February 2009


The Atlantic has a great piece on Bob “Fish” Fishman, the director of CBS’s football coverage. Fishman is a one-man on-the-fly editing machine: He’s the one who splices together the view of the game, from dozens of cameras and video feeds, as the game is happening. 

Fishman is one of a cohort of artists and craftsmen who are invisible, working beneath the surface of reality to craft it as it happens. Sports coverage is a particularly apt metaphor for the creation of reality because these men and women create live work: If it’s in real-time, it must be real, right?

But the work can be live even if the creation of said work happened once, long ago. Disneyland comes to mind as a deliberate creation—sights, sounds, smells, actions—that can only be experienced live, a creation that lives through the scripts and protocols written once and set in motion, by Walter Elias, the absent-watchmaker.

Or without a single creator: There are absent-watchmakers aplenty behind our architecture and social rules, behind our objects and expectations.

[The Atlantic via Gizmodo]

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A fan proclaiming allegiance to Apalachicola, FL. When I saw this fan over the summer, I thought its conflation of “fanatic” and “cooling device” was outrageously clever. (I still think so.) But given time to reflect, I’m struck by how catchy this word/image combination is, even though it is not at all specific to Apalachicola. Imagine, for example: I’m a fan of Paris. Of Cincinnati. Of Bellingham. And while the cadence of “I’m a fan of Apalachicola” makes the name stick more readily than other place names, the form of this advertisement is wholly independent of its content.

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The form of the memorial license plate is equally independent of content, but the designations we stick on geographic places are—by their very nature—specific. Only Apalachicola can be the Oyster Capital of the World; to replace ‘Apalachicola’ with Paris/Cincinnati/Gorst would be to lie. Content can be as powerful as form, but without form is more forgettable—I remember the fan, but not the oysters. I’d like to see Apalachicola’s destination branding combine the two by plopping down a giant oyster at the corner of 9th and Market Street.

This combination of the form and content of a local icon is, I gather, the driving force behind such projects as Pigs on Parade and the Baltimore Crabs. The inspiration for these projects, the Cow Parade of Chicago, is, oddly enough, diluting itself through offers of syndication and franchising. Want cows in your city? Sure, why not! Location branding should be the ultimate in location-aware content, not a stale repetition of something Chicago did better nearly 10 years ago.

rollercoaster_web - ilkka halso

Finnish artist Ilkka Halso imagines a Museum of Nature: roller coasters, theatres, exhibition chambers designed to frame what’s already around us and to put it on display. The idea of putting nature on display in this way is startling, until you recall that entertainers such as Disney have a long history of doing this and are still doing it. Issues of display, expected audiences: Running a roller coaster through nature strikes a discordant note because it fits neither our expectations about roller coasters (high on excitement, low on detail) nor our expectations about how to experience nature (the reverse).

It doesn’t really matter, for example, that the Jungle Cruise is an amalgamation, name-checking Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America in its tour of rivers, because the Jungle Cruise is implicitly understood not to be an authentic representation of those parts of the world. Entertainment, not education. (The Jungle Cruise is, on the other hand, fascinating for its Orientalism, as is most of Adventureland.)

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The images are almost more startling than the idea, reminiscent as they are of certain abandoned amusement parks. This appears not to be a museum of nature, but a museum appropriated by nature. We’re so used to seeing trees grow up inside a derelict frame structure that it doesn’t occur to us that the steel could grow around the trees. 

 

[Ilkka Halso via Tropolism]

Quick Link: The Times has a piece on the attempts of a small town in Mississippi to endow its water tower with Mississippi State landmark status. The article touches on the importance of “ordinary” or “unimportant” architecture, of the stories that the taken-for-granted parts of our environment have to tell. History made material.

Hernando Journal: Seeking a Tribute to the Ordinary in a Water Tower – NYTimes

Comcast trucks, Yale University

Comcast vans parked on High Street earlier this week.

The ubiquity of the Ford Econoline.

Sorry for the weird truck/van kick. There’ll be a post on snow over the weekend.

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Modification, personalization: Yale’s light trucks, used by its Custodial, Facilities and Grounds Maintenance departments. Relationships made material in bumper-stickers and eye-shadow headlights, identities structured and affirmed.

The Economist has a great piece on the ways people commute in different world cities, including London, Delhi, and Tokyo. Looking at basic routines to reveal a larger sense of place, the micro to illuminate the macro.

