Friday, October 30, 2009

Hints of Personal Trauma in Every Note

The Austrian composer Alexander Zemlinsky didn’t attach a programmatic description to his String Quartet No. 2 (1915), but biographers have suggested that the work reflected tragic events in his life and the lives of those close to him. He was devastated when his student Alma Schindler rejected him and married Mahler in 1902. Several years later, the painter Richard Gerstl committed suicide after an affair with Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde, who was married to Schoenberg.

The remarkable young Escher String Quartet gave a bristling performance of the work on Wednesday at Alice Tully Hall, presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Pierre Lapointe, the group’s violist, writes that the first time he heard Zemlinsky’s quartet, he was “scared by its craziness.” This densely chromatic, symphonic and potently expressive piece seems to evoke the personal traumas of Zemlinsky’s inner circle, with an anguished polyphony of vehement discourse tempered with gentler, bittersweet interludes.

The ensemble offered a passionate rendition, conveying the full spectrum of grief and turbulence in this 40-minute work of Wagnerian proportions. Each member of the group — Adam Barnett-Hart, first violinist; Wu Jie, second violinist; Andrew Janss, cellist; and Mr. Lapointe — played with a glowing tone and insightful musicianship, resulting in a characterful whole.

Many of Zemlinsky’s colleagues, including Schoenberg, deemed his sensual, late-romantic music too conservative. The program also included the Five Movements for String Quartet (1909) by Webern, a student of Schoenberg who helped persuade Mathilde to return to her husband.

Webern’s stark, spare piece, with its atonal language, is an important early work in the modernist movement, a dramatic contrast to the luxuriant scores that Zemlinsky, Strauss and Mahler composed around the same time.

The program was framed with refined interpretations of two works by Schubert, opening with the Quartettsatz in C minor (D. 703) and concluding with the String Quartet in G (D. 887). The ensemble’s full-blooded rendition of the last quartet was particularly impressive, with the first violin, cello and viola melodies played with sumptuous elegance.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Dune Anti-Desertification Architecture

Dune Anti-Desertification Architecture investigates adaptive (as opposed to mitigatory) strategies leading to the creation of a climate-conscious
architecture that responds to the extreme environments of tomorrow’s globally-warmed world. Highly speculative yet buildable, the scheme aims to find innovative solutions to combat desertification in the Sahel region of Africa, where sand dunes are currently moving southward at a breathtaking pace of around 600m per year, ruining the land and making it impossible for the inhabitants of this area to make a living or even stay in their homes.

The forced migration of desertification refugees is perhaps more threatening in Nigeria than anywhere else. With a population of over 140 million people, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, with serious desertification issues throughout its northern states. It was Nigeria’s former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, who initiated the anti-desertification Green Wall Sahara initiative in 2005. This pan-African scheme seeks to plant a shelterbelt across the continent, from Mauritania in the west to Djibouti in the east, in an attempt to stop the dunes from migrating. The trees are being planted right now.

An architectural response to this campaign would be to go beyond the mere planting of a mitigatory shelterbelt. Habitable spaces can be created in close proximity to the trees. By cutting through the sand dunes and digging down to find water and shade, an artificial oasis can be formed underground.

The sand is solidified using bacillus pasteurii, a microorganism with which professor Jason DeJong has turned sand into sandstone in a mere 1,400 minutes. This technology of organically cementing networks of sand dunes into habitable barriers that stop the desert from spreading has never been proposed before, but on hearing about this project, the professor was enthusiastic: “I do think the application you are talking about is possible”. I’m proposing anti-desertifi cation structures made out of the desert itself, sand-stopping devices made of sand: a poetic proposal that simultaneously works in a sustainable way with local materials and assets.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Book Excerpt: A Bomb in Every Issue

Hunter S. Thompson, a pill-popping monkey, Black Panthers, and CIA dirty tricks: Scenes from the short, crazy life of Ramparts, the muckraking magazine that paved the way for Mother Jones.
—By Peter Richardson

In his absorbing new book, A Bomb In Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America (The New Press), Peter Richardson chronicles the rise and fall of Ramparts, the groundbreaking muckraking magazine of the 1960s and early 1970s. In its heyday, Ramparts was one of the nation's most influential—and controversial—magazines, known for its unique mix of leftist politics, exclusive reporting, and original design.

"Ramparts changed national media and politics, not only with its stories on civil rights, Vietnam, Black Power, and the CIA, but also by demonstrating that mainstream media techniques could be used to advance leftist politics," writes Richardson. "That precedent would fuel progressive journalism for a generation." Its influence lives on in publications such as Mother Jones, which was founded by three former Ramparts editors and has published reporting by many writers who cut their teeth in its pages. Below, a few excerpts from Richardson's book, featuring cameo appearances by several journalists who will be familiar to our readers.

In May 1962, a magazine was born. Published in suburban Menlo Park, California, it described itself as "a forum for the mature American Catholic" focusing on "those positive principles of Hellenic-Christian tradition which have shaped and sustained our civilization for the past two thousand years." Its first issues debated the moral shortcomings of J.D. Salinger and Tennessee Williams. According to one designer, it looked like the poetry annual of a Midwestern girls school.

By 1968, the magazine had moved to the bohemian North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco, added generous doses of sex and humor, adopted a cutting-edge design, forged links to the Black Panther Party, exposed illegal CIA activities in America and Vietnam, published the diaries of Che Guevara and staff writer Eldridge Cleaver, and boosted its monthly circulation to almost 250,000. A Time magazine headline from that period—"A Bomb in Every Issue"—described its impact. Seven years later, it was out of business for good.

At its peak, Ramparts was both a platform and a seedbed for a generation of reporters, activists, and social critics. It contributors included Noam Chomsky, Seymour Hersh, Bobby Seale, Tom Hayden, Angela Davis, Susan Sontag, William Greider, Jonathan Kozol, and a young Christopher Hitchens, who wrote for Ramparts under a pseudonym, Matthew Blaire. More surprising, perhaps, was the magazine's Washington DC contributing editor—Brit Hume, now a Fox News host and anchor. Two Ramparts writers left to create Rolling Stone, and three editors decamped to found Mother Jones.

Ramparts wasn't The Nation, Harper's, or the Atlantic, whose histories stretch back to the days of Mark Twain and Henry James. At its flashpoint, Ramparts was something else altogether: the journalistic equivalent of a rock band, a mercurial confluence of raw talent, youthful energy, and showmanship. Its sheer incandescence blew minds, launched solo careers, and spawned imitators. It was born, lived, bred, and died. Because it was mortal, not monumental, genealogy may be more important than longevity in understanding its significance. If so, Ramparts should be judged not only by what it published, but also by the subsequent work it made possible. By this measure, it accomplished a great deal.

Because Ramparts folded in 1975, much of its influence must now be sought elsewhere: in scholarly histories of the CIA, in the nation's unending fascination with the Black Panthers, in the continuing success of Rolling Stone and Mother Jones, in the energetic repudiations of the New Left by some former staffers such as David Horowitz, and in the netroots and media reform movements of today. Although Ramparts published its last issue more than three decades years ago, its story is far from over.

• • •

By the mid-'60s, Ramparts had shed its early identity as a Catholic periodical and become an investigative and cultural magazine. In 1964, a young San Francisco journalist named Warren Hinckle became its executive editor. An eye-patch-wearing bon vivant with a showman's touch, Hinckle injected a new feistiness—and occasionally, chaos—into the once-staid magazine.

The big question in the office was whether or not Hinckle would appear that day. When he did, the energy level rose dramatically. But even when he was in town, Hinckle usually worked out of Cookie Picetti's, a North Beach bar located near the old Hall of Justice. It was a favorite spot for police officers and other law enforcement types, and some of Hinckle's left-wing colleagues were uneasy about drinking there. Hinckle typically silenced their protests by challenging them to name a decent left-wing bar. Managing editor Robert Scheer also objected to Hinckle's favorite spots, both in San Francisco and on the road, but not on ideological grounds; his main complaint was that there weren't enough women there.

The staff learned to function without Hinckle in the office, but occasionally a junior member was dispatched to find him. On his first day as a part-time office assistant, Reese Erlich was told to summon Hinckle to check final galleys. He found Hinckle lunching with advertising executive Howard Gossage at Enrico's, a North Beach bistro a few blocks away. When Erlich delivered his message, Hinckle replied, "Fuck you, kid." Erlich, who was awaiting trial for his antiwar protests in the East Bay, was unfazed; the Oakland police had been far scarier. "May I quote you on that?" he asked. When Hinckle assented, Erlich cheerfully shot back, "Fuck you, too." He was promoted shortly thereafter.

Hinckle's style was nothing if not kinetic. Staff writer Adam Hochschild recalled it this way:

He raced through each 18-hour day with dizzying speed. All action at the magazine swirled around him: a pet monkey named Henry Luce would sit on his shoulder while he paced his office, drink in hand, shouting instructions into a speakerphone across the room to someone in New York about a vast promotional mailing; on his couch would be sitting, slightly dazed, a French television crew, or Malcolm X's widow (who arrived one day surrounded by a dozen bodyguards with loaded shotguns), or the private detective to whom Hinckle had given the title Criminology Editor. Then would follow an afternoon-long lunch where Hinckle would consume a dozen Scotches without showing the slightest effect and sketch dummies of the next issue's pages on the restaurant's placemats. Finally he'd be off on the night plane to see new backers in the East.

In New York, the maelstrom continued. James Ridgeway's 1969 profile of Hinckle in the New York Times Magazine described his fantastical performances at the Algonquin Hotel.

In the dining room Hinckle would be recounting his scheme for a publishing empire, expanding Ramparts, starting one, two, or three radio and television stations, starting an author's agency, setting up teams of reporters who would get the goods on LBJ, NATO, the Pope, etc. Ramparts would publish books, set up book clubs, start a syndicate… If one dared to ask where the money was really going to come from, Hinckle would fall back into his chair and suck on a grasshopper while Scheer lunged forward. "What's the matter?" he'd say, "Got no guts?"

Hinckle's effect on his colleagues, especially younger ones, was dazzling. "Hinckle was amazing," said Michael Ansara, a Harvard Students for a Democratic Society leader and Ramparts researcher. "As an undergraduate, I'd visit him at the Algonquin. He'd start talking in the shower, continue the conversation while putting on his tuxedo, and then we'd be off for oysters with Abby Rockefeller." The company Hinckle kept was part of the glamour. "I once had dinner with him and Oriana Fallaci," Ansara said. "I was about eighteen years old. I'd never seen a woman like her, much less had dinner with her. He was the most cosmopolitan, flamboyant, creative guy I'd ever seen."

• • •

Ramparts reported stories that the mainstream press would not touch. In April 1966, Robert Scheer revealed that the CIA had secretly used Michigan State University to train South Vietnamese police and write the country's constitution. The expose led the agency to order a "rundown" on Ramparts. It eventually investigated 127 writers and researchers and 200 other Americans connected to the magazine.

