ivan morley

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A True Tale, 2015
Thread on canvas, 84 x 50 inches

10 September – 24 October 2015


August 31st, 2015
LOS Bar, Los Angeles

Los Bar, an art installation and bar by four artists in residence at the MAK Center in Los Angeles, is a replica of the famous Loos Bar in Vienna. The original bar’s marble, brass and onyx accents have been recreated in cardboard, rubber foam and paper.

NY Times Published: AUG. 27, 2015

It’s a hot August afternoon, and four artists-in-residency at the Los Angeles outpost of the Vienna-based MAK Center are surveying the damage to their collaborative art installation. Empty liquor bottles are everywhere, a banquette needs repair and the paintings lining the wall need to be straightened. This Saturday-afternoon assessment is a weekly ritual after the previous night’s debauchery at Los Bar. Their project, built in the garage of the midcentury architect Rudolph Schindler’s 1939 Mackey Apartments, where the artists are housed for six months, is a 0.65:1 scale replica of the famous Loos Bar in Vienna.

The four artists — Andreas Bauer, Christoph Meier, Robert Schwarz and Lukas Stopczynski, hailing from Austria and Germany — play host to L.A.’s eclectic art world every Friday night. Unlike the typical studio tour, visitors guzzle PBRs and sip schnapps (purchased by donation only) while enjoying the rotating programming. One Friday, it was a mariachi band squeezed onto a minuscule stage; another, it was the artist Chiara Giovando tattooing patrons in the back of the bar.

The installation was constructed in the garage of the MAK Center’s Mackey Apartments. Credit Los Bar
Yet it’s the bar itself that is the main attraction. The four used cheap, everyday materials to reproduce what is officially named the American Bar. Built in 1908, the architectural gem — a stripped-down but refined space that anticipated Modernism in its simple geometry — was designed by Adolf Loos, who was, fittingly, Schindler’s one-time mentor.

In the artists’ translation, the marble coffered ceiling is made out of cardboard. Brass and wood handrails are recreated with foam pool noodles. A backlit onyx wall fixture is reimagined with paper, glue and sawdust. The artists purposely built the installation quickly and cheaply. “We bought a nail gun at Lowe’s that can shoot 500 nails,” says Schwarz, still in awe of its efficiency. “We wanted to translate not just the materials but also an American way of production,” adds Stopczynski.

The artists were inspired by America’s DIY aesthetic, as well as Hollywood’s history of set design. Yet the project still feels distinctly European. Citing the relative orderliness of bars in their temporary city, “we wanted all the clichés of a European bar. You can smoke inside. It’s loud. It’s nasty,” Meier explains.

The four, who met when they moved to L.A. for their residency in April, relish their weekly bartending duties. “We’re guests here and now we’ve become hosts,” says Stopczynski. The signature cocktail, named for France’s high-speed train, TGV, is a strong combination of tequila, gin and vodka, served in a glass atop a weighty concrete plinth.

The L.A. project ends when the foursome’s residency does, in mid-September. Closing night will not only feature some of their previous performers but also a wedding. Stopczynski, with his long hair and scruffy beard, was ordained online and plans to perform the ceremony.

The artists hope to build more replicas of Los bar, playing with scale. Their dream site? After the Lilliputian proportions of the Mackey garage, London’s massive Turbine Hall inside the Tate Modern museum, of course.

Mackey Apartments, 1137 S Cochran Ave, Los Angeles, CA,


August 27th, 2015
Enough Is Enough

By Charles M. Blow
NY Times Published: AUG. 27, 2015

When Donald Trump’s security escorted the Univision anchor Jorge Ramos out of a news conference on Tuesday, I decided that I was officially done.

Maybe I should have been long before that.

Maybe I should have been done the one and only time I ever met Trump and his first words to me were a soliloquy about how black people loved him, and he was the most popular white man among black people.

Maybe I should have been done when Trump demanded to see the president’s birth certificate.

Maybe I should have been done any number of times over the years when Trump made any number of racist, sexist comments.

Earlier this month, Politico rounded up 199 of his greatest — and vilest — hits. Here are just a few from the magazine:

9. “I have black guys counting my money. … I hate it. The only guys I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes all day.” (USA Today, May 20, 1991)

23. “Oftentimes when I was sleeping with one of the top women in the world I would say to myself, thinking about me as a boy from Queens, ‘Can you believe what I am getting?’ ” (“Think Big: Make it Happen in Business and Life,” 2008)

32. “… she does have a very nice figure. I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” (ABC’s “The View,” March 6, 2006)

35. “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?” (Twitter, April 16, 2015)

117. “Rosie’s a person that’s very lucky to have her girlfriend. And she better be careful or I’ll send one of my friends over to pick up her girlfriend. Why would she stay with Rosie if she had another choice?” (“Entertainment Tonight,” Dec. 21, 2006)

121. Arianna Huffington is “a dog.” (Twitter, April 6, 2015)

Need I go on? (Thanks, Politico!)

Maybe I should have been done when Trump announced his candidacy this year with an attack on Mexican immigrants, saying:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best — they’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems … drugs … crime … rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

The Ramos episode wasn’t worse than these; it was just the last straw. A member of the media who dared to raise a truly substantive issue, even out of turn, was dismissed and removed. And yet the band played on. The live coverage continued. In that moment, I was disgusted at Trump’s contempt and the press’s complicity in the shallow farce that is his candidacy. Trump is addicted to press, but the press is also addicted to him, and the entire spectacle is wide and shallow.

(Ramos was allowed back in and permitted to ask his question. I had to see this later, because when he was ejected, I stopped watching.)

Yes, the Republican Party created this Frankenstein of hatred, hubris, narcissism and nativism, but the media is giving it life.

The never-ending, exhaustive, even breathless coverage of every outrage that issues forth from this man’s mouth is not news. Every offense and attack is not news.

Every morning that Trump rolls out of bed and calls in to a news show is not news.

Covering a political phenomenon as news is one thing. See the coverage of Bernie Sanders. Creating a political phenomenon and calling it news is quite another.

I reasoned in a 2010 column that Sarah Palin was no longer an elected official and wasn’t seeking elected office, and was therefore not worthy of constant attacks. But more important, the attacks were elevating her profile, not diminishing it. As I wrote:

“This is it. This is the last time I’m going to write the name Sarah Palin until she does something truly newsworthy, like declare herself a candidate for the presidency. Until then, I will no longer take part in the left’s obsessive-compulsive fascination with her, which is both unhealthy and counterproductive.”

I kept that promise. The only other time she appeared by name in one of my columns was in a passing reference to her speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2013. This column is only the second reference.

The same is true of Trump. The constant harping on him only helps him.

He is different from Palin in 2010, however. He is not only running for office, he’s leading in the polls among Republican candidates. He can’t be ignored. But coverage is not the same as drooling over the daily shenanigans of a demagogue.

I will cover Trump as he addresses issues with specific policy prescriptions and details, like answers to the question Ramos asked.

Until then, this man is not worthy of the attention he’s garnering. We in the media have to own our part in this. We can’t say he’s not serious and then cover him in a way that actually demonstrates that we are not serious.

Is he an easy target for righteous criticism? Of course he is. But is he aware that criticism from the mainstream media is invaluable among certain segments of the political right? Of course he is. Is he also aware that he’s getting more free publicity for being outrageous than he would ever be willing to buy? Of course he is.

The media is being trolled on a massive scale and we look naïve and silly to have fallen for it, even if he draws readers and viewers. When people refer to the press as the fourth estate, it shouldn’t be confused with a Trump property.

Allow me to share one more of Trump’s quotes from Politico:

89. “My brand became more famous as I became more famous, and more opportunities presented themselves.” (Amazon.com, 2007)

August 27th, 2015
Days of Abandon

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In Charles R. Rushton’s 1991 black-and-white portrait, Agnes Martin (1912–2004) sits in a wooden rocking chair in the left third of the frame, beside the white cement wall of her New Mexico studio. One of her canonical six-by-six-feet canvases hangs low to the ground next to her, its horizontal pencil-edge bands running out of the picture to the right. She’s dressed like a plainclothes nun, in comfortable white sneakers, flannel pants, and a collared shirt under a dark cardigan buttoned to the neck. Her hands are set on each armrest with a square assurance that recalls Gertrude Stein, and the photo’s spare formality is reminiscent of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s 1871 portrait of his mother, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1. These elements suggest the perfect stillness associated with Martin’s profoundly absorbing minimalist abstractions and her devotion to painting the uniform square through an exacting process over half a century. Yet there are two subtle disruptions to the calm, details sometimes cropped out of the picture’s bottom edge. That rocker! Those sneakers!

Is it our assumptions about Martin that create her apparent contradictions, or is it the other way around? She has endured the critical paring knife inflicted on all “pure” painters who insist the real world is far removed from their work: We love the smooth, monochrome skin but we also want to get to the juicy pulp, the bitter seeds. Nancy Princenthal’s brisk biography Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art neatly lays out the incongruities: the Martin who insisted that nothing was more important to her than the ocean yet lived most of her life in the desert; Martin the ascetic guru, subsisting through the winter on hard cheese and walnuts and homegrown, preserved tomatoes, yet also the margarita- and steak-loving life of the party who, meeting the president and first lady to receive the National Medal of Arts award in 1998, “appreciated [Hillary Clinton's] personality”; Martin the disciplined practitioner who woke up early every morning to paint, and who admitted, “I don’t get up in the morning until I know exactly what I’m going to do. Sometimes, I stay in bed until about three [in] the afternoon, without any breakfast.” She even had an unlikely passion for fast cars: At the book’s start, we have Rosamund Bernier’s image of Martin “flying” down the dirt road in New Mexico at the wheel of a “white BMW sedan,” and near the end, in the last year of her life, we find Martin in a “spotless” E320 Mercedes. Her art dealer, Arne Glimcher, in turn, discusses her “reckless” habits on the road (she didn’t believe in Stop signs), and recounts going eighty miles per hour with Martin in the passenger seat asking him, “Why are you driving so slow?” What’s clear here is that, despite her apparent serenity, Martin was driven.

Nowhere in Martin’s life is the tension between stillness and its opposite thrown into sharper relief than in her schizophrenia, a subject we learn much more about through Princenthal’s nuanced documentation. The artist’s acute catatonic episodes were short-lived but traumatic ruptures in her artmaking; she experienced paranoia and aural hallucinations—what she called her “voices”—throughout her life. Her illness may have been the context for many of her contradictions, and even her deliberate, laconic parables of art. But Princenthal dismisses the familiar myth of the mad hermit, working without recognition or conscious agency. We realize, instead, that Martin has never really left our consciousness. Particularly not in New York in the past decade, since Catherine de Zegher’s 2005 exhibition at the Drawing Center brought her into the mystical company of Hilma af Klint and Emma Kunz, and since the Dia Art Foundation made a sustained commitment to Martin, one of the only women artists permanently on view at Dia:Beacon, in a triumphant suite of galleries. Lynne Cooke curated an important group of focused exhibitions there from 2005 to 2009 and edited a related anthology of essays and artists’ talks. In 2013, Jutta Koether staged a feverish performance lecture on Martin at Dia Center for the Arts in New York City.

This summer brings more reminders of Martin’s extraordinary practice, which stretches in measured seriality from her first solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons gallery in 1958 until her death in 2004. There is the Tate Modern’s retrospective (the catalogue has a few revelations, including a 1966 portrait of Martin by Diane Arbus and a brief survey of Martin’s reception in Europe, where just twenty of her large-format paintings exist in public collections). Phaidon has reprinted Glimcher’s lush 2012 homage to Martin and their thirty-year dealer-artist relationship, Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances, complete with facsimiles of her handwritten notes, Polaroids from Glimcher’s studio visits in New Mexico, and impeccable reproductions of her drawings and paintings on oversize square pages. And one of Martin’s gnomic parables of love and beauty has just been published as an artist’s book, Religion of Love, edited by her good friend Richard Tuttle, who also provided illustrations. Along with Princenthal’s biography, these are only the latest reincarnations of an artist who claimed that she’d “been on the planet many times before, as men as well as women, and also as children.”

This is one more contradiction, between separateness and communality: If Martin’s Delphic concision in her paintings suggests a world apart, she nonetheless insisted that she had already returned many times over to be a part of this one—of America, specifically, the country she settled in and quixotically wandered through, claiming to have visited every contiguous state. It’s a place where she worked as a hard laborer, teacher, and artist; where she lived in poverty and became very rich. In fact, hers are the great, stark contradictions of America itself, a landscape defined by ocean and desert, urban drive and pastoral stillness, capitalist appetite and Calvinist restraint.

Martin was an incomparable editor of her own work. Her creative process was not so much economical as merciless: Princenthal quotes Martin’s explanation that early in her career “I just painted and threw them away and painted and threw them away until I got at the place where I felt I was doing what I felt I should.” Glimcher also dispels the myth that Martin worked slowly and minimally. In fact, “she painted almost daily,” when she wasn’t suffering from her illness; the compactness of her oeuvre is due to the fact that “she destroyed most of the works she produced,” shredding them with a mat knife.

She was also an incomparable narrator of her own life, despite her wariness of biography’s role in art; but here too she was constantly revising. Princenthal’s book’s most vivid (and, at times, parafictional) passages quote the artist’s own words, including this astonishing recollection of her birth: “I can remember the minute I was born. I thought I was a small figure with a little sword and I was very happy. I thought I would cut my way through life victory after victory. Then, they carried me into my mother and half my victories fell to the ground.”

Martin was born into a family of homesteaders in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan in 1912 (she became a US citizen in 1950), and some of her early recollections “seem borrowed from Little House on the Prairie,” Princenthal astutely observes. As a child, she collected postcards of famous paintings, which she copied—the first glimpse we have of her calling. She worked as a driver for a young John Huston and as a cook in a lumberyard, where “she remembered baking twenty-five pies each morning.” Obtaining a teacher’s certificate in Washington state, Martin ventured to New York in 1941 and enrolled at Teachers College, where the majority of her classes were in studio art. She left shortly after, working a number of jobs in various states before arriving in New Mexico in 1946, where she met Georgia O’Keeffe and Betty Parsons. Martin’s account of spending time in the company of the grande dame O’Keeffe anticipates how others would later describe visiting Martin on her mesa: “Georgia was . . . very intense and exciting to be with, but she drained me. When I left the room for a few minutes, I just had to lie down, right then and there.” In the ’50s, Martin lived in near poverty in Taos, in a place without indoor plumbing but with a great studio, where she began painting in earnest.

At the age of forty-five, still a year from her first New York exhibition, Martin moved back to the city at the urging of Parsons, living with her briefly before moving into an illegal studio in Coenties Slip near the Fulton Fish Market on the East River. Her neighbors were Robert Indiana, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Lenore Tawney, Ann Wilson, and Jack Youngerman. She occupied a huge loft whose spare furnishings included a bathtub in the bedroom and a rocking chair; she and Kelly had breakfast together every day. In 1966, she participated in the Robert Smithson–curated exhibition “10″ at Virginia Dwan Gallery, along with her fellow Abstract Expressionist–generation colleague Ad Reinhardt and a younger crew of emerging Minimalist artists; while “flattered” to be a part of the show, she felt detached from their scene, explaining, “my paintings are not cool.”

Martin abruptly left New York in the summer of 1967, after a series of traumatic events that included the untimely death of Reinhardt, the loss of her loft, and a schizophrenic episode that led to her being committed to Bellevue’s mental hospital, where she underwent electroconvulsive therapy.

Again following a current of the American experience, Martin moved from the ’60s sociability of the New York art scene to the desert-scale wilderness found in ’70s Land art. (One fascinating, if underexplored, aside in the biography concerns Martin’s interest in Earthworks and her unrealized plans for a Zen garden.) Princenthal makes clear that Martin “left” artmaking for just four and a half years, rather than the oft-cited and more biblically symbolic figure of seven. Regardless, it was an intense period of withdrawal: “I am staying unsettled and trying not to talk for three years,” Martin wrote of her plan. She drifted through the Pacific Northwest, Canada, and the American Southwest in a white pickup truck, sleeping in a camper. (She subsequently described these eighteen months as “a camping trip.”) And she continued editing the story of her wanderings years later: “I thought I would withdraw and see how enlightening it would be. But I found out that it’s not enlightening. I think that what you’re supposed to do is stay in the midst of life.”

