matt paweski

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6th September – 5th October

Herald St

August 27th, 2014
Moving Back Home Together

A black-footed ferret at Fort Belknap in 2013. Credit Jonathan Proctor/Defenders of Wildlife

NY Times Published: AUG. 25, 2014

FORT BELKNAP AGENCY, Mont. — In the employee directory of the Fort Belknap Reservation, Bronc Speak Thunder’s title is buffalo wrangler.

In 2012, Mr. Speak Thunder drove a livestock trailer in a convoy from Yellowstone National Park that returned genetically pure bison to tribal land in northeastern Montana for the first time in 140 years. Mr. Speak Thunder, 32, is one of a growing number of younger Native Americans who are helping to restore native animals to tribal lands across the Northern Great Plains, in the Dakotas, Montana and parts of Nebraska.

They include people like Robert Goodman, an Oglala Lakota Sioux, who moved away from his reservation in the early 2000s and earned a degree in wildlife management. When he graduated in 2005, he could not find work in that field, so he took a job in construction in Rapid City, S.D.

Then he learned of work that would bring him home. The parks and recreation department of the Pine Ridge Reservation, where he grew up, needed someone to help restore rare native wildlife — including the swift fox, a small, tan wild dog revered for its cleverness. In 2009, Mr. Goodman held a six-pound transplant by its scruff and showed it by firelight to a circle of tribal elders, members of a reconvened warrior society that had disbanded when the foxes disappeared.

“I have never been that traditional,” said Mr. Goodman, 33, who released that fox and others into the wild after the ceremony. “But that was spiritual to me.”

For a native wildlife reintroduction to work, native habitat is needed, biologists say. On the Northern Great Plains, that habitat is the original grass, never sliced by a farmer’s plow.

Unplowed temperate grassland is the least protected large ecosystem on earth, according to the American Prairie Reserve, a nonprofit organization dedicated to grassland preservation. Tribes on America’s Northern Plains, however, have left their grasslands largely intact.

More than 70 percent of tribal land in the Northern Plains is unplowed, compared with around 60 percent of private land, the World Wildlife Fund said. Around 90 million acres of unplowed grasses remain on the Northern Plains. Tribes on 14 reservations here saved about 10 percent of that 90 million — an area bigger than New Jersey and Massachusetts combined.

“Tribes are to be applauded for saving so much habitat,” said Dean E. Biggins, a wildlife biologist for the United States Geological Survey.

Wildlife stewardship on the Northern Plains’ prairies, bluffs and badlands is spread fairly evenly among private, public and tribal lands, conservationists say. But for a few of the rarest native animals, tribal land has been more welcoming.

The swift fox, for example, was once considered for listing as an endangered species after it was killed in droves by agricultural poison and coyotes that proliferated after the elimination of wolves. Now it has been reintroduced in six habitats, four on tribal lands.

“I felt a sense of pride trying to get these little guys to survive,” said Les Bighorn, 54, a tribe member and game warden at Montana’s Fort Peck Reservation who in 2005 led a reintroduction of swift foxes.

Mr. Speak Thunder, who took part in the bison convoy, agreed. “A lot of younger folks are searching, seeking out interesting experiences,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who just want to ride with me some days and help out.”

Over the last four years in Montana, the tribes at Fort Peck and Fort Belknap, along with the tycoon and philanthropist Ted Turner, saved dozens of bison that had migrated from Yellowstone. Once the food staple of Native Americans on the Great Plains, bison were virtually exterminated in the late 19th century; the Yellowstone bison are genetic descendants of the only ones that escaped in the wild.

This spring, by contrast, Yellowstone officials captured about 300 bison and sent them to slaughterhouses. Al Nash, a park spokesman, said they were culled after state and federal agencies “worked together to address bison management issues.” The cattle industry opposes wild bison for fear the animals might compete with domestic cows for grass, damage fences or spread disease.

Emily Boyd-Valandra, 29, a wildlife biologist at the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, is emblematic of new tribal wildlife managers working around the Northern Plains. She went to college and studied ecology. (Nationwide, the rate of indigenous people in America attending college has doubled since 1970, according to the American Indian College Fund.)

Diploma in hand, Ms. Boyd-Valandra moved home, took a job with her tribe’s department of game, fish and parks, and found a place for what she called “education to bridge the gap between traditional culture and science.”

Blending her college lessons with the reverence for native animals she absorbed from her elders, she helped safeguard black-footed ferrets on her reservation from threats like disease and habitat fragmentation. The animal was twice declared extinct after its primary prey, the prairie dog, was wiped out across 97 percent of its historic range; since 2000, ferrets have been reintroduced in 13 American habitats, five of them on tribal land.

“Now that we’re getting our own people back here,” Ms. Boyd-Valandra said, “you get the work and also the passion and the connection.” One of her mentors is Shaun Grassel, 42, a biologist for the Lower Brule Indian Reservation in South Dakota. “What’s happening gives me a lot of hope,” he said.

Though each reservation is sovereign, wildlife restoration has been guided to a degree by grants from the federal government. Since 2002, the Fish and Wildlife Service has given $60 million to 170 tribes for 300 projects that aided unique Western species, including gray wolves, bighorn sheep, Lahontan cutthroat trout and bison.

“Tribal land in the U.S. is about equal to all our national wildlife refuges,” said D. J. Monette of the wildlife agency. “So tribes really have an equal opportunity to protect critters.”

Nonprofit conservation organizations have also helped. But tribe leaders say that what drives their efforts is a cultural memory that was passed down from ancestors who knew the land before European settlement — when it teemed with wildlife.

“Part of our connection with the land is to put animals back,” said Mark Azure, 54, the president of the Fort Belknap tribe. “And as Indian people, we can use Indian country.”

In late 2013, during the painful federal sequestration that forced layoffs on reservations, Mr. Azure authorized the reintroduction of 32 bison from Yellowstone and 32 black-footed ferrets. That helped secure several thousand dollars from the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife and kept some tribe members at work on the reintroduction projects, providing employment through an economic dip and advancing the tribe’s long-term vision of native ecosystem restoration. The next project is an aviary for eagles.

One night last fall, Kristy Bly, 42, a biologist from the World Wildlife Fund, visited the reservation to check on the transplanted black-footed ferrets. Mena Limpy-Goings, 39, a tribe member, asked to ride along because she had never seen one.

They drove around a bison pasture under the Northern Lights for hours, until the spotlight mounted on Ms. Bly’s pickup reflected off the eyes of a ferret dancing atop a prairie dog burrow.

“Yee-hoo!” Ms. Bly cheered. “You’re looking at one of only 500 alive in the wild.”

Ms. Limpy-Goings hugged herself.

“It is,” she said, “more beautiful than I ever imagined.”

August 26th, 2014
Choking the Oceans With Plastic

Credit Alec Doherty

NY Times Published: AUG. 25, 2014

LOS ANGELES — The world is awash in plastic. It’s in our cars and our carpets, we wrap it around the food we eat and virtually every other product we consume; it has become a key lubricant of globalization — but it’s choking our future in ways that most of us are barely aware.

I have just returned with a team of scientists from six weeks at sea conducting research in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — one of five major garbage patches drifting in the oceans north and south of the Equator at the latitude of our great terrestrial deserts. Although it was my 10th voyage to the area, I was utterly shocked to see the enormous increase in the quantity of plastic waste since my last trip in 2009. Plastics of every description, from toothbrushes to tires to unidentifiable fragments too numerous to count floated past our marine research vessel Alguita for hundreds of miles without end. We even came upon a floating island bolstered by dozens of plastic buoys used in oyster aquaculture that had solid areas you could walk on.

Plastics are now one of the most common pollutants of ocean waters worldwide. Pushed by winds, tides and currents, plastic particles form with other debris into large swirling glutinous accumulation zones, known to oceanographers as gyres, which comprise as much as 40 percent of the planet’s ocean surface — roughly 25 percent of the entire earth.

No scientist, environmentalist, entrepreneur, national or international government agency has yet been able to establish a comprehensive way of recycling the plastic trash that covers our land and inevitably blows and washes down to the sea. In a 2010 study I conducted of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers, we extrapolated that some 2.3 billion pieces of plastic — from polystyrene foam to tiny fragments and pellets — had flowed from Southern California’s urban centers into its coastal waters in just three days of sampling.

The deleterious consequences of humanity’s “plastic footprint” are many, some known and some yet to be discovered. We know that plastics biodegrade exceptionally slowly, breaking into tiny fragments in a centuries-long process. We know that plastic debris entangles and slowly kills millions of sea creatures; that hundreds of species mistake plastics for their natural food, ingesting toxicants that cause liver and stomach abnormalities in fish and birds, often choking them to death. We know that one of the main bait fish in the ocean, the lantern fish, eats copious quantities of plastic fragments, threatening their future as a nutritious food source to the tuna, salmon, and other pelagic fish we consume, adding to the increasing amount of synthetic chemicals unknown before 1950 that we now carry in our bodies.

We suspect that more animals are killed by vagrant plastic waste than by even climate change — a hypothesis that needs to be seriously tested. During our most recent voyage, we studied the effects of pollution, taking blood and liver samples from fish as we searched for invasive species and plastic-linked pollutants that cause protein and hormone abnormalities. While we hope our studies will yield important contributions to scientific knowledge, they address but a small part of a broader issue.

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The reality is that only by preventing manmade debris — most of which is disposable plastic — from getting into the ocean in the first place will a measurable reduction in the ocean’s plastic load be accomplished. Clean-up schemes are legion, but have never been put into practice in the garbage patches.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States supports environmentalist groups that remove debris from beaches. But the sieve-like skimmers they use, no matter how technologically sophisticated, will never be able to clean up remote garbage gyres: There’s too much turbulent ocean dispersing and mixing up the mess. We should use skimmers in the coastal zone, especially at the mouths of urban rivers where tons of stuff enters the ocean daily, but it’s not a matter that can be compared to encircling massive oil slicks with containment booms.

The problem is compounded by the aquaculture industry, which uses enormous amounts of plastic in its floats, nets, lines and tubes. The most common floats and tubes I’ve found in the deep ocean and on Hawaiian beaches come from huge sea-urchin and oyster farms like the one that created the oyster-buoy island we discovered. Those buoys were torn from their moorings by the tsunami that walloped Japan on March 11, 2011. But no regulatory remedies exist to deal with tons of plastic equipment lost accidentally and in storms. Government and industry organizations purporting to certify sustainably farmed seafood, despite their dozens of pages of standards, fail to mention gear that is lost and floats away. Governments, which are rightly concerned with depletion of marine food sources, should ensure that plastic from cages, buoys and other equipment used for aquaculture does not escape into the waters.

But, in the end, the real challenge is to combat an economic model that thrives on wasteful products and packaging, and leaves the associated problem of clean-up costs. Changing the way we produce and consume plastics is a challenge greater than reining in our production of carbon dioxide.

Plastics are a nightmare to recycle. They are very hard to clean. They can melt at low temperatures, so impurities are not vaporized. It makes no difference whether a synthetic polymer like polyethylene is derived from petroleum or plants; it is still a persistent pollutant. Biodegradable plastics exist, but manufacturers are quick to point out that marine degradable does not mean “marine disposable.”

Scientists in Britain and the Netherlands have proposed to cut plastic pollution by the institution of a “circular economy.” The basic concept is that products must be designed with end-of-life recovery in mind. They propose a precycling premium to provide incentives to eliminate the possibility that a product will become waste.

In the United States, especially in California, the focus has been on so-called structural controls, such as covering gutters and catch basins with 5-millimeter screens. This has reduced the amount of debris flowing down rivers to the sea. Activists around the world are lobbying for bans on the most polluting plastics — the bottles, bags and containers that deliver food and drink. Many have been successful. In California, nearly 100 municipalities have passed ordinances banning throwaway plastic bags and the Senate is considering a statewide ban.

Until we shut off the flow of plastic to the sea, the newest global threat to our Anthropocene age will only get worse.

Charles J. Moore is a captain in the U.S. merchant marine and founder of the Algalita Marine Research and Education Institute in Long Beach, California.

August 26th, 2014
Katherine Bernhardt


September 6 to October 18

China Art Objects

August 23rd, 2014
New Gravity


Curated by Olivian Cha and Eli Diner

Frank Benson
Judith Hopf
Angie Keefer
Kitty Kraus
Oliver Payne
Chadwick Rantanen

September 7th-October 18th, 2014

Reception: Sunday, September 7th, 6 to 8 pm

Overduin & Co

August 22nd, 2014
L.A. again carries a torch for 1984 Olympic murals

Frank Romero mural created along the Hollywood Freeway downtown in conjunction with the 1984 Olympics

Los Angeles Times Published: August 20, 2014

The party Aug. 24 has a name: “The Olympic Freeway Murals: Celebrating 30 Years.” The guests of honor: nine of the country’s most lauded muralists, gathered together for the first time in three decades, to commemorate the anniversary of artwork they painted for the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles event coincides with a massive project to restore the giant artworks. The celebration will include the unveiling of a limited-edition Olympic Freeway Murals box set of photography by John Humble, not to mention the presence of such Olympic athletes as gold medal swimmer John Naber and boxer Paul Gonzales.

Still, the stars of the show remain the men and women whose artworks are again enjoying their day in the bright Los Angeles sun.

“Why do we wait to celebrate them until they die?” asks the conservancy’s executive director, Isabel Rojas-Williams. “Why not celebrate them while they’re still painting and making history?”

The 1984 summer arts team is indeed an accomplished bunch. Street artists Willie Herrón III, Richard Wyatt, Kent Twitchell, Glenn Avila, Frank Romero, John Wehrle, Judy Baca, Roderick Sykes and Alonzo Davis all will be present Sunday. Terry Schoonhoven died in 2001, but his widow, Sheila, will attend.

As part of the Olympic Arts Festival, they created 10 vivid murals along the 110 and 101 freeways. Before the year was through, however, vandals had begun to deface the artworks. Time marched on, and the damage got worse. Layer upon layer of graffiti piled up, and three murals were destroyed by highway construction or the elements. Beginning in 2007, Caltrans started covering the murals with gray paint to prevent further damage.

In early 2012, the Mural Conservancy launched the effort to restore the remaining seven in time for the 30th anniversary. Today, five are finished and two remain to be done.

“I didn’t realize it, but it’s archaeology, and I’m an archaeologist,” Herrón says of the restoration process, which he’s overseen. “I know what I’m looking for, but it isn’t until I find it that I know it.”

The process involves the careful removal of the gray paint and graffiti until Herrón suddenly uncovers a swath of the original paint. He does this until any further removal would damage the artist’s work. What he can’t uncover, he carefully re-creates. It’s painstaking work, but he believes in it.

“I always thought of my art as something I’d pass down to my children so they’d have a sense of who I was,” he says. “I always thought my art had to be something permanent. And as long as the wall is still there and the city still cares, then it will be.”

Late on a recent afternoon inside Southern California Edison’s stunning Art Deco building in downtown Los Angeles, Herrón is meeting with Wyatt, Twitchell and Rojas-Williams to discuss the restoration process and the state of modern muralism in light of this summer’s mural-versary.

The group says Los Angeles experienced a mural renaissance in the 1970s, thanks to a proliferation of paint on walls across the city, most of it put there by ethnically diverse artists. The vast city soon became known as a mural capital of the world. That heyday is gone, however, with murals replaced by the more ephemeral breed of street art known as aerosol art.

Because aerosol art is created with spray paint, the artists were lumped together with graffiti taggers, though aerosol artists saw themselves in a different league. Today, the Olympic muralists say, both aerosol artists and graffiti artists have come of age and have developed a healthy respect for the lasting nature of murals.

“It just takes a minority to destroy murals and turn them from oases of art to graffiti-ridden blights,” says Twitchell, rubbing his snow white beard thoughtfully. “Then people see murals and equate them with ugliness, and that changed the way people thought about murals.”

Restoration and, more important, maintenance, is changing that thinking. Like historic architecture in modern cities, murals are once again rising to the surface, only now they are artistic time capsules.

Although his Olympic mural was destroyed, Wyatt is thrilled to see the other works come back. For him, it signals a newfound legitimacy for an oft-maligned art form.

“We were drawn to put art in places where people wouldn’t necessarily expect to find it,” he says of his start in muralism in the ’70s. “There was a counter-narrative where people in the quote art world didn’t consider it fine art.”

Adds Twitchell: “We were in a gallery, but the gallery was where it belonged: in the city.”

August 20th, 2014
L.A.’s street signs have been at the intersection of time and place

John Fisher, who retired two years ago after 39 years as a city Department of Transportation engineer and assistant general manager, shows vintage street signs at the Caltrans building in downtown Los Angeles. He amassed a collection of the designs and donated them for display. (Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

LA Times Published August 18, 2014

The story of Los Angeles’ street signs is hidden safely away on the ninth floor of Caltrans’ downtown headquarters:

Hand-stenciled wooden two-by-fours like those that originated in the 1890s, their white block lettering set against a dark blue background. The shotgun-style placards first erected in the 1940s. The blade style that surfaced in the ’60s.

Ten different designs have popped up over the decades on the corner poles and posts marking Los Angeles’ 40,000 intersections.

And the biggest fan of those 178,000 or so street name signs is John Fisher, who retired two years ago after 39 years as a city Department of Transportation engineer and assistant general manager.

Fisher, 66, of South Pasadena, amassed a collection of the designs and donated them for display. Eight are hanging in frames on a conference room wall. More signs and other historic transportation documents are displayed in glass cases in a nearby hallway.

“This one is my favorite,” said Fisher, pointing to a porcelain shotgun-style marker salvaged from the 800 block of North Alameda Street.

“This was in front of Union Station near Los Angeles Street, and is in the style used roughly between 1938 and 1940. It has filigree work on the top, and the bottom is dropped in the center. It was a very attractive sign.”

Fisher said the filigree metalwork — also used on signs during the late ’20s — “was kind of reflective of the Jazz Era and the Art Deco period.”

It was the inspiration, Fisher said, for the newer signs like the one outside the Caltrans building at 1st and Main streets. The block number is on the rounded center portion, at the bottom, and the city seal is displayed up top. Those signs began appearing in 2010.

Because of budget concerns, the seal-clad signs are installed only when developments prompt the redesign or widening of a street, said city transportation engineer John Sam. They cost about $100 apiece.

According to Fisher, Los Angeles’ first street sign style — the wooden board variety — was in use until the start of World War II.

“They were installed at first on all streets … [but] in time they were used only on residential streets,” he said. “Porcelain enamel signs were used in more of the urban area’s main thoroughfares.”

His collection includes a wooden sign for Encino Avenue that he figures was installed in 1940 and used until the 1990s.

The oldest sign in Fisher’s collection is an Auto Club marker that was erected in front of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in 1925. It pointed the way to Los Angeles (71/2 miles), Santa Monica (81/2 miles in the opposite direction) and Venice (11 miles.)

“I got it in the ’70s for $100, from an old traffic engineer. … It is typical of what the Auto Club had all over Southern California,” he said. “They installed signs before jurisdictions did, or Caltrans, which used to be the Division of Highways.”

In the 1920s, the city switched to metal signs — blade-shaped porcelain enamel with white lettering on a blue background.

Fisher’s display includes a trapezoidal sign for Golden Avenue that was installed in the late 1920s. Above it is a sign salvaged from Missouri Avenue that features an elongated bottom.

“I’ve heard it called two names: the ‘bird nest sign,’ because we’d find many birds’ nests between the two panels … [and] the ‘shotgun sign’ because of its shape.” Fisher said. That style, which went up all over the city between 1946 and 1962, “reflected the technology of the times.”

But that particular variety came in one size only, which meant the city had to squish together lettering for longer street names such as “Mississippi” or “Santa Monica,” he said. Manufacturers began phasing out the porcelain signs in favor of metal ones because the enamel paint emitted fumes when baked and lacked the necessary reflective qualities mandated under federal rules.

Fisher’s collection includes a Maple Avenue sign that was embedded in a concrete curb face in 1925. It was salvaged in 1990, when Washington Boulevard was widened for construction of the Metro Blue Line. There’s also an early 1970s Ord Street sign printed in English as well as Chinese.

In his garage at home, Fisher has kept a selection of old signs for himself, including some antique U.S. route shields from the 1930s. But his best are on view at the Department of Transportation.

“I wanted to make sure we had a permanent display here,” he said. “I was very attached to the department, and thought that maintaining its legacy and heritage and history was important.”

August 19th, 2014
Sign of the Times

NY Times Published: AUGUST 18, 2014

In the summer of 1965, after several lackluster seasons, Yves Saint Laurent took a major step forward. Not only did he introduce his famous Mondrian shift, he also showed baby-doll dresses with wide collars and sashes. With their patent-leather shoes and hair bows, the models looked like little girls, Gloria Emerson wrote in The Times.

Nonetheless, she called the collection “the brightest, freshest and best he has ever done.” The eagle-eyed Emerson also raved about the small jackets worn with studded belts: “Saint Laurent has probably never come face to face with a real Rocker, but his big belts seem reminiscent of the ones they wear.”

At 29, Saint Laurent had finally caught the winds of the ’60s. But the youthful mood didn’t last. Before long he was paying extravagant homage to gypsies and Russian peasants — not the freewheeling girls on the Left Bank. His clothes never again had the erotic sweetness of those lollipop dresses.

That is, until Hedi Slimane revived them at Saint Laurent. His are not so sweet, but that is not the point. Slimane located the moment when the brand was truly cool, the years between 1965 and 1968. His predecessors at Saint Laurent tended to look at the whole YSL career, going for the key moments. Slimane, though, has largely confined his view to a single window. Then, adding a dark gloss of California rocker angst, he has kept his message stunningly simple — to the point where his clothes, while clearly high in quality, have the attitude of a trendy street label. It’s as though he refuses to strive for the standard goals of a luxury designer — to make modern, conceptual or intellectually resonating clothes. Instead, he makes straightforward commercial fashion that a woman can instantly relate to.

