Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Face of the Earth ... Masked by Beard, Glasses and Wig

130 year-old man from Minnesota, from László Moholy-Nagy, Von Material zu Architektur (1929)

In Von Material zu Architektur (1929) (later translated to English as The New Vision), László Moholy-Nagy introduced a remarkable portrait of a 130-year old Minnesota man to demonstrate a point about photography and the perception of time. Remarking on the deep wrinkles that spread crevasse-like across the surface of the man’s skin, Moholy-Nagy reminded readers how the photograph was “essentially a time-compressing view of the alterations in the epidermis: an airplane view of time” (“Fliegeraufnahme der Zeit”).[1] This equating of physiognomy with aerial views is an important concept and deserves further scrutiny. In one sense, physiognomy became a metaphor for aerial photography of the landscape. Like the Minnesota Man’s skin in the photograph, the landscape was also an epidermis. The successive layering of soil and vegetation corresponded to the deep incisions of time visible on the Minnesota Man’s face. The “airplane view” became a heuristic for recording evidence of the passage of time, but only showing the latest stages of this passage. It only captured the evidence of change at the very point an image was captured on the photographic plate.

O.G.S. Crawford (1886-1957)

Moholy-Nagy's contemporary, the English archaeologist and geographer Oswald Guy Stanhope (O.G.S.) Crawford (1886-1957), offered something closer to a method, one that would give this physiognomic aspect further temporal dimensions with the invention of the discipline he called “aerial archaeology.” In works like Wessex From the Air (1928) and Air-Photography for Archaeologists (1929), a manual he wrote as the Ordnance Survey’s self-appointed “archaeological officer,” Crawford defined aerial archaeology as a method “to indicate what kinds of ancient sites are suitable for air-photography, and what is the best time of year and day” for the examination of such sites.[2] On a first glance, Crawford’s texts were primers detailing the various procedures for taking and interpreting aerial photographs of archaeological sites in England.

(Top) Crawford, Wessex From The Air (1928); (Bottom) Air-Photography for Archaeologists (1929)

Yet Crawford's version of aerial archaeology amounted to an attempt to understand the relationship between the physical remains of ancient English settlements and the various geological—and historical forces—that shaped them. Art historian Kitty Hauser explains how Crawford “thought prehistory should be approached not through texts (as many archaeologists preferred) not through fetishized ‘finds’ (like those collected and admired by antiquarians), but through the spatial logic of geography.”[3] Yet it must be pointed out that the very things that Crawford looked at through his aerial cameras were remains of buildings. Almost all of the plates from Wessex From the Air and Air-Photography for Archaeologists show evidence of ancient foundations and walls—evidence of architecture. It is an interesting notion, for before Crawford became famous for his promotion of aerial photography techniques for field archaeology, he would gain some amount of fame among preservationist circles for his remark, “[T]he surface of England … is a palimpsest, a document that has been written on and erased over and over again.”[4] The very skeleton key needed to uncover and decode the layers of this palimpsest, to peer x-ray-like at the ancient structures on the ground, summoning them from their peaty graves, was the aerial photograph. Taken from vertical or oblique angles, Crawford’s aerial photographs operated as a way of organizing visual information beyond their sensory characteristics into a system of categorized knowledge. He arranged his images into three general categories—"shadow-sites," "crop-marks" and "soil sites"—each describing the light and topography in which a particular archaeological feature was found. As method, however, Crawford’s aerial archaeology became a kind of aerial physiognomy of the land—an endoscopy of landscape. As a method to document what reviewer “visible and hidden face of England” through the examination of its surfaces, Crawford believed that aerial archaeology allowed one to gain some understanding about England’s history—and by inference—character.[5]

Screen captures from Harun Farocki, Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges: (Second and Third from Top) Albrecht Meydenbauer's treatise on photogrammetry; (Fourth and Fifth from Top) Marc Garanger's Femmes Algeriennes 1968 

