Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Annabel Lyons - The Golden Mean

From the occasional book reviews department


'The Golden Mean' is an intimate book, as salty and as civet-scented as the men who people it. In it, Annabel Lyons reimagines the relationship between the philosopher Aristotle and his teenage pupil, the Macedonian prince Alexander, casting outwards and backwards to Aristotle's domestic life with his wife, children and later his servant-lover; his childhood; his apprenticeship of sorts to his physician father; his early years at Plato's Academy; his tenuous friendship with Philip the King. There is no plot, as such, unless you consider life itself to be a plotline.

Aristotle's philosophy peppers the book. Most obviously, and a little clumsily, it comes through on a lesson for Alexander and his companions that uses a near-dead chameleon to illustrate Plato's theory of Forms. Aristotle then strangles the chameleon and dissects it with the boys, a show-don't-tell moment in which Lyon's introduces Aristotle's own central tenet, of knowing the world through the close study of particular things. At this point in his life, most of Aristotle's heavy-duty theorising lies before him: Lyon's shows us seeds of ideas being planted. He asks the actor Carolus what makes a good tragedy:

"Funny question," he says. "A good death, a good pain, a good tragedy. 'Good' is a funny word."

"I'm writing a book." The response I default to when my subjects start to look at me strangely. And maybe I am, suddenly, maybe I am. A little work to bring me back here when I reread it many years from now, to this rain and this cup of wine and this man I'm prepared to like so much.

The golden mean in Aristotle's philosophy is the desirable midpoint between two equally dangerous extremes, excess and deficiency. Lyon's Aristotle is throughout the book poised between two points, often unhappily. He oscillates between dark melancholy, where he struggles to leave his bed and cries without knowing, and periods of 'golden joy' when thought flows out of his effortlessly. He is between two stints in Athens - he has been bullied by Philip into staying in Pella to tutor Alexander. He is between Alexander - brilliant, charming, terrifying, almost unearthly and his older half-brother, the retarded Arrhidaeus who Aristotle seeks to rehabilitate. Between his refined wife Pythia and the earthy servant Herpyllis, between his Macedonian roots and his Athenian learning, and perhaps most tellingly between thought, which he excels at, and action, on which Alexander challenges him.

Two things in particular struck me about this book. One is the writing - staccato, almost choppy, but not unbeautiful. Often pungent: in a particular favourite passage, Aristotle notes how he is teaching the Athenian Carolus to curse properly in dialect: "His diction is high and elegant and a bit prissy, but he's learning, slowly. "Fuck me" - I taught him that." And

He looks at me like I'm stupid. "Comedy makes you laugh. A couple of slaves buggering each other, I'll have that and thank you very much. How would you say that here?"

I think for a minute. "Ass-fucking," I say in dialect.

He grunts. He likes it.

There's something very human about a normally profane Aristotle. Human is my key word for this book. Human, and 'man' too - this is a book of men. This is the second thing that struck me. Men talking, fighting, fucking, loving, thinking, battling, all with each other. Women are back in their houses, literally and metaphorically - this is a man's world, and sex soaks through it. "It's all sex with you, isn't it" says Aristotle to Carolus lightly, who replies with more seriousness:

"It's in the air, the dirt, the water. It touches everything. ... They celebrate with it, they make people suffer with it, they do their business with it. They run the kingdom with it."

Lyon has done the near impossible, and made personalities so famous and remote they seem abstract into fleshy, faulty, fully fashioned men. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011


Congratulations to LACMA, who have started releasing great big hi-res images of public domain works in their collection for unrestricted use.*

They join all the institutions who are releasing photos through The Commons on Flickr and the V&A and British Museum who offer free self-service downloadable images to qualifying users and publishers.

I've heard whispers lately that picture libraries in cultural organisations don't generate much revenue. I'm *not* saying they don't do a good and useful job, getting people to the images they want, getting people copies of those images and - some - helping with the copyright process. But the cost models - where you pay the same amount for an image that's already been digitised and to get an analogue item digitised, where you pay the same amount for delivery on a CD and delivery by FTP, where you're paying for someone to process your form when really a database can handle the job (or you could just face up to the right-click facts of life) - are broken.**

So how can we refactor picture libraries to focus on the good stuff - getting people to things and helping them use them - and take the focus off the dull stuff (forms and CDs)? I'd love to see some NZ institutions makes it as easy as LACMA, the V&A and the British Museum.

