Picasso filmed in 1950

Visite à Picasso’ (1950) 20m, dir. Paul Haesaerts A poetic treatment which includes the artist painting on glass while facing the camera, shot at Picasso's home in Vallauris, accompanied by some fairly moody organ music in this very dark, but captivating film. The artist here takes on the character of an eminence-grise, an alchemist engulfed in the "sol y sombra" of his laboratory-studio, filmed in gorgeous black and white.

The Literate Future

 

At the conclusion of a short piece on text, literacy and the Internet, Nicholas Carr suggests the following about the digital age: "Writing will survive, but it will survive in a debased form. It will lose its richness. We will no longer read and write words. We will merely process them, the way our computers do."

I want to take issue with this pessimistic prediction. At every stage of technological change since the invention of the printing press, similar claims have been made. Most often, these claims originate with those people more likely than others to be both literate and dependent on traditional forms of explanation and exposition. The appearance of the telephone in the 1850's led to predictions of the death of conversation. The growth in the distribution of books and magazines in the 19th century led to predictions that writing, both as process and creative activity would be debased. More recently, the growth of digital tools and their pervasive use led to predictions that creative practices like painting would disappear. (The reverse is true. There has been a renaissance in interest in painting in most Art Schools and a significant rise in attendance at museums showing both contemporary works as well as paintings from different historical periods.) The invention of the cinema in the 1890's led both politicians and critics to suggest that the theater was dead.

In most cases, the advent of new technologies disrupts old ways of doing things. Equally, the disruption builds on the historical advantages conferred upon the medium through its use and modes of distribution. Text is everywhere in the digital age, and while it may be true that attention spans have decreased (although research in this area is very weak), that says nothing about how people use language to communicate whether in written or verbal form.

The example that is most often cited as evidence that there has been a decline in literacy is text messaging. What a red herring! Text messaging is simply the transposition of the oral into text form. It is a version of speech not of writing. It neither indicates a loss of ability nor an increase in literacy. Rather, and more importantly, text messaging is another and quite creative use of new technologies to increase the range and often the depth of communications among people.

The beauty of language is its flexibility and adaptability. The various modes of conversation to which we have become accustomed over centuries have a textured and rich quality that depends on our desire to communicate. That desire crosses nearly every cultural and political boundary on this shrinking earth. Rather than worry about whether text messaging will undermine literacy, we need to examine how to use all of the new modalities of communications now available to us to enhance the relationships we have with each other. That is the real challenge, quality of exchange, what we say and why and how all of that translates into modes of expression that can be understood and analyzed.

One of these mornings

A beautiful film about the most important election day in American History in 2008. Filmmaker, Valery Lyman describes her goals in making the film in the text below. Click the link here to view the film. It is well worth it.

"I knew the feeling would be big as people went to vote for Obama, and wanted to make a real time recording of it. So I set up a phone line and asked people all over the country to call in right after they voted, saying whatever was on their minds. The idea worked. Some friends but mostly strangers, young and old, people called in from all over the country and while it all still hung in the balance, before results were tallied or anyone had the luxury of speaking in the past tense.

In my work I have often sought to describe an historical moment through the faces and voices of regular people who are experiencing it. I take to the streets, recording with my camera and genuinely seeking the thoughts and feelings of these ordinary folks, and then distill this documentary material into a poetic expression of that particular historical moment. This film is such an endeavor.

This film is not about Obama. Certainly it's not an advocacy or even a political film. It's about us. This film is a portrait of the feeling in the country on November 4, 2008. Regardless of what follows - whether Obama's Presidency is a failure, disappointment, or tremendous success - that day was a singular moment in American history. It is this spirit, as it was, that I have attempted to capture and preserve."

Research in the Arts and Design (3)

This is the third in an occasional series on research in the arts and design.

Let me begin by suggesting that the term contingency may be a useful way of thinking about research in areas not traditionally thought of as research-based. It is not fair to compare research in the arts and design for example, to the social sciences although they may share more than we realize. We therefore need some new thinking on the meaning of research in the creative areas both as method and as process. This is all the more urgent because artists and designers have had a great deal of difficulty arguing their case with government, the community and with industry. And, as we have seen in Great Britain, research in the creative areas is measured in much the same way as other disciplines and often not to the benefit of creative work. In fact, debate is needed on the policy environment being created in the UK around the Creative Industries because so many of the presuppositions being put in place are being copied elsewhere in the industrial world.

