Monthly Archives: November 2011

See me, Here. me

My intent is not to go all political on you, dear reader. My purpose is to discuss placeness because, lord knows, we all need it. The Occupy Movement is only a few months old and, yet, the participants have found a place in our minds and hearts. They are, as are we, the unhappy 99% of humans who are negatively impacted by an unchecked capitalist system-on-steroids that is destroying the very way of life it was intended to empower. My recollection is that the wealthy 1% used to provide many structures and amenities for the rest of us, maybe to keep our eyes focused off what else they were doing. But there is no pretense now for those who are able to steal away with all the limited assets on the planet, right under our noses, leaving nothing. Thanks for nothing. Hey, 1%, remember history and what happened to people like you in the Russian Revolution or La Grande Revolution, or all other overthrown repressive regimes and robber-baron-run countries eventually? The Occupy people are, at this moment, polite.

Shifting gears a bit, arslocii recently went to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to view an exhibit called Here. Intriguing topic for us, especially when the promo for the show starts with, “What is the role of “place” in art?” The intent was to explore the differences generated by regional influences and how those resultant expressions fit into the larger artworld, or, as they refer to it, Cultural Globalism. Funny, that many of the pieces in the show expressed a similar stance to the Occupiers’ own: representations, mostly explanations, of being “outsider.” And there were even artists in Here. who built makeshift shelters, so that we viewers started to confuse this prettied-up display with the real one happening two blocks away at Philadelphia City Hall. Being an artist myself, I can’t deny that the artists represented in Here. have genuine feelings or meaningful thoughts and, possibly, diplomas to prove that they paid their dues in art training programs in their specific regions of the country, but … I will answer the question of globalism versus regionalism – it all looks pretty much the same to me. It is more of the same “painted word,” even more so than what Tom Wolfe ridiculed nearly forty years ago. The artwork, as Wolfe writes, merely illustrates the text, “for Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.”

If I was spun around, blindfolded and set down in the gallery at Here., I would not be able to get any sense of place from it; no place as to where I am, no place as to where these works originated, and, certainly, no place within most of the works. Art, this art, whether regional or not, is not global, it is personal, the opposite of universal – to the point of masturbation, and – dare I say? – hooey. Generally, the artist statements are more well-fashioned than the works on display, and the works just seem like the necessary infill for the otherwise empty wall spaces between statements.

As with all things, there are exceptions; interestingly, the digital photographs by two separate artists – Scott Hocking and Tim Portlock – have a similar sensibility in their Photoshopped surrealistic prints.

These, the flattest, most illusionistic and unreal pieces in the exhibit have more placeness than all the others put in a bag and shaken, including videos, objects, paintings, constructions, installations, etc. Sadly, what we have mostly discovered is that art shows with themes such as this often display what the artist-participants would do for any venue and, rather, the statement is crafted to speak to the theme or grant.

The artists, Hocking and Portlock, have rendered post-apocalyptic visions of two decayed cities, Detroit and Philadelphia, places with a soulless soul that illustrate, as artwork is wont to do, a sense of location, loss and betrayal – plus beauty. The human condition. Much like the Occupy sitters have done in real time.

But here sits Here., and my mind wanders to outside the gallery. Where is the here here? So much of it in this show is terribly narrative, literal, uber-personal or inaccessible except for the spelled-out printed word on the walls. Art, at its very nature, should be place-making. But in this show, of all shows, which defines itself as a repository of place, Here. is mostly just a definer of place for “art,” as gallery. Nothing more. Better, it should be called I Am Here, because it seems just another extension of the usual Twitter/Facebook fascination with self than anything else. The Occupy movement has expressed itself as being here and being heard, and despite its message being a bit expansive and difficult to be slogan-ized (the point, I imagine), it has presence: physical, social and political. It is here and now and it tries to create a dialogue. Where is Here.?

P.S. As of last night, the Occupiers have been dispersed and, now, there is no here there either.

Leave a comment

Filed under Art & Architecture, Culture, Life, Musings, Philly-centric, Uncategorized

Cosmo’s Moon and the Placeness of Love

In just a couple of weeks it will be exactly 25 years since the first day of shooting began on one of the most perfect movies to come out of the post-Viet Nam-era Hollywood: Moonstruck. For its success and enduring, endearing nature credit John Patrick Shanley’s quirkily adorable screenplay full of memorable lines and people and confrontations, exceptional and lucky casting (Cher and Olympia Dukakis are earthily sublime revelations, and no one, any place, any time could be a better Ronny Cammareri than Nicolas Cage), savvy use of Dean Martin crooning “That’s Amore” and Norman Jewison’s steady don’t-get-in-the-way directing.

