New York City

The Hunt for the Real Autumn

Each year around this time, without fail, New York City is abuzz with the residents’ autumnal alacrity, having had had quite enough of the sweaty summer season. Enthusiastic praise is given first to the colors, then to the smells, eventually the tastes, and finally to the sensation of a crisp breeze wafting through city streets. With warm smiles anticipating the romance of a fairy tale, friends look at me with shining eyes and ask, “Don’t you just love the fall?”

Immediately, suspicion wells up within me. “Where are you from?” I ask, already knowing the answer to be one of three American states.

“California,” the majority of them say, though a few hail from Texas or Tennessee.

“That figures,” I mutter, sometimes under my breath, sometimes loud enough to be certain I’ve been heard. My response is always followed with the question: What is that supposed to mean?

It means this: I grew up in New England. What’s that supposed to mean, you ask? It means that generally, when it comes to autumn anywhere else, I’m emphatically not impressed. The mediocre color splotches available in Central Park plummet far below the standards of “fall foliage;” I’ve never even seen a pumpkin in the concrete jungle; and on the rare and coincidental occasion that I’ve caught a whiff of anything remotely resembling freshly-baked-pie-goodness, it has rapidly been followed by the smell of two-week-old-baked-goodness-tossed-in-the-garbage-pail, which – in case this part wasn’t clear – spoils the mood entirely.

Oh, yes, I love fall. But expecting me to love it anywhere except New England (with the possible exception of the real England) is like expecting a second-grader to like an uninspired apple over the sugary bliss of the candy kind; the very thought embodies futility.

Fortunately, New England isn’t far from New York City, and you need not burrow deeply into the northernmost parts of the region to experience some of that fairy-tale-fall that has warmed my heart for so many years. If you’re in the neighborhood, and you are up for a far-north frolicking or just a day-long getaway, here are a few spots to visit to make your autumnal adventures far more magical than any other place America has to offer. (With apologies to the rest of America.)

Gillette Castle, East Haddam, CT – Perched high above the Connecticut River, Gillette Castle, originally known as Seven Sisters, was the residence of actor William Gillette, famous for his stage portrayals of Sherlock Holmes. One only has to spend a few seconds on the property to understand why Gillette fell in love with it. From the garden, the view stretches for miles, trees splashed in every color of autumn clustered close together and running along both sides of the Connecticut River all the way to the horizon. For a bird’s-eye view of the fall season, there are few options superior and none quite as convenient. An added bonus is the mysterious nature of a castle fashioned with secret passages, spy-holes, and even its own personal underground railway. Pack a picnic lunch to eat amidst the leaves fallen on the grounds below the castle, or make a night of it camping at the foot of the mountain.

Northeast Kingdom, VT – The furthest of the fun times, the scenic drive alone merits mention, let alone all the quaint comforts of cozy New England offered in the Northeast Kingdom.Unlike some of the more densely populated parts of southern New England, the Northeast Kingdom boasts full-length hayrides through the grassy plains of the least commercialized farmlands in the region, foliage paddles along on the Clyde River, harvest fairs, hiking through the crisp forests of the Burke Mountains, and the New England autumn signature Great Vermont Corn Maze. To satisfy your taste buds, stop off for some quality unfiltered ale samplings at the Trout River Brewery in Lyndonville or hit up the Cow Palace in Derby for their famous elk burgers. (For those overly-zealous carnivores, you can even “meet the meat” in the backyard, posing for pictures with someone’s future lunch if the elk are unsuspecting enough to approach you. No sudden movements, people.) Best of all, at least for earth-conscious New Yorkers, it doesn’t get greener than the Northeast Kingdom, and thanks to a geotourism program being developed in conjunction with National Geographic, your presence there will actually help to sustain the region’s natural environment.

Hudson Highland/Fjord, Cold Spring, NY– Okay. Technically, it’s not New England, but lest my regional snobbery paint me to be too exclusive for my own good, let it be known that upstate New York offers most of the same nostalgic delicacies as the rest of New England. The Hudson Highland and Hudson Fjord provide an all-encompassing experience of autumn’s natural beauty, only a couple of hours north of the suffocating faux-fall of New York City. Offering views from far above the Hudson River as well as the unique experience of a glacier-carved valley between the highland mountains, few sites in the northeast have such a robust selection of scenery. After a sojourn across the Bear Mountain Bridge, visit some of the town’s antique structures, go kayaking along the river (don’t forget your wetsuit), picnic at Little Stony Point State Park, or, if you’ve had quite enough of nature, visit Main Street for the best small-town shopping along the Hudson.

Natural Bridge State Park, North Adams, MA – Home to the only naturally formed white marble “bridge” in North America, the park offers, amidst a kaleidoscope of colors, a 13,000 year old bedrock marble bridge formed by eons of glacial movements. Visit Hudson’s Cave, made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne in An American Notebook, or just watch the Hudson Brook bubble through the park’s naturally formed gorge. For nearby nature adventures in North Adams, visit the stunning Berkshire Mountain trails, two other state parks, and vibrant local waterfalls. If town tourism is your fancy, make sure to check out Mass MoCA for a healthy dose of contemporary visual and performing arts.

Lyman Orchards, Middlefield, CT – What would autumn be without apples? Whether you pick your own or buy from the fresh piles inside, Lyman Orchards boasts some of the finest fall fruit in the country. Running the ninth-oldest family-operated business in American, the Lymans remain dedicated to preserving their land and homegrown produce for generations to come. After lunch on the beautiful patio deck overlooking the orchards, get lost in the yellow glow of the unique sunflower maze, stay traditional with the classic corn maze out front, or tromp through the pumpkin patch and find yourself the perfect piece for jack-o-lanterns, rich pumpkin bread, sugary pie, and roasted seeds. Don’t forget your golf clubs!

For a list of the best places to see foliage throughout the season, check out Yankee Foliage’s peak map.

No matter what your New England autumn adventure looks like, be assured that when you return to your humble home, you will scoff heartily at the question, “Don’t you just love the fall?”

