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Road Songs: Camping

Not so far away, coyotes were howling and a frighteningly large cicada swirled around our lantern. The animals of Joshua Tree, California, were converging on us with fluttering wings and in small packs, both physically and through the airwaves. I had just finished Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time. I thought about Mrs. Whatsit wisely advising […]

Joshua Tree, California

Joshua Tree, California. Photos by the author.

Not so far away, coyotes were howling and a frighteningly large cicada swirled around our lantern. The animals of Joshua Tree, California, were converging on us with fluttering wings and in small packs, both physically and through the airwaves. I had just finished Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time. I thought about Mrs. Whatsit wisely advising her company to allow the protagonist, Meg, to brave the unknown, unprotected: “You are going to allow [her] the privilege of accepting this danger.”

Joshua Tree by night was fraught with something akin to that dangerous, but maybe momentous, unknown. Our tent was oddly filled with light (from the fire, the stars overhead, an alien power?). We were still camping novices at that point. (Actually, who am I kidding? I am still a camping novice.) We had to set up our tent after nightfall, and the darkness, especially shadowed by the strange rock formations all around us, and the sounds and movement of fauna, was altogether spooky.

Joshua Tree, California

Plaque explaining rock formation in Joshua Tree, California

By daylight, Joshua Tree’s bulbous rock formations, formed by magma, begged to be climbed. They looked like something that oozed out of the flat earth surface, like rough, melted and hardened blobs of sugar. Late one night, we saw two fellows make their way up one of these rocks – a formation that had a rounded enclave some twenty feet up – just to hang out in the darkness. They had red headlamps and, as they ascended, they looked like huge lightning bugs bobbing up the rock, then getting caught in a nook.

Illustration of several Southwestern plants by the author.

Illustration of several Southwestern plants by the author

Our first night camping, we stopped in Big Sur, California. Many of the trails were closed because of a recent forest fire. Mother Nature needs time to heal and cannot always accommodate visiting hikers and explorers. The first evening we spent there, we had the pleasure of partaking in a local Trivia Night.  A fellow trivia enthusiast, a man from Eastern Europe, competed as “Solo Team.” He did quite well.

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Watercolor of tent in Big Sur, California, by the author

In Arizona, I finally felt the triumph of camping: it had been four days. No grocery shopping, no electric light switches or running water. Arizona’s landscape was strange but beautiful. The most delicate wildflowers sprinkled the edges of the highway in colors that felt too bright. Orange! Purple!

After years of seeing it depicted in animated films and in graphic design patterns, the saguaro cactus looked absurd in real life. I kept thinking about the symmetrical saguaro, Joe Cactus, featured in Peanuts; Snoopy’s brother, Spike, is something of a desert-based philosopher who often confides in this plant. Spike offers these tender moments of almost delusional reflection, like a content but confused ascetic. “Living in the desert isn’t all bad. There’s beautiful scenery. And good conversation. Hi rock,” Spike once said. I felt similarly reflective amongst the organ pipe, enormous saguaro cactus, and cholla plants. Everything around us was potentially harmful, spiky. It makes a person mindful and attentive to one’s environs. arizona_plant_900 I wrote in my journal: “We have a lantern and ate macaroni for dinner. Tea for dessert. And crosswords.” I found I enjoyed preparing for the day’s adventures, the satisfying work of rationing out our food and entertainment. We were getting accustomed to a new, earlier sleep pattern: once the last ember sizzled from our campfire, we retired for the evening. The clock read 10:30 or so.

I am reminded now of a book my mother loved, Ram Dass’s Be Here Now (1971), which urges the reader to find peace in the present. I keep seeing this book, outside the context of our home library, and I find it timely still. It feels especially relevant when you are camping in a Martian-like landscape under the stars.

Camping is cool, man. And, outside, does feel like a privilege to accept the danger of what might be, what is, and to ultimately be here now.

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona

California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson. All photos taken by the author.

The Dark Power of a Crowd Dancing as One

What ends do the repetition, unison and gestures performed by the almost 200 dancers, vocalists and community members in Vanessa Voskuil’s new work, The Student, serve? There were gorgeous, often-disturbing stage pictures, to be sure, during Thursday night’s performance at O’Shaughnessy. Floor-bound dancers wriggled themselves right off the stage like lemmings tumbling over a cliff. […]

The Student was presented as part of the Women of Substance Series by The O'Shaughnessy and Vanessa Voskuil Performance.

The Student was presented as part of the Women of Substance Series by The O’Shaughnessy and Vanessa Voskuil Performance April 3 and 4, 2014.

What ends do the repetition, unison and gestures performed by the almost 200 dancers, vocalists and community members in Vanessa Voskuil’s new work, The Student, serve? There were gorgeous, often-disturbing stage pictures, to be sure, during Thursday night’s performance at O’Shaughnessy. Floor-bound dancers wriggled themselves right off the stage like lemmings tumbling over a cliff. Two men—one extruding himself through painful contortions, another all extension and flow—bookended the masses. The ensemble sat in neat rows, each performer making frantic scribbling gestures, then scattering as a woman dove through them with a noose around her neck.