To further articulate the physiognomic nature of aerial photography, consider these moments from Harun Farocki’s 1988 film, Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges (Images of the World and the Inscription of War). As the female narrator reads a carefully constructed rumination on the creation of images and the waging of war, Farocki shows images of texts and handbooks dealing with photogrammetry and physiognomy. He begins long sequences intercutting German architect Albrecht Meydenbauer’s photographs of building façades and French Army Photographer Marc Garanger’s portraits of unveiled Algerian women. In these texts, each reading of faces has a different, yet specific purpose. Whereas Meydenbauer used photographs of buildings' faces—façades—to generate scaled architectural drawings, Garanger’s took his photographs in 1960 to create identification cards for Algerian citizens. In each instance, then, the photograph has an ostensibly utilitarian rote. But as Farocki jump cuts between images of heimat buildings and faces of Algerian women, his investment in history becomes clearer—and more controversial. The narrator remarks how Meydenbauer’s catalogue of building façades, Das photographische Aufnehmen zu wissenschaftlichen Zwecken, insbesondere das Messbild-Verfahren (1890) anticipated a historical preservationist movement resulting in the creation of the Prussian Monumental Archives. As for Garanger’s photos showing faces which, like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s Minnesota Man, equate facial wrinkles with a kind of landscape, Farocki reminds viewers how “when one looks into the face of an intimate, one also brings in something of the shared past.”[6] This reference to the capturing and representing of the past in a photograph is necessary to an understanding of composition of history. In other words, the photogrammetry of Prussian building façades and the inventory of Algerian faces both captured the effects of change over time.

Screen Captures from Farocki's Bilder der Welt: (Top) Luftbild-Lesebuch; (Middle) Aerial view of a restaurant; (Bottom) Aerial view of a farm house

Farocki also recognized that capturing such change over time presented its own problems. It is not long before Farocki trains his camera on books dealing with aerial photography and military reconnaissance to demonstrate this point. In one instance, he shows excerpts from a book called Luftbild-Lesebuch. Published in 1937 by Hansa Luftbild, an imprint of the German airline Deutsche Luft Hansa A.G., this book was number 13 in a series dealing with aerial photography. Vertical views of a hay harvest, farm house, tables and chairs in a restaurant, and laundry hanging on a line are all touted as examples of a “new world picture.”[7] As further evidence of this view, Farocki also shows photographs of carpets. The narrator reads, “This is how a carpet must look to a cat.  The pattern of the carpet is woven for people standing upright, for the view from above.”[8]

(Top) Luftbild und Vorgeschichte—Luftbild und Luftbildmessung Nr 16 (Hansa Luftbild 1938); (Bottom) Crawford’s “Cat’s Eye View”, from “Luftbildaufnahmen von archäologischen Bodendenkmälern in England” in Luftbild und Vorgeschichte (1938)

These images come from Crawford’s 1938 essay, “Luftbildaufnahmen von archäologischen Bodendenkmälern in England” (“Examples of Aerial Photographs of Earthen Monuments in England”). Published in a text called Luftbild und Vorgeschichte (1938) (Volume 16 in the same series as Luftbild-Lesebuch) the essay features two images illustrating of what Crawford calls the “Cat’s Eye View." The first, a carpet seen from the point of view of a cat (“Wie eine Katze aus ihrer Augenhöhe ein Teppichmuster sieht”) shows a blurry suggestion of a carpet pattern.[9] The second, showing the point of view from above, comparable to an aerial view (“Dasselbe Muster, wie es der Mensch von seiner Ausgehöhe sieht”), shows a distinct carpet pattern.[10]

These two images stand for something beyond the proposition that such patterns are more difficult to discern from the ground than from the air. In one way, these images call attention to the ways in which the aerial view is either too generalizing or too nominalistic. Showing a carpet pattern from the air recalls Moholy-Nagy’s observation that an aerial, or “airplane” view revealed “large-scale relationships.”[11] This point of view seemed to defy his conceptualization of the aerial view as a “space compressor,” an extension of vision that collapsed the distance air and ground. The separation between the ground view and aerial view are thus of vital importance—it is only from the air that a viewing subject can see something as clearly and unobtrusively. A pattern viewed from the air therefore reveals something of the same magnitude as the close reading of an aerial photograph.

