2nd Law

a blog by collegiates from around the purple nation (though mostly living in NYC) in the midst of transitioning to the real world

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Muckraker in the Museum

“BECAUSE THEY DIDN'T LOOK GERMAN” large letters spell out across the front of a building a mere fifty meters from the Brandenburg Gate. Below the sign are placards listing the victims of right-extremist violence in Germany, mainly foreign-born immigrants who were killed because, well, they didn’t look German. Dressing up the façade of the prominent Academy of the Arts [Akademie der Künste] with documentation of provincial bigotry alongside a major tourist landmark is, however, relatively toothless for artist Hans Haacke, the man behind the sign. As “Hans Haacke for Real: Works 1959-2006,” the exhibit inside documents, Haacke’s work often bites the hand that commissions it, turning upon museums and galleries as participants in morally questionable societal practices, and exposing the skeletons in the closet of those places that invite him to create art for them.

For example, Haacke’s Manet-PROJEKT 74, created for the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum’s 1974 exhibition “PROJEKT 74,” chronicled the lives of the owners of the recently acquired Manet canvas Bunch of Asparagus. In so doing, it made public the Nazi-related past of Hermann J. Abs,
the driving force behind the canvas’ acquisition. It called to attention the widespread practice of “sweeping under the rug” of National Socialist past that occurred in the Federal Republic of Germany, a point only doubly proven when the museum declined to exhibit it.Haacke has also been censored when his works do not explicitly target the institution, such as in Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, which meticulously documents an implicitly immoral real estate practice through a series of photographs and charts. The “political” nature of the piece led to the Guggenheim’s refusal to include it in the show for which it was commissioned, creating one of the most famous cases of censorship of this century—at least until New York Mayor Rudolf Giuliani tried to strip the Brooklyn Museum of Art of its funding in 1999 for showing a painting he thought was offensive.

Because they didn’t look German presents a point upon which educated viewers will doubtlessly agree, as well as exposing reprehensible behavior of a non-white-collar sort that museum owners, trustees, boards, and the like, are not involved in or linked to and can safely condemn. (It also camouflages a building whose appearance Haacke recently likened to a “bank from the Seventies.") However, Haacke’s work needn’t have an implied “up-yours” to challenge the viewer: in many cases, the plethora of information calls upon the onlooker to piece it together. An appreciative glance is not enough to "get" the work, which often seeks above all not to be aesthetically "appreciated" but rather and above all understood.

Thus, the way Haacke’s work defines itself as art leaves a question mark hanging in the air. Those pieces composed of informational plaques or graphs, like Shapolsky, could just as easily be found in a sociological museum or a town-hall citizens gathering or college history class; they become “art” through their location in a museum or gallery. They defy clichéd notions about viewer subjectivity, since statements like “art is what you get out of it” or “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” don’t apply to Haacke’s works. Rather, each has a fairly specific point which cancels out other messages; for Shapolsky, is it obviously not correct to conclude that Haacke is praising Shapolsky’s business acumen.

In fact, Haacke’s use of the phrase “Real Time System” is meant to indicate an art object that continues to function as depicted regardless of viewer perception or presence.[1] In Haacke’s early Conceptualist pieces, like 1965's Blue Sail, where a simple fan blows a blue sheet in the air, this functioning was mechanical. In later works like Shapolsky, it is sociopolitical. The choice to portray his message through the medium of art, then, when it is at times patently sociological and political, has been criticized by Slate editor Judith Shulevitz who encourages Haacke to stop “hiding out in an art museum” and join public discourse through the published journalistic word.

However, the author of “Museums and the Consciousness Industry” knows what he is doing: he picks museums as his medium because he believes they are participants in cultural discourse to an equal degree as newspapers (or online culture rags).[2] Two of these “generators of consciousness” are exhibiting “Hans Haacke for Real” right now: the Academy of Arts here in Berlin until January 14th, and the Deichtorhallen Hamburg until February 4th, with the former focusing on works where politics and history play a central role, the latter on earlier works as well as works which address economic roles of corporations and museum sponsorship.

