Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Freakin’ brilliant

A frame-by-frame analysis of Blue Velvet at Digital Poetics [via Coudal].

'Blue Velvet' frame 28
Frame 28 [look closely]

Update: Site has been pulled down, alas. [cws::29Sep]

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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

St. Eustace, Athanasius Kircher, and wonder

Today is the feast day for St. Eustace, the patron saint for hunters and those in difficult situations; he plays a small role in the literature of wonder, primarily for the lasting fascination of Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher with the Roman-general-turned-martyr.

Eustace hart
Detail, The Conversion of St. Eustace
at Mentorella; from Historia
Eustachio-Mariana (1655)

(For those of you who make it to Los Angeles, a very good exhibition on the Baroque polymath—“The World is Bound With Secret Knots: The Life and Works of Athanasius Kircher”—may be found at the exceptional Museum of Jurassic Technology, a stop that should be on any Southland itinerary.) Eustace, then known as Placidus, was tracking a hart when he was confronted by a vision of a crucifix in the stag’s antlers. From Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints (c. 1260),

Christ then spoke to Placidus through the stag’s mouth, as once he had spoken through the mouth of Balaam’s ass. The Lord said: “O Placidus, why are you pursuing me? For your sake I have appeared to you as this animal. I am the Christ, whom you worship without knowing it. Your alms have risen before me, and for this purpose I have come, that through this deer which you hunted, I myself might hunt you!”

In the autumn of his career, Kircher stepped down from his post at the Collegio Romano, an imposing complex built atop the ruins of the Roman temple of Isis, and began to walk the countryside in support of a “speculative reconstruction of Roman prehistory and physical survey of the contemporaneous landscape,” according to MJT. “It was on one of these walks, in the countryside surrounding Marino, that Kircher stumbled upon the ruins of an ancient church. An inscription near the moldering altar identified the shrine as the site of St. Eustachius’s conversion to Christianity.” [“Eustachius” is an alternate name.]


Often, Kircher is popularly represented as the “last man who knew everything” or the “first postmodern thinker,” but this doesn’t quite capture what was special about him. A mathematician, he was in the business of finding the essence of systems, and forever chasing things like universal language and magnetism, which he saw as a grand unifying force of the physical and emotional spheres (the latter concerned with attraction and repulsion, for instance). Not a genius in the sense the word is usually understood, Kircher was able to see underlying connections between nearly anything, the source of his brilliance (and also his Achilles heel—most of his scholarship would come to be wrong). His most enduring legacy was his museum, a “theatre of nature and art,” and one of the first recognizably modern such institutions: showcased were natural collections and taxonomies and “miraculous objects” intermingled with works of fine art. It is his ethos of wonder, his openness to wonder, that marks his remarkable output.

Eustace hart
Eustace brazen bull

Details from The Legend of St.
, from Golden Legend
(courtesy Institute for Research on
the History of Texts)

Kircher eventually restored the chapel commemorating Eustace’s conversion to its original splendor—the saint enjoyed a great deal of popularity in the late Middle Ages, where his story was written, illustrated, and represented (some details are pictured to the right, and a number of Eustace-related reliquaries may be seen here and here. His legend has elements of the story of Job and something of Oedipus, too—Eustace loses his wealth, his status, and his family, is eventually reunited with them after many years of suffering but is rebuked by Hadrian, and martyred, with his family, in a brazen bull. (There is also the trial of being fed to the lions, where the beasts demur in his presence.)

St. Eustace roof detail
Detail, roof of Il Gesu, the cathedral of
St. Eustace, Rome (photo by the
author; additional photos here and

Rome’s Sant’Eustachio district is the home to Kircher’s grave, a site I was thrilled to visit this past January: in 1680, Kircher was buried at Il Gesu, a chapel near the Roman College [detail, inset left]. Towards the end of his life, Kircher spent more and more time—including most of his last decade, and all of his last two years—at the chapel in Mentorella, caring for pilgrims and engaging in spiritual exercises. Upon his interment, the man’s heart was transported to the rejuvenated shrine—the site of at least two rebirths—and buried beneath the altar of Kircher’s beloved Church of St. Eustace.

