Monday, October 19, 2009
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Jack Masey sent me his book (co-authored with Conway Lloyd Morgan) “Cold War Confrontations. US Exhibitions and their Role in the Cultural Cold War”. Jack, as Director of Design at US Information Agency, was in charge of putting together the 1959 American Exhibition in Moscow. The 400+ page book is a goldmine of information on the Cold War era, including stunning (some in color) photos of Moscow in 1959.
In the book, Jack Masey mentions my “poisonous blankets” theory – a reference to a short presentation at the Second Festival of Russian Culture in Las Vegas in 2000 where I said the following: “According to James Shenton of Columbia University, one of the weapons in the war with native Americans was sending them blankets infected with deadly diseases. Abstract canvasses became a new kind of poisonous blankets. Instead of smallpox or cholera, they were infected with poisonous ideology. Jackson Pollock, Jack Masey, Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Buckminster Fuller, as well as the young Russian artists trying to jump the fence at the exhibition, perhaps had no idea of the war that was going on above their heads. But it was. And once again, the poisonous blankets worked brilliantly.”
I believe that it was precisely the Abstract Expressionist canvasses at the show that poisoned and eventually killed the USSR – by wrecking havoc in the minds of young Muscovites, from which they never recovered.
Friday, September 4, 2009
Chicano performance troupe Culture Clash is doing its version of Aristophanes’ Peace at the Getty Villa in Malibu. "Culture Clash," says the program, "collages their performances to bring history, geography, urban excavation, forensic poetry and storytelling together in a contemporary, moveable theater narrative through Chicano point of view".
Take Aristophanes’ outhouse humor (slightly sanitized by Culture Clash but still offensive), add hetaera singing trio, mariachi band, jokes about Barak Obama, illegal emigration, financial crisis, pot smoking, etc., and you’ll get two hours of pure carnivalesque fun (in Bakhtin’s sense).
Low-quality photos were taken by iPhone.
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Actor Will Geer (William Aughe Ghere), who died in 1978, was a member of the American Communist party. He was blacklisted in the 1950s for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He had had a Masters degree in botany and was able to survive by creating Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, California – a combination of botanical gardens and an outdoors stage theater.
The theater still exists. On August 28, 2009, my friend and I went there to see their version of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard. What an experience! You drive up the narrow winding Topanga Canyon Boulevard feeling completely lost. Your GPS gives you conflicting signals. You stop at a strange but charming place (a restaurant? a private club? a community center?) and ask for directions. People invite you to join them at their tables. “You are very close,” they say, “another mile up the road. You’ll see a lot of cars parked on the shoulder.”
So, here you are. You are not in a city and not in the 21st century anymore. “How can I help you?” asks a friendly woman in a wooden shack with a sign “Box Office.” “I made a reservation online,” you reply not sure if these words have any meaning here. But you are wrong. She quickly finds your name and gives you your tickets. “Walk across this old wooden bridge,” she explains, “turn right, and you’ll see the stage.”
You walk among dimly lit exotic plants (Will Geer made sure he had every plant mentioned by Shakespeare), you pass by the snack shed, then by a table with brochures and photographs, and then you join a small crowd at the entrance to the theater. “It must be your first time here,” says a middle-aged gentleman (now that the middle-age has shifted to the 60s), looking at my friend’s white pants. “You better rent those cushions over there, just a dollar a piece. These benches are not very comfortable.”
We are sitting on the cushions in the first row of this auditorium where everything, not just the stage, looks like stage decorations. Birds are singing. Dogs are barking. Mosquitoes are buzzing. Is it all real or recorded? The woman who just gave us the cushions appears on the stage wearing a t-shirt, striped pajamas pants and flip-flops. You expect her to start something like Nina Zarechnaia’s monolog on “people, lions, eagles and partridges” but instead the woman makes a few announcements and leaves. The lights go off and the play begins.
