some belated thoughts about "You"

For a while now I've been mulling over the hollowness of "You"-- the purported prime mover in the consumer chain. Design your own personal sneaker, Hummer, pizza. Express your personality through the oxymoronic doublespeak of "mass customization." The escalating illusion is that now, with technology at one's fingertips, the power is in your hands. As with niche marketing, innovations with just your slice of demographic in mind, one is told many times over, "you deserve it." You're so busy/ important/overworked/ worthy, you deserve 500 channels of 24-hr HD sports (or whatever), you deserve soup in a go-cup, a good night's sleep with AmbienCR. Here's a fat-free fudge-dipped caramel bite with extra calcium created expressly for your over-40 bones. Coach or L.L. Bean in your Lincoln Navigator? Your choice! This proliferation of specious choice-- the so-called American ethos of individualism ("freedom") distorted through a lens of consumption. All of this disingenuous catering (pandering?) to "you." And then last week Time made "you" the Person of the Year in one of the most oleaginous essays I've read recently:
And we didn't just watch, we also worked. Like crazy. We made Facebook profiles and Second Life avatars and reviewed books at Amazon and recorded podcasts. We blogged about our candidates losing and wrote songs about getting dumped. We camcordered bombing runs and built open-source software. ...Who has that time and that energy and that passion? The answer is, you do. And for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game, TIME's Person of the Year for 2006 is you.

What about me? Despite both designations having to do with the individual, presumed solipsism, and implied atomization, the "Me" of the Me Generation (I believe it was Tom Wolfe who christened the 70s the Me Decade, with "generation" being an extrapolation from that.) strikes me as a different concept. At its most elementary level, the term is subjective: me, I. And I read the term, at very least, as active --seeking out self-definition, though not necessarily through consumption. This "You" moment conveys an object observed and defined by others: what you buy, what you own, your 'audience.' The you as consumer defined by age/income/race/ demographic...
I only just recently saw the Frontline show "The Persuaders" on the web, although the episode is more than 2 years old. It is a disturbing and utterly fascinating overview of the current culture of marketing and advertising and its societal influences. The web site for the episode is dense with interviews, transcripts, commentary--it is a must. Someone there (cant remember which person sums it up) distilled for me what had been ill-defined complaints and ravings: the danger of an atomized populace in a completely immersive, consumer-driven society is that there is no longer a recognition of "the common good," or civic duty; democracy itself comes apart. Media critic Mark Crispin Miller (whom I had not heard of before) delivers some of the most devastating commentary.
Consumers are feeders. All consumers do is consume. ...They're being manipulated to think only about the grass that they're chewing and nothing else, and manipulated into thinking about ways to get more grass. They're not operating on a sufficiently high level to participate in a democracy…
So the Burger King "have it your way" campaign of circa 1974 (?) was a brilliant precursor to the mass customization model...


a new world christmas

While I gather my thoughts and work on the several posts sitting in the "draft" line I'll put up 3 cards from my Christmas collection. At top is the very curious "Christmas Greetings from the New World." The reverse says the card was "printed in Saxony," obviously in English, though it was sent "To Willie, from Harold" entirely within the confines of Brooklyn. It is postmarked, 8 pm, December 21, 1911. The bottom two, polka dot sleigh ride and manic circular Yuletide, match, by happenstance, in warm red and silver, and are from c.1930.


typeHigh wrap-up

UPDATE Perhaps I should state the following reminder: these posts are my thoughts, not those of typeHigh or my business partner or anyone else. Aesthetic commentary aside, we certainly benefited from participating in the sale and I could have been more gracious about that. Also, I should have made clear the "Iraqi" comment below referenced a story in the Times that day that made a point about fluorescent lights.

At the risk of being tedious: a quick overview fr om the sale. TypeHigh managed a respectable showing at the Center for Book Arts sale despite the fact we were out of our element aesthetically. Thanks to Doug's ingenious handiwork we had a professional display rack and many of the trappings of a real business. Most importantly, people (strangers, even!) will be writing and sending our cards. Amazing.

The tenor of the event was more clogs and rainbows than I'm comfortable with and the room, a ragged loft space awash in fluorescent light, said to me 'Iraqi detention center' a lot more than 'Happy Holidays.' We were made acutely aware of the need to find the correct audience.

Our "Lucky" magnets--vintage wooden Bingo pieces-- were a surprise hit. (Though when people asked why they were lucky I was tempted to just say "'cause I said so." They're Bingo pieces, people, they won't help you get a new job). The type on the tag was hand set in a great metal face from the Bowne collection called
Samoa. Its got a quasi-"oriental"/Art Nouveau flourish to it. A little Googling finds that Samoa became a US territory in 1900, and I'm guessing the type was issued around then.

