Sunday, November 29, 2009

Don Cherry: Swedish TV Documentary, 1978 (Part 1)

... the trumpeter Don Cherry would announce his arrival by playing so clear it broke through the traffic noise. The acoustics of Cooper Square augmented every
music: if it was warm weather when Archie Shepp's groups played, they'd open his studio windows and let the sound ricochet off the factories and repeat a millisecond later on the tenement wall on Fifth Street. The Five Spot was only a stone's throw away. Roi was always hanging out the window. The casual proximity to his life of his chosen frame of reference, the source of so many images, made him deeply happy.-- Amiri Baraka, "The Autobiography of Leroi Jones," (Freundlich, New York, 1984).

Friday, November 20, 2009

Miami's urban mess

 Alfredo Triff

By force of habit, we live in Miami accepting the degradation of its surroundings. Since urban changes take place slowly, we may not notice them because we move around the environment as part of our daily routines. One day, we realize that beauty is gone. Miami has become a weird mix of traffic-clogged highways, strip malls, cheap “pleasant villages,” parking-lot wastelands -with sparse green areas strewn in between- and plenty of sun with no shade. The construction is shoddy, the housing developments tedious, the architecture anti-functional. In spite of all the noise, few meaningful aesthetic standards are being set by private initiative or through city planning or zoning laws. As examples, take a look at three areas: Brickell Avenue, Liberty City, and the typical city-limit sprawl of suburbia.

Many people see Brickell as one of Miami's positive architectural achievements. Driving along I-95 south of downtown, one sees the collage of structures that have come to define Miami's cityscape. Most banks on Brickell are windowless glass boxes: Tall, austere, cold and inaccessible (in a way is the common image of every American city's downtown).

CONDO FEVER! (2005-2008)

How about design? These new condos are taller and sleeker. Some show a MIMO flavor with more thought-out asymmetry and better incorporation of parking vs. overall structure, but in terms of scale, they shadow the physical space around them (file under late-Capitalist "habitable area vs. profitable area" ratio).  Below, "50 Biscayne," a taller more utilitarian version of Enrique Gutierrez's 1963 Bacardi Building.

These structures can only be admired from a distance. Their main attraction consists of outside scenery. Walking around them is a dwarfing, alienating experience devoid of public amenities. Miami's "condo fever" was just a consequence of the bizarre organization of our lives by the forces of capital. A design where human interaction is hijacked by profit-maximization leading to social estrangement. This is the program: Daily-work-routine dispatches life from the office/box to the living/box with a box-on-wheels and the elevator in between. Then, human exchange is rare within these tall structures. You enter by car, park, go up the elevator and walk a narrow corridor to your apartment. People only coincide in the same common area momentarily, reluctantly. Given our "normal" social isolation, we prefer to avoid one another.

Overall, Brickell speaks of exile from the environment.1 These buildings look at the city from a superior, safe, and detached point of view. They represent a flamboyant separation in terms of income, lifestyle, and self-imposed isolation. Like old fortresses, they are gated, and can only be accessed by car; guards check visitors and strangers at each gate. Not too far away, in Liberty City, the poor remain poor and also isolated.

With the explosion of suburbia throughout America during the Sixties and Seventies, highway expansions decimated and dissected poor neighborhoods to the detriment of much needed cohesion to the city as a whole. With time awkward city ordinances and bad development practices only exacerbated segregation and depression in areas such as Liberty City. The high unemployment, pervasive crime, and poor tax base kept business away, and what went up in its place were ugly cheap establishments.2 Add to this the halfway houses and rehabilitation centers that continue to accumulate around these impoverished areas, and beauty all but disappeared. Middle-class America moved west of the city, creating the sprawl of a place such as Westchester. Most of these developments follow the quick-fix utilitarian model:

They're examples of mediocre construction: Poor design and horrible style reign. Many residents believe they're getting their money's worth, but the tradeoff is ominous. Far from city centers, with little greenery and unwalkable sidewalkless streets, developers keep adding ugly, stressful, car-polluting environments, devoid of any communal feeling.3

The sight has become familiar: monotonous twisting rows of single-family monotone units filled with plastic pipes, hollow walls, cheap moldings; some houses lack defined fronts and backs, but yes, they always have a front garage.

