The State That I Am In

South facade of the Morphosis-design Federal Buiding in San Francisco

South facade of the Morphosis-designed Federal Buiding in San Francisco

When I was an architecture student in Pittsburgh 20 years ago, one of the first vanity monographs I bought was about Morphosis, the Los Angeles firm started by Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi (who moved on  to found Roto Architects in 1991). Their fractured forms, rendered in meticulously inked drawings and gritty models, were eye-opening to us budding designers studying in a city not known for its architectural adventurousness.

This memory came back to me as I toured—with fellow columnist, Adrienne Skye Roberts (see her related post) and Open Space editor-in-chief, Suzanne Stein—the Morphosis-designed United States Federal Building that looms large over the South of Market neighborhood like a giant, modern-day aerie of government regality. As an architecture school graduate and brief practitioner, I admire the building for its sheer creative chutzpah, especially considering the client is the federal government. The Morphosis tics, that two decades earlier rarely expanded beyond southern California and the scale of a modest private home or restaurant interior, are now super-sized with this work. So while my architecture aficionado side can’t help but be thrilled, the American citizen in me is left a little uneasy.


Hidden Treasures of the Ballpark

Night time

I’m old enough to remember the race between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle for who would hit 60 homers in a single season, and the crushing disappointment I felt as a child when Maris won, and after that happens, nothing ever feels that bleak again, but also, nothing really interested me ever as much about baseball. But on the other hand my brother, Tim, is super into baseball and on a recent visit from his home in Cooperstown, New York, came to town and we went on a tour of the hidden treasures of the ballpark here in San Francisco. I kept one eye cocked for examples of visual culture in the Bay Area.

Nancy and Tim

Nancy Killian (College Point, NY) and Tim Killian (Cooperstown, NY) at 24 Willie Mays Plaza, San Francisco.

My sister Nancy was there too and I took this picture of the two of them at the entrance to the park, they call it Willie Mays Plaza. This statue is by William Behrends (b. 1956) and is probably the most photographed work of art in the Bay Area. Because Mays’ number was 24, they have completely fetishized the number down at AT&T Park, and there are subtle reminders of “24” everywhere.


Humanizing Green Architecture

While I was traveling earlier this month, I was thinking about a conversation that transpired on this blog between Adrienne Skye Roberts and Julian Myers. It was sparked by Adrienne’s post about the Federal Building in San Francisco, and  a question I asked her about humanizing green architecture. By “humanizing,” I mean creating spaces that are scaled to promote human social interactions. The Federal Building’s public areas fail to do this because their design encourages rapid passage through them, rather than prolonged engagement or interaction.

What are some better models for public green spaces that encourage visitors to engage with one another and with the natural world? One that comes to mind is the museum garden, where art and botany are presented side-by-side. SFMOMA’s Rooftop Garden is a great place to escape the noise of the city and sneak in a few quiet moments of contemplation. It’s not exactly an example of green building itself, but like green architecture, it is concerned with integrating nature into urban life, and with promoting a more thoughtful consideration of the spaces in which we live and work.


A Sustained Presence: The photography of Lewis Watts on the 4th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast four years ago, on August 29, 2005 Lewis Watts was two thousand miles away in his home in Richmond, California. He was a few days shy of beginning a residency at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art at the University of New Orleans where he planned to continue an eleven year project of photographing the city and its residents. Needless to say, his plans for a residency were interrupted and Watts, like many of us, observed the natural disaster of the storm and political disaster of the governments failure to respond through the mediation of television sets and news broadcasts.

Watts’ relationship to the South began as an informed visitor and has, over time, evolved into a participant, witness and documentarian. Watts was born in Little Rock though he was raised in Seattle, Washington and for the past forty years has lived in the Bay Area. As a child his summers were spent in his grandparents’ houses in Georgia and Arkansas. In 1994 Watts was hired as a photographer to document community youth organizing in Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana. It was through this job that Watts first arrived in New Orleans, an experience he describes as love at first sight. Since his initial trip in 1994, has returned to New Orleans numerous times. Through these extended visits Watts has developed relationships with local artists including John Oneal, Eric Waters and the late John Scott, lifelong residents of New Orleans who have provided him with access to aspects of the culture and traditions of the city that would have otherwise remained invisible to him. While his relationship to New Orleans is as an outsider, Watts’ photography embodies a sustained and humble presence.

