Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Making a mess in New York

Didn’t I start the last post by saying: “Well here I go again, trying to blog from an airplane!” 

Here I go again, blogging from an airplane! 

Christina and Kodiak and I are on our way back to New Mexico from New York City, having decimated four more cars with the Hand of Man! 

(This might be my favorite photo of the weekend... it really shows the scale of the Hand and I somehow managed to capture a motion blur on the car, or what is left of the car!)

The Hand made its East Coast debut this weekend at Maker Faire New York and was a big hit. I‘m not just saying that… the reception for the Hand was even more enthusiastic than usual. My guess is that folks in the Eastern part of this country don’t see quite as much of the whole big sculpture spectacle thing that we do in the West, thanks to Burning Man and Coachella and Maker Faire (which has a bigger presence in the west). In any case, regardless of the reasons, people seemed to love it. We heard things like “You guys transformed so many people’s lives this weekend!” and “Thanks for getting so many kids interested in STEM!” and “This is the best thing I’ve seen in 5 years of Maker Faire!” Of course it feels great to hear that sort of thing. 

The Hand is finally on its way back to New Mexico after being stuck in Europe for over a year, and it is due for a thorough inspection, some maintenance, and even a few improvements. It seems as if the Hand might get a few more gigs from the exposure it received this weekend, and we’ve gotta keep it in tiptop shape! 

When I blogged last, I was actually not on a plane to New York, but rather to Maine. I know this is going to sound rather extravagant of me… but I have for many years really wanted to get a pair of custom-made Limmer boots. Limmer is a family run business in Intervale, New Hampshire which has been in constant operation since 1925, and which builds durable high-quality custom hiking boots. 

They only guarantee the fit if you visit them in person, and the wait list for such an appointment is about 2 years. My name came to the top of the list while we were in Germany, so it was actually close to a 3-year wait for me, but I finally made it to their little shop to get my feet measured. 

Now I have to wait 8-10 weeks for the boots, but hell, I've been waiting 3 years already.

While in Maine I stayed with Christina’s and my old friend Juniper, who we really wish had never left Taos! Well she lives in there now and it was really fun for me to be her guest in the cute little town of Belfast. She never gets to eat lobster because all her friends are vegetarians (!), but I was thrilled to help her with this little problem. 

Young’s Lobster Pound is really just a warehouse for lobster distribution, but they have a few picnic tables out back and are able to steam fresh lobsters and clams for those who don’t need a fancy atmosphere, and at a very reasonable price too! Juniper introduced me to the concept of the “soft shell,” or the young 1 -1.25 pound lobsters, and damn were they tasty. This was a real highlight of my trip to Maine. 

Juniper and I travelled to New York where we were joined by Christina, Kodiak, Shay, and Claire. 

What a great crew. Building the Hand, running the Hand, and taking it down went so smoothly. Thanks guys, you are awesome. 

While in New York, I got a chance to catch up with family. My mom is currently living there to help my brother Trevor and his wife Caroline with their new baby Beowulf, who is frankly adorable. Our cousin Vivien also came down from New England so it was work and fun, all in one weekend. 

Trevor, Beowulf, Kodiak, and me

Because Christina and Kodiak and I lived in cities while in Europe, being in New York was a bit of a throwback to our time over there. From the subways to the crowds to the retail density, it all felt familiar and comfortable. But to me, the highlight of the trip was probably our regrettably short visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), squeezed in between work obligations. On view was the special exhibition “Heavenly Bodies, Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” 

Something strange happened when I first came upon this display of outfits… 

…. Something I actually cannot really explain…. 
…and it happened again only a minute or two later when I came upon this piece by Alexander McQueen…. 

…. And that is that I was genuinely, briefly, overcome by emotion. 

