City in the desert

Since 1972, one of the most colossal works of art ever sculpted has been rising from the sands in Lincoln County, Nevada. It is not yet complete.

Encompassing an area more than a mile long and a quarter mile wide, City is the work of dozens of people—artists, artisans, construction workers. But it is the brainchild of one man, pioneer of the ‘land art’ movement, sculptor Michael Heizer.

Heizer is perhaps best known for his 2012 installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Levitated Mass. This 340-ton suspended boulder is now a permanent fixture on Wilshire Boulevard, but its 11-day, 106-mile journey from the quarry to LA in February 2012 became in its own right a boisterously celebrated, if unintended, bit of performance art. (That trek, as well as the installation’s eventual completion, is marvelously documented in Doug Pray’s 2013 film, Levitated Mass.)

No less permanent, then, is City. Hewn from native stone, augmented with earth and concrete, it features plazas, complexes, and Mayan-inspired structures soaring up to six storeys in height. Like the Mesoamerican temples it echoes, it is being created to last. “I’m building this work for later,” Heizer says.

But for all his efforts (it is located on land Heizer owns, and to date he very rarely allows visitors) City has always existed on the cusp of danger. Numerous government projects, including the ill-fated Yucca Mountain repository (a now-cancelled project to store spent nuclear fuel rods) have threatened to site rail spurs, roadways, and electrical transmission lines near or even through the City complex. Heizer was said to have threatened to bury the artwork in the sands should any of those plans come to fruition.

That danger has passed. On July 10th, under authority of the 1906 Antiquities Act, President Obama designated a 704,000-acre swathe of the New Mexico wilderness as the Basin and Range National Monument. This new national monument includes 4,000-year-old petroglyphs, geologically significant basins and mountain ranges…and Michael Heizer’s City.

City, like society and culture, like progress and evolution, is incomplete. Unlike those things, thankfully, it is now protected.

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Mona Lisa, uncanny valley

Just because you can do something doesn’t, by any means, mean you should. The Manhattan Project scientists, just prior to setting off the world’s first atomic device at Trinity Test Site, New Mexico, in July of 1945, were taking tongue-in-check bets as to whether the explosion would set the atmosphere alight. We might have taken this as our first clue that our technology, in these latter and less wiser days, very often outpaces our penchant for using it properly. But we didn’t learn, did we?

You might argue, fairly enough, that digital interactivity doesn’t play on nearly the same field as runaway nuclear fission. P’haps not. But when they program a Mona Lisa clone to smile or frown at us, to follow us with her creepy, creepy eyes, and to generally break free from her Renaissance two-dimensional plane and to run rampant in the uncanny one right next door to ours…then that’s a clear sign that someone has gotten too weird and uppity with their tech toys. Time to take them away.

Signore da Vinci knew what he was doing when he painted this particular inscrutable lady. He used precisely the number of brush-strokes required to bring her to life, or rather to consign her to the ages. The Mona Lisa is complete. Digital touch-ups and necrophilic animation are not required, requested, or invited.

Don’t make me tell you again.

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Doctor Gonzo is displeased

Hunter S. Thompson, man of letters and vices, checked out of this vale of weirdness and discontent on his own terms, just over a decade ago. But through the grace of serendipity or his own careful planning (either explanation is equally likely) his words, deeds, and crazy-like-a-fox philosophy live on. Occasionally, even, we’re graced with new evidence that he lived as he wrote: fast and without regard for any fool who might get in the way.

So add to that archive this hilarious, NSFW customer-support call, in which the good doctor expresses his displeasure about a product, an installation, and the egg-sucking dogs who had the temerity to mess with his stereo. Enjoy, and always remember: when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

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The prose of Independence – Happy Fourth of July

When in the Course of human events….

It must have been decreed somewhere, by someone, that if you are writing your manifesto, you must purple up your prose. Self-consciousness infects the pen, and the desire to inveigh into and against the sweep of history blots heavily on the page.

We hold these truths to be self-evident…

Thomas Jefferson, commissioned by Congress to write a new nation’s founding document, must have felt no small measure of that prosaic imperative. Yet when his quill met the parchment his words didn’t lumber, they soared.

These United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.

Sometimes the right wordsmith is in the right place at the right time. Tom Jefferson was many things: a patriot, a slave-holder, a country gentleman, a political operator, a genius. He served his nascent nation in a succession of roles: congressman, diplomat, cabinet secretary, vice president, and finally president. In each he’d log his due course of triumphs and shortcomings. His earliest contribution, though, might just have been his best: With the most inspired prose imaginable, he wrote America into existence.