“Oh, yes,” you’ll say. “I do love the fall. And I guess this is pretty nice, too.”

Eyewitness News

I walk through Times Square. Red, blue, purple, yellow flash and wink. Faces blur. Lights pulse: on, off, on, off. Someone sings a pop song I don’t recognize, revving up those passing by. Times Square. Me, passing through.

Breathing sultry air, I witness the moment: on, off, on, off. I feel my arms in motion, my feet hitting the pavement. Buildings rise, old, connecting me to a past I cannot really touch. Billboards change rapid-fire and signs rotate. In just a few short minutes I witness Mary Poppins, Bubba Gump, race cars speeding.

In the midst of this are offers to come and go – somewhere, but I’m not sure of destinations. The bus stop. Theater tickets starting at $31.50. A giant beer bottle rising up golden, then disappearing.

“I will write as soon as I get to New York,” said Father Byles. I saw his words, bigger than life, white against amber, just an hour ago in the exhibit for Titanic. I will write as soon as never came. Still, the words are hanging somewhere near Times Square, in a dark hall where you can touch a piece of sunken ship, buy a fragment of coal that powered black and white promise (virtually unsinkable! they said). My daughter reached into the touch case – a fragile child’s hand traced remains of wreckage. We passed on the coal purchase, refusing to buy tragedy.

Mary Poppins floats skyward, clinging to her black umbrella. I watch her go and wish for my own umbrella against time. And a red dress. I could use a red dress, singing past tragedy.

Veggies on Governor’s Island

From the New York Times’ City Room blog: On Governors I., an Organic Farm With a View.

The farm will have close ties to New York Harbor School, which is scheduled to move from Bushwick, Brooklyn, to the island in 2010. The farm will provide produce, and students can volunteer and do science work there.

The proceeds of the farm are intended to support stipends for teenagers who work at Added Value’s original farm in Red Hook. In an ideal season a few years down the line, the farm could potentially provide 25 stipends at $1,400, said Ian Marvy, the executive director of Added Value. The average household income in Red Hook is around $14,000, he noted.”You’re increasing a family’s income by 9 percent by growing tomatoes.”

Man on Wire, Take 2

From the New York Times: Same Man, New Wire and a Secret Midtown Venue.

The stealth preparations made the walk a compelling subject in the film “Man on Wire,” which won an Oscar for best documentary feature this year. While on stage at the ceremony, Mr. Petit balanced the Oscar statue on his nose; it was unscripted and unannounced.

But Mr. Petit’s next walk will not be a surprise.

Here’s the spoiler: Mr. Petit says he will perform a high-wire walk in the fall in Midtown Manhattan. It will be high, it will be long, and it will be outdoors in a very recognizable location that he does not want revealed quite yet – arrangements are not final.

See Sarah Hanssen’s Curator article on Man on Wire.

More on urban simplicity

From The University Bookman: On Brooklyn’s Side.

many agrarian or regionalist (the two are often unfortunately conflated) polemics often neglect the notion of vocation, or rather they universalize the notion of vocation to mean only a back-to-the-land kind of reaction. . .

Brooklyn fits even less the New York stereotype. My family, for example, has lived here for four generations, mostly in the same neighborhood. My wife’s family has been across the river in Manhattan just as long, though perhaps I should add that part of her family hails from the South and bore the CSA standard for the state of Georgia. I need not shop at a superstore, preferring instead the many family-run businesses in my neighborhood. We buy produce directly from farmers, do not need to drive a car for weeks at a stretch, and we live within five miles of where my grandparents were married and my ancestors are buried. This is not some “crunchy con” fantasy. Oppressive congestion, dirty subways, and rude pedestrians aside, this is Brooklyn, too.

For more thoughts on the same subject, see Rebecca Tirrell Talbot’s Curator article on urban simplicity from February 27.

Where is the Cinema?
Some Cities and Films in 2008

In his 1986 book about America, Baudrillard gets to Los Angeles and asks: “Where is the cinema?” His odd response: “It is all around you outside, all over the city, that marvelous, continuous performance of films and scenarios.” In France or the Netherlands, one walks out of a theater or gallery into a city that is the source text for the paintings and landscapes you have just seen. What Baudrillard discovered in his roundabout musing on Hollywood was a reversal of what he had become used to in Europe. In LA, it is the city that takes its cues from the cinema. If we want to figure out America we can’t start with our living spaces and think towards the cinema. Rather we have to begin there, in the continual flicker of our theaters, and realize that this is where society is born. Americans appear to live in screenscapes rather than actual landscapes.

For Baudrillard, this is a creepy thought, recasting our neighborhoods in the phantom hues of C.S. Lewis’ description of Purgatory in The Great Divorce. In his version of hell, the damned are free to construct any house at will, the catch being that they are only half-real. The restlessness inspired by this artificiality creates a cosmic urban sprawl, the houses of history’s oldest villains ending up light years from each other. Cinema can have an equally isolating and cheapening effect on the American conscience. But soon after America appeared, so did location intensive films like Linklater’s Slacker, Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, and Jarmusch’s Night Train. This early wave of independent cinema broke the back of Baudrillard’s criticism, and by now we are accustomed to a kind of American cinema that is aware of the way Hollywood glosses over its tendency towards simulacra. What Baudrillard claims is very true in isolated Studio City cases, but it is by no means true of film that Americans have become increasingly aware of through our ever increasing exposure to independent and international cinema. I was reminded of this through a globetrotting theme that trailed my movie-going in 2008, one that responds to Baudrillard’s idea that the average American cinema is like a toxic leak in the public square.

Take for example Guerín’s recent In the City of Sylvia, the quiet story of a man on holiday in Strasbourg who thinks he has chanced upon a girl he met in a bar a few years ago. He follows her from a distance, through staged sets of minimalist urban compositions, until realizing that he is most probably mistaken. Much like the brisk pencil sketches his main character makes of this city’s many attractive café patrons, Guerín’s Strasbourg is beautiful and humane in its simplicity. His camera will linger for minutes on street corners and alleyways that his characters have already passed until their natural rhythms begin to appear. All the people-watching in the film, often obscured by mirrors, windows, and odd angles, begins to converge with Geurín’s preoccupation with the architecture of Strasbourg until the audience becomes part of its hum and throb. It is a voyeuristic experience, but one that keys us into the potential cities have for either alienating or embracing us. The film thrives on the pseudo-community experience of any Starbucks, and poses alternatives in its focus on the everyday spaces of Strasbourg.

