25 February 2012

Apocalypse? Now? - Street Art for the End Times

Zombie apocalypse? Nuclear annihilation? Armageddon? 2012? Or just plain vanilla Judgment Day...

St. Petersburg, Russia

Photo: Stephen, Bermondsey, London, UK

Closeup, Bermondsey. "Eject and Survive"
Photo: ultraclay! New York, 2004

Downtown Los Angeles

Photo: CoreOne, Keon & Core, Karlsruhe, Germany, 2010

Tel Aviv, Israel

"The Armageddon," mural by R. Sanches, LA (near La Brea)

detail, "The Armageddon," R. Sanches


Eddie Colla, San Francisco, CA

Fukushima, 3stepscrew, Germany

Photo: John Roleke, 5 Points, Queens, NY

Photo: Shokai. "Last Days Has Begun," Atlanta, GA, USA. Oct. 2011.

Photo: Darren Alff. Athens, Greece
Kid with Yo-Yo, Smiling Bag Productions,  
Tel Aviv, Israel
Smiling Bag Productions, Tel Aviv
Photo: ExterminexCZ, Czech Republic
Nelson Vargas, Salt Lake City, UT, USA, Nov. 2011

23 February 2012

I'll Do a Great Job! Just Ask My Corgi...

I recently temporarily disabled this blog because I was looking for work and became concerned that anything I said could and would be used against me by a potential employer. My best friend urged me not to, telling me I expressed myself well in writing and had nothing to worry about. Is that na├»ve? A 2009 Harris Interactive poll for Careerbuilder.com, which questioned 2,667 managers and HR workers, found that 45% of employers use social networks to screen job candidates, and 35% declined to offer a job to a candidate based on social networking site content. I’m sure that by this time, both numbers are well over half. Granted, blogs are not Facebook, but I know that potential employers examine them, too.

This hit me right between the eyes at a group job interview 4 years ago, when an admin assistant brought up photos of the corgi I’d displayed on my blog many months before. OK, harmless enough, but…Jesus! At that time I was posting the blog for family and friends who had asked to see photos from my travels. I actually ended up declining this job when it was offered to me, partially because I believed that my privacy would not be respected in this apparently boundary-less environment. Four years later, this seems to have become curiously old-fashioned thinking, as reasonable expectations of privacy have eroded like glaciers in Greenland.

But as I again look for work, it continues to bug me. That, as a potential employee, I could be rejected because someone strings together a few things I’ve said on a blog, taking them completely out of context, then decides that I would be a poor fit for the “corporate culture.” Never mind that they’ve never even met or spoken to me in person. Never mind that 5 other people could read the same 3 facts and draw completely different conclusions. And never mind that they might be reading the blog of a person with the same name!

But the odd thing about this type of “fact-finding” mission is that there’s very little about me in this blog you can establish for certain. Not even what may seem like obvious facts:
1) I speak English (or just know how to use Google translator)
2) I can write a grammatically correct sentence (or employ a skilled editor)
3) I can take a decent photo (or have good taste when I grab them from the Web)
4) I’m an American (have you seen my passport?)

And as computers become increasingly sophisticated, it’s not necessarily a given that… I’m human.

This is the basis of a great new book I’m reading, The Most Human Human: What Computers Can Teach Us About Being Us, by Brian Christian. In it, the author, both a scientist and philosopher, discusses an annual contest between AI programs and humans, in which judges try to ascertain via IM who’s a person and who’s a bot. Called the Turing test, it’s not as easy as it sounds, and several years ago, the bots began fooling the humans a significant percentage of the time.

I’ve just started it, so I won’t launch into a whole review. But Christian clarifies something I’d suspected after reading one too many Comments page after news articles. Humans really falter—and begin to get into disagreements—when information is “stateless,” i.e., lacking in context. The human brain likes a bigger picture, the backstory, and when that is missing, conversations quickly devolve into argument, and very little truth can emerge.

One of the reasons modern life can feel so challenging for those of us who have lived through analog is that we now dwell in a highly decontextualized world. Fragments of information float through cyberspace like dust particles, and since we no longer have eye contact or tone of voice to help us, we make of them what we will. Conjecture and projection become commonplace. Our brain begins to fill in blanks we don’t have any right to. You “like” these 10 films, therefore you must be x… you post 10 comments about that topic, therefore you must be y. We’re all guilty of trying to form conclusions in situations in which we really don’t have enough information to do so. But, irony of ironies in the “too much information” age, not having enough real and meaningful information online is the case more often than not. It’s easy to feel frustrated and empty and grabby like AI hungry ghosts, searching for ever more. Not just a bunch of data points. But simply the few strands of information we really want to know.