She ended up in the remote town of Cuba, New Mexico, in 1968, where “she secured a lifetime lease, at ten dollars a month, for fifty acres.” (Her voices had told her not to buy property.) She was fifty-six and, Princenthal writes, “had no telephone and no electricity; rainwater was collected for drinking.” She began building a studio out of adobe and logs, hefting huge stones. As she embarked on this project, one akin to those of the first settlers of the American West, her reputation at the center of an intellectual engagement with postwar abstraction reached its acme back East. Her “return” to art was signaled by a major survey exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in January 1973; one of her paintings graced the April cover of Artforum that same year, and, among several public talks, she delivered a four-thousand-word lecture from memory at the Pasadena Art Museum. By 1975, she was showing with Glimcher at Pace Gallery. A few years later, her lease broken by the landowner, she moved south to Galisteo, a town that would grow to host a thriving arts community. She remained in New Mexico, painting and tearing up the roads, until her death at the age of ninety-two. Her final works return to some of her earliest motifs—basic geometries and gray bands, washes of dusty and overcast color, and the ever-present straight-edge pencil line—suggesting an unwavering perception among wavering visions.

Princenthal has done a heroic service in scouring the glut of sources—reviews, documentaries, interviews, previous publications—for the brightest quotations and strangest anomalies. She strings these together into an engaging narrative interspersed with formal descriptions and bibliographic exegeses of Martin’s paintings, drawings, writings, and single film. Understandably, this leads to some repetition—quotations and ideas sometimes reappear without being developed. You don’t have to know anything about Martin to enjoy this book, though, and I mean that as a compliment. Princenthal’s tone is assured and reassuring; I trusted her, even when I wished she had taken a few more risks in her analysis. (She is kind to everyone who has written about Martin, and qualifies her own conclusions as speculative.) The book generally moves chronologically—the account of Martin’s childhood is riveting, and art geeks will love the anecdotes of ’60s New York—but certain topics continually interrupt the flow (as they do in life itself), most notably Martin’s schizophrenia.

Princenthal’s book offers the frankest discussion to date of the artist’s diagnosis. It examines the shifting perception and treatment of mental illness in the US during Martin’s lifetime, and also the rarity of her condition, which afflicts only 1 percent of the population. In Princenthal’s telling, schizophrenia is central to Martin’s story, even if she sometimes managed to ignore it. But we should not pathologize the painting by directly linking its formal qualities to her illness. She didn’t work when she was suffering from her voices—she would “sit in her studio or at home in her rocking chair and wait,” as one friend remembers—which makes the extreme editing of her paintings that much more remarkable. We do see schizophrenia’s effect in her working process: Her illness forced her to seek out solitude. And it entailed a constant negotiation between what Princenthal calls “vision and thought”: timeless perceptive understanding versus time-bound agitations of the mind. As Jonathan Katz writes, “For Martin, art is an act of willful forgetting, of turning the mind away from thought and back toward perception.” Perception held an interpretive power, unlike her hallucinations, to judge and shape a picture’s experience.

Princenthal is more cautious on the subject of sexuality. “Martin is said to have had romantic relationships with two women artists: Chryssa . . . and Lenore Tawney,” she hedges. She lets others make explicit proclamations. Jack Tilton is quoted as saying that “everyone” knew Parsons and Martin were lovers in the ’50s. (Still, as Princenthal points out, Martin’s name is not mentioned once in Parsons’s interview for the Archives of American Art.) And at a 2012 symposium, Martin’s lifelong friend Kristina Wilson said that she and Martin were also lovers in the ’50s. Martin denied being a lesbian, though. She was an isolationist, refusing to be attached to anyone or any cause; sometimes she even refused a signifying pronoun altogether, referring to individual women with the distant “they.”

Martin’s refusals can best be cast in terms of what they repressed or elided: appetite. Her incredible self-discipline, bred from a strong Calvinist streak, extends beyond intimacy. She was a consummate baker, but she put herself on extreme diets when working so as not to have any distraction. “Sometimes I’ll eat one thing, like bananas, and anytime I get hungry, I say, ‘Agnes, have another banana’ and that’s it, I won’t eat any more,” she told Glimcher. On another visit to her studio, he noted that she was “only eating Knox gelatin mixed with orange juice and bananas.” She defended her parsimoniousness in a lecture at Yale University in April 1976, in which she explained, “In the studio an artist must have no interruptions from himself or anyone else. Interruptions are disasters.” Lest we mistake this for artistic entitlement, we should remember that interruptions, for her, included uninvited voices—”disasters” without exaggeration. She also spoke of appetite as a universal experience, another common ground pushing against her separatism: “There is a great hunger and thirst in all of us for the truth whether we are aware of it or not,” she stated. “To think oneself unique is the height of ignorance. Appetite is of course positive but sometimes in moments of weakness we have an immense yearning to escape.” In place of appetite, Martin celebrated devotion—or drive—the feeling that makes artwork and “literally carries us through life, past all distractions and pitfalls to a perfect awareness of life, to measureless happiness and perfection.”

An unexpected and alluring source of Martin’s sense of devotion goes undeveloped in Princenthal’s book. As an undergraduate researching the artist, Princenthal wrote Martin a letter. Martin sent a long letter back, encouraging her, among other things, to read Walt Whitman. This was not the reply Princenthal had hoped for; like Martin’s statements on art, it signaled a redirection (a misdirection, even) into the poetic ether. But Whitman, America’s champion of sensual, democratic fraternity and self-celebration—a poet who is above all about appetite—was an intriguing choice.

Certainly, Martin’s reference to Whitman has to do with nature, which, paradoxically, was the very thing that let her ignore the outside world and paint; one of her works, as if in acknowledgment, is titled Gratitude. Even in the city, Martin sought out some form of nature to clear her mind, once telling a reporter, “The best thing to do when you stop painting . . . is cross the Brooklyn Bridge.” While most of her works are untitled, a number of early abstract canvases have names evoking landscapes and their objects (she claimed friends helped title them): The Peach, Desert Rain, Buds, Wheat, A Grey Stone, The Tree, Leaves. This, in contrast to the surprising Hallmark lilt of some of her final titles, including Lovely Life, Happiness, Little Children Loving Love, and Affection. Seen through a Whitmanesque lens, the arc of her titles, from nature to absence to sentiment, is not so much contradictory as revealing of an enduring drive for universal communion within the creative self, a continual push and pull between abstraction and metaphor. This tension is part of modernism, but its optimism makes it particularly American.

Maybe, too, Martin admired Whitman’s open embrace of the sublime, despite scolding him in a 1981 text for taking too much personal credit for his expressive perception. After all, ecstasy and agony coexist in her descriptions of her art, despite its order. “All my paintings are about joyful experiences.” And: “Only joyful discoveries count. If you are not making them you are not moving.” We know a little better now the extreme difficulties Martin withstood to reach that joy, how it had to be measured from the other side: “A sense of disappointment and defeat is the essential state of mind for creative work,” she lectured in 1973. “There’s a lot of failure. I’ve said that the ability to recognize failure is the most important talent of an artist.” Such perceptions were her constraint and her freedom—that double-edged sword she wielded her whole life.

August 25th, 2015
ricky swallow

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Ricky Swallow, /SKEWS/
September 12 – October 24, 2015

David Kordansky

August 23rd, 2015
Agnes Martin

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Happy Holiday, 1999
Acrylic paint and graphite on canvas

Through October 13, 2015


August 21st, 2015
Sergej Jensen


September 10th 2015 – October 31th 2015
Opening reception on Thursday, September 10th, 6-9 pm

Daniel Buchholz

August 20th, 2015
Frances Stark and the Art of Narcissism

Frances Stark, who has a Warholian penchant for collecting characters, especially men, with her muse Bobby Jesus (in braids) and his friend Aiookhai El-Bey, a.k.a. “Dubb,” in her studio in L.A.’s Chinatown.Credit Andy Freeberg

T Magazine Published: August 18, 2015

The artist Frances Stark has been known to insist that she is a writer. It’s true that she is the author of many essays, which have been anthologized twice and are marked by a witty, stream-of-consciousness style full of surprising digressions, connections and confessions. It is not uncommon, for instance, for her to reveal that she has taken a pause of a few months in between sentences. But her insistence on being a writer is perhaps also related to the fact that her artwork is marked by a dense, literary quality; she tends to gravitate toward idiosyncratic, unexpected forms of self-expression, from annotations of poetry to conversations in chat rooms to rap, which she refers to as an emancipatory form of autobiography.

To art audiences, Stark is perhaps best known for the work she made for the Venice Biennale in 2011, borne of her experience in the virtual rooms of Chatroulette, an online social portal introduced to her by her students at the University of Southern California, which she used over a period of months to have conversations and virtual sex with men of diverse ages and shapes from around the world. The resulting feature-length video, “My Best Thing” (the title is a reference to one of her lovers’ pet names for his penis), turned the transcripts of Stark’s exchanges with two of the men into conversations spoken by hokey avatars resembling semi-nude Playmobil characters. The topic shifted from hammy erotica to lofty ruminations on creativity to discussions about the Arab Spring, which was unfolding at the time. One of the Biennale’s most talked-about works, the film attracted a steady stream of visitors, myself included, who lingered in its darkened room for suspiciously long spells, captivated by its alluring combination of charm, intellectual rigor and sexual charge.

“My Best Thing” earned Stark a reputation as an artist with little regard for personal boundaries (or, as the art critic Jerry Saltz put it, as an artist who made high art from a “masturbatory tryst with a younger man”). Her popular Instagram feed (@therealstarkiller), which often feels a lot like her art, offers another window into her personal life; on an average day, it might include an image of text messages on her phone (“Everyday I’m hustling,” she writes to her son, Arlo, 12. “LOL,” he responds); a doctored image of the front cover of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” featuring the rapper Sean Paul; and a picture at an L.A. party of herself, Arlo and Bobby Jesus, a young Chicano with long dark plaits whom Stark calls her muse (“Impossible Demographic #thrasher”).

Youthful at 48, Stark hides behind long choppy bangs and has a shy, tomboyish affect only occasionally undercut by astonishing erudition. Many of her artworks rely on complicated backstories involving chance meetings that often take on mythical qualities — how, for instance, in 2010, on a flight from New York to L.A., she met Skerrit Bwoy, then a leading practitioner of “daggering,” a frenetic Jamaican dance style that incorporates wrestling and dry humping, and later staged a performance with him for Performa 11, in which he daggered her, to the shock and confusion of the assembled.

Another such origin story takes place one sunny day in an L.A. skate park in 2012, when Stark spotted a handsome man who was reading a book called “The Art of Seduction.” She struck up a conversation with him about the book, which she recalls made her think of the 18th-century writer and adventurer Giacomo Casanova, whose memoirs she was reading at the time. The two became friends of a sort; when the man, Brandon Martin, texted her weeks later to say that he’d just spent five days in jail on false charges, she, more than a little curious, picked him up at a Metro station and drove him to a friend’s house. At some point during their encounter, Stark had the idea to include Martin in an audio project for which she had been commissioned by the Frieze Art Fair. When they finally met to work on the piece, he suggested his friend Bobby could handle the recording.

The resulting artwork, based on Stark’s encounter with the two young men, was titled “Trapped in the VIP and/or In Mr. Martin’s Inoperable Cadillac.” Stark has an unusual speaking voice, a semi-stoned drawl that is both laconic and vulnerable-sounding, and an ability to listen to people very intently. The threesome’s meandering conversation about race and life in what Bobby referred to as “planet hood” touched on Martin’s impounded car, chronic run-ins with the police and the culture of lynching in the American South — and was installed, with the pitch-perfect sense of social critique that Stark’s admirers have come to expect, in the sound systems of the Frieze BMWs that ferried V.I.P.s to and from the art fair.

Stark, in other words, is an artist who is not afraid of being difficult. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that she exists in that rare Bermuda Triangle of being simultaneously feted by fellow artists and critics (it is not uncommon to hear that she is someone’s “favorite” artist) while remaining relatively unknown to a larger public. Although she is represented by four major international galleries and has two midcareer retrospectives at major American museums this year alone, her work does not bring in the astronomical sums associated with many of her contemporaries, or even, as she wryly observes, some of her former students at U.S.C. At a time when artists are encouraged to produce large, digestible objects for collectors’ homes, Stark persists in producing works — at a slow pace, no less — of extraordinary nuance and complexity. “She’s not exactly making easy-to-sell paintings,” agreed Ali Subotnick, who is curating Stark’s upcoming retrospective at the Hammer Museum at U.C.L.A. “People like artists to produce the same thing over and over, and Frances is constantly changing.”

It is hard to think of any artists who do not somehow mine their personal lives for material, but for Stark, art feeds back into life until it, too, is remade. In the three years since they met, she and Bobby Jesus have become almost inseparable. (“Bobby” is his real name; Stark came up with “Jesus.”) She takes him to exhibitions and parties and has made several works drawn from his life story. After spending time in her orbit, he has ambitions to be a gallerist, and Stark is currently helping him secure a space in an old furniture factory in South Los Angeles. She describes him with an impressive range of terms including friend, confidant, sometime studio help and muse. (“I’m a single mother and Bobby is a brother to my son and we all live together,” she recently wrote to me when I inquired about the nature of their relationship. “Yes Bobby is handsome and sexy and 20 years younger than me and the reader can project on us whatever they want.”) Bobby Jesus, for his part, calls his relationship to Stark a kind of “education,” and his newfound environment “The House of Frances,” like a fashion line.

Of course, there are many women who have made art from their most intimate relationships or sexual exploits. One might think of the artist-writers Sophie Calle, who has revisited letters from jilted and jilting lovers, and Chris Kraus, who diarized her obsessions to thrilling effect in the autobiographical novel “I Love Dick.” But Stark herself admits that her own stance toward Bobby Jesus and the other men she has been inspired by can seem strikingly mannish (“or whatever the female term for womanizer is,” she jokes). Stark’s universe is populated with characters — her lovers, her students, the young disadvantaged men she invites to her studio (a couple of whom have robbed her), her son — whom she supports or “feeds,” and who eventually become her raw material. It is hard not to think of Andy Warhol, who also cultivated a vivid cast of players to star in his dramas, both in real life and in art — treating his Factory as a kind of living social experiment. “People have suggested that it’s exploitative,” Stark confided to me one day about Bobby Jesus. “But he’s aware of what he’s doing. And he wants to be a star.”

Stark has long been interested in the vexed questions of wealth and class, especially as they manifest in the art world where, she says, quoting a friend, everyone works “one-percent adjacent.” She grew up with working-class parents (her father was an electrical engineer; her mother worked for a phone company, plugging in the wire connections “like Lily Tomlin”). As a teenager, Stark describes herself as a “kind of punk rocker”; she was voted “most spirited” in junior high and, at 14 or 15, tattooed a peace symbol on her ankle with a sewing needle, as a way “to wrap my head around the dawn of the Reagan area.” At 21, she set a motorcycle land-speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, her second time on a street bike. She points out that this was well before Rachel Kushner’s novel “The Flamethrowers.”

Her greatest influence might have been the late artist Mike Kelley, with whom Stark studied at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and who better than any other artist captured the dark, angsty spirit of American suburban youth, which included album covers, processions, videos and creepy sculptural assemblages of toys. “He seemed like a rock star basically,” she said in a presentation she made in honor of Kelley in 2014, “but like, insanely intelligent, and also the work had to do with class issues that kind of came up for me.” After graduating, she held various odd jobs, including working at Macy’s in Atlanta in the men’s section selling Tommy Hilfiger and Polo Ralph Lauren (“five out of 10 transactions were theft-related”); chauffeuring the artist Sigmar Polke around Los Angeles; and, with fellow artists Sharon Lockhart and Marnie Weber, painting the walls of Mel Gibson’s Malibu mansion to look faux-old.

There are moments when Stark and her work can seem a welcome antidote to an over-commercialized, gimmick-strewn art world — to represent, as Janet Malcolm once wrote of the avant-garde, “the conscience of the culture, not its id.” But when we met earlier this year at her home, one-half of a classic midcentury modern-style house in South Pasadena stuffed with books and art and comfy chairs, I found her suffering what appeared to be a low-grade nervous breakdown. She had been sick for two weeks and was despairing over at least half a dozen things, including her own ambivalence about her upcoming retrospectives (“What does it mean to be retrospective?”) and her place in contemporary culture. “I’m almost 50 years old and still having to do cartwheels and jumping jacks to get people’s attention,” she said. “I’m exhausted and psychologically falling to pieces. I’m broke, too. Why am I broke?”

It is hard work, being a hero. Such concerns will be familiar to Stark’s admirers; her art bristles with anxieties and self-doubt. Her early works were mostly quiet, ephemeral gestures that spoke to their own fragility. In the early ’90s, for example, she painstakingly copied out the annotations she had found inscribed next to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in a secondhand copy of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land and Other Poems”; separated from the poem itself, the delicate hieroglyphics on drawing paper had a melancholic, ghostly air. She has made collages from her own junk mail, gently raising questions about what constitutes “value” or “waste,” and often equivocates over just how much to expose or disclose (2008’s “The New Vision” was a crudely drawn self-portrait of the artist pulling up her skirt to expose a pair of leggings). “She’s probably the most narcissistic artist I’ve ever worked with,” Subotnick admitted, “but also aware of how that narcissism is integral to her work. She’s not afraid to put anything out there.”

