Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Hermitage, Beacon

The Hermitage bookshop, letterpress printer and exhibition and performance space has a new website.  Jon Beacham has created something special here in Beacon.  "Gem," is the word that comes to mind.  For those in the know, Hermitage is a wonderful symbiosis of clean, simple, warm space, its proprietor, contents, events and participants.  Think analog, not digital.

Photo Jon Beacham.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Will the Real Billboard House Please Step Forward

Pic from Flickr.

Billboard House

Via Tuvie.  And this other billboard house has been fairly well publicized.

Old School D.I.Y. Camper

Can't afford a Unimog or Unicat?  Just collect some old barn wood and build your own "go anywhere" house on wheels.

Pic from Offbeat Homes.

Unimog Campers

Pics Travelmog.  The hand, by Mario Irarrázabal, is in Chile.

ICEPAC Interview Coming Soon

I'm in the middle of an interview with Thomas Mulcaire, the co-designer of ICEPAC, a very cool mobile structure that has just been field tested for the first time in Antarctica this International Polar Year (IPY).  Unfortunately, I got the questions to Tom rather late in his expedition and, as of 07h00 GMT today, he's on a ship back to South Africa and without email until March 5.  So, we'll have to wait until then for the answers and the serialized interview posts.

Photo of SA Agulhas (the ship that Tom and his team members are now on) by SANAP, via Erika Blumenfeld's Polar Project expedition blog.  Wishing them all bon voyage.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Garbage Truck of Your Own

Actually it's an off-road mobile home by Unicat, via Freshome.  The interior's slightly gross, I'll admit, but nothing a gut job and some raw plywood couldn't fix.

More Mobile Architecture

This would would make a good live/work studio almost anywhere, but I think it would be best parked in my garden.

Again, photo Michael Bartalos.

Airborne Artist's Loft

Spacious living in the sky, and room for large canvases, good-size sculptures and a couple of military tanks:  The C-17 Globemaster III has it all.  I'd like to park one of these somewhere, like a giant Airstream trailer, maybe up on blocks with the wheels off.

Photo by Michael Bartalos from his Antarctica blog The Long View.


Keeping it real with the Guerrilla Girls, via The Homeless Guy.

Red Delicious

Buenos Aires rooftop container studio by FPS, via the ever-brilliant Alex at Shedworking (more pix at both).

Monday, February 16, 2009

Mirrored House

Another intriguing small structure, this time by artist Elliot Coon.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Dumpster Houses

To live in a dumpster is no joke for the people who really do.  Stone Soup Station writes about a man who lived in one for four years.  Here are some pictures of a real (apparently) dumpster house and the man who lived, or perhaps still lives, there.  And a tragic story about a man who died in his dumpster house. 

Picture by Brian Foy on Flickr.

The Other Dumpster Diving

Earlier, I posted about a dumpster plunge pool, but for most dumpster diving you don't want your treasure chest to be full of water.  For those of you new to the game, or recently realizing it may come to this, here's a "how to."

Pic from Adrian Shirk.

Sleeping Chambers

Continuing this weekend's small spaces theme, there's an interesting article in today's NYT about tiny and movie-inspired hotel rooms.  The one that most intrigued me was the room design for hotelier Sean McPherson's Jane Hotel in New York.  Perhaps more aptly described as a sleeping chamber than a room, it has an Indian Railways stateroom theme, based on a set from Wes Anderson's 2007 film, "The Darjeeling Limited."  It's not much bigger than the Homeless Chateau, which has a 4 x 8-foot layout (though a lower ceiling), and about the same size as the ironing closet I lived in in Hulme, Manchester in the early 1980s – just room for a single bed and a small pathway beside it that leads, presumably, to a bathroom and a window.

By the way, if there are any hoteliers out there who would like me to design rooms with a homeless theme, I can make myself available.

Photo by Gregory Goode for the New York Times.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Dumpster Diving

More pictures of the skip (dumpster) pool and lots more dumpster conversions, from gardens to a mini skate park, at Oliver Bishop-Young Design.

Dumpster Living Room

By British designer Oliver Bishop-Young.

Dumpster Jacuzzi

I'm not big on hot tubs, but I do like dumpsters.  And now I think I like dumpster hot tubs.

Fishermen's Huts

No Picture III

"(the Tao) no more than one's everyday experience ...when you begin to think, you miss the point."

D.T. Suzuki

No Picture II

Another index card piece from 2004:

Bunjin [Japanese literati] ideal:  The "three perfections" – painting, poetry, calligraphy, and the "elegant pursuits" – music and the board game go.  Superior ways to refine the soul – life's loftiest goal.  Amateur delight over professional gain and spiritual content over technical proficiency.  

