28 February 2007

“And I Still See Their Faces: The Vanished World of Polish Jews,”

Here is a story from The New York Times about a newly opened exhibition: “And I Still See Their Faces: The Vanished World of Polish Jews” - 25 February through 24 June at the Yeshiva University Museum, in the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, Flatiron district; (212) 294-8330, yumuseum.org.

The Museum describe the exhibition in this way: "This photographic exhibition documents the faces of Polish Jews and their everyday activities before the Holocaust. The photographs and albums, whose owners perished, were scattered throughout Poland during the war and saved from obscurity by the Shalom Foundation, which digitally enhanced and enlarged the photographs and devoted over two years to tracing the identities of the subjects and piecing together their stories. The photographs are accompanied by personal stories, which vividly evoke the vanished world of over three million Polish Jews for museum visitors."

Close Calls for the VP (plus other Resurfacings)

"Cheney Lives" © Steve Bell 2007

A friend sent me this cartoon from The Guardian; it clearly is inspired by the Veep's close call in Afghanistan recently. The image seemed appropriate for today given that other quite unsavory types seem to have returned locally.

The particular irritant I have in mind is the hostile, anonymous commentator (oh, I should say cowardly as that seems more accurate for those who call names and hurl insults and profanities from behind the veil of secrecy) who has been hanging around. Having apparently failed to find a sufficiently interesting hobby, he has resurfaced to entertain us. If you are wondering why I simply delete his comments as rapidly as possible you can read my earlier post on the topic. I apologize in advance if I don't get to his interventions quickly enough to spare the rest of you his insightful interventions.

Today, demonstrating his especially keen eye for the obvious, my friend is complaining that I only pursue my own agenda here on the blog that I started, designed, and on which I am the only contributor. Gee, that seems like a hard nut to crack!


27 February 2007

“The United States is not planning to go to war with Iran.” - The Pentagon

A while back I posted on some recent very disconcerting shifts in the Bush administration policy toward Iran. The problem is that while the Pentagon may not be plannig a war with Iran, the Bush-ites may well be doing just that. In addition to the links in my earlier post, I recommend this essay - "The Redirection" - by Seymour Hersch in The New Yorker this week (posted 2/25/07) that details the clandestine machinations Bush and his merry band of ideologues have been engaging in throughout the region. Given their track record, this is extremely disturbing.

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Among The Many Things To Look Forward To This Spring, Here Is Something

This new recording by Motian/Frisell/Lovano is due out soon from ECM. I wrote an enthusiastic post about Paul Motian last summer. You can find a nice recent interview with Motian here. I lately have been listening to the last cd from this trio - I Have the Room Above Her (ECM 2005) - more or less constantly. (It is not on repeat, but only because my cd player is too old to have that command option.) The tunes are, with two exceptions (Monk & Kern/Hammerstein), all Motian compositions and are haunting and blue in a beautifully angular, fleeting sort of way. So they are perfect listening for February in Western NY where everything seems a bit bleak, but everyone knows that that won't last.

Joe Lavano - Paul Motian- Bill Frisell

The new recording has a similar mix of compositions - seven by Motian, three contributions by others (Monk; Rogers & Hammerstein; Lovano). It promises, too, more of the exquisite melodic and improvisational quality nourished by familiarity that has sprung from this decades old collaboration.

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26 February 2007

The Iraqi Prisoner Portrait Project

Sometime last summer I found a story (in a now unknown source) on the prints that Daniel Heyman was producing aas part of a team investigating torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. For some reason I never posted on his work. However, this weekend a friend sent me a link to an public radio interview with Heyman. You can find another interview with him here at War News Radio which is produced by students at Swathmore College.*

Here is the statement Heyman prepared as background for the prints he now is exhibiting at The Print Center in Phiadelphia:

"In March 2006 I traveled to Amman, Jordan, and in August I traveled to Istanbul to participate in interviews of former detainees from Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. Philadelphia attorney Susan Burke (Burke Pyle, LLC.) and Detroit attorney Shereef Akeel (Akeel & Valentine, PLC), joined by lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights and Human Rights Watch are mounting a class action lawsuit on behalf of the tortured former detainees, and travel frequently to the Middle East to meet with them. Burke invited me in my capacity as an artist, to accompany them to Amman to join in the interviews of the former prisoners, driven to Amman from Baghdad. Each of the Iraqis was tortured in Abu Ghraib. None of the Iraqis were ever formally accused of any crime, and each was released without charges.

I went to Jordan to bear witness to the victims’ stories in a visual medium, in this case drypoint prints and watercolors, in an effort to attach individual faces to the Abu Ghraib story, that has interested me since first hearing of it 2004. Working with journalist Tara McKelvey, (also invited by Burke), who conducted the interviews, I drew the client’s portrait directly onto a copper plate using a stylus. I scratched the testimony I heard as it was being spoken backwards onto the plates so that once printed, the words would read forward. After three days I finished the last of my 8 copper plates and changed to painting the portraits and text in watercolor paints, completing 10. My goal was to give a voice to these victims in a way that is more direct and more human than what is available through newspaper or TV articles. This past August I returned again with Burke and Akeel, this time to Istanbul, again to witness interviews of more former detainees. I completed 10 drypoints and 9 watercolors. The major difference on this excursion was that the lawyers brought with them some two hundred non-public photos taken in the torture ward of Abu Ghraib, and, after each interview, asked the prisoners to identify
anything they could in each of the pictures. "

I think these prints successfully walk the line between, on the one hand, the anonymity of the Abu Ghriab photos and how they have been presented in the press and, on the other hand, the need to present the vitims of U.S. torture policy as individuals. Heyman manages to personalize the experience of prisoners without exposing them to further humiliation. I guess my question is how one might get his prints - and similar work - out of museums and galleries.

