Mar 28, 2014

Art, Science, Wonder

At The Morgan Library & Museum (photo mine)
Amidst the challenges of last fall, the eagerness and inspiration with which I approached my cultural reportage faded away. It bothers me that I let something go that meant (means) so much to me, and I'm hoping to amend that in a number of ways as 2014 unfolds.

The best place I can think of starting is by tidying up a loose, fraying thread I left dangling off the edge of my quilt of chaos last autumn. Between school assignments, stressful living conditions, and some deeply unpleasant personal chaos, I never got to reviewing the wondrous da Vinci show that happened at the Morgan Museum and Library. I covered a fantastic surrealism show of theirs in 2013, and indeed, the Morgan is one of my favorite spots in New York City, what with its awe-inspiring collection of historical documents, breathtaking art, and gorgeous old-meets-new design; the clean steel lines of its atrium blend seamlessly with the warm wooden tones and carved stone of older structures. The da Vinci exhibit captured this old-meets-new ethos. Art and science integrated in a unique, inspiring way, one that, on reflection has me thinking about the marriage between chaos and order, style and content, dreams and reality.

"Leonardo da Vinci: Treasures from the Biblioteca Reale, Turin" (which ran from late October 2013 to early February of this year) was a beautiful, fascinating portrait of 15th-16th century curiosity that directed itself at the world, ourselves, and our place and position straddling the mysteries of the two; it forced reflection on relationships, both with the Morgan's other, permanent works, and the way museum visitors perceive and experience art, history, and the notable intersection of the two.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Figure Studies, 1505
© Biblioteca Reale, Turin (15577 D.C.)
"Figure Studies" (1505), a work done in pen and brown ink with traces of black chalk on paper, is a seamless blend of da Vinci’s artistry and passion for science featuring a large male nude who looks stripped of skin, his muscles exposed, his gluteus maximus a busy contusion of fine, light, grid-like ink strokes. The other figures in the work get gradually smaller, right to left, perhaps in a movement reflecting da Vinci’s idiosyncratic mirrored writing style. There are various scenes of motion -- twisting and turning, from various angles -- and sketches of a man on horseback, a horse rearing, and a set of male lips, sensuously curled open (and possibly exhaling a plume of smoke), at the top of the page. All the elements feel disparate and random, but the combination of bodies, gestures, and motion lend a certain joy to the detailed scientific doodles.

Beyond the sheer beauty of the drawings, it is impossible not to contemplate the materials used to create these works --ink, chalk, paper, metal, water -- and their place in da Vinci's world. Where did the chalk come from? The ink? How were they transported? What of the life of the person who sold such wares? It brings to mind a host of socio-historical questions in relation to the artist's connection with the wider world, and the implications of pursuing art with a much wider world of trade, commerce, and economy at play. Such connections can so easily be forgotten or taken for granted.

It was impossible to take anything for granted that day, especially in a setting as special as the Morgan. Ornately decorated religious books, royal letters, old manuscripts, entreaties around the question of arranged marriages --many precious items within the Morgan's permanent collection are contemporary to the works of da Vinci, and tell of a culture looking outside itself --to matters of law, of politics, of religion, of power and money --while da Vinci’s works are focused on humanity and the natural world, our relationship to it, and its connection to (and with) us. The artist’s firm fascination was with the mechanics of life, imagining the possibilities therein; such fascination is certainly tied to the exploratory spirit, a spirit which, in Da Vinci's time, was tied to notions of human expansion and progress. The two were interchangeable at the time, and perhaps manifest most completely (and tragically) in the “discovery” of the Americas -- European industrial and socio-political/cultural expansion at the expense of many native populations and cultures. I couldn’t help but look a bit askance at the “Hercules” depiction, knowing that, concurrent to its creation, a whole other set of mythologies and mythological systems were being plundered and destroyed.