No Picture

About five years ago, I stopped painting for a few months and just typed on some old yellow index cards I had.  It became a series which I called Indices.  Here are a few examples from a wall installation I did of them, and other items in zip closure bags, titled Catechism.

This sentence is my novel.

Breath in.

Breath out.

Sound of 1972 El Camino idling.

An artist must be lazy.

Please accept my apologies in advance.

The afternoon is almost over.

Friday, February 13, 2009

River Horizon

I like horizons.  In New Mexico, the horizon was often straight and perfectly horizontal.  At least that's how I remember it.  Here, in the Hudson Valley, the Hudson Highlands are a fortress and rampart-like backdrop to the long, horizontal line the river makes against the shore.  I guess that's the horizon here, or an echo of one – a sub-horizon.  

I walk by the river twice a day and have a winter view of it from an upstairs window, and that profound horizontality always moves me.  It's so grounded, so "rivered."  I love the granite cliffs, bluffs and sugarloaf mini-mountains, too.  But my eye invariably descends to the base of those soft/craggy hills and lingers at the waterline.

Perhaps my being born on a small island in the Atlantic and spending the first few years of my life in the water and on the beach, often gazing out across the ocean at some distant boat or cloud or seagull, or simply at the horizon, has something to do with my love of the infinite lateral line.  

Agnes Martin talked about growing up on the plains of Saskatchewan, and having a similar fondness for, or imprinting of, open skies and the ruler-straight edge between two vast expanses, one atop the other.

I'm working on a 7 x 15-foot painting about the Hudson river.  It was going to be 20 feet long, but I decided to rotate the three panels ninety degrees, from horizontal to vertical, to better explore the frisson between standing bluffs and reposing water.  Above all, this painting (or my thinking about the unfinished painting) is about that indefatigable horizontality, with its depths, metaphysical and otherwise, layered like Agnes Martin's ruled and painted lines, above and below the mind's horizon.

Image from Dia:Beacon.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

eBay F*cking Censorship

There is a village in Austria called Fucking (thanks B.).  I did a search for postcards or other ephemera from Fucking, but mostly just came up with non-Austrian slogan T-shirts, music-related items and a few books.  Curiously, when I searched the word "fucking" on the US eBay site, I came up with just one or two items, but when I went to the Austrian and German eBays there were over 700 and 800 "fucking" items, respectively, but nothing to do with the village.  Admittedly, it's not surprising that no items are listed anywhere for the village of Fucking, as it is quite small, but it does appear to have a thriving tourist industry, somewhat dampened, perhaps, by all the sign thefts and cheeky comments, from ogling Brits in particular.  

The way different countries' eBay sites handle the word "fucking" got me thinking about eBay's censorship policy.  I've known for a long time that there was one – my Penis Soldiers were pulled off eBay almost ten years ago.  But I hadn't thought about it much since then.  The range (see below) is wildly varied, which makes you wonder if eBay really is "an international community" in any objective sense, or more a group of thirty very different countries (or auction sites in thirty different countries), each with its own distinct world view and unique determinations about what its citizenry, and foreign visitors to its site, should and shouldn't be exposed to.

Here's a breakdown of how many items come up with a search using the (Latin alphabet, English) word "fucking" on each of eBay's thirty sites:

Argentina  1
Australia  3
Austria  730
Belgium  717 in Dutch, or 6 in French + 120 from international sellers = 126
Brazil  6
Canada 13 + 14 from international sellers = 27
China  0
France  13 + 115 from international sellers = 128
Germany  870
Hong Kong  0
India  0
Ireland  18 + 3 from international sellers = 21
Italy  14 + 737 from international sellers = 751
Korea  couldn't determine the search box
Malaysia  4 from international sellers
Mexico  1
Netherlands  708
New Zealand  1 from an international seller
Philippines  4 from international sellers
Poland  718
Singapore  4 from international sellers
Spain  49 + 100 from international sellers = 149
Sweden  31
Switzerland  281
Taiwan  99
Thailand  0
Turkey  1
United Kingdom  23 + 3 from international sellers = 26
United States  1 + 1 from an international seller
Vietnam  0

Conclude at will.

By the way, I didn't see pornographic items on any of the sites when I used the search word "fucking," so there must be some policing beyond just automated filtering.  

And the good news:  You can get postcards and photos of the English Fulking.

Photo from (The sign below the place name reads, "Please, not so fast!"). 

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Robert Adam Crescent R.I.P.

