Part 2: Mutual Awareness and Casual Exposure

London, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Corfu, Katerini

March 29 – April 18th

(Read Part One)

How long do you have to spend in a place to know it, or (at least) to make some worthwhile pronouncement about it and/or your experience with it? Anthropology says about a year and a half – that’s the standard length of time for doctoral fieldwork. Journalism often gets around the challenges of observation and authority by keeping a great many statements as quotes and attributions. Term papers go by the rule that if someone else said it, it carries weight. Yet limited personal experience with the new, exciting and different is something people is one people often feel compelled to share: IE, travel, something (especially on this blog) I’ve spent a great deal of my time writing about.

A friend of mine, a fellow Midwesterner who visited Europe last year, said that London “feels like it’s the center of something,” a statement with which I concur after having lived there for a year: the city is comfortable with its gravity and has a notable magnetic field. The thing that still strikes me as most endemically (if not uniquely) London as I experienced it is the incredible international diversity of the inner city, the emigrants, expats, natives, tourists, and travelers and the various shades of how one considers him or herself to be any of the above. London is a place that, comfortably embodied as itself, thrives on thoughts of elsewheres. The university scene in London is exemplary of that: I am in a program(me) with very few British students, and even fewer second or third-generation British. At one seminar, I looked across a room of 60 students and counted 40 different countries represented; the remarkable thing here is not the variety, but how commonplace it is. A port town and the former seat of Empire, a place that have always been enmeshed in international exchange, London today feels like a place where the world settles down for a time and then moves on.

“But that’s every city,” said an academic, visiting from Scandinavia, who I met at a conference. “Tell me something unique.”

The author, in front of the Olympics countdown clock at Trafalgar Square. Here’s what the Square looks like in Tweets.

London is, of course, getting ready to show itself to the rest of the world for the Olympics, at a cost currently estimated at £24 billion ($38 billion USD), up from an original bid of £2.4 billion – changes which operate on “selective logics of inclusion” for both internationals and locals (for a study on potential socio-economic and environmental impact, see here). This international welcome further comes as changes in policy are making it more difficult for foreigners like me to stay and work in the country. The current bonus one gets for paying overseas tuition and graduating from a UK university: until your student visa runs out to find a job (for me, January), or go into the general Tier 2 pool, in which case you must not only be the best person for the job but the only person, as employers are legally required to take a minimally qualified EU candidate over candidates from anywhere else. I don’t think this will change the character of England’s capital much, taken as a whole, but it will create frustrations for a lot of folks looking for a good life and a good living.

The Olympics will obviously be a thoroughly massive and momentous event, but it should also be noted that a common local sentiment regarding them is a fear of logistics: its going to be peak hour on the Tube all day, every day, and twice and packed. We who spend a lot of time here (native born, immigrant, expat, etc) love this city and most of us are totally stoked with the rest of the world visiting if you’d kindly form an orderly queue and not do it all the hell at once. Much like the experience of watching the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee flotilla along the riverside, struggling to see over the heads of the rows in front of you, its a thing that will likely be at its most accessible as televised spectacle, perhaps from somewhere else in Europe, funded by a sublet flat. My current plan: work on my thesis from the relative isolation of Iowa, where I am at present.

The Olympics, however – amidst all its televised glory, logistical complications, and legal clampdowns – highlight part of what makes the questions of my first paragraph so pronounced: ours is an age of mutual awareness and casual exposure.

As I mentioned in my previous post, part of the reason why this blog hasn’t been updated in so long is the migration of personal-storytelling-as-mass-broadcast to Facebook, and from the written blog post to the topical photo album. Among the bits of research I’ve become aware of as a student of Digital Anthropology, David Frohlich divides photography into three eras: in the first – roughly until 1920 – photos were used for documentation. Then, with the introduction of the personal camera, there was a shift toward ‘capturing memories,’ the “Kodak moments” of our families’ lives. Now, with the Internet, the photo is used as a means of outright communication as we regularly post pictures to discuss our lives, to tell jokes, to make political statements, to share the significant with the mundane. This shift is part of the social dynamic that underlies this excellent article disparaging a site I still happen to make frequent use of: “How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet.” Simply put, Flickr is for sharing pictures with people you don’t know, and one of the more pervasive myths of the Internet is that everybody knows everybody.

Eric Fischer’s tourist photo map of London, based on data from the Geotaggers World Atlas. Blue dots represent photos taken by locals, red by tourists, and yellow by people who could be either.

The Orloj (built: 1410, photo: 2005)

Vacation pictures were once stereotyped as dreaded albums and slide trays, ritual abuses inflicted by overactive hosts to their captive dinner guests.  You’ve seen the Eiffel Tower, you’ve seen your neighbor, and while the pictures of them together may hold an important memory and proof of experience for him/her, the interest you have in seeing the two together may vary.  The Internet – however – changed how one shares images, what one shares, and the concept of a ‘vacation’ and how you bring your friends with you – or the world to your friends. Pictures now appear limitless, but their quantity (and the times we take them) spread unevenly in time and space. I think of the preponderance of pictures I take when I’m on the road, along routes with which I have only tenuous, mass-mediated connections. versus the fewer, focused shots of places in which I’ve stayed for extended periods of time. This is vividly illustrated by Eric Fischer – who, using geotagged information – put together these maps  of where temporary versus extended residents have taken pictures. As far as the Internet is concerned, the global image of Prague has barely been photographed by any locals (other cities relevant to this series: Berlin and Budapest).

Modern-day variation?

Modern tourism is an act of possession, about seeing things – sometimes wondrous things – and appropriating them as part of our lives, as images and experiences that often converge around recognizable landmarks. In Prague, that is the Old Town Square, the heart of the tourist section, where you do as everyone does: stop and look at the Orloj, the astronomical clock. Built in 1410, it is the oldest timepiece of its kind still working, a rotating and revolving display of hours, minutes, the Zodiac, phases of moon, and the sun, with a procession of medieval vanities and saints rung by Death Itself. As any guidebook will tell you (apocryphally?) the clock was so beautiful that the local leaders blinded its creator lest he surpass it with a subsequent display in some other town. So the clock goes, and – as it has for over four hundred years –the cosmic procession continues, and all the tourists stop and look – as I did seven years ago, and I did this April, as if we can freeze time into something we can take with us.

The Old Town Square is a center for memento commerce, a nexus that one wanders into (purposefully and randomly) on the way to see any number of other sites.  On my trip the Easter markets were set up, surrounding the statue of church reformer Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake in 1415 for challenging the Church (many reforms he suggested were later pressed by Martin Luther) and whose death sparked nearly two decades of war.  This is the heart, too, of a visual performance of place, stacked with things seasonal and mundane, hundreds of varieties of hand-painted  hollow eggs and things labeled “Prague,” among which are: wooden dragon puppets, refrigerator magnets, Prague condoms, Prague sex dice, witches, crystal, the same “Born to Be Wild” shirts as were emblazoned with my summer camp’s logo over a decade ago and other quick-press themes (“Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go to “[place]”), plush toys of Zdeněk Miler’s “Mole” character, Mole books. Like the stacks of Royal Wedding kitsch in London that are now being supplanted with soon-to-be-discounted Queen’s Jubilee and London Olympics 2012, these are the marks of a particular image of place, their authenticity drawn from memories and associations of having been procured of a specific location.

The more we walk past that clock, however, the more we ignore it, blend in with it, and ingrain ourselves in a city on its own terms (even if largely as a part of its tourist ecology). Much as in Bourdieu’s idea of the habitus – that the environment contains cues that compel our behavior – we absorb things that surround us, and in growing comfortable with them ignore, turning attention to logistics and life and the background.The notion of difference – and exposure thereto – has been part of what has driven anthropology, too, in tension with the value placed on understanding through length of contact; the tendency to be unaware of so many of the norms of our environments, because of how ingrained they are, to be ‘homeblind.’ Or, to return – a similar sentiment expressed in an oft-quoted line by T.S. Elliot (a Midwesterner who moved to London), that we may “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

For my own region, I remembered the space but forgot about the humidity. You can’t photograph the air, even though it feels like wet fabric in the summer. I flew from London to Minnesota and from there drove. It just gets hotter and more humid the further south you go – through Iowa, to Kansas, to Oklahoma, all the way through a continent of seasonal green parted by the blacktop, spending hours in a moving box of air conditioning. Back in the U.S. (at least for the summer), the visuals seem fixed, and so much right where I left it in Iowa, just a little older, even as the air reminds me less of my own memories than the tropical nightmare of a flooded London in Ballard’s The Drowned World, the city where, in reality, I had left changing sky and unchanging buildings.