This distinction between the ability to discern general patterns from the air and the inability to do so from the ground suggests that, under some circumstances, vision is unreliable. This speaks to the vital difference between the methodologies and sensibilities of vision—in other words, the organization and categorization of visual knowledge becomes a way to address problems in seeing.  Farocki’s film uses Meydenbauer’s text to address this point. The narrator thus reads Meydenbauer’s words, suggesting that with the images of building façades, “one does not see everything, but one sees many things better than on the spot.”[12] Farocki affirms this “capacity to see better" when he shows pages from Baron Elard von Loewenstern’s 1938 text, Tarnung und Täuschung (Camouflage and Deception), a manual detailing the various uses of wartime camouflage.[13] Recalling the relation between physiognomy and aerial photography, the narrator reads from von Loewenstern’s book, suggesting how recognizing camouflaged patterns from the air is, in essence, seeing the “face of the Earth … masked by beard, glasses and wig."[14]

(Top) AEF Interpretation, Plate 42, Photo 2, After 1918, Aerial Expeditionary Force with Edward Steichen, Silver print, National Air and Space Museum, Aerial Expeditionary Force Photography Collection; (Bottom) Alphonse Bertillon, Tableau synoptic des traits physionomiques: pour servir a l'étude du "portrait parlé" (1909)

Some more ruminations on the relationship between aerial vision and physiognomy are in order.  For his discussion of “The Airplane Eye,” art historian Christoph Asendorf made an important connection between Edward Steichen’s aerial photoreconnaissance methods from 1918 and Alphonse Bertillon’s anthropometrics. For Steichen, aerial photography of enemy positions created problems of interpretation. He required pilots to fly at equal altitudes, making multiples passes over a target below so that “through the standardization of the recording process, the terrain could be provided independent of the subjective view....”[15] Asendorf equated this procedure with Bertillon’s system of identifying criminal traits according to facial features: an example of the “technique of the objectification of visual information.”[16] Asendorf called the taking of photographs via “The Airplane Eye” as “Landscape Bertillonage." And yet, this comparison is somewhat incomplete, for aerial photoreconnaissance offered something that the Bertillon method could not. Asendorf concluded by observing how aerial photoreconnaissance provided not a single image “but an uninterrupted sequence, the systematic capture of the landscape in the categories of space and time.”[17]

It is this notion of a systematic capture that would become the most important aspect of Crawford’s brand of aerial archaeology. His photographs of ancient settlements half-buried in the English appear as evolving objects, complements to the time-worn epidermis of Moholy-Nagy's Minnesota Man, or as well as Farocki's revelations of Meydenbauer's and Garanger's works. All of these share a common trait, as they become methods for capturing the character of the landscape below, for constructing a literal, historical point of view.


[1] Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, The New Vision (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005 [1938]), 40-41. Moholy-Nagy, Von Material zu Architektur (Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 2001 [1929]), 41.
[2] O.G.S. Crawford, Air-Photography for Archaeologists (London: H.M.S.O, 1929), 3.
[3] Kitty Hauser, Shadow Sites: Photography, Archaeology and the British Landscape, 1927-1955 (London: Oxford University Press, 2007), 15. Hauser labels Crawford’s work as a quintessentially English melding of modernist experiment with a deeply historical sensibility, citing John Piper’s paintings of Romanesque carvings from 1936, John Betjeman’s poetry, Herbert Read’s art criticism, and Nikolaus Pevsner’s lectures on the “Englishness of English Art” as examples. Yet this sensibility is evidence of what she calls “the archaeological imagination,” the “perceiving of a past which is literally under our feet” that “represents a powerful counter-impulse to this culture of interchangeable surfaces covering over all traces of history” and that calls home “a historical dimension to which the contemporary world seems so indifferent.” Hauser, Shadow Sites, 2-7.
[4] Ibid., 64.
[5] See the review of Hauser, Bloody Old Britain: O.G.S. Crawford and the Archaeology of Modern Life (London: Granta Books, 2008), in  Tom Fort, “Mapping Britain’s Archaeology,” The Telegraph (1 June 2008), available at <> (accessed 14 October 2015).
[6] Harun Farocki, Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges (1988).
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] O.G.S. Crawford, “Luftbildaufnahmen von archäologischen Bodendenkmälern in England”, in Luftbild und Vorgeschichte (Berlin: Hansa Luftbild G.m.b.H., 1938), 16-17.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Moholy-Nagy, The New Vision, 38.
[12] Farocki, Bilder der Welt.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Christoph Asendorf, Super Constellation: Flugzeug und Raumrevolution (New York: Springer Verlag, 1997), 37. (“So konnte durch Standardisierung der Aufnahmeverfahren das Terrain unabhängig vom subjektiven Blick auf bestimmte Dinge him befragbar wiedergegeben werden.”)
[16] Ibid., 38. (“eine Technik der Objektivierung visueller Informationen.”)
[17] Ibid. (“Wesentlich bei militärischen Luftaufnahmen ist weniger das einzelne Bild, sondern die ununterbrochene Bildfolge, das systematische Erfassen der Landschaft in den Kategorien von Raum und Zeit.”)