Yes that’s right, I was approximately on the verge of tears. And I can’t really understand it. I’m certain that it has nothing to do with Catholicism, for I have no sympathy or fondness whatsoever for any religion. I think it is something more like: I was overcome by so much beauty. I don’t know if that’s even possible. I am reminded of the plastic bag scene in “American Beauty.” Like, there was so much beauty that I just couldn’t take it. I don’t really know. But I was mesmerized. And to be in the physical presence of that winged ensemble by McQueen, which is one of my very favorite of his creations, after having read and thought so much about him, was an incredible feeling. I lingered there… and came back a few times… almost incredulous that I was actually seeing it. 

Some people (some men?) might find such a reaction embarrassing, and might choose not to admit it. And it does occur to me that that is a possible course of action for me. But I find it too interesting, too curious, too worthy of examination. What elicits an emotional reaction, in art? It’s a question I was looking into back in Barcelona. Surely my strong reaction to McQueen was conditioned by my personal relationship to him and his work, but I’m at something of a loss to explain my reaction to the row of black, more overtly religious outfits. Is it the obvious care and dedication and personal investment that went into crafting those pieces? Is it the femininity, the shapes? Is it the flawless presentation? All these factors are ingredients in the overabundance of beauty on display. And to be honest I think the grandiose orchestral music filling the museum played a part, suggesting perhaps that I am easily manipulated, and alluding also to the power of the multi-sense approach (sight and sound) so frequently employed to such great effect in film. Anyway, as I’ve said before, I think that the power to provoke strong reactions such as those that I experienced is a kind of holy grail in the arts, and I find it fascinating, and curious, that I had such a strong response to… 

a bunch of mannequins dressed in high fashion. 

The rest of the museum, or that small portion of it which we had time to visit, did not disappoint. 

Shay and Juniper and I collectively decided that this woman dancing with flowers actually appeared, when viewed from a certain angle, to be gleefully removing her own entrails… 

The museum was not short on beautiful sculpture… Such as this bather, sculpted with unflinching anatomical accuracy,

the somewhat strangely titled “Mexican Girl Dying,” 

this wonderfully sculpted face, apparently depicting someone who has recently learned he will be skinned alive after losing a bet with a god...

and this great torso by Maillol

But McQueen is ever the superstar in my mind, so here are a few more… 

Here is one I’d not seen before, in any of the books… a female torso festooned with roses, crafted in silver, and hinged so as to be actually worn. 

And returning to the wood wings, a side view...

Back view...

In the presence of greatness!

While in New York we also went as a group to see the deservedly famous immersive theater production Sleep No More. So much has been written about it that I won't say anything other than: it was fantastic. I would go again. If you're into the macabre, sex, death, Shakespeare, and theater you will also want to see it. Google it for more info.

And I will end with this not-fully-formulated non-sequitur: 
I was on airplanes today. I really enjoy looking out the windows, especially near the beginning and end of the flight, because you can get such good aerial views of topography, of cities, of the land. The view from an airplane can really let you see the relationships between things on the ground, in a way that you simply can't see from the ground. And it occurred to me, actually, that this is exactly what looking out of an airplane makes me realize: just how shitty the view from the ground really is, how very little you can see from down there. And in all of this, a metaphor came very clearly to me... which is that I think most of us go through life on the ground, without a clear perspective on what is behind us, in front of us, or to the sides. It's hard to get perspective - to get up high and see the relationships between the events in our lives - to see how one event, one relationship, one success or failure, flows into and informs the others, just as rivers flow from mountains which rise from plains (all of which is so easy to see from an airplane but hard to see on the ground.) What then, in this metaphor, is analogous to getting up high and getting that perspective in one's own life? Is it meditation? Is it introspection? Or therapy? My guess is that all of these help, and I think you also have to want to understand yourself. I think we humans are handicapped in our efforts to understand the big patterns of our lives by our poor memories, and maybe also by the occasional desire to forget. Anyway I don't know the answer. But it strikes me as a good metaphor, and the views from the plane were good.

