Archive for May, 2010

May 19th, 2010

Click it for new music

A couple of years ago, I wrote about Happiness in Time, an album released by the Hoodoo Music label.  This year, the label will release a new album titled Mirrored Diary, by the band “Lonely and the Socialites.”  The group has a few tracks out already – including one up on the “Discover & Uncover” site of DC101, the big rock music station in Washington.  Click here to take a listen to the song, and while you’re at it, rate it too.

For more info, see the Hoodoo Music site, or check out the video or song link below.

\”never forgot about you,\” by Lonely and the Socialites

\”nowhere without you,\” by Lonely and the Socialites

May 19th, 2010

The Fetish of Choice

I ordered a new vacuum cleaner last weekend. It’s taken several weeks of pondering and, on my part, about two hours of research combing through something like 100 different products to make the final choice. We almost bought one the weekend before, after a pop-in to our local hardware store, but I wasn’t sold on the bright red $69 “Dirt Devil” unit. Consumer Reports would bear me out on that: although it rates Dirt Devil products solidly for overall brand reliability and endurance, the vacuums themselves don’t always score well.

This process of searching, of combing through Consumer Reports and other online reviews, got me thinking about the way in which our culture fetishizes choice. This is a phenomenon that has exploded as a result of the internet: the incredible access to information, reviews, product details, and retail sources has made it possible for us all to become consumer connoisseurs, and often for items one never knew required such connoisseurship. Like vacuum cleaners. Or sheets.

If you have tried to shop for sheets lately, you know what I mean: the selection is no longer about fabric, color, pattern, and possibly brand name. It’s now also about thread count, trim style, and the origin of the fabric—nearly twice as many factors. I have bought sheets more than a few times in my life, but prior to the internet I do not recall debates over thread count entering into the equation, or of having such attention drawn to the grow spot for the cotton. Can any of us really tell the difference between sheets with a thread count of 500 versus 600, particularly after they’ve been through the wash a few times?

I’m not trying to do a Grumpy Old Man schtick here—I like the degree to which our choices have increased, and our ability to shop around for and price out products so effectively. But I think we have surpassed the mere offering of a wider selection of products at different prices, glorious though that is.

In researching the vacuum, much was made not only of HEPA filters (to catch dust particles) but also noise reduction. Silly me, I just assumed that vacuums were noisy! If the machine uses bags (as opposed to re-usable canisters), there are a variety of vacuum bag options: some do an extra-good job at trapping dust along with dirt—which seems to me the sort of bag you want want as standard, not as an add-on. For the model I purchased, there are actually two different kind of higher-quality bags, one of which is branded “Clinic,” as if to convey that its dirt-and-dust-trapping would pass muster in a hospital. And there’s even a vacuum (same brand, same model as the one I purchased) made from recycled plastic. It’s tagged as “Green,” though this misleadingly implies there’s something greener about how it works, as opposed to how it was made.

Again, this is not to say that choice is bad, or even to argue that the wide selection of products and services is overwhelming. Others have made—or skewered—this argument, and I tend to side with the (pardon the pun) pro-choice folks. I am not too concerned about the overwhelming options, or the diverse range of products one can choose from in different categories; I tend to think this should be celebrated, and the internet hailed as the liberator. If it sometimes requires more work, more time, and more thought for what might seem like a simple decision, we are still better off as individuals and as a society. At the same time, the internet has enabled us to fixate on standards that sometimes seem more illusory than real—the kind of standards that were once limited to the small segment of people who could afford to worry about such distinctions.

Often, it does not feel like a kind of Consumer Democracy, but rather just a Consumer Absurdistan: a place where we make choices based on factors that have a stronger psychological draw than a practical one, and where such decisions may not satisfy either our actual or our metaphysical needs.

May 7th, 2010

Weather Man

Back in the 1960s, New York City introduced a “heat law,” a requirement that (residential) landlords provide heat for apartments between October 1st and May 31st in any given year if the outside temperature falls below 55 degrees during the day or 40 degrees at night. (Actually, the law seems to date to the 1940s, the era when rent control was also introduced in New York, but to have been updated in 1966.) If this seems like an odd legal requirement—why wouldn’t landlords heat their buildings?—then it’s possible you, dear reader, have never rented an apartment in New York or elsewhere. The struggle between landlord and tenant is often made of such complaints, with some landlords seeking every financial advantage out of even the smallest or most mean-spirited withholding of services. New York City’s law is well-intentioned.