*with the caveat that you use them at your own risk and request that you acknowledge LACMA and trust me - I've written these pages, and that's as close as you're going to get to an institution singing a rousing chorus of born free, as free as the wind blows, as free as the grass grows ...

** user testing on a project I'm currently working on recently showed that some people assume if you can right-click and save a copy of an item, that means it's copyright-cleared. Now, that's interesting.

Friday, 25 March 2011

The hardcore life (and copyright)

Three things this week have gotten me thinking about copyright, fair use and trademarks in the arts.

First, the Historically Hardcore kerfuffle. Art student Jenny Burrows and copywriter Matt Kappler collaborated in 2009 to create three poster advertisements for their school portfolios, using the Smithsonian as their 'client'. Taking 'historically hardcore' as their theme, they juxtaposed current pop figures against historical figures

After the posters went viral this week, Jenny Burrows contacted the Smithsonian and, when they requested that the posters be taken down, removed all of their branding from them, replacing it with generic 'Museums - Historically Hardcore' strapline.

While I can understand the Smithsonian's position, it's still a somewhat joyless approach. Yes, brands have to be protected, and when you're an institution that's often under close political and public scrutiny, your reputation matters a lot. At the same time, a little humour and reciprocity could have gone a long way. I admire the grace with which Burrows and Kappler have handled this situation, which I very much doubt they anticipated when they started tossing ideas around.

Story on the Boston Innovation site

On the Behance Network

Jenny Burrows blogs about Historically Hardcore

And coverage on the DCist

Meanwhile in Manhattan, a Federal judge has found in favour of photographer Patrick Cariou in his copyright lawsuit against artist Richard Prince. Prince took Cariou's photographs, which first appeared in Cariou’s 2000 publication, Yes, Rasta, and used them in his own “Canal Zone” series. While Prince argued fair use, the judge found that there was little, if any, transformative element in Princes works, and that they had been created primarily for commercial purposes.

The Art Newspaper has a good article that digs into the details of the ruling and blogger and art dealer Edward Winklemann has an interesting take on the finding.

And finally, artist and copyright lawyer Alfred Steiner talks to The Millions about his work 'Substantially Similar' for the Drawing Centre's 'Day Job' exhibition, where artists were invited to submit pieces that showed how their day jobs influence their artistic practice. Taking Jeff Koons (another artist notorious for his appropriation work) as his starting point, Steiner suggests that "copyright antagonizes artistic freedom while providing artists no discernible benefit".

Thursday, 24 March 2011


This interactive in the Guardian, showing a timeline of protests in the Middle East, is a lovely example of giving access to news-that's-still-news, as I whinged about earlier this week.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

On what remains

I've been thinking a lot lately about the physical existence of books. Not in a metaphysical way, but a wondering-when-they-will-stop-making-them kind of way.

I think soon when people put a book to print, it will be because putting into physical form brings something that an e-format wouldn't make: like the colour-saturated pages of Lauren Redniss's 'Radioactive', or Judith Schalansky's 'Atlas of Remote Islands', where the restraint of the design plays off against the pleasure she describes into walking your fingers over a map. To make a book physical will be to make it covetable for its very form.

Then again - you can't predict the future. And the physical nature of books has a way of speaking, as much as the words in them. Take these two recent articles from the New Yorker book blog

One includes this photo of a library in Sendai, Japan, and muses on the outflowing of photos of books rocked from their shelves in the earthquake:

Books shaken to the floor provide a good visual measurement of the power of the quake: we can easily visualize how the rows looked before, how nice and tidy they were, and we can imagine the sort of force needed to dislodge them. But the images also allow us to glimpse the destruction in a relatively benign environment—books are not people.

The other describes the work of photographer Yuri Dojc, who seeks out and photographs Jewish books that survived the Holocaust.

I've been thinking about books and memories this year, waxing all nostalgic about issues slips. Remember those? The cards that got taken out of a book and tucked into a wooden box until you returned it to the Library? The flimsy sheet of paper glued into the inside back cover, and the satisfying ker-chunk of the date stamp as it imprints your due-date.

(Or the lack of an issues slip at all).