A similar thing happens in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon. In homage to the Lamorisse children’s classic, Hou’s film periodically shifts focus onto a red balloon bumbling its way across the boulevards and parks of Paris. Though the film is primarily about a young boy watching his single mother struggle to keep their family afloat, it is also about his fledgling experience of this beautiful city and the way his first memories of it have begun to form. There is the smoky café with a pinball machine his absent father taught him how to play, the sharp angles of graffitied streets he walks between school and home, the field trips to sunlit museums, peeling marionette stages in verdant gardens, and the different views from his apartment windows. Little Simon becomes a stand in for Hou’s obvious love of Parisian minutia, the red balloon at the same time a tour guide across the city and an emblem of the buoyancy of childhood memory. The way Hou frames this bittersweet slice of life with charming sweeps of Paris mimics the way particular cities define the structure of our memories.

Texture is perhaps the key word for Maddin’s My Winnipeg, a befuddling film that charts the history of his beloved home town across a series of memories both real and manufactured. The central image of the film is an imaginary subterranean river fork that lies beneath Winnipeg’s famous Red and Assiniboine River fork, a shape Maddin finds similar to his mother’s loins. In this “discovery,” Maddin finds out why he has never been able to move away from Winnipeg even though he has tried for many years. Winnipeg’s history and lore are so integral to Maddin’s coming-of-age, and woven into the fabric of his odd oeuvre, that he can’t conceive of disconnecting from it. The latter half of the film chronicles the real destruction of landmarks in downtown Winnipeg like a dirge. Though he can’t leave Winnipeg, he also can’t stop its slow demise. The absurdity of the film’s voiceover, and the collection of fables Maddin weaves around his description of the city, are the only responses he has left to the growing rubble. Like Hou’s film, My Winnipeg is bound up in a sense of love for a particular place, his surreal vision of Winnipeg emerging from an intimate knowledge of its sidewalks, streets, and buildings.

And then over all of these films about the way we relate to cities stretches Marsh’s Man on Wire. A documentary about Philippe Petit’s illegal tight-rope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974, the film is a parable for rethinking the way we look at our skylines. When we finally see Petit dancing across the wire in this rarified space between what were once the two largest buildings in the world, the impact of the film as a paean to our living spaces finally dawns. He has made these giant monuments to capitalism pylons in his own playground and the harried space of lower Manhattan a theater for his own monologue on play. Petit’s attitude towards cities as a stage for celebrating human ingenuity is only enhanced by the fact that Marsh never refers to 9/11 in the film. The documentary allows us to sidestep the awful memory and catch a glimpse of a 45 minute period during which the stark modernism of the Twin Towers had been far more eloquently reconfigured through Petit’s elaborate stunt.

In all of these films there is a looming presence of places: real streets, cafés, and bits of geographical lore that persist beyond the imagination of these storied tours. They are films intent on celebrating their chosen landscapes rather than using them to concoct the kind of infectious screenscapes Baudrillard discovered all over Hollywood. And though only one of these films actually takes place in an American city, they inform us nonetheless. We step out of theaters after films like this into St. Louis, Boston, Austin, or any other hazardously American city armed with ways to look at our neighborhoods and daily routines in similarly thoughtful ways. In the City of Sylvia and Flight of the Red Balloon train us to slow down and appreciate the fabric of our living spaces; masterful renditions of “smelling the roses.” Maddin’s film demonstrates how connected we are to our hometowns, which in a very real sense give birth to us. Man on Wire shows us how slight shifts in perspective can humanize places that have become so associated with the daily grind.

I like to think of films like this as an antidote to the dislocating tendency of Hollywood commerce and advertising described in America. In their celebration of particular places they train me to see wherever it is I live as a place to live and thrive rather than just a backdrop to my daily commute or a borough of the madding crowd. Like a master class in topophilia they tell us why our walk to and from the theater is just as valuable as our time in the theater itself. Or as experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky once quipped in a Village Voice interview: “Narrative film seems very clogged up, with almost no exceptions. It has no openness for me. I go to any narrative film, in recent years, and with almost every one, the lobby is more interesting than the film. Getting out of my car and walking to the theater is much more interesting, because at least I am alive in the present moment.” And, I would add, in a particular place.

Notes From a Budget Truck

My wife and I are moving from Los Angeles to New York, it’s the middle of January, and I never thought I’d find myself so obsessed with the contents of a 16-foot Budget truck.

Our route is long, tough, and snowy. My father has likened it to the Joad family tour except without nearly as much dust, death, or squatting down and squinting our eyes and picking up a handful of dirt and letting it run through our fingers while giving some inspiring speech. “Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there” . . . mmmm, maybe? I’d like to say that I’d be there but apparently I’m more concerned with all the crap that’s in the back of this truck.

I’ve been worried that our things, locked away in this 16 foot gas guzzler, will somehow be stolen. I’m worried that a group of vandals will materially violate me – that they will take bolt cutters to our padlock, steal our things, and top it off by painting something phallic on the side of the truck because they somehow found out that I didn’t spend extra for the zero deductible insurance, and adding insult to injury is what these thieves are all about. These guys are smart. Too smart.

I’ve been so paranoid at times that I’ve found myself checking on the truck every hour or so, discreetly peeking out the window of our Motel 6 room, like some gossipy grandma in a Southern Gothic novel. This obsession is ridiculous.

