31 July 2007

More on Enlightened Plastic

Given my recent post on the Enlightenment Card, I figured it might be appropriate to pass along this comment from The New York Times. Money, after all, is energy!

"Editorial- Credit Card Buyer Beware

Published: July 31, 2007. The federal agencies that are supposed to regulate the banking and credit card industries have failed utterly to keep pace with deceptive and unfair practices that have become shamefully standard in the business. As a consequence many hard-working Americans who pay their bills are mired in debt — and in danger of losing whatever savings they have, and perhaps their homes. Congress, which sat on its hands while the problem got worse and worse, needs to rein in this sometimes predatory industry.

The scope of the problem was laid out in Congressional hearings this spring held by Senator Carl Levin, the Democrat from Michigan. According to testimony, one witness exceeded his charge card’s $3,000 limit by $200 — triggering what eventually amounted to $7,500 in penalties and interest. After paying an average of $1,000 a year for six years, the man still owed $4,400.

That experience has become all too common as the credit card industry has stealthily adopted methods designed to maximize burdensome penalties and fees, while ratcheting up interest rates as high as 30 percent. Companies bombard unwary consumers with teaser packages that promise very low interest rates to start, while reserving for themselves the right to raise rates whenever they choose. The details are buried in deliberately arcane contracts that run 30 pages long and that even lawyers have trouble understanding.

Congressional investigations and studies by consumer advocates have exposed other unsavory practices. Some card companies apply penalty rates retroactively — to purchases that were made before the penalty was incurred or in some cases to debts that were even paid off. As one Congressional witness pointed out, the credit card industry is the only one allowed to increase the price of a product
after it has been sold.

Under a provision known as “universal default,” a cardholder who pays a credit card company faithfully can still be hit with a high penalty interest rate for missing payments with another creditor. In another despicable tactic known as “double cycle billing,” a cardholder who pays $450 of a $500 balance is charged interest on the entire amount as opposed to the unpaid balance.

State usury laws would once have precluded many of these practices, but those have been preempted by federal regulations that are increasingly designed to make banks and credit card companies happy — rather than protect consumers.

A bill introduced by Senator Levin would limit “penalty” interest rates to an additional 7 percent above the previous rate. It would also prohibit retroactive penalties and double cycle billing, and it would limit the amount of fees companies could charge customers who exceed their credit limit.

Passing the Levin bill would be a good start. But Congress needs a comprehensive approach to this problem. Lawmakers need to ban deceptive card offers outright, strengthen federal oversight and toughen truth-in-lending laws.

Meanwhile, American consumers should think long and hard before they accept credit card offers that are too good to be true."


Antonioni (1912-2007) & Bergman (1918-2007)

Film makers Michelangelo Anonioni and Ingmar Bergman both died this week. About Bergman, The Guardian noted: "Ingmar Bergman, who has died at the age of 89, finally declared that even he found his own films too depressing to watch."


30 July 2007

Plastic for Your Enlightened Consciousness

Some time ago my friend Susan Orr pointed out a really troubling advertisement on Alternet for a new gimic from Visa - the "Enlightenment Card." Touted as "a socially conscious credit card" the new gimmic panders to the narcisscistic demographic that somehow has convincced themselves that consuming itself is a political act. Hence, the purveyors announce:

"The Enlightenment Visa Reward Card was founded on the idea that money is energy and if used with positive and integrative intention, can have the power to affect change in our lives and the world. Everyone uses a credit card, so why not have one where people can earn points towards positive products and services that enhances their overall conscious life?"

I've added the purple text just because it seems like it might contribute to the 'overall conscious life' of you readers. That said, I admit that I used to carry a Working Assets Visa card because the WA folks donated some paltry percentage of their profits to various do-good organizations. I dropped the card because the WA folks also continually cut deals with rapacious banks to administer the card. But there was a key diference between even that card and this new offering. The benefits, however slender, at least went to someone else. They didn't acccrue to my own conscious development (or, more accurately, to those whom are more than willing to sell me all the accessories that will aid my developing consciousness).

The images I've lifted here show two of the eight available "premium" card designs ("Peace" and "Truth") available to members, and only to them. The images, by the way, are "Copyright © Conscious Enlightenment LLC." The other possible "favorite cards" are "Consciousness," "Infinite," "Wisdom," "Meditate," "Love," and (of course) "Enlightenment." Quite a weighty choice!

Having hung around a bit at yoga studios - less for enlightenment than to wage a vain fight against the effects age and gravity on my congenitally bad back - I can imagine just the sort of person to whom this gimic will appeal. I'll bet the cards soon will be common among the folk checking in for expensive bouts of consciousness raising at places like Esalen and Kripalu and the Omega Institute. Yet even so unenlightened a soul as me is willing to bet that the Buddha would find this use of his imagery appalling. So the obvious question to to folks at Alternet, I suppose, is how they can rationalize any participation in the selling of snake-oil like this. What's next, adverts from Waste Management, or Monsanto or Bechtel?