Last December, after disagreements with U.S.C.’s administration, and following a $70 million donation to the university by the rapper Dr. Dre and his associate Jimmy Iovine to create a new Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation, Stark quit her job as a tenured professor at the Roski School of Art and Design. By the time I visited her, the drama involving the university and two of the world’s most iconic music moguls had taken on the noirish undertones of Polanski’s “Chinatown.” Naturally, Stark had already incorporated the ordeal into her work, in the form of a video piece made for the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, to which she had given the appealingly cumbersome title, “Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater b/w Reading the Book of David and/or Paying Attention Is Free.” When I asked her about the piece, she admitted that many critics hadn’t grasped the thickly referential and morally serious work’s meaning at all. “I wasn’t that crazy woman who had sex on the Internet anymore,” she explained.

Still, she shows no sign of compromising. A few months later, I saw her again in Venice during the Biennale. She looked resplendent in a canary yellow dress and happier than I had ever seen her. Her solo show at the Art Institute of Chicago had been well-received and, most satisfying, all of her U.S.C. students had followed her lead and dropped out; the plight had even made the news. She was planning her next work, she added: a “pedagogical opera” set to rap, and based on “The Magic Flute.”

Thanks to John Rubeli

August 19th, 2015
Out of Bethlehem. The radicalization of Joan Didion.

Didion in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, in April, 1967, reporting the story that became “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” “That piece is a blank for me,” she said later.
Photograph by Ted Streshinsky

New Yorker Published : August 24, 2015

In the late spring of 1967, Joan Didion, accompanied by a photojournalist named Ted Streshinsky, began making trips from Berkeley, where she was staying, to Haight-Ashbury, to do research for a piece on the hippies for The Saturday Evening Post. Didion was thirty-two, and she had been a magazine writer for eleven years. She and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, had moved from New York City to Southern California three years earlier, and, in March, 1966, they had adopted a daughter and named her Quintana Roo, after an area on the Yucatán Peninsula.

In the summer of 1967, the Haight was a magnet for people looking for a place to do drugs. Didion hung out mainly with runaways and acidheads. She met people like Deadeye, a dealer, and his old lady, Gerry, who wrote poetry but gave it up after her guitar was stolen. Deadeye tells Didion he is looking for a ride to New York City. She shows him a sign offering a ride to Chicago. He asks her where Chicago is.

She meets Jeff and his fifteen-year-old girlfriend, Debbie, who has run away from home. Didion asks them about their plans. “We’re just gonna let it all happen,” Jeff says. She meets Steve, who says, “I found love on acid. But I lost it. Now I’m finding it again. With nothing but grass.” She meets Vicki, who dropped out of Laguna High, “because I had mono,” and followed the Grateful Dead to San Francisco. She meets a Hare Krishna named Michael, whose brother-in-law explains that “if everybody chanted there wouldn’t be any problem with the police or anybody,” and a five-year-old named Susan, who takes LSD and informs Didion that she is in High Kindergarten.

Didion got plenty of material, but she had no idea how to make a story out of it. Under deadline pressure, she decided to create a verbal montage of scenes from the Haight. She chose a phrase from Yeats’s “The Second Coming” for the title, and, in September, “The Hippie Generation: Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” with photographs by Streshinsky, was a cover story in The Saturday Evening Post. An editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Henry Robbins, encouraged Didion to turn the piece into a book. Nine months later, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” appeared as the title essay in her first collection of nonfiction. It is the phrase everyone knows Joan Didion by.

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is a classic of what was later named the New Journalism. Didion used a vernacular voice that mimicked the laid-back aimlessness of Haight speech. More New Journalistically, she adopted a Haight personality. She blended into the scene; she internalized its confusions. She gave readers the sense that she was putting herself at risk by reporting this story, that she might get sucked into the Haight abyss and become a lost soul, too:

We drink some more green tea and talk about going up to Malakoff Diggings in Nevada County because some people are starting a commune there and Max thinks it would be a groove to take acid in the diggings. He said maybe we could go next week, or the week after, or anyway sometime before his case comes up. Almost everyone I meet in San Francisco has to go to court at some point in the middle future. I never ask why.
“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is not a very good piece of standard journalism, though. Didion did no real interviewing or reporting. The hippies she tried to have conversations with said “Groovy” a lot and recycled flower-power clichés. The cops refused to talk to her. So did the Diggers, who ran a sort of hippie welfare agency in the Haight. The Diggers accused Didion of “media poisoning,” by which they meant coverage in the mainstream press designed to demonize the counterculture.

The Diggers were not wrong. The mainstream press (such as the places Didion wrote for, places like The Saturday Evening Post) was conflicted about the hippie phenomenon. It had journalistic sex appeal. Hippies were photogenic, free love and the psychedelic style made good copy, and the music was uncontroversially great. Around the time Didion was in San Francisco, the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and soon afterward the Monterey Pop Festival was held. D. A. Pennebaker’s film of the concert came out in 1968 and introduced many people to Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Ravi Shankar. Everybody loved Ravi Shankar.

Ravi Shankar did not use drugs, however. The drugs were the sketchy part of the story, LSD especially. People thought that LSD made teen-age girls jump off bridges. By the time Didion’s article came out, Time had run several stories about “the dangerous LSD craze.” And a lot of Didion’s piece is about LSD, people on acid saying “Wow” while their toddlers set fire to the living room. The cover of the Post was a photograph of a slightly sinister man, looking like a dealer, in a top hat and face paint—an evil Pied Piper. That photograph was what the Diggers meant by “media poisoning.”

There was nothing unusual about finding, at the core of a life-style trend of which the use of controlled substances is an integral feature, a group of full-time dropouts. Seven years earlier, the sociologist Ned Polsky had gone to Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side to study the Beats. He found the same mixture Didion found in San Francisco: runaways and people who, when he interviewed them, rehearsed the Beat mantras. Having a job is selling out; politics are a drag; and so on. What they all had in common, Polsky concluded, was drugs. Only a small proportion were addicts, but a Beat’s day was basically about buying and taking drugs.

And there weren’t that many of them. Most of the people who walked around the Village looking like Beats in 1960, like most of the people who walked around San Francisco or Berkeley or Cambridge looking like hippies in 1967, were weekend dropouts. They were contingent rebels. They put on the costumes; they went to the concerts and got high; and then they went back to school or back to work. It was a life style, not a life.

Even if you factored in the contingent leisure force, the hippie counterculture was small. The sensationalized press coverage of the period has left a permanent image of the late nineteen-sixties as a time when everyone was tripping or stoned. In 1967, when Didion’s article came out, only one per cent of college students reported having tried LSD. In 1969, only four per cent of adults said they had smoked marijuana. Recreational drug use soared in the nineteen-seventies, but the press was no longer interested. The whole thing had stopped being sexy.

Didion presented her article as an investigation into what she called “social hemorrhaging.” She suggested that what was going on in Haight-Ashbury was the symptom of some sort of national unravelling. But she knew that, at the level of “getting the story,” her piece was a failure. She could see, with the X-ray clarity she appears to have been born with, what was happening on the street; she could make her readers see it; but she couldn’t explain it.

In the preface to the book, she noted that no one had understood the article. “I had never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point,” she wrote. A few years later, in a radio interview on KPFR, she blamed herself. “Usually on a piece there comes a day when you know you never have to do another interview,” she said. “You can go home, you’ve gotten it. Well, that day never came on that piece. . . . That piece is a blank for me still.”

People liked the collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (though it was not, at first, a big seller). People were intrigued by “Play It as It Lays,” Didion’s second novel, which came out two years later (though it got some hostile reviews). Mainly, though, everyone was fascinated by the authorial persona, the hypersensitive neurasthenic who drove a Corvette Sting Ray, the frail gamine with the migraine headaches and the dark glasses and the searchlight mind, the writer who seemed to know in her bones what readers were afraid to face, which is that the center no longer holds, the falcon cannot hear the falconer, the story line is broken.

Didion created the part—she was a master of the author photo—and she could have played it right up to the final curtain. But, after “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “Play It as It Lays,” she completely reassessed not only her practice as a journalist but her understanding of American life, her politics, and even the basis of her moral judgments. She decided she wanted to get what she had failed to get with the hippies. She wanted to get the story.

Tracy Daugherty’s “The Last Love Song” (St. Martin’s) is a biography of Joan Didion written partly in the style of Joan Didion, a style of ellipses, fragments, and refrains. This is not what you ideally want in a biography. The point of a biography is to reveal what’s behind the ellipses. Daugherty operated under difficulties, though. He was unable to persuade Didion to coöperate, and it’s obvious that many people close to Didion refused to talk to him as well.

That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t thorough. He had access to Didion’s papers, housed at Berkeley, and a large amount of information was already out there. For someone with a reputation for being guarded and tongue-tied, Didion did a lot of promotion. She went on book tours and submitted to profiles. She did radio; she did television; she talked to Publishers Weekly. It added up.

She also wrote obsessively about herself—not only in her memoirs, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” about the death of her husband, and “Blue Nights,” about the death of her daughter, but in reported pieces and in personal essays, which she started producing almost as soon as she started publishing. (She eventually got bored with the genre and gave it up. “I didn’t want to become Miss Lonelyhearts,” she said.) She once delivered a lecture called “Why I Write.” She began by pointing out that the sound you hear in those three words is “I, I, I.”

Much of “The Last Love Song” is therefore an intelligent and elegant paraphrase of things Didion has already said or written. There is some sniping from the odd acquaintance or estranged friend, but revelations weren’t in the cards. The “real” Didion Daugherty shows us is just the obverse of the image: ambitious (hence the anxiety), controlling (hence the brittleness), and chic (hence the Corvette).

You could work up a dichotomy here, but it doesn’t get you very far. Didion and Dunne made an excellent living as Hollywood screenwriters and script doctors. They lived in Malibu and then in Brentwood Park, O.J.’s old nabe, and were part of the Hollywood talent élite. Dunne’s brother Dominick was a producer for movies and television; their nephew was Griffin Dunne, the actor. And Didion knows something about fashion and style—she began her career at Mademoiselle and Vogue. But there’s no reason that any of this should be incompatible with one day writing about death squads in El Salvador.

John Dunne was a gregarious man, a social drinker and a raconteur, and he and Didion worked up a sort of Penn and Teller routine. One sang, the other mostly didn’t. They rarely gave separate audiences. If you asked to speak to one, you almost invariably spoke to both, even on the telephone. “I was at first surprised that John Dunne sat through most of the interview and did nearly all the talking,” Susan Braudy wrote after interviewing Didion for Ms., in 1977. Didion’s explanation is that she isn’t a talker; she’s a writer. “I’m only myself in front of my typewriter,” she finally told Braudy. There is no reason to doubt this. The person we’re interested in is the person on the page.

It’s a common mistake, in assessing Didion’s work, to interpret her sensibility as a reflection of the times—to imagine, as Daugherty puts it, that she has “always spoken for us.” That’s certainly not the way she has presented herself. In a column she started writing for Life in 1969, she introduced herself as “a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people.” She’s not like us. She’s weird. That’s why we want to read her.

Didion came from a family of Republicans. She was born in Sacramento in 1934, a fifth-generation Californian. Her father started out in insurance, speculated in real estate, and ended up spending most of his career in the military, a very California trifecta. Turned down by Stanford, Didion attended Berkeley, in an era when campus life was socially conventional and politically dormant. In 1955, she won a guest editorship at Mademoiselle and spent a few months in New York City. A year later, she won a similar contest at Vogue, and she moved to New York in the fall of 1956 and began her magazine career there. Leaving home, she later said, “just seems part of your duty in life.”

Didion worked at Vogue for ten years. She continued to write for Mademoiselle, and, in 1960, she began contributing to The National Review, William F. Buckley’s conservative weekly. She wrote pieces about John Wayne, her favorite movie star, and, in the 1964 Presidential election, she voted for Barry Goldwater. She adored Goldwater. It was hardly a surprise that she found Haight-Ashbury repugnant. Her editors at the Post understood perfectly how she would react. They designed the cover before she handed in the piece.

Didion’s transformation as a writer did not involve a conversion to the counterculture or to the New Left. She genuinely loathed the hippies, whom she associated with characters like Charles Manson, and she thought that the Black Panthers and the student radicals were both frightening and ridiculous. She found Jim Morrison kind of ridiculous, too. Polsky, in his study of the Beats, had dismissed the theory, endorsed by some social critics in the nineteen-fifties, that disaffected dropouts are potential recruits for authoritarian political movements. Didion never rejected that theory. She thinks that dropouts are symptoms of a dangerous social pathology.

What changed was her understanding of where dropouts come from, of why people turn into runaways and acidheads and members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, why parents abandon their children on highway dividers, why Harlem teen-agers go rampaging through Central Park at night, why middle-class boys form “posses” and prey sexually on young girls—and, above all, why the press fixates on these stories.

Didion later said that her period of self-doubt began around 1966. “Everything I was taught seems beside the point,” she wrote in Life in 1969. “The point itself seems increasingly obscure.” She had said something similar in her piece about the hippies: “We had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing.”

Most readers would have had a hard time knowing exactly what rules she was talking about, or what “the point” was that everything seemed beside. She probably didn’t have a very clear idea herself. Her moment of insight came in 1971 or 1972, during a summer visit with Quintana, then five or six, to Old Sacramento, an area of the city reconstructed to look like downtown Sacramento, where Didion’s father’s great-grandfather owned a saloon, circa 1850.

She began telling Quintana about all the ancestors who had once walked on those sidewalks, and then she remembered that Quintana was adopted. Quintana had no relationship to Old Sacramento and its sidewalks and saloons. And this thought made her realize, as she put it later, that, “in fact, I had no more attachment to this wooden sidewalk than Quintana did: it was no more than a theme, a decorative effect.” Looking back, she decided that this was the moment when the story she had grown up with—“the entire enchantment under which I had lived my life”—began to seem foreign.

Didion described the Old Sacramento episode in her book about California, “Where I Was From.” That book, with its grammatically pointed title (the phrase, of course, is “where I am from”), was published in 2003, but she had tried to write it thirty years earlier. She decided to wait until her parents were dead.

She also changed her publishing venue. She began writing for The New York Review of Books in 1973, at first about the movies, but increasingly about politics. Her editor there, Robert Silvers, was one of the people not interviewed by Daugherty, and this leaves a major hole in the biography. For Silvers was the key figure in Didion’s journalistic transformation. Her books “Salvador” (1983), “Miami” (1987), and “Political Fictions” (2001) are all based on pieces she wrote for him.

In 1988, after she and Dunne returned to New York, she began writing for The New Yorker as well. Daugherty didn’t interview her editors there, including Robert Gottlieb and Tina Brown. Yet many of the essays in the nonfiction collection “After Henry” (1992) and important parts of “Where I Was From” were first published in The New Yorker. (Full disclosure: you are reading this piece in The New Yorker.)

“Where I Was From” is the central book in Didion’s career. The subject is American self-deception. The California version has to do with what Didion calls “the crossing story as origin myth.” This is the legend of the pioneers in covered wagons who trekked across the Rockies and settled the state, the men and women who made the desert bloom—Didion’s ancestors. It’s a story about independence, self-reliance, and loyalty to the group. Growing up, Didion had been taught that for the generations that followed the challenge was to keep those virtues alive. There was always a new wave of settlers ready to sell out the pioneer spirit.

After the Old Sacramento moment, Didion came to see the whole pioneer mystique as bogus from the start. The cultivation of California was not the act of rugged pioneers, she decided. It was the act of the federal government, which built the dams and the weirs and the railroads that made the state economically exploitable, public money spent on behalf of private business. Didion called it “the subsidized monopolization” of the state.

Big business had always run California. First, there were the ranches, then the corporate agribusinesses, and then, after the Second World War, the aeronautics industry, Boeing and Douglas, Lockheed and Rockwell. Defense contracts and government-funded infrastructure kept these businesses flush. Everyone else was a pawn in the game, living in a fantasy of hardy individualism and cheering on economic growth that benefitted only a few.

Social stability was a mirage. It lasted only as long as the going was good for business. When conditions got cheaper elsewhere or defense contracts shrank or mergers became appealing, the plants were shut down, workers were laid off, and the middle-class dream vanished in the smog. “This process,” Didion wrote, “one of trading the state to outside owners in exchange for their (it now seems) entirely temporary agreement to enrich us . . . had in fact begun at the time Americans first entered the state, took what they could, and, abetted by the native weakness for boosterism, set about selling the rest.”

When the social structure starts to crack is when the dropouts and the delinquents and the crazies turn up. These are not people who don’t know the rules. These are people who can see, without understanding why, that the rules no longer make sense. But, once people like that are thrown out of the system, once they become druggies or panhandlers or abusers of various sorts, no one wants them back in. They get scapegoated. Individual moral failure is taken to be the problem. It can’t be the system.