My paranoia with the things we own began shortly after we loaded the truck in a real-life game of Tetris with three people who would have rather been sleeping. I never knew how much I cared about our second-hand printer, our blender, and our cake stand that has never been used. It’s a cake stand. Who on earth uses a round cake stand more than once or twice a decade? Am I really going to bake a cake – specifically, a round cake – then frost it, display it on a porcelain stand, and later take it off the stand to eat, just so that people can see this round cake, in all its prominence and glory? “Oh my God, look at that round cake! It’s on a stand! Who would have thought to put that round cake on a stand! Look at how useful that is! I wouldn’t have thought much of that ugly little round cake unless it was propped up, as it is, on a pedestal, as if it had something to say! As if it was about to come alive and open its little chocolate lips to compliment me on my haircut! I declare: look at that cake! Standing there! I don’t even want to eat that sexy little cake it’s so beautiful!” No. I didn’t think I cared a lick about that cake stand until I obsessively wrapped it in newspaper and bubble wrap and carefully stacked it among the other boxes of things I tell people I don’t care about. But apparently I do. Care, that is.

My paranoia peaked in Denver. And I think it’s because of Radiohead. The band. You see, when I was in sixth grade Radiohead came through Denver (my home town) on tour and all of their equipment was stolen. They made statements on the radio pleading with the burglars to return their things. They never did. Radiohead left Denver bitter and angry and a little more afraid of the Mile High city.

Our truck, this automotive behemoth, was too big to fit into a parking spot close to where we were staying, and we were forced to park it about a quarter mile away. Out in the open. Where the Mile High bandits could get it. They didn’t, of course, and my suspicion, which likened our fake ficus plants to Johnny Greenwood’s guitar, was unjustified. We left Denver and our “truck o’ stuff” was okay.

I’ve been told that New York City has a way of forcing you to get rid of things. The city’s confined living spaces force you to purge your nonessentials. This is a good thing, if you ask me. Upon arrival in New York, I imagine we’ll come through the Holland Tunnel and be pulled over by a teamster whose job is to inspect all the objects we plan on cramming into our junior one-bedroom apartment. “Okay, California boy, why don’t you open up the back there and we’ll see what ya got.” He’d rifle through our things and carelessly toss a number of items into a muslin sack. “Don’t need dat, don’t need dat, you can get rid of dat, I never even seen one of these before, don’t need dat, and you definitely don’t need this cake stand – although it is very nice – what is that, porcelain? Alright, that’s all. Welcome to New York, sunshine. Get ready to freeze your nips off. Vote Tammany and have a nice day.”

I’ve never been a packrat. In fact, if you were to research the amount of material items owned by the average American, I’d say that I’d be in the lower 30% (and that’s based on absolutely zero empirical data, in case you were wondering). It’s not the “things” that I care about. It’s that somehow this nomadic expedition across the country has intensified my territorial instincts, like I’m some sort of rabid possum. And my “territory” is everything that is tightly packed into this rental truck. In fact, one might even say that these “things” are my only “territory” for seven days on the road. I’m not asking for a pity party or anything, I’m merely trying to express this bizarre feeling of in-between-ness, of not belonging and only having “things” that belong to me. This seems analogous, or at least somehow connected, to the sort of alienation and autonomy to which our culture is falling victim, and it has led me into a type of neuroticism so self-involved that I compare my situation to the band Radiohead (see above).

If we don’t fulfill the inherent need to belong, it would make sense, in all our errant ways, that we fill that need by purchasing things that we can say belong to us. In other words, does a lack of belonging breed materialism which leads to neuroticism which leads to paranoia which leads to believing that this downward spiral of material obsession will continue and Steve Jobs will eventually create a troop of iPod robots so sleek and desirable that they will seduce us into being their slaves?

If “things” turn us inward towards ourselves, then surely there is something that can turn us outward towards others, and from my experience it’s nothing you can get at Best Buy. Even if we don’t truly believe this to be true, we must act like it is true, if we want to be a culture free from the slavery of materialism and iPod robots.

We tend to overlook exactly why we so strongly desire material things. It is easy to complain about our addiction to consumerism, or dismiss it as a cliché not worth examining, but it’s difficult to assess the reasons behind our material obsession. I think that maybe we’re not really obsessed with these “things”. Maybe we’re obsessed with something else. Maybe we’re obsessed with ourselves and being in control of things, and perhaps that is why we sometimes struggle to belong – we’re too concerned with ourselves to be concerned with others. Or maybe I’m completely wrong.

Instead of trying to find the answers to all these difficult questions, I’ll tell you a story from the last leg of our trip that illustrates a point far better than I could write.

Something happened on the final day of our journey that seemed to wrap things up quite nicely, like an ironically violent ending to a David Cronenberg film – the kind that makes your jaw drop.This one came out of left field, and seemed so cruel and surreal that I felt myself levitate a little bit, as if at any moment I would wake up from this nightmare.

We had traveled 3,000 miles over seven days to our destination, and everything had gone just fine. The truck had not broken down. Vandals had not stolen our things. My wife and I were still married. Everything had gone fine. Everything was out of our truck, in our apartment, and I was on my way to return the most expensive and valuable “thing” in my possession: a 16 foot Budget truck. I was traversing the narrow streets of Brooklyn and on the final quarter mile of our 3,028 mile journey, Murphy and his law staged a coup d’état. I was driving down a small one-way road with double-parked cars, which made it even smaller. I was almost to the end of the block when I heard a loud crunch. The back of my truck had crashed into a double-parked car behind me. I was two blocks away from the drop-off station. My soul wilted a little bit, then got up, left my body, and went to vomit on the street corner. I had hit the car’s side mirror and possibly the passenger door. The mirror was dangling there like a lemming that decided to change its mind. But it was too late.

What am I going to do? What on earth am I going to do? A large man of at least 250 pounds got out of the car. He came around to the mirror. I apologized profusely. He said nothing. I stood there cowering, conjuring up any possible way I could get myself out of this mess. And then a miracle happened. I saw that the mirror had been duct taped to the car. He somewhat ineffectively re-taped it back on and stood there for a few seconds in silence, looking at the damage. The large man looked at the “thing” he owned, surely one of his most valued possessions. He looked at his car. He looked at me. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. Don’t worry about it? He got back in his car and I drove off and returned the truck. And it was over. Don’t worry about it. Indeed.