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28 July 2007

Yes Men on Bill Moyers Journal

On a recent installment (20 July 07) of his PBS Journal, Bill Moyers profiled Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno who comprise the The Yes Men . The duo impersonate corporate types and make, often invited, presentations to various unsuspecting groups and organizations. In their presentations the Yes Men advance seemingly preposterous proposals (like reducing our dependence on foreign oil by substituting fuel created from the liquified remains of people who die due to the effects climate change) only to find, typically, that their audiences do not find the proposals preposterous at all. Moyers and his guests did not quite pull off the opening segment, but the discussion that followed was very provocative. Bichlbaum and Bonanno essentially bring Swiftian satire to bear on neo-liberalism.
P.S.: If you are interested in locating the Yes Men on the terrain of other contemporary 'political' art you might checck out The Interventionists: Users' Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life (MIT Press/MassMOCA).

27 July 2007

Photographing in NYC?

New regulations restricting the right to photograph in public places have been proposed in NYC. The new rules would require a permit and a hefty amount of insurance. You can read The New York Times report here. The regulations have generated what I think is a deserved reaction from those who consider them a violation of constitutional rights to free press, free assembly, etc.; opponents of the regulations have organized a protest rally at Union Sq. tonight at 6:30 and are circulating a petition electronically. You can find information on the proposed regulations, why you should oppose them, the rally, and the petition here.
PS: (Added 28 July) Here is an update from The New York Times.


26 July 2007

Photographic Proofs (Call for Papers)

Here is a call for papers for an upcoming graduate student conference at Yale:

Photographic Proofs
Graduate student conference at Yale University, April 4-5, 2008

"A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what's in the picture." - Susan Sontag

"But the proof of the pictures was in the reading. The photographs had to have their status as truth produced and institutionally sanctioned." - John Tagg

The Yale University Photographic Memory Workshop, in conjunction with the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, invites submissions for a graduate student conference entitled "Photographic Proofs." The theme of this conference should be interpreted broadly. Papers could be theoretical, historical, or critical explorations based upon one photograph or a collection of photographs. They might interrogate the theme of photographic proofs from one of many different angles, including documentary, artistic, commercial, and vernacular photography. Selected sets of photographs may relate to war, science, medicine, race, class, law, business, reform, the natural and built environment, frontiers, performance, gender, sexuality, or family, among other subjects.

In order to engender an inter-disciplinary community and to further challenge and develop the vocabulary that surrounds photographic criticism, we encourage submissions from graduate students at all stages of their studies, working in any discipline. The Beinecke Library will add to this discussion by hosting a workshop for conference participants highlighting the library's extensive photographic holdings.

We are pleased to announce that Professor John Tagg will deliver the opening keynote address. John Tagg is Professor of Art History and Comparative Literature at Binghamton University. His books, which often focus on the relationship between photography and power, include The Burden of Representation: Essays of Photographies and Histories, Grounds of Dispute: Art History, Cultural Politics and the Discursive Field, and the forthcoming The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Regimens and the Capture of Meaning.

In an effort to foster a geographically diverse community of graduate student presenters, we are pleased to be able to cover travel and accommodation expenses for students whose papers are selected.

Email CVs and abstracts to: photographic.proofs@yale.edu by Monday, October 15. Abstracts should be under 300 words. Final papers should not exceed 20 minutes in length. We will notify selected speakers by December 15.

Co-organizers: Alice Moore and Francesca Ammon, graduate students in American Studies

Photographic Proofs Graduate Student Conference
Yale University
New Haven, CT
Email: photographic.proofs@yale.edu


What I Did on My Summer Vacation ...

Photo © Ed Alcock/ New York Times

I went with several friends to see the masterpieces at the Louvre. And when I couldn't actually see the paintings, I took photos so I could look at them on my lap top during the long flight home.


25 July 2007

The AARP Label

Well, I posted some time back about the new Starbucks record label - "Hear Music." I wondered then who they might sign. The news today is that Joni Mitchell is following Sir Paul McCartney onto the label. This strikes me a relatively predictable. The label has gone from re-issuing music by the dead (e.g., Ray Charles) to issuing "new" music from the moribund. Don't get me wrong. I grew up listening to Mitchell and the Beatles. But I am an old-timer. Starbucks did everyone a favor by picking out relatively obscure, fairly young, but really talented folks (say Gillian Welch) and pushing their discs to customers who likely never would hear them on the radio. But neither McCartney nor Mitchell have done much in recent years and what they have done is (politely) undistinguished. Starbucks is crowing about bringing Joni out of retirement. (In fact, the claims by Starbucks execs that this is a return to the "real Joni" tacitly dminish nearly everything she's done since, say, 1975.) Perhaps they can start advertising their new realeases in the AARP Bulletin?


22 July 2007


I am heading off to my annual summer teaching gig in Ann Arbor, Michigan - a little less than a month at the ICPSR stats camp for grad students who just cannot help themselves! Don't ask how a political theorist infiltrated that crowd! But that means I am driving 400 miles today and likely will be waylaid by overly eager students tomorrow. So I may not be posting for a couple of days.

