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Entries in material culture (127)

Monday
Feb022015

Theaster Gates: Civil Tapestry 5, 2012

Theaster Gates, Civil Tapestry 5, 2012. Decommissioned fire hoses on oil cloth mounted on wood panel 58 x 208 x 4 inches (147.3 x 528.3 x 10.2 cm) Bequest of Arthur B. Michael, Collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo NY.

In the wake of recent police shootings of black young people, much attention has been paid to the Birmingham, Alabama riots of 1963 where fire hoses were used on high school students on civil rights marches.  Theaster Gates has a series of works, Civil Tapestry, made from decommissioned fire hoses.  

Powerful pieces these, minimalist colour field blocks at first glance, and then one starts to see the printed specs, usually telling us they have been tested to 450 lbs pressure, appalling to think of the impact of such pressure on the human body.  Like the best minimalism, these pieces shout a big message: they are one thing, one material, with a complex political history.  

Looking up 'decommissioned fire hose' one finds lots of tributes to those heroes that are fire fighters; the hoses also receive accolades: a snappy overnight bag/log carrier made out of opened-out used hose becomes a tribute to the hard work of the hose.   9/11 and front-line responders have shifted the political status of the firehose from a vicious instrument of urban street torture to a heroic signifier of bravery. 

Gates' Civil Tapestries are similar to Rosalie Gascoigne's work: deceptively lush, these pieces, abstract and elegant, until one realises how freighted with social history the materials are.  Highway signs and fire hoses – simply the colourful discards of everyday life until the context provided by the artist proves the materials neither neutral nor innocent, instead they become sinister. 

Water hoses turned on high school students, Birmingham, Alabama 1963. Charles Moore, photographer. Life Magazine 1963.

Theaster Gates. Red line with black and enthusiasm, 2013. Decommissioned fire hose and wood 59 × 92 × 4 1/2 in Red-lining was, is, a practice whereby certain neighbourhoods are kept starved of services, where insurance is higher, where mortgages are never given.  Part of USA National Housing Act policies of segregation in the 1930s, the red line indicated districts of no investment potential.

Tuesday
Jul082014

the world of patents

UNITED STATES PATENT OFFICE 2,682,235 BUILDING CONSTRUCTION Richard Buckminster Fuller, Forest Hills, N. Y. Application December 12, 1951, Serial No. 261,168, p. 1.

Investigating the world of patents in conjunction with Buckminster Fuller's 1951 patent of the geodesic dome, which made him quite wealthy as he licensed the rights far and wide, I have discovered a) that patents only last 15 years and then are released to the public domain, and b) that there is a certain madness in the patent world.  
Evidently inventions must be novel, useful and not obvious.
Novel we get, not obvious means that it can't be a logical development of a previous patent, but useful?  This clearly is a wide and ambiguous quality.  

Many patents are genuine developments that advance medical technology, etc., but someone wants to put a clamp on the developments to make money from it.  Well and good, research and development costs.  Others seem to respond to some really annoying problem someone has in their daily life and god dammit they are going to solve this, patent it and make a fortune.  Such as the bird trap cat feeder, which catches sparrows and feeds them to cats. 

UNITED STATES PATENT OFFICE 4,150,505 BIRD TRAP AND CAT FEEDER Leo O Voelker, Linn Kans 66953 Application August 8 1977, US1977000822683 p.1.Now, what world does this person live in?  Is there a personality type that easily loses perspective in the blinding light of their own genius?  What is wrong with sparrows that they should be so cruelly hunted – it is something like finding out that the Elizabethan delicacy, lark's tongues, required a thousand tongues to make a single serving.  Was Elizabethan England overrun with larks?  Was Kansas in the late 1970s visited by a plague of sparrows?  

Oh no, there is a large section of google references to sparrow control.  Evidently they are invasive, successful and displace little native birds.  This is one of the discussions we are having in the contributions to On Site 32: weak systems – successful invasions of the small and insidious.