I’m no fan of Slimane’s, but he’s clever. In two years as creative chief, he has barely broken a sweat as he fetches another pussy bow from the ’60s time capsule. Last year, Saint Laurent led Kering’s three biggest luxury brands in revenue growth with an 18 percent rise, beating Gucci and Bottega Veneta. He has also defeated his critics, who no doubt sensed the futility of continuing to point out that he doesn’t seem to be trying very hard to be inventive. (In my own case, he banned me from Saint Laurent’s runway shows when I was this newspaper’s critic.) As Tim Blanks wrote last season on, “There is no longer any shock of the whatever in what he is offering.”

So why write about Slimane now? Here’s why: If you accept that fashion reflects the times — and I do — then you have to concede that in this respect Slimane has been impressive, even prescient. His Saint Laurent collections perfectly capture the mood and values of the present. The need for simple messages. The triumph of branding. The shortening of horizons due to economic factors. The lack of prejudice toward old ideas, especially among young consumers. I would never expect any designer to own up to such pessimistic motives. But neither do I assume that Slimane, with his gift for marketing, hasn’t thought about them.

For the fall collections, it was intriguing to see how many designers fell in line with Slimane and offered straightforward clothes of their own. I’m thinking, for instance, of Céline’s ’40s-style coats, the tasteful sweater-and-skirt looks at Bottega Veneta and Altuzarra’s classic wrap coats. Being the genius that he is, Karl Lagerfeld at once mocked and praised commerce, presenting Chanel in a post-Warhol supermarket and sending out perky tracksuits, the ultimate fashion commodity. I imagine they’ll be a hit.

Even Nicolas Ghesquière, with his much-anticipated first collection for Louis Vuitton, showed wearable styles with polish: trim coats, ’60s-cut minis, modest accessories. And that’s not what people expect from Ghesquière, who for most of his 15 years at Balenciaga created a genuine stir. There, he developed cutting-edge materials and artful interpretations of archive looks. What struck me about the Vuitton show was Ghesquière’s comment that he listened to what women around him wanted to wear. Did he care before? Also, it’s clear that he was stripping Vuitton of the preferences of his predecessor, Marc Jacobs, notably irony and theatrics, at the same time that he was distancing himself from Balenciaga, now under Alexander Wang. So a neutral, normal statement makes sense. Only time will tell how committed Ghesquière is to it.

Anyway, I suspect that many women are thrilled to find clothes that promise more wear, given the money they’re spending. As much as young designers hate creeping commerce, no one has produced a style that matches in originality Rei Kawakubo’s black-clad armies of the ’80s or Prada’s ugly-chic rebuke to Milan glitz in the ’90s. Then, too, young consumers don’t seem to care whether their clothes are “original,” a hang-up of my generation. But there are other reasons for the rise of commercial fashion.

The easiest to see is branding. It’s so pervasive in our culture that it functions for some as a means to fulfillment. People definitely get enthralled with things — sports, TV shows, fashion — in a way that a fan in the ’60s or ’70s wouldn’t recognize. One assumes that has a lot to do with “the religion of branding,” as Michael Rock put it. Rock’s firm, 2 x 4, does branding and graphic design for companies and art institutions. Recently, we spoke about the creative constraints imposed on designers now that fashion is viewed globally, often on tiny screens. He used the word “guardrails” to emphasize the lack of freedom a designer has. On the other hand, he said, the designer who sticks to those limits will likely be successful.

Another factor is simplification. Here, a bit of background is necessary. The rise of haute couture in the early 20th century dovetailed with advances in communication and travel, and so, too, the public’s unusual interest in this rarefied world. There are well-known stories of Paris policemen and taxi drivers being able to recognize couture, like a cop in the ’30s who refused to arrest a feminist agitator on the grounds that she was dressed by Molyneux. By the ’60s, everyone knew about the latest fashion, if not from Mary Quant, then from the Beatles. But sometime in the late ’80s, fashion discovered semiotics. Clothes suddenly acquired meaning (think of the efforts to “decode” a Helmut Lang show or almost any by Martin Margiela). You truly needed to be an expert to appreciate why a jacket was worn inside out or why a dress that made you look like a bag lady was cool. Susan Sontag described a similar shift in the arts in the mid-60s, noting that “the most interesting and creative art of our time is not open to the generally educated; it demands special effort; it speaks a specialized language.” Today, as high fashion moves closer to mass media — with brand-hosted YouTube channels, films, huge spectacles — there is pressure to simplify. I also wonder whether the surge of new brands — their shows often crammed with weird and banal designs — hasn’t caused elite designers to rethink matters. Hence more straightforward clothes.

Finally, we may be running out of ideas. In a review last year of the Prada Foundation’s reconstruction of a 1969 show, “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form,” Holland Cotter, an art critic for The Times, wrote, “We’re in an age of remake culture, an epidemic of re-enactment fever.” Cotter, who actually praised the show, cited other examples of “old is new” thinking. That has never been a problem for the fashion industry, but it does make it easier for a luxury brand to justify its practices.

Each year, it seems, we live in a different world, and this takes an adjustment that no longer feels incremental but profound. First came Sept. 11. Then came the shock of the recession — well, the shock of realizing that the American dream may have come to an end. As Christopher Hitchens, quoting Saul Bellow, defined the dream, it was “that universal eligibility to be noble.” To make the record of your own life — come what may! — as Bellow’s Augie March does. But in the long decade since Hitchens aired that thought, we’ve seen horizons shorten. Income inequality is the primary cause; people simply can’t afford to risk new experiences. It’s also true that stuff we never had to think about before, like smartphones and new kinds of entertainment, has gained the upper hand, inspiring us in many ways but also narrowing our sights with all manner of guardrails, so what was once noble is now a universal fast-track to fabulousness.

Whether that is a good development or a bad one is not really the concern of fashion designers, though. Their job is simply to reflect their times in a conscious way. In 1965, the year of the baby dolls, the mood was encapsulated by the words on a popular T-shirt in Paris, also observed by Gloria Emerson. It said, in French, “I am free and I am alive.” Since then the quest to be modern — and that is really what we are talking about — has been complicated by a new set of considerations, none of them less valid than wit and imagination. So, while I may not care for Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent, it doesn’t matter. He has grasped modernity in its totality.

August 18th, 2014
Frustration in Ferguson

NY Times Published: AUG. 17, 2014
By Charles M. Blow

The response to the killing of the unarmed teenager Michael Brown — whom his family called the “gentle giant” — by the Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson — who was described by his police chief as “a gentle, quiet man” and “a gentleman” — has been anything but genteel.

There have been passionate but peaceful protests to be sure, but there has also been some violence and looting. Police forces in the town responded with an outlandish military-like presence more befitting Baghdad than suburban Missouri.

There were armored vehicles, flash grenades and a seemingly endless supply of tear gas — much of it Pentagon trickle-down. There were even officers perched atop vehicles, in camouflage and body armor, pointing weapons in the direction of peaceful protesters.

Let me be clear here: Pointing a gun at an innocent person is an act of violence and provocation.

Americans were aghast at the images, and condemnation was swift and bipartisan. The governor put the state’s Highway Patrol in charge of security. Tensions seemed to subside, for a day.

But then on Friday, when releasing the name of the officer who did the shooting, the police chief also released details and images of a robbery purporting to show Brown stealing cigars from a local convenience store and pushing a store employee in the process.

The implication seemed to be that Wilson was looking for the person who committed the convenience store crime when he encountered Brown. But, later in the day, the chief said Wilson didn’t know Brown was a robbery suspect when they encountered each other.

Something seemed off. The police chief’s decision to release the details of the robbery and the images — without releasing an image of Wilson — struck many as perfidious. In a strongly worded statement, Brown’s family and attorneys accused the chief of attempting to assassinate the character of the dead teen.

Some also deemed it an attempt at distraction from the central issue: An officer shot an unarmed teenager who witnesses claim had raised his hands in surrender when at least some of the shots were fired, which the family and its attorneys called “a brutal assassination of his person in broad daylight.”

The Justice Department is even investigating whether Brown’s civil rights were violated. This would include the excessive use of force. As the department makes clear, this “does not require that any racial, religious, or other discriminatory motive existed.”

It’s impossible to truly know the chief’s motives for his decision to release the robbery information at the same time as the officer’s name, but the effect was clear: That night, a fragile peace was shattered. There was more looting, although peaceful protesters struggled heroically to block the violent ones.

On Saturday, the governor issued a midnight curfew for the town. A small band of protesters defied it and some were arrested.

The community is struggling to find its way back to normalcy, but it would behoove us to dig a bit deeper into the underlying frustrations that cause a place like Ferguson to erupt in the first place and explore the untenable nature of our normal.

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Yes, there are the disturbingly repetitive and eerily similar circumstances of many cases of unarmed black people being killed by police officers. This reinforces black people’s beliefs — supportable by actual data — that blacks are treated less fairly by the police.

But I submit that this is bigger than that. The frustration we see in Ferguson is about not only the present act of perceived injustice but also the calcifying system of inequity — economic, educational, judicial — drawn largely along racial lines.

In 1951, Langston Hughes began his poem “Harlem” with a question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” Today, I must ask: What happens when one desists from dreaming, when the very exercise feels futile?

The discussion about issues in the black community too often revolves around a false choice: systemic racial bias or poor personal choices. In fact, these factors are interwoven like the fingers of clasped hands. People make choices within the context of their circumstances and those circumstances are affected — sometimes severely — by bias.

These biases do material damage as well as help breed a sense of disenfranchisement and despair, which in turn can have a depressive effect on aspiration and motivation. This all feeds back on itself.

If we want to truly address the root of the unrest in Ferguson, we have to ask ourselves how we can break this cycle.

Otherwise, Hughes’s last words of “Harlem,” referring to the dream deferred, will continue to be prophetic: “does it explode?”

August 18th, 2014
Why We Fight Wars

NY Times Published: AUG. 17, 2014
By Paul Krugman

A century has passed since the start of World War I, which many people at the time declared was “the war to end all wars.” Unfortunately, wars just kept happening. And with the headlines from Ukraine getting scarier by the day, this seems like a good time to ask why.

Once upon a time wars were fought for fun and profit; when Rome overran Asia Minor or Spain conquered Peru, it was all about the gold and silver. And that kind of thing still happens. In influential research sponsored by the World Bank, the Oxford economist Paul Collier has shown that the best predictor of civil war, which is all too common in poor countries, is the availability of lootable resources like diamonds. Whatever other reasons rebels cite for their actions seem to be mainly after-the-fact rationalizations. War in the preindustrial world was and still is more like a contest among crime families over who gets to control the rackets than a fight over principles.

If you’re a modern, wealthy nation, however, war — even easy, victorious war — doesn’t pay. And this has been true for a long time. In his famous 1910 book “The Great Illusion,” the British journalist Norman Angell argued that “military power is socially and economically futile.” As he pointed out, in an interdependent world (which already existed in the age of steamships, railroads, and the telegraph), war would necessarily inflict severe economic harm even on the victor. Furthermore, it’s very hard to extract golden eggs from sophisticated economies without killing the goose in the process.

We might add that modern war is very, very expensive. For example, by any estimate the eventual costs (including things like veterans’ care) of the Iraq war will end up being well over $1 trillion, that is, many times Iraq’s entire G.D.P.

So the thesis of “The Great Illusion” was right: Modern nations can’t enrich themselves by waging war. Yet wars keep happening. Why?

One answer is that leaders may not understand the arithmetic. Angell, by the way, often gets a bum rap from people who think that he was predicting an end to war. Actually, the purpose of his book was to debunk atavistic notions of wealth through conquest, which were still widespread in his time. And delusions of easy winnings still happen. It’s only a guess, but it seems likely that Vladimir Putin thought that he could overthrow Ukraine’s government, or at least seize a large chunk of its territory, on the cheap — a bit of deniable aid to the rebels, and it would fall into his lap.

And for that matter, remember when the Bush administration predicted that overthrowing Saddam and installing a new government would cost only $50 billion or $60 billion?

The larger problem, however, is that governments all too often gain politically from war, even if the war in question makes no sense in terms of national interests.

Recently Justin Fox of the Harvard Business Review suggested that the roots of the Ukraine crisis may lie in the faltering performance of the Russian economy. As he noted, Mr. Putin’s hold on power partly reflects a long run of rapid economic growth. But Russian growth has been sputtering — and you could argue that the Putin regime needed a distraction.

Similar arguments have been made about other wars that otherwise seem senseless, like Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, which is often attributed to the then-ruling junta’s desire to distract the public from an economic debacle. (To be fair, some scholars are highly critical of this claim.)

And the fact is that nations almost always rally around their leaders in times of war, no matter how foolish the war or how awful the leaders. Argentina’s junta briefly became extremely popular during the Falklands war. For a time, the “war on terror” took President George W. Bush’s approval to dizzying heights, and Iraq probably won him the 2004 election. True to form, Mr. Putin’s approval ratings have soared since the Ukraine crisis began.

No doubt it’s an oversimplification to say that the confrontation in Ukraine is all about shoring up an authoritarian regime that is stumbling on other fronts. But there’s surely some truth to that story — and that raises some scary prospects for the future.

Most immediately, we have to worry about escalation in Ukraine. All-out war would be hugely against Russia’s interests — but Mr. Putin may feel that letting the rebellion collapse would be an unacceptable loss of face.

And if authoritarian regimes without deep legitimacy are tempted to rattle sabers when they can no longer deliver good performance, think about the incentives China’s rulers will face if and when that nation’s economic miracle comes to an end — something many economists believe will happen soon.

Starting a war is a very bad idea. But it keeps happening anyway.

August 18th, 2014
Jay Adams 1961 – 2014





Photographs by Kent Sherwood (Jay’s stepfather), handwritten captions by Jay Adams. via

By Amy Larson
KBSW Central Coast Published: Aug 15, 2014

Jay Adams, the radical rebellious legend who reinvented street skateboarding while growing up in an L.A. beach town, has died, according to his longtime friends. He was 53.

Friends said Adams died from a heart attack on Thursday in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, where he had been vacationing with his wife and surfing for the past three months.

It appears Adams spent his last day on Earth happy and surfing. On Thursday, he uploaded a photo dated Aug. 14 on Instagram of himself tube riding a perfect wave in Mexico.

Adams was most famous for his aggressive style. Santa Cruz skate artist Jimbo Phillips told KSBW Friday, “Jay embodied all that skateboarding is about. Style, speed, and doing things your own way, and not caring what anyone thinks.”

Stacy Peralta, a skater who started the Z-Boys crew with Adams and turned empty swimming pools into places for concrete bowl riding, wrote on Instagram, “I just received the terribly sad news that Jay Adams passed away last night due to a massive heart attack, send your love.”

Skater Tony Hawk wrote, “Goodbye Jay Adams. Thank you for inspiring us to get vertical and to keep pushing the limits of what is possible.”

In a 2008 article, the New York Times wrote, “In the late 1970s, Adams was a leading figure in a seminal vertical skateboarding scene rising from a seedy section of Santa Monica and Venice known as Dogtown. Adams had been a talented teenage member of the Dogtown-based Zephyr Skate Team. Together they helped shape modern skateboarding with an aggressive attitude and style born in the streets, and maneuvers inspired by their favorite surfers.”

His 20-year-old son, Seven Adams, lives and surfs in Santa Cruz.

TMZ Sports reported that Jay Adams had achieve sobriety this year and did not have any previous medical heart problems. His manager, Susan Ferris, confirmed that the former drug addict who had spent time in prison was currently clean and sober.

“We are honestly shocked,” Ferris told CNN.

Ferris added that Jay Adams was scheduled to return to the U.S. in a few days, after an “endless summer surf vacation.”

The Skateboarding Hall of Fame legend famously said, “You didn’t quit skateboarding because you got old. You got old because you quit skateboarding.”

August 15th, 2014
what makes a successful park, and how L.A. can build them?

Screen shot 2014-08-14 at 6.25.21 PM
Vista Hermosa Park by Mia Lehrer

By Patt Morrison
LOS ANGELES TIMES Published: August 13,2014

Landscape architect Mia Lehrer has designed some lavish private gardens in Los Angeles, but she has also made her mark with “guerrilla planning,” creating and blue-skying plans for parks and public spaces, from the harbor to Silver Lake. She’s Salvadoran by birth, and alert to analyzing how open-space needs and use by newcomers may teach L.A. how to enhance its footprint. Now that the drought is dictating terms, it’s also making new ones possible, and Lehrer doesn’t intend to miss the opportunity that scarce water provides to get Angelenos to regard the natural world in a way that makes sense here and now.

Out your office window, I see a lawn with a copse of pine trees in front of an office building. Size up that space for me.

It’s a simple park. There are people doing yoga, kids throwing balls, people with their dogs. It’s designed by Peter Walker, who was a professor and partner of mine. He did the World Trade Center. It’s used so much, and it speaks to the kind of spaces we need. You could use lawn varieties that use less water, also gray water from the building. You could drip-irrigate the pines once a week, the lawn could be a native meadow — and the doggies will be playing, people will still be doing yoga, but you would [cut] 75% of the water used now. Getting rid of 100% of lawns is not necessarily realistic for a city that needs these little oases. The issue is that about 70% of our lawns are in backyards, an enormous amount of water is used for them, and they’re more visual than functional. We can educate people about options.

What makes a successful park?

It relates to scale, who’s going to be there, what reflects the culture and interests of the community. People’s first notion about a park is Central Park — big, grassy, lush. So adjusting expectations about that aesthetic, we have a hard row to hoe in L.A. This is the era for our city to think about parks and the river and the urban forest as all one thing.

Why are you a landscape architect?

I like to call myself an urbanist. What designers bring to the table is visualization. We can help people understand the solutions.

Is L.A.’s need for park space different from other places’?

From the advent of the car through the 1980s, Los Angeles was this aspiration: having your own little oasis. The private outweighed the public realm. The city was alienating; you didn’t have a sense of the common good. The private-public gardens like Descanso, the Arboretum, the Huntington are wonderful assets, but you couldn’t just walk down the street [to them]. Things changed dramatically in part because of the leadership, and as public transit began to be layered into the city.

The norm being aspired to across the country is a 15-minute-maximum walk to your closest park. We just don’t have that. We did a lot of great planning — beautiful highways and streets, [but] look how many parks we cut in half to do that: Hollenbeck and Echo Park and MacArthur Park. Environmental justice-wise, wow.

Your Vista Hermosa Park was the first new public park in downtown in more than 100 years. It isn’t just grass and a couple of trees, or just open space. It’s about what a live bird looks like, and seeing running water.

There’s a movement of what we call urban ecology. At Vista Hermosa, there’s a terrace of decomposed granite surrounded by flowering plants from the chaparral, there’s the city in the distance, sycamore trees, a playground, water, boulders; at another level you’re in a grotto. One time I was there, a young family was having a picnic. I said, “How do you like it?” The father says: “I wish we had swings. All the rich people’s parks have swings.” I said: “This is a different kind of park.” As we talked, his kid had gone 30 feet up on the boulders and was playing with sticks and he came down all happy.

Is there a way to reverse-engineer existing parks for the drought?

Yes. The decision might be made for us: If we ration, older parks are going to have to live completely differently. We overwater no matter what, two-thirds more than we need. It’s watering, watering, watering.

We need our urban forest — for shade, for air purification, for humanity and pedestrian comfort, to make the city better. We need to think about how we save our tree canopy, making sure we choose the right trees, and where we have trees, how we care for them.

There’s a lot of incredible collaboration between the county and the cities in L.A., this big sea change as we start to understand water. It makes us realize we’re connected, that it’s one water, and we have to think of it as a whole.

You asked Mayor Garcetti to appoint a design czar. What would that position do?

We now have a tech czar, somebody for economic development, somebody for sustainability. In New York, the mayor’s office and planning department and design folks make sure developers and [city officials] all have a vision of what they want to accomplish with good design. L.A. needs somebody really strong who cares about design.

What are you planning for the former Hollywood Park in Inglewood?

There’s a residential community that’s moving forward with a retail center. It’s a lovely neighborhood, apartments to single-family residences and an arroyo that brings water to a lake. Developers who hold water on the site [will] pay less for connections to the [city water] system. You want the developer to be willing to [set aside] 25 acres. We’ve learned that communities with parks, the land value goes up dramatically.

You designed the new gardens at the county Natural History Museum.

The idea was to do an urban ecological laboratory. The scientists are excited to be able to do research in their own backyard, and people are realizing that having nice gardens in these institutions brings people there, brings birds and bees. There’s a dry stream — in California we don’t have water all the time, but we still have sycamores and willows.

You’ve been working for years on reviving the L.A. River.

I can’t tell you how excited we are that our mayor was able to strike a deal with the president and the Army Corps of Engineers. It’s the beginning of a big change. When we started, immigrant families were already using the river to fish and commute on foot. Now it’s a given [for] biking, hiking. It is being included in the 2024 Olympic bid — that’s where the athletes’ village would be.

What do you think of the new Grand Park in Los Angeles’ civic center?

The amount of programming has been amazing. Of course the programming is also expensive. The community benefits tremendously, [but] it’s not necessarily viable for many city parks given the city budget. It speaks to the multicultural community, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it grows.

The more parks, the better, let’s put it that way, but I do think there’s such a thing as too many efforts at the same time. Like Park 101 [a plan to cover the 101 Freeway with a park, from the river to the cathedral]. A park between Olvera Street and downtown makes sense. But however many blocks they were planning? For $800 million? And the river needs love? That’s what I’m saying about [needing] an uber-urban guru.

