28 February 2011

Street to Forest: Indigo's Woods Women

Victoria Potter – photos

Speaking of the collision of natural and synthetic…

Vancouver-based street artist Indigo (aka Shallom Johnson) paints all over the world and lives in an urban environment. But as a child growing up in a log cabin in the woods of British Columbia, within a family of artists and activists, she often imagined her covert neighbors, the woods and water sprites. After a decade in the city, the forest again beckons her, as a stage for her 2-D woodsdwellers, beautiful women, each a story for the mind to invent.

Her love of the female form not only shows itself in her street art, but has also come into play in her work in the fashion industry and contemporary dance.

“What interests me,” she says, “is the idea of taking street art out of its usual locations, into spaces that are less populated–so that if the work is by chance seen in the flesh by human eyes, the experience for that one person becomes something intensely personal.”

One more...a la mer!

26 February 2011

Medford Fruit Warehouse District

I shot this photo with my baby Nikon, along the Medford railroad tracks near the tagged trains and the Jesus billboard. 

This is the old fruit warehouse district. Skulking birds with chiseled black beaks huddle like thugs on telephone wires. Square-jawed dogs prowl and bark, but there's nothing here to guard except paint chips and leaning boards. The air feels damp and heavy. So silent, yet harboring a subtle menace--the abandoned buildings, the razor wire, a length of iron pipe...

Natural and synthetic worlds collude and collaborate. As decrepit as any manmade structure may be, life forms always dwell in and around it, sometimes completing entire cycles of birth and death within a single edifice. A site may have been run into the ground by humankind, but for animals it is a shelter like any other, and they lend regeneration through their very presence. 

22 February 2011

Now Showing in L.A.: "Wrinkles of the City" by JR

 Some phenomenal work by JR, from his currently-in-progress project, "Wrinkles of the City," which "questions the memory of a city and its inhabitants." MOCA, LA (photo by Emile Abinal)

Another part of the Parisian artist/activist's "Wrinkles" show. Angel City Brewing, LA.  (photo by Shannon Cottrell) Stuff like this makes me miss LA, just a little. 

The 27-year-old "photograffeur," who has posted his work everywhere from the slums of Paris to the favelas of Brazil, just scored the $100,000 TED prize. Awarded by a CA conference of tech, entertainment and design leaders, it grants a "wish" to those engaged in humanitarian efforts.

Two years ago, JR embarked on a long globetrot to show "the dignity of women who are often the targets of conflicts." This is "28 Millimetres: Women Are Heroes," in Kibera slum, Kenya. JR shot B&W portraits of slum-dwellers, then posted these massive enlargements on the buildings in which his subjects lived. 

19 February 2011

The Homeless: Don't Believe Everything You Think

Yesterday, while I was volunteering at our local food bank, I was chatting with one of the other volunteers, whose interest seemed piqued when I told her I worked as a cook for the homeless. Clearly she was involved in the issue of hunger, yet she confessed that she and her friends had some concern that people on the streets were taking advantage of the resources the community extended (aka “freeloading”). This is a very common perception, as is the one that states that homeless people live that way “voluntarily.” As she was sincerely struggling to grasp the reality of the situation, she asked what my perceptions were

The more I work with the homeless, the more I understand that the reasons people lack shelter are extremely varied. Everyone has a story—and many of those stories will break your heart. All of them involve myriad factors. The backstory is never as simple as, “John is a drunk” or “She’s just lazy.” In any one individual you may see a patchwork quilt of issues such as a violent home environment, an alcoholic parent, growing up in poverty, severe mental illness, incest, substance abuse, extreme parental neglect, post-traumatic stress disorder, developmental disabilities, sudden job loss, chronic physical illness, home loss due to a natural disaster, and all the emotional fallout from these stressors.

Some of those we pass on the streets may look perfectly fine, capable of working, even charming and likely to succeed.But if you spend some time with them, you may find that the fa├žade belies someone who utterly cannot sustain the basics required for holding a job. Sometimes I will look at someone who seems to have a lot going for them, sit down and have an intelligent, thoughtful discussion. And an hour or day later, they may appear to be completely gone, somewhere I can’t find them, severely anguished, raving about a phantom or simply somewhere else. Our human skin hides so much of the truths of our lives. You can never look at someone and presume to know how together or capable they are.