As Ramparts dug into the less savory aspects of America's most powerful institutions, the staff suspected that the government was watching them. One of their colleagues, William Turner, confirmed that suspicion. Raised Catholic in Buffalo, Turner had joined the FBI, received training in wiretapping and burglary, and listened in on telephone conversations in the Bay Area. But he had run afoul of J. Edgar Hoover after objecting to the FBI director's characterization of Martin Luther King as "the most notorious liar in the country." Turner left the FBI after ten years of service, settled in Marin County, and wrote a piece about the bureau's failure to obtain convictions on civil rights violations in the south. After his Ramparts articles appeared, Hoover wrote about him in an internal memo, "It's a shame we can't nail this jackal."

Turner assured his Ramparts colleagues that the government was watching them. "Wiretaps are your tax dollars at work," he told art director Dugald Stermer. "If your phone isn't bugged, we're not doing our job."

There were other indications, too, that the magazine's adversaries were trying to undermine its efforts. Stermer was audited in two consecutive years, and when Turner arrived at the office the morning after Easter 1967, he found shattered windows, fire extinguisher goo covering the furniture, and an IBM Selectric typewriter lying askew in the toilet. Turner suspected that the CIA had ransacked the office but saw no signs of forced entry. Years later, Hinckle telephoned Turner from Cookie Picetti's; a former law enforcement officer and GOP official had just confessed to him about burglarizing the Ramparts office in 1967. Hinckle asked Turner to question his new acquaintance about his burglary story. "But he couldn't have done it," Hinckle added, "because Gene Marine and I did it." Hinckle and Marine, a staff writer, had trashed the office after a drinking session at Tosca, another North Beach bar. But the burglar claimed that his caper had occurred two nights earlier, and he convinced Hinckle by producing the editor's bar receipts from Cookie Picetti's along with some Ramparts files. He told Turner that right-wing organizations had sponsored the burglaries, and that the findings were shared with CIA agents.

Eldridge Cleaver was hired as a staff writer in 1966, and his writing for the magazine formed the basis for Soul on Ice. Cleaver joined the Black Panthers while at Ramparts. In one legendary incident, he invited Malcolm X's widow, Betty Shabazz, and her Panther bodyguards to the magazine's offices.

Cleaver heard a secretary's terrified announcement that 20 armed men were invading the office. "Don't worry," he told her, "they're friends." Huey Newton and a detachment of Black Panthers were providing security for Betty Shabazz. After wading through the office's hallways, which were clogged with curious staffers, Cleaver stepped onto the sidewalk and noticed that traffic was stopped, spectators were gathered, and police cars were approaching with sirens blaring.

Cleaver brought Shabazz back to his office and conducted a short interview. Meanwhile, Newton stood at the window with his shotgun, observing the scene on the street. By that time, a police captain and drinking buddy of Hinckle's had arrived. "We seem to have a tense situation," the captain told Hinckle. "What are we going to do?" Hinckle suggested that they urge everyone to relax and adjourn to Andre's for a drink. But the Panthers weren't in the mood for refreshments.

After Shabazz departed, Cleaver, Newton, and other Panthers lingered outside the office. One of the police officers directed the Panthers not to point their weapons at him. Newton stared at the officer, who undid the strap on his holster. "Huey, cool it man. Let's split, man," Bobby Seale implored Newton, grabbing at Newton's jacket on his right arm. "Don't hold my hand, brother," Newton told him. "I let go of his hand right away," Seale wrote later, "because I know that's his shooting hand."

As Cleaver and others looked on, Newton approached the officer. "What's the matter, you got an itchy trigger finger?" The officer made no reply. "You want to draw your gun?" Newton asked. The officer remained silent while his colleagues counseled him to keep his cool. "OK, you big, fat, racist pig, draw your gun!" Newton said, loading a shell into his shotgun. "I'm waiting." The other officers stepped out of the line of fire, and Cleaver retreated into the doorway of the Ramparts office. His first thought, he later wrote, was "Goddam, that nigger is c-r-a-z-y!" After a tense moment, the officer sighed and lowered his head. The spell was broken. "Huey almost laughed in his face," Seale wrote later, "and we started backing up slowly." The Panthers returned to their cars and left the scene.

• • •

The story that really put Ramparts on the map was its 1967 scoop that the CIA had been funding the National Student Association (NSA) and other domestic front groups. But the agency nearly beat Ramparts to the punch.

The head of the CIA's Directorate of Plans learned that Ramparts was preparing a story on the NSA's connection to the CIA. He put Richard Ober, a counterintelligence specialist, in charge of suppressing the story. After reviewing his legal options, Ober realized he couldn't prevent Ramparts from running its story and decided to focus instead on damage control. He planned to stage a press conference at which NSA leaders would admit to their CIA relationship and insist that it was over. The admission would make the Ramparts story look like old news when it appeared.

But Hinckle had his own informants in the NSA, and he discovered the CIA's plan before the press conference could be held. "I was damned if I was going to let the CIA scoop me," recalled Hinckle. "I bought full-page advertisements in the New York Times and Washington Post to scoop myself, which seemed the preferable alternative." On February 13, 1967, the day before the ads appeared, acting Secretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach wrote a secret memorandum to the White House suggesting that the State Department make a "bare bones" admission. Meanwhile, one of the student leaders confirmed the Ramparts story to Hinckle. A surprised Hinckle later wrote, "It is a rare thing in this business when you say bang and somebody says I'm dead."

Immediately after Hinckle's ads appeared, eight Congressmen, including San Francisco Democrat Phil Burton, signed a letter of protest to President Johnson. "We were appalled to learn today that the Central Intelligence Agency has been subsidizing the National Student Association for more than a decade," the letter said. "It represents an unconscionable extension of power by an agency of government over institutions outside its jurisdiction. This disclosure leads us and many others here and abroad to believe that the CIA can be as much a threat to American as to foreign democratic institutions."

• • •

Ramparts published articles by many up-and-coming journalists, including Seymour Hersh, Lowell Bergman, and Hunter S. Thompson. In 1967, Thompson stopped by the office for lunch with Hinckle.

In the end, Thompson's visit wasn't healthy for Henry Luce. When Thompson and Hinckle returned to the office after their lunch, they found Thompson's backpack open, pills of various colors strewn on the floor, and a deranged Henry Luce racing around the office. He was rushed to the veterinarian's to have his stomach pumped. An unsympathetic Thompson later wrote to Hinckle, "That fucking monkey should be killed—or at least arrested—on general principles." But Henry Luce remained at large until his penchant for self-interference became a distraction. "He kept jerking off, so he had to go," Hinckle said later. A sympathetic secretary took him home to Marin County.

Amid the hijinks, Ramparts was ultimately known for its solid, serious reporting on abuses of government power, civil rights, and the war in Vietnam. While establishment publications dismissed the magazine's radical politics, its journalism still had a profound impact on readers, such Martin Luther King, Jr., who read its graphic January 1967 photo essay on the American bombing of Vietnam.
That month, Dr. King left for Jamaica for four weeks of solitude and writing. At the airport, he bought several magazines and met his friend, Bernard Lee, for lunch. Lee later recalled that King reacted strongly to the Vietnam story.

When he came to Ramparts magazine, he stopped. He froze as he looked at the pictures from Vietnam. He saw a picture of a Vietnamese mother holding her dead baby, a baby killed by our military. Then Martin just pushed the plate of food away from him. I looked up and said, "Doesn't it taste any good?," and he answered, "Nothing will ever taste any good for me until I do everything I can to end that war."

King wasn't the only one moved by that piece; many staff members were in tears while working on the spread, and it gave art director Dugald Stermer nightmares. He later said it was "just about the nastiest job I've ever had."
When he returned from Jamaica, King spoke against the war in Los Angeles, but he saved his strongest comments for a speech at the Riverside Church on April 4, exactly one year before his assassination. King listed seven reasons for stopping the war and urged the U.S. government, which he called "the major purveyor of violence in the world," to end the bombing and set a date for troop withdrawal. "We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world—a world that borders on our doors," he concluded. "If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight."
After the speech, King was buoyant. Although he was criticized in the mainstream media, he was satisfied with his position. In his study of King during this time, David Garrow noted that he "finally made the moral declaration he had felt obligated to deliver ever since that January day when he saw the photos in Ramparts."

• • •
By the early '70s, Ramparts had hit hard times, financially and politically. Hinckle and Scheer were replaced by David Horowitz and Peter Collier, who took the magazine in a more narrowly ideological direction. "Ramparts started broad and anarchic, with lots of different perspectives," Lowell Bergman recalled. "But as with many organizations, the leadership slowly took control. They thought they knew better, and Horowitz thought he knew everything." In Collier's view, Ramparts peaked between early 1967 and Hinckle's departure at the end of 1968. During that period, the magazine embodied youthful enthusiasm: "It was like a movie where Mickey Rooney jumps up and says, 'Hey kids, let's put on a play!'" But by the time he and Horowitz took over, the magazine's moment had passed. "Everything else was epilogue," said Collier.
In December 1974, Betty Van Patter, a Ramparts bookkeeper whom Horowitz had recommended to the Black Panthers to help with their accounting, disappeared and was later found murdered. Her death, still unsolved but allegedly carried out by the Panthers, was a turning point for the magazine and much of its staff, particularly Horowitz, who would become a prominent neoconservative gadfy.

Ramparts published its final issue in August 1975.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Interview with Scott Walker

In the sixties, he was part of the celebrated pop group the Walker Brothers - known as America's Beatles - but he rebelled against stardom and fled to a monastery before going solo. Since then, 'pop's own Salinger' has retreated ever further from the mainstream with each album. Now, as Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn and others line up to perform his work in a series of concerts, he tells Sean O'Hagan, in a rare interview, why he's happy to be a loner

Scott Walker was an only child and a nomadic one. His father, a geologist, travelled throughout America and the young Noel Scott Engel never had time to settle for long in one place. Born in Ohio in 1943, he lived in Texas for a time and then in California. 'I never made friends that easily,' he says, sounding not at all regretful. 'I don't mind being on my own because when you're on your own a lot as a child, your imagination grows. That is still the case with me.'

Wrapped up in his solitude, Walker can work on the lyrics of a single song for several years. On his last album, The Drift, a track called 'Cue' took six years to complete. 'It was the toughest song to write, but my most successful song lyrically,' he says, his mid-Atlantic tones soft but clear, his eyes half hidden beneath the peak of his ever-present baseball cap. 'It's sharp, it's angular, it all just chimes right. In that song, everything is exactly as I want it.'

'Cue', though, even by Scott Walker's recent standards, is a difficult song. The lyrics are dense and elliptical, the pace funereal and the atmosphere one of creeping anxiety. He delivers it in that doomy, semi-operatic tone that has long replaced the melodramatic flourish of his early solo albums. Featuring a chorus of wailing voices straight out of Dante's Inferno, it is not a song you would turn to for solace or uplift. It is, in fact, another of Scott Walker's musical excursions to hell. Can he appreciate why some of us find his later work wilfully impenetrable, too far out, in fact, to take in.

