June 2009 Archives

Mean What I Say



"Manhattan, May 2009, Before Vodkas"



Copyright 2009 Malcolm E. Ryder

Public art becomes part of the public environment, and pictures of the environment are allowed mainly in terms of point of view. It is, in the U.S., typically legal to photograph anything in a public space as long as the point of image capture is in a permitted space.

The title of the above photograph is an indicator of what the picture's image represents.

But we can talk about what the picture uses to offer its presentation -- and also how a presentation might anticipate and use the picture.

Shown here, Roxy Paine's "Maelstrom" is this year's installation on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum. This gigantic sprawling sculptural piece is, however, situated by design NOT in a public space, but in a permitted space. The Metropolitan Museum has also supplied a policy that any permitted person is allowed to conduct photography in this permitted space. As such, there will be perhaps half a million individual pictures of "Maelstrom" made during the foreseeable future. I don't know what the policy is for, say, photos of the piece produced with Google's, Russia's, or Boeing's satellites.

Most of these pictures will likely intend to re-present the piece. They will attempt to "take" the piece, by transmission of its visual evidence, to alternate locations where some facsimile of experiencing it "live" may occur.

That said, a video tour of the piece, if not a slide show, is a no-brainer to expect.  

Meanwhile, certain photographs will be commissioned to meet predetermined standards for "representing" the piece, but this really means for representing the custodian art professionals' programmed perspective on the piece. In other words, there is an understanding that Roxy Paine's idea of how the piece should be positioned to be experienced is aligned with the parties that host the access to the piece. Because there are also many great photographers who are sophisticated about these standards, many un-commissioned photographs will also now be produced that serve exactly the same purpose, just as successfully, without any official authorizations. (Case in point: for excellent "pictures of sculpture", see Trish Mayo's Flickr stream picturing "Maelstrom": http://www.flickr.com/photos/obsessivephotography/3484505152/in/set-72157603312855112/ )

At the same time, some people may say that the correct "interpretation" of the piece -- i.e., the correct perspective on experiencing it --  is not as "sculpture" but as "environment". Opinion: more of  the basic attributes of the piece are akin to architecture than to any other commonly shared experience.

This raises the question of how we can decide the sense in which this building-scaled work of art is "intellectual property". What if we disagree with the interpretations of the official hosts, with the artist, and/or with our own first impression? Then don't we have something different than may have been intended to present? Intention seems definitive, but it is often lacking traction. For starters, it's useful to note that an actual building is neither copyrighted nor patented -- yet the design plans for the building may be copyrighted and the engineering of the building's environmental effects may be patented. My cellphone camera picture above has neither any interest nor intent to provide the specifications that would allow Maelstom's design and engineering to enjoy copyright and patent. Instead, it indifferently uses some effects of the piece for something other than presenting any presumed intellectual property of Roxy Paine's. The photograph is about my own intellectual property -- about my idea of an experience that I intend to stage, provoke, or share by using the picture. In fact, the most important part of this particular picture is not Maelstrom but the distant background across the middle of the image, calling out the urban environment within which "Maelstrom" is simply a current feature.

In that light, it is clear to me that the presented photograph is no less a work of "conceptual art" than Paine's official promoters claim Maelstrom itself to be.

Furthermore, if we say that an idea is "property", then the obvious term to use for a violation of the property (idea) would be "trespass". But then, understanding the opportunity for alternative interpretations to occur means noting that resemblance (similarities across ideas), and even inclusion or overlap, is not automatically trespass.

What makes even more sense is to speak in terms of intellectual "properties" -- which would refer to the selection and orchestration of experiences and effects (properties) to give form to the art work's idea. This puts the matter more clearly in terms of assessing the design of expressions, rather than cataloguing the in-common use of any vocabularies. Here we consider the design, a conceptual effort, to be the "intellectual" aspect in review.

When it comes to the elements of the expression, a simple universe of formal presentational possibilities can be imagined in a graph of properties where the X axis ranges left-to-right from proxied to presented, and the Y axis goes top-to-bottom from literal to metaphorical. In other words, the X axis is the symbolic, and the Y axis is the semantic. The artdotdot article "Tactical rhetoric in pictorial presentation" provides a graphic and description that is more detailed on this notion.