Mostly, though credit placeness.

Whereas, in his films, Woody Allen loves Manhattan, Shanley’s New York – Brooklyn, specifically – is love. More than just another character in the narrative, the soft-edged and warmly glowing Brooklyn of Shanley/Jewison is a place that must exist first so that its characters can exist after. It is a place, unreal in life but absolutely believable if not necessary in our hearts, where love supreme not only reigns but is operatically intense, where shadowy streets hold no menace, where superstition and religion and mortal foibles and Fate’s delicious hand-mangling irony are as thick in the air as the bakery and cooking smells we imagine are everywhere, where jerks are lovable and moral cheaters are as innocent as children – and it is a spot on Earth (some Earth, in some dream) where the moon is bigger than possible and exerts a pull that is not that of the physical world’s gravity but quite the opposite: anti-gravity, an irresistible force that moves immovable objects, like deadened hearts and desiccated relationships, and grants them life and youth and hope.

There are certain key elements that a film needs to be great – mostly, these have to do with character and motivation, action and satisfaction. A film can be great if it doesn’t have all, but most, of these elements (forming what weak-headed critics would call “flawed” films). But no film can be great without a placeness that gives every person and plot component its raison d’etre. Movies have people and plots, but what the best movies do best is create believable worlds that, empathetically, we already somehow know and recognize and crave. Placeness establishes the rules and referees the match, and only then can the games begin and follow their course. And, with a great sense of placeness – Oz, or the Corleone compound, or Xanadu – one cannot conceive of a film’s events occurring anywhere else. Every life form, movies included, needs certain conditions in which to come into being, thrive and evolve. Another place, another species. A lesser place, no life at all.

Moonstruck is a masterly bit of created placeness in a bubble of benevolence, like a glass-enclosed terrarium, a self-sufficient ecosystem unsullied by an outside world’s contaminating breath – truth grows undisturbed while reality bounces off the protecting globe.

As a P.S. to all this: What Moonstruck wants to express, at its core, is the messy, complex, intertwining, toxic yet life-giving nature of Family and families. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. When you’re together with your own blood-related or handpicked family, there could be no better place to visit, all of you, post-stuffing, than Moonstruck.

Salud – and snap out of it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Life, Musings, Random

The Grim Repurposer

A while back, I wrote about my mother’s 20-year-old TV – a Sony Color Rear Video Projector, model KP-41EXR96 – and how it outlived her and how I felt compelled to keep it going, in her memory. It has been eleven years, almost exactly, since she left this mortal coil and, now, the television has decided to join her. It finally flatlined; the three color lines of red, blue and green overlapping into a kind of bow tie formation: crossing in the center and separating fanlike at the outer edges; a butterfly with no membrane left between filaments in its wings, only the skeletal remains. In its last gasps, the image would try to expand and go to a black screen with the word “VIDEO” in green appearing in the upper right-hand corner. You could see its jittery struggle and then, when it could sustain it no longer, the picture would collapse back down into the three lines: the green one, although a mere eighth of an inch thick, still visibly sporting the now distorted “video” in its condensed, narrow space.

Looking like some sort of other-worldly typography, I thought it was attempting to communicate something. Or was it, like “Hal” in 2001, A Space Odyssey, just deconstructing and returning to its most rudimentary programming? VIDEO, hmm. It was all about video, it was created for video, its mere existence was for the purpose of video, its lifeblood was video. Was it crying, “Mama?” Was I crying, “Mama?”

Then, click, it powered itself off. So, there it was: big blank screen, hulking carcass, weighing probably 200 pounds. I was reminded of that time, years ago, when our cat Matthew died in our house. Matthew was a cat whom we had inherited from someone else, so I called that former roommate of Matthew to let him know. He was sorry, but he had just recently lost his dog, and we talked about our losses. My recollection of that conversation is that, although we both were truly sad, there was the reality of life changing to death, instantly, and then leaving this physical thing – sometimes a largish thing, this body – to deal with. A practical matter of disposal (for want of a better term) that needed to be addressed. This set was the 200 pound dead elephant in the room.