What about park prospects at a rather desolate place like LAX?

We’re working at LAX. LAX is a complicated property, and I can’t imagine park space there, but there’s hope in [other] ways. LAX is investigating how to make more sense of the property they own, [like] the rental car lots. Do they consolidate the parking? What do they do with the balance of the land? Do they create housing? Hotel/offices? What does the area become?

You mentioned educating people about landscape options — like what?

I have this idea of having a series of native plant nurseries at public properties — state parks, the Arroyo Seco, Ballona — as a way of educating people on what these plants do. We’re doing a workbook with 10 friends of their gardens before and after the big drought. I want trucks like food trucks to go around neighborhoods on Saturday or Sunday with young people who are knowledgeable about plants saying: “Bring me a picture of your garden. Let’s do a scale drawing and help you figure out drought-tolerant plantings.”

There’s a bit of a backlash against palm trees as nonnative and trite. Your gut reaction?

I love palm trees! I will be on a brigade to save palm trees any day. They’re culturally important for Los Angeles. The birds have learned to perch on them, they grow in, they live forever — leave them alone.

August 14th, 2014
Michael Brown and Black Men

NY Times Published: AUG. 13, 2014
By Charles M. Blow

The killing of Michael Brown has tapped into something bigger than Michael Brown.

Brown was the unarmed 18-year-old black man who was shot to death Saturday by a policeman in Ferguson, Mo. There are conflicting accounts of the events that led to the shooting. There is an investigation by local authorities as well as one by federal authorities. There are grieving parents and a seething community. There are swarms of lawyers and hordes of reporters. There has been unrest. The president has appealed for reflection and healing.

There is an eerie echo in it all — a sense of tragedy too often repeated. And yet the sheer morbid, wrenching rhythm of it belies a larger phenomenon, one obscured by its vastness, one that can be seen only when one steps back and looks from a distance and with data: The criminalization of black and brown bodies — particularly male ones — from the moment they are first introduced to the institutions and power structures with which they must interact.

Earlier this year, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released “the first comprehensive look at civil rights from every public school in the country in nearly 15 years.” As the report put it: “The 2011-2012 release shows that access to preschool programs is not a reality for much of the country. In addition, students of color are suspended more often than white students, and black and Latino students are significantly more likely to have teachers with less experience who aren’t paid as much as their colleagues in other schools.”

Attorney General Eric Holder, remarking on the data, said: “This critical report shows that racial disparities in school discipline policies are not only well-documented among older students, but actually begin during preschool.”

But, of course, this criminalization stalks these children throughout their school careers.

As The New York Times editorial board pointed out last year: “Children as young as 12 have been treated as criminals for shoving matches and even adolescent misconduct like cursing in school. This is worrisome because young people who spend time in adult jails are more likely to have problems with law enforcement later on. Moreover, federal data suggest a pattern of discrimination in the arrests, with black and Hispanic children more likely to be affected than their white peers.”

A 2010 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that while the average suspension rate for middle school students in 18 of the nation’s largest school districts was 11.2 percent in 2006, the rate for black male students was 28.3 percent, by far the highest of any subgroup by race, ethnicity or gender. And, according to the report, previous research “has consistently found that racial/ethnic disproportionality in discipline persists even when poverty and other demographic factors are controlled.”

And these disparities can have a severe impact on a child’s likelihood of graduating. According to a report from the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University that looked at Florida students, “Being suspended even once in 9th grade is associated with a two-fold increase in the risk for dropping out.”

Black male dropout rates are more than one and a half times those of white males, and when you look at the percentage of black men who graduate on time — in four years, not including those who possibly go on to get G.E.D.s, transfer to other schools or fail grades — the numbers are truly horrific. Only about half of these black men graduate on time.

Now, the snowball is rolling. The bias of the educational system bleeds easily into the bias of the criminal justice system — from cops to courts to correctional facilities. The school-to-prison pipeline is complete.

A May report by the Brookings Institution found: “There is nearly a 70 percent chance that an African American man without a high school diploma will be imprisoned by his mid-thirties.”

This is in part because trending policing disparities are particularly troubling in places like Missouri. As the editorial board of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out this week: “Last year, for the 11th time in the 14 years that data has been collected, the disparity index that measures potential racial profiling by law enforcement in the state got worse. Black Missourians were 66 percent more likely in 2013 to be stopped by police, and blacks and Hispanics were both more likely to be searched, even though the likelihood of finding contraband was higher among whites.”

And this is the reality if the child actually survives the journey. That is if he has the internal fortitude to continue to stand with the weight on his shoulders. That is if he doesn’t find himself on the wrong end of a gun barrel. That is if his parents can imbue in him a sense of value while the world endeavors to imbue in him a sense of worthlessness.

Parents can teach children how to interact with authority and how to mitigate the threat response their very being elicits. They can wrap them in love to safeguard them against the bitterness of racial suspicion.

It can be done. It is often done. But it is heartbreaking nonetheless. What psychic damage does it do to the black mind when one must come to own and manage the fear of the black body?

The burden of bias isn’t borne by the person in possession of it but by the person who is the subject of it. The violence is aimed away from the possessor of its instruments — the arrow is pointed away from the killer and at the prey.

It vests victimhood in the idea of personhood. It steals sometimes, something precious and irreplaceable. It breaks something that’s irreparable. It alters something in a way that’s irrevocable.

We flinchingly choose a lesser damage.

But still, the hopelessness takes hold when one realizes that there is no amount of acting right or doing right, no amount of parental wisdom or personal resilience that can completely guarantee survival, let alone success.

Brown had just finished high school and was to start college this week. The investigation will hopefully clarify what led to his killing. But it is clear even now that his killing occurred in a context, one that we would do well to recognize.

Brown’s mother told a local television station after he was killed just weeks after his high school graduation: “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many. Because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like they don’t got nothing to live for anyway. ‘They’re going to try to take me out anyway.’ ”

August 14th, 2014
Don’t Dismiss the Humanities

NY Times Published: AUG. 13, 2014

By Nicholas Kristof

What use could the humanities be in a digital age?

University students focusing on the humanities may end up, at least in their parents’ nightmares, as dog-walkers for those majoring in computer science. But, for me, the humanities are not only relevant but also give us a toolbox to think seriously about ourselves and the world.

I wouldn’t want everybody to be an art or literature major, but the world would be poorer — figuratively, anyway — if we were all coding software or running companies. We also want musicians to awaken our souls, writers to lead us into fictional lands, and philosophers to help us exercise our minds and engage the world.

Skeptics may see philosophy as the most irrelevant and self-indulgent of the humanities, but the way I understand the world is shaped by three philosophers in particular.

First, Sir Isaiah Berlin described the world as muddled and complex, with many competing values yet no simple yardstick to determine which should trump the others. We yearn for One True Answer, but it’s our lot to struggle to reconcile inconsistent goals. He referred to this as pluralism of values.

Yet Sir Isaiah also cautioned against the hand-wringing that sometimes paralyzes intellectuals, the idea that everything is so complex, nuanced and uncertain that one cannot act. It’s the idea pilloried by Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Sir Isaiah argued for acknowledging doubts and uncertainty — and then forging ahead. “Principles are not less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed,” he wrote. “Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood.”

Second, John Rawls offers a useful way of thinking about today’s issues such as inequality or poverty, of institutionalizing what our society gravely lacks: empathy. He explores basic questions of fairness, leading to a compelling explanation for why we should create safety nets to support the poor and good schools to help their kids achieve a better life.

Rawls suggests imagining that we all gather to agree on a social contract, but from an “original position” so that we don’t know if we will be rich or poor, smart or dumb, diligent or lazy, American or Bangladeshi. If we don’t know whether we’ll be born in a wealthy suburban family or to a single mom in an inner city, we’ll be more inclined to favor measures that protect those at the bottom.

Or, in the context of today’s news, we may be less likely to deport Honduran children back to the desolate conditions from which they have fled.

We still will allow for inequality to create incentives for economic growth, but Rawls suggests that, from an original position, we will choose structures that allow inequality only when the least advantaged members of society also benefit.

Third, Peter Singer of Princeton University has pioneered the public discussion of our moral obligations to animals, including those we raise to eat. Singer wrote a landmark book in 1975, “Animal Liberation,” and cites utilitarian reasoning to argue that it’s wrong to inflict cruelty on cows, hogs or chickens just so that we can enjoy a tasty lunch.

It has long been recognized that we have some ethical obligations that transcend our species; that’s why we’re arrested if we torture kittens or organize dog fights. But Singer focused squarely on industrial agriculture and the thrice-daily question of what we put on our plates, turning that into not just a gastronomical issue but also a moral one.

I’m not a vegetarian, although I’m sometimes tempted, but Singer’s arguments still apply. Do we skip regular eggs or pay more for cage-free? Should I eat goose liver pâté (achieved by torturing geese)? Do we give preference to restaurants that try to source pork or chicken in ways that inflict less pain?

So let me push back at the idea that the humanities are obscure, arcane and irrelevant. These three philosophers influence the way I think about politics, immigration, inequality; they even affect what I eat.

It’s also worth pointing out that these three philosophers are recent ones. To adapt to a changing world, we need new software for our cellphones; we also need new ideas. The same goes for literature, for architecture, languages and theology.

Our world is enriched when coders and marketers dazzle us with smartphones and tablets, but, by themselves, they are just slabs. It is the music, essays, entertainment and provocations that they access, spawned by the humanities, that animate them — and us.

So, yes, the humanities are still relevant in the 21st century — every bit as relevant as an iPhone.

August 14th, 2014
In Upper West Side Playground Fight, It’s Parents vs. Parents

A six inch step is the subject of controversy at PS 166 that dates to the 1960s adventure-playground era.

NY Times Published: AUG. 12, 2014

Most playground brawls take place on, well, a playground.

Not the one that has unfolded over the past year at Public School 166 and in the surrounding Upper West Side neighborhood. In numerous meetings, it is parents, not children, who have shouted one another down and drawn lines in the sand over the planned renovation of a schoolyard playground that has been a font of unusually pitched emotions.

“I’ve been involved with some ugly fights during my years of being an active New York City school parent,” said Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, the former head of a group of PTA presidents for District 3, which includes the elementary school. “But I have never seen anything like the battle regarding the P.S. 166 playground. I couldn’t stay involved with it. It was too disturbing to see parents treat other parents so harshly.”

The 0.4-acre playground, on West 89th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, features an amphitheater with a sloping perimeter of Belgian blocks that dates to the 1960s adventure-playground era. It is used by children at the school during the day and by neighborhood residents on weekends and after school. Administrators at P.S. 166 and members of the Parent Teacher Association have pushed for a renovation, saying that over the years, children have sustained concussions, chipped their teeth and suffered broken bones there. In addition, during snowy weather, the playground is difficult to plow and can be off limits for several weeks.

Renovations were first proposed in 2012 for the playground, which some consider an architectural gem but others have raised safety concerns about. Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
But a group of parents and sympathetic neighbors who call themselves Friends of Playground 89 say that the renovation, first proposed in early 2012 and budgeted at $950,000, would destroy an architectural gem and a prime example of the adventure-playground movement. It says reports of injuries have been trumped up and argues that the current amphitheater configuration — unlike the new design — fosters various styles of play.

After lawsuits, myriad requests under the Freedom of Information Law, designs and redesigns of redesigns, one normally mild-mannered parks department official had had enough. At a meeting last month, Steve Simon, the department’s chief of staff for Manhattan, who had sat quietly at most public meetings devoted to the renovation, jumped from his seat. In attendance were members of Friends of Playground 89, which had announced its opposition to modifications to a renovation design that it had embraced in May.

“This controversy comes down to a six-inch step,” Mr. Simon told the community board. “That’s what it comes down to.”

The step in question is one of three that surround the amphitheater on one end. The principal and PTA executive board want the parks department to remove it to enlarge the play area on the floor of the kidney-shaped amphitheater.

The battle over the renovation, for which the parks department first presented a plan in July of last year and which was supposed to start construction soon after that, comes amid growing complaints that capital projects in the city’s parks can take years to complete.

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In June, New Yorkers for Parks, an independent advocacy group, released a study that compared the management of capital projects by the parks department with that of other public agencies. The report showed that in many cases, other agencies were able to build faster and more cheaply than the parks department.

A big problem, according to the report, is that “there is no clearly defined process for achieving consensus on design and reaching the ‘pencils down’ moment.” Parks department officials, while embracing the study, have questioned the fairness of some of the comparisons with other agencies.

Playground 89 illustrates that problem. The renovation plans have gone through at least five iterations so far. The parks department even enlisted the help of the original landscape architect, M. Paul Friedberg.

The May redesign replaced the Belgian blocks with granite pavers, but left the stepped amphitheater pretty much in place. “It keeps a lot of what’s good and does not do violence to the main feel and experience of the playground,” said John Crossman, a lawyer and leader of the friends group whose child attended the school.

But the principal raised objections to that plan, and in June, the parks department came up with a new version in which the bottom step was removed.

The friends group promptly objected, saying that removing the step would involve ripping out the amphitheater floor, with its mosaic pattern, and then rebuilding it. “The effect will be to raise the floor of the amphitheater,” Mr. Crossman said. “That’s a huge difference and will completely change the feeling of having your own cozy space.”

The local community board recently voted in favor of the latest design; the renovation plan will go before the city’s Public Design Commission in September, which must approve any changes.

Mr. Crossman is hoping the commission will reject this most recent design. “We hope that the commission will see the hack job from June,” he said. “The commission has the power to fix this and to work with Parks so that we don’t lose a special, unique space on the Upper West Side and instead have to look at a blighted, flat, uninteresting space.”

PTA leaders at the school say they have tried to respect the competing visions for the playground. And they reject the accusation that injuries were exaggerated in order to push the renovation through or that they are safety-obsessed.

“Kids are going to fall and scrape their knees — we know that,” said Christine DiPasquale, a photographer with three children in the school and the past PTA co-president. “This is not about helicopter parenting. All we’re trying to do is have a space where we don’t have to worry about what will happen to our children.”

The community board argued that there were safety issues in the playground and that it also needed to comply with accessibility rules.

But some parents say the changes will destroy the playground’s unique qualities.

“The current design has a very rich and dynamic play culture,” said Laurie Frey, a mother of four and a leader of the friends group. “Children play football and soccer but they also play individual games, pretend games, friendship games. The new design tips the balance toward the sporty games and kids.”

Rick A. Parisi, the managing principal of Mr. Friedberg’s firm, which consulted on the project, said that they were a little surprised “that the excitement got to the level it did.”

“But people have a real soft spot for their neighborhood playgrounds,” he said. “They watch their kids grow up there, and there are a lot of fond memories. It’s flattering — it really is.”

August 13th, 2014

Screen shot 2014-08-11 at 10.28.27 PM

Opening Reception:
Saturday, August 16, 7 PM – 11 PM

Through September 14, 2014

356 Mission

August 11th, 2014
Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain

NY Times Published: AUG. 9, 2014

THIS month, many Americans will take time off from work to go on vacation, catch up on household projects and simply be with family and friends. And many of us will feel guilty for doing so. We will worry about all of the emails piling up at work, and in many cases continue to compulsively check email during our precious time off.

But beware the false break. Make sure you have a real one. The summer vacation is more than a quaint tradition. Along with family time, mealtime and weekends, it is an important way that we can make the most of our beautiful brains.

Every day we’re assaulted with facts, pseudofacts, news feeds and jibber-jabber, coming from all directions. According to a 2011 study, on a typical day, we take in the equivalent of about 174 newspapers’ worth of information, five times as much as we did in 1986. As the world’s 21,274 television stations produce some 85,000 hours of original programming every day (by 2003 figures), we watch an average of five hours of television per day. For every hour of YouTube video you watch, there are 5,999 hours of new video just posted!

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there’s a reason: The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited. This is a result of how the brain’s attentional system evolved. Our brains have two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network (they’re called networks because they comprise distributed networks of neurons, like electrical circuits within the brain). The task-positive network is active when you’re actively engaged in a task, focused on it, and undistracted; neuroscientists have taken to calling it the central executive. The task-negative network is active when your mind is wandering; this is the daydreaming mode. These two attentional networks operate like a seesaw in the brain: when one is active the other is not.

This two-part attentional system is one of the crowning achievements of the human brain, and the focus it enables allowed us to harness fire, build the pyramids, discover penicillin and decode the entire human genome. Those projects required some plain old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness.

But the insight that led to them probably came from the daydreaming mode. This brain state, marked by the flow of connections among disparate ideas and thoughts, is responsible for our moments of greatest creativity and insight, when we’re able to solve problems that previously seemed unsolvable. You might be going for a walk or grocery shopping or doing something that doesn’t require sustained attention and suddenly — boom — the answer to a problem that had been vexing you suddenly appears. This is the mind-wandering mode, making connections among things that we didn’t previously see as connected.

A third component of the attentional system, the attentional filter, helps to orient our attention, to tell us what to pay attention to and what we can safely ignore. This undoubtedly evolved to alert us to predators and other dangerous situations. The constant flow of information from Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Instagram, text messages and the like engages that system, and we find ourselves not sustaining attention on any one thing for very long — the curse of the information age.

My collaborator Vinod Menon, a professor of neuroscience at Stanford, and I showed that the switch between daydreaming and attention is controlled in a part of the brain called the insula, an important structure about an inch or so beneath the surface of the top of your skull. Switching between two external objects involves the temporal-parietal junction. If the relationship between the central executive system and the mind-wandering system is like a seesaw, then the insula — the attentional switch — is like an adult holding one side down so that the other stays up in the air. The efficacy of this switch varies from person to person, in some functioning smoothly, in others rather rusty. But switch it does, and if it is called upon to switch too often, we feel tired and a bit dizzy, as though we were seesawing too rapidly.

Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with.

If you want to be more productive and creative, and to have more energy, the science dictates that you should partition your day into project periods. Your social networking should be done during a designated time, not as constant interruptions to your day.

Email, too, should be done at designated times. An email that you know is sitting there, unread, may sap attentional resources as your brain keeps thinking about it, distracting you from what you’re doing. What might be in it? Who’s it from? Is it good news or bad news? It’s better to leave your email program off than to hear that constant ping and know that you’re ignoring messages.

Increasing creativity will happen naturally as we tame the multitasking and immerse ourselves in a single task for sustained periods of, say, 30 to 50 minutes. Several studies have shown that a walk in nature or listening to music can trigger the mind-wandering mode. This acts as a neural reset button, and provides much needed perspective on what you’re doing.

Daydreaming leads to creativity, and creative activities teach us agency, the ability to change the world, to mold it to our liking, to have a positive effect on our environment. Music, for example, turns out to be an effective method for improving attention, building up self-confidence, social skills and a sense of engagement.

This radical idea — that problem solving might take some time and doesn’t always have to be accomplished immediately — could have profound effects on decision making and even on our economy. Consider this: By some estimates, preventable medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. You want your diagnostician to give the right answer, not always the quickest one. Zoning out is not always bad. You don’t want your airline pilot or air traffic controller to do it while they’re on the job, but you do want them to have opportunities to reset — this is why air traffic control and other high-attention jobs typically require frequent breaks. Several studies have shown that people who work overtime reach a point of diminishing returns.

Taking breaks is biologically restorative. Naps are even better. In several studies, a nap of even 10 minutes improved cognitive function and vigor, and decreased sleepiness and fatigue. If we can train ourselves to take regular vacations — true vacations without work — and to set aside time for naps and contemplation, we will be in a more powerful position to start solving some of the world’s big problems. And to be happier and well rested while we’re doing it.

August 11th, 2014
The end of neighbours

By Brian Bethune
Macleans Published: August 8, 2014

It’s a new day in the neighbourhood all across the Western world. More than 30 per cent of Canadians now say they feel disconnected from their neighbours, while half of Americans admit they don’t know the names of theirs. An Australian sociologist investigating community responses in the wake of the 2011 floods in Queensland found relations in “a precarious balance”; neighbours were hesitant to intrude even in emergencies—leading the scholar to conclude that “we are less likely than ever to know” our neighbours. Quite right, too: A recent poll of 2,000 Britons found a third declaring they couldn’t pick their near neighbours out of a police lineup.

Yet it’s hardly surprising, given how lengthy working days, long commutes and having both parents in the labour force have combined with the way we raise our children to create suburban neighbourhoods that are empty more than half the day, with scarcely a neighbour to encounter, let alone recognize, trust or befriend. But, however powerful the economic and social forces behind the disappearing neighbour—and however positive many of its results—according to reams of new research, the transformation is also poisoning our politics and, quite literally, killing us.

Two new books, The Vanishing Neighbor by Marc Dunkelman, and Susan Pinker’s forthcoming The Village Effect, mine the data and sound loud warnings. The health aspects are alarming enough for Pinker, a Montreal-based developmental psychologist, to have changed her own habits of a lifetime. She argues that humans need face-to-face contact, as they need air and water. We have evolved for it, to the extent that those surrounded by a tight-knit group of friends who regularly gather to eat—and, crucially, gossip—live an average of 15 years longer than loners. Quality face-to-face contact is essential for a social species, Pinker writes, citing research that shows it fortifies immune systems, calibrates hormones and increases chances of surviving heart attacks, strokes, AIDS and cancer. “People with the most integrated social lives—overlapping relationships among friends, family, sports and other recreational or religious pursuits—have the best prognoses,” with the most life-threatening diseases. It’s true even with dementia: A 2004 Swedish study found its lowest prevalence among those with the most extensive social networks.

