Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Welcome, and thanks

If this is your first time at ffactory, welcome! In addition to the small but growing circle that have been supporting this weblog since the beginning of the year—special thanks go out to John Keene, Kevin Thurston, and David Beaudouin—we've been getting a surge of new visitors directed via the mighty Google [some of them looking for girly pix of Nancy Ajram and Anna Beatriz Barros, not that there's anything wrong with that!] and Tyler Green’s essential MAN.

Randy's Donuts
(Photo courtesy of the
Los Angeles Conservancy.)

I’ve been working on a few things, including a piece on the new Al-Azhar Park in medieval Cairo, a follow-up on Maryland's Constuctivist lottery game heralded by the viral, a look at Orhan Pamuk's Snow (recently reviewed in NYRB), and the usual heap of popcult TV, music, and film stuff. But ff will be going dark for a week, as I’m jetting to Los Angeles this evening for some R&R; on my return, I’m planning a formal launch with an ad blitz, so stay tuned for a survey of LA’s gallery scene (thanks,, &c. See you next week! ::cws

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Book coolie

I'm in the midst of one of these feverish dreamlike states where I've recalled a recent passage that I've read—something about how man cannot avoid operating without precision, about how we're optimized to make decisions with incomplete information (Calasso? Surowiecki? Help!—but I can't place the book. Whilst compulsively Googling, I happened across Book Coolie (“A tiger does not shout its tigritude”). Lost and found: one can browse, after a fashion, without bookshelves or newsstands. BC is lit crit from a smart, Anglo-Indian perspective.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

More smart political art

Foote Cone & Belding, founded in 1873, is the world's third-oldest advertising agency. According to their website,

This award-winning campaign (FIAP Grand Prix) was created by FCB Portugal for the Portuguese newsmagazine Grande Reportagem, and is intended to reflect the values and independent approach of insightful, smart, assertive journalism. All data is taken from reputable sources including Amnesty International and the United Nations.
It's ingenious and wonderfully designed, hard-hitting, and informative. Click-through for full-sized imagery.

[via Design Observer, with an assist from the way-cool World Flag Database, which has a visual search engine for the banner-impaired]

Red: People infected by HIV
Black: People infected by malaria
Yellow: People with access to medical care

Green: People who live with
less than $10 a month
Yellow: People who live with
less than $100 a month
Blue: People who live with
less than $1,000 a month
White: People who live with
less than $100,000 a month

Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso
Red: Children who die before completing one year of age
Green: Children who die before completing the third birthday
Yellow: Children who reach maturity

Red: Working fourteen-year-olds
Yellow: Studying fourteen-year-olds

Red: Banana exports
Blue: Coffee exports
Yellow: Cocaine exports

European Union
European Union
Blue: Oil consumption
Yellow: Oil production


Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Bull Moose on Hillary

From today's Bull Moose dispatch:
The ugly truth is that if Jesus of Nazareth himself returned and dared to run on the Democratic line the righteous right would tar him as a bleeding heart vagabond who couldn’t hold a job and that he needed a shave. No doubt a Galilee Fishingboat Veterans for Truth outfit would call into question Jesus’ miracle claims—financed with lavish funding from Rove’s buddies in Texas and maximum exposure on Fox News. Just imagine the book: Unfit to Save.


Funny bits from Tyler Green

Two quickies from Modern Art Notes:

  • The first, a snip from LAT architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne in his review of the new hotel on the Las Vegas Boulevard:

You've probably heard by now that the Wynn Las Vegas is something of a rarity: a new hotel and casino on the Strip that doesn't have an architectural theme, the way the Venetian, the Paris, the Luxor and countless others do. But it turns out the Wynn does have a theme—just a very odd one: The theme is “midrise office tower in Houston, circa 1983.”

Weekend: St. Michael v. Satan, Peranio, . . .

Weekend report:
St. Michael versus Satan
St. Michael weighing the soul of Satan.
  • Purchase of nice ol’ print [right] from Alicia’s new store, Mommalicious, in Lancaster;
  • Thanks to Troy for the CD recommendations;
  • Thanks to T.J., Joy, and Zoë for a nice brunch with a pleasant bunch;
  • Congrats to Julia Kim Smith, Dave Beaudouin, and Francesca Danieli on the screening of One Nice Thing at the MFF (and groovy party);
  • Happy Mother’s Day, ma; and
  • Happy 60th birthday, Vince!