[The works pictured in this post all are © Daniel Heyman.]

* I will leave to one side my thoughts on the distance between this Swarthmore enterprise and the ways the UofR student radio station (WRUR) has been integrated into the least adventuresome npr station on earth (WXXI Rochester) over the past couple of years.

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"Does this couple, like every other devoted couple, amount to less than the sum of its parts?"

In The Guadian today there is a piece by Germaine Greer on the "major" Gilbert & George exhibition now hung at the Tate Modern in London. Let's just say Greer doesn't much like "unanimous couple" or their"art" and finds the spectators and art world impressarios who "enable" the pair more or less incoomprehensible. Since I'd never heard of the couple (it?) before all the recent press, most of which I've ignored, I can't really say terribly much about their work. (Although, the notion of "theory" without subject really does deserve cute trading cards like the one I've lifted here. It allows everyone to remain oh, so ironic.) In any case, I think Greer's essay is an insightful reflection on the nature of creative collaboration and interpersonal devotion. Equality anyone?


25 February 2007

Consequences of War - Collateral and Direct

Somehow last spring I missed this series of three photo-essays by Eugene Richards in The Nation. (You can learn more about Richards at the web site of the VII Photo Agency of which he is a member.) The series is entitled "War is Personal" and, unfortunately, it remains as relevant now with BushCo's planned "surge" on the agenda, as it did last spring. The images are powerful, the accompanying text is articulate and understated. In combination they convey some sense of the grief and fear and pain and loss that this war - our war - is sowing in the lives of many American families.

The top image shows Mona Parsons of Mt. Vernon, Ohio watching as her son Jeremy clears airport security on his way to re-join his Army unit in Iraq. The middle image is of Tomas Young, of Kansas City Missouri, paralyzed from a gunshot he suffered on his fourth day of deployment in Irag. He is 26. The bottom image shows Carlos Arrondondo of Roslindale, Mass. at an anti-war protest raising a picture of his son Alex, a Marine killed in Iraq.

[All three images in this post © Eugene Richards, 2006.]


"It’s all photography." (Jeff Wall)

In The New York Times Magazine this week you'll find a long story on Canadian photographer Jeff Wall who is well known for producing very large, elaborately staged (read imperfectly realistic, fictional) transparencies that he displays on light boxes. This accounts for the title of Arthur Lubow's article - "The Luminist."

I first heard of Wall in Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others where in the very final pages she lauds his 1992 work "Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol Near Moqor, Afghanistan, 1986)" as"exemplary in its thoughtfulness and power." In the work, a dozen or so dead Soviet soldiers scattered on a desolate landscape, apparantly talk among themselves, oblivious to we who still inhabit the realm of the living.

© Jeff Wall

It is unsurprrising that Sontag would find this work especially to her liking since Wall is (here and, as The Times article makes clear, elsewhere) inspired less by photography than by painting. Sontag characterizes this image as "the antithesis of the document." For her, and perhaps for Wall as well, reliance on photographic technology seems to be an inconvenient historical necessity.
There has been a recent boom in books collecting Wall's photographs and writings. You can find some of them here and here and here and here.
PS: There was a review of the exhibition of Wall's work that just opened at the MoMA in NYC in The Times yesterday - here.

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24 February 2007

John Berger Quote?

Over at Here is Where We Meet, the web presence of a Berger-palooza that occurred in London a couple of years ago I found this passage attributed to Berger himself:

"I can't tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten.

I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst the people such art sometimes runs like a rumour and a legend because it makes sense of what life's brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts and honour."

Can anyone tell me where this is from? I'd appreciate any suggestions. Thanks.

[This portrait of Berger is by Laure Vasconi and is © the photographer.]

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Should Art Critics be Artists Themselves?

"Many of the toughest and smartest critics also have personal histories as professional or aspiring artists." Here is a remark by Ana Finel Honigman in a really smart and insightful post over at The Guardian's art & architecture blog. Honigman is reflecting on her own status as a (self-consciously) lapsed artist. In reply, I would add that many of the toughest and smartest critics - including many of my own favorites - have no such personal history. Thinking about the people whom I find among the most insightful writers on photography, most (to the best of my knowledge) fall into the latter category: Susie Linfield, David Levi-Strauss, Rebecca Solnit, Judith Butler, Geoff Dyer, David Campbell. But my tastes are perhaps a bit idiosyncratic. And some of these folks (Solnit & Levi Strauss) have written fiction as well as criticism, so that may count somewhat against me here. The same obviously is true of Susan Sontag. And John Berger, of course, not only writes fiction but also was an artist and art instructor early on as well. (On the fiction issue, if the distinction is, as Honigman suggests, between verbal and visual communication, I don't think my claim is threatened at all.)

Honigman goes on: "To a degree, I feel that because I was able to criticize myself out of being an artist, I have earned the right to constructively criticize artists. I like recognizing that some things must have been fun to make, and sometimes that the artist is being self-important or selfish, by making me take his or her fun seriously. But more profoundly, I also feel that the actual act of making art has enabled me to better comprehend the practical as well as emotional and intellectual challenges that artists encounter and grapple with. The experiences I underwent to discover that my own creative vocabulary is verbal, not visual, have given me the respect, humility and empathy necessary to creatively engage with the great work that others do in making good art."