'Well, I never think that way,' he says, sighing. 'I think it sounds pretty normal so I'm kind of shocked when people say it's too much. For me,' he says, laughing, 'it's never far out enough.'

We are sitting in the bright, airy living room of his manager's spacious house in London's leafy Holland Park, the place where Scott Walker chooses to suffer through the few interviews he grants these days. While no longer as reclusive as he once was - Mojo magazine once called him 'pop's own Salinger' - he remains one of music's most famous loners. 'I'm not a recluse,' he says at one point when I ask him what he does when he is not making music. 'I'm definitely not that. I have friends and I go to dinner. I like people, but sometimes I can't wait to get away and be on my own again. I am solitary, though. I need to be for my work. That's the deal.'

Next week, he will break cover when the Barbican theatre hosts an ambitious series of concerts called Drifting and Tilting: the Songs of Scott Walker. The 70-minute programme will comprise eight songs taken from The Drift and 1995's equally challenging Tilt. Scott will be there each night, but not on stage, not singing. 'I'll help mix the live sound,' he says. 'I got spooked years ago about performing and never repaired the damage.'

In his place will be a succession of guest vocalists including Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn, Dot Allison, Gavin Friday and classical baritone Grant Doyle. A 40-piece orchestra will also be in attendance alongside Walker's studio group and a contemporary dance troupe. 'It will be a tightrope walk,' he says. 'There is never enough time to prepare these things, but if it's going to be a train wreck, it will certainly be an interesting one. There will be one or two surprises, too.'

Those surprises will not, alas, include performances of any of his older songs. There will be no 'Big Louise', in all its swooning sadness, no 'We Came Through' in all its galloping cavalry clatter, no 'Rosemary' or 'Jackie' in all their lovelorn glory. No Jacques Brel covers either, nor Walker Brothers hits.

'When we began discussing the event, it was taken as a given that Scott would not be singing and that none of his older work would feature,' says his friend and collaborator Michael Morris, co-director of Artangel, the arts company which specialises in ambitious, site-specific events. 'The performances will be dictated by the songs which are semi-operatic. The show will take the form of a semi-staged song cycle, almost like a lieder recital but a bit more dramatic. We're hoping,' adds Morris, 'that the audience doesn't clap between songs.'

In person, Scott Walker does not look like a living legend. His clothes are casual - faded jeans, denim jacket, trainers - and his manner diffident but charming. Throughout the interview, he sits perched, thin and bird-like, on the edge of a huge, floral-patterned sofa as if, at any moment, he might take flight. He looks much younger than his 65 years but his eyes, when I catch a glimpse of them beneath that pulled-down baseball cap, have a flickering intensity that speaks of deep unease. It is hard to imagine that he was ever a heart-throb who induced mass hysteria. For a moment, though, back in the mid-Sixties, the Walker Brothers, who weren't brothers at all, were known as 'America's Beatles'.

'Oh, it was amazing at first,' he says, smiling, 'but a little goes a long way. I was not cut out for that world. I love pop music, but I didn't have the temperament for fame.'

On their most famous song, and second No 1, 1966's 'The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore', he sang the prophetic lines: 'Loneliness is a cloak you wear, a deep shade of blue is always there'. He could have been describing his future self, both his personality and his music. The song was teenage heartbreak writ large and remains perhaps the most dramatic example of a certain strain of mid-Sixties pop melodrama, wherein everything - the music, the delivery, the production - was overloaded. It possesses what Johnny Marr would later describe as 'that gothic and beautiful gloom that was as much about England in the Sixties as was "Day Tripper"'.

The group imploded in 1967, with Scott frustrated to the point of breakdown by the formula into which their songs had fallen. His aversion to fame, and the fan hysteria that came with it, sent him running for the hills. He spent a week in a monastery in 1966, and the following year, there were reports that he had attempted suicide.

The Scott Walker who emerged on the solo albums that followed was a different kind of pop star, a crooner who veered between mainstream, Jack Jones-style balladeering and middle European angst. His hero was the Flemish chansonnier Jacques Brel, whose music he had been turned on to by a German Bunny Girl he had picked up at a party in the Playboy Club on Park Lane. 'I don't listen to Brel that much now,' he says, 'but in those days, hearing him sing was like a hurricane blowing through the room.'

By 1969's Scott 4, on which his own songwriting finally came to the fore, his themes were darker and a quote from Camus graced the sleeve: 'A man's work is nothing but his slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.' The pop idol had metamorphosed into an arbiter of existential angst.

'It has always been a certain kind of European writer who has captivated me,' he says. 'It started when I was a drop-out from high school in California and read Sartre, who I don't care for much now, but back then he had a huge impact on my way of thinking about the world. And Kafka, of course. Those writers were my main sources alongside the European films I saw in the Sixties in an art cinema on Wilshire Boulevard, Bergman and Kurosawa and the like.'

Those solo records have influenced several generations of pop mavericks from Marc Almond and David Sylvian in the Eighties to the Divine Comedy a decade later. Jarvis Cocker is a fan and persuaded Walker to produce Pulp's 2001 album, We Love Life. Most recently, Alex Turner's other project, the Last Shadow Puppets, released their debut album, The Age of Understatement, which, despite its title, was a homage to Walker's orchestrated emotional melodramas.

He wrote Scott 4, he says, 'on drink', and fell into depression when it failed to sell like its predecessors. 'I snapped,' he says. 'The pressure was everywhere and, in my crazy imagination, I thought, "I'd better keep doing this just to stay in the game."' In desperation, he reformed the Walker Brothers, and the band had chart success again with the single 'No Regrets'. But his heart was not in it, at least until they went into the studio to record Nite Flights, their valedictory album from 1978, on which he let loose the full force of his teeming imagination.

At its centre is an extraordinary song called 'The Electrician', a symphonic ode to S&M that would not have sounded out of place on a Pasolini soundtrack. In the recent documentary film Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, an animated Brian Eno enthused about Nite Flights' sonic experimentation, while castigating the conservatism of most contemporary pop music. 'We haven't got any further than this,' he sighed. 'It's a disgrace.'

The album still sounds otherworldly and futuristic. After it, though, came six years of silence and, with 1984's Climate of Hunter album, the beginning of the enigma that is Scott Walker Mk3. Gone was the musical extravagance of old, replaced by a minimalist sound that bordered on ambience. Only half the songs had actual titles. On the first line of the opening track, 'Rawhide', he sang: 'This is how you disappear.' Then he disappeared again. Tilt was 10 years in the making, The Drift another 11. They both sound, in their emotional and tonal extremity, like nothing else in contemporary music.

'A lot of what I do is waiting,' he says. 'I begin always with the lyrics and they seem to take some considerable time. They have become more angular of late and now come in blocks of words. It's just a different way of writing. When I see the page and the lyrics, I see soldiers in a field. There's a lot of white space which represents me in a sense. It's an abstract way of putting it, but I see it that way visually.'

His songs, he says, are clear to him, but he does not like having to explain or analyse them. He admits, though, that his recent music requires a certain amount of effort and patience from the listener. 'I try to avoid cliché. I want to make it sound like nothing I have ever heard before,' he says, his low Californian drawl still detectable after a 40-year exile in Europe. 'All that guitar-based rock stuff - I just feel like I've heard it before so many times. It goes on and on and never seems to end. It's just the same narrow ground being worked over. It would drive me mad to have to work within those parameters.'

So he has gone the other way - into texture and dissonance. The music he makes with strangely tuned strings and off-key piano chords, is, he says, 'always dictated by the lyrics', which tend to be obscure and, at times, wilfully nonsensical. His songs often seem to be haunted by the darker narratives of the last century, by war, disease, displacement and genocide. 'Cue', for instance, seems to be about a bacterial plague carried by the 'flugleman' of the song's subtitle, a viral pestilence that spreads 'through the dormant wards and nurseries... in the lung-smeared slides and corridors'.

In the documentary, the most revealing insight into his work comes from his orchestrator, Brian Gascoigne (brother of Bamber), who says: 'He believes, and I take issue with this, that to convey a very strong emotion in the music, you have to be feeling it when you're making it. That couldn't be true because the people who are playing Bruckner and Mahler every night would be basket cases... after three of four hours in the studio, he is a basket case because he lives the thing with such emotion.'

How would Scott Walker describe his singular artistic sensibility? 'Essentially, I'm really trying to find a way to talk about the things that cannot be spoken of,' he says. 'I cannot fake that or take short cuts. There is an absurdity there, too, of course, and I hope that people pick up on that. Without the humour, it would just be heavy and boring. I hope,' he says, once more, 'people get that. If you're not connecting with the absurdity, you shouldn't be there.'

Scott Walker's late music, in its evocation of anxiety and horror, may, as Michael Morris suggests, be more comparable with the paintings of Francis Bacon than with any musical contemporary. His songs, if they can still be called that, are as far from the drift of contemporary pop as one could possibly imagine.

'Oh, I have long since stopped worrying about fitting in in any way,' he says, laughing. 'I'm an outsider, for sure. That suits me fine. Solitude is like a drug for me. I crave it.' Why, though, does it take so long to make a record, write a song? 'A certain amount of it is about making it difficult for myself. I'm not interested in traditional narrative, say, or in having pat endings to the songs. I want the sense in my music of a constant moving forward into an open future.'

Of late, though, his music often seems to be drifting towards the last final, awful silence. 'Perhaps,' he says, 'perhaps.' Does he ever, I ask, miss the old days, when his songs lasted three minutes, had verses and choruses and were easier to write? He laughs. 'Not really, no. I mean, back then, I could write a song like "Big Louise" in an evening. That would be good sometimes and, you know, I would do that if the lyrics demanded it.'

Could he ever see that happening again? 'No. I write a different kind of song these days. There's not a lot of harmony and there aren't the thick textures I used to use. It's generally just big blocks of sound, raw and stark. A big emotional noise.' Another silence. 'Essentially, I am attempting the impossible over and over, trying to find a way to say the unsayable. For some reason,' he says, laughing, 'that just seems to take a lot longer.'


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Another new Blog

There will not be constant posts here but when I find something that strikes me it will appear. Being a writer/poet I am always amazed with words in whatever form they come from.

Oct. 16, 2002: Second Great Library Opens in Alexandria

2002: The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is officially dedicated in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria. It is a conscious attempt, even down to its Latin name, to recreate the Royal Library of Alexandria, the largest library in the ancient world.

The library, which sits facing the Mediterranean Sea not far from the site of its illustrious ancestor, is actually a vast complex of scientific and cultural repositories. Besides the library itself, which boasts shelf space for roughly 8 million books, there are three museums (Antiquities, Manuscripts and the History of Science), a planetarium, a conference center, gallery space for art exhibitions, and a number of academic research centers.

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is also the mirror site of the Internet Archive, which is housed thousands of miles away in San Francisco. In that capacity, the library’s role is to ensure the stability of the archive. It also affirms one of the library’s stated goals to be a player in the digital age.