Pop culture and the Middle East

I was last in Turkey during the winter of 1997, visiting Istanbul for the first time in nearly fifteen years: it was immediately evident that the metropolis had radically changed. In the early 1980s, the city was under martial law and a nightly curfew; summers in the old city were sleepy, with few tourists and little economic activity. Taxicabs and dolmuş—vintage American automobiles from the late 1940s and early 1950s—would ride on unpaved roads, and residents from the countryside would make their way into the city during the day to sell vegetables or shine shoes. Every place of business would feature a framed photograph of Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey—Atatürk westernized the country after its defeat in the Great War, elevating Western culture by permitting women to work, mandating business hours to a Monday-through-Friday schedule, banishing Arabic script in favor of Roman, and banning the fez; grainy black-and-white film of the great leader would run in the evenings on the single state-run television channel.

But, at the threshold of the 21st century, Istanbul was resolutely European: there was a tram running down the center of Divan Yolu, the main drag of Sultanahmet, the oldest (and most touristic) part of the city. Satellite television was piped in to the tea shops, the pudding shops, and the lokantas; music videos in Turkish were now broadcast over several channels (look! the Turkish Madonna! the Turkish Jewel!) as well as other Platonic genres: talk shows (the Turkish Regis and Kathy Lee!). Girls at Taksim Square wore miniskirts, and there were bars and art galleries that wouldn't look out of place in Manhattan.

Star Academy 2 logo

Abdel Rahman
Abdel Rahman

So it’s kind of surprising that we don't hear much about pop culture in the Middle East, especially at this juncture: the war in Iraq has piqued public interest, and satellite television and the internet is conspiring towards rapid change in the region, even faster than in our own hyper-consumptive culture. Apart from two serious pieces in fairly marginal journals—more on these in a moment—the first mention of the Lebanon Broadcasting Corporation's “Star Academy,” an Arab version of the tremendously popular “American Idol,” appeared in the news two weeks ago when Abdel Rahman, the Saudi winner of the just-completed second season, was detained after arguing with Saudi Arabia's religious police: young men and women converged on the 24-year-old in the Riyadh’s Kingdom Tower Mall, shaking his hand and offering “congratulatory kisses.” This negative story, highlighting the country's conservative nature over the popular sway of the show is unfortunate: suggestive video “clips” (i.e., music videos) and reality television, rather than armed force, seem poised to nudge the underdeveloped Middle Eastern political economy towards first world status.

(From Hussein Chalayan's fall 1998
ready-to-wear collection.)

I've gathered up some scraps that I couldn’t find a place for—including the “Star Academy” links and fashion by Turkish Cypriot Hussein Chalayan (as well as several Iranian designers)—and knitted them with “Cultural Theory,” a recent online-only article by Joseph Braude at TNR (subscription required, alas, but well worth it), as well Charles Paul Freund's “Look Who’s Rocking the Casbah” (2003) published in Reason. The result is a picture of Turkish, Arab, Iranian, and Maghreb culture that suggests something interesting is going on in the Islamic world that is little noticed in the West.


Braude opens up his piece with the rumors—apparently false—of the entry of Egyptian vocalist Amr Diab (he of the duet with JLo) into electoral politics. The rumor, however, is powerful enough to animate the fantasies of the under-thirty demographic, who have incorporated a Western-style fashioning of identity based, in part, on entertainment, musical style, and sport: Iranians learn about fashion and music at websites like Bodazey, and young Arabs chat at Waleg. Poking around is instructive, too: a penetrating question [in clumsy English, but one gets the idea] posed at Waleg asks, “Do we have to be either with 100% Bin Laden or 100% ‘Star Academy’?”

Star Academy 2 logo
Nancy Ajram
Williams College associate professor Mark Lynch (AKA Abu Aardvark) tracks the phenomenon, which he has dubbed the Nancy-Haifa Culture Wars, after two curvaceous Lebanese singers and video-clip stars; Braude observes that, in contrast to repression in the Nasser years, “Arab governments are either ill-equipped to suppress the medium or simply have too many other things to worry about.”

Of course, as indicated by the Riyadh incident, there is no easy place for secular impulses in contemporary Islamic culture, but there is certainly a yearning; young adults are comfortable with the coexistence of religion and secular entertainment, particularly in those parts of the Middle East that are more affluent and have a history of exposure to the West (hence, the relatively progressive character of Lebanon, with its Christian heritage; Turkey, with its longstanding Western orientation; and Iran, with its exposure under the Shah's regime). But the scantily-clad singers’ videos are broadcast in the mainstream media, and endlessly deconstructed: Haifa Wehbe (also Lebanese) is said to be dominating male superstar Raghib Alama; satellite television's sexy singers are said to captivate the eyes and enthrall the minds of Arab viewers.