Lewis Watts, To the Ancestors, Guardians of the Flame Arts Society, Harrison Family Home, Upper 9th. Ward, Mardi Gras Morning, 2008

New Orleans is one location of many that Watts has gravitated towards throughout his career. His ouerve consists of photographs from Harlem, New Orleans, Oakland and Richmond, urban neighborhoods that hold rich and complex histories as African-American communities.  In 2005 Watts’ collaborated with Elizabeth Pepin to create the book, Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era which documents the brief yet flourishing jazz scene in the Fillmore District during the 1940s and 1950s with historical accounts and archival photographs. Watts’ documentation of black communities across the United States focuses on the effect of their presence on the environments in which they live and what evidence of their lives are visible in the cultural and environmental landscape. Spanning geographical distance and time, Watts work draws’ connections between these neighborhoods and the people who reside within them. In designating himself as a witness, Watts implies his own relationship within the black community of Richmond, as well as his family’s history in the South. In New Orleans, Watts documents quintessential cultural traditions such as Mardi Gras, 2nd Line Processions, jazz funerals and street musicians, as well as quotidian events: families gathered on front porches and children entertaining each other on sidewalks. His photographs express a particular interest in Treme, a neighborhood known as the oldest African community in the United States. Over the years his camera has captured public demonstrations against gentrification, popular neighborhood haunts such as the Treme Bar, and the longtime residents of this neighborhood, as well as the damage suffered after Katrina.


Four Dialogues 4: On Elaine May

Earlier this summer Miriam Bale asked if I might contribute to a weeklong compendium of comedy criticism under the title Comedy v. Criticism—this leading towards a screening of Elaine May’s film Ishtar at DCTV in New York on August 31st. (Richard Brody’s blurb on it here.) Miriam and I have talked about May for years, and this seemed a good moment to say something more. Knowing that Jill Dawsey had also done some thinking about comedyat the end of Rachel Harrison’s lecture at SFMOMA in 2004, she screened a section of Blazing Saddles (1976)—I asked her to talk through May’s career with me. We watched Ishtar and The Heartbreak Kid, listened to recordings of her comedy duo with Mike Nichols, and read some reviewsin particular, a few by Pauline Kael. What follows is our exchange. Jill is Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Utah Museum of Fine Art; from 2003-2006 she was curatorial associate in Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA.

Richard Avedon, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, 1962

Richard Avedon, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, 1960. From the back cover of An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Mercury Records 1960.

JM: Some history first. Mike Nichols and Elaine May meet at the University of Chicago, two young American Jews who “loathed each other on sight.” Both studied the Stanislavski Method, and were part of The Compass, a nightclub group that pioneered sketch improv comedy in the mid-1950s. (The Compass would later become The Second City, a crucible for many of the actors on Saturday Night Live, Strangers with Candy, The Daily Show etc.) In 1957 Nichols and May split off and become immensely successful, quickly getting spots on TV and then on Broadway, releasing records, and so on. Then in 1962 they break up. And there is an ambition, on both of their parts, to bring their style of comedy to Hollywood. Nichols makes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), which wins awards, and The Graduate (1967), which is a huge commercial success. May writes plays and enters cinema a bit later, as a writer and actress. She’s perhaps less instantly successful, but eventually starts directing too; her films are A New Leaf (1971), The Heartbreak Kid (1972), Mikey and Nicky (1976), and the notorious Ishtar (1987). For her part, critic Pauline Kael deplores the influence their style of comedy has on movies in the late 1960s. “Nichols-and-May” becomes a kind of shorthand for her, for a “crackling, whacking style [that] is always telling you that things are funnier than you see them to be.” (from Reeling, 1976)


A Dangerous Spectre Lurks Amongst Us: Paul Clipson presents Subversive Documentaries

This Sept 1 is Free Tuesday (first Tues of the month = FREE) & for the special noontime program, experimental filmmaker (and SFMOMA’s own head projectionist) Paul Clipson screens high-art takes on low subjects.

Have SFMOMA’s gatekeepers taken leave of their senses? Inviting subversion into any institution portends a slippery slope. Filmmaker Paul Clipson, head projectionist/AV tech of the museum’s Wattis Theater, might seem an innocuous figure in which to place our trust. It is always such types who lure us to our destruction. What harm, you ask, could there be in charging this manifestly benign cinephile with curatorial powers to assemble a brief survey of mid-century European documentary shorts? It’s true these are arguably the finest flowers in this corner of cinema: Luis Buñuel’s Land without Bread is the master’s claim to fame in this realm, while Georges Franju’s Hôtel des Invalides and Alain Resnais’s Le chant du Styrène are the crowning achievements of two of the great names in French documentary of the 1950’s.  Many of us who have worked with Clipson have long suspected a lurking danger beneath his affable exterior. This trio of seditious works reveals an alien intelligence, poised, like the masked Fantômas looming over Paris, dagger elegantly clutched to his side, to strike terror in the heart of San Francisco. Hyperbole? Perhaps. But prudence would urge a proper sifting through the evidence to hand…


Four Dialogues 3: In and Against ‘In and Against Collage’

When last I was in New York, the artist Fia Backström and I had a conversation about Sherrie Levine, by way of both “The Pictures Generation, 1974-84″an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, of the early practice of Cindy Sherman,  Richard Prince, Sarah Charlesworth and others — and some thinking I’d done on some of Levine’s works. I planned to return to New York the following month, and we promised to re-engage our converstion then. But my plans changed. So around the date when I’d intended to be in New York, Fia wrote: Since you are not here, I had to respond this way below. A very strange form of conversation.”  This “strange form” worked between the lines, arguing with,  questioning, and affirming aspects of the original text (in a way I read at times as mock-educational). The result, posted below, is maybe a better or more interesting text than the original: disrupted in an almost collage-like way, so that it creates a different, doubled picture.