Trying to catch a cab after the show on Twenty-seventh and Broadway was far more dicey than I would have imagined. Clusters of what in another decade might have been termed hoodlums gathered in darkened doorways. A guy selling garish pink and blue fur pelts was talk-yelling animatedly. Was it heavily accented english? Something else entirely? Raised voices could have meant people having a good time or a fight about to break, and there was no easy way to tell.

A highlight of the evening was a chance to see Robert (Warner's) basement workshop in the Village (There's Robert in the mirror, above, left). Though there was a little hesitation on his part-- too many people? delicate sensibilities likely to be offended? embarrassing things left in view? rat poison? -- we prevailed. Down the stairs, through a door, along a narrow dilapidated corridor, right, through another door, out into a small rear courtyard and to the left, by the wooden stairs. We all crowded into the workshop past jars of lamp black and springs, boxes marked "marbles" or "better photographs", piles of papers, Howdy Doody heads, books, toy eyeglasses, drawers open and quietly exploding, and an ample sprinkling of glitter.

When we'd taken in all we could, we went back, around, up and out for some Pan Asian cuisine
at a sprightly little restaurant in the shadow of the Jefferson Market clock tower.


typeHigh, hello!

One might think it a happy coincidence that the Sunday Times reports on the resurgence of letterpress printing just when my friend Doug and I debut our line of hand-printed cards. One could think so. But if one were me, one would know better. Everybody and their uncle is churning out letterpress these days and furthermore if you're reading about it in the Times, it's already gathering momentum on the long slide to "over."

In any case, Doug and I have lavished absurd amounts of time on the venture we're calling typeHigh.
I probably would have preferred to wrangle over the name a bit more, but luckily Doug is a decision maker. (If it were just me, I'd be tempted to call myself 'negative space press') Type high means, simply, something at the same level as the face or printing surface of the metal type (see the diagram, above, from the very informative briar press). Some of the cards are based on 19th century type specimens, others are just free-wheeling experiments, all incorporate some 19th ornament. Despite the grand intentions, and generous donation of much-discussed onion skin paper, we never did manage to line our envelopes. (I regret not being able to add that detail but years would have gone by, I'd be a bitter, ink-stained crone and we'd have worn out the super-human generosity of Robert Warner at Bowne & Co. And as I think about it, it would most likely have been just a bit de trop) Most of the cards are 3 or more colors which means we fed the card through the press once for each color plus another for the imprint and another, still, for scoring. And these are brawny 19th-century foot-powered machines, no sissy power- or Vandercook presses! My leg muscles are now comically over-developed.

We will be sharing a miniscule portion of Robert's abundant table of wonders
(typeHigh and piled high. AH hahaha) attempting to sell our wares at the Center for Book Arts Holiday Sale. Look for our panicked, clueless faces at the

Center for Book Arts Sale
12/15 ($10 benefit), 6-9 pm
Saturday 12/16 (free), 11 am to 5pm
28 West 27th Street, 3rd Floor


jersey shore

I think I will make "Highlights" a regular feature here.
Inspired by a great found-photo site I came across the other day, Square America
, I'm hauling a few of my acquisitions out of storage.
From top: Sacred Snakes of India
. Aside from the great banner and imposing pavilion, what got me to part with my $2 or whatever were those penants flying atop the cupolas. Obviously some sort of carnival going on. I would say 1890-1900. A sideshow sensibility to a snake attraction I think, rather than state fair. No hint of beach or I would hazard Coney Island.
Creepy Family. Rather Dust Bowl/Grapes of Wrath/American Gothic, no? Farm worker family portrait c 1930, perhaps. I read a lot of helpless befuddlement and resignation in Father's face. He's actually rather handsome (
and note the meerschaum/calabash pipe), unfortunately the children inherited all their genes from Mother who appears to be part woman, part bull terrier.
Revelers. I like the cheeky gaiety of the set up but I found something very peculiar about the perspective in this shot. Is it a composite? No, but the "Equestrienne", the Joycean man and the Roadster Couple don't seem to sit in the same plane. It's particularly nice the way the car seems to be driving out of the frame at left. Eight people, c. 1918, out on a lark, as they might have said. I think I could have been friends with them.
Little Bear. A new acquisition. He sort of reminded me of Arne Svenson's Sock Monkeys. Oddly, the inscription on back reads, " Nov.1944/ autograph dog/ To Bob/From Snook McCloskey" I Googled Snook McCloskey, hoping to find something. Alas, no documents returned on that search.