Breaking up the cookie-cutter housing, we get some respite in the form of shopping malls and multiplexes. This is not the old arcade of yesteryear, with an embedded network of familiar retailers and a variety of heterogeneous neighborhood shops. Rather, these big structures of no architectural importance, exhibiting ostentatious parking lots, a waste of asphalt and space. Their sole purpose is to house parallel rows of stores.

Sure, shopping malls try hard to entertain us, offering all the amenities possible so we don't feel as though we're there to spend our money.  No matter how hard they try, it's obvious most of our malls are still spaces filled with plenty of goods and food courts with bad food, but not really filling in the void of a real city center or town square, which offers more than merchandise. Which brings me to another fixture of our environment: the car, that old American emblem of modernity now turned into a paradigm of noise and pollution. As we rely on more and bigger gas-guzzling vehicles, we continue to try to solve traffic problems by building additional highways.

But in the end, new roads designed to decongest traffic only lead to more development, more suburban sprawl, and thus, more traffic. Rather than navigating pristine preserves, most of our beloved SUVs barrel down the same traffic-choked highways, past the same swaths of commercial blight and architectural dread, through the same gated communities, tacky golf-villas, and dull single-family outgrowths that the majority of Americans call home. Where are the parks, fountains, and boulevards we revere when we travel overseas?

A beautiful city needs beautiful designs that incorporate and play off the natural environment specific to the location -in our case the water and waterfront properties, the flora and fauna of the subtropics, the natural bright light, among many other assets. But creating more beautiful environments may require us to forego some pleasures we take for granted. Could we restrict the use and speed of vehicles and encourage public transportation? Will we stop segregating the poor and work to create safer, more integrated neighborhoods? Could we build streets that are interesting, accessible, and encourage community interaction? To achieve these goals, we may need to better comprehend how to reach them. If the goal is to have an attractive, functional city, the public must first understand what basic city planning and zoning means and then make sure our planners stick to them. More roads may simply mean more sprawl, the goal of alleviating traffic may not involve much construction at all. Simplicity, elegance, cohesion, and even functionality are related to beauty. But this beauty must be what we are about and not what we simply copy from inefficient models.
1Many of these buildings' tenants have bought properties here, escaping Latin America's political turmoil. 2The introduction of interstate highways gave the middle class in the market for new homes a subsidized means to get away from the red-lined ghettos of the inner cities and beyond the reach of mass transit, and out into the rural hinterlands where land was available for the FHA to insure mortgages on new single-family homes. But they also did much more. The highways hastened the decline of the inner cities not only because of this escape valve but also because of the physical nature of the highways themselves, given the way they sliced through neighborhoods, turning them into dusty, congested no-man's lands during their construction (David Willens, The Interstate Highway System and the Disfiguring of America, A Tale of Two Kinds of Cities: Part 5). In large cities in the United States, governments own as much as 45% of the developed land area and allocate most of these public lands for use as streets and highways. In a society that not only accepts, but exalts, private property in land, why does one observe so much open-access land?  3 Some studies show that High-growth areas nearly always translate into higher property taxes. One study in Dane County, Wisconsin, where the tax burden is among the highest in the United States, showed that while the county’s population grew 12 percent from 1990 to 1996, total property taxes soared 3.57 times faster than the population. Part of the reason is that developers rarely pay the long-term costs of building communities.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


A snowy bird in the snowfield
Where winter grass is unseen
Hides itself in its own figure.

