Category Archives: rants

The Basement

I never need a map

Yayoi Kusama, born 1929 Large White Net, 1958.

Japanese, Showa Period, 1926–1989, and Heisei Period, 1989–present
Yayoi Kusama, born 1929
Large White Net, 1958.

Maria Martinez, Jar decorated with Avanyu (water serpent), 1919–20

Made by Maria Montoya Martinez, Native American, 1886–1980
Painted by Julian Martinez, Native American, 1879–1943
Place made: Rio Grande, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico, United States
Jar decorated with Avanyu (water serpent), 1919–20

PU Dogon

Dogon artist
Place made: Mali
Ladder, 20th century

The art created by people of color were only represented in the “ancient” and “pre-columbian” sections of the museum — as if our stories only existed a long time ago and there was nothing notable happening in our communities since then.

Sabiha Basrai

I touched on this in an earlier post but haven’t really gone off on a proper rant. I like the Princeton Museum a lot, but whenever I go I’m always steeling myself against getting too upset at how it treats art made by non-white people. I wish it were just that the Asian, African, and Pre-Columbian American galleries are in the basement. But it’s not. There’s so much more.

There’s the way that the Pre-Columbian gallery lumps everything from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego together in the same way that the African gallery (minus ancient Egypt) treats Africa as a single homogenous concept.

There’s the way that the galleries are labeled as “ancient” despite many of their contents being from the 20th century. And those modern pieces are described in craft terms whether by erasing the artist, placing the artwork in an imperial period, or just mixing it in with centuries-old pieces.

There’s the way that even artists working in, or in conversation with, the Western Art World upstairs get pigeonholed as ethnic craftsmen. Yayoi Kusama? In the basement. Toshiko Takaezu? In the basement. The art world is already extremely white. Taking the non-white artists out of the art galleries and putting them in the craft galleries makes it appear even whiter.

And I wish this were just a rant about the Princeton Museum. But it’s not. This kind of thing occurs all over the place—to the point where not needing a museum map is a joke I’ve made with fellow non-white museumgoers. We’re used to heading downstairs to see our cultural heritage. We’re used to seeing it lumped together with every other culture on the continent. We’re used to seeing it portrayed as an ancient tradition that no longer exists.

We joke about it because it comes with the price of admission and because it’s easier to laugh than to get mad.

On design

I’ve covered art and function as well as design before but never really tied together my issues about how many museums display art with how I’d love for them to treat more art as Design.

One of the wonderful things about design* is that it’s about how people interact with items. This is hugely important when discussing any art. Just looking at something is interactive—where you look, how long, how it makes you feel, what information it conveys. Understanding who the audience of a piece is and the artistic context it’s part of are also elements of the design.

*Full disclosure, as someone with a design background, I have to admit that there’s an element of “when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” going on too.

As much as we like to conceive of art as being about the artist only—to the point where considering an audience makes us think about “selling out”—once something gets pulled into a museum, it’s inherently in conversation with the museum audience and the other pieces in the collection. Sadly, museums only really present things this way with design-specific exhibitions.

In design exhibitions you have displays which explain the context. We need to know what the products are and what makes their particular designs interesting. Maybe they allow for use in a particularly elegant way. Maybe they’re using materials in a new and novel method. Maybe they’re moving a previously-utilitarian concept into a luxury space. Maybe they’re doing the opposite and bring a product to the masses. We have to understand what else is going on in the world which is informing the designs.

In an art setting, asking and answering the same design questions will help us better understand things. What is this piece in conversation with? How is it intended to be used? How have people actually used it? What has it influenced or changed? This allows you to call out how the West has mined the rest of the world for cultural inspiration,* point out how technologies have travelled,** and recognize that art and artists—especially in the 20th century, especially in continents that have been colonized by the West—are very much aware of the general track of western art.

*Something that Princeton did do a wonderful job with for a brief while when they had a Japanese print paired with a Toulouse-Lautrec print and carved figure from Côte d’Ivoire paired with a Modigliani painting in the Modern Europe galleries upstairs.

**Also something Princeton did wonderfully, the Itinerant Languages of Photography show treated photography and photographic images as design elements that get constantly repurposed and reused in Latin America.

Not a “true” soccer fan

The World Cup starts this week and as Americans become more and more interested in it, we’re seeing more and more articles castigating how we’re* interested.** Some of the critiques are legit—for example the way we’ve appropriated European nomenclature without recognizing what it means—but a lot of them feel like generic hipster bandwagoning scorn of the “how dare we finally get into soccer” type. Most of these articles are laughable but one of the primary noted “problems” with American fandom really pisses me off.

