Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Few Words Thursday

Since I missed Wordless Wednesday, (I'll be honest, I fell asleep at 6pm last night with every intention of posting these then,) I get to post some of these with words!

Last week V and I went on one of the most epic road trips ever. Epic not in length but in sheer "wow, someone could write a novel about this and it could compete with Faulkner or at least Kerouac." Our destination was the Salton Sea, and we made it, although the weather had other plans. I navigated my trusty Volvo through flooded, mudded waters, and we came out the other side. We also stopped in the Salton's Sea's antithesis: Los Angeles and experienced two culture shocks- the culture shock of leaving the Salton Sea and the culture shock of Los Angeles itself. Meanwhile, V was dealing with what some would call "personal stuff" and others would call "life." Then I neglected to check the traffic and I5 was closed due to snow. Snow? This was all feeling a bit apocalyptic. So we stopped at the beach on the way back and made a trip to Fort Ord and finally, finally made it almost home to a little more of life, and then collapsed at our own homes- Australia and Oakland.

And then there was Mac. Super traveller extraordinaire, always game for a road trip and always game to play. He ran in the rain at a Motel 6, though he didn't love it, he went up to his knees in dead-fish-mud at the Salton Sea, and he was rewarded with some long line fun at Fort Ord. Here are a few action shots, courtesy of V. You can see the rest of her Epic Road Trip shots.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Lure of the Local, Pt 2

I hope I remember everything I have to say about Lippard's "Lure of the Local" but I'm sure I'm forgotten. One thing I wanted to think more about was my recent disagreement/philosophical discussion with Julie of i live here:SF and Caliber. Julie recent posted a beautiful photo on Caliber of covered strawberry fields somewhere in Monterey County, probably Watsonville. The photo is lovely and evocative. It was the text that got under my skin:
This past weekend I spent some time down on the Monterey Peninsula. I used to travel to Carmel, Pacific Grove and Monterey fairly often for business. My favorite part of the trip was not the destination, but the getting-there part, driving quietly through what I called Steinbeck Country: Salinas, Castroville, Watsonville. Watching the pink-gold morning light slant across fields of artichokes or Brussels sprouts. Seeing delicate looking helicopters that looked just like overgrown dragonflies hovering over rows of green berry plants. Roadside pickup trucks proclaiming whatever they were selling in neon tempera signs: 7 for $1! 10 for $1!

Overshadowed by their more prestigious, tourist-friendly seaside neighbors, these are the towns where people really do still live close to the land, producing the crops that we have come to take for granted in our local markets.

This is a field of strawberries in the making, protected from the January cold by plastic sheeting.
You can read our back and forth in the comments (I'm greenkozi). Basically, my experience of Castroville, Watsonville, Salinas, etc, is totally different. I am no expert on the area, nor do I live there (obviously, my focus on Oakland should demonstrate that!) But I have a strong affinity with the are: since birth, I've spent a lot of time on the outskirts of Castroville, though in a very very privileged way, in a beach "community" of gated condos. My parents now own a home there, and I visit 3-5 times a year, and even lived there for a few months, driving multiple times a day through the same fields. This house isn't quite in one of the seaside cities Julie mentions (like Carmel or Monterey)- it's an isolated group of about 75 homes, literally in the sand dunes, surrounded by fields. I also lived in Santa Cruz for almost two years.

To me, those fields are both amazing- of course they produce the majority of the US's food supplies, and extremely depressing. The Monterey area is not exactly a natural "bread basket": you can read some short synopses of the water issues in California here, here, and here. Basically, this huge producer of food is made possible by a giant irrigation project, "borrowing" (aka stealing and destroying other environments and ecosystems) water from other places in California and beyond, and threatening underground water tables. I'm not suggesting that this is a "bad" system, as obviously it feeds many many people, only that it is a system to be examined, rather than taken for granted. Every time I drive from almost perpetually drought-ridden Oakland to green green Castroville- crops of artichokes and cabbage and brussel sprouts and strawberries and who knows what else, I think about this, and am disturbed. The fields are almost always green- it's like the theory of crop rotation doesn't figure in. And where Julie is reminded of Steinbeck, I believe because of his writings about Cannery Row and his native Monterey Bay, I'm reminded of Steinbeck too- "Grapes of Wrath" and dust bowls created by overfarming.