(From Hussein Chalayan's fall 1998 ready-to-wear collection.)

(It’s not that the working classes are even aware of, say, Chalayan's sacrilegious shock of nudity conflated with religion, but the middle classes are familiar with the secular culture, much as the creative classes in the West are.) Interestingly, there is evidence that a contributing reason for the story’s reduced profile is middle-class shame on both sides of the fence: ambivalence for responding to low culture in the Islamic world, and mixed feelings regarding the power of entertainment [such as reality TV] in the West, too.


I'll close with a quote from the Freund piece, one that is reproduced in Braude’s conclusion as well, after he notes that a succession of political and religious ideals have failed to staunch the prevailing turmoil and malaise in the Middle East:

These all have failed, sometimes disastrously. What may yet work in the region is what has worked elsewhere for centuries: commercialism that does not transmit a regime’s utopian dreams but addresses the personal dreams of the audience.

Postscript: Tolo has infiltrated Afghanistan and is catching flack from its Islamic scholars, according to the Christian Science Monitor, from a piece by Ben Arnoldy,

Tolo has already drawn significant criticism for airing Indian music videos and Western films, as well as presenting shows with young hipsters who wear baseball caps sideways, talk and laugh freely with the opposite sex, and otherwise break the mold of stiff public propriety here.

[cws::10 May]

More: From the kindred and scholarly Mr. John K. at J's Theater: "The Young Moroccans," an amazing picture, with a short discussion plus links, from a Christian rock concert in Morocco. [cws::10 May]

Even more: From a piece in Saturday's New York Times, a story of Laleh Seddigh, a young woman who won the national auto racing championship in March. "'I like competition in everything,' the striking 28-year-old said after parking the car and going for tiramisù in a cafe in North Tehran." [cws::17 May]

Friday, May 06, 2005

Veiled conceit

Veiled Conceit is an enormously entertaining and funny blog, devoted to “a glimpse into that haven of superficial, pretentious, pseudo-aristocratic vanity: the New York Times’ wedding and celebration announcements.”


To grab a ¶ more or less at random,

Ruye and Marion occupy a tricky de-militarized zone in terms of Veiled Conceit mockery. They achieved “Vows” status, but they're really not that awful at all. They didn't get married in an ice cave, nor does their Vows column picture make you want to kill them. Marion never cheated on a prior husband with Jerry Seinfeld, and Ruye isn't the most awful fucking person in the universe. But while Ruye and Marion may not be hateable or pretentious or nauseatingly self-describing, they've still got a story to tell. Into the fray!

All this, and a discussion of Lord of the Rings wedding bands. Rock on.

[via Reihan Salam at TNR (!); copyedits to VC quotes to conform to ff style]

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Oh, dear: Crabtown

lit map inset

Artist: Ron Roos
Title: An Udderly Unique Maryland Species, sponsored by Linehan Family Foundation, Inc.
Description: A white crab with black, Holstein cow markings on front and back. Its back is includes an inscription about agriculture and the health of the Bay.

Crabtown central; more submissions from the Baltimore City website.

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Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Why “ffactory”?

(A statement of purpose, manifesto, and FAQ, all rolled into one.)

What’s with the double-f? How’s it pronounced?

From found photobooth series at The Boat Lullabies

I like the connotation of industrial production for a post-industrial age, and didn’t want to mimic the [now quasi-defunct] Factory records. I love smokestacks and beautiful old factory buildings, buildings that are no longer built and rapidly disappearing.

I like the “ffligature.

The domain name was available. (I still haven't turned it on, but will in the late autumn.)

I pronounce it the same way I pronounce “factory.”

What do you offer that others don’t?

I strive to not simply pass on an item that you’ll have already seen without any value added. That may be a little critical spin, or an eye-roll, but most often I will provide context that may help in getting oriented—I’ve already dug a little, why not pass along the fruits of that labor? Although the going sometimes gets a little wonky, I aim to keep posts accessible and short.

I’m not an early adopter, since I usually buy used and remaindered, so you won’t get reviews of the latest and greatest, but you will get some of that, plus a load of pointers to things in the past coupla years. You’ll see a fair number of pieces on things happening and showing in Baltimore, but also in DC, New York, and Los Angeles.

