Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Matrix: The Artist as Superman

Neo-avant-garde (1999); Historical Avant-garde (1916)
The impulse to write my first essay about Star Wars was born out of a frustration. My frustration was that a movie that had created such an obvious aesthetic break: even as a very young boy I could instantly recognize scifi movies made before Star Wars (because they sucked), from those made afterwards (they still sucked, but at least they looked like Star Wars). That the seminal film of my youth had garnered little, if any, serious consideration; and that what scholarly attention it had received was so obviously wrong-headed, spurred me to action.

My experience of The Matrix was entirely different. So much philosophical, theoretical and intellectual ink has been spilled over franchise that I've hesitated to write anything about it - for years. Not because I had nothing to say, but because, almost immediatelyThe Matrix suffered from an embarrassment of riches; too much - too serious - attention can, as it turns out, be as bad as too little. Or, as Joss Whedon recent quipped about his own blockbuster, "At some point the embarrassment of riches is actually embarrassing." Enough time has passed, and the logorrhea has lapsed into an embarrassed silence, as the disappointment with the Trilogy has cemented into a consensus: the sequels "ruined the mythology". For myself, I enjoyed The Matrix sequels in much the same spirit I enjoyed the Star Wars prequels (they are all good-spirited and fun, if still deeply flawed, movies). I'd like to contribute one more flood of words about The Matrix, serious, but not a philosophical. I am less interested in what The Matrix might tells us about reality, than what it tells us about movies. In a season of superhero movies, in an era of superhero blockbusters, what follows is a consideration of The Matrix as a truly singular Hollywood portrait of the avant-garde artist: the artist as superman.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Selma Alabama, 1965, According to The Rev Robert Leonard Powers

"Basement in Selma" Franklin McMahon (1965) - illustration for Look Magazine [RLP standing at center]

I traveled to Selma Alabama this past weekend to meet my two older sisters Sarah and Rachel, to witness the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. We went, because in 1965 our father, Robert L Powers, answered Martin Luther Kings' call for white clergy members to joined the black protestors in a march to Montgomery. I've posted about my father in the pasthe was an ordained Episcopalian Priest, although by the time I was born he was no longer wearing the collar, and was instead practicing psychology. My father passed away two years ago, and my sisters and I went to memorialize him. I have been thinking about what I might say about our time in Selma, about my father, about race, equality, and voting rights in America (no small beer in that list). But yesterday my brother-in-law reminded me that five years ago I asked my father to email me an account, in his own words, of his time in Selma. It took me only a few seconds to find after being reminded of it. The comedy (which I think my dad would have appreciated) is that my sisters and I spent our weekend together struggling to remember what we could of our fathers visit: when did he arrive? how long did he stay? who did he meet and see? The discovery of his email is exciting for me, but I wanted to share it as a reminder to those who have not been to Selma, this is a jubilee year, just because you missed being there when President Obama spoke (my sisters and I did too - we made our plans well in advance of Obama and arrived to late to see the President), does not mean you have missed taking part. Even if you father or mother wasn't in Selma 50 years ago, it is never too late to answer King's call. I am very happy my sisters and I did. What follows is my father's unedited email, sent to me on March 12th, 2010.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

2H2K - August 2050 - “No faiR"

MUDC work train on the 3rd Avenue El[This is the sixth short story in a series, the 1st story is here, the 2nd is here, the 3rd is here, the 4th here, and the fifth.] 

His phone vibrated a warning. Rush hour. Dean realized. He could feel the heat rising across his face. You're such a fucking fuckup.

He'd missed the early morning free ride by two minutes; pictured himself looking in the mirror one last time Pausing to The faRe had gone up to 45 minutes. It would clean him out. Two fucking minutes - classic.

Whether or not he got the job he wouldn’t have enough to get home, much less eat for the next 16 hours when his Gimmie would come through.

Dean paused at the entrance. If he waited the three hours until the faRe dropped back down to 25 minutes, he'd be late for the interview… Fuck it.

He pushed through the turnstile. He had ten minutes left If he got really hungry, it was enough to get a coke or a candy bar. But not both.

Either way, it would have to hold him over.

He had nothing to do for the rest of the day anyway. He could always walk back over the bridge.

Dean looked at his sneakers, disposable orange Juntos. Or at least they used to be orange. They had seen better days. Not the best gear for a job interview. Much less a long a walk... 

Dean watched the well dressed commuters passing through the turnstile, as if 90 minutes a day meant nothing. It probably doesn't.

It was a week night, the faRe would drop to zero after nine. I need this job.

It was a nice day, not too hot, he could always find a park to a hang out in. With that decided, he wondered what would happen if they wanted him to start work today. One Problem at a time Dean.

