Friday, December 15, 2006

The Art of Notation

Excerpts from the works of Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933, Debica, Poland):

Opening Bars to Tren Ofiarom Hiroszimy (Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima) (1960)

Sound clusters from Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960)

More from Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960)

From Kosmognia (1970)

A Camera is a Gun is a Camera

Étienne-Jules Marey's Fusil Photographique (1882)

One of the first motion picture cameras was a weapon. In 1882, French physiologist Étienne Jules Marey used his Fusil Photographique, or “Camera Gun”, to photograph a flock of birds in flight. Marey’s device consisted of a photo magazine bolted atop the armature of an ordinary shotgun. A lens was placed at the end of the barrel, enabling Marey to film his subject. By squeezing the trigger repeatedly, Marey obtained a series of exposures that, when shown in sequence, revealed the actual motion of a bird in flight. The fact that one operated the Fusil like a gun is of remarkable significance. By aiming the Fusil, one constructed the subject of the photograph as a target.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Quantifiable Target

My research here at Yale revolves around issues of mapping and representation. In particular, I am interested in how Allied military planners incorporated visualization and computational technologies in deciding how to bomb German and Japanese targets during World War II. What I find fascinating is that data was used or manipulated – made absolute or indisputable – in order to justify not using advanced technologies for target selection. The ugly truth is that Allied policies in favor of accurate target selection were abandoned in favor of a campaign that allowed British and American bomber crews to systematically obliterate urban areas in Europe and Asia. And although the ultimate outcome of such polices led to the use of nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945, there is a sense that some military planners violated one of Tufte’s cardinal rules regarding the display of visual information – they failed to depict data in relation to other data.
The above diagram, featured in Peter Galison’s article "War Against the Center", Grey Room 4 (Summer 2001): pp. 7-33, is a chart created by members of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey in 1945. In calculating the effects of precision daylight bombing over European targets, the diagram shows that the majority of bombing attacks on German ball-bearing factories were part of precision (dark cross-hatching) as opposed to area (light cross-hatching) raids. However, the historical record tells us the exact opposite. For example, this diagram does not account for area incendiary raids against nonstrategic targets like Hamburg or Dresden, nor does it account for indiscriminate and collateral civilian casualties. The diagram also depicts the results of American bombing operations in a couple of days. No comparable data appears that depicts the results of British operations. Nor is there any language describing the extremely narrow and limited scope of the diagram. As with the examples iterated by Tufte in Visual Explanations – Dr. John Snow’s mapping of a cholera epidemic, and Morton Thiokol’s diagrams misrepresenting the conditions leading to the o-ring failure, which proved fatal for the Space Shuttle Challenger – the above diagram confirms that“design quality” must indeed stem from “intellectual quality.” If the motives behind the formulation of data are suspect, then the display of that data is equally corrupt.

Literal and Sonic Terrains


Those who have a general understanding of maps and international borders may be confused when reading the opening chapters of Vladimir Nabokov's bloated masterpiece Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969). One may notice that locations in the book ("Canady", "Mayne") bear a phonological similarity to places we notice when looking at a map ("Canada", "Maine"). In fact, the book has a distinct Amerussian flavor to it. It is as if Nabokov took a mercator projection of the world and folded it longitudinally -- the desired effect would be that some cities and features in Russia would be grafted on to North America. The superimposition of these two maps creates a new type of cognitive map -- a personal geography that invokes Nabokov's family roots in Czarist Russia as well as his fascination with American culture. Thumb through Lolita (1954), and as you listen to Humbert Humbert's transcontinental jaunt, you are in fact listening to a topographical description of then-contemporary American culture.

Texts of all kinds enjoy a certain status as a type of map. They not only act as a historical document, but they give an all-too subjective read on a particular landscape. The idea that a text is a kind of map (and vice versa, that a map is a kind of text) was definitely on Michel de Certau's mind when writing The Practice of Everyday Life (1984). To say that the book is about the quotidian strays off the mark. The book is about raising the quotidian, elevating the particularities of everyday existence -- a process that ostensibly reveals several common currents. It is as if de Certau is cracking the code of an impossibly complicated Enigma machine.

