Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
Alexander Calder drew his jewellery designs into a generic student’s composition book that’s an enduring classic. On December 23 last year the film critic Roger Ebert tweeted: “Ever notice how Artistic and Intense young women in coffee houses are always writing in one of these.”
It’s easy to imagine how this type of book might have emerged from traditional bookbinding. All of the pages sewn into one thick signature, a piece of heavy cloth glued over the outside fold instead of building a spine, and the marbled paper that was often used as end pages glued over heavy boards as a decorative cover. It’s an enduring classic. Machine mass production further simplified the form, replacing the stitching with staples and a single, flimsier wraparound board for the two sturdy cover boards.
As a child Alexander Calder made jewellery for his sister’s toys. In Paris in the 1920s he met a Yugoslavian man who advised him that he could make a living from devising mechanical toys. He bent wire into the shapes of animals and clowns and lion tamers and performed a circus with them. “I always loved the circus,” he said, “I used to go in New York when I worked on the Police Gazette. I got a pass and went every day for two weeks, so I decided to make a circus for the fun of it.”
He began to make mobiles after being impressed by coloured rectangles on a wall in Mondrian’s studio.
“The most important thing is that the mobile be able to catch the air,” he said. “It has to be able to move. A mobile is like a dog-catcher. A dog-catcher of wind. Dog-catchers go after any old dog; my mobiles catch any kind of wind, bad or good. Myself, I’m like my mobiles; when I walk in the streets I latch onto things too.”
His jewellery was made as gifts for friends. It included portraits in twisted wire that were a progression from the line drawings he’d made for the Police Gazette, letters of the alphabet and animal and plant shapes. His materials were bits of wire and string and shards of simple crockery.
“After their marriage in 1931, Louisa became less concerned with social conventions and lived a simple bohemian life with Calder,” his grandson Alexander Rower wrote in a monograph of Calder’s jewellery. “He would often observe her at work making bread or hooking rugs and go out to the studio to devise a tool to simplify her task. He made hundreds of gifts for her: sculptures, drawings, household inventions, and untold numbers of jewellery that she wore in her daily life. Many of them were created for a specific garment: buttons for a certain coat, a buckle for her black wool cape, etc.”
Calder trained as an engineer and worked in a car factory before moving to Paris. When asked how this affected his work he said: “It’s made things simple for me that seem to confound other people, like the mechanics of the mobiles. I know this, because I’ve had contact with one or two engineers who understood my methods. I don’t think the engineering really has much to do with my work: it’s merely the means of attaining an aesthetic end.”
In addition to his mobiles, Calder made large-scale fixed pieces he called ‘stabiles’. There’s a Calder stabile on the forecourt of the Australia Centre on George Street. A couple of biennale’s ago at the Museum of Contemporary of Art there were a couple of Calder mobiles on display and I’d marvel at their elegant weightlessness and then walk up to the stabile and admire the industrial precision of the stabile’s rivets and bracing that fixed the arced pieces immovably in place. “If a plate seems flimsy, I put a rib on it, and if the relation between the two plates is not rigid, I put a gusset between them – that’s the triangular piece – and butt it to both surfaces,” Calder said. “How to construct them changes with each piece; you invent the bracing as you go, depending on the form of each object.”
It was then I started thinking about making an exercise book that would be an homage to Alexander Calder. It would use vernacular materials: shellacked Kraft board, packing tape, duct tape, shellacked Kraft paper as end pages.
It builds upon the durability of the early versions of the marbled composition book. The exercise book is ‘engineered’, with a ‘floating’ spine that would enable the book to sit open at every page.
Alexander Rower wrote about his grandfather finding the “grace of functionality” in his “unpretentious handmade jewellery,” and described his “appreciation of the usually discarded.” The “usually discarded” today would include the mass produced exercise books that are a form of fast food. The paper in these notebooks is serviceably good but their construction is shoddy and their covers flimsy and the graphic design repellently ugly.
Since a Climate Change exhibition at the Australian Museum in 2009, I’ve been thinking that any exercise books I make should redeem and repurpose these ‘junk food’ exercise books. I could buy all of the materials in my neighbourhood: exercise books from supermarkets in Potts Point, newsagents in Taylor Square and Kings Cross, and there may be occasional troves of exercise books donated to Reverse Garbage. All of the materials to put the books together can be purchased at the hardware store on William Street and the Oxford Art Supply store.
And as Calder’s jewellery stayed within his community of artists, friends and family, it makes sense for my Calder exercise book to be sold in my neighbourhood.
I’ve realised I’m on skepticism overload. There’s a post from early August on Ben Eltham’s blog that I just got around to reading. He’s linked to an article about freelancing, by Richard Morgan, on The Awl.
I clicked through to the article and it was hilarious but the dial on my skepticism meter went into the red. It was a little TOO entertaining. He’d had such a picturesquely difficult time. It read like carefully plotted outrageously good and bad luck. And the happy ending of a staff job in Memphis? Hmmm. But if I follow William Gibson’s advice I should believe the unbelievable.