21 July 2007

On Not Memorializing the Holocaust

Oskar Schindler (centre) with some of his Jewish
workers at the Krakow enamel factory, c1943

"Art galleries have been created in abattoirs and Las Vegas hotels; why not in a Krakow factory that played a part in one man's attempt to resist the worst crime in history? The factory once owned by Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who used Jews as slave labourers in order to save them from death in the Holocaust, is today an empty shell. It hasn't escaped the city's notice that exactly this kind of industrial space has proved a highly effective and popular setting for contemporary art.

Why not create Krakow's Tate Modern here? Some are shocked at the very thought. But it is only offensive if you want to embalm the past in glowing sepia tones. Modern art is unsettling, as seems right in such a place. From Anselm Kiefer's history-laden painted fields to Damien Hirst's mortal thoughts, the best art of today resonates with the terrors of modern times.Krakow should create a modern gallery - rather than a Holocaust museum - in Schindler's factory because this would end today's kitsch memory cult where it began. The film Schindler's List, with its incredibly disrespectful scene of people being led into the showers and surviving, inaugurated a strange cultural period in which memory "inspires" and "moves" popular culture while high art luxuriates in memorials. Bland and ineffective, tearful and self-congratulatory, the culture of memory is epitomised by the story of Schindler, which manages to give the Holocaust an upbeat ending. In reality an occasional good person like Schindler created no more than a hair's width of light at the top of an unfathomable well of suffering. A contemporary art gallery will preserve Schindler's factory - the stuff of history - without turning it into a trite monument. It will provoke thought, instead of mere sentiment. Thought is what we need now.”


This is a blog post by Jonathan Jones over at The Guardian this past week that I think is quite to the point - at least about memorials. I come from Western Massachusetts and have been several times to the newish MassMOCA in North Adams. The museum actually occupies an old factory/warehouse complex and could serve as a fine example both in terms of architecture and content/programming. Other obvious examples for the Krakow site are Dia: Beacon or the PS1 complex in Long Island City.

All that said, I am not a great fan of museums - even good ones such as MassMOCA & PS1 - insofar as they typically absorb and then display "art world" priorities that set art apart from life and experience too starkly.


19 July 2007

... and Throw Away the Key

Here is an essay from Boston Review by economist Glenn Loury - hardly a pinko - on the deplorable, lopsided rates of incarceration in the United States. Loury rightly suggests that the causal story is not that we have more crime, hence more criminals, hence more convicts but rather that we are simply more punitive, more ready to lock people up (especially poor black or brown men) and throw away the key. As a result, Loury notes: "Never before has a supposedly free country denied basic liberty to so many of its citizens."


Best Shots (7)

(24) Elliott Landy. "Nashville Skyline" (19 July 07)

(23) Gillian Laub. "Kinneret" (12 July 07)


18 July 2007

Like Father, Like Son

Here is a fasicnating article from The New York Times on cellist Erik Friedlander, son of photographer Lee Friedlander. Speaking of the influence his father has had on him the younger Friedlander says:

“I had a model of someone who just pursued what they needed to do for their art ... So when I wanted to try to do something different with the cello, I didn’t feel like, ‘Well, maybe this is impossible, I shouldn’t try this.’ I know exactly what to do about this: You just do it.”

In any case, the cellist has a new CD "Block Ice & Propane - Compositions and Improvisations for Solo Cello" forthcoming on Skipstone Records; the title refers to long summer camping trips that his family took during his childhood. (The image at right is of Erik Firedlander, his sister Anna and their parents on one such trip in 1972). The album sounds terrific - a sort of avant-cello analog to Johnny Cash's series of American Recordngs. And some of the tune titles are a stitch (e.g., "Airstream Envy"). I can only say that I wish I'd learned a similar lesson from my childhood vacations.

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17 July 2007

Politics and Vision

Among the first books of contemporary political theory that I read as an undergrad (assigned by my advisor Jim Fratto along with several classic texts) was the first edition of Sheldon Wolin's Politics and Vision. There now is a new "expanded" edition and, thumbing through it, I came across the following passage.

"Theorists have given us pictures of political life in miniature,
pictures in which what is extraneous to the theorist's purpose has
been deleted. The necessity for doing this lies in the fact that political
theorists, like the rest of mankind, are prevented from "seeing" all
political things at first hand. The impossibility of direct observation
compels the theorist to epitomize a society by abstracting certain
phenomena and providing interconnections where none can be seen.
Imagination is the theorist's means for understanding a world
he can never "know" in an intimate way."

I will be interested to get my old edition down off the shelf in my office and see whether it has any markings at this point. Wolin contrasts this "imaginative" dimension of political theory with a more descriptive moment of "dispassionate reportage" even as he allows (indeed, insists) that political theory necessarily encompasses both . In any given instance, to properly grasp either moment we need to understand the aims and purposes of the political theorist. Try inserting "photographer" and "photography" in the relevant places in this passage.


16 July 2007

Design of De-Scent

I thought this would be a nice follow up to my earlier post on the Design of Dissent ...

"We Simply Don't Give a Damn!"