Verse: Dogen Zenji (Japan, 13th Century)
Images: Lucio Fontana (Italy, 20th Century)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pamela Anderson Redux

Above, artist Marilyn Minter's Unarmed, 40x60", (enamel on metal, 2007). It belongs to a series of Pamela Anderson portraits at Regen Projects II. Check out Minter's Tanline (2009), showing a detail of Anderson's see-through pink-laced bra and her barb-wire arm-tattoo, amidst bursts of glitter and colorful bubbles. Minter vulns the right buttons: Soft pink, delicate embroider, plump flesh, quiet sensuality, symbolic saturation. One feels put-upon and yet wishing more, and that's Minter's success.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A thought on the Deleuzian link of "art," "territory" and "rhtyhm"

Alfredo Triff

In their essay "Of the Refrain" (A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Minnesota Press, 1987), Deleuze and Guatari propose a novel way of looking at the phenomenon of art. It has to do with the idea of territory.

The critical distance between two beings of the same species: Mark your distance. (ATP, 319).

The fight above has milieu and rhythm. Its function (the mapping of its constituent parts) presupposes the expressiveness of its territory. Milieu brings forth the very phenomenon of how life expresses itself. Surely, the event is not self-conscious. A Deleuzian question: Can this emergence be called art? As we know, art is connected to representation, but not necessarily the idea of "presenting again."

Against "traditional representation," Deleuze suggests a one-to-many/many-to-many relationship that changes the dynamics of representation:

Rhizomatics! An a-centered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a general and without an organizing memory or central automaton, defined solely by a circulation of states.

 What is at question in the rhizome is a relation to sexuality —but also to the animal, the vegetal, the world, politics, the book, things natural and artificial—that is totally different from the arborescent relation: all manner of "becomings." (ATP, 21). That is why,

The artist is the first person to set out a boundary stone, or to make a mark. (ATP, 314).

Artist? Animal? How?

Not in the sense that these qualities belong to a subject, but in the case that they delineate a territory that will belong to the subject that carries or produces them. These qualities are signatures, but the signature, the proper name is not the mark of the subject but the constituting mark of the domain. (ATP, 311).

What's art anyway? 

Art is a false concept ... solely nominal. (ATP, 301)

"False" is the fallacy of defining something for which we already have an example to begin with. That's the problem of defining art a priori.1 Deleuze favors the empirical approach of the anthropologist to that of the essentialist philosopher. We can know of art-objects because of the organization, difference and internal coherence of purpose they exhibit. Instead of "defining" let's talk about how art is exemplified:2

Deleuze is explicit about not falling for the essentialist trap. Art shows itself in its expressive qualities, not by "belonging to the subject," but because it brings forth a territory. The mark in the cave-wall above is not that of a subject, but the abode itself. "The signature is not the indication of a person, but the chancy formation of a domain."

As it's to be expected, art [as territory] presupposes de-territorialisation, which is why the latter becomes essential to the stratification of human life: From undifferentiated magic, to tradition, to religious symbol, to l'art pour l'art institution, to post-Capitalist art as spectacle. Meanwhile, artists "produce fragments without totality, cut-up particles." Deleuzian art presupposes a constant fragmentary interaction between particular instances (say, Duchamp's "ready mades") and fields (the Avant-garde).4

What defines a territory is the emergence of different matters of expression. (ATP, 315)

Of course, art's "territories" have multiplied. Art [styles] grow out of particular social and aesthetic contexts. As they mutate, they grow in complexity. At times, it becomes difficult to read these stylistic differences, because they are context-bound.

What holds the totality? Rhythm: The possibility of transforming/perverting life.5

"Rhythm enables one to set general level, pleasure, pain, recognition and misrecognition ... as cycles in the nervous system and the psyche, cycles which must form and dissolve territories in response to other territorial actions." 6