I want to bring them back. Partly because I loathe the slippery issues slips you get given now - useless as bookmarks and as reminders. Partly because I miss that joy of opening a book and realising you're the first person in twenty years to want it enough to take it out. And partly because of the sense of history and yes, even community, that builds up around a well-used issues slip. Yes, it would be very convenient to have the library catalogue hooked up to my calendar, so a reminder is inserted the day before a book is due. But it would be damn near romantic if you put a date-stamp next to the self-issue machine and let me mark my books myself.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Not just news, but important news

The 9pm news update last night featured the United Nations-backed bombing of Libya, and the death of a polar bear in in a German zoo. It's easy to agree that one of these items is an occasion that will enter the history books, and one of them isn't.

Yet the media often doesn't make the distinction. The cover of the Sunday Star Times featured an acquittal under the 'anti-smacking law' and an article about the dilution of the All Black brand through over-marketing. It's completely possible that the item from the weekend's news that will end up being most important was buried on page 18 of the business insert.

I would love to be able to flick back through a newspaper's online archive and be able to view each week's most important articles - not the most blogged, not the most emailed, not the most inflammatory, but the ones that turned out to report events and occasions that signalled the start of a change, or the end of an era, or the moment beyond which a path was set.

While I'm waiting, I'm reading James Fallow's lengthy and fascinating Atlantic article, 'Learning to Love the (Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable) New Media'.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Weekend reading

The New York Times yearly museum special section is a special treat (especially when it appears in the same day that the NYT reveals its paywall plans - woe, woe, woe). Here's what I'll be reading this weekend

The Spirit of Sharing, by Carol Vogel: about the ways museums are reaching out, and starting off with a profile of long-time hero, Shelley Bernstein

A Growing Use of Private Art in Public Spaces, by Judith Dobrynski
: about the tensions of staging exhibitions of private collector's work.

Supplementing a Physical Collection, Online, by John Hanc
: about hybrid museums that are more event and online-focused than centred on their buildings

Scent of a Museum, by Carol King: Chandler Burr curates a perfume exhibit (I bet you'd break out of the 'women, 45 plus' bracket if visitors to the show really did experience it by sniffing cute women)

Speaking digitally about museums, by Jennifer Preston
: I'm hoping this isn't just a standard how-museums-use-social-media story

And the one I'm most excited about - An Interactive Exhibit for about $30, by Nick Bilton - using Arduino to make cheap in-gallery interpretative materials.

Judith Schalansky - Atlas of Remote Islands

Envy is not a pretty emotion. It makes you feel empty, and small. Thankfully my delight in Judith Schalansky's 'Atlas of Remote Islands' was great enough to overwhelm the occasional twinge of envy that she, and not I, has made something that I find so utterly covetable. (Made worse, let's be honest, when I just discovered that she's a year younger than me).

Of course, I couldn't have created this book: it grows entirely out of Schalansky's own self. Her discovery of the household atlas as an eight-year-old in East Germany - her incredulity that places out there exist:

I grew up with an atlas. And as a child of the atlas, I had never travelled. The fact that a girl in my class had actually been born in Helsinki felt unimaginable. ... To this day, I am baffled by Germans born, for example, in Nairobi or Los Angeles. Of course I know that Nairobi and Los Angeles exist - they are on the maps. But that someone has actually been there or even been born there still feels incredible to me.

her recognition early in life that maps depict only one of many stories:

Then I looked for my country: the German Democratic Republic. East Germans could not travel, only the Olympic team were allowed beyond our borders. It took a frighteningly long time to find. It was pink and tiny as my fingernail. This was hard to equate: at the Seoul Olympics we had been a force to reckon with, with had won more medals than the United States: how could we suddenly be so infinitesimal?

the sudden expanding of her horizons:

My love for atlases endured when a year later everything else changed: when it suddenly became possible to travel the world, and the country I was born in disappeared from the map. But by then I had already grown used to travelling through the atlas by finger, whispering foreign names to myself as I conquered distant worlds in my parents' sitting room.

Aesthetically, Schalansky's book is one of the most gorgeous things I've handled. This is another part of the uniqueness of her vision - it is all her work: writer, typographer, illustrator. She limits her palette to black, grey, plover-egg blue and brilliant orange, and then she makes magic within her own restrictions. Each double-page spread features on the right a scale drawing of the selected island, carefully etched with place names in fine cursive script; on the left, a catalogue of information, including alternate names, size, number of inhabitants or residents, distance from other land and a brief timeline (I am in love with the slanting lines of these of the distance measurements and timelines).