OK, I guess that's it.
For the first time in more than half a year, I have nothing in particular on my calendar. No trips, no deadlines. Sometimes that feels scary, but right now... at 10:15 on Tuesday night... it feels awesome.


Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Burning Man 2018

Well here I go again, trying to blog from an airplane!
OK, this time I have no pretensions of actually being able to post while I am still up in the air – I don’t think it’s even worth my $7.99 to purchase wifi on United flight 217 – but I will at least get some writing done, dammit!

And I did promise more photos in this post.... keep reading, they are down there....

The danger of letting too much time go between posts is that you forget about certain things, things you wanted to write about, if you don’t write them down immediately. Burning Man already feels like a long time ago, so I better write about it… STAT!

The big thing that was different about Burning Man for Christina and me this year was that our camp was comprised of a high percentage of first-timers; we were playing docent and tour-guide to a gaggle of Euro-Newbies! OK, one of our newbies (Fergie) was American, but with a camp of 14, 8 of whom were first-timers, that’s 57% newbies and 50% Euro-Newbies! (Maybe I just like writing “Euro-Newbies!”) Anyway it is always fun to see Burning Man through the eyes of people who’ve never been before; it helps stave off the jaded vision and keep things fresh. Claire, our friend from Barcelona, did more and saw more this year than I have in years!

And, interestingly, not everyone in our camp exactly loved Burning Man. It’s a hard thing to describe to someone else; you have to experience it to understand it. I suppose one thing that means is that you won’t be sure if it’s ‘for you’ until you get there. At least one member of our camp said they wouldn’t return.

Of course, with the uninitiated, there is always a learning curve, and to some degree the burden of providing a camp, with everything that entails, fell more heavily on the few veterans who joined us this year than it normally does. But hey, Burning Man is a lot of… a lot of things. It’s a lot of fun, a lot of partying, a lot of dust, a lot of people, a lot of stimulation, and a lot of work. Sometimes you forget how much work. You can basically think of it as a few days of work (driving there, setting up), followed by a week of partying, followed by a few days of work (breaking down and driving home). Of course you can reduce your workload by flying there for just the party week, like so many people do (plug and play campers), but then you are just shifting your workload onto others, and it’s not really an option if you are presenting a project.

In this spirit, I want to extend a big hearty THANK YOU to those people in our camp who stepped up and did the work. You know who you are. Thanks.

So, a few days before we set off for the dust, Christina and I received a planeload of Europeans! OK, to be fair, it was only four… our friends Anka, Isabelle, and Jascha from KAOS, and Claire from Barcelona. We spent a few days resuscitating bicycles and cleaning astroturf, and we were off! We met up with Fergie on the way and had a pleasant and uneventful 3-day journey to the big dustbowl. Getting into the event was a bit of a nightmare, but it always is.

What followed was three days of the most protracted bad weather I’ve personally witnessed out there. In Black Rock City, all it takes is a bit of wind to really ruin a day. The ground surface of the Black Rock Desert is easily pulverized into an inconceivably fine, talcum powder-like dust, and as you can imagine, the 70,000 plus citizens of this temporary city do a good job of this pulverizing. It’s ironic to realize that on a windy day most of the rest of that desert is not dusty at all – because the ground surface is still hard-packed – while the city itself can be simultaneously blanketed with a thick layer of the stuff, making visibility low and breathing hazardous. 

Camp Dust

It so happened that the first three days of our time there this year, days on which we built our camp and the sculpture, were really bad. There’s a lot of discussion about how the other-worldly environment out there, including the dust, can contribute on a psychological level to the feeling that you have been transported “out of the normal,” and I think there is a lot of truth to that. But there is also truth to the fact that working in those conditions is tough.

Zero visibility from the truck

In the first few days of being there, Christina was still in Taos with Kodiak and was “on the fence” about whether to come. I didn’t know how to advise her, because although I wanted her by my side, I also felt like I wanted to protect her from those horrendous conditions. Luckily, she decided to come, the weather improved, and we had a damn good time.