Mostly, though, when I drive through this area, I'm reminded of injustices of farming as it stands in California, and in an educated guess, most of the country. I touched on migrants in my last post, but in these green green fields, there's almost always the stooped figures of migrants. I'm impressed that Julie caught a field without them. The buses on the side of the road that take these men and women to the fields at the butt crack of dawn, the portapotties (I believe mandated by law now, due to the hard work of Cesar Chavez and the fights for some sort of rights) are sad reminders to me of the vast injustices that come along with what we eat. Farming, here and elsewhere is about land that small farmers can't afford and being sold to larger and larger farms (I think of coffee plantations in Central America, as well) and about who will work the cheapest for these mega-owners. What we get at the grocery stores, what we'll pay for, is about hard manual labor, by underpaid, underinsured people, often the very people that "citizens" want to kick out of "their country." I eat this food- I'm not innocent- but I'm aware, and reminded of it by evocative, provocative photos. I'm glad that art sparks this kind of unrest in me.

Lippard, like me, has a place- Maine- that she holds dear, and spends much time in (I was actually at the beach yesterday), though it's not her "home." She explains that in Maine, there are tourists, summer people (also called "from away"), locals, and natives. Natives are people who are "true Mainers"- their roots are in Maine, they can count their generations back to 10 or 11, etc. Locals may have worked in the local industry for a decade or so, and be part of the dominant (lower-middle) class. People "from away" may have come to Maine for summers for generations, but they're not locals. They know the area, but they are not "of" the area. They don't know how to survive in the area, financially, weather-wise, etc. And, of course, there's the dreaded, scorned tourist. Lippard, though having spent much of her childhood coming to her house in Maine, and knowing her family history in Maine, is "from away." She will never be a local. I feel the same way about Castroville. It's obvious that I don't know the culture, don't struggle with the local economy, don't live in the neighborhood. But I feel a strong attachment to the land, to the issues, and I would fight for the place. Lippard is moving on the subject of landscape photography:
Despite the fact that landscape photography, as Bright points out, is favored by the apolitical and conservative because it appears to have no content, some of the most sublime images have been used as propaganda... ingrained notions of "high art" are not easily evaded.
She goes on:
Conventional landscape photography tends to overwhelm place with image. It is usually presented in fragments rather than in grounded sequences. Once wrenched from its context, the image, no matter how well intentioned or well researched, floats off into artland... No matter how aesthetically pleasing the results may be, places are boiled down into commodities. The photographer, having "been there," feels she's captured the place, but communicating it is another matter altogether. Cryptic titles and captions, or none at all, further distance the viewer from the subject by transforming it into a non-referential object.
I feel like Lippard just defined my issue with Julie's picture/words. The picture is gorgeous, and totally alienated from its surroundings.

I'm not trying to say anything negative about Julie as an artist. In fact, I think her other work is actually a great definition of local public art that Lippard puts out a call for: "accessible art of any species that cares about, challenges, involves and consults the audience for or which whom it is made, respecting community and environment." Her blog, i live here:SF is a collaboration of her photos and the words of her subjects. She says: "i live here:SF is an open invitation to San Francisco residents to enjoy and participate in, sharing many facets of life in this city with each other and the world at large." Julie invites SF residents to participate and people also come to her with interest in participating. She takes the photo portraits and they provide the text about their story in San Francisco. The project is mutual, local, and challenging. This is art of a native, that involves natives, locals, and people "from away" (though may poke fun at tourists- what can I say, we like to do that here!). This art rings true to me, and I hope Lippard.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Lure of the Local, Pt 1

Over the last couple of weeks I've read a book so startling and thought provoking that I've decided to do my book review slightly differently- as a series of essays inspired by the book. I mentioned Lucy Lippard in a recent blog when I really was just getting involved with the book (I know, like a new boyfriend!), and now that I've finished it, I've thought so many new things that I've almost forgotten all of the other things I wanted to say. So I'm starting with the book I read the day before I picked up "Lure of the Local."

I picked up "Border Film Project" at Pendragon Bookstore on the same day I found a used graffiti book- I love when I hit the jackpot like that. I really had no idea what I was getting, and it sat on my bedside table for months. It turns out that the Border Film Project is a group of people who got together and gave disposable cameras to two important groups who are the story at the border, though they're rarely listened to: the "minutemen" and the migrants crossing (and being uncrossed) on the border. The book consists of colored photos with small numbers under them and some short captions next to some of the photos. Pictures of Hispanic looking people readable as migrants/immigrants and of white people in camo, readable as vigilantes or minutemen, are mixed up together. There is no preface or opening remarks- the book opens with photos. In the middle of the book is what could serve as an introduction: brown paper with text on what the project is. The small numbers next to the pictures are the camera that the pictures came from, and the text explains that the cameras were given to migrants and border monitors that were willing to participate. There are diagrams of how the project worked, and of where the cameras were mailed in from. The remaining half of the book is more photos, captions and small numbers.

