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]

Monday, August 03, 2015

The Law of Levity is Allowed to Supersede the Law of Gravity

Cover to R.A. Lafferty, Space Chantey (1968)

   It was an age of freaks, monsters, and grotesques. 
All the world was misshapen in marvelous and malevolent ways.
Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination (1955)

Now this almost goes without saying: but why S, M, L, XL? Why this huge, unwieldy mess of a thing, poorly bound, weighing more than the stack of National Geographics you use to hold up the end of your musty couch? Would it not make more sense to devote a special issue to Delirious New York (1978), that most provocative of texts, one whose historical and theoretical contours are, at least in retrospect, a bit more clear? Yes, for one could then chart a sort of intellectual course for Rem Koolhaas, plot his stints in screenwriting, studio work at the Architectural Association in London, the oft-quoted “Exodus, Or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture,” and furtive intellectual encounters with Oswald Mattias Ungers—such tacking and jibing among meridians and parallels, useful materials for scholars, historians, theorists, and practitioners to consult in order to make sense of the work of Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture. And yet when confronting S, M, L, XL, we are—how best to put it—slackjawed?

As a guest theme editor for this issue of the Journal of Architectural Education, I regret to inform you that our only response to “Why S, M, L, XL?” is “Why Not?” It sounds rather defeatist, does it not? As if we are scuttling any serious discussion of this text in favor of some other agenda. But rest assured that we are not. This issue of JAE is something altogether different. Sure, there are essays, design proposals, reviews. Look more closely at the contents, however. There are a lot of personal reflections. There is even an article about space stations! Seriously: what is this thing you are holding in your hands? For starters, it is not an issue devoted to an issue. There are no considerations on historical themes here, no ruminations on the meaning of inchoate terms like “Crisis”, “Utopia”, or “Design +”—which only remind us, is not this the very essence of a theme, to articulate some kind of putative outline for an idea, cast it off into the world, and let others respond to it? If this is so, then an issue dedicated to S, M, L, XL makes all the sense in the world because it makes no sense. 

Imagine, if you will, being in that most antiquated of spaces—a bookstore for chrissakes!!!!—during the mid-1990s. At least for American audiences, the appearance of S, M, L, XL coincided with the appearance with a slew of other “big books.” We are not talking here about texts like Bernard Tschumi’s Event Cities (1994), Diller and Scofidio’s Tourisms of War (1994), or even the various oversized, overbound issues of El Croquis. Here, we are reminded of big books redolent with big ideas, of tomes that are worlds onto themselves, heavy, oceanic: the publication of a new, unedited two volume translation of Robert Musil’s unfinished The Man Without Qualities (1995), David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (1997), Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997). Yup, these books are big. Did you read them? Probably not. Do you want to? Well, should you find yourself in some kind of summer party at MoMA-P.S.1 feigning ennui while scanning the crowd for some seemingly more important person to talk to, or if you are pouring yourself a cup of stale, catered coffee in between sessions at a symposium where architecture students and faculty rhapsodize on the state of the field of architectural history, eyes locked on each others’ name tags, beguiled by institutional affiliations and academic pedigrees like moth to candle, you will probably say something like, “I own it, but have only read part of it.” You are now doing Rem Koolhaas and the Monacelli Press a huge favor because you are, in essence, equating S, M, L, XL to those other monuments to money spent capriciously on unread reams of paper—that is to say, add it to your shelf along your pristine copies of Moby-Dick, or the Whale, Ulysses, or Gravity’s Rainbow. Tell people you are a BOOK OWNER, and not a BOOK READER. Stack them up and use them in lieu of an ottoman or a floor jack should you find yourself in that most intractable of situations—on a deserted, two-lane blacktop with a flat tire and with a copy of S, M, L, XL. Build a house with a tiny setback from a major arterial street. Now use copies of the book as insulation from street noise. Yeah!