Next time: antique buttons-on-cards? or perhaps my as-yet-very-limited "old library card" collection. Let's vote.


Bowne & Co.

Almost every Sunday for the past few months I've been at Bowne & Co, Stationers. My friend Doug and I have eagerly spent an absurd amount of time planning, designing, printing, second-guessing, amending, scoring and folding a series of letterpress notecards loosely based on 19th century type specimens and ornament. We still have wrapping and packaging (and selling!) to go. More on the cards next time.

I've come upon Bowne unexpectedly, through Doug, who started volunteering there. On stepping into the shop the first time I was almost giddy. Cluttered, dim, with wooden displays and shelves lining the walls, the place appeared reasonably authentic on first view, but I knew, in New York, that was impossible. I was only slightly deflated to confirm it was a recreation. Bowne & Co. was founded in 1775; this store is a 1975-vintage evocation of a printing "job shop," c. 1875. (Bowne, the company, still exists, as a global financial printer.) The shop has an amazing collection of type both metal and wood, an assortment of curious machines of obscure purpose, many wooden cabinets and drawers, mostly askew, and fantastical piles of oddments.

Most of the oddments belong to Robert Warner th
e "master printer", curator, and character of the shop (that's him printing, above, on the shop's 1901 Golding press). Almost Seussian (or is it more Felix with his bag of tricks?) he is focussed, jovial, fond of puns, and has an air of the surreal about him. Robert is a fascinating collage- and correspondence artist and describes himself as a 'gatherer.' He scours eBay for odd lots of antique wallpaper, ancient ledgers, disbound books, 1930s catalogs, cabinet cards and other paper ephemera and he most certainly has an exuberant way with the detritus of bygone eras. I'm jealous of his inventory. He also appears to acquire people, like a set of identical twin sisters from somewhere mid-country with whom he corresponds. The twins definitely veer more toward the Tim Burtonesque: identical clothing and hair style, theatrically prim, and obsessively creative. I've not actually seen these girls in person, but they do make a very intriguing cameo in this engagingly quirky film about Robert's art.

The store is a working printing office. It is also under the auspices of the South Street Seaport Museum and as such it has the mission to 'demonstrate' the arcane processes and 'educate' the unwary public that wanders in, however few they might be.
Thankfully Bowne doesn't wholly ascribe to the Colonial Williamsburg school of 'living history' and there is no "authentic" printer outfit to wear, save for a very real printer's apron. Though one person did tell Robert, who is partial to overalls and caps, she liked his "costume." I think he enjoyed that. And so, by default, for these past many Sundays, I've been part of the show.
top photo from the South Street Seaport Museum, the rest by me!


architectural salvage: the slasher movie

My friend Noel and I went up to Demolition Depot, an architectural salvage outfit on 125th and third Avenue. Four stories of remnants– many, many doors, sinks and toilets– waiting in darkness (lights are on motion detectors). All are obsessively catalogued; each item tagged with a number one looks up on a computer for a price, each entry documented with a photo. Areas on each floor are designated with small hanging signs saying things like, "swinging kitchen door section" or "full set French door section." The peculiarity of the place comes through in certain inventory choices: there may be a stunning, unusual item, say, a 4-foot tall wooden Art Deco chandelier nestled amongst rows of graceful early twentieth century oval sinks and then a small, corroded, emphatically not-special mirror, each tagged, photographed and recorded.

All items appear to be in the exact state in which they were found and ripped from the bowels of origin. Small traces of lives remained. A door with children's stickers, another with a sad accretion of locks and chains. Toilets dressed in furry colored seat covers. Medicine cabinets with rust rings--documents of the last can or two of shaving cream?

We got the sense that Evan, the owner, never truly wanted to part with anything. N inquired about a large, handsome print of the Singer building propped up against the counter. It was met with "That's.... [pause]... mine. Not for sale." The small, corroded, emphatically not-special mirror mentioned above, used by us as a price gauge, was $75. To visit the fireplace annex across the street one needed to be escorted. When we asked and waited for our escort we were interrogated more than once: "Are you looking for fireplaces? Are you shopping for mantels?" Ultimately we were discouraged from venturing over, fearing what a, "just looking" might incur.

Ominously we were reminded that, if we didn't see something we wanted, we should call them since they were "always taking down buildings." Always taking down buildings. That conveyed a bit more active intent than I was comfortable with. My
wistful admiration and odd sense of gratitude that someone "rescued" these items began to falter. In the Stephen King novel of Demolition Depot, Evan, sinking ever deeper into his acquisitional mania and cataloging delusions, would resort to subterfuge, landmark infringement and-- murder!--in order to take down buildings and salvage items, large and small. Then they'd remain in perpetuity on those four dark floors or "over in the warehouse."