Sherrie Levine, Fashion Collage 4, 1979, collage on paper 24in x 18 in.

Sherrie Levine, Fashion Collage 4, 1979, collage on paper 24in x 18 in.

But what if we read them instead as central, foundational? They might allow us to think of Sherrie Levine’s productions more generally in their relation to collage – to imagine that she works in and against collage’s formal-conceptual operations.

collage is of course the image smasher per se. whereas she figured out another way, not through violence, but in some kind of Annie Get Your Gun spirit – “I can do anything better than you can,” doing the same but upping it…

…think out my ideas first in pictures, experimentally moving reproductions into sequences and constellations, relationships of similarity or opposition. What follows, then, attempts to retain the experimental quality of images in stacks, rows and piles – even as I want to show what it is about collage that Levine aims to work against.

sequences carry meaning by order before after grouping, as my artforum series, to form and content… sequence as another form of destabilizing the meaning

The cacophony of the picture signifies, and dwells upon, the social disorder left in the wake of Germany’s failed left revolution in 1918-19.

Nice, I like this jump from formal breakdown into that political/economical breakdown of value

an appropriate figure for the dire circumstances Heartfield’s designs were meant to diagnose and attack.

sherrie levine in the prosperous 80s… not a collapse but a new kind of anti-ethic is emerging and a globalist world in total. William Turnbull – did he do the special effects for 2001?


Four Dialogues 2: On AAAARG


In May, Joseph Del Pesco and I posted a critical reading of the Art and Education Papers archive, which had then just been announced. In it, we contrasted that project with a site whose constitution we liked better, called AAAARG. AAAARG is many things, but is probably known best these days as a kind of digital library and radical public amenity, devoted to the history of art, architecture, theory, political writing, and pretty much whatever else its community’s members decide to scan and upload. Based in Los Angeles, artist Sean Dockray is the principal of AAAARG. What follows is a dialogue on the history and ideas behind the site, followed by links to several readings relevant to its origin.

JD: Can you say something about the history of AAAARG? When did it begin, and with what impulses or ideas in mind?

SD: Generally speaking, it has always been about sharing knowledge in the form of text. Currently the web address for AAAARG is (2009); before that it was just (2007) and before that it was (2005, with Aaron Forrest). Before that, there were a couple more that didn’t even have any A’s in the title (beginning around 2001).

JD: Have there been significant changes in direction or shifts in concept?

SD: Originally it was kind of a proto-blog, with people able to write essays and have discussions through a message board and possible even work on projects together. I think the library part of it first started informally in 2004 because discussions and projects often referred to texts. Now most people see AAAARG purely as a library, which I’m not opposed to.

JD: So it began as something more discursive?

SD: I think it’s still discursive. If you’ve ever tried to get your friends to read or listen to something you know that that act of sharing is a kind of communication and it almost compels reciprocity – so I think there is still a discussion happening, but it’s not really in the words. Most people describe AAAARG as a “resource” and I think that’s appropriate. I find that I’ve spent a lot of time working on things (alongside AAAARG, The Public School, Distributed Gallery and Berlin; and some more bounded ones: Games for 5 Joysticks, The Fundraising Show, and Chung King Common) that might be described as infrastructures or resources. In a way, I think it is in the same spirit as that restaurant Food (started by Gordon Matta-Clark and Carol Goodden in 1971), in that it provides something that we as progressive cultural producers need, while at the same time supporting the social generation of ideas. (more…)

Scissors, Glue, and Photocopies: DIY San Francisco

SF Zinefest

Poster for SF Zinefest 2009.

This weekend I fell in love with San Francisco again. On Sunday I rode my bike from the sunny Mission District into the fog of the Inner Sunset for the San Francisco Zinefest. I joined a small crowd of independent press connoisseurs for the second day of an all weekend event that included workshops and panel discussions on all things related to zine-making and doing-it-yourself:  how to screen-print, bind books, and how to gouache paint. I meandered slowly through the tables, skimming zines and roaming back to the certain delicately crafted booklets that caught my attention—that I had to flip through at least six times before I made the decision to buy them. Among the booths were the local favorites in radical small press publishing, AK Press, Slingslot Collective, and independent press shops such as 1984 Printing, as well as lots of independent artists and writers with tables full of one of a kind or limited edition zines, pamphlets, crafts, t-shirts, buttons and on and on.