Such levity may be a little off-putting to audiences more accustomed to your garden-variety mandatory namechecking of continental thinkers and media theorists. Here’s an idea: let science fiction author R.A. Lafferty be your guide. Be on the lookout for that passage from his sadly forgotten Space Chantey (1968) when a spaceship pilot named “Big Fellow” claims, “As regards very small celestial bodies of a light-minded nature, the law of levity is allowed to supersede the law of gravity.”[1]  Which is to say that levity may be the only recourse when confronting a not-so-small thing like S, M, L, XL. Now “levity” also calls to mind the notion that “Comedy is Serious Business,” sometimes attributed to any of the members of Monty Python.[2] Yet “Levity” at once reminds us of the Book of Leviticus, the Biggest of all Big Books, an account of the post-Exodus (no, not the “Exodus” bound within a sundering wall, West Berlin-style, but rather Capital “E” Exodus, you know, that one, a staple of Sunday night family viewing, epic wanderlust courtesy of Cecil B. DeMille and Charlton Heston), edited and redacted on Mt. Sinai by Moses himself.[3] Inheritors of the name “Leviticus” are legion, from Primo Levi to Claude Lévi-Strauss, writers staking a claim to the world when facing its horrific maw. This is the kind of levity we read into Yossarian, the Army Air Force bombardier and antihero of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1963), a character whose various exchanges with bureaucratic structures, reminiscent of the Brothers Marx and Coen, are the antidotes to a surrounding world spinning out of control. Yossarian might as well burn some Thai stick and watch it all fall apart. Whereas your Michael Herrs and Ryszard Kapuścińskis bore witness in a dexedrine fog, its edges illuminated like St. Elmo’s Fire by tracer rounds cleaving meteoritic arcs in midair, here you may find Yossarian (perhaps navigator to Humbert Humbert’s automotive peregrinations) sitting on a Marin County hilltop and drinking Coca Cola in perfect harmony [4], holding hands with fellow travelers like Benny Profane, Oedipa Maas, Gnossos Pappadopoulis, Binx Bolling, Tyrone Slothrop, Rabbit Angstrom, and Ignatius C. Reilly.[5] Here are the modern updates to Herman Melville’s Bartleby, with levity now replacing recalcitrance as the most appropriate response to the travails of modernity.

It all begs an important question: is S, M, L, XL a “funny” book? Is it a knee-jerk reaction, a calculated response? If so, to what? Well, in considering the jumbled combination of image and text, the breakneck oscillations between excursus and pornography, yes, there is reason to, as Vladimir Nabokov urges in Pale Fire (1962), to scour the text and “note the cloak-and-dagger hint-glint” and the “shadow of regicide in the rhyme.”[6] It is comically defiant in the way that Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), the bespoke assassin and pistol-bearing hermeneuticist of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), invokes Ezekiel 25:17 before not pulling the trigger, before choosing life over death: “I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.”[7] It is a book of a time of transsonic stealth fighters sneaking across No-Fly Zones, of modems sensing each other, 56k analog call-and-response peaks and valleys groaning across a world still spun by telephone wires. The book is unexpected, and somehow, you know, just right, like Cass Elliot, John Phillips, et al harmonizing mellifluously in “California Dreamin’”—by far the most memorable sounds in Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994), here juxtaposed against the sodium-lit and steaming claustrophobias in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood. To paraphrase Laurie Anderson, “this is the record of the time.”[8] 

The essays, reviews, curatorial statements, and micro-narratives in this issue are only a first stab at a kind of revisitation of this time. Readers looking to this special issue of JAE as a kind of roadmap to the influence and legacy of S, M, L, XL will be disappointed. Indeed, there is much work to be done in locating this book within a galaxy of other approaches, from the history of architectural publications, to media and globalization theory, you name it! The authors featured here, all members of a younger generation of scholars taught by those who passed through OMA’s rosters (or who even worked on the publication of S, M, L, XL), are not so much staking new directions for understanding this work as they are asking difficult questions about the role of architectural publishing in our contemporary situation. 

So, how to read this issue alongside S, M, L, XL? Whether characterizing S, M, L, XL’s 1,376 pages as a moment of transition, as a “paradigm shift,” or perhaps even as an instance of metempsychosis, there is the ineluctable sense of a passing, that something has died only to be replaced by a Shelleyan monster or Lovecraftian “thing on the doorstep.”[9] There are many ways to invoke, prod, and understand this behemoth of a book by what appeared before it, and by what came in its wake. Caveat lector: be attentive to the wink and the nudge, choose your words as one chooses poison. Prick up your ears and listen to that other bard from the 1990s, Dean Wareham, crooning about mermaids and electrical storms, as if channeling Rem Koolhaas himself: “But I’m keepin’ all the secrets / And I have nothin’ else to say.”[10] 