Homelessness is very rarely “voluntary.” Who would choose to be cold, hungry, harassed, vulnerable, unsafe, subject to arrest, and often literally spit on by members of our capitalist society? It is difficult for us to comprehend the miserable state these people are dwelling in. And the reality that any one of us could be homeless tomorrow. When that reality becomes too painful to bear, we tend to blame the victim.

I’ve been reading the book Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, about an impoverished Puerto Rican family living in the South Bronx in the 1980s. It is a fascinating account of a culture I previously knew little about, and sometimes recounts events so extreme that I find myself tempted to judge. In a Salon.com interview, LeBlanc addresses why our societal propensity to judge is really not helpful. “…a judgmental place allows [people] not to feel the pain, and the sadness, and the shame we should feel, really--the shame that these young people are not protected the way they should be. …judgment [is] a way to stay separate from someone else.”

In other words, if we walked in these people’s shoes, their lives and choices would make sense. LeBlanc states, “These people have tried every available response to an impossible situation. To survive, they have to be incredibly improvisational, incredibly resourceful. And if you bother to open your eyes in that place, you'll probably know that your ideas of what a person should do are just not applicable.”

This directly applies to the many homeless people I know as well. Having to survive on the streets demands cunning and savvy. These are skills that must be learned, and mistakes come at a very high price, including rape, incarceration, starvation, and often death. Some people here claim that these individuals enjoy “roughing it” or camping out. That always makes me laugh. Think about it: how enjoyable is it to camp on a damp, windy, 20-degree night in January?

Yes, most homefree people have rejected the American consumerist dream. Of course they have. That dream was broken to begin with—and rejected them first. What does it say when we cast out people who never had a fair shot at getting a good education, obtaining a well-paying job, buying a home, and collecting a lot of possessions? That they are wrong? Or that the system just might be extremely ill designed? Our societal ideals have been established with a very small group of people in mind. Those who are physically and mentally well, capable of making a living (or “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps”), smart, privileged, educated, and afflicted by few external stressors. This is a pipe dream, a mold very few can fill—yet many try to twist themselves into a pretzel to achieve it. Instead of condemning the homeless as people not like us, we should realize that we are all fellow dwellers in a broken system. And we need a new one, one that truly embraces the many different situations we find ourselves in as human beings.

[Photo 1 by Kirsten Bole]

15 February 2011

We're Not "Content Providers," We're Exploited Writers

sculpture by Jeremy Mayer, photo by m. saleem
After reading David Carr’s excellent article “At Media Companies, A Nation of Serfs,” in yesterday’s New York Times, I have a few reflections of my own, based on a short stint of “providing content” (formerly known as “writing”) for Demand Media and Associated Content. First off, I must say that this is a great piece, with a wonderful central metaphor, drawn from Mark Twain: Today’s online journalists are much like those kids who gladly volunteered to do Tom Sawyer’s chores, solely because of some perceived prestige value.

These Tom Sawyers now come in the guise of Twitter, Facebook, Demand Media, Huffington Post, and any other central organizing platform that relies on writers’ providing them with content. And for some strange reason, we writers ask for little or no payment other than strokes to our egos: the “prestige” of writing for Huffington (now AOL—toss prestige to the wind). The “thrill” of having 10 of our friends see our work published online. The chance to imagine that we have legions of “followers,” just like Julius Caesar, or Jesus Christ. As Carr wryly notes, “Just imagine if Tom had also schooled them in the networking opportunities of the user-generated endeavor: ‘You’re not just painting a fence. You’re building an audience around your personal brand.’ ”

My writing and editing career began back in 1983, when as a recent college grad I was faced with the realities of trying to earn a living in this field. One reality was that there was always someone with lower confidence and self-esteem who would do the job for less. And less was just about nothing. I remember perusing ads for NYC publishers who were paying $11,500/year for full-time editors. And that was in one of the largest cities in the world. Recent grads actually vied heavily for these jobs because I guess it seemed like the patina of a Farrar, Straus & Giroux might rub off on them by mere association. But at that wage, it was certainly only a notch up from indentured slavery. I declined the 2 ½- hour daily commute to make slightly more as a PR hack closer to home.