The Berlin exhibit, filling the downstairs gallery space at the AdK, is curated with an emphasis on dialog between the works, chronologically mixing them in order to create cross-decade correspondences. For example, Manet-PROJEKT 74 is shown alongside Der Bevölkerung, Haacke’s 1999 installation in the Reichstag, presumably since both address Germany’s sometimes selective and reluctant memory of its past. In the latter case disputed memory can be seen more prominently in the response to the work than the work itself: the parliamentary debate about whether or not to install it is shown here on video. Such supplementary explanations throughout the exhibit form a necessary backdrop to understanding Haacke’s work the way he would like; as he states, “When a work of this nature is shown outside its original context, background information needs to be provided so that the viewers can understand the references and the impact it might have had.”[3] The only drawback is that explanations of the work’s cultural relevance are all in German and no supplementary English materials are available, an ironic shame given the imperative to read and understand embedded in Haacke’s ouvre.

The last gallery features Haacke’s latest works, placing pieces critical of American jingoism, flag-waving, and attitudes towards Iraq, alongside his suggestion for a memorial to 9/11 and a smaller commemorative piece, the aptly titled Commemorating 9/11. Responding to a call from arts support group Creative Time for poster suggestions in October 2001, Haacke’s entry is simply a white outline of the World Trade Center’s two towers’ silhouettes, which is posted on top of previously existing billboard paste-ups such that the advertisement composes the body of the towers while white defines the space around them.The silhouette suggestion shows an almost insider’s sensitivity to what the loss means to New Yorkers once familiar with the sight of the World Trade Center.

As seen in the annual re-creation of the buildings’ shape through the high-powered illumination of the Tribute in Light, the towers’ absence is a keenly visual loss to city inhabitants. The tragedy is not minimized but rather referenced with exquisite minimalism by these two projections of light into the sky. Haacke’s recreation of the silhouette even before the first showing of Tribute in Light—the visual memorial was first lit on March 11, 2002, six months after the attack—intuitively exhibits the same metonymy of visual loss for enormous societal loss, which makes sense since Haacke is a long-time resident of the city. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Creative Time is also behind Tribute in Light).

Unfortunately I didn’t notice that these images of billboards contained a World Trade Center outline and had to read the wall text to put it together, assuming instead it was a commentary on pervasive visual culture in public space. If a native New Yorker equipped with the awareness of cultural context that Haacke describes as equally necessary to his process as “bronze or paint on a canvas,” doesn’t make the connection, then perhaps the need for explanation has gone too far.[4]The opposite problem was apparent with other new works, such as the enormous ripped American flag hanging from the ceiling, or the man wearing a flag-printed hangman’s hat-come-pillowcase that not only blocks his vision and obscures his individual identity but also threatens to smother him. Such simple social commentary seems a bit too obvious and uncomplex after the multivalent works in previous rooms.

Despite the weakness of the survey’s more recent offerings, it nonetheless presents a slice not just of the career of a thought-provoking artist but also snapshots of postwar Western society, through its descriptions of the work’s censorship or resultant political hullabaloo. Haacke’s work itself tries to prod the viewer into doing more than just “visiting a gallery” and the curators here ensure that the visitor sees not just a survey of painting but also of social criticism of the last several decades. And this relevance has no expiration date—with increased restrictions in American civil liberties as well as the growing Neo-Nazi movement in Germany, to name a couple examples, Haacke’s earlier work remains biting and important.

For more on the aesthetic happenings in Berlin, visit my blog A New Yorker in Berlin.

Exhibition catalog: Flügge, Matthias, and Robert Fleck, editors, Hans Haacke for Real: Works 1959-2006 Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2006. (With contributions by Walter Grasskamp, Benjmain Buchloh, Rosalyn Deutsche.)
[1] Walter Grasskamp, Molly Nesbit, and John Bird, eds., Hans Haacke (New York: Phaidon, 2004), 41.
[2] First English publication: Ian North, ed. Art Museums and Big Business (Kingston: Art Museums Association of Australia, 1984), 33-40.
[3] Grasskamp., 12.
[4] Ibid., 12.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Post-Modern Power or Merely Playtime?