In which the haughty bits are thanked but spanked, and we look into the crystal ball.


modelasmuse.jpg(foto @ modelinia.com, but copyright? Don't know.)

We were in New York. We went to the big exhibit. We studied the crowd at the show, on the sidewalks outside, in the news photos and ads, and then in many many pages of Google links of articles, videos and digi-slides. But we didn't see anyone who looked like they had been influenced by the show. It was the May 6, 2009 11:24 am blog update in Taiwan by Ellen Wulfhorst, Reuters, for The China Post that finally coughed up a crisp single sentence of why the Metropolitan Museum should have come out with it's very fab 'Models as Muse' show, co-produced by Marc Jacobs and co-curated by Kohle Yohannan. 

"Each era of fashion illustrates the social changes that were occurring at the time and helped to shape the idealized types of feminine beauty, Yohannan said."

So then -- the arrangement of the show encourages its visitor to imagine hearing the question, "if it's a certain point in time, and certain things are going on, then for that point in time what would we mean by 'feminine beauty'?"

Like pro sports, pro fashion never really pretends to be meaningful outside of its being an industry, although it accepts the accusation quite readily. When the professional fashion industrialists ask that question above,  they are thinking about supply and demand -- the supply of ideas about what is beautiful about the feminine; and the demand for chances to adopt ideas that seem more able to represent an answer that feels currently relevant.

One of my key additional questions that always latches on for a ride here is about who gets these chances and how does that influence the suppliers.

Usually, this gets a fairly conventional answer in the form of market and retail segmentation, made more interesting nowadays because presumptively (or at minimum, ersatz) "haute" designers are building collections directly for mass-market lower-price-tier store chains. Given that, we also want to see someone unknown and bright do a line for these stores and become an industry superstar, because the store chain doesn't want to degenerate into a gimmick platform and then be held financially hostage by whatever big-name next wants to save the franchise. (It's all old news now: Tar-jay; May-soise; J. C. Pen-ay)

But for several reasons, I don't care about that this time. Instead, the unconventional answer I want is closer to what Wulfhorst led off her article with, said again by Kohle Yohannan: the show "celebrates some of the world's most beautiful women yet it shows how ideals of beauty have evolved to include the rest of women as well..."

If I put Yohannan's two interesting remarks together, it would appear that I should be able to conclude  that social changes cause people to reconsider what amounts to beauty, and that the last 50 or so years of changes have made us more and more aware of the many kinds of beauty that are held by the feminine.

On the face of it, this seems at least worthy of a retrospective, but it is also on one level a bit stupid. 50 years ago, in my single extended family, there were already a range of personalities, wisdoms, histories and values that readily provoked any one of the women to pursue being beautiful in a different way than did the next. Or maybe it was your family, if not mine. Regardless, the only excuse for not already knowing this variety and inclusiveness would have to be sustained success at just not paying attention.

In fact, I initially thought that the show would emphasize models talking about how their idea of beauty was separate from but equal to the photographers'. I riffed from there to the notion that celebrated photographer artists like Emmet Gowan  (who pictures Ruth) and Edward Weston (who pictures Tina Modotti) would show up in comparison to Tina Modotti (who pictures Mexican women)  and Annie Leibovitz (who pictures Jessica Biel) to get us going on about genre, gender, ethnicity, etc.


(foto @ artnet.com but copyright surely (?) is the photographer's Emmett Gowan)

Additionally, in all candor, I hoped for a confessional story here and there, if necessary, of how being a muse excuses infamous levels of narcissism by at least giving it something useful to do. (In this case, an overall endictment of haute couture is perched on the edge of the best chair in the room, fists clenched, ready to bolt up and spoil the party. A timid defense of the Haute faces the same problem put in searing words by Marcus Bunyan at his blog regarding Modernism:

"Although Modernism in its basic form influenced most walks of life [...] from swimsuit design to milk bars, from cinema to naturism, from bodies to advertising, the most effective expressions of Modernism are architectural (as evidenced by Heide II) and were only open to those with money, power and position. Although Le Corbusier’s concept of public housing was a space ‘for the people’ the most interesting of his houses were the private commissions for wealthy clients. And so it proves here. One can imagine the parties on the deck at Heide II in the 1960s with men in their tuxedo and bow ties and woman in their gowns, or the relaxation of the Reed’s sitting in front of their fire in the submerged lounge. For the ordinary working class person Modernism brought a sense of alienation from the aspirational things one cannot buy in the world, an alienation that continues to this day; for the privileged few Modernism offered the exclusivity of elitism (or is it the elitism of exclusivity!) and an aspirational alienation of a different kind – that of the separation from the masses."