In the "you couldn't make this up" category, here are a couple of photos courtesy of Alternet of the Republican Presidential Candidate Forum hosted last week by the NAACP. Notice all the empty podiums? Turns out that only one of the Republican presidential candidates turned out.* The NAACP invited all nine. Can you say "we simply don't give a damn"?
* It doesn't matter which of the candidates showed up since his name recognition is no higher than mine. Given his troubles lately you'd think John McCain would've shown up!

15 July 2007

Iran War Back on the Front Burner?

Cheney, Rice & W, Photograph: © Evan Vucci/AP

Some time ago I posted a couple of times [1] [2] about the prospects that BushCo are planning to go to war, either directly or by proxy, with Iran. For a while that has seemed less likely. However, The Guardian today reports that the hawks, led by none other than Dick Cheney, seem to have regained the upper hand within the administration. This is a frightening development insofar as I consider Cheney a war criminal. It is frightening too to think that Condi Rice and Bob Gates are what is standing in the way of Cheney's nefarious ambitions in the region. I would say that this is as good an argument as exists for pushing to impeach Cheney and Bush.

And, on the issue of impeachment I recommend this recent issue of Bill Moyers Journal on which Bruce Fein, whom I consider a crazed right-winger, makes a strong case for impeaching both the president and the vice president.

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14 July 2007

Meaningless Gestures

A few posts back I commented on a project by Randa Mirza that I find a useful effort to bring forth the contrast between life on the home front and the sacrifices being made by our military personnel in pursuit of an inherently misguided and flawed policy in Iraq. That post generated some extremely sharp and insightful comments that have me thinking. But regardless of what one thinks of Mirza's efforts, the sort of insipid gesture promoted in the advert shown here (to say nothing of the peddlers who exploit inchoate sentiment) reinforces my view that much of the American population is living in a fantasy world, more or less totally cut off from the realities of war and mayhem and pain and suffering. Should anyone want to start to figure out what supporting the troops might require, I recommend this recent report in The Nation; don't wear a yellow bracelet, don't put fake magnetized ribbons on your mini-van or SUV, go out and ask your political leaders what they are doing for troops like those described in this report who are coming home in dire need. Better yet, try talking to the vets you want to support. And as for those still serving, speak out - support them by demanding that they be brought home!

13 July 2007

Design of Dissent

I picked up this book today at a very cool, fairly new little shop in Rochester called :nook; the shop is among a gaggle of new-ish businesses in and around the "South Wedge." Rather than simply wishing the proprietor luck, I spent some $$$, buying the book and a fashionable shirt that I can send to August.

In any case, I am fascinated by political graphics and what makes them "work." (From a wholly talent-less perspective, of course!) This volume is a 200+ page compendium of oppositional graphics from around the world, consisting mostly of quite recent contributions. The work raises what I think is an interesting question: should dissenters truly and consistently embrace a "No Logo" approach? Or should dissenters seek to deploy aesthetic/design strategies as sophisticated as those who occupy positions of power? I actually think that the first option is doomed to be self-defeating. But why doesn't the no logo impulse carry over into politics? Do sophisticated design strategies risk lapsing into manipulation? Do they contribute to the commercialization of politics? Do they treat publics in an overly instrumental manner? And, finally, if we aim to adopt such strategies, shouldn't we be studying the designs deployed by the Karl Rove types of the world?

In part, I am prompted to ask these questions because I also heard an interview this afternoon on npr with John Maeda maven of "simplicity." I had read Maeda's slender The Laws of Simplicity (MIT Press) a while ago and was pretty ambivalent about it. Why? A good bit of Maeda's design thinking seems to presume that we can identify essences. And I think that talk of the "essence" of some instrument or practice is almost always wrong headed. I guess I've read too much Wittgenstein. Worse, I think the book is woefully abstracted from themes of power and hierarchy in the sense that (like, say, efficiency) simplicity is defined by some who, typically, have the capacity and resources to impose that definition on others. There are all sorts of issues of coordination at work here to which Maeda seems to be more or less oblivious. His design approach seems to be more or less unthinkingly at the service of commercial interests. Is it possible to pry the discussion of simplicity or of design more generally out of that framework? Since Maeda loves the iPod* (as an exemplar of simplicity), it seems appropriate to tie this meandering post together with a graphic that Glaser and Ilić include in their volume:


* Full disclosure - I own an iPod and agree with Maeda about its design features. I simply (no pun intended) fear that he is insufficiently attuned to the political-economic backdrop to simple design. The iRaq posters are attributed to two anonymous collectives one in NYC (coopergreene.org which inhabits a now defunct domain), the other in L.A. (forkscrew graphics) and were pasted around both cities in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib revelations.

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More Bullshit from Bush

"The same folks that are bombing innocent people in Iraq, were
the ones who attacked us in America on September the 11th,
and that’s why what happens in Iraq matters to
the security here at home.” - W.

The fact is that insofar as there is an al-Qaeda presence in Iraq, it is an artifact of BushCo's disastrous foreign policy. There is no evidence whatsoever establing a connection between anyone in Iraq and the 9/11 attacks or current risks of terrorist attack "here at home." Nor is there much evidence that the "new" BushCo surge strategy is working. The President is either stupid or a liar - and of course the two possibilities are not mutually exclusive.


