Saturday, January 24, 2004

Your attention, please. We have just received word that Beacon, New York's renaissance has been terminated by its City government. The signal came in the form of the recent proposed law to inspect and regulate artists’ workspaces in their private residences. We feared that a proliferation of overly restrictive and unnecessary regulations might be in the City’s future, but never imagined it would happen so quickly. Please read the City’s attached proposal, attend City Council meetings and express your opinion, and comment via letters to your representatives and through the City’s website.

When artists and cultural creatives interact with a depressed urban area, as they began to here in Beacon more than a decade ago, they can act as a visionary vanguard with the power to transform and revitalize. They value cultural diversity and don’t displace existing populations, unlike the forces of gentrification. With lots of hard work and a little luck, their studios, galleries, shops, coffeehouses, and restaurants begin to attract positive attention; their creative energy drives positive change for the entire community. Unfortunately, in Beacon’s case, once a prestigious museum has arrived and a few mentions have been gained in the New York Times real estate section, the artists begin to seem superfluous. Even worse, they may be regarded a source of environmental hazards and quality of life complaints. Sometimes visionaries appear unorthodox, unwieldy, and unpredictable. These characteristics can make a government official yearn for the type of halcyon existence that can otherwise only be experienced in some elite, planned development, where the regulations require all cars to be tidily put away in their attached garages at night and certain house colors are absolutely prohibited. Why weren’t all these regulations needed in the City of Beacon 10-20 years ago?

Let’s consider John Chamberlain’s stunning sculptures in Beacon's Dia Museum, for example "Privet." I wasn’t present when Chamberlain created those works, but he must have sorted through heaps of sheet metal, constructed with industrial metal working equipment and welding tools (there would have been fumes, right?), and applied any number of potentially hazardous paints and coatings to obtain the vivid colors. Well, it’s a beautiful piece, but imagine if you had to live next to the studio where it was assembled…it must have looked like a junkyard! There was probably even an unregistered car hidden in the mix somewhere (also locally prohibited). This kind of knee-jerk vision of an artist’s studio, perhaps realistic in only the rarest of instances, doesn’t fit well with new neighborhoods like the Polo Fields or the planned development on the Craig House property in the tightly constrained, uneasy imagination of a City official. And so, they propose to give us this choice: keep creative activities contained in a space smaller than 300 square feet (say a 15 by 20-foot room) and submit to an intrusive inspection, or be a proper resident and use your home for nothing more than a center for watching television and maintaining a pretty, well-manicured lawn.

It’s time to get active and block this proposed ordinance. Demand to see the City’s basis for concern – the environmental studies, the industrial hygiene data, the list of activities of greatest potential concern, prioritized, with their corresponding standard industrial classification (SIC) codes. Demand to see the inspection guidelines and checklists, the proposed requirements for the inspector’s credentials, etc. Without that level of backup, this proposal is baseless and capricious – really nothing more than another revenue generator (don’t believe for a minute that there won’t be inspection and permitting fees!).

As currently proposed, the law is inappropriately broad and vague. What constitutes manufacturing? What is the standard for a "quiet manner" (how many decibels and measured where)? Is there a distinction between commercial artists and others? Where is the line between a regulated artist’s studio and an area for hobbies? Is someone prohibited from having a woodshop in their entire basement (it could very well be bigger than 300 square feet)? These questions must be asked now, or I suppose you could just sit back and wait to open your wallet to buy an NFPA-rated flammable locker for your oil paints.

This proposed law is a direct attack on the freedoms of the individual to self-expression through the practice of art and craft in their home. These types of laws express a preference for wealthy developers, their investors and their projects, and disdain for existing residents. Enforcing these types of restrictions in the name of "quality of life" is merely an attempt to create a sterile, artificial environment that is attractive to sterile, artificial entities, preferably well-to-do ones that believe in "a place for everything and everything in its place." This is part of an ongoing campaign to sanitize a diverse, creative, interesting urban space and make it acceptable for colonization by people who would have grimaced uncontrollably at the mention of the City of Beacon’s name not more than 2 or 3 years ago.

Residents of Beacon are urged to attend City Council meetings and to speak out on this issue, because silence equals assent. Mobilize to prevent the enactment of capricious, unnecessary, and restrictive laws by a City government eager to capitalize on Beacon’s recent popularity and remake the City in their own image. Does Beacon need to be saved from the artists? This is an opportunity for direct democracy – visit and transmit comments on the proposed law via e-mail. Write letters voicing your opinion to the Mayor and City Council.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Desolate days...cold winds, flat tires, broken wrenches, dead birds, unsettled nerves, and unpleasant news. I'm looking forward to getting through the next week in one piece. Looking forward to writing more on William Gibson to dispel the gloom.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

It's finally warm enough to think here in New York, but my brain is reeling from the Bush administration's recent announcements to spend liberally on a manned mission to Mars and toss another $1.5 billion into a sprawling program to promote traditional marriage. I am a giant fan of space exploration, but is there a single dollar lying around that our government can't spend? I thought we had already given all our money to Halliburton and Bechtel. At least save a few bucks by combining the two initiatives. If cute little robots can't do enough to realize all the potential sexiness and excitement provided by manned space exploration, let's get some male and female astronauts together, marry them in space during a televised media event, encourage them to procreate during the lengthy voyage to Mars, and jumpstart the colonization of the red planet. It will give us a secret hideout to escape to someday, and then we can turn over this nearly wrecked planet to the Islamic militants. One day, only multimedia transmissions from Hollywood, Mars will bear witness to the depraved, viral nature of American culture, and fun-hating religous fanatics can turn this world into the hell-on-earth of their secret dreams....