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Part One: Every City that Ever Was

London, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Corfu, Katerini

March 29 – April 18th

World map in the hull of the Cutty Sark. Damaged by fire in 2007, the last remaining clipper ship re-opened for visitors in Mary 2012.

In January, I left the city for the first time since the week I arrived. When you haven’t seen the countryside for a while, any patch of grass or snowy field, sped by on a train, can remind you of everywhere. Places that I have never been look like places I have not seen for a long time.  I missed parking lots, the horror of great big Wal-Mart parking lots. One of the common criticisms of driving through the Midwestern countryside where I grew up is that it all looks the same, and that it goes on forever – yet there is always there, I’ve found, a reminder through space that the world is very big.

“The city is more beautiful than the country because it is rich in human history,” writes London native Peter Ackryod in chapter 46 of London: The Biography, an 801-page parade of historical fragments that portray London as “every city that ever was and ever will be,” (a quote Ackroyd borrows from Stephen Graham’s London Nights [1925]). Ackroyd claims all sentiments for London – for example, Mary Firth, aka Moll Cutpurse, is not just one of the city’s many celebrated historical criminals, but (like every damn thing) “symbolic of London itself,” her disguised femininity above all “a token of urban identity” (619). London is a “a city perpetually doomed” (p192) by the plague and fires, a place that has “always been characterized by the noise that is an aspect of its noisomeness” (66), and attempts to map it represent “an attempt to understand the chaos and thereby to migrate to it; it is an attempt to know the unknowable.” (104). Ackroyd’s London contains multitudes to the point of parody. To get a sense of the vibe of mythic London, I’d recommend looking through some Hogarth pictures; they’re much more thematically organized, evocative, funnier, and quicker to browse.

“Please tell us about an object in your home which has come from another country.” Interactive exhibition at the Geffrye Museum of the Home.

In well-known cities, there are always marked contrasts between the vibrancy of culture and the physical realities of people living in close proximity, in buildings that last centuries (or pretend like they can), that will break down, change hands, shift from business to tenement and back again. Ackroyd is right about how the city can feel all-encompassing:  the world seems to have been drawn to this place in its totality, beginning with the Romans who built the first permanent settlement in the first century CE.  International and intercultural coexistence is a conspicuous norm in most neighborhoods – like Golders Green, which I visited last week, and its streets of Orthodox-kosher Korean, Japanese and Chinese restaurants. It’s somewhat unnerving to visit Oxford (an hour away by train) and hear a uniform accent across the people you meet in the streets. Yet it would be a mistake to think that just because people have come together to make something new, in a place with a particular history, that their lives in the city are their only lives. That the things in the city are not contained by it is one of London’s great joys. It is partially for this reason that the posts on my blog tend to be weirdly formal and regrettably infrequent; the everyday stuff of pubs and museums and annoyances and fun has largely migrated to Facebook, where it sits with some 600 friends from around the world, mingling with their domestic lives.

Likewise, the cosmopolitan nature of the city disguises how small it really is; that London seems like it could envelope the whole world is a sentiment better struggled against than accepted. To view London as ‘every city’ is to lose the specificity of what it and every other city can be. It’s the danger when you stay anywhere for too long: you can forget there are other places, and the specifics of your own street mask their similarities to other streets. And then, all windswept vistas look alike.

Now in June – on the verge of returning to the American countryside (at least for the summer) for fieldwork –I’m scrambling to become a tourist in what has become my own city. It’s the leaving of London, though, for other cities that prompted this series of posts. Two months ago, I took a three-week trip through Europe with a friend from Iowa. It’s the ‘overseas short-term resident’ trip: go out and see “Europe,” because it’s all ‘right there.’ I left London to begin in Berlin, staying in the same place I did seven years ago: a hostel themed after the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which provided not only continuity with my previous trip (documented in these three posts), but unexpectedly a bookend for the trip itself with the mural on the wall, depicting a whale being called into being and a pot of flowers falling out a window and thinking to itself, “oh no, not again.” The story concludes on the Greek island of Corfu with hundreds of pots being thrown from windows, but we’ll get there soon enough.

London: The heap, as viewed from Acton Street, Early Spring

Destroyed in World War II and rebuilt for the Berlin Airlift, Tegel Airport will join Templehof as defunct sometime this month, leaving Berlin-Schönefeld and the newly-built Berlin-Brandenburg as the only ways into the city by air.

Berlin, 2005: The Palast der Republik under demolition

Leaving a mild winter in London into March in Berlin was a trip to a different archetypal set of aesthetics of urban life, beginning with the rain.  The image of London fog, drizzle and umbrellas hasn’t held for most of my nine months here; even throughout winter, days remained sunny, in part due to a two-year drought. That month, public service announcements finally responded reminding us to conserve water, just in time for a few rainy days to make them look out of place. Now the bus and train station signs read “Rain or Shine…”  Berlin’s weather was closer to that of a London of legend, overcast greys and drizzle, but the streets themselves are entirely Berlin, reflective dynamics of cool materials that the city makes its own, rising above the layers of history that crack open and are exposed.

That same space, 2012

London, by contrast, is – in a literal, physical sense – remarkably flat, and the grime of centuries past is (depending on the neighborhood) swept away or built overtop, “that great pile upon which the city rests” (Ackryod: 111).  Neighborhoods become trendy or posh or fall into collapse, gentrify or become derelict, and the city rises, decays and ultimately builds something else on its own ruins. Berlin embraces the myth of the modern; postwar, the Eastern and Western sides of the city worked to reinvent themselves in visions of alternate futures. London’s more visible aesthetic divides appear, often, to have happened practically. The industrial docklands in the East of the city – where the Olympics will happen – were built into the glass-and-skyscraper business district, while around Bloomsbury (where I’ve spent much of my year), the townhouses of eras passed were rebuilt with whatever resources could be found.  Now, these two-to-three story earth-toned mishmashes are being primped and restored in time for the Olympics, sending a message that the place’s styles have always been, will always be, up to date, despite the general transience of London’s population.

Seven years and there’s more continuity than I expected in Berlin, at least between a few days in May in 2005 and 2012. Lounge act Gayle Tufts still has a show going. The punks at the Alex have migrated to the open field where the Palace of the Republic once was, while around the corner from the Topography of Terror – the exposed torture cells from the Nazi secret police, beneath one of the last remaining sections of the Berlin Wall – the Trabi Safari lets you take a drive through the city in East German style. I picked up a few historic sights I hadn’t seen in 2005, but I was more there for the flight, as a launching point, and for nostalgia. When I went to China in 2007, I felt like I was leaving America for a different life, and that the two places marked a divide and I would have to be in either one or the other. With a friend from Iowa (who is living in Italy) in Berlin – a place I had been before with different people – I felt like life was continuous.

Like fields but unlike in inner London, the interiors and exteriors breathe with space. Having coffee in a shop and looking out on the streets near Friedrichstrasse Station and thinking: there are not enough people walking by to achieve the critical mass of the London street, where crossing lights lack authority, and after the first few people step into traffic, the pedestrians claim the intersection. And you cross, with so many people you will never meet again.

See more pictures at Flickr

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In London: A Long-Delayed Update

Not long ago, I posted a rather idyllically indulgent message to Facebook from the Bloomsbury Festival wi-fi:

[Matt] is under a tree, reading “Coming of Age in Second Life” on my laptop at Russell Square in  the midst of the Bloomsbury Festival. It’s a perfect day here weather-wise, the park is full of people, music, crafts, bookstands and art installations – to my right, magnetic poetry-type poems made by visitors on chains of paper that go above my head to the path, strung together thick like a tunnel. Lantern parade/drumline was Friday night. It’s a great London Sunday…

Which was true, more or less. Bloomsbury Festival weekend closed on what was about as close as you could get to a perfect day outside, sunny and low-70s (F) on top of what has already been an unseasonably warm fall, another in a line of what is fast becoming a tradition of relaxing Sundays that have thus far taken me to explore the streets of Whitechapel (see above) and the old hunting grounds that are the forests of Richmond. The Festival felt like a more expansive vision of the grab-the-kids-and-head-to-the-park events that brought together each town I knew growing up, fitting the description of London that seems to resonate most with friends here, “like a thousand overlapping small towns that happen to have millions of people in them.“ I suppose any place you live can feel small – or at least manageable, though not necessarily comprehensible.