Deleuzian art is a becoming of life in response to the world. (To be continued)
1Perception itself is not representation, it's more a form of interactive production between an object and subject. 2 As much as Deleuze disliked Wittgenstein, there is a similarity between his rhizomatic approach and Wittgenstein's "open ended" idea of Familienähnlichkeit (family resemblances). Reading Deleuze with Wittgenstein's glasses: Instead of defining art from the outset let's keep expanding the understanding of these resemblances between "milieus" and "territories." Deleuze opts for an empirical approach beyond the subjective/objective opposition which is justified by his Spinozist view of immanence. For Spinoza, there is no transcendent principle or external cause to things. The process of life production is contained in life itself. Thus, Deleuzian "immanence" does not apply to any specific lives to a life, conceived as the "immanence of immanence." See Giovanna Borradori (The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 56, 2003). Deleuze once said: "Spinoza is for me the 'prince' of philosophers." (Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, New York, Zone, 1990).
4 Duchamp's mark: Between "original" and "ready made."


5 This is not the place to address Rhythmanalysis, an idea elaborated by Henri Lefebvre, from Brazilian philosopher Lucio Alberto Pinheiro. According to Kurt Meyer, there are five elements worth considering in Lefebvre's rhythm theory: 1- Contemporary life ruled by abstract time (the hands of the clock), 2- Isorhythm and the importance of the eurhythmic, 3- Chronobiology as catalyst leisure and work, 4-Music and dance and, 5- the post-Capitalist manipulation of time. See Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre (Routledge, New York, 2008). 6Gay Genosko, Deleuze and Guatari: Critical Assessment of Leading Philosophers (p. 256, Routledge, 2001).

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Does a Nazi deserve a place amongst philosophers?

Alfredo Triff

This article by Patricia Cohen in the NYTimes reviews another book on Heidegger's Nazi past. Though I haven't read Emmanuel Faye's Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy, I've read Heidegger and Nazism by Victor Farias. Heidegger's news spreads like the A1H1 flu. My post is meant to spark a discussion, not to exhaust it. Here are some paragraphs from Cohen's article:

Drawing on new evidence, the author, Emmanuel Faye, argues fascist and racist ideas are so woven into the fabric of Heidegger’s theories that they no longer deserve to be called philosophy.

First, "new evidence" on Heidegger is (as "NEW" in Capitalist Advertising) an ongoing affair, and will be revised from time to time. Heidegger the "black sheep" of Twentieth-Century Philosophy? True, the evidence is damning: HE WAS A NAZI. But when it comes to political affiliations, the arts and philosophy can be pretty radical: Wagner and Eliot were anti-Semitic, Foucault and Sartre were Maoists, Henri Lefebvre was a Stalinist (let's not be so fussy about leanings). Is Ezra Pound's poetry less relevant because he defended Mussolini and hated American democracy? Is Thomas Jefferson's political program a travesty because he owned slaves? Can one completely disqualify Speer's architecture because he was Hitler's protégé?

Heidegger’s theories [...] no longer deserve to be called philosophy.

I doubt it {which is not to Heidegger's benefit}. Faye would have to define what is philosophy, and that will take him a long time. A favorite shortcut: Philosophy is the pursuit of truth, but as we know, the history of philosophy is filled with vastly different ideas of what "truth" -truly- is. If so, what is it so difficult to accept that philosophy can legitimize radicalism in all its forms? If Faye thinks that Heidegger's ideas don't amount to philosophy, then we may as well disqualify Twentieth-Century Existentialism from the ranks of philosophy.1 And why not looking for bits of Heidegger-like-DNA in Phenomenology?2

[Faye's book] calls on philosophy professors to treat Heidegger’s writings like hate speech. Libraries, too, should stop classifying Heidegger’s collected works (which have been sanitized and abridged by his family) as philosophy and instead include them under the history of Nazism. These measures would function as a warning label, like a skull-and-crossbones on a bottle of poison, to prevent the careless spread of his most odious ideas, which Mr. Faye lists as the exaltation of the state over the individual, the impossibility of morality, anti-humanism and racial purity.

Isn't it obvious that Heidegger, the person, and thus, Heidegger's books already belong in the history of Nazism? (Which is not necessarily my point). Faye prescription needs to be taken all the way to its obvious comprehensive Gestalt. One cannot separate the history of Nazism from the history of Germany from the history of Europe in the Twentieth Century, which is precisely the ideological armor of...