Monday, October 12, 2015

A Reader's Guide To A Reader's Guide

(Left to Right) Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird, and James Taylor, with a 1955 Chevrolet 210 Hardtop, from Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

It is easy to admire Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham’s 1971 inspired take on Los Angeles, once thought of as the most elusive of American cities. This book has a lot to answer for, especially in the way it expands the way we analyze and study the contemporary city. Indeed, it is hard to imagine this book existing independent of William Cronon’s rigorous spatial history of Chicago, born under the occluding signs of Karl Marx and Walter Christaller, or even Lars Lerup’s Duchamp-fueled fever dream of Houston, one that may leave you seeing skyscrapers as chocolate grinders and marine layers as “zoohemic canopies.”[1]

What in the hell have I just read? you may ask yourself, and this is why it is even easier to love Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, the 1972 BBC short documentary film that gives Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies visual grist for the literal mill and shows an avuncular, perhaps slightly stoned Banham taking a motorized gander around the so-called “Metropolis of the Future.” Now we know what the Plains of Id, Autopia, and Surfurbia look like, thank you very much. This paean to the technologically-mediated modern landscape resonates in an age when our primary means of knowing a city is not through the writings of a Cronon or a Lerup.

(And in the case of Los Angeles, the Thomas Guide is all but an antediluvian spiral-bound sheaf of grids and coordinates, gone by the way of the Dodo, Great Auk, or Sabre-Toothed Cat.)

Our reliance on smart phones and tablets for urban wayfinding is so common that it deserves only the most fleeting of mentions. Interfacing has become the new wayfinding, one brandishing its own peculiarities. The female voice on the Google Maps app can be too bossy, imploring you, “In 500 feet, TURN RIGHT.” Can we actually measure distance while staring ahead over a steering wheel? Indeed, that voice immediately takes me back to my eighth grade typing class, especially those moments when my teacher would demand that we type sentences, clackity-clack, in time to a record playing a kind of Lawrence Welk-ish champagne music with firecracker snares. Her voice was mellifluous, but not too much, barely containing a hair-trigger snarl that would uncoil the very instance you fucked up your keystroke. The female Google Maps voice is more forgiving—not as much as Scarlett Johansson's in Spike Jonze's Her (2013)—even while insisting that you turn around as she quickly reroutes your itinerary.

Banham’s guide to Los Angeles is the “Baede-kar Visitor Guidance System,” a technology that straddles centuries, at once evoking Karl Baedeker’s travel guides from the 19th century, as well as guidance systems for modern intercontinental ballistic missile—two completely different ways of “knowing” a city, one as destination, the other as target. The female voice issuing from the molded speakers of the “Baede-kar Visitor Guidance System” is more Siri-like and soothing, but lacking the latter’s notable cheekiness. It is a shame that we do not pay more attention to the “Baede-kar,” its voice, or for that matter, the various technologies on display in Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles. They create their own constellations, each gizmo or doohickey bringing its own origins and relationships to bear, making connections in time and space, revealing something about our own mediatic situation in the process.

Take, for instance, the opening scenes from Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles. Note how Banham, tweedy, with newsboy hat and giant sunglasses, walks from the Arrivals terminal at Los Angeles International Airport and boards a 1970 Pontiac Grand Prix Hardtop. And like in other films of this time, we immediately associate the driver with his car, each becoming the other. The Grand Prix Hardtop is a close cousin to the 1970 Pontiac GTO Judge that Warren Oates drives in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), vying for the attention of consumers of American Muscle, especially those who took a fancy to the 1968 Dodge Charger or Mustang GT 390 in Peter Yates’ Bullitt (1968) (the last, of course, doing multiple star turns throughout San Francisco streets, Steve McQueen at the helm), or even the 1970 Dodge Challenger in Ricardo C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971). Jimmy Kowalski (Barry Newman), a Vietnam veteran, now driver on the professional and demolition circuits, is behind the wheel, although all the action scenes feature legendary stunt driver Carey Loftin, who wears a wig over his crash helmet.

