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On Gutai and Our Plastic Obsession


There was an opening reception before Tyondai Braxton’s HIVE performance at the Guggenheim with access to the current exhibition Gutai: Splendid Playground. The first installation you come across are the sweeping plastic containers holding pockets of colored water, titled Work (Water) 1956.

My immediate impression was that the containers could burst open and hurl the water towards the ground at any moment, appearing as though over time the weight from the water stretched the plastic down inch-by-inch. I asked one of the guards if that was the case, but he said they’ve stayed the same since they were first installed. Looking at this picture now, after reading Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, it reminds of the strange physicality of plastic and its effect on our environment.

Plastic is known for its malleability, it can be stretched, wrapped, heated, and twisted. Where water can take the shape of its container, plastic can take the shape of its contents. As if through the alchemy involved in creating this new material we’ve inverted of one of water’s characteristic properties. A convenient new property, which we’ve taken full advantage of.

Despite it’s flexibility and myriad applications, plastic does a wonderful job of resisting decomposition long after it’s been discarded. If you’re curious to know how long, it seems there’s no definitive answer. Mainly because there are many different types of plastic, each containing varying chemicals, some toxic, some not, with their own timeline towards decomposition. There are also varying definitions of decomposition.

If you go poking around you’ll quickly find some claims of 10-12 years, some 450, some at least 1000 years and others saying never, “there is no real documented half-life, because there is no living organism that has evolved to where they could eat the elements that make up the plastic.” Although the work of Paul Stamets shows that we can use fungi growth to breakdown oil forming thriving ecosystems at former spill sites. Since plastic is made from petroleum, it’s probably only a matter of time until we develop fungal solutions used in breaking down our plastic waste.

Despite those uncertainties, the reality is we’re occupying a time where oil reserves will be exhausted in less than 30 years, with no viable transition plan. Like this Gutai installation, we’re in a state of flux although indefinitely still. Waiting for our governments, institutions, and employers to show us the way, but this awkward phase of waiting for the end; the end of nonrenewable energy, the end of unconscionable convenience, the end of destroying the environment to make way for our existence can all be seeded through individual action. A slight, continual change of behavior simply because we choose to care.

around this time last month i went to see tyondai braxton’s band / architectural installation, hive, perform at the guggenheim. the performance was setup in the rotunda where you were allowed to roam freely among the tiers of twisting floors and choose your vantage point for the show. we chose a spot where you rarely get to see musicians play, behind from above.

in this short clip of the frenetic drum ensemble, you’ll notice the strange pod that each of the performers were sitting on, lights peering through and bouncing off the perforated platforms.

i remember really enjoying the beginning of the performance. the drums were tightly syncopated with intermittent flourishes, which you’ll hear in this clip, followed by thunderous buildups that reminded me of traditional japanese drum ensembles. somewhere in between the electronics seemed to take stage and the overall tone felt more stagnant and droning. maybe that was the intention, a conflict between the analog and the digital, each one not knowing how to resolve the other’s presence.

i’ve never seen a performance like it before, which was the main reason for attending and i’m looking forward to future performances by braxton and whatever outfits he cooks up.

if you find yourself in the american museum of natural history’s butterfly conservatory, look for the one with transparent wings. it’s a superficial little bug that’s just fishing for compliments, but if you feed it some sugar it’ll refract light free of charge.

made this birthday card for me friend. please re-use.

Attending lectures at fancy universities

These words are not my own, but I do wish they were. If you’re thirsty for more, please visit their home, Secret School.

When I first moved to New York, there was not yet a Platform for Pedagogy or Nonsense List for fun events and lectures. However, there was a very nice university nearby that my husband attended. I found out that they had open wifi access throughout the campus, lectures that were free to the public, a library that was fairly cheap to access, and generally relaxed security. I started sitting in on large lecture hall classes that I found out about through their online registrar and even buying the books for the classes from their book store. In the end, I enrolled as a student there for a year, but this always struck me as an amazing way to have access to an ivy league education (for what that is worth to you) for little or nothing.

There were of course drawbacks to this system:

  • I could never let my guard down enough to socialize with the other students lest I be discover. This is a huge disadvantage as I found that learning is a very social process for me. It hindered me from really enjoying the lectures.
  • Although I attended large lectures where there were always empty seats, I didn’t feel totally comfortable not compensating the professor for their labor. So, I ended up buying their books, promoting their research, and taking classes with them later. Finally, contribute to overall good energy of and appropriate participation in the class. As a teacher, I would take a secret student that is engaged with the material over a sleeping, paying student any day.
  • This system still privileges universities as the site for a “proper” education, thereby perpetuating the hegemony of these institutions. This is a general problem in education and it’s important to always be critical about it.

If you want to try this strategy:

Do your research. Go to the school and scope out the security and the other students there. See if you can blend. See what you have legitimate access to (events, lectures, etc), and have a good reason to crash a course.