I agree with the second half of this passage. With regard to the first part, however, I guess my view is that the notion of having "earned the right" to criticize art and artists seems a bit odd for at least two reasons. First, especially in the realm of photography, "artists" are continually making claims or endorsing aims that have multiple, often nutty, theoretical or philosophical presuppositions or that take as given conventions that are more or less transparently inimical to their own aims. Many of the resulting projects of those photographers turn out to be howlers. And that is true for folks whose work I find provocative as well as for those whose work I find banal. By what "right" do artists get to pursue philosophically silly undertakings? Why do observers not have a "right" to criticize artists who embrace conventions that are self-defeating or that are artifacts of the entirely self-serving aims of some artists or their promoters (e..g., Stieglitz on the dichotomy between art and documentary practices)?

Second, can artists simply put their work out there in the world and not expect a response? Am I meant to simply keep my observations and judgements and assessments to myself, consigned to my little journal so as to spare the sensibilities of the artist or curator or funder? As Hannah Arendt suggests, art necessarily occupies the space of a public world and that public world is constituted by speech and judgement. Saying that only those who have engaged in a practice have the right to criticize it seems an awfully high, potentially self-serving barrier to entry. It also threatens to undermine the public world of judgement and speech on which art depends by depriving it of a whole range of insight.

Now, Honigman may not be claiming that only those who have made (or tried to make) art can legitimately adopt the role of critic. In fact, I think she is challenging those who advance such an extreme claim. A much more charitable reading of her remarks is that the experience of making art affords a particular and useful basis from which to appreciate and assess art. I agree with her. However, it is important, I think, to resist the presumption that "criticism is somehow not sufficiently creative in itself; or worse, that criticism is somehow parasitic." For, if we are to believe Arendt (and I think there are good reasons to do so) criticism and dialogue and argument provide the terrain on which artists operate. Why not see their activities as parasitic? I think the answer is that that simply reverses the unwarranted presumption. As Honigman rightly insists, the task ought to be "to create a dialogue on the basis of equality between visual and verbal communication." Just so.

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22 February 2007

University of Chicago & Darfur

Well, my alma mater has made it into the news again for being ethically and politically tone deaf. See this report from The Nation on how the trustees and administration at the University of Chicago have refused to divest from investments in Sudanese companies as well as from corporations doing business in Sudan. This seems shameless. There is a student organization on campus trying to pressure the trustees to reverse their decision. But, the organization does not have any contact information and neither does it afford alums any way to raise their voices. Alums are otherwise known as DONORS! And like it or not, Trustees are more likely to listen to current and future donors than to students.

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Dewey - Art as Experience

I am teaching parts of John Dewey's Art as Experience (1934) in my undergraduate course this spring. I had been a while since I'd read the book and I'd forgotten how it opens. Here are the first paragraph and a half:

“By one of the ironic perversities that often attend the course of affairs, the existence of the works of art upon which formation of an esthetic theory depends has become an obstruction to theory about them. For one reason, these works are products that exist externally. In common conception, the work of art is often identified with the building, book, painting or statue in its existence apart from human experience. Since the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience, the result is not favorable to understanding. In addition, the very perfection of some of these products, the prestige they possess because of a long history of unquestioned admiration, creates conventions that get in the way of fresh insight. When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience.

When artistic objects are separated from both conditions of origin and operation in existence, a wall is built around them that renders almost opaque their general significance, with which esthetic theory deals. Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other form of human effort, undergoing, and achievement. A primary task is thus imposed upon one who undertakes to write upon the philosophy of fine arts. This task is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience.”

This, I suspect, is where I first absorbed the notion that in thinking about art generally, and photography in particular, we ought to think first and foremost not about objects - "photographs" - but more about the ways individuals and organizations produce those objects and the purposes for which they do so. It may be that Dewey is insufficiently critical in this regard, that his preoccupation with "consummatory experience" diverted his attention from the diverse, sometimes objectionable uses of visual representations. And, of course, he barely mentions photography anywhere in his writings. But the general notion that we ought to approach art in consequentialist ways is, to my mind, an invaluable insight.

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21 February 2007

Malcolm X

Malcom X, 1961 © Eve Arnold / Magnum Photos

Malcolm X was assassinated on 21 February 1965.

Slave Britain

On the BBC web page today is a series on human trafficking sponsored by Slave Britain with images by Karen Robinson, mostly portraits that maintain the anonymity of the victims of the contemporary slave trade. Most of the individuals Robinson photographs are women, many having been sold into sexual slavery, but some into domestic or other commerical servitude.

The top photograph is of "Louisiana," a young Lithuanian woman now 26, who was sold into prostitution in the UK; the lower photograph is of "Rajan," A young Nepalese who was sold into domestic service in the UK, but who escaped and now lives in a park. The exhibition Slave Britain: The 21st Century Trade in Human Lives is exhibited at St Paul's Cathedral, London, 21 February to 29 March 2007.

[Both images © Karen Robinson / Panos Pictures]


Leszek Kolakowski

While in graduate school in Chicago, I had the good fortune to take a seminar on "Cartesianism" with Leszek Kolakowski. That must've been in the late 1980s. We read Descartes, Husserl and Rorty. The course was offerd through the Committee on Social Thought and was chock full of Straussians drawn, no doubt, by Kolakowski's anti-communism but surely not by his affirmative position as a "Conservative-Liberal-Socialist." The seminar turned out, for reasons that I will not rehearse, to be a very enjoyable intellectual adventure. In any case, Kolakowski has won the Jerusalem Prize for Literature this year. This is a prize "awarded every two years for literary achievements in the field of freedom of the individual in society"

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19 February 2007

Zhang Huan

Speaking of 'convergences' I want to call attention to some similarities between Weschler's new book and Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment where the main theme really is the ways that photographers replicate one another's images. I posted a couple of times on Dyer's book shortly after it appeared [1] [2]. It seems to me that Dyer's entire enterprise revolvess around seeking out and drawing inferences from convergences.