Singer James Taylor (the “Driver”) drove the 1955 Chevrolet 210 in Two-Lane Blacktop. It had a glass nose and Plexiglas windows. It would make an encore performance as Bob Falfa’s (Harrison Ford’s) ride in American Graffiti (1973), now wearing a fiberglass body, a M22 Muncie transmission (known to Hot Rod enthusiasts as the “Rock Crusher”), and gear rings and pinion gears (in 4.88 ratio) repurposed from an Oldsmobile. Those who purchased More Fun In the New World (1983), the fourth studio album by Los Angeles punk-a-billy scenesters X, will recall a similar automotive inventory in “The New World,” the album’s opening track, when bassist John Doe and singer Exene Cervenka map out the various parts of an car assembly: “Flint Ford Auto, Mobile Alabama / Windshield Wipers, Buffalo, New York / Gary, Indiana, Don’t Forget the Motor City ...”[2]  In Two-Lane Blacktop, the “Driver’s” “Mechanic” was Dennis Wilson, better known as the drummer for The Beach Boys. One of their most beloved songs is “Little Deuce Coupe” (1953), with Brian Wilson singing, “She's ported and relieved and she's stroked and bored. / She'll do a hundred and forty with the top end floored.” [3] The Chevy is vain, thinking that the song is about her.[4]

A brief inventory of other sonic ephemera comes to mind. We can imagine these playing through FM album-oriented rock (AOR) stations, 8-tracks, and even cassette tapes and compact discs, not so much instances of car and driver melding, but of driver and music interfacing the same way as Banham and the “Baede-kar,” coursing sonic maps for our technological predicament, from Daniel Miller (aka The Normal) droning “Hear the crushing steel / Feel the steering wheel” in “Warm Leatherette” (1978), to Steve Kilbey, lead vocalist and bassist for The Church, singing, “Cut your life into the steel / Take your place behind the wheel / Watch the metal scene just peel away” in “Chrome Injury” (1981), or Duran Duran lead singer Simon LeBon crooning “And the droning engine throbs in time / With your beating heart” in “The Chauffeur” (1982): all, in some way or another, derived from J.G. Ballard’s Crash (1973), itself a paean to the “Little Bastard,” the Porsche 550 Spyder, which, on the afternoon of September 30, 1955, flipped end-on-end as it was avoiding an oncoming 1949 Ford Tudor, killing James Dean, making him into a cult American figure almost instantaneously.[5]

Variants of "Moore Computer": (Top) the "Baede-kar" navigation system from Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles; (Bottom) Title card to Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor (1975)

As for the "Baede-kar," it is an 8-track tape, obviously. American car manufacturers started introducing 8-track players as luxury feature upgrades by the mid-1960s, so it is not a surprise that Banham's Pontiac Grand Prix has one in the center dash. As for the technology, it was a product of the convergence of the aviation, automotive, and telecommunications industries. One of the inventors of the 8-track was Bill Lear, famous for the private jet bearing his name. The primary financial backers for the "Lear Jet Stereo 8" cartridge player were Ford and General Motors, with RCA, Motorola, and Ampex manufacturing the players and tapes. The typeface visible on the front of the “Baede-kar”appears as a derivative of “Moore Computer,” an E-13B Magnetic Ink Character Recognition (MICR) font created by Steven Moore in 1968, and yet its stylish, italicized appearance suggests a combination of Data 70, designed by Bob Newman in 1970, or Westminster, a machine-readable typeface designed by Leo Maggs for Westminster Bank Limited (it is still used to print routing numbers on personal checks).

Print ad for Lear Jet Industries' "Lear Jet Stereo 8" 

The 8-track player, the most advanced technology in Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, was in fact quite limited. Stereo and quadrophonic sound came at an expense: users could not fast forward or rewind. It was a read-only medium, too. Playing an 8-track tape was therefore all too presentist, rooted in the then-now, preserving the music in real-time, moving forward, only to begin again, ensnaring the listener in an infinite aural loop—almost. Recall that an 8-track cassette was split up into four "programs" of equal length, and to find to a song earlier or later in the album, a listener had to guess where in the "program" the song ahead or behind would be and press the "program" button at the appropriate time. It took crackerjack guesswork and an intimate knowledge of the music on the album. And yet the program button switch only allowed the tape to advance forward time, from 1 to 2, 2 to 3, 3 to 4, and 4 to 1, until it reached the beginning.

