Tuesday, July 31, 2007

urban-historical peep show

(Houston, Circa 1891)

The Amon Carter Museum has a fantastic little toy that allows you to browse through an enormous collection of Nineteenth Century bird's-eye views of Texas cities. As they put it:

Bird’s-eye views, many of which are more than three feet wide, appear as something between a panoramic view and a map, as though they were drawn by the artist while he was suspended in a hot-air balloon. In fact, they were drawn by hand using, most often, two-point perspective to produce a three-dimensional rendering. The city views are surprisingly accurate (even to the point of documenting the presence of a tree in the middle of Gonzales Street in Cuero) and represent a much neglected source for understanding the history of Texas.

My only complaint about this website is that the flash browser is so tantalizingly small that I'm left hunched over my screen, eyestrained, scrolling around frantically, tempted by the "buy" link in the toolbar above and cursing the Carter Museum's for not providing (at least low-quality) full size images. But that's beside the point. The fact is, there is no form of art that captures aerial experience better than first-person hand drawings done while levitated. There is something beautiful about the conflict between penciled subjectivity and the exactitude of aerial two-point perspective. But enough said-- go take a look for yourself.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

an internet with less screaming

First of all, I have to point out the even more incredible than usual hodgepodge of etchings and prints over at Bibliodyssey right now. This post has a running start and just keeps speeding up, traveling through "Multi: clown vignettes; SarcoBosco astronomy; Böhme mystical engravings, allegorical book images; satirical Portuguese 19cent illustrations, German tulip and medieval anatomical sketches; ivory manuscript cover; Wisconsin bookart and many, many links." For those of you who haven't been over there, I hope you become as unexpectedly besotted (that's right, besotted) as I am. Those clowns kick ass.

In other news, I recently installed Adblock on my browser. Seeing sites like nytimes and pitchfork media without the relentless distraction of flashing ads bordering every piece of content was so foreign as to make the internet suddenly foreign. It reminded me of the sudden de-ad-ification of Sao Paolo, Brazil, which has left behind a residue like this:

More astonishing images by Tony De Marco can be found here. What both of these (prunings? cleansings?) point out to me is that the removal of commerce from their locales, while a vast improvement, does not lead to a more streamlined or cohesive fabric. The removal of these ads leave huge holes, scar tissue and voids behind. Meaning that advertisements are not additions or accoutrements; once they have been incorporated they are an integral part of a city or medium, and cannot be removed without a violent afterimage. Read even further, the various texts and images on a city are not something that is overlaid and can be changed or removed with impunity; it is integral and deep-rooted. Two recent works of art explore this kind of removal with different results. While Matt Siber's "untitled" project seems to imply that the text is a separate entity, Stinbrener-Dempf's "delete" makes a bright yellow point of the violence implicit in getting rid of city signifiers. I guess this is the base of my thought here-- advertising and signage is not just signifying. It is also an object that has an independent presence from the message it is trying to convey. And it is only after removal that one begins to see how powerful that secondary presence is.

Friday, July 20, 2007

how I miss my Fisher Space Pen

Subtraction is a blog by Khoi Vinh, the design director for the New York Times website. Among other things, he had a recent post on the fact that, unlike other elegantly designed items, most modern electronics, while often being shockingly well designed, are, due to planned obsolescence and somewhat to the current dominant high-tech design philosophy, are doomed to deteriorating inelegantly, if not catastrophically. The question being, why can't our iPods age gracefully, or even improve over time, like cast-iron pans or good luggage? The battered condition of your laptop or cellphone should be a badge of pride instead of an embarrassment.

My contribution to this discussion is that while lots of currently electronics are taking the right first step in divorcing enclosure from content, they all seem to have it backwards, providing interchangeable or replaceable shells for the (currently expensive) interior components. But, as hardware eventually becomes obsolete, why has nobody examined the possibility of creating a long-lasting, beautiful exterior with upgradable guts? There are obvious hurdles like proprietary hardware and no standard dimensions for most components, but some companies have more control over the future of their hardware than others. I'd be perfectly happy with recycling my cellphone hardware once a year, even paying for it, as long as it had a nice, heavy cast-iron shell. As it is, I just have to keep my trashy hinged plastic model for longer than it can really survive.

In a related note, there was a pretty fantastic article in the NYT about planned obsolescence and the unfortunate orphans it leaves in it's wake. Running shoes and digital watches aren't really getting any better, but great designs are often thrown by the wayside instead of being treated as the classics they could be, just so the parent companies can advertise something brand new. Given the iconic power of objects like Converse All-Stars and old-school Casios, it seems that perhaps better attention could be paid to recognising and preserving contemporary common classics. I'll leave you to find the article, but I will point you as far as the comments section, full of New Yorkers grieving for lost gel pens and Honda CRVs. I hope that these people carry on their collective yearning and form a society devoted to the preservation of lost common objects, tiny pieces of locally perfect design that are in danger of being forgotten.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

radio lab

I don't know why things with the word "lab" in them seem to consistently blow my mind, but there's a new one this week. Radiolab isn't a particularly new show (it's the fourth season), but my only exposure up until now was in short segments on KCRW or This American Life. And it is. Awesome. It combines two of my favorite hybrid genres -- the science narrative and humorous documentary -- into a kind of super-melange that keeps me riveted. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich (check out those names) debate socratically and interview supernerds over a consistent blanket of ambient sound in a way that is very. kick. ass.