I later began trying to sell writing and editing on my own, and found that the terrain was similarly glum. If I asked a reasonable wage for the work I was putting in (aka legal minimum wage), I was outbid by kids who thought getting paid next to nothing was better than not working at all. People today carp about jobs being outsourced to India, and rightly so, but in those pre-outsourcing days, we writers and editors did it to ourselves. If I asserted that I should get paid $50 for a piece that had taken me 10 hours to write, they found someone who could do the same piece (at a lesser skill level, but who cares?) for $35. And on it went, until the lowest bid got the clip.

Writers have never been terribly fond of the company of other writers, and thus the idea of a writers’ union doesn’t seem all that likely. However…imagine if we as a group refused to write for nothing or next to nothing. Imagine if we made more than hairdressers straight out of beauty college. Imagine if we demanded at least half of what engineers earn for our considerable education, experience, verbal agility, intelligence, research skills, creativity, and wit.

Writing is not fun and games. For many of us, it is not a “hobby” nor a “sideline”—despite what is implied by our lack of pay. While it may be enjoyable, just as parts of any occupation can be, it’s also real work. Just ask anyone who hates to write, who’s agonized over a sentence, who has no skill at it (which is much of the world). Professional writers don’t just “talk on paper.” They spend large chunks of their lives honing and practicing their craft, taking classes, reading the work of others, getting advanced degrees, and working really hard to write sentences that have clarity, depth, precision, and grace. Real writing is the product of those who have logged countless hours creating millions of sentences and thousands of pages.

photo by stack

And such writing takes time. A single well-crafted page can take hours. But somehow we’re supposed to forget about that, just slough it off, as if well, maybe we’re "overdoing it"…maybe we’re "slow"… Well, maybe. But like anything done at a high level, true craftsmanship takes time. What if online writers were not only paid, but paid by the hour? Media companies would then gain a sense of what is actually behind the content that they toss up so casually.

My brief experience writing for Demand Media came at a difficult moment in my career and life. I was broke and my self-esteem was on empty. I thought that maybe, just maybe I could type fast enough that I could somehow research, write, and edit a short article for 15 bucks, and that if I stacked enough of them together, might be able to earn a chunk toward my rent. But the aptly named Demand seemed to derive great hubris from the fact that they, yes, demanded!, ever so much from the writer, and gave back very little. (Despite the claims of their paid sycophants.) This included demanding that the writer adhere to extensive editorial guidelines, which seemed to multiply like Oregon mushrooms after a storm. And just when you’d absorbed the guidelines and produced something you knew they couldn’t reject in one fell swoop (which often happens, and means not getting paid after doing copious research)…one of their ridiculous copy editors would object that you had not followed the intent of the article and insist on a rewrite. Not that Demand ever provided the article thesis up front—this was subject to interpretation based on one scrap of info: the article title. And forget about that half-day’s work if your interpretation didn’t jive with some that of some 18-year-old kid whose editorial experience was likely limited to editing his own tweets.

All this for 15 bucks. Or not.

Associated Content is actually less profitable than Demand. You may (or may not) be offered an initial payment for a piece you wish to publish. This is generally less than $5. You also accrue royalties according to how frequently the article is viewed. But this stacks up to very, very little unless you’ve written a wildly popular article. Even the 2 quite popular articles I wrote (thousands of page views) netted me less than I spend of a bag of groceries. The whole system is vanity driven. And for all those wannabe writers, age 14, who have never seen their work “in print,” this might be an OK deal. But for professionals like me, we might as well toss 28 years of experience into the landfill.

Companies such as Demand and HuffPo take advantage of people who don’t think enough of themselves to demand reasonable, if not good, compensation. They realize that, on the whole, writers are self-effacing depressives who value their work at far less than it’s actually worth. And because this mindset has become so entrenched, it has become impossible to form a union and strike for fair wages.