Though technically a dead medium, the 8-track player is resuscitated as another technology in Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, cloaked in the vestments from a near-future. It becomes the zero vector for a host of other technologies we know today, from dashboard-mounted Tom-Toms, to the plastic thingamajigs we attach to the air conditioning vents so we can look at Google Maps on our phones while we drive. The 8-track cassette is the skeleton key that opens up environments for us to read, consume, and exhaust. Its spatial and temporal constraints mirror our own, as we must always locate our own futures and pasts, our physical presence in relation to our temporal present. The same goes with the “Baede-kar,” as Banham would have no choice but to let the 8-track move forward and surrender to the spatial narrative, always keeping his eyes on the road. Too bad he did not have a Thomas Guide.

Aerial view of Los Angeles International Airport, from Aviation Week & Space Technology, 14 November 1966

That the 8-track was born of the aerospace industry is again significant, and here we find novelist Thomas Pynchon, in Los Angeles, writing about the aftermath of the Watts riots, invoking airliners, perhaps not unlike the scene that would greet Banham when landing at LAX in 1972:
Overhead, big jets now and then come vacuum-cleanering in to land; the wind is westerly, and Watts lies under the approaches to L.A. International. The jets hang what seems only a couple of hundred feet up in the air; through the smog they show up more white than silver, highlighted by the sun, hardly solid; only the ghosts, or possibilities, of airplanes.[6]
This is by way of a piece he wrote for the The New York Times Magazine, published on June 12, 1966, entitled “A Journey Into the Mind of Watts.” Like the 8-track “Baede-kar,” or even the Porsche 550 Spyder, the passenger jet is a technology indelibly woven into its own impermanence.[7] The metal tape heads on the 8-track wear down as aircraft and cars turn into corroding hulks of unrecognizable alloy. No wonder the jets on approach to LAX appear not as airplanes, but as images of airplanes, a moment causing Pynchon to remark on the “image-ined” city that is Los Angeles:
What is known around the nation as the L.A. Scene exists chiefly as images on a screen or TV tube, as four-color magazine photos, as old radio jokes, as new songs that survive only a matter of weeks. It is basically a white Scene, and illusion is everywhere in it, from the giant aerospace firms that flourish or retrench at the whims of Robert McNamara, to the "action" everybody mills long the Strip on weekends looking for, unaware that they, and their search which will end, usually, unfulfilled, are the only action in town.[8] 
The whiteness of the sky, the whiteness of the jets, the whiteness of the “Scene”: testaments of how our grandest aspirations originate in a degree zero of color, casting a harsh light on our own misdeeds and misreadings. And that is perhaps why something like the 8-track tape, miscast as an advanced technology, flawed, imperfect, demands a closer look, for it causes us to be all too aware of the imperfections in our intractable, unavoidable present. If listening to an 8-track preserves us in the amber of our own time, then ours in an existence in which we continuously yearn for other media—pictures, sounds, words—that afford us the illusion of looking forward and backward.

Los Angeles, 1965: Phyllis Gebauer with Thomas Pynchon, in the back, flashing a peace sign behind a door. (Source: Los Angeles Times)

Is this not the way we read? We engage, as Italo Calvino urges in If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979), “in pursuit of all these shadows ... those of the imagination and those of life.”[9] Perhaps this is why fantasy novels like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) or Alan Garner’s Red Shift (1973) all look to things from bygone eras as a way to locate our own time and space. In the case of Dick’s novel, the provenance of a supposedly fake Colt revolver takes center stage, causing its buyer to experience the world as it was in 1962, and not the alternate history that drives the novel’s plot—one in which Germany and Japan win the Second World War and divide the United States into occupational zones. And in Garner’s Red Shift, the reader is actually experiencing three timelines—one in Roman antiquity, another during the English Civil War, and a final, contemporary one—all marked from the “point of view” of a stone axe found embedded in a chimney in Southern Cheshire, England. If Reyner Banham famously needed a car to “read Los Angeles in the original,”[10] then perhaps the only way to do so was with the help of a flawed technological artefact. Perhaps this is why in writing about writing about reading the city, the only recourse is to write topologically across different times, grasping at references of objects from those eras, from cars, the parts of cars, to images, sounds, and finally words.