*By “we,” I mean White America. Most of the articles neglect to see or fail to mention that there are millions of Americans who have been following soccer, and the World Cup, for decades on Univision. And the articles which do notice this often suggest that White America needs to convert these viewers in order to help the “adoption” of the game.

**This is still preferable to the awful, condescending articles which try to explain soccer and soccer players in “American” terms.

Specifically, the idea that liking soccer but not liking MLS makes you a poser fan.

Full disclosure, I’m a eurosnob and proud of it. MLS killed my interest in the league by moving my local team right when I had really gotten into it. While MLS was not good in its first decade, by 2005 it had turned into a decent product. I was watching Earthquakes games and was a bit of a Landon Donovan fan around then. The way he ended up moving to LA and the way the Earthquakes moved to Houston pushed me into the MLS wilderness. The ensuing Beckham debacle where all MLS news became exclusively “Beckham only” sealed the deal.

Soccer and America

This isn’t about me being a soccer hipster who was into soccer before MLS existed. It’s that I’m still of the mindset that soccer in this country shouldn’t be driving people away because they’re interested in the “wrong” way.

Heck, soccer in this country has done a shit job of recruiting people who have been watching fútbol forever into being American soccer fans. That the current US national team has more American-Germans than Mexican-Americans embarrasses me—and I liked Thomas Dooley back in the day. I don’t understand* how we’re unable to scout and recruit Mexican-American players. Still. It’s why I’m so excited by what’s going on in Tijuana and how it shows what soccer, and soccer fandom, can really be in this country.

*Actually, I do. Youth sports, and soccer in particular, has become a rich kids’ game. Which is awful on multiple counts.

Right now though, Tijuana is the exception. Which means that I still don’t think soccer can afford to drive people away. The important thing is to get people interested and hooked on whatever team brought them in. Even if it’s a bandwagon team. One of the glorious things about soccer is that it’s totally okay to support multiple teams. There are so many different leagues and competitions that it’s easy to pick teams who’ll never play each other.

I got sucked into Barça in part because of Romario, Stoichkov, and the 1994 World Cup. It was near impossible to follow international soccer in the US then* but by the time I was able to start following things online, the hook had already been set. I wasn’t a culer 20 years ago. But it started then.

*I remember snippets in the sidebars of the Eurosport catalog. Thankfully I got hooked up to the internet in time for World Cup 1998 qualifying.

I’ve since followed AC Siena* and, before dropping MLS, the Earthquakes. I’ve also followed Rangers, Sunderland, Manchester City, Everton, Fulham, Spurs, Blackburn, and Hanover** at various times but have never settled on an EPL team.*** It’s a hell of a rabbit hole and, while I don’t expect everyone to be like me, soccer kind of sucks you in.

*Whose repeated match0fixing issues are starting to bug me.

**Because Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, Clint Dempsey, Brad Friedel, and Steve Cherundolo.

***I did though come close to picking Fulham.

Pick a team. Follow a player. Find a new team. Find a new player. Find a new league. Find a new team. Etc. Etc. It doesn’t matter how you start being a fan. There’s no wrong way. And it’s fine to be a newbie. Just, be careful. Soccer excels both at grabbing hearts, and breaking them.

White Guy Photography

This post is prompted by, but not exactly about, the Humans of New York (HONY) project/phenomenon.* I’ve been aware of HONY for a while as it’s been gathering steam and it’s never interested me. I’ve skimmed it a few times but each time I do, I have a gut-level reaction to it as “just another white guy photographing New York.”

*If anything, HONY is merely the straw which broke the camel’s back.

It took me a while to confirm that that was indeed my reaction to the project.

Thinking about it more, I’m realizing that it’s my reaction to a lot of photographic projects. Not just in New York but in general.

I’m allergic to “white guy photography.”

This is distinct from photography by white guys. What I’m having problems with is the approach which entails traveling, or moving, someplace with the intent of  documenting and photographing so as to “explain” or “capture” it for others. And the amount of privilege required to start such a project and make those kinds of claims is generally limited to (but not exclusively the domain of) white guys.

As much as this is a time-honored approach, I’m done with it.

I grew up looking forward to each new issue of National Geographic. The photography was great and it was a fantastic way to learn about the world. At the same time, even as a kid, I was aware of the colonial viewpoint in how it depicted different cultures, bodies, etc.*

*Note. This is not an anti-National Geographic rant either. That magazine is responsible for a lot of my visual education and it’s still a source of excellent photography. At the same time, I’ve come to realize its limitations, especially when the photos are decoupled from the articles.