Monday
Jun232014

Black Mountain College

A. Lawrence Kocher, Studies Building, Black Mountain College, Lake Eden, North Carolina. 1941

Black Mountain College, North Carolina, started an interdisciplinary summer arts school at Lake Eden in 1944 during a war, when things rarely start, and continued to throw artists, musicians, dancers and experimental types together through the 1950s.  One of these was Buckminster Fuller who had done his startling dymaxion work in the 1920s and 30s and by the late 1940s mostly taught, did workshops and mentored people.  One of these was Jeffrey Burland Lindsay, an engineer-industrial designer in Montreal who headed up the Buckminster Fuller Research Institute, a grand name which turns out to be Lindsay and Ted Pope in a small space on the Plateau.  One of the summers Fuller was at Black Mountain, Lindsay too was there: the practical fellow to Fuller's inspirational stuff.  They built a 48' geodesic dome in 1948, called by Elaine de Kooning the Supine Dome, as it failed, gracefully.  From the pictures it looks like they were building it out of ribbon.

One Black Mountain listing says 'the college played a formative role in the definition of an American aesthetic and identity in the arts during the 1950s and 1960s'.  It must have done, it appears to have been stacked with emigrés from the Bauhaus, plus Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Josef Albers; there were poets, there were painters, all was possible.  Students included Ray Johnson, Noland, Rauschenberg, Twombly, John Chamberlain — these are the ones I know, there are many others I don't know, but it was clearly seminal, formative, an essential part of American postwar modern art. 

The college was located on Lake Eden, planned in 1938 by Gropius and Breuer but development was suspended during WWII, and then after the war Lawrence Kocher took over the design of the main building. It was built by students and faculty from 1940-41, plus, for sustenance and extra cash, there was a farm and a mica mine.

This is a curious episode in American architectural history, one senses that money was tight, creativity and optimism high, materials were often found, the country itself was in the grip of a military-agricultural complex.  Kocher's austere, Gropius-influenced, minimal campus building, the stamp of which is in Frey's canvas house of the 1930s, and so similar to a wartime barracks, is also not unlike a North Carolina tobacco-drying shed: wood frame, clad in corrugated galvanised steel.  And it has aged like a tobacco-drying shed, leaving behind its bauhaus modernity and revealing its deeper connection to a local vernacular.

This series of images, taken in 2007 at the Lake Eden Campus of the Black Mountain College, focuses on the Studies Building. Designed in 1940 by A. Lawrence Kocher, the building was completed in 1941 and is the largest structure built by the college.

 

Tuesday
Jun102014

soccer ball technology

Adidas's FIFA World Cup history, 1970-2014Thought I ought to know something about soccer ball technology, given that the hexagon ball which has held sway for decades appears to have been replaced by something much more free-form and sinuous.  

The first World Cup was held in 1930, in Uruguay. The ball had twelve panels, leather, two of which were laced to tighten the outer shell over the inner ball, originally in the 19th century an inflated animal bladder, later rubber.  The quality of the ball had much to do with the quality of the leather, and whether it came from the rump (good) or shoulder (less good).  The six panels of two strips became six panels of three strips each, making the ball smoother, then changed back again.  There were other variations: interlocking T-shapes, other geometries.  It is a parallel investigation to map-making where a round globe is represented by flat paper; here flat pieces of material are shaped and stitched together to make a globe.

Adidas's twelve panel white leather football for the 1966 World Cup1970 Adidas Telstar football, Buckminster Fuller's truncated icosahedron sphereBuckminster Fuller designed an infinitely smoother ball in 1970 of twelve pentagons and twenty hexagons composed as a truncated icosahedral sphere. Hexagons and the pentagons at their intersection were coloured black and white for television visibility and, supposedly, for the players to more easily see how the ball was spinning. Up to this point all footballs had been single colours.  The Bucky-ball, as it is known but called by Adidas Telstar, was used in FIFA World Cup matches until 2006 when a fourteen panel ball was introduced, in 2010 the eight panel Jabulani ball was developed.  