“I Am Not A Machine”:
Addressing God in Less-Established Terms

Review: “I Am Not a Machine”, at NYCAMS
Friday, December 12, 2008 – Friday, January 16, 2009

New York, as far as it is understood, is still the reigning capital of the contemporary art world (to those in London, you’re not far off). Aside from its few hundred galleries, one expects to find some of the strongest art being made in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the other three boroughs. The last significant exhibition held in the city by Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), a non-profit, was at the Museum of Biblical Art in 2005. I bought the catalog, but I couldn’t say I was satisfied with “The Next Generation: Contemporary Expressions of Faith.”

Photo: John Silvis

Now, the latest CIVA exhibition, called “I Am Not a Machine”, acts as a fitting follow-up for those curious about Christian belief and new art practices. On view until January 16, 2009 at the gallery of the New York Center for Arts and Media Studies (NYCAMS), this selection of New York-based artists is arguably more “Next Generation” and “Contemporary” than those represented by recent exhibitions of Christian artists. Curated by Christina Beckett, the current show features artists who skew towards their twenties and thirties, and the works suggest Christian expression has more integrity when addressing God in less-established terms.

Resisting the establishment is the tone set by the show’s title, “I Am Not a Machine” (in assertion, not unlike the “I-Am”, as pronounced by the organization which publishes this magazine). A subtitle adds, “This life is not the last painting.” These two declarations recall two possible tropes circulating in Evangelical conversation: dehumanization, and the afterlife. However, seeing the works makes one wonder, “Does the machine and that painting in question actually stand apart from our transcendent identity?”

All the works included in “I Am Not a Machine” reveal the dynamic pivots between material objecthood and immaterial experience. But the most captivating pieces demonstrate a no-holds-barred confrontation, considering the simplest of materials with the most complex of processes.

One work, by Jimmy Miracle, graces the exhibition’s announcement card. In Ascension, Miracle composes a mise-en-scene using what he could find from trash at the beach. The brilliant yellow color of the shirt he pegs up above the pale sea and ring of shells becomes easily seared into the viewer’s memory. For his C-print, A Symbol for Sight and Reality Artist, Jay Henderson scans a simple three-dimensional object and, on Photoshop, repeatedly and flatly describes the solid forms until it recedes into digital oblivion. Jonathan Cowan’s Untitled, a large picture built of (and installed with) clear office tape, embeds an overwhelming assortment of disparate, largely everyday figures surrounding the artist: his wife’s face, reproductive and birth diagrams, talking heads from TV, office memos – including himself hand in hand with a pop-ified Jesus. Its earthy quality is further accentuated by the additional self-portrait of the artist as a contorted, Siamese twin-like face accompanied by open-palmed hands.

Perhaps Christians are better off facing the stuff of this present machine, because it seems immaterial benefits, like the “I Am” so sought after, especially arises out of existing conditions.

Broken Windows and Internet Civility

Earlier this year, on my way to work, I opened the latest issue of the New Yorker and was drawn into an article entitled “Friend Game”, which covers the MySpace-related suicide of thirteen-year-old Megan Meier. You can read the full article here.

You probably read the story and were as outraged as everyone else; Megan was first wooed, then harassed by a fake sixteen-year-old boy whose MySpace profile was set up and maintained by neighbors, parents of a friend with whom she’d had a quarrel. The situation eventually came to a head, and Megan hung herself from a closet rod with a cloth belt. Months passed before the reprehensible details came out, and the community – and worldwide – reaction has been loud and clear, but the adults responsible for the harassment haven’t legally committed any crime and can’t really be prosecuted.

According to the article, Megan’s parents were very involved in her MySpace world. They approved friend requests and made sure they were in the room when she was on MySpace. The family lives in a “close-knit” neighborhood, but that closeness unfortunately devolved into cattiness. Two good things (parental involvement and community) that couldn’t prevent the sad occurrence.

There were two things brought up in the article, somewhat unrelated, that nevertheless made me think.

Firstly – the article characterizes MySpace in this way:

MySpace, with its cluttered layout, can suggest an online incarnation of the broken-windows theory-surface disorder begetting actual chaos. It works like this: a person signs up (all he needs is an e-mail address) and then constructs a profile by choosing text, songs, graphics, wallpaper, and video clips. Often, when you open a page, the music’s already thumping, as if you’d stumbled into a party in someone’s basement.

When I was reading this article, my husband was reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s book The Tipping Point, which mentions the broken-window theory in reference to the (successful) efforts to clean up New York City in the last couple decades. As I understand it, the broken-window theory posits that if a window is broken in a neighborhood, and it isn’t fixed, it will invite more broken windows. In other words, disorder breeds disorder. (Though the theory has occasionally been attacked by social scientists as incomplete, it holds up as a way to fight entropy, disorder, and chaos.)

One way this manifested in New York City was graffiti in subway cars. As the story goes, subway cars were covered in graffiti, sometimes elaborately drawn murals that would be worked on for days. I’m all for public art in moderation, but someone had a hunch that the graffiti, and the general feeling it engendered that one could do whatever one wanted on the subway, was contributing to subway violence.

So their solution was to paint entire cars every time they reached the end of the line. If the car wasn’t painted in time, it didn’t go back on the track until it was cleaned. Over time, this helped to contribute to the feeling that someone was actually in control in the subway cars; you could spend hours doing your mural, but it would be gone once it went into the last station. Someone was watching, and somebody cared.

Now, obviously, painting over graffiti didn’t solve all the problems in the New York subways. There were other contributing factors. But some old-timers will tell you that this was the first step toward subway safety. And today, when I read stories about subway violence (or see the trailer for that dismal Jodie Foster flick The Brave One), I can hardly believe it. The New York subways aren’t models of cleanliness, but the graffiti has mostly been reduced to scattered “scratchiti” on the windows, and the idea of a shooting or stabbing on the subway is downright shocking. I suspect you’re more likely to be injured or killed driving your car on a suburban highway than in the New York City subways.