As a child of the 80s, I got to watch its viewpoint shift from the exotic abroad to focus more on the US. In some ways this must have been an interesting editorial shift as it applied the colonial view to ourselves. However, since a lot of those features were on American cities, I can’t help but think that the result has been to view our cities, especially the poor, majority-minority ones as being dangerous or exotic.

But this was all in the 1980s. To see the same approach taken toward non-white or non-mainstream cultures now feels old and stale. And with almost everyone having the tools to document and represent themselves now, it starts treading into self-serving, patronizing, white-guilt behavior too.

The colonial view doesn’t work for me anymore.

At its best, I find it boring. At its worst, I find it racist. In almost all cases I’m tired of it.

I’m tired of the outsider view which treats cities as urban jungles full of diversity which have to be tamed. I’m tired of the idea that you can just drive through a culture snapping photos and claim to be presenting it to the rest of us. I’m tired of the idea that non-white or native people are exotic objects. I’m tired of the lack of context which results in the photos providing little to no information about the actual culture being depicted.

I’m tired of the way that, even today, so many westerners gush about this kind of photography.

I’m tired of the way that so many people still aspire to create this kind of photography.

We’ve already reached the point where most everything has been photographed. If our goal is to increase the sophistication with which we photograph, a large part of this has to include how we approach and view other cultures.

Which means that this rant in many ways is the other side of the blinders coin. So many of us only see—without realizing it—the white-male perspective that we’ve come to believe that that perspective is what photography is. We need to do better, whether it’s showing how other cultures are representing themselves or explaining why we’re bored of certain points of view.

Pointing and Laughing

So this video came across my radar last week. My first impression was that anyone who dresses like this should not be surprised by the attention. At the same time, there’s something disturbing going on with the way people are reacting and giving her attention. It took me a while to figure it out but the way that people photograph her really bothers me. Both as a photographer and a human.

When I was little, I was taught that pointing and laughing at people was mean and impolite. Yet the number of people here who do basically that is shocking. Is she dressed in a way which pretty much requires a double take? Absolutely. Does that mean that you need to take a photo and share it on Facebook in order to publicly mock her? No way.

Having a camera does not make it okay for you to behave like a teenager.

I don’t mind the double takes and extra attention. That outfit is begging to be noticed. It’s the intent to mock—the digital version of pointing and laughing which bothers me.

That it’s very easy to read a photograph as mocking its subject only makes the explicit mockery worse. But even in a general case, this kind of point and laugh (or point and gawk) photography is a problem. Especially when it starts to represent a lot of what people both engage in and fear about the medium.

I’ve touched on some of these before in the [internet photographer] and #FlakPhotoOnlineExhibitionTitleGenerator (two days worth) posts. In particular, there are a few things here which bad/beginning “street photographers” do which give that particular pursuit a bit of a bad name—resulting in the ability to easily dismiss the genre as “just taking pictures of people against their wills.”

Although these aren’t just limited to street photography. There are a lot of guys with cameras trying to leer at pretty girls. And it seems like one of the easiest ways you can pretend to be a gritty photographer is to take photos of the homeless. That some of these photos get picked up by news outlets as being something new only encourages this kind of laziness.

There’s a lot of overlap here with my Human Zoo post too. A lot of the problems I have with the exoticizing approach to travel is that it’s essentially pointing-and-laughing photography. Part of the problem is that it’s dehumanizing. But another part is that it goes against the way we’re taught to behave.

When kids travel it’s the same thing, Lots of giggling and laughing at things which are outside of their immediate experience. As parents, our job is to make sure they learn how to be cool around things that are different. Gawking is not being cool. Pointing is not cool. Laughing is not cool. Mocking behind their backs is not cool.* Running to get a better view is not cool. Why would photographing be OK?**

*Something which Haley Morris-Cafiero’s photography has in common with the video in this post.

**Though there is part of me which wonders what Winogrand would do if he saw the woman in the video on the street. I’d hope for something like this but that’s possibly optimistic.

I understand the desire to photograph and share everything on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Tumblr/whatever. And I understand that the desire to share funny/interesting photos is the motivation to show in your personal propaganda that your life is funny and interesting. Just be careful and aware that sharing these things often includes the subtext that you’re immature, uncultured, and rude.

Princeton Museum and Collecting

Harold Edgerton, American, 1903–1990: Milk Drop Coronet, 1957. Chromogenic print, The Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla Collection of Photography.

My first visit to the Princeton Museum confirmed that I’m particularly sensitive to exhibitions which present the work of collectors without providing any context on who the collectors are.* This is going to feel like a knock on the Princeton Museum. It’s not intended that way and I haven’t spent enough time in that museum to really come to an opinion. This is just me figuring out more of what I like and dislike in museums.