A German dance artist, Rudolf Laban, created the notion of “movement choirs” in the early 1900s. Using amateur and professional dancers, he choreographed these large masses of people sometimes as a form of personal or spiritual expression—until his work was co-opted by the Third Reich. I mention this because, only then, does that noose, the shifting swarming tableaux of hangings, the marching and the firing squad (with repeated gestures, en masse, of marching, cocking and shooting a rifle, with accompanying sound effects by artist/producer Jesse Whitney of A. Wolf & Her Claws) begin to make some sort of sense.

Or maybe not.

According to the program notes, the piece is ostensibly about learning, about the repetition that makes learning possible. Instead, the work gives rise to questions about the purposes of rote repetition, in unison, in large groups. Those purposes, historically, are usually to value and reinforce conformity over individuality, toward a single unified purpose, to forge a groupthink of totalitarian or otherwise dystopian varieties. There’s no denying a great deal of power can be found in hundreds of people moving simultaneously, but a dark underside seems at work here as well.

At the same time, a lot of verbal cogitation—thinking out loud about how, what and why you’re thinking—occurs in the work. With tremendous stamina and exactitude Paul Herwig and Chris Conry performed rapid-fire, repeating inquiries on: seeing, knowing and not knowing; the occurrence of now in space and time; whether the piece is ending or continuing. The effect is like drowning in the details of someone else’s obsessive-compulsive disorder or psychosis.

Other components of the piece included various choirs (Perpich Center for Arts Education Choral Ensemble, Hamline University Women’s Chorale, St. Catherine’s University Women’s Choir), which beautifully performed Janika Vandervelde’s religious choral music (with accompanying sonic booms and earthquake-aftershock rumblings). The performers, seemingly age 6 to 60, wore shirts, pants, skirts and tights in various neutrals, while Voskuil wore white. Was she the student or the teacher?

Amid the disparate parts—which also included church bells, Voskuil on camera as part of the audience–there was order: the quiet walking of performers backward down the aisles to the stage, later filing back out and forming a circle; lines of performers sinuously gliding across the stage. As a ritual of sorts, in which a teacher guides her willing acolytes, the work could be experienced as a meditation or endurance trial, in which many unknowns are threaded through.

Broadside: Alec Soth and Brian Beatty

FAR AFIELD Like a scarecrow with its missing eye up to a telescope   in the wee hours of another starless night   I fooled myself into believing I’d seen all I needed   of life — as if lightning isn’t always about to   flash/strike somewhere along the horizon. *** Brian Beatty’s writing has […]

Alec Soth, Untitled, 2011.

Alec Soth, Untitled, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

FAR AFIELD

Like a scarecrow

with its missing eye

up to a telescope

 

in the wee hours

of another starless night

 

I fooled myself

into believing I’d seen

all I needed

 

of life — as if lightning

isn’t always about to

 

flash/strike

somewhere along

the horizon.

***

Brian Beatty’s writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications. His column of one-liners, “Jokes by Brian Beatty,” originated at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and wound up in the gutters of the front spreads of METRO Magazine, which also once rated him among the funniest people in the Twin Cities.

Alec Soth is a photographer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota and proprietor of Little Brown Mushroom. He has received fellowships from the McKnight, Bush, and Jerome Foundations and was the recipient of the 2003 Santa Fe Prize for Photography. His photographs are represented in major public and private collections, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Walker Art Center. His work has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including the 2004 Whitney Biennial and a career survey at the Jeu de Paume in 2008. His first monograph, Sleeping by the Mississippi, was published by Steidl in 2004 to critical acclaim.  Since then Soth has published NIAGARA (Steidl, 2006),  Dog Days, Bogotá (Steidl, 2007) Fashion Magazine: Paris/Minnesota (2007), Last Days of W. (2008), Broken Manual (2010) and Siren (2012), and several limited-edition installments in his LBM Dispatch series created with writer Brad Zellar. He is represented by the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York and the Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis.

A retrospective of his work, Alec Soth: Until Now, is on view at Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis, March 21 through May 10, 2014.

For mnartists.org’s occasional Broadside, artists are presented with a selection of written works and asked to respond in kind to a text of their choosing, with an image drawn from their own body of work. The text and visual art are presented on equal footing, neither one merely accompaniment or illustration for the other, more like artist-driven, mixed-media call and response.

Field Notes: Scott Nedrelow’s Afterlight

Consider: Scott Nedrelow – Afterlight Location: David Petersen Gallery, Minneapolis. Items: Six paintings, on Epson “premium luster” photo paper, measuring 60” wide x 90” high, or 92” when inside their beveled, white, glassless frames. This is good, as the paintings are given room to breathe and are not constrained by unnecessary boundary. Paintings are broken […]

Scott Nedrelow, Untitled. Installation photos courtesy of David Petersen Gallery.

