Ars et technica

•January 27, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I read today that Thomas Pynchon, author of novels such as The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow, as well as MacArthur genius grant winner, worked as a technical writer for Boeing in the 1960s.

There is hope for the rest of us.


Free Speech?

•January 23, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Not too long ago, I read a testy blog post via Technorati criticizing the Huffington Post for misappropriating content from news services in order to populate its website. HuffPo, according to this article, was culling the best pieces from news and content sites across the web, copying and pasting their content into a blog post, adding a little bit of commentary, including a link to the original site, and then publishing the post. The question in this case — and in others that are very similar — is: what constitutes “fair use”?

With the impending shut down of traditional newspapers, most people are getting their content online. The biggest issue that authors face is not just the minutia of determining “fair use”  when distributing and redistributing information in this rapidly expanding online marketplace, but rather the addressing fundamental issue of content attribution.

What makes the Huffington Post case a bellwether for future internet content infringement cases is that there are millions of people who regard this manner of getting — and aggregating — information as totally ordinary and seamless. There are aggregator blogs all over the internet that make their bread and butter by culling links of interest to their readers, adding some commentary, and republishing them. In theory, this is a win-win for everyone: the aggregator sites also post ads (or sell promotional blog posts), products/stories/news outlets/authors get expanded coverage, and readers get specialized, directed content. Information on the internet is totally ubiquitous — and we regard it as totally free. When websites get advertisers to pay for content (not a bad thing, I should add), it reinforces the idea that this content — articles that writers at newspapers who have worked hard for, and sometimes risked their lives for — that this is free content.

Two weeks ago, the Seattle P-I announced that it would be put up for sale, and if no buyers were found, it would either go online entirely, or shut down for good. Over the last six months, the Seattle Times has faltered substantially, appearing on newspaper death pool lists for 2009. The Atlantic has predicted that the New York Times may not have a printed paper by June of 2009, given that the 20 million readers who read the online paper are supported by a meager 1 million readers of the printed paper and its advertisers. 

Despite the dwindling paper subscriptions, the printed word still maintains unshakeable gravitas; an event is only preserved for history once it is written down, printed, and archived. The day after President Obama’s historic election, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the LA Times couldn’t keep up with demand for printed papers — there are photos across the internet of people lining up around city blocks to purchase their copies of the newspaper.

To flip this idea around, I think we simply don’t take as seriously the content that we read online. Not that it isn’t real — it is — but that it lacks the same substance or weightiness. Any decent university arts program that teaches research and writing methods is based heavily on printed materials: books go through extensive vetting and editorial processed, and their information can be regarded as fully valid. On the internet, we all know that Wikipedia is not to be taken for granted, but in practice, how many of us go to Wikipedia first, and leave the Encyclopedia Britannica on the shelves at the local public library?

My point here is that the information we find online is all regarded as being part of a larger, free information pool. In the same way that you don’t really have to cite Wikipedia because it’s not a legitimate source, you don’t really have to credit and pay authors to use their content on aggregator cites. (Musicians have long controlled their content: there are a variety of different kinds of licenses available depending on whether you wish to perform a musician’s piece or simply pipe in a radio into an elevator. Maybe writers need the same thing??) At what point do you cross the line between quoting a source and committing outright plagiarism?

And this all brings me to my own uneasiness about blogging. It is very difficult for me to actively protect my ideas in this forum. I write about ideas that are interesting to me, and I use this as a forum to work out ideas that are still inchoate. I have vague fears that my work will get “borrowed” by harried undergrads in search of paper topics, but I also worry that this is an illegitimate forum to write about serious, potentially academic ideas. I don’t know. It’s what I’ve got, so I’m going with it. I will say that I will be very interested to see what happens over the coming years to the laws around content ownership and fair use, especially as more and more writers take most of their business and content production online.