But the real magic is in the short pieces of text - almost prose poems - that accompany each of the 50 islands. The book is sub-titled 'Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will', and the entries lie somewhere between research and hallucination, like the author feel asleep over her papers and dreamed of these faraway places, awoke, and tried to capture that feeling of distance, strangeness, heat, cold, the incessant beat of the waves.

The tales range from Amelia Earhart's disappearance to a band of women stoving in a men's head with a shovel; killer crabs to infanticide; burning penguins to treasure maps. I limited myself to no more than five or six islands a day when reading the book, so I wouldn't become used to Schalansky's style and start skim reading. Instead, I tried to absorb each entry slowly, and to stay in her world. Every entry is in the present tense, whether the story is from the 1800s, the 2000s or an unnamed time - this lends them both an immediacy and a timelessness. My heart thrilled to some mentions - Thule has been part of my imagination since a childhood soaked in Rosemary Sutcliff's Roman Britain, Tristan da Cunha since sighting William Hodgkins' majestic oil paintings, the Scandinavian names feels strangely like home, a combination of poring over Norse myths and Roald Dahl's childhood biography.

I had to resist turning between each entry and a quick trip into Wikipedia to fact check and fill in the gaps. I'm glad now that I did, that rather than trying to turn the book into non-fiction I let it stay in the litterol space it was conceived in. I am happy to have that time inside Schalansky's imagination, and to let mine roam free too.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Social media, museums & artlovers

If you're an early riser, you might like to participate in a live Twitter session tomorrow morning (6am New Zealand time), organised by the New York Times and featuring the following luminaries:

  • Shelley Bernstein, Brooklyn Museum @shell7
  • Rob Stein, Indianapolis Museum of Art @rjstein
  • Ian Padgham, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art @origiful
  • Erin Coburn, Metropolitan Museum of Art @metmuseum

The hashtag is #nytmuseums. If, like me, you're unlikely to be glued to the screen at 6am, you'll be able to recap the conversation in this chat room.

Can we have these in New Zealand, please?

I heard about Christian Marclay's 24-hour film 'The Clock' via the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast. As described in the New York Times, Marclay

weaves together thousands of snippets from throughout the history of the movies (and, to a lesser extent, television), each clip marking the precise minute, or sometimes the second — with a glimpse of a clock or a watch or a snatch of time-related dialogue — in which the viewers are experiencing it in real time.

The film had people queuing for hours in the middle of the New York winter. The gallery where it was showing (Paula Cooper Gallery) did a decent thing and didn't limit the time people could spend in the space: thousands of people visited.

I would also love - really, really love - to have a Sol LeWitt wall drawing show in New Zealand. In many ways it seems like such an economically sound choice; no insurance, no couriers, no freighting, no expensive fitout. However, as this Walker Arts Center blog post makes clear, it would require days and days and days of painstaking work by experienced wall drawing executers. Still, it would be worth it. Those things sing and soar, beguile and bedazzle, intrigue and surprise you. I want.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Listen up

Two National Radio pieces I'm trying to get round to listening to, and you should as well:

Kim Hill interviews Michael Parekowhai and Cushla Parekowhai in the build-up to Michael's work going off to represent NZ at the Venice Biennale

Kathryn Ryan interviews Michael Edson Director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian, and all-round delightful man.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Oliver Sacks - The Mind's Eye

From the occasional book reviews department


I have this little mental game I play with myself to pass the time - when I'm walking or driving by myself, usually. If it had a name, it would probably be called something lame, like 'Choices'. In it, two or three options for a particular choice are available, and I have to justify to myself why I pick the option I do. It's like debating with myself, I guess, and it goes something like this:

Palmerston North, Wanganui, or Hamilton? (Hamilton)
Taller or thinner? (Taller)
Live to 70 or live to 80? (80)
Live to 80 or live to 90? (80)
Smarter or prettier? (Prettier)
Amputation or paralysis? (Amputation)
Paralysis or head injury? (Depends on the severity)

Oliver Sacks is a neurologist (if you don't know that already - he's up there with Dawkins in the recognisable scientists list, and I don't believe Richard Dawkins has ever been played by Robin Williams). This is Sack's 11th book, most of which are filled with case studies of his patients or correspondents, as he seeks to "show us what is often concealed in health: the complex workings of the brain and its astounding ability to adapt and overcome disability". 'The Mind's Eye', as the title suggests, is focused on brain damage - usually stroke - that leads to visual disorders.