This process invokes a seemingly disconnected set of analytical tools. At some points, the text reads like a literary-theoretical exegesis. At other instances, it dwells on semiology and anthropology, as well as geography. However, de Certau's irreverence is such that one can take the varied analytical touchstones and apply them to other types of cultural products. In effect, The Practice of Everyday Life enables us to deploy a theoretical toolkit that allows for reading any type of cultural production as a spatial phenomenon -- in other words, a map. As Nabokov's books are a form of cognitive mapping, so are relics of popular culture.

Using de Certeau as a guide, I turn my attention to two specific types of pop culture products, and will engage on a slight and all-too brief investigation of these products as spatial phenomena. Popular music and comic books may provide hours of discourse for dorks and geeks -- yet often these two realms operate as a type of critical text. As they deploy beats, decibels and speech bubbles, popular music and comics directly engage issues about urbanism. But the actual process involved in the creation of music and comic books also speaks to their distinct urbanism.

Two types of popular music that reveal a critical urbanist bent in terms of content as well as authoring are punk and hip hop music. Critical hindsight affords us the ability to view punk music as a cultural relic. The origins of this movement are subject to debate, yet a reader can glean that punk music shared similar beginnings in both England and the United States. Whatever view one chooses to subscribe to, British and American-flavored punk variants shared antiauthoritarian and anticommericalist impulses. Punk music also has a distinct geographical tint to it. American punk bands in the early 80s, usually associated with the Washington DC-based Dischord Records, and the Los Angeles-based SST records have differing sonic and lyrical content. Dischord bands, such as Minor Threat and Rites of Spring, had a distinct political flavor. To these bands, a song was something like a sonic burst of pure energy and raw emotion -- the quintessential aural Molotov cocktail lobbed at unsuspecting listeners. Likewise, bands like Black Flag and the minutemen were a bit more sophisticated in their musical approach. Their musical references came from a wider spectrum, such as 70s-era heavy metal as well as jazz and R&B music. Those punk bands from middle areas - such as Minneapolis, Chicago, or Austin, were also diverse in their musical cues.

What unifies these bands is the notion of tactics. De Certeau refers to the tactic as a type of spatial re-appropriation, "a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus." A tactic is a device used by a person or persons at a disadvantage for quick, uncertain, and short-term gains. It can be a devious gesture as well -- de Certau likes to invoke the notion of le perruque (the wig) as a type of tactic. A Perruque is a trick, akin to using office stationery for personal purposes or any other device for unintended uses.

Cultural historian Dick Hebdige must have been thinking of tactics and perruques when writing about punk music in Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979). He thinks of the punk as a type of bricoleur, taking the emblems of everyday existence (i.e. a safety pin) and subverting it into a symbol of rebellion (an earring or nose-piercing). However, the notion of bricolage also extends to musical influences as well. Thus, in "Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs" (1982), the minutemen were able to use funk-inspired bass lines and drum rhythms to craft a new type of sonic samizdat. The lyrics also betray a tactic:
I'm waiting in third person
I'm collecting
Dispersing information labeled rations
Manifestoes are my windows and my proof
Locations and more rations outline my route
Likewise, in Austin, Texas, the Big Boys used their punk and funk cues to inspire youth to become bricoleurs and sonic collectors when they issued their clarion call: "GO START YOUR OWN BAND." Whereas the minutemen and Big Boys looked to their musical and visual aesthetic to promote their political agenda, Minneapolis-based Hüsker Dü took the subject of media-saturated urbanism head on. In "Divide and Conquer" (1985), lead singer Bob Mould screams amidst a wall of distorted guitar noise:
Well they divided up all the land
And we've got states and cities
Cities have their neighborhoods
And more subdivisions

There's lots of area codes
And nine digit zip codes
Secret decoder ring codes
Arteries, shopping nodes

It's not about my politics
Something happened way too quick
A bunch of men who played it sick
They divide, conquer
Early hip hop music not only has elements of the bricolage and tactic as well, but further demonstrates how such an approach has spatial ramifications. Like punks, hip hop artists subverted material items and musical cues for their own aesthetic and social aims. Reacting against stale and overcommercialzed disco and R&B music, the early avatars of hip hop music not only sought inspiration from European electronic music, but also reinterpreted contemporary popular music.