I lived in a flat in one of the concrete crescents of Hulme in the early 1980s, with three other Manchester Poly students. The flat had been a squat before we rented it and was so beat up nobody else wanted it. The council had covered up the damage with shiny white paint the consistency of porridge. But even that couldn't hide the crucifixion-size nails and fist-size holes in the walls.

My room was a cupboard with windows next to the upstairs back balcony – just big enough for a single bed and a pile of clothes. I think it was originally designed, by whichever Corbusier fanatic penned that paean to brutalism, to be an ironing room. I had to scrape up a lot of pigeon shit before I could move in, and the pigeons used to wake me up at all hours with their cooing and flapping – they loved that balcony, high up on the outward curve of the building – but four pounds a week wasn't bad.

We boarded up the front room windows and lined the walls and ceiling with egg cartons, as one of the lads was a drummer and his band practiced at our place. The back of the flat had a decent view out of Hulme, west towards Liverpool – rooftops, clouds, grey skies, orange at night.

We played football on the lumpy grass below, where I dislocated my friend Geoff's shoulder. I used to park my old XL250 enduro down there, too, until one of the kids in the block hot-wired it and rode off, no doubt thinking he was Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. But he couldn't get out of Hulme, or didn't want to. The cops got him before I even knew the bike was stolen. They chased him off-road where he careened around the grassy knolls and abandoned shopping trollies before falling off as spectacularly as he could without a stunt double. He was unhurt and the bike was totaled, which meant insurance money for me and drinks all round.

There were snipers in the crescents – mostly just air rifles – and you'd get shot at from time-to-time. The weed was wicked, home-grown and full of seeds. It was strong enough to make you hallucinate – I literally saw pink elephants once. The pubs on the estate were pretty much a last resort on the nights you couldn't be bothered to walk to the city center or over to the Haçienda, but the Aaben cinema showed some decent films – Rumble Fish springs to mind.

The parties were frequent and throbbing – lots of people crammed into overheated, druggy, fuggy cardboard rooms. Hulme was also a great place (as was most of post-industrial, early '80s Manchester) to wander around taking black-and-white photos of bleakness and decrepitude. Mostly we were happy to live in the proverbial "morning after" all those "dark satanic mills" of legend, with our Boddingtons and Factory Records.

One crystalline memory from that time of concrete and rain was being alone in the flat, just back from a record shop, placing the needle down on New Order's Power, Corruption and Lies for the first time. To me, barely in my twenties, that album, perhaps more than any other, summed up the existential dread of Hulme, along with the sense of freedom and creative frisson it incited in anyone who could cope with the quotidian, thumping, jittering, wailing stink and sight of piss and shit in the stairwells and elevators and, well, everywhere – like a magic carpet of despair.

Pic from Old Hulme.

A Kind of Rigour

My conviction is not to do anything with conviction for long.  Not that I'll necessarily stick to that.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Erika Blumenfeld Interview Part IV

This is the final installment of our email conversation between New York and Antarctica.  For more information and to carry on following Erika's Antarctic and Arctic adventures, see the links at the end.

JW:  How is the food?  I hear you have fresh-baked pie every day.

EB:  The food is well considered for the high altitude and cold weather – quite rich and there is plenty of it.  We have the usual three meals, plus a mid-morning "pies" break (mind you, these are not dessert pies, but savory meat pies) and afternoon "tea" break.  As you can imagine, this is very different than the way I normally eat.  In Marfa, I mostly eat fresh foods, and lots and lots of greens!  While it is no surprise that there is no fresh food here, I do miss them.  Earlier in the season, when the base received its first shipment of food after the long isolated winter months, they had some good fresh foods and veggies, but these were all consumed quickly.  I'm here at the end of the summer season, and so everything is either frozen or canned.  That said, the chef does wonderful things with meals, and we do have great steaks!

JW:  Other than the fact that 98% of the continent you are on is covered by ice and it is gobsmackingly beautiful there, what else strikes you as particularly strange or different about Antarctica?

EB:  At the risk of sounding completely predictable given my aforementioned interests, the most peculiar and awesome parts of my day here are the minute by minute changing light, which truly looks and acts like nowhere else I've ever seen.  Also, the strange phenomenon of the sun rising and setting in the southern sky, albeit for only an hour a day or so, is quite surprising and takes a bit of getting used to.  Antarctica continues to share its wonders – I'm sure I will answer the question differently upon my return.

JW:  Tell us a bit more about the auroras, the whistling sound auroras emit, Andrew Collier's "Whistler Experiment" and how it might tie in with The Polar Project.

EB:  I don't have any information about this as yet – stay tuned!

JW:  Have you seen any penguins yet?