'The Mind's Eye' had me playing a different kind of Choices. Blind or Deaf? (Deaf). Lose your stereoscopic or peripheral vision? (Stereoscopic). Prosopagnosia (inability to recognise faces and/or places) or alexia (inability to read)? (Alexia. Just. Agonisingly.)

It was the case studies of alexia that filled me with horror. I tried to imagine getting up one morning, flipping open the laptop, and not being able to read. Not just not able to piece together the letters of the alphabet, but not even recognising the alphabet. Having those 26 little shapes, so deeply engrained in my brain, appear as unfamiliar as Cyrillic script. Perhaps not only not being able to read, but suddenly, unable to write. Or worse yet, total - global - aphasia: the loss of the ability to process language in anyway, to make sense of words spoken to you, to speak, even, in some cases, to think. Sacks quotes psychologist Scott Moss, who had a stroke at 43 and became aphasic:

When I awoke next morning in the hospital, I was totally (globally) aphasic. I could understand vaguely what others said to me if it was spoken slowly and represented a very concrete form of action ... I had lost completely the ability to talk, to read and write. I even lost for the first two months the ability to use words internally, that is, in my thinking ... I had also lost the ability to dream. So, for a matter of eight to nine weeks, I lived in a total vacuum of self-produced concepts. ... I could deal only with the immediate present. ... The part of myself that was missing was [the] intellectual aspect - the sine qua non of my personality - those essential elements most important to being a unique individual. ... For a long period of time I looked upon myself as only half a man.

'The Mind's Eye' is Sacks' most intimate book yet. Not only does he talk about bis own prosopagnosia (so severe he may not recognise his assistant and friend of 20 years when she's waiting in a cafe for him, or be able to distinguish his face in a window from the face of a man on the other side, or remember how to get to his own house if he deviates from his familar path: qualities that have lead to him being described as everything from pathologically shy to having Aspergers Syndrome). But he devotes a long chapter, 'Persistence of Vision', to excerpts from the journal he kept after a malignant tumour appeared next to his fovea behind his retina in his right eye. The tumour was treated first by inserting a radioactive plaque for several days; then with several lasering sessions; he nonetheless lost his stereoscopic vision (depth perception) and a large chunk of his central vision: after a bleed, his lost his peripheral vision.

It seems a strange thing to say, but sight really matters to Sacks. From childhood (I thoroughly recommend his autobiography of his childhood, 'Uncle Tungsten', my favourite of his books). h has been obsessed with sight in all its manifestations, played out in photography and stereoscopy (he is a member of the New York Stereroscopic Society, a group that gets together to marvel over three-dimensional imaging). 'Persistence of Vision' tracks Sacks' experiences and feelings over several years, from sanguine to panicky to despairing. From the day he first noticed first a fluttering in his vision, and then a scotoma (blind spot), visits an opthamologist and is referred for a later appointment with a surgeon:

Back at my apartment that evening, testing my right eye, I was startled to see that the horizontal bars on the air conditioner all seemed to be warped, converging and collapsing into one another, while the vertical bars diverged. I cannot remember how I spent the rest of the weekend. I was very restless, I went for long walks, and when I was inside, I paced to and fro. The nights were especially bad - I had to knock myself out with sleeping pills.

Inevitably, self-pity seeps through: at Christmas he looks at the NYT list of people who died in 2005, and wonders if he will appear on the 2006 list. It's not really self-pity, though: it's part of the relentless self-examination he places himself under, tracking each change and quirk (his scotoma is the shape of Australia - “complete with a little bulge in the southeast corner — I thought of this as its Tasmania.”; he learns he can fill it in, with patterns from the carpet, the leaves of a tree, the blue of the sky).

Sacks' case studies have fascinated me since I first read them in my third year at uni, when taking a neuropsychology paper. One of the reasons I dropped psych and stuck with art history is the appalling damage psychologists and scientists have done, often inadvertently (but not always) as they seek to understand the human brain. You can't hurt anyone with art history, I reasoned. Sacks' humaneness though continues to shine though. Recommended, even if you just read the bits about himself.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Friday, 11 March 2011

Well, shit.

