiors.

Monday
Nov162009

Cyclophobia

2nd Street SW. Calgary, Alberta

Wednesday
Nov042009

Arcade Fire's Intervention cut to Sergei Eisenstien's Battle Ship Potemkin of 1925.  The original YouTube posting might have further information on this video for those who know how to read it.  I certainly don't.

When you look back at all the American pop songs of the 1960s especially, not protest songs, but just ordinary songs, it is remarkable how many refer to distant war, to waiting for someone to come home, to letters, to loss and dying.  At the time it all seemed just like boy/girl romance, partings and such.  But now I can see how embedded the Viet Nam War was in American popular culture. 

Arcade Fire's Intervention has as its repeating chorus line, Hear the soldier groan, 'We'll go at it alone'.  Of course being a soldier can be a metaphor for many things – general desperate struggle, and it might be so in this song.  However, soldiers are also real soldiers, and metaphoric or not, they must be embedded in our society now at some level to keep reappearing in contemporary song lyrics. 

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