In response, rather than spend evenings at home reading or working, Pinker now swims on a team (group exercise providing “more bang for her buck”) and makes a point of attending more social events. And, crucially, she makes an effort to keep her social circle as wide as possible, consciously replacing friends and neighbours who fade away over time. Bear in mind, Pinker warns, that no matter how much you love and trust your spouse, if he or she is your only confidant—as about 10 per cent of American survey respondents indicate—then you are one person away from no one at all. “Immunologically speaking, you’re almost naked.”

What could be called our social immune system, according to Dunkelman, is also not as robust as it was. The American researcher notes how his country was always organized from the bottom up, from township (or neighbourhood) to county to state to federation. But the moderating effects that mixing with neighbours of differing opinions once inspired, much like the health benefits born of daily contact with others, are crumbling, leading to inexorably more polarized politics.

“Middle ring” is what Dunkelman calls our neighbourly relationships, in contrast to the inner ring of family and close friends and the ever-expanding outer-ring relationships fostered by the digital age. And the centre is not holding, says Dunkelman, a research fellow at Brown University in Providence, R.I., in an interview. “Middle-ring relationships take persistence and grit, because we don’t always like our neighbours—it’s not a relationship by choice—and, now that we don’t have to approach them in a ‘yes, we disagree but we have to keep talking’ spirit, and we don’t even run into them while shopping and the like, we drift.” We grab what easy commonalities we can, he adds: In a world of multiple media where the top-ranked TV show is watched by less than 10 per cent of the population (as opposed to more than a third 50 years ago), pro sports are more culturally significant than ever—one of the few talking points between neighbours. International contests—a soccer World Cup match, or Canada in an Olympic gold medal hockey game—can give a feeling of community to an entire nation with ever fewer such talking points.

Dunkelman markedly extends what the Australian study of flooded Queenslanders found. We may say we are disturbed by the fact that we no longer know our neighbours, but, to a largely unspoken extent, distance from the hard work of getting along with them is precisely what we want. Hell is other people, claimed Jean-Paul Sartre, and contemporary Westerners agree with him. We have long worked to separate ourselves from relationships and social norms that restrict us. And our pursuit of autonomy and privacy is often for good reason. Compare the lives of ethnic and sexual minorities now and two generations ago. Whether it is born of genuine tolerance or simple indifference, we are far more open-minded about who lives next door, not that we often talk with them or—as the British poll makes starkly plain—even recognize them.

Increasingly, we live alone, even while maintaining vibrant social networks with like-minded souls, especially online. Solo households, meaning there is no constricting “other” even within the home, are the fastest-growing home segment in Canada now. The paraphernalia of living alone are taking an ever larger market share in the modern world. Sales of single-serving cookware, including one-cup teapots, have grown by 140 per cent in Britain over the last generation. And, while eerily quiet subdivisions make social commentators uneasy, condominium complexes, where neighbours rub shoulders with each other more often, make residents uneasy, since they feature as much conflict as harmony.

For decades, Americans and Canadians have been steadily less likely to vote, to play bridge, to volunteer, to invite people over for dinner, to join parent-teacher groups or local organizations the way previous generations did—from the Rotary Club to bowling leagues. Family remains strong, possibly because, in the solo age, even very close relatives are not living under one roof. Between the mid-1990s and 2008, the percentage of Americans who reported eating at least once a month with relatives with whom they didn’t live rose from 52 to 59. Over a longer period (1974 to 2008), the percentage who spent an evening socializing with neighbours tumbled from 44 to 31, while the percentage who never did so rose from 20 to 30. The evolving modern definition of a good neighbour is no longer someone who is part of your life, someone you chat with over the fence, a reliable shoulder in good times and bad, but someone who doesn’t bother you, either in your enjoyment of your home or by threatening its property value.

Children’s lives are even more transformed than adults’. Driven equally by fears for their safety and the participation of both parents in the workforce, we schedule and supervise kids within an inch of their lives. In a situation well past a Malcolm Gladwell tipping point, parents contemplating not signing their child up for an expensive two-week summer camp have to reckon with the fact that the child will almost surely have no one to play with, and no friendly neighbour to keep an eye on her—prime contributors to the empty neighbourhood. (In contrast to the paid activities for kids during working hours, the older volunteer-run evening and weekends sports leagues—which bring together parents with nothing in common but children and postal codes—are among the last of the old intra-neighbourhood building blocks.)

Pinker and Dunkelman agree that the Internet, the usual suspect in contemporary social upheaval, is not the root cause of a development that began to take shape when cars allowed a separation between work and home. The digital era does allow more autonomy and less uncomfortable jostling with others in everything from online shopping to college, where students needn’t leave their dorm rooms to take part in a MOOC (a massive open online course). The explosion in smartphone technology and ownership has accelerated the trend. But the Internet is only answering demand and nudging us further along a path we were already following.

Yet neither is the Internet the saviour that will refashion a revolutionary situation into something familiar. Our new capacity to reach out to the ends of the Earth, in fact, is primarily lavished on those already close: Research shows that family and friends receive the bulk of our personal emails and texts. Our limited time and attention is dividing between those dearest to us and those who think like us, the latter via online relationships, where the link—whether it’s environmental activism or hockey-card collecting—is often one-dimensional. Web visionaries may predict a future where the size of our digital networks will pull users out of their closed circles. But that idea, argue Dunkelman and Pinker, runs up against the brick wall of “Dunbar’s number.”

In the 1990s, Oxford primatologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar initiated the social brain hypothesis, the idea that humans developed their large brains to cope, not with predators or competitor species, but with themselves. All higher primates spend a good half of their time keeping tabs on such key survival data as who is ascendant and who is sleeping with whom.

So how big a network can we handle? About 150, calculated Dunbar. It’s a number that reverberates in human history: the approximate size of modern hunter-gatherer bands and agricultural villages from Neolithic times until the present, including contemporary Amish settlements; the size of effective military units; the number of employees a company can manage without rigid hierarchies; even the number of Christmas-card recipients on a typical list. What it means today, says Dunkelman, “is that our capacity to reach out may be infinite, but our capacity to make something meaningful of it is not; we only have a certain-sized bucket of social capital, a limited number of cognitive slots.”

Nor are the slots truly engaged by digital contact, Pinker points out, citing a Dutch study indicating that online contacts did not translate into feelings of closeness. Formerly in-person relationships moved online can dwindle to nothing in as little as 18 months, while connections buttressed both electronically and in the flesh tighten. In Pinker’s opinion, our propensity to wrongly believe that online relationships effectively replace in-person ones is playing out disastrously in education. The MOOCs that allow students to play hermit in their dorm rooms are exploding in popularity, an apparently cheap way to deliver quality education to the poor and disadvantaged. Yet, while some MOOCs enrol hundreds of thousands, an average of 90 per cent drop out, citing a lack of opportunity for words of encouragement or personal evaluation. Meanwhile, parents who can afford it, including the chief technology officer at eBay, place their children in low-tech but teacher-rich private schools. (In China, according to the Huffington Post, parents who want their kindergartner to receive hugs from their teachers pay a monthly fee.)

The way distance erodes real emotional intimacy perhaps explains why, in surveys cited by both authors, North Americans report slightly more frequent contact with their closest family and friends than in past years, but also record that the average number of their confidants had dropped from three in 1985 to two in 2004. The number of Americans with no confidants at all has shot up from eight to 23 per cent, in some surveys.

The decline of the old middle-ranking organizations has its upside, Dunkelman cheerfully allows—“the Kiwanis and the Ku Klux Klan are both hurting for members”—and it doesn’t mean contemporary citizens are not joining together in novel ways. Instead of the old local organizations, we are now exercising what University of Toronto sociologist Barry Wellman has called “networked individualization,” that is, in Dunkelman’s terminology, establishing “outer-ring” links. He thinks the Tea Party and Occupy, the two most prominent political uprisings in recent American history, are both outer-ring, with long-distance memberships linked by a single common cause and, thus, impossible before the Internet. But these new formations, so unlike the old local political networks marked by bald-faced horse-trading—back me on the school tax and I’ll support you on downtown improvement—are, Dunkelman thinks, at the root of his country’s political deadlock.

“People point at gerrymandering, money, special interests, hyperpartisanship—but that’s to mistake correlation for causation,” he says. “We are now more insular and more ignorant of the other guy’s thinking. There is greater mutual ignorance than a generation ago between people who live in close proximity. When there’s no habit of compromise, then the very idea of your Congressman reaching across the aisle is apostasy. The politicians in Washington who won’t do that are actually responding to their constituents’ wishes.”

Politicians need to scramble to get in front of a polarized electorate, because of how far Americans have gone down the road some sociologists call the “big sort.” Although they live in ever-smaller individual units, Americans are settling themselves in mono-neighbourhoods, homogenized not by ethnicity but by income, lifestyle and, above all, attitude. (The latter often trumps income: In New York Times columnist David Brooks’s apt summary, a Democratic Washington-area dweller asked to sell her $750,000 home in a party-friendly suburb and move to an equally expensive home in a Republican neighbourhood would react as if she had been requested to mount a gun rack in her SUV and “shove chewing tobacco in her children’s mouths.”)

The growing homogeneity of electoral districts can be tracked over time. Some 30 per cent of the senators and representatives elected with president Jimmy Carter in 1976 called themselves moderate (the rest were “strong” conservatives or liberals); by 2006, self-described moderates topped out at eight per cent. In 2012, Democrats and Republicans were so dominant in their different areas of the nation that half of state legislatures were subject to one-party rule through two-thirds majorities—far more than ever before. Perhaps the only political situation worse than having no idea of your neighbours’ thinking, runs Dunkelman’s logic, is having contact, however limited, only with neighbours who act as an echo chamber, reinforcing your own views.

In Canada, the kind of “big-sort” us-vs.-them politics Dunkelman sees across his nation is visible largely in major cities, especially Toronto. There, residential self-selection has been growing for years: A 2006 study by a University of Toronto geographer noted that the preponderance of Toronto’s leftist politicians chose to live downtown, while the opposite was true of right-wingers. The result has been a growing disconnect between suburbs and central city that Rob Ford rode to the mayor’s office in 2010; simmering anti-downtown-elite anger in the older suburbs supplies what support he still maintains. Canadian federal and provincial politicians don’t have the same deep urban divides within arm’s reach, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to build virtual mono-communities via the Internet. The older methods of retail politics, the door-to-door campaigns (which find fewer and fewer people at home) and town hall rallies (where voters would be exposed to neighbours with different views) are giving way to building up email lists of likely supporters, virtual town hall meetings without dissenting voices, and the kind of partisan, polarized messaging that keeps core voters—the party base—satisfied and willing to continue financial and electoral support.

It’s a new neighbourhood, all right: less physical, less tied to place, smaller and more congenial to those on the inside, more suspicious and unyielding to those outside. What Dunkelman and Pinker want readers and policy-makers to recognize is that downside: What brings us closer to people halfway around the world also makes strangers of those next door. We willingly abandoned the bad, chafing aspect of our old neighbourly ties; we have to somehow learn to maintain the good habits of compromise and personal interaction they also gave us.

Thanks to Numair Faraz

August 11th, 2014
Phosphorus and Freedom

NY Times Published: AUG. 10, 2014

In the latest Times Magazine, Robert Draper profiled youngish libertarians — roughly speaking, people who combine free-market economics with permissive social views — and asked whether we might be heading for a “libertarian moment.” Well, probably not. Polling suggests that young Americans tend, if anything, to be more supportive of the case for a bigger government than their elders. But I’d like to ask a different question: Is libertarian economics at all realistic?

The answer is no. And the reason can be summed up in one word: phosphorus.

As you’ve probably heard, the City of Toledo recently warned its residents not to drink the water. Why? Contamination from toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie, largely caused by the runoff of phosphorus from farms.

When I read about that, it rang a bell. Last week many Republican heavy hitters spoke at a conference sponsored by the blog Red State — and I remembered an antigovernment rant a few years back from Erick Erickson, the blog’s founder. Mr. Erickson suggested that oppressive government regulation had reached the point where citizens might want to “march down to their state legislator’s house, pull him outside, and beat him to a bloody pulp.” And the source of his rage? A ban on phosphates in dishwasher detergent. After all, why would government officials want to do such a thing?

An aside: The states bordering Lake Erie banned or sharply limited phosphates in detergent long ago, temporarily bringing the lake back from the brink. But farming has so far evaded effective controls, so the lake is dying again, and it will take more government intervention to save it.

The point is that before you rage against unwarranted government interference in your life, you might want to ask why the government is interfering. Often — not always, of course, but far more often than the free-market faithful would have you believe — there is, in fact, a good reason for the government to get involved. Pollution controls are the simplest example, but not unique.

Smart libertarians have always realized that there are problems free markets alone can’t solve — but their alternatives to government tend to be implausible. For example, Milton Friedman famously called for the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration. But in that case, how would consumers know whether their food and drugs were safe? His answer was to rely on tort law. Corporations, he claimed, would have the incentive not to poison people because of the threat of lawsuits.

So, do you believe that would be enough? Really? And, of course, people who denounce big government also tend to call for tort reform and attack trial lawyers.

More commonly, self-proclaimed libertarians deal with the problem of market failure both by pretending that it doesn’t happen and by imagining government as much worse than it really is. We’re living in an Ayn Rand novel, they insist. (No, we aren’t.) We have more than a hundred different welfare programs, they tell us, which are wasting vast sums on bureaucracy rather than helping the poor. (No, we don’t, and no, they aren’t.)

I’m often struck, incidentally, by the way antigovernment clichés can trump everyday experience. Talk about the role of government, and you invariably have people saying things along the lines of, “Do you want everything run like the D.M.V.?” Experience varies — but my encounters with New Jersey’s Motor Vehicle Commission have generally been fairly good (better than dealing with insurance or cable companies), and I’m sure many libertarians would, if they were honest, admit that their own D.M.V. dealings weren’t too bad. But they go for the legend, not the fact.

Libertarians also tend to engage in projection. They don’t want to believe that there are problems whose solution requires government action, so they tend to assume that others similarly engage in motivated reasoning to serve their political agenda — that anyone who worries about, say, environmental issues is engaged in scare tactics to further a big-government agenda. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, doesn’t just think we’re living out the plot of “Atlas Shrugged”; he asserts that all the fuss over climate change is just “an excuse to grow government.”

As I said at the beginning, you shouldn’t believe talk of a rising libertarian tide; despite America’s growing social liberalism, real power on the right still rests with the traditional alliance between plutocrats and preachers. But libertarian visions of an unregulated economy do play a significant role in political debate, so it’s important to understand that these visions are mirages. Of course some government interventions are unnecessary and unwise. But the idea that we have a vastly bigger and more intrusive government than we need is a foolish fantasy.

August 11th, 2014
The Pigeon Fliers of New York

Carmine on his rooftop in Ozone Park, Queens, feeding his stock in 2006.

NY Times Published: AUGUST 9, 2014

A decade ago, when I lived in Bushwick, Brooklyn, I used to watch the sunset from my rooftop. All around me were large flocks of pigeons, their white wingtips glittering as they swirled in the sun’s golden hour. These were not street pigeons. Their movements were too choreographed, and they hovered above particular tenements as if attached by marionette strings. Atop the buildings, I could just make out the silhouettes of men whistling at the birds while waving jerry-built flags. These were the puppeteers.

Once seemingly as commonplace on city rooftops as the iconic water tower, pigeon coops are now as scarce as the longshoremen known for building them — the mostly Irish and Italian men immortalized in representations of working-class New York like the 1954 film “On the Waterfront.”

Curious about this fading avocation, I started hanging out at a local pigeon supply store. It was there that I encountered Carmine Gangone, a retired plane cargo loadmaster, mulling whether to fork over $5 for a brown speckled hen. Noticing me, Mr. Gangone threatened to cut off my long, unkempt hair, before cracking a smile. Later he invited me to his roof, after one of the owners told me he was the best flier around.

Over the next three years, I spent hundreds of hours with Mr. Gangone and two dozen other pigeon fliers on rooftops in the outer boroughs. While Charles Darwin had long ago immersed himself in the working-class subculture of “pigeon fancying” for biological reasons (“On the Origin of Species” illustrates natural selection through an exhaustive genealogy of pigeon breeds), my interest was anthropological — I wanted to write a book about these men.

A year and a half ago, not long before my book was published, Mr. Gangone died. The last time I visited his home in Ozone Park, Queens, he was too frail to ascend the metal ladder to his rooftop coop. “My legs won’t carry me no more,” he said, “and they say my blood is too heavy.” Though Mr. Gangone acknowledged feeling “pretty lucky” to have lived 88 years, without his birds there was nothing to look forward to — “I just sit in this chair and relive it all.” Since his death, I’ve thought a lot about why it was that pigeons gave Mr. Gangone a reason to live.

Though already an octogenarian when I met him, Mr. Gangone still climbed to the roof of his townhouse every morning to “chase” his stock of 150 domesticated pigeons into the inky pre-dawn sky, where they would hurtle toward the clouds and then divebomb the elevated train in perfect unison as he waved his bamboo rod like a baton. He told me that his stock was like a family. I sometimes saw this otherwise phlegmatic man giggle and make kissy faces at chicks that awkwardly perched on his finger, and he lovingly prepared herbal remedies for pigeons that got sick.

Recounting the fateful day back in the Roaring Twenties that he became a “pigeon mumbler” (“I’m always mumbling about pigeons”), Mr. Gangone’s eyes got misty. “I had birds since I’m 5 years old,” he told me. It all started when his brother gave him a stray pigeon and he placed it inside a box in the house. “My mother went crazy!”

His brother then helped him build a rooftop coop, but his father wouldn’t let him go up there. “I used to sneak on the roof and fly my birds.” Except for the three years that Mr. Gangone fought in the Pacific during World War II, he kept pigeons the rest of his life.

For much of the time that I knew Mr. Gangone, I intuitively likened him to Terry Malloy, the Marlon Brando character from “On the Waterfront,” who found a refuge from his deteriorating social life in his birds. For Mr. Gangone, I thought, the pigeon coop was also an escape from an unwelcome reality. His beloved wife had died years back, and his children — like many of their ethnic peers — decamped to the suburbs in the 1960s and ’70s. In the intervening years, Mr. Gangone stood sentry at his rooftop perch as the neighborhood’s parochial Italian institutions gradually gave way to Guyanese restaurants, Indian delis and mosques. John Gotti’s old Mafia headquarters became a pet-grooming center.

While I never heard him denigrate his “new” neighbors, Mr. Gangone confided, “they’re not my kind of people.” When I asked what the pigeon coop meant to him, given all of the changes he had lived through, he said, “This is my life. I’m not a drinker, I’m not a drug addict, I don’t gamble. This is my life. If I gotta get rid of the birds here, what do I do now? Where am I gonna — I don’t want them on nobody else’s roof. I want them here.” Or as he it put it even more starkly another time we were talking, “What would I do if I didn’t do this? All I got is my birds. I got nothing else.”

I eventually realized that this wasn’t true. Though Mr. Gangone longed for the tight-knit Italian community that he had lost, he was no recluse. His pigeons mattered to him not because they were a substitute for human companionship but because they connected him to a new community. His weekly visits to Broadway Pigeon and Pets Supplies in Bushwick, ostensibly to buy feed, put him in touch with fliers from all over the city. By following Mr. Gangone off the rooftop and into the pet shop, I saw that he was as invested in these relationships as he was in his birds.

He was fiercely competitive, and I came to understand that his obsession with breeding the perfect specimen and training his “army” to fly “tight” was driven by a desire to be recognized as the best pigeon mumbler. Weekly pet shop gatherings were opportunities for Mr. Gangone and the other fliers to measure themselves against one another through photos of their pigeons’ performance, cellphone videos and witness testimonies.

EVEN when he was alone on his roof, Mr. Gangone remained enmeshed in this social network. He kept an eye on other fliers and their stocks with binoculars, and one of his principal pleasures was catching other fliers’ stray pigeons and displaying them in his “prisoners pen,” which he decorated with the colored bands he removed from his captives.

As a proud pigeon mumbler, Mr. Gangone welcomed friendships with anyone interested in the birds and saw all of them as “my kind of people.” When getting to the pet shop became too much of a pain, Mr. Gangone delighted in taking on a young neighbor who showed an interest as his protégé. Mr. Gangone referred to him as “the Spanish boy” and tenderly ribbed him (“What the hell did you do with your hair? Geez! You better put a hat on. Didn’t I tell you not to put the lines in your head?”). The boy, whose name was Orlando, absorbed his advice and helped clean the coops when he saw the older man struggling. On my last visit to his roof, Mr. Gangone grinned as the boy chased his birds and whispered, “He’s gonna make a great pigeon mumbler, boy.”

While Mr. Gangone may have gotten into pigeons because of a sheer fascination with animals, it was his social bonds with other fliers that gave meaning to these cross-species relations, and to the last years of his life. In explaining to me why he agreed to mentor Orlando, Mr. Gangone said, “I need people around here, it makes me want to come on the roof.” Rather than functioning as an escape from social pressures, Mr. Gangone’s coop opened up a new social world. It took me a while, but now I appreciate that it was through his birds that Mr. Gangone could still be somebody who mattered to other people.

Since Mr. Gangone’s death, I have lost track of his apprentice and do not know whether he stuck with pigeon flying. I do know, however, that the boy’s presence on the roof gave Mr. Gangone a sense of purpose as his health waned. Even in death, Mr. Gangone’s pigeons enable those he loved to feel connected to him. I hear that his grandson on Long Island flies birds that Mr. Gangone bred, and an old neighborhood pal inherited his coop. As for me, whenever I pass the 80th Street stop of the A train going to or from Kennedy Airport, I feel a little less alone if I catch a glimpse of Mr. Gangone’s flock.