Favorite Thing

I love diners. They are one of the truly great things in this country. For all my anglophilia, British caffs don't even come close. They are, to be fair, fascinating in their own right but exist in a wholly different realm-- one that conjures pre-'Cool Britannia' insular Britain, resignation and strange notions of comfort food borne of privation (see: beans on toast). Perhaps I'd put them in the same continuum as the urban coffee shop but way at the other end. Very generally speaking American diners are about abundance.

People fetishize the iconic chrome diner (one of my sentimental favorites: the Cutchogue) unfortunately to the exclusion of the many other incarnations and details of diners of all stripes. The comically grandiose Outer Borough
variety (I come at this from an acutely NYC-centric perspective) in stucco and smoked mirror, are usually free-standing buildings, and are remodeled and updated periodically. You will find (9.5 times out of 10) Greek souvenir kitsch, a lively atmosphere, voluminous menus, a motorized rotating dessert display, and if you're very lucky, paper placemats of cocktail recipes that include things like Sprite. In the city, there is the corner coffee shop. It is increasingly rare to find one that retains a Hopperesque urban melancholy but I still try, having many a tuna melt around town in the process. (Andrew's Coffee Shop, Madison and 33rd, is not very Hopperesque, but it does make the best tuna melt I've encountered yet, above, the secret being the grilled toast.) Another Andrew's that closed a year or two ago on Fifth Avenue near 20th Street, was a bit closer to capturing that sensibility though not literally. Bright and beige and open-planned in a quietly 1960s way, it had an extended horseshoe counter and stools where a regular scattering of patrons was always alone together. Waitresses offered newspapers from behind the counter to those who felt stranded, not knowing what to do with themselves, or where to look, while they ate.

A word about terminology:
luncheonette, which I find to be more a written, rather than spoken, word, is a small diner: a counter with stools and maybe one row of tables or booths. Eisenberg's sandwich shop, an interesting and enigmatic hold out on Fifth Avenue, is a luncheonette. The evocatively shabby Grand Luncheonette, left, wedged under a decaying theater marquee on 42nd Street, was in fact one of the last of the dying breed of lunch counter, consisting of only the open kitchen and serving counter with stools. (Photo c. 1997 by Robert Wright.) There used to be a large Woolworth's on east 14th street that closed about the same time as the Grand and it had an iconic double-horseshoe lunch counter complete with pies on stands under glass domes. Sort of like a real-life Wayne Thiebaud.

I imagine New York City of the 1950s filled with lunch counters.

One of the best incarnations of all however is the random road side find--chrome or otherwise-- preferably with some mysteriously named local specialty...


reasons to be cheerful*

Although it hasn't stopped me from planning a trip in February, I've been preoccupied with what I call, somewhat loosely, the end of the world. I find myself scanning news headlines obsessively, salting away tidbits and references in my mental eschatological clipping file: environmental catastrophes, genetically modified foods, religious extremism, obesity, technological singularity (that's a new one for me and, boy, its a doozy), heck, throw in zebo, and the decline of civility. From the absurd to the epic, it's all become a kind of drone that I'm always tuning in to. Perhaps that's why I found Niall Ferguson's piece in Vanity Fair, arguing that the decline of the West is not imminent-- its here, perversely gratifying. It won't win many (other) liberal hearts and minds, making sloppy shorthand of it all in equating NASCAR, illegal immigration, and, yes even tattoos, with signs of The End:
Shame has gone; so has civility. On Friday and Saturday nights, most English city centers become no-go zones where drunken, knife-wielding youths brawl with one another and the police. Another striking symptom of this new primitivism is the extraordinary surge in the popularity of tattoos, once associated with the unruly Picts of the Far North. In this modern decline and fall, it seems, at least some of the barbarians come from within the empire.
But I don't do him justice by merely quoting that, there's much more reasoned content. Somehow I found his cross-referenced kitchen sinkism compelling.

And what about
the byzantine and loony mental machinations of Daniel Pinchbeck? I've got a reserve on The Return of Quetzalcoatl at the library! From a piece in LA Weekly:
In 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, his part memoir, part anthropological journey through many things spiritual, metaphysical and just plain eerie, Pinchbeck illuminates not the world’s end but the many ways in which our social structures are disintegrating. “What I’m trying to show is that we’re already in a process of accelerated transformation,” he told me. “And I find that a reason to be hopeful.”
More salient is this comment (from a recent Rolling Stone hatchet job)
"We have to fix this situation right fucking now, or there's going to be nuclear wars and mass death, and it's not going to be very interesting. There's not going to be a United States in five years, OK?"
I think I'm with him on that...
A few months ago I saw a BBC documentary about Isaac Newton, 'outing' him as a religious obsessive, apocalyptic thinker and alchemist. He is said to have calculated AD 2060 as the time when there would be

a dramatic transition to a millennium of peace. In other words: the end of the secular world and the beginning of the Kingdom of God.
2012? 2045? 2060? Whichever date you choose to give credence to, something seems to be coming soonish.