P.S.: Added later that same day - Just in case you think my assessment is simply more unpatriotic, pinko blather consider this view from the hardly liberal Fred Kaplan over at Slate:

“The White House report released today, on how far Iraq has progressed
toward 18 political and military benchmarks, is a sham.

According to the report, which was required by Congress, progress has
been"satisfactory" on eight of the benchmarks, "unsatisfactory" on
another eight,and mixed on two. At his press conference this
morning, President Bush,seeing the glass half full,
pronounced the report "a cause for optimism"
—and for staying on course.

Yet a close look at the 25-page report reveals a far more dismal picture
and a deliberately distorted assessment. The eight instances of
"satisfactory"progress are not at all satisfactory by any
reasonable measure—or, in some cases, they indicate a purely
procedural advance. Theeight "unsatisfactory" categories
concern the central issues ofIraqi politics—the disputes that
must be resolved if Iraq is to be aviable state
and if the U.S. mission is to have theslightest
chance of success.”

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the Bush performance yesterday is the tacit assumption that the public really is dense enough to buy the administration's bullshit.

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12 July 2007

Art Signal #1

This morning I recieved an email from Eduardo Sarmiento who edits Art Signal in Barcelona. Among other things Eduardo called to my attention the publication of the second issue (identified as #1, following the inaugural issue #0) of the fledgling publication. While I highly recommend the magazine generally, regular visitors here will likely find the regular "Camera Lucida" essay, this time by Kosme de Barañano, entitled "Isabel Muñoz: A Vision of a Detail or the Body as a Territory" especially interesting.


11 July 2007

Doug & August (18 years & 17 months)

Brothers napping in a Car, somewhere in CA, July 2007

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Clean Air, Dirty Air

'Like a Constable painting' ... the countryside near Cape Grim,
Tasmania (left)and
the main road leading into Linfen, China.
Photographs: © Angela Palmer

This is pretty astoundinng. and it is a very creative final project from Ms. Palmer! You can find the story in The Guardian here.

10 July 2007

Randa Mirza "On Media, Tourism & War Photography"

© Randa Mirza

Randa Mirza is a young, but very accomplished Lebanese photographer. I thank Joerg Colberg for bringing her work to my attention. Joerg is ambivalent about Mirza's project "On Media, Tourism and War Photography." I have to say that I am as well, but for reasons considerably more "theoretical" than Joerg's experience-based worries. On the one hand, I find the motivations Mirza articulates overly Sontag-esque. I find the photography- tourism metaphor strained. Here is what Mirza says about the project:

“To regard the sufferings of people in conflict zones is a new
form of virtual tourism.

'On Media, Tourism and War Photography' is an ongoing
project that points to the absurdity of our separate worlds and realities;
disparate actions take place at the same time in different places.

I intervene on war photographs by inserting into war scenes
photographs of individuals that i crop out of their original context.
Thus, i take war images from photojournalism and move
them to the category of art.

The images reveal in a single frame how events are portrayed and
how they are perceived. Passive news spectators
are transplanted in the image. They become the image.

As Susan Sontag puts it: “Images of atrocities have
become, via the little screens of the television
and the computer, something of a commonplace.”

We are consuming on daily basis news and horrors taking place
throughout the world. It is as if there’s a growing need for
observing, removed from time and space, “the pain of others”.
When it bleeds, it leads...Media pundits fed or created this need.
In both cases, they achieved transforming war into an
entertainment, they created a new, worldwide
“society of spectacle”. “War is exotic”, says Laurent
Gervereau, and media enhances this paradox.

Media concentrates on the deeds of the violence and
not on the historical reasons that generated it; the
context is often missing from the reporting.

The majority of people do not question the news; photography's
still broadly perceived as an inherently 'truthful' medium. In creating
" false " war images, I hope to make people question the reality
of photography as well as media’s intervention in the news.
My images are “lies” but they are no less truthful a
statement about the violence of war.

By deliberately making viewers believe that what they are seeing
is real, relying on photography to influence their perception
and understanding of these images, I pretend to use the
same means that the media uses in
ontrolling words and images to describe a conflict.

Media treats conflicts as images and news, and the
next day they become archives. Can art save images of
war from becoming banal? How long can I make
those ephemeral images endure?”

On the other hand, as a comment on the "reality" of Lebanon, which my favorite local restauranteur, Imahd always assures me is a beautiful travel destination that has been ravaged by war and politics, Mirza's project affords a pointed commentary. In terms of subject matter it nearly is the converse of Martha Rosler's two "Bringing the War Home" series about which I have posted here before. And in terms of technique the two also clearly overlap. Beyond that comparison, I find the way Mirza plays with the conventions of truth and falsity in the way she manipulates and deploys images to be really striking. Mirza's approach reminds me too of, for instance, the Atlas Group about whose prize-winning ways I also have posted before [1] [2] [3] precisely because - also like Rosler and others - it tramples quite wonderfully back and forth across the invidious conventional distinction between 'documentary' and 'art' photography. What Mirza pushes us to do is worry less about whether some photograph is an instance of one or the other genre than about how we use photography for this or that purpose.