My interests are in how and why culture is consumed by the individual and the society, including the phenomena of wonder and spectacle, visual culture, cities, politics (leadership, rhetoric, and voting), branding, the question of authenticity, and the merging of design and culture, travel and tourism, the middle east and south Asia, and criticism of all kinds.

I also use the blog as a kind of commonplace book, a way to hold onto ideas, articles, and images that I used to lose.

I like it. How can I help spread the word?

Kindly forward something you think a friend will like to their emailbox, or link to ffactory. Or write!

Pop music, novelty, and aging

Benn Ray's "The Day the Music Died" (printed in the Mobtown Shank a little over a week ago) reminded me of Robert Sapolsky's "Open Season: Why Do We Lose Our Taste for the New?" (from the 30 March 1998 issue of The New Yorker): both essays are concerned with the question of when we lose our taste for novelty in music. Sapolsky found that
Most people are twenty years old or younger when they first hear the popular music they choose to listen to for the rest of their lives. When we combined those results with a measure of how variable the data were, we figured out that if you are more than thirty-five years old when a style of popular music is introduced there's a greater than ninety-five per cent chance that you will never choose to listen to it. The window has closed.
His scientific method does not permit him to speculate on why we lose the taste for new music at thirty-five—there is a vague sense that it's almost biological or something. Cue Benn:

The older you get, and the more your musical knowledge expands, the harder and harder it becomes to find music that you think is brilliant, to find music that blows your mind. If, you're like one of my more curmudgeonly friends, it either all starts to sound rehashed and recycled or trying too hard to sound new when it's not.

When you're in your twenties, the possibility is greater for a band to change your life. But when you get into your 30s, you start to look at bands that get progressively younger each year, and you think, "What the fuck can a 23 year old from Brooklyn tell me about the human condition that I don't already know?"

When the Sapolsky piece came out, I was naturally anxious about the very effect he describes: in my late thirties, I had recently passed through a period of increased awareness that I was losing my, er, edge. (Fortunately, the late nineties were a fertile time for new music: the mature axis of hip-hop, the democratization of technology, and a global economy that provided easy access to music from around the world created a perfect storm that saw a feverish rush to supply consumers hungry for the latest hybrid.)

It's funny that Benn mentions Bloc Party in passing ("You belittle each other for liking the Bloc Party when clearly they are just aping a trendy sound to make a quick buck"), because I'm currently sorting through a lot of records that don't sound very fresh to these aged ears, even as they're getting respectable reviews (see the Kaiser Chiefs, Louis XIV, even Guero, Beck's latest). I want something fresh sounding, something that jumps out at me and demands that I listen (over the past coupla years, disques like the Strokes' records and last year's Franz Ferdinand, even guilty pleasures like Jet's Get Born): after forcing myself to listen, fitfully, for a few weeks, I realized that it's a lost cause—I've just got to wait for that rare guitar record to cross my path.

Descartes recognized that wonder fades with age, and, as a result, we have to seek out ever more exotic sources to experience the high that came more readily with youth. It's not a mistake that I cotton to pop from Jakarta, or Charles Wilp's Bunny, or mash-ups of the Clash and Basement Jaxx: it's hard to get a buzz when you're a compulsive consumer of novelty.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

A literary map

lit map inset

In this Sunday's book review section of the Times, a proposal from "ethicist" Randy Cohen to produce a map of literary map of Manhattan, marking where famous fictional characters live in the metropolis,

I began thinking about this map years ago while reading Don DeLillo's ''Great Jones Street.'' Bucky Wunderlick gazes out the window of his ''small crowded room'' at the firehouse across the street. I realized: there's only one firehouse on that street and few buildings that contain tiny apartments rather than commercial lofts. I know where Bucky Wunderlick lives. Or would live if he existed. He's got to be at No. 35. Knowing this made walking around the neighborhood like walking through the novel. But I walked without a map. Shouldn't there be a map of imaginary New Yorkers?

It's a collaborative effort; submit suggestions here.


Film shorts: Nashville, Morvern Callar, and In America

A few words about a few films I've recently seen, two starring Samantha Morton: Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar (2002) and Jim Sheridan's In America (2002), plus Robert Altman's classic Nashville (1975).


Nashville first: it's a curious and interesting film, one championed by Pauline Kael (her review may be found in For Keeps, among others) upon its 1975 release. Ms. Kael makes several noteworthy points in her writing, among them evocative discussions on the film's pleasant and euphoric unwieldiness—a quality rarely found in contemporary cinema—as well as Altman's depiction of Barbara Jean, the reigning queen of the Grand Ole Opry's firmament. Ronee Blakley's bravura performance of the frail character is characterized by a palpable eclipse of the individual by her creative life, her music and the demands of the audience, in a manifestly organic and complex way. Her defense of Altman's approach of having the actors write and perform their own songs is sound, if the music sometimes threatens to swamp the film (close to an hour is devoted to these representative C&W tunes).