[...] his most odious ideas [...] the exaltation of the state over the individual, the impossibility of morality, anti-humanism and racial purity.

Zu den Sachen selbst!3 In the same Fayeian fashion: Let's prevent the spread of late-Plato (a lover of tyranny) and Plato's conservative progeny! Hobbes' Sovereign, Burke's "aristocratic order," Hegel's God-like State = Plato's Spirit, Pareto's "elitism," Sorel's "anti-science," etc, etc.

Without understanding the soil in which Heidegger’s philosophy is rooted, Mr. Faye argues, people may not realize that his ideas can grow in troubling directions. Heidegger’s dictum to be authentic and free oneself from conventional restraints, for example, can lead to a rejection of morality. The denunciation of reason and soulless modernism can devolve into crude anti-intellectualism and the glorification of "blood and soil."

Did Heidegger's idea of authenticity implode? Well, Heidegger's Nazi past defies his own definition of authenticity. Then, there is the problem of the limits of self-knowledge that presuppose it. Finally, defining authenticity belongs at the limits of language.4 Even so, saying that Heidegger's dictum "can lead to the rejection of morality" is like saying that listening to Heavy Metal can turn someone into a devil worshiper.

Rather than permanently expelling Heidegger from the Pantheon of PHILOSOPHY (which seems ludicrously naive), I find more productive to try to understand how and why philosophy can produce a Heidegger. I look forward to read Faye's book and follow up with further discussions.
1German and French Existentialism owe heavily to Heidegger's Being and Time. But that's early-Heidegger. Then there is the issue of how much French post-Structuralism owes to late-Heidegger. Not to mention that "branch of the Devil," the left-Heideggerians! Faye's problem may be to prescribe only one kind of philosophy and rule out those discourses that don't fit his "ideal mold." Let's learn to accept that in philosophy, as in painting, there is good, mediocre and bad.  2Heidegger is recognized to be one of the most important philosophers of the Twentieth-Century by Jewish philosophers of the stature of Hannah Arendt (his student, lover and defender during his de-Nazification years), Jacques Derrida and Hubert Dreyfus, amongst others. 3Husserl's famous eidetic reduction. 4The discussion why will take us off the topic. Suffice to say that the fundamental problem with authenticity is that (in)authenticity seems to emerge out of our very attempt to find our lost authenticity. What comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Riding the bus in Miami: Only for the poor and the elderly

Alfredo Triff

It's rush hour and I despondently walk under the inclement Miami sun. One gets no shade from the airy/flimsy row of interspersed trees planted along this portion of SW 37th Avenue Avenue (check as "decorative greenery"). When I finally reach the bus stop, I see an old man so tired he is clinging to the metal pole. He looks alienated. An old woman sits -not on a regular bench- but on a concrete sill dividing the unkempt lawn of a Spanish radio station. She maneuvers not to fall back on the ground while keeping an uncomfortably prudent posture. I ask the old man how long they've been waiting: "More than 45 minutes. It's always like that." Other than the stop sign, this is an indistinct middle-of-the-block between-so-and-so: No tree to lean on or go under, no bench to sit on, no roofed structure to protect the public from the weather: Welcome to Miami-Dade!

Walking under the blistering sun can screw up any pedestrian's immediate goal. In Miami, your Bus Stop destination is just more of the same. This is Homestead: At least one can sit, but no roof structure either, (the stop sign is cut in the photo). Beyond the cookie-cutter project gone sour by unscrupulous lending, the barren site reflects a public transportation policy:

Could we dream of something like this for our city?

Alright, admitted that our local government has better things to do with our money than provide comfort for the public. How about this Estonian vernacular structure?

Or this colorful shack-like paragem de autocarro in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil?

Or this 1950's Havana-Mo?

