Friday, February 27, 2009

Wingsuit Base Jumping in Norway

wingsuit base jumping from Ali on Vimeo.

This video is best seen in a larger format -- see it in a full-screen version here.

Basically, these guys are jumping off of Norway's steepest and highest fjord cliffs with small, light parachutes. The object though, is to soar for a while using flying squirrel-like wingsuits. They used to do it in the winter, jumping off with skis so they could get a good distance from the cliff walls. Now they do it in the summer, merely jumping off the cliffs.

One jumper, Loic Jean Albert, explains 1:17 into the video:
"At the beginning of wingsuit base jumping, we were trying to get as far from the wall as possible, so basically clearing the whole thing, but now it's getting boring so we play around."
That means flying nearly close enough to cliff jagged faces that they can touch them, diving in and out around rock formations as they free-fall, and then glide, twist and somersault, and dive again. It's breathtaking to watch.

About 3:12 into the video, a Norwegian named Espin Fadnes swoops down over a winding mountain road, buzzing the ground at an alarmingly high speed before soaring off over the next drop-off. It's chilling to see a man fly like that, gracefully, without visible propulsion. It's not like Superman; more like an animal.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

More on Shepard Fairey

It's a shame that this poster will probably become a symbol of the times, because the artist -- or maybe it's more accurate to say the graphic designer -- who created it doesn't need any more attention than he's already getting. He's the subject of an exhibition currently showing at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art.

To call Shepard Fairey's art political would be a stretch; the style is derivative and the images are often borrowed. The messages on some of his posters ("The limits of tyrants are prescribed by those whom they oppress," an unattributed Frederick Douglass quote, or "Obey, consume, repeat") become empty slogans when he uses them; his posters are too precious, like posed portraits of teen idols pinned to the walls of a young girl's bedroom.

It is the art of cultural references, and it shows less originality than collage. Still, Fairey has a good eye for color and composition. He might be a great concert poster maker if he had more imagination. I call him a designer because he needs the focus of a client to fill his idea void.

The Obama poster to me is too easy. Who (aside the from the obvious haters) could disagree with its message? After my anti-Shepard Fairey post last month (see Shepard Fairey's Sell Out is Complete), I was pleased to see another take on the Fairey phenomenon from the Tomorrow Museum blog. Joanne McNeil writes that the Obama poster lacks a point of view, and compares it to a more daring Hillary Clinton poster (by screenwriter and designer Tony Puryear).

Everything McNeil says is true:
"Puryear is also taking inspiration from propaganda posters, but by using a photograph, rather than illustration, it moves beyond its source. It mocks the Communist propaganda that was the inspiration. You can see the lines on Clinton’s face, she looks relaxed. She radiates warmth as much as power and intellect. She’s a human being, not an icon."
...and yet Fairey's poster still looks better. Maybe it's because Puryear's poster is too ironic to be used as a real campaign poster. Fairey's is so earnest -- as McNeil said, "[Obama] is captured exactly as we like to think of him: looking caring, but just a bit distant and analytical" -- that it fits in with the "safe" sort of campaign pieces we are used to these days.

To me, Fairey is the Whole Foods of street art: he talks the talk, but there is no true feeling but opportunism and profit behind it.

He's like a Quentin Tarantino: an artful re-arranger of existing pieces. The results may be enjoyable, and the sentiments expressed may be agreeable, but neither Fairey nor Tarantino advance causes or create new art.

Political art ain't easy. Take this piece by the sculptor Richard Serra. "Stop Bush," a lithocrayon on mylar piece from 2004 is embarrassingly earnest. It calls to mind the old advice to writers: show, don't tell. It appeared at the 2006 Whitney Biennial. He should have stuck to his steel plates.

I think this bus stop defacing (San Francisco, 2002) is a much more inventive and thoughtful anti-Bush political statement.

It's from a rather lofty and annoying-sounding group called "Together We Can Defeat Capitalism," but it uses the same message and puts it front of real people instead of cooping it up in a gallery or a museum. Or instead of charging $40 for it (the price of a 24x36 signed Obama Hope poster) in the e-commerce section of a "street" artist's website.