Don’t be rude. Respect the teacher and students there. Don’t be late and don’t go to small classes where it will be obvious that you are just popping in.

We trust you, so please trust us. Trade School is a litigation free zone.

Just came across this footnote on Trade School’s site. It’s a powerful little statement that I’ve never seen before, but quite like.

Hey, let’s act like responsible adults.

There will come a time when the proper education of children, by a glorified system of spontaneous education of choice, similar to the Montessori System, will be made possible. Children, as well as grown-ups, in their individual, glorified, drudgery-proof homes of Labrador, the tropics, the Orient, or where you will, to which they can pass with pleasure and expedition by means of ever-improving transportation, will be able to tune in their television and radio to the moving picture lecture of, let us say, President Lowell of Harvard; the professor of Mathematics of Oxford; of the doctor of Indian antiquities of Delhi, etc. Education by choice, with its marvelous motivating psychology of desire for truth, will make life ever cleaner and happier, more rhythmic and artistic.

-buckminster fuller

Every child has an enormous drive to demonstrate competence. If humans are not required to earn a living to be provided survival needs, many are going to want very much to be productive, but not at those tasks they did not choose to do but were forced to accept in order to earn money. Instead, humans will spontaneously take upon themselves those tasks that world society really needs to have done.

-buckminster fuller

(Source: en.wikiquote.org)

Wolf hunters

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This weekend, while out for a walk in Wyomissing, PA, I came across a pair of Irish Wolfhounds that stopped me dead in my tracks. The sheer size of these beasts was mesmerizing. They stood halfway up my torso at the shoulder and would’ve easily towered over me standing on their hind legs. Luckily they’re completely docile and enjoy curious company, so I decided to stick around for a bit while their owner shared his experience raising them for the past 40 years.

Historians date the breed back to 273 BC, but speculate they existed much earlier (c. 7000 BC). They were bred as war dogs, leading soldiers into battle and knocking enemies off their horses, and even fought and died for public entertainment in Rome’s Circus Maximus.

As the Celts moved on from mainland Europe to the British Isles they brought the wolfhounds with them to thin out the population of Irish wolves. It is believed that the last wolf in Ireland was killed by 1786.

I was imagining what they must look like running top speed, and managed to find a video of them coursing after a lure at what looks like ~40mph.

Enjoy…

Fictions to Build Upon

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I started reading the book River of Shadows: Eadward Muybridge and the Technological Wild West by Rebecca Solnit. It’s part biography of Eadward Muybridge, part survey of the Californian frontier circa the mid-1800s, and part investigation on how new inventions at the time (the transcontinental railroad, the telegraph, and Muybridge’s innovations in moving imagery), all lead to California’s most influential contributions to contemporary society, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. I know, straight brill.

I just finished the second chapter and want to point out its theme, as it’s coming up quite frequently in the field of design and architecture lately …

The West presented many opportunities to become what is commonly called a self-made man, a man of wealth, but it offered more profoundly an opportunity to make oneself up, as a fiction, a character, a hero, unburdened by the past. p.33

The West was to them an arena for self-invention, and truth was whatever the winner said it was. Joshua Norton, an English Jew who came to California via South Africa, initially made a fortune speculating in foodstuffs. In 1853, he tried to corner the rice market at twelve cents a pound, only to be ruined when Peruvian ships sailed in full of rice at three cents a pound. He apparently cracked under the strain of the crisis, then reemerged in 1859 with a proclamation he gave to the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin to publish, announcing he was emperor of the United States. Later he added “and Protector of Mexico” to his title. For the next twenty-one years he wandered the city, graciously receiving homage, chastising the disrespectful, and taking tribute in the form of free meals, free clothes, and small sums of money given for his irredeemable bonds, printed for free by local shops. His career as emperor was made by the collusion of the citizens of San Francisco and the newspapers that published his edicts, those old San Francisco newspapers that mixed together poetry and scandals and civic matters. p 35-36

So, the next time you find yourself exaggerating a story of something you experienced, think of Joshua Norton, the former self-proclaimed emperor of the United States of America, and try harder! Or better yet, ponder these words by Timothy “Speed” Levitch (from the documentary “The Cruise”):

“Your narcissism is…mediocre!”

At about the same time I started reading River of Shadows I went to see The Art of Scent 1889-2012 at the Museum of Arts and Design. I’ve never been to an exhibition like it before, obviously because scent was the main sense used in perceiving the work, but also because of the lack of imagery. In a bold move by exhibition curator Chandler Burr, he required all participating companies to renounce their fragrances of all branding, packaging, and marketing language. By stripping the fragrances of their persuasive pageantry each viewer is able to let their noses alone guide them. It made for a truly novel experience. What more can you ask for from an art exhibition, AMIRITE?