Here in Berlin a competition is taking place. It is between neither football teams nor politicians nor beauty queens, but rather two Ferris wheels: the “World Wheel” and the “Giant Wheel.” Neither has been built yet, but in their planning stages both represent the city’s continual effort to transform into, and literally be able to see itself as, a first-class metropolis of recognizable stature. On the drawing board, the latter wheel is winning, sort of, with 5 meters of height on the merely 175 meter tall World Wheel, although the World Wheel is having an easier time collecting funds—200 million Euros--necessary to start construction. The competition also has a dicey tinge of East-West rivalry to it, with the World located near the famous Western transportation center Zoologischer Garten, and the Giant alongside the newly spruced-up Ostbahnhof, or “East-train-station.”

(Note: both Wheels bear names in the original English. Perhaps the world’s current-day lingua franca is employed to denote construction of international significance, or perhaps the owners simply know where the tourist dollars come from).

As with the London Eye, the premise behind these wheels is a popular and profitable tourist attraction that relies on the giddy pleasure of being high up in the sky and seeing all. And, as was the case in London in the pre-Eye era, there are sufficient extant look-out points in Berlin, for example, the cupola of the Reichstag or the cloud-grazing top of the Fernsehturm, or TV tower, unofficial icon of the city skyline. The added appeal of these wheels, then, is that their slightly peripheral location provides a view of all the viewing points, an ability to take in what you can’t take in if you are in the center of the city trying to take it all in.

But is that all? The paradox of a Ferris wheel is how sharply it exposes one’s atom-like existence compared to the spreading terrain out there while empowering the individual with an expansive gaze otherwise impossible to attain. The panoramic gaze has been a source of delight for centuries; in the United States nineteenth century landscape painters like German-born Albert Bierstadt showed their enormous canvases in conjunction with carefully constructed platforms, lighting, curtains, and curved walls so that the sweeping gaze would feel real, so that the view out over the landscape would be actual. These paintings were presented not as hermetic art but rather as entertainment; Bierstadt was no avant garde artiste but rather a showman.

In fact, George W. Ferris created his eponymous attraction for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair only twenty years after Bierstadt rose to the peak of his fame, at the close of the same era of wild geographic expansion and attempts at consolidation of the American identity. It was incredibly popular, grossing over half a million dollars at fifty cents per ride, and it rose about 80 meters, or 264 feet, off the ground. Its influence has been felt at fairgrounds ever since; the photos here depict an amusement Ferris Wheel from the current Christmas Market in Berlin’s Schlossplatz.

However, to paraphrase Stanley Kubrick's film Full Metal Jacket, “this ain’t your granddaddy’s Ferris Wheel.” Unlike the amusement-park Wheel, which one rode as part of a larger fair experience of entertainment and oddities, and which positioned itself as part of a greater festival atmosphere, the new Wheel is proud of its stand-alone shock value and peddles itself as no more than the all-consuming gaze. These new Mega-Wheels are distinguished by this self-imposed uniqueness, evinced in their sheer enormousness as well as their physical distance. They are not for views of the terrain but rather out and over it; their marketing draw is the all-encompassing nature of their gaze which by definition stems from a point outside. If one is looking at something, one is not of it: the new wheels mark a boundary between onlooker and looked-upon, between individual and urban sphere.

This gaze is not just separate; it is also empowered by its mind-boggling breadth and reach. The equation of an all-seeing gaze with power has been discussed by thinkers like Jeremy Bentham, whose “Panopticon” prison tower posited a world where the threat of constant surveillance, rather than certain punishment, keeps people in line. (The Panopticon was popularized by French theorist Michel Foucault.) Art historian Allan Wallach has called the panoramic gaze in American landscape painting “Panoptic” to connote just these struggles to gain control over the landscape, to come to terms with new geography by forcing that geography to conform to the terms of one’s own vision.