Understandably, the TV set was not a living thing, so the absence of a personality was not being felt here. Nevertheless, there was a long history and a sense of duty and stewardship to get beyond. But, suddenly there was this corpse, and the room could use some breathing space (if you know what I mean), so, go it must. But how? I mean, it was big enough for the two of us to be buried in it, maybe with a little adjusting and bending, but it was large, larger than a Coupe de Ville trunk (if you know what I mean). And compounding this issue was that we wanted to do the right thing in disposing of it. I wasn’t thinking about a military send-off, but, instead, a responsible and ecological solution to our predicament; in other words, not a landfill. Heck, this thing could poison and pollute the Earth for generations to come. (This concept is something which I struggle with daily on a very small scale, like with a screw-top on a bottle.) Did I mention that this set was a behemoth?

So, the place of waste is a conundrum. I have always been of two minds: waste not, want not; and leave the smallest footprint possible. And there you have it – I am drowning in stuff, a) because I like it or can use it (sometime, somewhere) and b) because I want to get rid of it carefully and meaningfully – mindfully. I assume that someone made this item carefully and meaningfully and, having taken it in, I have the responsibility to move it along in the same manner. What to do?

Well, like a bolt from the blue, an email arrived from an area co-op that occasionally offers an organized effort for mindful disposal of electronics. We have been there before with numerous generations of now-defunct new technology. During that visit the items were weighed and we paid a reasonable per-pound price. Gulp! – the weight issue was scary this time. But this email said nothing about weighing, only that a donation to the recycler was expected. So, the new problem was, how does a two-person operation (us who live with this monster TV set) get it down from the second floor and out to our vehicle? Well, with some strategizing and a largish piece of cardboard, we managed to toboggan it down the long, thankfully straight stairway. It was unexpectedly and surprisingly easy!

We arrived at the recycling lot, fearful that we would be rejected; but, no, some eager young men met us with quizzical looks on their faces. What kind of television is that? they asked. How old is it? they marveled. Yes, it was made before they were born, but in surveying the assorted boneyard of old sets standing around, forsaken, in the parking lot, we spied some in wood furniture-style cabinets that were much older than ours. It must have been the size and bulk of the thing that startled the boys. I am sure they thought that they were surrounded by some old sci-fi movie props. Painful to admit, it all looked very familiar to me. As I pointed out to the young’ns, heck, the car we brought it in is way older than the television set. Anyway, they took it, bemusedly, to be recycled. A happier ending could not have been asked for.

I know I am a little on the wacko end of the spectrum about some of this stuff, although I do have a clear conscience. My sense is, though, that many people have no conscience at all, so they are probably happier and healthier than I am. Lucky, soulless beings that they are. But the issue of this dead device had me reeling and had put forth a new challenge for me (as if there weren’t enough already): of finding a place for its final resting place and finding placeness in the disposition of property. My mission was to balance the right combination of “out it goes” and it having absolutely no impact on anyone else, born or unborn. New term: the placeness of misplacelessness, matter into anti-matter. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. “VIDEO.”

Epilogue: We have replaced the old warhorse with a successor, really a predecessor – a still functioning 1980 17-inch tube TV set – the first purchase we made together in our newfound relationship. No remote control on this one but a still-perfect picture after 30 years. So much for age.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Life, Musings, Random, Uncategorized

Place Settings

In pondering many of life’s unanswerables, the one that keeps goading me, keeps unsettling me is the one about being in the right place. There are so many variables about where one is and why: were you born there; did you find an employment that brought you there; is your family network close by or, intentionally, not; did you arrive by way of a breakdown or breakup and never left; did you connect with someone and stayed; were you on a quest and, partially or wholly satisfied, remained; were you proactive or did you go with the flow or was it merely inertia? And do you ever think about these things or is it just a given, like the way you look or the sun setting westward?

If so, did you build a life, a life that can sustain you for the rest of it? I mean, besides travel, are you completely content with your locale? Is it an easy, comfortable place to be, or a stimulating one, or is it intolerable? Or is it just here. And now. And that’s all there is. When it comes time to vacate this place, will you do so because of a desire for a particular climate, proximity to slot machines, low taxes, nearness of family, cultural benefits, medical facilities, or a beautiful environment; how about a like-minded community? Or will you be carried out in a box? Will you even have a choice?