*Something I first began to figure out with SFMOMA’s Logan Collection show. Note, if done correctly as with The Steins Collect, this kind of show can be very interesting since it stops being just about the art.

My problems though is due to the fact that collections—especially of modern art—are almost always specimen-based collections which reveal little about a collector’s specific taste and instead focus on the already-acknowledged big names. The Shared Vision exhibition is a perfect example of this. Yes, it makes a great primer for introducing people to many of the greats. At the same time, it’s more of an exercise in name-recognition. One or two images from each important photographer. Very little extra context about who each photographer is and why they’re important.

At least the photos on display were important and relevant choices for the photographers at hand.* But still, besides the “I know who that is” or “ah, this is a good example of this photographer’s work” recognition game there wasn’t much to offer. I’d love to take a beginning photography class to the show. But it didn’t offer much to anyone** who has experienced second-hand photography history.***

*Something which is easier to do with photography since there’s rarely just one print in existence.

**Such as my wife.

*** Well, that’s not entirely true. For whatever reason I’m finding myself becoming somewhat obsessed with Aaron Siskind now.

Anyway, I’d love for expert collectors to focus more on showing me new things and explaining what THEY like and why they think it’s good rather than presenting a bunch of art which everyone already agrees is important.

Early Classic (Monte Albán III-A), Zapotec Anthropomorphic urn ('companion' type), A.D. 250–500 Gray clay, brown on surface, very micaceous h. 18.2 cm., w. 16.7 cm., d. 15.7 cm. (7 3/16 x 6 9/16 x 6 3/16 in.) Museum purchase, gift of Sally Sample Aall y1968-236

The other part of the museum which I went through was the collection of “ancient art.” Very mixed feelings here. And again, I found myself wondering more about the collectors than the collection. The basement of the museum is divided into “Ancient Asia,” “Ancient Americas,” and “Ancient Art.”* Half of the Asian rooms were closed so I only saw the Chinese Art. That said, everything is noted chiefly for its age and function and seems like it was collected without any sense of the culture it came from.

*Is interesting how the webpage displays this differently than the printed maps.

Ancient Americas includes a large and very good collection of Mexican art (Zapotec and Maya in particular) but lumps it in with art from Chile to the Alaska including some fairly-recent American Indian pieces. Some more information on culture here regarding the ball games but still pretty thin, especially given how it lumps all the Americas together.

In both cases (plus the tiny African Art room), there’s a sense that either nothing modern exists from those four continents or that anything tainted with the indigenous craft label is better lumped in with the “ancient stuff.”

I’m no means an expert curator here but the way things were displayed really got on my nerves. From personal experience, I’d love to see modern indigenous work—suck as the black on black San Ildefonso pottery*—displayed as modern art rather than ancient craft.

*One day, when I have the money, I’ll return to that pueblo prepared to fall in love with something expensive.

Ancient Art meanwhile dedicates specific rooms to Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art. And gives a lot more information on who is depicted, how things are made, what myths are being referenced, etc. It’s a pretty notable difference to the way everything else is displayed.

I couldn’t help but wonder whether the brown-person rooms were intentional or if this is how things had always been. And I found myself really wondering how all the items found their way into the museum. The impression I ended up in was that the strong points of each collection represented particular and specific collectors and collections which were left to the museum at some point in the past.

I’d love to know more about the collectors here and get a sense for who they were and how they came to specialize in the regions that they did. There’s such a clear focus in all the specific little subcollections that it just feels like getting a sense of who the academic behind that specific research is would bring a lot more interest to the pieces.

Or maybe that’s just me and my own weird reaction to having visited the Princeton museum on a day I wasn’t feeling up to it. I’ll have plenty more opportunities to visit. I’m very much looking forward to seeing The Itinerant Languages of Photography* and, as a new New Jersey resident, New Jersey as Non-Site has a special amount of morbid appeal as I get my footing here.

*They had me with the Iturbide image they’re using in the marketing.

Rhapsody in Rue

Welcome to the new world order of customer support. It’s been a while since I had a proper rant on this blog.

I haven’t been a big flier. But since we’re moving across the country and will now be flying between California and New Jersey multiple times a year, I’ve reluctantly accepted the reality that signing up for a frequent flier program made sense. Since United offers non-stop flights between SFO and Newark, and because we’d flown United for our trip out scouting the area, I figured I’d use that trip as a basis for starting my frequent flier account.

I figured it would be easy. After all, a recent traveler who liked the flight enough to convert to being a frequent flier is a satisfied customer right?