Scholars at Alexandria University conceived the project in 1974, and it was quickly embraced by everyone from the Egyptian government to UNESCO. A Norwegian architectural firm won the commission to design the complex, with most of the initial funding coming from the Arab world. In the end, the project cost $220 million to complete, and Alexander’s metropolis (yes, that Alexander) could boast a handsome addition to its cityscape.

The striking architectural feature is the glass-paneled roof over the main reading room, which resembles a sundial tilting outward toward the sea. The walls are made of gray Aswan granite and bear inscriptions in 120 different human languages.

To stock the library and its various sprawling galleries, officials turned to the entire world. Most of its collection deals with antiquity, Mediterranean culture and the history of that region.

The original Royal Library of Alexandria was the foremost repository of scholarship for nearly 600 years before being destroyed by fire in the third century. Its founder, Ptolemy I, envisaged a gathering place for the world’s great scientists, scholars and thinkers. Like the modern complex, the Library of Alexandria housed not only a library (containing an estimated 700,000 scrolls), but science laboratories and research facilities as well.

For all its splendor, the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina remains an incomplete, and somewhat problematical, project. Much of the shelf space stands empty, because there aren’t nearly enough volumes available to fill it. At the current rate of acquisition and funding, it’s been estimated that it will take 80 years to fully stock the place. This has led to criticism that too much money was spent on the facility itself, without setting aside enough money to build the permanent collections.

As it stands, the library relies heavily on donations.

There is also the ever-present threat of censorship, because the Egyptian government is no particular friend of the free flow of information. The library’s current director, however, Ismail Serageldin, is a highly esteemed professor, sometimes referred to as “the most intelligent man in Egypt.” His background is in engineering, but he is a respected authority in many spheres, making him an international figure and a force for moderation.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Misterioso No More: Book Debunks Image of a Jazz Giant

Let’s say goodbye forever to an old jazz myth: Thelonious Monk as inexplicable mad genius.

Robin D. G. Kelley’s biography, “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original,” just published by Free Press, is an omnibus of myth-busting. It holds the largest amount of helpful, uncaricatured information about Monk in one place and goes a long way to correct a reductive understanding of Monk as a person, if not necessarily Monk as an artist, that has persisted for more than 60 years.

In 1947 the photographer and occasional journalist William Gottlieb wrote an excited article for Down Beat magazine, suggesting that Monk — then 29 — was “the George Washington of be-bop,” although “few have ever seen him.” Several months later Blue Note issued a provocative news release with Monk’s first 78 r.p.m. record.

“A shy and elusive person,” it read, “Thelonious has been surrounded by an aura of mystery, but [it is] simply because he considers the piano the most important thing in his life and can become absorbed in composing that people, appointments and the world pass by unnoticed.” It went on, “Among musicians, Thelonious’s name is treated with respect and awe, for he is a strange person whose pianistics continue to baffle all who hear him.”

Monk’s records didn’t sell well immediately, but the myth did. In the years to come the character sketches of Monk snowballed into a generalized perception of him as aloof, mystical and somewhat childish. It’s a chicken-or-egg question, about Monk’s eccentric behavior versus how it was interpreted — but Mr. Kelley asserts that the “mystery” reputation became almost a professional liability. (In the late 1940s — while making some of the greatest recordings in all of jazz — he and his wife were destitute.) Monk sometimes tried to dispel the myth in interviews, but ultimately lost interest.

Nobody faults Monk for his musicianship anymore, and his harmonic language has been fully absorbed into jazz’s mainstream. But there are still questions. Why did his music sound that way, with crabbed chord voicings and brusque repetitions, somewhere between stride-piano-fulsome and bebop-jagged? Why did he come to a creative cul-de-sac in the 1960s, with so many indifferent performances and a falling-off in the output of new compositions?

What was the nature of his relationship with Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, or Nica, his friend and occasional patron from 1954 until his death in 1982? Why did he get up and dance in circles during performances? And what exactly was his psychological condition?

Mr. Kelley, who has spent this week and last in New York in a run of events surrounding the book’s publication, has a list of refutations to make. “The main ones,” he said in an interview this week, “are that Monk was disengaged and unaware of his surroundings. I argue that he was incredibly engaged with his family, friends and music; he was in the business.

Two, that he and Nica had anything but a platonic relationship. I argue that he wasn’t as dependent on her as it seemed. Three, that descriptions of him as childlike and taciturn were completely wrong.”

Possibly most important of all the perceptions to combat, Mr. Kelley said, “was that Monk was an ‘artiste,’ a reclusive personality.”

“He wanted to get a hit,” Mr. Kelley continued. “He wanted to make money. It wasn’t about fame; it was about a working musician who believes that you could take a pure piece of music and get people to buy it.”

To prove his points over the 14 years spent researching and writing his book, Mr. Kelley, 47, a professor of history and American studies at the University of Southern California, resolved to humanize Monk. He traced Monk’s family back to his 18th-century ancestors in eastern North Carolina. But he also took advantage of some of the newer public resources in jazz scholarship, as well as some of its private troves.

He spoke to every one of Monk’s surviving relatives who knew him to talk about his character in general, his reactions to specific events in history and his career. (Other writers and researchers had talked to members of the Monk family, but none to so many.) Their comments create the binding glue of the book, a composite of how Monk saw the world, how and why he engaged and disengaged with it.

Mr. Kelley had rare access to some of the home tapes of jam sessions and conversations made by Nica. For a recounting of Monk’s public reception, he scoured not just the American jazz press but also black newspapers and publications from countries including Poland, Japan, Sweden and the Netherlands.

And he found valuable information in some sources that have only recently come to light: the papers of Teo Macero, one of Monk’s record producers, and of Mary Lou Williams, the jazz pianist; and in the 3,000 hours of audio tapes made by the photographer W. Eugene Smith at a New York loft building where Monk rehearsed.

Mr. Kelley also took over the rental of a Monk family storage space in downtown Manhattan, containing old clothes, Monk’s LP collection, medical records and hotel bills and one of his original arrangements, written in pencil.

Monk’s son, Thelonious Monk Jr., acted as the gatekeeper to the family’s cooperation, Mr. Kelley said. But the key was Nellie Monk, Thelonious Monk’s wife, protector and day-to-day factotum, who generally did not give interviews, and took five years to be convinced of the worth of Mr. Kelley’s project.

“Without Nellie’s cooperation, I couldn’t have written the book,” Mr. Kelley said. She connected him with Monk’s cousins, nieces and nephews, and also with her own cousin, the psychiatrist Dr. Anna Lou Smith, who had helped Nellie with her own physical ailments. Dr. Smith knew about Monk’s history with Thorazine, which he had first been prescribed by doctors at Grafton State Hospital in Massachusetts in 1959, and she helped Mr. Kelley sharpen his understanding of Monk’s bipolar disorder.

In the fall of 2001 Mr. Kelley, then working at Columbia University, was struck by a car, breaking his leg and damaging his knees. He had to resort to teaching from his apartment sofa, and it took two years before he could walk without a cane. But it was during that period that Nellie Monk, he said, truly became involved in the project.

“Nellie’s sympathy for me ran so deep that every day she’d call me up and ask me how I’m doing,” he said. “She’d tell me about tea and juice that I should be drinking. Our connection centered around my healing. I became one of her patients.” She was nearing 80.

Mr. Kelley has one persistent regret. Ms. Monk had already talked on the record, but invited him over to her son’s house in June 2002 for what she promised would be a much more extensive interview on a Friday. She fell ill the day before the interview, and died of a cerebral hemorrhage the following Tuesday.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Anna Deveare Smith, from 1992

Anna Deveare Smith in Fires in the Mirror…, directed by Christopher Ashley, May 1992. Photo: Martha Swope Studios/William Gibson.

Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities, by Anna Deveare Smith, was performed to sold-out houses and great critical acclaim at the New York Shakespeare Festival from May until August this year. The work is part of a series developed by Smith called On the Road: A Search for American Character.

In the series, Smith creates theatre pieces out of interviews, performing all the interview subjects verbatim. She is interested in “where a person’s unique relationship to the spoken word intersects with character.” Each show has a diverse collection of women, men, and youths with varied points of view about current issues. Some of the interviewees are well known and others are not. Fires in the Mirror focuses in part on a racial conflict that erupted in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in August of 1991.


Thulani Davis As we begin, Anna is describing a crisis that evolved when she got her students to work on the play Movie Stars by Adrienne Kennedy.

Anna Deveare Smith I had gone to find that play because being the African-American on the Carnegie Mellon faculty in 1979, the expectation was that I would find the play for the black senior who had not been cast the whole time she had been in school. But I really didn’t want to do a “black” play. I wanted to do a play that would have a racially mixed cast, and that would have race mixed in a way that I had never seen before. So I was shocked to stumble on Movie Stars, because it was exactly that. It played with persona, and with what many of us are afraid to play with as black people—the extent to which, in a real visceral way, white images have influenced our identities. And [Adrienne] is so honest about that, so clear, and so brave. That’s why I was attracted to the material, but it also put me in a crisis…

TD How did this come to a point of crisis?

AS I was having trouble with the text because (pause) it was very disturbing, almost like a bad dream. The structures I had for thinking about my own black experience were very different in meeting her text. And so I can remember going home one night, and I was very distraught, in a great loneliness about the whole experience. And I turned on the television, and turned the sound down, because I was now in the habit of watching TV with the sound down so that I could get used to splitting up action and gesture and speech—which I needed to do to direct the play. And Sophia Loren was on the Johnny Carson Show. The show was so strange.

First, there was a great deal of enthusiasm for Sophia Loren, but when she got on the show, it was clear that Johnny was uncomfortable; the audience was uncomfortable. There were no laughs. There was this big set-up for a present Johnny had for her, and she was encouraged to open it—which she did, quite slowly. It was a red garter. So then Doc starts playing this striptease music… There’s this big pause because she’s not responding. She obviously isn’t amused. Then she says, “Shall I put it on?” And Johnny says, “Oh my God, of course. Go ahead.” And she puts it on, and it’s real slow. It’s not funny; it’s really sexy. So everybody is disturbed. And everytime Carson tried to make a joke like, “Why don’t you tell us about how they called you stuci caldente when you were little…”

“Well, stuci caldente — it’s a skinny spaghetti but you shouldn’t laugh. I was very skinny because I had nothing to eat.” And so on.

And then Joan Rivers came on, and all of her humor was about Sophia’s looks and her breasts and Joan’s own lack of looks. “She asks for a glass of water; they are outside, stomping on grapes for her. Me, I ask for water and (spit), here!” Finally, Johnny says, “You shouldn’t treat yourself like this.” And [Joan] says, “No, no, I know I was not wanted. I know it.” “No you don’t, Joan. How do you know?” “I was born with a hanger in my ear.” Of course the audience loved it; they were peeing from hysteria and delight. Johnny was weeping he was laughing so hard. Then the Hines Brothers came on and tap danced.

I thought this show is about America. I don’t know why. The difficulty the audience had with Sophia’s magnitude and then the comfort with Joan’s exaggeration intrigued me.