At least that’s what I have done. The references are mine, but they can be yours too. For writing on a warm weekend in Indianapolis, Indiana in 2015, this is how I have come to finally know Los Angeles, this city on the other side of the world, one that was my home from 1999 to 2005. For in writing about writing about reading the city, and reading about writing about writing, I only have done what we all do. We try to explain the here and now, and while doing so, we produce a reader’s guide to our own reader’s guide.



[1] I am referring here to two books that, in addition to Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, have shaped my own understanding of cities. There is, of course, environmental historian William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992), which relies on German geographer Walter Christaller’s contributions to central place theory, as shown in texts like Die zentralen Orte in Süddeutschland (1933). My first understanding of the architectural “understanding” of a city came via Lars Lerup, After the City (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001). A version of Lerup’s Duchampian take on Houston also appears in “Stim and Dross: Rethinking the Metropolis,” Assemblage 25 (1994), 82-101.
[2] John Doe and Exene Cervenka, “The New World,” on More Fun In The New World, Elektra Records, 1983, 33 1/3 rpm.
[3] Brian Wilson and Roger Christian, “Little Deuce Coupe,” on Little Deuce Coupe, Capitol Records, 1963, 33 1/3 rpm.
[4] Not-so-veiled reference to Carly Simon, “You’re So Vain,” on No Secrets, Elektra Record, 1972, 33 1/3 rpm, especially the refrain, “You’re so vain / You probably think this song is about you.” Simon was married to James Taylor when she wrote the song.
[5] The songs are as follows: Daniel Miller, “Warm Leatherette,” on T.V.O.D./Warm Leatherette, Mute Records, 1978, 45 rpm (the song would be made famous by Grace Jones in 1980); Steve Kilbey, “Chrome Injury,” on Of Skins and Heart, EMI Parlophone, 1981, 33 1/3 rpm; and Duran Duran, “The Chauffeur,” on Rio, EMI/Capitol/Harvest 1982, 33 1/3 rpm.
[6] Thomas Pynchon, “A Journey Into the Mind of Watts,” The New York Times, June 12, 1966, 

[Author's Note: This is a version of the essay I wrote for the exhibition, Now, There: Scenes From the Post-Geographic City, curated by Tim Durfee and Mimi Zeiger. The show is currently on display at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and in December, will move to the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture in Shenzen and Hong Kong. For more on the exhibit, go here, or visit Art Center's Media Design Practices program site. Special thanks go to Mimi for asking me to be part of this exhibition]

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

1979 (Book Zero)

Spread from Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) (Source: The Newberry Library)

Ponce, Puerto Rico was the world I once knew best. It was a small city nestled on a leeward coastal plain, intensely hot, strangely arid, and occasionally dusty. And within this world, there was our house. Small, marble-floored, with brises-soleil and a large, concrete carport with black, cast-iron gates, it sat on the end of a cul-de-sac, Calle C D-12, on a bluff overlooking a large sugar cane field. A large Honduras pine marked the entrance to our driveway. From there, we watched as crop dusters strafed the field, the combustive whine of rotary engines sharpening in pitch as the pilots nosed their machines over the edge of the bluff, slatted wings trailing ribbons of atomized insecticide that descended on the houses in a murky, cooling cloud. Then there were the pre-harvest burn-offs—large, controlled fires that singed the leaves off the cane stalks and left a forest of draggled pikes. One never saw the flames during the day. There was only a grey billowing that smelled like burnt trash. The heated winds carried blackened slivers of ash that rained and dissolved into the air above. At night, if you looked hard enough, you could see a corona of flames through the haze. And then there were rats, scampering up the bluffs, dun phalanxes escaping the fires. Once over the edge, they helped themselves to the pigeon coop in our back yard, leaving slurries of feathers, blood, and eggshell in their inroad.

On those days without smoke, insecticide, rats (or, once even, a late-night temblor that caused the iron gates on the carport to issue an infernal clanging)—that is, on most days—it was a world for the senses. We drank lime water underneath a hurricane fence canopy braided with bougainvillea and Indian mallow, a technicolor refuge from the sun’s cruel transit. Weekends were for excursions by station wagon. Driving inland, to where the coastal plains sloped up into the humid mountains, we went to a company picnic in an abandoned sugar cane farmhouse. Land crabs scampered along dilapidated floorboards, making a clicking sound as they sidled onto the manicured, virisdescent lawns. From dusk until darkest night, the air was noisy with animal banter, from a cane toad’s solitary staccato, to the coquí’s onomatopoetic mating call. A trip through a winding road at dusk in Adjuntas led to an emergency stop by a creek bed to tend to my carsickness, revealing a scene of wonder: jittery constellations of glowing fireflies and click beetles hovering slightly above the ground, a sight rivaled only by that of a spear fisherman jumping into a phosphorescent bay at night, emerging lambent and wraith-like, as if outlined by St. Elmo’s Fire.