"Shanghai Family Tree" (2001) © Zhang Huan

"Family Tree" (2001) © Zhang Huan

Having said that, I want to call attention to a similarity between the work of Lalla Esaydi about whom I posted a couple days ago and some of the work of Chinese artist Zhang Huan. In particular, I have in mind images like these, that incorporate themes of family and domesticity and rely on calligraphy

"1/2" (1998) © Zhang Huan

Like Essaydi's work Zhang Huan seems preoocupied with writing and legibility and how we see and understand others or ourselves within a framework of cultural and historical practices. They seem especially concerned with how those practices threaten to obstruct or obliterate the chance for such perception and understanding.

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Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences

Lawrence Weschler is an interesting writer. I am most familiar with his works on Poland in the era of Solidarity and on the "settling of acounts" with torturers in post-authoritarian polities. You can find an interview with Weschler here. It turns out that he (unsurprisingly) is an interesting thinker too. By this I mean not simply that he seems smart and curious and committed. Instsead, I mean that he has an intersting way of thinking, of seeing and articulating what, in the subtitle to his new book, are called "convergences." He notices connections between seemingly disparate images and texts and then suggests striking inferences from those connections. This new book, brought out by McSweeney's collects thirty plus of Weschler's (mostly) brief writings on such connections and their implications from the past quarter century. This is not only provocative thinking. It is an exemplar of how to bring such thinking out into the world.

PS: (Added a bit later) I just came across yet another interview with Weschler here. In an interesting comment, Weschler relates how his daughter comments on his "loose synapse" mode of thinking. It turns out that McSweeney's is hosting a contest to which you can submit your own "convergences" and Weschler is provding some commentary. Find the contest page here.

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18 February 2007

NGC 2440

From The Guardian this morning a short article on the image below, captured by a camera on the Hubble space telescope. This is the star NGC 2440 expiring, apparently at an instant 4000 years ago. Because of the distance between NGC 2440 and Hubble the light is only just now being recorded photograpically. This is roughly what will happen when our own sun expires and the earth, like the planets in the vicinity of NGC 2440, is incinerated in the process.

In the news story the reporter claims that the image is 4000 years old. Actually the image is new, the event occured that long ago.

Best Shots (Three)

Here are two more installments of the "Best Shot" series from Leo Benedictus at The Guardian.

(10) Hannah Starkey. "Student Union Intimacy" (15 February 2007)

[Each Image is © the photographer.]


17 February 2007


Oh dear! There is a commentator who calls me names, curses at me, and asks people to write to my university to "complain" about me.* What is a tenured faculty member to do? Well, I thought perhaps my friend misunderstands the world even more fundamentally than I suspected. So I went to Wikipedia - the sort of resource my literal-minded pal might be able to read - and looked up "tenure." Here is part of what it says:

“Academic tenure is primarily intended to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects respected teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, or spend time on unfashionable topics. Thus academic tenure is similar to the lifetime tenure that protects some judges from external pressure. Without job security, the scholarly community as a whole might favor "safe" lines of inquiry. Tenure makes original ideas more likely to arise, by giving scholars the intellectual autonomy to investigate the problems and solutions about which they are most passionate, and to report their honest conclusions.”

Tenure, it's a delightful idea. I have it. So, my anonymous (oh, I meant cowardly - sorry) admirer, please feel free to go tell anyone you'd like about anything I have said on this blog - or anywhere else for that matter. I am sure you will be told to stop being a numbskull ... And thanks for affording me so much practice with the delete command!

* (Added a bit later) I forgot to mention that my ethically challenged friend also has felt it necessary to make nasty remarks about my relationship to my one year old son. Now that is real class! So when he whines about my deleting his comments .... well that is tough.


Lalla Essaydi

Both Images © Lalla Essaydi from "Converging Territories"
(nos. 10 & 28)

"According to Islamic traditions, the street is the domain of the male, and women are condemned to live indoors. There they are in fact nothing more than decoration, suggests photographer Lalla Essaydi, a situation she visualizes in Converging Territories. Essaydi places Islamic women in an isolated space and literally decorates them with texts written in henna. The texts - a reversal of the silence of their isolation - give the women a voice, with which they can speak to the space and to one another. The rebellious character of the photographs is magnified by the fact that within Islam calligraphy may not be practiced by women.

Lalla Essaydi was born and raised in Morocco, but lives in the United States. Converging Territories was photographed in the house in which women from her family were sometimes locked up for weeks if they had transgressed the rules of Islam." (From Noorderlicht Photofesstival 2004.)


Tiny Houses

© Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

For some time now I have carried a link toward the bottom of the side bar to Alchemy Architects who design, construct and deliver "Wee Houses"; their diminutive domiciles seem wonderfully designed and aesthetically pleasing in a modernist sort of way.

On a flight back to Rochester yesterday I read this story in The New York Times entitled "Think Small" that talks about the folks at Alchemy and a bunch of similar firms. These things seem to appeal to the latent Thoreau in people. I will say that having been in Red Bluff, CA in late summer I cannot imagine how unbearably hot Matthew Adams' little -approximately 130 sq. feet. - cabana (shown above) is going to be exposed to the sun without a lick of shade.