But what really got me wondering was this comment, which reads like spam doing a Robert Benchley impersonation:
“I think the freelance world may have changed a bit. As in, I believe modern-day freelance writers should also consider correct Web 2.0 Freelance Blogging methods. It involves time and effort, but the end result is enough AdSense revenue to subsist on as a freelance writer: * Blog often. * Write separate articles about your topic to submit to sites that accept articles (GoArticles.com, for example); the articles provide important back-links to your blog. * Quote and link to subject matter experts from within your blog. *Also post comments at blogs that allow comments (like this one), specifically for the additional back-links. * Lean toward maximizing AdSense placement, without overkill; in other words, placing AdSense ads at the top of blog posts between title and text will maximize exposure, but you are only allowed a certain total number of AdSense ads. * And, finally, don’t give up because it’s not a scam and it actually works over time. SK”
When I was reading about the News of The World reporters in London hacking into the message services of celebrities and sports figures and royalty in order to find stories, I started imagining what would happen if arts writers could hack into iTunes to siphon off the “most played” tracks instead of soliciting end of year “best of” record recommendations. We’d learn what people really listened to, rather than what they want us to think they listen to.
“Best of Lists” always seem excessively calculated, freighted with calculations about how the choices will reflect upon the chooser. In 33 Tracks, a kind of autobiography as discography, Nick Hornby begins by saying that the song he’s played more than any other is “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen, but he wishes that he could say that it was “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye, feeling that it would make him seem cooler, edgier.
Whenever I send a request to iTunes for the artwork for a CD that I’ve downloaded into the library, and it warns that the information is sent to Apple, I’ve wondered about the possibility of someone tapping into the data stream and figuring out who is playing what.
When I started as a music journalist, I didn’t have much of a frame of reference for popular music. I established more common ground with the musicians through the books that the musicians were reading. I always wanted to write stories that were conceptual art pieces, that simply noted what a musician was reading at that time and writing capsule reviews of the books. I wish I’d had the nerve to do it. I’d probably be having a career retrospective at MOCA in Los Angeles by now!
In the interests of full disclosure, as they say in the financial pages, here are my top ten most played songs, and (tied for equal first) most played album:
“We Have All The Time In The World” Louis Armstrong
“More News From Nowhere” Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
“Blues In Orbit” Duke Ellington
“Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend” T Bone Burnett
“Go Tell the Women” Grinderman
“My Ex-Wife” Don Walker
“Holy Rollers for Love” Jakob Dylan
“Splitting the Atom” Massive Attack
“Rich Girl” Hall & Oates
“Cow Cow Boogie” Ella Fitzgerald
Equal Most Played Albums
Blues In Orbit Duke Ellington
Laughing Clowns Live 2009
“I’ll take this souvenir store and reinvent this lowly form as something environmentally friendly that commissions great Australian designs made in Australia,” is what I think every time I walk past the big souvenir store on the lower concourse of the Sydney Opera House. Souvenir stores and fast food joints blight Sydney’s CBD. I’d fix fast food after I get through with souvenirs.
the view from my imagined souvenir store
A SECOND OUT OF SYNC
I’m motivated a little by irony. I lived in America and wrote on architecture, design and technology for nearly sixteen years, from New York and Los Angeles. Since moving to Sydney in 2007 it’s been impossible to pitch stories to international magazines from Australia. Australia isn’t rendered internationally in any granular detail, just as a set of icons: the Sydney Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, a koala, a kangaroo. If it’s the symbols that are known, I’ll write about the symbols.
Australia is a secondary market for technology. Products and services trickle through months after they’ve been released everywhere else, usually just at the moment they’re about to be put aside for the next new thing. “Oh, that iPad, forget it, I have an iPhone 4!” In a media market obsessed with product launches and rollouts and beta I have nothing to offer. I could write a coda to Michael Lewis’s book, The New New Thing, a study of the development of the Netscape browser, as the The Old New Thing.
In the David Tennant era of Doctor Who, when planets and the TARDIS needed to be rendered invisible they were placed a second out of sync. That’s the Australian market, a second out of sync. But paying attention to technology in Australia shows up its limitations and disappointments in a way that doesn’t happen when writers skip from launch to launch. We have a crumbling communications infrastructure, a crying need for communications services for rural areas, and the small market shows up the byzantine ways that digital rights issues and incompatible upgrades choke culture.
Mark Pesce is writing the first draft of these stories. He makes available online the transcripts of speeches he makes, and reports on his research in the development of software systems and interfaces and protocols, encouraging readers to take his thoughts and build upon them. The story of technology in Australia is in reporting around those reports, from many angles, cultural, social, political, financial, environmental, but at human scale, from street level, as city desk reporting. I think about how Charles Dickens or Edith Wharton or Jane Austen might have mused about how computers and consumer electronics impact upon Australian culture. They ARE NOT good models for me to emulate when I’m trying to sell a snappy pitch to an international finance magazine.