I gave United way too much credit. I can’t believe how quickly they converted me from being a satisfied customer to being as annoyed and pissed at them as possible.

The main issue is that the website is awful. Signing up for the account is fine. Transferring the miles is where the trouble begins. Website asks for the ticket number I want to transfer. Field is limited to 13 characters. My ticket number is 14 characters. This is annoying but not upsetting yet. I try both logical options and enter my ticket number without either the initial digit or the final digit.

Both fail. One number can’t be found. The other says that the names don’t match.

Name matching is actually a feasible issue. My ticket does not have my middle names on it because many websites are still stupid and can’t deal with multiple middle names. But I did sign up with United with my full name. No big deal though. United’s website says changing my middle name is simple and straight forward.

Except it isn’t. Deleting my middle names results in United requesting my tax records and marriage license. Fuck. That.

This is also the second time that United’s website information has been flat-out incorrect. Which means that I’m beginning to feel lied to. Which is how I start to get upset.

I figure I should at least exhaust the help options before getting upset though.

Mistake. The online help is designed to piss you off. All it does is send you to the webpages which weren’t working in the first place. In other words. It’s completely useless.

So I fired off a bunch of ranty tweets and went to bed.

These actually got a response and all seemed well. United’s twitter representative was friendly and responsive and it seemed like everything had been taken care of. While nothing showed in my account yet, I know these things do take a while.

One week later? Not so much.

Again, I should have expected as much. This time the information from the twitter representative pointed me toward the customer “service” phone line. That line involve talking to voice-recognition software and wading through the response tree. After I navigated to where I wanted to be, the computer told me that my transaction could not be completed and kicked me back to the beginning.

I have no idea why it failed. This is even worse than the website. At least the website offered lame excuses. Phones just wasted my time.

This time, the Twitter rep managed to get someone, a real person, to call me. And, from the department of famous last words, things appear to be all sorted now. I’ll know for sure in 48 hours but having talked to a real person, I’m much more confident.

Yay.

I’m still not sure if shoving all communication for customer support onto social media is a good strategy. I’m very glad social media is responsive. But it encourages ranting in order to get a response. Since I’m not the type to rant prematurely, this means that I end up getting really upset—not the customer experience any brand should want.

Només un negoci

Today’s Eric Abidal news has me re-reading my head versus heart post. I’m typically cold blooded with how I expect the business side of sports teams to be run. I certainly don’t like to pretend that I have any business commenting on an player’s contract situation. But today upset me more than I expected and it’s taken me a while to figure out why.

I’m not upset with the decision. I’m upset with the way it was handled and the callous disregard to human decency that it reveals. There are perfectly good reasons to conclude that he was no longer a reliable Barça-quality player. This is cancer we’re talking about. A best-case scenario has him being available for only 33% of  the time. He’s not a young player.

None of those reasons are new.

Yet the team appears to have led everyone on for the past season and has been using the Abidal story as a way of claiming a moral high ground about how the club has a soul. All that appears to now have been opportunism.

None of those reasons were mentioned.

Instead we got “sporting” reasons and nods to consensus among the staff—essentially sharing the blame. It’s telling though that no one could articulate any reasons. It’s especially telling that the president of the club actually dodged answering specific questions about the reasons. So we get an extra layer of dishonesty to go with our disappointment in seeing a beloved player leave.

For a while it looked like Barça was indeed more than a club and could be counted on to take the moral high ground. This was a club with a heart and a soul which I could be proud to be a fan of. Even though I know that both the heart and the soul were new phenomenons,* I wanted to believe it would last.

*Historically, Barça has never done well with end-of-contract stuff.

But things have slowly been chipped away. We now have corporate advertising on the shirts. Club membership is no longer open to the world. Players are released with little warning and without regard to any prior service or commitment.

As much as I joke about my team being back, I’m feeling the betrayal of so much of the positive direction I thought we were headed in. And that stings more than any sporting loss.

Més que un club has turned out to mean només un negoci. Only a business. Not even a good business at that. Barça has turned into the kind of business which demands employee loyalty but constantly reminds its employees that company loyalty is a one-way street. I wouldn’t blame any player for being on the lookout for other offers. Nor would I hold it against him if he left for those reasons.

Today’s news serves as a reminder about how we should enjoy the truly special teams. That special team is truly done now. Many of the players remain but the soul of the team is gone. Soul is not useful from a sporting point of view so we’ve let it go on a free transfer.

I only kept two recordings from that team—the manita against Madrid and the Champions League Final where Abidal lifted the cup. It’s time to watch them again.