15 February 2007

Learning to See ... Muslims as People, for Instance

Lately, I seem to have attracted the attention of an especially obnoxious, "anonymous" commentator who finds it impossible to see Muslims as anything but terrorists, who repeatedly insinuates that, among world religions, Islam is somehow uniquely oppressive and violent, and who basically comports himself (I'd venture) like an ass. Rather than reply to any more of this insightful fellow's rants and personal attacks, I thought it might be more useful and edifying to post a couple of appropriate photographic replies.

From Self-Portrait (2003) © Tarek al-Ghoussein

From The Burqua Project 911 © Mansoora Hassan

PS: Here is a brief comment on Mansoora Hassan's 'Burqua Project 911': "Photographer and visual artist Mansoora Hassan was born in Pakistan and lives in Egypt. She is a member of the board of directors for various American art institutions and has participated in more than fifty exhibitions all over the world. In her confrontational BURQA PROJECT 911 she combines icons of the Eastern and Western world. Hassan photographed herself in a burka in front of American monuments such as the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial and Ground Zero. The result is to be seen as a commentary on the dogmas of Islam, on retaining one's own identity in cosmopolitan cities and on the limitations on individual freedom in the context of the hunt on terrorists. At a more personal level the photographs deal with the mysterious aura of the burka, an item of clothing that enables someone to see without being seen. On the basis of THE BURQA PROJECT 911 Mansoora Hassan was interrogated by the FBI."

And here is a similar comment on Tarek al-Ghoussein's 'Self-Portrait': "Palestine is the Sisyphus of our time. As his punishment from the gods, this mythological figure had to spend eternity rolling a stone up a hill, only to always have it roll back down. In the opinion of Tarek Al-Ghoussein, the Western media's presentation of the Palestinians is similar. They likewise seem to be engaged in a meaningless and endless struggle, in which a stone is also central. In a series of self-portraits Al-Ghoussein critiques the cliché of the Palestinians that - particularly after September 11 - seems to be ineradicable in the Western media. In the style of Levis and Marlboro he creates an imaginary advertising campaign in which the image of the terrorist with a stone and headscarf functions as a logo for the Intifada. ... Al-Ghoussein ... spent some time in an Arab prison for the series of photographs he made of himself as a Palestinian terrorist, which illustrates that the myth is also increasingly being embraced by the Arab world."

I suppose it might be asking to much to assume that commentators be anything other than simplistically literal minded.


14 February 2007

Happy Birthday My Sweet Boy

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Andreas Gefeller

Untitled, Tree Nursery Meerbusch 2005 © Andreas Gefeller

I was browsing this afternoon and came across this image from the series called "Supervisions" by a young German photographer Andreas Gefeller. It is not the sort of thing I typically find especially interesting, but this image and the series more generally caught my eye. Go figure.

13 February 2007


Hrant Dink's funeral procession. Istanbul Jan. 23, 2007, mourners
carrying signs proclaiming "We are all Armenians." © Reuters

Here is a report from Der Spiegel on the dire political situation in Turkey where the nationalist right is resorting to violence in reponse to perceived threats to "Turkishness." There are several tributes to Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian journalist who was assassinated last month, as well as discussions of the "Armenian Issue" (read genocide) that he helped place on the public agenda over the past few years, at Open Democracy [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] and Eurozine [1] [2] [3]. And, lest we take overly much comfort at the outpouring of outrage and grief following Dink's murder, notice that one of the essays conveys 'news of crazed masses chanting in football stadiums: "We are all Ögun Samast"!' in mimicry of the mourners pictured above. Samast is the young nationalist accused of killing Hrant Dink.

'Oh Dear! She's Wearing a Bin Liner!'

Need a few chuckles? Here is a humorous slide show narrated Hadley Freeman, deputy Fashion Editor, at The Guardian on "London Fashion Week." Watch out for the knitted snood!


12 February 2007

The Politics of Music Awards

I have never paid much attention to the Dixie Chicks musically; their's struck me mostly as standard, over-produced Nashville country sound. It was, I think, interesting to see how the country music establishment responded to Natalie Maines' exercise of free speech a while back. But I don't really want to talk about that either. What I want to call attention to is the divergence in the awards they've won (or not) this year as reported by the New York Times:

Defiant Dixie Chicks Are Big Winners at the Grammys

After death threats, boycotts and a cold shoulder from the country music establishment, the Dixie Chicks gained sweet vindication Sunday night at the 49th annual Grammy Awards, capturing honors in all five of the categories in which they were nominated. ...

The Dixie Chicks took home Grammys for the top three awards: record, song and album of the year. Their “Taking the Long Way” (Open Wide/Columbia) won best country album and “Not Ready to Make Nice” also captured best country performance by a duo or group with vocal. ...

Sunday’s awards were the Recording Academy’s rejoinder to the country music radio establishment, which ignored the album. ...

The Dixie Chicks’ sweep of the major Grammy categories served as a sharp counterpoint to their shut-out at the Country Music Association awards in November. The Recording Academy consists of members across the nation who work in all genres of music. The Country Music Association’s membership is concentrated among artists, engineers and executives tied to the Nashville establishment."
So, what accounts for the discrepancy? Are the voters in the CMA more or less liberal than those for the Grammys? Is this Nashville vs. L.A.? Or are the former just more attuned to what they think are the political views of their audience? Or are they worried about the possible reactions of advertisers and sponsors of the "country" broadcast industry? Will winning all the Grammys help or hurt the Chicks's reputation back in Tennessee?

I guess I listen to different folks from Nashville like Steve Earle or Buddy Miller (check out his long version of 'With God on Our Side" on Universal United House of Prayer [2004]) and so think of the population there as considerably less homogeneously conservative than The Times might have us believe.