The eight panel Jabulani is made of thermally bonded moulded panels of ethylene-vinyl acetate and thermoplastic polyurethanes, textured with specific grooves designed to improve aerodynamics. Evidently players don't actually like this ball; it changes direction in mid-air and performs completely differently in different altitudes.  Curious that such a high-tech construction and aerodynamic design makes such an unpredictable ball.  One does wonder what influenced its adoption.  Adidas-sponsored players claim to like the Jabulani

From a NASA study mentioned on wikipedia: When a relatively smooth ball with seams flies through the air without much spin, the air close to the surface is affected by the seams, producing an asymmetric flow. This asymmetry creates side forces that can suddenly push the ball in one direction and cause volatile swerves and swoops and this effect is referred to as knuckling. Older designs of the ball have a knuckle speed of around 30 miles per hour (48 km/h).... the Jabulani, with its relatively smoother surface, starts to knuckle at a higher speed of 45–50 mph (72–80 km/h). This coincides with the typical speed of a ball following a free-kick around the goal area making the effect more visible.

There have been subsequent developments, the current ball being used in Brazil is called the Brazuca, eight panel, very decorative.  Smooth balls with little obvious construction or material markings offer a good surface for graphics so that the most recent balls are like small demonstrations of national identity.  Brazil's World Cup ball is all coloured ribbons, very curvy, like the pavements at Ipanema.
Here is a video comparing the official Brazuca with a replica.  The real one is covered all over with little bumps: this will be the aerodynamic stuff.  The replica is shiny as a billiard ball.

Football technology is a huge area, the images will take you to a couple of comprehensive sites with lots of information on the history of soccer balls. It's all very interesting.

Friday
May302014

Samurai ningyo

Ningyo: samurai tradition has been celebrated on May 5 since 730 AD, originally called Tango-No-Sekku (the first day of the horse). During the Edo period of 1600-1868, the celebrations and displays by the samurai class were elaborate displays of weapons and combat; the first samurai dolls appear at the end of this period, at the beginning of the Meiji era.  The Bata Shoe Museum has a samurai doll, a ningyo much like this one, that dates from 1870.  The samurai as a military class had sidelined the emperor to figurehead status, a situation that lasted 'until 1868 when the Meiji emperor was restored to power'.  It is interesting that Bata's ningyo was created just two years later, valourising the tradition of a class that had just been demoted and its right to carry arms abolished. Originally it was only the samurai class that commissioned ningyo, however, as Japan embarked upon a long modernising process of industrialisation, they came to stand for 'pure' Japanese character and became generalised and idealised.

Samurai protected farmers: the strong protect the weak, and in turn the weak will serve the strong. This theme (according to an essay by Timothy Mertel) appears symbolically as the tiger and bamboo: the tiger protects the bamboo grove from predators, and the bamboo camouflages the tiger's lair.  This is the major tenet of Japanese feudal society.  

Our man, above, has been a fixture of my life forever, can't remember when he wasn't there – it might have been a wedding present for my parents. His sword is in a tiger skin sheath. The armour is, I think, from the Kamakura period (1185-1333): lacquered plates laced with silk and repoussé metal mounts. I'm taking this description from Mertel's piece, so far it all fits.  I've never known anything about this small figure until today.  He is wearing rather lovely cream silk jacquard bloomers.
The Bata Shoe museum describes the shoes thus: 'These samurai shoes are called tsuranuki. They are made of bear fur, which symbolises the intrinsic ferocity, strength and courage of a samurai warrior.'   

Ningyo bodies are straw with carved heads and hands covered in a crushed oyster shell paste which is then burnished and painted.  My fellow has the most delicate pale blue gloves embroidered with flowers.  His face is quite fierce, and is a particular samurai of legend, the details of which I cannot find.  

The armour: it is very interesting, and it was the flexibility of the dragon skin ceramic discs that reminded me of samurai armour: metal plates that were laced together so they moved and didn't inhibit action. 