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09 July 2007

John Szarkowski (1925-2007)

Today's New York Times carries an obituary for John Szarkowski, curator who, in the 1960s and 1970s, promoted such now seminal photographers as Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and William Eggleston. Szarkowski died in my own home town - Pittsfield, Mass. on Saturday. Szarkowski was himself an accomplished photographer too - you can find a sampling of his worker here.

P.S.: (Added 10 July) You can find additional notices and appreciations here and here and here and here and here and here ...


'Bush Leaguers' in Washington D.C.

© Kirk Anderson

For those planning to visit the Nation's Capitol over the next few weeks - of, God forbid, those who already live and work there - there is an interesting exhibition at the Katzen Art Center at American University. The show is called "Bush Leaguers: Cartoonists take on the White House" and it looks like a lot of fun - at the expense of BushCo. You can find more examples at npr.


08 July 2007

Kirmen Uribe

Kirmen Uribe (b. 1970) is a Basque poet and essayist whose wonderful book Meanwhile Take My Hand has been translated by Elizabeth Macklin and published by Greywolf Press in a bi-lingual (Basque/English) edition. You can find different excerpts from the book on the web pages of the author, press, and translator. Here are a couple samples of Uribe's poetry that I have lifted from on-line. Both speak to my current frame of mind:

Things That Are Perfect

Though a favor to the feet, to the shoes
the sandals are bare skeletons.

An olive tree lives two thousand years
but tends to remember nothing.

Things that are perfect sow terror in me.
I don’t like them.

My handwriting’s skewed, my gait more so,
doing my best.

Notes on a Loose Piece of Paper

Remember to call home before too long.
To see the long reeds when they are in motion.
Not to punish myself as much as that again.
To miss the last train and wait for the next.

To wash off your injured hands in the creek.
Know there is no happiness without sadness.
Feel the glass caress of morning in the kiss.
Accept what the Devil offers once in a while.

Perhaps everything can in fact change.
Perhaps there's any road at all somewhere.

Remember to tell what blocks you at every turn.
Not to speak while watching the cormorants.
Hold out a hand to the doubts and the fears.
Drive along alone without orientation.

There are, in this collection, a number of poems with more directly "political" themes and allusions. Most are understated and ensconced in observations or memories of daily life or local affairs. The presence of such themes and allusions hardly is surprising for a young Basque writing in contemporary Spain. I recommend the book and will let you find out for yourself what I mean. But I wanted to offer the two examples above as counterpoint, in part, to these two brief paragraphs, which form the afterword to the volume.

"Anus Mundi
11 March 2004

In 1941, the Germans proposed renaming Poland “Anus Mundi,” the asshole of the world. At the same time, the Polish writer Milosz was writing calm, serene poems, without putting on paper any of the destruction taking place in his country. And when he was asked the reason for that choice - when they took him to task over whether he wasn’t perhaps fleeing responsibility, wasn’t even perhaps looking the other way - he responded that he’d made the choice because he was unable to bear the reality, because it was impossible to for him to put what had come to pass in Poland into a lyric. For him, words are always on the side of life, never on the side of death. Words resemble a body that even nearing death wants to stay alive; they cling to breath, until the very last moment. In Milosz’s view, the calm, serene words that are spoken in bad time publicly declare on the side of life, and help a person set his house in order, even if the order resembles a child’s room.

We need calm, serene words around here. Calm, serene words to solve our problems. Calm, serene words at a remove from the heated expoundings and surface readings, at a remove from vengeance. Calm, serene words to get to the bottom of the problems, and calm, serene words so that we as a people will not be used. The Nazis called Poland “Anus Mundi,” the asshole of the world. We need calm, serene words so our entire world may not itself become the asshole of all creation."

Uribe published this note in a Basque newspaper - Berria - just days after the rail-station bombings in Madrid, at a time when the Spanish government seemed intent on attributing blame for the attacks on the Basque separatist group ETA. Of course, it turned out that the bombings had been the handiwork of al-Quaeda.

It seems to me that Uribe here both offers a general warning, or perhaps more accurately expxresses a broad concern. And, in so doing, too, he seems to pinpoint his own political predicament as a poet and writer.

Note: "Things That Are Perfect," "Notes on a Loose Piece of Paper," and "Anus Mundi" all translated from the Basque by Elizabeth Macklin and © Kirmen Uribe.

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07 July 2007

Viewing Katrina: Disaster Fatigue?

Yesterday Joerg Colberg commented on an interesting post from the day before at Exposure Project (EP) worrying about the potential negative side-effects the proliferation of photography documenting the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina might generate. The post indeed raises a set of important questions, albeit in ways that, I think, reflect too narrow a range of considerations. So, I figure I will join the conversation.