EB:  Alas, no!  I am 100 miles from the ocean on the ice fields, which is not a friendly environment for penguins.  However, I hear that they are often seen nearby the boat we will be taking back to Cape Town at the end of February, so there is still the possibility that I will have the opportunity.

JW:  What plans afoot for your next trip – this time to the top of the world, to the Arctic?

EB:  Yes, now that I've done this first trip to Antarctica, I want to do a trip to the Arctic to begin looking at several areas there, mainly Svalbard and Greenland.  The hope would be to do a two week journey to these areas at the end of the summer.

JW:  How long before we see the finished product at a movie theater or museum near us?

EB:  The projected production schedule for the final shoot for The Polar Project is March 2010, with a possible exhibition opening in the fall of the same year or the spring of 2011.  the Polar Project really is a massive undertaking – I've been looking at it as a ten year project that I'm about four and a half years into.  In the meantime, though, the works that I produce from this first journey will be on exhibit at the LAND/ART exhibition in New Mexico in the September of 2009, and also in Rio de Janeiro in October 2009, and possibly a few other places beforehand.  Please check out my website exhibition calendar for exact dates.  

JW:  People can learn more on The Polar Project website and your expedition blog.  Anything else you would like to add?

EB:  Yes, for a spectacular view into the historical mark of the Arctic and Antarctic in art, I would highly recommend the exhibition To the Ends of the Earth, Painting the Polar Landscape at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem Massachusetts.  It is on exhibit through March 1, 2009.  I was fortunate enough to see it the day before I caught my plane to come to Antarctica, and it has left a lasting impression on me. 

Picture, view south from ICEPAC, Erika Blumenfeld.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Erika Blumenfeld Interview Part III

Continuing my conversation with Erika Blumenfeld, who is more than a few subway stops south of here:

JW:  As you know, I am a fan of extreme architecture of a utilitarian nature.  Tell us a bit about ITASC's mobile base structure, ICEPAC, their UMTHOMBO WOMLILO solar and wind power unit, and other green aspects of the expedition.  And will you get to see Ernest Shackleton's hut (still intact after more than 100 years)?

EB:  I am quite far from Shackleton's hut, in fact I am on the opposite side of Antarctica from Ross Island, and so will not get to see it on this trip.  To tell you a bit about our expedition, and our structures, I will need to go into some detail.

ITASC describes itself as a "decentralized network of individuals and organizations working collaboratively in the fields of art, engineering, science and technology on the interdisciplinary development and tactical deployment of renewable energy, waste recycling systems, sustainable architecture and open-format, open-source media."

This year's expedition is the third ITASC expedition to Antarctica, and is codenamed ITASC: FIRE (Field Installation and Research Expedition).  It follows the first expedition ITASC RECE (Reconnaissance and Communications Expedition) in 2006/2007 during which they installed the solar and wind powered GROUNDHOG Automated Weather Station.  The system provides weather data in order to predict the conditions we will operate in.

In 2007/2008 the second expedition, codenamed ITASC SITE (Systems Installation and Testing Expedition) installed their UMTHOMBO WOMLILO solar and wind powered sled at the GROUNDHOG site to test the feasibility of producing sufficient electrical power and water for a hypothetical crew of six using photovoltaic panels and wind turbines.  Water and power are essential for the safety and comfort of the crew in remote environments.  the UMTHOMBO WOMLILO unit produces 2.5kw of energy, enough to run a small suburban house.  UMTHOMBO WOMLILO is a Zulu phrase meaning "Well of Fire."

This expedition that we are now embarking on, ITASC FIRE, will install and test the prototype mobile ITASC IPY base called ICEPAC (ITASC Catabatic Experimental Platform for Antarctic Culture).  It is designed to provide basic living and working systems to support a crew of up to six artists, scientists and engineers in the field for up to six weeks.  In addition to installing and running ICEPAC, the ITASC crew will also use any excess energy generated by the UMTHOMBO WOMLILO unit to try to melt a CATABATIC CELL, which is a habitable void beneath the ice using heating elements which apparently look a bit like stainless steel light sabers. 

The idea is to use solar and wind power to create a livable space, which does not require any other architectural support, thereby creating a mobile transitory shelter in the ice, which will be returned to its original condition by the natural forces of Antarctica after we have left.  ICEPAC and the CATABATIC CELL were designed and produced in collaboration with Pol Taylor of ARQZE (Arqitecturas por Zonas Extremas) in Valpariso, Chile, who also produced the Chilean remote filed station EPTAP, at Patriot Hills (80 degrees south).

JW:  I'm told you have to take out everything you bring with you to Antarctica, including human waste.