MADE IN AUSTRALIA
There are, obviously, already some excellent books and DVD’s on Jorn Utzon and the architecture of the Sydney Opera House. So I’d commission the design of a model of the Sydney Opera House that people would want to keep on their desks in a way that model Eiffel Towers and Statues of Liberty are.
Sometime last year it appeared that the owership of the big souvenir store on the concourse at the Sydney Opera House had changed hands. It used to sell some homewares designed by Jorn Utzon’s son, Jan, who oversaw the renovation of the Western Foyers that was completed last year. I’d bring those back, and expand upon the Utzon archive. Tonight I saw some greeting cards that were charming, from drawings made by Jorn Utzon in Majorca, where he’d lived since the 1970′s. He died in 2008.
Greeting card with a 1998 drawing by Jorn Utzon
I’d elevate the architecture and design. Up until last year the souvenir store I covet was a hybrid high design store: I didn’t often go in there. My memory is fuzzy. I’d let my reporting skills go to seed: I’ve started keeping a notebook again, writing everything down, aiming for precise observations. There might have been some excellent Droog products — snappy and witty light fixtures, I think — but mostly I remember deadpan haute kitsch, plywood elk’s antlers, messenger bags made made from recycled tyres on one side of the store and on the other pointe shoes worn by dancers from the Australian Ballet who’d signed them, CD’s of operas, and generic diaries made from handmade Italian paper with marbled detailing, that I think customers are supposed to read as “very operatic”. And in atolls of tubs throughout the store, keychains and posters and rulers and coffee mugs with likenesses of the Sydney Opera House.
The point is that the design pieces were placeless: international gift shop chic. They didn’t relate to the Sydney Opera House, or Sydney, or Australia. I’d change that. The Sydney Opera House is a fantastic place to think about sustainability. I don’t have the figures for how many visitors there are each day, they’re legion, and many of them want a talisman, something small and more-or-less functional to show they’ve been there. It’s a fascinating thought experiment, trying to imagine how to produce a few objects in volume, that might actually be useful.
What if souvenirs were a serious design problem? What if they really represented something about the country? I’m guided here by the Conflict Kitchen , in Pittsburgh, a take-away food stand featuring cuisines from countries America is in conflict with. Currently it’s Iran. Next is Afghanistan. The food wrappers have stories about the people from these cultures. It’s a conceptually profound project but the graphic design is also sharp. Australia’s Green Pages published a report about a pair of gumboots that collect and store energy as people are walking around in them: they’re targeted towards people at rock festivals who can use them to charge their mobile phones. I’m thinking along the same lines: forget the ugly mass-produced ceramic coffee cup with a silk screened image, and solve some problems with a coffee mug, or water pitcher, or fruit bowl. And on the surface, somewhere, it would indicate that this concept was generated and made in Australia. What if a table full of souvenirs from a world trip told a story about ingenuity, worldwide, and enriched your life once you got home?
Dan Hill from Arup’s Sydney office has been developing concepts for small-scale artisanal factories to exist within residential areas. The souvenirs I’m envisaging could all be produced in this way. And it would be possible to manage inventory by aligning production schedules with tourist seasons.
BEYOND PLUSH ANIMAL TOYS TOWARDS A NEW ERA OF FINE ART ANIMAL PORTRAITS
The first Europeans to visit Australia were bamboozled by the strangeness of the fauna and their heads spun trying to relate our animals to creatures they already knew. Joseph Banks compared a kangaroo to a greyhound. The surveyor William Govett, in the Blue Mountains at roughly the same time Charles Darwin was there having an encounter with a platypus that may have been the spark that ignited the Theory of Evolution in his mind, drew a koala as a hybrid small European brown bear and monkey. The painter John Skinner Prout, roughly thirty years later, painted kangaroos with faces that are half rat / half fox.
Many sculptural representations of indigenous Australian animals — either as plush toys or ‘classier’ objet d’art — look as though they could have been designed by confused explorers or conceptual artists. There are bizarre representations: Jeff Koonseque ceramics, bands of Swarovski like crystal koalas playing drums and saxophones, nordic blonde wood wombats and koalas that look more like polar bears, and creepy feline looking kangaroos and koalas that have yellow cat’s eyes and look as if they’re made from the pelts of feral cats.
There are two ways to re-invent souvenir animals. Taking the art route, inspired by Menagerie, the collection of animal sculptures by indigenous Australian artists that was hosted by the Object Gallery and Australian Museum in Sydney, and working with the artists to see if it’s possible to produce high-end manufactured pieces.
artwork by Danie Mellor
And commission Chris O’Doherty aka Reg Mombassa to make many things: he already has experience designing shirts and plates and lifestyle paraphenalia for Mambo, and his representations of animals restore their ornery charm and dignity, and reflect upon how the animals are used as marketing. His animal art pieces are a social commentary on Australian animals.
painting by Reg Mombassa
And for the plush toy market. I’d work with researchers, not only those studying the animals and their habitats, many of which are threatened. But I’d like an Oliver Sacks-ish perspective on how and why we relate to plush animals, what they mean to children, and create plush toys that are meaningful in every sense of the word.