My first introduction to zines was in middle school. My friends and I hung out at a local, independent record store on the small downtown strip of our hometown that was next to a comic book store that specialized in baseball cards and across from the Planned Parenthood that quickly shut down. We would riffle through the free box pulling out advertising posters of our favorite punk bands and occasionally buy a CD or two. One afternoon, the infamous local punk, Mike handed us a small square of stapled paper. Mike was the real deal—he wore all black, had tattoos on his face, and he practically lived at the record store and knew every punk band and underground venue. On one side of the black and white xerox copied pages were drawings of jokers and a skull and crossbones, the other side was scribbled writing that attacked the prison industrial complex and urged everyone to go vegan. Unsure how these things related or what exactly I was suppose to do with this small stack of paper, but not wanting Mike, one of my idols, to think I was uncool, I accepted his offering. It wasn’t until a few years later that I finally understood the importance of Mike’s gesture and started seeking out zines for dialogues about similar political messages that Mike, the hometown punk, was attempting to raise consciousness about years ago. Irregardless of content, (although many are politically progressive and critical in nature) zines are inherently political. They operate outside of any corporate business model, don’t require approval from editors or distributors or sponsors. All you need is scissors, a gluestick, a copy machine, something to say and people willing to listen.


Four Dialogues 1: On ‘The Port Huron Statement and the Origin of Artists’ Organizations’

During the New Langton Arts debate a few weeks ago, Renny Pritikin, who with his wife Judy Moran directed the organization in its first decade and more, mentioned to me an essay he’d written that elaborated some of the early ideas behind the institution. I asked him to send it my way, and a week later it arrived by mail. Called “The Port Huron Statement and the Origin of Artists’ Organizations,” the essay connects the student movements of the 1960s in particular,  ideas of participatory democracy espoused by the Students for a Democratic Society in 1962 with the impulses and modes that defined Langton’s founding and first decade. You can find the original essay here; what follows below is a dialogue about the essay in retrospect. Renny is Director of the Richard L. Nelson Gallery and the Fine Arts Collection at the University of California, Davis.

JM: So, thanks again for this document. It’s interesting, and I think the reading you put forward, of the origins of parallel institutions emerging from new practices and political commitments both, and not one or the other, has the feeling of a historical truth. It’s interesting to me how something like the Port Huron Statement seems almost to gesture towards an anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist viewpoint, well different in concept than, say, the other powerful Left ideas in play in that moment — say, Marx and Mao by way of the Black Panther Party, and Fidel Castro-style foco theory, rooted in a redirection or re-radicalization of Lenin.

RP: I agree, though I think the Panthers overlapped a bit with SDS in the participatory democracy idea.

JM: Right. Their platform drew on a lot of different Leftisms I guess. Given the ideas you mark out, Langton’s later embrace of support from the government, by way of the National Endowment for the Arts, would seem to have produced a sort of conceptual and constitutional conundrum, no?

RP: Yeah: anarchists on the dole. I’ve heard that all my life. Peter Schjeldahl once said to me that artists taking NEA grants was evil. It seemed such a stance of privilege. Leslie Scalapino responded, “Oh Peter, $5000 isn’t going to corrupt anyone…” My feelings were that it was a victory of political agitprop to make “them” pay for organizing something designed as resistant. Leftists are citizens too, and what we were getting was such a pittance compared to the funding going to the Right. We were reclaiming, in a post-McCarthy way, our rights. It just seemed Ivory Tower and unworldly to say that taking money was inherently corrupting or meant we were being bought off, if you could prove that what you were doing was important and uncompromised. The people at the NEA at that time — Jim Melchert, Leonard Hunter, et al. — were definitely radical thinkers themselves.

JM: I am trying to say something different, though. I am exploring the role of the state, amongst the various “Lefts” on offer in the 60s. In the 60s most of these “lefts” were, roughly speaking, communist or socialist, if they embraced any one ideology. After the 60s we’ve tended to see politics as a sort of Manichean relationship between state socialism, and capitalism or the free market. Anarchism, which was seen as a real third way in the early part of the 20th century, had by the 1960s basically been left behind or gone underground. So I’m interested to see a thread that is recognizable as anarchism in your third paragraph — that is, a highly informal organization, based in consensus: an essentially syndicalist sort of organization. And so what I am saying is not that artists’ organizations made a bargain with the capitalist devil in the 80s, but that you traded in something like an anarchist conception and structure for something much closer to the kinds of organizing and arts support that apply in state socialism. And so, while you remained resistant and on the Left, it’s a different Left. There may have been a subtle realignment in program and self-conception. (more…)