Over breakfast yesterday morning this article, about Vivian Schiller, the CEO of America's NPR, caught my eye in my feedreader. I skimmed over it, got excited about this section

Schiller’s style has succeeded somewhat in piercing NPR’s infamous bureaucracy. NPR correspondent Adam Davidson saw this firsthand when Schiller and he accomplished in one meeting what he had been unable to do for months inside the NPR management maze.

Davidson had participated in a rare NPR collaboration with a reporter from another public-media organization—Alex Blumberg of This American Life, which is produced by Chicago Public Radio and distributed by PRI—and the result had been a hit. “The Giant Pool of Money,” a masterfully clear and lively hour-long report on the causes of the housing crisis, aired in May 2008 on This American Life, the popular weekly show hosted by Ira Glass, and won an immediate outpouring of praise and several journalism awards. All Things Considered ran a shortened version of the story. Blumberg and Davidson proved radio could do long-form journalism about economics and finance that could excite and engage a broad, general audience. They wanted to keep doing it. But how?

Davidson and Blumberg came up with a concept for what they called Planet Money; it would be part blog, part podcast, part radio-reporting team. Davidson was NPR’s global economics correspondent but Blumberg, a producer for This American Life, didn’t work for NPR. And the multiplatform unit was neither a show, like All Things Considered or Morning Edition, nor was it a desk, like the business-news desk or the science desk. NPR is organized into shows and desks, apples and oranges. Planet Money was a kumquat.

and instapapered it for lunchtime reading.

Between getting to work and lunch, this article popped up in my feedreader ....

Gutted. Schiller - who, according to the first article, was doing some pretty amazing things at an institution that I admire and enjoy, has fallen on her sword after the top-flight fundraiser she brought in got taped criticising Republicans and Tea Partiers by people posing as potential donors (and, I suppose, Republican supporters). Impolitic at the best of times, and even more so when said party is trying to slash your budget.

That first article is well worth a read however: the challenges posed by a huge hide-bound institution that has a hundreds agitated stakeholders and a threatened budget, and the solutions Schiller found, are good lessons to all arts organisations right now.

Last night, I listened to a Slate Culture Gabfest, recorded on 9 March - so just before Schiller's resignation was announced. Farhad Manjoo was a guest on the show, talking about his recent piece in Slate on the complaint letters by NPR listeners. It's one of those classic American rants, but also an interesting insight into the audience growth and demographic for NPR - it's not what you might expect.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

"The world of abstract art is more accessible than people realise"

At last science comes to the rescue of the arts, with a recent psychology study showing that actually, yes, people can often distinguish between abstract art and paint flung on a canvas by an elephant. Or a monkey. Or a four year-old.

Participants in the study were first shown 10 pairs of images, one by a bona fide artist (artists whose works were used in the study included Gillian Ayres, Helen Frankenthaler, Philip Guston, Hans Hoffman, Clyfford Still and Cy Twombly) with the signature erased, and one by a monkey/chimp/gorilla/elephant/child.

The next 20 pairs of images were half correctly labelled (child, artist, gorilla ...), and half mislabelled (for example, a work by an artist attributed to a gorilla).

From the paper's abstract

Participants preferred professional paintings and judged them as better than the nonprofessional paintings even when the labels were reversed. Art students preferred professional works more often than did nonart students, but the two groups’ judgments did not differ. Participants in both groups were more likely to justify their selections of professional than of nonprofessional works in terms of artists’ intentions. The world of abstract art is more accessible than people realize.

More details, and a table of results for those so inclined, here. And more on the methodology here.

The friend who sent me the link to the study observed that he'd be fascinated to see a similar exercise, but with participants asked to rank artworks in similar styles of similar subjects, by unknown/amateur artists and what I'll call - for lack of a single word - the-kind-of-artist-who-gets-an-exhibition-at-Auckland-Art-Gallery-or-is-represented-by-Hamish-McKay. This made me think: would a watercolour of irises by Flora No-Name rank more highly than one by Rita Angus? Would it matter if it did?

Whenever I try to defend the way the art world works to my non-art friends, I flounder and founder. All I can say is that artworld consensus - in the shape of the major public galleries, dealers, critics, auction houses and academics - place artists on a series of concentric circles, the innermost of which is blue-chip/genius/blockbuster/artists for the ages, and the outermost is you, at home, noodling about on a piece of paper while you're stuck in a phone queue. Some - like Henry Darger - will traverse the lines, but only rarely. Some will move from the innermost circle outwards as their reputation falls, and some will move inwards; extrapolate that over centuries, and you've got art history. But we'll only ever be able to explain and defend this with words and never - the study above aside - science.