A couple of months later, my friend Mary called me up and said it’s on again. I tape recorded it; I transcribed it, and this is when I became really interested in watching not what people say, but how they say it. Particularly when they run out of words. In the case of a person like Sophia Loren, when she runs out of words, she’s even greater because the real space is her physical space. And her physical space comes first; the words fit in to that. I remembered everything Sophia did. Whereas with Joan, I remember everything she said, and I don’t have a single image of anything about her appearance. See what I mean? And that just sent me down this way of watching talk shows all the time. Transcribing them and watching them for how people behave in the moment the interviewer questions their identity—usually it’s threatening.

And then I thought, well, why don’t I just start doing my own interviews and watch how people handle keeping a persona. What happens to language while they’re trying to do that, especially, if I construct interviews where I don’t ever threaten people, where I try to stay out of the way. And what I learned was that in an hour, which was the normal interview time, everybody does what I call “talking in poetry”—which is saying something only they could possibly say, in a way that only they could say it.

TD Everybody talks about how each of the people in Fires in the Mirror gave you something, revealed something about themselves. Do they do that because you leave them alone, or because they have an understanding that in the nature of the situation they should give you something only they could give?

AS See, I don’t know. Somebody would have to come watch my interviews. I don’t know what they do.

TD Do they perform for you?

AS People do perform in spite of themselves. You’ve seen that when you’ve done interviews.

TD But from watching the work, I would say that some of them performed for you. Or maybe that’s how they deal with any situation that could be threatening. And a one-on-one situation is fairly threatening if you don’t know the person. Your characters have genuinely, to me, performed for you.

AS Well, we don’t see the whole interview in the show, as you know. I’m using just one minute; I’m taking a corner of the page and magnifying it for theater. That might also be why there seems to be this greater truth; it may just be a magnified one.

TD Well, it also magnifies the characteristics of the character. Do you hear the things that you later select while you are interviewing them?

AS A lot of times I hear them. I mean, I heard Reverend Al Sharpton’s, “Me and James’ thang…” and that begins to dictate the way I look at the rest of the show. I heard: “Jewish people don’t drive vans over seven-year-old boys.” I remember we both heard together Conrad [Muhammad’s], “They are masquerading in our garment.” I mean, I heard it. And the fact that you heard it meant a lot to me.

TD Sometimes when I listen back to a tape, I hear whole sentences I never heard. So I know with this piece you’ve sometimes gone back two, three, four, five times and heard something else that somehow connected.

AS Well, up until now, I’ve edited and memorized under this awful gun of time. A lot of times there’s almost no tolerance for playing with something, so usually when I make the decision about what’s cut; it’s cut. In this experience, of having a longer run, I have had the chance to go back and listen to the tape. And maybe there was a line that was too complex to learn—you know, just rhythmically too complex to learn in the time that I had—but I can go back and hear it and add it now.

TD “They are masquerading in our garment.” Conrad Muhammad says that in reference to Jewish people. What do you think that means?

AS Well, I think that it means to look at the whole character and to look at what’s important to him. To look at his language. I’m sure that line is something that he’s heard before; that is part of a larger speech and thought. It probably came from Farrakhan, maybe Malcolm. I won’t pretend to completely interpret Conrad’s “Seven Verses,” I don’t want to diminish Conrad. But if this were just a flat text, I would say, well, the character is interested in clothing, I know that he is because of how he was dressed, how fastidious he was, how specific his clothing was, how he told me that the Muslims strip you down and take you from the bottom and don’t even assume that you know what kind of underwear to wear. They tell you how to be a man from there. He talks about why they wear the suit, why they wear the bow tie. And so the garment is an extremely important part of being a man, being in the world. A garment is an armor, I think, that the black Muslims wear to protect their manhood, to protect their integrity, to protect their humanity. And so part of that integrity, and that manhood, and that humanity is that to be the chosen is to have been given God’s armor. Armor because you are the most vulnerable, historically. According to him, there’s no way that the Jews are that, that they could have been that, given the historical evidence. And so they are pretending, they are frauds; they are wearing the clothes—they are pretending to be the chosen. They’re masquerading in the garments.

TD It’s a funny expression. “They are masquerading in our garments.” It seems to come from another era almost. Do you find that people that you interview, after you listen to them over and over, have a telling vocabulary? That there really are only a few central verbs or nouns that you start to lock onto? How does that work?

AS Everybody does have a central vocabulary, and frequently, it’s exactly that. It does sound odd; it does sound peculiar; it does sound like it comes from another era or is a broken thread. I have a friend who’s a weaver, and she talks about how she’ll deliberately break the warp thread, which is just a crazy thing to do. But she does that so her clothes have something individual about them. Everybody does that in a given speech. If we went through all the characters, we could find that. It’s something a lot of times you probably heard before. It could be something that Elijah Muhammad concocted because he’s the one who had them wear the bow lies, for example. It could be from a piece of literature. So when a person takes something—well, all language comes from elsewhere. Few of us really create words of our own. Babies do, and then the whole family will use that word with the baby for several years, like “wah-wah” for water. We are always trying to integrate new things we’ve heard from elsewhere that don’t really fit our own historical language. So that’s what our sign of ourself is…in picking up stuff and trying to fit it in.

TD It’s which stuff?

AS What do you pick up? What do you successfully integrate? But I’m interested in the stuff that stays bumpy. Sometimes the bump is fascinating, and sometimes it’s not

TD The intellectuals in the piece tend to try and think of metaphors. Angela Davis thinks of a metaphor for you, Ntozake Shange gives one and A.M. Bernstein searches for other metaphors for you. But the people in the “Crown Heights” section are much more in the moment, people who do not reflect as much. Even though they are reflecting, they are not professional reflectors like the people in the first half.

AS That’s right. That’s good. That’s exactly right.

TD The people involved in the incident tend to be more revealing in their language. Professional introspectives are more revealing to me in how they speak.

AS Although you know the rope that Angela uses, I wonder where that came from? I can’t find a trace of it really in any obvious way from her speech, or in the whole interview. Whereas with Conrad, we can trace it; we can find it, because he speaks about his clothing. Although she talks about slavery, and I’ve always thought that that rope speech means something about slavery. What’s good about intellectuals is the rhythm of their speech, but in terms of finding these bumps, it’s much harder.

TD Right, right.

AS I mean, that’s why we like the “bad boy” so much, because that logic is so sweet, and so clever, and so unique to him. He made that up.

TD They are not things you’d disagree with, but they are not things that you articulate, either. It’s necessary for them to tell us some things that should be assumptions: “We don’t kill seven year olds.” And in a way, the crisis in Crown Heights does that. It’s so intractable that you find people are telling you things that you should be able to assume and know about human beings. But it is as though, because I am the other, I know nothing is assumed about my humanity, so I’m going to tell you…from scratch.

AS First of all, I’m a human being. (laughs) Yes. (still laughing) In case you didn’t know that.

TD You’ve said that race is your work. I remember in rehearsal you said it casually: “Well, race is my work. This is what I do.” How did you mean that? Is race your work?

AS Yeah. It did come out of the circumstances of the work that I said it, but it gets…

TD I’m magnifying something, but in this case, I would say it was a “bump” of yours.

AS It’s a bump of mine. It’s a funny thing for me to say because I’ve tried so hard in my life, even when I was a kid, to have what I consider the different perspective on the race movement. Part of it was an effort to position myself, to find a place to be because I’ve always felt on the outside of it. I wasn’t fully an integrationist, and I wasn’t a separatist. I wasn’t comfortable with—I didn’t socialize completely with the black cliques at school. And I certainly didn’t completely socialize with the white cliques.

So I was on the outside, weaving back and forth and in and out. I had to find a way to be able to think about the reality of where I was because I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere. And maybe it’s not simple for anybody; maybe it’s a big fallacy, illusion that I have. But growing up through integration and then into the ‘70s, there were lots of pictures of groups of black people marching together and groups of white people marching. And I never was a part of a united thing—that’s just my personality—but it was very important to me to figure out what I thought. Obvious figures that we know in the history of race would say that. I would assume you’d feel like you’re in a band of people because it’s “we”—work. I just had to find my “we.” And all these years have been like that: standing on the outside; putting my foot in; and trying my best to be a “we” and feel right. But now I realize that even though that’s the way I did it, it was my work—that’s the work I was doing. I never abandoned it; I never did something else. I never pretended it didn’t exist. And maybe it’s every person of color’s work. White people don’t have to do this work, and many of them don’t. Racially, at least, many of them assume their place without question. Like gravity.

TD The reason I picked up on the line is because it resonated with me, and I thought, “Gee, race is my work too,” even when I didn’t set out to do that. And it becomes something you have to have some expertise in to survive, even if you’re really interested in astronomy.

AS Right. I would love to look carefully at the anatomy of someone who does not feel that they have had that experience.

TD A black person?

AS Yeah.

TD Do you see your work as a text? Something other people may perform later?

AS Yeah, probably. I don’t know if I’d go see it. (laughs)

(Smith explains that she could imagine doing “Fires” on alternate nights with another actor.) The person I thought of the other night is Sandra Bernhard. She would be perfect: a Jewish woman who’s quite different from me anyway, right?

TD This, in a way, goes back to the “race is work” issue; this is the kind of work I have not seen a white person do. There’s a fine line between what would be an incredible performance and what would be regarded as dangerous territory. When you have one actor doing it, that person becomes responsible, they have to do all of it, and they have to do all of it on a fine line. So I have been wondering, is this something that black people have to do first?

AS That’s where all the risk in the work has to be. We’ve already been through the time where black people do it first, and I think that it would be exactly shocking, and exactly dangerous, and exactly right to have a Sandra Bernhard, or a kind of Sandra Bernhard, do my show one night. It would be difficult for black people to watch her do black people, and maybe even more difficult, for white people to watch her do black people. But it may also allow people to express their difficulties. It’s my suspicion that some black people have trouble with me doing black men.

But it’s exactly these anxieties, these inhibitions that the audience really needs to confront. It was the only way that we could be when we went through this race work before, to say: We will take responsibility as black people to talk about our experience. We don’t want to hear from you. We have the authority here. You haven’t done this work. Okay, nobody wanted to do it. They wanted to pretend we weren’t here. We will take the responsibility of saying we were here. We don’t want to hear what you have to say. You don’t know. We know. So, we were typecasting white people, too. Now I think that that’s dangerous because the work so badly needs to be done that anyone who heartily wants to do the work carefully, should do it. It’s not a matter of allowing or not; they should not be silent. White people are a race. For us to take moral responsibility meant that it helped them continue not to do their work in race. Probably the ones who were doing their work the most vigorously were the racists like David Duke.

So I’m interested in trying to work through the difficulties of now having a dialogue with people ‘cause my experience in race is usually a monologue when it comes to being with white people. You know, if I go in to any administrator about how race could be better in the certain institution, usually, they’ll call the meeting they’ll want desperately to talk with me. But the meeting will begin with their arms folded over their chest, saying, “What can we do for you, Anna?” Not “What’s the problem?” “What’s your problem?” And it’s our problem. Twenty years ago, people said,”It’s your problem. It’s whitey’s problem.” But it’s our problem, all of us.

