Tag Archives: art

But What About Vivian Maier?

My post this week for Role/Reboot about not taking pictures of strangers is getting some traction. I’m always grateful for that kind of attention not only because it stokes my ego (stoked!) but because the more people who read something, the more likely it is that I get asked some tough, interesting questions. Shocking, I know, that I didn’t think of everything.

To refresh your memory, on the off chance that my words are not indelibly etched in your brain, I argued that the modern habit of snapping photos of strangers in public (at the beach, on the train, behaving badly, etc) and posting them online to mock is tantamount to bullying. I hinged my argument on permission (as always, consent is sexy), suggesting that if what you’re doing is complimentary (i.e. street style galleries, etc), you’d be comfortable asking permission of your subject. If you wouldn’t be comfortable asking, you’re probably being a creep. Note: Not a criminal, but a creep; this is an ethical argument, not a legal one.

So what’s the counter argument?

BUT WHAT ABOUT ART????? 

1954, New York, NYWhat about art? What about photography like that of Vivian Maier, the little known, recently discovered photographer who left her nannying job in Oak Park every weekend to come into the city and take photographs? Many of her photos are of average citizens waiting for stoplights, smoking on corners, or, like Instagrams of today, dozing on  buses. Some are head-on portraits that imply willing participation of her subjects, but many are clearly not.

December 2, 1954, New York, NY

Why is Vivian Maier’s “art” more valid than the ‘grammer on the train capturing the guy picking his nose and hashtagging it #digdeep? Can we call one nonconsensual stranger photo art and another harassment? Aren’t both equal invasions of privacy? Our modern age gives us tools to share our invasive “art”, whereas Vivian’s photography lay dormant in boxes for decades. But don’t we think that had Vivian been alive in 2014, she’d be Instagramming along with the rest of us?

In my post, I made a blanket rule “Don’t take pictures of strangers without their permission,” and many people pushed back that, if obeyed, my rule would eliminate the work of artists like Maier.

Yes, it might.

April 7, 1960. FloridaBefore we continue down this path, let’s weed out the dickwads who are straight-up bullying on purpose; we can all agree that their intent is to mock.

But many of us fancy ourselves capturers of beauty or longing or the human experience or whatever; we don’t think we’re bullies, we think we’re artists. The only way to justify our invasion of someone else’s space is to convince ourselves that the thing we’re producing is more valuable than that person’s comfort.

Let me give you an example: I just got back from Chile. In the many hundreds of photos I took, there are a few in which I am intentionally taking pictures of strangers without their permission. A handful are of performers, people on stages or performing in parades; though I’m still a little uncomfortable with that, let’s even discount those as potentially justifiable. But what about this one:

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This guy is just hanging out, watching the parade from his house. He didn’t wave at me, we didn’t acknowledge each other, he in no way, shape, or form gave an OK for me to take his photo, much less post it on FB*. Which I did. Without even thinking twice. Am I mocking? Teasing? Shaming? Not intentionally, no. But, as we discuss all the time, I don’t get to decideMy intention taking this photo is not what makes it ethically sound or not; his perception of me is. Does he feel like the gringa is abusing her privilege? Does he feel patronized or reduced or mocked? Does he feel like he’s being treated as a Chilean prop I’m using to commemorate my travels? I don’t know, I didn’t ask. Although I didn’t intend the photo to be any of those things, in this case I’m equivalent to the cat-caller/harasser/privacy-invader/slur-slinger who “didn’t mean it that way.”

So what now? Let’s say you believe that the world is better with Vivian Maier’s photography in it. I sure appreciate it. I’m pretty uncomfortable with how we got it, but let’s say there actually is small portion of art for which we are willing to make ethical compromises. We do it all the time, right R. Kelly fans?  Picasso fans? Hemingway fans? Roman Polanski fans? We separate our appreciation for art from how it was made or the crimes of the people who made it, especially when those crimes contribute to how it was made (you think when R. Kelly sings about panties and pussy he’s always talking about women over 18? Really?).

What percent of nonconsensual pictures of strangers are worth the ethical compromise? A very, very, very, almost microscopically small percentage. Which ones? Whose bar are we using? Well, obviously, I don’t get to decide, and neither do you. The question is, is the photo you’re about to take one of them? Is the photo I took of the Chilean man in that microscopically small slice of pictures worth the queasy feeling that someone’s privacy is being invaded? Hell no.

The question is, do you think you’re Vivian Maier? If not, then knock it off.

*I’ve since taken it down, ditto any other non-performance pictures of strangers. 