Part of wagon-train morality was leaving the weakest behind to freeze in the mountain passes. Survival, not caring, is what Didion thinks that ethos finally boiled down to—“careless self-interest and optimism,” the California mentality. California’s answer to the problem of broken people was to build more prisons to put them in.

Didion’s most famous work in this mode is “Sentimental Journeys,” her article on the Central Park Jogger, which appeared in The New York Review in 1991. “Sentimental Journeys” is not really about the crime—the beating and rape in Central Park, in 1989, of a young white professional named Trisha Mieli—and it’s not about the trial of the mostly African-American teen-agers who were supposed to have confessed to it. The article is really about the coverage.

There were 3,255 reported rapes in New York City in 1989, some of them horrific. The press and the politicians seized on the Jogger story, Didion thought, because they saw a way to make it into an exemplary tale. The key to that story was that Mieli, although terribly battered, survived. Her personal fortitude could be made a symbol of the fortitude that all true New Yorkers display when the healthy frictions inherent in the city’s “gorgeous mosaic,” as its mayor, David Dinkins, called it, spin temporarily, if tragically, out of control. Nous sommes the Jogger.

Didion argued that Mieli’s story was milked to distract attention from the city’s underlying problems—specifically, the decay of its economic base, a condition that had been laid bare by the stock-market crash of October 19, 1987, Black Monday. “Stories in which terrible crimes are inflicted on innocent victims,” she wrote, “have long performed as the city’s endorphins, a built-in source of natural morphine working to blur the edges of real and to a great extent insoluble problems.” (Son of Sam may have performed a similar role in the nineteen-seventies, the “Bronx is burning” decade.)

Didion thinks that this is why the press latches on to stories like the Jogger’s. It’s not because those stories tell us who we are. It’s because they don’t. They leave unexamined and untouched the class antagonisms and economic failures that are the underlying causes of socially destructive events. Personal stories feed the American illusion that the system is never the cause of anything. Those stories are always about fortitude, character, loyalty to the group.

The journalistic nut of the Jogger piece is the case of Laurie Sue Rosenthal. She was the mistress of an assistant city commissioner for elevator and boiler inspections, a man named Peter Franconeri, who happened to own an apartment at 36 East Sixty-eighth Street, between Madison and Park, and a house in Southampton. On the night of April 26, 1990, Rosenthal called her parents, in Queens, from the Sixty-eighth Street apartment and said she was being beaten. Sometime after that call, she died. In the morning, Franconeri rolled her body up in a carpet, put it out with the building’s trash, and went to work.

The story did get into the papers, but officials downplayed the significance. “There were some minor bruises,” said a spokeswoman for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. A police officer complained to a reporter about Franconeri, “Everybody got upside down because of who he was. If it happened to anyone else, nothing would have come of it. A summons would have been issued and that would have been the end of it.”

Essentially, it was. Laurie Sue Rosenthal was determined to have suffered an accidental death from the combined effects of alcohol and Darvocet. Franconeri pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and got seventy-five hours of community service. The suspects in the Jogger case got sentences of five to fifteen years, for crimes including a rape that, it turned out, they had not committed. But the Central Park suspects did not belong to what Didion called “the conspiracy of those in the know, those with a connection, those with a rabbi at the Department of Sanitation or the Buildings Department or the School Construction Authority or Foley Square, the conspiracy of those who believed everybody got upside down because of who it was, it happened to anybody else, a summons gets issued and that’s the end of it.”

“Sentimental Journeys” was a brilliant interpretation of the Jogger story, and an impressive display of journalistic intuition. Didion was right to suspect that the accused teen-agers were wrongly convicted, something that was not established until 2002. She was wrong to suspect, though, that the city was on the rocks. Her hunch was that a shift from manufacturing to financial-services jobs was unsustainable. It did look that way for a while. But after 1992 the market took off, real-estate values along with it, and the city has not looked back. It is no longer fear of violent crime that is driving the middle class out of Manhattan.

Didion has always disliked interviewing. This is partly a matter of temperament: she doesn’t think on her feet; she thinks in front of a keyboard. But it’s also because she is convinced that you don’t learn anything from interviews. “It doesn’t matter to me what people say to me in the interview,” she has said, “because I don’t trust it.” She considers reporters who fetishize the personal interview vacuous. “In any real sense,” she wrote in a piece on the best-selling books by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, “these books are ‘about’ nothing but the author’s own method.” She prefers documents, and most of her political journalism is based on a careful reading of newspaper stories, press releases, hearing transcripts, and the like.

This makes her later work, particularly the pieces collected in “Political Fictions,” which treat subjects like the Iran-Contra affair and the Starr Report, seem a little more like literary criticism than like reporting. Didion was an English major at Berkeley at a time when close reading was the gold standard in literary analysis, and Daugherty suggests that those methods stuck with her. She has said as much herself.

There is a small but immitigable fallacy in the theory of close reading, though, and it applies to political journalism as well as to the reading of poetry. The text doesn’t reveal its secrets just by being stared at. It reveals its secrets to those who already pretty much know what secrets they expect to find. Texts are always packed, by the reader’s prior knowledge and expectations, before they are unpacked. The teacher has already inserted into the hat the rabbit whose production in the classroom awes the undergraduates.

Didion interprets the political text of American life according to a set of beliefs about disparities of wealth and class. She arrived at those assumptions worthily: by analyzing her own education and experience. And that’s what she sees when she reads the newspaper or follows a campaign. She is never less than amazed by the willingness of everyone in the press to pretend, in the name of keeping the show going, that American life is really not about money and power.

In 1988, she covered Michael Dukakis’s campaign for President. Dukakis was having “regular guy” problems running against George H. W. Bush, a Connecticut blueblood who had somehow managed to trans-class himself into a self-made Texan. It was just the sort of non-issue issue that Didion thinks has completely divorced electoral politics from the needs of the actual electorate. To address the guy gap, Dukakis and his aides came up with the plan of having the candidate, whenever his plane landed somewhere, play catch with his press secretary on the tarmac. Reporters duly filmed this performance, often in hundred-degree heat, to be shown on the evening news. It was, as Didion wrote, “a repeated moment witnessed by many people all of whom believed it to be a setup yet most of whom believed that only an outsider, only someone too ‘naïve’ to know the rules of the game, would so describe it.”

She thinks that this is how what she calls “the permanent political class”—the press, the talk-show experts, the campaign strategists, the political parties, even the candidates themselves—has rigged the game. Everyone knows that what you see in politics is fake or confected, but everyone’s O.K. with that, because it’s all been focus-grouped.

One topic that Didion does like to talk about is writing. “I learned a lot of fictional technique” from script writing, she explained to Hilton Als, in an interview in 2006. And the novels are screenplay-like. She told Als that she became impatient with “the conventions of writing,” like description. Her scenes tend to be story-boarded—this character is here, that character is there. The main action is the dialogue.

You can see from the deftness and precision of that dialogue why she and Dunne were in such demand as script doctors. Although Didion’s novels are lurid enough, much of the speech is comic, in a gimlet-eyed, dead-end sort of way. But the books are literary caterpillars, texts that seem to be seeking their ultimate realization in the form of a motion picture.

The fiction has been influential: Bret Easton Ellis, who went to college with Quintana, is a sworn disciple. But Didion’s nonfiction is what sets her apart. Daugherty thinks that it was the Vogue years that made the prose Didionesque, and this seems right. Didion is the quintessential magazine writer. Her books are short. “I always aim for a reading in one sitting,” she told Als, and that is how people normally read magazine pieces. The job of the magazine writer is never to give readers a reason to stop before they reach the end.

The No. 1 sin in print journalism is repetition. Pages are money; editorial space is finite. Writers who waste it don’t last. Conditions demand a willingness to compress and a talent for concision. The ellipses and the refrains that characterize much of Didion’s writing are methods of economizing the exposition and managing the reader’s experience, ways of getting the reader to participate in the job of making sense of whatever it is, hippies or someone who once wrote about hippies, that the writer is trying to think through. ♦

August 18th, 2015
The Roller Rink Origins of N.W.A.

The exterior of Skateland U.S.A. Credit Craig Schweisinger

NY Times Published: AUG. 13, 2015

Craig Schweisinger opened the doors to Skateland U.S.A. on Saturday, Nov. 16, 1984. High schoolers mingled with gangbangers and roller skaters who took their choreography seriously. A sign reading NO CAPS — NO COLORS greeted attendees at the door.

Everyone was required to pass through an airport-style metal detector Schweisinger installed as part of his permit arrangement with the Compton Police Department. Schweisinger hated the local cops in the Los Angeles County city, and preferred to use his own security detail composed of neutral enforcers from the neighborhood. His system of order was predicated on mutual respect: He gave it to every street kid who came in, and they returned it to him in kind. Being tough was an occupational necessity; being fair was his choice.

In a city Balkanized by gangs, Skateland became a refuge. Schweisinger thought the skating business could be successful. He didn’t imagine that within few months his rink would become the most important hip-hop venue in the history of South Los Angeles.

When he opened Skateland, all Schweisinger knew of rap was that it was what his clientele wanted to hear. A balding, 38-year-old former surfer, he grew up in nearby Torrance, where he went to dances at the Rollerdrome to listen to the music of the Pendletones, soon to become the Beach Boys. In the four years he operated Skateland, Schweisinger would be the only white face regularly seen in the club that gave birth to a local group called Niggaz With Attitude.

1950 North Central Avenue started its life as the Woodley Lewis Sportsman Bowl. In 1962, Lewis — a Compton native who had been among the first players to break the color barrier in the N.F.L. — took the money he’d earned as a star defensive back for the Los Angeles Rams and invested in a 36-lane bowling alley with an attached restaurant and cocktail lounge. Its opening marked the first wave of black entrepreneurship in Compton. Lewis proudly hung an award plaque sent to him by Chivas Regal. In 1963, his establishment was the brand’s highest-grossing merchant in South Los Angeles.

Next door to the Sportsman Bowl was the Dooto Music Center, an entertainment complex established by Walter Williams, known as Dootsie. Williams amassed a fortune as a record producer — for the Penguins, whose 1954 single “Earth Angel” became a doo-wop standard, and then for a string of local black club comics, including Redd Foxx, George Kirby and Sloppy Daniels, all of whom released their first LPs on the Dooto label. Dootsie’s complex was a combined recording studio, film and television production facility and 1,000-seat auditorium. He envisioned a black-operated entertainment conglomerate: Compton’s own NBC.

The prosperous future that Williams and Lewis intended for southern Central Avenue didn’t survive the 1965 Watts riots. Compton escaped the arson and looting that ravaged neighborhoods to the north, but it couldn’t withstand the psychological fallout. The middle class fled Compton in the late 1960s, decimating business at the bowling alley. Lewis was subsequently arrested for bookmaking in 1970. Shortly thereafter, the inside of his Sportsman Bowl was destroyed in a fire of mysterious origin. Dootsie relocated his investments to Mexico, leaving a young Compton hustler, Lonzo Williams, to operate Dooto’s as a nightclub, while copper thieves gradually stripped the vacant Bowl for every inch of pipe and wire.

The Bowl lay dormant until the late 1970s, when Schweisinger — then a budding commercial real estate agent with an eye for investments — was invited to take his first look inside, armed with a wide-beam flashlight. A series of sunlit cracks spread like white veins across the domed ceiling. When Schweisinger turned his beam onto the floor, he saw a lake of stagnant water covering all 36 lanes, the polished floorboards contorted like the tracks of a roller coaster. From the mud that coated the old cocktail lounge, he excavated Woodley Lewis’s Chivas Regal plaque.

The property offered 40,000 square feet on three acres, and the asking price had dropped to $300,000. Schweisinger calculated that within a few years, he could turn a profit just by renting out the parking lot for truck storage. In the meantime, he fielded plans from prospective operators. The one idea he kept hearing was for a roller rink. Skating was hot, but no one from the neighborhood had the start-up money to make it happen. Conversely, nobody with financial credentials wanted anything to do with Compton.

Though he lived with his family in the Orange County suburb of Westminster, Schweisinger was at ease in the inner city. Growing up in the South Bay, he worked shifts in the grocery store his father owned on Avalon and Imperial, two blocks north of the flash point of the 1965 riots. On the second night of unrest, the Schweisingers were glued to the television. Helicopter coverage showed dozens of looters running from their store with sides of beef, sodas and anything else they could carry out. Schweisinger’s father, Fred, had to turn away from the screen.

V&F Foods burned to the ground that August along with many of the other businesses along Avalon. The Schweisingers’ insurance company classified the riot as an insurrection and refused to cover the damages. The only thing that survived was an unopened barrel of pickles — “Too heavy to loot, I guess,” Schweisinger recalls. He rolled the charred barrel back to Torrance, and the kids on his block ate kosher dills for the rest of the summer.

Fred Schweisinger thought his son was crazy to gamble on commercial property in Compton. To make his case, Schweisinger took his father on a reconnaissance mission to World on Wheels, a former bowling alley on Venice Boulevard that was converted to a roller rink in 1981. Schweisinger hadn’t gone skating since the days of the Torrance Rollerdrome. World on Wheels was another planet. To the local, predominantly black teenagers, it was more than a skating rink: It was a nightclub in orbit. The D.J.s played music unknown to pop radio. On weekends, hundreds paid cash at the door to be part of it.

Word spread that Compton was getting its own rink. A World on Wheels veteran named Jerry Woodard offered to be the floor manager. Kevin Mallett, a promotions manager at the pioneering hip-hop radio station KDAY, offered free on-air advertising. Eventually, even Lonzo Williams came over from Dooto’s to investigate. Knowing how important music was to the skating experience, Williams extended the services of the fledgling D.J. team he managed. In order of age, the World Class Wreckin’ Cru consisted of 16-year-old Antoine Carraby, a.k.a. D.J. Yella; 17-year-old Marquette Hawkins, a.k.a. Cli-N-Tel; and 18-year-old Andre Young, a.k.a. Dr. Dre.

KDAY’s programmer and leading on-air personality, Greg Mack, paid to install a broadcast line so he could host “The Mack Attack” live from the floor of Skateland on Saturday nights. Schweisinger’s older employees warned against bringing in the rap crowd, saying it would ruin the skate business. He had no choice; he needed income from the concerts to stay afloat. Soon Compton’s first fledgling rap acts were rolling through: Mix Master Spade and Toddy Tee, Rodney-O and Joe Cooley, Uncle Jamm’s Army. Those shows were so popular that Mack started bringing out the big rap stars from the East Coast. EPMD, Queen Latifah and the Real Roxanne all played Skateland on early visits to Los Angeles.

The biggest show in Skateland history was Jan. 2, 1987. Eric B. and Rakim had one single to their name — “Eric B. Is President” backed with “My Melody” — but the Long Island duo was already revered on both coasts. Skateland’s official maximum capacity was 1,720. That night, it let in 3,000 and had to turn the rest away. Schweisinger was amazed at the nervousness New York rappers betrayed backstage. “We safe out there?” Schweisinger recalls Rakim asking, referring to what he’d heard about street life in Compton. “Out there, I don’t know,” Schweisinger said. “In here, you’re safe.”

The year Skateland opened, there were 212 gang-related homicides in Los Angeles County. By 1988, that number was pushing 500.

One hundred and fifty blocks northwest of Skateland, World on Wheels was imploding. Its midcity location, once an advantage, had become its downfall: It was surrounded by territory claimed by three rival Crip groups, and its immense unfenced parking lot offered quick escapes onto two busy boulevards, Venice and Pico. By 1986, the gangbanging outside the rink overshadowed anything that happened inside it. Drive-by shootings made the venue inhospitable to non-gang members looking only to skate or dance.

Because Skateland was nestled deep in Blood territory, the property wasn’t subject to the turf wars that plagued its competitor. Despite the official “no caps, no colors” policy, the crowd was typically a sea of red. But in four years, Schweisinger experienced only two shootings: once when a member of Mix Master Spade’s crew accidentally discharged his gun in the D.J. booth, and once when a local dealer was jumped at the entrance gate while picking up his kids from a Sunday skate.

On show nights at Skateland, Compton police officers and L.A. County sheriffs patrolled Central Avenue, waiting to shake down carloads of teenagers. Inside, Schweisinger’s security detail carried firearms in case of emergency. Though no gun was ever confiscated, the metal detector did its job; each weekend ended with a shoe box full of carpet cutters, surgical scissors and nail files.

After concerts, Schweisinger and his crew would spend hours cleaning the rink, which was inevitably littered with chewing gum, crushed Pepsi cups and a slick of melted “curl custard” — every kid in Compton wanted a Michael Jackson perm. Schweisinger let his employees and their friends hang around through the long cleanup. One of the regulars was Eric Wright, a young dealer who lived a few blocks from Dr. Dre, near Kelly Park in southeastern Compton.