And finally, I've seen boutiques do a better job than does this show, of supporting Kohle's claim, about change reflected as beauty -- although this show is the very biggest and best and fun of its type I've ever known about.

But Yohannan is not stupid, and he's clearly well-intended, so there's some other factor I didn't incorporate yet.

And here it is: he's already said it -- ideals of beauty have been changing.

In that case, the museum has the responsibility to explain what the point of these ideals is. Specifically, it has to distinguish between fantasy (the business that everyone gets) and ideals (the concept, literally the "model", that not everyone gets).

Since it didn't, here's a shot: ideals are premium product, needed for use as root stock to generate successors in changing environments but just as importantly to generate varieties. A museum is supposed to protect a good explanation of how the ideal was identified, and also legally keep a sample of it if it can.

But that has little to do with muses. And the show completely avoided the other big question that it provoked itself -- can muses survive the death of 20th-century modelling?

In fact, the most interesting part of the museum show's storyline is the part where Hollywood hotties get most of the work and abruptly end the Era of Supermodels.

Industrial theorists like to call this catastrophe Disruptive Innovation. Something small, cheap and unnoticed -- like a virus -- wipes out a prior dominant population. But it's not what happened this time. Late '90's Hollywood actresses typically came with looks, stories, money, extended exposure, force of numbers, paparrazi and the clothes -- way more stuff than a model could counter before even having reality tv at her disposal. Additionally, almost no photographer is given the kind of publishing budget to lay attention on a model at the scale of a Hollywood movie campaign or regular tv show. Moreover, it turned out that celebrity models weren't decent actors. Supermodels could not compete with Hollywood on most of the common ground between them, which was fantasy.

What further happened is that the webcast of the NY 1999 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show permanently blew the lid off of publishing economics even though only 1.5 million people were necessary to crash the website.With the internet genie out of the bottle, attentive fashion industrialists saw they had no further requirement for a show to be a Victoria's Secret party, nor even that multiple models be thrown at one designer. In 2009, it's far more interesting and absurdly easy to realize what one great model does to different designers than vice versa, and the economics of doing 90-minute webshows of Kate Moss, an actual muse, are completely favorable. Four years ago, when entertainment television and fashion industry fakers arrogantly tried to snuff out Moss's career, "W" magazine walked her to its cover at the height of the stupidity, and French Vogue followed up with an entire issue about her work. Game over.

There is some irony to this. Only the rare weight of W and French Vogue in the industry could have sufficed to shove aside their own 20th century business strategy for good by printing up the covers and monograph asserting Moss's inherent dominance of their field. But the more increasingly that hi-def webcasting supplants broadcast television as people's first option, the less we will need them to ever do that again. On the web, muses naturally trump models, they don't need permission to surface, and great photographers don't need "houses" to have "collections".

In particular, we don't need Kate to look the same even twice in a row, even though she always can. We only need her to show up to work. The whole point is that although now she is a giant icon in the industry, she causes the photographers and designers to have ideas they didn't already have about how things can look -- largely, based on how she herself can see them. Will she transmit any sociological importances? Perhaps this is a matter of who she chooses to work with.

In 2016, the Met should do the Moss retrospective, or they'll have blown their whole posture. Before then, they should do the Isabella Rossellini retrospective. It is likely that "fashion eras" are a thing of the past.

Between now and then, the issue is still to figure out if the Met show actually establishes that social changes reflected by models encouraged women to accept more inclusive "types" of feminine expression as beautiful. So far the sound bites from the models and others are not making the case but they energetically propose it. Think of the really necessary evidence as the kind that would cause your investors to put another round of funding into your startup. The current show stops its period of historical coverage in 1997, so if it follows up by adding supporting evidence regarding changes between 1997 and 2010 then this 2009 show will be seen as a great launch.

Meanwhile, my subscriptions to W and Vogue expired many months ago. But if those guys have any marketing sense, I should be trying to buy software from them and using their discount coupons to be able to affford a bigger hi-def flatscreen.