Chekhov’s comedy (as he called it) was rewritten by Will Geer’s daughter Ellen and Heidi Helen Davis, who directed it. Ellen also plays Ranevskaia, who is renamed here Lillian Randolph Cunningham because the play now takes place in Virginia in the 1970s. Lopakhin, who in Chekhov’s play was a son of a serf, became Lawrence Poole, a descendant of black slaves. Lawrence advises Lillian to cut down the cherry orchard to lease the land to developers who would build shopping malls. The eternal student Petia Trofimov became an angry black activist Terrence Moses, who is denying being in love with Anna (one of the few characters to keep original names) played by Will Geer's granddaughter Willow. The old servant Firs, locked and forgotten in the abandoned estate, became the old black woman, a kind of Mammy from Gone With The Wind.
Surprisingly, this transplant worked, which only proves universal and timeless qualities of Chekhov’s masterpiece.
Saturday, July 25, 2009
Today is the 50th anniversary of the opening of the American National Exhibition in Moscow. There, for the first time in Soviet history, the Russians were exposed to the best and worst of American design.
The best included:
- The overall space design by George Nelson and Charles Eames
- The geodesic dome by Buckminster Fuller
- The seven-screen film shows by Charles Eames and Billy Wilder
- Architectural projects by Frank Lloyd Wright, I. M. Pei, Louis I. Kahn, Walter Gropius, Eero Saarinen, Richard Neutra and Philip Johnson
The worst included decadent American cars of the 1950s.
Read The Globe and Mail’s account of my drinking free Pepsi there.
John Barber, who has interviewed me for the article, does not explain the origin of my term “poisonous blankets.” For that you have to see the original story.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Here is my exchange with Valentin Diaconov regarding the name of this blog.
Friday, June 19, 2009
The second day of the LA Film Festival (June 18-28, Westwood, CA) included a conversation between Thom Mayne (Pritzger prize-winning architect, founder of the Southern California Institute of Architecture and architectural firm Morphosis), Frederick Elmes (producer of such films as Wild at Heart, Night on Earth, Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Coffee and Cigarettes among others) and Elvis Mitchell (film critic, TV and radio host, producer).
For me the most interesting part was Mayne’s discussion of the final episode of Antonioni’s The Passenger (Professione: reporter). In this famous (12-minute long?) continuous shot, “the camera ran on a ceiling track in the hotel room and when it came outside the window, was meant to be picked up by a hook suspended from a giant crane nearly thirty meters high. A system of gyroscopes was fitted on the camera to steady it during the switch from this smooth indoor track to the crane outside. Meanwhile the bars on the window had been given hinges. When the camera reached the window and the bars were no longer in the field of view they were swung away to either side. At this time the camera's forward movement had to stop for a few seconds as the crane's hook grabbed onto it and took over from the track. To hide this, the lens was slowly and smoothly zoomed until the crane could pull the camera forward again” (Wikipedia).
In this shot “everything is taken place in the periphery,” said Thom Mayne. “The character in the center of the frame, the old man, he has nothing to with anything. There is a traditional notion of center, your eyes naturally go to this old man, and he has nothing to do with the story. Anything that is relevant is placed out of you field of vision, and the main event is taken place behind you. You are literally turning in your seat in the movie theater to see what’s happening behind you.”
I think that the same relation between center and periphery exists in Mayne's Caltrans building in Downtown Los Angeles.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Wolf D. Prix loves teasing law-abiding Americans. He does not part with his signature cigar even in no-smoking places. On a construction site, when asked to put on a safety helmet, he puts it on backwards, like a teenager with a baseball cap. Unlike American architects, for whom going to a gym is almost a professional duty, he proudly carries around his non-athletic body. And, of course, statements like "lying and pretending is more interesting than truth" do not usually go well with the American audience.