This isn’t rocket science, but like many viable ideas, it stemmed from good, common sense. And so I wonder – if MySpace cleaned up its act more (and the New Yorker article goes on to elaborate a bit), would the general feeling around the place improve? Maybe this doesn’t translate to online venues, but consider for a moment the disparity between a standard MySpace layout and a standard Facebook page. Facebook exerts a bit more control over what you see – for instance, you can’t install customized stylesheets, and though individual “applications” may be flashy and ugly, they’re forced onto a profile tab, where a visitor would never have to see them. And as a result, you see more adults on Facebook; in theory, that may contribute to keeping it “safe”. I don’t have facts to back this up, but it seems reasonable to me.

I’m not sure what all to make of these ideas, but I have a hunch that the aesthetics of online space may contribute more to the friendliness and maturity level of a place than we suspect.

The other thing that caught my attention in the article was this statement:

“Pokin’s story threw first Dardenne Prairie and then everyone else-guidance counsellors, techies, First Amendment advocates, parents, bloggers, parenting bloggers-into paroxysms of recrimination. They were all certain that something sick, and distinctly modern, had happened, but no one could agree about whether its source was a culture that encouraged teen-agers to act too grownup or one that permitted grownups to behave like teen-agers.”

The more time I spend online, the more disgusted and/or saddened I am by the way people “act” online. I’m not convinced it’s the anonymity factor – after all, many people are comfortable revealing their name, occupation, educational details, and location, at least to a subset of their friends/readers. I’m fine with you having the information about me that you do.

But sometimes, especially now that political tensions are flying high, I wonder why we’re comfortable being sarcastic, angry, or just plain mean in our online dealings. Has the internet turned us this way (as some have suggested), or have we always been this way, but our sense of shame/propriety/social stigma has kept us from spreading it as far and wide as the Internet?

While we react to this story with a sense of outrage, what can we do to spread compassion, kindness, and just plain good manners around the internet? How might we “rehumanize” the internet by showing love, thoughtfulness, and civility, rather than snarkiness, arrogance, or hatred for those who are different from us?

I don’t know the answer, but I’m thinking about the question.

An earlier version of this article first appeared as a blog entry.

Thoughts On Watching “Man On Wire”

©2008 Jean-Louis Blondeau / Polaris Images

Shortly after the dawn on August 7, 1974, a 24-year-old Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped off the South Tower of the World Trade Center and onto an illegally rigged highwire. Within the next forty-five minutes, Petit made eight crossings between the still-unfinished towers, kneeling, dancing, bowing, and lying down – a quarter mile above the sidewalks of Manhattan.

James Marsh’s documentary “Man on Wire” brings to life the events of that day. Intercut with Petit’s own testimony, interviews with his co-conspirators, exquisite re-enactments, and archival footage, the completed work is one of the best documentaries you are likely to see this year.

Petit had already achieved several impressive wire-walking feats by 1974 – he had walked between the towers of Notre Dame in Paris and the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia. But he was obsessed by an idea that had struck him as a teenager in 1968. Sitting in the dentist’s office one day, Petit was leafing through a newspaper when he saw a drawing of the as-yet unbuilt World Trade Center towers. He sketched a line from one tower to the next and knew that he belonged there. Along with a band of confidantes and his faithful girlfriend, Petit spent years preparing for what they dubbed “The Coup.”

Petit’s preparation included years of research. On several trips to New York, he gathered information about work schedules and construction costumes at the World Trade Centers. He impersonated foreign press in order to access the roof and take pictures for his own illegal plans, and even hired a helicopter to photograph above the towers. Though he was working closely with two fellow Frenchman and an Australian he’d known since the wirewalk in Sydney, Petit needed the help of some locals, and the incongruous group of New Yorkers with whom he teamed up seemed more like the fictional characters from a heist movie than a reliable group of guerilla artists.

Beyond the surprising cast of characters, one of the film’s innovations is its tongue-in-cheek re-enactments. As they wait overnight in the construction area of the 104th floor, Petit and his accomplice must hide beneath a tarp to evade discovery by the night watchman. The comedy of two human forms beneath a mere piece of cloth yet eluding recognition by the guard is like an Inspector Clouseau caper.

While the film has moments of great humor, its real strength is Petit. As Barry Greenhouse, one of Petit’s New York conspirators, puts it, “He sorta draws you into his world.” His passion for his art is contagious and his personal magnetism is that rare combination of childlike enthusiasm and macho ego. Watching “The Coup” unfold, you have to wonder if you would have been drawn into his artistic ambitions as well.

“I, personally, figured I was watching something that somebody else would never see again in the world. Thought it was once in a lifetime.”
– Sgt. Charles Daniels, with the Port Authority police

Struggling to choose the right words when interviewed on local television, Sgt. Charles Daniels, the police officer on scene, a man accustomed to reciting commands and confronting criminals, describes Petit’s wirewalking as dancing, inspiring a vision of beauty for all those watching the nightly news. Clearly this man was moved by what he witnessed and the emotion that comes through him becomes part of the art, extending the works reach to all those who hear his description.

“Of course, we all knew that he could fall . . . we may have thought it but we didn’t believe it.”
– Jean Francois Heckel, accomplice

Leaving the theater, I was struck by how much I wanted to believe that the people involved in this event had been changed forever. Somewhere within me is the hope that great art changes people, makes them better, makes them more human. Those people close to Petit, those who participated in his magical moment – shouldn’t they be changed? Shouldn’t Petit be a superior man? But Marsh doesn’t let me keep this illusion. The film closes with the revelation that the intimate band of people who made this event possible fell apart. In response to his sudden fame, Petit allowed his ego to run rampant, and he was both unfaithful to his lover and neglectful to his friends.

©2008 Jean-Louis Blondeau / Polaris Images

I wonder why this bothers me so. It is the common stream of events: a man achieves something remarkable and he is changed. He knows he is special. But so often the knowledge of our value seems to corrupt the potential of that moment. We could have bloomed into an even better instrument of inspiration, but we were satisfied with fame or riches instead. It is a fantastic mixture of confidence and humbleness that allows us to dream of the image of our own bodies suspended in air, confident that anything is possible, humble to the inspiration.