Here is the gist of the EP post: "In the two years since, the world has seen thousands of hours of news footage and viewed innumerable still photographs depicting the devastation of both the landscape, and the livelihoods of the people affected. In a media-saturated world, the bombardment of imagery can have both a positive and negative influence on how we view the world. In one respect, media has allowed information and imagery to be widely accessible to millions of people who might not otherwise be able to obtain it. On the other hand, the over-saturation of this imagery can act as a numbing agent to people's sensitivity to important world events."

In short EP rightly refer to the plethora of work by photographers like Larry Towell, Robert Polidori, Chris Jordan, Katherine Wolkoff among others and worry about what we might call disaster fatigue. Do all these images desenistize audiences?

(1) First, it is a mistake to call Katrina as the EP folk do "the most destructive natural disaster the United States has ever seen." By this I do not mean to question their assessment of magnitude. Rather, I mean it is a mistake to characterize Katrina as a natural disaster. The lack of preparedness, the long-term neglect of levees and other infrastructure, the differential impact on residents of varying races and classes and ages, the wholly chaotic and inadequate response to Katrina all are political matters. "Katrina" and its aftermath are easily as much about those factors as they are about wind and rain and storm surges.

Why is this important? Because disasters typically are not "natural" - think, for instance, not just of war or genocide, but of forced displacement or famine or epidemic or environmental degradation. And that means we need to ask hard questions about, say, causality and responsibility (and, hence, effective remdies) not just about hardship and suffering. How can we use photography to help reveal the former rather than becoming mired in the latter?

(2) This leads to a favorite topic of mine, namely the uses of photography? Are we restricted to evoking "emotional responses" (say, compassion or sympathy or pity or empathy for victims) among viewers? Are we concerned simply to convery "information" or "news"? Or, might we, aspire to other aims - such as, again, raising questions about causality, or evoking solidarity, or suggesting remedies?

If we treat photography as a technology with a variety of possible uses then this question is unavoidable. And then we are not inevitably led to the question posed at Exposure Project (which, by the way, echo long standing concerns articulated by, say John Berger or Susan Sontag.)

(3) Are there grounds, beyond casual introspection, by which to assess whether or not viewing too many photographs of disaster or catastrophe actually numbs or desensitizes viewers? I know of no social scientific studies that show this. I am not saying that it does not occur, but it seems to me inadequate to simply say "This is how I respond" to repeatedly seeing such images ... After all, this is an empirical claim about causality and effects. I obviously don't think the EP folk need to perform systematic studies, but their worries are sufficiently common that someone ought to have done so.


I guess, in the end, I think the EP post provides perfect evidence for why just putting pictures out there is not enough. We need words too - conversations and debates and discussions. There are all sorts of important, unexamined theoretical issues embedded in the question - the quite conventional question - that the folks at EP raise and that,as it turns out, concerns Jeorg too. The images of Katrina by Towell, and Polidori, Wolkoff and Jordan are, in this respect, of a piece with those of Burtynsky (and others), about which I have posted here recently. What do they show? what are they meant to achieve? Are they well suited to such ends? Are there alternatives?

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06 July 2007

Best Shots (6)

A few more from The Guardian series. It is a bit odd, as I've mentioned before, that the archived columns do not include the actual "Shot" that the photographer most likes!

(22) Martha Cooper [and here and here] "Clubhouse" (5 July 07)

(21) Sean Ellis Untitled (28 June 07)

(20) Thomas Demand "Yellowcake, Embassy I" (21 June 07)


P.S.: "I'm self-taught in photography, but it's easy. People make a bigger deal of it than it actually is." - Thomas Demand


05 July 2007

High School Dissidents, High School Patriots

President Bush speaks in the East Room of the White House on
Monday with students in the Presidential Scholars Program.
(25 June 07) - Photo © J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Here is a video clip on Democracy Now! reporting on the Presidential Scholars - a group of High School honors students - who handed President Bush a letter, signed by fifty of their fellows, taking issue with the administration's human rights policies when they met at the White House last Monday. What an admirable group of young men and women. Their letter read, in part:

"We do not want America to represent torture. We urge you to do all in
your power to stop violations of the human rights of detainees, to
cease illegal renditions, and to apply the Geneva Convention
to all detainees, including those designated enemy combatants ..."

According to the students, Bush responded to them by insisting that the U.S. does not engage in torture. When Amy Goodman asked one of the young women who'd coordinated the action, what it might mean in her life, she responded, referring to the President, "I hope it means something to him."

04 July 2007

Alan Johnston Free

Well, I woke up this morning and npr was reporting that BBC Reporter Alan Johnston has been released by his captors. Johnston survived 114 days, having been adbucted by the "Army of Islam" while working in Gaza. Hamas was instrumental in securing Johnston's release and, while this clearly does not absolve the organization of their past and present misdeeds, this may provide some leverage that critics might use to encourage similar behavior in the future.

(There is no need to be naive about this. I suspect Hamas worked hard on this in order to demonstrate its influence over rivals in Gaza and not because they are especially concerned about Johnston. That is not so important as the outcome, which not only freed Johnston but can be used to undermine the purported legitmacy of kidnapping and hostage-taking more generally.)

Not Just "Blah, Blah, Blah ..."