I read the book front to back, "reading" each photo, caption and number. The book is powerful and eyeopening. Even with my biased views, the photos humanized the vigilantes, whose pride of place is clear: the land is what they have. In my urban life, the romanticized fantasy of the movie father saying "son, watch out for the land," or the history book saying how much pioneers valued their land- these pictures, taken of minutemen by minuteman showed a subculture who still live it. And the pictures of the migrants, in their dusty towns, crossing the border, cleaning toilets, drinking out of water tanks in the desert, faces in the water like dogs- who isn't moved? I guess people who feel these people should stay "home" and make it work there. Boot strap it someway or another.

The day after I finished this book, I started Lippard's book, subtitled "Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society." Lippard's book is also laid out unusually: the book is square, and above the main text is a margin with smaller text. This small text is Lippard's own personal narrative that relates to the chapter below, always about her adopted home state of Maine, and her reminiscences/experiences there. Also, on most pages, there are large black and white pictures of some "public art" (as defined by Lippard, to be discussed later) piece, with a long caption describing the piece. Basically, each page is cut in three: story that runs along the top of the pages, narrative that runs like a normal book, and large photo with long caption. I chose to read the main narrative first, take breaks to read the photo/caption built into the page, and come back at the end of each chapter to read the Maine story. In this way, Lippard grounds you in the "place" of the book as well as making the book "multicentered"- forcing you to read the book in multiple ways, similar to the "Border Film Project". You could read the book as I did- front to back, or jump straight to the text in the middle, then back to the photos, or look for pictures from specific cameras or regions.

Lippard's book is about place, local, landscape, and how art fits in. It's complicated, but from page 7, I felt that the "Border Film Project" was a project that Lippard would appreciate. Lippard writes:
This book is concerned not with the history of nature and the landscape but with the historical narrative as it is written in the landscape or place by the people who live or lived there. The intersections of nature, culture, history, and ideology form the ground on which we stand- our land, our place, the local.
The cover of "Border" is a brown piece of cardboard with two round circles cut out onto two photos. The top circle frames a what man in a cowboy hat holding a walkie-talkie in one hand and a telescoping lens in another. The bottom circle frames a brown-skinned man in a beanie and jacket, backpack slung over his shoulder. When you open the cover, you see them in their landscapes- the white man leans on a rock, framed against blue sky and desert- lots of rocky, mountainous desert. The brown man appears to be walking in a flat, brush filled desert. Both suggest culture and history. Even without captions- the viewer can guess at both, framed only by the title: "Border Film Project." There is desperation in both men: the need to keep "them" out, in the first, and the need to get somewhere- to water, to el norte- in the second.

We are living today on a threshold between a history of alienated displacement from and longing for home and the possibility of a multicentered society that understands the reciprocal relationship between the two...In the case of a restless, multitraditional people, even as the power of place is diminished and often lost, it continues-as an absence- to define culture and identify. It also continues- as a presence- to change the way we live.
Contrasting a "home"-centered people with an "alienated" one, the Border Film Project suggests a new way to understanding, one Lippard's book proposes will help us all move forward to an understanding of multicentered society.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Do You Have What it Takes?

My friend dognerd (M) has been calling me the last few days because a domestic rabbit was dumped in the park in San Francisco. M is a dog rescuer, not normally a bunny rescuer. She couldn't let the bunny stay in the park because a)this is a park frequented by dogs and dog walkers and b)because it's just not cool to dump rabbits when you don't want them anymore, or can't keep them anymore, or whatever. When she first saw the rabbit, it wasn't a good time to pick him up- she had dogs in the car and no way to separate the bun from the dogs. So she kept going back, asking for tips on how and when to catch him. I'm not sure she slept at night, she was so worried. She finally got close but wasn't quite sure she could get him out of the brambles, and called for backup with awesome rabbit volunteers from the SF animal shelter. Together, they caught the bunny! He's safe at the shelter, and a little skinny, but not too much worse for wear.