11 February 2007

Lucinda Williams

Well, this week (Tuesday) is the release date for a new Lucinda Williams record West on the truly cool Lost Highway* label. That is enough to make the week a good one. I'd say the glass is way more than half full. What do you think?

[*I would say that only New West Records rivals Lost Highway for my favorite sorts of music - aside from jazz, of course. But that is a whole other topic.]

PS: (Added 2/12/07): The new record is getting pretty bad reviews mostly, it seems, because Lucinda has departed from her past practices and taken up with producer Hal Willner. Here is Ben Ratliff at The New York Times and here is Roger Holland on PopMatters. Their disappointments converge. We'll see.

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10 February 2007

"Camping in the Third Space: Agency, Representation, and the Politics of Gaza Beach"

I came across this essay by Laura Junka in Public Culture and I think her effort to depict dimensions of the daily lives of Palestinians (even if these may be exceptional trips to the beach) is salutary. Her images are a corrective to the notion that all there is in Gaza and the West Bank is constant conflict and violence. This, I think, is in keeping with the argument that Michelle Woodward makes in an essay I have posted on here.

That said, I find the text that Junka supplies to be more or less completely unhelpful. Referring to the first image I have lifted here, she writes: "
This image brings forth the hoping Palestinian subject, whose space of enunciation has, during the intifada al-Aqsa, become increasingly marginal and unrecognizable within dominant discourses on conflict."

Well, insofar as I understand this sentence, Junka is using it to absorb these women on an excursion to the beach into a complete abstraction called "the Palestinian subject." There is no agency here, just another author imposing another arcane and opaque language onto the lives of others. So too with this image:

Junka clearly aspires to enrich our understanding of Palestinian lives beyond the confines of our preconceived views. She writes: "in order to move beyond this discursive poverty, it is necessary to shift attention away from sites of conflict that are taken for granted toward un(der)represented spaces of Palestinian everyday life. These spaces, I argue, invite the possibility of epistemological “third spaces,” where meaning is not governed by preexisting interpretative frameworks and where the condition of aporia forces attention to other, subaltern aspects of the Palestinian struggle."

A couple of things. One, taking in the sun and eating ice cream at the beach are not obviously compenents of struggle. Two, why not just say 'we in Europe and North America have impoverished understandings of Palestinian lives and I am providing images that reveal those lives as much richer and more complex than we might think.' Third, can we approach any subject without some 'preexisting interpretive framework?' Doesn't Junka's photo-essay (stripped of the dense 'post-colonialist' lingo) lend itself to a universalist understanding of the episodes she depicts? Look Palestinians like to go to the beach too!

[All images in this post © Laura Junka.]

Springtime for GWB in Tehran?

"I don't know how many times the president, secretary Rice and I have
had to repeat that we have no intention of attacking Iran."
- US Secretary of defense Robert Gates.

Well then, Mr. Gates, it would be nice to have some explanation for the way you are deploying massive naval reources in the Persian Gulf and vicinity. The view from Europe seems to be that by April the US will be in a position to attack Iran by sea. Read this report in The Guardian which highlights the role that neo-conservative ideologues at the American Enterprise Institute are having in the build-up. Having already orchestrated one fiasco in the region, the neo-cons seem to have learned nothing. And, even if the administation has "no intention of attacking Iran," their bellicose actions open the door to all sorts of eventualities. As Paul Rogers argues in this article over at Open Democracy the deployment of massive naval resources to the region increases the possibility of what he calls "accidental war" in various ways. Perhaps the administration and its ideological cheerleaders need to recall that, rather than leading to peace, democracy, and security, their best laid plans in the Middle East have generated mayhem and civil war and reduced the security of the U.S.. This set of events is reminding me why I felt that Gates replacing Runsfeld barely was a move in the right direction.

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Blogs & Politics

I have been thinking for a while about the political uses and consequences of blogs. It is difficult to find one's footing on this topic. On the one hand there are overblown "theoretical" interventions like this one by Geert Lovink entitled "Blogging: The Nihilist Impulse," reprinted at Eurozine. The author announces that rather than "presenting blog entries as mere self-promotion, we should interpret them as decadent artefacts that remotely dismantle the broadcast model." I tried reading the essay to figure out what that might mean but never really was able to do so. As far as I can tell Lovink wants to claim that blogs are an outlet for cynicism. And he seems (again , as far as I can tell) vaguely worried about the ways that cynicism fuels apathy and resentment intead of political outrage and action. Havng said that, he also seems to have a pomo view of the media system in which blogs function as something like advanced scouts to identify what may or may not be hot enough to attract attention. Like most such functionalist views, his account lacks discrimination and lumps all blogs into one pile. We need a considerably more fine-grained account than Lovink offers.

By contrast one might consider accounts of the effects of blogs in inauspiscious circumstances. In that respect I would call your attention to a couple of recent essays. The first is Bill Berkeley, "Bloggers versus Mullahs: How the Internet Roils Iran," World Policy Journal (Spring 06). The second is Negar Azimi, "Bloggers Against Torture: How The Web has Changed Egypt's Political Terrain" in The Nation (19 Feb 07). Neither essay claims miracles. Each points out a simple truth - because it is difficult to monitor for purposes of control, blogging is a potentialy useful political tool. That is a nice start.

09 February 2007

"Photo of the Year"

This image by Spencer Platt has been selected "Photo of the Year" in the World Press Photo annual competition. You can read the selection committee rationale here.

Young Lebanese drive through devastated neighborhood of
South Beirut, 15 August. © Spencer Platt, Getty Images.