(Note: This is a working draft of my introduction to the special issue of the Journal of Architectural Education dedicated to be published on the twentieth anniversary of the publication of S, M, L, XL. Alicia Imperiale and I are the special theme editors for this issue. Special thanks to the JAE editorial staff for involving me in this project. Extra-special thanks go to Alicia, for her comments and insight for the issue, and for taking me along as co-editor for this issue, which will be published later this month)


[1] R.A. Lafferty, Space Chantey (New York: Ace Books, 1968), 111
[2] In preparing for this issue, I asked contributor Mimi Zeiger whether she would consider taking a photograph of someone throwing a copy of S, M, L, XL into the air: not so much a 90º translation of David Letterman dropping a watermelon off a midtown rooftop, circa 1989, but rather a moment inspired by King Arthur’s (Graham Chapman’s) reoccurring conversation about the “air-speed velocity of an unladened swallow” in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).
[3] Cf. Bob Dylan, “Tombstone Blues,” in Highway 61 Revisited, CBS Records, 1965, 33rpm, 180-gram vinyl (I think): “The king of the Philistines his soldiers to save / Put jawbones on their tombstones and flatters their graves / Puts the pied pipers in prison and fattens the slaves / Then sends them out to the jungle.” Ok, now look at Footnote 5.
[4] A not-so-veiled reference to “Person to Person,” the final episode of Mad Men, when it is revealed (kinda sorta) that Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the show’s main character, came up with the famous Coca Cola “Hilltop” ad (1971) while weaning himself out of an existential crisis in a commune on a Marin County hilltop.
[5] Following Footnote 4, see Michael Herr, Dispatches (New York: Random House, 1977) and Ryszard Kapuściński, Another Day of Life (New York: Vintage, 1976). Aside from Humbert Humbert, the pathological narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), here I am listing the main protagonists from Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Richard Fariña’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (1966), Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961), Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1960), and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), respectively.
[6] Nabokov, Pale Fire (New York: Random House, 1962), 79.
[7] Pulp Fiction, directed by Quentin Tarantino (1994, Miramax Films).
[8] Laurie Anderson, “From the Air,” in Big Science, Warner Bros., 1982, 33 rpm.
[9] Not an altogether inappropriate simile, as it suggests that the book can be also used as a doorstop. Cf. Cliff Burton, Kirk Hammett, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich “The Thing That Should Not Be,” in Metallica, Master of Puppets, Elektra Records, 1986, 33 rpm, especially the lyric, “Drain you of your sanity / Face the thing that should not be.” (A reference to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos that might as well apply to S, M, L, XL).
[10] Dean Wareham, “Sideshow by the Seashore,” in Luna, Penthouse, Elektra Records, 1995, Compact Disc.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Follow The Light

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), The Annunciation (1899), Oil on Canvas, 57 x 71 1/4 inches (144.8 x 181 cm) Framed: 73 3/4 x 87 1/4 inches (187.3 x 221.6 cm)

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation (1898) is a study of illumination and intimacy. The angel Gabriel appears as a shaft of amber light, brightening the room where a young Mary humbly sits. We take in what others have already noticed. Mary appears all too young, free of any kind of religious adornment. The light casts a noonish shadow, shortened as if at vernal equinox. Hanging carmine and burgundy tapestry protecting against pockmarked walls; unkempt floor rug barely covering the cobbled floor; lapis lazuli gown issuing over a roughly-hewn wooden chest; clay urns; an oil lamp whose flickering barely registers against the glowing visitant: these are all known, and yet what is truly striking about the painting is the way it captures a moment of intense intimacy. Mary is learning that she will give birth to the Son of God, and Tanner’s choice of warm, gilded hues seems at odds with the actual moment, an annunciation as expansive and radiating as it is hushed and secretive.

Mary does not avert her gaze. She stares at a point above the glimmering, somewhere beyond the picture frame. Her eyes remain intelligent and searching, committed to an act of seeing familiar to us across various registers. All are premised on knowing more things, more people, more insights. As we “look down” on the offensive or “look askance” at a problem, we also “look up” words and “look up to” people: expressions that associate seeing with a specific vantage point. Or, the very objects and images that capture our sights reveal something different or surprising once we orient ourselves at various angles.

William Eggleston, Untitled n.d. from Los Alamos, 1965-68 and 1972-74 (published 2003.) 1965-68 and 1972-74. Dye transfer print, 12 x 17 ¾ inches (30.5 x 45.1 cm.) Private collection © Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York.