McNeil's comparison of Shepard Fairey to the British street artist Bansky is apt:
"But Banksy couldn’t possibly create work as moving as he does without staying well-informed of politics. Fairey’s work makes you wonder if he even quite knows what’s going on in the Middle East or what Guantánamo Bay even is. What Fairey communicates about politics is apathy and a vague directionless feeling of dissent. The ornate details that set him apart may add prettiness but no depth to his work."
While we run into the same e-commerce issues with Banksy -- street art and political art suddenly made into collectibles -- he's a better artist on every level.

Here's a piece he did on the side of a building in New York:

It gleefully compares graffiti to cave painting (those look like the horses from Lascaux). Banksy's illegal pieces are almost always thoughtful and well-executed. He's witty, where Fairey is self-promotional.

Back to Fairey. The New Yorker's art critic Peter Schjeldahl reviewed his Boston show in a recent issue. At first I though Schjeldahl was being too gentle. He went on a bit long about Fairey's trouble with the Associated Press over the Obama photo he appropriated for the Hope poster (like Schjeldahl, I will defend Fairey's right to appropriate it -- at least to some extent). But he finally got to the criticism toward the end:
"Warhol’s revelatory games with the cognitive dissonance between art and commerce have galvanized artists in every generation since. But you can stretch a frisson just so many times before it goes limp. Like the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, who included a Louis Vuitton boutique in his Los Angeles retrospective, Fairey reverses a revolution achieved by Warhol, along with Roy Lichtenstein. He embraces a trend in what the critic Dave Hickey has called 'pop masquerading as art, as opposed to art masquerading as pop.'”
This is why Banksy is the more successful artist to me: commerce is (or seems to be) a sideline to his art, which seems to be created out of obsession rather than a juvenile need to see one's tag everywhere.


Quote of the Day: Gossip Columnist Liz Smith

“I figure that without having to pay my salary, The Post will immediately go into the black.”
Liz Smith, the New York Post's gossip columnist and a fixture in City papers for 33 years, is out of a job. The 86-year-old Smith earned $125,000 a year.


Monday, February 23, 2009

Quote of the Day: John Mortimer

“Dying is a matter of slapstick and pratfalls. The aging process is not gradual or gentle. It rushes up, pushes you over and runs off laughing. No one should grow old who isn’t ready to appear ridiculous.”
That's barrister and novelist John Mortimer in a book published in 2000 called “The Summer of a Dormouse: A Year of Growing Old Disgracefully,” as quoted by the New York Times. Mortimer is most famous for his character of books and television, Horace Rumpole. For all his talk of dying, Mortimer lived nearly another decade; he died in January at his home in Oxfordshire, England. He was 85.

Mortimer was a crusading sort of barrister, maybe a little like America's William Kunstler. His last Rumpole book, Rumpole and the Reign of Terror, has his protagonist defending a Pakistani doctor who the British government charged with terrorism. Below is a short interview with an 83-year-old Mortimer upon the release of the book.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Being Middle Class Costs a Lot

"The term ‘middle class’ is difficult to define by income, because it connotes not just earning power, but a style of life, a set of values and tastes, a level of education and a class of occupation."
So wrote David K. Shipler in the New York Times in 1969.

Shipler was quoted in a report put out this month by the Center for an Urban Future called "Reviving the City of Aspiration: A study of the challenges facing New York City's middle class" (see it in PDF form here). As any New Yorker knows, paying 50% of one's income for rent is not unusual in the Big City. But what makes a New Yorker middle class?

In 2007, the median income in New York was $48,631 for a household (not a single person, but a household), so technically, middle class should be between $38,905 and $58,937.

Not exactly, say the report's authors:
"Given the vastly higher cost of living in New York City, however, it is doubtful that any New York household that earns even $60,000 per year enjoys a quality of life that remotely approaches what we typically imagine as 'middle class.' The 'New York City premium' on goods and services from housing and groceries to utilities and transportation means that a $60,000 salary earned in Manhattan is the equivalent of making $26,092 in Atlanta; $31,124 in Miami; and $35,405 in Boston. In less-expensive Queens, that same $60,000 salary carries only as much purchasing power as $37,451 in Atlanta, $44,673 in Miami, or $50,819 in Boston. In other words, income levels that would enable a very comfortable lifestyle in other locales barely suffice to provide the basics in New York City."
Lilian Roberts, the president of the City's largest municipal union adds,
"What you would call middle class elsewhere you would call working poor here. Most of our members have all the status symbols of the middle class, including credit cards, TVs and cars. So they don’t see themselves as being poor, even when they can’t afford decent health care or child care."
Well said. According to another group, a middle class family of four would make between $75,000 and $135,000. A single person, $45,000 to $90,000.