Karen Black as Connie White in Nashville
Karen Black as Connie White in Robert Altman's Nashville

I will take two scenes away with me: the first is Karen Black's Tammy Wynette-esque character's performance in the stead of the bedridden Barbara Jean (read: Loretta Lynn) at the Grand Ole Opry, resplendent in a vintage red backless 1970s dress (political consultant Triplette remarks, "the last time I saw a dress like that, I was headed for the junior prom: the girl fell out of the car halfway to the dance"); and the electric nightclub scene where Keith Carradine performs "I'm Easy," directing it to a conflicted Lily Tomlin, while numerous other women believe, simultaneously, that the handsome singer is speaking to them.


In America is dangerously close to maudlin and yet, largely due to the efforts of Ms. Morton and the Bolger sisters, who stand in for Sheridan's daughters—the director himself is always present (and played by Paddy Considine), yet oddly peripheral—the uplifting movie seldom scrapes bottom. Morvern Callar is a cinematic poem, a movie that's possible to describe but not possible to capture by simply describing the plot (such as it is). MC is a great collaboration between Ramsay, Morton, and an excellent Kathleen McDermott (a non-actor in her first role). Both films are worth seeing.

More from the television wars: does TV make you smarter?

In last night's episode of "24," the White House and CTU (for those of you not watching, that's the fictitious Counter-Terrorism Unit) are trying to figure out how to get their hands on a Chinese nuclear scientist, who has been collaborating with the bad-guy terrorists who are fixing to detonate a nuclear warhead any moment now. The scientist has sought refuge in the Chinese consulate which, as any amateur diplomat knows, is considered Chinese territory even as it is located on American soil. Jack Bauer, AKA Kiefer Sutherland, moves in to capture the scientist (it is the judgment of those in the U.S. government that they cannot wait for China's premier to sort out the details) and the Chinese consul is killed in the raid.

This is not a good situation, of course, since we've just phoned them asking for the scientist's release—it's safe to say they've pretty much figured out who's behind the attack. The acting consul phones former president David Palmer—in charge of recovering the errant warhead—and demands to know what's going on. Palmer is an interesting character on the show—he's one of those idealized presidents, who is defined by doing the right thing and defying, er, "politics as usual." In short, he's a stand-up, good guy. So there's some tension when he picks up the phone to talk to the acting consul: after all, he just approved an action that could set off an international incident. What does he do?

He lies, of course.

There was a good deal of linking to Steven Johnson's provocative "Watching TV Makes You Smarter" (The New York Times Magazine, 24 April), and some passive dis/agreement, but not a good deal of analysis about the piece. (A noteworthy exception: Dana Stevens's—see, as well, her film writing at The High Sign—"Thinking Outside the Idiot Box," posted at Slate on Monday the 25th, where she pronounces Johnson's claims "deeply, hilariously bogus.") Johnson can be forgiven for asserting the far-fetched: after all, he has a book to flog.

OK: the book and the essay promise more than is delivered, but it doesn't mean that there's no good stuff in Johnson's scholarship. He highlights the character of contemporary television and compares it, favorably, to the golden era of TV (read: the television of our youth). He asserts an increasingly literary texture to the form, convincingly, I think: there is often specialized language and signs as well as a surprising amount of narrative dissociation at any given moment—our moorings are often undone. And then there's the widely quoted multithreadedness of "serious" teevee, too.

I'm heartened to hear my cherished reality television come in for thoughtful treatment: Johnson's observations on gaming culture and its applicability to "Survivor" or "The Apprentice" are novel and explain, in part, the interest of young men in the programs. (The social dimensions of these games—"Survivor" as office politics and the compression, in front of our very eyes, of the "The Bachelorette" mate-selection process—are rich and better-understood, even as they don't figure prominently in the author's thesis.) Finally, as illustrated in the vignette from "24" that opens this post, the sharp writing for even pulpy shows point to genuinely interesting and dramatic dilemmas, well-observed from the nitty-gritty of real life: don't politicians have to lie sometimes? All of this adds up to an entertaining artform that is far more complex than its detractors suppose: all they have to do is open their eyes and—ouch—engage their critical faculties.

See also: Kiss your television, from January.

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