I have to say that the competition is once again dominated by images of mayhem and disaster and despair - nearly all humanly caused. You can see the winning photographs in various categories here. I have nothing really to say about the contest or the winner. However, perhaps the most thought provoking set of images is this series - "Tourists on Tejita Beach Help Migrants, Tenerife, Spain, 30 July/3 August" taken by Spanish photographer Arturo Rodríguez. From what I can gather the Africans are illegal migrants seeking to cross in small boats to the Canary Islands as the first leg of a journey to Europe.

© Arturo Rodríguez/AP

The series prompts me to wonder what might happen on a beach in Florida if such an unexpected (actually the Canary Islands receive a large number of such migrants, so this event ought not be unexpected) arrival of, say Haitian migrants were washed ashore. Would Americans so readily interrupt their vacations?

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Ehren Watada

"No longer can any American citizen or organization simply sit on the fence and say, Well, we don't take a position on the war, because the war in itself is unconstitutional in many forms, and we as Americans have to step up and say either we agree with what's going on or we disagree with what's going on.... If you disagree...then you are going to have to ask yourself what are you willing to sacrifice of yourself in order to correct the injustice and wrongs of this government in regard to the Iraq War."

"We all take part in it--if you pay your taxes, you're taking part in this war. We all have a responsibility, as they determined after Nuremberg, whether you're the lowest soldier or the highest ranking general, or just a regular civilian, we all have responsibility...to resist and refuse enabling and condoning this criminal behavior ..."
- Lieut. Ehren Watada

This challenge from Ehren Watada is pretty pointed. In a 4th of July post I held out Lt Watada's principled stance against the Iraq War as one basis for political hope. He is the first US military commissioned officer tried for refusing deployment to Iraq. He based his refusal on constitutional grounds, international law and the code of military conduct, basically insisting that it is his duty to refuse illegal orders and that given the lies of the Bush adinistration, the Iraq war is illegal. Hence his refusal. He offered to fight in Afghanistan but his Army superiors insisted that he go to Iraq. Well, as The Nation reports here the judge in his court martial has declared a mistrial; despite trying to keep the legal grounds for Watada's actions from being considered, he was unable to do so and the prosecution requested the mistrial. Read The New York Times report here.


“It’s not working.”

The phrase in the post title allegedly was uttered by a criminal being executed in Ohio; as the lethal injection cocktail failed to have its intended effect, he raised his head and made this announcement to the prison staff and witnesses. He might as well have been talking about the process of capital punishment generally. I have noted the implications of this phenomenon here before, but this story in The New York Times Magazine seems especially damning. Note that a large proportion of the difficulties involved in the lethal injection cocktail arise because we don't want to offend the sensibilities of the audience - the witnesses to the execution or the public generally. That seems to me to be rank hypocrisy. I think that there should be a selection process, much like for jury duty but with very little room for exemption, where regular citizens are drafted to serve as witnesses to executions. Alternatively, we might conduct executions in a less sheltered ways - I often suggest to my avidly pro-death penalty students that they consider scenarios such as the one depicted in by Allen Steele in his short story "Doblin's Lecture" which you can find in The Best American Mystery Stories, 1997 (Mariner Books). I will let you track the story down instead of spoiling the ending.

[Images of show the injection chamber at the Idaho State Penitentiary, Boise, Idaho, 1997 and the view from the witness room at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman, Miss., 1998. Both © Lucinda Devlin/Paul Rodgers/9W Gallery.]

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The Literary Prize Game

Are authors bound by the expectation that "writing an award-winning book makes you public property"? I think that claim simply reflects a self-serving sense of journalistic entitlement. In fact, I actually think the award-winning part might make you less susceptible to having to play publicity games. After all, you've written the book, found a publisher, and won the prize - so you have the dough, as well as the automatic sales boost and the additional caché that the prize brings with it (you can have "winner of the 'blah, blah, blah' award" festooned across the jackets of future books). And there is something to be said for, if not reclusiveness, at least reticence to be splayed across the literary pages. So why shouldn't authors (politely, of course) ignore the press and the PR machine and go about their business? I hope Stef Penney can do that. (No, I've not read the book.)


08 February 2007

Zbigniew Herbert - The Collected Poems, 1956-1998

"This poetry is about the pain of the twentieth century, about accepting the cruelty of an inhuman age, about an extraordinary sense of reality. And the fact that at the same time the poet loses none of his lyricism or his sense of humor - this is the unfathomable secret of a great artist." - Adam Zagajewski

In the mail today I received Zbigniew Herbert's The Collected Poems, 1956-1998 (Ecco Press, 2007). The first thing to notice is that the cover design is pretty astonishing (I almost said 'striking' but caught myself); the image at right, a portarit of Herbert © Anna Beata Bohdziewicz, appears absent any text as the front of the book. The title, publisher info, etc. appear only on the spine and back cover.

Herbert is an incisive and ironic poet who played an inspirational role in the politics of Solidarnosc. He subsequently had quite vituperative, public fallings out with those, like Adam Michnik, on whom he had earlier had significant influence. See, for instance, his remarks in this 1994 interview. That said, Michnik wrote a brief, still admiring lament (reprinted in the NYRB) when Herbert died. There Michnik says:

"There were times when I had the privilege of being close to Zbigniew Herbert. His poems helped me survive the difficult years of prison. This I have never forgotten. Then our ways violently parted. In recent years I was often unable to understand his political statements. But his poems always brought me to enchantment and meditation."

In recent years it has been pretty difficult to find copies of Herbert's translated books. So, this new collection is quite welcome and definitely worth the read. Here is one poem that I especially like and that seems relevant as we await the time when the U.S. administration uses failure of will among the Iraqis to account for the even greater disasters it is creating in Baghdad.