Monday, January 12, 2004

Picking up the thread from my last post, I'm going to try to unravel the roles of several objects integral to William Gibson's recent novel, Pattern Recognition, beginning with the Curta calculator. I believe that the objects and commodities described in the book must be considered as almost minor characters since important elements of the plot are linked to marketing, trademarks, the fetishization of the commodity, and the exploration/exploitation of trends in consumption.

The novel's main character, Cayce Pollard, encounters a Curta by chance while walking in London, where a group of men are preparing to sell a box lot of the devices to a collector. On page 28, Gibson simultaneously identifies the object's function, its "use value" (to perform numerical calculations) while appealing strongly to our sense of touch, manipulating our desire to possess things based solely on their look and feel. The calculator is described as "heavy, dense, knurled for gripping" and "At the top something that looks like the crank on a pepper mill, as executed by a small arms manufacturer."

Gibson goes on to tell the reader that the Curta is a mechanical calculator that was invented by Curt Herzstark, while he was a prisoner of the Nazis at Buchenwald. Herzstark and his invention survived the horrors of the Nazi camp and were liberated by Allied Forces in 1945. You can find out more about the Curta calculator at The men who are prepared to sell the calculators in the novel are knowledgeable collectors/dealers, who recognize the item's "exchange value" in the current economy associated with the sale and purchase of collectibles. It is likely that part of the Curta's exchange value is due to the fact that the item is wreathed in symbolic victory, that to some it represents the triumph of an individual's intellect, persistence and fortitude, poised against a tyrannical oppressor.

Later in the novel, a rare, early-model Curta reappears as an item that can be purchased and exchanged for a secret held by Hobbs, an ex-intelligence officer that obsessively collects the items. He is described as an antisocial and unpleasant person, living in a small, dingy trailer, in a space circumscribed by soiled clothes, clouds of obscuring smoke, and cigarette ashes. Paraphrasing the Situationists, a specialist in things becomes a thing himself. Cayce purchases a particular Curta from an exclusive, stuffed shirt of an antique dealer for an inflated sum and trades it to Hobbs for a secret that may lead her to the end of her quest, to find the origin of a mysterious group of video clips posted to the internet.

The character of the Curta traces the history of the commodity from its origin as an item with a specific use value (e.g., a hammer that can be used to build a shelter) to an item with a symbolic or emotional hook that has only an exchange value measured in some currency. It perhaps also embodies some degree of a high tech/high touch response, in that the future shock associated with constantly accelerating technological advances might lead an individual to crave a manually-wound wristwatch or a mechanical adding device. The actual purchase of the Curta, described on pages 247-252, strongly invokes issues of class struggle via the characterization of the antique dealer, leading us to more systematically consider the Curta's representation of the history of the commodity. It may be that Cayce's final trade of the purchased Curta for something much more ephemeral, a piece of information, ends the item's trajectory through these different spheres with a nod to the concept of a barter or maybe even a gift economy, an idea far-removed from systems that exist to market items based on simulations and systems of control, on craftily-engineered emotional associations (extreme clothing), via exchange value and commodity spectacles, and perhaps their antidote.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Ice is forming around Pollepel Island and its crumbling brick castle in the Hudson River, and it has been one seriously cold weekend in New York. I learned this weekend that my house's climate control system can perform only about 62 degrees warmer than the outside temperature, which was -4 degrees F early Saturday morning. Anyway, chilly thoughts aside, I recently finished reading the novel Pattern Recognition by William Gibson. At its center, the novel tells the story of character Cayce Pollard's search for the origin and meaning of a set of enigmatic video clips ("the footage") that are being posted to the internet by an unknown maker. I enjoyed the novel so much, I was inspired to write a little about it, but to write with a focus on the "things" in the book, the objects and commodities that seem to also function as minor characters. The next few posts will discuss the Curta mechanical calculator, Cayce Pollard's black nylon flight jacket, and the footage itself.

Friday, January 09, 2004

Our leaders have lowered the terror threat level to "yellow" as reported on CNN. Considering that this goofy terror alert system probably causes at least as much agita for some as the now historic Cold War "mutually assured destruction" jitters, I move that the U.S. begin a practice of hosting a giant bacchanal every time the terror threat is lowered. We could have parades and display banners with triumphant messages such as "We're still here!" Local bars should have drink specials that are increasingly generous for lower threat levels.
Test post on January 9, 2004.