Perhaps a good way to characterize this aspect of early hip hop music involves an application of some of de Certau's ideas of theory and practice. In the end, hip hop can be thought of as a type of practical theory (or theory in practice). But perhaps the best way to describe it is as critical praxis. Hip hop music, through its modes of musical appropriation and sampling, applies de Certau's concept of "cut-up and turn-out." "Cutting-up" can be thought of as a tactic of appropriation: a cultural or material product is removed from its context. In the case of hip hop music, this can involve taking a drum track from Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express, ESG's U.F.O., or a James Brown horn cue. These are "turned-out" and re-contextualized in another product. Hence a mechanical, rote drum part played through an electronic drum machine is accented with samples from other pieces of music. In addition to this new product, lyrics can be added, and as is the case with Grandmaster Flash and Mellie Mel's "White Lines" or "The Message", can comment on diverse topics such as drug abuse and urban blight.

This critical praxis takes on a spatial and geographic aspect as well. Hip hop, although sharing a multitude of international influences, is quintessential New York music. There is much to be said about how these hip hop became an element of, and was a product of New York underground culture. However, hip hop can be thought of a music style that defines a specific spatial locus. The same can be said of punk music from Washington DC, London, New York, or Los Angeles. Through the deployment of tactics and theories, we can think of punk and hip hop as a type of sonic document. An aural, cognitive map that not only describes a specific location, but betrays the points of views of those artists who craft and compose the music.

Like popular music, the comic book is also another type of pop culture item that deploys elements of tactic and theory outlined by de Certeau. Scott McCloud defines a comic as "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer". Yet I argue that the comic book is also a cognitive map whose creation also recalls some of de Certeau's ideas in different ways. One comic of particular interest is Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbons' The Watchmen (1987). This innovative comic has been the subject of many articles about the comic book genre -- and deservedly so, for it is something to be experienced. The storyline revolves around a group of aging superheroes who were once part of a unified crime-fighting unit, yet fell out of political favor. Only two of the former heroes -- a nihilistic, ultraviolent gumshoe named Rorschach, and a psychotic right-winged operative named The Comedian are left. It is the latter's unexpected murder that sets off a chain of events ultimately leading to an unusually prescient 9/11-like tragedy. In layout, presentation, and content, The Watchmen operates as a type of political commentary where everything, urban utopias, the Vietnam war, as well as the comic book genre itself, is dissected and deconstructed.

Moore and Gibbons' innovations in Watchmen show how a much-maligned visual form often associated with children's literature is elevated to the status of serious artistic discourse. In this in this sense that The Watchmen becomes a sort of tactic, a perruque that subverts the form and content of the comic book and recasts it in a wholly original fashion. Its creation also betrays a type of practical theory -- again, de Certeau's notions of cut-up and turn-out become the subject of critical inquiry. A look at the individual panels shows Moore and Gibbons playing with notions of flashback and foreshadowing. A series of intercalary "commentary" chapters -- which take the form of fake historical narratives -- also offers a new way of subverting psychoanalytic and hermeneutical modes not only for the sake of analyzing the comic book genre, but for creating a narrative as well. With Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons stake out a new literal and figurative territory, not only reclaiming a creative medium reserved for dorks and geeks, but doing so with unbridled and uncompromising panache.

This seemingly tenuous connection between punk, hip-hop, and comic books is not only enshrined in Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, where a punk band named Stately Wayne Manor plays at CBGB's, but in contemporary music as well, with Viktor Vaughn (aka MF Doom, aka Metal Face Doom, aka King Geedorah) takes on the persona of Dr. Doom (from the Fantastic Four comics).

As with Nabokov's Ada, contemporary comic books also take the guise of personal geographies. As Daniel Clowes' Ghost World takes on the subject of suburban ennui, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid in The World confronts the notion of a city. In Ware's graphic magnum-opus, Chicago becomes a literal and visual palimpsest. As we read the highly-stylized, ravishing and meticulously-arranged panels, Jimmy Corrigan's search for his family roots takes him on a historical re-visitation of Chicago's built environment. The buildings, the empty public spaces all become cenotaphs -- dead structures revealing the secret history of a metropolis. As Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quarter shows pre-World War Two Egypt as (to use Giuliana Bruno's terminology) an Atlas of Emotions, so does Ware's Chicago reveal the city as a personal diary entry. De Certau could very well be invoking comic books when he tells us
A series of articulated operations (gestural or mental)-- that is what writing literally is -- traces on the page the trajectories that sketch out words, sentences, and finally a system. In other terms, on the blank page, an itinerant, progressive, and regulated practice -- a 'walk' -- composes the artifact of another 'world' that is not received but rather made. The model of a productive reason is written on the nowhere of the paper. In many different forms, this text constructed on a proper space is the fundamental and generalized utopia of the modern West" (135).
It is in this and perhaps other ways that popular music and comic books may present a reclamation of space.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Aural Praxis