The ‘small town’ comparison does bear out (somewhat) historically: much of what we today call London was developed across hundreds of years by aristocratic families who built their estates into residential and business districts. Beginning in 1863, a similar jigsaw development puzzle was enacted beneath London as a handful of companies carved out stretches of railway that would only later be combined into the world’s largest below-ground train system. These two development schemes come together, incidentally, in Cyril M. Harris’ slim but useful volume “What’s in a Name?” which lists the origins of the names of all the Underground’s active tube stops, a catalog of ‘hams’ (from the old English for home, casually indistinguishable from hamm, ‘a water meadow’), towers, hills and family lands – some of which date to the Domesday Book,  William the Conqueror’s commissioned 11the century land/taxation survey and perhaps literature’s greatest discrepancy between interestingness of title of content.

More literally, London has 14 million people and is the EU’s largest city. In a very obvious sense it is a sprawling metropolis, stretching in all directions, disembodied from the countryside to one who flew into Heathrow. Despite being in England, the city is in many respects a cultural no-man’s land –the most recent census (2001) states that over one in four Londoners were born outside the UK. London is a transnational, liminal space, an Everycountry unto itself. University College London’s slogan that it is “London’s Global University” is almost redundant. We’ve all come from around the world for whatever reasons – work, study, following a significant other (and I know people who have done each) – to do our time in this gloriously full place, full of people and energy, to spend evenings in the pubs that spill out onto the sidewalk and the street and to rent rooms in its mold-addled, ridiculously expensive apartments.

Northwest of the center (The capital-C “City” or “City of London”), street-level Bloomsbury was developed by the Dukes of Bedford – the Russell family  – and associated names (Bedford, Russell, Tavistock) label the streets and squares in the area. In the early 20th century, the time of Bertrand Russell (the family’s most famous scion), it was also the home of the “Bloomsbury Group” (whose membership included writer Virginia Woolf and economist John Maynard Keynes). T.S. Elliot had his offices here in a building that is now owned by SOAS; around another corner is the Queen’s Square, where Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were married and along which is a shop where George III’s wife daily went to get his lunch soup in lead-lined bowls. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – which, in the mid-1800s briefly brought painting back to a visually bright if superficially sunny disposition – was founded here, and around another corner its most prominent member, Dante Rossetti, had an apartment.

The neighborhood forms a north-to-south line of most of the locations where I spend my days – from UCL’s campus that flows into Birkbeck’s into the School of Oriental and African Studies (all members of the 31-institution University of London system) to Russell Square to Senate House Library to the British Museum to (a bit further down) the Strand and the London School of Economics. Most of this information is – of course – available in any guidebook, and to any resident the history part is largely as relevant as one cares to invest in (or romanticize) it. As I’m primarily here for the functional reason of being a formal student in a subject other than ‘London’, investing in that history has to come on my off-time in between reading and generally having other experiences. Which is all to say that some of the more focused posts I could have written may have been lost to time, and I realize now I’ve been over here around two months haven’t let most of you in on just what I’ve been spending my time doing.

This may be, by nature, a bit superficial, somewhat ironic given that I’ve been studying a science of qualitative observation. Technology, too, has changed since my 2005 and 2007 trips to China, and the format of the public blog is not quite designed for the personal, candid pieces I was writing then for a fairly heftily-sized email list.  On the other hand, I’ve been posting shorter bits on Facebook (like the above) and an ever-growing folder of interestingly-phrased street signs.

Moreover, studying anthropology makes one wary of spouting too many broad public pronouncements on ‘place’ after being in an area only a few weeks. But in another sense, it is quite anthropological to wait a bit and draw a general sense from the experience, and I hope to build on it in specifics within the coming weeks.

Continuing, some demystification:  London is awesome, but being a student here also has its own equivalents to the “large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches” that David Foster Wallace talked about to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College. Being a student (particularly after you’ve worked full time for a while) feels very liminal to me, much as the possibilities life holds often contrast with lived experience’s tendency to skew toward the mundane. Every night London has more people than seem to be able to fit into its buildings spilling onto the streets as late as I’ve been up, yet the tubes close around midnight, many pubs sooner.  There are more events that you could even hear about – and there are events, everywhere, ever night – but one’s hours are limited and the actual experience is of excitement within boundaries.

While I have passed the anti-war protests that have been outside Westminster Abbey longer than I’ve been in the city, I still haven’t made it to the protests at St. Paul’s and the London Stock Exchange – products of growing economic frustrations the likes of which led last year led to protests over cuts to educational subsidies and a lift on tuition caps will allow schools to charge UK students up to £9,000 a year in 2012. While these rates are still not what EU students pay – and a little more than half what non-EU ‘overseas’ students like myself are charged – they are a dramatic step up from the maximum £3,290 that can be charged for this school year, which are in turn an increase from the £1,000 that was allowed to be charged in 1998; prior to that, higher education was free in England, at least for the English. And for me and my middle-class Americanness, the nationality grants an easier time passing a convoluted visa process, and the class grants access to resources, i.e. the ability to borrow money.

I occasionally go to this room in Senate House library to study, but I should also mention that a few weeks ago my library card up and stopped working and I spent half an hour in queue before getting past the security checkpoint. Metropolitan Police Department took two weeks to get back to me after my camera was stolen, and the matter is still tied up with insurance and going on six weeks. There’s also weekend work (spurred by the Olympics) on the Underground that shuts down vital stations just when you have free time, forgetting your student ID when attempting to check out a book on reserve and having to hike an hour round trip back to your apartment to search for it only to find that it was in your backpack all that time and upon returning to the library discovering that the book you were looking for was not there anyway, and waiting a week to get an appointment with the doctor over the cough you’ve been having only to find it conflicts with a meeting with your academic advisor and it’s too late to reschedule so you’ll just have to do without.

I’m not cataloguing petty crap to complain – these wasted moments are getting fewer, I quite like it here, and often while walking down the street after drag myself out of bed after lying somewhere between waking and sleep for longer than I should (if judged by a business, and not a student, schedule) I realize the novelty of the city hasn’t worn off. I just want to be honest about how time gets spent, and what means allow it.

But as for what I’m actually here to do:

For around 20 hours each week from Monday through Thursday I’m attending official functions – that is, classroom lectures, seminars (led discussion), and invited speaker seminars (an hour’s presentation, followed by a half-hour discussion and often drinks or food) from each of UCL’s four branches of Anthropology: Material & Visual Culture / Digital (of which I am a part, and which share classes for the fall semester before splitting next spring), Biological Anthropology, Social/Cultural, and Medical. The list of this fall’s topics is here.  On Friday mornings I attend another anthropology seminar series at the London School of Economics.

This semester I am ‘taking’ the Core course, general Methods, Documentary Film & the Anthropological Eye, and Anthropology of Games and Simulation for credit, though the advantage of the system is that one can audit as many courses as one can physically attend – thus I also attend seminars on Applied Studies (anthropology in the workplace) and Anthropology and Photography. Until this week I was taking the Documentary course but not for credit, and decided to sign up for it when I thought of a good idea for a final paper. I don’t attend all sessions of the non-credit courses every week, but attend most on most weeks. Students are generally not expected to purchase books, but rather to use the library’s (sometimes limited supply of) copies of nearly everything. Journal articles are distributed electronically via the library, to conform to copyright regulations.

The flipside of this system is that virtually all assessment for courses rests on a final exam or essay, as professors don’t distinguish between (or often keep track of) who is sitting their courses for credit and who isn’t. 50% of my final grade for the programme as a whole will be weighted by dissertation, the other 50% divided among an exam, a practical project, and final essays for four modules that are judged entirely on their 2,000-3,000 word final essays, the topics for which are trickling in just in time for the class-free reading week.  The freedom also contributes to an administrative structure in which course locations sometimes aren’t finalized until weeks after they’ve begun, as some courses turn out to be more popular than were anticipated and require larger venues. This can all seem a bit disorganized to those used to different systems; as a friend who went to Cambridge said, “It’s London….the disorganization is a London thing”.

Seemingly more important than courses, however – and this is, no doubt, also related to the shift from undergraduate to post-graduate – is an emphasis on immersion in academic life and the life of the department, a processes of socializing and socialization. The approach here is very much ‘research-led’ – during the first weeks, professors talked with us about the direction of their own research projects, with the understanding that as we develop our own if there could be some convergence, we ought to talk.

“You will read and drink more than you ever had in your life,” said my friend Angela on what this process of postgrad education may entail, something that fits nicely with both the centrality of the pub to life in England and the existential crisis of the single scholar: the fear of dying alone underlining sentences on Chinese immigrant-run portrait studios in Java.