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

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Something new, something cool: Booktrope

It’s nice, for a change, to report on something new in publishing without opining on its contribution to publishing’s ruination.

Say hello to Booktrope, for my money the biggest and best development in the book-publishing business in at least a generation. My full disclosure comes now: I’ve recently signed on as a Teamtrope member. Still early days in that respect, but I’ve every intention of chatting up that part of the story soon. Stay tuned.

For now I’d just like to sing the praises and spread the word of this innovative, process-driven publishing model. Manuscripts are submitted, hopefully accepted, but the true stock-in-trade are authors’ careers. Accepted authors plumb that Teamtrope well to assemble their creative band—editors, designers, marketing managers, etc.—and the team collaborates throughout pre-publication, launch, and everything that comes after to create a strong and reader-valued literary brand. The goal here isn’t just to publish a book, but instead to build book-shelf legacies.

I’ve hardly done justice in these few short paragraphs to what Booktrope is, and what it can do. I heartily suggest all who’re interested to reach out and learn more. Writers, in particular, are invited to check it out. Editors, proofreaders, artists, and marketing folk, likewise. And please do drop back in here with a comment to let us all know what you think.

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America evolves

Evolution takes time, and all that America has needed to evolve toward equality and inclusiveness is time. We’ve needed time to nurture a generation that’s willing to judge people based on who they are, versus what they look like or who they love. And we’ve needed at least as much time to retire the divisive generations who’ve come before.

We are by no means at the end of this road. Hate subsides with utmost tenacity. But we have had our victories, have we not? And are we not entitled to celebrate them?

A week ago we saw the Confederacy, at long last (and spurred on by the most horrific of causes), begin to recognize and accept its defeat and dissolution.

And then today, we’ve learned of the legalization of marriage equality from coast to coast.

Tomorrow new fronts in old wars will open up. Other injustices will rise, and will need to be addressed. Our sort of self-induced evolution has no allowance for complacency.

But let’s leave that until then. For today let’s just enjoy what we’ve won.

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Library performance art

Beautiful. Just beautiful.

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RIP Sir Christopher Lee (May 27 1922 – June 7 2015)

If only we could all age as gracefully and (no other word for it) as bad-assedly as consummate actor and Commander of the British Empire, Sir Christopher Lee.

And if only we could do justice here to his film career. In an almost unforgivable abbreviation, we must point to his evil domination in three of the most mighty cinema franchises of all time: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and the genre-defining Hammer Films Dracula series.

If it were as easy as it seems for the man to don his mantle of darkness, then it was probably only natural for him to have one of the most riff-shredding, fist-pumping second acts in history: Christopher Lee was a heavy-metal god.

As a Black Sabbath fan from way back, Lee began dabbling in metal guest performances as early as 2005, culminating in his own frontman releases, all of them metal as hell, in 2010, 2013, and finally with his valedictory EP, Metal Knight, just last year.

This classy beyond belief metal knight has left us, under what I need to assume were his own rebel yet regal terms. And wherever he is, let us imagine that he’s even now rocking out hard.

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An author’s self-defense, or social-media suicide?

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The online indie-author milieu lit up this weekend as a one-star Goodreads review turned into viral humiliation for self-published author Dylan Saccoccio. A less charitable observer might say Saccoccio’s imploded reputation is entirely self-inflicted. A more constructive one might find valuable lessons here for us all.

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It all started on Friday, with a heartfelt albeit far from rave review by Goodread member Cait, of Saccoccio’s fantasy novel, The Tale of Onora: The Boy and the Peddler of Death:

There you have it. Not a lot of detail, little in the way of examples provided (although the case can be made that the title itself is an example of ‘wordy and pretentious’)—but other than the arguably injudicious use of the word ‘loathe,’ not exactly venomous. It’s a one-star review. No author likes to get them, but almost every author gets them nonetheless. The wisest writer scans them for actionable criticism, and incorporates or discards that counsel as he or she sees fit. The minimally wise writer harrumphs, gnashes teeth, whatever—but does not engage. And then we have Dylan:

Dylan is, as he says, an indie author. Many of us are. We’re fortunate to live in an age where independent authorship and publication is not only possible, but relatively easy. The other side of that coin is that our field is crowded beyond belief. This means that in order to stand out from the crowd an author (or artist, or musician—this is the era of the indie creator) must not only be the master of his or her craft, but also a master of publicity and self-promotion. The ways to go about that are legion, and I haven’t the space here to even get started on the how-tos. But the don’t-evers are comparably pithy; right up there with do not engage with one-star reviews are the canonical don’t whine and don’t ask for pity.