Carr’s article cites the case of Mayhill Fowler, who won a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her HuffPo reportage of the 2008 Obama campaign. Presumably that nod would turn the head of someone like Arianna Huffington, herself an experienced writer. But almost 3 years later, Fowler has yet to receive one dime from Huffington for her work.

Writers need to start acknowledging that others are getting rich from our work. HuffPo was just sold to AOL for a staggering $315 million. If you write for them, what was your cut of that? Or were you just happy to “build your brand”? Gack. A platform is just a grid; we are the ones without whom zero ads would be sold. Writers are the backbone of all print media, and we deserve to be paid fairly for the long hours we log. While yes, it’s fun to see things in print and brag to our friends, it’s also rewarding to be able to pay our bills and put food on our tables. If enough of us refuse to work without pay, the industry will be forced to look at how exploitative its practices really are.

13 February 2011

Medford Train Graffiti

I shot the Medford trains twice this weekend, under bright and flat light, with 2 different cameras. While I don't suggest spending extended periods of time wedged between 2 long trains, I hope the colors were worth it.

When you’re braced between 2 trains, every utterance sounds loud. With tons of metal as their speakers, small animals creep in and out of cars, birds take off and land, rats come and go like passengers these iron vessels once moved.
A Sunday construction crew working beside you lets loose unholy roars as they spin in their cockpits across gravel near the tracks. Messages from the so many voices who have made mark here demand your attention, and yet…there is always the possibility that a stranger will sneak through in the shaft of light before or behind you, mistaking you for…someone… he killed in a dream last night…

Pipes shoot white steam into the air; factory conveyor belts push fruit from crate to truck. You glimpse them every 50 feet as you lurch from car to car, trying not to get sucked into the symphony of steel and rivet, hinge and wheel, the drone and clang of a stopped train charging through this winter valley.

11 February 2011

Miru Kim's Haunting New York Underground: Naked City Spleen

Talk about KO of the day. I'll admit I'm late to the party on this one, but I've just discovered the absolutely amazing work of NY photographer Miru Kim. I was searching the Web for information about Freedom Tunnel, an old Amtrak tunnel beneath Riverside Park housing murals to commemorate the hundreds of homeless people who lived in shantytowns there and were relocated in 1991. Then I happened on this:

Croton aqueduct, the Bronx

OK, OK, you had me at Hello, I'm a beautiful naked woman traipsing around the bowels of New York...

So, who is this artist and what is her mission? Miru Kim shoots nude self-portraits in crumbling urban tunnels, morgues, catacombs, abandoned buildings, and basically anyplace there are likely giant rodents, fetid water, malodorous mold colonies, and even piles of bones (see Catacombs, below). Why, you ask, would anyone want to disrobe in such decasia? Especially someone who comes across as demure, soft-spoken, shy.

The 30-year-old Korean-American photographer explains: "I was interested in animals that dwell in these derelict places in the city. The fictional character I wanted to create had to be universal, and clothes make the living being too culturally specific and time-specific. I started modeling myself because I couldn't convince anyone to get naked in all these locations, and getting an animal to do it was even harder. Then the performance aspect of it became very appealing to me, because I started noticing how these spaces transform as soon as I take off my clothes and walk around. They become much more familiar and peaceful."

Her project name, Naked City Spleen, pays homage to Weegee's Naked City and Baudelaire's Paris spleen poetry.

Bennett School, Millbrook

I'm particularly partial to this one: Petit Ceinture, Paris

Again in Paris, here she shot the Catacombs using the warm light of carbide lamps that miners employed in their less-creative outings during the 19th century.Not only beautifully lit but incredibly brave, cuddling up to all those bones. Yes, bones. Dating back to 60 B.C., the Catacombs hold the remains of more than 6 million people. This particular shot was taken beneath Montparnasse Cemetery.

I am at this very moment trying to ignore the fact that I hear some little animal under the floorboards of my living room asserting its presence. Giving me...angst...the kind I feel sure that Miru Kim would grok. In fact she does claim considerable anxiety in entering these locations.