TD The thing that’s nice about the piece is that, even though all the characters are doing monologues, there is a quality of listening that you don’t have in those meetings.

AS Well, it’s because people really do get to speak uninterrupted—or there’s the illusion that they are speaking uninterrupted. Someone gets to say their fill, and the next person speaks. If jumbled it up and made a play out of it, Roz wouldn’t get through that whole thing without someone saying something. (laughter) Conrad, Leonard Jeffries—no—they wouldn’t get finished. And if you get in the way, if you don’t let people finish, it’s harder for them to get to the bumps. Unless, it’s a very skilled speaker: a person who gets so excited by controversy that it accelerates where the pulse comes from. Most people get frightened in that type of controversy; they close down and don’t open up. A Sharpton probably opens up. Angela probably opens up under fire—orators do—but most people don’t. So, that’s why we have to have a different way of listening, a different way of thinking of dialogue, and a different way of thinking of the race discussion.

TD One of the reasons that it seems like these pieces don’t come out of the theater that white people are doing is because they’re not thinking about it.

AS But don’t you think that we think about it a lot?

TD We think about it all the time. But for me it’s the “back wheel” that’s thinking about it for many hours of many days, just storing information in a matrix that’s there—call it “race”—it’s a whole network of thoughts.

AS Most of the organizations that we have are black organizations so that’s what we do talk about. I wonder, in your friendships with black people, how much do you talk about race? Or if you talk about it?

TD I do. And not in just my friendships with black people.

AS But with white people.

TD Asians, Latinos—all people of color. It’s a big subject in that friendship. And that may be partly an expression of who I am. Do you feel that other people, white people, can allow themselves to think about race deeply in such a way that they can build work out of it?

AS If they accept the fact that they are a race, absolutely. Absolutely. If they accept the fact that they are a race. But in as much as we are a minority, maybe this is a minority part of their experience—they have access to many more aspects of life than we do by dint that they’re privileged—this is a smaller part of their life, but I think that they can. Of course they can. It could be like if a white person, I would imagine, were to really think about—but this is the hardest work of all for both of us. If a white person who has a fascination with a black person, black artist, were allowed to think that through. I can’t tell you how many white people have told me that when they were little, they had a black friend that they were really fascinated with, and at some point, their parents took them away from that person. It’s always an awful moment in conversation for me when a white person tells me those stories. It didn’t used to be an awkward moment for me; I used to be genuinely interested because I’m interested in people’s personal histories. I’m a spy like that—I love that.

But I learned in college that those are warning signals, danger bells somehow. They would bring that up as a way of talking to me. And I think the reason it might come up as a way of talking to me is because there is an anxiety again of having an interest in me, to like a black person. And I think that acting always has to take people back to their original episodes that made inhibitions, to try to work those through so that they can have access to more of their own gifts and their voice. If a person were willing to and not inhibited about saying, God, I’m really fascinated with that person or attracted to that person. There are obvious reasons why that’s dangerous. If you’re fascinated, if you are attracted, you might get close. And when you get close, you’re going to get closer to the war that’s between us. The war that has never been fully fought. It’s a bloody war, and it could end in disaster. And I’m not just talking about intimate relationships in terms of one with the other, but to even do this work, you and I both know how bloody the war is. People have reason to be cautious, but I’m not going to be the person to say, “Don’t do it.” I’m not going to be the one to say,”You don’t belong here.” I’m absolutely not. I really want to see people try it, make it through the trenches with it.

Now the politics of it get complicated—and I guess this is why as colored people, we tend to be very cautious—if those people get to appropriate the race movement and see privileges we don’t have; it’s very hard. I don’t want to be really naive by implying that we can do anything without the power structures that give us opportunities, that give us money, that give us grants, that give us jobs. I don’t want to be that naive. But just talking about what the work is in the trenches, I wonder if we really can talk about appropriation, because I so firmly believe that we all have to do this work.

TD This goes back to what we were talking about in the beginning: how we try to find a language, and we do appropriate our language, in that pieces all come from somewhere outside.

AS That’s right. That’s right. You learn because of the process of being interviewed. The most wonderful thing I came upon was thinking about learning to speak—it also had to do with voice. I lost my voice while doing Fires and I had to write what I needed and wanted to say, and people would read back to me what I had said. It brought up all these really old feelings of when I was a little girl. At first I thought it was because my mother had read to me as a child. And people were much nicer to me when I couldn’t talk. Very nice. People at the bank, cab drivers—everyone wanted to help me. People who were normally nasty. One of the most intimate things that happens in your coming into the world is learning to talk. And I used to always ask my students that on the first day of class. I’d say, “What’s your name? Where you from?” I’d say, “Who taught you how to talk?” And they’d look at each other like ?do we have to go through a term with this fool?”

TD Do people know?

AS They seldom remember. They usually say, “Oh, I don’t know. I guess my mother.” I guess my mother. Sometimes people have very wonderful and clear memories of a specific person. Like one girl whose brother taught her how to talk. Another girl from Puerto Rico said, “I learned to speak English at Swarthmore.” I mean, I love that. “I learned to speak English at Swarthmore.” When you don’t have language, you are wanting to be in the world. You’re wanting to be something; you’re wanting to do something; you’re wanting to cause action. And you need this other person, who may have the most reprehensible way of being in the world or the nicest way of being in the world, to give you the keys to do that. And so I think it’s a phenomenal relationship. And that’s why when we get into rocky ground and we don’t have language, and there are a few people who are more articulate than others or who have developed the language; it’s very hard because it means that somebody has to back up and trust that person’s few words to begin to develop even their own syntax. Greg Tate told me in our interview that the problem in race work is that black people develop the language. So for white people to participate, they have to take on the language that we developed. I don’t know. It’s a compelling thought. I don’t know if it’s true or not. But I do know that to come into language to begin to speak and develop language, it’s this incredible, amazing trust that you have to have with the person who is giving you the basic words.

TD Well, white people developed a language about race, particularly outside of this country…where we’re not present. They have a language for it that objectifies us. And then in this country, the language that is “bad language,” that was developed by white people is language we’ve rejected.

AS The language—let’s not say all of it—that was based on hate is what we used to run from.

TD Don’t we have to be prepared to give up the language or share?

AS We have to be willing to go to the table; we have to be willing to walk in the construction site. All of us with chisels and construction hats on. Nobody can walk in a construction site without a construction hat. Nobody. That’s what I think.

TD A hard hat?

AS A hard hat.


Deconstructing Cinema in Order to Reveal It

from the article,

ONE Sunday last month, I visited the avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs and his wife, Flo, in the top-floor loft they rent on Chambers Street in Manhattan. The plan was for Mr. Jacobs to show some work he will present during a weeklong series of programs in Los Angeles that starts Monday. As I neared the top of my four-flight climb, the walls became more cluttered and lived in, as if announcing the residency of the last bohemians in TriBeCa.

That evening, after some conversation and homemade sorbet, I watched a world of wonders unfold on a screen hanging from the ceiling. As the recorded sounds of city traffic and a distant voice filled the air, sharply etched black-and-white geometric shapes of undecipherable provenance begin to rotate on screen first right, then left and back, creating what looked like shifting whirlpools. Parts of the image pulsed and eased in and out of focus. I thought I was looking at oil on water, flowing lava, lichen, dying embers or a reference to 9/11, which had happened five blocks away. My eyes searched for something familiar. I tried to grasp the story. My eyes started watering, less from emotion than strain.

“I have no idea what I’m watching,” I scribbled into my notebook. I was more right than I knew.

What I watched was beautiful, hypnotic, mysterious and as close to a representation of three-dimensional imagery as I’ve ever seen without wearing funny glasses. It was pure cinema. As it happens, it was so pure that no celluloid had threaded its way through a projector. I hadn’t been watching a film, after all, or digital images, only light and shadow. Using an illusion machine of his own invention that he calls the Nervous Magic Lantern — an apparatus containing a spinning shutter, a light and lenses that he hides behind a black curtain when he isn’t performing what he calls “live cinema” — he had taken the experience of watching moving images back to its origins. We weren’t watching shadows on the cave wall, but we were close.

The Nervous Magic Lantern is a variation on a proto-cinematic machine, dating from the Renaissance or earlier, called the magic lantern, a device for projecting images. By the mid-17th century, it was popular enough that the diarist Samuel Pepys bought one “to make strange things on a wall.” Mr. Jacobs, a leading figure in American avant-garde cinema, has been making strange things shudder and writhe on screens for more than half a century. The germ for the Nervous Magic Lantern dates back to his earlier device, the Nervous System, a machine with two 16-millimeter projectors and a rotating shutter, on which he showed identical strips of film and with which he created optical effects, including an illusion of depth.

These manipulations were a continuation of a long preoccupation with cinema’s material properties as well as its effect on our heads and bodies. Born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1933, Mr. Jacobs watched movies like “Greed” at the Museum of Modern Art with a high school pass, studied painting with Hans Hoffman and bought a camera with the idea of doing “combat cinematography in the streets of New York.” With Jack Smith, a film and performance artist, he did just that, shooting Smith frolicking in shorts like “Little Stabs at Happiness” (1958-60). Mr. Jacobs once described another of these films, “Blonde Cobra” (1959-63), edited from footage shot by Bob Fleischner, as a “look in on an exploding life, on a man of imagination suffering prefashionable Lower East Side deprivation and consumed with American 1950s, ’40s, ’30s disgust.”

With Smith in front of the camera, Mr. Jacobs also began shooting “Star Spangled to Death,” a 440-minute epic of passion and political rage created from an astonishment of found footage and live-action material filmed in a long, now almost unrecognizable Lost New York of mom-and-pop shops, shadowy back alleys and grubby streets free of corporate brands. “We were picking up on this culture of spontaneity in the arts,” Mr. Jacobs said. In a sense, Smith was the embodiment of this spirit, as liberated as a jazz riff or an Abstract Expressionist brush stroke. Mr. Jacobs, a relentless tinkerer, started making the movie in 1957, shot for a few years and presented it in different iterations; he finished it (or so he says) in 2003 and 2004.

He and Smith eventually went their own ways. Smith made “Flaming Creatures” (1963), a plot-free bacchanal and object of scrutiny in Susan Sontag’s 1966 collection, “Against Interpretation.” In 1964, Flo and Ken Jacob and the filmmaker Jonas Mekas were arrested for showing “Flaming Creatures,” which had been found obscene. Both men were given six months in a workhouse, but the charges were dropped. Mr. Jacobs went on to help start both the Millennium Film Workshop in New York and the film program at the State University at Binghamton, N.Y., where his students included the cartoonist Art Spiegelman. One inspiration for Mr. Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust, “Maus,” in which Jews are represented as mice, came from Mr. Jacobs’s observation that in early cartoons mice and African Americans were often depicted similarly.