So is this new Mega-Wheel proliferation a post-modern attempt to reconstitute the individual citizen as a powerful agent in the face of ever-larger and ever-more chaotic modern metropolises? Is it a way to make the nearly-atomized viewer, who increasingly counts for less in the over-populated globe, a judge on the perimeter of the brave new world? Perhaps a cultural attempt to figure out what to make of the sprawling society that we’ve created? A push to regain the upperhand over decadent millennial civilization through re-established visual supremacy?Or is it just another way to make money and have fun?

For more commentary about architecture and cultural politics in Berlin, check out the blog: Bagels by the Spree: A New Yorker in Berlin.

If the link above becomes outdated, information about the two wheels can be found in Karin Schmidl, “Das Geld reicht sogar fuer sechs Raeder,” Berliner Zeitung, 30 November 2006, 27.
Wallach’s assertion is in: "Making a Picture of the View from Mount Holyoke," in American Iconology: New Approaches to Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature, ed. David C. Miller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 73-84.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

From the Archives

(Lifted from Harpers Readings 12/06)

From a November 10, 1962, letter by Rose Kennedy to her son, President John F. Kennedy, among 252 boxes of her notes and letters released in September by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

Dear Jack,
In looking over my old diary, I found that you were urged on one occasion, when you were five years old, to wish for a happy death. But you turned down this suggestion and said that you would like to wish for two dogs instead. So do not blame the Bouviers if John has similar ideas.
Much love, dear Jack.

Monday, November 27, 2006

don't crucify me.. or do

could i get a small show of hands of people who think that iranian president, mahmoud ahmadinejad,
in serious spite of being rather crazy, heinously anti-semitic, and at least as scary and corrupt as bush if not significantly more...

is still kind of ... hot?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

9/11: The Way We Were

Back in March, Maggie made a post about the film Loose Change, generating much discussion, both online and off. At the time, I argued that the film was sloppy and propagandistic -- and as such, a contribution to the dumbing down of American political discourse. A month or so ago, my roommate introduced me to another 9/11 film (approriately titled 9/11), which I would like to offer as an alternative to Loose Change.

In the months before September 11th, two French filmmakers, brothers Jules and
Gédéon Naudet, came to New York to make a documentary about a rookie firefighter. The first months of shooting were uneventful, but on September 11th the brothers were there filming with the fire department. The film contains one of the only two known recordings of the first plane hitting the Trade Center, as well as the only footage shot inside the towers on September 11th.

Unlike Loose Change (as well other documentaries such as Fahrenheit 9/11 and Why We Fight) 9/11 is not propagandistic. Nor does it turn its subject matter into a melodrama as have some fictional films on the subject. Unlike the former films, it is a documentary in the sense that it actually documents, to a large extent, what it was like to be a firemen inside the towers, as well as in the time before and after the crash.

Watching 9/11, one remembers how unprecedented the event was which it depicts – something easy to forget after five years of having it abstracted and hammered into our political subconscious. As a film, it is deceptively simple: it seems to be little more than the Naudet brothers’ footage skillfully edited and honestly narrated. But as one watches, it quickly becomes clear how much has changed in the five intervening years since it was shot. Today, the firefighters' can-do attitude seems like innocence almost unimaginable in a world of terrorist threat levels and electronic surveillance. When the firemen close off one of the exits of Tower One or put labels on the front desk “just to make it obvious to people” which tower they are in, it seems almost naïve. Today, even when the subway stops for 10 minutes to wait for clearance it’s hard not to have a moment of panic.

It almost seems appropriate then, when during the break (in the TV version), we are treated to mini-lecture from Tom Ridge on the necessity for a Department of Homeland Security. Obviously this is not actually part of the movie, but viewed from the vantage point of 2006, it seems a clear example of how the emotion of 9/11 was expressed (or, if you will, manipulated) politically. For me, one of the most fascinating parts of 9/11 is contrasting the mentality of five years ago with today's, and this "commercial break" provides a clue about how this transition came about.