There were swift and cutting responses to Dylan’s retort—some troll-like, but a lot more were desperately trying to help Dylan help himself: Don’t do this. No good can come from this. If he’d listened and pulled himself back from the brink we wouldn’t be deconstructing his folly now. But it was like he couldn’t stop himself:

Defensiveness is one thing. This…rises to another level entirely. And it went on and on, dozens of entries. Sometime in the last 24 hours or so Dylan seems to have had a moment of clarity, and deleted everything. But here’s the thing about the internet, of which you and I are painfully aware but of which Dylan Saccoccio seems startlingly ignorant: nothing goes away. Not only is his meltdown epically viral, it’s also archived.

I’ve linked to the entire thread, check it out if you like. I can’t possibly do justice here to the lengths of depths of this author’s ongoing, self-immolating tirade. Just one more, to illustrate his shift from passive-aggressively battling his detractors, to his monumental proclamation that THIS BOOK is the barely allegorical salvation of mankind, and that anyone pathological enough to give it a one-star review must surely be on the side of the Great Deceiver:

Whew. Though I have my doubts that our fate as a species is dependent on one particular self-published fantasy novel, I’ll admit that I haven’t read it and should therefore withhold judgment. I have read (or tried to read) the sneak-peek available on Amazon—wordy and pretentious are pretty spot-on descriptors. Throw in not-very-well edited, and we do not have a recipe for literary success.

But these are of course my opinions. The original one-star review was Cait’s opinion. We’re just as entitled to ours as Dylan Saccoccio is entitled to his, which is apparently that The Tale of Onora is one for the ages. I have no doubt that there are plenty of readers who agree with him, or at least don’t find his work as unreadable as Cait and I.

Readers of that sort could have and probably would have found their way to Mr. Saccoccio’s tome, and all would have been well. All might very possibly still be well. But much more likely, Dylan Saccoccio will, for a while at least, be defined by this strange and eminently avoidable episode, and an untold number of readers who might have otherwise given him a try will instead be completely turned off by his infantalism, and avoid him like the plague.

As an indie author I find in all of this an invaluable lesson, although I like to think it’s one I didn’t really need to learn. I’ve had my share of non-rave reviews. Most of them offered thoughtful critiques and I had to admit, in my own moment of clarity, they had valid points. I think I learned from all of them, and maybe became a somewhat better writer because of it. Conversely, I’ve had a few reviews that were downright mean. So be it. It’s a cruel world.

I’m not sure how tempted I was, in any of those situations, to respond. All I know is I never did. I knew instinctively, as most of us do, that a response would serve no useful purpose.

You might not be an independent author, artist, or musician, but I’m certain there’s a useful lesson here for you as well. The internet has a long memory, maybe even an indefinite one, and it does not suffer fools gladly. If you act the fool online, count on being pegged as one—maybe for the rest of your life and beyond.

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Richard Prince: borrowing talent, selling a lie

Careful what you upload to Instagram. You just might wind up an inadvertent and uncompensated collaborator to serial fauxtographer, Richard Prince.

Prince seems to have built a career by profiting from a fine line that most artists, writers, and harried college students sweat over: fair use. Fair use governs the ways we can borrow–sparingly–from others’ work in the furtherance of how we express our own ideas. Prince’s novel interpretation of that involves wholesale appropriation, a touch of appanage around the margins, and a final rebranding and reselling of the work as his.

His latest caper has been a lucrative engagement at the Gagosian Gallery, consisting of poster-sized reprints of other people’s Instagram uploads, garnered without permission or attribution. They were transformed into “Prince originals” by his pithy inclusion of creepy comments, and in some cases, just an emoji or two. The photography itself (and it must be said—some of it is quite good) is purely the result of the original owners’ talent; it’s just too bad they’re not benefiting from the $90,000 price tags Prince is hanging on their work.

There are critics, mostly ones who mistake frankness for debauchery, who think that art and morality are mutually exclusive. True enough, ethics are a philosophical minefield, one much too combustible for this space. But right-minded people, which I have to think includes most of us, instinctively understand the natural law of trespass. This refers not to the gate-keeping of property, but all-inclusively, to the right to be free of infringement by others. Trespass not against me, in other words.