EB:  Yes, the Antarctic Treaty requires that all field research and movement on the continent follow strict regulations in order to protect the environment – to date, forty six countries have signed it.  No waste may be left behind, including all trash and human excrement.  All waste that is produced here at the base is stored in containers in the utility rooms and returned to South Africa at the end of the season for final disposal.

JW:  As it is summer down there and daylight pretty much 24/7, how do you decide when to sleep?

EB:  Darkness deprivation is actually a rather big issue down here, and insomnia is prevalent.  Since I'm not at the South Pole exactly, we have just reached the point in the seasonal shifting where the sun does actually dip below the horizon for about an hour.  This certainly isn't enough time for one to feel like sleeping, and in fact it has the opposite effect on me.  I actually stay up to watch the sunset and sunrise because it is so phenomenal!  I've made some Light Recordings of it, and have also seen some beautiful atmospheric optics due to the extended low sun rays.  As a result, I'm not sleeping very much, but I figure I can catch up when I'm back in the US.

Tomorrow is the final installment of our interview.  Erika demystifies Antarctic food, tells us a bit about her next expedition, this time to the top of the world, and reveals when and where The Polar Project and related works can be seen.  More on Erika's expedition blog.

Photo of ICEPAC and the UMTHOMBO WOMLILO power sled by Thomas Mulcaire of ITASC, from the International Polar Year (IPY) website.

100 Years Later

The kitchen was in, but this is before we built the sleeping loft and bathroom, so around Christmas 2006.  You can just make out the first four-foot Plywood Chateau cubes in the background.  They'd recently been completed – a process you can watch here by clicking on the "Chateaux 'the making of' movie" link.

The Origins of a Studio

A graphic designer friend who's creating a new website for the city of Beacon (sorry, no link yet) just sent me this picture he found of my space, about 100 years before N. and I made it into a studio and home.  It was built in 1900 as a drill hall and gymnasium for a military academy.  The picture will probably be used to illustrate "recreation" in Beacon.  Dig the Picasso shirts.

Perhaps this will be the first in a sporadic series about "the schoolhouse," as we call it.

Thanks Randall.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Erika Blumenfeld Interview Part II

Today, we pick up where we left off yesterday, as Erika tells us more about The Polar Project.

JW:  The Polar Project touches on several intersecting issues.  Tell us more about the confluence of aesthetics and ecology in your work.

EB:  My main interest is the way the light changes over the course of a day, a season, or a year.  Lunar and solar cycles, atmospheric phenomena, and a location's effects on the amount of light we see are all the base material from which my thoughts and my work emerge.  In this way, I think it is easy to see the connection between my aesthetic and my interest in the environment, and The Polar Project certainly takes this connection to a different level.

I guess I reached a place in my studio where it seemed I could no longer continue my work as an artist without dealing in some capacity with the issues humanity is facing with regard to climate change.  We are at an interesting moment technologically – we have created incredible ways to see into our body and into our universe, and yet we have also created incredible ways in which to destroy the very root of our existence: our Earth.  The tragic relationship between what I refer to as the "beauty and the beast" of technology is one that I feel is worth reflecting on... if only to just see it.

My own work relies on technology in massive ways, and I'm placing a lot of emphasis on the cutting-edge technology I'll be using to create The Polar Project for a very specific reason.  But my work also relies on the absolute subtle and mysterious ways of nature itself, which stand entirely impartial to our observations, and do not rely on anything but their own essence.  It has always seemed to me that "art" and "science" start from the same base vantage point: the simple awe of natural phenomena.

JW:  What are some of the logistical hurdles you had to overcome to mount your expedition?

EB:  The biggest hurdles I had to overcome this first expedition to Antarctica were all due to the short timeframe I had to get ready for it.  I received official approval of the invitation to join the team on December 15, 2008, and needed to be in Cape Town for the flight to Antarctica on January 23, 2009.  With the year's major holidays right in between, it was a challenge to get everything done in time.  Also, just learning about the right things to bring to deal with the extreme environment here was quite a feat – every step of the preparation has been a whole journey in itself!

JW:  You use custom equipment to make your Light Recordings.  For The Polar Project you are going "full surround."  Tell us about some of the modifications and additions you had to make to your usual equipment, either because of the conditions in Antarctica or due to the scale and specifics of the project.

EB:  This trip is an opportunity for me to learn about this place, and mostly just be present with it – to experience it fully.  There is much that happens here that takes time to discover and unravel – the way the light travels inside of the landscape as it refracts, or how wind becomes like an object.  It's less about the equipment, per se, and more about the result of my time here.  that said, I am creating work here, and have brought all kinds of equipment so I can choose what feels most appropriate at the moment.  I've been doing Light Recordings with my hand-built devices, I've been shooting with my digital SLR, and I've been shooting HD video.  Soon I'll start recording environmental audio.  For the final project, the equipment system will be quite extensive to accomplish the full-surround and the length of time I'm proposing to record in these environments.  This system is still in development, and will be greatly advantaged from my time here in the field.