Anthropology is not my academic background – let alone the British ‘social’ strain, which diverges from the American ‘cultural’ one (an explanation of what this entails from the UK Royal Anthropological Society’s perspective can be found here). If there is an underlying goal for the year, it appears to be learning how to speak the discourse: to understand the arguments, the stakes, the nuances, theory, and what makes a query anthropological.  I chose the program, in part, for these reasons:  I wanted a discipline that I could apply to something more interdisciplinary like ‘media studies,’ rather than continuing this stage of my education in that sort of wilderness. It’s an odd feeling: I know how to take apart a movie piece by piece, I can cite directors’ names and influences and the six degrees of Kevin Bacon – that’s a discourse I know – but I didn’t realize how naturally that sort of thing comes to me in that single context (film) until finding myself adrift in a sea of new names, relationships, and arguments that I need to not just connect, but root in some basis.

On a more subtle level, my search is for what Pierre Bourdieu described in his foundational text Outline of a Theory of Practice as the habitus – the underlying aspects of our world that reinforce for us how to behave that are not explicitly stated. Bourdieu himself described academia in similar terms of reinforcement and power structures, though not particularly flaterringly, in his 1984 book Homo Academicus. Or to phrase it another way, the challenge is in part to understand why we cite Bourdieu instead of, say, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, whose experiments with ape language research (which I wrote about in a story that will be published in BV Today in January 2012) hit a turning point when she realized that young apes (and indeed, young humans) learn language through immersion more than direct reinforcement. Or perhaps more simply, just that time-honored method of participant-observation is at work here. Or just education.

Yet Digital Anthropology is in many ways uncharted ground, and not just because approximately every other ethnography describes Papua New Guinea or the Amazonian Ya̧nomamö tribe. I’m used to thinking of interdisciplinarity in terms of the humanities, yet in some views Digital Anthropology is in a sense ‘interdisciplinary’, not just for how it charts of newly-developing frontiers but coming as it does from a Material/Visual Culture background rooted in archeology.  The anthropological interest in new media – as, for example, explored by Tom Boellsdorf in Coming of Age in Second Life (2008) –  is not so much the speed at which technology has proliferated as the ways in which people have adopted it, how social norms have developed (and are developing) in these new environments, and how this relates to the ways in which people have in the past adopted social norms. Boellsdorf did his research entirely in Second Life, wanting to take the virtual world on its own terms.  He created an avatar and opened up an office, conducting participant-observation entirely within the structure of Second Life.  His book is in part an exploration of methodology in such an environment, and on a more underlying level a plea to take the study of virtual worlds seriously, citing such precedent examples of virtuality and virtual/mediated relationships as the printing press (which enabled, as described by Benedict Anderson, people to imagine themselves as parts of a larger nation state), pen pals, and the telephone.

As I posted from Facebook in Russell Square, the strips of poetry were a forest, growing to eclipse the famous lines on posters that had lined the path since Friday, “let us go then you and I / when the evening is spread out against the sky” sounding sweet and upbeat and recontextualized amidst a parade of drums and lanterns. Numerous texts I’ve read in these months note that creative works on virtuality, the Internet, and technology  tend to portray visions that are either utopic (Star Trek) or dystopic (The Matrix, Blade Runner, The Social Network), with technology cast as either savior or destroyer. That same sort of drift toward extremes, I think, happens in a great deal of popular fiction, and can pervade the memories we call up in our own lives if we wait too long to write about them.

The Bloomsbury Festival ended for me at St. George’s, at a musical performance by the Soundcastle collective composed for the site and designed specifically to exploit the acoustics of the environment – the last church Hawksmoor designed, based on notes from his mentor and fellow major London architect Christopher Wren. The first part led us outside and to the courtyard, surrounded by a string quartet, the bells and the sound of the street; the second half was inside the square temple-like church of Plymouth stone, with woodwinds and obscure percussion out of our view on the balcony, the lights of the street through the windows providing light along with the cell phone game played by the hulking, 6’4”+ teenager who sat next to me. The music was ambient but melodic, the performance – unlike anything I’d heard– was put together as part of a masters’ programme with the Guildhall. What I will report next fall on my own project is as yet undecided, though there are several diverse directions with which I’m working.  What I’m thinking about this fall, and synthesizing, remains under development, with more to describe as I head into December and papers.


So I Moved to London to Study Digital Anthropology

Six years ago in late August I arrived in Yunnan – China’s most ethnically and geographically diverse province – to find a massive techno-cultural transition going on. Five years prior, in 2001, John Bryan Starr had published on page 249 of his book Understanding China that “with the important exception of The Sound of Music – which seems to have been seen at least once by every living person in mainland China – most available foreign films are cheap B-grade movies.” By 2005, the B-movies were still there (see above), but the availability had changed massively. As I wrote then of Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, in rather lengthy bit of research I never found a venue in which to publish:

Scattered amongst the hair salons and mini-marts and clothing stores and the Internet cafes are the disc shops. Their outside walls are cluttered with posters advertising the latest films and albums. Inside and outside are tables, stands, and shelves filled with D5s (single-layer DVDs, holding about 4.5 gigabytes of information) in thin cardboard sleeves. The sleeves are in their own plastic sheathes, which can be unsealed at the bottom… At any given store, a selection of more than 1,000 titles would be considered small. At the shop across the street from Yunnan Normal, I estimate there are over 2,500 different titles for sale. Copies of the same title are rubber banded together, and to see what movies are for sale it’s usually necessary to thumb through the baskets or shelves. Though Chinese and foreign movies are kept distinct and there is some organization by genre, for the most part the shelves seem to be sold with the sheer joy of variety overload.

This is a long way from a few years ago in Beijing, where [my instructor] said that vendors were hiding their movies beneath manhole covers.

I counted 20 such shops within a ten-minute’s walking radius, the opening of which had begun to accelerate in earnest around 2003. While I haven’t back to Kunming since 2005 (and China since 2008), I have noted that Kunming (truly a place I love, lest you view all this by its negative connotations) has been in the news for stores that copy the entire retail experiences of Ikea and the Apple Store. What I didn’t realize quite as much then was all this was only one aspect of globalization of media, something I had been living in small-town Iowa, and that was going to grow beyond physical media into clouds and streams, and beyond the largely one-way art of conventional distribution channels to a social-artistic experience.

All this brings me to why I find myself to the flat of an acquaintance (who I got to know through Facebook) in Camden right now, listening to numerous accents of the sidewalk traffic and the echo of train stop announcements, preparing to spend the year studying Digital Anthropology at University College London (UCL). It is the third year the programme is being offered, and (arguably) the programme is the first of its kind in the world.

While the title ‘Digital Anthropology’ may seem a little unconventional, research into “the social and cultural dimensions of information technologies and digital media” (as described on the programme’s web page) is important, something I first realized you could study back during my undergrad semester in Yunnan. Look at the Internet and think how much time you spend on it – and how its changed the way you make new friends, stay in touch with old ones, find information, conduct business, and (special to Facebook) build imaginary farms. Or the role of cell phone and social networks in the organization, suppression and prosecution of the recent riots in the city I’ll be calling home; as I write this, police are sifting through tens of thousands of hours of footage matching the clothing on masked rioters with footage of them unmasked. Look over this post and think about how comprehensible it might have been a decade or two ago.

Communication has changed dramatically – how its changing is important to try to understand and has implications of art, humanitarianism, business, and policy, and trying to understand some aspects of this is going to implicitly affect all our lives and perhaps explicitly be the focus of a good deal of my primary career.

While there are many academic programs worldwide studying these things under different names (“media studies,” etc), I chose Digital Anthropology in part because I liked the idea of rooting a methodological approach in social and cultural aspects, as well as UCL’s egalitarian ethos. The anthropology program here is known for its emphasis on research in material and visual culture – i.e., stuff, and stuff we can see – and their connection to social relationships. Objects. Keepsakes. Knick-knacks. “Of bleeding skulls and the postcolonial uncanny: bones and the presence of Nonosabasut and Demasduit”; “‘The hallmark of a doctor’: the stethoscope and the making of medical identity”; and “Your Trash Is Someone’s Treasure: The Politics of Value at a Michigan Landfill” to name three relatively recent article titles in the affiliated Journal of Material Culture. The program is co-led by Daniel Miller, whose book The Comfort of Things – concerning how residents of a London neighborhood relate to the objects in their homes, and build/maintain relationships with people with them – I found immensely enjoyable and insightful when I read it last year. As long as humans still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea, there will be stuff, and with it stuff to talk about.