Richard Prince seems to be comfortable in his assumption that the law is on his side. But as Charles Dickens told us in Oliver Twist, the law is an ass. Anyone with a grasp of the concept of right and wrong, and yes, that includes most artists, clearly sees the iniquity in Prince’s trespass. And even if the critics were correct and the art world is an amoral morass, artists still appreciate the integrity of talent. Whatever talent was on sale at the Gagosian, it wasn’t Prince’s.

In the end, we can gnash our teeth to nubs over Prince’s piratical business model, and expect not much more result than a smug retort (Prince himself has said that he’s “fascinated” by the backlash, and that he first thought it was a joke). Or we can beat him at his own game. The California softcore-punk collective SuicideGirls had their Instagram account liberally (and profitably) sampled by Prince, in what founder Missy Suicide called “a violation.” The S-Girls hit back by undercutting Prince, and are selling on their website reproductions of his appropriation (which, unsurprisingly, he claims is copyrighted) of their photos…at 0.1% of his asking price. Well played, ladies, well played.

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Memorial Day 2015

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Pseudo-post Sunday

It’s a beautiful day where I live, hope it’s reasonably similar where you live…and rather than wasting spending the next few hours tapping out my biased yet brilliant decon of the culture we all loathe love, I am instead embedding this week’s video roundup of hilarious relevant cultural happenings.

Just watch them for fuck’s sake Enjoy!

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Andy Warhol and the 64-bit treasure hunt

Just over a year ago the Andy Warhol Museum announced something the art world couldn’t have anticipated: the recovery of numerous works by the pop-art maestro unseen for nearly 30 years. Of course, discovery or rediscovery of lost masterpieces isn’t at all unusual—it happens frequently enough, more often than not in stranger-than-fiction circumstances, that we should all be trolling flea markets and thrift stores rather than playing the lottery.

But what was unusual in this case was that the lost Warhols were hiding, digitized, in plain site and just out of reach.

It began in 1985, just two years before Warhol died, aged 58, from surgical complications. He’d been commissioned by the Commodore computer corporation, they of the 64-bit, pre-Mac and PC dominance fame, to be a professional sponsor of sorts for the newly launched Amiga desktop system. The Amiga was being marketed as both a home and business computer, but with robust (for the times) music and graphics-processing capabilities, it seemed a natural fit to hype it through the paid-for graces of the reigning king of current cultural aesthetics.

Warhol was a featured guest at the Amiga’s gala launch fête (fun fact: the Amiga was so-named to make it alphabetically antecedent to Apple), during which he created a computer-assisted portrait of Debbie Harry—and this was, he claimed at the time, his first ever hands-on experience with a computer.

The thing was, sponsorship and crass commerce aside, Warhol really did seem to take to the Amiga, and was to continue using his personal Commodore rig for the all-too brief time that was left to him.

Flash forward to 2011—the Warhol museum had been in possession of his personal effects, including now-obsolete Amiga floppy disks, for decades. It had long been suspected the disks’ contents might be historically and artistically important, but since the Amiga formatting protocols were by now completely obscure, it seemed as though whatever was on there was gone forever.

It would take another artist, one with fortuitous contacts in the digerati milieu, to break the code. Cory Arcangel had seen the YouTube video of the Amiga launch, heard about the Warhol Museum’s forlorn disks, and made some calls. Members of the Carnegie Mellon Computer Club would take nearly three years to back-engineer the format and read the contents, but by April of 2014 they’d done it.

Thus for the past year the world has been in possession of Warhol digital artworks that very nearly evaded us. No one would mistake them for his best work—they’re unmistakably low-res, clearly created in the shaky, early days of the medium. They’re also unmistakably Warhol: playful, colorful, topical. Why, there’s even a Campbell’s Soup can.

Whether or not the recovered Warhols are dramatic case histories from an art-preservation point of view, they’re probably indicative of another cultural imperative: We’re a digital society now, and our collective digital memory is all too volatile. Who knows how many works of contemporary art and literature exist in a purely binary medium, and who knows how vulnerable they might be? Who knows, indeed, how many of them are already gone?

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Too many to remember, too execrable to forget

Hat tip and thanks to online comedy purveyors Above Average for providing a timely if flippant reminder that history abounds with calamitous jackasses.

The debut episode of their edifyingly educational web series, Forgotten Assholes of History is up (as well as embedded below); in it they shine the light upon the first of hopefully many wrongheaded twits who bulldozed their way through world events, yet have been eclipsed from their rightful disdain by heavier (s)hitters such as Hitler, Stalin, and “Known Unknowns” Rumsfeld. Exhibit A is Herbert, Lord Kitchener, an early architect of the concept of total war, and inventor of that veddy unBritish apparatus, the concentration camp. What an asshole.