JW:  What other special cold weather, wind resistant equipment did you have to take?  I gather your outer gear is a bit on the large side. 

EB:  Lots and lots of layers!  Around the base I wear two layers, but outside I have forty pounds of gear I put on.  SANAE is one of the colder bases on the continent because it's so far away from the water and the winds just whip across the planes, so the idea is to have as much of your skin covered as possible.  For my camera equipment, I brought a special protective bag, and for extra protection (for my equipment or me) I brought lots of hand and feet warmers.  the best thing I bought was an extra base layer for my hands made from a special NASA-designed fabric that is quite thin, but reflects your own heat back to you.  They really work, and are great when you need to actually use your fingers to make adjustments on your camera.  I can wear them without any additional gloves for 10 to 15 minutes before I need to stick my hands in my pockets.

JW:  It is fairly cold here today in New York, in the 20ºs F.  It is summer down there, so what is the weather like?

EB:  The weather here where I am is still quite cold, even though it is austral summer.  The average temperature, taking wind chill into account, is about -20º F.

JW:  How long will you be on the ice and where and with whom will you be living and working while you are in Antarctica?

EB:  I will be on the ice until the end of February, and then I will be joining the South African research vessel, the SA Agulhas, for the two week boat journey back to Cape Town.  While on the ice, I'm staying at the SANAE IV Station, which is in the Dronning Maud Land area of Antarctica.  For part of my time at SANAE, I will be living at ICEPAC, which is ITASC's mobile base and about one kilometer away from the main base.  I will be working with Thomas Mulcaire, artist and Co-Founder of ITASC, Ntsikelelo Nshingila, aka 1stborn, musician and ITASC Expedition Leader, and Alfons Hug, curator and Director of Goethe Institut in Rio de Janeiro.

Tomorrow Erika goes into more detail about ITASC, their mobile base structure, ICEPAC, and some of its off-the-grid energy and other green systems.

Photo of tractor hauling deisel by Erika Blumenfeld, from her Polar Project expedition blog.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Erika Blumenfeld on The Polar Project

Erika Blumenfeld is probably best known for her Light Recordings – direct "pictures" of light.  Using special equipment of her own design, she sequences exposures at particular times of day and night, and during specific phases of the sun and moon, such as solstices and equinoxes.  The individual images have a gradated minimalist look, often blending from deep ultramarine on one edge to white on the opposite edge, and are usually presented in series of unframed panels, sometimes laid out in large grids.  She also makes videos of astronomical cycles.  Erika is a recent recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.

I caught up with Erika, via email, at SANAE IV Station, in Antarctica, where she is working on The Polar Project, her ambitious environment-based installation series.  Our interview will be serialized on this blog over the next few days.

JW:  You have been experimenting with photography for some time – at least as long as I've known you, which is fifteen years.  How would you say your work has changed over time?

EB:  I feel my work has changed significantly since then.  At that time, my interests were quite different – I was looking at the world as I saw it around me, and capturing that on film as representational imagery.  A photo of a tree was a photo of a tree – I didn't question it beyond that.  As I reflect on it now, I realize I was simply starting with what I was familiar with.  About ten years ago, however, I was motivated to start asking some provoking questions, like "what is the function of a photograph?" and "If you take a photograph of a tree, what part of that tree do you lose in the photographic translation of it that you maintain in the experience of it?"  I immediately had to discontinue working in the same way I once had, mainly documenting my tangible surroundings, and began instead to document light itself.  Reducing my subject and medium to light offered a set of questions I'm still answering through this body of work.  My new project in the Arctic and Antarctic is initiating an entirely fresh path that is still unfolding as I move toward it.

JW:  Your methodology has lead you to make rigorously timed exposures up mountains and in deserts at all times of the day and night.  Tell us about one or two of your more interesting experiences in the field before The Polar Project.

EB:  There are some funny moments from my Light Recordings shoots.  Just before we started shooting the "Winter Solstice" piece in 2000 at dawn, the temperature was 10º F and the film was freezing.  In the end I had one of my assistants in a sleeping bag with all the boxes of Polaroid film at the bottom of the bag, and she kept them warm with her body heat.  It was also interesting to actually take an exposure every minute for the entire day.  There is so much "time" within a single minute – shooting this work, and others after it, has made me reflect on the strangeness of how time moves.