Kurt Anderson made an excellent observation in his End Days trend piece in New York magazine

I don’t think our mood is only a consequence of 9/11 (and the grim Middle East), or climate-change science, or Christians’ displaced fear of science and social change. It’s also a function of the baby-boomers’ becoming elderly. For half a century, they have dominated the culture, and now...I think their generational solipsism unconsciously extrapolates approaching personal doom: When I go, everything goes with me, my end will be the end.
The "Me Generation" indeed.
* "Why don't you get back into bed
Why don't you get back into bed
Why don't you get back into bed...
Reasons to be cheerful part 3"

(image from: Morse Library, Beloit College)


looks like a genocide, quacks like a genocide...

France has initiated a parliamentary bill to make it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide of 1915 and now Turkey is stamping its foot and giving Europe the evil eye. I'm aware that I can sometimes be appallingly uninformed and simplistic when it comes to political history, but --why can't the Turks just own up to their episode and everyone can move on? Germany's managed to! Twice! One can't be a Holocaust Denier, why can one be a Genocide Denier? Why do the Turks make it a criminal act to even speak about it in Turkey, but cry loss of freedom of speech with this bill? And (and!) the EU doesn't even require Turkey to acknowledge 1915 for its proposed membership, but Turkey is issuing blustery warnings anyway. Perhaps someone can explain this to me?

And another issue is why the US, UK and Israel acknowledge something went on but its sorta, maybe what other people might call "genocide."
According to the BBC:
In May 1915, the Armenian minority, two or three million strong, was forcefully deported and marched from the Anatolian borders towards Syria and Mesopotamia (now Iraq). Many died en route...
Whether or not the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians during World War I amounted to genocide is a matter for heated debate. Some countries have declared that a genocide took place, but others have resisted calls to do so.
Perhaps for the US what happened in Asia Minor sounds a wee bit too familiar. (If displacing and death-marching an entire ethnic community is genocide, that opens a whole other can of worms...). So what is the UK's and Israel's issue?


Highlights from the Collection

By popular demand (ie. my friend Clay expressed passing interest in the Holcottsville souvenir) I am posting some more generic landscape postcards. Left, from top, Nature Lovers' Utopia, a Dextone Beauty Scene, "Indian Summer," a Dextone Beauty Scene, Untitled [imprinted "Greetings from Wurtsboro, New York"].

The card below
, right, is worth quoting in its entirety, "A color symphony deep in the autumn woods, reflected by the shining, limpid waters in this Dextone Beauty Scene." Ektachrome by Thomas A. Dexter.


minor casualties of the 21st century

My friend Doug and I are making some letterpress notecards (who isn't these days?) and we're looking for something to print and line the envelopes with. Onion skin I thought. Kind of like the old air mail paper. Its mottled translucence, theoretically, could be interesting and it has that crinkley, unusual sound. Nice. So I started calling some stationery shops and got some chuckles on the other end of the line. One nice man mused, surely with some hyperbole, "we sold that about 40 years ago." Another said, with amusement, " you have to talk to Abe, he remembers that," and put me on hold. Alas, when Abe, evidently too busy to be troubled with memories of antiquated stock, picked up he simply said, "No, we don't got that." Todd Bielen over at Papertec Inc, which specializes in, well, "specialty papers," was very helpful. They had onion skin that, according to their site, "was approved for use by the US government and meets military spec P-157A... used in the production of military flares, munitions, and detonators." Unfortunately it was the cockle finish I was looking for and there was none left. Not only that, the "only mill in North America" that made onion skin had just ceased production. "So whatever's out there now," said Mr. Bielen with sympathy,"that's it."

I thought of something I'd read somewhere about a group of sound engineers in the 1970s who went around with microphones and reel-to-reels recording everyday sounds that were "endangered" like hand cranks and, presciently, telephone rings...

Doug and I have several options (we can try eBay, we can try Bible paper, we can go another route entirely) but I find it strangely sad.

Addendum: I've gotten an (relatively) outrageous amount of traffic from onion skin queryists. Now, in the comments for this post, The Paper Mill Store reports they have onion skin-- although I do not see any of the much-celebrated cockle finish...