Transportation comfort is an important urban contract, which reflects on our commitment with the "so-called" new pedestrian-friendly policies. Waiting for the bus in Miami is proof of why our version of capitalism does not work. The received notion is that people don't take the bus because they prefer the car, but given the impoverished state of our public transportation, one has no choice but to drive. You want the truth? Bus riding in Miami is for poor people and the elderly.*

*There are several motifs ingrained in the mind of the late-capitalist city dweller: 1- The myth of status disguised as comfort: Riding the bus is for people who cannot afford a car. 2- The myth of intoxication: Bus-riding is dangerous. 3-The myth of speed: A bus takes forever! True in Miami, but not in New York, or Portland. Miami's Metro Mover shows that an efficient system can get you from point A ---> B quickly and safely, only that being Miami, our Metro is crippled with poor access (it doesn't service the Miami airport). Click here for a possible expansion. Late-Capitalism has created a far/near paradox: An out-of-town shopping mall reachable by motor car is now perceived to be nearer than the local shop to which one can walk. In fact, public transportation carry its share of history: In 1953, nearly four decades after the Plessy Decision relegated blacks to the back of the bus, African Americans in Louisiana, staged the nation's first successful bus boycott. African Americans accounted for the overwhelming majority of Baton Rouge bus riders and two-thirds of the bus company's revenue. In 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks ignited the modern civil rights movement. Transportation was a central theme in the "Freedom Riders'" campaign in the early 1960s. Greyhound buses were attacked and some burned in 1961.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Super Fly

In Superfly, the moment when Priest frees himself from his white masters and achieves complete self-determination is also the moment that shows how Priest's ultimate victory is ultimately inscribed in the system he beats. Priest outsmarts the corrupt policeman who is trying to prevent his getting out of the drug business, but he does so without disrupting the prevailing system. He may play the game a little too well for members of the establishment, but he does nothing to change the rules. Priest tells the cop that he is going to walk away unscathed because he has used his drug money to purchase a contract. Trade the purple pimp coat for a mask or a cape and he could be The Lone Ranger or Batman.--William Lyne, African American Review, Vol. 34, 2000.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Zap Mama: Toma Taboo

Portrait d'un peuple heureux
Ils ont conquis la Lune, et nous on se demande
à quoi ça sert, cet astre nu comme un fromage.
Ils se sont massacrés pour être un peu plus libres,
au Bangla Desh: à deux poignées de riz par jour,

vous parlez d'une affaire! Et ça coûte combien,
cette sonde envoyée sur Mars et sur Vénus
où de toute façon il fait trop chaud pour vivre?
Ils ouvrent des musées: c'est à n'y rien comprendre,

ces ronds qui sont carrés, ou ces taches trop rouges.
Ils font des plans pour l'avenir; et le présent
alors? Ils ont, c'est entendu, plus de pétrole
que nous, et cependant pour la douceur de vivre,
ils devront repasser: le bistrot où l'on cause,
les copains, le tiercé, le beaujolais tout jeune.--Alain Bosquet "Sonnets pour une fin de siècle."
They've set foot on the Moon -so what?
That satellite as bald and bare as a Gruyère.
They've slaughtered each other for freedom's sake
in Bangla Desh. At two handfuls of rice a day,
Big deal! The probes they sent to Mars and Venus,
Whatever did they cost? It's far too hot
to live there anyway. They keep on opening
art galleries: who can make head or tail
Of all those reddish splotches and square circles?
They draw up plans for the future: what about
the present? I know they have more oil than us,
But as for the good life -- pardon me while I laugh.
They'll have to try harder than that. The bistro on the corner,
your mates, the betting-shop, the beaujolais nouveau.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Juicy Lucy : Are You Satisfied

Clear —the senses bright-sitting in the black chair Rocker the white walls reflecting the color of clouds moving over the sun. Intimacies! The rooms not important— but like divisions of all space of all hideousness and beauty. I hear the music of myself and write it down.-- Michael McClure, "Peyote Poem" (1958).