Related Post: My memoir will be called “Is My Optimism Really Just White Privilege?”

Related Post: When you’re feeling attacked, you’re probably just having your privilege challenged.

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10 Days in Chile: A Not Remotely Exhaustive Gallery of Valparaiso Murals

The sunburn faded. My delicate stomach is back to its natural equilibrium. My suitcase is unpacked and back under my bed. It’s kind of hard to believe that less than a week ago, I was here:

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The glacial lake at Cajon de Maipo, outside of Santiago, Chile

I spent 10 days in and around Santiago, from Valparaiso to the Valle de Elqui, traveling with a dear friend and making some new ones. We saw sea lions dozing on harbor rocks, hiked snow-covered peaks, ate sopaipilla upon sopaipilla and palta upon palta, gazed at the Milky Way through the clearest sky in the hemisphere, and even took a yoga class in Spanish (turns out Sanskrit is Sanskrit wherever you go).

In the Museum of Memory and Human Rights I listened to Allende’s last address to the country while La Moneda was bombed around him. In the Salvador Allende Museum of Solidarity and Resistance, I saw works of art by Miro and Picasso donated to the people of Chile. In the homes of Pablo Neruda, salt and pepper shakers were labeled Morphine and Marijuana, water tasted better in red and green glass, and merry-go-round horses were repurposed into living room decor. In the Chilean Museum of Pre-Colombian Art, I saw Mapuche grave markers, Andean weaving, and Inca quipus (knotted string accounting tools).

And then there were the murals of Valparaiso. Chicago is not known as a city of great street art (though we do have a few notable exceptions), and so I always find myself stunned by the simple joy of paint on walls in other cities. Not that this is just paint on walls, no, it’s anything but your average scrawled signature or fuck-the-man anti-establishment tagging. This is gorgeous, moving art that nestles itself between buildings, becoming part of the architecture of the city instead of merely hanging on the side of it. A few examples, but believe me, I could go on:

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Related Post: Bringing back lady art

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The Last Book I Loved: The Flamethrowers

flameThese are my top five phrases from Rachel Kushner’s strangely compelling, difficult-to-describe, careening novel The Flamethrowers:

“We were a project, a becoming, a set of plans”

“In the way that all buried truths rushed along quietly in some hidden place”

“The important matter of small-town hair”

“Big mustaches, faces barbecued by sun and wind, suspenders framing regal paunches”

“Only a killjoy would claim neon wasn’t beautiful”

Wait, I know the word to describe Flamethrowers: incomparable, literally. I cannot compare it to anything I have ever read before. Sometimes I do a recipe-style breakdown of books–3 parts this, 1 part that, etc– but not with this one. It is no parts anything else, all parts itself. Most books I love occupy familiar space. I love them because they latch on to emotional pressure points, amplifying feelings I already have with new language and insight. SisterlandCurtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, is an example of that kind of book, that lights up pathways in my brain that I like to have lit up.

The Flamethrowers is something else entirely, mapping out new paths altogether, crafting new brain tissue out of matter that it roped in with its bizarre and unheard of magnetic force. It doesn’t fit into any of the rubrics I normally use, and for that, I loved it.

What is it about? Art? Love? Sex? Rebellion? Complacency? Mostly set in the 70s, but dipping into the past to add a little depth here and there, Flamethrowers follows an unnamed young woman (we only know her as “Reno,” so called because that’s where she’s from) who races motorcycles, falls unsuspiciously in love, works as a “China Girl” in a film studio, aspires to artistic innovation, and trips into a life more adventurous and luxurious than she really is equipped to navigate.

And holy hell, Kushner can do phenomenal things with words. I could have picked hundreds of phrases instead of the ones above that have lodged themselves under my ribs.

I also love the way she thinks; read her New Yorker profile. 

Related Post: The Last Book I Loved: Orphan Master’s Son

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History Pockets – The House of Dance and Feathers

The first time I was aware of the Mardi Gras Indians was the second episode of Treme when Clarke Peters emerges from a waterlogged bar to petition his neighbor for help. He is dressed like this:

TOUT_Clarke Peters, Paul Schiraldi_2

I honestly thought it was some HBO magical realism shit, a dream sequence, perhaps, because it didn’t seem possible that black men of New Orleans actually don epic suits of beads and feathers and parade and dance through the streets of the Crescent City. Wouldn’t I have heard about it if they did? I’m pretty well-read, I took a bunch of African-American studies classes in college, I know some stuff….