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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Bad mags

Tom Brinkmann’s site for Bad Mags, a book “due in 2005,” is such a train wreck you might find it curious that I’m citing it as rich in design resources, but there it is.

Where It's AtSultry
National Informer
Inside Detective
Dig deeper: there’s an impressive collection of sixties and seventies zines, sorted by category (Sharon Tate, true crime, occult sex, bikers, punk, blue films) and by publisher (I’m unfamiliar with their names—Seven Seventy, GSN/Classic, TNC/Dominion, Pendulum/Gallery Press, Sari/Press Arts—but almost all of them were based in Los Angeles or the San Fernando Valley and carry particular house vernaculars). Warning: the website loads pretty slowly, so you might want to get a cup of coffee in the meantime.

Fiery Films
A small sampling of the wares, displayed here (click through for larger images from the website), reveal some pretty cool work, heavy on the clip art and tabloid look but graphically bold, smart, and fun. (Note that promiscuous font-mixing has a long and glorious history, even in the days of paste-up.)

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

More on Arab TV

Studying a foreign language in middle school was a virtual Rosetta Stone for me: all of a sudden I was endowed with a pretty good framework to apply in English, too. So this cartoon, by Hindawi for al-Ghad, might serve as an eye-opener for those who pooh-pooh the medium. From right-to-left—this is an Arabic-speaking audience, after all—we see the three types of Arab television viewers: those primarily concerned with the news, those taking in the video-clips, and the reality TV fans, marooned in front of the set. [Via Abu Aardvark, of course.]

Hindawi cartoon

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Tuesday, September 13, 2005


From illy, the coffee folks, a collection of espresso cups and saucers designed by Padraig Timoney and based on “lines and doodles from actual pen tests.” Nice, but a cool $120 for six of each. (There are pen-test sets for two, and numerous other artist-designed cups, from Jeff Koons to Maria Abramovic.)

'Pen Tests' by Padraig Timoney

[Via Cindy]

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Sunday, September 11, 2005

Annoying Baltimore

In the 17 August issue of the City Paper, Bret McCabe examines Friends and Friends of Friends, an “art book” that is the first publication from an outfit dubbed “Creative Capitalism.” The organizing principle behind the six-by-seven-inch, full-color Friends is that it contains images culled by the Creative Capitalists asking friends to ask their friends to submit work. But the plot thickens as the four-member design and editorial team talk further about the project in McCabe’s piece.

Creative Capitalism
Peter Quinn, Richard Baxstrom, Todd
Meyers, and Gillian Quinn
[courtesy City Paper]

The group explains that the book is about “art as social network,” which is true enough. But credulity is repeatedly strained, beginning with a claim by Peter Quinn, one of the team‘s members:

What blew me away when it all finally started to come together was, Oh my god, this is actually what we intended. This is an uncontrollable aesthetic that is being created in this network of people that never would have worked unless they would have contributed it blindly to us. And that’s the kind of weird thing—the book is about the book.
OK—let’s accept that these folks were successful in recording this “uncontrollable aesthetic.” But, in this case, the book being about the book doesn’t add meaning. What we have here is an artist book, one where the consumer responds to the work as artwork—according to Jason Bottenus, another editor, “[t]here was no, ‘We want you to do work that is within this parameter to get into this book’”—more so than as a book proper. This oligarchic collection is curated as most exhibitions are, plain and simple. (I'm not disputing that this might have merit, mind you.)

But McCabe picks up the ball and runs with it: “It’s only once you start delving into the book and spend time parsing through its images that what it achieves is a subtle act of subversion.” He has difficulty describing what is happening here, other than free association—something that would take place with any artist book, organizing principle or no. And in the process of elevating this “product non-product,” he does the city’s readership a disservice. I often enjoy McCabe’s writing on music (and, indeed, admire many of the artists includied in the pages of Friends and Friends of Friends), but this puffery is of the kind we can do without.