August 11th, 2014
john lautner’s silvertop for sale for first time in 44 years


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Best Comment

I have worked on this one of a kind home doing repairs for 30 years and at $ 7.5 million it is as big a bargain as it is beautiful . This home cost MORE than a million to build. I worked as an apprentice carpenter for the other giant collaborator on this home… the Builder, Wally Niewadumski, and he told me about the construction of this home. It was not an easy build. It was Wally’s first project for John Lautner. He built all the other great Lautner Concrete homes in California, excluding Sheats-Goldstein. He said Silvertop took almost 10 years to build, was riddled with problems with approvals for permits and almost every part or assembly for the home was custom made. It probably is closer to 4 to 5 million over the 10 years to build. Today, this house would cost 50 million to build. The building permits alone would cost hundreds of thousands, so at $ 7.5 million, this is a super bargain. This home is no picnic to work on. Everything being custom made means that when they break, you can not buy it off the shelf, you have to make it. This can be very costly, but the home is so well built, it does not break often. The infinity swimming pool is the very first one built. It was designed to mimic the shape of Silverlake below, and it does. The cantilevered Tennis Court has a retractable shade system to block out the Sun if desired. The home takes your breath away, literally, when you see it for the first time. I first saw this home in 1973, and it changed my life, completely. After crawling over every inch of this home with the Owners daughter, Sue, I knew my mission in life was to work for, and build for John Lautner. I did just that. I have been working on Lautner homes since I met him in 1974. HE IS THE BIG DADDY of all the Architects, period. I am a bit opinionated.

Who ever the blessed soul is that purchases this one of a kind piece of heaven, please remember the home is perfect exactly as it is. It does need repairs, and a small bit of renovation, mostly typical maintenance. What this home does not need is to become desecrated by some new owner with ” a vision “. No body does John Lautner better than John Lautner. This home needs no re invention, just maintenance. Please embrace this.
I have ripped out miles of crap installed in Lautner’s, Wright’s, Shindler’s, Neutra’s, and other lesser known Architect’s. It is PATHETIC to see how many amazing Architectural homes get butchered by the “new owner’s vision . ” The only good thing about this is when the home sells to a correct person or family who loves the home, and they restore it back to being correct to original design, it generates a lot of work for guys like me.

- Roban Poirer

August 9th, 2014
Inequality Is a Drag

NY Times Published: AUG. 7, 2014
By Paul Krugman

For more than three decades, almost everyone who matters in American politics has agreed that higher taxes on the rich and increased aid to the poor have hurt economic growth.

Liberals have generally viewed this as a trade-off worth making, arguing that it’s worth accepting some price in the form of lower G.D.P. to help fellow citizens in need. Conservatives, on the other hand, have advocated trickle-down economics, insisting that the best policy is to cut taxes on the rich, slash aid to the poor and count on a rising tide to raise all boats.

But there’s now growing evidence for a new view — namely, that the whole premise of this debate is wrong, that there isn’t actually any trade-off between equity and inefficiency. Why? It’s true that market economies need a certain amount of inequality to function. But American inequality has become so extreme that it’s inflicting a lot of economic damage. And this, in turn, implies that redistribution — that is, taxing the rich and helping the poor — may well raise, not lower, the economy’s growth rate.

You might be tempted to dismiss this notion as wishful thinking, a sort of liberal equivalent of the right-wing fantasy that cutting taxes on the rich actually increases revenue. In fact, however, there is solid evidence, coming from places like the International Monetary Fund, that high inequality is a drag on growth, and that redistribution can be good for the economy.

Earlier this week, the new view about inequality and growth got a boost from Standard & Poor’s, the rating agency, which put out a report supporting the view that high inequality is a drag on growth. The agency was summarizing other people’s work, not doing research of its own, and you don’t need to take its judgment as gospel (remember its ludicrous downgrade of United States debt). What S.& P.’s imprimatur shows, however, is just how mainstream the new view of inequality has become. There is, at this point, no reason to believe that comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted is good for growth, and good reason to believe the opposite.

Specifically, if you look systematically at the international evidence on inequality, redistribution, and growth — which is what researchers at the I.M.F. did — you find that lower levels of inequality are associated with faster, not slower, growth. Furthermore, income redistribution at the levels typical of advanced countries (with the United States doing much less than average) is “robustly associated with higher and more durable growth.” That is, there’s no evidence that making the rich richer enriches the nation as a whole, but there’s strong evidence of benefits from making the poor less poor.

But how is that possible? Doesn’t taxing the rich and helping the poor reduce the incentive to make money? Well, yes, but incentives aren’t the only thing that matters for economic growth. Opportunity is also crucial. And extreme inequality deprives many people of the opportunity to fulfill their potential.

Think about it. Do talented children in low-income American families have the same chance to make use of their talent — to get the right education, to pursue the right career path — as those born higher up the ladder? Of course not. Moreover, this isn’t just unfair, it’s expensive. Extreme inequality means a waste of human resources.

And government programs that reduce inequality can make the nation as a whole richer, by reducing that waste.

Consider, for example, what we know about food stamps, perennially targeted by conservatives who claim that they reduce the incentive to work. The historical evidence does indeed suggest that making food stamps available somewhat reduces work effort, especially by single mothers. But it also suggests that Americans who had access to food stamps when they were children grew up to be healthier and more productive than those who didn’t, which means that they made a bigger economic contribution. The purpose of the food stamp program was to reduce misery, but it’s a good guess that the program was also good for American economic growth.

The same thing, I’d argue, will end up being true of Obamacare. Subsidized insurance will induce some people to reduce the number of hours they work, but it will also mean higher productivity from Americans who are finally getting the health care they need, not to mention making better use of their skills because they can change jobs without the fear of losing coverage. Over all, health reform will probably make us richer as well as more secure.

Will the new view of inequality change our political debate? It should. Being nice to the wealthy and cruel to the poor is not, it turns out, the key to economic growth. On the contrary, making our economy fairer would also make it richer. Goodbye, trickle-down; hello, trickle-up.

August 8th, 2014
The Man Who’s Buying Up All the World’s Vinyl

Zero Freitas, on the records. Credit Sebastián Liste/Noor

NY Times Published: AUG. 8, 2014

Paul Mawhinney, a former music-store owner in Pittsburgh, spent more than 40 years amassing a collection of some three million LPs and 45s, many of them bargain-bin rejects that had been thoroughly forgotten. The world’s indifference, he believed, made even the most neglected records precious: music that hadn’t been transferred to digital files would vanish forever unless someone bought his collection and preserved it.

Mawhinney spent about two decades trying to find someone who agreed. He struck a deal for $28.5 million in the late 1990s with the Internet retailer CDNow, he says, but the sale of his collection fell through when the dot-com bubble started to quiver. He contacted the Library of Congress, but negotiations fizzled. In 2008 he auctioned the collection on eBay for $3,002,150, but the winning bidder turned out to be an unsuspecting Irishman who said his account had been hacked.

Then last year, a friend of Mawhinney’s pointed him toward a classified ad in the back of Billboard magazine:

RECORD COLLECTIONS. We BUY any record collection. Any style of music. We pay HIGHER prices than anyone else.

That fall, eight empty semitrailers, each 53 feet long, arrived outside Mawhinney’s warehouse in Pittsburgh. The convoy left, heavy with vinyl. Mawhinney never met the buyer.

“I don’t know a thing about him — nothing,” Mawhinney told me. “I just know all the records were shipped to Brazil.”

Just weeks before, Murray Gershenz, one of the most celebrated collectors on the West Coast and owner of the Music Man Murray record store in Los Angeles, died at 91. For years, he, too, had been shopping his collection around, hoping it might end up in a museum or a public library. “That hasn’t worked out,” The Los Angeles Times reported in 2010, “so his next stop could be the Dumpster.” But in his final months, Gershenz agreed to sell his entire collection to an anonymous buyer. “A man came in with money, enough money,” his son, Irving, told The New York Times. “And it seemed like he was going to give it a good home.”

Those records, too, were shipped to Brazil. So were the inventories of several iconic music stores, including Colony Records, that glorious mess of LP bins and sheet-music racks that was a Times Square landmark for 64 years. The store closed its doors for good in the fall of 2012, but every single record left in the building — about 200,000 in all — ended up with a single collector, a man driven to get his hands on all the records in the world.

In an office near the back of his 25,000-square-foot warehouse in São Paolo, Zero Freitas, 62, slipped into a chair, grabbed one of the LPs stacked on a table and examined its track list. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, khaki shorts and a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt; his gray hair was thin on top but curled along his collar in the back. Studying the song list, he appeared vaguely professorial. In truth, Freitas is a wealthy businessman who, since he was a child, has been unable to stop buying records. “I’ve gone to therapy for 40 years to try to explain this to myself,” he said.

His compulsion to buy records, he says, is tied up in childhood memories: a hi-fi stereo his father bought when Freitas was 5 and the 200 albums the seller threw in as part of the deal. Freitas was an adolescent in December 1964 when he bought his first record, a new release: “Roberto Carlos Sings to the Children,” by a singer who would go on to become one of Brazil’s most popular recording stars. By the time he finished high school, Freitas owned roughly 3,000 records.

After studying music composition in college, he took over the family business, a private bus line that serves the São Paulo suburbs. By age 30, he had about 30,000 records. About 10 years later, his bus company expanded, making him rich. Not long after that, he split up with his wife, and the pace of his buying exploded. “Maybe it’s because I was alone,” Freitas said. “I don’t know.” He soon had a collection in the six figures; his best guess at a current total is several million albums.

Recently, Freitas hired a dozen college interns to help him bring some logic to his obsession. In the warehouse office, seven of them were busy at individual workstations; one reached into a crate of LPs marked “PW #1,425” and fished out a record. She removed the disc from its sleeve and cleaned the vinyl with a soft cloth before handing the album to the young man next to her. He ducked into a black-curtained booth and snapped a picture of the cover. Eventually the record made its way through the assembly line of interns, and its information was logged into a computer database. An intern typed the name of the artist (the Animals), the title (“Animalism”), year of release (1966), record label (MGM) and — referencing the tag on the crate the record was pulled from — noted that it once belonged to Paulette Weiss, a New York music critic whose collection of 4,000 albums Freitas recently purchased.

The interns can collectively catalog about 500 records per day — a Sisyphean rate, as it happens, because Freitas has been burying them with new acquisitions. Between June and November of last year, more than a dozen 40-foot-long shipping containers arrived, each holding more than 100,000 newly purchased records. Though the warehouse was originally the home of his second business — a company that provides sound and lighting systems for rock concerts and other big events — these days the sound boards and light booms are far outnumbered by the vinyl.

Many of the records come from a team of international scouts Freitas employs to negotiate his deals. They’re scattered across the globe — New York, Mexico City, South Africa, Nigeria, Cairo. The brassy jazz the interns were listening to on the office turntable was from his man in Havana, who so far has shipped him about 100,000 Cuban albums — close to everything ever recorded there, Freitas estimated. He and the interns joke that the island is rising in the Caribbean because of all the weight Freitas has hauled away.

Allan Bastos, who for years has served as Freitas’s New York buyer, was visiting São Paulo and joined us that afternoon in the warehouse office. Bastos, a Brazilian who studied business at the University of Michigan, used to collect records himself, often posting them for sale on eBay. In 2006, he noticed that a single buyer — Freitas — was snapping up virtually every record he listed. He has been buying records for him ever since, focusing on U.S. collections. He has purchased stockpiles from aging record executives and retired music critics, as well as from the occasional celebrity (he bought the record collection of Bob Hope from his daughter about 10 years after Hope died). This summer Bastos moved to Paris, where he’ll buy European records for Freitas.

Bastos looked over the shoulder of an intern, who was entering the information from another album into the computer.

“This will take years and years,” Bastos said of the cataloging effort. “Probably 20 years, I guess.”

Twenty years — if Freitas stops buying records.

Collecting has always been a solitary pursuit for Freitas, and one he keeps to himself. When he bought the remaining stock of the legendary Modern Sound record store in Rio de Janeiro a couple of years ago, a Brazilian newspaper reported that the buyer was a Japanese collector — an identity Bastos invented to protect Freitas’s anonymity. His collection hasn’t been publicized, even within Brazil. Few of his fellow vinyl enthusiasts are aware of the extent of his holdings, partly because Freitas never listed any of his records for sale.

But in 2012, Bob George, a music archivist in New York, traveled with Bastos to São Paulo to prepare for Brazilian World Music Day, a celebration that George organized, and together they visited Freitas’s home and warehouse; the breadth of the collection astonished George. He was reminded of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate who lusted after seemingly every piece of art on the world market and then kept expanding his private castle to house all of it.

“What’s the good of having it,” George remembers telling Freitas, “if you can’t do something with it or share it?”

The question nagged at Freitas. For the truly compulsive hobbyist, there comes a time when a collection gathers weight — metaphysical, existential weight. It becomes as much a source of anxiety as of joy. Freitas in recent years had become increasingly attracted to mystic traditions — Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist. In his house, he and his second wife created a meditation room, and they began taking spiritual vacations to India and Egypt. But the teachings he admired didn’t always jibe with his life as a collector — acquiring, possessing, never letting go. Every new record he bought seemed to whisper in his ear: What, ultimately, do you want to do with all this stuff?

He found a possible model in George, who in 1985 converted his private collection of some 47,000 records into a publicly accessible resource called the ARChive of Contemporary Music. That collection has grown to include roughly 2.2 million tapes, records and compact discs. Musicologists, record companies and filmmakers regularly consult the nonprofit archive seeking hard-to-find songs. In 2009 George entered into a partnership with Columbia University, and his archive has attracted support from many musicians, who donate recordings, money or both. The Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has provided funding for the archive’s collection of early blues recordings. David Bowie, Paul Simon, Nile Rodgers, Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme all sit on its board.

Freitas has recently begun preparing his warehouse for his own venture, which he has dubbed Emporium Musical. Last year, he got federal authorization to import used records — an activity that hadn’t been explicitly allowed by Brazilian trade officials until now. Once the archive is registered as a nonprofit, Freitas will shift his collection over to the Emporium. Eventually he envisions it as a sort of library, with listening stations set up among the thousands of shelves. If he has duplicate copies of records, patrons will be able to check out copies to take home.

Some of those records are highly valuable. In Freitas’s living room, a coffee table was covered with recently acquired rarities. On top of a stack of 45s sat “Barbie,” a 1962 single by Kenny and the Cadets, a short-lived group featuring the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson on lead vocals and, as backup singers, Wilson’s brother Carl and their mother, Audree. In the same stack was another single — “Heartache Souvenirs”/”Chicken Shack,” by William Powell — that has fetched as much as $5,000 on eBay. Nearby sat a Cuban album by Ivette Hernandez, a pianist who left Cuba after Fidel Castro took power; Hernandez’s likeness on the cover was emblazoned with a bold black stamp that read, in Spanish, “Traitor to the Cuban Revolution.”

While Freitas thumbed through those records, Bastos was warning of a future in which some music might disappear unnoticed. Most of the American and British records Freitas has collected have already been digitally preserved. But in countries like Brazil, Cuba and Nigeria, Bastos estimated, up to 80 percent of recorded music from the mid-20th century has never been transferred. In many places, he said, vinyl is it, and it’s increasingly hard to find. Freitas slumped, then covered his face with his hands and emitted a low, rumbling groan. “It’s very important to save this,” he said. “Very important.”

Freitas is negotiating a deal to purchase and digitize thousands of Brazilian 78 r.p.m. recordings, many of which date to the early 1900s, and he expects to digitize some of the rarest records in his collection shortly thereafter. But he said he could more effectively save the music by protecting the existing vinyl originals in a secure, fireproof facility. “Vinyl is very durable,” he said. “If you store them vertically, out of the sun, in a temperature-controlled environment, they can pretty much last forever. They aren’t like compact discs, which are actually very fragile.”

In his quest to save obscure music, Bastos told me, Freitas sometimes buys records he doesn’t realize he already owns. This spring he finally acquiesced to Bastos’s pleas to sell some of his duplicate records, which make up as much as 30 percent of his total collection, online.

“I said, ‘Come on, you have 10 copies of the same album — let’s sell four or five!’ ” Bastos said.

Freitas smiled and shrugged. “Yes, but all of those 10 copies are different,” he countered. Then he chuckled, as if recognizing how illogical his position might sound.

In March, he began boxing up 10,000 copies of Brazilian LPs to send to George in an exchange between the emerging public archive and its inspirational model. It was a modest first step, but significant. Freitas had begun to let go.

Earlier this year, Freitas and Bastos stopped into Eric Discos, a used-record store in São Paulo that Freitas frequents. “I put some things aside for you,” the owner, Eric Crauford, told him. The men walked next door, where Crauford lives. Hundreds of records and dozens of CDs teetered in precarious stacks — jazz, heavy metal, pop, easy listening — all for Freitas.

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Sometimes Freitas seems ashamed of his own eclecticism. “A real collector,” he told me, is someone who targets specific records, or sticks to a particular genre. But Freitas hates to filter his purchases. Bastos once stumbled upon an appealing collection that came with 15,000 polka albums. He called Freitas to see if it was a deal breaker. “Zero was asking me about specific polka artists, whether they were in the collection or not,” Bastos remembered. “He has this amazing knowledge of every kind of music.”

That afternoon, Freitas purchased Crauford’s selections without inspecting them, as he always does. He told Crauford he’d send someone later in the week to pick them up and deliver them to his house. Bastos listened to the exchange without comment but noted the destination of the records — Freitas’s residence, not the archive’s warehouse. He was worried that the collector’s compulsions might be getting in the way of the archiving efforts. “Zero isn’t taking too many of the records to his house, is he?” Bastos had asked a woman who helps Freitas manage his cataloging operation.

No, she told him. But almost every time Freitas picked up a record at the archive, he’d tell a whole story about it. Often, she said, he’d become overwhelmed with emotion. “It’s like he almost cries with every record he sees,” she told him.

Freitas’s desire to own all the music in the world is clearly tangled up in something that, even after all these years, remains tender and raw. Maybe it’s the nostalgia triggered by the songs on that first Roberto Carlos album he bought, or perhaps it stretches back to the 200 albums his parents kept when he was small — a microcollection that was damaged in a flood long ago but that, as an adult, he painstakingly recreated, album by album.

After the trip to Eric Discos, I descended into Freitas’s basement, where he keeps a few thousand cherry-picked records, a private stash he doesn’t share with the archive. Aside from a little area reserved for a half-assembled drum kit, a couple of guitars, keyboards and amps, the room was a labyrinth of floor-to-ceiling shelving units filled with records.

He walked deep into an aisle in search of the first LP he ever bought, the 1964 Roberto Carlos record. He pulled it from the shelf, turning it slowly in his hands, staring at the cover as if it were an irreplaceable artifact — as if he did not, in fact, own 1,793 additional copies of albums by Roberto Carlos, the artist who always has, and always will, occupy more space in his collection than anyone else.

Nearby sat a box of records he hadn’t shelved yet. They came from the collection of a man named Paulo Santos, a Brazilian jazz critic and D.J. who lived in Washington during the 1950s and who was friendly with some of the giants of jazz and modern classical music. Freitas thumbed through one album after another — Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Leonard Bernstein, Dave Brubeck. The records were signed, and not with simple autographs; the artists had written affectionate messages to Santos, a man they obviously respected.

“These dedications are so personal,” Freitas said, almost whispering.

He held the Ellington record for an extended moment, reading the inscription, then scanning the liner notes. Behind his glasses, his eyes looked slightly red and watery, as if something was irritating them. Dust, maybe. But the record was perfectly clean.

August 8th, 2014
paper palaces

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Shigeru Ban, who has been celebrated for his socially conscious architecture, says, “I have no interest in ‘Green,’ ‘Eco,’ and ‘Environmentally Friendly.’ I just hate wasting things.” Hualin Temporary Elementary School, Chengdu, China, 2008.

The New Yorker August 11, 2014

The main campus of Vitra, a Swiss furniture company that produces Frank Gehry’s Wiggle chair, is an Epcot of contemporary architecture. It includes buildings by Gehry, Herzog & de Meuron, and Tadao Ando; a fire station by Zaha Hadid; and an elegant white factory, shaped like a slice of eight-minute egg, by the minimalist Japanese firm Sanaa. All these architects have won the Pritzker Prize, the field’s highest honor. The work of this year’s laureate, Shigeru Ban, has also been displayed at Vitra. Huddled on a lawn, his structures, three fifty-dollar tents sheathed in standard-issue plastic tarps from the U.N., intended for the refugees of the Rwandan civil war, looked as if any minute they might be loaded on a pallet and removed. Ban’s work lay underneath the plastic: a simple skeleton of recycled-paper tubes, fitted together with plastic joints and braced with ropes describing the pattern of an unfinished star. Ban, who has built museums, mansions, corporate headquarters, and a golf-course clubhouse in South Korea, takes pleasure in distinguishing himself from his peers, and in pointing up their excesses: not much of their work could fit into a kit that comprises eleven elements (Paper Tube A, Paper Tube B, plastic peg), including the bag. “This company has the most expensive collection of architecture,” he says. “My tents became their cheapest collection.”

In a profession often associated with showmanship and ego, Ban’s work appears humble, and appropriate to a historical moment that celebrates altruism, or its posture. The Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, a member of the Pritzker jury, told me that he was moved by Ban’s commitment to the dispossessed. “The world is filled with billions of people, and most of them live in conditions where they will never see an architect or an architect-designed space,” he said. “To have a first-rate architect pay attention to those in need of shelter, and build better-quality buildings to serve their aesthetic and human needs—that is wonderful.”