More recently, I was shooting a moon piece out on my land in Marfa, and after holding my film toward the sky for the two minute exposure, I looked around me and saw that I was completely surrounded by a small herd of cows.  They just stood there looking at me – quite hilarious.

My most favorite memory, though, is when I was working up at the McDonald Observatory making my first video installation.  Just being up on that mountain, looking at the stars every night under such a clear dark sky – truly sublime.

When I first start making the work, the impulse to follow a particular course in order to capture a phenomenon doesn't consider what it will take to actually accomplish it, and so I find myself having to do some fairly unusual things in order to complete the recordings.  This trip to Antarctica is probably the best example of that.

JW:  How did you find yourself planning a trip to Antarctica?

EB:  That is a very long story, as it has taken me four years of hard work to get to this point and a lifetime to prepare.  The short version is that I have been wanting to come to Antarctica for the last four years to do reconnaissance work for The Polar Project.  I have also wanted to create a series of Light Recordings and Moving Light pieces under the Antarctic sky in order to capture the unique phenomena that occur there.  In April of last year I came across ITASC's
project on the IPY (International Polar Year 2007-2008) website, and saw the immediate potential for collaboration.  It took me a bit of time to track them down, but when we finally connected in December last year, I was immediately invited to join them for this season's expedition to Antarctica.  It is fantastic to work with the ITASC team – they are a brilliant and engaging group of artists, scientists and engineers.

I should say that it is fairly easy, if you have about 10-20,000 US dollars, to hop on a cruise ship to Antarctica.  However, you will be mostly boat-based, as the Antarctic Treaty does not allow land-based expeditions without permits.  Therefore, if you want to come onto the continent itself for more than a couple of hours or so, you must be a scientist or researcher and go through a laborious amount of bureaucracy.  Most of the countries that have bases here do have special programs for artists, which is great, but they only take artists from their own country, and the applications are long, complicated and about a year in advance of the season you'd go if you got accepted.  So, it is particularly incredible that I was invited by the South African National Antarctic Program (SANAP) to join this year's expedition at their base in Dronning Maud Land, especially given that this all went through several weeks before the flight to Antarctica.  The whole thing was sincerely serendipitous, and I am grateful for this truly unusual collaboration across disciplines as well as across borders.  I could not be here without the good graces of ITASC and SANAP.

Tomorrow Erika talks about the confluence of aesthetics and ecology in her work and some of the special equipment she's using in Antarctica.  In the meantime, check out her expedition blog

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Screw Kant, Let's Voltaire

Honestly, Kant's a bit heavy handed, almost Old Testament to Wittgenstein's new logic.  Not that we don't need morality, but Voltaire's really much more fun.  From the enlightened Frenchman:

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.


Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.

bada bing...

Ice-cream is exquisite – what a pity it isn't illegal.

...bada boom

But, honestly, Ludwig's my man.  A couple more Wittgenstine quotes that strike a chord for me:

If people never did silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.


Never stay up on the barren heights of cleverness, but come down into the green valleys of silliness.

Nuff said.

Wittgenstein, as Promised

When I started this blog about a month ago, I promised (or threatened) some Kant, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein.

The time has come.  

For the last ten years or so I've used the picture plane as a vehicle to investigate interior/psychological space, specifically the relationship of viewer to object, and artist/viewer as object, first graphically with my zero paintings, and more recently in three-dimensional form with the Plywood Chateaux – modular interiors designed to allow the viewer inside the picture plane.  Ergo, this Ludwig Wittgenstein quote resonates:

A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that's unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.

More later.

Obama Digs White House Lawn for Veggie Garden

OK, so he hasn't done any such thing, yet, but he wouldn't be the first:  Eleanor Roosevelt planted a victory garden on the White House lawn in 1943.  Quite a few people think Obama should, too.  In addition, an increasing number of folks are raising chickens in cities.  Here's a related story about urban farming (and scavenging) on the always thought-provoking Where blog, as part of their ongoing Posh to be Poor series.

Pic from Where.

Second End of the World Biennial

Taking place primarily in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, with satellite exhibitions in Rio and São Paulo, Brazil, along with SANAE IV, Antarctica, January - May, 2009, the 2nd Bienal del Fin del Mundo is curated by Alfons Hug.

Here's what Mr. Hug has to say about Antarctica and art:

In Antiquity, philosophers believed that for reasons of symmetry the southern hemisphere must contain a counterweight to the landmass of the northern hemisphere.  Medicator's 16th century maps also claim the presence of a "large southern continent" (Terra Australis Incognita), which was regarded as a tropical paradise.