Scott Nedrelow, Untitled. Installation photos courtesy of David Petersen Gallery.

Consider: Scott Nedrelow – Afterlight

Location: David Petersen Gallery, Minneapolis.

Items: Six paintings, on Epson “premium luster” photo paper, measuring 60” wide x 90” high, or 92” when inside their beveled, white, glassless frames. This is good, as the paintings are given room to breathe and are not constrained by unnecessary boundary. Paintings are broken into groups of three, two and one.

Scott Nedrelow, Afterlight. Installation view courtesy of the gallery.

Scott Nedrelow, Afterlight. Installation view courtesy of the gallery.

Items: Two videos play on HD screens placed side by side and leaned vertically against a wall in a dark, curtained backroom of the gallery. Each video records a Florida beach near Nedrelow’s parents’ home and is focused on the horizon line. One screen begins in darkness, the other in light, and as the horizon moves in each, the process inverts during the 45-minute piece.

Observations: Observable investigations in Nedrelow’s presented works seem to fall into two categories: LIGHT: post-photographic process, printing, day and night, “after” dark (which is actually during dark). These investigations connect neatly into questions of TIME: the rotation of the earth, physics in relation to process of orienting oneself, the act of seeing, any action which requires the slowing of time.

Scott Nedrelow, Untitled. Installation view courtesy of the gallery.

Scott Nedrelow, Untitled. Installation view courtesy of the gallery.

Notes: Regarding the paintings, from series titled Untitled (Afterlight)During a studio visit with the artist, Nedrelow shows me how these paintings are made, and the process used to achieve the subtle coloring. Paint is applied using an airbrush to manually spray CMYK (Cyan – Magenta – Yellow – blacK) colors used by desktop printers. The large-format photographic paper is rolled into itself from both sides, fastened into a tighter version of the capital of an Ionic column, and stood on its end. In regards to a distinctive sort of “medium is the message” process, in regards to the airbrushing of the surface, Nedrelow says, “It is important that the paper itself is being the leader of the image…”

The application of these inks becomes a physical manifestation of the shape of the paper turned in on itself, with two broader bars of color located outside the untouched center, echoed by smaller lines of the same color closer to the border. Subtle mixing is achieved when pure color is laid on top of pure color, in a pattern similar to chiasmus (diagram), where an arrangement of colors are related to one another in an ‘X’ fashion. Nedrelow explains this system, “It gives me something similar to a structure…to give the whole body of work, even if not hung together, they have a pair, and a direct relationship to process.”

Thoughts:

  • Work is best viewed from a distance, in this case, against furthest respective wall in gallery. Ink is almost imperceptible when viewed up close, as are differentiations in color from top to bottom.
  • Photographic process -> dependent on light <- vision dependent on light. The changing perspective from both near and far becomes an investigation into of the act of seeing.
  • Press release mentions that the title of the exhibition “…alludes to shadows and the idea of an afterimage. An afterimage is the compensation of the eye’s retina after the original visual stimulus.” Italics in the above quote are mine, by way of noting the unique phenomenal experience of vision, the way the human eye copes with and physically processes information, to such a degree that an image remains seen even after it is removed from sight.

Additional thoughts:

After the separation of the image from the eye, what remains? And where?

On how separating the self brings the artist closer to the core: Nedrelow, while firmly in control of both concept and production of his works, often separates himself from establishing narrative focus. Specific representational elements resulting from the work he also usually leaves to the determination of some outside agency. “I don’t have to be compositionally responsible for the content, it is related to the material”, explained Nedrelow, “When folded, the paper almost becomes a stencil on itself”.

On time as vehicle: Nedrelow’s video piece, Earthrise/Earthset, also investigates the movement of light and the idea of stepping back to see a greater whole. The piece is not a time-lapse, but rather a documentation of a specific experience of time, capturing both the setting and rising sun. The poetry lies in the use of the camera, which was attached to an astrological mount which slowly moves. Though this camera basically appears motionless, the mount’s shifting gears allow the recording of the slow, imperceptible movements of the earth’s rotation.  When asked if the focus is the light itself, or rather the time needed to comprehend light, Nedrelow responds, “It’s both I think— but as a way of telling a story in art, light that accumulates or changes imperceptibly is best.”

Scott Nedrelow, Untitled. Installation view courtesy of the gallery.

Scott Nedrelow, Untitled. Installation view courtesy of the gallery.

Et cetera:  Two notes, written during a studio visit with the artist. The first, which I later discovered to be from Buckminster Fuller, is used in the texts associated with Afterlight:

The most important thing to teach your children is that the sun does not rise and set. It is the Earth that revolves around the sun. Then teach them the concepts of North, South, East and West, and that they relate to where they happen to be on the planet’s surface at that time. Everything else will follow.