This sort of grounding seems the ideal springboard from which go into new and social media, which at times can seem quite intangible and in other ways is very concrete – as in the record kept by an online message board, or the physical object of a pirate DVD. From several of my classmates who I’ve communicated with via Facebook (again, Facebook!), it seems as if at least a few come with some video/film in their backgrounds, something I fit right in with. For professional considerations, the program also enables me to build on my copywriting experience in BVU’s Marketing & Communications Department, as well as the understanding of the business environment and how websites are run, maintained, and monitored.

I’m not finished writing about Storm Lake yet – before I left earlier this month, I outlined a few entries I hope to write on the city, its people, places, and my time there. I’m not finished with piracy yet, either – building on what I looked at in Kunming in some sense may form part of my masters’ thesis. And, of course, I’ll be chronicling my life and studies in London through some of the same technology I’ll be studying. We’re all doing it – the studying and chronicling, I mean. I just found a place that gave it a name I liked.


Whiskey Break! (Templeton Rye)

Most towns 20,000-some bicyclists pass through on RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) are known for something. It’s a strongly (though not exclusively) American  impulse: to find that one thing in one’s burg, no matter how small, that connects with the national consciousness, no matter how tenuously.

My hometown of Clarion (RAGBRAI overnight stop 1993, meet-up town 2007), for example, is the birthplace of the 4-H  emblem – each of the four leaves of a clover representing one of the H’s of the agricultural youth organization’s pledge.  I never joined 4-H, what with being a solid small town urbanite who grew up a full block from the corn fields. The local point-of-pride that interested me more was Glen Buxton, Alice Cooper’s lead guitarist, who retired to semi-obscurity in Clarion and whose death in 1997 sparked a brief media blitz. Once – while I was volunteering some service at the cemetery with a local youth group I was a part of – my quest to find Mr. Buxton’s gravesite was detoured by an adult leader who steered me toward the grave of a high school girlfriend of his who had died young, him lamenting (during the steering) that there were plenty of other people who had lived and died around here too. Anyway (whiskey is coming, I promise) at several local events during my own high school years, I portrayed O.H. Benson, the local school superintendent who, in 1906, decided to attach the clover symbol to the Wright County Agricultural and Homemaking Clubs, inspired by a gift of seven of the good luck charms from children at the one-room schoolhouse that now sits in the Clarion’s Gazebo Park. In 1911, Benson went to Washington D.C. to help develop such groups nationally and brought the symbol with him. Five minutes ago, you had probably never heard this story, but every child who goes through the Clarion-Goldfield public school system knows a simplified version of it by some combination of heart, hands, head and/or health.

Several miles up the road from Clarion is Woolstock, birth place of TV’s original Superman, George Reeves. Further in Southwestern Iowa, the McDonald’s in Denison has a wall display dedicated to native daughter actress Donna Reed. Towns without a vaguely-recognizable figure who was born or died there tend to adorn their welcome signs with gentle hyperbole like “Crossroads of the Nation” (Early, pop. c. 600) and/or hyperbolic puns like “A Gem of a Town in a Friendly Setting” (Jewell, pop c. 1,200) or hyperbole and gently-obscene-but-not-really puns like “The Friendliest Town by a Dam Site!” (Quasqueton, pop. c. 500).  While RAGBRAI didn’t pass through any of the above towns in 2011, one of the great joys of the ride is seeing how local pride manifests itself in the friendly people at each stop who are trying to sell you pie. A highlight this year for me: Oxford, in which photographer and resident Peter Feldstein took pictures of all but three of  town’s 800-some residents in 1984 and 2005-6 and published a book about it. Usually, however, a town’s fame does not precede it – nobody knows Elkhorn & Kimballton (2011 Day Two stops) have the greatest rural concentration of Danes outside of Denmark until they see a giant windmill and are confronted with a long line for ethnic pastries and – interest perked – later check Wikipedia.

An exception to this relative obscurity is Templeton (population c. 300, a 2011 Day Two stop) or “Little Chicago,” according to a serviceman in the Philippines as recounted by Templeton Rye company co-founder Keith Kerkhoff. During Prohibition, informal distillers around Templeton (Kerkhoff’s grandfather Alphons among them) made a rye whiskey known for it’s quality that was allegedly favored by Al Capone. Today, the legal variation of Templeton Rye has been selling out wherever it’s allocated in Iowa and going for $18 a shot in (Big) Chicago. Shortages caused by the four-year distilling process and Iowa’s alcohol distribution laws have turned finding the stuff into a cross-state treasure hunt. Templeton Rye jerseys were everywhere on RAGBRAI (look above and to the right) and personally, it’s been a factor in my switch from gin martinis to Manhattans. I won’t embarrass myself by attempting to describe the flavor with adjectives other than “tasty” and “drinkable,” though those are words I’ve never before used to describe whiskey.

Spirited Enterprise – Profile: Keith Kerkhoff, Founder of Templeton Rye

Keith used to play football for Buena Vista University (whose marketing department for which I work) and after graduating came within a few picks of making it to the pros. I was lucky enough to get to profile him – and the story of Templeton Rye – for the July issue of our magazine, BV Today. If you’re curious about how illicit Depression-era stills begat what’s fast becoming 21st-century Iowa’s best-known high-end beverage, 70s college football, the minutia of liquor distribution and three generations of the Kerkhoff family story, pour a shot  and fire up the ol’ PDF viewer.  I said one shot! You’ll want to keep a level head while reading.

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Videos for a Hospital in a Small Town

In my last entry, I wrote about my hometown of Clarion, Iowa, and the relationship between the look of the surrounding landscape and the practicalities of living there.  Pictures I’ve taken with my new Canon 5D Mark II (see below) indicate I won’t be abandoning those themes of specificity and abstraction anytime soon – the Midwestern identity, aesthetic, and experience are rich in these sorts of tensions, a fundamentally ironic one being that the region’s reputation as a ‘place where nothing much happens’ often undercuts their mention.

So, with thoroughly Midwestern tensions in mind, I hesitated a bit with the title on this entry. The rural medical center certainly embraces many small-town ideals, placing a high value on friendliness and viewing its function as an integral part of  the community it serves. Residents know their doctors, professionally and socially; the clinic itself is the setting for dramatic times of joy and sorrow and hundreds of everyday events in between. While this no doubt happens in cities of all sizes, an important small town difference is how this experience in one particular clinic is shared by the majority. Heck, before Clarion got its first hospital building in 1951, surgeries were performed in what was a house, doctor-owned, a one-time home – an apt symbol of the integration of medicine, community, and expectations that care be both professional and patients still be treated “like family.” Long since demolished, I imagine this house as the Eagle Rock Hospital in Cold Turkey, Norman Lear’s pre-All in the Family satire of (among other things) small-town Americana, shot on location in the Iowa towns of Greenfield and Winterset (birthplace of John Wayne, seat of bridges-laden Madison County).

At the same time, the rural medical center tends to be sensitive about being perceived as a podunk ‘band-aid station’ by its urban peers. In that sense the hospital is an effective synedoche for a significant aspect of the Midwestern experience: a fear that comfort is a symptom of provincialism, as exacerbated by the Midwestern capacity for joking self-effacement and the default tendency of media to ignore, romanticize, and/or dismiss what happens outside the city.  It’s telling that Cold Turkey – an eminently watchable film prominently involving well-known talent (Lear, Dick Van Dyke, Randy Newman) and in my opinion one of the funniest films of the 1970s – has yet to see an official release on DVD (let alone Blu-Ray or Netflix) and is most readily available through a Youtube channel named “Rarevintagefilms.” Put another way, while small town America is still very much alive in the present, the friendliness-and-apple-pie part of its image has connotations of belonging to an idealized past, creating a dissonance (or at least a pause) when one thinks of the small town and its relationship with advanced technology and (in this case) the drama of medicine.

To be sure,  hospitals in small towns usually don’t have the pressures and excitement you’d find in a big city E.R. In recent years, however,they have begun to intentionally identify and boldly seize on the strengths of their locations. There exists in northern Iowa a friendly unity and rivalry among several expanding medical centers, each striving to serve their communities with high-quality family practice clinics while angling to become regional centers in differing specialty services.

In the case of Clarion’s Wright Medical Center (WMC), the services offered (particularly orthopaedics) are ever-expanding, while the service quality is patterned after what one might expect from a good hotel if it were run by one’s family. People say hello in the halls; staff don’t just point  you where you need to go, they walk with you to your destination. WMC’s$70 million facility is profitable without subsidies, employing several hundred people (in a town of 3,000 and a county of 13,000), including 26 full-time providers and 30 specialists on staff. As a community member it has been a thrill to watch WMC’s ambition and edifice grow, and yet still be able to find my old gym teacher exercising, walking throughout the connections between the hospital and the connected senior apartments.