With a team of student volunteers, Ban has touched down at nearly every major natural-disaster site of the past two decades. The arc of his career tracks the rise of cataclysmic weather as page-one news: the Kobe earthquake, which killed six thousand people (1995); the magnitude-7.4 earthquake in Turkey that left half a million homeless (1999); the Gujarat earthquake (2001); the Indian Ocean tsunami (2004); Hurricane Katrina (2005); the Sichuan earthquake (2008); the L’Aquila earthquake (2009); Haiti, Tohoku, the Philippines. Ban’s practice, according to Riichi Miyake, a scholar of Japanese architecture, is “an architectural iteration of Doctors Without Borders.”

Ban, who is fifty-seven, has pillowy lips and lids, and a barrel-shaped body perpetually swathed in softly pleated black linen; behind him trails a small black suitcase on wheels. He looks clicked together, like a Lego figurine. (He used to play rugby, No. 8.) A black pen with a red dot on its clip—a sole concession to color—is tucked between two buttons on his shirt. His mother, a dressmaker with a small atelier on the second floor of his suburban Tokyo studio, designs his clothes. In addition to Tokyo, he has two other offices, in Paris and in New York, and some seventy employees. Masako Ban, the wife he rarely sees, makes accessories and women’s pocketbooks inspired by industrial materials. They don’t have children.

On August 9th, Ban will mark the public opening of the Aspen Art Museum, his first permanent museum in the United States. The building, a glass box nested in a lattice screen made from resin-infused paper and topped with a timber truss roof, is an astonishing plexus of materials pushed to their limits. Materials—in his case, paper tubes, shipping containers, beer crates, sustainably sourced wood—and their capabilities have always been Ban’s primary concern, placing his work in sharp contrast to the spectacular, parametric, digitally derived architecture that dominates today. “I’m not the architect to make a shape,” he told me firmly. “My designs are always problem solving.” Rafael Viñoly, who worked on a team with Ban in 2002 to propose a design for the new World Trade Center—they made it to the final round—says, “This is a guy that still thinks architecture is about building, the mechanical part of building and what the building does. Architecture is not writing or talking, it’s building buildings.”

Toyo Ito, another Japanese Pritzker winner, wrote in an e-mail, “Many architects in the world today are competing only for the beauty of the architectural form. Ban-san’s attempt is a counter-punch against these architects, and I think he represents a new model of a ‘socially responsible’ architect.” To many in the field, though, Ban represents a conundrum. “I don’t know exactly what to do with him, really,” Kenneth Frampton, a noted architecture critic who teaches at Columbia, told me. “Underlying his work is an idea of a minimalism based on the notion of energy and ecological sustainability. He’s connected to the Japanese tradition, but also very influenced by America and a Yankee-tinker attitude, which was Buckminster Fuller’s approach. It’s a value-free technical performance, detached from anything you could call a critical cultural position.” Like Fuller, who was obsessed by structural and engineering questions but indifferent to the dialogue around aesthetics, Ban labors at his private puzzles and patents his inventions. Whatever meanings may be embedded in his materials—globalism, consumerism, thrift—he will not be the one to tease them out. “I am not reflecting on it,” he says. Another time, he wrote to me, “I do not know the meaning of ‘Green Architect.’ I have no interest in ‘Green,’ ‘Eco,’ and ‘Environmentally Friendly.’ I just hate wasting things.”

Ban counts stubbornness as one of his great strengths, but he is not entirely free of self-consciousness: he had to interrupt his Pritzker acceptance speech, flustered, he said, because “Rem is looking at me.” In March, when the prize was announced, Patrik Schumacher, a partner at Zaha Hadid Architects, posted on Facebook, “I worry if the criteria of the Pritzker Prize . . . are now also being diverted in the direction of political correctness.” To others, Ban’s focus is so far from the aesthetic concerns of the discipline that he poses no threat at all. Tod Williams, a prominent New York architect who taught Ban and likes him, said, “It’s barely architecture. There’s no real depth to the work, and that’s why it’s a good, clear message.”

In airports, Ban is quick. Catching up to him is embarrassing. You may choose to lag. A comfortable range is one where you can see the small bald spot on the top of his head and know that you could reach him at a sprint. He is a hard man to buy a sandwich for. If you succeed, you must ask him questions while he chews. (Is it a conversation if one of you is also writing e-mails on his iPad?) He exasperates quickly. Many things are too complicated to explain. You must read his official biography, on the Web site of the Pritkzer Foundation. You must attend his upcoming public lecture. Parting ways, even when you are boarding the same plane, he will say, “See you tomorrow,” but it’s possible you will never see him again. His seat, in first, is in Row 1, by the aisle.

On Memorial Day, Ban flew to Aspen—his fifth city in as many days—to check on the progress of the museum. A nineteenth-century mining town, where Victorian houses go for four million apiece, Aspen has never had an “architectural” building, at least not one that the public could access. In the mountains around the city, there are numerous fine examples of contemporary architecture, including the first residential project by Renzo Piano, which belongs to Tom Pritzker, of the prize family. (They own the Hyatt hotel chain.) But, despite the presence of Prada and Frette, downtown is a place of low-slung red brick. The pride of the city—the tallest building in the historic core—is the Wheeler Opera House, built to fifty-five feet in 1889. The museum, thirty-three thousand square feet right at the base of the ski mountain, is a behemoth by local standards—shockingly contemporary and, at forty-seven feet, dangerously close to upstaging the Wheeler. The mayor, Steve Skadron, campaigned for office on the strength of his record: as a city-council member, he had cast the single dissenting vote on Ban’s proposal. “Our built environment is the one thing that keeps us from looking like everything else,” he told me, then added, forebodingly, “A short way up the highway is Vail.”

The art museum was founded in 1979 by local artists hoping to attract interesting shows. Based in a former hydroelectric plant across the river from downtown, the old museum—the only accredited museum on the Western slope of the Rockies, and one of four in the entire state—had less than three thousand square feet of exhibition space. In 2005, Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, a savvy curator from the Berkeley Art Museum, took over as director, determined to reshape the museum’s identity and harness the community’s abundant and largely untapped wealth. “We could be the best midsized museum in the country, which is so not sexy—it’s like being plus-sized at the mall,” she told me. “Or we could be the best non-collecting museum in the world. Our donors could give their collections to other institutions and give us funding.” Her ambitions for the museum, which would focus on contemporary art, required something more than a squat on the outskirts of town. In order to build and endow a new home, and make it free to the public, Jacobson and her board raised more than seventy million dollars. Becoming a member of the architecture-selection committee required a seven-figure donation.

At the construction site, a team from Denver was preparing to install the lattice screen, stained a mellow rusty brown. Ban, wearing a bright-yellow construction vest and a hard hat, said that the building was meant not to stand out but to reflect and complement the local environment. “In a traditional Western downtown, the street fabric is controlled—all the buildings are the same height, same material,” he said. “In Aspen, there are many nice, old brick buildings. I wanted to make this a traditional volume, a brown boxlike building, to be part of the downtown fabric.” The weave would be uneven, opening wider at opposite corners, to give the façade a sense of movement and to mimic the imperfections in old brick.

The building hugged the sidewalk; along one side, behind an orange mesh fence, workers were excavating to make an outdoor sculpture plaza. Ban slipped into an alley and through the museum’s service door. Yellow strand lights glowed dimly in the dusty interior, and a heater blasted, curing the plaster gallery walls. He trudged up the back stairs, three flights, not panting, to the roof. The problem he had solved in Aspen was that of a nondescript site with no ground-floor view of the mountain, and a museum director who wanted maximum gallery space. With no room for a large entry foyer, and a directive to create a vantage point, Ban decided to invert the building. Arriving visitors ascend, as on a gondola, by means of a large glass elevator or a sweeping staircase to the topmost level, a café where they can enjoy the view from beneath the truss roof or the open sky. From there, they “ski” down through the galleries.

Ban was hired to design the new Aspen Art Museum. Its director says, “Everyone was so taken by the humanitarian work.” Photograph by Derek Skalko / Courtesy Aspen Art Museum.
Ban looked up at the truss. The wood, a golden-yellow spruce, made a pattern of interlacing chis, held together only with screws at the tangent points, no steel braces. It was a feat both of physics and of resourcefulness. “Wood is the most ecological thing,” he said. “Steel, concrete—we are just consuming from a limited amount. Timber is the only renewable material.” He continued, “A concrete building stays only a hundred years, and it’s very difficult to replace or repair, where timber is very easy to repair. Also nicer. Such a nice material. Can you imagine if this truss was made of steel?” He grimaced. To achieve the curvaceous shape, several pieces of wood had been glued together to a six-inch depth and carved. “It’s quite economical. You just glue like this and cut like this”—he stacked his hands and traced a saw’s movement—“without wasting.” I said that the swooshing lines reminded me of overlapping ski tracks. He looked at me blankly. He doesn’t ski, and, in the course of seven years of work on the museum, with trips roughly every other month during the construction phase, he had yet to ride the gondola to the top of the mountain.

Aspen is Ban’s second major museum commission. His first, an extension of the Centre Pompidou, in Metz, a small city in northeastern France, was completed in 2010. Inspired by the airy bamboo weave of a Chinese hat that he’d bought in Paris, Ban created an intricate hexagonal timber grid shell, then covered it in a translucent white Teflon-coated membrane. A seventy-seven-metre spire makes reference to the year—1977—that the original Centre Pompidou, by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, opened, in Beaubourg. In pictures, Ban’s building appears ready to glide through the landscape like a remote-controlled attack stingray. (Others have likened it to a Smurf hat or a mushroom.) “The mayor was looking for a monumental building for tourism, but museum people hate sculptural buildings,” Ban said; curators prefer spaces where the art takes priority. “I felt the building had to be architecturally interesting but also very practical.” To satisfy the curators, he built three rectangular “tubes,” containing the galleries, which protrude from underneath the chapeau’s brim.

As a foray into shape-making, Pompidou-Metz was less than triumphant. Architectural Record deemed it “conspicuously, tragically less than the sum of its parts.” The reviewer wrote, “If it’s a tent, it’s a lugubrious one; if it’s a museum, it’s a shoddy one.” Ban, however, told me that to view the building as an attempt at sculptural architecture was a mistake. “It looks like an organic shape, but the timber roof has very strict geometrical and structural rules,” he said. “I’m not criticizing, but the form-making of Frank Gehry at Bilbao is more instinctual, and it requires very complicated technology to make a drawing out of his form. My form has rules behind it. Even if it looks like the same kind of organic shape, there’s a process of making underneath.” In any case, Ban measures the building by a different standard. “It is a very successful building because the people of Metz love it,” he wrote me in an e-mail. Hélène Guenin, the museum’s acting director, says that in the four years since it opened the building has attracted 2.2 million visitors, more than twice the expected number. A report commissioned by the city showed that the building had almost paid for itself in its first year.

Pompidou-Metz cost ninety-three million dollars. The Aspen Art Museum, about a third the size, cost twenty-four million. “It’s very economical,” Ban said, up on the roof. Construction costs were running about seven hundred and twenty-five dollars a square foot; Architect had just published a survey of Renzo Piano’s museum projects and found that most of his recent designs cost more than a thousand a square foot. Compared with the Aspen museum, Ban said, “many of the houses around here cost more.”

That night, Jacobson, who is wiry, with straight blond hair and an air of self-possession, hosted a small dinner for Ban, the project architect, and a couple of museum patrons at the Little Nell hotel, at the base of the gondola. “Do you want champagne?” she asked Ban when he arrived. “That’s what you usually want.” He took a glass and answered a few questions from the guests about the progress on the screen. “Shigeru builds out of paper,” Jacobson said. “That we would have the surface of our building made out of paper is his dance move.” (No matter that the “paper” layer is mostly synthetic.) She said she’d also asked him to incorporate paper tubes, his other dance move; they decorate the boardroom ceiling and the gift shop. Later, she told me she had originally asked Ban for three designs. He said, “No, Heidi, I only do one design.” She was incredulous. “If I do three, obviously one is going to be the best,” he said. “You’re only going to want the best, so I’m only going to show you one.” The logic was inescapable.

According to Jacobson, Ban’s disaster-relief projects were central to his selection as the architect. “Everyone was so taken by the humanitarian work, because people here are so philanthropic,” she said. “It’s just part of their spirit.” The opening exhibit in the museum’s largest gallery is “Shigeru Ban: Humanitarian Architecture,” and includes a U.N. tent and a cabin with walls made of upright paper tubes, which he has used around the world. At dinner, she described her plans for the grand opening, a twenty-four-hour gala, with a silent dance party and an opportunity to sleep in the galleries and have your dreams analyzed upon waking.

“Perhaps Shigeru can design partitions,” the project architect said wryly, referring to paper-tube-and-curtain systems that Ban has erected in gymnasiums to give evacuees privacy in the immediate aftermath of an emergency. Ban seemed untroubled by the notion of exhausted guests playing the part of disaster victims—Marie Antoinettes of global homelessness. “They can sleep in my house!” he said, referring to the cabin that would be on display. “It is designed to sleep in.”

The conversation turned to the lack of affordable housing in Aspen—a city, the saying goes, where the millionaires have been driven out by billionaires. Ban said that the 2011 earthquake in Japan had exposed the country’s severe shortage in resources for dealing with widespread displacement. In collaboration with a large Japanese home-building company, he is planning a plant in the Philippines for the manufacture of prefab units that can be deployed either as temporary emergency housing or as long-term affordable housing. “It will create employment and improve the slum, and at the same time it can be imported to other countries in disasters,” he said.

Jacobson, who lives in Snowmass Village, a ski town next to Aspen, had another idea for the prefabs. “That’s what I want our guesthouse to be,” she said.

In Ban’s childhood, his parents were continually renovating; the house, it seemed to him, was always full of carpenters, wielding beautiful hand tools. He wanted to be a carpenter, then changed his mind to architect. In high school, he worked with a tutor to prepare for the rigorous entrance exams to Tokyo University of the Arts. As it happened, he did not pass the exams: too much rugby, not enough model-making. But at his tutor’s home he came across a magazine article about John Hejduk, the iconoclastic dean of Cooper Union’s School of Architecture, in New York, and set himself on going there. His father, who had a desk job at Toyota, disapproved: “Cooper Union” didn’t sound like a real school to him.

Cooper Union required students to be U.S. residents. Speaking little English, Ban moved to Los Angeles in 1977 and took classes at a language school in Santa Monica. There he learned of a fledgling architecture school called SCI-Arc. The founder, Ray Kappe, a pioneer of prefab housing, admitted Ban based on the paper models he’d made for his application to school in Tokyo. In spite of the language barrier, Kappe placed him in the second year.

Housed in a warren of industrial buildings that had previously been an LSD factory, SCI-Arc was radical. Students built their own workspaces using scaffolding, and were encouraged to scavenge from a pit full of old airplane wings and other industrial refuse. They studied tent-making and beehive morphology, and made Fuller-style geodesic domes and lightweight space frames inspired by the German architect and engineer Frei Otto. Instead of mailboxes, they used bisected paper tubes. Thom Mayne and Frank Gehry were teachers. Ban, who had planned to be there for a year before transferring to Cooper Union, stayed nearly three. Still, he claims to have been affected only marginally by his time there, mostly through exposure to the Case Study Houses, a numbered series designed by well-known mid-century architects, which were meant to serve as prototypes for affordable, modern living. The Case Study Houses introduced him to the concept of prefabrication, which gave rise to a construction method he has practiced both in commissioned buildings and in disaster work, using factory-built bookshelves to hold up a house. They also gave him an indirect education in the Japanese notion of indoor-outdoor space and the use of screens.

The Cooper Union curriculum was rooted in the rational modernism of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, with flourishes of Dada. One seminar consisted of Peter Eisenman reading “In Search of Lost Time” aloud to the students for several hours at a time. “I felt that it was important culturally for them to know how important Proust was to thinking about space,” Eisenman, who now teaches at Yale, told me. Hejduk asked students to design a house in the mood of Juan Gris, and to study a piece of fruit over the course of a semester, as it decayed. A self-styled poet, Hejduk also insisted that architecture students take a poetry workshop. Ban says he was often asked to read his poems aloud, as examples for the class. “Surprisingly, I was very good,” he told me. “My poems were always short.” At night, he tutored his friends in structural engineering. One of them was another transfer student, Dean Maltz, who later became his New York partner. “He just understood it intuitively, better than any architect in our class,” Maltz told me. “He’s very calculating—I don’t mean strategically calculating, though he is—but calculations are what goes on in his head.”

As a student, Ban was hardworking, literal-minded, and impervious to criticism. His designs, classmates told me, tended to be based on one big idea, seemingly drawn from one of the masters or from Hejduk himself. Tod Williams said, “He seemed shockingly clear, almost naïve, in the kinds of work that he brought to the studio. It was almost embarrassingly direct.” Ban was sometimes at odds with his professors. Eisenman, to his displeasure, called him Sugar Bear. His thesis project—a Tribeca warehouse space for the display of Richard Serra’s sculptures—didn’t pass, causing him to graduate six months late. But he remained devoted to his teachers’ ideas. For one early residential project in Japan, he completed Hejduk’s standard first-year assignment, to design a house on a nine-square grid. He called it the Nine-Square Grid House. Another early commission, the Curtain Wall House (or Case Study House 07), demystifies one of modernism’s great features, the non-load-bearing exterior wall known as a curtain wall. The house, a blocky all-white structure in downtown Tokyo, has exterior walls formed by a billowing white curtain. Metaphor! Be gone.

Ban’s industrious and entrepreneurial side emerged early. During a year off from school, in which he was an intern in the office of Arata Isozaki, one of Japan’s most prominent architects, he arranged to bring an experimental show organized by Tod Williams and another Cooper Union professor, Ricardo Scofidio, to a gallery in Tokyo. Instead of using his professors’ installation design, he surprised them by coming up with his own. Maltz, who was also living in Japan that year, in the only tatami room in the Bans’ Western-style house, started to view him as “the Pied Piper of architecture.” He said, “I didn’t even really know this was going on, and all of a sudden he goes, ‘Dean, we’re putting up the exhibition at the Axis Gallery, in Roppongi. Why don’t you help us out this weekend?’ I get there and it’s like thirty people helping assemble this thing. Where did all these people come from?” The Japanese wonderingly referred to Ban as “the American.”

On a trip to New York, shortly after opening a practice in Tokyo, Ban went to see Laurie Hawkinson, a friend from Cooper Union, who now teaches at Columbia. He was telling her about a new material he’d discovered in the course of designing installations for the gallery. At first, she could not fathom what he was talking about. Then he showed her pictures of his paper tubes being used to hold up display stands. If they could support a stand, why not a full-scale building? “He could do it because he actually knew and could calculate the loads,” she said.

Using the tubes allowed Ban to slough off his modernist masters. He told me, “I was hoping ever since I was a child to not be influenced by fashion, and to develop my own structure and materials.” Paper appealingly undermined a basic premise of architecture. “When people try to do something new, they always think something stronger or more acrobatic,” he said. “My development was using more humble material, or weaker material. The strength of the material has nothing to do with the strength of the building, even nothing to do with durability. I knew logically that even using a weaker material like a paper tube I could make a strong building.”

Convincing building inspectors and code enforcers was another matter. In an effort to prove his concept, in 1995 Ban built himself a weekend house on Lake Yamanaka from an S-shaped colonnade of a hundred and ten paper tubes. It has scarcely been used. “I have no time,” he told me. “I have no weekend. The main purpose was not to enjoy the weekend. Its main purpose was to get government permission to use the paper tube as a permanent building material—otherwise I could not use this idea for another project.”

Humanitarian work has also allowed Ban to explore materials and systems that might be disallowed outside a disaster area. Not long after completing his weekend house, he learned about a group of Vietnamese immigrants who had lost their homes in the Kobe earthquake and were living in flimsy tents in a park, where they were vulnerable both to weather and to public opinion. Under conditions far less bureaucratic than when he was working on his own house, he built them a cluster of cabins with walls made from upright paper tubes, set on a foundation of donated Kirin beer crates filled with sand. “In an emergency, I don’t need to get government permission for a new structure as long as I make sure of the safety by myself, working with an engineer,” he told me.

Pleasingly geometric, with an eco-friendly, brown-rice look—smooth paper columns supporting crisp white canvas roofs—the Kobe cabins have an aesthetic that lies somewhere between a Tinkertoy masterpiece and a Seventh Generation diaper with operable windows. They are inexpensive, easy to assemble, and made from widely available, energy-efficient components, and Ban has since replicated them around the world, making small adjustments to suit the local climate. In areas where alcohol is prohibited, he makes foundations from rubble scavenged at the site. His very materials can seem like a rebuke to inefficiency; the tubes he builds with are most commonly used as disposable molds for concrete columns, by-products of the profligate construction industry.

When the Kobe cabins were finished, Ban built a temporary community space for a Catholic congregation that had lost its church in the earthquake. An oval formed from paper tubes and a white tent roof, it is quietly consoling, with the plain beauty of a Greek shrine to a minor god. A decade later, the church was disassembled; in 2008, it was reconstituted in Taiwan, after an earthquake there, and has become a permanent monument. The Taiwanese government took his word for it that the structure would hold.

“Architects mostly work for privileged people, people who have money and power,” Ban said recently. “Power and money are invisible, so people hire us to visualize their power and money by making monumental architecture. I love to make monuments, too, but I thought perhaps we can use our experience and knowledge more for the general public, even for those who have lost their houses in natural disasters.” One employee on the Tokyo staff devotes the majority of his time to disaster-relief projects, and others pitch in as needed. Ban claims not to worry about balancing the books. (“That’s why he has partners,” Maltz says.) The two sides of Ban’s practice are symbiotic. His commissions pay for his pro-bono work, and the pro bono serves both as a testing ground and as a powerful marketing tool. “He is both deeply concerned about humanity and also sees it as a way to uniquely advance his career,” Hawkinson said. “They help each other.”