"Fourth of July Orator" (1943) © Estate of Ben Shahn

Which American heroes will the politicos invoke in their speeches today? ... Walt Whitman? James Baldwin? Eugene Debs? Woody Guthrie? Martin Luther King, Jr.? Jane Addams? Frederick Douglass? Susan B. Anthony? W.E.B. DuBois? John Dewey? Cesar Chavez? Rosa Parks? Fannie Lou Hamer? Henry David Thoreau? Malcom X? ... or any other dissenting voice? Probably not. But each Independence Day I want to hold out a source of political hope for my boys and their future. That it is easy enough to come up with the list of American patriots I've just made is one such. Happy 4th of July!

PS: For some historical corrections you might have a look at "The Secret History of Patriotism" by Peter Dreier & Richard Flacks rom the archives at The Nation (3 June 2002).


03 July 2007

Locking Up 'Bad Guys'

While we are on the subject of incarceration, you might want to have a look at this essay by Jason DeParle from the NYRB which, I think, offers a fairly even handed assessment of recent quantitative research on the vast racial and class disparities in the incidence and consequences of imprisonment. It tuns out that The Decider is correct about the effects imprisonment imposes on families that those doing time leave behind; he used that, in part, to rationalize letting the lying "Scooter" go free. You might also track down the ethnographic study by Donald Braman entitled Doing Time on the Outside (UMichigan Press).

The massive increase in incarceration over the past quarter century or so has had a modest (10-30%) effect in reducing crime. It has also had massive costs, not just in terms of budgets for keeping people locked up, but in terms of poverty rates and effects on spouses, children and parents of the incarcerated. The latter costs are typically overlooked by law-and-order types. It therefore is nice that the President acknowledges that jail terms have external costs, even if he seems uninterested when those are born by the poor or by racial minorities.

Yet Another Rich White Man Gets Away With Breaking the Law

Little surprise. This is a holiday week. Most people are not paying terribly much attention to things political. So BushCo took advantage of the lull in hostilities to orchestrate the pardon of poor "Scooter". After all, he only obstructed the investigation (by a Republican special counsel) into the politically motivated "outing" of a CIA operative. Fortunately, the revelations last week detailing all the nasty, politically motivated, (oh, and illegal) stuff The Agency has done over the years make its employees a less sympathy inducing lot. OK, I agree, the revelations only brought to light some of the nasty, politically motivated and illegal things The Agency has done. But still, no need to worry about The Agency.

I know, I know. Bush only commuted "Scooter's" prison term. As he pointed out, there is still the $250K fine and probation. Well, ask yourself, how long before those knuckle-draggers in the vast right wing conspiracy raise the funds to pay off "Scooter's" debt? It likely is already done. Call that compassionate conservatism! So, for obstructing justice and perjuring himself "Scooter" gets probation. I suspect that warms the hearts of all those serving prison terms for various, considerably lesser crimes.

In announcing his pardon our "Decider" waxed compassionately about how much "Scooter" and his family already have suffered. One thing he failed to note, is that "Scooter" does bear a truly heavy burden, namely his unfortunate resemblance to the ever opportunistic, shortsighted, and irritatingly sanctimonious Senator Joe Lieberman. Perhaps that is enough to warrent a pardon.

Photo Credits: Dr. Evil & Mini-Me above right - © Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images. Bottom images - "Scooter" © Doug Mills/The New York Times; "Joe" - Unknown, from his web site.

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02 July 2007

Redneck Heaven

It is a commonplace in political theory since Isaiah Berlin and Kenneth Arrow wrote in the 1950s (at least) that "not all good things go together without remainder." I do not know if anyone has argued the related thesis that not all bad (or questionable) things go together. It turns out, though, that a good number of the latter seem to co-exist without terribly much strain. Here are two photographs from a slideshow in the on-line version of The New Yorker this week.

"A DynCorp security employee watches over the A.E.F.
destroying poppy fields in Uruzgan" © Aaron Huey

"The DynCorp crew at the A.E.F. base in Tirin Kot" © Aaron Huey

The slideshow accompanies an article by Jon Lee Anderson entitled "The Taliban's Opium War" that explores the anti-opium poppy program undertaken by the Afghan Eradication Force operating within the Afghanistan Department of the Interior. Anderson depicts a simmering cauldron of official corruption in the Afghan government, friction between the U.S. officials and their putative Western allies, a Taliban protection racket aimed at generating revenue, rampant opium production fueled by the lack of economically viable alternative crops, and good old American mercenaries brought in to oversee eradication. Now there is recipe for policy success if ever there has been one!

Anderson quotes one of the DynCorp mercenaries as saying: “This is redneck heaven. You get to run around the desert on A.T.V.s and pickups, shoot guns, and get paid for it. Man, it’s the perfect job!” Nothing like putting a bunch of yahoos out there to really antagonize pretty much everyone you might need to rely on as well as those whom you really ought to be driving out of power. I really don't think you could make this stuff up.


Flag Desecration

"Northwest Suburb of Chicago, Illinois, 2006" © Chris Schedel