NYC average temperatures, 1950-2010, courtesy Wolfram|Alpha

This law is also out-of-date. Temperatures in New York have been rising. By one measure, the winters in New York State are an average of 4 degrees warmer in the period 1990-1999 versus 1900-1909. Data from Wolfram|Alpha shows a fairly clear trend of rising temperatures in New York City from 1950 to now (and see charts here). This is not to say that New York is lacking in winter—indeed, this past winter was one of the most “wintry” ever, with record-setting snowfalls not just in New York but across much of the country. Copious snow, however, is no proof that our weather and our temperatures haven’t changed. Observationally, I can say that winters in New York have (since 1995) started increasingly late, and that the warmth of summer (skipping over much of the moderate temperatures of spring) have arrived increasingly early.

Why does this matter? Because my colleagues and I have been sweating it out in our office for the last week, in a modern glass office building without air conditioning. Well, not without air conditioning—the building has AC. The landlord simply refuses to turn it on before the contractually required date of May 15th, even if the temperatures both inside and out would (according to common sense) demand it. And demand it they do: it has been well into the 70s and sometimes the 80s for more than the last 5 business days.

I don’t know that New York needs another law, about this or anything else, but I would propose it as a serious contender, an important counter-balance to the existing heat law. Perhaps our heating and air conditioning systems should become more energy efficient, and less damaging to the environment; that is a worthy goal, and could well be part of the legislation. For now, though, the situation seems to demand simple fairness: if New York can require landlords to heat us up, shouldn’t it also require them to cool us down, too?

May 1st, 2010

Marina & William

I don’t usually write art reviews; notwithstanding my own history, it tends to be a little too close to my day job. When I do (as here), I try to skip the language of the art critic in favor of the directness of an ordinary viewer. With that introduction, let me start by sating that the Marina Abramović and William Kentridge shows at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) make a good pair.

I think art can serve a number of different purposes: to present a perspective on beauty; to challenge our assumptions about the world; to speak truth to power; and to make us uncomfortable,while using that discomfort to provoke other thoughts or feelings. Abramović’s art encompasses all of this. While you can concoct prurient justifications for seeing this show, I found the titillation unwarranted in the face of the art itself, both the videos of older pieces and the actual performers live in the galleries. Abramović’s works are not about the nudity; the body is just the clean canvas she uses for staging her ideas, and to great effect. Certainly, some works are more explicitly sexual, in the way that the naked human form can be implicitly sexual, but this rarely comes across as the purpose.

Discomfort is definitely the reigning sensation. It is uncomfortable to watch someone violently brush her thick hair, or to see two people sitting back-to-back (live) with their pony tails entwined, or even (in one of the more explicit videos) to see women of various ages running around in a muddy field in the rain, pulling up their skirts for the camera. In each case, however, that discomfort also translates into other feelings and ideas, about the role of the body, questions of beauty and age, of love and relationships and connectedness, and of patience.

At the same time, there is humor, too. I couldn’t help but smile sweetly at the video of Abramović and Ulay, her now-former partner and collaborator, running into each other and allowing their bodies to bounce gently backwards. There may be a serious statement here, about the impact on the body or about a certain kind of human frailty. But it is funny, to watch and to think about, and to imagine the two participants deciding to do this and film it. Likewise, one of the most uncomfortable pairings in the show is a video of Abramović writhing under a human skeleton—stationed next to a model, live in the gallery, under a skeleton (though it looked like a fake skeleton). The very presence of the skeleton suggests many things, death and decomposition among them, while the contorting, angry body underneath it creates other obvious connection, from passion to a passionate resisting of death. Yet it is also funny. We live in a culture that has so caricatured and cartooned the skeleton, from Halloween to YouTube videos, I think you cannot help but smile, even if you feel the seriousness of it. And again: the nudity here is anything but pornographic. Indeed, if the artist or the performer hadn’t been nude, it really would have felt like a joke, not an artistic statement.

The pairing with Kentridge works well. In his series of drawing-based video pieces exploring some of the terrible history of his native South Africa, the viewer is forced to confront the Apartheid-era conflict through hauntingly beautiful imagery. I think it is impossible not to be moved, because, unlike the more static figures in a traditional drawing or painting, these people come alive—and are abused, tortured, and murdered before your eyes, along with the landscape itself. Yet because this is not animation in the Disney-driven way we commonly think of it, the viewer never loses the connection to the artist, to the reality that these scenes are all hand-drawn. [Disclosure: this exhibition was organized in part by SFMoMA, a client.] Taken with Abramović, you have twin statements on aspects of the human condition, coming from different perspectives but united in the kind of truth-telling that art does so well.

The Abramović exhibition closes at the end of May, so anyone should hurry to see it. For the reader who cannot get to MoMA, some of Kentridge’s works can be found here, on YouTube.