I commend filmmaker James Marsh for making a film that invites this sort of meditation on art and humanity without ever seeming instructional or condescending, nor sentimental and hokey. “Man On Wire” is that rare film that allows a work of art to travel farther and live longer.

Man on Wire (1 hr. 30 minutes) is based upon Philippe Petit’s book, To Reach the Clouds. The film opened July 25, 2008 and is still in theaters. It was the recipient of the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize for World Documentary at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

New York, New Art

The first week of September typically marks the beginning of the new season for the contemporary art world. In New York City, for instance, most galleries significantly reduce their hours of operation during July and August, and some close entirely. September marks their vigorous re-opening, often displaying the boldest, brightest and highest selling artists in a gallery’s roster.

September openings are a frenzy of crowds hopping from show to show, hoping to see something new and interesting – or at least something worth talking about. With so many openings happening at the same time, there’s a fair chance you’ll see something within your interests, but an equally fair chance you’ll see a lot that’s . . . not.

This is a rundown of my admittedly biased opinions of the more notable shows I was able to see on the first (presumably biggest) opening night of the 2008-09 art season – Thursday, September 4th.

Johnston Foster at Rare Gallery – Despite being pinned as resembling one of the sculpted angry mobsters (not necessarily a complement), this show left me wanting more. Johnston’s aesthetic of recycling odd materials into recognizable forms is familiar and no longer novel enough to stand on its own as spectacle, so I found myself hoping the installation would be balanced conceptually – give me something to chew on, so to speak. It may have been there, but I didn’t find it and the work itself didn’t compel me to dig deeper.

On the upside, next door was a surprising and engaging photography show at Danziger Projects by artist Paul Fusco. These beautiful images played in the space between art and journalism and were obviously poignant, given the state of our presidential race. Here were images from the train carrying Robert Kennedy to Arlington National Cemetery from New York, showing crowds of devoted mourners and spectators lined up to see him pass.

Phoebe Washburn at Zach Feuer Gallery was our next stop. Although the show was hugely crowded, I found the spectacle outweighing the payoff for me again. Washburn, noted for her massive installations of repeated objects of detritus, seemed to be turning a new corner with her make-shift store and installations resembling ecosystems. I thought this had a lot of promise, but in the end, the work seemed to be problematic for me in two different ways. The store, which sold made-on-demand products (pencils, shirts, beverages and other “ort”) maybe worked too well in pointing to the futility of a product/consumer system – I didn’t want any of the “ort” sold, but I wasn’t drawn in with its aesthetics enough to balance what I read as the message. It reminded me of Jason Rhoades’ Pearoefoam, for some reason; but in that case I was sucked in by the balance of concept, absurdity, and beauty.

On the flip-side, Washburn’s installations resembling ecosystems or filtration systems looked fantastic, but weren’t actually functional; rather, they carried the idea of functional systems. Though that is certainly a legitimate pursuit, they would be so much better if they actually functioned as filtration or ecosystems, because it’s common knowledge that such systems can be easily produced. At present, the sculptures seemed to point toward a necessity for such creative and functional systems. At this point, I think I’d rather see the thing itself and marvel at its beauty and mystery than a sign pointing to it. I wanted it to go one step further.

Our second-to-last stop was at Max Protech for Mike Cloud’s new paintings. I’ve been a fan of Mike’s paintings for a few years now, and they stood out from the myriad of shows opening in Chelsea by pushing the conversation about the nature and significance of painting (and art) in new directions. I found many of them visually compelling and some of them visually revolting. All of them seemed to me to contribute to an interesting conversation surrounding aesthetics, art, the art market, and painting. It was refreshing to see vulnerability and questioning as the opening to a new art season rather than repeated proclamations (aren’t these paintings great!?!). Cloud’s clunky, hand-sewn and roughly painted “Quilt paintings” make the viewer stop short and re-assess pre-conceived notions. They are a new exploration of a visual language system Cloud has constructed – one I would be happy to speak as fluently.

On a final note, Andreas Serrano’s photographs at Yvon Lambert were, literally, crap.

With All the Things

The press release for Daniel Domig’s exciting new exhibition With all the Things We Build and Make (Thrust Projects, New York City, September 5 – October 12) states the following:

The complexity of the figures, part human, part animal, reference Christian iconography and relates to the existential facets of man in the concrete world. Domig’s interest lies in the possibilities of expanding the dialogue of presenting painting within new environments, where elements (figures, landscapes) relinquish their independence accepting their abstract nature within the canvas.

At first glance, it’s not at all clear what this might mean. How do elements relinquish and accept anything? Is this just one more bloated, incomprehensible bit of gallery-drivel? One might be tempted to think so. Yet, when one actually engages the pieces and considers Domig’s interest in the time-honored religious concept of “the Creator/Creature distinction,” it all becomes clear. Domig’s figures serve as analogues to himself, not in a clichéd, autobiographical way, but in the raw, existential dimension.

As Christian tradition has it, humans are created beings, and lose their bearings the minute they begin to conceive of themselves as the Creator (“ye shall be as gods,” the serpent whispered, according to the Genesis account). However, it’s clear that humans are creators of a sort, made in God’s image, carrying on His creative work in the world. There’s a challenge there, a reflexive calling, for humanity to create without losing sight of “createdness.” Humans are to see themselves as distinct from God, yet wholly dependent upon Him, working and doing His work. St. Paul said it this way: “…He is not far from each one of us. In Him we live, and move, and have our being…” (Acts 17:27b-28a)

This theme literally pulses in and out of Domig’s exhibition, as if the systolic and diastolic rhythms of the human life were nothing less than alternating considerations of autonomy/dependence dichotomy. Figures move into concrete materiality, and slip back out again, lost in abstract, shadowy brushstrokes and smudged patches of mixed color. Process emerges as a prominent theme in Domig’s work, but this is not the sterile, lifeless reflexivity of late modernism. There is a hopeful search here, a question, left hanging from the unfinished clause of the exhibition’s title (“with all the things we build and make…” what?).