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519), Head of a Young Woman, 
(Study for the Angel in the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’), 1480s 
© Biblioteca Reale, Turin (15577 D.C.)
Still, thinking back on that rainy late-fall day, I am struck by da Vinci's unfailing curiosity at the wider world. The artist was clearly testing the limits of his materials, using ink, then chalk (specifically finger-staining red chalk), to seek a new vision of his evolving world, a violent, swirling one shaped by politics, religion, corruption and competition. He wasn’t interested in doing portraits of the power-brokers of his day, but in finding and exploring tender humanity. Sometimes that took the shape of scientific inquiry, of motion and mechanics, and sometimes it took the form of soft, smooth flesh. He wielded his real-world materials deftly in an attempt to get at an other-worldly, if deeply earthy, complex-plain truth that lay behind the eyes of his subjects, be they human or animal, or past the slippery surface of mechanics and wings and internal organs.

One can still find such integrated elegance in our age --in the work of Ettore Sottsass, Sergio Pininfarina, the architecture of Pei or Tadao Ando or Oscar Niemeyer, the scientific sensuousness of Sugimoto's photography, or the jaw-droppingly beautiful art of Isabelle Dalle, and Denis Dubois, and Tumblr's "Bedelgeuse." Science and art can (and should) exist together; it seems strange we don't connect them, when so many artists and scientists have.  Sometimes they are even one in the same. And while the integration can't change history, it can change minds -- and hearts. Da Vinci's work goes far in mending wounds, offering us not a black or white or even a grey road, but one colored in tones we could see, if only we opened ourselves to it, looked at the mechanics, and then looked past them; it's a better path that leaves the crumbs along the path to our better natures, to what, perhaps, might be our essential nature: to be contemplative, and calm, but always hungry -- not to conquer or rule, not to subjugate or exploit, but to know.  Da Vinci's art, and his science, his perfect integration of the two, reminds us of the hunger for knowing, for learning, for experience, for beauty; we are hungry for transcendence, and hungry for life. Let us eat, and let us always want to ask for more.

Mar 14, 2014

The Big Scan

(mine)
Most days I face a precarious balance between the immediate satisfaction of Twitter and the longer satisfaction of writing and careful reading. Call it the shower vs. bath approach, but minus the cleansing effect. My mind usually comes away from each activity with varying degrees of clutter and mess, to say nothing of my hard drive.

Being a fan of analytics (perhaps the mark of the 21st century Real Life Writer; could emails be next?), I noticed that, amidst the tango of words and numbers and maps and colors of the past week, a post from 2010 is getting a lot of reader love, one in which I gathered various news tidbits I'd seen a week, and mused on each thing. I enjoy doing this: it's an effective way to make sense of the tidal wave of information that comes at me throughout any given day.

Between the popularity of that post and others like it (ie Linkalicious), as well as the fact I have a few tabs open ("a few" = fifty-one across two windows), and keen to keep things fresh here, the thought occurs: why not share?



Barely Keeping Up in TV's New Golden Age (New York Times)
The future of TV is coming into focus, and looks pretty great (Quartz)
It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I am slowly becoming seduced (perhaps re-seduced is better) by the greatness of contemporary television. In younger days, I was a devoted fan of Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure; I was late to Deadwood but in no way did it dampen the powderkeg of enthusiasm I felt when I saw it. Zachary Seward at Quartz has gathered up a number of important elements that will greatly enhance future TV-watching enjoyment; things like accessibility, remotes, subscriptions, cost, and subject matter are nicely touched on and explained -- but none of this would matter if TV was a cultural wasteland. It isn't. As the New York Times' David Carr rightly observes, there's been a cultural cost of the ascendance of television as a cultural force; books, magazines, and cinema have all seen significant changes. The internet has, of course, played a huge role as well -- but it feels like TV and the web are working together, not at odds, to deliver smart programming people can (and do) commit to. (Question to you, readers: should I start watching Game of Thrones?)