She notes, "I often felt . . . a kind of alienation and anxiety in urban environments, and one of the ways I could escape the negative side of that was to visit forgotten, abandoned places in the city. The feelings of isolation and loneliness I've had may be related to having moved alone to the U.S. at age 13 without knowing the language. But I think most urban-dwellers understand these feelings regardless of culture."

Revere Sugar factory, Brooklyn (currently a strip mall--pun might be intended)

“The island of Manhattan alone has such a dense, mysterious network of man-made structures soaring 1,500 feet above ground and digging 800 feet below. The 5 boroughs of NY are connected by more than 35 bridges and tunnels that make the city a miraculous feat of engineering, architecture and design, incomparable to any other. The anatomy of the city is complex, like that of a human being, both physically and psychologically,” Kim says.

Immersing herself in this vast id, Miru Kim sometimes receives unexpected visitors. In a tunnel beneath Hell's Kitchen (see 2nd photo, above), after she had just disrobed, a homeless man appeared, walking toward his campsite. After she explained that she was doing an art project, he left her to continue to shoot herself running naked through the tunnel. When she was done, he offered her his shirt to wipe the mud from her feet. “In my mind, he is a dweller in one of the darkest rooms in the collective unconsciousness of all the inhabitants of New York and possibly of all modern cities,” she posted on her website.

Showing in galleries throughout the world, Miru Kim has confirmed that this collective unconscious is a subterrain into which many are compelled to stare. Of these once magnificent, now crumbling structures, she reflects, "I am reminded of how fragile our sense of security is and how vulnerable people truly are."

06 February 2011

"Our computers will now determine your liveness quotient. Please hold..."

If you’ve ever suspected that the line between screens and reality has increasingly been blurred, check out the following blog entry, which ran on Huffington Post on 2/4. Written by a Yale graduate student, this piece was posted not as satire but as an earnest guide to differentiating “real life” from virtual contacts with others. I confess that while surfing half-asleep at midnight last night, this completely stopped me in my tracks, as I hadn’t realized that we’d progressed to the point at which college students needed assistance in determining what was “real” and what wasn’t.

The post is also an interesting foray into helping young people assess which sort of virtual contact it is “polite” to acknowledge first, giving it an oddly retro, Emily Post twist. In my late 40s, I am part of the generation that straddles the analog and digital worlds. My generation didn’t begin to interact with computers (or even VCRs) until after college, so have lived approximately half our lives not having to do the apparently arduous work of distinguishing “real” from “virtual.” While some of our peers were clearly more interesting or articulate or better looking, the assessment of “liveness” never entered the picture. Except after, maybe, 17 drinks. We would not, for example, need a Yale grad student to tell us, “The more ‘live’ a person is in relation to you, the more attention they deserve, and the more promptly you should reply to their message.” As Gordon puts it, “Liveness was just life.” It makes me laugh that this truth is apparently no longer self-evident. Laugh, and maybe shudder a bit—or a lot. What tutorials will Yale students be posting 20 years from now?

Gordon proceeds to pitch the virtues of traditional conversation. Because young people tend to communicate via text at this point, perhaps this is a necessary reminder that vocal chords can and do work and utterances issuing forth from them can actually create interesting sounds and verbiage. As Thomas Dolby observed back in the 1980s, "The moment there was any kind of audio attached to virtual reality, it really improved the experience, even though the audio didn't feel like a sound engineer or composer had been anywhere near it."

I don’t know. I find this whole thing capital-S Scary. See what you think.

A Conversation with Your Cellphone

By Claire Gordon

My digital media use can sometimes graze the edge of social acceptability. I might reply to a text during dinner or download music while a friend monologues. Yet there are some transgressions that make my insides seethe -- a friend interrupting our conversation to tweet that hilarious thing she just said, or sitting silently with someone involved in an endless, banal BBM chat, when they could be sending endless, banal messages to my in-flesh face.

Some of these things are obviously rude. If you're irritating the person you're with, you have probably tripped up in the Kabuki of modern etiquette. But as digital and analogue life become evermore integrated, the protocols get blurry.