Wright had designs on owning a record label. While the rink was cleared of debris, he and Dre played records and improvised raps in the D.J. booth. In the wee hours, when work was over, bottles of E&J brandy were mixed with leftover Pepsi, and domino tournaments began. “I’d never seen dominoes played like that,” Schweisinger says. “They slapped them down so hard it nearly broke the [expletive] table. I still like the taste of E&J because of those nights.”

Musical alliances, like gangs, were forged based on geography. Dre’s cousin Sir Jinx had a group called C.I.A. with his Inglewood neighbor, a 17-year-old named O’Shea Jackson who called himself Ice Cube. Soon Cube and Jinx were skipping the lines at Skateland as part of Dre’s entourage. Eric Wright enlisted Cube to write the raps for a New York-based group he was managing called H.B.O., or Home Boys Only. When the East Coasters scoffed at lines about ’64 Impalas and gang signs, Dre convinced Wright to perform the song himself.

Wright wasn’t naturally musical, but he knew Compton. As Schweisinger puts it, “Dre was always Dre, and Cube was always Cube,” but Wright put on a pair of wraparound shades and suddenly became Eazy-E. At Skateland in the fall of 1987, Eazy performed the song H.B.O. had rejected, “The Boyz-N-The Hood.” C.I.A. opened, and Cube stole the night with a rhyme called “My Penis” set to the tune of Run-DMC’s “My Adidas.” The rink roared its approval.

“The Boyz-N-The Hood” was such a hit within the neighborhood that Dre, Eazy and Cube merged their crews to form a super group that specialized in the music beloved by the Skateland crowd. Initially, the collective involved about 20 rappers and D.J.s, but eventually the core was whittled down to Eazy, Dre, Cube, Yella and a teenage associate from Eazy’s block named Lorenzo Patterson, a.k.a. MC Ren.

In March 1988, Schweisinger hosted their first concert together as Niggaz With Attitude. The local papers labeled their music “gangster rap,” but no one in N.W.A. was in a gang. They didn’t wear red, or blue. They wore black.

“The fuse was always lying around,” Schweisinger says. “I was always hoping it wouldn’t get lit.” A single police incident on the premises would endanger the conditional use permit Compton City Council had reluctantly granted him. He understood from working for his dad’s store that burglaries, fights and assorted insurance claims were the cost of operating in a poverty-stricken area. At the outset, he figured that if Skateland lasted a year, he could consider himself lucky. That he made it four years without serious incident was a miracle. Every year he stayed open, he felt he was pushing his luck.

By 1988, the street scene in Compton had become more vicious than anything Schweisinger had seen before. The local dealers were making more and more money, and a few of Schweisinger’s employees had been caught stealing from the till to support their crack addictions. For Schweisinger, the last straw came after a local drug kingpin held the entire staff hostage over a paper bag containing $15,000 in cash; it had disappeared from his locker during a private skate lesson. Schweisinger gathered his employees and told them that no one would be held accountable as long as the bag and its contents were returned. Later that night, he received an anonymous phone call. The bag had been dropped in the bushes in front of the rink. He listed the property the following month, just as Eazy-E’s first full-length album was hitting stores.

Skateland closed for good after a concert by Tone-Loc on Christmas Day 1988. The following January, Schweisinger drove down to Mexico to sell 500 pairs of used skates to a rink in Tijuana. That spring, the debut album by a group of his former teenage associates would forever change the meaning of the name Compton.

Schweisinger became a councilman in Westminster, and later in Henderson, Nev., where he lives today. He never saw Eazy or Dre again, though he would occasionally pay Ice Cube a visit if he was playing Anaheim. “If I could get word I was from Skateland,” Schweisinger says, “they always, always let me in.”

At 1950 North Central, the facade that Woodley Lewis built still stands, as does the fence that Schweisinger erected to curtail drive-bys. The rink itself is now used as a storage facility for Kizure Products, a prominent vendor of curling irons, hot combs and other hairstyling tools. Schweisinger’s son, Todd, keeps a number of the old neon-hued Skateland posters on the wall of his office at Clemson University in South Carolina, where he teaches mechanical engineering. His students refuse to believe he ever met Dr. Dre.

In the back of Schweisinger’s closet in Henderson hangs his blue manager’s jacket. At Skateland’s peak, he had satin jackets made up for everyone who worked on the crew or D.J.ed there. On one occasion, they drove to World on Wheels to check out the competition and to skate. Schweisinger entered: a balding blond guy in his 40s, surrounded by a team of black teenagers. While they were lacing up, a gangster leered at them. “Oh, y’all from that Blood rink?”

“No,” Schweisinger said. “We’re from Compton.”

August 14th, 2015
10 sculptures

Katharina Fritsch
Hexenhaus und Pilz mit vier Kugel (Witch’s House and Mushroom with Four Balls)
Painted aluminum, wood, polyester and paint
Overall: 67 x 86 x 86 inches; 170 x 218 x 218 cm

Through August 29, 2015

Matthew Marks

August 10th, 2015
Coca-Cola Funds Scientists Who Shift Blame for Obesity Away From Bad Diets

NY Times Published: AUGUST 9, 2015

Coca-Cola, the world’s largest producer of sugary beverages, is backing a new “science-based” solution to the obesity crisis: To maintain a healthy weight, get more exercise and worry less about cutting calories.

The beverage giant has teamed up with influential scientists who are advancing this message in medical journals, at conferences and through social media. To help the scientists get the word out, Coke has provided financial and logistical support to a new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network, which promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise.

“Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, ‘Oh they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much’ — blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on,” the group’s vice president, Steven N. Blair, an exercise scientist, says in a recent video announcing the new organization. “And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”

Health experts say this message is misleading and part of an effort by Coke to deflect criticism about the role sugary drinks have played in the spread of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. They contend that the company is using the new group to convince the public that physical activity can offset a bad diet despite evidence that exercise has only minimal impact on weight compared with what people consume.

This clash over the science of obesity comes in a period of rising efforts to tax sugary drinks, remove them from schools and stop companies from marketing them to children. In the last two decades, consumption of full-calorie sodas by the average American has dropped by 25 percent.

“Coca-Cola’s sales are slipping, and there’s this huge political and public backlash against soda, with every major city trying to do something to curb consumption,” said Michele Simon, a public health lawyer. “This is a direct response to the ways that the company is losing. They’re desperate to stop the bleeding.”

Coke has made a substantial investment in the new nonprofit. In response to requests based on state open-records laws, two universities that employ leaders of the Global Energy Balance Network disclosed that Coke had donated $1.5 million last year to start the organization.

Since 2008, the company has also provided close to $4 million in funding for various projects to two of the organization’s founding members: Dr. Blair, a professor at the University of South Carolina whose research over the past 25 years has formed much of the basis of federal guidelines on physical activity, and Gregory A. Hand, dean of the West Virginia University School of Public Health.

Records show that the network’s website, gebn.org, is registered to Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, and the company is also listed as the site’s administrator. The group’s president, James O. Hill, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said Coke had registered the website because the network’s members did not know how.

“They’re not running the show,” he said. “We’re running the show.”

Coca-Cola’s public relations department repeatedly declined requests for an interview with its chief scientific officer, Rhona Applebaum, who has called attention to the new group on Twitter. In a statement, the company said it had a long history of supporting scientific research related to its beverages and topics such as energy balance.

“We partner with some of the foremost experts in the fields of nutrition and physical activity,” the statement said. “It’s important to us that the researchers we work with share their own views and scientific findings, regardless of the outcome, and are transparent and open about our funding.”

Dr. Blair and other scientists affiliated with the group said that Coke had no control over its work or message and that they saw no problem with the company’s support because they had been transparent about it.

But as of last week, the group’s Twitter and Facebook pages, which promote physical activity as a solution to chronic disease and obesity while remaining largely silent on the role of food and nutrition, made no mention of Coca-Cola’s financial support. So far, the social media campaign has failed to gain much traction: As of Friday, the group had fewer than 1,000 followers on Twitter.

The group’s website also omitted mention of Coke’s backing until Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity expert at the University of Ottawa, wrote to the organization to inquire about its funding. Dr. Blair said this was an oversight that had been quickly corrected.

“As soon as we discovered that we didn’t have not only Coca-Cola but other funding sources on the website, we put it on there,” Dr. Blair said. “Does that make us totally corrupt in everything we do?”

Coke’s involvement in the new organization is not the only example of corporate-funded research and advocacy to come under fire lately. The American Society for Nutrition and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics have been criticized by public health advocates for forming partnerships with companies such as Kraft Foods, McDonald’s, PepsiCo and Hershey’s. Dietitians have also faced criticism for taking payments from Coke to present the company’s soda as a healthy snack.

Critics say Coke has long cast the obesity epidemic as primarily an exercise problem. “The message is that obesity is not about the foods or beverages you’re consuming, it’s that you’re not balancing those foods with exercise,” Dr. Freedhoff of the University of Ottawa said.

Now, public health advocates say, Coca-Cola is going a step further, recruiting reputable scientists to make the case for them.

Dr. Hill, the nonprofit’s president, is a co-founder of the National Weight Control Registry, a long-term study of people who have lost weight, and has served on committees for the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health. The American Society for Nutrition refers to him as “a leader in the fight against the global obesity epidemic.”

Barry M. Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said Coke’s support of prominent health researchers was reminiscent of tactics used by the tobacco industry, which enlisted experts to become “merchants of doubt” about the health hazards of smoking.

Marion Nestle, the author of the book “Soda Politics” and a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, was especially blunt: “The Global Energy Balance Network is nothing but a front group for Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola’s agenda here is very clear: Get these researchers to confuse the science and deflect attention from dietary intake.”

Funding from the food industry is not uncommon in scientific research. But studies suggest that the funds tend to bias findings. A recent analysis of beverage studies, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, found that those funded by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, the American Beverage Association and the sugar industry were five times more likely to find no link between sugary drinks and weight gain than studies whose authors reported no financial conflicts.

On its website, the new nonprofit promises to be “the voice of science” in discussions about healthy lifestyles and contends that the concept of energy balance provides “a new science-based framework” for achieving a stable body weight.

The group says there is “strong evidence” that the key to preventing weight gain is not reducing food intake — as many public health experts recommend — “but maintaining an active lifestyle and eating more calories.” To back up this contention, the group provides links to two research papers, each of which contains this footnote: “The publication of this article was supported by The Coca-Cola Company.”

In March, Dr. Hill, Dr. Blair, and Dr. Hand announced the creation of the organization in an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. They argued that the public and many scientists largely overlooked physical inactivity as a cause of obesity. They said they were creating the Global Energy Balance Network to raise awareness “about both sides of the energy balance equation.”

The editorial contained a disclosure that the group had received an “unrestricted education gift” from Coca-Cola.

In response to a request made under the state Freedom of Information Act, the University of South Carolina disclosed that Dr. Blair had received more than $3.5 million in funding from Coke for research projects since 2008.

The university also disclosed that Coca-Cola had provided significant funding to Dr. Hand, who left the University of South Carolina last year for West Virginia. The company gave him $806,500 for an “energy flux” study in 2011 and $507,000 last year to establish the Global Energy Balance Network.

It is unclear how much of the money, if any, ended up as personal income for the professors.

“As long as everybody is disclosing their potential conflicts and they’re being managed appropriately, that’s the best that you can do,” Dr. Hand said. “It makes perfect sense that companies would want the best science that they can get.”

The group’s president, Dr. Hill, also has financial ties to Coca-Cola. The company last year gave an “unrestricted monetary gift” of $1 million to the University of Colorado Foundation. In response to a request made under the Colorado Open Records Act, the university said that Coca-Cola had provided the money “for the purposes of funding” the Global Energy Balance Network.

Dr. Hill said he had sought money from Coke to start the nonprofit because there was no funding available from his university. The group’s website says it is also supported by a few universities and ShareWIK Media Group, a producer of videos about health. Dr. Hill said that he had also received a commitment of help from General Mills, as well as promises of support from other businesses, which had not formally confirmed their offers.

He said he believed public health authorities could more easily change the way people eat by working with the food industry instead of against it.

On its website, the group recommends combining greater exercise and food intake because, Dr. Hill said, “ ‘Eat less’ has never been a message that’s been effective. The message should be ‘Move more and eat smarter.’ ”

He emphasized that weight loss involved a combination of complex factors and that his group’s goal was not to play down the role of diet or to portray obesity as solely a problem of inadequate exercise.

“If we are out there saying it’s all about physical activity and it’s not about food, then we deserve criticism,” he said. “But I think we haven’t done that.”

But in news releases and on its website, the group has struck a different tone.

“The media tends to blame the obesity epidemic on our poor eating habits,” one recent news release states. “But are those french fries really the culprit? Dr. Steve Blair explains that you shouldn’t believe everything you see on TV.”

Most public health experts say that energy balance is an important concept, because weight gain for most people is about calories in vs. calories out. But the experts say research makes it clear that one side of the equation has a far greater effect.

While people can lose weight in several ways, many studies suggest that those who keep it off for good consume fewer calories. Growing evidence also suggests that maintaining weight loss is easier when people limit their intake of high glycemic foods such as sugary drinks and other refined carbohydrates, which sharply raise blood sugar.

Physical activity is important and certainly helps, experts say. But studies show that exercise increases appetite, causing people to consume more calories. Exercise also expends far fewer calories than most people think. A 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola, for example, contains 140 calories and roughly 10 teaspoons of sugar. “It takes three miles of walking to offset that one can of Coke,” Dr. Popkin said.

In one of the most rigorous studies of physical activity and weight loss, published in the journal Obesity, scientists recruited 200 overweight, sedentary adults and put them on an aggressive exercise program. To isolate the effects of exercise on their weight, the subjects were instructed not to make any changes in their diets.

Participants were monitored to ensure they exercised five to six hours a week, more than double the 2.5 weekly hours of exercise recommended in federal guidelines. After a year, the men had lost an average of just 3.5 pounds, the women 2.5. Almost everyone was still overweight or obese.

“Adding exercise to a diet program helps,” said Dr. Anne McTiernan, the lead author of the study and a researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle. “But for weight loss, you’re going to get much more impact with diet changes.”

But much like the research on sugary drinks, studies of physical activity funded by the beverage industry tend to reach conclusions that differ from the findings of studies by independent scientists.

Last week, the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana announced the findings of a large new study on exercise in children that determined that lack of physical activity “is the biggest predictor of childhood obesity around the world.”

The news release contained a disclosure: “This research was funded by The Coca-Cola Company.”

Kelly D. Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, said that as a business, Coke “focused on pushing a lot of calories in, but then their philanthropy is focused on the calories out part, the exercise.”

In recent years, Coke has donated money to build fitness centers in more than 100 schools across the country. It sponsors a program called “Exercise is Medicine” to encourage doctors to prescribe physical activity to patients. And when Chicago’s City Council proposed a soda tax in 2012 to help address the city’s obesity problem, Coca-Cola donated $3 million to establish fitness programs in more than 60 of the city’s community centers.

The initiative to tax soda ultimately failed.

“Reversing the obesity trend won’t happen overnight,” Coca-Cola said in an ad for its Chicago exercise initiative. “But for thousands of families in Chicago, it starts now, with the next push-up, a single situp or a jumping jack.”

August 10th, 2015
auto correct

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Peter Shire, Cabinet, 2015

Despina Stokou and Peter Shire

Opening Reception Saturday, August 8. 6-9 PM

Derek Eller
2405 Grover Place
Los Angeles, 90031

August 7th, 2015
shit is real

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August 6th, 2015


Thanks to David Leonard

August 6th, 2015
We Invited Him to Town

Credit Ben Wiseman

By Frank Bruni
NY Times Published: JULY 31, 2015

WHERE did we go wrong?

Was it in 1962, when Marilyn Monroe sidled onto a stage in what could have been mistaken for lingerie and warbled “Happy Birthday” to John Kennedy, blurring any line between the presidential and the pulchritudinous, between show business and the nation’s business?

Was it six years later, when Richard Nixon, trying to soften his image, made an appearance on the television program “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”?

Or was it about a quarter century after that, when Bill Clinton played saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show” and, at a Q. and A. with teenagers that was sponsored by MTV, laid down a marker for briefs over boxers?

I’m not sure. But of this I’m certain: We now utterly conflate entertainment and politics, routinely confuse celebrity with authority and regularly lose sight of the difference between a cult of personality and a claim to leadership.

And Donald Trump — still going strong, still dominating the polls — is the emblem, apotheosis and ripe, fleshy, orange-crowned fruit of this. (Yes, Donald, I called you a fruit. Deal with it.)

He’s not just some freaky mascot for a preternaturally angry electorate, though he’s plenty freaky and the electorate brims with disgust for career politicians and rage at a system that seems impervious to meaningful change.

He’s not just the Frankenstein that the Republican Party created, and he’s not just a blip.

He’s the show that we’ve been sucked into and that we’ve asked for. He’s the carnival that we invited to town.