I'm posting this because everyone (including me) needs a feel good story once in awhile. I'm posting this because M rocks, and deserves some recognition for serious days of perseverance, and general good-person-ness (she is also the fostermom/rescuer of One Eared Wonder from Wordless Wednesday and a big part of Grateful Dog Rescue). I'm not posting this so everyone thinks that there's a dognerd out there waiting to find their dumped bunny- there isn't. Don't dump your bunny. I *am* posting this in the hopes that we can all be the dognerd for the next dumped bunny we see- bunny or person or you know, bad situation, whatever. M stepped up when she saw the bunny in distress, she was his knight in shining armor. Life sucks right now, money is short, Obama can't fix W's mess fast enough, etc. There's always something to complain about. And there's always someone in a worse situation than we are. It is this kind of small effort that make all of the difference, and that keeps us human.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Photography, Documenting, Memory, and the Wonder of it All

I've just started reading an odd and seemingly wonderful book, "The Lure of the Local: Sense of Place in a Multicentered Society" by Lucy Lippard that I picked up at the ever lovely and eclectic Red Hill Books. Her description of photography in the intro has finally gotten me to write the blog post on documenting everything that I've been meaning to write. Lippard writes of photographs:
Like tourism, painting formalizes place into landscape. The same, of course, can be said of photographs, which lie and expose lies. But because they are printable, reproduceable, and can be mass-distributed, photographs can often transcend their recently awarded status as art. Although still an indoor, two-dimensional, portable, exhibitable, collectable, and endlessly manipulatable medium, photography has another life. Its modest background has allowed it to outpace "high art," to embrace scientific evidence, journalistic witness, hobby, performance, and the interactive arts. Photographs are about memory- or perhaps about the absence of memory, providing pictures to fill voids, illustrating our collective memory. So they are an excellent means with which to trigger concern and soothe anxieties about history and place, even when the means they employ resemble conventional landscape art. In fact, landscape photography could have it both ways- at once subject to personal vision and attributed the objectivity of scientific precision.

I'm not an artist or an art critic, but I am a hobby photographer, and a hobbyist observer of society. Lippard wrote the above before everyone had a digital camera (I believe the first digital cameras were in the late 1990s, and Lippard's book was published in 1997) and before everyone had access to the internet where digital pictures are widely reproduced. I am a little young for the slideshow, but I do remember seeing one or two family slideshows on my grandparent's wall- they pulled out slideshows of old trips they had taken, and I'm sure they had shared them with other people when they initially got back from these trips. The urge to document and share exciting events has always been there- photographing memory or filling in the absence of memory.

I contrast this memory with a slideshow my parents' friends recently showed us- they hooked their digital point and shoot camera up to my parents' High Definition television with a small cable and pressed a button and we watched their travel photos from a recent trip to Australia. How much easier, and different, than taking pictures on slide film, hauling out a slide projector, and manually clicking through the slides, projected on a wall in a darkened room. Something has been lost in this production, and obviously, quality and ease has been gained. The cycle was full circle when my parents asked me to show my grandfather and his partner a slide show of my own photographs on the TV when he came to visit. I hooked up their laptop to the TV and pressed a button and gave him my own modern slideshow.

In 2002, I was still shooting with a film camera. I took this picture in Oaxaca Mexico, with my grandfather's Canon AE1. I was limited by the number of rolls of film I brought with me. About two years ago, I started to scan a few of my favorite pictures from the past and post them to my flickr stream. I quickly gave up on this project as it was hugely time consuming. It was time consuming partly because of the mechanics of it- scanning and cropping and uploading is tiresome- and partly because with film, I never knew how the photos were going to come out, and some were good, and some were bad, but I needed to take them to know. Like I said, I'm not an artist, and my skills aren't that good. With digital, I can look at my shot, see what might be fixed, and edit immediately. With film, it was guesswork. Also, when I was traveling in 2002, I was documenting, mostly- my friends, the scenery, etc. I was documenting- for memory? for posterity? I wasn't taking artistic shots, I was trying to capture what I was seeing, like this girl on the wall. I love the shot, but I think at the time, I knew this girl and liked her, and wanted to catch her essence. I wasn't trying to take a creative shot.


On the other hand, when I traveled to New Orleans in 2008, I went partly to take pictures of the city, the destruction and the recovery. By this time, I had a fairly nice digital camera, and I intentionally chose my lenses. My pictures were more about collective memory, this time, not filling gaps in my personal memory. And they lied, like Lippart writes. I captured individual scenes, with necessary gaps, using my own vision. Others, even the people with me, saw totally different things. And looking back on my pictures now, which I do, these are the things I remember, which is an obvious lie. This is not all that I saw, or experienced. This is my created memory. The pictures are colorful, because my pictures emphasize colors, no matter where I am. They feature my favorite subjects- dogs, cars, people. There was so much more to my trip, and to the city, and to the destruction left by the hurricane. These pictures are false, and true.

This leads me to my last thought, for now. I often walk around with my camera around my neck, or glued to my face. Just In Case. I destinate to places in order to take pictures. Every week I try to participate in Utata's Thursday Walk. I seek out events ahead of time that I can attend with the goal of taking pictures. It's what I do. It's my hobby. It's what I do to prevent burnout. It's fun, creative, and exciting. It helps me see the world in a different way. I appreciate life more visually. I don't really like processing my pictures, but I like looking at them, and looking at other people's pictures.