(mine)
Journalism startups aren't a revolution if they're filled with all these white men (The Guardian)
I'm a fan of Emily Bell's, having followed her fine work, as well as her great Twitter account, for a long time. (Thank you for the follow-back, Emily; forever flattered.) This succinct, snappy op-ed examines the various media startup ventures by Nate Silver, Ezra Klein, and Glenn Greenwald/Pierre Omidyar over the past year, with Bell rightly concluding that, to paraphrase Roger Daltrey, the new boss looks the same as the old boss. Sadly, such a conclusion doesn't surprise me; theorizing about fairness and justice is usually just that; it takes decisive action to make those ideas reality. This op-ed did make me wonder why more women aren't creating startups, but hopefully that's changing. As Emily tweeted (in an exchange with PandoDaily's Paul Carr), "I am staggered that there are so few women who have Klein / Silver / Greenwald power." It was good to see Kara Swisher got a mention here; I've noticed that, within some circles of the innovation/entrepreneurial journalism worlds, Kara isn't considered enough, if at all. It's vital there be more intelligent critiques like Emily's down the line. As I tweeted to Paul Carr recently, no organization can or should be above scrutiny. Bravo.

I am embarrassingly out of the loop when it come to new bands for one simple reason: I don't listen to anything but classical music between the oodles of writing and reading and research I do every day. My journalist-come-artist's mind can't function properly with anything but Mozart / LVB / Glass et al while I'm in the thick of things. This is probably the result of a classical-filled youth, but old habits die hard. If and when I listen to new music, I like to give my full attention: laptop closed, concentrating on lyrics/melody/production, of course, but also the spaces between beats, the breaths between words. I listen to new music the way I read a new book. When I invariably fall across I band I like, I get really excited, and act like no one else has heard of them before, when in fact, I'm probably the last to the party; Haim, Savages, and Warpaint are, for example, three bands who've made me sit up and pay attention. I'm keen on finding more. These lists should help. (I am also open to reader suggestions!)

Recipe for Irish soda buns (BostonGlobe.com)
What with St. Patrick's Day coming up this Monday, Irish-isms are everywhere online: where to drink, what to drink, what to wash the booze down with. It's hard for me not to roll my eyes at the automatic Ireland/alcohol associations that invariably come up every March, but surely one of the nicest developments of late has been the myriad of food recipes that appear alongside the cocktail ones. I work in my kitchen;  a big reason I love it (aside from the view, which, right now, is of a snow-filled garden) is the proximity I have to cooking, an activity I love. It's such a treat to move between making stuff in the virtual world and making stuff in the real one. I'm tempted to make these buns between bouts of reading, tweeting, uploading, writing -- or rather, I'm tempted to read, tweet, upload and write between bouts of cooking. As it should be.

It's been with much interest I've noted a real uptick in my overseas blog readership; viewers from Ukraine seem especially interested in my work. (I am flattered and honored -- Спасибо!) I actually grew up with a Ukrainian best friend, and I worked with a Ukrainian journalist, Kateryna Panova at NYU. (Her first-hand report from Kiev is in the latest edition of Brooklyn Quarterly if you're interested; good stuff.) I came across this story via Mark MacKinnon's Twitter feed, and it points up something I feel is somewhat lacking in the coverage of the Ukrainian / Russian crisis: first-hand experience, or more pointedly, the stomach-churning fear of being there. Mark's report bubbles with anxiety, though it's mixed with thoughtfulness. He speaks with his fellow train passengers and cabbies about their fears, and his work reveals an uniquely Eastern mix of worry, resilience, and wry humor; "It can't be worse than this!" remarks one. It's a tense, terse situation loaded down by decades --if not centuries -- of heavy resentment and power-shifting. Pieces like these are stitches in the as-yet-unfinished quilt of modern history.