“It was ecstatic,” another student, J. Hoberman, the senior film critic for The Village Voice, said of Mr. Jacobs’s teaching. “It was like a volcano.” Mr. Jacobs would show students movies as they had never seen them, slowing them down through a special projector — sometimes frame by frame — for intense close scrutiny, much as he was doing with “Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son,” a film he was working on around the time. “We’d crawl through these movies,” Mr. Hoberman said of this slow-cinema approach, as Mr. Jacobs held forth in sterile lecture halls, showing a range of movies and discoursing on his loves (“The Bicycle Thief,” “They Live by Night”) and hates (most of Godard, Hitchcock). “His powers of analysis were phenomenal.”


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Kibbutz Lotan

Kibbutz Lotan was founded in 1983 in the Arava Desert in Israel, with the discovery of a significant source of groundwater. Lotan sits at a low point in a valley, hundreds of feet above an aquifer. Over the years, Lotan has become known for its example in sustainability, proving that an inspired group of people can create community and habitat in even the harshest of environments, by being resourceful.


Friday, October 9, 2009

CSI: Doodle – lie detection through art

LIARS may fear polygraph tests and brain scans, but surely they wouldn't expect a simple drawing to give them away. It seems that how you draw a scene can help reveal if you really were there or just made the whole thing up.

No lie detector is anywhere near foolproof, and existing techniques, including polygraph tests and brain scans, have the added drawback of requiring specialised, expensive equipment, says Aldert Vrij, a forensic psychologist at the University of Portsmouth, UK.

Vrij wondered whether asking someone to draw a scene might work instead: as liars have not had direct visual experience of what they are describing, they might draw a scene differently to someone who was actually there.

To test the idea, his team sent 31 volunteers on a cloak-and-dagger mission in which they had to pick up a laptop computer from an actor posing as a secret agent, and deliver it to a second agent. The second agent then asked volunteers to describe how and where they had received the laptop and to sketch the location in detail. Half of the volunteers were told to answer this question with a lie and half told to tell the truth.

While many of the liars gave convincing verbal accounts to the agents, when their drawings were compared with those of truth-tellers, there were features that distinguished them (Applied Cognitive Psychology, DOI: 10.1002/acp.1627).

The first was who they drew: 2 out of 16 liars included the first agent in their drawing, whereas 12 out of 15 of the truth-tellers included that detail. Vrij suggests this is because the liars visualised a place they knew and simply drew this, neglecting to include the agent.

The second difference was perspective, with liars tending to draw the laptop handover from a bird's-eye perspective rather than a first-person one. Vrij suggests that while liars are adept at quickly coming up with a plausible verbal account, they find imagining spatial relationships between conjured-up objects more difficult from a first person perspective.

Liars tend to draw the scene from a bird's-eye perspective, rather than a first-person view
He reckons asking suspects to sketch scenes could help police determine who is telling the truth.

But couldn't savvy criminals learn these giveaways and avoid them? For example, liars in the know might start taking care to include people in their drawings.

Perhaps, but Maria Hartwig, a forensic social psychologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who was not involved in the new study, points out that liars might be reluctant to add people as they might trigger further questions from police.

Researchers have yet to test the method on larger groups of volunteers to work out how often it mistakenly flags up as liars people who are telling the truth.

However, some police already do something similar. The Denver Police Department in Colorado has electronic white boards in its interview rooms, says spokeswoman Lieutenant Leslie Branch-Wise. The boards aren't intended to ferret out liars, she says, but if a suspect's drawing doesn't mesh with other details, investigators take note.


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Rona Pondick

I first met Rona Pondick in the early ’90s when she and her husband, the painter Robert Feintuch, were invited to spend the weekend at a mutual friend’s house on Fire Island. At the time, she was coming to prominence with works that dealt with the fragmentation of the body: mouths, teeth, and ears rich in psychological and scatological references. Rona’s output has been impressive since then, and she is one of the few artists I know who is always experimenting with materials and forms to extend the parameters of her sculpture in unexpected and startling ways.

For this interview, I went to see her in her loft on Cooper Square and talked about The Metamorphosis of an Object, her current show at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts. In arranging and curating the show, she selected a number of historic sculptures from different cultures—East and West, some dating back a few thousand years—from the museum’s collection to be shown alongside her own. This idea produced provocative juxtapositions, giving lucid insight into Rona’s working methods and interest in the fragmentation of the body and the more recent idiosyncratic hybridization of natural and animal forms with the human body, which she elucidates below.

—Shirley Kaneda

Shirley Kaneda You just showed me installation photos of your latest show at the Worcester Art Museum and what struck me was the spectrum of history you’ve incorporated into this show, which you mentioned spans all the way from 2,000 B.C. to the present and involves a range of different cultures. What was the impetus of having an almost mega-historic context for this show and for your work?

Rona Pondick I was thinking about my own history and I was trying to construct an exhibition that dealt with the simple act of looking. I wanted someone to be able to walk in and not need labels and written explanations telling them what they’re looking at. I was also trying to bring different audiences together—audiences that would look solely at historical work with audiences that would normally just look at contemporary work.

SK That’s interesting, and I suppose the goal is to have viewers develop a fluid context between historical and contemporary works even though, stylistically, they look different. To do that, you really need to look; people now seem to depend so much on the taped recordings now at museum shows. Michael Kimmelman just wrote something in the New York Times about how “looking” might be coming back in terms of viewing works of art now, which I’m hopeful about.

RP It seems as though people are enjoying the experience of looking. The curator, Susan Stoops, has said that visitors seem comfortable without labels and elaborate explanations. People are getting it on their own. By breaking the show into three general themes—how hair translates in sculpture, how gesture and posture make meaning, and the use of repeated imagery—we’ve created a space where people are very comfortable looking at the relationships between the individual pieces. I love the fact that people are spending a long time on their own before reaching for the brochure. People are very engaged—visually, emotionally, and intellectually. Shortly after the show opened I gave a talk to the docents who give tours throughout the run of the exhibition. At the end of the talk a couple of docents thanked me, saying they thought they knew the pieces in the museum well—they had been giving tours for 20-plus years—but felt like they were seeing the pieces I chose for the first time.

SK How did you decide on these different categories, and how do they relate to your work?

RP When Susan invited me to do the exhibition, she asked if I would be comfortable incorporating pieces from the collection, knowing I was deeply involved with historical sculpture. We got into some very interesting and wonderful exchanges about how this could be done. My initial idea was to make the show about how sculptors make their work and what they think about. We started talking about how I approach making my own work, using that as a guide. At the time I had been thinking about how hair translates in sculpture because I was trying to figure out how to model it in my own work. I became obsessed with looking at all the ways that hair was abstracted. Somehow, our brain recognizes a variety of abstracted forms as hair. From the snail-like forms in Buddhist sculptures to the stylized carved or real hair in African pieces to more natural-looking, flowing, Roman hairdos, it all looks like hair.

SK But the way the hair is represented in your sculpture seems to introduce a level of realism that didn’t seem to be there in your earlier works. I’m thinking about works from the ’90s, the late ’80s. While they were of course figurative, there’s a different kind of realism in your work now, which is coupled with simplified animal forms, for example.

RP As soon as you start using skin texture or hair you’re talking about highly articulated forms which could be read as realistic. But if you see hair that’s modeled, it’s abstracted. It’s not a one-to-one relationship. If you look at an early Egyptian or Roman death mask, something directly removed from someone’s face, you would expect it to read factually or realistically. But in fact, most of those death masks don’t look real because they don’t have skin texture. It sounds like when I introduce skin texture in my work, you see it as introducing realism. I think the level of attention I bring to the appearance of things is part of what makes them psychologically disturbing.

SK Obviously your goal is not about realism or how realistic you can make something look. It’s part of the repertoire of representation in your work, but how did this transformation to a more realistic way of representation come about? Was it because you started using digital technology?

RP No, I think it came from my wanting to have two highly articulated realities merge into one. I’m trying to bring together opposites. I’ve been doing this pretty much from the beginning.

SK Yeah, I remember when you first started showing your work in the late ’80s when postmodernism had come to the fore. Do you feel comfortable applying that term to your work? It’s a large term, but I’m specifically thinking about disparate qualities coming together, the hybrid quality of your work.

RP These are qualities that have intrigued and propelled me for a long time. I don’t know if that’s postmodern or not.

SK I think this is where we share a certain interest in what we try to express in our work: a contradictory nature, an understanding that something is not singular, that it’s always open-ended. And in order to express that, you need to show it visually, not textually. I think one of the strongest aspects of working visually is being able to experiment with opposite or disparate qualities.

RP I don’t know if you do this, but I find myself constantly trying to understand how my artistic ancestors did things.

SK When you say ancestors are you talking about other artists?

RP Yeah, artists throughout history. I spend a lot of time going to museums. I feel as comfortable looking at an Egyptian sculpture as I do looking at a sculpture made today. I’m not surprised by the fact that I love Giacometti and Egyptian art, and it also makes perfect sense to me that Giacometti looked at Egyptian work as well. These are my ancestors. I look to my ancestors when I’m struggling with my own work. Why reinvent the wheel when it’s all there? We’re all linked but different at the same time.

SK I believe that, too. Despite the fact that we cling to “known styles,” there is a possibility that a third way of looking at something can emerge from already established points of view. So I don’t have any problem, say, reusing, or regenerating from something established in the past. In fact, I think there isn’t much else. (laughter)

RP If you look throughout history, what’s wonderful about art is that it’s mutating and spiraling. It doesn’t move in a linear way. We artists take things from maybe the last 100 or 1,000 years and twist them and re-do them, putting them into our own voices and time periods. In one section of the Worcester show I put a bronze Thai Buddha from the 15th–16th century next to my yellow stainless steel Dog that I finished in 2001 next to a Mexican ceramic from 900–1200 next to an Egyptian Middle Kingdom limestone from 2060–1780 B.C. I found it interesting that sculptures from different time periods and cultures—in many different materials, all made in different ways—looked like they made perfect sense together.

SK Well, that’s what’s so surprising with some of your recent sculptures. Thinking about the bonsai pieces, for example: the bonsai form and the tiny hands growing at the ends of their branches are both known figurative elements on their own, but somehow the combination creates something very refreshing and very you. One is a generic representation of a bonsai tree, right down to the scale. And then the tiny hands remind me of Egyptian-inspired ornaments. It’s extremely personal, and very much one artist’s perspective—yours. I find that quality in a lot of your recent works; even though when I look at a figurative form you use—like your own face or the way the hands or animal forms are realized—and recognize it, the decisions you’ve made in terms of scale, material, and texture produce something very unusual.

RP The first time I merged a fragment of my own body with an animal form a light bulb went off. I realized that animal-human hybrids have existed since the Neolithic era, and if you look throughout history, it’s an image that has repeated over and over. Now, when you look at the way science is advancing with cloning and genetic manipulations in both human and plant forms, it’s chilling how it all comes together.

SK One of the first reactions I had when I saw one of your hybrid animal-human pieces was discomfort. It was familiar, because as you said it exists in historical pieces, but your combination of surface, materials, scale, realism, and stylization was jarring. But really compelling! I couldn’t stop looking at it. It almost felt like looking at something you shouldn’t be looking at.