This is one reason why I find William Eggleston’s work so arresting. His dye-transfer color photographs of supermarket aisles, car lots, hairdressing salons, and gas stations in the American South are mundane and meticulous. The subjects may be humdrum; a considered look reveals that they are everything but. For example, in Untitled (n.d.), a woman talks to a friend at a diner. At least, this is what we think is happening. Taken at eye-level, the photograph frames the back of the woman’s head, a greying bulb of symmetrical whorls restrained by clear, flower-topped combs. Her pink gingham dress reveals even more than what we think. The clasp on the necklace was once aligned on the center of the back of her neck, now only slightly off from the zipper top stops. This accentuates the difference in the angles between neckline and shoulder: the woman is shifting, perhaps in mid-sentence, or even covering her mouth as she is laughing at her companion’s joke. The woman is seated along the same axis her companion, each holds their cigarette with their left hand, a mirroring suggesting the two are familiar, comfortable. In this image, there is conversation without content, and yet the setting, dimly lit with seafoam green booths and dark, ruddy brickwork, reveals an intimate communiqué inside a Tennessee diner, on any night, at any time.

William Eggleston, "Red Ceiling," or Greenwood, Mississippi, Dye transfer print, 12.625 x 19.0625 in. (32.1 x 48.4 cm), 1973 (prints in MoMA and J. Paul Getty Collection)

William Eggleston, Untitled (Blue Ceiling) 1970-1973, Dye transfer print, 16 x 20 in. (40.6 x 50.8 cm.)

Should we elevate ever so slightly and train our eyes towards the ceiling, we may see something like Eggleston’s Greenwood, Mississippi (1973). Featured on the album cover of Big Star’s Radio City, the blood red ceiling in the photograph is remarkable because it is, for lack of a better term, so red. The photograph signaled Eggleston’s true arrival into the art-photographic establishment, announcing a new artistic potential for high-saturated, dye transfer color photography. Like his other works, this photographs captures many details, from the unfinished mouldings to the posters showing sexual positions. Eggleston took this photograph supposedly inside a brothel, and though there is much to parse here in that regard, I am drawn to the light bulb. This is not necessarily because it appears as a kind of power node or nerve center, an object that conducts electricity and life into the room with cords and wires, but rather the opposite, for the bulb appears dark, and the only light in the room is the one coming from Eggleston’s camera. In fact, we are so close to the painted ceiling that it reflects the camera flash. A similar flashing appears in Untitled (Blue Ceiling), and yet here, the effect is wholly different. Other than the obvious difference in color—the blue paint does not appear as garish as the red ceiling in Greenwood, Mississippi—the light bulb in the blue room also radiates cords, wires, and lanyards, and yet it is lit, adding a bit of ambiance to the camera flash even if it still creates the harshest of shadows. Were we to tilt our heads downwards, we confront Eggleston’s Untitled (n.d.), a photograph of a small motel room whose only source of light comes from the fluorescent fixtures mounted above the bed. We are also drawn into the light, a soothing glow that gives this room an intimate, tranquil aspect. In these three photographs, light emanates and suffocates. Through these attenuated vantage points in cramped spaces, the light announces something previously unknown.

William Eggleston, Untitled, n.d. from Los Alamos, 1965-68 and 1972-74 (published in 2003.) 1965-68 and 1972-74. Dye transfer print, 12 x 17 ¾ inches (30.5 x 45.1 cm.), Private collection © Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York.

René Magritte, The Pleasure Principle (Portrait of Edward James) (1937)

Following the light, I note that the illumination in this last image of Eggleston’s recalls the glowing, bulb-like head in René Magritte’s The Pleasure Principle (Portrait of Edward James) (1937). And my goal is not to use this image for invoking something like “enlightenment,” a term with its own historical and intellectual baggages. Rather, I use Magritte’s curious portrait of Edward James, with its head exploding into a burst of radiating light, to remind (at least) myself, that ideas propagate outward. Like light, they are reflected back onto ourselves or refracted in other directions. I would like to think that this propagating light is a metaphor for writing, a practice that has been all too absent from my life of late, and which I embrace again.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Centerville/Interzone, or: Map Ref. 41°N 93°W

(Figure 1) “Views of Centerville” (Source: L.L. Taylor, ed. Past and Present of Appanoose County, Iowa: A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement (Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1913), n.p.)