The epithet is so very apt, and the mocking so deservedly needful. There are, as I said, no shortage of nearly forgotten cretins just like this, who need to be recalled and reviled. They’re assholes because to attribute some finer distinction to them, to call them calculatingly evil, for example, is to give them far too much credit. Political philosopher Hannah Arendt taught us that gray, boring little men commit atrocities not for the sake of passion, but rather through the lack of it. She coined the spot-on phrase the banality of evil to describe the destruction that comes not through machination, but through machine-like bureaucracy.

Kitchener was an asshole who sowed suffering and wasted lives because he never thought twice about results or repercussions. He didn’t know any better, but he surely should have—and that’s as good a definition for ‘asshole’ as I can think of. All credit to Above Average for giving us the chance to laugh at him and learn from him. And let us take his measure, for assholes just like him teem and they walk amongst us today.

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Ex libris

Libraries are living institutions, and that’s as unerringly true whether they’re public lenders or personal collections. In either case they’re bound to grow, as long as people care enough to nurture them.

But they retract, too. Or shed, you might say. Volumes become redundant or go unread, they gather dust for a bit until space is needed. And then they have to go.

In a just world, they’d never be destroyed, but this world of ours has never been just. Books are burned everywhere, every day (and yes, your public library does it too), and somehow it stings more to hear of it happening for these most mundane, most utilitarian reasons. But fortunately, that’s not always the ex libris fate.

Ex Libris: from the library. Think of it as the taxonomic name for a second-hand book. If you buy used books (firstly, thank you), you surely have some awareness of their history, the meandering path they took to arrive on your shelf. They might have originated as public-library volumes or as personal property; you checked the inside covers, probably before you even purchased them, and you saw.  You touched upon that history.

The personal brandings you find are nothing less than enchanting. I’ve talked before at length on marginalia, but this isn’t quite the same thing. I’m speaking here of the way people mark their books as their own—from simply inking their names in, to much more elaborate rites. It must have been for their own edification, mostly, and to remind trusted friends of to whom borrowed books must be returned. Whatever the long-lost motive, I’m forever finding handwritten and glued-in colophons that in themselves contribute to our precious body of literature and art…

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You can learn a bit, unexpectedly, about people so far removed that you can be sure you’ll never meet them. Not always just their names, but also sometimes something of their character—that’s how I met Harlan Gano, in my own way, and found that not only did he have an unconventional way of signing his name, he was also rather impish in shaming would be thieves:

And there’s wider and deeper history to be had, like in a schoolbook from the twenties from P.S. 61 in Manhattan. Was ‘Josephine’ an especially popular name there and then? Was the neighborhood predominately Italian? All I have are these sparse and captivating clues…

But then, sometimes more exact evidence is presented, and more distant history is accessible. I can’t say for certain that it’ll ever benefit me to know that John L. Benitz was studying rhetoric in his higher English class in Pittsburgh on the 10th of January, 1885…but I like knowing it regardless.

Not all history is equally alluring, though. Take as evidence this volume of Hamlet—soaring literature that belongs to us all, as a cultural birthright. Yet at one time even books, even the best books, supplemented disharmony and inequality:

All of that, the gripping and the regrettable—that’s why I’m a collector. Books don’t just tell stories, they are stories. The books I collect found their way from someone else’s library to mine, and brought with them their own tales. It doesn’t matter much if I can decode those narratives, in whole or even in part. It just matters that they’re there.

As for branding my own books, inking in my own name or some little part of my own story, I rarely do that. I’m not really sure why. Maybe I just think that my personal history is insignificant compared to the longer, more varied journeys the books will travel, should the stars align and they be permitted to do so. Only on the rarest occasion have I marred books (never feeling right about it); I’ve made a few art books, for instance. But in doing so I’ve always been compelled to somehow honor their histories. This one, for example, had years earlier been discarded by the Akron Public Library. The vestiges of that needed to be integrated into the final product:

I have to allow, though, that Ex libris and This book belongs to and even I stole this book from weren’t put there for my enjoyment, but were rather affirmations of value. As someone who counts his wealth in books, I get that. Marking a book as one’s own might perhaps preserve and protect its ownership for a while, but sooner or later it’s going to end up where it’s going to end up. I might value my books, but much more than that, I respect their fate.

If I truly needed to safeguard a book from sticky fingers, however, I might instead of writing my name it, try out the effectiveness of a certain incantation I’ve recently learned was used to protect medieval books from “him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner“…

Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails…and when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of hell consume him forever.

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