I’d have an extensive collection of Tasmanian Devil pieces. The plight of the Tasmanian Devil touches me deeply. It represents some dividing line in our attitude towards biodiversity and the land. The sense that it could be extinct in twenty or fifty years is heartbreaking, it’s like watching the fantastic diversity of the world slip through our fingers. But the Tasmanian Devil is also an interesting creature because it resists a fluffy and cuddly makeover for the tourist market. There are considerably less Tasmanian Devil souvenirs on the Australian mainland (in Tasmania it’s naturally different) than other animals.
THE SOUVENIR BOOKLET
I’d have a tightly curated selection of essential books that tell deep, nuanced stories about Australia. Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters is on the top of my list. And I’d forage far and wide for advice and suggestions. And print up an annotated list of the books I don’t have the room for: lest this concept take over the whole store, as it could, and direct people to bookstores around the city to acquire the titles I don’t stock.
But what about the dumb, dull souvenir book of outdated Wikipedia-like exposition and even duller stock photography of important “scenes”: Harbour Bridge, check. Sydney Centrepoint Tower, check. Uluru at sunset, check. Does anyone ever look at these? What if there were a number of these books, more modestly produced, well written, with great photography and art, that were condensed. Just a few pointers. And they would change every few months. The older editions would be online, but the souvenir book would capture icons in a way that related to the time of your trip. They would be ‘aides memoir’, the painting of the Sydney Opera House could remind you of a performance you saw there. But it would also be an excellent gift, the kind of summing up, the “this is what I did on my holidays”, gesture that these books represent.
THE PERFORMING ARTS BOOKSTORE
Whenever I see a show that sparks my imagination, I want more. Sidi Larbi Cherkoaui’s Sutra is one of these shows. The show sparked in his mind from the time he spent in a Shaolin Buddhist monastery in China, and the monks are performing with him. It made me want to re-read Pankaj Mishra’s An End To Suffering: The Buddha in the World, about his quest to discover what he could about the life of the person, Shakyamuni. It’s also a meditation on the way Buddhism died out in India but spread to other places, China among them, where it took on its own character, influenced by the cultures it moved into, and remains strong. Pankaj Mishra’s introduction to Buddhism was through the works of Western writers, Herman Hesse’s novel Siddharta, for instance. I also want to re-read Richard Bernstein’s Ultimate Journey. He was a China correspondent for the New York Times, and in the middle of his life, uncertain about what path to take for himself, he retraced the journey of the Chinese monk Husan Tsang, who, In 629, made a pilgrimage to Buddhist sites in India.
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s dance pieces often reflect his eastern background viewed from his life in the west back towards the east, but through those mirrors that make infinite reflections back and forth. His works also cohere with those of the dancer Akram Khan, who he collaborated with on Zero Degrees, which played at the Sydney Festival in 2007, and the Anglo Indian musician, Nitin Sawhney, who provided the music for Zero Degrees, and has created a score for a production of the Hindu epic, The Mahabharata, staged by Sadlers Wells, and a score for an Indian silent movie (from the 1920’s) that covers a fragment of the Bhaghavad Gita, itself a fragment of The Mahabharata.
I’d team with Foruli, in the UK, which does special editions of musical works with books and packaged in extraordinary vessels — this concept is amazing — to create special editions of works by performers appearing at the Opera House.
Foruli music and book packaging concept
But I’d also have a collection of works from the Australian companies that use the Sydney Opera House as a home base.
STORE DESIGN AS MINIMALIST NARRATIVE
Even high end souvenir stores have poor layout. The merchandise is visually noisy and disparate, there’s no coherent design philosophy. There’s nothing sadder, to me, than a pile of plush koala toys nose down in a bargain bin. The store design I worship is the original Comme des Garcons store on Wooster Street in Soho in New York. A massive acreage of raw concrete, with a low, rectangular display table on the top floor, and a thrilling absence of merchandise on display. My tastes run to the exceptionally minimal: I was amused to read in a profile of John Pawson last week, that a group of monks who asked him to design a monastery for them after seeing photographs of stores he did for Calvin Klein, worried that his style might be too austere for them!
I want to raise the visual signal-to-noise ratio of souvenirs with some kind of minimalist display that allows the souvenirs to create a kind of narrative. People in the store will instantly be able to work out what kind of memento they want to take home: visual icon, storybook, useful item produced in the country.
And perhaps there’s a system where high volume merchandise is artfully displayed on carts that can be wheeled out and moved around the store at peak times: when an Opera House tour concludes perhaps. I was inspired by the way that Anthony Gormley’s simple wooden boxes were moved around the stage during Sutra.
Lighting, music, ambient sound, display cards: the exciting thing about having a souvenir store at the Sydney Opera House would be to bring set design into the equation.