Black and White in Color


Recently I fell out onto West 103rd and Riverside with an important friend, photographer and gardener who, working our way to the Metro Diner, bought a vintage gardening bluebook from the street fair underway. While playing checkers with the breakfast menu listings we spoke about how difficult and expert the photographer had to be to show educative, persuasive images of floral and border combinations in small terrific pictures that had no color in them. Not a thin book, the tome performed within the contract it had with its readers: "I'll tell you what you can't see, but you must see what I show you." In these pictures, the photographer strove for contrast, cues, and economy in the visual material. Most notably, however, was this: the pictures worked so hard to establish their subject and its importance, that their accompanying captions did not explain the images but merely made them more specific.

Cheap digital video easily carries an overload of color and spontaneous narrative, sometimes creating the problem of its casual streaming information bludgeoning significance out of the viewing -- except for being witness to the occasion that allegedly provoked the recording. The question this raises is, has the evolution of media driven progress beyond the Single8, Cine8 and Super8 home movies of the 50's on up to the 80's?

It's not a fair question, nor a hard one. There were experts with Single8 back then, and experts with video now. Experts can edit.

Sitting between the still shot and the film or video has always been the slide show.  Slide shows have the advantage of being potentially unlimited but generally subjected to an expectation that there is a beginning and an end. That is, for whaever reasons, good slideshow builders concern themselves with a kind of formalism that is more similar to film than it is to the urgencies of getting the key shot for the front of the NY Times.

With the adoption of color by the print version of the Times, the anticipation or even anxiety could hardly have been greater regarding whether the color shot could carry the front page. Now, as experienced consumers, we know that there needn't have been that anxiety. And before the Times editors ran its first color front page , photographers in general were well past any such concerns. (Although... it's fair to say that some photographers perhaps felt their own prospects dimming, while others felt them rising.)

Moreso even than digital cameras, the internet signals the nuclear-level explosion of slideshow resurgence. Web-hosted slide shows come with no narrations, intermittent narrations, and saturating narrations. To get specific, I should note that I'm pointing at the "read/write" web and the backlit digital picture glowing on whatever electronic screen is handy -- phone, scanner, tv, billboard, or whatever you're sitting next to right now?

In the past, it would have simply been expensive to ship around enough copies of the same set of slides to living rooms or family dens all over the place. Yet it happened all the time. Somewhere in your zip code, somebody has inherited, refurbished, forgotten and or thrown out that boxed set from the Parthenon Visitors Center. What we're really up against today is the proliferation of photo-uploading options that collect images together from almost anyone and anywhere like so much pre-trial evidence. In this case, what we want to have at hand is someone who will not only say to the pictures "yes come in" but then "go sit in the corner until I call you".

AlNYT_Slideshow.jpgl of the above commentary is really about one thing: the current "slideshow" at the NY Times website that shows the streets of post-elections Iran this week has the virtue of being timely, being there, and  being promoted by a heavyweight distributor. These are great criteria for "news".  Now what I'm interested in is seeing whether the slide show -- Iranian Protesters Fill Streets After Election Result -- will morph through constant refreshing and culling based on more incoming photos that have a good chance of being better photographs. In the current sequence, pictures 4, 6, 7, 8 and 10 hold up, especially picture 4. I'm wondering if the others will get replaced.

Is there some way in which this is important to the survival of newspapers and/or journalism? Take it from all four corners -- the pros, the cons, the rebuttal to the pros, and the rebutal to the cons.

On the pros: a successful journal is a branded one, and higher quality strengthens the brand. So why not continously improve the reference material?

Rebuttal: journalism is not about creating reference libraries, it is about making real-time reporting meaningful. You do your best in the heat of the moment, and move on.

Cons: Journalism should resist packaged  commercialism and culivate "open source" (multi-perspective) content in order to protect it's objectivity/credibility.

Rebuttal: objectivity is a mythology of neutrality, and the value of journalism is to develop a dialogical meaning from facts, not to enforce a monologue of exhaustive neutral observation.

My take on the current slideshow cited above is that it suffers from what its genre will henceforth risk suffering: comparison to video. What rescues it from that competition is great individual pictures, pictures good enough to stand up outside of video.

As for newspapers: that's not about journalism. That's about the economics of publishing. A different topic.