From the root of our national psyche, an Exhibit of sorts. The evidence is probative, sure, but what other admissible facts, what other morsels of conjured truth are there to be found? To our esteemed Jury of Peers, to this coterie of readers whose only task is to take in this skein of confabulation, let me assure you that this Exhibit is real, but only in the sense that it is something that occurs in space and time. Like Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom (Virag) in the “Ithaca” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), we levitate into air, beyond the stratosphere, holding our breaths as satellites and space junk whir by our geostationary lockstep. We peer into the cerulean and phthalo patchwork world below and there, a surface once familiar rendered now into a joining of parallel and meridians. Decumanus and cardo intersect somewhere in the glacial moraines of southern Iowa, among the hills the Sioux call paha.

Rivers of anthracite once flowed underneath this rolling, hummocky prospect like blackened veins. On the surface, railroad lines scored the land’s carboniferous circulatory system with iron spurs. Steam locomotives bear their bills of lading, emissaries of shipping lines that read like an abecedarium of Midwestern capital: Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul; Keokuk & Western; Iowa and St. Louis. Affluents of coal and iron join at the headlands of the Mystic Coal Bed, near a city founded in 1846, first as “Chaldea,” a riverine name, reminiscent of that alluvial flat where the Tigris and Euphrates once joined, now a settlement attracting a host of New Englanders, Central Europeans and Scandinavians, as well as profiteers seeking bounty from individual treaties with Sac, Fox, and Winnebago tribes in the wake of the Black Hawk War. Less than a year later, on January 18, 1847, a law issued by the first Iowa legislature proclaimed that this town, the seat of Appanoose County, be renamed Centerville (instead of “Senterville,” for the Tennessean William Tandy Senter, long admired by the city’s founder, the surveyor Jonathon F. Stratton). Stratton himself was an expert in all things Centerville, and in 1878, along with other early Iowans, became one of several sources for an oral, comprehensive history of Appanoose County.

Of these men, Colonel James Wells, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Black Hawk War, became known as one of Iowa’s most famous homesteaders. Around 1839, he built a cabin in “Section 16, Township 67, Range 16” in the County, a platted quadrant near the berm where the Missouri, Iowa & Nebraska railroad passed over the Indian River. And three years later, walking near a cabin owned by one “A. Kirkendall,” Wells spotted a man sitting at the base of a tree with his torso slumped forward. He approached the body and noticed a small, charred bullet hole rimmed with dried blood in the middle of the man’s forehead. He must not have been aware of the marksman sighting him from a distance before the fatal shot—Wells found a pencil and small, lined ledger book in the man’s hands with entries resembling “the notes of someone looking up lands; but as the township lines had not been laid, this seemed inexplicable.”[1] This was the county’s first recorded death, a plot line braided into a larger, malevolent act of fiction, for “It is barely possible that the man had been riding away a horse not his own, had been followed, captured and put to death, and that the entries had been made by his executioners, in order to lead possible inquiry on a false scent.”[2] Plot line is no different from plat line, as Wells’ homesteading is also a supreme act of fiction, a conjuring of something tangible from what once was a series of orthogonal lines on paper.

Such narratives could be skewed, literally. In his Past and Present of Appanoose County, Iowa (1913), L.L. Taylor, a former Justice of the Peace for the County, claimed that a “brief historical sketch” would suffice as a “fitting introduction to the history of the young and thriving state of Iowa.”[3] Yet the editor of the 1878 history of Appanoose County informed the reader, “In the absence of written records, it has often occurred that different individuals have given sincere, honest, but, nevertheless, somewhat conflicting, versions of the same events, and it has been a matter of great delicacy to harmonize these conflicting statements.”[4] For his own history of the County, Taylor included photographic plates (Figure 1), taken from the tops of buildings or at street level, of various locales within Centerville. Places like South Eighteenth Street and even the Shawville Mine appear devoid of people. The exception is the photograph of North Main Street, capturing a gathering of people and horses around a trolley making a slow jug-handle turn into the street, the only photograph that is not clipped or placed at an odd angle. These six “Views of Centerville” are distributed roughly into dual columns, yet some of the images are rotated and layered upon each other. It is far removed from the rough 4x4 grid of townships that give Appanoose County its fixed, quadrangular shape. These two images, map and photograph, offer competing narratives of Centerville. And yet the obsessive regularity of the Appanoose grid does not necessarily hint at any kind of veracity.

