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Archive for February 9th, 2009

mosselprom on fifth avenue, and the afterlife of constructivism

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a new ad campaign from saks fifth avenue

a new ad campaign from saks fifth avenue

There’s a piece in the IHT today on constructivism. Ah, a specter’s haunting, you know, the ad men. But there are more serious / valuable paragraphs that come after the stuff about Saks.

Constructivism is also a critical influence on the creation of digital imagery. This is partly because of the intellectual link from the original Soviet Constructivists to contemporary software designers. The trajectory begins with Moholy-Nagy, who worked in the United States with his fellow Hungarian, Gyorgy Kepes, on early theories of the construction of mechanical images. Kepes shared their thinking with his students, including Bass, and later with colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among them the pioneering technologists Muriel Cooper and Nicholas Negroponte. The digital artist John Maeda studied under them and then taught Ben Fry and Casey Reas, the inventors of Processing, the advanced software that produces visualization, arguably the most compelling new visual language of our time.

Visualization, or “viz” as it is nicknamed, crunches through complex data to create digital images that explain its meaning clearly. As dynamic digital media, visualizations can be constantly updated, enabling them to illustrate changing information and complicated concepts that are too elusive to be depicted accurately on traditional charts or graphs. Geopolitical developments, such as population shifts, and virtual phenomena, like the flow of Internet traffic, lend themselves to visualization, as do scientific and medical theories. Among the most ambitious applications is the Blue Brain Project in Lausanne, where a group of neuroscientists is trying to create a visualization of the human brain, in the hope that it can be used to help find cures for Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases.

The “viz” phenomenon owes more to Soviet Constructivism than its academic pedigree. When Rodchenko and Popova designed posters and pamphlets for the Soviet state, they were trying to help a confused and largely illiterate population to make sense of the dramatic changes in their daily lives. New laws. New institutions. New working practices. New expectations. New taboos. Their striking collages must have looked as exhilarating to 1920s workers as luscious digital visualizations do to us today, and shared the same aim of helping people to make sense of the complexity of modern life. That’s why there’s so much more to Constructivism than a style that shifts slouchy bags.

This is a story that I didn’t really know, but I’m glad to learn. I’ve begun work on a project on simplicity and modernism, and I must admit that I first became fixated on the term when I was reading John Maeda’s blog and looking at his book on the topic. But I had no idea that there was a traceable genealogy back to exactly the stuff that I’ll probably, long way around, start the project with…

Ah, sometimes, despite what I said and then redacted, it feels really good to be an academic and a blogger, and whatever else it is that I might be. If I could actually find room for all of this stuff in the book that I want to write, man….

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February 9, 2009 at 10:01 pm

never thought I’d live to see the day

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A few weeks ago, we were linking to utopian but fake versions of the New York Times, remember?

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February 9, 2009 at 6:48 pm

Posted in socialism

notes on seeing a bad movie

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It shouldn’t be that hard to make a decent movie. It’s getting to the point where they all look like the last decade’s worth of Woody Allen’s stuff. I haven’t seen many first-run movies since I got to London: There Will Be Blood, Blindness, Revolutionary Road, a couple others. All complete and utter shit. (For some reason, I see decent to good stuff when visiting the US: Synechdoche, NY and Slumdog Millionaire were brilliant and fine, respectively.)

But those that I’ve seen in London make me wonder what exactly is wrong with the American movie industry – or even what (else) is wrong with America itself. Bad-to-middling movies used to be bad-to-middling, but rarely this bad. I’m busily retrofitting myself (seriously) as a Bordieuvian institutionalist, but I can’t quite write all this off as simply a meta-effect of corporate control, aesthetic champs and the money that makes their grass grow. Go see Revolutionary Road, seriously, and you’ll see what I mean. This is beyond moneytaint; this is something more akin to mass aesthetic brain damage, narrative aphasia.