It is a puzzle: should I stay or should I go? Can one place be suitable for a lifetime, for a person’s changing needs or desires? I remember my father, who was born, bred, schooled and wed, then fathered, worked, lived and died within about a three-mile radius. He did some traveling, but he told me that there was only one other place besides home that he would have ever considered living – Washington, DC. I found that peculiar, since to me it has felt like a static open-air museum, or mausoleum, with a dash of the kind of yawn-inducing ambience of a state capitol. I’ll grant that some of the architecture is prettier than the average state seat, but the oppressive, imposed grandeur and order is reminiscent of right-wing police states and L’Enfant’s design penchant for creating space for marching hoards. Well, my dad was Prussian/German. The weird thing was that, during his funeral, we caravanned from parlor to cemetery – a distance of 2.8 miles – and passed en route every touchstone of his life. It was a remarkable tribute. Not a planned one; it just so happened that living or dead, this was the road he traveled. It was a neat, nearly straight south-north line from cradle to grave.

I have had, up to this point, more of a zigzag approach. I have now lived about as long in one place not of my birth as I did in my hometown, with multiple stops in between, mostly back and forth in an east-west orientation. As I consider the future, should there be one, I wonder: Is this still the place for it? Could there be a better place to live that is more attuned to the person I am now as opposed to the person I was a quarter century ago? I am a firm believer in there being many lifetimes in a lifetime. What should the next one be? And where should it be?

For me, there has never been an option of returning to the source – it is from whence I came, not where I want to be. That would be like trying to relive the past, and a past is not what I seek. It is the moving forward that beckons. And, too, I can safely eliminate Washington as a possibility. But where? I have been to many compelling places, largely cities, but it is not the city life I am craving now. I look at rural areas, and there is beauty in the land, but it might be isolating and lonely. What’s left is a small town. I think I have often imagined living in a village but not one with a cannon in the center square and, similarly, not one where the sense of self is based on some event that happened three centuries ago – meaning that the town and its identity do not dwell in the past. History is fine, but not as a way of life.

So the quest is to find a place, one that others with equal values have found before and have sustained or built upon, sharing the same interest in moving forward and making the most of every day, being creative and celebrating individuality and a passion for life, as opposed to sleepwalking through it. Where is such a place?

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Life, Musings, Nature/Nurture, Random, Small & Great, Words Words Words

Holding a Higher Office

For the past five years, 10 months and two days, I have worked at a desk in a large open space without interior walls or cubicles, surrounded by a small cadre of co-workers who are practically within arm’s reach of me. Despite the lack of privacy, the loud voices, the distracting smear of sluggishly moving bodies in my 180-degree line of vision, the occasional emission of bodily sound effects (theirs, not mine … I think) and the fear of one of the bosses catching me as I check the Internet for another job (something I have been doing for the past five years, 10 months and 1 day) –  despite all that, and more, it has been a fine way to work. A manageable way to work. An acceptable way to work. OK – it is what it is. Besides, the job I do requires more-or-less continual interaction with my colleagues, as they hand me documents and I, in turn, hand them back, or off to someone else, and so it makes more sense to be out in the field swishing tails with the herd than mooing in my solitary corral. Under a fluorescent glare bright enough to alter one’s circadian rhythm, and possibly one’s DNA, I am one of the cogs.

Most of the time.

Because, of late, I have taken on a new job. Actually, a new task – an addition to, not an instead of. It’s what’s happening everywhere, in this time of retrenchment and collapse: doubling- and tripling-up on duties that have come available because of staff “realignments,” which is just another way of saying layoffs, buyouts and flat-out decimations. “The living will envy the dead,” is what Kruschev said about nuclear war; it’s not quite that in workplaces, but the living can certainly empathize. Anyway, the new “opportunity” that has come my way takes up the first three hours or so of my shift, after which I return to the same Bat Time, same Bat Channel that I have ruminated in for the past five years, 10 months, 2 days and, now, 32 minutes. There’s a bit of squealing and sparks flying as the gears shift, abruptly, as I go directly from one of these “jobs” to the only-semi-related other. But, here is what’s different and odd about this new thing I do: It comes with an office.

