The Addendum

Quote: Don’t Ask What I’m Writing

“If writers agree on anything — which is unlikely — it’s that nothing can damage a novel in embryo as quickly and effectively as trying to describe it before it’s ready. Unfortunately, because we’re writers, aka bipedal nests of contradictions, avoiding the temptation to share is never as easy as simply keeping our mouths shut.

Why? Because we’re unsure — about very nearly everything. Because in our hearts we’re only as good as our last paragraph, and if the new book isn’t going anywhere, maybe we’re no good at all. Because we’re running on faith and fumes. In the early stages, before that magic moment when the voice of the story begins to speak, we want — no, crave — validation, someone on the outside who will say, preferably with godlike authority and timbre: ‘It’s brilliant. You’re on the right track. Just keep going.’”

Mark Slouka, “Don’t Ask What I’m Writing” The New York Times, August 24, 2013.

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Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles (1972)

Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles (1972) from Repazzo on Vimeo.

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Quote: Art’s Next Phase is Producerism

“Producerism,” we can call this, by analogy with consumerism. What we’re now persuaded to consume, most conspicuously, are the means to create. And the democratization of taste ensures that no one has the right (or inclination) to tell us when our work is bad. A universal grade inflation now obtains: we’re all swapping A-minuses all the time, or, in the language of Facebook, “likes.”

William Deresiewicz, writing in The Atlantic on the next phase of art, replacing the artisan, the genius, and the professional.

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Urban possibility

What anti-urbanists seem to forget is that most of the great creations of humanity were not solitary, but socially constructed, and that such things require the development of relationships, the in-person interaction even in (or, perhaps, especially in) a digitally-mediated age are a requirement for trust. And those relationships are simply far harder to initiate when the built environment provides hinderances and barriers that reduce interaction to the intentional and reduce the possibility of the serendipitous. 

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Reflecting on Finals Exams

The opening day of the last ever instance of the "A"-half of Paul Groth's American Cultural Landscapes course at U.C. Berkeley. I was privileged to be a part of the graduate student instructor team for the course, which officially ended last Wednesday.

The opening day of the last ever instance of the “A”-half of Paul Groth’s American Cultural Landscapes course at U.C. Berkeley. I was privileged to be a part of the graduate student instructor team for the course, which officially ended last Wednesday.

Finals day is tough for students, but it is tough in an entirely different way for those who, like me, teach. I do not mean the grueling hours of early mornings and lengthy grading days that come after finals—though to be sure those are tough in their own ways. Instead, what is tough is the sadness of parting.

Wednesday was the final exam day. It began early—8 a.m.—in a sunken auditorium room in a gloomy concrete campus building. Pens scratched away, pages rustled, brows furrowed. Over the semester, in small but meaningful ways I had come to know dozens of those students, dozens of young minds.

As the hours wore on, slowly they began to put down their pens, get up, and hand me their exams as they departed. And that was it.

I may someday see some of them again, in another class, in another semester, somewhere. But many, many I will never meet again. Where will they go? What will become of them?

I often wonder such things, and though in some ways I will miss my time with all of them, for a few I will feel the absence more. Sometimes this is because they were bright, personable students who, because they genuinely cared about the subject, made every classroom feel inviting. Sometimes this is because they simply exuded a sense of being a good person, like a strawberry that is red all of the way through. And sometimes? Sometimes it is because that student is utterly and profoundly brilliant. You hope to cross paths with them again. You hope, irrationally, that you may some day work with them as colleagues. You hope at the least that they stay in touch. You know they almost never will.

As the exam wore on, chair by chair the absences grew. I had seem the exam room empty plenty of times in the past—mostly at odd hours of the day, or just before or after a lecture is held. Yet as it stood, still partly occupied, students slowly draining away as they completed their exams, it felt emptier than if there had been nobody there at all. They were all slipping away, one by one, walking off into the world and their lives and who knew where.

The break, now, is upon us. Grading remained to be done, and then a reprieve from duties as a graduate student instructor. Soon enough, another semester will be upon us all. I will teach again, and the rest of my student instructor team will teach again too—though we will all go separate ways for new and different classes, new and different professors. Yet at this moment at the end of fifteen weeks, my mind lingers still on what will become of those for whom, in a brief season, I had the pleasure of being guide.