Young Americans

The "Reverend Rollin Heber Neale" and "Unknown Woman in 9 Views" (both c. 1850) are from the magnificent book Young America, the Daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes. S&H were a daguerreotype studio "of the highest order" in Boston from the 1840s to early 60s and produced some of the finest examples of the process. In 10 to 30 second exposures, daguerreotypists attempted to represent the best likeness-- the 'inner soul'-- of the sitter. The daguerreotype fixed, on a highly polished silvered metal plate, a single unique image that, though exquisitely almost unnervingly detailed, would dissolve into an evanescent, shimmering mirror depending on the angle at which it was viewed. The French invention took hold in the US to such an extent that by 1851 the Americans took home all the gold medals in 'Works of Industry' at the Crystal Palace exposition and daguerreotypy became known as the "American process." About the same time the daguerreian mania hit US shores the Young America movement gained prominence -- a radical democratic/utopian spirit in the arts, and political thinking--bringing together a preening sense of superiority, idealism and expansionist fervor. Daguerreian process and product seemed to reflect, both literally and figuratively, the energy and nationalist and individualist spirit of the 1840s and 50s. At that time, America, and a good portion of Europe, really thought the "Great Experiment" would work. As Alan Trachtenberg relates in Young America:
Envisioning a continental "empire of liberty" Young America saw the American nationalist mission as the "hope of mankind." The prospects of the country seemed without parallel in human history
Looking at the many portraits in this book I feel oddly emotional. That type of boundless optimism, the sense that anything could be achieved, and anyone, anywhere, improved, with a little American Know-How is inconceivable... The earlier simplistic adolescent vigor, overreaching but potent and impressive, is now still-naive, still-overreaching (with a sense of entitlement to boot) but in its bloated Late Middle Age is not so "Great" anymore.
I came across a haunting latin phrase: Vis consili expers mole ruit sua ("Strength without wisdom falls by its own weight")...

The portrait of the Reverend Neale, shown at about age 42, is riveting. If it is possible to be swept off one's feet by someone who has been dead for 127 years, I have succumbed.


a new memento mori

I suppose it was inevitable, with this spate of fashion musings, that my attention would return to a topic I ineffectually tried to tackle--what 8? 9?-- years ago. It was after the much- editorialized "Heroin Chic." Prada had a stunning print campaign that I found so beautiful, so ...curious. (An image from the campaign, below left, by Glen Luchford) Why were dead women being used to sell designer clothing? Pornography, sure, bondage, ok, even kiddie porn (though Calvin Klein didn't get too far with that before it was pulled) but corpses? How, exactly, was that resonating with The Public? Fashion editorials that had formerly exuded an air of cultivated boredom were giving off more than a whiff of decay. Could it be that Sex had played itself out? Was Death simply the only (tittilating) thing left? Was there anything more to it? It struck me that a photography show I'd seen several years earlier, Andres Serrano's Morgue series (Aids-related Death II, 1992, below right) was, in hindsight, proving to be enormously influential. Or perhaps just ahead of the curve of what theorist Mark Dery came to call the "New Grotesque"...

And now years later, post-Damien Hirst formaldehyde fetishes, post-"Six Feet Under" we still have the same tortured relationship with that all too earth-bound, all too real body. We've decoded it, sliced it, stripped it of skin and put it on display. Suctioned, cut, capped, injected, pulled and polished "we" grow almost inert under growing mantles of flesh and have anorexia scares on the runways. The past century has been about the defiance of death through science, medicine and lifestyle, yet it appears that the more we negate death, the more we're preoccupied with it. Like any neurosis, it pops up in the most intriguing places.


fashion advertising: random notes II

This Dolce & Gabbana campaign is something I've tried to resist liking but can't--I absolutely love it. It's a loopy mash-up of this Delacroix or that Gericault as staged by Peter Greenaway. A waxen "tableau mortant" of campy dissipation.

fashion advertising: random notes I

I don't have any grand thesis formulated so this post won't lead anywhere significant. If something catches my attention I simply like to spend a bit of time figuring out why I'm interested.