Because I need to find a way to drag Dave into this, I'll close with a quote that Christian also uses, 
"Today's person spends way more time in front of screens. In fluorescent-lit rooms, in cubicles, being on one end or the other of an electronic data transfer. And what is it to be human and alive and exercise your humanity in that kind of exchange?"  -David Foster Wallace


21 February 2012

Missing David Foster Wallace

Photo: Giovanni Giovannetti
In the summer of 2000, I listened to David Foster Wallace speak at a Lannan Foundation reading. At that time, he was living in Santa Fe as a Lannan writer-in-residence. Despite being only passingly familiar with his work, I felt drawn to go see the scruffy renegade in the publicity shot. In the near past, he’d published several short story collections and his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, which had impressed me in heft alone, though I’d not yet cracked it.

Trading glances with the floor, Dave schlepped to the stage and began speaking in his usual self-effacing, tic-forward, verbally aerobic style. The audience fell into his hammer grip almost immediately. I loved the whole look, the casually muscular, tennis-playing academic; the bandana; the gold-rims: the sturdy, visceral presence. Something in the contrast between the hulking frame and the gentle self-effacement was unexpected and wonderful. He seemed both genial and trustworthy. If this "regular guy" persona was a device, it was working, and of course he was smart enough to deliberately employ it. But I suspect that it came more from a genuine place inside him that both realized how unusual his gifts were and fathomed that this could be a barrier in relating to others. He not only seemed to want people to like him, but also to genuinely connect, despite the stature conferred by size, intelligence, academic degrees, writing ability, and literary celebrity. And like a big, shaggy St. Bernard who jumps in your lap, he didn’t seem to completely realize his own mass in those respects.

Since that lecture, I’ve read a lot of his work and greatly enjoyed David Lipsky’s book-length interview, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, published a few years back. I tend to pick up Wallace when I’m feeling lonely. When I can’t seem to connect with the world and its humans. When I’m cursing the Great Dumbing Down of America and living in places where critical thinking and intellectual discussions seem few and far between. I pull out an essay and watch Wallace’s microprocessor start whizzing away on any given topic, witness that intense consciousness, the brain on which truly nothing is lost, and start to feel better. If life on Earth can include a David Foster Wallace, then maybe we’re not quite as fucked as we appear to be. Reading Dave is like apprehending a transcript of human consciousness, all those fragments of thoughts, ideas, criticisms, internal dialogs that most of us bother to repress so as not to get locked up. Dave lets loose on the page full-blast, a faucet without a shutoff valve. 

When I first heard about Dave’s death I internally enacted what’s known in Expressionist circles as “schreien”—to shout, to scream, to cry, to yell, basically to howl, much in the manner of Edvard Munch. I was living in a small town in rural southern Oregon. Despite its few pockets of cultural aliveness, I nevertheless realized that there was no proximate human with whom I could share my despair. I didn’t dare even ask, for fear of the blank looks or vapid comments that would reveal utter lack of recognition for the man and his oeuvre. “David who?” would surely hit like a blade to the gut. Forgive me for wanting to live on the planet where everyone has read and can cogently discuss him.

I hoped it was a hoax, a publicity stunt, something The Onion had cooked up in the manner of his reputed 67-page footnoted breakup letter to his girlfriend.1 Surely just another postmodern manifestation of angst taken to a slight extreme. It couldn't be that we had this guy for only 46 years, only 3 novels, only 3 short story collections. Couldn't be that the Yosemite waterfall of verbiage was now, permanently, depleted.

Photo: Suzy Allman
Dave would have turned 50 today, and I'm pushing it, hard. We share the same cultural points of reference. Here was someone who had experienced the same music, art, books, film, TV, and vagaries of civilization, and could examine, deconstruct and criticize them in ways that launched an avalanche of thought. An American, who was all-too-familiar with the crassness and noise of our culture. Someone who admitted he watched too much TV but could simultaneously observe the behavior and realize where it was taking us, personally and as a culture. Wallace understood that for our generation and its successors, the seduction of the many screens was a force to reckon with. And it felt important enough to him to spend 1,079 pages delineating the landscape.

When I read Wallace, I felt a little saner. I looked to him as a kind of North Star. If Dave could endure this tedious, life-strangling universe, couldn’t I? Despite all of the world's problems, and his own tendency toward depression, he remained engaged, in the world, curious--not bitter and jaded and dulled. I’d imagine him my co-conspirator, the smirking best friend sitting with me on the park bench in Washington Square Park telling me to look over there! Then whispering in my ear an 800-SAT-scoring verbal aside of what the two guys in the cowboy hats were doing with the teenage girls from Bayonne. Right down to the frizzy perms and bad accents. And me unable to stop laughing until he did it again, 10 seconds later, with the Brooklyn alta kocker playing chess with the ballistic Armenian. How many times in a lifetime do we find a “friend” like this--someone so tapped in that reality comes through on 200 HD channels every moment at full volume and in 15 languages, all of which they speak, read, and write fluently? 