A survey of Domig’s earlier work articulates a theme that continues to emerge in his work today: the miracle of animation in the work. It may be process, lines, paint, smudges, but it is also something being born and inhaling. Sometimes it feels like something dying, and exhaling. But it’s always a liminal state.

In the case of the ceramic sculpture that announces the exhibition, we see a detail human face descend (or ascend?) into primitive, pressed clay. It is at once refined, surreal, and primitive, a bit like Adam, freshly minted from the dust.

Dull grays, blacks, and browns dominate the works, but nearly every painting-somewhere-features an alarming, aggressive color, often in form of a small line, or detail. It’s not as if these colors vie with the darkness, however. Domig, remarkably, establishes them as co-existent, part and parcel of his eclectic work. This eclecticism leans toward a two-dimensionality, and so we might be tempted to consider Domig in the tradition of collage, but, in fact, his work subtly oscillates in depth. For instance, the striking figure in The Best Show (2007) gives us a square canvas, and a painted frame, and figure that seems at once behind the frame and in front of it, a cellophane-like membrane inhibiting all but his hands. The bright green lines piercing in from the edges to the center create a tension with the largely grey underworld that resides at the painting’s core. We might also note the subject’s eyes are obscured, a common element in Domig’s work. The painting does not revel in surface, as in much postmodern collage. Nor does it reach for the alluring, eroticized two-dimensional ornamentation found in the work of Domig’s Austrian predecessor Gustav Klimt. Rather, we see an existential dimension about to reveal itself. It is here, hovering on the edge of full existence, that the figure negotiates with being, autonomy, and its own process of becoming.

Sheer “becoming” as an “event,” is the sort of thing that excited Gilles Deleuze about Francis Bacon’s work, and we see something of that primal energy here. But Domig sees this concept in a wider frame, that of his own becoming within the Christian view of sanctification. Though it is misleading to see Domig’s pieces as intensely auto-biographical, some works grant us permission in that direction.

Within Tradition strikes such a reflective, self-conscious note, as the painting-within-the-painting theme manifests itself here as a man turned cabinet of curiosities. He’s at once a canvas himself, slipping into (or out of?) three dimensional materiality, the edges of his face spreading outward like newly cracked egg. He holds his paintings dear, carefully fixed under clasped hands, but we cannot avoid the suggestion, amid all that red, that we are witnessing an anatomy lesson, a flayed and open soul, and a shadow of a man holds center stage within him. Even that negative figure is upheld, however, by a mysterious third hand, white as milk, transparent as sky. We are clearly invited to see these paintings as illustrative of the figure’s interior world, and, by extension, Domig’s own creative struggle.

In a remarkably prescient observation, the art scholar Velton Wagner connects this arrangement of paintings with an altar screen in a Christian church.1 Indeed, the mode of expression, while intensely dark and personal in the painting and more ecumenical/historical in a church, does achieve a common goal: to unite the small stories, and fragments of stories, into a larger whole. That the paintings detail contradictory things is simply to tell the truth about the contradictions of human nature. To unite them is to create a man, and, perhaps, chart a large meta-story of redemption, as in this altarpiece from the chapel of Schloss Mittersill, Austria, a sacred space Domig has frequented throughout his life.

Indeed, one of the show’s most interesting dimensions is the exhibition design itself, envisioned and constructed by the artist himself. Again, it is process exposed, but animated. Rough, wooden figures watermarked and unsanded, are stitched together in a rustic fellowship: wooden frames/bodies, with painted heads atop each, framed by an “X”/cross pattern not unlike the saint depicted in the altarpiece above. To accommodate this unorthodox presentation, some paintings had to be placed sideways in the torsos of these figures. This creates a tension for those who wish to view the work cleanly, but Domig doesn’t permit such clinical niceties. Like the man in Within Tradition, they are contained and held in a body that may or may not be willing to release them.

The artist’s product does, in the end, stand apart from the artist. The moment a work is declared done, it is relinquished to public interpretation, never to be fully pulled back. Domig’s figures are, indeed, autonomous, as the exhibition’s flyer describes. But they slip in and out of materiality, as if to nod back to their creator, in deference. Domig confesses, here, that he continues to struggle with the autonomy/dependence question, and so his work is shot through with spiritual references and insinuations that never quite reach a full resolution. And that’s to our benefit, as the best work emerges from that tension.

The show runs until October 12.

From the website:

Jane Kim/ Thrust Projects is pleased to announce the second solo exhibition of Daniel Domig, entitled With all the Things We Build and Make, a new installation encompassing large and small paintings in a circular, free-standing wooden structure. By making the painting process a form of construction, Domig continues his research into the materiality of objects. The substance for the paintings as well as the installation is the interaction between space and figure in which boundaries both embrace and separate. The emphasis between form and content becomes less about one definitive meaning as the works serve as a fill-in and fenestration to the unoccupied space in the structure, allowing the viewer to peer into Domig’s artistic self and world views from the inside. The complexity of the figures, part human, part animal, reference Christian iconography and relates to the existential facets of man in the concrete world. Domig’s interest lies in the possibilities of expanding the dialogue of presenting painting within new environments, where elements (figures, landscapes) relinquish their independence accepting their abstract nature within the canvas.

Daniel Domig (b. 1983) is a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. His 2006 debut solo exhibition Don’t ask for a name now, maybe you’ll find it later at Thrust Projects was reviewed in (Critic’s Pick, Oct 9, 2006). Recent exhibitions include his first one-person museum show, Daniel Domig: Neither Fear nor Courage Saves us, Museum Engen, Germany, accompanied by a catalogue (edited Städtisches Museum Engen + Galerie, 2008) and Daniel Domig: BEASTBODYBREATHING, Galerie Karol Winiarczyk, Vienna. He lives and works in Vienna.

1 From the essay “Transfigurations,” in the catalog Daniel Domig: Neither Fear Nor Courage Saves Us (Engen, Germany: Städtisches Museum Engen, 2008).