It's hard not to get excited about MIT Media Lab researcher Noah Vawter's Ambient Addition. From his own website:
Ambient Addition is a Walkman with binaural microphones. A tiny Digital Signal Processing (DSP) chip analyzes the microphone's sound and superimposes a layer of harmony and rhythm on top of the listener's world. In the new context, some surprising behaviors take place. Listeners tend to play with objects around them, sing to themselves, and wander toward tempting sound sources. With Ambient Addition, I'm hoping to make people think twice about the sounds they initiate as well as loosen up some inhibitions.

Not to overacademicize this, but Ambient Addition could very well be a literal (and aural) example of Peter Bürger's idea of incorporating art into the praxis of life.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Architectonic Mirage: Friedlaender's The Fata Morgana Machine (1920)

For architecture historians, practitioners, and enthusiasts alike, the "history" game is irresistible. A glance at a contemporary building, for example, will no doubt invite comparisons with earlier work. The reverse operation -- taking an early source and analyzing how it may have influenced subsequent work, is also commonplace, and may yield surprising results. Take, for instance, this excerpt from Salomo Freidlaender's 1920 short story Fatamorganamaschine ("Fata Morgana Machine"). Friedlaender composed dark science fictions and fantasies in the vein of E.T.A. Hoffman or even John Collier. Friedlaender, often going by the pen name "Mynona", also has relevance for the architecture historian, as he was a friend of Paul Scheerbart's as well as a frequent contributor to Sturm magazine. When reading this excerpt, it is difficult not to think of current architectural obsessions with surface effect, responsive environments, as well as ideas of pervasiveness ... for indeed, the fata morgana machine is presented as a technology that may be ubiquitous in the not-so-distant future:
For many years Professor Pschorr had been preoccupied with one of the most interesting problems of film: his ideal was to achieve the optical reproduction of nature, art, and fantasy through a stereoscopic projection apparatus that would place its three-dimensional constructs into space without the aid of a projection screen. Up to this point, film and other forms of photography had been pursued only in one-eyed fashion. Pshorr used stereoscopic double lenses everywhere and, eventually, achieved three-dimensional constructs that were detached from the surface of the projection screen. When he had come that close to his ideal, he approached the Minister of War to lecture him about it. “But my dear Professor,” the Minister smiled, “what has your apparatus got to do with our technology of maneuvers and war?” The Professor looked at him with astonishment and imperceptibly shook his inventive head. It was incredible to him that the Minister did not have the foresight to recognize how important that apparatus was destined to become in times of war and peace. “Dear Minister,” he insisted, “would you permit me to take some shots of the maneuver so that you can convince yourself of the advantages of my apparatus?” … A couple of weeks after the maneuver, all the generals gathered in open terrain that was in part rolling, mountainous, and wooded, and that contained several large ponds and ravines, slopes, and a couple of villages. “First, dear Minister and honored generals, allow me to tell you that the whole landscape, including or own bodies, appears as nothing but a single, purely optical phantasmagoria. What is purely optical in it I will make disappear by superimposing projections of other things onto it.” He variously combined beams of floodlights and switched on a film reel, which began to run. Immediately the terrain transformed: forests became houses, villages became deserts, lakes and ravines became charming meadows; and suddenly one could see bustling military personnel engaged in battle. Of course, as they were stepping or riding into a meadow, they disappeared into a pond or a ravine. Indeed, even the troops themselves were frequently only optical illusions, so that real troops could no longer distinguish them from fake ones, and hence engaged in involuntary deceptions. Artillery lines appeared as pure optical illusions. “Since the possibility exists of combining, precisely and simultaneously, optical with acoustic effects, these visible but untouched cannons can boom as well, making the illusion perfect,” said Pschorr. “By the way, this invention is of course also useful for peaceful purposes. From now on, however, it will be very dangerous to distinguish things that are only visible from touchable ones. But life will become all the more interesting for it.” Following this he let a bomber squadron appear on the horizon. Well, the bombs were dropped, but they did their terrible damage only for the eye. Strangely enough, the Minister of War in the end decided against purchasing the apparatus. Full of anger, he claimed that war would become an impossibility that way. When the somewhat overly humanistic Pschorr exalted that effect, the Minister erupted: “You cannot turn to the Minister of War to put a dreadful end to war. That falls under the purview of my colleague, the Minister of Culture.” As the Minister of Culture prepared to buy the apparatus, his plans were vetoed by the Minister of Finance … Now the film corporation (the largest film trust) helped itself. Ever since this moment, film has become all-powerful in the world, but only through optical means. It is, quite simply, nature once again, in all its visibility and audibility. When a storm is brewing, for example, it is unclear whether this storm is only optically real or a real one through and through. Abnossah Pshorr has been exercising arbitrary technological power over the fata morgana, so that even the Orient fell into confusion when a recent fata morgana produced by solely technical means – conjuring Berlin and Potsdam for desert nomads – was taken for real. Pshorr rents out every desired landscape to innkeepers. Surrounding Kulick’s Hotel zur Wehmut these days is the Vierwaldstätter Lake. Herr v. Ohnheim enjoys his purely optical spouse. Mullack the proletarian resides in a purely optical palace, and billionaires protect their castles through their optical conversions into shacks.
Not too long ago, a doppelgänger factory was established … In the not too distant future, there will be whole cities made of light; entirely different constellations not only in the planetarium, but everywhere in nature as well. Pshorr predicts that we will also be able to have technological control over touch in a similar way: not until then will radio traffic with real bodies set in, which not just film but life, and which will leave far behind all traffic technologies ….
Excerpted in Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz, trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999): pp. 134-5.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Privacy Penumbra