Monday, July 16, 2007

intermodal fun

One of the things I miss most about grade school is field trips. So the ability to blow off half a day and go on a bona-fide adult field trip was a truly awesome event. We visited the Union Pacific Intermodal Transfer Facility in San Pedro, for kind of hazy and unspecific reasons (which made it all the more fun).

The "facility" is the place where containers are transferred from ship to train (with a tiny interim on a truck in-between). They had built a fairly detailed model of the facility, which was cool, but perhaps a bit of overkill. Check out the tiny little trucks:

After viewing the model we were brought up to a kind of control tower that overlooked the entire yard. Here is where the trucks check into the "ramp" (slang for a transfer yard). I swear every fifth container said Costco on the side. Note the kick-ass refinery beyond.

Here is the area where the transfers take place. Other than trains and trailers, the two main pieces of machinery were the mini-tractors that raced all over the yard pulling trailers next to the trains, and the awesomeAkira-esque gantry cranes that lift the containers into place. A skilled operator can move a container from trailer to train in less than a minute.

There was also some other pretty awesome industrial architecture visible from the tower, like this freakishly monolithic dry-storage "shed," which looked to be as big as a medium-sized Egyptian pyramid.

To the rear of the facility, you could see the source of the thousands of containers the Union Pacific moves every day-- the dockyards. The cranes look massive even from miles away. More field trips will have to be made.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Screw Asylum is a prime example of the internet I fear might evaporate at any moment, the fragile tiny nooks and societies that Ben Katchor invents/documents in his Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer series.

Also, the fine people over at SA pointed me to this fantastic Soviet ATV:

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


If one was to make a nerdy blog-post chart, cute pictures of pets would be only slightly above posts about people playing video games. This I realize. But when our dog Rita falls asleep on her back, her little front-paw hooks are just about right shape for wii-mote storage.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Gibson made me want those 300,000BTUs

After my recent post where I blamed William Gibson on my mild obsession with post-industrial products, I feel the need to qualify this blame.

If being a futurist means condensing the present, extrapolating the result and then projecting the resulting mess outwards, Gibson did such a good job that, almost 25 years after Neuromancer, we're still relying on his idea of the future to explain the present. And part of the reason he had so much success was that, despite being one of the founding fathers of the concept of cyberspace, he spends the majority of the time writing about physical reality. He created a world where digital imagery sits as a thin coating over a substructure cobbled together with epoxy, wire and department-of-defense seconds. He spent most of his time examining what kind of people might live inside of this sub-structure.

Inherent to all of this is the idea that obsolete industrial equipment is the new raw material. What is lost in craft and detail is made up for in scale, complexity, and sheer power. This kind of junkyard, collage ideology appears again and again in his written work. In the short story Johnny Mnemonic, there is a shantytown cobbled together in the attic of a domed city, inhabited by people that call them selves "Lo-Tek." This phrase was undoubtedly borrowed by the architecture firm "Lot-ek", who have likewise absorbed the entire post-industrial aesthetic, down to the central irony that such raw solutions require, at times, very high technology.

Other examples in Gibson's work abound. In "Count Zero," you not only have high-rise housing projects with water-jet cutters, hydroponic agriculture and rooftop wind turbines, colonized and cut off from the grid, but also an assembly-line robot hacked and distorted into an automated artist, producing Cornell boxes from floating detritus. In the (horrifically named) Mona Lisa Overdrive there is a reclusive artist living in a Superfund site in the rust belt, creating robotic junkyard sculpture in an old warehouse (a reference to Survival Research Labs). His "Bridge Trilogy" centers around San Francisco's Bay Bride, taken over by the homeless as a suspended shantytown after a 9.0 earthquake. And, finally in Pattern Recognition, he has yet another techno-autistic artist, creating collaged videos with material dredged from the Internet.

These somewhat romantic junkyard notions of ad-hoc technology cut through a lot of the current obsessions of popular culture at an oblique angle, from "Loft-Style" suburban homes to mashups to laser-projected graffiti. A lot of this is simply styling even marketing created by and appealing to the generation that grew up with ubiquitous Japanese cartoon robots and misused corporate laser pointers. But it's also, in my opinion, the leading indicator of a general tendency in manufacturing; as production becomes more and more micro-scaled, cleaner, light-weight and rapid, we are beginning to treat steelyards and coal factories the way we used to treat the Parthenon and Stonehenge, as decaying, monolithic antiquities from a simpler and more powerful time. Even as the things around us are becoming polymers, carbon fibers, nanotubes, aerogels, we long for a nice hefty brick to throw through a plate glass window.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

pico and sepulveda

From the Danny Elfman-scored "Forbidden Zone". This may be the highlight. Made all the more amusing by the fact that there is nothing but a lumber warehouse, donut store, and government offices at that corner. And maybe a discount golf store. Still, were one getting directions to that location (for an unknown reason), I can see how repeating it ad infinitum would lead to exactly this.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

ersatz emotion for sale!

Walter Benjamin wrote a lot about the concept of the "aura" in art. Photography, and mechanical reproduction in general, he argued, destroyed the history and singularity and sheer object-ness of a work of art, a quality he deemed to be a kind of aura surrounding the work, giving it mystery and a kind of emotional Velcro that can be found most strongly in catholic relics and old baby clothes.

Well, folks, technology has come one hundred and eighty degrees. Have your images lost that aura that once suffused them? Are you tired of the neo-modernist emphasis on clarity and calm?

Meet Jesh DeRox, the proprietor of the reconstituted aura. Through the magic of Photoshop "textures," your special event can have nostalgia applied, long before it has naturally accumulated! You don't have to be eighty to have precious things. Finally, welcome to the photographic equivalent of pre-distressed jeans.