Although it is a bit long and at moments heart-wrenching to watch, 9/11 is definitely worth seeing even if only to remind us of the way we were. It received very little press in the US (or at least little that I can remember, and certainly little in comparison to Fahrenheit 9/11) which I find surprising since it is by far the best contemporary documentary I have seen in a while. It is available here from google video with French narration and here as it was aired on ABC.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Joe Maguire fired from Reuters

Don't mean to bring the Coulter curse upon our blog once more but...
Joe Maguire, former Reuters employee discussed his book, “Brainless: The Lies and Lunacy of Ann Coulter” and how the book's publication got him fired from Reuters, last night at the People of the American Way Foundation on Fifth Avenue.

The event began at 8:30 p.m. with a clear acknowledgment from Maguire that Reuters fired him because of his book, which was previously unconfirmed.

According to Reuters, his book broke the company’s trust principal.

“I was a financial news director. I don’t see how this book indicated in any way that my bond coverage was going to be slanted,” said Maguire.

Maguire was called into a meeting with the regional manager and suggested that they read the galley copy before they make their final decision.

“They called me into meeting the next day and they said it would be my last meeting at Reuters,” said Maguire. “It literally happened overnight.”

According to Maguire, Reuters had a catalog of conditions. The two main specifications were that the book could not be a political satire and it could not incorporate the Reuters name.

Abiding by both conditions Maguire still got fired.

The New York Times and blogs such as Crooks and Liars picked up the story. The clout of the Times and the power of the Internet worked as a publicity mechanism, steadily boosting sales.

“I watched the sales soar from top 5,000, to top 2,500, to top 500,000 and finally to top 100,000,” said Maguire.

Although, satisfied by sales Maguire was upset by Reuter’s actions and defended his own.

“I didn’t expect Reuters to throw me a party or to promote the book in any way, but I didn’t think that they would throw me out of my job for a personal endeavor,” said Maguire.

“This was entirely a personal endeavor. I believe it was my right as a citizen and my civic duty to disagree with Ann Coulter,” said Maguire.

“I’m an absolutist when it comes to the first amendment,” he said.

But Maguire did admit that book was released at a sensitive time. Since Reuters published a doctored photo of Beirut that enhanced smoke billowing in the background, the organization has been very conscious of its reputation. Beyond the photo scandal, Coulter is an extremely polarizing figure.

“I can see why Reuters didn’t want to have their name associated with it,” said Maguire.

But Maguire felt it was necessary to refute Coulter who has an Ivy League education (Cornell) and a degree from Michigan Law School.

“She must be highly intelligent,” said Maguire. “So her motivation must come from her narcissistic personality disorder, which you can see when she flips her hair bats her eyelashes.”

“I just thought 'get over yourself.' I will help you get over yourself,” said Maguire who believes the reporter’s job is to be objective and to speak the truth.

But still Maguire defends Coulter’s right to lie, just as he defends his right to say that she is lying, because of his fierce belief in the first amendment.

“The political discourse in this country has reached unfathomably low levels in this country. Ann Coulter is a leader in dragging down the political discourse.” And unfortunately so has the press for covering Ann Coulter and so has Reuters for denying a combatant like Maguire.

Monday, October 16, 2006

A Letter from 2nd Law

You will have to forgive us, dear readers, for having undergone a severe haitus without telling anyone. Upon graduating from college the bloggers of 2nd Law scattered across the world (or simply across New York) with neither a sense of direction nor halting point. We had considered ourselves forewarned about post-grad life; but preperation does not entail experience. Knowing we were in for a year of transition did not stop what seemed like an endless and frustrating summer vacation.

By now, as you will soon come to realize, we have settled in a bit. Enough, at least, to get our bearings. Some of us are abroad (Germany, Japan, Mexico), most of us still in New York City (although we've now extended into Brooklyn). Regardless of our locations, we are ready to start writing again. Curiously enough, we created 2nd Law with this very diaspora in mind: what better way for us to keep in touch than to create a blog where any one of us can log in from anywhere and post updates, observations, and thoughts. We had no idea, however, that the shock of transition would leave us too overwhelmed and stimulated to collect ourselves in print.

So with that, allow us to reintroduce 2nd Law. These days magazine and blog launches seem to be fired off in rapid succession without much effect or thought, so we shall forgoe any hubub or fanfare in favor of a sincere and simple message: our apologies for the delay; and welcome back.