At top, a current ad from third-tier Italian fashion house Cesare Paciotti, b
elow, Giacometti's Woman with her Throat Cut, 1932. I was struck by the histrionic, overweening silliness of the ad. Telegraphing popular culture imagery's two greatest transgressives, Paciotti's model is both a mangled corpse on a morgue slab and a sweaty "live sex" peep show worker. I threw in the Giacometti, just because.


the Tyranny of Things

I just now looked up “the tyranny of things”, a somewhat overwrought but appealing phrase that I had seen somewhere a few years ago and filed away. According to Bill Brown, a professor at University of Chicago and co-editor of Critical Inquiry, it was the title of an anonymous essay that appeared in the May, 1906, Atlantic Monthly. The author lamented that,
we make 'collections,' we fill our rooms, our walls, our tables, our desks, with things, things, things.
I don't have specific collections (although for a while I collected ticket stubs) I just tend to acquire things. The common attributes being “old” and I suppose “odd.” Those two traits often amount to "worn", "rusted", "weathered", by default if not actually by choice. Paper ephemera and postcards, wooden objects, shells, green pottery, odd pieces of metal, naive paintings, hotel silver, flea market photos, letters/signs/numbers– I have been oppressed by this “tyranny” for a while now and I'm ambivalent about it. I love each thing, but am oppressed by things. Some collectible, most just collected.

Virtually none of this stuff is personal memorabilia. In a (somewhat windy) essay I found randomly, the Dutch artist Tjebbe van Tijen discusses personally meaningful objects:
There is a story with each of such objects, in most cases the story is not visible, the object does not depict a particular event, the event needs to be told. Language to make "the invisible visible" says Krzysztof Pomian in his study on the 'Origin of the museum' ... objects that have changed their status, from an object with use value to an object representing what can not be seen.
I feel that is true of my stuff, too, that somehow they hold stories I would not otherwise "see." Of course I also have, and acquire, things for "purely" aesthetic value, but I think that is ultimately a component of their "stories." By way of explanation of this sense that these things possess stories is the peculiar and poignant Japanese tradition of Harikuyo:
the Festival of Broken Needles. Harikuyo is a solemn rite of respect and thanksgiving [held on February 8] in which the worn and broken sewing needles used in the previous year are retired to a sacred resting place.
Quite different in its particular but similar in essence.

began this post yesterday and it's a very odd coincidence that today's Times has a small article about a web site called zebo where members list and post their everyday possessions (as well as "wants"). The site's tagline is “Hi. What do you own?” Fascinating. I'd love it* if it wasn't so disturbing. This is where a discussion ensues on the nature of escalating consumption as illusory respite from psychic emptiness and its relation to the current state of American society...
*I once had an idea for a 'conceptual art piece' where I would label every possession I own (mostly I was thinking of those of the "collectible" variety) with museum-like captions and provenance: what era the item is likely from, what it once was, why "important", where I purchased, what I paid.


Greetings from Anywhere

Souvenir, according to the dictionary, is something that serves as a reminder: a memento from the French: the act of remembering.
What is a souvenir from a non-place?
This is from my collection of generic postcards, scenes that are labeled "Dextone Beauty Scene," as though 'Dextone' conjured the very leaves, or, in this case,"A Ride in The Country." (Actually a road in the country.)

"The Country."

"Greetings from Somewhere I'm not Usually."

The back is imprinted with "Greetings from Holcottsville, NY" although Margaretville, Shandaken, or any other quaintly named upstate town may be selling the same scene.
I did, in fact, buy this card in Holcottsville so it is a souvenir but I couldn't really describe the town though--I don't remember it at all.

And now I'm going away for the weekend.


“size 4, in cement”

In rearranging papers last night, I came across this color chart from the English paint company Farrow & Ball (a section, above). There are a number of reasons why this is one of my favorite things of recent era: it's a combination of taxonomy, pure aesthetics, fanciful word-names and allusive, meandering explanatory text that spurs more questions than it answers. For example, there is a color called "Monkey Puzzle," a very dark green-gray.
The description reads:
A typical 19th century estate color which has, like so many successful colours, endured down the generations. Good with both brick and stone, and indeed furniture.
Another color, “Dauphin,” I realize in hindsight, is given a very elliptical explanation:
An earth pigment colour in the early 18th century school of ‘drab’
First, “school of ‘drab’” is just so... perfect, so Edward Gorey... second, how does one get “Dauphin” for a khaki olive brown? After some investigation, I see perhaps F&B are too genteel to explain that the color ‘caca-dauphin’ became fashionable when the much-longed-for French crown prince was born to Marie Antoinette, in the 1780s. Ah, Dauphin's Poo. With colors like "Ointment Pink", "Dead Salmon", "Archive", and "Mouse’s Back" how can you not want to know everything about this company?