The second note is unattributed, either my own observation or a quote from the artist: “There is a physical correlation between how you relate to the world, and physics explains this”. Once understood, it is either easier, or more difficult, to face the forces of the universe.

Related exhibition information:

Scott Nedrelow – Afterlight is on view now through April 5, 2014, at David Petersen Gallery. The gallery, located at 2018 Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis, is open Wednesday through Saturday, 11-6, or by appointment.

Artists are Vulnerable

Every few weeks, that TED talk by Brene Brown about the power of vulnerability makes its way across my social media feed, and for a moment I find myself thinking, “Yes, vulnerability! We need more of that around here.” But vulnerability is like failure and innovation, one of those neat ideas that catches like wildfire, sweeping through […]

Artwork by Timothy Cronin of Husbands Printmaking Studio

Artwork by Timothy Cronin of Husbands Printmaking Studio

Every few weeks, that TED talk by Brene Brown about the power of vulnerability makes its way across my social media feed, and for a moment I find myself thinking, “Yes, vulnerability! We need more of that around here.”

But vulnerability is like failure and innovation, one of those neat ideas that catches like wildfire, sweeping through leadership seminars and association conferences. For a moment we all profess to know what it means, and to see the value in it. We hurry to detail the ways in which we and our work exemplify the concept. We’re vulnerable. We’re innovative. We fail, and because we’re doing it right, we learn from our failures.

Then some time passes. We forget the wise words of Brene Brown and the other TED prophets, and we go back to business as usual.

In the business I’m in — socially engaged art and design—business as usual means competing for resources and recognition, even as we profess our collective community spirit. It involves putting a positive spin on even our most disappointing programs and projects, as we trumpet the virtues of failure. It means keeping an ear to the ground for opportunity, and working like expert operators to position ourselves to receive, even as we call ourselves advocates for others. It means working around the clock and professing to love our jobs, even though we’re tired and overworked and under-compensated. It means keeping our guard up against anything and anyone that might challenge our approach, even though we celebrate vulnerability.

This past week, a friend called me from a parking ramp. She was in tears, trying to regain her composure after meeting with an aggressive collaborator who has power over her work. She wondered out loud how she could continue working in what had become a toxic environment. She also wondered how she could stop working. The project in question was one she had conceived over many months of intense thinking and delicate relationship-building. She felt attached to it, and rightfully so. Not to mention that like so many others, my friend’s financial situation is precarious. She literally cannot afford to bail on the project, though she confessed to me that she hasn’t been happy in months, and isn’t making her best work as a result.

My friend is an artist, and she’s not unique in this experience, or in feeling this way about it. I’ve had countless conversations of this kind over the past months with peers: artists and other independent creative producers who work on what claim to be “artist-led” collaborative projects for the benefit of artists and communities, but which in practice seem to be business-as-usual non-profit programs.

Artists are vulnerable, and not in the Brene Brown sense of that word. When we collaborate with non-profit organizations or other groups, we have to navigate complex political and social landscapes, often without the insider knowledge that can keep one from inadvertently stepping in landmines. This kind of learning takes time. We go to lots of meetings, and we’re not paid for most of them. We share our creative thinking up the food chain, with good intentions and the expectation that we can trust those who claim to have our interests at heart. Once in awhile this results in a paid opportunity to create meaningful artwork, but often we see our ideas emerge watered-down or with strings attached. In the worst cases, we see our ideas or words emerge unattributed in the shiny new initiative of an organization that has little regard for us or our goals.

When we do create work, we usually do so with limited resources. This leaves almost no time for the important steps of synthesis and reflection, or for telling our own story of what transpired. Instead, we read about our projects and see photos of our work used instrumentally in the communications of non-profit organizations and funders, often without any consultation or consent.

I hear it expressed quietly all the time, that feeling that we have little power or authority over the conditions of our work, even as our work is used to gain larger grants and more recognition for leaders in our field. Meanwhile, we live with fear of retribution should we speak publicly about our concerns.

My friend, the one who left the parking ramp—she did what I’ve done many times in the past. She took a deep breath and went back to creating artistic projects, trying to stay true to her own values, vowing to do things differently should she ever be in a position of power. She said the hardest thing for her is the realization that as artists, we seem to have no one in our corner. Lots of people are champions for the arts, especially now that it seems more people recognize the important contributions of art to our lives and communities; but when it comes to standing up for artists, she didn’t know who to turn to except her peers.

I think there’s power in that realization, though it’s hard to know just what to do with it. Yes, we are vulnerable, and we’re not alone.

Republished from Medium with permission of the author. 