Contingency speaks to activities that begin without a clear sense of their outcome. Artists have always been comfortable with this as have some writers. In the past, some designers oriented their creative process around the expectations of clients and so it appeared as if they were more concrete and less contingent than artists. Now, designers have more fully recognized that they are as involved in the invention of new ideas and processes as artists and so both creative engagements share a similar sense that outcomes are a byproduct of creativity.

A by-product? Yes, if the outcome is largely determined by an ongoing process that may not be linear, then outcomes are by and large as accidental as much as they may be intended. Some artists of course, play with chance and accidents all the time and this was the foundation of the work of John Cage. Others plan their works very carefully and many have those works built by apprentices to specifications they have created. But, for the most part artists and designers to varying degrees learn to combine chance, accident and purpose to produce works that reflect only a small proportion of their intentions.

Traditional research in the social sciences uses a variety of time tested methods from observation to participant observation among many approaches, to try and understand phenomena and in many cases suggest solutions to problems and challenges. The methods range from the quantitative to the qualitative and constitute a vast constellation of strategic choices with the intellectual and practical goal of deepening and enhancing our understanding both of the world we live in and ourselves. I cannot do justice to the range here, its complexity and breadth. Suffice to say, nearly anything and everything can be the object or subject of research.

My point is that the same situation exists in the arts and design. Tim Brown comments on Charles Eames and the manner in which the Eames conducted a series of important design experiments in the early 20th century. (See Brown’s wonderful book, Change by Design published by Harper Collins in 2009.) “From their legendary office at 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice, California, the Eameses and their associates conducted a series of design experiments that stretched across four decades and covered every imaginable medium: the molded plywood chairs that became synonymous with American modernism; their famous case study house No. 8 in Pacific Palisades; the museum exhibitions they built, and the educational films they produced. Not always visible in the finished projects, however, is the methodological experimentation that lay behind them.” (71)

Crucially, the finished projects of designers and of artists only sometimes reveal their methodological origins and process. Many self-conscious and self-reflexive creators have of course from time to time created works that reveal method in their very materiality. But, for the most part, creative process remains unseen, background chatter as it were, with little seeming connection to method.

Here is an example of a creative project that sees itself within the traditional methods of the social sciences.

“I am a lecturer with the Department of Photography at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, specialising in the fields of photojournalism and social documentary. My recent projects borrow heavily from the practices inherent in visual ethnography and include hospice and palliative care (Lloyd, Passing Time, 2000), documenting a small regional community outside of Brisbane (Something about Us, Logan Art Gallery, 2001) and, currently, working on a project looking into substance misuse in the Mt Isa district.” David Lloyd.

This is a hybrid of course and one of many works that are challenging conventional definitions of art and media. But, it points out that how fluid the boundaries between creative processes are and how careful we have to be in assuming *lack* of method when they may well be one.

Contingency is about methods that are applied to creative challenges without necessarily linking process to outcome. This is also similar to prototyping which is a process of experimental exploration that is as ideational as it is material.

More on this topic over the next few months.

See the following report from the UK, especially chapter 3 for more debate in this area.

From Quantum of Solace to Sherlock Holmes

The novels of Ian Fleming have been around for a very long time. James Bond has been given life in so many forms and with so many different actors that is might be fair to suggest that the films (and Fleming’s novels) are among a small number of foundational stories that say a great deal about our culture and values. I will not dwell on this point. Suffice to say, that my viewing of Quantum of Solace, the latest Bond was profoundly influenced by what I have just said. The key metaphor that I want to draw from the film is the balance between fallibility and infallibility that is at the heart of Bond’s attraction as a hero. In an era characterized by the never-ending presence of terrorism, war and violence against innocent civilians, there were two moments in this film that said more to me than the entire film itself. The first came after an endless chase between Bond and a villain which led both men into an open-air arena with thousands of people attending a horse race. The villain fires his gun at Bond and hits a civilian. The film pauses for a backward glance and then returns to the chase.