Image, from Psychology Today
Left: a painting by 4-year-old named Jack Pezanosky. Right: Laburnum, by Hans Hoffman

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Websites websites websites

As noted at Over the Net, Hamish Keith, working with Katipo and using the Kete software, have put together a site for people to record artworks, antiques and other objects at risk in Christchurch -

I'm building up towards a piece on iPhone and iPad apps for looking at art - in the meantime, have a look at the newish, heavily social/interactive artfinder site (and Jonathan Jones' review in the Guardian). Jones categorised the artfinder site as an 'online museum', a move the site's creators responded to in a blog post

There’s one thing we wanted to correct though and that is that we’re not an online museum. We’re a website. Museums are special, magical places and not all online things have to be an analogue of a real world thing. We’re proud to be a website, it’s what we always set out to be. There are points when we’ll do museum-like things. We’ll curate, juxtapose, hopefully inform, delight and convene. But these are things that websites can do too. What we hope to be is a website where related works from disparate museums can be brought together so you can find more art and artists that you love. We could spend all our time trying to replicate every minute facet of the museum experience in a virtual space, but that’s not the intention of Artfinder. The intention is to be a new way to find and collate and share the art you love and we feel the best vehicle for that is a website. There are other parts of the service that we’re working on at the moment where the best vehicle may either be an app on a smartphone, or an app on a tablet device. These won’t be analogues of museums either, they’ll be their own things, but essentially, they’ll be apps and we’ll be proud of that fact as well.

Also recentish - the Guardian's book site for children (which looks remarkably like its books section for adults, but which is aimed at 7 year-olds up to teenagers, and encourages them to write for and interact on the site). If you prefer your reviews by adults, the New York Times archive of children's book reviews is quite something.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Making it real

I remain fascinated by digital things that are re-released into the world as physical objects.

Over the weekend on the New Yorker site, Ian Crouch blogged about Tweets from Tahrir, an edited collection of tweets from the popular revolution that overthrew Murabak in Egypt:

Alex Nunns, a British journalist, and Nadia Idle, an Egyptian who was on the ground in Cairo during the protests, began archiving tweets as they were posted, and have been combing through feeds ever since to build a portrait of, as Nunns tweeted in February, a “1st draft [of] history.”

Crouch's piece makes some interesting points about how collections like this function in the traditional publishing model, asking whether the publishers are paying the original tweeters (no - the relationship, says the publisher, is with the editors, although the tweeters have been contacted and have given their permission).

Brock Shinen, an intellectual property and entertainment lawyer, has written that tweets could rarely, if ever, be protected, largely because they trade mostly in facts, which do not fall under copyright. So tweets from Cairo, such as “OMG, Mubarak’s thugs are storming the square on camels!,” might provide a thrilling glimpse into events as they were happening, but they are just short communications of observable fact. Even an incisive tweet: “Egypt’s revolution most important since 1989,” likely lacks the originality or creativity to be protected. Yet the content of tweets may not be entirely given over to the world; a ruling last year in the case of a Haitian photographer whose Twitpics had been printed by several news agencies, including Agence France-Presse, without permission or payment rejected AFP’s claim that printing a photograph was the same as retweeting someone’s post. Twitter users may retain certain rights, though it’s unclear as to how generally applicable this case will be.

I realised when reading this that one of my own tweets has already been collated into a print book. In February 2009 Carl Malamud ran for the position of Public Printer in the States on a platform of open data, and gathered tweets in support of his application into a PDF and printed book. I have a copy of the print book at home. My tweet is on the second page. Malamud didn't become Public Printer, but it was an early intimation for me of what being connected to something big could feel like on Twitter.

Another - rather exquisite - example of this physical/digital, activism-linked trend is James Bridle's print edition of every edit to the Wikipedia page about the Iraq War between December 2004 and September 2009.

It amounts to twelve volumes: the size of a single old-style encyclopaedia. It contains arguments over numbers, differences of opinion on relevance and political standpoints, and frequent moments when someone erases the whole thing and just writes “Saddam Hussein was a dickhead”.

This is historiography. This is what culture actually looks like: a process of argument, of dissenting and accreting opinion, of gradual and not always correct codification.