Road Songs: SXSW 2014

I decided early on that the real action at Austin’s South by Southwest was happening on the floor of the stage. Not only can you spot exciting cowboy boots of many colors, you can also see the quick two step required to maneuver guitar and piano pedals. The singers kneel, dance, and tap their heels. […]

I decided early on that the real action at Austin’s South by Southwest was happening on the floor of the stage. Not only can you spot exciting cowboy boots of many colors, you can also see the quick two step required to maneuver guitar and piano pedals. The singers kneel, dance, and tap their heels. Beers and other beverages litter the stage. Hastily wrapped cables are tangled over Oriental carpets. In addition to the odd, lovely, and strange festival snapshots, I can now add band members’ feet to my repertoire of South by Southwest subjects.

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Sam’s Town Point

One of the beautiful things about the annual Austin festival is that there is music to be found anywhere – in grocery stores and coffee shops, as well as the official showcases. It is hard to know where you will find gold. I caught several members of beloved Texan country band, The Flatlanders, at El Mercado Mexican restaurant on an otherwise quiet Monday night. Half of the restaurant was eating Tex-Mex and enjoying margaritas, by all appearances oblivious to the legendary musicians playing in the back room. But the crowd in-the-know was singing along to every song, enthusiastically cheering every harmonica and mandolin solo.

My band played in a guitar shop country showcase after introducing ourselves there a few days before. We met a hound dog named Pierre who loved the harmonica and took a fancy to my solos. We caught a set from Wil Cope: his easygoing style calls to mind an indie Townes Van Zandt. Afterward, we got Mexican fruit cups sprinkled with cayenne pepper and walked toward Sixth Street to see some of the big ol’ (free) sponsored showcase and, on the way, enjoyed a full tasting menu of eccentric music personalities and street buskers. We walked by what looked like roller derby practice accompanied by a live band.

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Jonny Fritz, wearing a handmade leather guitar strap and a Budweiser jacket, stood solo on the stage recounting intimate stories of love on the road and dogs in various stages of captivity. I have been listening to his new album, Dad Country, on repeat. The pedal steel guitar, shaky, earnest vocals and plebian lyrics combine to make a completely refreshing and accessible mix.

We caught Robert Ellis (also styling a Jonny Fritz-style guitar strap), a songwriter who taps into his Lone Star State heritage for lyrical fodder. He played guitar ardently and with beautiful musicianship, moseying between soft rock and free jazz-inspired five-minute solos. His band was ready for anything he threw at them, from slow country ballads to breakneck speed bluegrass foot-stompers.

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Robert Ellis

We stumbled into an Ava Luna show. Their soulful melodies are punctuated by little rhythmic yelps, like Siouxsie and the Banshees mixed with art house rock and old-time soul. The vocal leads were traded among the band members; the two female singers have quick, urgent harmonies and demanding voices. The crowd pressed against the stage at the Longbranch Inn to hear them, drawn by the band’s strange but altogether danceable tunes.

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The Longbranch Inn

Friday night of the festival, we took a bus that wound through residential streets, avoiding garbage cans and mailboxes, all the way to the end of the line, where we arrived at Sam’s Town Point on the southern edge of town. Over the doorway of the establishment reads a sign: FRIENDS ARE THE BEST PART OF LIFE. Ramsay Midwood, a singer and organizer for the evening, inexplicably brought a fog machine and rotating disco lights to accompany an evening of homespun country, folk, and rock. A Nashville country-soul outfit, Banditos, were joined (briefly) onstage by a parrot. The parrot, named Harley, was, with his owner and clearly a regular at the joint. The bird was quiet, as if respectful of the music, and remarkably patient about being passed around. Harley’s owner dropped several bills into the tip jar and told Mary, the impassioned singer on stage, that her singing had made him cry. (The same patron later requested Janis Joplin – a weird song choice, but one I am sure the band could have pulled off with aplomb.) Promised Land Sound took the stage and played straight-ahead, Allman Brothers Band harmonies – garage-rock with country twang.

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Banditos

We met the acoustic duo Wildwood and invited them to play a backyard show we helped put together, and serendipitously connected with Actual Wolf and John Mark Nelson. We heard several local Austin acoustic acts who filled the space with lyrical tales of heartbreak, Minnesota, and Southern California. The day began with an uncertain forecast calling for hail and rain. We took solace in the grilled cheese bar and made a little music, sharing some acoustic road songs. There were no amps to mess around with, no cables to untangle. So for us, South by Southwest finished quietly with melodious harmonies and a BB gun propped up on the porch.

Watercolor of the South by Southwest vibe by author.

Watercolor of the South by Southwest vibe by author

California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson. All photos taken by the author.

The Columnest: Whistling in the Dark

I commute to work these days—40 minutes one way, five days a week. When I first contemplated this drive, it sounded awful, but now it feels normal. If it sounds awful to you, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones: the average American commute comes to 25.5 minutes, one way (according to USA Today). Truly, […]

Flight 714, also known as Flight 714 to Sydney, is the twenty-second tale of The Adventures of Tintin released in 1968.