He’s been a long time coming: The bleed of entertainment into politics is hardly new. It’s been rued and prophesied for many decades.

I keep thinking back to the cinematic heyday of the 1970s, when big movies dared to broach big questions, and I keep replaying, in my mind, “Network” and “Nashville,” which turned out to be rune stones. They captured everything that was brewing in American politics and American media, and they suggested what things might look like when they reached full boil.

Trump is full boil.

We journalists bear special blame for him, because bit by bit, year by year, we turned up the heat, intensifying our demand for conflict, for crackups, for anything that could be distilled to 90 seconds on television, six swaggering paragraphs on a website or 140 characters in a spirited tweet. And a speech by Jeb Bush on the economy or by Hillary Clinton on climate change doesn’t yield as readily to that treatment.

But Trump talking about a cabinet position for Sarah Palin? Or Trump talking trash about John McCain? Or Trump saying that he could beat Obama in a head-to-head election?

We bite. We bite hard.

And here we are, with Trump trumping everything else: the growing discussion about how to make higher education more accessible and affordable; the riddle of income inequality; the money already bloating the 2016 campaign, which will leave candidates as indebted to big donors and special interests as ever.

Trump is an easier, better spectacle than any of that. He takes pains to be.

Are entertainers learning (and yearning) to be politicians, or vice versa? Do entertainers long for the approval of politicians, or is it the other way around?

I can’t keep track. I can’t help noticing: Last week, as the comedy that is Trump held on to his lead in polls of Republican voters, we learned that President Obama had repeatedly summoned Jon Stewart, of Comedy Central, to the White House.

That was a smart move, in terms of Obama’s stewardship of his image, his awareness of Stewart’s influence and his recognition that Stewart is in some odd sense the Walter Cronkite of the last decade.

But Stewart’s stature and the Obama-Stewart summits also show how tangled the threads of performance, journalism and governance have become.

THERE’S a greater theatrical aspect to political (and even financial) commentary than ever before, whether it’s occurring on a channel supposedly reserved for news or one with a more frivolous bent, and whether its agent is Bill Maher or John Oliver or Rachel Maddow or Jim Cramer. On Maher’s set, the journalists and actors sit and opine side by side, as if in the same trade, which is celebrity, with the same goal, which is diversion.

The Donald is a political clown, bloviator, scam-artist and and an American richie beyond Croesus,
A news anchor must be beguiling, even captivating. That’s what led Brian Williams astray — he got so invested in the role that he overplayed it. It’s no accident that he told one of his fateful fibs on the “Late Show With David Letterman.” He was trying to be as interesting a guest as Jennifer Lawrence, George Clooney or, well, Barack Obama.

Obama did Letterman’s show eight times, Stewart’s seven and Jay Leno’s seven. He did Ellen DeGeneres’s show, dancing to a Beyoncé tune.

And when he was encouraging young Americans to sign up for Obamacare, he did “Between Two Ferns,” a satirical program on the Funny or Die website that’s hosted by Zach Galifianakis, an actor who starred in “The Hangover.”

Obama was in part just reading the cues that our country has given him. We ask our presidents to be not just commanders in chief but also enthrallers in chief and amusers in chief, and woe to the Oval Office aspirant who is deemed overly stiff, excessively serious or entirely unfunny. How will he or she ever rise to the challenge of the White House Correspondents Dinner?

We expect zingers. We require zing.

Trump is the king of zing.

His rivals are struggling to keep pace. We recently watched a video in which Rand Paul took a chain saw to a pile of papers meant to represent the federal tax code. We watched another video in which Lindsey Graham put his cellphone in a blender, dropped a concrete block on it and tried to light it on fire.

We cackled at Scott Walker’s incompetence in the presence of cheesesteak. And we listened to Rick Perry challenge Trump to a duel of deltoids: Which man could do more pull-ups?

This is the magnitude of dignity being brought to the 2016 presidential contest. And it’s the context in which Trump isn’t surprising but rather inevitable.

We’ve summoned him like one of those demons in a horror movie who appears if his name is spoken too many times in a row. Too many times, we’ve ignored or outright encouraged the perversion of politics by vacuous stagecraft.

So the demon appeared. And he’s giving us the torment that we deserve.

August 6th, 2015
About Face

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Maria Lassnig Kantate Film

Curated by Kristina Kite and Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

About Face

August 6th, 2015

August 4th, 2015
Other Planes of There

Sun Ra
Other Planes of There
ink drawing on metallic paper
14 x 14 inches

Through August 29, 2015

Corbett vs Dempsey

Thanks to RS

August 3rd, 2015
Open the Music Industry’s Black Box

NY Times Published: JULY 31, 2015

THIS should be the greatest time for music in history — more of it is being found, made, distributed and listened to than ever before. That people are willing to pay for digital streaming is good news. In Sweden, where it was founded, Spotify saved a record industry that piracy had gutted.

Everyone should be celebrating — but many of us who create, perform and record music are not. Tales of popular artists (as popular as Pharrell Williams) who received paltry royalty checks for songs that streamed thousands or even millions of times (like “Happy”) on Pandora or Spotify are common. Obviously, the situation for less-well-known artists is much more dire. For them, making a living in this new musical landscape seems impossible. I myself am doing O.K., but my concern is for the artists coming up: How will they make a life in music?

Melvin Gibbs is a jazz bassist and the president of the Content Creators Coalition. “None of these companies that are supposedly in the music business are actually in the music business,” Mr. Gibbs said. “They are in the data-aggregation business, they’re in the ad-selling business. The value of music means nothing to them.”Music Artists Take On the Business, Calling for ChangeJULY 31, 2015
It’s easy to blame new technologies like streaming services for the drastic reduction in musicians’ income. But on closer inspection we see that it is a bit more complicated. Even as the musical audience has grown, ways have been found to siphon off a greater percentage than ever of the money that customers and music fans pay for recorded music. Many streaming services are at the mercy of the record labels (especially the big three: Sony, Universal and Warner), and nondisclosure agreements keep all parties from being more transparent.

Perhaps the biggest problem artists face today is that lack of transparency. I’ve asked basic questions of both the digital services and the music labels and been stonewalled. For example, I asked YouTube how ad revenue from videos that contain music is shared (which should be an incredibly basic question). They responded that they didn’t share exact numbers, but said that YouTube’s cut was “less than half.” An industry source (who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the information) told me that the breakdown is roughly 50 percent to YouTube, 35 percent to the owner of the master recording and 15 percent to the publisher.

Before musicians and their advocates can move to enact a fairer system of pay, we need to know exactly what’s going on. We need information from both labels and streaming services on how they share the wealth generated by music. Taylor Swift, when she forced Apple to back off a plan not to pay royalties during the three-month free trial period for its new streaming service, Apple Music, made some small progress on this count — but we still don’t know how much Apple agreed to pay, or how they will determine the rate.

Putting together a picture of where listeners’ money goes when we pay for a streaming service subscription is notoriously complicated. Here is some of what we do know: About 70 percent of the money a listener pays to Spotify (which, to its credit, has tried to illuminate the opaque payment system) goes to the rights holders, usually the labels, which play the largest role in determining how much artists are paid. (A recently leaked 2011 contract between Sony and Spotify showed that the service had agreed to pay the label more than $40 million in advances over three years. But it doesn’t say what Sony was to do with the money.)

The labels then pay artists a percentage (often 15 percent or so) of their share. This might make sense if streaming music included manufacturing, breakage and other physical costs for the label to recoup, but it does not. When compared with vinyl and CD production, streaming gives the labels incredibly high margins, but the labels act as though nothing has changed.

Consider the unanswered questions in the Swift-Apple dispute. Why didn’t the major labels take issue with Apple’s trial period? Is it because they were offered a better deal than the smaller, independent labels? Is it because they own the rights to a vast music library with no production or distribution costs, without which no streaming service could operate?

The answer, it seems, is mainly the latter — the major labels have their hefty catalogs and they can ride out the three-month dry spell. (The major labels are focused on the long game: some 40 percent to 60 percent of “freemium” customers join the pay version after a trial period.)

I asked Apple Music to explain the calculation of royalties for the trial period. They said they disclosed that only to copyright owners (that is, the labels). I have my own label and own the copyright on some of my albums, but when I turned to my distributor, the response was, “You can’t see the deal, but you could have your lawyer call our lawyer and we might answer some questions.”

It gets worse. One industry source told me that the major labels assigned the income they got from streaming services on a seemingly arbitrary basis to the artists in their catalog. Here’s a hypothetical example: Let’s say in January Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” accounted for 5 percent of the total revenue that Spotify paid to Universal Music for its catalog. Universal is not obligated to take the gross revenue it received and assign that same 5 percent to Sam Smith’s account. They might give him 3 percent — or 10 percent. What’s to stop them?

The labels also get money from three other sources, all of which are hidden from artists: They get advances from the streaming services, catalog service payments for old songs and equity in the streaming services themselves.

Musicians are entrepreneurs. We are essentially partners with the labels, and should be treated that way. Artists and labels have many common interests — both are appalled, for instance, by the oddly meager payments from YouTube (more people globally listen to music free on YouTube than anywhere else). With shared data on how, where, why and when our audience listens, we can all expand our reach. This would benefit YouTube, the labels and us as well. With cooperation and transparency the industry can grow to three times its current size, Willard Ahdritz, the head of Kobalt, an independent music and publishing collection service, told me.

There is cause for hope. I recently spent two days on Capitol Hill, with the help of Sound Exchange, a nonprofit digital royalty collection and distribution organization, to discuss fairer compensation for artists via the Fair Play Fair Pay Act, which would force AM and FM stations to pay musicians when their recordings are broadcast, as most of the world does.

Rethink Music, an initiative of the Berklee Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship, released a report last month that recommends making music deals and transactions more transparent; simplifying the flow of money and improving the shared use of technology to connect with fans.

Some of these ideas regarding openness are radical — “disruptive” is the word Silicon Valley might use — but that’s what’s needed. It’s not just about the labels either. By opening the Black Box, the whole music industry, all of it, can flourish. There is a rising tide of dissatisfaction, but we can work together to make fundamental changes that will be good for all.

August 2nd, 2015

San Diego is “a candy store for smugglers,” a Tunnel Task Force agent said.
Illustration by Paul Rogers

At 8:52 P.M. on July 11th, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug kingpin known as El Chapo, sat on the bed of his cell in Altiplano, Mexico’s only super-maximum-security prison. Surveillance footage appears to show a small screen glowing on a table nearby—inmates are not allowed cell phones, but this rule is not always enforced. Guzmán changed his shoes, walked to a shower area in the corner of the cell, and knelt behind a waist-high concrete partition, out of view of security cameras. Six seconds later, he was gone.

A rough-edged opening, about twenty inches square, had been cut into the floor. According to Mexico’s national-security commissioner, Guzmán climbed into the hole and down a ladder, entering a 4,921-foot-long tunnel. Fluorescent lights hung from a ceiling-mounted PVC pipe, which also brought fresh air into the passageway. Metal tracks had been bolted to the ground, allowing an ad-hoc vehicle—a railcar rigged to the frame of a small motorcycle—to be driven from one end of the tunnel to the other. The gray stone walls, about thirty inches apart, were scored with jagged marks made by electric spades; Guzmán’s shoulders probably brushed the walls as he passed.

The tunnel ended beneath a small cinder-block house in an open field. As Guzmán climbed a wooden ladder toward ground level, he passed the evidence of what seemed to be a months-long engineering project: a generator, which had powered the tools that workmen used to build the tunnel; a heavy-duty electric winch, to lower machinery into the pit; gallons of hydraulic fluid; coils of steel mesh.

Guzmán’s method of escape should have surprised no one. Last year, in Culiacán, he evaded Mexican marines by disappearing into a network of subterranean passageways connecting seven houses. He did not invent smuggling tunnels—bank robbers, rumrunners, and guerrillas had used them for decades—but his criminal enterprise, the Sinaloa drug cartel, built the first cross-border narcotúnel, in 1989. Since then, Sinaloa has refined the art of underground construction and has used tunnels more effectively than any criminal group in history.

In the past quarter century, officials have discovered a hundred and eighty-one illicit passages under the U.S.-Mexico border. Most have been short, narrow “gopher holes” just big enough for a person to crawl through. Sinaloa specializes instead in infrastructural marvels that federal agents call supertunnels. Agents estimate that a single supertunnel takes several months and more than a million dollars to build. Many include elevators, electric lights, ventilation ducts, and cleverly disguised entry and exit shafts. They can reach as deep as seventy feet, and they tend to be tall enough for an adult to walk or ride through.

These days, most of Sinaloa’s supertunnels are used to ferry drugs across the border, from Garita de Otay, an industrial neighborhood in northern Tijuana, to Otay Mesa, a similar area in southern San Diego. Otay Mesa, which is bounded on the north by Brown Field Municipal Airport and on the south by Mexico, consists of highways, strip malls, and a few hundred warehouses clustered near the border. Most supertunnels terminate inside these warehouses, making them difficult to detect.

The amount of warehouse space in Otay Mesa has nearly quadrupled since the mid-nineties, and the expansion has been almost as frenetic in Garita de Otay. Forklifts, jackhammers, and heavy vehicles attract little attention. Cartel trucks back into loading bays, pallets are loaded in, and the drugs are delivered north to distribution hubs. There are three official border crossings near Otay Mesa; one, for commercial vehicles, is inside the industrial zone. “All of this has created a candy store for smugglers,” a U.S. agent told me. “This whole area belongs to them.”

Hundreds of federal agents—from Border Patrol, Homeland Security Investigations, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement—work in a pair of large unmarked buildings on the edge of the Otay Mesa district. Among them are the ten members of the San Diego Tunnel Task Force, a multi-agency group created in 2003. The agents have found an average of two tunnels a year, but most of the people they have arrested have been low-tier Sinaloa operatives such as truck drivers and warehouse supervisors. Information within the cartel is compartmentalized, so that even when workers are caught and tempted with plea bargains they are unable to divulge much actionable intelligence.

“There are so many questions,” Tim Durst, a former Tunnel Task Force supervisor, told the Wall Street Journal, in 2013. “What are their techniques? How the heck do they build these things so well?”

Recent investigations—including a pending case involving a man believed to have been Sinaloa’s highest-ranking tunnel manager—have provided some answers. Sherri Hobson, a federal prosecutor in San Diego, told me, “I think it’s a very small group of élite members of the cartel that are doing this. This is highly sophisticated work. A lot of people think that you have a shovel and you dig. That’s not the way it works.”

In December of 2012, a nineteen- year-old named Fernando walked into Mama Mia, a pizzeria in a Tijuana strip mall, and asked for a job application. As he filled out the form, a stranger entered the shop. According to statements later collected by Mexican authorities, the man handed Fernando his phone number and asked whether he wanted a job cleaning a convenience store.

Fernando never heard back from Mama Mia. Eventually, desperate for work, he called the stranger’s number and met him at the strip mall. The man offered good money—twelve hundred pesos (about seventy-five dollars) a week—and Fernando agreed to go with him to look at the job site. From the strip mall, a highway leads north, past the graffiti-covered concrete walls surrounding the Tijuana Airport to the pitted roads of Garita de Otay, where convoys of eighteen-wheelers stir up dust that never quite settles. The warehouses, bland and beige, resemble cardboard boxes.

They stopped in front of a structure with no identifying marks except the street address, stencilled in black. Inside, behind a rolling gate, was a loading bay big enough to accommodate a dump truck. Inside was a storage room with cinder-block walls. Fernando didn’t see anyone else in the storage room—just a deep hole and sacks of dirt. The man told Fernando that things had changed: he would be digging a tunnel, not cleaning a store. If he tried to leave, he and his family would be killed.

Around that time, sixteen other men fell into the same trap. Across Tijuana, at bus stations and on busy street corners, they were lured to the warehouse by the prospect of temporary jobs. Some said that they had been promised safe passage across the border in exchange for a few hours of construction work. Fernando was the youngest of them, and one of only two Tijuana natives. Most were laborers from Mexico’s rural interior who had travelled north seeking opportunity.

According to the men, the overseer of the project, who called himself Carlos, was in his mid-thirties, with a thin, weedy mustache and a baseball cap pulled low over his brow. Carlos split the men into two groups. Fernando worked the day shift, from 6 A.M. to 6 P.M.; at night, he slept in the warehouse with the rest of his crew. Carlos brought the workers food and made sure no one left the building.

From an opening in the floor of the storage room, a shaft descended about thirty-five feet to a small chamber, where grapefruit-size rocks were embedded in the soil. Most of the time, five or six men worked inside the chamber, lengthening it into a tunnel by chipping away at the earth with handheld electric spades and filling sandbags with dirt and rocks. Three other workers hauled the bags out using a makeshift elevator—a large metal cage connected to an electric pulley system. The sandbags were then piled onto wooden pallets in the loading bay. Occasionally, Carlos was joined by other overseers, who wore ski masks. They’d threaten to beat the workmen if their northward progress slowed. The workers gained about five metres a day. At that rate, they would pass the border in about three months and reach Otay Mesa a few weeks later.