And for the first time in history, we’re building a system that, perhaps only for a brief time but certainly for the moment, is capable of recording every single one of those infinitely valuable pieces of information. Everything should have a history button. We need to talk about historiography, to surface this process, to challenge absolutist narratives of the past, and thus, those of the present and our future.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Web muster

An enjoyable article by Joe Keohane for Slate, asking why pickpocketing is dying out in the States (and why culture at large holds a lingering admiration for this form of petty theft).

These photos strike me as teetering, Riefenstahl-esque, on the border of beautiful and creepy: a photodocumentary by Luke Duggleby Ron Gluckman in Foreign Policy about the Bangkok-based Dhammakaya movement.

A must-read: Gerald Marzorati (former New York Times Magazine editor) and Mark Danner (former New Yorker writer) on 'the fate of long-form journalism in a new media age':

One of the things that’s really taken off in the last 10-15 years: The public has a hunger to actually encounter the writers who are writing these pieces. One of the ways nonfiction writers are able to make money — not all nonfiction writers, but a fair number of them — is on the lecture tour. A kind of 19th century idea, the book as a loss leader for actually going out and encountering people.

You can check out more by Gerald Marzorati on the topic here.

Greater love hath no man than this, that he will set up a piss-take Twitter account: an Atlantic interview with the man behind Mayor Emanuel

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

All the right lines in all the right places

This is your last week to see Patrick Lundberg's exhibition 'Some Broken Lines' at Robert Heald Gallery.

The show feels like an anniversary - although Heald's gallery is not quite yet a year old, the opening exhibition was also by Lundberg.

This time round, the painted and altered pieces of found materials are joined by a wall drawing in pencil, and painted and marked up shoe-laces and straps (perhaps the descendants of Barnett Newman's Zips?).

Seeing Lundberg's exhibition after a couple of very noisy weeks, I felt instantly soothed. The calmness, the white space and all those restful lines. Something about Lundberg's strong but quiet aesthetic really draws in me. The installation shots of the exhibition can't do justice to the pieces within it - in photos they look a little washed out and lonely, whereas in the flesh, they are often bold (especially the acid yellow and green) and the resonating cumulative effect of all the falling lines seems to fill the space. Get along while you still can.


Patrick Lundberg
No title (4) (detail), 2010
Gesso and dye on strap
Image from the Robert Heald Gallery website

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Brand New

Landfall has got with the times and gotten itself online.

The online arm of the journal is being edited by David Eggleston. A new batch of reviews is going to be posted on the first day of every month for the coming year (except January).

The site is a one-year pilot in reviewing New Zealand books online, funded by Creative New Zealand. I'm assuming that the funding is going towards paying reviewers, as the site is using the free Blogger platform and doesn't appear to have been heavily customised.

The site joins an active network of New Zealand book and author blogs, headed by Beattie's Book Blog and featuring others such as Mary McCallum, Rachel King, Paula Morris, Quote Unquote, Chad Taylor, Tim Jones, Helen Heath, Sarah Laing, and buckets more (it would be nice to see the Landfall site throw a little link love the way of these sites, that being part of the point of blogs.

I was having a chat with some people in the publishing industry just a week or two ago about "the state of online book reviewing in New Zealand" and thinking about whether this (an aggregator of reviews of NZ books) was a gap that needs to be met. The Landfall site must have been reasonably under wraps in this otherwise chatty sector, or I'm sure it would have been mentioned. It'll be interesting to see what the outcome of the pilot is, and how, in the words of multitudinous strategy documents, success will be measured.

Irony alert. What I'm about to write is deeply hypocritical, but hey. I'm very surprised that the people behind the site picked Blogger. I know, I know, this is a Blogger blog. It's a legacy thing, folks. If I had more energy, I'd switch to WordPress. It'll happen one day, I swear. I even, thanks to a rather odd backstory, have an - interesting - domain name to call my own, when I get round to using it.

Blogger is good for blogging: updates posted in reverse chronological order. With the introduction of pages, it's become a bit more flexible. But WordPress is eminently more suited to being used in more of a magazine format, and far easier to style up beautifully. It should have been an obvious choice for a low-cost and flexible content management system to be used by people who are (presumably) inexperienced with such things. So if you know the thinking behind this decision - and if I'm horribly wrong - let me know in the comments.