“Flight 714,” also known as “Flight 714 to Sydney,” was released in 1968 and is the 22nd tale of The Adventures of Tintin.

I commute to work these days—40 minutes one way, five days a week. When I first contemplated this drive, it sounded awful, but now it feels normal. If it sounds awful to you, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones: the average American commute comes to 25.5 minutes, one way (according to USA Today).

Truly, my drive to work is not bad at all. The highway is busy and 70-miles-an-hour jolts me at 7 am, but dawn comes through the bare trees on the ridges with pink, purplish, apricot, or lemon veils of light, every day a slightly different spectrum glowing and shifting as I round the side of the big city I never see. Then I take my exit and turn off on a country road that winds down through the university’s agricultural extension, past an old mill with its lake and millwheel and geese, past the cows on the hillside with the blasted stump and the old split rail fence, past the church and the cemetery, past old farm houses and ’50s ranch homes and a mobile home park and a couple of posh new subdivisions, past the little family cemetery and the strawberry farm. It’s dreamy and misty and I hear myself say “oh!” whenever I see something I didn’t notice before—“oh!” to the first burst of daffodils, or, if the cows are close by the fence, “hello cows!” Would I rather be asleep? Of course. But I have to make a living. And I’ve learned to like my little dawn pilgrimage.

It’s the way back from work that gets me. I can’t separate from my job in time to enjoy the country road—and then I’m sucked into and stuck on the highway, which is simultaneously hectic and boring. Trying to keep myself to 70 and stay awake, to anticipate semis, entering traffic, and assorted assholes, I’m miserable.

Then I am dependent on the radio for relief. Like everyone else in my neighborhood/voting bloc/yoga class, I listen to National Public Radio. Now, while I like NPR, approve of it in general, and am immensely grateful that the service exists, etc, that does not accurately describe my actual feeling as I am driving that 25-minute highway stretch. No, my actual feeling is more capricious and mad—more Stockholm syndrome, with a little road rage thrown in. My inane crush on Kai Ryssdal (whom I never saw before I googled him a moment ago)—“Kai, you stud!” I coo or catcall him when he comes on—is matched by nothing but my riotous and unreasonable hatred of some other hosts I won’t mention. When the reporters cover something I’m interested in, I’m delighted with them and think they are good people; when they cover something that bores me, I hiss at them and make fun of their voices.

Here’s the only story I really want to hear at the moment: the mystery of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight. Why? Not because I’m morbid; I barely remember the Air France crash of 2009, and while the story of flight MH370 is probably a tragedy, we don’t know that for sure yet. For now it’s a mystery—and an exceptionally puzzling one, with clues cropping up here and there, experts and amateurs spouting opinions. Even Courtney Love is weighing in. Besides, the story of MH370 brings up Big Issues: it pits man against machine, country against country, and modern technology against the great beyond. Scads of volunteers scroll through satellite photos of the sea’s winking surface while we wonder: can anything be really lost these days? We’re incredulous—and a little excited, because for most Americans this story is without personal consequence, happening on the opposite side of the globe to a small crew of unlucky people.

For me, the story of flight MH370 echoes something long sunk in the mud of my mind: Flight 714, a Tintin comic in which a supersonic jet is hijacked and landed on a tiny Indonesian island. Amid ancient artifacts, devious millionaires, truth serums, telepathy, flying saucers, and a volcano, everything turns out fine, as usual in Tintin books. Perhaps that also affects my interest in MH370: the hope of a happy ending against the odds, a story that doesn’t end the way you know it probably will.

Yeats_Tombstone_(3585068950)

All this is awful, I know, this daydream induced by someone’s actual trouble. But that’s the state of the commuter, zooming over the blank land between one place and another, unattached, whistling idly and waiting for reality to begin again. As Yeats says,

Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!

Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC. 

Chemistry is That Story by Flannery O’Connor

Below is the third and final installment of my “Chemistry for Art Folks” series, a subsidiary of your usual Art+Science posts here at the mnartists blog. Installment #1, “Chemistry is David Bowie,” is here. #2, “Chemistry is a Rothko,” is here. Thus far in these chemistry conversations, we’ve gotten pretty Neil deGrasse Sagan about how […]

"Grass Roots Square" by Do-Ho Suh (Korea/USA) at the square in front of Regjeringskvartalet R6

Grass Roots Square by Do-Ho Suh (Korea/USA) at the square in front of Regjeringskvartalet in Oslo, Norway. Photo: Helge Høifødt

Below is the third and final installment of my “Chemistry for Art Folks” series, a subsidiary of your usual Art+Science posts here at the mnartists blog. Installment #1, “Chemistry is David Bowie,” is here. #2, “Chemistry is a Rothko,” is here.