(Figure 2) Map of Appanoose County, Iowa (Source: Western Historical Society, The History of Appanoose County, Iowa: Containing a History of the County, Its Cities, Towns, &c., a Biographical Directory of Citizens, War Record of Its Volunteers in the Late Rebellion, General and Local Statistics, Portraits of Early Settlers and Prominent Men, History of the Northwest, History of Iowa, Map of Appanoose County, Constitution of the United States, Miscellaneous Matters, &c. (Chicago: Western Historical Society, 1878), n.p.

Centerville, however, is a name that hints to space, location, and orientation. It is the middle of a grid, a town in the cartographic center of Appanoose County. (Figure 2) Centerville finds its kindred, toponymical spirit in Interzone, a name given by another Midwesterner, William Seward Burroughs, as shorthand for the International Zone in Tangiers, an exotic destination in our literary imagination that, like Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria, becomes a code for something illicit. Whereas Durrell’s Alexandria became a purgatory for lovesick expatriates, Interzone was something much darker, last stop in a circuit for dead-eyed junkies craving for pyrethrum (distilled from the crushed flower heads of the Dalmatian Chrysanthemum, T. cinerariifolium), seeking night passage across the rachial divides of the Hindu Kush and into the incense-filled foyer of the Hotel Massilia on Rue Marco Polo, marking their transit across the continents as if dragging a leadened spike across a map. Two such itineraries begin their convergence, gliding between the Galeries Lafayette and storefronts advertising passage across the Strait of Gibraltar, on to the Boulevard Pasteur and intersecting at the Hotel Rembrandt in the nouvelle ville de Tanger. It was there that Burroughs saw Carnet de Voyage au Sahara, a show featuring English painter Brion Gysin’s aquarelles made in the North African dune seas, among the seif and barkhan. The two met briefly, with Gysin describing Burroughs as trailing “long vines” of peyote plant and adorned by an “odd blue light” emanating from his hat.[5] Another convergence occurred in 1960 in Paris, where Gysin introduced Burroughs to the Dadaist penchant for composition via the “cut-up” and “fold-in,” a method of writing by literally manipulating physical scraps of text to conjure sentences, paragraphs, and even entire novels. Burroughs embraced the cut-up technique only shortly after he dispatched his first and most well known novel, Naked Lunch (1959), a dense, hallucinatory journey through the belly of America, via Tangier, that ends with an augur’s instructions to the reader, a channeling from a near-future: “You can cut into The Naked Lunch at any intersection point.”[6]

In reaching this and subsequent “intersection points,” Burroughs transforms writing into a kind of autobiographical transport whose docket conveys grim spectra spanning everything from an addicts’ aphorism to a dopers’ needle. In a typical jeremiad, perhaps written under an oneiric haze of chloral hydrate, Burroughs channels his grandfather, William S. Burroughs I, founder of the American Arithmometer Company, invoking something of a junky’s notion of eternal return when he writes, “So listen to Old Uncle Bill Burroughs who invented the Burroughs Adding Machine Regulator Gimmick on the Hydraulic Jack Principle no matter how you jerk the handle result is always the same for given co-ordinates.”[7] Unlike grandfather Burroughs the First, famous for his hardline drawings, etchings, and centers rendered with sharpened styluses under the mirrored arc of a microscope, Burroughs opted for something more expansive: “In my writing I am acting as a map maker, an explorer of psychic areas, […] a cosmonaut of inner space, and I see no point in exploring areas that have already been thoroughly surveyed.”[8] This mania for maps and mapmaking would continue in The Ticket That Exploded (1962), a true “cut-up” novel, a science fiction nightmare where giant crabs roam the landscape at the behest of the nefarious, intergalactic enterprise known as the Nova Mob. In this novel, the autobiographical and cartographical collapse into a single line of text, a moment when Burroughs maps his family history onto his own fictions: “Word is an array of calculating machines from Florida up to the old North Pole—Image track goes with it.”[9] Indeed, Burroughs jettisons linear narratives in favor of something more like a film unspooling to the end only to spool back to the beginning in an ouroboros-like manner. The dead man slouched in front of Kirkendall’s cabin, trepanned in order to unburden a secret of Iowa history, who finds a parallel in Burroughs shooting his common-law wife Joan Vollmer in the head during a drunken game of “William Tell” in Mexico City on January 6, 1951—a montage connecting, compressing, and circulating images from disparate histories. Yet as critic Mary McCarthy observed in her review of Naked Lunch, Burroughs “has no use for history, which is all ‘ancient history,’” a moment reminiscent of another doper, the nefarious Wimpe, salesman for Ostarzneikunde GmbH (a subsidiary of I.G. Farben) in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), divulging to the Red Army operative Vaslav Tchitcherine that his role is not to interpret history, but rather to “Die to help History grow to its predestined shape.”[10] Like Bloom and Dedalus, Burroughs levitates into outer space, a “planetary perspective” that reveals another form, one where history is a “sloughed-off skin” that “shrivels into a mere wrinkling or furrowing of the surface as in an aerial relief-map or one of those pieced-together aerial photographs known in the trade as mosaics.”[11]