In the past decade, according to Alexander Betts, an associate professor at Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre, more than a hundred million people have been forced from their homes by natural disasters. A report released in June by U.N.H.C.R., which concerns itself primarily with political refugees, estimated that in 2013 there were more displaced people than at any time since the Second World War. Ban’s paper structures may prove a brilliant solution to the political difficulty posed by camps, where structures that appear permanent distress host governments and those which don’t tend to be insufficient for long-term needs. “You have settlements designed for the emergency phase lasting ten to fifteen years,” Betts said. “Ban’s work with paper and cardboard creates an aesthetic of temporariness. Something that is durable and sustainable but has the appearance of non-permanence might be desirable.” The question, Betts said, is scalability. During the Rwandan crisis, Ban sent fifty tents. In Kobe, he produced twenty-one temporary houses and the church; in Turkey, seventeen houses; in India, twenty. A fishermen’s village in Sri Lanka, a permanent settlement, has forty-five houses. In China, Ban built nine classrooms. A shipping-container complex in Tohoku serves a hundred and eighty-nine families. One of his most spectacular projects, the Cardboard Cathedral, erected in Christchurch, New Zealand, holds seven hundred people. Ban likes to say, “It’s become the new symbol of Christchurch.” When pressed, and not in an auditorium before a loaded slide show, he adopts a more modest tone. “I look for people who have a particular problem,” he told me. “Always I take care of smaller groups of people. My capacity is not big enough. The bigger number of people has to be taken care of by the government.”

Ban’s greater effect may lie in his potential to catalyze innovation in humanitarian relief. Eric Cesal is the executive director of Architecture for Humanity, a consortium of public-interest designers which was founded in 1999 as a kind of protest against the culture of celebrity architecture and gee-whiz buildings. He sees Ban as an important vector, and a reference point for the increasing number of young architects who are driven to design for the disadvantaged. “There are very few people that do what we do that have a signature brand and aesthetic,” he said. “Ban can live in both worlds.” As the social divisions around the world grow starker, the work becomes more urgent and, potentially, more attractive. “If you set aside all ethics and morality and humanitarian idealism, seventy-five per cent of construction in the next twenty-five years will happen in the global south,” Cesal said. “This is the emerging market.”

Several weeks ago, I visited the single unit that Ban built in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, in collaboration with Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, after Hurricane Katrina. The house, a taupe-colored box with a triangular roof, on eight-foot concrete piles, was missing its front porch and the staircase leading up to the front door, owing to rot. I entered the back way, which meant passing underneath the house, where a network of vines dangling limply from a trellis attempted to establish themselves as a green wall, and up a steep flight of stairs to a sliding glass door. The house belonged to Ann Parfaite, a seventy-two-year-old retired financial-aid administrator, who was inside serving bread with butter and syrup to her grandchildren. Her old house, where she’d lived since 1966, had entirely washed away. She had paid a hundred and fifty thousand dollars—partly covered by her insurance money and a forgivable loan from Make It Right—for the new one. “People say, ‘You live in one of the Brad Pitt houses,’ ” she said. “I say, ‘No, I live in my own house.’ ”

Parfaite, who had soft gray curls and an unlined face, shooed her grandchildren to a back room and sat down in an easy chair. She said she had chosen the Ban design—instead of, say, the Gehry house, the David Adjaye, or the Thom Mayne—because it included an attic room, with a separate stairway, for her son, and had “oodles and oodles of storage.” An open “memory shelf,” filled with portraits of young people in football uniforms and on graduation days, ran the length of the room; the other side was all built-ins. (Ban based the design on his furniture houses.) She showed me a framed picture of herself with Pitt and Ban, and said she had tangled a little with her architect. “The front steps went straight up,” she said. “I wanted an L-shape, but he said, No, that didn’t fit with the integrity of his design.” She prevailed, and got a landing, then also insisted on a back stairway. “If anything happens in this house, I can’t jump down,” she said. A golf ball, left by the kids, rolled down the gentle slope of the not-level floor to rest in a corner. Parfaite had no real complaints, though. Like all the Make It Right projects, her house is LEED platinum, and her electricity and water bills are minimal. More important, her son had stayed in the house through Hurricane Isaac and been safe, the only damage a bit of mildew and a leak.

You can live in a house designed by Shigeru Ban only if you are recently homeless or exceedingly wealthy. His latest residential project in New York is a full interior renovation of a landmarked building in Tribeca, with a two-story, fifteen-million-dollar glass-box penthouse cantilevered over the roof. Dean Maltz, wearing a white denim sports coat and white pants, gave me a tour of the model in a sleek showroom—blond wood and art lighting. As Ban’s New York partner, he is responsible for business in the Americas. “I call it the ship-in-the-bottle project,” he said. “The existing building is the bottle, the ship is what’s inside. Le Corbusier refers to the ship as the symbol of creating a new architecture.”

For about half the price of the Tribeca penthouse, you can buy a two-thousand-square-foot unit in Ban’s Metal Shutter Houses, a boutique building in Chelsea, which backs up to Gehry’s IAC Building and looks out on a Jean Nouvel apartment complex and a coming Norman Foster tower. For now, it has a great view of the High Line. The north face of the apartment is a single twenty-foot window, leading onto a small terrace. At the push of a button, the window lifts and folds like an origami crane, opening the living room to the outdoors. Another button lowers a perforated metal shutter, to screen the terrace.

At the end of May, Tom McInerney, a forty-one-year-old tech investor, brought his girlfriend, Yuko Mizutani, who is thirty, to hear Ban lecture on his humanitarian work at a Landmarks Preservation Commission forum, and afterward they went to see the Metal Shutter Houses. McInerney liked the apartment, but he was most impressed by the lecture. “It was cool that as an architect he had this existential crisis where he thought, Is my job to make monuments for rich people?” he said. “He was thinking bigger.” McInerney decided that he wanted Ban to design a house for him on a piece of land that he owns at the Yellowstone Club, a private ski resort near Big Sky, Montana, whose members include Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates. (The motto of the club is “Private Powder.”) “I looked at him on the cardboard and thought, Wow, this is an innovative guy,” he told me. “My business, we’re change agents, we like to get in there and disrupt.” If things went well, he thought, he might also like to hire Ban to make a paper-tube cabin for a hilltop property he owns in Los Angeles.

One Sunday morning in mid-July, Ban—first class, Row 1, aisle—arrived in Bozeman, was conveyed by Range Rover to a helicopter, and took off south, following the line of the Gallatin River, over red-roofed agricultural buildings; in the distance was Ted Turner’s bison herd, ants on a green blanket. The hills be-low, covered with bristly train-set pines, turned rocky and molar. The helicopter flew over the snow-licked Spanish Peaks and into a valley, landing on a paved pad above a golf course with a man-made waterfall and sand traps in the style of Matisse cutouts. McInerney and Mizutani were waiting there with Maltz.

Ban’s design process begins when he visits a site. “I don’t know how he does it, frankly,” Maltz told me. “We go to the site. I never speak to him about it. Weeks later, we get a sketch and go, Ah, wow, that’s kind of amazing.” His employees render the plan on the computer, using basic architectural software. Ban marks up the renderings until they get it right. “His idea is fully formed when he gives us the sketch,” Maltz says. “We’re just trying to articulate it.” Next, the architects build a model from foam core and mat board and sometimes wood, which Ban edits. “Then you present it to the client and the client loves it,” Maltz says. “I’ve never seen a client not love it.”

Ban got out of the helicopter, shook hands in silence, and took a small camera from his backpack. Maltz pointed out the boundaries of McInerney’s lot, a one-acre triangle just below the helipad, on the thirteenth hole, with views of Lone Mountain to the north and a less dramatic range to the east. Ban photographed three hundred and sixty degrees, then asked for lunch.

In the car, McInerney addressed Ban deferentially. “Shigeru—Shigeru-san,” he began. “The architecture here is very traditional so far, and it’s, um—I don’t like it. So we’re going to build something very new and different.” Ban took in a line of maximalist cabin-chalets. “Those houses were built by the developer?” he asked. “But a private owner can build whatever he wants?”

“I think so, yeah,” McInerney said. “There are some guidelines that we’re going to have to work with, but we have to push the boundaries.” He went on, “Let’s build something beautiful, and we’ll figure out how to get it through the committee.”

Arriving at the clubhouse, a massive lodge crowded with bison heads and stained-glass light fixtures, Ban tapped curiously on the walls. Plywood panelling, over steel! And the scale: a Disneyfied version of rusticity. There would be no authentic architectural language to draw upon for ideas. “The design board may be challenging,” Ban said, sitting in a U-shaped leather club chair. “I may have to make some interesting interpretation of the vernacular, instead of making something against it.” Maltz said it would be fine, so long as they used natural material, like concrete.

“Concrete is not a natural material,” Ban said.

“To them it is,” Maltz said.

McInerney showed Ban a picture of himself in front of a reclaimed-wood shop in Bozeman, where they could get Douglas fir, redwood—any wood they wanted, with the nails removed, stamped and graded for structure.

“Timber siding,” Ban said softly, as if an idea were stirring. He liked the prospect of reclaimed wood, less wasteful than fresh-cut, though it would be more expensive.

McInerney showed him pictures of andesite.

“Local rock?” Ban wanted to know.

McInerney and Maltz had a long conversation about wood, rocks, glass, sun, and snow, during which they excitedly presented Ban with images on cameras, phones, and an iPad, and in the project book for McInerney’s site. “It’s the beauty of the nature, and every day is different, every day the sky is different, the clouds are different,” McInerney said plaintively. Ban was mostly quiet. Who knew what he was thinking? “Do you have mayonnaise?” he said finally.

After lunch, Ban returned to the site. He and Maltz walked across a field of yarrow, vetch, and shale—a smaller man dressed in black and a taller man wearing shorts. Maltz said he preferred the range to the peak. Ban studied the view to the east, and to the north. Mizutani blew the seeds off a dandelion head. McInerney prayed for the Lone Mountain view.

Ban, taking in the less dramatic range, said, “It’s nice to see this mountain, very simple.”

McInerney boldly asked if they could capture both.

“We can picture the different views, but we should not see everything,” Ban said, walking to the far end of the lot, where he could be alone. From his backpack, he took a hardbound black sketchbook, the kind he started using at Cooper Union and which Maltz still buys for him at the Utrecht store downtown and sends to him wherever in the world he might be. He started drawing. He was worried about protecting the house from the thirteenth hole. Clink! A golfer teed off, and the ball sailed past. No vernacular. Two views. He swatted a mosquito forcefully, like a bear pawing at a tree. He did not yet know what he would do, but whatever he decided he would never change his mind.

August 6th, 2014
‘The Dog’ Who Had His Day on Film

On Aug. 22, 1972, John Wojtowicz held up this Chase Manhattan Bank branch in Brooklyn, taking eight people hostage. Credit Larry C. Morris/The New York Times

NY Times Published AUG. 4, 2014

Running 130 otherwise perfect minutes, Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” was punctuated by only two inauthentic moments as a feature film. One was invisible, and the other was barely audible.

Because this 1975 classic was actually filmed in the frosty months of fall rather than in the dog days of summer, the actors chewed on ice so their hot breath would be inconspicuous.

And when Al Pacino, playing the fictional bank robber Sonny Wortzik, dictated his will, he told a remarkably unfazed teller that he was leaving a $2,700 bequest to pay for a sex-change operation for his boyfriend, “whom I love as no other man has loved another man in all eternity.”

This week moviegoers get to meet John Wojtowicz, the lunatic, unrepentant real-life inspiration for Mr. Pacino’s implausibly good grammar and what, in retrospect, turns out to have been that demonstrative actor’s exceedingly subtle characterization.

If “Dog Day Afternoon” was about an improbable robbery set largely within the claustrophobic confines of a cookie-cutter Brooklyn bank, “The Dog“ (a Drafthouse Films release opening on Friday) unfolds from inside the swelled head of Mr. Wojtowicz, a sexually voracious witness to the early stirrings of gay liberation in Greenwich Village. The directors, Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, took 10 years to complete the film (the fourth derived from the 1972 incident, along with “The Third Memory“ and “Based on a True Story”), or more time than their subject spent in prison.

John Wojtowicz, the unrepentant real-life inspiration for Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon,” is the subject of a newly released documentary.

Think back to the New York of the early 1970s.

The opening montage of “Dog Day” depicts a hot, grungy city. Homosexuality was still classified as a disease. Gay rights barely existed.

Mr. Pacino “was the one at greatest risk,” Mr. Lumet later recalled, because “no major star that I know of had ever played a gay man.”

Still, as much as the subject had been taboo, it was almost incidental.

“Sonny not only maintained his gay relationship but was presented as being, at the same time, a ‘family man,’ with a wife and children,” said James Sanders, the author of the book “Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies.” Sonny and even his lover, a self-described woman trapped in the body of a man, are devoid of the gay stereotypes then common in mainstream films. “No less importantly,” Mr. Sanders said, “it was also a way for Lumet’s film to announce its fiercely ‘New York’ status, with sexual, social and emotional complexities of a kind Hollywood would never touch.”

As Chris Sarandon, who played Sonny’s lover, later remembered: “This wasn’t about the relation of a drag queen and his boyfriend. This was a relationship about two people trying to come to grips about what is wrong with their relationship.”

“The Dog” is all about the lecherous, narcissistic Mr. Wojtowicz’s relationships: with his lover, Ernest Aron, who later became Liz Eden; with his cloying mother (“I spied on him,” she confesses to the camera. “See I knew more than he thought.”); and with nascent gay-liberation advocates, who considered him a boorish embarrassment and vulgar braggart.

“I don’t think it changes the impression of the gay-rights movement, because, first of all, this guy is a bisexual polygamist,” Randy Wicker, a journalist and early gay-rights advocate, said in an interview. “I think it will be viewed as an isolated, bizarre story.”

After brief appearances at the 1964 Republican national convention and in Vietnam, Mr. Wojtowicz materializes in footage at the Firehouse on Wooster Street in SoHo, an early headquarters of the Gay Activists Alliance; at embryonic demonstrations for same-sex marriage at the city clerk’s office; and at his own extravagant drag wedding.

“There was only one star, and that was me,” Mr. Wojtowicz recalls in the film.

“Now people see he wasn’t a good poster boy for the gay-rights movement when he robbed the bank,” said Ms. Berg, the director, “but he was an individual who had zero shame about what he was. Think of what he said about marriage at the time: ‘When I love somebody, I want to marry them.’ People have a real appreciation for that now.”

After he was arrested at Kennedy International Airport trying to flee with hostages, Mr. Wojtowicz adopted the sobriquet “the Dog” in prison, when fellow inmates couldn’t correctly say his name (pronounced WAHT-a-Witz).

By the time he was released in 1978 (serving six years of a 20-year sentence), an already vulgar life was imitating a more glamorous art.

The documentary is truly a story of the tail wagging the dog.

Archival footage and interviews conducted with Mr. Wojtowicz’s first wife, Carmen; his mother, Terry; and his third spouse, George Heath, are poignant, sometimes hilarious and oddly endearing.

Terry, who coyly reveals that she smuggled provolone to her son in prison in her bra, “was the great love of his life,” Dr. Lowenkopf confides.

Mr. Wojtowicz also divulges tantalizing details of his bumbling gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight robbery, including the fact that the robbers went to watch “The Godfather” (starring Mr. Pacino) in a Times Square theater beforehand for inspiration.

Reducing the fictional Sonny Wortzik to a wallflower, Mr. Wojtowicz returns to the branch he robbed to sign autographs (sporting an “I Robbed This Bank” T-shirt, no less) and applies for a job as a guard, giving “Dog Day Afternoon” as a reference.

The filmmakers say Mr. Wojtowicz did not demand compensation for appearing in the documentary. “He wasn’t really driven by money, which doesn’t seem logical for a bank robber, but he loved for people to pay attention to him,” Ms. Berg said.

Mr. Lumet’s film spans a single day. But in his four years of interviews for “The Dog,” Mr. Wojtowicz ages like Dorian Gray’s portrait in fast-forward, finally reversing roles as he is awkwardly pushed in a wheelchair by his developmentally disabled brother around the Coney Island aquarium, where he unabashedly, and predictably, propositions a walrus. He died of cancer in 2006 at the age of 60.

Between the robbery and the release date of “Dog Day Afternoon,” the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. And in the four decades since then, Mr. Wicker recalled, “the image of gay people has gone from ‘they’re all psychopaths’ to almost every gay person has been married 40 years and has 2.2 adopted children — and there are some real basket cases out there, including gay ones.”

Perhaps in a fitting coda, a recent court ruling dramatized how profoundly sensibilities have evolved since Mr. Wojtowicz robbed the bank, and Mr. Pacino accepted his risky role. In January a federal appeals court ordered state prison officials in Massachusetts to finance sex-change surgery for a man convicted of murdering his wife.

August 5th, 2014

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August 5th, 2014
Sharp Focus

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“Bouquet for Bas Jan Ader and Christopher D’Arcangelo” (1991). PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF LORRIN AND DEANE WONG FAMILY TRUST, LOS ANGELES.


“The Production Line of Happiness,” a retrospective of work by the photographic artist Christopher Williams, at the Museum of Modern Art, brings a tonic chill to an art summer enfevered by the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney. The two shows describe opposite extremes in sophisticated art since the nineteen-seventies: ascetic, academy-based, and soft-core political in Williams’s case; hedonistic, market-oriented, and smiley-faced populist in that of Koons. Williams can seem to work strictly for circles of educated initiates, while Koons endeavors to please practically everybody. But, if you remove the measures of money and fame, by which Williams is a relative pauper and a cipher (this is his first American museum retrospective), commonalities emerge. The two artists share roots in a moment, in the seventies, of self-conscious reflection on the exhausted drive of modernism. That moment spawned antic irony in art and an infatuation with hard-bitten critical theory in academe. Both artists attacked assumptions of meaning in their respective mediums—photography and sculpture—and have striven to control the reception of their work. Koons blares his intentions, while Williams veils his. But to fully appreciate the work of either you must divine the rules and play along.

Working with the MOMA curator Roxana Marcoci, Williams shows scores of photographs, mostly of odd objects (glass flowers, stacks of chocolate bars, cameras that have been cut in half to reveal their anatomy) and of subjects that suggest glossy-magazine advertisements (fashion models, fancy photographic gear) but often have something a bit off about them—such as a model seen from a strange angle. On rare occasions, Williams appropriates images, but, when he does, it’s always with a conceit. For example, he sought out photographs in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library that had been taken on a certain day in May, 1963, and that show the President’s back turned. (There are four, rephotographed and lined up on a wall; they stir feelings of remoteness and sadness.) Williams’s work is too recondite to fit among that of his more succinctly ironic contemporaries, such as the image bandits Richard Prince, Louise Lawler, and Sherrie Levine. Nor is he trendy in technique; none of his pictures were shot digitally. Williams, now fifty-eight (a year younger than Koons) and, since 2008, a professor of photography at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, remains a knight of the darkroom. He also has a sideline in collecting relics of his exhibitions: in the MOMA show there are sections of walls cut out and transported from museums where Williams has previously shown. Not that you’d know this: there are no wall texts or labels to explain or identify any of the pieces in the show, although a handout checklist provides the works’ titles.

Among the innocently generic-looking but riddling pictures in the show are some of a suite of glass flowers, made in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from the collection of Harvard’s Museum of Natural History. We’re not told that each picture represents a bloom emblematic of a nation that had been cited as repressive by Amnesty International—a forced allusion that, even after I got it, didn’t do a lot for me. And only a professional photographer is apt to recognize the pale red in a picture of dishes in a dishwasher as a signature color of Agfa film—much less that Williams laboriously achieved it with a Kodak film. Williams has a hobbyist’s ardor for technical arcana, which he dumps into long, dense captions in the show’s catalogue.

His withholding of the often intricate backstory that informs each of his works leaves a viewer with three choices that I can see. One is to be maddened by the tease. Another is to be stimulated to consult the catalogue, which is replete with brainy curatorial essays and with extended quotes from such cynosures of the art-school seminar as Jean-Luc Godard and Pier Paolo Pasolini, and from artist friends, including Barbara Kruger, Daniel Buren, and Lawrence Weiner. (Williams is nothing if not collegial, suggesting an audience that is less a public than a Masonic fellowship.) Still a third is to relax and enjoy the mute and striking elegance of an installation that amounts to an exhibition about exhibiting. I have tested all three options. They all work.

Williams was born in Los Angeles, where both his grandfather and his father were cinematic special-effects experts. His parents divorced when he was young, and his father married a British actress who subsequently also worked in film production. (His father died in an accident on a movie set in 1977.) Williams credits his early enthusiasm for art to his stepmother’s mother, who took him to museums when he visited her in Philadelphia. (He recalls having been wowed by Rodin, Brancusi, and Duchamp.) He dropped out of high school in favor of surfing, then attended a junior college and, in 1976, managed to qualify for admission to CalArts, the Disney-founded art school and think tank of avant-gardism.

He studied under the conceptualist masters John Baldessari, Michael Asher, and Douglas Huebler. Williams told me, when I met him at MOMA, that he had thrilled to the “quietness and slowness” of art, after the tumult of his upbringing in the movie industry. But his background gave him a natural feel for his teachers’ preoccupation with the ways, means, and manipulative ends of spectacle in consumer culture. He embraced, as well, a fashion for “institutional critique”—art exposing the conventions and the imputed purposes of the places that show it. Briefly rife in the eighties and nineties, such enactments of academic theory have long receded from the spotlight of the art world. Williams’s persistence with them would seem hapless but for the surprising and, given a chance, the affecting spirit of romance that he finds in their exercise.