Apparently not. Between the white privilege bubble and the we-only-care-about-what’s-north-of-the-Mason-Dixon bubble, the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians managed to fall through the cracks of my liberal arts education, despite majoring in what my mother semi-jokingly referred to “oppression studies.”

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Beadwork from Mardi Gras Indian suits

The Mardi Gras Indians have been masking in New Orleans for over a century. The origins are rather hazy, but the oral history passed down suggests that the first masking tribes were honoring the Native Americans who resisted the European infiltration of New Orleans and assisted escaping slaves. Every year, hundreds of black New Orleans men and boys spend 11 months sewing by hand phenomenally elaborate beaded and feathered suits. On Mardi Gras, they parade through the city in tribes, battling each other with song and dance and prettiness.

I spent this past weekend in New Orleans and between all the fried things I ate (including a truly outstanding crawfish beignet) we visited the House of Dance and Feathers, a museum created by Ronald Lewis (featured in Dan Baum’s Nine Liveswhich you should read) to preserve the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. 

In the small trailer in the Lower Ninth that Lewis has packed with beadwork, photos, newspaper clippings, and feathered pieces, I was struck by how easy it would have been to go about my entire life and never be aware of the Mardi Gras Indians. What a fascinating and important subculture I would have missed learning about! What beautiful artwork I would have missed seeing! What stories I would have missed hearing!

Holding up a piece of beadwork in the House of Dance and Feathers

Holding up a piece of beadwork in the House of Dance and Feathers

From there, I started wondering about all of the other little hidden pockets of history and culture that I will likely never encounter. It seems safe to assume that New Orleans, though unique in oh-so-many ways is not the only city to house bands or tribes or communities of people doing surprising and surprisingly delightful art and work.

There must be dozens of subcultures and cultural institutions in Chicago that in seven years I’ve never even heard of. There are huge swaths of this city that I’ve never set foot in. I left the House of Dance and Feathers wondering how to go about exploring my own city better. What do you think? How do you find, learn about, and appreciate unique and little-known cultures in your city?

P.S. Want more on Ronald Lewis, Mardi Gras Indians, and The House of Dance and Feathers? Read Kim Green’s post over at The Greenery

Related Post: Many of the untold stories in history of ladies. I know, you’re shocked!

Related Post: How have I never seen Thelma and Louise? 

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Vagina Love!

Sorry for the AWOL-ness of late. Busy busy with travel and “real” work and side projects.

What better way to celebrate a return to the blog than with some quality vagina-time?  A long time ago, I wrote an essay about why oral sex was so often a one-directional exercise and many of the respondees to my survey wrote about feeling like their vaginas were ugly, unclean, or “too private.” How something that you use to have sex with is too private for the person you’re having sex with is kind of beyond me, but I allow that feelings towards one’s genitalia can get complicated.

Anyway, those responses made me sad, because the idea of folks missing out on pleasure and intimacy out of vagina-shame seems like such a waste. Apparently, I am not alone in these feelings. Three cool vagina-friendly things for you to peruse this week. Probably not the safest for work, but I don’t know what your work is like, so use your judgment:

1. Vagina Posters: Debbie Herbenick, sex educator and all-around fan of vaginas is launching a Kickstarter to fund her beautiful poster series What Do You  Like About Your Vulva and Vagina. Go support her and her team and also get postcards or posters as a thank you gift!

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2. Porn Sex vs. Real Sex: Production company Kornhaber Brown made this little video cleverly replacing genitalia with genitalia-shaped food to illustrate the differences between porn sex and real sex. Given that I am a porn fan and that I also don’t think porn is going anywhere even if I weren’t, I like content that contextualizes porn as performance and helps create boundaries between the sex that most people have and the sex that porn stars have.

3. Female Reproductive Organ posters: I found this in a secondhand store in Provincetown, MA, this past weekend. It’s a poster about menstruation and reproduction that was made by Tampax to hang in doctors’ officees. I loved it instantly but I left the store without buying it. Half an hour later, I made my group return so I could make it mine. It shall hang in the bathroom:

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Related Post: My favorite body-positive pornographic tumblr (NSFW)

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Everything is About Everything: New Media + Old Media

For book club, we recently read Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a modern, bromantic, technologically-obsessed, Google-worshipping fantasy adventure in which millennial heroes and heroines are obsessed with the idea of Old Knowledge (aka OK). I’m kind of obsessed with Old Media (OM?), specifically it’s intersection with New Media (NM), and TBD Media (TBDM). I think this is a fascinating question:

OM + NM + TBDM = ?????

The combination of Old Media and New Media happens to be in vogue right now. If OM = books, TV, movies, music and NW = Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Blogging, etc., we already have lots of neat examples of these things working together. I’m having fun with mind-mapping right now, so….