Creating color names would be my dream job. I remember thinking this in-- what, the early 90s?-- when JCrew was changing popular culture with sweater choices like "Pool" and "Cement." Precious, yes, but in a certain way, how brilliant was that moment? [Didn't Saturday Night Live do a skit? Not sure. But its so easy for color-naming like that to go very, ham-handedly wrong]. Women’s cosmetics did interesting things with color naming but mostly of the punny, "Tickle Me Pink" and expected "Red Wine" variety. Before J Crew: "blue"and "grey", after: the welkin's the limit!
some interesting color words: gamboge, filemot, glaucous, dun


“vexatious” peaches and the nostalgic voice

On a tip from a friend, I turned to the Wednesday New York Times greenmarkets column, Bringing it Home, entitled "Ode to a Peach." As my eyes fell on the first sentence, “Peaches vex me,” I knew I was going to settle in on some entertaining reading. The piece, a perfectly lovely little meditation on flavor, home made desserts, domesticity and fetishistic description, had a tone that was immediately recognizable, but a difficult one to define exactly. The author CB, an acquaintance from long ago, is a former long-haul Martha Stewart Living editor and the voice she employs, what I call High Martha, is lyrical, allusive, nostalgic. For me, the writing style in general is gag-inducing but intriguing; I'm simultaneously drawn to it and repelled. It parlays the now-familiar commercial "romanticism" of Ralph Lauren (or even, at another price point, JCrew) that makes one yearn for weathered cedar shakes, heirloom candlesticks with evergreen bobeches and a compound on the Vineyard. I am forced, over and over, to "remember" the succulence of fresh-picked berries and pumpkin carving parties that, oh yeah, I never experienced growing up. This nostalgia for what one has never experienced is the most insidious --and fascinating--aspect. A longing for false memories. It is this tension of being both drawn in and repelled, comforted and disappointed, that leaves me with a faint malaise. It is this nostalgia that almost brings the term's medical origins back to the surface.
In CB's column, the tone has less of the prescriptive aloofness that is part of classic Martha, more "just us girls" :
But the best thing I’ve ever done with a peach isn’t something I’d serve to company, or even to my family. It falls into a category of things I think of as single-girl food, since it reminds me of the quirky indulgences that brightened my days before my husband came into my life....Purchases in hand, I rode the elevator upstairs and entered the remarkable quiet of our empty apartment. I set everything out on the dining table. First, I spread the fromage blanc on the bread, then sprinkled a bit of damp gray sea salt over it. With a little paring knife, I cut a peach into slim slices and laid them carefully on top. Then I dipped an old baby spoon into the honey and let it drizzle onto the peach slices.

A soft halo of light reflects back from that old baby spoon and envelopes the reader in the warmth of... mounting queasiness? Envy? Befuddlement. From whence this style? And I don't mean CB specifically, I mean all of it. The whole precious lot of it. I am guessing-- and I need more research and input here-- that the poetic, metaphorical tumbles of MFK Fisher and the arm-in arm, raconteurism of EB White have been distilled, or better still, left to ferment in the mouthblown heirloom glass decanter of self-consciousness...
I will be mulling this over further. [photos: polo.com; Gerry Manacsa]


Towards a New Architecture: "Bricolagism"

I read this little exchange on Brownstoner (where this image is from) about the particular hideousness of a recent residential development and it's as though someone proved to me that pigs were flying. Is it possible that buildings like this (left) and this are actually designed, on purpose, by architects?
A commenter from the Brownstoner article thought that the designers for this building were a firm called "Brickology" (which, though very wrong, is kind of brilliant). My quick google search for a company I thought might be called "bricology" yielded "bricology.com" which had a very architecturally-oriented definition of bricolage:

bricolage ("brE-kO-'läzh, "bri-):
• construction or something constructed by using whatever comes to hand
• an assemblage improvised from materials ready to hand, or the practice of transforming 'found' materials by incorporating them into a new work
Now I've only recently waded into the pool of Brooklyn real estate gossip and goings-on so it was news to me when I subsequently found out that the firm Bricolage Design existed, and that owner/architect Henry Radusky was already on the "Wanted!" posters. Can it be true that these people named their firm without a trace of irony?
Not sure if BD are the designers of these exemplary instances of (Real Estate) Bubble Architecture but I am fascinated by the notion that Brooklyn is being reshaped by "design with whatever is at hand."
Certainly many lower-end Do-It Yourself renovators appear to be schooled in the art of bricolage -- gleaning random material from the sale-price bin at Lowes. However this is often accompanied by the very sincere intent to improve the building and to display monetary status with the proud proclamation of one's taste. That, in my mind, is DIY-ism: owners/builders mimicking architecture and miming the gestures. DIY-ism is the karaoke of architecture. Most developer-driven real estate has neither the sincerity mitigating the mess nor any of the fun. This particular form of developer-driven architecture is Bricolagism. Architectural pastiche born of witless* economic expediency. Bricolagism is like Post-Modernism without the irony.
(*as opposed to Brutalism which was almost too smart for its own good)


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