And, so, whereas the first action I would take each workday was to make the Bataan march to my desk and say hello to my co-workers, put down my carry-bag, sit down and turn on the computer, now I arrive at my desk, say hello to my co-workers, but then keep on going to my office, which, along with every other office in the place, sits along the perimeter of the big room. My office (how quickly we make or, at least, label something in a possessive way) is, as are most of the others, nothing special. In fact, were it not for the computer, you would expect to see cartons of copy paper stacked in it. What distinguishes it – if distinguish is not too strong a word to apply to a 10-by-12-foot cube full of nothing – is one wall that is mostly glass, so that it looks out on the larger room and all the empty desks that once held workers. It is a furnitured but barren aspect, as if a neutron bomb had hit (and, in a fiscal way, it has), and the only humans who come into view are those headed to the photocopy machine, which sits directly outside my door (you see – the door is already “mine”).

In this office, of which I am now the latest temporary dweller, there are two tables, a two-tiered computer station, a few chairs clumped together as if huddled against the storm of ultimate repossession, an empty bookcase, an empty file cabinet, a floor fan whose purpose one can only imagine and a cork board, on which there is nothing but what is likely not even cork. Every way that art has depicted the corporate work environment – from George Tooker to “Joe and the Volcano” – is in this office. I have not yet “personalized” it – I’m still working on personalizing myself, actually, an action that has gone on decades longer than five years, 10 months, 2 days and, now, 47 minutes – although I have brought in a lamp to cast a more humane, incandescent light on what I do; in my beige and blank area, the Greek-columned desk lamp feels like an anarchic act of revolution, and it makes me feel warm.

Where all this is leading us, in this blog’s focus on placeness, is this: While the office means almost nothing to me – in fact, I feel a bit embarrassed sitting in it, partly like a fish in a bowl, partly like Eichmann in the glass booth, partly like a Dickens middle-manager – others in my workplace now accord me a certain elevated status, one that never came from them to me (and for good reason), now merely because I have this office … this crummy office. Whether they are drawn by the open door, or the soft fire-in-a-cave lighting, or the incorrectly perceived increase in power accorded me less by my new tasks than by where I am doing them … whatever: People who never spoke to me before are turning up to say hi and to chit the chat; my longtime co-workers have stopped by to gaze admiringly at my new digs, nodding almost subserviently with something akin to approval, if not grudging respect, as if I were not in this enclosed workslot but, rather, lounging in a hot tub in Bill Gates‘ rec room, or as if they were homeless waifs with noses pressed against a frosty window, their fervent breaths steaming it, watching me, the one who got adopted from the orphanage, sitting in a warm and glowing room about to dive into a hot 8-inch-high freshly baked apple pie; and those who actually do have higher status in this operation still observe me through Eustace Tilley pince-nez when we meet in the aisles, but burble in intimate and inside-joke tones when they enter my office – my sphere, apparently. But, oddly, nobody actually “enters” my office – they speak to me from the doorway, hugging the jamb, as if to step more forward would propel them through the stargate – as if awaiting an invitation to enter “my” space, or that they are not worthy to enter this hallowed ground, or are afraid to track mud into this pristine environment (although tracked mud could only lend the joint some character). 

I have not changed. Indeed, when I lock up the office (maybe a place you can lock up behind you, or even with you in it, is the source of this strange status power) and return to my open-air workspace, I am the same nothing-special functionary that I have always been. Yet, let me walk back to my office and sit in it, and suddenly, immediately, I am hot stuff. The room has a placeness that has nothing to do with beauty, or empathy, or history – it seems to have everything to do with a social contract we make when we begin our work lives: offices are private, and a thing apart, and important things are done in them by people more important than the mass of workers. And the bestowing of this respect occurs, as it did with me, simultaneously with inhabiting the space, without actually having to do anything that merits respect. Maybe it’s like what William Goldman said about Hollywood, that nobody knows anything, and those who get movies made must “know,” must have the juju; I must have an office because I know something – how the game is played, how to move ahead, how to read the tea leaves – and I must know something because I have an office.

Does having an office ultimately change you? Do you become what having an office implies? Does the mere act of walking to a door with a key in hand, turning the handle and walking into a space that you can keep people out of empower you in other ways, especially creative ways? Or are you just a bookmark until they actually do move in the cartons of copy paper or, as is more likely, just shut off the lights and put the “For Sale” sign on the front door? And then how important and empowering is that office, eh?

I don’t have the answers. Ask me sometime around 6 years, 3 months and however many days. If we’re still here. But if we are, don’t presume to come any farther into my space than the doorjamb, without invitation. Hey, this is my office.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Life, Musings, Random, Uncategorized