One nation, indivisible, archived

•January 21, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I’ve been mulling over the ideas of nationhood and patriotism lately. In particular, I’m fascinated by the apotheosis of Obama — he is the Second Coming of MLK and Lincoln and Roosevelt and Kennedy, all as one man. I’m also intrigued by the palpable national and international relief at Obama’s ascendancy — the return to secular rationalism! a nostalgia for the New Deal! This is something more than just “thank GOD he’s not Bush!”

Obama is a mean rhetoritian: he mines the language of his forebears to give his words instant gravitas and familiarity; this has a double-effect of inducing a warm nostalgia for that previous golden era when Americans suffered more, were poorer but worked harder, and are now perceived through the lens of history to be more noble.
ARE these Americans more noble? DID they work harder? I give you these links, you can investigate for yourself. I’m still pondering.

Presidential Speech Archive (goes back to George Washington)

Library of Congress Print and Photo Archives (great for photos of presidential inaugurations)

Studs Terkel audio archive  (the original Ira Glass — conducted man-on-the-street interviews before anyone cared; fantastic interviews about the Depression, Civil Rights Movement, etc.)

Pledge of Allegiance - San Francisco, California (Dorothea Lange, 1942) Getty Museum

Pledge of Allegiance - San Francisco, California (Dorothea Lange, 1942) Getty Museum

Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln (March 4, 1861) Library of Congress

Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln (March 4, 1861) Library of Congress

Suffrage Parade, Washington D.C. (1913) Library of Congress

Suffrage Parade, Washington D.C. (1913) Library of Congress

Woman marching with peace sign and U.S. flag, disarmament conference, Washington, D.C. (1914-1922) Library of Congress

Woman marching with peace sign and U.S. flag, disarmament conference, Washington, D.C. (1914-1922) Library of Congress

SAM struggles just like the rest of us…

•January 11, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I feel like a terrible, terrible schmuck for slamming the Seattle Art Museum for its lack of information at the S’abadeb show. I was chatting casually with a SAM staffer today and asked a pointed question about the missing audio guides for the current special exhibition. Turns out (duh) that SAM couldn’t afford to put together the audio guides. She also pointed out that the current small Edward Hopper show doesn’t have any guides either (which I hadn’t noticed because it’s only a two room show). Audio-visual support for shows has become prohibitively expensive; not only are production costs excessive, but the individual devices themselves are costly to purchase and maintain — currently the museum only owns about fifty of them. As a result, there will be no audio tours for any upcoming exhibitions, at least for the forseeable future. Audio guides will only remain available for the permanent collection.

(As an aside, SAM’s audio-visual equipment seems particularly prone to gremlins: over the last eight months or so, Security have been trying out wireless radios with the fancy earpieces that were supposed to be more discreet than the large, brick-sized radios worn at the hip. Though the wireless radios were sleeker and lighter, they still required a battery/transmitter to be worn around the waist, had a tendency to squawk painfully in the ear, and were often fragile and finicky. Last thing I knew, most of the guards had gone back to carrying their black bricks.)

But back to the issue about audio tours; it touches on a larger problem at SAM, and that is that the museum is struggling financially. Many museums bank on their ability to serve as a venue for special events. TASTE, Seattle Art Museum’s restaurant, runs almost a full second catering business just doing events at SAM and the Olympic Sculpture Park. One of the guys from the kitchen told me that between September and December, SAM had nearly sixty parties cancelled.

During mid-December, while an ad for seasonal help at the Admissions desk was still open on their employment page, Seattle Art Museum froze all hiring, a freeze which is still on currently. And given the absurdly long lines that stack up at both Coat Check and at Admissions, I’m fairly sure there have been layoffs of at least portions of the SAM support staff, though that’s speculation on my part. (I will say that today, on my regular Saturday morning Information Desk volunteer shift, I jumped back to help out at the coat check a couple times – something I’ve never needed to do before.)