Tuesday, September 06, 2005


In the beginning of the summer, it looked to be a fairly dismal TV season, with only a few items warranting notice:
  • True Entertainment, a reality TV production company and subsidary of Endemol (oh, no, that’s Big Brother's Big Brother) announced in July that they’re looking to air a new series centered around contestants looking to be political operatives when they grow up; in other words, they’re looking for the next, better-looking, Karl Rove. I would actually watch this show, which bodes ill for its future;
  • The continued delight of “Laguna Beach,” (MTV, Mondays at 10p) and the sudden shock that “Big Brother 6” (CBS; Tuesday at 9p , Thursday and Saturday at 8p) was watchable and even kinda interesting, despite the long (and continuing) history of insipid contests and contestants. This season, though, we are treated to a substantial population who avow that the secret to winning is by playing smarter—it almost never works out that way—and blessed with a group who think they are smarter than they really are.
Haifa Wehbe with goats (For Her)
Haifa Wehbe on the cover
of For Her

But, as usual, the most illuminating and important stories are taking place outside of our field-of-view: in the Arab world, “Al-Wadi,” a reality program that looks to be a hybrid between “Big Brother” (the popular Middle East Broadcasting Centre edition of the franchise was abruptly cancelled in last year’s inaugural season) and “The Simple Life,” is aired by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation and is taking the region by storm.

On “Al-Wadi,” video-clip siren Haifa Wehbe plays Paris Hilton [see inset, left]; so, the esteemed Abu Aardvark can be expected to be on the case in his usual coverage of The Nancy-Haifa Culture Wars. The show’s website has to be seen to be believed; anyone who watches the slightest bit of reality television will have no problem recognizing common scenes, tropes, and situations. Here’s Haifa, clad in a L.A. Lakers tank-top, in a snap that could be out of the American BB; and a fetching Haifa posing with a burro (images courtesy of Marc Lynch).

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Monday, September 05, 2005

Pamuk’s Istanbul, and mine

I impulsively journeyed to Istanbul as a young man in the early 1980s, after I discovered a Victorian travelogue (Constantinople: City of the Sultans, by Clara Erskine Clement) in a Santa Barbara antiquarian bookstore (here, I think, though I can no longer be certain). It was a peculiar time to visit—I arrived to guns on the tarmac unaware that the city was under martial law, and that the Turkish economy was in shambles—but in many ways it was the perfect moment. Even as the population had grown steadily since the 1960s (and was to take off around 1980), much of the boom was on the Asian side of the Bosporus, as well as on the outskirts of the European city, in sprawling shantytowns I encountered on the bus-ride from the airport to the old city.
Istanbul panorama
Upon disembarking in Acksaray, walking down the muddy, semi-paved street towards Sultanahmet, I wandered (and wondered) for weeks, primarily on the south side of the Golden Horn—haunting the mehanes, the pudding shops, and the dark tea houses with raki-drinking, television-watching, middle-aged men, the omnipresent visage of Atatürk overlooking the proceedings; streets filled with the clacking of printing presses (plus the occasional chorus from Thriller) and narrow passageways with old men smoking hookahs; the heavy quiet of Beyazit Square on a hot summer afternoon, with a nearby convenience store on the southern outskirts selling lukewarm ayran, or warm Pepsi out of wooden crates, or black currant juice (my favorite); the outdoor market amidst traditional wooden houses in Vezneciler, with tables of slender, striated Asian eggplant; the medical school with the fluorescent-lit vitrines, showcasing hand-painted, plastic models of the human body; the rural snack-sellers of simits, roasted ears of corn, cucumbers-peeled-before-your-eyes, and the minced-mussel sandwiches vended by watermen.