When one thinks about any possible spatial praxes that may be associated with jurisprudence, he or she may well think of the intractable skein of laws dealing with territorial jurisdiction. However, the United States Supreme Court's decision in Griswold v. Connecticut 381 U.S. 479 (1965) contains an important tidbit that prefigures French thinker's Henri Lefebvre's famous iteration of different types of space in The Production of Space (1974) (English translation, 1991).

Justice Douglas' opinion in Griswold is one of the most-cited, and is a staple of Consitutional Law courses in American law schools. The facts are fairly well-known: in 1879, the State of Connecticut passed a law that banned contraceptives, a law that stood unchallenged for decades. Successive opinions in Poe v. Ullman (1943 and 1961), upheld the legality of the anti-contraceptive law. Later, in 1961, Estelle Griswold (above image, right), the Executive Director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, and Dr. C. Lee Buxton, a faculty member at the Yale School of Medicine wanted to test the legality of the 1879 statute and opened a birth control clinic in New Haven, Connecticut. The two were quickly arrested, prosecuted, fined, and subsequently appealed their convictions to the Supreme Court of the United States.

In a 7-2 opinion, Justice William O. Douglas declared that the Connecticut statute violated a right to marital privacy -- a right that was not explicit in the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution. Justice Douglas thus writes:
[S]pecific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance. ...Various guarantees create zones of privacy. The right of association contained in the penumbra of the First Amendment is one, as we have seen. The Third Amendment in its prohibition against the quartering of soldiers "in any house" in time of peace without the consent of the owner is another facet of that privacy. The Fourth Amendment explicitly affirms the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." The Fifth Amendment in its Self-Incrimination Clause enables the citizen to create a zone of privacy which government may not force him to surrender to his detriment. The Ninth Amendment provides: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." (emphasis added)
The above quote is not only remarkable for it audacious reading of the Constitution (a reading that has been influential on generations of legal thinkers and practitioners), but also because it hints at the idea that the idea of privacy has a spatial component to it. Thus, the concurring Justices found some truth in the fact that various Constitutional guarantees of privacy have spatial consequences

This is reminiscent of Lefebvre's famous pronouncement regarding "Representational Space." In The Production of Space, Lefebvre defines representational space as:
[S]pace as directly lived through its associated images and symbols, and hence the space of 'inhabitants' and 'users' ... who describe and aspire to do no more than describe. This is the dominated -- and hence passively experienced -- space which the imagination seeks to change and appropriate. It overlays physical space, making symbolic use of its objects (1991[1974]:39).
Here is an iteration of produced space that is "alive" and that "speaks" (42). Lefebvre even echoes some of the court's pronouncements, telling us that representational space "has an affective kernel of centre: Ego, bed, bedroom, dwelling, house; or: square, church, graveyard. It embraces the loci of passion, of action and lived situations ..." (ibid.). It seems that this language is curiously evocative of Justice Douglas' penumbras and zones of privacy.