Russia Aggression Paves Way For Ukrainian Energy Coup: Interview With Yuri Boyko (Oilprice.com)
This is a separate entry from the one above because I feel like, while Mark's entry is a diary-style, micro-examination of the Ukrainian/Crimean/Russian crises, James Stafford's piece is a more macro analysis, offering a strong subtext to the current affairs we've seen over the last few weeks on our screens, monitors, magazines and papers. This Q&A came to my attention via the Twitter feed of a favorite financial blogger, Felix Salmon. It's essentially a Q&A with Yuri Boyko, who has a long list of "formers" in his CV: former deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, former Vice Prime Minister for Energy, Space and Industry, former Minister of Energy and Chairman of the Ukrainian State Gas industry. In 2004, he was awarded the "Hero of Ukraine," a title recognizing long-term service to the development of the Ukrainian energy and fuel industries. Why more news outlets haven't covered the energy angle of this story is mystifying. As Boyko notes,
Natural gas is the single most important weapon in Russia’s arsenal. It is President Vladimir Putin’s weapon of choice. Europe understands this all too well as most of its natural gas supply transits Ukraine, so supply disruption is used to influence events not only in Ukraine, but also Berlin, Paris and Brussels. This is why Europe will be hesitant to apply strong sanctions against Russia.
This brief, if deeply insightful exchange deeply illuminates what is, for some, a deeply confusing issue. Highly recommended reading and one to bookmark for re-reading, especially after Sunday.

"In A World..." : The voice of your favorite movie trailers has died (The Daily Edge)
I feel guilty and not a little stupid at my ignorance; I didn't know Hal's name until he passed. He shaped a million movie experiences for me, and I'd imagine, for so many others besides. Movie-going has lost some of its magic for me, what with the relative ease of modern convenience; going to the movies sometimes feels like more of a chore than a pleasure. Still, the sound of Douglas' voice immediately transports me to the cinema of my younger days, and makes me want to go back, even if I know I'll never again hear those dulcet tones before the feature starts.

How to grieve when you're a journalist (Medium)
(mine)
The title grabbed me first here. How to show remorse and sadness when you're supposed to constantly be objective, when you're supposed to "rise above," when you have to report things like death with a straight face, no matter how tragic? I had a deeply personal reaction to the passing of Peter Kaplan last fall; I looked at (and still regard) the former New York Observer editor as both a symbol of a past era and a stubbornly gorgeous, tall, bright poppy in a sea of grey, metallic, screen-glare conformity. He understood writing, and he understood branding, and what perhaps he understood best was how the two could -- and should --do a sexy tango across a page and into the mind and heart of the reader, heels, hair, lipstick and low-cut dress intact. I've been wanting to write a lot more about Kaplan (and intend to), but I appreciated the sensitivity and deft touch with which Mark Lotto approaches his subject matter here, inspired, tragically, by the passing of another great writer, Matthew Power. Lotto writes with great affection (it isn't cheesy at all), while infusing his piece with a palpable hurt and compelling humanity. He makes me want to read every single thing Power ever did. And he reminds me I'm on the right path:
...with every story we can do a little better, push a little harder, go a little farther, get a little weirder, be a little truer. And we’ll feel happier, knowing such awesome stories would have made Kaplan and Matt happy.












Mar 10, 2014

This is Carcosa.


(via)

In writing about Almost Human recently, I've found an avidly involved community of supporters online who happily, passionately exchange strong ideas and opinions; I think back, again, to TV-watching habits of the 80s and 90s (and even 2000s), and I wonder at how and why this shared community might influence the way TV culture is experienced. Of course I think it changes the viewing experience, but I am also a strong believer in putting the computer away, however briefly, and focusing.

It was hard to put everything away lastnight for the season finale of True Detective; a large part of me wanted to observe reactions of others in real time, even as I shared my own. But I found myself so entranced by the show's attention to detail (a hallmark of its greatness, surely) and wanting to roll around in the swampy soup of ideas it presented, I put the tech aside and just watched, listened, felt. Having chosen to severely limit sharing my reactions online (and not read anyone else's), I found myself with mixed feelings, questioning its strange if compelling mix of predictable suspense tropes, character development, and meta-dramatical elements. The extended scene of Rust (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty (Woody Harrelson) finding their way through the wilds of the Childress property made for terrifying, compelling television; each character became more and more entangled within the maze, mirroring the viewers' “entanglement” with the immediate situation, and more widely, within the entire series. The deeper they got, the deeper we got; I became entranced, enchanted, utterly entangled, and didn't want a way out.