(Figure 3) Dust Jacket to Traveller’s Companion Series No. 91, William S. Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded (Paris: Olympia, 1962) (Source: TRB Booksellers, Albany, NY)

(Figure 4) William S. Burroughs, “Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning,” My Own Mag, No. 4 (1964) (Source: Reality Studio: A William S. Burroughs Community,

“[C]ut the prerecordings into air into thin air”[12]:  so concludes The Ticket That Exploded with a statement that is not of the air, but all-too-grounded, a reminder that the authorial act, the committing of words to the page, is really no different than cutting and pasting them on the flat surface of a page. Stories, characters, and fictions may be communicated from hands to paper via a keystroke on the ribbon of an Antares or Hermes Rocket typewriter (or with a microphone that commits the author’s words as magnetized particles onto cellulose acetate, spun through a Nagra recorder’s tape head), yet they are a heaped into a jumble of words, sentences, and paragraphs that become something recognizable, something readable. What is a novel but a mosaic of words, a pact between author and reader that the stochastic jumble of text, the endless non-sequiturs, the breakneck changes in rhythm and pacing, will resemble something like a story, one that makes up for a lack of resolution with a relentless direction and energy? Narrative becomes a topographical construct, a bailiwick with its own features, courses, and jurisdictions. It is a world unto itself, its essence captured on the dust cover to Book No. 91 of the Traveller’s Companion Series of Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press (Figure 3), the 1962 first edition of The Ticket That Exploded. Here, an aerial photograph, presumably of a World War One-era French countryside, reveals a silvery, hoary ground of convex, concave, and cyclic polygons stitched together randomly. It covers only half of the dust cover, with a simulated tear delimiting the border between image and text, an allusion to cutting-up, and underneath, “The Ticket That Exploded” appears in red grease pencil with Burroughs’ name typeset in all caps. Aerial photography and cut-up writing here become literary equivalents for the first time, a terrain where two modernist tropes—the aerial regard surplombant and fragmented, multiperspective writing—intersect to create their own terrain. More evidence of this appeared in 1964, when Burroughs published a small single-page cut-up entitled “Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning” (Figure 4) for the experimental literary magazine My Own Mag. At the very top of the page, an admonition, also typeset in all caps, refers to aerial nuclear bombardment, while at the bottom, sentence fragments assemble into an 8x4 grid, “to be read every which way.” Yet the numbered columns point to a contradiction, one where the orthogonal arrangement of meridians and parallels results in something that is not regular, not ordered, but produced and fortuitous. This has always been the case with maps and aerial photographs, avatars for an incontestable way of looking at the world, an ironclad epistemology that is but a kind of highly-attenuated, high-altitude abstraction succumbing to all the vagaries and caprices of interpretation. As the sociologist Hans Speier noted in 1941, aerial views and maps are instances where science and technology “become subservient to the demands of effective symbol manipulation.”[13] An assembly of plats into an aerial mosaic, the identification of “Section 16, Township 67, Range 16” in Appanoose County—these may correspond to a cartographic reality, yet they are fictions that appease our desire to conjure order out of disorder.

(Figure 5) (Top) Wire, 154,, 33 1/3 rpm (EMI Records, 1979) (Bottom) Wire, Map Ref 41°N 93°W, 45 rpm (Harvest Records, 1970)