Little things add up in New York. And with a City income tax added on to State and Federal, and no Renters' Credit (effectively a property tax refund for apartment dwellers in Minnesota), living here is even more expensive.


Thursday, February 12, 2009


From Advertising Age:
"Over the past 24 hours, adland has been abuzz about 'Breathtaking,' a 27-page document purported to be the thinking behind Arnell Group's recent revamping of Pepsi-Cola's logo. Littered as it is with marketing jargon, images of yin-yangs, mobius strips and Da Vinci's Vitruvian man, you'll maybe wonder whether Michael Phelps wasn't the only one hitting that bong."
This is beautiful. The creative process is a many splendored and mystical thing, but if the end result is dumb, it may have been a waste of time. I hate the new Pepsi logo. Twenty-seven pages to justify tipping the old logo on its side? I think it looks lop-sided and sloppy. It’s asymmetry at its awkward worst.

But is the document real, or an advertising hoax? Read it in PDF form here. It's embarrassing to see "Pepsi Introduces Breathtaking" on a timeline that includes Euclid, Pythagorus and Descartes. This can't be real. If this is what it looks like -- a tremendously arrogant ad man's sketchbook -- then it's sad that it got out.

Maybe that's exactly what it is. Here's Ad Age's Rupal Parekh on that ad man, Peter Arnell, the head of the Arnell Group:
"Consider this is the same person who just last month compared a 3-D Super Bowl spot created by his agency to as historic a moment as Thomas Edison's invention of motion pictures. Of course, then there's this:

'When I did the Pepsi logo, I told Pepsi that I wanted to go to Asia, to China and Japan, for a month and tuck myself away and just design it and study it and create it,' Mr. Arnell said earlier to Ad Age. 'There was a lot of research, a lot of consumer data points ... and dialogue that I had with the folks at Pepsi, consumers and retailers. We knew what we were doing.'"
Then again, Charles Rosen of the ad agency Amalgamated said to Ad Age: "Anyone who has ever spent any time in the halls of Pepsi would sympathize with Peter."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Denis Dutton's Darwinist Take on Art

New York Public Radio's Brian Lehrer talks to Denis Dutton about his new book, The Art Instinct. Dutton, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, is also the editor of the excellent website Arts & Letters Daily.


Saturday, February 07, 2009

Obituary: Lux Interior

Lux Interior, lead singer for the punk band The Cramps, has died. He was 62.

Interior, born Erick Lee Purkhiser, started the band with Poison Ivy Rorschach (formerly Kristy Wallace) in about 1976. As Camille Dodero noted in the Village Voice on Friday, The Cramps basically had three songs that they re-wrote over and over. But who could resist songs like "Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?" and "Bend Over, I'll Drive"? Or "Jackyard Backoff"? It wasn't all juvenile sexual references -- those just make the most amusing song titles. The Cramps were a rockabilly mixture of campy pop culture references and bad horror movies. Picture Elvis crossed with Iggy Pop.

The Cramps played an infamous free show at the Napa State Mental Hospital in California in 1978. "We drove 3000 miles to play for you people," Interior says as he takes the mic. "Fuck you!" yells a patient. "Somebody told me you people are crazy," he patters. "But I'm not so sure about that. You seem to be alright to me." Watch the video below. The action starts 20 seconds in.

Henry Rollins, the former singer for Black Flag, remembered the first Cramps shows he saw in the 70s in Washington D.C.:
I grew up in Washington, D.C., in the '70s, and when punk rock came along, I realized that my ship had come in. The Cramps would come down to D.C. and I would see them play in a space about the size of your living room. It was kind of scary being in the front row. Lux would find something to swing from -- if there were ceiling tiles, they'd all be on the floor by the end of the thing. Lux would somehow find his way out of his pants and be down to a pair of bikini briefs twitching all over the floor. He's a very large man, very tall and very pale and very sweaty. They all looked so amazing. Each one could have been a movie star.
Rollins reminisced at length in an article in Saturday's Los Angeles Times.