I’m not going to go all Sex Pistols, shouting No Future! – I’m suggesting that we’re becoming more like Europeans, who have always retrofitted their ruins, who’ve always known that everyone lives in someone else’s future and someone else’s past.
William Gibson. The Atlantic
Items 31 to 50 of the Canon Alexis Madrigal has compiled for The Atlantic’s Technology section have been revealed as I write this. I own dogeared and much quoted copies of many of the books he mentions: Stewart Brand’s Media Lab, Steven Levy’s Hackers, Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine, Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things. They were much consulted reference works when I was a technology writer. I consulted them for facts and they make me think of fogs of mathematical formulae, bit of materials science arcana, notes to myself in the margins to look up something about fibre optic cables.
Looking at this list I now see the social history of technology, that these books chronicle great human moments when technology shifted society, from the perspective of the people who were driving these changes. This is most particularly brought alive to me in the paragraph descriptions of the books. Duchamp saying to Brancusi: “Painting’s washed up. Who’ll do anything better than that propeller?” from the Futurist Manifesto. And I learned – I’m astonished I didn’t know this – that H G Wells coined the term ‘atomic bombs’ in his book The World Set Free, which had inspired atomic scientist Leo Szilard.
It’s easy to stand back and reflect upon technology in Australia. It’s a secondary market and products and services arrive late so being interested in the shiny new things is pointless, eternal unrequited desire. I can trace the exact moment of my weariness with technology’s forward march to reading the Wired cover story about the Next Industrial Revolution and feeling that it was utterly wrong that we’d all rush into a Kinko’s-like rapid prototyping store to model the product of our dreams and then make direct contact with factories in China to make our own products. I was thinking about the decline of factories.
In 2009, when I went to the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival on Cockatoo Island in Sydney, which had been a brutal convict prison and a shipyards, I realised I had little practical knowledge of pre-transistor technology. A rusted box cover for a transformer looked more like a Donald Judd table to me, and a winch reminded me of an Alexander Calder stabile. After that I spent time at the Powerhouse Museum gaining practical working knowledge of steam engines with their interactive displays. And I began to read the Arnold Toynbee book included in the Canon alongside Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist.
The stories that interest me now are in the limits and disappointments of technology, and the anomalies. That the search engines and algorithms that are increasingly controlling our choices may malfunction. Is the reader Google sent to my blog really looking for “Michael Graves Cattle”? Is it a misspelling, a Google error or are there really cows with baby blue horns wearing bright red bird-bells round their necks?
At the other extreme, my carefully hand-tended Twitter stream is a complete delight: with posters expressing, sharp ideas, irony, and wit in less than a 140 characters, qualities an algorithm can’t ape. It seems like a new artform. Alexandra Lange’s design criticism of patiently accumulated small, ordinary details reminding me of Edith Wharton’s critiques of turn of the 20th century New York, and Rosanne Cash’s tweets being wry social commentary, again compiled from granular details, reminiscent of Jane Austen’s perspective.
I haven’t written about bookbinding for a while. The development of the Editions Ballard factory is slowly progressing but there’s no news to report.
The chain of creation I follow doesn’t start with Gutenberg but with the invention of the stapler in the 19th century and Chester Carlson’s invention of the photocopier in the 1930′s.
This is the most elegant and extraordinary book concept using facsimile pages.
This is a design concept by Andy Vella for a proposed limited edition of the Facory Records history ‘Shadowplayers’ by James Nice. It is not now going ahead, but we thought it looked so good that we would show it to you anyway.
The book provides an historical account of the record label. Therfore the concept was to make the whole book seem document-like. Every page would look like it had been copied – in fact faxed – but old-style pixellated type-wise for the body copy, leaving in the mistakes that naturally happen as part of this process.
The book was to be bound by a single ring of metal with various translucent items and a specific number. It would appear as a bunch of loose-leaf pages printed on very stable waterproof paper, bound by one object, then rolled and set within an airtight & watertight stainless steel canister which itself would be individually numbered.
I pushed the “buy this” icon next to the Grinderman single, “Heathen Child” on Saturday and was redirected to a page that said that iTunes had changed its terms and conditions and I’d need to agree to them if I wanted to complete the sale. Am I just getting old and so time seems to fly by, or do these terms and conditions really seem to change every couple of months? Usually I just hit the agree button and get on with it. There isn’t much of a choice. Disagree and don’t buy the song. Or agree and buy it. This time I emailed the terms and conditions to myself 56 (iPhone screen size) pages, and they make fascinating reading.
First of all, I’d never really stopped to consider how a credit card and iTunes mate. Reading how a straight credit card transaction might register as a series of micro-payments, while a voucher registers as something whole, upfront, was bizarre. It reminded me of that David Attenborough series, Life in the Undergrowth, where he put a microscopic camera into an ant colony and observed how a species of butterfly ‘charmed’ ants into caring for its chrysalis.