I often played by myself, either outside or in. And if I was not busying myself with die-cast cars and airplanes, I was always opening books. I was reading at age 2, but cannot remember the act of doing to so. I preferred the images inside encyclopedia or issues of National Geographic, searching for fighter jets, space capsules, solar systems and galaxies, anything that could be reproduced on a notebooks or graph paper with pen or pencil. That was one way in that I engaged with the world outside my home. Then there were times when my mother would wash the marble floors inside or the smooth, concrete carport with a garden hose, leaving pools of water. I would find one that was large enough and lie in it face down, turning and lowering my head so I could submerge my ear into the cool liquid. I listened as the world outside became a watery roar. The carport was my planetary conch shell, amplifying the surging of faraway oceans.


It is now May 1979, and I am in Moss Bluff, Louisiana. We moved here in February, to this little town north of Lake Charles, where my father took a position as an operations manager at a chemical plant. Our house was in a newish development, each plot of land carved out of a longleaf pine forest, with ditches running along either side of built and unbuilt streets. During the hot and hazy afternoons, my brother and I would run out to these ditches and check our crawfish traps. We evaded horseflies and if feeling mischievous, would catch as many dragonflies as possible, folding their wings back so we could look closely at their glazed eyes and alien mandibles. One of our neighbors had an impressive collection of reptiles, and an equally impressive swimming pool, with an unusually springy diving board that would cause panic in even the most forgiving of home insurance adjusters. We rode dirt bikes into the pine forest, jumping off ramps fashioned out of planks and logs. My room had a set of French doors that opened up into a glen, and beyond that, the hazy effluvia from a nearby bayou.

Only a couple months earlier, I was in a second-grade classroom, staring through jalousie windows as a midday cloud burst overcame the green mountains. My new classroom had fake wood paneling and clerestory windows that offered no views outside. Even if they did, the scenery that would have been revealed was altogether different: a two-lane road with gas stations, strip malls, used car dealerships, and bait-and-tackle stores. My mother drove us into town on that same road. I pressed the black bakelite buttons on the radio, switching between the FM and AM bands, trying to find a station that was in English. Puerto Rico may have been remote and surrounded by water, but Western Louisiana was a portal to the world. I spoke Spanish at home, stumbled with English at school, and took French grammar lessons before lunch. Our teacher was a tall woman from Belgium (or at least that was my recollection) who wore long, grey wool skirts. She began each lesson by slowly unrolling a large piece of purple felt that she hung from the blackboard. From a canvas sack, she produced velcro-backed black-and-white cutout drawings of objects that would be covered in that day's vocabulary lessons. As we repeated "Je conduis la voiture," she stuck the car on the felt, adding trees, houses, and people. When it came teaching us "La Marseillaise" and other songs, she replaced these with the French flag, birds without tailfeathers, and children sleeping in beds.

On a warm midmorning, sometime during May 1979, my second grade teacher appeared at our door bearing a gift: a hardbound copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.


Call it Book Zero, the first I ever knew of as “a book.” It was not so much a bunch of pages with words in a language I was struggling with, but a thing that one person gave to another, evidence of an exchange, something one did to be nice. I was not exactly sure what the occasion was for this book, but giving it to me was as important as the book itself. I had no idea who Huckleberry Finn was, or for that matter, Mark Twain. I knew that Louisiana was close to Mississippi, and yet I had an inkling that the book would be forever linked to this particular place and this time. If, as Emily Dickinson counsels, “There is no frigate like a book,” then this one given to me on a hot afternoon in Southwestern Louisiana was more fata morgana than Flying Dutchman. It was an airy, fleeting prologue to the worlds beyond bedroom and printed page, an illusion so tangible and affecting, so altering.

[Note: this is the piece I read aloud at Horizon House in Indianapolis, Monday, 28 September, as part of the Public Collection initiative. For more information, visit . Many thanks to Stuart Hyatt for allowing me to be part of this wonderful project]