The show’s title, “The Production Line of Happiness,” is a phrase from a factory worker and amateur filmmaker whom Godard interviewed for a documentary, in 1976. It’s how the worker characterized the sequential tasks involved in creating films. I suspect that for Williams, as for Godard, the words secrete a turned-around sense: the happiness of the production line. Even the great director’s most tedious later movies radiate his deathless passion for cinema. Similarly, Williams’s photographs can seem almost like nugatory remnants of a process pursued with devotion that is its own reward. The worst that might be said of them is that they enforce a sort of supply-side aesthetic: profiting an élite and trickling down, maybe, to less privileged folks. But they enable a vicarious appeal: imagining what it’s like to care so much about something, no matter what. And one immediately compelling aspect of Williams’s process is his mastery of the forms and protocols of display. The exactingly considered, quite beautiful arrangements of walls and works in the show sparkle with wit, however elusive the content of the jokes may be. (Williams is a balding and pleasantly fleshy man, and shortish—which may explain, as a defiant jape, the unusually low hanging of his show.) An only mildly curious ten-minute tour will refresh your eye and spatial sense, as a car wash does a car. The most viable alternative approach requires hours of study.

In certain respects, much of what I’m saying about Williams at MOMA could apply to the Koons show at the Whitney, as well. Both artists glory in cultivating shocks—or, anyway, mild bemusements—of recognition, with pointed evocations of culture either low (Koons) or far out (Williams). The major gap—a chasm—between them is worldly. It has to do with disparate visions of, yes, happiness. Koons exalts a society that is defined and dominated by financial wealth, as flaunted by those who have it and presumably admired by those who don’t. Williams assumes and addresses people who would rather be rich in leisure time and energy to visit museums, read specialized books, and savor wayward discourses. Let a fifty-eight-million-dollar stainless-steel balloon dog that astounds the eye while benumbing the mind stand for the values of the first constituency. Have Williams’s murky photograph of a Renault sedan tipped on its side—referring to a factory site and evoking a barricade, from the political upheavals of 1968 in France—represent the knowingness of the second. One party buys and sells. The other talks and talks. The emptied middle that they bracket buzzes with possibilities for a truly satisfactory art, contingent on whether our time proves itself worthy of it.

August 4th, 2014
roger herman | ceramics

Untitled #7, 2014
Ceramic and Glaze
10 x 12 x 9 inches

Opening Reception: Sunday, August 3. 3-5PM

South Willard Shop Exhibit

August 2nd, 2014
marsden hartley

Marsden Hartley, The Iron Cross, 1915, oil on canvas, 47 ¼ × 47 ¼ inches

August 3, 2014–November 30, 2014

This exhibition features the work of influential American modernist painter Marsden Hartley (1877–1943). Approximately twenty-five of the artist’s seminal works from his years spent in Berlin (1913–1915) reveal the profound impact of World War I and elucidate the artist’s appropriation of military symbols and Native American motifs. Hartley’s paintings from this period reflect dynamic shifts in style and subject matter, and evidence a critical moment in his body of work. The exhibition, organized by the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, in collaboration with LACMA, coincides with the centennial commemoration of World War I. The presentation in Los Angeles marks the first exhibition of Hartley’s work in Southern California in over thirty years, and the first focused exhibition of Hartley’s Berlin paintings in the United States since they were created.


August 2nd, 2014
How Did Bob Dylan Get So Weird?

By Bill Wyman
Vulture 7/29/2014

In August, a Bob Dylan album may well arrive in stores concrete and virtual. It may be called Shadows in the Night. It may have a song called “Full Moon & Empty Arms” on it; a stream of the tune was released without comment on his website a couple of months ago. Why Dylan chose to record a cover of an old Sinatra track isn’t clear; it may, or may not, be a clue that the purported album will consist of covers. Dylan has just finished shows in Japan, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia; will head next to Australia and New Zealand; and may or may not be preparing for a swing through the U.S. in the fall.
We think of Dylan in a pantheon of great rock stars, at or near the top of a select list that includes the Stones, Springsteen, maybe U2, but not too many other active artists. But he behaves much differently. He’s released more albums than Bruce Springsteen in the past 25 years and played more shows than Springsteen, the Stones, and U2 combined. Yet he hardly ever does interviews and does virtually nothing to publicize his albums or tours. For someone who seems to be in such plain sight, he remains hidden, present but opaque, an open book written in cipher. Normal questions don’t seem to do him justice. You want to ask: What is Bob Dylan? Why is Bob Dylan? After listening to him since I was a kid and seeing him live for—gulp—nearly 40 years, I think I’m beginning to figure it out.
You have to start by disregarding the well-told narrative: The soi-disant vagabond’s rise through folk music to a place of utter domination at the highest level of literate, passionate, and difficult pop and rock music, all by 1966; a retreat and Gethsemane until 1974, when he came back, roaring and vengeful, more passionately focused than before, adding a remarkable personal dimension to his ’60s work. After that, depending on how generously you view his career, there has been either a long decline or decades of remarkable and kaleidoscopic creativity, culminating in the triumphs, late in life, of his five most recent albums.
For an artist as rooted in our musical culture as Dylan, the linearity of a narrative works more to disconnect him from the influences and traditions his work comprises than to explain him. First, you have to appreciate the many layers that make up his peculiar but unmistakable aesthetic. His work is grounded in acoustic folk-blues—­ballads, chants, and love stories, populated with mystical or just plain weird meanings and themes, rattling and farting around like tetched uncles in the attic of our American psyche. To this add the dread-filled dreamscapes—unexplainable, ­unnerving—of French Surrealism, and then, arrestingly, the punchy patois of the Beats, who originally intuited the substratum of social stresses that would whipcrack across the ’60s and into the ’70s. Then factor in personal songwriting, a strain of pop he basically invented, doled out first with obfuscations, payback, tall tales, and lies—some by design, some on general principle, some just to be an asshole—and then the signs, here and there (and then everywhere, the more you look), of autobiographical happenstance and deeply felt emotion.
And remember that some of his narratives are fractured. Time and focus shift; first person can become third; sometimes more than one story seems to be being told at the same time (“Tangled Up in Blue” and “All Along the Watchtower” are two good examples). And then there’s plain sonic impact: Even his earliest important songs have a cerebral and reverberating authority in the recording, his voice sometimes filling the speakers, his primitive but blistering guitar work adding confrontation, ease, humor, anger, and contrariness, presenting all but the most unwilling listeners with moment after moment of incandescence.
And, finally, a key component often overlooked: Dylan’s artistic process. On a fundamental level, he doesn’t trust mediation or planning. The story of his recording career is littered with tales of indecisive and failed sessions and haphazard successful ones, in both cases leaving frustrated producers and session people in their wake. You could say the approach served him well during his early years of inspiration and has hobbled him in his later decades of lesser work. Dylan doesn’t care. During the recording of Blood on the Tracks, which may be the best rock album ever made, one of the musicians present heard the singer being told how to do something correctly in the studio. Dylan’s reply: “Y’know, if I’d listened to everybody who told me how to do stuff, I might be somewhere by now.”
He came to New York in early 1961, telling anyone who’d listen he’d ridden the rails, played with Buddy Holly, all sorts of nonsense. In reality, he was a fairly middle-class kid who’d hitchhiked, in winter, from the far north of Minnesota; in a way, this single act of propulsion toward reinvention by a 19-year-old is braver and more interesting than all his later tall tales of travel. He arrived in New York on the coldest day the city had seen in many years.
He was a prodigy, with a natural affinity for a medium that would, unexpectedly, afford a few people like him international acclaim and a permanent place in the cultural firmament, and lots of money too. His uncanny musicianship—producing enduring melodies and lovely harmonica solos—included an ability to effortlessly transpose keys that would impress professionals throughout his career. He also had a first-class mind, quick (almost too quick) of wit and relaxed enough to let inspiration flow without forcing it, yet also wiry, retaining permanently the complex wording of many hundreds of tunes. He soaked up the songs and the lore of folk and blues, cobbling together a shtick—an Okie patois, a shambling affect, and a fixation with Woody Guthrie, the socialist troubadour of the ’30s and ’40s and the author of “This Land Is Your Land,” who at the time was dying in a New Jersey hospital. It all served to disguise, at first, a mysterious charisma—with eyes, as Joan Baez remembered them later, “bluer than robin’s eggs”—and an apparent ambition that left a few damaged friendships, and egos, in its wake.
Baez, stentorian and humorless, recorded her first album in 1960 and was a star the next year. (She moved to Carmel and bought a Jaguar.) Dylan got an early rave in the New York Times, which led to his record contract. His second album contained several tracks that became standards. One, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” was a strikingly imagistic portrait of a child returning from a journey to impart wisdom to an older generation. It’s the place where Dylan’s self-definition begins to merge with his songs. On his third and fourth albums, Dylan showed he was capable of increasing nuance. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” the compellingly told true story of a barmaid carelessly killed by a moneyed young drunk, still able to make one’s blood boil, never mentions Carroll’s race.
At the same time, his mash-up of influences was creating deeper, subtler work, producing mysterious moments like the end of “Boots of Spanish Leather.” The song, spare and lulling, is a dialogue between the singer and his lover, who’s going on a journey. The woman wants to bring the guy back a present; the guy keeps saying he wants nothing besides her return. She finally says she won’t be coming back for a while—at which point the guy asks for a gift: some “Spanish boots of Spanish leather.” It’s not clear why the word Spanish is repeated. Maybe the guy’s heart was broken, or maybe the woman was right—he did just want something from her. But there’s a self-referential meaning to the song as well: Dylan’s own journey. Stars, after all, promise devotion to their fans and then disappear, leaving a simulacrum of their former selves that fans can never get something authentic from.
Beginning in 1965, in a 14-month rush, Dylan released three albums—Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde—each with two or three (very) major songs, three or four relatively minor (but still mind-blowing) efforts, and some doggerel and fun for leavening, all in a great spew of poetic verbiage. Dylan’s voice had deepened and matured; it rang with clarity, snickered with derision, led us compellingly, at its best hypnotically, through nightmares and fever dreams. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” introduced a modern, rock-and-roll Dylan, blasting off political aphorisms softened with absurdities—“Don’t follow leaders / Watch the parking meters.” Lacerating new epics made his old epics seem trite. Take “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”; the title, and a potent Cold War reference in the first line, fixes our narrator seemingly as a wounded soldier, who then spends the rest of a very long song reflecting on the society he’s dying for. “Like a Rolling Stone” captured the second half of the decade in advance, a Scud missile of mockery directed at an entire pampered generation adrift. When Dylan howled the words “no direction home,” it was hard to tell if his tone was exultant or pained; it was a conundrum he and his audience have gnawed at ever since. In a telling example of how Dylan’s words can leapfrog meanings across decades, the song’s final silky lines—“You’re invisible now / You’ve got no secrets to conceal”—capture precisely the predicament of a new generation paradoxically rendered faceless by electronic connectivity and yet entirely without privacy.

Dylan’s remarkable work from this period is sometimes trivialized by stories about how he freaked everyone out by “going electric.” In I’m Not There, his cubistic cinematic portrait of Dylan, Todd Haynes represents the moment with the singer and his band mowing the crowd down with machine guns. Please. There were some boos at the Newport Folk Festival when Dylan and his electric band played there. But at least some of the reaction came from the high volume and poor sound quality of the performance, which was, after all, at a folk festival. Meanwhile, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was Dylan’s first Top 40 hit, and “Like a Rolling Stone,” an unprecedented six minutes long, went to No. 2. Dylan’s move to electric is of course a key moment in his musical growth, and an interesting footnote in the history of 1960s American folk; but it was not a thumb in the eye of propriety. Everyone liked it!

Dylan is intensely private. More than almost any star I can think of, our understanding of his personal life is occluded and disjointed. His first wife was Sara Dylan, née Sara Lownds, née Shirley Noznisky. When they met, she was married to a guy in publishing in New York; early in their relationship, Dylan mentioned to an interviewer that he’d met a woman named Sara and that she was one of only two truly “holy people” he had ever met. (The other was Allen Ginsberg, though Ginsberg had never done a stint as a Playboy bunny.) “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is widely seen as a tribute to Sara; it has a title that suggests the name Lownds and other lyrical hints (“Your magazine husband / Who one day just had to go”) and is placed ostentatiously to fill up the entire final side of Blonde on Blonde. Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles: Volume 1, some of which may be true, is at its most dyspeptic when the singer describes the hordes of hippies impinging on his and his family’s life by the mid-’60s. Using a motorcycle accident as an excuse, Dylan retreated in 1966 and began releasing country-flavored albums at long intervals to dampen his celebrity. In the meantime, he and Sara raised an eventual family of five in peace. The names and number of his children were widely misunderstood until the publication of Down the Highway, a powerful, definitive biography by Howard Sounes, in 2001. (The children are Maria, from Sara’s first marriage; Jakob, whom you know from the Wallflowers; Jesse, a Hollywood and new-media guy, director of’s “Yes We Can” Obama music video; Anna, an artist who stays out of sight; and Samuel, a photographer who keeps a low profile as well. This is not to mention his second, secret wife and at least one other acknowledged child, but that’s a tale for another time.)
Dylan emerged in the mid-’70s to tour with the Band, release two of his strongest albums (Blood on the Tracks and Desire), and embark on a nutty and hilarious gypsy-­caravan tour dubbed the Rolling Thunder Revue. His relationship with Sara was strained at this point, though she came along on the tour and even starred in his bizarre four-hour movie, Renaldo & Clara. But in the end, Dylan’s womanizing fueled what became a bitter divorce. His most plainly personal album is Blood on the Tracks, a lancing portrait of a romantic death spiral. (Jakob has said he gets no pleasure from listening to it: “When I’m listening to Blood on the Tracks, that’s about my parents.”) Among (many) other things, Blood on the Tracks is an exercise in emotional intensity, from self-pity and anger to ruefulness. There are obvious references to his wife in the wrenching “Idiot Wind” and also at the beginning of “Tangled Up in Blue” (“She was married when we first met / Soon to be divorced”). Blood on the Tracks was recorded in bizarre circumstances, first in New York and then more than half of it rerecorded in Minneapolis with a pickup band; yet its shuddering atmospherics and controlled, specific writing combined to make it the most organic and emotionally fulfilling work in Dylan’s canon.
The Rolling Thunder Revue saw the return of the lovely Baez; she sang “Diamonds & Rust,” her greatest song, a poison­-­pen love letter to Dylan, and did the frug behind Roger McGuinn during “Eight Miles High.” A decade on, in the ’80s, she and Dylan toured again, this time in Japan, with what was supposed to have been shared star billing. Baez inevitably became an opening act and eventually told the tour to fuck off, as she later told the story. Granted an exit audience with Dylan, she found him an aged version of the immature ragamuffin. He was tired but slipped his hand up her skirt for old times’ sake.
The next two decades were tough for him artistically; as Greil Marcus has put it, Dylan was essentially committing a “public disappearance.” Beginning in 1979, he tested his audience’s expectations and goodwill more tellingly than any punk by releasing three albums of unimaginative Christian-themed songs, along with two tours in which he plowed stolidly through this material. The problem was not Dylan’s beliefs, though they leaned to the crackpot; lots of acts had religious leanings—Van Morrison among them. It was how Dylan articulated those beliefs. To listen to the albums today is to enter a (not very) fun house of mediocrity and intolerance.
Dylan began to produce his own albums. He wasn’t dogmatic about it; he would once in a while bring in an outside ­producer—Mark Knopfler helped on Infidels, and Daniel Lanois superimposed a decent setting (and demanded a suite of coherent songs) for Oh Mercy. Other albums from the ’80s and ’90s were weirdly inconsistent in the quality of both the songs and the production values. Even weirder is the fact that Dylan was actually writing and recording some of his best work during this time. “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar, “Blind Willie McTell,” “Caribbean Wind,” “Foot of Pride,” “Series of Dreams” … Authoritative and undeniable, they were better than anything his contemporaries were then releasing. Unfortunately, they were also better than anything Dylan was releasing and only turned up later on compilations albums.
In 1997, Lanois returned for Time Out of Mind. The critics went nuts over this work and the four regular releases since. I think these albums are woefully overrated, but they have sold well, and with the critics behind them, too, I’m willing to acknowledge the disconnect may be mine. But deep down I know that it’s hard to find, over the past ten or 15 years, more than three or four songs you’d stick on a mix tape to try to convince someone of this singer-songwriter’s greatness. Too many of his recent songs start with a pleasant-enough (or, more often, serviceable) riff—which is then beaten into the ground by his backing band. My hunch is that Dylan, producing in the studio, nods in inscrutable approval when he hears something he likes. The band, nervous but eager to please, obliges and starts playing the damn riff continuously. There’s no outsider around to tweak it or vary it or add dynamics.
In the folk-blues tradition, older songs were reappropriated and built upon; in his later years, Dylan has played with this tradition and found himself in mini-controversies when researchers find that some words in his songs first appeared somewhere else. Amateur sleuths discovered that his album “Love and Theft” had a pattern of lines seemingly taken from a fairly obscure Japanese writer, Junichi Saga. More recently, some obsessives started looking at passages in Chronicles and found lines taken from an astonishing variety of places, from self-help books to The Great Gatsby. The pickings seem to be phrases bouncing around the ragged mind of a guy with a photographic memory. On the other hand, some of the inner workings are plainly mischievous, like an in-passing list of news stories; the headlines were all from a mocking take on the press in John Dos Passos’s U.S.A.
To tweak the purists again, he’ll once in a while appear in a TV commercial—­distracting from the subtle attention he pays to how posterity will see his work. He goes out of his away to appear on awards shows when they beckon; he’s shown his artwork and sells it online; his memoir, while odd, was nonetheless transfixing and reminded us that he was once a young man groping for a future and placing his bets on a very long shot indeed. The Dylan camp is readying an extraordinary digital archive of his songs, recordings, and paraphernalia. Dylan owns a coffeehouse, it’s said, in Santa Monica; unprepossessing and iconoclastic, it has an extremely friendly staff and no Wi-Fi. There’s not much on the walls, but you notice the references contained in what’s there: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Muhammad Ali, Leonardo da Vinci. There’s one big oil painting behind the counter, one that looks a lot like Dylan’s own work, silent and content in the company it keeps.
And then there’s the touring. In Chronicles, Dylan details, with seeming frankness, the aimlessness that brought him to a slough of despond at the end of the ’80s. He may have been facing what all rock stars who survive face, which is how to grow old gracefully in a medium cruelly tied to youthfulness. He resolved to get out and play his songs—and went back on the road in 1988 with a small, seldom-changing backing ensemble, with whom he delved into his back pages, including many songs he’d never played live before.
Here’s the odd thing—26 years on, he hasn’t stopped. He’s been playing about 100 shows annually ever since, growling through a set of songs old and new with a small band. It’s an endeavor that for a good chunk of each year keeps him on a private bus and, in the U.S. at least, in relatively crummy hotel and motel rooms. (He’s said to prefer places that have windows that open and allow him to sleep with his pet mastiffs. Beyond that, they are places fans wouldn’t expect to find him.) The shows at first may have been a tonic, but over time they revealed themselves to be a panacea. It must have struck Dylan: How could he look foolish if he just kept doing the same thing? If he were an artist, he would continue to create and show his art publicly. If he were a celebrity, he would appear in public. And if he were a seer, a prophet, or even a god, well, he would let folks pay and see for themselves how mortal such figures actually were. And far from saturating the market, he has created a new industry for himself as a touring artist. On a good night he makes some of his best-known songs unrecognizable, and on a bad one you come out wondering what it was, exactly, you’ve just seen. So far this year, the 73-year-old has played in Japan (17 shows), Hawaii (two), Ireland, Turkey, and nearly 20 other cities in the hinterlands of Europe; he’s headed now to more than a dozen shows in eight different cities in Australia and New Zealand—and this is before what should be a fall run through the States. Robert Shelton, the New York Times writer who first noticed Dylan, labored on a biography for more than 20 years; seeing the star’s unstable arc on its publication in 1986, he titled it, grandly, No Direction Home. Dylan hadn’t even begun not to go home.
It strikes me that the one thing all of these bizarre behaviors have in common is that they tend to strip away everything that stands between Bob Dylan’s art and his audience but simultaneously occlude everything else. There was a subtle shift in emphasis in one of his most powerful images, and perhaps a hint of resignation, in the song “Not Dark Yet,” in 1997:
I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from. The exultant cry of “no direction home” derived its power from the fact that, in the end, any place new was better than where we’d come from. In that context, not remembering what you left originally is a remarkable statement of anomie.
Still, we might have focused over the years too much on the word direction, as in “heading toward.”
Maybe “no direction home” means that there’s no guidance home, that you have to figure it out for yourself.
If Bob Dylan is a question, maybe this is the answer. Given the chance, Dylan will give the audience his art, unadulterated, as he creates it, and nothing more. He believes it’s a corruption of his art to be directed by someone else’s sensibility. In its own weird way, isn’t this one sacred connection between artist and audience? It might be nicer if he did things differently. It might be more palatable, more commercially successful. (He might be somewhere by now.) This is what ties together his signal creations, his ongoing shows, and even the wretched albums of the ’80s and ’90s; what he does might be sublime and ineffable or yet also coarse and unsuccessful; it is what it is, defined by where it comes from, not what it should be. Even his remoteness is a by-product; it’s what he deserves after having given his all. Call the work art, call it crap, call it Spanish boots of Spanish leather, but in the end it’s the creation of an artist who defies us to ask for something more.

August 2nd, 2014
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