Considering this, the fact that his High School No. 9 in downtown Los Angeles sometimes provokes a very negative reaction should perhaps please the architect. The Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez called the school “a towering absurdity”. I used to like Steve Lopez’ column, so I sent a letter to LA Times asking Steve if he preferred “provincial nondescript junk” of a standard LA high school. He replied that he perhaps should not have used the word “absurdity”.
The major victory of law-abiding Americans over the Austrian enfant terrible was the refusal of the fire and safety authorities to allow access to the observation point – the central element of Prix’ design. This observation box with its spiral walkway has become a mere ornament.
Meanwhile, Los Angelinos keep getting angrier. Here is a recent letter to LA Times (June 7): “Am I supposed to be happy that this is the result of the board spending more than $230 million of taxpayer money on a project budgeted at $87 million? I thought the school board's job was to educate our children. Instead, we have a palace to "the arts" and teachers who are being furloughed, schools that are virtually uninhabitable and a dropout rate of 35%. The real value of this monstrosity is that it is emblematic of the dysfunctional school board, providing little in the way of real education, and indifferent to budget overruns of appalling size.”
Prix with his Los Angeles structure has managed to provoke almost the same reaction as Eric Owen Moss did with his Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Sunday, June 14, 2009
Two of Sir John Soane’s lasting achievements.
- One: the shape of the shallow dome he invented was used in the design of the classic London telephone booth.
- Two: his house at No.13 Lincoln's Inn Fields in London is perhaps the most unusual museums in the world. See Virtual Tour.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
The June 4 presentation was a part of a book tour. Both Isenberg and Gehry were on stage, as well as the GRI moderator Wim de Wit. The previous appearance of Isenberg and Gehry was at the New York Public Library on May 13.
The interesting thing was that on both occasions Gehry with visible pleasure talked about “The Simplsons” episode, in which a famous architect “Frank Gehry” gets a letter from Marge who wants him to design a concert hall for Springfield. Gehry crumples the letter and tosses it on the ground then looks at it and says: “Frank Gehry you are a genius.” The construction process, as you can see in the pictures, involves a wrecking ball.
I discussed the theme of violence in Gehry's designs in the article "Modernism and Destruction in Architecture."
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
"Whatever you may have felt about Mr. Gehry’s design — too big, too flamboyant — there is little doubt that it was thoughtful architecture. His arena complex, in which the stadium was embedded in a matrix of towers resembling falling shards of glass, was a striking addition to the Brooklyn skyline; it was also a fervent effort to engage the life of the city below.
A new design by the firm Ellerbe Becket has no such ambitions. A colossal, spiritless box, it would fit more comfortably in a cornfield than at one of the busiest intersections of a vibrant metropolis. Its low-budget, no-frills design embodies the crass, bottom-line mentality that puts personal profit above the public good. If it is ever built, it will create a black hole in the heart of a vital neighborhood."
Architects think visually. In addition to technical data about your product, they need to see how it looks. The two major ways of presenting your products are still and moving images. First, I need to dispel a two prevailing myths.
Myth No. 1: “The new software allows me (or my nephew, or my secretary) to do everything ourselves; we don’t need professionals anymore.” This myth goes back to the time when Microsoft Word had acquired some layout capabilities, and the market immediately became flooded with terrible-looking, hard to read and highly inefficient fliers, ads and brochures. The second act of this drama was emergence of software allowing creating web page without any knowledge of HTML, such as FrontPage, GoLive or Dreamweaver. The result was a proliferation of bloated, slow loading, search engine unfriendly and ultimately very ugly web pages.
This era is coming to an end. The overcrowded and highly competitive Internet space has forced many advertisers to admit their own incompetence and to rely on professional designers and programmers.
Myth No. 2: “The new hardware allows me to shoot photos and videos at very high resolution. I don’t need photographers and videographers anymore.” What’s wrong with this myth? Two things.
- High resolution is probably only 10% of the success of any photo and video production. Other factors include lighting, color balance, depth of field, geometrical distortions, noise reduction, compositional balance, etc.