(via)

This is Carcosa,” intoned an eerie, disembodied voice. 

Less a physical place and more a mental dwelling, we – us  TD fans – fell into Carcosa, this wild, surreal enclosure that knows our deepest fears and vulnerabilities, a place that speaks in riddles but voices truth – not the beautiful poetic kind, mind you, but the ugly sort that, like the Fontenot video, we don't want to watch but can't turn away from. 

This is what the best storytelling does: it drops you into an atmosphere of intense fear and suspense, slowly, skillfully guiding you through the deepest recesses of your life and imagination, to a place of wordless wonder and messy obsession. It's a swampy dialectic energy – of light and dark, of isolation and community, of black stars and Yellow Kings, of innocence and experience, of water and land, of strangers and family, of the flat and the shapely – that powered the drama of True Detective and ultimately shaped its characters. Such energy also gave rise to the program's fandom, for it was an energy we felt, and wanted to talk about, and share, and mull over. In compulsion to theory, we found community in exchange; in suspense for resolution, we found salvation in the process.

(via)
Nothing feels resolved in the True Detective world. To paraphrase Rust, there's more of them out there. There's more darkness, more evil, more loss; this isn't over. Everything is a spiral. The stories continue. The finale's crazy-bogeyman-of-the-Bayou cliches (the hoarder house; the incest; the slovenly appearance) were clever storytelling tropes meant to further the meta-dramatical aspect of the program: are you not entertained? Do you want more? Once upon a time... if you go into the woods today, you're in for a big surprise...

We want the spirals; we need them, to cycle through them, to feel their sharp edges and dizzying curves. We need that, just as much as we need (and ultimately want) to go in the woods. We want the darkness. We want Carcosa. That's unsettling – but so is imagination, and the compunction to create. I'm reminded here of something Nick Cave said in his "Secret Life Of The Love Song" lecture series years ago (emphasis mine):
Those songs that speak of love without having within in their lines an ache or a sigh are not love songs at all, but rather hate songs disguised as love songs, and are not to be trusted. These songs deny us our humanness and our God-given right to be sad and the air-waves are littered with them. The love song must resonate with the susurration of sorrow, the tintinnabulation of grief. The writer who refuses to explore the darker regions of the heart will never be able to write convincingly about the wonder, the magic and the joy of love for just as goodness cannot be trusted unless it has breathed the same air as evil – the enduring metaphor of Christ crucified between two criminals comes to mind here – so within the fabric of the love song, within its melody, its lyric, one must sense an acknowledgement of its capacity for suffering.

Take off your mask,” Childress hissed at Rust as blood dripped from the detective's gaping wound.

This demand exists in tandem with the program's final scene of Rust and Marty together, escaping the hospital and contemplating the stars. Rust is rendered vulnerable at last, confessing that during his time in the woods, "I could feel my definitions fading... all I had to do was let go, man... I could still feel her love there... nothing but that love." 

(via)
Take off your mask: this is what the best art demands of us. Let go of your safety. Let go of your identity. Embrace your need for the story. Embrace your darkness, and gather around the light. We need to share tales. What offers comfort, if not permanent escape, is friendship – the light and warmth of connection with another equally scared, equally vulnerable human being. So long as we can see the stars, we will keep telling stories – to ourselves, for ourselves, with our friends near and far.

Mar 5, 2014

Life in the Poppies

(via)
Prince Igor is haunting.

Days after seeing the Met Opera's luscious production, I'm still mulling its beautiful marriage of images, design, music, and performance. Though there's nothing wrong with pure delight and pure entertainment -- they make so much of the world go round -- seeing the Borodin work did much more than provide an escape from every day mundanities. Thoughts of Ukraine filled my mind, along with more personal reflections on events this past fall; I found myself questioning my relationship with power, both personal and professional, and the role of ego in compromise and defeat. Prince Igor isn't just beautiful to look at; it's simultaneously intimate and epic, with resonance in both the inner and outer aspects of existence.