2H2K - August 2050 - #adviceforyoungjournalists - An Introduction:

The Craven Family, Peter Manzel (2001)

When I started working on this series of short stories about the second half [2H] of the 21st Century [2K] I asked my friend Felix Salmon: "What kind of company would the 'Felix Salmon of 2050' work for, and what will he be doing?" This was well before Felix was "post-text" - well before there were even rumblings of him leaving Reuters (the only job I had ever know him in up until then). I asked Felix because I trying not to imagine dystopian 2050, but instead, I had set myself a more difficult goal: to imagine a "well-paid middle-class lifestyle down the road." Since then I have tried to imagine a future in which there is a place for Felixes, lots of them. He is not the type of person I have had in mind as I've written these stories - he is EXACTLY the person I have had in mind. So I was not surprised when he advised young journalists yesterday: "if you’re more career-oriented, and want a good chance at a well-paid middle-class lifestyle down the road... if you enter the journalism profession today, have probably never been lower." The reason I wasn't surprised, is because it agreed with the answer Felix gave me to my question over a year ago; an answer that didn't discourage me, but pointed me in the direction I have taken with these stories.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Stratified Future

Ralph McQuarrie matte painting of the desert and the void (1977); Skyscraper Index - up to 1974.
 Preparing for a talk at Whitman last week, a post on ello by @doingitwrong that mentioned the Skyscraper Index brought to mind a talk I gave a few years ago at Performa 11 in which I broke the visual language of the Star Wars "used future" down along lines of three stratified machine ages. I was looking for a way to explain to the students some of the things that I felt made the film so original, it occurred to me that while geeks love to play the gotcha game of spotting some imagery, predating Star Wars. That C3P0 is a copy of Fritz Lang's robot Maria, is an obvious example. The gist of the game is that Star Wars is derivative. But what the game misses is that C3P0 means something very different than Maria. If Lucas and his crew had attempted to build a stratified past for their futuristic world - something that had never been done on film before - it would have overwhelmed 70's audiences. What they did instead, was to appropriate an existing past: Yesterday's Tomorrows.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Update: The Star Wars Logo Actually Is fascist.

I'm giving a talk on Star Wars at Whitman College next week, so I was excited to see Chris Taylor speak last night at Seattle's' Town Hall about his new book, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe. It turned out to be the first stop on his first book tour for his first book, and he focused his talk on the first ten minutes of the film - starting with the carton that showed before the original print of the film (Duck Rodgers in the 24 1/2th Century). He is an engaging speaker, went into great detail, and repeatedly stumping a group of obviously die-hard fans. The biggest surprise for me, was very early on, when he got to the appearance of the Star Wars logo and he told us it was designed by a woman named Suzy Rice who says she was told by George Lucas to make the logo "very fascist... something to rival AT&T." It's an amazing bit of trivia, but what surprised me wasn't Ms. Rice's claim - I wrote about Suzy Rice's claim on this blog in 2010 - it's that Taylor chose to include her story in his book.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

2H2K - July 2050 - “Chuck Close”

iAroki walking Benji, the family dog (1977)

Chuck Close was a small, compact, terrier-mutt with a shaggy coat of coarse dark grey hair and a slight under bite. Although she herself had never had the courage to kill one, Chuck was the descendant of working animals, British rat-catchers. Her line had arrived in the colonies in the early 1700s in the form of  pregnant bitch named Molly. Three hundred years later, none of Molly’s brood remained on the mainland, but a few dozen still dotted Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Like Molly, Chuck had a long muscled torso, a six inch inseam, and carried herself with the characteristic jaunty confidence of a small dog that had no idea she was small.

2H2K - July 2050 - Artificial Animals and Artificial Comfort - An Introduction:

Westinghouse's "Elektro" at the 1939 New York World's Fair. via Paleofuture

About the time Greg Borenstein and I began working on 2H2K, my father fell ill and was dying. I spent a lot of time with him, in rehab centers and hospitals, watching the ways he was treated and trying to help. One of the comforts now offered to the sick and dying are dogs. Specially trained and certified animals are a part of our most modern medical facilities. The pleasure they brought my father, who, towards the end, could enjoy very little, was a great comfort to both him - and therefor to me. But the "comfort dogs" only came once a week at most, and only for very short visits. So between tests, procedures, meals, and whatever else took up my father's last days, I would hunt for videos of dogs on YouTube. I thought of these home movie snippets as comfort dog prosthesis. When I was growing up, I'm sure he told me about the dog he had as a boy, but it was only as he lay dying that he admitted that he had been needlessly hard on the dog, taking his own boyhood unhappiness out on the animal, seventy some odd years later, he suffered terrible guilt over hurting that dog. As my father's illness progressed his appetites shrank, for drink, for food, for books. The very last thing I can remember him telling me that he wanted, was how much wanted to have a dog again. Not long after the old man died we got a puppy. Until very recently, the vast majority of dogs throughout human history were working animals, expect to earn their keep doing skilled physical labor as shepherds, rat catchers, or hunters. The comfort my dog has given me is a profound and valuable for of emotional labor, it is a deep animal connection that machines will ever be able to reproduce. But something I can imagine machines doing, relatively soon, is facilitating the emotional labor of animals.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Peace Dividend: Dystopia Now