By now, of course, you’ve no doubt noted another tension at work in this blog entry: one between reportage and commerce. I’m not just biased by hometown pride, but the fact that since 2008 I’ve produced several videos for WMC, beginning in 2008 when I shot one to honor CEO Steve Simonin at a national convention where he was named to healthcare consulting firm The Studer Group‘s Fire Starter Hall of Fame (Steve, incidentally, asked me to evoke Cold Turkey on this project, which was my introduction to the film). This followed with a move to high-definition in 2010, when I made another to introduce the hospital at the 2010 Iowa Recognition for Performance Excellence (IRPE) banquet. In these videos, I worked with WMC’s marketing department, Steve, and the non-profit Wright Medical Foundation to identify goals and then was turned loose to handle all aspects of production, including directing, shooting, and editing. The links below are to my own high definition streams on Youtube; WMC plans to upload lower-res versions to their own website soon.  Music in both videos is by Josh Woodward, a singer-songwriter who’s been kind enough not only to license all his songs under creative commons, but also to make them available on his website in both full and instrumental versions.

Introductory Video – Iowa Recognition for Performance Excellence – Silver Award, 2011

This video was made to introduce Silver Award winner WMC at the 2011 Iowa Governor’s Recognition of Performance Excellence Celebration, held May 5, and was an updated version of the video that played at 2010’s banquet. While no videos played at the 2011 event due to technical difficulties, the Iowa Quality Center has since found a home for them on its website. All interviews with staff, providers, and the CEO were unscripted; I shaped the narrative in editing.

Wright Medical Foundation – Fundraising Video, 2011

While Wright Medical Center makes more than enough revenue to cover its operating costs – including $14 million in improvements currently underway – many of its major expansions have been financed through the generosity of donors.  These include the first hospital building that was constructed in 1951 and expansions in the 90’s and 00’s that built senior apartments, assisted living facilities, and added new equipment that would otherwise not have been purchased. This video is designed to be played live as part of presentations in homes and at larger banquets and events. The interviews with CEO Steve Simonin and patients Kelly and Judy were captured unscripted, while I wrote the script for Foundation representatives Lisa and Duane. The video went through several major re-drafts, driven by the input of focus groups, before we reached the final version linked above.


But enough words, you were promised photos! Since I shot these videos I’ve added some lenses and upgraded to the Canon 5D Mark II, renowned for its full frame sensor, vivid image quality, and terrible auto-focus system. While I haven’t yet experimented with its video function (which has been used by others to record such projects as the seventh season of House), here are some new pictures that revisit familiar themes. First: some shallow-depth-of-field-friendly portraiture of my friend Angela and her garden, which (the garden) you can read more about  in her blog  “Could the World Be About to Turn?”, which (the blog) covers gardening and the hope of peacefully promoting positive social change and justice, illuminating and embodying numerous regional tensions in her explorations of politics and agriculture:

Next: more life on an abstract plain, more Wright County from the air, in the cautionary words of my my friend Dave “a totalitarian use of land” (a quote I use on this detail-test piece to perhaps balance some of my more Romantic leanings):

Continuing the theme of Midwest-as-abstraction, my favorite of the set:  people relaxing in the middle of the lake, as viewed symmetrically from above, captured on the same flight –

And the city of my current home, Storm Lake, downtown, at night in low light, capturing the anxiety of the photographer over the surprising lack of effort needed to make some subjects look good:

That’s all for now – like I did this time last year, I’m leaving the internet to join one of the most quintessential Iowa experiences: RAGBRAI, the 20,000 person town-t0-town bicycle ride/week-long party that rolls  from the banks of the Missouri River (this year at Glenwood) to the mighty Mississippi (at Davenport).

Pie, beer and 454 miles await.

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Grid of Plenty: Wright County, Iowa

Every time I see the land from the air, I’m surprised: at how far the horizon stretches, at how it can change each season, at how abstract and surreal the place where I lived most of my life can look. North-central Iowa is perhaps one of the regimented-looking places on earth – a grid of farmland on an endless plain that stretches in all directions – and the changes that come with the seasons and weather flow through it on a massive scale.

It is sometimes called ‘flyover country’, a term whose often pejorative connotations are somewhat sad and ironic given that the airplane was a thoroughly Midwestern invention. Transportation is a necessity here, and because of it there’s a tendency to think that the landscape stretches on forever.  When I was middle school if I wanted, say, the newest video game release, it was up to me to beg my parents to haul me and whoever else wanted to come along to the nearest town with a Wal-mart. From Clarion (population 3,000, my hometown, the seat of Wright County), it’s one hour to Ames. Forty-five minutes to Fort Dodge. One and a half to Des Moines. Three to the Twin Cities. One forty-five to Storm Lake, where I live. One fifteen the other way on Highway 3 to Waverly, where I went to college. Even today, visiting friends means traveling five hours along these roads. So if you live here, you drive a lot, in straight lines, for hours at a time.

The mythology of the land (of course) is probably that of the farmer, though the reality is that, while there are still many people involved in agriculture – the last several generations have consolidated their landholdings and many have been bought out by corporate interests, and thus there are fewer ‘farmers’ about.  My grandparents, who were farmers, could look out over their land and see their neighbors, identify who farmed what throughout Butler county, but today, we mostly drive the grid without knowing who owns what. This is not to say the land area is cold or isolating – far from it. I think of the atmosphere of my hometown, I think of it as a warm and  welcoming place, and the drives from spot to spot as peaceful and – a few recent unfortunate and uncharacteristic crashes aside – quiet. But living here, one does absorb an amazing sense of place and the vastness of it all, because of how often you must practically deal with the vastness of it all. This is also, perhaps why most of the pictures I’ve taken (or at least, uploaded online) of the area have been from the air, and even the ones on the ground have emphasized those lines and that scope.

Because my dad has a pilot’s license and flies regularly for fun, I’ve been lucky enough to grow up seeing the land from a small aircraft. You miss a lot of the detail when flying above the clouds. That medium distance is really ideal from which to understand where you’re driving when you’re down there on those roads. It also gives one time to contemplate how surreal it all looks – the expanse, the grid. Up there, it’s not just a distance, but an aesthetic object and an oddly abstract one at that.  Look out far and it can go on for ever, in fall or spring (like those brown ones posted here, taken this Easter) it looks like a desert despite the fertility the dirt hides. Look closer in the right light, and contours prominently appear. Depending on the seasons, the rains and snow melt, there may be some improvised and agriculturally unfortunate rivers and lakes. It is simultaneously one of the most consistent yet constantly changing, repeatedly rejuvenating landscapes one can see.

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Get Your Entertainment [News] Elsewhere (and how[to])!

A while ago, I started a blog. Well, a different blog. It’s out there, floating on the Internet, available through Google searches for all to see but for all intents and purposes abandoned. This may or may not be a shame – there’s like one really good post on there, and a few whose memory makes me hesitant to journey back to whatever I thought I was thinking circa 2008. It was a different world then – America, perched at the precipice and forefront of a global economic disaster, was buoyed by ‘hope’ in a promising pending presidential election, and I was reading nearly decade-old issues of Transmetropolitan and thinking about the connections between them all.

Pop culture and current events – who among us can resist the urge to comment on them? Myself, I’m writing two new columns that will add to those great debates of our time that include: is the new Pirates of the Carribean movie worth seeing? Does Pokemon have anything to do with conflict diamonds? And what do college grads with bachelors’ in the humanities do with their evenings?

Note: I don’t have a picture of me reading anything I’ve written, so I used one I took one of someone else reading what they have. It’s Inez – who teaches at BVU, where we both work – reading from her short story contribution to “Cthulhu Unbound: Volume 2,” the second part in an eldritch series that mixes Lovecraftian horror with other genres – in her story’s case, film noir.