I didn’t want the exhibit to end. Luckily, a week later MAD hosted a show-and-tell-style talk between curator Burr and the house perfumer for Rochas, Jean-Michel Duriez, so I was sure to snatch a ticket. The event was a wonderful survey of the process of making fine fragrances through breaking down their raw materials, both natural and synthetic, used in the modes leading to the final creation. Hearing Burr’s opinionated, oft-flamboyant articulation of his interpretations of the fragrances and their constituent parts really made the night. The talk was recorded, so I was hoping to share, but it doesn’t seem to be online yet. So I dug a bit further and found a TEDx Talk he gave in 2009, which seems to be the announcement of his establishing the Department of Olfactory Art at the Museum of Art and Design and the precursor to the Art of Scent exhibition.

The exhibition has certainly stayed with me. Since my initial visit I’ve been thinking about the olfactory arts in new ways. One of them being how much work and practice must go into training one’s sense of smell in order to become a master perfumer. Knowing how much of an influence smell has over taste I’ve been wondering how someone with hyperosmia (an acute sense of smell) must experience eating. I picture these master perfumers having dinner parties where they’re curating smells as appetizers as a way to heighten the taste of each course. It turns out, Chandler Burr does just that. He calls them Scent Dinners.

So the other thing I’ve been thinking about is how the olfactory arts are going to become the new playground for fine artists in the near future. I think Burr’s championing of the olfactory arts as a practice deserving of the same reverence as the rest of the fine arts will usher in a whole new interpretation of scent-making and -perception.

One example recently popped up in a post by Fast Co. on the use of personal fragrances in branding. In the interview, ScentAir’s Director of Fragrance Development, Mark Signorin, shares his experience creating such fragrances for a dinosaur ride in Orlando, and simulations for the US military and airline pilots.

There’s a particular vocabulary to the world of scent. I’ve heard you use the words “billboard,” “thematic,” “ambient,” and “branding” to describe different approaches. What do they mean?

“Billboard” means you put a fragrance into the air, and that’s something they’re specifically trying to sell. So a Ralph Lauren store sells a line of fragrances, and we might put that into the air. “Thematic” means, with a company like REI, for instance, they may have a mountainscape, and we’ll put a woody type fragrance. Or they may have camping equipment, and we’ll put a campfire smell. “Ambient” is when a business just wants their customers to come in and feel comfortable. Maybe they want to take away any musty odors in the store.

“Branding” is the most complex. If you think about JW Marriott, they have a very defined brand: luxury without pretense. They gave us a big brand book, and we had multiple meetings with them. I had to develop a scent that would work in their big, “great room” type lobbies that in some cases have restaurants. I had to develop something I thought was going to work, not clash, and hit home the brand message.

So now we’re moving into an even more immersive experience with the brands of tomorrow, where they’re truly an ecosystem of their own. It seems insidious to think that a potential customer could enter a store like REI and the thematic scent would bring them back to a specific experience they had while hiking the Appalachian Trail, which fires off some endorphins and that revisited excitement influences a purchase, but hey advertising has always been pushing those boundaries. Now those fabrications are becoming all the more tangible.

Since we digressed a bit on the new influence of scent-making in branding I want to get back to the allure of the frontier that Solnit discussed in River of Shadows. The West was a muse to those inviting risk in pursuit of fame and fortune. It was a tabula rasa begging to be imprinted upon by the lives, stories, and fictions of its new inhabitants. By all those creative souls that were daring enough to leave their past lives behind at the opportunity to invent new ones.

A lovely example of this popped up with Roman Mars’ latest episode of 99% Invisible. The episode, titled The Zanzibar and Other Building Poems. Rodrigo Rojas, a Chilean poetry student,  found a way to integrate his poetry with real estate development during Santiago’s economic boom in the mid-1990s—by naming buildings.


It’s another testament to the power of storytelling in shaping reality. Rojas was especially keen on tapping into the psyche of developers and potential residents by crafting names and stories that encapsulated a future they aspired to live in.

And that’s the way it’s always been, hasn’t it? We conquer, we exile, we build new cities on top of old, we unseat monuments and erect new ones, we rewrite texts, and spread new gospels all in an effort to make one’s singular realities universal.

50,000 years ago our ancestors reached Australia and by 15,000 BC Homo Sapiens crossed into present-day Alaska via what is now the Bering Strait when it was either dry land or frozen. Then, within a few thousand years, they reached the southernmost tip of South America and, with the exception of a few islands in the Pacific, most of the world was colonised by humans by this time.* Why did we spread out to the ends of the Earth? Perhaps the same reason Eadward Muybridge left England for San Francisco…

Photographers sometimes scraped their plates clean to start over, and many of the negatives of the Civil War were recycled into greenhouse plates without being scraped, their images of the harvest of death gradually fading away to let more and more light in on the orchids or cucumbers beneath. p. 36

*A Short History of the World by Christopher Lascelles

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