And see also this performance of The Cramps' classic "Human Fly." About a minute and seven seconds in, he pours a can of beer into his shoe and drinks out of it. Then he kicks the shoe into the audience and starts taking his pants off.

The Cramps' best-known song may be their cover of "Fever," which appeared in the gruesome bar scene in Kathryn Bigelow's 1987 vampire movie Near Dark. Fast-forward about 6 minutes into the segment below for the song.

The band never stopped playing in more than 30 years, with Interior singing and his wife Poison Ivy on guitar. He died of a heart condition.

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Friday, February 06, 2009

Glen Plake

Here's another ski video: extreme skier Glen Plake on a monoski in a scene from one of Greg Stump's movies. Watch how calm his upper body is while his legs move like pistons through the moguls. Add to that the fact that his feet are bound together on one board -- not a snowboard. His skills are rivalled only by his mohawk.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Obituary: Ingemar Johansson

“There is something strange about my right hand,” the Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson once said. “Something very hard to explain. The arm works by itself. It is faster than the eye, and I cannot even see. Without my telling it to, the right goes, and when it hits there is this good feeling all down my arm and down through my body.”

Johansson only lost two fights out of 28 in his professional career. Those two fights were both against American Floyd Patterson. The first time the two met, Patterson lost badly, saying later, “He hit me so hard, I didn’t know where I was.”

The two later became friends. Coincidentally, both suffered from Alzheimer's Disease in their old age. Patterson died in 2006.

Read the New York Times obituary here.

Below, footage from Johansson and Paterson's second fight:

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Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Scottish Bard's Dirty Verse

For the second year in a row I've missed Burns Night completely. The celebration of the birthday of Scotland's great Bard, Robert Burns, comes on January 25. Scots and fans of the poet will gather to recite Burns' "Address to a Haggis," and then ceremoniously stab the haggis with a dirk. They'll eat neeps and tatties and make toasts and recite more of Burns poetry. (See this description in Time Magazine from last week.)

Burns (1758-1796) is best known for Auld Lang Syne (which means, roughly, "old long ago"), the song often sung on New Year's Eve. But Burns was also a writer of bawdy verse. (Alas, his 1791 poem Johnie Lad, Cock Up Your Beaver is about tipping one's hat; it is not one of the risque poems.)

It turns out that although scholars had for centuries tried to downplay Burns' ribald side, the father of twelve (by four women) was quite unashamed of it himself.

Here, from a recent article in The Scotsman is a passage from one of Burns' letters:
"I have given her a guinea, and I have f——ed her till she rejoiced with joy unspeakable… I gave her such a thundering scalade that electrified the very marrow of her bones! Oh, what a peace-maker is a guid weel-willy pintle! It is the mediator, the guarantee, the umpire, the bond of union, the solemn league and covenant, the plenipotentiary, the Aaron's Rod, the Jacob's Staff, the prophet Elisha's pot of oil, the Ahasuerus' Sceptre, the sword of mercy, the philosopher's stone, the Horn of Plenty, the Tree of Life between Man and Woman!"
A pintle, a plenipotentiary, and the rest are all of course his gleeful terms for the phallus. The f-word hinted at above, is just what you think it is. Burns used it liberally.

Many of his bawdy poems contain those euphemisms, and those poems can be found in a book called Merry Muses of Caledonia. It was published a few years after Burns' death, and only two copies of the original exist today. Legend has it the book's very existence was denied by scholars and the public for a century, and, once out, was banned in the U.K. and America until 1965 and 1964, respectively. After that, people began recording these dirty pieces as music. Today it can be found online (in PDF form here or via Google Book Search here).

In honor of the Scottish Bard, I present one of his filthier poems. Here's an example, in barely understandable Scottish dialect, called "Wad ye dae That?"
Gudewife, when your gudeman’s frae hame,
Micht I but be sae bauld,
As come to your bed-chaumer,
When winter nichts are cauld;
As come to your bed-chaumer,
When nichts are cauld an wat,
An lie in your gudeman’s steed, Wad ye dae that?