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A Child’s View

It occurs to me that I have always viewed the world as a child views a kitchen counter-top: on my toes, peering over a divide, trying to see what goes on where I am not even thought of.

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Vancouver: the similitudes of the past, and those of the future

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I have not been to Vancouver, in any meaningful sense, in five years. By Vancouver I mean the real one, the one that in the states (and only in the states) we append with “B.C.” in order to distinguish it from a suburb of Portland, Oregon. On that first visit, I felt that I had been glimpsing the future, or at least one possible urban future. There was fast, frequent, metropolitan scale transit. There was high-rise transit-oriented development. There were multiple dense nodes throughout the metropolitan region, as well as an intensely developed downtown that mixed both historic and ultra-modern development.

This is not to say that the city had been perfect. Main and Hastings was still an infamous intersection not just of its two namesake streets, but of the heroin trade and urban decay. Gastown—Vancouver’s equivalent of Seattle’s Pioneer Square or Portland’s Old Town—was still a cotton candy and knick-nack ghetto. Despite the cosmopolitan pretensions of the city, you still had a hard time finding non-corporate coffee or a place to eat on the peninsula that wasn’t aimed at high priced businessmen’s lunches and even higher priced tourist and convention-goer fare. Five years on, however, and times have changed.

Woodward's, on the edge of Gastown, when it was new back in 2009.

Woodward’s, on the edge of Gastown, when it was new back in 2009.

WOODWARD’S WAS THERE BACK IN 2009—and I mean the present one, the big red-and-blue condo tower that looms high above to border on the edge of Gastown. Then, the tower had struck me as something out of Niihama from Ghost in the Shell, or an unconventional and futuristic take on the Flatiron Building.

Woodward’s used to mean Vancouver’s big department store, a B.C. based rival to the Hudson’s Bay Company that was roughly equivalent to Sears in the states. In the 1990s, the company went bust, selling out to Hudson’s Bay, and the large facility on the east end of downtown went vacant. Now, though, Woodward’s means the redevelopment that took over the site of the former department store, including a 400-foot high, 43-story tower.

The development trades on its urbanity, a mixture of grit and sophistication that taps into the narrative of authenticity.  Indeed the entire building becomes a kind of work of rhetoric, a foil for ideas about what urban living means. The atrium of the facility has, at one end, a large photo-mural mounted on glass, showing a graphic depiction of the 1971 Gastown riot. Policemen on horseback swing billy-clubs against pot-smoking hippies and street people in a crass display of culture warfare turning into the literal kind. Thus a key moment of counter-culture history has become—via the robes of art—a way of branding the Woodward as progressive, urbane, sensitive to the neighborhood and its history.

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The Woodward tower, reflected in the installation of Stan Douglas’ Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971.

The photograph, however, was a re-enactment; in a town colloquially known as “Hollywood North,” the real intersection of Abbott Street and Cordova Street, as it appeared in August 1971, was reproduced in the 2008 parking lot of an amusement park out along Highway 1. History was thus recreated, then photographed by artist Stan Douglas, then installed as part of the corporate branding of an upmarket condominium tower.

To quote the Woodward’s slogan, used throughout its media marketing: “Be Bold or Move to Suburbia.”

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MY HOTEL WAS LOCATED AT PENDER AND RICHARDS, the same as it had been five years before. Then, I had selected it because it was affordable, close to downtown, but not too close to Main & Hastings. I had found that it was perfect; fairly quiet, it was located near two used book stores and not far from the Waterfront Skytrain station, letting me get anywhere I needed to go with relative ease. Then, though, there was a slight air of Skid Row to the street; there were cheap diners and dives, marginal looking stores that sold smoking accouterment or travel services or check cashing. It was not far from the edge of Gastown, from where Woodward’s was, when Woodward’s—the tower—was new.

I don’t know why I expected that things would not have changed; after all, change is the natural state of urbanity. Woodward’s—or perhaps the city it represented—had changed much of it. Just around the corner from my hotel, across the street from hole-in-the-wall $2 pizza places and the questionable looking convenience stores, there was now a bar with cocktails, craft beer, handmade gyoza fried in authentic Japanese cast iron pans, and deep, pork-rich ramen soups.