This raises some important questions. We witness the injured woman falling and so the film feels morally inclined to show the effects of the villain’s violence and ineptitude. But, should Bond not have stopped to help her out? Aren’t heros supposed to be capable of engineering a good outcome to everything that they do? Is the new Bond of the last few films and especially this one really a tragic hero? And, is the death of a civilian merely one part of that tragedy? The answer to these questions can be found in the ways in which justice is defined not only within the film, but within our culture as a whole. In Bond’s world (and among many contemporary movies), the roots of evil are always encapsulated within a broader context of conspiracies driven by megalomania, the desire for absolute power and greed. The overarching goal therefore has to be to destroy the source of evil even if the innocent have to suffer. The villain is more important than the injured woman and what would otherwise be a moral conundrum becomes a passing moment in an endless battle.

The second characteristic of the film that is of interest to me is the way in which Bond escapes all injury during a series of spectacular encounters between himself and the seemingly endless world of evil. Every form of transportation is used to highlight his superhuman abilities and most of his encounters mirror previous challenges in previous films. The film tries to create a sense of potential weakness in his abilities and in the confidence that his boss “M” has in his character. This is all a charade of course, because he would not be Bond if he did not triumph. The ebb and flow between his weaknesses and his strengths opens up a small window for some discussion of the ethics of his violence but this too is no more than a plot vehicle. In the end, Bond triumphs notwithstanding his own lack of a moral framework for his actions.

This is of course the central challenge of the war on terror, itself a metaphorically terrifying and deeply contingent way of solving issues of far greater complexity than the term ‘war’ suggests. So, it was not a surprise to me to recognize that the new Sherlock Holmes film was really a meditation on absolute power, fear of new technologies and on the role of magic and religion in determining people’s actions. Yet again, Sherlock played by Robert Downey seems to evade every form of violence directed his way. He transcends, as in the comic books, every challenge he faces including a series of dockside explosions that throw him all over the place. So, although the war on terror is very much about our general fragility and vulnerability, we have new and recycled heros who are able to withstand whatever is thrown at them. The irony is that the moral centre that is needed to progressively engage with violence has shifted as terrorists have targeted more and more civilians through their most powerful weapon, suicide bombing. Very few contemporary films deal with this issue nor do they explore the issues of inflicting pain on suspects or perpetrators. Torture is present in both films but without much fanfare and even less concern for its implications. The reality is that for better or worse, the moral fibre of contemporary culture is being challenged by events that seem even less rational (if that is possible) than just a few years ago. The challenge is how to bring this theme into the foreground of popular forms of storytelling.

Up In The Air with Avatar

"Being in the air is the last refuge for those that wish to be alone." Jason Reitman) There are profound connections between Avatar and Up in the Air. Both movies come at a time that can best be described as dystopic. From Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries mired in war to the deepest and most serious recession since the 1930's, to the ongoing crisis of climate change, the first decade of the 21st Century has been characterized by waves of loss, violence and instability.

What then allows any individual to compose their identity and to maintain their sense of self as the air around the planet gets thinner and thinner? How does the imagination work within a dystopia?

Up in the Air explores the tropes of loneliness and travel -- the in-between of airports and hotels, those places that are not places but nevertheless retain many of the trappings of home without the same responsibilities and challenges. There are consequences to being on the road 300 days of the year and among them is the construction of an artificial universe to live in like the metal tubes we describe as airplanes. One of the other consequences is that frequent travelers have to build imaginary lives that are fundamentally disconnected from intimacy and genuine conversation.

Ironically, Avatar imagines a world that is for a time dragged into the dystopia of 21st century life and where at the end of the day, a new vision is constructed. Avatar's use of 3D will be the subject of another article soon, but suffice to say that the worlds James Cameron constructs through motion capture and animation are among the most beautiful that the cinema has ever seen.

Hidden behind both films is a plaintiff plea for love and genuine relationships. Avatar explores this through tales of transmigrating spirits and animistic notions that transform animals and nature itself into a vast Gaia-like system of communications and interaction. The N'avi are a synthesis of Cameron's rather superficial understanding of Aboriginal peoples, although their language is a fascinating blend created by Paul Frommer from the University of Southern California.