Why is not replying to a text less rude than taking a moment out of a conversation? Why is leaving someone lingering on Skype more or less rude than answering a phone call?

A simple answer is that one interaction is more "real" than the other, and the breathing organism should always take precedence over the bits and bytes. But the "real" and "virtual" divide is tricky. Firstly, we may all live in the Matrix, and everything both real and virtual is just the doodling of a malevolent cyber-intelligence. Secondly, the "virtual," in these cases, are also real people in real places with real thoughts and feelings. In some instances, like with Skype and the phone call, our competing interactions are both "virtual" in the sense of no one being physically present.

"Liveness" is perhaps a better barometer. The more "live" a person is in relation to you, the more attention they deserve, and the more promptly you should reply to their message.

If the message is an e-mail, give yourself a day. If the message is "what's up?" and he or she is sitting in front of you, give yourself two seconds.

But "liveness" is also a slippery creature. As a concept, it only sprang into existence with the birth of mediating technologies. Before that, "liveness" was just life. It wasn't even the invention of sound recording that spurred the human mind to construct the categories of "live" and "mediated." The difference was obvious: one was life, and one was a 78 rpm shellac disc revolving on your gramophone.

It was the birth of broadcasting that fundamentally jumbled the distinction, with no way to know whether those EM waves radiating from your receiver originated at a plucked string, or a plucked string in a recording studio that was now a disc spinning on the station's turntable. It was in the desperation to make sense of this difference that "liveness" was finally born.

Coined by the BBC in 1934, "liveness" became a nifty discursive distinction when an ontological one didn't really exist. As Von Phillip Auslander writes in "Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture," "liveness" never really referred to co-presence in space and time. The word instead evolved with emerging technologies, so that today phrases like "live broadcast" and "recording live" are meaningful and not paradoxical jibberish.

"Liveness" is experienced more as a feeling or an affect than an objective reality. But with such a flimsy definition, who's to say Gchat is more or less "live" than the guy sitting next to me on the subway?

Skype, for example, is very "live" for my mother. Too "live," in fact. But Facebook? She could go for weeks without checking. This is not a "live" experience for her; it's about occasionally dropping by, getting overwhelmed, signing off, and sending me an e-mail a few days later criticizing one of my photos.

"Liveness" is a very subjective thing.

Mushon Zer-Aviv, the designer and media activist, has invented a far more concrete framework by which to judge our social existence: content vs. conversation.

To define content, he uses metrics devised by Danah Boyd: persistence, replicability, searchability and invisible audiences.

When you tweet something, that tweet lasts forever (persistence); it can be easily retweeted, tweaked and retweeted, or slapped on a t-shirt (replicability); it can be found with some speedy Googling, and if deleted, scooped up from the darkweb (searchability); and no matter who you think your followers are, that tweet may eventually end up on the interface of an employer, creepy dude, or your born/unborn children (invisible audiences). If your communication fulfills some of these criteria, it's probably content.

Conversation, on the other hand, is ephemeral, unreplicable, unsearchable, and your audience is known, often right in your field of vision.

Why is conversation better than content? There's a lot of schmaltz I could spread for an answer -- that conversation is more authentic and less performed, more intimate and less displayed, magical in its fleetingness, and more existentially affirming in the ability, on occasion, to actually make eye contact.

It is in the world of conversation that ideas are really exchanged, opinions shaped, and laughing out loud makes a sound. These kinds of conversations may take place in chat rooms or on comment threads, but if nothing else, the existence of a Caps Lock key will forever doom many exchanges to CONTENT!!!!!

As Zer-Aviv rightly points out that in this framework Chatroulette qualifies as conversation and a parade of genitalia probably shouldn't qualify as anything. But there is something in the essence of Chatroulette -- two strangers serendipitously matched for a small spell of time -- that has the glimmery feel of conversation, even if one of those strangers takes off his pants.

Facebook and Foursquare, like video games, may be more instantly gratifying in the way that they dole out hits of rewards. Content can also be creative and socially valuable. But conversation, "real" or "virtual," "live" or "mediated," may be able to offer something even better than the Mayorship of your local discount liquor store.