Anka, Alisa, Peter, Ema and Jascha enjoy a meal without a side-order of dust.

"With Open Arms" was well placed in the event, and well received. Lots of people climbed it, lots of people took their photos with it, and we even did a Japanese rope bondage performance in front of it with my crane truck. 

I know from Instagram that a lot of people name it as their favorite sculpture of the year, which is of course gratifying. Speaking of Instagram, I’ve been posting a lot over there on my profile so you should go look.

And, speaking of people taking their pictures in front of sculptures… I observed a weird phenomenon out there at Burning Man this year (actually it’s almost more accurate to say that it’s a phenomenon I observed on Instagram, upon returning), and I feel compelled to comment on it. It seems that Burning Man is a hot new destination for the supermodel and wannabe supermodel set, and it seems that their goal is to flood Instagram (and the rest of the web) with pictures of themselves at the event. Heidi Klum, Alessandra Ambrosio, Paris Hilton, and hoardes of lesser supermodel pretenders attended this year, and used Instagram to make sure the world knew all about it. Christina and I didn’t attend in 2016 or 2017, so maybe this phenomenon isn’t new, but I didn’t really see it in 2015.

Long-time readers of this blog will already know that I am as much, or more, a fan of finely wrought examples of the female form as anyone else, but I’ve got to say that this whole thing irks me. And here’s why: These women, and their dutiful photographers, were approximately invisible at Burning Man; I basically never saw them (with one notable exception, explained below). What this demonstrates is that they are not out there integrating with the people of the festival. In fact it seems quite likely that they show up for only a day or two – long enough to snap a bunch of photos – and then head back to their lofts and laptops. The only interaction I had with any of them was when Christina and I were sitting at the base of a beautiful dinosaur skeleton which had been covered in colored glass beads, talking to our friend Elaine Stinger Eno, and one of these 6-foot tall models and her photographer swooped in. The photographer immediately asked if we could get out of the way so they could take a picture. I was sitting comfortably, my shoes were off, and so I replied “Maybe in a minute… or ten.” They grumbled their dislike of my answer and headed off in another direction. They spent about zero seconds looking at the sculpture.

We know from the episode described above that interacting with the art is not much of a priority for these folks, and the Instagram record also shows this pretty clearly. Sculptures and other forms of art are rarely seen in the pictures, and when they are they are little more than props.

If these folks are not interacting with the people, and not interacting with the art, are they really interacting with the event? Or is Burning Man just a background for a photo op? Participation is one of the 10 core principles of this event, and that just doesn’t look like participation to me. Much the same can be said of the 1%ers who show up for a few days in their plug and play Sahara-themed camps – they also do not really interact with the event - but these supermodels do something unexpected that Elon Musk and his buddies don’t do, which is that they grossly skew the way Burning Man “looks” on the internet. If you search Google or Instagram for pictures of Burning Man you are going to see vast troves of pictures of these people… and I’m sorry but Burning Man just doesn’t look like that. Burning Man is full of incredibly talented people; people of varying body types and personal styles; people with wide-ranging skills; people who actually talk to other people; people who are there for weeks toiling in the dust because they believe in art, the event, themselves; people who participate. It would be nice if the internet reflected that reality, but hey… I guess that’s just the celebrity driven, internet mediated, me! me! me! world we live in now. People who actually make shit happen just aren’t as motivated to plaster the web with scantily clad pictures of themselves.

Some of my favorite sculptures (other than my own) were “In Every Lifetime I Will Find You”, “Desert Guard,” and “Night at the Climb-In.”