- More importantly, your still or moving images must be able to tell a story, and not just any story, they should convey your consistent marketing message. Professionals may be better equipped to do it.
There are many cases when you may need to take pictures or video yourself. Make sure you use the right equipment.
- Still cameras. As I mentioned above, resolution is only a small part of the story. It’s great if your camera can give 10 or more megapixels, this way your image theoretically can be used for a magazine cover. But equally important is the size and quality of the lens and the size and quality of the chip and image processor. To avoid geometrical distortions, use the highest quality lens. Unfortunately, the better the lens, the bigger and heavier it usually gets. Find a reasonable compromise. If you can spend around $3,000, get Canon EOS 5D Mark II. In addition to stunning still images, you will be able to shoot full HD 1920x1080 videos. For smaller budget, you may consider Canon EOS Rebel T1i, which also will let you shoot HD videos. If size, weight and price are important, consider Canon PowerShot SD990 IS. Other manufacturers (Nikon, Olympus and Pentax, for example) make similar products.
- Video cameras. Even though some still cameras give you the video option, you may want to consider having a dedicated video camera, especially if you shoot a lot of video. Any universality usually results in lower efficiency. If you have a budget of $4,000 and need to shoot for both American and European markets, you may consider Sony HVR-Z1U, a semi-professional camcorder capable of shooting in both NTSC and PAL as well as in various HD formats. It also allows using external professional microphones. Remember, the quality of sound is what immediately betrays amateur recording, more than the image quality. There are many compact inexpensive HD camcorders on the market. Just make sure they have an external microphone jack.
Still image format and resolution.
If someone tells you they need an image with 300dpi, it means absolutely nothing unless they also give you the image size. A 4” x 5” image at 300dpi is virtually identical to a 16.7” x 20.8” image at 72dpi. What counts is the number of pixels, and in this example, the number of pixels is the same, 1200 x 1500. It is true, for high-quality printing, the images need to be 300dpi, which means that they need to have 300 pixels per inch. So, for an 8.5” x 11” page, the images must have (8.5 x 300) x (11 x 300) pixels, i.e. 2550 x 3300 pixels. The actual file size will depend on the color space. For Grayscale images it will make the file 8.03MB, for RGB, 24.1MB, for CMYK, 32.1MB.
RGB images are used for video and web. CMYK images are used for offset printing. In addition to color space, images can be saved in various formats: TIFF, EPS, PNG, GIF, JPG, etc.
Warning: JPG (or JPEG) format uses compression that degrades the image quality. It is OK to use JPG for the web (usually no lower than at 60% JPG quality). It is totally unacceptable to use JPG format for any high-quality printing. Always try to use TIF (or TIFF). There are rare cases when you need to send an image via email, and the TIF file is just too large. In that case, use free file uploading sites (such as yousendit.com, for example) or, if all else fails, use JPG but with at least 60% quality or higher.
Always keep your original raw video files untouched (either on tape or on disk), you may need them for another project one day. If you do video editing yourself, you probably know all the basic video formats. The important distinction to keep in mind is the difference between interlaced and progressive scanning, usually indicated by the letters “i” and “p” (as in 60i or 50p). Interlaced scanning was invented in the beginning of the TV era, when broadcasting equipment could not transmit all 480 horizontal lines at the same time, so the picture was broken into odd and even lines, and these was transmitted one after another. The TV receiver was designed to interlace odd and even lines to create a complete picture. This awkward system is still in place in standard definition TV even though there is no practical need for it other than many years of investment in equipment. The computer screen uses progressive scanning, which means that lines are not broken into even and odd and are transmitted in regular order.
Regardless of how the video was shot, exporting it for TV or DVD requires interlaced scanning. Exporting for web requires progressive scanning.
Where do we go from here?
In this brief article, we just touched the tip of the iceberg. Both photo and video production is both art and science. My final advice: if you need to impress architects with the way your product affects the environment and contributes to the interior or exterior space, hire a professional. It pays in the long run.