The flesh of avatars in the film are not virtual but as the main character, Jake Sully discovers, the N'avi are the true inheritors of the planet they live on, a exotic version of early Earth called Pandora. In Greek mythology Pandora is actually derived from 'nav' and was the first woman. The Pandora myth asks the question why there is evil in the world which is a central thematic of Avatar.

Up in the Air asks the same question but from the perspective of a rapacious corporation which sends its employees out to fire people for other companies or as the main character, Ryan Bingham says to save weak managers from the tasks for which they were hired. The film also asks why there is evil in the world and suggests that any escape, even the one that sees you flying all year doesn't lead to salvation.

Both films explore the loss of meaning, morality and principles in worlds both real and unreal. Avatar provides the simplest solution, migrate from a humanoid body and spirit to a N'avi to discover not only who you are but how to live in the world. **Up in the Air** suggests that love will solve the dystopic only to discover that casual relationships never lead to truth and friendship.

These are 21st century morality tales. Avatar is a semi-religious film of conversion not so much to truth but to the true God, who is now a mother. Up in the Air teaches Ryan that life is never complete when it is entirely an imaginary construction.

It is however, the reanimation of the human body in Avatar that is the most interesting reflection of the challenges of overcoming the impact of this first decade of the 21st century. Jake Sully is able to transcend his wheelchair and become another being, now connected to a tribe. He is able to return to a period of life when innocence and naivete enable and empower — when the wonders of living can be experienced without the mediations of history and loss. This of course is also the promise of 3D technology, to reanimate images such that they reach into the spectator's body, so we can share those moments as if we have transcended the limitations of our corporeal selves.

James Cameron's digital utopia, full of exotic colours, people, plants and animals suggests that escape is possible in much the same way as Ryan Bingham imagines a world without the constraints that are its very essence. 3D technology promises to allow us to transcend our conventional notions of space and time but it cannot bring the earth back to its pristine form nor reverse engineer evolution or history. At the same time, Avatar represent a shift in the way in which images are created, in the ways in which we watch them and also in the potential to think differently about our imaginations and about our future. (Imagine a 3D film about the destruction of the Amazon!)

 


 

Huffington on New(s) Journalism

A superb piece by Arianna Huffington on journalism on the Web with many references to the rather superficial claims of traditional newspapers that their content is being stolen through sites that aggregate the news. The paradox is that aggregation is exactly what newspapers and journalists have always been practicing, out of necessity. No one and certainly no organization can be everywhere at once. Associated Press is an aggregator and radio journalists have always borrowed from their cousins in other media. Information in the 21st century is not information as it was in the 20th century. Multiple sources may not be great journalism, may not even be accurate journalism, but inevitably through the cloud, through aggregation, truth and insight become integral to the process. Traditional news sources want to charge for their content. They have to survive. But, the very foundations for how to make money on the Web have not been built. New models will appear over time and during this interim period, the model developed by Huffington, aggregating revenue through targeted advertising will have to suffice. Read her post

Robert Frank and American Photography

The current Robert Frank Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York is not only important because of the extraordinary work of the photographer. It is a beautiful example of ethnography and photography intermingling without the need to intellectualize or in Roland Barthes's terms, without the need to declare the message in an open and direct fashion. Drawing upon a set of experiences that saw Frank criss-cross America in the 1950's by car sometimes alone and sometimes with his family, the images bring the rich diversity of American life into a wonderful inventory of the banal, the unusual and the fantastic. The images were published as a book and much has been written about them and about the book itself. Frank set the book up as a sequence of images and if you take the time, a story begins to unfold. The core of the narrative to me is displacement. To varying degrees, Frank witnessed post-war America beginning to redefine itself. Many of the images link landscapes to faces and most of the faces seem to be searching for some sense of definition. A coffee shop becomes exotic not only because of its unusual signage but because the people in it gaze outwards searching to define their experiences. In fact, many of the images have people glancing backwards at the photographer as if to say, there is not much here, why are you interested? The desolation is best represented by an empty gas station where all you see is gas pumps set against a dry landscape.