“In Every Lifetime I Will Find You”
by Michael Benisty had a title far too cheesy for my taste, but was beautifully fabricated. If I may be permitted to let out my inner art critic a little, I felt the exquisite fabrication was however undermined slightly by an internal inconsistency, and a certain anatomical vagueness. The fingers and fingernails and toes and toenails were rendered in much detail, while the upper backs of the figures were practically flat planes, devoid of any hint of spine or shoulder blades. I understand, and forgive, the desire to leave the faces blank… but on the rest of the bodies a level somewhere between realism and cartoonish abstraction should have been established and adhered to throughout. But again… the technical execution was flawless, and the piece was gorgeous.

“Desert Guard”

by Lu Ming was a huge figure of a skeletonized Mongolian warrior fabricated in steel, and shipped from China. The fabrication was somewhat rough up close, but from a distance the effect was fantastic. The detail in the costume particularly impressed me. I heard a rumor that the artist was a first time attendee. If so, that’s even more impressive.

“Night at the Climb-In”
by Dustin Weatherford was a sculpture (but was it really a sculpture?) that I liked for entirely different reasons. This was a single piece of steel tubing firmly affixed to the ground with seven wrecked cars impaled upon it, topped with a vintage camping trailer. Above the camping trailer the steel tube ascended even further to a crow’s nest with a cramped capacity of about 8 people. And even higher above that was a propane “poofer” flame effect. The whole thing was meant to be climbed, even though there were essentially no accommodations for that activity… no handles or safety railings or anything like that... just steel cables and jagged metal. What I loved about this sculpture was how audaciously ridiculous it was, how obscenely dangerous it was, and how thrilling it was to climb. One poorly-executed hand-hold, and you would be dead… or maimed. Of course I went to the top… and I had an idiot’s grin plastered on my face the whole way up. After only 2 or 3 days it was closed, due to an apparently large number of falls and injuries. I’m glad I climbed it while I could. I love it that Burning Man said YES to such an... (I can’t quite find the right adjective)…. Said YES to a sculpture that so unabashedly compelled people to put THEIR safety in THEIR OWN hands, to find THEIR OWN limits. I guess there were a few too many who didn’t know those limits.

Oh, and these puppets..

were really great too. Built by Carros de Foc, they hail from Barcelona.

The burning of the Man itself was good... 

Fire performers before the Man burns down

complete with the de rigeur (though nevertheless spectacular) gasoline mortars.

You can see the Man in the middle of this image... or at least his legs.

I happened to have my camera with me that night so I got some good pix of our great crew, as well as of the post-burn chaos. 

Christina and Anka

And with Ema Andreoli, our hilarious Italian intellectual

Cedar, Alisa, Chris and Anka

Peter, Cles, and Claire

Saint Fergie

Jagged Melon at work

Cedar and Christina watching the chaos

The contrast between the firefighters calmly patrolling in their highly protective gear and the naked people frenetically dancing around the fire always amuses me.

As promised, here are even more pictures of the build and other random stuff….

Building in the dust (photo: @jaggedmelon)

Putting up the Flame Burst, in the worst of it (photo: @jaggedmelon)

Almost done... putting up the arms (photo: @jaggedmelon)

We followed through with a plan to put red lights in the head... (photo: @jaggedmelon)

The "good" side... (photo: @jaggedmelon)

and the "evil" side. (photo: @jaggedmelon)

Chris Iwasjuta and Amihay Gonen, my German and Israeli electronics experts, sort out a problem with the lights. (photo: @jaggedmelon)

Day time.

Night time.

Dust time.

Another GREAT pic by @jaggedmelon

Jessica and I giving an interview (photo: @jaggedmelon)

My trusty tallbike. Damn I love that thing. I don't really ride anything else at Burning Man.

And... Cles and Eleni got married... again! Their marriage in Lesbos was better attended, but this one was more... surreal. Plus it was a good chance to do a group shot of our entire camp!

I’ve now pretty much finished the writing aspects of this post, while on my second flight of the day... heading to the East Coast to run the Hand of Man at Maker Faire New York this coming weekend. If I’m a good and conscientious blogger, I will write about that next week, before it slips too deep into the memory banks.

Thanks for reading,