First, I’m joining the young rambly literate types over a Super Fine Magazine, who are fast at work cranking out such intriguing pieces of political-cultural commentary as “Pac Man, Flow, and Erving Goffman” and “Cosmo-Consumption: Liking “Everything” and Meaning It” To this fine titles this week I add “It’s a Miracle Things Don’t Fall Apart When Remembering Greatest Game Ever Played”, an exploration of the pretentiousness of sports movie titles like Miracle, The Greatest Game Ever Played, and especially the soon-to-be-released Things Fall Apart. An excerpt:

 In a line of dialogue in the Things Fall Apart trailer, Coach Ray Liotta demands “You want to do it on your own terms – that is the question.” He thus grammatically mangles the first line of perhaps the single most famous soliloquy in all of literature, fraught with self-doubt and ambiguity, into an imperative to follow the “take arms against a sea of troubles” side of the speaker’s great debate. While Denzel Washington’s coach fires his team up by describing how the mythological Titans challenged the gods, he forgets to mention that they failed and were imprisoned as a result (see also, the Titanic [the ship] [not the movie]).

Expect contributions once every few weeks.

Second: For the next few months, I’ll be contributing movie reviews to Double Take, a joint column with my friend Josh Moniz over at the New Ulm Journal, the prime printed news source for the smallish Minnesota city perhaps best known to outsiders as the home of the August Schell Brewery. If you’re in New Ulm, pick up a copy! If you’re elsewhere, you can view a PDF of the current entertainment section here. Double Take‘s been running for two weeks already, during which Josh and I have reviewed Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules and Scream 4.  This week, we’ll offer our take on The Lincoln Lawyer. It’s a decidedly speed-of-print affair, but promises to be promising.

Look also in the coming weeks for a new tab on this site that will better catalog these articles locales’ in the Great Elsewhere of the Internet – and the occasional post letting you know when something extra cool has been loosed upon the nets. Enjoy!

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Underground, Out West, Through Business and History: Pursuing the American Myth and Dream

Feature and Web Story Roundup, Quarter One 2011

The landscape was hilly, but quintessentially Iowa: nearby was an old windmill and not much further away a church, an idyllic late-winter landscape rendered slightly surreal by the 20 wetsuit-clad people standing in a circle in the middle of the field. We waited there to descend, one on the ladder at a time, down the shaft’s warm air 180 feet into the dark.

There are three ways in to Coldwater Cave – which, with 17.5 miles of tunnels, is the 33rd largest cave in the United States. The first entrance, discovered in 1967, starts in Coldwater Spring; it requires scuba gear and has not been used in decades. When John Ackerman, Minneapolis-based furniture upholsterer and caving enthusiast, was denied access to the second entrance (a 94-foot shaft drilled four years later by the Iowa Geological Survey), he – not without conflict and controversy – drilled his own. This was the entrance through which we went to spend the afternoon wading – sometime swimming – up several miles of underground river, guided by our gracious and enthusiastic host.

For more information on Coldwater (and the controversy over its ownership and entrances) check out this 2009 article from Iowa Outdoors magazine, posted online at Ackerman’s web site. For the February’s trip described above, I was primarily along for the experience, offered to BVU students and staff through the Department of Outdoor Recreation.  I also took the above picture and wrote this story for the University’s web site. Telling about these things is my job; the experiences and people along the way are some of its best parts.

For recent web stories, I’ve interviewed an alum returning to Japan to help with disaster relief and students raising funds and awareness to help the local high school music programs.  My most in-depth  BVU stories,  however, appear in print, in the magazine BV Today and alumni publication BV Briefs. The most recent issue of Today dropped last month; I’ve included in this post PDFs of feature stories I wrote that appear in it, as well as ones from two past issues. Enjoy!

“That Much Further West” (Feb 2011) tells the story of media studies professor Dr. Bruce Ellingson’s six months of travels to capture western America’s national parks via ‘high dynamic range’  photography – and how he utilizes the Internet to promote his work . Bruce and wife, Margie, traverse two landscapes – the iconic American West, and the brave new world of social media. I borrowed the title from a song and album from the band Lucero, who – like the story – deal thematically in Americana.  You owe it to yourself to check out Bruce’s pictures on Flickr – I could describe them with adjectives, but they’d only sound exaggerated. This feature was quoted in a subsequent story in the Des Moines Register.

“Opportunity, Next Exit” (Feb 2011) covers the winding career path of Brad and Dee, a husband-and-wife pair of alum, from internships in the Mexico Desert to an on-campus student business selling carpet scraps to a major street paving project in Omaha to hearing aids to software. Opening the story is an interview with Brad’s  mentor, owner of a southwestern convenience store empire that was – however one may view the enterprise – instrumental in the shift in economy on Native American reservations from barter and trade to cash-based.

“A Man of Many Words” (July 2010) profiles the dryly humorous and highly conscientious Dr. William Cumberland, professor emeritus of history, who was well-regarded by colleagues and students throughout his 33 years at BVU – and told the story of the school in his History of Buena Vista University, currently in print in its third edition. Cumberland is also an expert on the Jehovah’s Witnesses and author of several articles and a biography (Iowa Rebel) of Wallace Short, Socialist, onetime mayor of Sioux City, and “Iowa’s most distinguished radical during the 1920s and 1930s.”

“A Changing Practice” (Feb 2010) covers the career of an alum from a college football career cut short to becoming one of Phoenix’s most prominent cosmetic surgeons, in the process touching on changes in cosmetic medicine throughout the 2000s and how the ‘Great Recession’ hit Phoenix and affected people’s outlook on cosmetic procedures.

*Also, unrelated to anything above, last Saturday I recorded the concert of a friend – Cherokee, Iowa-based musician Andy Juhl – utilizing an experimental setup to cover nine musicians on stage with six relatively inexpensive cameras. Some of the footage has begun to trickle onto his Facebook page.

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Berlin, Part 3: The Exhibition

The Gigantomachy, battle royale of the gods. Detail: Nike v. Alkyoneus,  Pergamon Altar

On the eve of what was to be its most eventful century, the leaders of Berlin worried it was a city without a history. Before Germany’s unification under Bismarck, the city had largely taken its cultural cues from elsewhere, but suddenly – as the capital of a newly-unified nation – there was building to do. While the city’s renown would come from a culture of steel, mass-production, destruction and all things modern, the impulse from the top down was to still look backward for inspiration – and deliver Old World style in excess to the point of parody.

It wasn’t unusual that Berlin collected other nations’ antiquities – the practice went hand in hand with empire – but few other cities imported entire gateways to place inside larger buildings.  The Pergamon Altar, Babylon’s Ishtar Gate, the Market Gate of Miletus – these are not models – they are structures unto themselves, great outdoor entrances to temples and cities, each around 100 feet wide and 50 tall, excavated and today on display indoor in the Pergamon Museum.

Arguably the second-most famous antiquity in town – a bit smaller but memorable nonetheless – belongs to Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, which, in 2005, was on display at the Kulturforum while its old Berlin apartment was under renovation. The highlight – currently in the Neues Museum – is the bust of Nefertiti, remarkable for how its sense of beauty seems to transcend time and place. Yet, the aesthetics of the bust are not, as one might be tempted to guess, universal – or at least, I was put in my place when I suggested the idea to a classroom full of Chinese students, who found her head blocky and her face unattractively masculine.

The ancient world not being terribly feminist, Nefertiti’s great claim to fame beyond her looks is her husband, Ankhenaten, who upended the entire social order of 18th-dynasty Egypt when he decreed that polytheism was out and only Aten the sun god  was deserving of worship. Though it is largely unknown how  these changes were received in the royal couple’s lifetime, in the years that followed Ankhenaten’s death the reforms he implemented were undone, his temples desecrated, and his capital of Amarna abandoned. Whether he was ahead of his time or just a nut has been debated and romanticized in our own contemporary times – for example, elsewhere in the Berlin collection is a figure of Sinuhe the physician, protagonist of Finnish author Mika Walari’s historical fiction novel The Egyptian, which portrayed Ankhnaten as somewhere between a proto-Christian and proto-Marxist reformer, his deity-reduction platform an effort to flatten Egypt’s social hierarchies, a politically-naive idealist martyred by the schemes of the entrenched bureaucracy and the malleability of the masses. Following the more romantic line, Ankhnaten might have felt at home in Berlin with his outsized vision and noble struggle for progress. Following the negative one, he could have been a dictator, shaping the aesthetics and functions of his nation, capital and architecture to unfortunate and ill-advised ends out of ignorance, as with Kaiser Wilhelm II, or a human malevolence arguably beyond understanding.