RP I know exactly what you mean. You have a cut in your arm and you can’t stop picking at it, or there’s a car accident and—

SK Everyone slows down. (laughter)

RP Right, everyone slows down instead of hurrying by without looking. We are strange! How is it possible that we all have such different responses to the same thing? What one person finds hysterically funny the next person is appalled by and finds incredibly disturbing. Just think about the emotional range we all go through in a single day. It’s really quite vast. I want all of that in my own work.

SK Definitely. Because your work is figurative, I think the contradictions can be interpreted psychologically. Whereas my work is abstract, so it’s a little bit more general; contradictions just stand for contradictions, and aren’t necessarily interpreted as something psychological.

RP Absolutely. I’m aware of it. Sometimes it takes me a while to understand what I’m doing in a piece, psychologically. When I’m working on a sculpture I don’t always understand what I’m doing and it can take me years to understand fully what it means. But I’m definitely aware of the emotional interpretations. People want to believe there’s a narrative. Because I’m bringing contradictory fragments together, I believe the viewers try to bridge the gaps and wind up projecting a lot of themselves into my work.

SK I look at the piece Monkeys and see a very beautiful piece. Formally it’s extremely graceful, in the way that the bodies just seem to expand, but it’s also very sexual and sensual.

RP Monkeys is a piece about baroque movement. I wanted it to feel like it was in motion. I think the smooth surfaces and undulating forms have a sexual and sensual reading. While a lot of the piece has highly reflective surfaces, the human elements have very detailed skin texture. I think some people find this a little disturbing, because it looks so real. I find it odd that people think stainless steel looks so much like skin.

SK It’s not lifelike, or it is only in terms of the lines, but not the material.

RP Right, and I think there’s something a little startling about that. The treatment of the surfaces are so different, and I’ve noticed that people become quite engaged with themselves when they’re looking at my sculptures because of the reflective, mirrored surfaces. They’re pulled into it.

SK Was that the reason for using stainless steel?

RP One of the reasons I use stainless steel is because it looks like mercury. It’s a material that always looks like it’s in flux. It’s moving. Metamorphosis is an essential quality in my work, so it’s a perfect material for me to use.

SK Do you think you use untraditional materials, in relation to what sculptors have used historically?

RP I think the way I combine materials may be seen as unusual. I’ve used a lot of different materials over the years. While some people might think it’s strange to take hair and combine it with stainless steel, either material alone is not so unusual. Material transcendence is really important to me. I’ll never forget the first time I saw The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Bernini. I couldn’t believe this marble sculpture looked like it was quivering and actually reaching an orgasm. To me, this was a sculpture that totally transcended the material it was made of, and I thought a lot about that when making Monkeys.

SK Well, that was the genius of Bernini. He was able to transform the material into something that was more than lifelike.

RP Exactly. For me, the challenge in Monkeys was to have the piece be full of movement and read as a sexual and sensual cluster of animal-human hybrids.

SK Well, I think you’ve succeeded. So, when you’re making your pieces, you’re not specifically thinking about a particular emotion. But obviously your work has a very strong underpinning of psychosexual content. How do you feel about this in terms of our culture today? It’s a subject matter of great interest to many artists.

RP Yes, the psychosexual is definitely in my work. Aren’t we all psychosexual beings? We all have emotions and sexual drives and they seem intimately connected. It seems very natural for it to be part of my work.

SK What do you think of Louise Bourgeois, in terms of this subject matter?

RP I think she is using her life and her life experiences. But her work is autobiographical.

SK So yours is not?

RP I’m using myself in my work but I’m not dealing with a specific event in my life, like Bourgeois is. I see relationships between my work and hers, but I also see big differences; in particular the way she uses her relationship to her father as a central subject.

SK That seems to be the key to her work, in terms of what’s been written.

RP I don’t want to emphasize myself in my work, even though my body parts are all over the place. Honestly, the reason I started using my own head instead of someone else’s is that I didn’t want to go to jail. I didn’t use straws in the molding process and I painted in rubber around my nostrils, which could have killed me. (laughter) I’ve used that same cast of my head in so many of my sculptures. I manipulated the head by hand, because it was so unpleasant doing that first life-cast. I never want to do it again.

SK I don’t think of them as self-portraits. I know it’s you, but maybe because of the repetition in the usage of yourself, that somehow it loses the aspect of self-portraiture.

RP I want to tell you a very funny story, which happened at Sonnabend’s opening show in Chelsea. I was standing next to my sculpture Fox, and Bill Jensen walked up to me and asked, “Is that a portrait of Antonio Homem?” (laughter)

SK Sonnabend’s director?!? (laughter)

RP At first I thought this was very funny. I’m standing right next to a life cast of my own head, and he’s asking me if it’s someone else’s! I realized that this was great, because the sculpture had become a generalized me. People have written about these sculptures as male or female, and most of the time not about the fact that it’s a depiction of me. I like that.

SK The expression actually seems expressionless; it doesn’t really give a lot of detail in terms of your face. Your eyes are closed.

RP Well, if you do a life cast, your eyes have to be closed. It’s a very internal expression.

SK And very uncomfortable.

RP It was horrible! Imagine inches of rubber and mesh and then two inches of plaster encasing your head and neck. Luckily I kept a pad and pencil on my lap before starting. Halfway through it, I was flipping out, feeling like I was suffocating. I had sensory deprivation, and I wanted that thing off. I started writing, “Get this fucking thing off of me!” (laughter) I quickly started making casts from my arms and legs. Now, many years later, I see that using my own body parts does mean something. If I started using someone else’s, that would take on a whole other meaning. Maybe years from now I’ll see these as self-portraits, even though at first that was not my intent.

SK That’s interesting, because we’ve almost come to expect to see you in the piece, even though it’s not meant to be seen as a self-portrait.

RP It’s also interesting because I’m not the same age I was when I made my first life cast. It’s locked me in time. The way I use myself in my work is similar to the way dancers use their own bodies—just an instrument or tool. I also think of Rodin, who kept hundreds of hands in drawers because he wanted to have many parts around him to collage into a sculpture. He had an endless supply of body parts that he could just grab and use.

SK Really? Well, that leads to the issue of fragmentation in your work, because that has always been very present, like with your disembodied mouth works such as Red Bowl. And it also ties into the psychological interpretation of your work; fragmentation is such a contemporary condition of our world, it’s just part of our state of being. The notion or ideal of the whole doesn’t resonate with the reality of global culture. People move from one culture to the next without necessarily being part of any one culture, which inevitably results in our fragmented selves.

RP I don’t think I’ve ever made a sculpture that’s not a fragment or made up of fragments. One way I engage the viewer is to show a part of something rather than the whole. The whole is complete. It makes sense. It’s logical. The viewer is more passively engaged.

I’m interested in creating an active engagement with my work. Early on I realized that you can’t control viewers or their responses. Instead of trying to control, I made a conscious decision to let my work be open-ended, suggestive, with contradictions, where there is room for multiple interpretations. There are times that people are laughing, finding something incredibly funny about my work and then two minutes later someone is telling me how disturbing they find the same sculpture. I love that. In fact I try to play with it; I’ll consciously push a piece in the opposite direction if I feel like it’s becoming too one-dimensional.

SK How did you come to be interested in these ideas of being able to compartmentalize and differentiate competing ideas? Did it have something to do with your background or personal experiences? In my case, I had to negotiate different cultures when I was growing up, which allowed me to take different things at different times.

RP It may have come from Kafka, one of my biggest loves. Kafka saw his own work as being funny and deadly serious at the same time. To straddle both is, I think, poignant and compelling.

SK And more real, it’s not some sort of illusion about the world, it’s able to see the world, people, and conditions as they are.

RP I’ve been obsessed with Kafka for a very long time, since the ’80s. I think I’ve read everything he’s ever written. I remember reading that when Kafka read Metamorphosis aloud, he would howl with laughter. At first I found this puzzling, because I didn’t find it funny. I kept rereading Metamorphosis and I got to the point where I saw the humor. I started seeing it with different eyes, and I wanted some of the same qualities that I experienced in his writing in my own work.

SK Well, at some point you realize this is so absurd that it’s hilarious. When I think of realism I think of the Italian neorealist movies of the ’50s; there is no confusion as to what truth or authenticity was. At the same time, I think there is always an imaginative quotient to that. Just because something is done realistically, it doesn’t mean it’s devoid of imagination. In fact, it’s the imagination that fuels the realism into something that becomes believable.

RP I think most people would say that Greek art deals with realism. But in fact it’s quite abstract. None of the drapery is done through direct observation. It’s all made up. Egyptian work is very abstract, too. If you’re talking about hyper-realism, like Duane Hanson, where it’s all about fooling people into thinking it’s “real,” maybe that’s closer to realism. But I’m not interested in that.

SK There’s another artist, Ron Mueck, who also deals with this type of realism, but in his work I think scale is what makes it. I wanted to ask you about the issue of scale in your work, because you seem to make things which are life-sized, as well as the bonsai trees, repeated heads, or earrings, which are very small.

RP I make scale shifts a lot. Often huge scale shifts within a single sculpture. In Ram’s Head, my head is life-sized, and then I give myself earrings made of my same head, repeated four times, descending in size from two inches down to a quarter-inch. Even though the scale changes, everything is perfectly detailed. I believe you look at a life-sized head very differently than the same head that is miniaturized. When something becomes very small, you’re pulled closer into an intimate viewing.

SK I think the various shifts that occur in your work are a way to give the viewer a sign that different things combined. The viewers are led to experience the work both physically and emotionally. It’s a really intelligent formal way of putting something together.

RP If you see something in its expected scale there is no surprise. I’m more interested in having surprises and discoveries unfold in a sculpture. I’m trying to pull the viewer in by changing scale or doing something a little off. It takes some viewers a few minutes to realize that something is illogical or doesn’t make sense. Some take a long time. For example, the branches on one of my bonsai trees end in miniaturized hands. How the viewer interacts with my pieces and discovers them is something I’m very interested in.

SK Definitely. Today more so than ever, we need more visual experiences that question the notion of consistency, that everything makes perfect sense and there is no need to question anything. We accept too much at face value. There’s just not enough reflexivity going on.

RP You were telling me earlier about an article Kimmelman had written about looking. I’m happy to hear that someone is writing about this.

SK Yeah, I think it was about being in the Louvre and looking at how much time the viewers were spending with the pieces.

RP This is one of the reasons I love going to museums. I love looking at the art, but I also love seeing other people as engaged as I am, and I know they’re not all artists. One of the best moments I witnessed was when my husband and I were at the Borghese Palace, and this very loud American in shorts walked into the room, looked at the Bernini sculpture, and shouted, “Holy shit! What the fuck is that?!?” (laughter) At first, Robert and I were very embarrassed because of how he said it and what he looked like, and then I turned to Robert and said, “I want people to respond to my work that way. That’s a great response.”