When I returned in 1997, the city was almost unrecognizable to my eyes. Some fifteen years had past, but so little remained the same, or seemed to remain the same.
Pamuk's Istanbul
There was a tram running from Topkapi, the Cannon Gate of the walled city (where I had departed, overland, to Greece on my maiden visit—then, the ‘bus station’ consisted of a muddy field and plywood kiosks serving as ticket booths) down to Sultanahmet, the touristic epicenter of the old city. There was a subway, too, and bars that wouldn’t be out of place in Soho. But the disparity between what I had experienced on the two trips left little doubt that not only had Istanbul changed radically, but I had, too. Parsing these changes, and their degree, has been an important question, critically, in understanding my place in the world. So this year’s occasion of the English translation of Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories of the City was a significant and meaningful landmark. Pamuk is ten years older than I am, and his experiences center around the middle-class, European city laying to the north of the Golden Horn, but his account of the "city of sultans," filtered through the eyes of the West—the author argues that Istanbuli cannot, by the circumstance of history, understand their city in any other way—allows this Westerner to make a little more sense of what I experienced over twenty years ago.

Bosporous map detail

Memories has been well-received in the Anglophonic world (and discussed in the litblogs, too); everyone properly focuses on the river of hüzün—that peculiar brand of Stamboul melancholy derived from the loss of Ottoman grandeur—that flows through the city, but there are a few old saws to avoid, too. Pamuk is pointedly wary of the “torn between East and West” interpretation of the Turkish character, one that I had trotted out in my writings when I was lad in trying to describe the men (and it was almost always men, then) I met in my travels, shoeblacks and tea-boys and soldiers, many of who seemed to be carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Even when I declined to have my boots shined, they would buy me a beer or take me to Friday prayers.


Many of the more gratifying highlights of the book come when Pamuk describes four of the writers he most admires; one, Reşat Ekrem Koçu, the author of the never-completed Istanbul Ansiklopedisi, spools a discussion that captures the wonder of the city through publishing (!): a tour of other popular Turkish encyclopedias, including the mysteriously-illustrated From Osman Gazi to Ataturk: A Panorama of Six Hundred Years of Ottoman History. Pamuk’s memoir is highly recommended, and—for this reader, who cannot speak the Turkish language and has been unable to find a contemporary social history of the city for some time—essential.

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Saturday, September 03, 2005

Baltimore cinema: Marnie

Hitchcock's much-admired Marnie (1964), starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery, was never one of my favorites, but when I mention it to Mobtown residents, I often get blank stares. Feast your eyes on these stills (courtesy of Hitchcockmania, an amazing font; the Marnies are here) for a rendition of SoBo and the harbor in the sixties. (It was filmed on block-long Sanders Street, south of Federal Hill and just to the west of Southern High.)

Marnie: Penn StationMarnie: Sanders Street (1)
Marnie: Sanders Street (2)Marnie: Sanders Street (3)

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West by East


I think democracy exists in the West because the West has had the novel. And despotism reigns in the East because the East has had poetry. The novel develops the democratic imagination because it offers various paths, various destinies, while poetry is despotic.

—Sorour Kasmai

Nisaburi Virgin with Child
Virgin with Child (1595), from
Nisaburi’s Stories of the Prophets
Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Some have harrumphed that there are a paucity of exhibitions of Middle Eastern artists in the West: this stems, in part, from a variety of reasons that sound suspiciously like Orientalist arguments, but really aren’t. I've long lamented that curators aren’t drawn from broader stock, but it’s well-neigh essential when we’re looking at the Islamic world, where the fine arts are less Western and comingled with religious tradition. Fortunately, the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona has enlisted Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb to curate West By East, an exhibition that examines an “Occidentalist” view of the world, a notion that is gaining strength over the past year (witness this exquisite examination of Istanbul, filtered through Western eyes by future Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk). Meddeb, a multidisciplinary character who demonstrates a broad knowledge of the history and culture of both East and West, knows literature and art history (it shows). The Times has a piece on the show in today’s paper; after closing on 25 September, WBE will be decamping for Valencia.

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