All posts filed under “Cultural Theory

Very superstitious… writing’s on the wall

13thfloor

Very superstitious, writing’s on the wall,
Very superstitious, ladder’s bout’ to fall,
Thirteen month old baby, broke the lookin’ glass,
Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past!

When you believe in things that you don’t understand,
Then you suffer!
Superstition ain’t the way.

Stevie Wonder. “Superstition.” Talking Book. Motown Records, 1972.

This photo was taken in the elevator of the “gold building” in New Haven, CT, on Church Street—you know, the one with the gold-tinted glass cladding. Every city’s got one. This gold building has a mezzanine, so the 12th floor… is actually the 13th.

(Did you listen to the link? Here’s more Stevie Wonder on Sesame Street.)

About books

This is my first post following a long winter hiatus. A backlog of partially edited posts left unpublished has finally overwhelmed me. Eventually, the urge to write overpowers the fear of writing poorly—something too personal, too provocative, uninformed, or worse, just bland. I’m pleased to return to the log once more.

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Today  in my mailbox I discovered two publishing catalogs, one from Actar (the “Actalog”) and another from Birkhäuser. These are among the best publishers of books on architecture and design. (Other top imprints include Princeton Architectural Press, The MIT Press, Rizzoli, Phaidon, Taschen, and NAi.) Both catalogs show color illustrations of covers and spreads as well as reviews for each title. Birkhäuser begins with essays from their graphic designers about their work process, mentioning Slanted Magazine’s TypoLyrics—The Sound of Fonts, a section in which new fonts are showcased using pop/rock/hip hop lyrics. It’s now a whole book. I like the zen question behind the subtitle, “the sounds of fonts.” What does type sound like when no one’s there to read it?

Flipping through these catalogs, I curiously became filled with trepidation. I consume books voraciously, but paradoxically, I’m a slow reader. (Fortunately, monographs are mostly pictures.) I saw many books I’d like to own, or at least hold in my hands and read, and the more titles I saw, the more nervous I became. There’s a part of me which still carries a bizarre phobia I developed around age 16. This was about the age when, in typically egotistical teenaged fashion, I first felt I really understood the world, that I really knew all I needed to know in life. Yet this belief, one which gave me a sense of power and stability, was constantly challenged. More and more frequently I would hear about a critical event that passed my notice, find an important author I’d never read in a subject I thought myself fluent, or stumble across a whole branch of knowledge I knew nothing about. I feared being ignorant, or more truthfully, being seen as ignorant. The more I learned or tried to learn, the more crisp became the realization that there exists a vast body of truth I’ll never know. There’s simply too much for one person to know in one lifetime. This fact was hardly comforting. Every time I passed a book store I was reminded of my inability—not to be omniscient—but to be what I identified as worldly, as cosmopolitan.  When I saw arrays of art and design books in particular, the sensation of futility became crushing. I started to avoid book stores all together; I essentially feared them.

The local bookstore I most frequented growing up was the Strand, a gigantic used book store that in my youth advertised “8 miles of books.” (They’ve since tripled their retail space and now boast of 18.) I’d go there with my mother, who’d buy novels in French or sell auction catalogs. It was dark and dusty back then, dimly lit, like a basement news room. The closer book store was St. Mark’s Books, which has an excellent art and architecture section as well as self-published poetry and quirky magazines in the back. For a time, I refused to go inside it. I’d get a slice of pizza while my parents browsed. I’m not sure how I came to feel at home in book stores once again. I suppose I’ve developed a level of acceptance with the limits of the human mind, of my mind in particular, and the limits of my energy. I still seek to be cosmopolitan and informed, but narrowing one’s interests into a specialty is a common feature of the modern world, so I no longer feel innately inadequate. Still, every now and then, I wish I could have a memory that was more encyclopedic.

On my book list from Actar is Clip, Stamp, Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines, 196X-197X, edited by Beatriz Colomina of Princeton fame. That was a very optimistic time for architecture, utopian; and who doesn’t love quirky little pamphlets in bright colors featuring walking buildings?

Architects and Engineers

I have the pleasure of sharing an office with two engineers, David Jacobs, a civil engineer, and Sameer Said, a visiting electrical engineer from Palestine. Both men are very good teachers sought out by their students for help and advice. Professor Said is particularly tireless and extremely generous with his time. He is often swamped with students seeking tutoring, particularly when they face looming exams, like right now. As we share an office we overhear each others’ conversations, and the other day while checking email I took note of the following exchange:

Student: Well, I think the answer is (some number of volts or the like).
Professor Said: You think? No, you cannot say, ‘I think.’ You must run calculations. In engineering there is no I think, there is only, I know.

Has a more clear distinction between the mind of an engineer and that of an architect ever been delineated? In architecture, there is no I know! There is only conjecture. There is only belief.

I ought to take a step back and say that in certain realms of architecture and design, such as urban planning or ergonomics, there is a body of evidence that points towards clear solutions to human spatial problems. Activated, safe streets include retail. The angle of the wrist must be parallel to that of the forearm to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome. These are facts. Yet in most aspects of design, the architect exercises her preference. It is the architect’s preference that the client pays to employ. A contractor and a civil engineer can design a safe structure, an architect can design a surprising one. Forms, spaces, and structures are often delightful because they are surprising—because of the I don’t know. It’s nice to be involved with a practice that celebrates doubt.