Photos subsequently showed that the ceiling of the tunnel was slightly arched, a standard characteristic of Sinaloa supertunnels, which helps to distribute the pressure of the earth and prevent collapse. The red beam of a laser pointer, running through the dusty air in the center of the passageway, kept the diggers on course. In humid, confined spaces, oxygen can drop to fatal levels. With pipe clamps, the men affixed a black plastic tube to the top of the tunnel for ventilation. They laid two metal tracks, which enabled them to ferry debris back to the elevator in a miner’s cart. Later, the rails could carry drug shipments to Otay Mesa.

The walls retained their form as the men worked, but threats were ever present. The history of subterranean excavation, from the ancient Egyptians to the coal miners of Appalachia, is dense with tragedy—any strike of a pickaxe can release a deadly rush of groundwater, spark a methane fireball, or disrupt the soil enough to cause a collapse. In “A History of Tunnels,” the historian Patrick Beaver writes that even as late as the mid-twentieth century it was estimated that for every mile of tunnel built one worker died.

The biggest risk to the Tijuana diggers was probably groundwater. In the Otay Mesa region, its presence is unusually difficult to predict. “One year, you might hit massive amounts of groundwater,” a U.S. agent who examines tunnels in the area told me. “Then you might go a mile east or west, within a couple of months, and there might not be any groundwater at all.” The captive diggers had little choice but to keep going. They followed a slight upward grade, which was likely a safety precaution: if they encountered groundwater, it could flow downhill, to the origin of the tunnel, where it would be pumped out.

In February, 2013, the Mexican Army, acting on an anonymous tip, raided the warehouse in Tijuana. The first person they encountered was a surprised twenty-five-year-old named Juan José, who was in a bathroom, his face coated in dust. Nearby, two men hauled sacks of dirt out of the elevator. While the soldiers talked to the men, four others remained in the chamber, wondering why it was taking so long for the elevator to come back down. Eventually, all the workers were brought in for questioning, but they claimed to have no knowledge of drugs or smuggling. Carlos might have been able to tell the police more, but, according to the workers, he had left the building twenty minutes earlier, “to go to the store.” Based on the tunnel’s location and design, the police assumed that it was the work of the Sinaloa cartel, but they made no more arrests.

Fernando and the other diggers were taken to La Mesa prison, about four miles from the warehouse, where they are still being held. They may have been lucky to be arrested. Joseph DiMeglio, the head of the Tunnel Task Force, told me that, when a tunnel is finished, diggers are sometimes recaptured and forced to work on another project. Other times, he said, “the cartel takes them out back, you know, and gets rid of them.”

Guzmán founded the Sinaloa cartel in the mid-eighties. By the end of the decade, the Arellano Félix Organization controlled the border near Tijuana. Guzmán took over smuggling routes farther east, in Arizona. He hired pilots to fly shipments of cocaine from Colombia to private landing strips in Mexico. The drugs were loaded into vans fitted with false floors and then driven to Douglas, Arizona, and from there to Los Angeles. Using that method, Guzmán was able to smuggle in three tons of cocaine a month.

One of Guzmán’s associates was Felipe de Jesus Corona-Verbera, a 1980 graduate of the University of Guadalajara’s architecture school, who drove a gray Chrysler New Yorker, wore fine suits, and carried an attaché case. Corona-Verbera visited one cartel-owned property after another: a warehouse in Guanajuato; a supermarket in Guadalajara; a rural compound where Guzmán kept lions, bears, and crocodiles. He and Guzmán appeared to be close friends. Miguel Ángel Martínez, a member of the cartel, later told U.S. prosecutors that Corona-Verbera was the only person he’d ever heard addressing Guzmán with the informal tú; everyone else used the more deferential usted.

In 1989, Corona-Verbera, with his wife and children, moved into a trailer park on Route 666 in Douglas. He hired a local contractor, William Woods, to build a gazebo beside his trailer. He also hired Woods for a bigger project: a two-thousand-square-foot warehouse, to be built about a block from the Mexican border. The blueprints looked professional, but oddities soon emerged. Corona-Verbera said that the building would be used as a wash bay, to hose down trucks. His plans called for drain openings, but, according to Adalberto Romero, a worker at the site, the openings did not lead to functional drains. He asked Corona-Verbera about this. “He said I had nothing to do with it, to just shut up and continue doing it,” Romero said. One night, at a nearby work site just south of the border, Romero saw more than twenty workmen, who appeared to be from rural Mexico, pushing wheelbarrows in the dark.

Within a few months, the cartel had its first supertunnel. It originated at a Sinaloa-owned house in Agua Prieta, a Mexican border town, and ended some three hundred feet away, at the warehouse in Douglas. At the house in Agua Prieta, the only way to access the tunnel was to turn on an outdoor water spigot; this triggered a hydraulic system that lifted up a billiard table in a game room on the ground floor, exposing a ladder to the tunnel.

With belowground smuggling, Sinaloa’s business quickly expanded. “If three planes arrived per week, now ten were arriving,” Martínez recalled. Guzmán’s Colombian partners began to call him El Rápido, because, according to Martínez, “before the planes were arriving back in Colombia on the return, the cocaine was already in Los Angeles.” Guzmán told Martínez, “Corona made a fucking cool tunnel. Tell them to send all the drugs they can send.”

U.S. law-enforcement agents learned about the tunnel from a confidential informant. In May, 1990, a team raided the house in Agua Prieta. In the game room, Terry Kirkpatrick, a customs agent, moved the billiard table and pulled back a rug, exposing a patch of concrete. He used a jackhammer to drill through the floor. Under the concrete was a subterranean chamber larger than the game room. Later, another agent happened to turn on the water spigot, causing the concrete slab to rise toward the ceiling as the agents looked on, stunned.

After the raid, Corona-Verbera and his family fled to Mexico. Instead of lying low in a Mexico City safe house, Corona-Verbera left the city to be with his family in Guadalajara. According to Martínez, Guzmán dismissed his old friend with a terse malediction: “Let him get fucked.” Eventually, Corona-Verbera was arrested and extradited to the U.S.

Two months after the tunnel was discovered, a group of Sinaloa suspects were detained. Two of them led Kirkpatrick and other agents about thirty miles outside of Agua Prieta and showed them a mass grave. Here, they said, were the diggers who had built the tunnel to Arizona.

Meanwhile, Sinaloa was slowly gaining ground near Tijuana. After the 1990 bust, Guzmán focussed on above–ground operations, smuggling drugs inside cans of chili peppers. But in 1992 the cartel paid $1.1 million for a warehouse in Otay Mesa. Soon, its second supertunnel project, and its first on the West Coast, was under construction.

The soil around Otay Mesa is a mixture of volcanic ash, glassy fragments, and clay. Whether the Sinaloa cartel realized it or not, the region is a geological sweet spot for building tunnels: a couple of miles to the west, the ground is sandier; to the east, where the San Ysidro Mountains straddle the border, the subsoil is harder and under more pressure. In Otay Mesa, the soil is soft enough to be dug by hand, yet firm enough so that the tunnel walls can often stand without wood or concrete reinforcement.

In 1993, the Arellano Félix Organization murdered Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, apparently mistaking him for Guzmán. This sparked a manhunt, which culminated in Guzmán’s arrest (and, subsequently, his first prison escape). During the manhunt, agents uncovered Sinaloa’s California tunnel. It was more than four times the length of the tunnel to Douglas. In the press, law-enforcement officials marvelled at its lighting and ventilation systems, and the poured-concrete flooring that allowed railcars to run smoothly. Nothing like it had been built before. “I was impressed by the Douglas tunnel, but this one here is the Taj Mahal of tunnels,” a customs agent told the Los Angeles Times. Terry Kirkpatrick told me, “It was a wakeup call.”

The San Diego Tunnel Task Force owns two ground-penetrating radar devices that look a bit like push lawnmowers. The machines fire electromagnetic signals deep into the ground, and an L.C.D. screen shows the patterns of the waves as they ricochet back to the surface. The agents do not use these machines often, because they aren’t very effective. According to Steve Sloan, a geophysicist who has studied tunnel detection, the heterogeneous soil near Otay Mesa creates an unusual amount of background noise. On the screen, most deep-set geophysical variations—seams of rock, mismatched strata of soil, and excavation projects—show up as indistinct lines. Investigators can determine what a given line represents only by digging, which is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.

For decades, tunnels have defied detection by satellites, motion sensors, and thermal imaging systems. During the Vietnam War, when the Vietcong used underground passages like the Cu Chi tunnel network to launch surprise attacks, the Army had no effective tunnel-detection technology, so it had no choice but to send infantrymen—“tunnel rats”—on dangerous search-and-destroy missions. Serious research into tunnel detection began in the mid-nineteen-seventies, after intelligence indicated that Kim Il-sung, the President of North Korea, had dug more than twenty tunnels across the border into South Korea, for use in a future invasion. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency attempted to design reliable detection technology using seismic and electromagnetic waves, to no avail.

In 2005, the U.S. government funded the Tunnel Detection Initiative, which recruited academics, industry specialists, and military engineers to detect excavation near the border. “It seemed like a really simple problem,” Nedra Bonal, one of the geophysicists who worked on the initiative, said. “You have a hole in the ground, and I thought I’d look at the seismic data, and that would be that.” But, according to a government report, the proposals yielded “massive amounts of data and unacceptably high false alarm rates.”

So the Tunnel Task Force agents patrol the Otay Mesa district on foot. The law prevents them from searching warehouses at random, without probable cause; instead, they knock on doors, hand out business cards, and ask laborers to report anything suspicious. “We’ve gotten multiple leads from doing that,” DiMeglio, of the Tunnel Task Force, told me. Agents also monitor telephone calls.

In May, 2010, Homeland Security investigators began listening to the calls of a mid-level Sinaloa operative nicknamed Enrique. He and the other operatives used various nicknames for their bosses. Someone they called Quirino seemed to be in charge of a major tunnel project. The men also talked about Primo, who was moody. “Primo is very bitter right now,” Enrique said at one point. “I mean, no one can talk to him.” Other nicknames—Garañón, Greñudo, El Viejo—seemed to refer to other bosses. The agents believed that the various tunnels were being built by construction cells that were loosely affiliated with Sinaloa but unrelated to each other.

On October 18, 2010, Mexican authorities seized a hundred and thirty-four tons of marijuana from a warehouse in Tijuana, about two miles from the border. It was the largest pot bust in Mexican history. They piled the marijuana on a giant wooden platform, rigged it with fuel and gunpowder, and ignited a heady bonfire that burned for two days. Mexican authorities estimated that the shipment, if sold on the street, could have netted more than three hundred million dollars.

On the day of the seizure, investigators listened to a call between Enrique and another suspect, who went by Tuy.

“Was it everything?” Tuy said.

“Absolutely everything,” Enrique said.

“And was it made public?” Tuy said.

“Well, I have the radio on here,” Enrique said. “I can hear it. I’m listening to it now. All of the shrimp went bad.”

The agents had been eavesdropping on these men for months, and they had deciphered their simple code: “shrimp” meant drugs; a “project” was a tunnel. Even though the shrimp had gone bad, Enrique said, “the project is still standing.”

Marijuana is bulkier and more pungent than cocaine or heroin, making it riskier to smuggle through border crossings. Supertunnels are the ideal method of transport for marijuana. Pot is easy to grow, and the profit margins are irresistible: it can be sold in the U.S. for more than ten times its worth in Tijuana. Mexico’s main marijuana-farming region is in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental, eight hundred miles south of the border. This region includes the state of Sinaloa, where Guzmán was born. If Colombian cocaine was the cartel’s emblematic product during Guzmán’s early years, homegrown marijuana was always his hedge, a commodity that he could control across every link in the supply chain.

In 2006, the Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated that sixty-one per cent of Mexican drug traffickers’ profits were “directly tied to marijuana export sales.” (Other analyses vary significantly. In 2010, the RAND Corporation estimated that the proportion was between fifteen and twenty-six per cent.) Prices of illegal goods tend to be artificially inflated. As more states decriminalize marijuana, Sinaloa’s profits from the drug could fall, forcing it to increase its volume. This would require more supertunnels. Or, DiMeglio says, Sinaloa might diversify. Until recently, raids on San Diego supertunnels yielded only marijuana; in 2013, a supertunnel raid uncovered three hundred and twenty-seven pounds of cocaine.

In 2017, a fourth official border crossing will be built near Otay Mesa, and new retail businesses are already opening in the commercial plazas that flank the warehouses. In one of these plazas, next to a duty-free liquor store, I saw a zoning notice taped to a vacant storefront. I called the number and reached David Blair, a lecturer at San Diego State University’s business school. His shop, A Green Alternative, is the first licensed medical-marijuana dispensary in San Diego. He picked Otay Mesa, he said, in part because it was one of the few places where city zoning laws allow him to open—other places were too close to houses or schools. A half-mile from the dispensary are two warehouses where supertunnels were recently discovered. A seventy-three-year-old woman who worked at one of the warehouses pleaded guilty to federal money-laundering charges last year.

After the marijuana seizure in October, 2010, investigators continued to listen to wiretapped calls, which seemed to indicate that two supertunnel projects were still under way, and that at least one of them was being led by Quirino. On whiteboards and corkboards, investigators tried to map out which operatives were affiliated with which digging projects. They tacked up pictures of known suspects; unidentified suspects were represented by a generic silhouette or a question mark.

In early November, agents raided a tunnel in Otay Mesa and arrested a truck driver who was carrying marijuana from the site. They turned the driver’s cell phones over to federal prosecutors. After the bust, the suspects on the wiretaps indicated that Quirino’s project had not been interrupted. This seemed to confirm the investigators’ assumption that the construction cells were unrelated. But, later that month, agents raided another supertunnel and arrested a warehouse manager at the site. Studying the manager’s telephone records, they noticed that he had talked to the truck driver from the other site, and that both men had contacted the same person: Quirino.

One of the investigators refers to that as the “Luke, I am your father” moment: it became clear that there was only one construction cell and that Quirino was its boss. All the nicknames—Primo, Greñudo, and so on—referred to the same man. He seemed to be in charge of all aspects of Sinaloa’s supertunnels: storage of the drugs in Tijuana, construction and transportation schedules, rental and purchase of warehouses on both sides of the border.

The more the agents learned about Quirino, whose real name they still did not know, the more he seemed like a shrewd and vigilant manager. Packages were marked with labels that seemed incongruous—Burberry, Donald Duck. Investigators believed that Quirino was using the labels to keep his accounts in order by identifying which parcels belonged to which dealers. Once, he ordered digging to stop because of “eyes on the north side”—someone had been snooping around one of his warehouses in Otay Mesa. (Federal investigators later learned that the San Bernardino County police had been near the warehouse on an unrelated lead.) Although the tunnel was nearly complete, Quirino told his operatives to rent a different warehouse, a few blocks away, and redirect the digging toward the new warehouse. The tunnel reached its new exit point three months later. “Nothing I’ve ever seen criminally has worked as efficiently as it did when he was the boss,” an agent told me.

In early 2012, Mexican police arrested Quirino in Zapopan, an upscale suburb of Guadalajara. His real name was José Sanchez-Villalobos, and he had recently turned forty-nine. They described him as Sinaloa’s financial officer in charge of the California border region. For a man suspected of being such a key figure in the drug trade, he had maintained a remarkably low profile—even Mexican journalists specializing in the Sinaloa cartel had never heard of him—but the few facts that emerged were consistent with a caricature of a cartel boss: it was said that he owned a racetrack, on which he drove his collection of Aston Martins, and that he kept a baby panther as a pet.

About a year after Sanchez-Villalobos was arrested, investigators heard chatter on the phone lines again. New taskmasters had stepped in to oversee supertunnel construction. The new bosses seemed to lack their predecessor’s managerial skill, but, according to Sherri Hobson, the prosecutor in San Diego, they were starting to adapt. Drugs are now distributed in smaller shipments, and drivers on the California side use smaller trucks. The cartel also seems to be testing tunnel locations that require novel excavation techniques. This April, as Border Patrol agents were raking the soil near the border fence—they do this regularly, to render fresh footprints more visible—they saw what they thought was a natural sinkhole. It turned out to be a collapsed supertunnel running toward a residential neighborhood in San Diego, about five miles east of Otay Mesa. The soil there is sandy, DiMeglio said, and “a lot of shoring needs to be done in that area, because sand doesn’t hold like clay does.”

Recently, agents raiding Sinaloa dig sites have found horizontal directional drilling machines, which oil and gas companies often use to build pipelines, and which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Horizontal directional drilling requires less manual labor than traditional digging, and the machines bore smaller, shallower tunnels. If Sinaloa were to transition to a network of such pipelines, it could use air pressure to propel parcels of drugs under the border through pneumatic tubes.