I remember about ten years ago, seeing a contract issued by an American record company that said something like it claimed ownership of the rights for the object in question, a music video, in any format currently existing or might be invented in the future, and on this or any other planet.
“Apple is not responsible for typographic errors.”
Once I’d reached the end of the 56 pages I felt that I didn’t own the music I owned and that I should decant it in some way – onto 786 CD’s if I do it album by album – and use my computer as a CD player.
Mostly it was the territorial restrictions that caught my attention.
“This service is available to you only in Australia, its territories, and possessions. You agree not to use or attempt to use the Service from outside these locations. Apple may use technologies to verify your compliance.”
Trade restrictions have existed as long as I’ve been buying records, since the punk rock era. I remember that there was a speakeasy quality to buying import records, stores down back alleys, records under counters.
With the punk rock bands everything was refreshingly open: bands in Brisbane, Australia; Athens, Georgia; and Akron, Ohio, could make their own records that reflected their own lives and interests and send them around the world.
I don’t have any interest in joining Apple’s Ping social networking service within iTunes 10, although I am aware now – after reading the contract – that it’s my responsibility to keep upgrading iTunes in order to make sure that I’ll have access to my music library.
I’ve been reading reports on tech blogs about Ping, that it only recognises iTunes purchases as music – and so the Beatles music, which isn’t available on iTunes – doesn’t register, and that it’s already riddled by spam and scams. I just want the simple, dumb stuff. A weariness has set in and I want to take a screwdriver to my computer and remove all of the filigree detailing I won’t ever use.
I’ve now bought my favourite album – Duke Ellington’s Blues In Orbit – on vinyl, on cassette, on CD and now on iTunes.
I’m going to buy the Grinderman 2 album on CD, the deluxe version with the 56 page booklet, from Phoenix Music in Potts Point. I went in there today and it isn’t in yet. I looked at the basic CD version, which is pretty spectacular in its own right, like a graphic novel, with illustrations that Nick commissioned from an artist who’d drawn cartoons of Grinderman and sent them to him. The vinyl version isn’t in stock yet either. I asked the owner of Phoenix Music if vinyl records are selling again. They never really went away she replied. Do people still have record players I asked. Some people just want the object she said.
The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program. The time or date displayed reflects when an article was added to or updated in Google News. From the Google News About Page
Google is not ours. Which feels confusing, because we are its unpaid content-providers, in one way or another. We generate product for Google, our every search a minuscule contribution. Google is made of us, a sort of coral reef of human minds and their products.
August 31, 2010 “Google’s Earth” New York Times Op Ed By WILLIAM GIBSON
If you need any proof there’s a cold war raging between collaborative filtering algorithms and human arts reviewers, and that the algorithms are winning, pick up a copy of the Spectrum liftout in Saturday’s edition of The Sydney Morning Herald. Turn to the music reviews, this week on pages 22 and 23. All of the short music reviews end with LIKE THIS? TRY THESE recommendations that I found just plain creepy when I noticed them a few months ago. A human reviewer aping Amazon.com’s CUSTOMERS WHO BOUGHT THIS ALSO BOUGHT THESE recommendations? The featured review has a pie chart of relative values that seem like a data set that an algorithm might consult to generate the BOUGHT THAT? BUY THIS recommendations.
Collaborative filtering algorithms suggest possible paths users might take through gargantuan databases. Another term for them is “social information filtering”. Algorithms are roughly equivalent to Coca Cola’s recipe and are jealously guarded. The general idea, though, is that your data is folded into the larger set of data provided by all users of the system, to suggest items you might be likely to buy on the assumption that humans are predictable, which, apparently, they’ve proved we mostly are. It used to be just YOUR data but now Amazon.com and Apple are pulling in social networking services. Amazon.com is running a beta test with Facebook so that you can be guided by the recommendations of your friends. Apple has introduced a social network, Ping, into iTunes 10 that’s mostly connected to the outside world through Twitter (tech blogs have unconfirmed reports of a deal between Apple and Facebook falling apart).
Amazon.com’s Adsense is the collaborative filtering algorithm closest to what a newspaper is, a collection of information surrounded by advertisements for stuff and services. The Sydney Morning Herald’s algorithmic approximations seemed to me to imply that any dividing line between advertising and editorial had irrevocably broken down, and, like Amazon.com, they’d serve up marketing suggestions within the general body of information. I recognised that it wasn’t the fault of the critics, that they were operating within a formula probably forced upon them by the business side of the newspapers rather than the editors, but yesterday was the first time I had a sense of the cost to the reviewers.
What an algorithm ‘wants’ is for you to feel so comfortable with the information it provides that you’ll make a purchase. What a reviewer should do is surprise, unsettle, or even just plant a seed. On Saturday Jazz critic John Shand reviewed Royal Toast by The Claudia Quintet a band he aligned with the sensibilities of Frank Zappa. His review was informed by having also seen them perform when they toured Australia in May. Jazz is my favourite music and the place where rock and roll overlaps with jazz particularly fascinates me : for example, Gil Evans’s arrangement of the music of Jimi Hendrix, the Laughing Clowns, The Bad Plus’s versions of songs by Blondie and Nirvana, and Cassandra Wilson’s interpretation of Miles Davis’s interpretation of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”.