False Marias

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We aired Fritz Lang’s Metropolis as part of our lecture series last week, and only two people showed up, which is a shame. I first saw it in college, perhaps in a class. I know I went out and rented it and made my two closest friends watch it with me over and over. I loved the imagery, the sets and painted backdrops in shades constructivist, futurist, and expressionist. The treatment of the main female character, however, left a lot to be desired. Maria embodies the traditional virgin-or-whore dichotomy, enforcing the notion that a woman is either one or the other; nothing in between. To be precise, Maria is the saint and her robot double, the false Maria, is the sinner. My two friends and I promised to start a band called The False Marias, but school got in the way. I like to think we’d sound like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Given a choice between the roles of good girl and bad girl, I’d choose bad girl every time. Actress Brigette Helm must have had so much more fun as false Maria than true. Just look at her delicious expression! Remember the TV show Jem and the Holograms? I liked the Misfits. Jem is particularly distressing to look back on. Why would a rich secret rock star be ruled by blind devotion to some jock preppy guy? 1980’s, I don’t miss you!

The next film in the lecture series is Jia Zhang Ke’s 24 City. I hope we have a better turnout.

Nelisiwe Xaba

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Nelisiwe Xaba
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Nelisiwe Xaba performing “Plasticization” at SUD 2013, part of doual’art in Douala, Cameroon.
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Visiting an exhibition of documentary photographs of the 1976 Soweto uprisings and the 1960 Sharpeville massacre

We are lucky if in the course of our everyday lives we come across images as inspiring as those of the work of Nelisiwe Xaba. While looking for journals about nomads in the periodicals room of the reference library, I came across Art South Africa magazine, which featured an article about Xaba, a dancer and performance artist in Soweto. I recently traveled to South Africa for the first time. Never in my life have I been more aware of my race than while walking the streets of Johannesburg, even more so than when, in Taiwan, I was the only white person in sight. (The most unnerving thing about Taiwan, and the rest of Asia, is not being able to read the signs.) South Africa is unique. It may surprise you to learn that it’s the most racially diverse nation on earth, with thriving Indian and Malay populations mixed among native Africans and whites. In that way it is not unlike Brazil. Yet while vacationing in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2002, I was the least aware of my race as I’ve ever been, so profoundly comfortable did everyone seem together on the beach. (My Brazilian friend Flavia, who was also my guide, told me that in other parts of the city, however, it’s not the same.) In such moments—on the beach in Brail, on the street in Johannesburg or even Cape Town—the unspoken rules governing space and the separation between groups within one’s own culture (for me, the United States) are revealed for the obtuse, falsely constructed monsters that they are. I came home from South Africa sad at our lack of progress regarding integration and equality since Reconstruction. South Africa, of course, is on a whole other level. Xaba has something to say about it.

Q: You are very interested in the politics of the body.

XABA: Yes, of the female black body. The Black Consciousness movement existed because there was racism. So if I didn’t perform a lot in Europe, and only in Soweto, it wouldn’t be a question… If your work mainly gets seen in Europe it is important to acknowledge that consciously. Who is consuming what you are doing?

Art South Africa, December 2009, v8.2

The Black Consciousness movement began in the 1970’s, based on the writings of Steve Biko. (Denzel Washington played Biko in the movie Cry Freedom.) I bought a small compilation of Biko’s essays in Cape Town called, No Fear Expressed. (ISBN No: 0-9802591-2-6) The title is a phrase he used in an interview which encapsulates much of his message. The complete sentence is, “To understand me correctly you have to say that there were no fears expressed.” As someone for whom fear has often been an obstacle, Biko’s words spoke to me: “We must remove from our vocabulary completely the concept of fear.”[1] “Is it this fear that erodes the soul of black people in South Africa…How can people be prepared to put up a resistance against their overall oppression if in their individual situations, they cannot insist on the observance of their manhood?”[2] Biko was tortured and killed by the government for violating his house arrest. I have since thought of this great intellectual as one of my personal heros.

Biko and Xaba both politicize the body as a landscape of struggle. They remind us that it is important always to be aware of the nature of one’s own identity as consumed by others. The final image in the triptych above is a photograph taken in Regina Mundi church in Soweto. In the summer of 1976, police fired on unarmed, retreating students during protests in the townships. The bullet holes in the church’s ceiling remain as irrefutable evidence that the bullets themselves were not made of rubber, as the police later testified, but were decidedly lethal. The church balcony now displays a collection of photographs marking the events of that summer. You can see my reflection in the glass of this particular photo depicting one of the many horrors which occurred as the apartheid system fell apart. We cannot escape ourselves, and so must instead recognize our own identity as perceived by others. Xaba’s work reminds us to consider this key part of the creative process.

[1] Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity,” 1973.
[2] I Write What I Like, Frank Talk. “Fear — An Important Determinant in South African Politics.” 1971.

Stairs in dreams

My dreams are extremely vivid, visual, and tumultuous. I often write them down. They describe intricate narratives—many fearful—which have me running down twisted corridors or along bizarre city streets. These dreams are certainly architectural, even hyper-spatial. Sometimes I see the earth below in a distorted fish-eye perspective, blocks laid out as though pressed against a sphere, like in Zaha Hadid’s early paintings.

Stairs feature prominently in these dreamscapes. Last night’s dream found me at a gem store where everything was free for the taking. Or that’s what I thought. Grasping my stolen treasures, I ran down the stairs to escape but they kept going on and on, father and farther down, with no way out.

As a child, every night when I got into bed I turned to lay on my side. My father thought I’d fall asleep faster if I adopted the right sleeping posture. When I put my ear to the pillow, I could hear a faint throbbing, like the beat of a distant drum. As I drifted off, I would imagine that the drum was really the sound of someone in the stairway. The old wooden steps still creak with every foot fall. I would listen to the beat as the steps disappeared into the distance and drift off to sleep.

I suppose now that the throbbing noise was the sound of my own heartbeat, which I can’t hear as distinctly any more. The steps, however, remain. They are quite plain, the steps themselves. I went back to photograph them just recently. Yet however common, I know that for me they are iconic. The image of these particular steps and their balustrade will never leave me.

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