Home again, home againThe Economist

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A collection of trucks idling on York Street at midday, all making deliveries.

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Different backgrounds, similar tasks.

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A tension between form and content.

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Trucks as a kind of mobile Journal of Urban Typography.

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A momentary herd, parked nose-to-butt up the block.

So this is incredible: What appears to be an ad-hoc theatre company is staging a moving play inside the New York City Subway system. The play is called I.R.T.: A Tragedy In Three Stations, and recounts the history and development of the city’s subway network as the play hopscotches through stations and trains. 

The show is sold out, of course, and reading this article makes me wish I had taken Site-Specific Theatre and Performance this semester. Quoth the New York Times:

“Tonight, these platforms will be our playhouse,” [Actor Jim] Ford, wearing a tuxedo and a handlebar mustache, told an audience gathered on a Brooklyn subway platform during the prologue. “Conductors will manage our stage. The sound designer is a passing train, and these fluorescents light our way.”

This is reminiscent of, but not exactly similar to, the production of Waiting for Godot that was staged in Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. Both productions are examples of showing instead of telling, of exhibition rather than exposition. Godot piggybacked on New Orleans to emphasize the themes of the play, and used the play as a lens to focus the trauma of a post-Katrina city.

It drew power from exaptation: Godot was written before Katrina, for an audience in a different time and place. The setting amplified the play’s themes by finding unexpected commonalities between the characters and the residents of New Orleans. (Godot had earlier found similar success at stagings in Sarajevo and in prisons—Does this material universality somehow diminish its power, or does it enhance it?)

 I.R.T. is different. It was purpose-written for the space in which in it is performed, so the moments of serendipitous connection between the text and the space will be different, a little muted, a little planned. Still clever, but with a self-consciousness to this very public performance: It is meant to be watched, the audience and players are clearly defined, and the frame of theatricality circumscribes the entire performance. (Contrast that with Joshua Bell’s performance in a DC Metro station to see how passers-by respond to art without a frame.) Like Godot, I.R.T is gives its audience a lens, but the lens in this case is more like a pair of X-Ray Goggles, allowing the audience to see history and detail in the ordinarily mundane world of New York City public transit.

I’d like for I.R.T. to inspire a whole series of subway plays, each set in a different time or playing at a different theme. You can imagine heritage cars, or entire heritage trains, filled with actors in period dress. A subway moving through history: an eleven-car train, one car for each decade the subway system has been in existence, each car with different seats, different advertisements, different lighting, different people, the past loosed from the tracks of the MTA Transit Museum and forced out into the real world.

Or plays set in the parks and streets New York City, a kind of historic Improv Everywhere, giving life to the stories that lie latent in our surroundings. The stories are already there. We just have to learn how to listen, how to see.

[In the Subway, Moving Theatre, in More Ways Than One via NYTimes. Earl Wilson photo.]

Silliman courtyard stairs in snow

It’s winter in New Haven. In honor of last Wednesday’s snowfall, and anticipating the snow this Tuesday, I’m going to offer some thoughts on snow. I think snow is fascinating because it has the capacity to completely remodel our environments, to make them new. Snow tweaks our surroundings enough that they become alien, but not enough that they cease to be familiar. I’ve been reading about the environmental psychology of snow and I’ll talk about that more in an upcoming post. Here, I want to focus not on what snow hides or changes, but what it reveals: paths.

In revealing our collective and individual pathways, snow becomes like a four-dimensional instrument. It passively annotates the environment, showing how and where we move. These annotations are known as desire paths, a term introduced in The Poetics of Space, which I am totally adding to the stack of books-to-read on my mantle. Wikipedia reports that Finnish park planners visit parks after the it snows to assess how closely the paths laid out match with the desire paths of the parks users. 

Silliman College courtyard in snow. Outside Byers Hall.

Isn’t that blank triangle in the middle interesting? What can we do with the knowledge that that part of the pathway goes un-stepped on? Two thoughts spring to mind: one, we use the empty space for a decoration (a fountain? a flowerpot? a millstone?). Or two, we invest energy and materials disproportionately when we construct our paths, preparing parts of them for heavier or more frequent foot traffic. Maybe the empty space gets thinner or less durable stone, allowing the pathway to wear equally.

This is another way of seeing four-dimensionally: Looking into the future and attempting to focus on how time will alter your built spaces. The pathways ground into snow are almost reverse echoes, fast-motion forecasts of what will eventually happen in real time. Snow shows our future, and our past.

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