I read The Sydney Morning Herald over coffee. I called up the previews of The Claudia Quintet’s album on iTunes and wanted to hear more. A quick Google search told me that they’d been at the Melbourne Jazz Festival, another plus, I admire its broad and adventurous perspective. So a critic had introduced me to something I might not have found on my own. And the LIKE THIS? TRY THESE recommendations turned out not to be marketing suggestions, or at least not very effective ones – Burnt Weeny Sandwich by Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention and Bravo Nina Rota by The Umbrellas aren’t available through iTunes and The Umbrellas CD is hard to track down.
And of Bernard Zuel’s review of Grinderman 2? It’s not what I hear but that’s not what’s at issue here. It’s that the pie chart detail – 28% the Devil, 28% the Clown, 28% Birthday Party, 16% Hubert Selby jr – doesn’t allow the critic to explain his references. Whatever I divine of the Birthday Party in Grinderman is on a distorted feedback loop fed into the inspiration Warren Ellis drew from them when he was forming the Dirty Three and back through Nick Cave’s admiration for the Dirty Three. And I wouldn’t say clown but ‘clowns’, Grinderman’s sound has an electrifying texture that aligns with new Bad Seed Ed Kuepper’s revived Laughing Clowns. But we’ll likely never know what Bernard Zuel means by his references.
ALGORITHMS SUGGEST CONTENT ENHANCEMENT FOR BLOG POSTS
A few weeks ago the blogging platform WordPress announced a new feature from a company called Zemanta that would “enhance” posts with “relevant images, videos, and links”.
“We analyse your post through our proprietary natural language processing and semantic algorithms, and statistically compare its contextual framework to our preindexed database of comment.”
The language used by companies seeking to elevate the perspicacity of their algorithms, and inspire us to trust their insights while not giving anything away about how they work is worthy of examination by Don Watson, who has so entertainingly dissected the language corporations misuse.
I don’t use Zemanta for my posts. I prefer to forage for my own “contextual framework” but here’s my concern: how do we fact check the preindexed database?
Venture Capitalist Fred Wilson, whose company Union Square Ventures invests in Zemanta wrote in a blog post:
“If you think about it, Zemanta is ‘adwords for content creators’ … The obvious things would be monetization services (affiliate links, text ads, and even graphical ads), widgets and badges, video, quotes and music.”
I read Fred Wilson’s blog and find him to be thoughtful and engaged and he has a good sense of the eventual usefulness of services that are inscrutable at first and incubates them by allowing them to naturally find their users and establish themselves by being useful. He uses the services he invests in and I deeply admire two of them, the hyperlocal news aggregator Outside.in and Twitter. At the time he invested in them people couldn’t figure out how or why they’d be useful. But this is what you might get if you take an adwords approach to content. This is from Google’s description of its Adsense program:
“Adsense for content automatically trawls the content of your pages and delivers ads (you can choose both text or image ads) that are relevant to your audience and your site content, ads so well matched, in fact, that your readers will actually find them useful … You earn money whenever your visitors click on them.”
This is a small test I’ve made, conducted at random, to suggest that algorithms have difficulty assessing irony and establishing context.
I rely on The New York Times movie reviews. I almost always disagree with their perspective on the movies that become important to me – Blade Runner, Dr Strangelove, Moon – so I now look for their negative reviews to see if there’s something in there I’d like. This is the first paragraph of the 1964 review for Dr Strangelove:
“Stanley Kubrick’s new film, called Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to stop worrying and Love the Bomb, is beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I’ve come across. And I say that with full recollection of some of the grim ones I’ve heard from Mort Sahl, some of the cartoons I’ve seen by Charles Addams, and some of the stuff I’ve read in MAD Magazine.”
The AdSense ad running next to the Dr Strangelove review:
“Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time” by Santana.
The AdSense ads running next to the review of Blade Runner:
For acting classes for would be movie actors in Sydney, the movie review section of the Brisbane Times and an Australian production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives.
An AdSense ad running next to the story about Prime Minister Julia Gillard naming former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as Foreign Minister:
International Flight Sale, tickets to London from $1899.
Almost simultaneously on Friday afternoon I received e-mails from the Tar Pit Barin Los Angeles, advertising some upcoming musical performances, and the Velluto Champagne Bar in Potts Point in Sydney, advertising ‘Martini Mondays’, offering special deals on a trio of Martini’s: White Chocolate, French Martini, and Dirty Martini. The e-mail was illustrated with a photograph of a young Marlene Deitrich in a tuxedo in a booth at a club.
Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club
It reminded me of a concept I had a while ago, “The Blues In Orbit (named for my favourite Duke Ellington album) Speculative Cocktail Bars” website. I’d write about the iconography and history of cocktail bars, a social history of their place in cities, the sad and quiet and small and ordinary things rather than the glamour. And write a lot about jazz. I also imagined that once I’d gathered a bit of material that McSweeneys could publish a deadpan imaginary Great Cocktail Bars of the World Guide bound to look like a 1930’s bartenders guide. They’d be scenarios for places built up from conversations between all manner of characters.
The Mythology of the Cocktail Bar
Cocktail bars have a rich mythology. I’m particularly interested in the New York branch, with the Cotton Club in Harlem, The Stork Club on East 53rd Street and the Rainbow Room on the 65th floor of the Rockefeller Building. The formula for cocktail bars is drawn from these places. 1930’s Hollywood glamour, cocktails, supper with a jazz band playing, or a lone piano player in a private room or a quiet corner.
The New York Times, recently ran a story about a 1920s party at the Museum of the City of New York.
“Tucked in the foyer along with the accessories was a flower-embroidered flapperlike dress from that era, impeccably preserved and encased in a glass box. The treasure was similar to the dresses worn by Anastasia Chaplygina, 23, and Karla DeVries, 27, interns at the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art who nabbed their garments at H&M for around $20.The ’20s was “between sort of sad eras,’’ Ms. DeVries said. “It’s a happy era,’’ she added as she stood around a table with friends, one of whom sipped an azure drink called a Blue Moon. “You’re sneaking around drinking alcohol and going to parties. I think we kind of want carefree these days.”
What we miss in abstracting a veneer of glamour from the 1920′s is that Cotton Club and Stork Club started with gangster owners and there was a desperate, ugly edge to the proceedings. The Cotton Club was meant to be a “stylish plantation” for rich and powerful white people to hear black musicians perform. You could follow this line through the mobster casinos in Vegas in the 1950’s to Orlando’s club in The Wire, the front for the Barksdale drug syndicate. These places all had sharp, hip music: Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, Sinatra in Vegas, and recordings of Bill Withers tunes at Orlando’s.
An Imagined Event at the Real Tar Pit Bar
Tar Pit Bar
I’m mesmerised from afar by the Tar Pit Bar. The first feature I’d run on Blues in Orbit would be an account of an imagined show where the Friends of the Pleistocene give a small, sharp lecture about how the Pleistocene era, the era of the fossils that are drawn from the tar pit, connects with our lives today. They’ve recently written about the geological history of a statue Shinran, a Buddhist monk who lived between 113 and 1263, that had been moved to New York after surviving the atomic bomb blast.
”Shinran’s geologic materiality is complicated–and incredible. Technically, he’s made of bronze, which is remarkable in itself as we discovered last week (materials used to make bronze originated in the stars, billions of years ago). It’s also remarkable because as metals became scarce in Japan during World War II many bronze statues and ornaments were melted down to be used for the war.”
There’d be a performance by pianist Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus, who at the Jazz Festival in Melbourne in 2009 performed a “cocktail hour” set of standards. He has a deep grasp of jazz history that he writes about with warmth and insight on his blog. ‘Cocktail music‘ has become an insult, soft, sloppy background music. But in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s, jazz was popular music. The bands who played at the cocktail bars were creating extraordinary music, and the popular songs of the day were written by fine composers and lyricists, and sung by great singers, including Billie Holiday and Lena Horne.
Writing a Social History of the Tar Pit Bar’s Menu
And I’d write a social history of the Tar Pit’s Menu. I downloaded the menu’s from their website and they’re sharply funny, they capture the fact that comic arts reigned in the 1920’s and 30’s with the Marx Brothers, screwball comedy movies, comic writers James Thurber, Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker at the New Yorker, and witty lyricists, Cole Porter and Dorothy Fields.
There are cartoon representations of the animals that were pulled from the Tar Pits: A Short Faced Bear in a tuxedo waist deep in bubbling pool of oil with a bone as a swizzle stick in his highball glass. A Giant Sloth sitting at the bar surfing on his iPhone. A Dire wolf many martini glasses turned over in front of him. Sabre toothed cat, which is the official fossil of California. He has a bib tied around his throat and is brandishing a knife and fork. There’s an homage to the Stork Club’s logo: a fossil of a stork-like bird wearing a top hat and with a cane tucked between its wing ribs.
There’s a cocktail named for Georgia O’Keefe. Hibiscus infused gin, St. Germaine elderflower liquer, Orange bitters, champagne. Her Ghost Ranch in New Mexico had fossils from the late Triassic period, and on Wikipedia I discovered there’s a “primitive crocodile that had evolved into a bipedal dinosaur like creature whose fossil is named Effigia okeeffeae”.
The menu itself is a social history of how the food of the early cocktail era relates to today and i’d want to write it as well as Joseph Mitchell wrote about the gin mills of the 1930′s. There’s Lobster Bisque, Shrimp Louie, Lobster & Scallop Newberg, but also a nod to Tar Pit animals with Wild Boar Meatballs.