A few blocks away, Save On Meats—a butcher-cum-cafe—had reopened along Hastings, offering classic diner fare. The food is excellent, and if you are worried that this is the bogey-man of gentrification, there is an easy solution. Wooden tokens are available for purchase, redeemable for a breakfast sandwich, no questions asked. If you feel guilty, you can buy one,and give it to someone on the street. Gentrification solved. It’s good food, a welcome addition to the block and the neighborhood, and fraught with all the conflicting questions with no answers that gentrification brings.

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Even Gastown itself is not safe. The cotton candy and caramel corn atmosphere is shifting, slowly. There are still homeless here, panhandling from the tourist trade, but many of the gift shops are now gone. Simply put, the tourist has a much harder time finding commemorative Canadian license plate frames or stickers or keychains or jade rings or crystal fragments or 14k gold chains or stuffed Royal Canadian Mounted Police plushies. If you want your Canada in the canned, maple-syrup flavored variety, you will be disappointed with much of Gastown, and may resolve yourself to buying your trinkets at YVR. In the place of these traditional vendors, there are now a half dozen coffee shops, perhaps twice as many bars, places selling “Carolina pulled pork” or “50 beers on tap” or “almost famous fish and chips.” There is even a hat store—not Lids, not some knockoff baseball hat store, but “Hastings Hattery,” a hipster haberdasher. There would not have been a haberdasher on Hastings Street in 2009.

As you walk down Water Street, you’re likely to find as many interior decorating stores as trinket shops, each offering furniture meant to evoke the designs of Charles and Ray Eames without infringing on Herman Miller’s intellectual property rights. Kitsch has been replaced with Kitchen stores, one of which placed upon its window glass a Julia Child quote that, read differently than it was spoken, sums up this sort of lifestyle: “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.”

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“DISTANCE AVAILS US NOT” SAID WALT WHITMAN, “and place avails not.”

Vancouver in 2009 was exotic, seeming so far in the future that we, in the states, could never catch up. It was a benchmark, a role model, a fantasy to which cities like Seattle and Portland aspired, the cosmopolitan other on the other side of the least exotic and most exotic international border in existence.

Yet walking along the streets of Gastown, Vancouver feels eerily familiar. Sure the details differ. The exact forms of the buildings, their styles, their ages, they all differed. Yet it was hard not to feel, in Gastown, that I was walking through a familiar place, a street very much like, to cite one example, Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. We in the states—in those cities growing and thriving, in the San Franciscos and Seattles, the Portlands and the Oaklands—have more and more caught up Vancouver, sometimes even surpassing it in our absurdities.

We are now, like Whitman crossing the Brooklyn Ferry,  among “the current rushing so swiftly.” As the distance has receded, Vancouver is no longer the exotic, no longer so much the other. Vancouver is less an “ism,” and more a morally opaque and complex organism—more of a city, less of an idea—for all the good and bad that entails.

(Many thanks to UBC’s Elvin Wyly for showing me Save On Meats and telling me the story of the Woodward’s and its mural.)

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Apostrophe as an idea

» From Evelyn Shih’s “Sidewalks,” on the blog Photopos:

“As I delve back further into my photographic archive, I feel more acutely what was always true of this blog: that we write of the absent, of the past. That photography cannot escape apostrophe.”

 

» From Wikipedia’s Wiktionary:

“From French apostrophe, or Latin apostrophus, from Ancient Greek ἀπόστροφος (apóstrophos, “accent of elision”), a noun use of an adjective from ἀποστρέφω (apostréphō, “I turn away”).”

 

» From Randall Brown’s photo project prompt called Apostrophe, as described on the blog A Just Recompense:

“First, the title: “Apostrophe” is a rhetorical device originally from ancient Greece used to “describe the act of an orator turning away (Gk. apo ‘away’ and strophein ‘to turn’) from his normal audience, the judges, to address another: whether his adversary, a specific member of the jury, someone absent or dead, or even an abstract concept or inanimate object” (Irene Kancades, Style, 1994). As used in fiction, the narrator, instead of addressing the reader, addresses another person or abstract idea – in this case, the “you” is a friend from childhood who “turned away” – a word twist that is enough to make a geek jump up and down – from the narrator at a troubled point. Obviously, this could not have been done in first or third person! So this story absolutely requires second person, and makes excellent use of it!”