Ferguson Missouri, 30 years after George Orwell's dystopian future of 1984
Over the past week I've been watching the police crisis in Ferguson Missouri horror. From the very beginning, when an officer shot an unarmed boy six times in broad daylight, in front of witnesses, the authorities have reacted with overwhelming force; their actions better characterized by blind rage than any concern for public safety. It's a bit like watching keystone cops who have been issued body armor and sniper rifles. In the midst this outbreak of real world distopia, Michael Solana's posted an anti-dystopian screed that is as muddled-headed as it is badly timed. (I say muddled, because Solana wrongly equates dystopias with an anti-technology sentiment - he needs to familiarize himself with utopian Luddites.) In response to Solana's essay, Brian Merchant posted a defense of dystopias. But while I felt Merchant's rebuttal was smart, I agree with Solana conclusion, if not his reasoning. We need to get back in the habit of telling stories about the future that are not dystopian.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


Urban Think Tank's Grotão Community Center in San Paulo Brazil.

"There is a famous scene in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead where Howard Roark , the archetypal modernist übermensch, is waiting for the phone to ring. His rent is overdue and he is desperate for his banking client to call with a commission. Howard Roark is not an activist. An activist does not wait for the phone to ring. If there is a precondition to activism, it is being proactive. Your client does not even know you exist, cannot afford your services and has come to expect no help from yu anyway, because your client is the urban poor." - Justin McGuirk, Radical Cities

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Lego's "Girl Problem" Hasn't Changed, It's Multiplied.

Viral ad campaign by Lego didn't do much to comfort those put of by Lego Friends.

I got in a bit of a dust up on twitter this week, which caught me off guard, because not only was I not looking for a fight, I wasn't disagreeing. But some subjects are thorny, they invite misunderstanding and defensiveness. Gender roles is one of those subjects. Lego's "girl problem." The problem is an old one: Lego can't figure out how to sell to girls; 90% of their toys sales are to/for boys - and I bet that that number is low. It's a problem for Lego because they have saturated half their market and can't break into the other other half - until recently, and that's where the new girl problem starts. A couple years ago Lego released a pink-washed line of doll-house themed building sets called Lego Friends, and according to NPR, has tripled their sales to girls. The source of yesterday's misunderstanding, was that I hadn't realized the "girl problem" had morphed from a question of how to get girls to play with Legos to one of how to get girl to stop playing with pink toys. But to my mind the original "problem" remains. Three times almost nothing does not a market share make. My guess the sales of the pink-washed Lego Friends sets don't reflect numbers of girls playing with the toys now that they are pink, but rather they reflect the fact that aunts, uncles, grandmothers, mothers, fathers, and girls themselves feel comfortable buying a toy for a girl that looks unambiguously like a girl's toy and comes from one of the most respected toy companies in the world. To my thinking, any marketing scheme built around structured-narrative sets (ie sets that come with instructions intended to build a specific narratives of firemen, spacemen, housewives or veterinarians) are going to be gendered, but they are also going to continue to fail with the girls and "outlier" boys who aren't playing with them now.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Art As War

Dr Strangelove (1964)
From time to time, as tensions rise in one part of the world of another, someone will bring up the idea replacing war with art. I had a friend who took that idea and ran with it. He wanted to top ICBMs with "art-heads." So for instance, his suggestion was that when diplomacy broke down, and it was time for action, that a group of artists would be at the ready to sculpt, paint, code, cook, whatever - a response, calculated to shaping events. Their art, rather than atomic payloads, would then be loaded onto missiles that would be fired into the enemy combatants. Culture "artwar," fought by means of conceptual bunker busters, new aesthetic daisy cutters, and social practice fat man and little boys. My friend's idea was absurd but attractive. An actualization of artistic avant-gardist pretension. Artists as actual shock troops. It occurred to me today, remembering my friends idea, thinking of Crimea, Syria, Afghanistan, et al, that we are already fighting wars by means of art; that intercontinental missiles, loaded with cultural content are flying over head. Movies are the nukes - weapons of mass-illumination. Music is another artistic weapon of mass-reproduction. Contemporary visual art, is a wholly conventional form of artfare - targeted mostly at elites.