Wednesday
May212014

the free wheelchair mission

free wheelchair mission's inexpensive wheelchair project

One of the critiques of things such as keepod is that access to information technology isn't a straight line to water purification, for example.  Hardly a critique I know, but I did read it.  However, there has always been a pragmatic streak in people that allows them to figure out problems and solutions – it used to be said of fellows from Saskatchewan farms that they could fix anything with wire and binder twine, a gross gender stereotype no doubt, but not a bad one.  Kids growing up on isolated farms in the early 20th century were innovative, practical, used to doing a lot with very little.  

Of course today one can look on the web to see how to fix something, but often that seems to be the blind leading the blind: just because there is an app for that doesn't mean you can actually fix the wheelbarrow wheel.  

This wheelchair costs $77.91 to manufacture and deliver.  Anyone who has dealt with our medical system and CSA approved wheelchairs knows that 'proper' wheelchairs run to thousands of dollars, and my god they are ugly. And they weigh a ton.  (Ah well, just looked up the cost of a wheelchair and you can get one for $245 at Costco.  Clearly my experience is out of date.  Gosh, here is the EZee Life™ Economy for $150.  Whatever.)

The Free Wheelchair Mission was started by a biomedical engineer in Californa who developed this wheelchair as 'a basic design at an extremely low cost to reach the highest number of disabled impoverished people in the shortest possible time'.  He uses component pieces already being manufactured in high volume, perhaps for something else: mountain bike wheels, plastic garden chairs, nuts and bolts, casters, all manufactured and flat-packed with cartoon-like instructions in China and sent off in containers to sites in need.  

Jens Thiel, in 2010, had a website loaded with photos of monobloc plastic chairs used in strange ways – I wrote about them at the time.  Thiel's site has disappeared unfortunately, but this designboom entry will do.  Is the plastic chair the cheapest and most easily found seat for a wheelchair?  Probably, but it also has a look that is not medical, which is perhaps more important.  It is a chair first, with wheels.  This seems important somehow, that one sits in a chair rather than a dark complex piece of disability kit.

Increasingly, sitting here in one of the G8/G7 countries, I feel locked into technologies that are complex, dark, inaccessible, expensive and not very nice looking.  There is a revolution going on that does not extend to the society in which I find myself. 

Tuesday
May202014

keepods

When I started to write these posts, in 2009, the second posting was about the Jiko stove, which I'd seen on the Shell/BBC World Challenge, an annual competition of solutions to problems in parts of the world without services, especially electricity and clean water.  There were rafts of efficient and safe braziers designed that would minimise the amount of fuel used and the smoke emitted; there were ingenious water purification solutions such as the Jompy where a water pipe ran through the stove and purified the water in the process.  There was the Sudeepa, a beautiful little glass jar with a screw on lid and flattened sides used as an oil lamp that if knocked over would not roll.  2009, the invention of devices was in full throttle.   

Gradually the Shell/BBC World Challenge changed from solutions, such as prosthetic limbs made from melted down pop cans, to something more entrepreneurial, so that now there were cooperatives that made things, such as baskets out of telephone wire, or ottomans from crochetted plastic bags, or honey from collective bee hives, that needed the competition money to get such things to market, especially foreign markets.   Projects such as these are the staple of the Thousand Villages stores, and recently, Holt Renfrew's oddly disjunctive charity-based product cabines full of interesting small things, bangles and satchels from places like India or Ghana.  

There was a shift from products to solve local problems to the marketting of local products calibrated for conscientious westerners.  World Challenge stopped running.

Now, in 2014, five years later, the most revolutionary products are technological: how to get the still developing world hooked into global systems and this is happening with lightning speed: the underbanked, 50% of the world, increasingly use mobile payment networks such as M-Pesa, a mobile network moving quickly through Africa, Afghanistan and India. The fellow living in a street market selling stuff to tourists isn't paid in cash, but through his mobile phone.  Would I know how to do this?  uh. no.  