A large part of the opera's power (as directed and re-imagined by its talented director/designer Dmitri Tcherniakov) is derived through its depiction of war. Though the opera is based on a medieval Russian folk tale involving Igor going off to fight (and he believes,  conquer) the Polovtsians, and subsequently suffering a horrific defeat, Tcherniakov was very selective (make that laser-pointed-strategic) in his use of on and offstage bloodletting. He used a combination of contemporary black-and-white video (using many fast edits and long pans), as well as grand set pieces, costuming, and striking makeup to depict the horrors of war -- the loss of life, and the loss of self too. In this Prince Igor, they are very much the same thing.

What I found myself mulling over into the wee hours this past Saturday evening was Igor's sense of himself, his relationship with other people, and the ways his identity are forced to shift after enduring cataclysmic hardship. Lead bass baritone Ildar Abdrazakov is a thoroughly moving singer, and a very fine actor too;  his expressive face, soft brown eyes, and bear-like physique reveal a man moving between identities, letting go of old ideas and comforts, shifting into far less safe, comfortable, places within himself. These changes aren't fun or nice or the stuff of easy cliches; this is an Igor who is fallible, failing, heartbreakingly vulnerable, a man struggling with the chimera of ego that kept showing itself in various forms and fashions. He has to relinquish it entirely in order to rebuild, both literally and figuratively.

(via)
This transformation is hinted at through the wonder that is the Polovtsian dances, whose staging, in Tcherniakov's assured hands, is nothing short of miraculous. Igor whirls around an immense, lush poppy field as human figures dance and undulate around him; it's dreamy and poetic and earthy yet unearthly. The Met chorus are positioned in boxes close to the stage, allowing dancers to move about freely to the writhing, hypnotic, East-meets-West choreography of Itzik Galili and associate choreographer Elisabeth Gibiat. Igor's face is one of delight and joy, as if he's found refuge from the horrors of war and grandiose ambition. Yet we know it's all an illusion; he's hallucinating everything. It's this knowledge that fuels the extraordinary power of the scene. How can something so beautiful be so far removed from reality? And why is reality so much harder and more hideous? Why can't we stay in the poppy fields forever? Why can't we whirl, Dervish-like, to the beautiful sounds and visions, forever and ever? It was fascinating to observe Igor's wife, Yaroslavna (Oksana Dyka) being included in this scene, as if she represents a kind of authenticity and grounding he so desperately lacks. There's a knowingness to her inclusion here, as if Tcherniakov wants to remind us of the power balances within intimate relationships, and to note how those balances translate in the wider world. To see a man of Abdrazakov's physicality rendered so vulnerable before the wife whose advice he had earlier eschewed, is deeply moving and wildly important; even amidst the hallucination -- or especially because of it -- we see a more honest version of Igor that needs to show itself in the real world.

(via)
And it does, eventually show. You sense a deep transformation as Igor wanders, shell-shocked, through what was once his elegant, pristine palace in the final act, when it is a literal shell of its former self. He turns his back on the worshipful masses who herald his return, realizing worship isn't what's needed. He woke up, and in so doing, so did we. It's precisely what his hubris hath wrought, this destruction. The very centrality of Igor's mission -- charging off to some distant victory you are so sure will be yours -- has been destroyed; as such, so has Igor's sense of identity. You can't find yourself in something so far outside yourself, the production whispers, amidst its gloriously crashing choruses and pounding percussion; you can't be inauthentic when the chips are down. It won't work. Hell breaks loose. People die. A part of you dies. And somehow, in some horrifying way, that's precisely how it should be.

If you get the chance to see Prince Igor either in-person at the Met or through its Live In HD series, go. You'll mull relationships to power, ego, sacrifice and compromise. You'll hear beautiful music. You'll see some gorgeous/disturbing things. You won't look at the news/your rulers/your lovers/your life the same way again. You will be haunted.

(via)