Another tunnel, which was recently discovered in the Imperial Valley, about a hundred miles east of Otay Mesa, terminated in a canal. Security footage shows a man emerging from the water in a wetsuit. Near the canal, Border Patrol agents found nearly sixty pounds of cocaine and three scuba tanks. Two of the tanks were “rebreathers”—special cylinders that allow divers to stay underwater for long periods without leaving trails of bubbles. “It just shows another level of how they’re trying to be creative,” Hobson said.

Sanchez-Villalobos is being held in the high-priority section of the Altiplano prison—the same wing that Guzmán fled last month. The facts about Guzmán’s escape, along with several unanswered questions—Could he communicate with other prisoners through the bars of his cell? Why didn’t anyone hear digging?—provide grist for conspiracy theorists. If Guzmán had a cell phone in spite of prison rules, it’s possible that Sanchez-Villalobos did, too, and that he helped coördinate the escape tunnel from inside. Many elements of the smuggling tunnels in Otay Mesa—the depth, the lighting and ventilation systems, the wood shoring around the entry shaft—seemed to be replicated in the Altiplano escape tunnel. “Based on the spade marks in the side walls, it looks like it was cut in the same manner, and that the soil consistency was similar to Otay Mesa,” a special agent who has examined many Sinaloa tunnels told me.

In December, 2013, a Mexican court ordered that Sanchez-Villalobos be extradited to the U.S. He appealed. Such legal battles can take years, and Enrique Peña Nieto, the President of Mexico, has been loath to let Mexican prisoners out of the country. (It remains to be seen whether embarrassment over Guzmán’s second escape will soften Peña Nieto’s stance.) According to immigration records, at the time of his arrest in Mexico, Sanchez-Villalobos was a legal permanent resident of the U.S. He claimed Perris, California, not far from Riverside, as his primary residence. Federal authorities say that he listed his occupation as “construction.” ♦

August 1st, 2015
China’s Naked Emperors

By Paul Krugman
NY Times Published: JULY 31, 2015

Politicians who preside over economic booms often develop delusions of competence. You can see this domestically: Jeb Bush imagines that he knows the secrets of economic growth because he happened to be governor when Florida was experiencing a giant housing bubble, and he had the good luck to leave office just before it burst. We’ve seen it in many countries: I still remember the omniscience and omnipotence ascribed to Japanese bureaucrats in the 1980s, before the long stagnation set in.

This is the context in which you need to understand the strange goings-on in China’s stock market. In and of itself, the price of Chinese equities shouldn’t matter all that much. But the authorities have chosen to put their credibility on the line by trying to control that market — and are in the process of demonstrating that, China’s remarkable success over the past 25 years notwithstanding, the nation’s rulers have no idea what they’re doing.

Start with the fundamentals. China is at the end of an era — the era of superfast growth, made possible in large part by a vast migration of underemployed peasants from the countryside to coastal cities. This reserve of surplus labor is now dwindling, which means that growth must slow.

But China’s economic structure is built around the presumption of very rapid growth. Enterprises, many of them state-owned, hoard their earnings rather than return them to the public, which has stunted family incomes; at the same time, individual savings are high, in part because the social safety net is weak, so families accumulate cash just in case. As a result, Chinese spending is lopsided, with very high rates of investment but a very low share of consumer demand in gross domestic product.

This structure was workable as long as torrid economic growth offered sufficient investment opportunities. But now investment is running into rapidly decreasing returns. The result is a nasty transition problem: What happens if investment drops off but consumption doesn’t rise fast enough to fill the gap?

What China needs are reforms that spread the purchasing power — and it has, to be fair, been making efforts in that direction. But by all accounts these efforts have fallen short. For example, it has introduced what is supposed to be a national health care system, but in practice many workers fall through the cracks.

Meanwhile, China’s leaders appear to be terrified — probably for political reasons — by the prospect of even a brief recession. So they’ve been pumping up demand by, in effect, force-feeding the system with credit, including fostering a stock market boom. Such measures can work for a while, and all might have been well if the big reforms were moving fast enough. But they aren’t, and the result is a bubble that wants to burst.

China’s response has been an all-out effort to prop up stock prices. Large shareholders have been blocked from selling; state-run institutions have been told to buy shares; many companies with falling prices have been allowed to suspend trading. These are things you might do for a couple of days to contain an obviously unjustified panic, but they’re being applied on a sustained basis to a market that is still far above its level not long ago.

In part, they may be worried about financial fallout. It seems that a number of players in China borrowed large sums with stocks as security, so that the market’s plunge could lead to defaults. This is especially troubling because China has a huge “shadow banking” sector that is essentially unregulated and could easily experience a wave of bank runs.

But it also looks as if the Chinese government, having encouraged citizens to buy stocks, now feels that it must defend stock prices to preserve its reputation. And what it’s ending up doing, of course, is shredding that reputation at record speed.

Indeed, every time you think the authorities have done everything possible to destroy their credibility, they top themselves. Lately state-run media have been assigning blame for the stock plunge to, you guessed it, a foreign conspiracy against China, which is even less plausible than you may think: China has long maintained controls that effectively shut foreigners out of its stock market, and it’s hard to sell off assets you were never allowed to own in the first place.

So what have we just learned? China’s incredible growth wasn’t a mirage, and its economy remains a productive powerhouse. The problems of transition to lower growth are obviously major, but we’ve known that for a while. The big news here isn’t about the Chinese economy; it’s about China’s leaders. Forget everything you’ve heard about their brilliance and foresightedness. Judging by their current flailing, they have no clue what they’re doing.

July 31st, 2015
Albert Oehlen

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 10.35.45 AM
Raum, 1984
Oil, varnish and mirror on canvas
260 X 260 cm

Through August 16, 2015

Kunsthalle Zurich

July 28th, 2015

Thanks to Jonathan Maghen

July 27th, 2015
How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain

NY Times Published: JULY 22, 2015

A walk in the park may soothe the mind and, in the process, change the workings of our brains in ways that improve our mental health, according to an interesting new study of the physical effects on the brain of visiting nature.

Most of us today live in cities and spend far less time outside in green, natural spaces than people did several generations ago.

City dwellers also have a higher risk for anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than people living outside urban centers, studies show.

These developments seem to be linked to some extent, according to a growing body of research. Various studies have found that urban dwellers with little access to green spaces have a higher incidence of psychological problems than people living near parks and that city dwellers who visit natural environments have lower levels of stress hormones immediately afterward than people who have not recently been outside.

But just how a visit to a park or other green space might alter mood has been unclear. Does experiencing nature actually change our brains in some way that affects our emotional health?

That possibility intrigued Gregory Bratman, a graduate student at the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University, who has been studying the psychological effects of urban living. In an earlier study published last month, he and his colleagues found that volunteers who walked briefly through a lush, green portion of the Stanford campus were more attentive and happier afterward than volunteers who strolled for the same amount of time near heavy traffic.

But that study did not examine the neurological mechanisms that might underlie the effects of being outside in nature.

So for the new study, which was published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mr. Bratman and his collaborators decided to closely scrutinize what effect a walk might have on a person’s tendency to brood.

Brooding, which is known among cognitive scientists as morbid rumination, is a mental state familiar to most of us, in which we can’t seem to stop chewing over the ways in which things are wrong with ourselves and our lives. This broken-record fretting is not healthy or helpful. It can be a precursor to depression and is disproportionately common among city dwellers compared with people living outside urban areas, studies show.

Perhaps most interesting for the purposes of Mr. Bratman and his colleagues, however, such rumination also is strongly associated with increased activity in a portion of the brain known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex.

If the researchers could track activity in that part of the brain before and after people visited nature, Mr. Bratman realized, they would have a better idea about whether and to what extent nature changes people’s minds.

Mr. Bratman and his colleagues first gathered 38 healthy, adult city dwellers and asked them to complete a questionnaire to determine their normal level of morbid rumination.

The researchers also checked for brain activity in each volunteer’s subgenual prefrontal cortex, using scans that track blood flow through the brain. Greater blood flow to parts of the brain usually signals more activity in those areas.

Then the scientists randomly assigned half of the volunteers to walk for 90 minutes through a leafy, quiet, parklike portion of the Stanford campus or next to a loud, hectic, multi-lane highway in Palo Alto. The volunteers were not allowed to have companions or listen to music. They were allowed to walk at their own pace.

Immediately after completing their walks, the volunteers returned to the lab and repeated both the questionnaire and the brain scan.

As might have been expected, walking along the highway had not soothed people’s minds. Blood flow to their subgenual prefrontal cortex was still high and their broodiness scores were unchanged.

But the volunteers who had strolled along the quiet, tree-lined paths showed slight but meaningful improvements in their mental health, according to their scores on the questionnaire. They were not dwelling on the negative aspects of their lives as much as they had been before the walk.

They also had less blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex. That portion of their brains were quieter.

These results “strongly suggest that getting out into natural environments” could be an easy and almost immediate way to improve moods for city dwellers, Mr. Bratman said.

But of course many questions remain, he said, including how much time in nature is sufficient or ideal for our mental health, as well as what aspects of the natural world are most soothing. Is it the greenery, quiet, sunniness, loamy smells, all of those, or something else that lifts our moods? Do we need to be walking or otherwise physically active outside to gain the fullest psychological benefits? Should we be alone or could companionship amplify mood enhancements?

“There’s a tremendous amount of study that still needs to be done,” Mr. Bratman said.

But in the meantime, he pointed out, there is little downside to strolling through the nearest park, and some chance that you might beneficially muffle, at least for awhile, your subgenual prefrontal cortex.

July 22nd, 2015
Frances Stark on Sturtevant

Frances Stark, photo by Bobby Jesus

Frances Stark’s multimedia practice mines our image-saturated, technology-driven culture to investigate and question constructions of power, sexuality, and lived experience. As part of the museum’s new Artists on Artists series, she discusses the work of Sturtevant, an artist who was among the first to examine the relationship between high art and information technology.

Based in Los Angeles, Stark has exhibited and performed nationally and internationally at venues including MoMA PS1 and The Art Institute of Chicago. UH-OH: Frances Stark 1991-2015, the most comprehensive mid-career survey of the artist’s work to date, opens at the Hammer Museum this fall.

THURSDAY, JULY 23, 2015, 7PM


July 22nd, 2015
Sonia Delaunay

Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 11.53.49 AM
Simultaneous Dresses
(The three women) 1925

Through August 9, 2015


July 21st, 2015
Matt Paweski

Matt Paweski
‘Compressed Panels (Two Tone)’
Euro-beech hardwood, birch plywood, steel, copper rivets, enamel, wax
58 x 32 x 16 inches, 147.32 x 81.28 x 40.64 cm

July 18 – August 15, 2015

Cherry and Martin

July 17th, 2015

Thanks to Jonathan Maghen

July 17th, 2015
Barbarian Days

NY Times Published: JULY 13, 2015

Most canonical accounts of surfing, from Captain Cook to Tom Wolfe, are written by nonsurfers who tend to wax gooey about the sport’s joys while getting its mechanics and ethos laughably wrong. Yet when surfers themselves began to write about it, in the 1960s, what they produced was usually bad in other ways — pretentious, semiliterate, purple or merely slight. It came to seem that surfing, like some pagan mystery cult, might simply defy literary representation, remaining properly understood only by initiates who were too busy surfing to learn to write.

Then, in the summer of 1992, there ­appeared in The New Yorker a long, two-part article by William Finnegan titled “Playing Doc’s Games” that was instantly recognized as a masterpiece. A wise, ­richly atmospheric account of riding the gelid, powerful gray waves of San Francisco while negotiating the demands of a fanatical surfer-oncologist named Doc Renneker, “Playing Doc’s Games” ­combines the deep knowledge of a widely traveled hard-core surfer, the observations of a born ethnographer and the wry aplomb of a New Yorker staff writer. The theme is Finnegan’s growing ambivalence about surfing, his conviction, set off against the foil of Renneker’s unwavering zeal, that he has given more than enough lifeblood to this sport or “path” or whatever it is. For Finnegan, a great deal of whose identity is bound up with surfing, this ambivalence amounts to a personal crisis; but it is also the crucial literary prerequisite, providing the critical distance that allows Finnegan to see surfing with unparalleled clarity.

“Playing Doc’s Games” frequently ­alludes to other chapters in Finnegan’s storied surf life — Hawaii, the South Pacific, Indonesia — but in the nearly 25 years since its publication, there have been only rumors of the memoir that seemed an inevitable outgrowth of the article. With “Barbarian Days,” we finally have that ­extraordinary book in full, including, largely unchanged, “Playing Doc’s Games.” It is in many ways, and for the first time, a surfer in full. And it is cause for throwing your wet-suit hoods in the air.

Raised in Southern California during the 1950s and ’60s, Finnegan learned to surf there and in Hawaii, where his father, who worked in television, moved the family for two stints of work when Finnegan was in early adolescence. The depictions of his humiliating treatment as a haole (white) student in a Hawaiian middle school are harrowing and characteristically droll and psychologically insightful. He fares considerably better in the water, where he wins the respect of the locals; has his first, terrifying taste of big waves; and finds himself fully bewitched: “I did not consider, even passingly, that I had a choice when it came to surfing. My enchantment would take me where it would.”

Where surfing took Finnegan was around the world. The post-“Gidget” boom of which he was a part made the sport an iconic, global phenomenon, but it also caused breaks from Malibu to Pipeline to become miserably crowded. As a consequence of this ruination, and the era’s broader idealism, adventurous surfers like Finnegan went in search of solitude and the perfect, prelapsarian wave. Along the trail, he and his travel companion found themselves carrying the weight of more than just their backpacks and surfboards. On the one hand, “chasing waves in a dedicated way was . . . dynamic and ascetic, radical in its rejection of the values of duty and conventional achievement.” On the other, “being rich white Americans in dirt-poor places where many people, especially the young, yearned openly for the life, the comforts, the very opportunities that we, at least for the seemingly endless moment, had turned our backs on — well, it would simply never be O.K. In an ­inescapable way, we sucked, and we knew it.” In other words, once it emerges from the ­adolescent-rebellion stage of its development, surfing presents itself as a problematic passion, and it is one of this book’s many great strengths that it unflinchingly addresses the various forms this problem takes as Finnegan grows up, commits to a career as a journalist and has a family.

Yet find the perfect, empty wave Finnegan did, back in 1978, off a tiny island in Fiji. The moment of revelation is the surfing equivalent of Keats’s “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”: “We turned and trained our binoculars on the tiny island across the channel. We were looking straight into the wave. . . . It was a long, tapering — a very long, very precisely tapering — left. The walls were dark gray against a pale gray sea. This was it. The lineup had an unearthly symmetry. Breaking waves peeled so evenly that they looked like still photographs. . . . This was it. Staring through the binoculars, I forgot to breathe for entire six-wave sets. This, by God, was it.”

Now among the most renowned in the world, the Fijian break is one of perhaps a handful in its class that Finnegan has intimate, masterly knowledge of. Indeed, if the book has a flaw, it lies in the envy helplessly induced in the armchair surf-­traveler by so many lusty affairs with waves that are the supermodels of the surf world. Still, Finnegan considerately shows himself paying the price of admission in a few near drownings, and these are among the most electrifying moments in the book.

There are too many breathtaking, original things in “Barbarian Days” to do more than mention here — observations about surfing that have simply never been made before, or certainly never so well: the postsurf moods of “pleasant melancholy” or “mild elation”; the “charged and wild inclination to weep” that comes in the wake of unusually intense rides or ­wipeouts; the unlikely facial expressions actually worn by a surfer in the act of riding a demanding wave; and ­visionary descriptions of oceanic beauty occasionally met with in surfing but seldom done justice: “It was midday, and the straight-overhead sun rendered the water invisible. It was as if we were suspended above the reef, floating on a cushion of nothing . . . . Approaching waves were like optical illusions. . . . And when I caught one and stood up, it disappeared. I was flying down the line, but all I could see was brilliant reef streaming under my feet.”

But a particularly remarkable feature of “Barbarian Days” is the generous yet unsparing portraits of competitive surf friendships that make up a major share of the narrative. As Finnegan writes: “Surfing is a secret garden, not easily entered. My memory of learning a spot, of coming to know and understand a wave, is usually inseparable from the friend with whom I tried to climb its walls.”

That perfect wave in Fiji now has a resort that costs about $400 a day. No matter — the wave is as sublime as ever, as the 60ish Finnegan discovers when he surfs it again as a paying guest in the final ­pages. The compromises and corruption on shore fail to contaminate or alter the joy-drenched, adrenalated play in the ocean. Wave and surfer are ageless. For surfing is a pagan mystery cult after all. And “Barbarian Days” is its “Confessions.”

A Surfing Life
By William Finnegan
Illustrated. 447 pp. Penguin Press.

July 15th, 2015
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