Keepod is an IT project, developed by Nissan Bahar and Franky Imbesi in Tel Aviv.  It loads a USB flash drive with an Android 4.4 operating system that then uses any kind of discarded computer whose hard drive has been removed as a temporary facilitator.  They have separated the hardware (simple mechanics and can be shared with many people) from the software (individual and portable). This is, so far, running in Kenya – pictures of lots of children with their keepods on a cord around their necks.  In an interview, Bahar and Imbesi said that within minutes children were posting images to facebook – it isn't that the knowledge of the rest of the world is lacking, even children know what they can't do, it is the equipment that is lacking.  This is quite different from one laptop per child which requires literally millions of computers.  This requires millions of USB drives which Bahar and Imbesi feel can be sold at $7 each: $5 for the drive, $2 for the program, loaded and upgraded locally at a keepod point in a market – a new small business.   

The keepod is the latest solution to what is ultimately an equalisation of access, and is actually more nimble and sustainable than anything I see around me. 

Monday
Feb242014

Thomas Morrison: families on the isle of Lewis, 1900s

Island life: a Lewis family, photographed by Norman Morrison in the first decade of the 1900s. Photograph: Tormod an t-Seòladair

The kinds of faces that built Canada, Highlanders and Islanders from Scotland. These, from Lewis, were photographed when they didn't know what they looked like – there is no rearranging of their faces for the camera: this was them.  No one is allowed that grim set to the mouth anymore, even if you actually feel it.  

For such a hard life, living in that pile of stones and sods that is a black house, every woman has a bit of lace somewhere - a collar, a shawl, a bed cover — clearly something so clean and precious, in which to invest one's pride.  

The image above is linked to an article on how the photos were found, and the one below takes you to a slide show of them.

A family group taken between 1910 and 1920. Photograph: Tormod an t-Seòladair . This was the era of mass emigration from Scotland to the Canadian West, especially; my own great grandparents in 1910 for example. It was hard in Scotland, it was hard on the Canadian prairies.

Friday
Jan102014

Pleaching

Pleached hornbeam: Carpinus betulus

More ways to make a tree not look like itself.  Pleaching, more or less, is where a hedge is elevated on bare tree trunks, to provide shade or privacy while leaving the ground plane free.  How it differs from pollarding is that branches above a certain point are bent and interwoven, much like an espalier, so that the individual crown is lost, and all the crowns work together to form a solid whole.  

Invariably, the images for all these ways of using and reshaping trees come from Europe, and Britain in particular, from classic avenues to agricultural hedges.  Space is tight, people are close, edges must be maintained, land marked.  It is almost a form of manners, necessary to the functioning of civility.

But we don't do it that way here.  I live in an old inner city neighbourhood with a picket fence.  Twenty years ago, the entire street had picket fences, one by one they have been removed, and new infills don't do fences at all.  It seems a suburban kind of thing: no front fences, your front yard bleeding out onto the road, little delineation between private and public realms.  But nobody uses their front yards anyway, so perhaps it doesn't matter.  Prairie city hedges tend to be the ubiquitous caragana which can take a good four feet off each side of your lot, eight feet sorely missed.  I've never seen one such hedge pleached; however, my hedges are now on notice: pleaching ahead.  

We seem strangely reluctant to shape nature – is it a North American new city thing?  Simply planting something is enough, then we let it go.  Our relationship with trees and bushes is quite laissez-faire until the tree becomes annoying and it is chopped down altogether.  What a relationship.  I like you till you become too big then I'll kill you. 

Thursday
Dec192013

christmas cakes

Puza Mandla fruit cake

It is a curious struggle to be on the right side of history.  Someone once mentioned that if everyone in France who said after the war they were in the Resistance actually had been, the war would have been much shorter.  
Something like this is happening in South Africa: evidently almost everyone was a Mandela supporter, for decades, even during apartheid.  Had that actually been true, he wouldn't have been on Robben Island for 27 years.  

The Robben Island Christmas Cake Story: depending on the source, either Mrs Brand, the wife of a warden on the political prisoner's wing, made a cake for the political prisoners each Christmas from 1985, continuing even when they all were in parliament, or Laloo Chiba, a fellow detainee, made the cake from 1978 on.  