This conclusion deals with deliberate culture – objects and buildings where aesthetics were of primary, rather than incidental, concern in their creation. Like so many other places in Berlin, these things show how life does its best to complicate creators’ intentions. This is even true in the allegedly controlled space of an art museum, as with the first object one sees upon entering the Hamburger Bahnhof (which, like Paris’ Musee d’Orsay, was originally a train station): a sculpture and painting by Gerhard Merz proclaiming “I am an architect, also,” a pun on an architect who also claimed to be an artist that could have served as a motto for the city complete with all Merz’ implied challenge. Like much modern art, the work is intended to buck tradition, and – all things considered – probably inherently doesn’t offer as much  to contemplate as a good da Vinci or Michelangelo. The real thing of interest here is a quirk of presentation I’m fairly certain was unintended: the necessitatation of a full-time guard to clarify to the Bahnhof’s visitors that the sculpture portion of the installation is, in fact, not a bench. The art in Berlin, much as the city itself, refuses to be enshrined, to be set beyond boundaries, left untouched.

Part III: The Exhibition

At the bust of Nefertiti’s temporary 2005 home in the Kulturforum

A palace is not a building to which a citizen in a twenty-first century democracy readily relates. Appreciates, yes – what else can one do when regarding a structure opulent, regal, elaborate? Schloss Charlottenburg is easy to call pretty, and I’d imagine most people who see it do. And yet, my own sense is that the building would not feel all that comfortable in any time or place.

The Palace certainly doesn’t seem of Berlin: its too old for the city the 20th century built. It seems barely of Germany – or at least, its style is imitative, not homegrown. Heavily indebted to the Palace of Versailles, the palace’s construction began in 1669 on the orders of Sophie Charlotte at a time when her husband – Friedrich I – was looking abroad, northward for inspiration. “In the seventeenth century Berlin lived on art conceived and produced elsewhere, above all in the Netherlands,” writes Ronald Taylor in Berlin and Its Culture.

Scholoss Charlottenburg was to be the Western terminus of Unter den Linden, which ran through the Tiergarten and ended in the east at the other local Hohenzollern palace, the Stadtschloss. Today, most of the street goes by names of fleeting subsequent empires. At Charlottenburg, it is the Otto-Suhr-Alle, named for a mayor of West Berlin during the divided era. Otto-Suhr-Alle connects to a roundabout which extends back westward as Bismarkstrasse; as it continues east through the Tiergarten, it turns into  Strasse des 17 Juni, named by the West in 1953 in commemoration of a violently-quelled uprising in East Berlin earlier in the year. On the eastern side of the Tiergarten, the ideology of the  street changes as it enters the former East Germany and – after traveling past another memorial to the Soviet soldiers who conquered the city – finally becomes Unter den Linden at the Brandenburg Gate. The street goes by that name through the ruins of Museum Island – the old Hohenzollern Stadtschloss and the East German Palast der Republik – before becoming Karl Liebnecht Strasse as it enters the Alexanderplatz in the East.

Commoners are graciously allowed the privilege of photographing Schloss Charlottenburg's exterior.

Karl Liebnecht was co-founder of the Communist Party of Germany and later martyr to the cause. On the 9th of November, 1919, he declared a “Free Socialist Republic” from a balcony of the Stadtschloss in protest of the announcement of the Wiemar Republic from the roof of the Reichstag. In the aftermath of World War II, Germany’s actual communist republic would destroy the Stadtschloss’ bombed ruins. Schloss Charlottenburg – also heavily damaged – was, in contrast, meticulously restored by the Western Government. And so it became a museum piece, where tourists aren’t allowed to photograph inside and must wear disposable sterile surgery-blue slippers to protect the floor.

There are many exhibitions where you may not touch. The Schloss, however, tries to project the illusion that it is untouched. Schloss Charlottenburg doesn’t seem a place Berlin lives much with. Heck, it’s difficult to imagine it actually being lived in. The building and its presentation are designed to keep observers at a distance – you cannot touch the Palace lest you hurt it; you cannot photograph it, lest you control its image. And so, like one would admire a vicious poodle at a dog show, visitors are encouraged to awe at the opulence and ignore how the Palace’s aesthetics are wielded for the sake of power, something made most explicit in the three-dimensional sculpture that adorns the throne’s canopy. It takes the whole wall depicting the Prussian crown borne by cherubs from heaven, the authority of God and state perfectly entwined.

It’s easy to see how the opulence of the Palace could have been an attractive idealization, a rallying point during the post-war years, when times were lean, the national spirit shattered, and the Communists plotting who knows what across town. Yet it is tough by my own ideals to see that crown’s beauty through its perversion of God, Man, and Art. There are many places, many horrors, in Berlin that made me sad, made me shudder, but that room is the only place where I felt angry. To joke about the memory of the Holocaust seems transgressive, to disrespect the Cold War is par for the course, and to critique long-gone monarchies sounds confusing and quaint. Yet each regime, in its own time, wielded more-or-less incontestable power over the people, building its oppression into streets and walls – places where today, Berlin normally encourages you can look, see, touch, and contemplate.  In Berlin, I came to believe that there are many things are not knowable on a visceral level. But art – I make the stuff, and I find in that something transcendent. And all the gilding in the world can’t make something like that crown feel right. Those aesthetics we call just beautiful can be the horrors from which we have enough distance to appreciate.

The Berliner Dom, one of the most elaborate and intact of Wilhelm II's building projects

The monarchy ends at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, perhaps the single most vivid representative of the city’s accumulating layers and dramatically-shifting ideas about aesthetics, war and what constitutes the ‘eternal.’ Like Kaiser Wilhelm II’s other building projects, the Church was ambitious and controversial, to say the least. According to David Clay Large – though neither Wilhelm nor Bismarck had much fondness for Berlin itself – they, continuing a long aristocratic Berliner tradition, wanted to make it “the most beautiful city in the world” to impress the other leaders of Europe who found the industrial metropolis lacking in Old World charm. Of the Memorial Church, Large writes

“A neo-Gothic monstrosity, the church was a mockery of its namesake’s frugality. To make its interior more sumptuous, the Kaiser pressed Berlin’s richest burghers to donate stained glass windows in exchange for medals and titles…Comparing it as it looks today with photographs from before the war, one can only conclude that this building was improved by the bombing.”

The Church was a monument to Man and all the hubris of hereditary titles and saber-rattling  that led to World War I, the consequences of which are rendered with poetic justice in its utter destruction in World War II. Nonetheless, it is a house of Christian worship: in the section still standing, beneath cracked mosaics of the Hohenzollern family’s hereditary procession, is a photo of services being held in the ruined chapel. Next door in the ‘New Church’ – finished in 1963 – candles (emblazoned with the church’s logo) are lit in the octagonal sanctuary (above), surrounded by blue glass and a modern design. While the atheistic Soviets sought to absolve the Nazi’s war sins by incorporating their Germany into the Communist collective,  the walls here – produced under the divided country’s Western government – are bedecked with monuments to the war‘s Protestant resistance.  Among them is the Stalingrad Madonna, sketched Christmas 1943 by a German physician and minister. Such commemoration, as I understand, was common in the immediate Western post-war period, but has sense become difficult to express, to reconcile with the greater imperative to confess complicity in the nightmare. Regardless, the church complex officially gives itself over to the Western inclination toward capitalism in the bell tower (“the lipstick tube”), also of thick of blue glass, the bottom of which is a tourist trap bazaar. Commerce, God, Man: all find degrees of rebuke, solace and validation at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.

Palast der Republik as viewed from the Berliner Dom

In the Church and its layers are a vivid rejection of the notion of timelessness. In any combination within one can find an ideal and its counterpoint, and the poignancy it projects exists because it was humbled. It is so with Berlin, the city that finds beauty in complexity where there is rot in the substance.

It was during the Weimar Republic, between national defeats and in the shadow of Kaiser Wilhelm’s monuments that Berlin found its first great Renaissance, both as a center for modern art and an open air circus of vice. “What distinguished [the city’s vices] from their counterparts in America and in other European cities was their openness, their bizarreness,” writes David Clay Large in Berlin. “The accessibility of vice was perhaps the main reason behind Weimar Berlin’s reputation for singular decadence.” He goes on to describe entertainments including bare-fisted brawling, mud-wrestling, drugs galore, and a six-day non-stop bicycle race. On one hand, the city had 25,000 prostitutes. On the other, it had 25,000 prostitutes. The Bauhaus was touting how mass production need not sacrifice aesthetics, while Fritz Lang was building his Metropolis at Babelsburg east of Berlin, likening the factories a destructive god while using his own exacting, outsized vision to demand that the mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart. All around Weimar Republic Berlin were signs of the wonders of industry, productivity and progress – and the impossibility of maintaining control of such energies.  In learning to live with the consequences of ambition beyond reason, the city had found its aesthetic. What an exciting hell it must have been.

Note: for a very different take on the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, see Julian Hoffman’s excellent post “In Memorium”

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