When I pressed the SAM staffer a little bit further about just how bad things were, she said that SAM is several million dollars under water. It remains afloat on the goodwill and deep pockets of the SAM board members and trustees. These leaders of the museum have famously deep pockets — the current director of the museum is Mimi Gates, afterall, Bill Gates’ stepmother.  A wealthy board won’t rescue the museum from serious, crippling longterm debt, and who knows exactly what lurks behind the shiny facade of the new downtown building and the green sod at the Olympic Sculpture Park? During the last five years, the SAM has took on both of these huge development projects; Olympic Sculpture Park had been planned for years, but the wholesale renovation of the downtown site was pursued solely at the behest of the prelapsarian Washington Mutual. (See this article, which makes for eerie reading. Sounds so celebratory, doesn’t it?) I don’t have any data about how bad things are, what the expected shortfall is, or even if the shared building with WaMu means that they, too have been caught in the financial dragnet. I just don’t know.

The worst part in all of this is that attendance is good! PEOPLE ARE COMING TO THE MUSEUM. We have visitors! We have tons of members! Seriously, I need to just record my voice telling people where they can buy their tickets and check their coats and find the bathrooms, because then I’ll have time to actually talk about more interesting things, like, “ooh! flying cars!” or, even better, “so, this is what I was thinking about doing with the rest of my afternoon…”

This is where I make a plug for those of us who stop up the holes in this leaky, leaky ship. If you love the arts, hell, if you love anything in this information rich but money poor economy, for your sake and for the sake of the institutions you love, GO VOLUNTEER. I hang out at the Information Desk at the SAM, but they use volunteers across the museum — at the Coat Check, in the Library, in the galleries, and for the education programs, too. Our docents are fantastic (they go through a year of training before we let them loose on the hordes).

And, if you are lucky enough to live in a city where your museums are free, PAY the next time you go. Buy a membership. Put your money where your heart is. We don’t want these institutions to be in the horrible position that the National Academy Museum in New York is in right now, having to sell its collection piece by piece, simply to keep its lights on.

One last thing: for those who are in Seattle, S’Abadeb closes tomorrow, January 11. There are several docent tours tomorrow: for S’Abadeb at 1:30 and 3pm; for Hopper at 1pm; and for the permanent collection at 2pm. Ticket prices are $13 for adults, $10 for seniors, and $7 for students; kids under 12 are free.

First Thursday Redux

•January 9, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Err, make that second Thursday, because galleries decided that January 1st was a holiday. Anyway. The rains let up long enough for me to make my monthly pilgrimage down to Pioneer Square to peer in at galleries. It was a good evening.

In the interests of shortcutting, I give you links. Which is lame. If I’d thought ahead, I would have structured this differently, but I didn’t want a post that was, oh, nine million scrolls long. Blog and learn, right?

  • Howard House: emptiness, abandonment and  industrialism in the large-scale photographs of David Hartt and Arthur S. Aubry
  • Gallery4Culture: W. Scott Trimble’s neato miniature modular cedar walkways that make you wish you carried toy soldiers in your purse
  • Soil and Platform: Soil is a party in a gallery with melting architecture; Platform brings you more abandonment and emptiness and large scale photos, this time from Adam Eckberg
  • Greg Kucera Gallery: extreme abstract art from Michael Dailey and Robert Motherwell
  • James Harris Gallery: W. Scott Foldesi and his eerie paint-by-number canvases

James Harris Gallery: Scott Foldesi and Mark Mumford

•January 9, 2009 • Leave a Comment

My final stop for the evening was at the James Harris Gallery, to check out Scott Foldesi’s paintings and to size up Mark Mumford’s oversized laminated text.

Mumford’s work makes me yawn, honestly. He takes a page straight out of Duchamp’s playbook with “Ceci ne pas une pipe”, employing the same trick when he charges a gazillion dollars to paste oversized decals on the walls that are supposed to challenge our assumptions about what is and isn’t arty about art. Where’s the value? Ok, so that’s his point, but he uses a sledgehammer, and the joke is on the collector afterall.