 

» As described on the web site of Apostrophe Books, a small press, and making several quotes of the Oxford English Dictionary:

“The word itself is derived from Latin (apostrophus) and Greek (apostrophos/prosoidia), and involves the idea of “turning away” or “turning aside,” as well as simply an indication of “loss” or “omission.” So, it is here, in loss, in turning way from intention or purpose where the material or noumenal interacts with the phenomenal, as Kant would put it; or, where the sign enacts its meaning; i.e. the mark as an indication of loss, a moment of pause, a digression in meaning.”

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Somewhere West of Vale, Oregon

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[View larger image on Flickr.]

The idea of Oregon is a slippery one. Much of the population is concentrated in the western third of the state, primarily in the Portland metropolitan region and the fertile, lush Willamette Valley to its south. Visitors to the state have the false assumption that everything hill here is decorated with rain-drenched Douglas fir trees. Those visitors can be forgiven for their ignorance, because most Oregonians, too, do not know their state, and have rarely ventured east into the dry territory beyond the rain shadow of the Cascade Range, except perhaps to luxuriate in the resorts of Bend or to attend the annual Pendleton Roundup.

Yet Oregon is far more than this movie-set rainforest. Much of the state, speaking in geographic terms, is an arid plateau that is watered—barely—by tributaries of the Columbia River. Further east, still, even beyond the Blue Mountains that ring Pendleton and the high and holy Wallowas that were the Nez Perce’s homeland, the state is even more remote, known better by Idahoans from the Boise Basin of the Snake River than by anyone who was born in the Beaver State. Not far from the state line, the town of Vale sits, once a minor epicenter of a minor but thriving agricultural region that spread up along the Malhuer River and its tributaries. Today, like much of rural Oregon, Vale is a shadow of itself, still cared for but worn about the edges, a place where time doesn’t seem to pass despite the emptying of old strore-fronts, despite the ever-changing processing of new versions of the same old Ford trucks and John Deere tractors that pass through the town each year.

Like most of the rural communities of the state, it lived off of—literally—the railroad, the great road of commerce that funneled the products of the region through the town and in the process connected it to global markets and to a flow of jobs. Yet those same economic forces grew and changed even as Vale did not. Today, the old Union Pacific branch that once stretched to distant Burns (a third of the way across the state) has so little traffic that the mighty UP divested it. It is now operated—just—by a short line called the Oregon Eastern, which has all of one customer, a diatomaceous earth mine.

Whenever it goes, so too the frontier of 19th century exuberance will recede further, as a tide going out from across the land, leaving its wake the rubble of abandonment, decay, and communities whose purpose for existence is more for the sake of habit than any other nameable reason. Perhaps this is only natural—if anything economic can be called so—and perhaps it is, in some larger sense, just. Yet for the people of Vale, home cannot be numbered by the cold rationality of profit and loss, and balance sheets make bad community members.

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Quote: Jed Perl on Jeff Koons and a new Gilded Age

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Jed Perl, writing in the New York Review of Books, reviews the new Jeff Koons exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/sep/25/cult-jeff-koons/

“For the Gilded Age avant-garde, such legendary events have become the model for new marketing opportunities, and there is an assumption that if the public has a very strong negative reaction to something—if a work of art disturbs or annoys or flummoxes some of the public—it most likely is important. Incredibly enough, there are highly intelligent observers who believe that Koons challenges them in more or less the same way that Matisse, Picasso, Nijinsky, and Pollock might once have done…. I would have hoped that by now everybody agreed that not all unease is equal. Why should we imagine that because once upon a time certain gallerygoers were troubled by something that they later came to admire, then it follows that anything that troubles a gallerygoer is necessarily worthy of admiration? Just because it makes you sick doesn’t mean that it’s any good. I am not saying that either Rosenblum or Nagel, both scholars widely admired for their erudition, would take this view. But there is no doubt in my mind that Koons is alert to a tendency on the part of the art audience to submit—to submit to something (to anything) that exerts a certain discomfiting power. This is the S&M of the contemporary art world, with the audience angling for an opportunity to grovel at the feet of the superstar.”

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