Thus far in these chemistry conversations, we’ve gotten pretty Neil deGrasse Sagan about how everything that ever was and ever will be is “star stuff,” the same atoms from the Big Bang arranging and rearranging, on and on, forever and ever and ain’t it grand?

But what does that actually look like? Let us leave the big picture hocus-pocus and talk about something with substance. Literally.

The difference between a bunch of atoms and an actual substance is the way in which those atoms are put together. Just like the words of a story, atoms are only as good as the structure into which they are set.

627px-Diamond_and_graphite

Pictured above are the molecular structures of graphite (right) and diamond. Both are made of exactly the same type of atoms — carbon. And what’s the only difference between that which universally besmirches the fingers of sketching school children and a “girl’s best friend” so structurally sound its second claim to fame is cutting other really really hard things? The only difference is arrangement. The simple rearrangement of their carbon pieces changes everything.

If that seems too simple to be true, consider this: In nature, the state of a substance is determined by chemical reaction, including the vagaries of energies like heat, electricity, pressure  and, maybe, the introduction of other chemicals. But as of recently, some such chemically complex changes come about through human manipulation. That is, rather than relying on a chemical reaction to rearrange the particles, we provide the mechanism for change.

Let’s look at those diamond (a) and graphite (b) structures again, this time in context of similar carbon structures:

557px-Eight_Allotropes_of_Carbon

Check out that fourth one, by the way (d); that’s Buckminsterfullerene, which is sometimes found in soot and is perhaps obviously named. But that last one (h)? That’s a carbon nano tube. We humans can make those – not via some removed chemical reaction, either. We get in there with teensy tiny nano tools and build those tubes, one atom at a time. And then we use them for stuff. We do similar work with drugs, too, building little molecular structures that will fit into our body’s receptors, just like they grab on to whatever chemicals are put in their path. So, the next time you hear your doctors talk about drugs, remember they’re talking chemistry, maybe even nanochemistry — basically man-made chemicals designed to work on that molecular (nano) level. Maybe we should call it mano-chemistry.

No, yeah, you’re right – we really shouldn’t.

Do you know that Flannery O’Connor story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find?If not, please, read it, I’m begging you. I’ll wait. I mean, not to build it up too much or whatever but — okay, I’ll be quiet. You go ahead.

Wasn’t that good?

So, imagine if O’Connor hadn’t started with that first tidbit about the grandmother’s contrarian opinion regarding Florida. Or, if she hadn’t followed that up with even more of the grandmother’s schadenfraude, then a little more, and (ohgodno, not more — oh yes) more, building grandmother upon grandmother, little by little, until (SPOILERS) the point at which she comes face to face with the ne’er-do-well, Misfit, and takes her fatal misstep, showing her true colors to be even crueler, somehow, than the cold-blooded killer who ends her life. Or, what if O’Connor had started the story with the Misfit then crammed him into a mass of grandmotherly details, upside down and backwards? Could we have found the Misfit to be as cruel as she? Would we have felt badly for her instead?

It would have been a story, sure, but not an equivalent one. It is structure that distinguishes O’Connor’s glittering gem from what would otherwise be penciled-in scribblings.

Road Songs: Northern California

There is no Hollywood sign welcoming you to Northern California. Silicon Valley feels quieter, less glittery than Southern California. Instead of the Getty, the city of Mountain View has a Computer History Museum educating visitors on all things digital. Filled with software artifacts, both a Google car and bike, ancient computation devices and early forays into artificial intelligence (including a Furby), […]

bug_pin_900

Pin from the Computer History Museum. Photo by the author.

There is no Hollywood sign welcoming you to Northern California. Silicon Valley feels quieter, less glittery than Southern California. Instead of the Getty, the city of Mountain View has a Computer History Museum educating visitors on all things digital. Filled with software artifacts, both a Google car and bike, ancient computation devices and early forays into artificial intelligence (including a Furby), it’s the sort of place that asks you to linger a while, to take in slow bites.

We rushed through it in the 40 minutes before closing.

Even so, we found some choice bits about the military’s involvement in computer decryption prototypes. We browsed through documentation of the commercial fervor that drove widespread adoption of the PC. Fun fact: In the ’70s, marketers tried to get luxury consumers to purchase a dual computer/kitchen counter set. It doesn’t sound like the idea ever took off.

Plaque from Boise, Idaho. Photo by the author.

Plaque from Boise, Idaho. Photo by the author.

On a detour through Boise, Idaho, we spotted a plaque commemorating installation of the “first computer in Boise City” in 1957. It was a clunker, with “800 vacuum tubes, [that] could store 438 digits of information and weighed 3,230 pounds.” We saw several of these room-sized computers in Mountain View. Many are still operable, but they require a team of engineers to poke and prod and coax them to life.

Famous Idaho potatoes at the airport. Photo by the author.

Famous Idaho potatoes at the airport. Photo by the author.