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Click to Enlarge

  • The Bling Ring – Sofia Coppola’s strange new movie about a band of overprivileged teenagers who break into celebrity homes uses screenshots of Facebook, sequences devoted to the taking of selfies, and texting as avenues to explore the meta “Pics or it didn’t happen” mentality of the youth (self included).
  • House of Cards – Netflix’ original (and now Emmy-nominated) political intrigue-a-thon incorporates on-screen text messages over images of characters in their own locales. Old school political mastermind Frank Underwood uses new school journalist Zoe Barnes to channel her demographic access into viral and conniving campaign messages.
  • Americanah – The new novel from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie  is about a young Nigerian couple who follow separate paths (her to America, him to the UK) before reuniting in Lagos decades later. The protagonist, Ifemelu, writes a blog about race from the perspective of a non-African-American black person that becomes famous. Excerpts from her blog are incorporated into the book, and her online presence is treated as a fundamental piece of identity (as many of us now consider it to be).

The real interesting question, of course, is what happens when OM meets NM meets TBDM. What is TBDM anyway? Well, it’s obviously things we haven’t even created yet. Will our media become more multi-sensory? Will we control the stories we watch or be actors in them? Will the idea of created media devolve so heavily that we’ll all just read/watch real life as it happens a la Truman Show? What do you think?

Related Post: Past experiments with mind mapping

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Everything is About Everything

A few months ago I went to hear the artist Kara Walker speak about her work. Her art is primarily about race and racism and identity in American history, and in the interview she was asked about inspiration and influence. She’s a bit of a rambler generally, and this question really got her going. She mentioned postcards she’d found of black pin-up models, advertisements playing on stereotypes about black people and watermelons, illustrations of lynchings. She was reading Huckleberry Finn at the time, and that was floating around in her brain too. Finally, frustrated by all of the things she wanted to include in her list of influences, she threw up her hands and said, “Everything is about everything!” That’s pretty much how I feel about, well, everything.

I’m having an Everything is About Everything kind of week. For me, you know you’re having an EiAE week when you encounter at least three major pieces of media from different platforms simultaneously discussing the same themes and questions. For example, I tried to draw out this week’s Everything is About Everything Map:

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Acronyms much? OKC = OkCupid, PUA = Pick-up Artists

The three anchors are:

  • Battlestar Galactica – TV show about a post-apocalyptic world in which a small band of humans are battling humanoid robots called Cylons.
  • Shine, Shine, Shine – A novel by Lydia Netzer about an autistic astronaut, his pregnant wife, and the future of the human race.
  • Geekfest: How to Hack a Conversation – A presentation in my office on how to apply engineering logic and programming rules to human conversation to talk up strangers and meet new people.

None of them are asking exactly the same questions, but it all feels inextricably tangled. What makes a human a human? If a Cylon looks like a human, talks like a human, dies like a human… how is it any different? What can robots do that humans can’t? What can humans do that robots can’t?* Can we code a robot to sound exactly like a human? Can a conversation really be broken into if/then statements? Can humans use that code to have better conversations? Is that manipulative? Is it just brilliant? Does it matter if you’re filling in a “deficiency” to reduce your own anxiety vs. trying to get someone to bend to your will?

Oh, and look at that, I’m reading Mr. Penumbra now, which also adds some layers to this. Humans and robots working together. Will robots ever replace humans? WHAT. TOO MANY THINGS.  I guess I need to expand my map.

Welp,  this is about the nerdiest post I’ve written in a while. Happy Tuesday!

*According to Maxon, the astronaut in Shine, Shine, Shine, the three things robots can’t do are a) Show preference without reason (LOVE), b) Doubt rational decisions (REGRET), and c) Trust data from a previously unreliable source (FORGIVE).

Related Post: Another week where Everything was about Everything: Tigers and Grandparents

Related Post: My friend builds robots

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After this brief commercial break…

I don’t usually use this space to push fundraisers on you because there are a zillion other internet spaces where that happens. I’m making an exception today,  however, because the stuff that I want to plug is close to home and hella important. Forgive me this brief commercial digression:

Screenshot_6_6_13_11_57_AMActive Transportation Alliance: If you live in Chicago, you may have heard about the death of Bobby Cann last week. He was a coworker of mine (though I didn’t know him) and an avid biker. He was hit by a car on his ride home from work just a few blocks from our office. The Active Transportation Alliance is raising money for 100 miles of protected bike lanes in Chicago. If you donate through this Groupon page, up to $10,000 will be matched.