The only book comparable to Robert Frank's was "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," published in 1941. Both books share a fascination with the human gaze, with that look that comes from not being able to see what the photographer is doing. The subject of the photographs can never take control and in knowing this they give a gift to the photographer of their most private feelings. Both Walker Evans and Robert Frank understood the irony of communicating something of the essence of a person or situation *because* of the power they held. In so doing they left a heritage of American life that is openly steeped in artifice but never the less profound for doing so.

Life After the End of History

For most of the last century, the West faced real enemies: totalitarian, aggressive, armed to the teeth. Between 1918 and 1989, it was possible to believe that liberal democracy was a parenthesis in history, destined to be undone by revolution, ground under by jackboots, or burned like chaff in the fire of the atom bomb. Read more at the New York Times

1989 was a very good year by Timothy Garton Ash

It was the biggest year in world history since 1945. In international politics, 1989 changed everything.

It led to the end of communism in Europe, of the Soviet Union, the Cold War and the short 20th century. It opened the door to German reunification, a historically unprecedented European Union stretching from Lisbon to Tallinn, the enlargement of NATO, two decades of American supremacy, globalization and the rise of Asia. The one thing it did not change was human nature. Read more from the LA Times

Sixth Sense

When I attended the last TED conference in Long Beach in February 2009, Patricia Maes and Pranav Mistry unveiled a touch sensitive device that allows users to project information onto practically any surface, including the human hand. In their own words: "The SixthSense prototype is comprised of a pocket projector, a mirror and a camera. The hardware components are coupled in a pendant like mobile wearable device. Both the projector and the camera are connected to the mobile computing device in the user’s pocket. The projector projects visual information enabling surfaces, walls and physical objects around us to be used as interfaces; while the camera recognizes and tracks user's hand gestures and physical objects using computer-vision based techniques."

The technology is very impressive. Here is a TED video of Patti Maes explaining this important new invention.

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss has died just a few weeks before his 101st birthday.

 

The loss is a profound one because Lévi-Strauss revolutionized anthropology both as a discipline and as a cultural practice. It is Tristes Tropiques his first book, and his masterpiece that drew me to Lévi-Strauss. I still have the first edition of the paperback. But, it was one of his last books that sealed my respect and love for this man. The title, *Look, Listen, Read* provides a sense of his range and the book explores everything from opera to painting. It is a transcendent book, rich in metaphors about culture, creativity and the extraordinary importance of looking — looking that is, beyond the gaze which to Lévi-Strauss also means listening beyond the norms of conventional listening. The book is written in a cut and paste style echoing Lévi-Strauss's own concerns with 'bricolage' which is a central theme of his magnificent book, Structural Anthropology. I will not delve too deeply into the *Look, Listen, Read* here, but suffice to say that there is a section in which he presents a dialogue between himself and André Breton that explores the relationships among aesthetics, interpretation and painting. That dialogue alone makes getting hold of the *Look, Listen, Read* worthwhile.

Ray Tintori and the new Video

This video is about the making of Time to Pretend by Ray Tintori who is now collaborating with Spike Jonze. The video was made very cheaply and represents the convergence of low-end special effects, video editing using a computer and Youtube as a broadcast medium. Time to Pretend has had close to fourteen million hits.

The role of research in the Creative Arts (1)

Ceramics is an extraordinary craft-based discipline. It is also an art and a science. The materials that ceramicists use have changed over the last century, but many of the core creative methods remain the same. None of what I have just said would be possible without some research into the history and practices of ceramic artists and the technologies they use. So, for example when I mention to people that ceramic engineering is a crucial part of the digital age, they don’t know what I am talking about. Optical fibers make use of ceramic materials. The tiles which cover the bottom of the Space Shuttle are made of ceramic materials shaped and formed using a variety of heating and manufacturing methods.

Ceramics is increasingly being used in the creation of products (other than the traditional ones) and is linking itself to product and industrial design. There are medical applications and so on.

I mention this to point out that research is fundamental to any creative exploration and that research may take any form — and make use of any number of different materials. A reductive approach will not recognize the rather extensive way in which the practice of creation is deeply involved with everything from theory through to reflection and self-criticism. For too long, universities in particular have maintained distinctions between their professional and non-professional disciplines as a way of differentiating between applied and pure research. The latter is supposed to reflect a disinterested approach to knowledge in the hope that over time the research will produce some results. The former is supposed to direct itself towards results from the outset and to be more directly connected to industry and the community. Engineering schools for example, are cloistered in separate buildings on university campuses and generally develop an applied approach to learning. In neither case, applied or pure can the distinctions I have just mentioned work since by its very nature research is **always** both applied and pure.