Now, this recipe is structurally unlike anything I've ever encountered, ever.  I need a chemist to tell me how it works: a bread pudding (bread torn up, sprinkled with currants and cocoa powder) made in a round biscuit tin, but instead of eggs and milk to make it all stick together, you use puzamandla.  Puzamandla is drink made of sorghum, corn meal and yeast, so it is fermented, like sourdough starter or injera.  It was part of the Robben Island food rations, but in a very weak version.  Anyway, you pour puzamandla over the bread and raisins, let it sit 6 hours then put a plate on the top and a brick on the plate to press it all down for another 6 hours.  It isn't cooked.  It was a terrific treat.  

And for those of you who watch cooking programs, make sense of this, the new South Africa: 

Anel Poltgieter has messed around with the recipe a bit, baking a bread pudding.  But the real recipe is Laloo Chiba's from Anna Trapido's 2009 gastro-political biography, Hunger for Freedom.

Wednesday
Dec182013

on food and survival

Apartheid-era prison diets on Robben Island

Watching the archival photos of the sharecroppers and tenant farmers of Gee's Bend during the 1930s it is obvious how thin they were.  And when Mandela was released, he too was terribly thin, and stayed so.  What did they all eat?
There are many images available of this typed-up sheet of the specifications for 'Coloured/Asiatic' and 'Bantu' food allowances posted in the museum that is now the Robben Island Gaol. Clearly everyone takes a photo of it in shock. None of these racialised words exist anymore, but the intent is clear.  

I calculate that Mandela existed on 700 calories a day and Ahmed Kathrada on perhaps 750 calories a day for 27 years.  These are generous calculations, not taking into account the quality of the food.  Neville Alexander was released in 1974 after ten years on Robben Island and wrote a dossier on conditions there, Robben Island Prison Dossier 1964-1974 published in 1994.  The food conditions are in Addendum Seven, p137.  How did they survive on a diet so nutritionally bereft of value?  Evidently the metabolism slows, organs shrink, many die.  

For Alabama, I quote Harvey Levenstein writing about Depression conditions in Paradox of Plenty, part 12, 2003:   'In Alabama sharecroppers scrape by on their historic diet of the three M's: meat (fat salt pork), corn meal, and molasses.  Shrivelled gardens stop producing green vegetables and fruit is but a memory.  When rations run out before Saturday payday, people simply go without eating.'

Those shrivelled gardens had been root crops and greens: the slave tradition had been leftover plant material – turnip and beet tops, dandelions and collards, discarded cuts of meat, plus, if allowed, foraged food, none of which was available to the South African prisoners. 

The monotony of the food on Robben Island must have been appalling, as were the three M's.  Would this mean one never cared much about food again, or would it mean that with prosperity one ate all that one could?  It could go both ways.

Thursday
Dec122013

Gee's Bend women

Right.  Having spent most of the morning watching various Gee's Bend videos, have found this absolutely beautiful one on vimeo posted by the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.  It says it all. 

28 minutes long.

THE QUILTS OF GEE'S BEND from Souls Grown Deep Foundation on Vimeo.

 

Tuesday
Dec102013

Gee's Bend quilts

Pearlie Kennedy Pettway, 1920-1982. "Bars" work-clothes quilt, ca. 1950, denim and cotton, 84 x 81 inches.

Gee's Bend, Alabama: a small community in a near-oxbow of the Alabama River, originally the Gee cotton plantation, settled in 1816 with 18 slaves.  This had increased to about 150 when slavery was abolished, and most became sharecroppers still working for the landowner.  Its isolation was grave: a ferry and a single road in, during the Depression it received assistance from the Red Cross and the Resettlement Administration which eventually purchased the plantation, re-renting it to its tenants who in the 1940s were able to purchase their plots.  Because of its historical, cultural and social isolation, it has been much studied as a community: its music, its speech and its quilts.