The reviews are largely right, nothing much happens in the film, and this the first and easy way to describe the problem at hand. But it has to be more than this. Nothing much happens all the time and in all sorts of ways; it merits examination just how and why and to what end in each specific case. So here’s my stab at the problem – which is a tricky one, a hiding in plain sight sort of issue.

The primary characters are locked in a Major Crisis that is both a crisis of the couple as a dyad and of both members of the couple individually. All three crises (hers, his, theirs) feed on one another. (Spoiler warnings – seriously, who fucking cares!) And the movie flits along from one cliched enactment of this crisis to another: a community theater play that goes badly, an affair with a secretary, a neurotic decision to “change their lives,” screaming and yelling and crying, a new pregnancy that will then won’t then will be aborted, an affair with a neighbor, more screaming and yelling and hysterical over-reaction, and blood-dripping unlikely death.

Fine. Lots of terrible plot action to work with. But somehow, startingly, the film never gets outside all of these tears and near-fisticuffs, morning-after shots with lovers, and bad days at work. In a sense, like a marriage in crisis or a person in crisis, like the severely depressed, it sets itself on autopilot, too lazy or mindfucked to get outside of all this strictly cliched nonsense, can’t somehow find a way to register either the crisis’s lack of objective correlative (as when TSE leaves Hamlet a babbling neurotic here) or the crisis’s material foundations. (The film gestures unconvincingly, extremely unconvincingly, in the direction of unfulfilling work – but in the end signals to take this direction seriously would be to be as permanently adolescent as the protagonists themselves). Rather, it holds the shot, it plays along, it tries to force affect out of overacting, enlightenment out of the darkness of depressive repetition.

I actually think there is something startingly and performatively (in the bad sense) dystopian about a movie that allows itself to be this obvious and cliched without worrying about the fact, as if the entire issue of self-monitoring and, well, effort to say new things is well beyond its control. There’s a simple way to link together the string of good HBO shows – they were to a one aimed at genre renewal. The Sopranos brought among lots else social contextualization / analogization to the mob drama, Sex and the City brought vibrators to the sit-com, Deadwood brought eloquence and politics to the western, The Wire brought the dialectic to the cop show, and so on. The basic appeal of the programs is that they took the effort (or had the institutional opportunity) to do something new with old forms. Revolutionary Road, conversely, harrowingly, suggests a reversal of the tides, a yang to the ying of HBO. What if instead of vivification, we take the cards dealt by genre, arrange them on the table one after another, ace through king, and made not a single modification?

Revolutionary Road twice brings a “madman” onto the screen – a math Ph.D., son of the local real estate agent, who has been institutionalized and electroshocked until the math went away, but not the despair. But he’s not that scary; the opposite really as he is, perfectly according convention, the only person capable in the film of calling things by their proper names. But this is bullshit. Everyone knows that the truly frightening madman isn’t the one who brings enlightenment, but repetition, who ceaselessly breaks the basic contract of communication to keep saying the same thing over and over, the repeat long past anyone’s willing to listen. In this case, yes, it’s the characters who are mad but not as mad as Sam Mendes, the director, who fostered their performance without even the slightest registration of destructive irony.

The saving grace of the entire evening was standing outside the door of the cinema as my wife powdered her nose and listening as each and every fellow viewer voiced a variation on the same thing that I said: What the fuck was that? Thank god. One can easily, if one has a dark projective imagination, conjure another scene: this movie plays and you look around to notice the sympathetic tears and cathartic smiles of the other citizens in the hall. But then again, that is basically what it felt like to live in America for much of the last decade. The worst enactments of the most stale and conventional crises and the concommitant plotmoves (this time on the stage of domestic or international affairs), doused with cynical sangfroid or worse, mindless and heartless belief, would be again and again accepted by the others around you – family, the people they show on television, the people who vote, in some cases intelligent friends – with a smile or a smirk or a tear in the eye or even, in the worst cases, a flat, affectless, distractedly staring face.

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February 9, 2009 at 1:54 am

Posted in distraction, movies