Ironically, Dave could often lift my own depression, precisely because I felt a kindred spirit actually did exist, in a world where I’ve experienced that feeling extremely rarely. In the words of Infinite Jest editor Michael Pietsch, "It is one of the great miracles of life, our ability to apprehend a human spirit through the sequences of words they leave behind."2 We both seemed to be coming at life from a depression-etched sensibility, the cognitive function moving continuously forward while an emotional spirit chastened by so much, so often, signaled to pull over and stop at the side of the road. Inside his writing, beneath all the bubbles of nervous energy and compulsion, I felt the despairing guy, scribbling for his life, like a Cuban salsa dancer dancing frantically for salvation. Beneath all the mania was someone waiting for the ultimate existential reassurance: you exist. There’s a place for you in the world you were born into.

While it’s been said that readers read to stave off loneliness, sometimes I think writers write for similar reasons: to be heard, and in the process, to be reassured that others understand and maybe even agree with your perceptions. To realize that you’re articulating thoughts that others have as well. Wallace left thousands of pages about modern life, thousands of ways for us to potentially connect, to see through the world’s illusions and get down to fundamental truths… It’s hard to realize that those thousands of hands extended toward the world didn’t seem to get met with enough of what he needed to continue to go on. Fucking depression, the great isolator.

I just reread the commencement address Dave offered at Kenyon College in 2005 (published as This is Water). It’s a wonderful piece that seems to boil down to some simple Buddhist concepts: mindfulness and compassion. And a testament to the basic goodness and generosity of spirit that drew people to him. Here he speaks a lot about the default settings we walk around with, the lens of self we bring to the world and how difficult that can be to transcend. A quote:

“…the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving.... The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom.”3 


2 Michael Pietsch, "Editing Infinite Jest," http://infinitesummer.org/archives/569

3 "David Foster Wallace, In His Own Words," http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words

For a sweet remembrance of Dave by four people who actually did know him, see http://podcast.lannan.org/2011/03/26/everything-and-more-a-tribute-to-david-foster-wallace-conversation-16-march-2011-video/.

18 February 2012

Knocked out by...

Dan Mountford's work. These are non-Photoshopped double exposures. He is a student from Brighton, England. Wow.

17 February 2012

Phoenix Artists: When Disaster Incites Art

Mireille Delisme, Catastrophe du 12 Janvier, 2010

Today I saw a Museum of International Folk Art show called “The Arts of Survival: Folk Expression in the Face of Disaster.” The exhibit took 4 global disasters—Hurricane Katrina, the Mt. Merapi volcano eruption, the 2010 Pakistan flood, and the earthquake in Haiti—and showed how victims made ashes into art. 
Perhaps the most powerful work was a quilt Katrina survivor Beatriz "Soco" Ocampo stitched together from mold-stained bedsheets and blankets, forming a memorial shroud for the 200,000 New Orleans residents who lost their homes. Another is the work shown above, a glass-beaded and sequined fabric mural. The show is a testament to the power of art, how it survives in even the most challenging of situations, like a flower poking its petals through a concrete sidewalk. I give mad props to those who can document a horribly painful event immediately after it’s occurred, like a primal scream carved onto canvas. When I consider my own potential response after losing all of my possessions, my home, and my loved ones, it's most likely not the desire to create museum pieces.

This dovetails with last night’s late-night foray into Japanese graffiti, which led me to a rather fascinating page on Fukushima survivors who had transformed their trauma into art such as this:

These appeared in a site advertising potassium iodide pills, http://potassiumiodidepills.info/nuclear-emergency-news/the-art-of-full-meltdown-fukushima-daiichi. (I really like the cautionary pear.)

15 February 2012

Buddhist Street Art = Part 4

These have been my most popular blog entries, so I've just added another pt. For the other 3, see Jan. and March 2011.

Chess with the Dalai Lama, 3D street painting, Tracy Lee Stum

Tibetan Black Magic, Cryptik
The Dude Company - Dalai Lama (via SReed99342)
Free Tibet, Poland, Trzgef
Zurich, Switzerland
Thanks, Hello Tibet blog
Part of an ongoing public mandala project.  Photo: Eric Cowan.
Berlin Wall, Germany

Philadelphia, PA, USA

University of Costa Rica

Seoul, Korea