Much has been made of the quilts.  During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the Freedom Quilting Bee was formed which sold quilts outside Gee's Bend – difficult as the ferry had been eliminated to make voter registration in nearby Camden hard: by land it was an hour's drive. Ferry service was only restored in 2006.  

The quilts received critical attention almost immediately; they were exhibited, documented, they appeared in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, at the Whitney and the Smithsonian and they've been on US Mail stamps.  It's a big deal.  Despite having done a slew of quilts in my time and collected a number of African American strip quilts from my time in Texas, I only heard about the Gee's Bend quilts on a BBC jazz program  (you can no longer hear it but the playlist is there) about the Jaimeo Brown Trio whose music is based on the Gee's Bend quilters' spirituals that they sing as they quilt.  

When I looked up the quilts, many of which feature on the Smithsonian site, I also found a much-repeated critical stance on Gee's Bend quilts, this one typical: 'There's a brilliant, improvisational range of approaches to composition that is more often associated with the inventiveness and power of the leading 20th-century abstract painters than it is with textile-making, writes Alvia Wardlaw, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts [Houston].'

Once again, we have something with its own history, economics, traditions and modes of production likened to abstract art.  Because it looks like abstract art doesn't mean it is abstract art.  Perhaps to an art historian, this comparison of visual similarities was once the foundation of some sort of taxonomy, but today?  I don't think so.  Wardlaw, above, likens the 'improvisational range of approaches to composition' to the same range of approaches found in abstract painters of the same era: mid- to late-twentieth century.  This doesn't add credibility to the quilts; it does outline the way that art curators seek to legitimise work outside the tradition of western painting.

The quilts need no legitimacy, they are themselves.  For this, the Smithsonian essay is good.  It doesn't bang on about how abstract they are because they have spoken to the quilters themselves, who recall things such as Martin Luther King's visit, adding bits to a quilt that is too small, great-grandmothers sold for a dime (not the quilt, the great-grandmother), picking cotton and okra, and sewing a quilt out of your father's work clothes after he died, to remember him by.  

None of this is abstract at all. And nor are the patterns.  They are determined by the size of pieces of fabric to small to use for anything else.  This is an art of poverty, where nothing goes to waste.  Anything less like the economic system that is the art world would be difficult to find.  

In 2007 two quilters filed a suit against dealers who had claimed to own the intellectual property rights to pre-1984 quilts and had used photographs and quotations to promote sales.  The case was dismissed, but it indicates a certain degree of ongoing exploitation of labour, just at a more decorative and sophisticated level. 

Rachey Carey George (born 1908). Work-clothes strips, c. 1938. Denim (wool trousers, mattress ticking, cotton). 82 x 72 inches. The Collection of the Tinwood Alliance.

Wednesday
Nov132013

more sandwiches

Wayne Thiebaud. Club Sandwich, from Delights, Crown Point Press, 1964. etching on paper plate: 4 x 4 7/8 in. (10.2 x 12.5 cm) Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of Mr. Frank Lobdell, San Francisco

Tuesday
Nov122013

sign making

Bottom of the Cup Tea Room, New OrleansThis beautiful sign comes by way of Ginger at Deep-Fried Kudzu, a huge site of folk art, material culture, food, landscape and buildings centred on Alabama, but also on the South in general. 

Friday
Oct252013

MacLean's method 2

On the list of stats for this website, a post I did on MacLean's compendiums a couple of years ago gets a surprising number of visits, every week, week after week.  I actually found a compendium in a box I was sorting through after the flood, not mine, but my brother's, from Grade 5. 

It starts with the correct way to sit, to place your arm, to angle the paper.  In fact the whole compendium is not just about the correct way to write, but how to conduct yourself as a good person, how to write nice thank you letters, get well letters, all in a beautifully smooth hand. If someone hadn't commented on MacLean himself, that he appeared at schools and did magic tricks, I would find this sort of teaching unbearable.  As it was, out in Victoria, he never came to our school and we were left with the rules.  I was an earnest student, tried hard to have perfect writing.  My brother clearly approached it all with a sense of irony.