Screenshot_6_6_13_12_02_PMWith Wings and Roots: Friends of mine are working on this incredible documentary, With Wings and Roots, about the immigration experiences of our peers in New York and Berlin. “In the US, we often think of immigration as a uniquely American issue. Rarely do we see the overlapping experiences of immigrant communities around the world. The stories in with WINGS and ROOTS force us to recognize the interconnectedness of our struggles and reimagine belonging beyond national borders.” The filming is complete, but the team is raising money to complete the editing.

Screenshot_6_6_13_12_03_PMApp Camp for Girls: It’s no surprise that rectifying the gender imbalance in the tech sector is close to my heart. I work in tech and I’m confronted every day by lack of women in our office and the weird treehouse-mentality that creates. While there are dozens of initiatives we can pursue at the top (think recruiting strategies, mentoring, etc.) starting early is the surest bet to changing the status quo. A new non-profit camp for girls is trying to get off the ground in Portland, OR. Girls will learn to build apps (we all know mobile is where it’s at) by working with female developers and designers.

If you can donate, donate. If you can’t, maybe spread the word. Pick one of these fine organizations and send along their Groupon/Kickstarter/Indiegogo to all your wealthier friends. Post, tweet, share, etc.

Thank you for your time, now on to our regular programming…

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S(M)onday Scraps 103

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1. HISTORY: Imagine you’re 23 and you’re heading off to WWII as a nurse. What do you pack? Slate‘s new history blog has got you covered with a real recommended packing list. Don’t forget your homemade Kotex!

2. ELLEN: Ellen solves all problems. In this clip, she takes on Abercrombie and their whole “only skinny kids are cool” baloney.

3. ART: Like me, you probably assumed pin-up artistry was historically a male artform. Not so! Three of the most respected pin-up artists were women, who knew?

4. SPORTS: Remember Allyson Felix, the Olympic sprinter? What happens after you win gold and you’ve accomplished all your goals at 26? Grantland finds out.

5. EVEREST: Apparently, Mount Everest is overrun by inexperienced, poorly equipped climbers. National Geographic explores what it’s like to wait in line to hike the summit.

6. MAKE-UP: In this short Thought Catalog piece, Chelsea Fagan explains some of the complex rationales that inform female make-up habits. It’s not as simple, “I want to look hot.”

Related Post: Sunday 102 – Depression cartoons, GeoGuessr, war photos, etc.

Related Post: Sunday 101 – Lean In letters, Colbert’s homphobia song, American Girl evolution

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Lady Art

I’ve noticed a pattern. Now that I’ve noticed I can’t unnotice it, so I might as well embrace it. I like to buy art when I travel because it feels more substantial than jewelry (which I’ll lose), coffee (which I’ll drink), trinkets (which I have no use for and will eventually toss the next time I move), and clothing (which I will probably stain/shrink/rip).

Here’s my new wall hanging from Cusco:

IMG_2910You see this image everywhere in Cusco, the backs of female heads. Sometimes it’s more literal as they sit in a circle, the goings on of which we are not privy to, sometimes it’s more abstract, like my pattern. They’re backs are to us, because what they’re doing is not for us, the viewer, the outsider; it’s for themselves. They call it “la chismosa,” which means “the gossiping.” I loved it immediately.

So I bring this thing home and start looking for a place to hang it, and that’s when I notice this…

IMG_2909And this

IMG_2908And this

IMG_2907And this

IMG_2906The vast, vast majority of my art is depictions of women. I’m fascinated by the ways that different cultures and communities and artists choose to represent them (One of the many reason I use the Rosie icon for this blog). Have you ever seen that stat about how much of the art in major museums is by women (very little), how much of it is of women (a bit more) and how many of the naked people are ladies (a whopping 85%).

Not all of my art is created by women (though much of it is), but the common thread (if you can find one besides gender of the subjects) is that I like images of women that push back on the idea that they are objects against which someone else can project intent (lust, desire, protection, etc). La Chismosa is amazing because it’s such a desexualized (without being ungendered) way to portray women as having relationships completely separate from their interaction with men.

The flapper, the “garden buddha,” the image of Radha and Krishna (bought in Chennai, India), there’s a self-contained agency about these women. They are not waiting for the actions or reactions of anyone else. I didn’t pick them for that reason on purpose, but when they’re all lined up, it seems so obvious.

Now that I’ve noticed it, I should probably stick with the trend, don’t you think? Where to next, and what should I bring back?

Related Post: The bent over cartoon character that ruined my Sunday

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