Young man, an ye should be sae kind,
When oor gudeman’s frae hame,
As come to my bed-chaumer,
Where I am laid my lane;
An lie in oor gudeman’s steed,
I will tell you what,
He fucks me five times ilka nicht, Wad ye dae that?
It seems to be in two parts: first the Young Man asking the married woman if he could come over when her husband is far from home and sleep with her on cold nights. Next, the married woman, the Gudewife responds, saying her husband fucks her five times a night; he may come over if he can do that. Damn.

Look for other gems, like "Nine Inch Will Please a Lady."


ROM and the Anti-Social Method of Marketing

The website and print ads for the $14,615 ROM exercise machine are full of numbered lists, grand claims, dire warnings, and bitter asides. ROM, which stands for "Range of Motion," was invented by a man who went broke shortly after creating it. Alf Temme, a Swedish engineer and sauna manufacturer who lives in California, took over.

All the ROM's bizarre advertising seems to come from Temme. He typically sells about 1000 units a year, and has managed to get covered by Esquire and Vanity Fair (the photo here shows VF's Christopher Hitchens torturing himself on the ROM), but sales were way down in 2008. The ads for ROM, which appear in magazines like Forbes and The Atlantic Monthly, are not helping.

The material for this product is the marketing equivalent of folk art. It's naive and self-conscious to the point of undermining itself, as in this bold-type statement on the homepage:
And then there's the section called The Trouble With Experts which is described as "A look at how experts help and hurt society. An interesting analysis." One begins to get the sense that this is more than a product; maybe it's some sort of homespun cult.

But my favorite part of the marketing material is a vague ten-item list called The typical ROM purchaser goes through several stages:
1. Total disbelief that the ROM can do all this in only 4 minutes.

2. Rhetorical (and sometimes hostile) questioning and ridicule.

3. Reading the ROM literature and reluctantly understanding it.

4. Taking a leap of faith and renting a ROM for 30 days.

5. Being highly impressed by the results and purchasing a ROM.

6. Becoming a ROM enthusiast and trying to persuade friends.

7. Being ignored and ridiculed by the friends who think you've lost your mind.

8. After a year of using the ROM your friends admiring your good shape.

9. You telling them (again) that you only exercise those 4 minutes a day.

10. Those friends reluctantly renting the ROM for a 30 day trial. Then the above cycle repeats from point 5 on down.
Instead of merely trumpeting the benefits of the product, the list is preparing the potential convert for a life of hostility and ridicule before he or she can become excited about its possibilities. Imagine a man approaching a woman in a bar with the line "You probably don't believe that I could possibly be a suitable partner. Dating is a nightmare for me. But if you give me a chance, I'll amaze you. However, I should warn you that your friends are going to hate me at first."

The two biggest barriers for the ROM machine (aside from its claim that "This exercise machine is extremely dangerous") are its extremely high price, $14,615, and its claim to give you a total workout in 4 minutes. If Alf Temme, the Swedish-American who manufactures it, eliminated one of those two barriers, he may not be such a bitter advertiser.

To continue the dating analogy, Mr. Temme's product and its struggle are a little like the men in the Atlasphere, the online dating portal for devotees of Ayn Rand. Consider this ad (as excerpted by New York Magazine last November) by some poor sap named Lewis in London:
"I love intelligent, sassy girls, particularly those working in consulting or investment banking (but other fields are great too). Really, nothing is hotter than an accomplished girl in a suit, as long as she is willing to settle down and have my children. I want a girl who will support my ambitions against the naysayers in society."
I want an independent woman with a career and ambitions, but then I want her to forget all that and become wholly dependent on me. Or take Rob from California:
"I am interested in meeting someone that truly embodies the values and virtues of Objectivism. I have found very few women that have not already been beaten down to a flimsy, irrational, empty pulp. I have changed many girls’ lives, but no one has blown me away yet."
Rob, Lewis, and the ROM are all so wrapped up in themselves that they are comically unaware of how weird and anti-social they seem. All -- product and people -- seem lonely and bewildered that the world hasn't fallen for them yet, and at the same time so arrogant and unwilling to compromise that they may doom themselves to a tiny niche market that will adore them in spite of who and what they are.


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