It looks sort of asemic to me. 

Tuesday
Jul162013

A simple orrery, 1900

Evidently common enough to be in schoolrooms, this one in Germany.

An orrery, ca 1900. The arm is manually rotated by worm and wheel below a circular calendar disc printed with months, date, zodiac and seasons. The candle reflects light over the wood moon onto the terrestrial globe. signed 'Erd Globus v. 15cm. durchm. von Dr. H. Fischer Wagner & Debes, Leipzig Lehrmittelanstalt' 19in / 48.5cm high

Compared to William Pearson's orrery design below of the whole solar system, this schoolroom orrery is just the sun, the earth and the moon.  It must have been magical.

Wednesday
May152013

matches: measuring off the miles

Friday
May102013

Ed Ruscha's ribbons

Abel car polish can

Found this on an exciting discovery, Aaron Eiland's typetoy.com, a huge collection of graphic images.  The ribbon writing on this perhaps late 1940s French oil can, is very like Ed Ruscha's gunpowder drawings of the late 1950s.  

Last week I was early for a meeting at the Canadian Architectural Archives, located in the UofC library.  Time to kill, and a shelf of NC 139 big fat art books right by the door, I went through Margit Rowell's Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha (Steidl, 2008).  Pages of plates of drawings of words, so banal they are almost without meaning, or conversely, so banal they are loaded with meaning: Quit, Sin, Pee Pee, and so on. They start with graphite and proceed to gunpowder, then on to chalks and pencil crayons - cheap, easily found drawing materials.  It is never about money, art.  

At the time that the abstract expressionists were flinging paint all over, Ruscha was doing these painstaking drawings, rubbing powder into paper.

Ed Ruscha. Quit, 1967. gunpowder and coloured pencil on paper. 22.5 x 28.5"

Wednesday
May082013

Shelter box: urgent architecture

Shelter Box: This compact emergency box was first deployed after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake in India. More than 100,000 have been used so far in 140 major disasters in more than 70 countries. 2.5 cubic feet, it contains a tent for 10 people, a children’s pack, thermal blankets, toolkit, stove and whatever is specifically needed for an emergency. Cost $1,000. Bridgette Meinhart. Urgent Architecture, WW Norton, 2013

Emergency housing has such a hold on the imagination, so wrapped up is it in development and dependency issues on one hand and on clever identi-kit solutions on the other.  I wrote a paper on the dependency side in 2004 for a conference organised at Ryerson by Robert Kronenberg on the transportable environment. The conference and the book from it tended to concentrate on technology: pop-up shelters, mobile pavilions, 3rd-generation walking cities, mechanical expandable structural systems – the extravagance of which I viewed in the context of Architecture for Humanity's 2001 competition for mobile clinics in Africa – for example, Ruimtelab and Linders & van Dorssen's project included a mobile phone as one of the most important tools in any kind of mobile environment. 

My point, at the time and probably still is, was that historically people subject to disasters swing into a kind of reclamation/restoration process immediately after the quake, or the bomb, or the flood: a response that we in the west generally do not understand. Here, trauma counsellors are first on the scene, something aid agencies extend to other cultures in other places.  They also bring in all the often hi-tech emergency shelters, they organise camps in straight lines, the newly homeless are detached from their land, their place, their property and their autonomy.  This is a critique of emergency shelter that dates from Ian Davis in the 1970s, that culture is left behind in aid agency panic to establish relief, rather than it being the organising factor. 

Nonetheless, flat pack dwellings are great fun to design: how small, how simple, how efficient and transportable can a house be?  One can be ingenious.  That there are millions of Chinese shipping containers pressed into service all over the world as housing isn't as much fun. 

Shelter Box: a box is delivered, clearly people are expected to interpret it, and then deploy it.  The tent probably does not require 6 burly World Vision volunteers to erect, the box could be thrown out of a plane and arrive intact.  Shelter is just a tool, not an object, despite its object/fetish nature.