We made our way to San Francisco. The city has an elegance all its own that always fascinated me as a child going into town. The architecture is consistently newish, styled after the 1906 quake razed the city. Coit Tower, murals, rambling Painted Ladies and bungalows alike, all stand out confidently and attest to the true color of the city. Fog rolls in every night by the Presidio where my parents live. When you’re walking late at night, the constant grumble of foghorns from the Golden Gate Bridge calls to mind steamboats and the city’s old world maritime history.

San Francisco garden. Photo by the author.

San Francisco garden. Photo by the author.

When you move away from Northern California, as I have, and then come back into its welcoming arms from time to time, it always feels a touch more mysterious upon return. Creative, culinary, and technological experiments constantly change the weave of the city’s fabric.  San Francisco is installing protected bike lanes, pedestrian barriers and parklets that make the streetscape greener.  These ever-changing road layouts challenge even a seasoned San Francisco driver. Dining trends – burritos filled with Indian food, for example — take their cues from food trucks, youth culture, and counterculture. Many of the city’s most popular restaurants now boast of accompanying coffee table books filled with sun-kissed photographs of their recipes.

You can choose the “Northern California” brand you want to engage: the book, the movie, the social media. Silicon Valley workplaces coax productivity from their employees with dinners, massages, and beer tastings. The lines separating home and work, commute and getaway are increasingly blurry.

The Presidio. Photo by the author.

The Presidio. Photo by the author.

The Presidio’s Walt Disney Family Museum has in its collection one of the original cameras used to create the studio’s animated classics. The camera is monstrous: a behemoth whose scaffolding holds levers, lenses and long strips of original artwork at the very bottom. Shooting from above, the camera (once upon a time) would zoom in and pan around on the hand-painted film to create the illusion of a sweeping panorama; still more images and characters could be layered above the vista created. Like a photoshopped image, that camera brought together and blended layers to create an illusion of a scene. Northern California is a bit like that, a composite scene made of layers, one atop the other — analog, digital and cultural.

California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson.

Chemistry is a Rothko

Below is the second of three installments in my “Chemistry for Art Folks” series, a subsidiary of your usual Art+Science posts here at the mnartists blog. The first, “Chemistry is David Bowie,” is here. If you like what you see, pass it on. So that we all may learn and, in learning, be free. Let’s […]

Poster image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Poster image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Below is the second of three installments in my “Chemistry for Art Folks” series, a subsidiary of your usual Art+Science posts here at the mnartists blog. The first, “Chemistry is David Bowie,” is here. If you like what you see, pass it on. So that we all may learn and, in learning, be free.

Let’s start this week’s metaphor about chemistry with another metaphor, because we’re feeling brazen.

What is it about feats of great physical prowess that so impresses us? From the high-wire walker to the human cannonball, the gymnast to the ski jumper, it’s not sheer strength that keeps them teetering on the right side of disaster. There’s something else. Ask any guru — from the old-school Buddhist to new-age craze variety, experts in money or fitness or relationships — and they’ll all likely offer something that boils down to this: Balance.

So it is with chemistry. It’s like riding a bike.

Last week, we rocked out to the fact that everything is a chemical and that, therefore, everything that happens is or involves a chemical reaction. When you think of a chemical reaction, I bet you think of those wacky chemistry experiments they show you at school assemblies*- and, hell yes, those are awesome. But you can add to that list almost anything that happens ever. A chemical reaction is just a change, a balanced change where the most basic elements (literally) are still there, before and after, albeit in a different order.

Remember this diagram from chemistry class?

Electrolysis_of_Water

What you’re looking at is the breakdown of water into its constituent parts, but that doesn’t matter. It could be anything – any chemical, any reaction. What matters here is that there’s a before and an after. The arrow in between, that’s the catalyst for change (energy of some sort, in this case an electric current – but, again, that doesn’t matter). The shape configurations you see before are different from those coming after, but you’ll notice that the atoms, the components, are all still there. Same atoms, same amount. That’s because according to the laws of nature (i.e. particle physics, chemistry, et al) any chemical reaction, no matter how violent, will wind up …balanced.  You get the same before and after, rearranged.

Just as important to the balance of the atoms’ number, though, is the fact that they are configured differently. The chemical that comes before will not be the same as that which arrives, post-rearrangement, after. Gosh, no, because if that were the case, nothing would ever actually happen.

If we humans could achieve such perfect balance, we would feel the same in front of a Powerpoint presentation as we do in our Barcaloungers, sure, but what fun would that be?

Think of chemical change like a Rothko. Is it symmetrical? No. Balanced? Yes.

Rothko_No_14

Mark Rothko, No. 14., oil on canvas. 1960. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

* Please note:  Some of the experiments featured in the linked video might be better characterized as magnetic experiments, which are also great and also have to do with atoms (and also magnetic chemistry is a thing, which is cool and great).

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