James Harris Gallery

Not Everything Is Visible (Mark Mumford, 2008) Image: James Harris Gallery

For surrealist, readymade, useless expensive art, I’d much rather go in for Roy McMakin’s art. One of my favorite art works in all of Seattle is at James Harris Gallery — it’s McMakin’s gorgeous Ikea-like ivory bureau with one drawer that doesn’t fit. I’ve spent nearly half an hour examining this dresser, and it is exquisitely fashioned. It looks so ordinary, but the craftsmanship is outstanding. It looks like a readymade, but it isn’t. And it’s maddening. Buying it (at $40 grand) would be like buying an artfully chipped set of china. I’ve seen this dresser before, but I’ll happily come back to grit my teeth at it. I hope it ends up in a public collection, so we can continue our tortured relationship.

James Harris Gallery

Untitled (a small chest of drawers with one drawer that doesn’t fit) (Roy McMakin, 2008) Image: James Harris Gallery


The highlight at James Harris right now is Scott Foldesi’s American Dreams, a collection of oil paintings of American places that are so familiar they could be anywhere. Foldesi strips his images down to their simplest elements in both color and line to convey his sense of place, erasing the specificity of time or location.

James Harris Gallery

Motel Pool (Scott Foldesi, 2008) Image: James Harris Gallery

Close inspection of each image reveals no blending of the colorfields. Foldesi approachs each scene as though it were a Paint-by-Number image; he relies on our eye to do the gradient shading for him.

The thing is, these are real places. They have been stripped of their logos, their license plates, their people, their specific identifying features. They are places that people transition through, staying only long enough for them to become vaguely familiar but never intimate. Just as Foldesi expects us to visually blur the colorfields, in our minds we blur these locations together, as if we had whizzed past them on a great highway to somewhere else. Which truck stop is that? And which motel? Does it matter? Aren’t they all the same?

In painting the architecture of the recent past – particularly the motels and malls of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s – Foldesi evokes both a nostalgia for the great American road trip as well as the sad, empty, lonely restlessness that these places inspire. I look at the image above, and all I can think about is the bored lethargy that strikes on a hot day while you know you should be headed somewhere else.

James Harris Gallery

Truck Stop (Scott Foldesi, 2008) Image: James Harris Gallery

I could stare at these pictures for a long, long time, but I’ve got things to do, places to go, people to see.

Catch Scott Foldesi’s work (and Mark Mumford’s) on display at James Harris Gallery until February 14.

Greg Kucera Gallery: Michael Dailey and Robert Motherwell

•January 9, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Next stop? Greg Kucera. Currently running Michael Dailey: Work from 1965-1999 in the main room, and Selected Unique Works by Robert Motherwell. This is where I fail you as a blogger. I have nothing to say about the Dailey paintings, except that they are pretty and soothing.

I do badly with the extreme end of super abstract art, which is what Dailey creates.  Let’s chalk it up to that History of 20th Century American Art course that I never took in uni, because I was too busy being a medievalist. I will give you a lovely photo, though:

Greg Kucera Gallery

Dunraven Night (Michael Dailey, 1999) Image: Greg Kucera Gallery

Ok, I take it back. Did anyone go see the Richard Misrach show at the Henry last month? Did you see his weird, super abstract photos of the night sky, where he was matching up pantone colors? Misrach’s point in his photos (more monumental photos!) was that though the photos seemingly didn’t depict anything (and celestial bodies tended to look like dust smudges on his lens), they were, in fact, very specific photos of a particular place and date. Each was unique. The colors in Dailey’s paintings remind me of those photos, and the weird barriers also remind me a bit of a modern piece at the SAM that incorporates a window shade (rargh, can’t remember the artist, and it’s not in the online catalogue – will check tomorrow). Anyway.

The Motherwell pieces left slightly more of an impression. They are less pretty, more Rohrschach-like. I came away feeling like he was trying to say something vaguely sexual with his images…though maybe that’s just me.

Greg Kucera

Beau Geste IV (Robert Motherwell, 1989) Image: Greg Kucera Gallery

Catch Michael Dailey’s older work (1965-1999) at Greg Kucera through February 14. Those interested in his more recent paintings (2000-2008 – similar to the one above) can check them out at a tandem show at the Francine Seders Gallery through February 11. There is a reception on January 11, as well.

Robert Motherwell’s work is also on at Kucera through February 14.