Why the Classics
by Zbigniew Herbert


in the fourth book of the Peloponnesian War
Thucydides tells among other things
the story of his unsuccessful expedition

among long speeches of chiefs
battles sieges plague
dense net of intrigues of diplomatic endeavours
the episode is like a pin
in a forest

the Greek colony Amphipolis
fell into the hands of Brasidos
because Thucydides was late with relief

for this he paid his native city
with lifelong exile

exiles of all times
know what price that is


generals of the most recent wars
if a similar affair happens to them
whine on their knees before posterity
praise their heroism and innocence

they accuse their subordinates
envious collegues
unfavourable winds

Thucydides says only
that he had seven ships
it was winter
and he sailed quickly


if art for its subject
will have a broken jar
a small broken soul
with a great self-pity

what will remain after us
will be like lovers' weeping
in a small dirty hotel
when wall-paper dawns

Translated by Peter Dale Scott and Czeslaw Milosz
Inscription (1969)]

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07 February 2007


Tonight I go to hear the Kronos Quartet here at the Eastman (George, that is) Theatre. It has been a long time since I've heard them play - probably 15 or so years. I recall once going to a Kronos performance at Ravinia on the north shore of Chicago. It was an inspired and inspiring performance by a leather-clad quartet to an audience of pretty staid blue-haired types with just a few younger folks like myself interspersed in the crowd. Here is the program for tonight:

Michael Gordon - Potassium *
Unknown (arr. Kronos, transc. Ljova) - Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me +
Ram Narayan (arr. Kronos, transc. Ljova) - Raga Mishra Bhairavi +
Dan Visconti -Love Bleeds Radiant *
Sigur R's - Flugufrelsarinn (The Fly Freer) +
Derek Charke - Cercle du Nord III *
Traditional (arr. Jacob Garchik) - Lullaby +
Traditional(arr.Kronos, transc. Ljova)- Tusen Tankar (A Thousand Thoughts)+
Steve Reich- Triple Quartet *

None of this is familiar to me, but that is much of the fun - walking into a concert that will be more or less completely foreign and seeing what happens.

PS: Well, the concert was terrific. A not terribly full house. The program was varied, ranging from subdued to crackling and adventuresome. One of the number was an unattributable Iraqi composition, another a traditional Iranian Lullaby. And in case one was inattentive to the political theme, the first of the Quartet's three encores was a galvanizing rendition of the"Star Spangled Banner" a la Jimi Hendrix.


06 February 2007

Tomas Munita

This evening I discovered the work of Tomas Munita, a young Chilean photographer who has been working for AP for a number of years but now seems (according to the "About" page on his web site) to have struck out on his own. He has won numerous awards including most recently the 2006 Leica Oskar Barnack Award. Munita's work, I think, is really quite astonishing especially his ability to capture subtle color. In addition to Munita's (well-designed and functional) web page you can find a portfolio of his image here at Blueeyes Magazine. Here are a couple of images from a series entitled "Leaving the Shadows" that he shot in Kabul (and for which he won the Leica award).

Both Images © Tomas Munita / Associated Press

The Difference

Here is a book that I think is crucially important by Scott Page who teaches in a variety of departments at the University of Michigan. What he offers is a consequentialist - to my mind essentially a pragmatist - defense of diversity. Scott's argument is that under identifiable conditions diversity is as important, oftentimes more important, a factor in successful problem solving than individual ability. What?!?! Roughly, given certain initial conditions, if we take two populations, one in which cognitively "all agents are above average" (to paraphrase Garrison Keillor) and another that is random and so diverse, the latter regularly will out-perform the former in solving problems. Scott doesn't argue that we should wholly disregard ability, but he thinks we should be significantly less reticent about how we endorse and defend diversity: "In sum, rather than being on the defensive about diversity, we should go on the offensive. We should look at difference as something that can improve performance, not as something that we have to be concerned about so that we don't get sued." I couldn't agree more.

What is pragmatist about this argument? First, the tempered consequentialism - the focus on outcomes generated by interactions under specifiable conditions. Second, the focus on problem solving. Third, the commitment to relying on social scientific inquiry to establish the argument. There likely are other ways Scott's case resonates with Pierce and Dewey as well as with contemporary pragmatists like Putnam, Westbrook, Posner, Breyer and Misak - even if he never so much as mentions any of them by name.

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05 February 2007


Well having mentioned n+1 in a post a couple of days ago, I want to mention the new issue of yet another terrific albeit even more fledgling (is there such a thing a more fledgling?) literary, political, cultural journal called A PUBLIC SPACE which has just put out its third issue. Not only does the newest number contain a new ly translated poem by Wisława Szymborska ("The Old Professor") and a very brief essay by David Levi Strauss ("A Wolf That Knows Enought to Keep Its Distance"), but also a "portfolio" of fiction and photographs intended to offer a view of the recent history of violence and politics in Peru. The portfolio includes work by Daniel Alarcón, Juan Manuel Chavez, Santiago Roncagliolo, Miguel Gutierrez. It also includes a sampling of photographs from the Archivo Fotogràfico TAFOS/PUCP at the Catholic University of Peru, School of Science & Communication Arts. The archive houses a collection of images generated by students in a project conducted from 1986 to 1998 that taught photography to workers and the poor so that they could document their experiences.


04 February 2007

Anatol Rapoport (1911-2007)

Anatol Rapoport was born in Lozovaya, Russia, on May 22, 1911. He died of pneumonia in Toronto on Jan. 20, 2007. He was 95. An obituary appears here.