But everywhere I go, everyone is taking pictures. Of everything. And I wonder if they're experiencing or documenting. Because of the above, I feel hypocritical wondering. I document, I take pictures, I go places just to take pictures. But there are times when I wonder. I went to an A's game that had a fireworks show afterward. Lots of people moved onto the field to watch the show. As soon as the fireworks started, the whole field lit up with LCD screens: I think 80% of the people were taking pictures of the show, with their handy digital cameras or their cell phones. Were they watching the fireworks or documenting the fireworks? And why were they documenting the fireworks? Were they going to look at the pictures later? Show all their friends? Fill in gaps in memory? Would they look at the pictures in years to come, on a high def TV and remember what it felt like to be sitting on the field, watching the fireworks in the cold August night? Or would they just remember the picture. Or see the picture and think they remembered? Did it matter? Everywhere I go people are posing for pictures, handing their camera to other people and posing for pictures, holding their cameras at arms' length and taking pictures of themselves. What are they feeling? What will they feel later? What lies are the pictures telling?

I take pictures to take pictures. To document, to lie, to see. I take pictures of people I don't know, of people I do know, of things that interest me, of scenes I think are quirky and beautiful and odd and wonderful and of my home. There's no wrong, only wonder-making.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Garry Wills: Under God

This is one of those books that I have only one complaint about, and it's really not a legitimate complaint. It's like wishing a book was published in a different font, or out in paperback, or hadn't been written in Russian. Garry Wills' "Under God" is so good, and so timely, and so relevant that I wish it was written last year, instead of published in 1990. And barring that, I wish he would update it, like today, and talk about what's going on now.
Basically, if I were an academic, this is (one of) the book(s) I would write. And since I'm not an academic, and not inclined to write long, serious books, and much more inclined to read long, serious books, this is a book I am very inclined to read. Wills argues that
The first nation to disestablish religion [codify the separation of church and state] has been a marvel of religiosity, for good or ill. Religion has been at the center of our major political crises, which are always moral crises...If we neglect the religious element in all those struggles, we cannot understand our own corporate past; we cannot even talk meaningfully to each other about things that will affect us all (and not only the "religious nuts" among us).

Basically, this is why I studied religion in college; and why I wish I a) remembered more and occasionally b) wish I studied more. (Note: occasionally. I'm much happier being a doer than a thinker/studier/academic.) It's my belief and experience that we neglect the influence of religion in our (meaning the collective) actions. Why do leaders do what they do? Why do groups of people do what they do? How does religious upbringing and the religion perceived as the cultural norm affect life and choices and major events? It seems to me that in the US, at least, there is almost a shame or unwillingness to discuss religion: Church and State are separate, damn it, therefore religion can't possibly effect anything that is happening politically. Right. And there are obvious times when religion is effecting things, but other times, nope, not there. It's become more acceptable to talk about race/gender/class- but what about religion? Pretending we all live in a general cultural state of anomie is bullshit.

Wills is amazing at walking us through recent and not so recent past, (not in order) to demonstrate how politics and religion are a totally tangled web in the United States, and that this is not something to be ashamed of. It's not something to pass a value judgement on at all, it's just something to understand. For example, he writes, The men who wrote the Constitution "did not suppose that the absence of religious oaths for holding office entailed, logically, irreligious officeholders." He goes on (describing Michael Dukakis and Pat Robertson's failed campaigns for the Presidency):
Clearly, in our society, two large groups are talking past each other. One fails to see legitimacy in religious values not comprehended by the American Mind. The other fails to see legitimacy in irreligion: If secularity is really religious, then it is diabolic- a plot against God, not mere indifference to him. Thus, when school textbooks steer as clear as they can of religious subjects, Pat Robertson does not see in this the work of timorous publishers trying to avoid subjects about which state school boards can be nervous. For him, it is the result of a great conspiracy against God.

I have to wonder if Wills looked ahead and knew that the evolution "debate" would still be raging 20 years later, or if he knew that Obama would be accused of being a Muslim, and that that would even matter. These questions are obviously still relevant. This book tickles me, I can't lie. There's just so much rich parsing of the political sphere, through the lens of religious studies. People who care about US history should read this, and people who care about politics and how elections work should read this. It doesn't matter if you care at all about religion, it's eyeopening.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Wordless Wednesday

I'm going to break the rule because I've never done a wordless Wednesday. Here's the definition. Here's one of my favorite blogger's Wordless Wednesdays. And here is mine.

one eared wonder