The intensive search for the real Antarctica during the 19th century was guided by the conviction that contact with the end of the world would unearth new insights for the human spirit.  Not until 1820 did the Baltic German captain Fabian Bellinghausen (who was in Russian service) and the American seal hunter Nathaniel Palmer both finally discover the white continent at the same time.

Even so, highly respected contemporary personalities, including Edgar Allan Poe, still subscribed to the superstitious belief that there was an opening in the globe at the South Pole through which travelers could reach a civilized world, which they suspected within the Earth's crust.

Today, 4000 scientists committed to peaceful research from all over the world (1000 in the winter) work in 80 stations scattered all over Antarctica, which is about as big as Brazil and Europe together (almost 14 million square kilometers).  The sparse tourism is still ecologically defensible – so far. 

The Antarctic Treaty (1959), which was signed at the peak of the Cold War and froze all territorial demands until further notice, was an exemplary agreement which still maintains a key status in global environmental and peace policy today.

The Antarctic is therefore the only continent with no military weapons, no economic exploitation, and no land ownership; not even the plentiful mineral resources may be exploited:  Utopian conditions indeed.  While the rest of the world wears itself out in endless conflicts, a destructive exploitation of resources, and ownership claims of all kinds, the Antarctic, that classic no-man's-land, has a higher calling:  it belongs to no one and therefore everyone.

Its natural cycles are certainly very closely interwoven with our own, and its fragile ecosystem reacts sensitively even to disturbances caused in other areas of the world.  It functions as the Earth's "measuring instrument."

Although affected by the environmental sins committed by the rest of the world, the southern continent is largely still in a state of sublime innocence.  It is the land before the Fall, perhaps the final great promise to mankind since the Tropics lost some of their paradisal beauty.  The icy ground of this mythical region resembles an enormous archive in which the climatic history of the Earth is stored.  The Antarctic is frozen time.

This zero point of culture is well suited for intellectual artistic reflections of the world:  emptiness, silence and seclusion, but also purity, clarity, peace and spirituality are some of the existential categories that will be discussed in the transcendental Antarctic.  The artists begin where the scientists and their measurements cannot reach, thus allowing a new and fresh perspective on this neuralgic point of the Earth.

The artists will also have to come to terms with the color white, which was regarded by the impressionists as a non-color, yet in the eyes of Kandinsky was an "insurmountable, indestructible, almost infinite cold wall," a silence that can suddenly be understood.  "It is a void that is juvenile or, more precisely, a void that is before the beginning, before birth" (Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art).

And just as the "white cube" of the modern art galleries, in its complete neutrality, mercilessly reveals the weakness of a work of art, so the naked, white expanse of the Antarctic exposes the inadequacies of human activity.

Thanks to Erika Blumenfeld for this (and the pix by Ntsikelelo Ntshengila and Adam Hyde).  Erika has posted more information about the Bienal on her Polar Project expedition blog.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Meanwhile, Britta at the North Pole

I don't know Britta or exactly what she does, other than calculate the amount of steel in a building that's being demolished and shipped back to the US and take some interesting pix.  I think she's Danish and that English is not her first language, though I'm thankful she just switched to it for her recent posts.  I stumbled on her blog, Why The World Rotates..., by complete chance and thought it might make for some symmetry, as I'm doing so many posts about Antarctica.  It's mid-winter up there in Brittaworld and dark pretty much 24/7 (the picture was taken at midday), just as it's light pretty much 24/7 in mid-summer Antarctica right now.

Other than the eternal nocturnal of the Arctic winter, Britta is experiencing pizza delivery, rabid polar foxes and frequent static electric shocks.  She also, apparently, has the same snow boots I do.  Small world, indeed.

Pic from Why The World Rotates..., AKA

Shackleton's Hut

Another friend just told me about Michael Bartalos's very own polar project, The Art of Recycling in Antarctica: The Long View.  These days you have to take out everything you take in, but as Michael writes in his highly informative blog, Ernest Shackleton's hut is still there after more than 100 years, contents and all.

Thanks Eric.  

Eric also mentioned that he's going to see a performance of music from Werner Herzog's new movie, Encounters at the End of The World.  Could be good.  Coincidentally, yet another friend (from here in Beacon, no less) is also in Antarctica, as a crew member on a ship.  As Eric says, Antarctica seems to be a bit trendy right now.  Sorry, Mr. Penguin.

Photo Michael Bartalos.

Polar Project Sneak Peak II

Erika's been having some technical difficulties with her email, so our Polar Project interview is slightly delayed.  In the meantime, check out her expedition blog.

Pic (by Erika) is of the ICEPAC mobile field base.