Buoyed above the Midwest in geosynchronous orbit, we once again peer below through our splayed feet at another series of lines, intersecting slightly north of Centerville, in Monroe County, Iowa, a point between Chariton and Ottumwa, on the asphalt surface of U.S. Highway 34, the Red Bull Highway, named after the 34th Infantry Division, the first Army unit deployed to Europe during World War II. There are even coordinates: 41°N 93°W, or simply, “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W,” which is the fourth track of the second side of English band Wire’s 1979 album 154. (Figure 5) Recall vocalist Colin Newman’s words in the first verse, a reminder of what is underneath the North American grid:
Straining eyes try to understand
The works, incessantly in hand
The carving and paring of the land
The quarter square, the graph divides
Beneath the rule, a country hides [14]
With this evocation of the telltale Jeffersonian grid firmly in place, now listen to what is “beneath.” Now, carve and pare the Ampex tapes, cut the prerecordings into air into thin air acetate inscribed and sprinkled with magnetized particles corresponding to the peaks and valleys of an audio recording. Take out the strands of horsehair from your violin’s bow. Replace with a strip of tape, a recording of William S. Burroughs’ reading the words “LISTEN TO MY HEARTBEAT.” Replace your violin’s bridge with an amplified, magnetized tape head. (Figure 6) Push and pull the bow, collé, détaché, louré … until the author’s words become elongated and slowed down in sonic space. Now, listen as another singer, actually an artist, Laurie Anderson, also from the Midwest, enunciates, “Deep in the heart of darkest America. Home of the Brave. Ha! Ha! Ha! You've already paid for this. Listen to my heart beat.”[15] Landscapes become images. Images become words. And words recorded, cut-up, splice and reassemble to create a fictional America.

(Figure 6) Laurie Anderson, Tape-Bow Violin, from For Instants: Part 5, Amsterdam: De Appel, 1977 (Source: Museum of Modern Art, New York, Please Come to the Show: Invitations and Event Flyers from the MoMA Library, 

From Earth orbit down to the depths of “darkest America” lurking somewhere underneath its patchwork topographies, from handwritten plats and grids inscribed into the first county registers in Appanoose County, Iowa, and moving forward to a more recent past where dead authors come to life as voices bowed across electric violins, consider the lines journeyed, the paths traversed. We can use any number of devices to describe these spatial and temporal transits, from lines of longitude and latitude to timelines. These lines meet in locales recognizable because of names like Centerville or titles like “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W.” We can even arrange these lines spatially, an ordered logic where lines marking changes in vertical altitude and passages from past to present to future time become vectors, and their intersecting planes form, of all things, a structure. And of this structure, let us give it a name. “Fiction” has a nice ring to it.



An earlier version of this essay appeared in Pidgin Magazine's "Fiction" issue from 2013. Many thanks to Nick Risteen for allowing this slightly odd piece of writing to see the light of day.

[1] Western Historical Society, The History of Appanoose County, Iowa: Containing a History of the County, Its Cities, Towns, &c., a Biographical Directory of Citizens, War Record of Its Volunteers in the Late Rebellion, General and Local Statistics, Portraits of Early Settlers and Prominent Men, History of the Northwest, History of Iowa, Map of Appanoose County, Constitution of the United States, Miscellaneous Matters, &c. (Chicago: Western Historical Society, 1878), 334.
[2] Ibid.
[3] L.L. Taylor, ed. Past and Present of Appanoose County, Iowa: A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement (Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1913), 1.
[4] Western Historical Society, Preface to The History of Appanoose County, Iowa, n.p.
[5] Brion Gysin, Let The Mice In (New York: Something Else Press, 1973), 8.
[6] William Burroughs, Naked Lunch (New York: Grove Wiedenfeld, 1992 [1959]), 203.
[7] Burroughs, Introduction to Naked Lunch, xviii-xix.
[8] Burroughs, “The Future of the Novel” (1964), in Randall Packer and Ken Jordan, eds. Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 294.
[9] Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded (New York: Grove Wiedenfeld, 1994 [1962]), 147.
[10] Mary McCarthy, “Dejeuner sur l’Herbe,” The New York Review of Books, Vol. 1, No. 1 (February 1, 1963), n.p. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (New York: Viking, 1973), 715.
[11] McCarthy, "Dejeuner sur l'Herbe," n.p.
[12] Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded, 217.
[13] Hans Speier, “Magic Geography”, Social Research, 8:1/4 (1941), 313.
[14] Graham Lewis, Colin Newman, and B.C. Gilbert, “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W,” by Wire, in 154, EMI, 1979, 33 rpm.
[15] Laurie Anderson, “Sharkey’s Day,” in Mister Heartbreak, Warner Bros., 1984, 33 rpm. For her performance of “Late Show,” from her concert film, Home of The Brave (1986), Anderson played a tape-bow violin with a recording of William S. Burroughs’ saying “Listen to my heartbeat.”