Creative practices are generally seen as applied because the focus is on materials even if they are virtual. The standardized and by now clichéd image of creative people driven by intuitions and/or inspiration actually covers up the years of apprenticeship that every artist has to engage in to become good at what they do.

Every creative discipline involves many different levels of research, some of which is directly derived from practices in the social sciences, as well as the sciences. In the next installment of this article, I will examine how creative practices are at the forefront of redefining not only the nature of research but the knowledge base for many disciplines.

Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds

Jay Hoberman, the Village Voice's best reviewer and one of the top film critics in the world is one of a few who have understood and richly analysed this extraordinary film. Inglourious Basterds is not only a classic Tarantino comment upon and play with cinema history, its archetypes, conventions and clichés, it is also and quite ironically a Jewish revenge fantasy. Hoberman comments that filmmakers like Steven Speilberg exercise their will over history by mixing realism and fiction with enough balance to keep audiences believing that truth will eventually win over lies and deceit. At a minimum, Schindler's List will tell the story even if the artifice is an extreme and necessary part of building the drama.

However, Tarantino revels in the contradictions of artifice and loves the multi-faceted ways in which the cinema unveils truth even as it hides it. Tarantino is at least honest about the impact of genre, style and set design upon any cinematic historical reconstruction. The opening of the film, one of the best in recent memory, celebrates not only the cinema of Sergio Leone, but also and more importantly the language of violence and the violence of language. There are always many sides to violence in the cinema. More importantly, violence is inevitably the most artificial part. Both the audience and the filmmaker know that the violence is not real. What they often do not realize is that the language surrounding that violence does more harm than the images.

For example, is there any word in the English language more devalued and yet more often used than 'Nazi'? Although historically specific, it has become a metaphor for violence of all types and a trope for genocide. The smooth talking Nazis of this film use talk to hide their murderous intentions even as they are about to die. They seem cultured but are always on the edge of violence. The key Nazi character, Hans Landa (wonderfully played by Christoph Waltz) plays both criminal and detective, gunslinger and murderer.

Much of the film centres on a cinema in Paris and on the showing of a film that celebrates the hundreds of people killed by a sniper who plays himself. The setting is taken from Le Dernier Metro the film by François Truffaut with further references to his later film, La Nuit Americaine.

InglouriousBasterds4.jpg

Can you name a film in which Hitler dies or is murdered? Can you remember a film in which the entire high command of the Nazis dies?

The reason that so few films that deal with the Second World War allow themselves the poetic license to kill the perpetrators of the Holocaust is that for better or worse stories of victimization seem to fulfill the need to represent history in a truthful fashion. But, of course, as we know, it has been left to people like Mahmoud Ahmadinejhad to create and communicate their fictional universes. Ahmadinejhad and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are perhaps the best example of how fiction can be made into truth with a variety of effects that can actually change history itself. Everyone knows that the Protocols are a lie, but that has not prevented their continuous dissemination since the early part of the 20th Century and their most recent appearance on Egyptian television.

Tarantino knows all of this and has created a film that reflects in a serious manner on what would have happened if Western culture had recreated the many stories of the war in a different manner. And, he also understands that representations of the war need to reference the genres they use, otherwise they actually reinforce the picture of oppression as inevitable.

The film is as much an exploration of loyalty and betrayal as it is a brilliant piece of research into the underlying premises for nearly every war movie that has ever been made. Add to this, a further exploration of the Western genre as the prototypical example of how Americans view their own history and one realizes that Tarantino has created precisely the story we need to see. In the end, it is a Jewish woman (the only survivor of her family's murder) and a black man who willingly sacrifice their lives to kill the German high command.

Tarantino.jpg

Ella Taylor has a wonderful interview with Tarantino here…

David Edelstein has an interesting review here from New York Magazine.

A very negative review by Liel Liebovtiz can be read here.

And, if you can read French, here is a great interview from Cahiers du Cinéma