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Marxist theory holds that there are no heroic individuals in the art world. Even the most solitary practitioner depends on the people who manufacture their supplies, the understanding of the people for whom the art is intended, and in the best cases, the critics who write about it. I suppose an artist could, in theory, draw on the beach with a sharp stick, let the tide erase it without anyone else seeing it, and be satisfied, but for the overwhelming majority of us, art is a form of collaboration. This piece is about the difficulty in negotiating that path in conceptual art, of trying to have a work carry a message that is understandable to its intended viewer without becoming either so simplistic that it becomes polemic, or so difficult that the audience refuses to engage with it. The works of this kind I find most interesting incorporate collaboration, either on purpose, or by fortunate accident. Recently a particular piece in Brooklyn, ironically starting out as a statement about a heroic individual, Edward Snowden, has ended up showing how collaboration provides layers of meaning, and so gives greater insight into both the original subject and to our own role as the viewer and ultimate collaborator.

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Fri Mar 13, 2015 at 04:28 AM PDT

Much ado about Top Gear

by northsylvania

When I was in 6th grade, there was a good-looking boy, let’s call him Greg, who decided to cultivate a pet. This boy was shorter than the rest of the class and, to put it politely, had neither the social skills nor appearance to make anyone else in the class do anything but avoid him, but for a while Greg seemed to take an interest in his welfare and took him under his wing. The class was amazed, the teachers were impressed, and Greg had more stature among us than ever. After a time though, it became apparent that Greg had a plans for the kid, who was not really called Ernie, but never mind. Ernie began to dress just like Greg, strut around in Greg’s wake in a parody of his cowboy swagger, and verbally abuse the less popular kids: the smart girls, the boys whose socks didn’t match, the poor kids who maybe didn’t get a shower every day.  Greg had always seemed to be above this kind of behaviour, but Ernie made it plain where his heart lay.
The creepiest thing that Greg did was to toss pennies at Ernie. If Ernie caught them in his mouth, he got to keep them. Teachers would tell him to stop if they caught him, but they couldn’t be everywhere at once, Ernie kept catching pennies all the way through junior high and into high school, by which time Greg had grown extraordinarily handsome and an accomplished rodeo performer as well. Ernie continued to harass anyone he could get away with, but as time went on he just seemed more and more pathetic. Maybe there were certain others, people who were forced to do their own bullying, who secretly envied Greg, but when they walked down the hall, there was generally a good yard of empty space around the two of them.


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Tue Jun 10, 2014 at 02:37 PM PDT

My cat won’t eat your sh*t

by northsylvania

About a year ago, my cat went on a hunger strike. She had always eaten wet food because she refused to drink water: tap water, filtered water, it didn’t matter. She had been eating a well-known vet brand for eight years, but all of a sudden she refused to touch it, or any other food, from supermarket own brand to specialty store gourmet. At the time, I noticed that it was just about impossible to buy any cat food that was not manufactured in Thailand, but shrugged it off as another weird consequence of globalisation.
Luckily, after a year of digestive upsets, horrendous vet bills and indeterminate diagnoses, she began drinking water (but only out of coffee mugs!) and eating a locally manufactured dry food containing no fish meal. I put it down to allergies until I read this horrific set of articles in the Guardian about slave labour being used to produce fish meal feed for prawns (shrimp), something that is also a main ingredient in pet food. Now I’m considering that the cat has more ethical sense than I do. I still have a half bag of frozen Thai shrimp in the freezer, but it will be my last.

During a rant about the latest Tory scheme of putting a price on the world and everything in it, another Kossack, James Wells, pointed me toward works by Paul Kingsnorth and, by extension, other Dark Mountain Project participants. He and his followers believe, given runaway consumerist capitalism, burgeoning population growth, and negligence by governmental authorities, that it may futile to participate in the environmental movement as it stands. On the whole, I disagree, but can understand their frustration and, having read their manifesto and the first of their published books, will continue to read subsequent volumes. The conversations between those who believe they have an existential obligation to continue the fight despite the possibility of failure, and those who feel that it is time to prepare for the worst, are conversations worth having.

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Fri May 16, 2014 at 07:07 AM PDT

It's your funeral:

by northsylvania

a common utterance in our house, always with two syllables: fune-rall. A lot of the people I grew up with in rural Texas went to fune-er-alls, but then again they would put random extra syllables in everything they said, so I didn't pay much attention.
Today I was reading a critique of David Tennant's dodgy American accent in Gracepoint, which the writer said wasn't so bad compared with Benedict Cumerbatch's in August: Osage County. Her comment:

Benedict Cumberbatch's Oklahoma accent made me stuff my knees into my mouth to keep from yelling "Why are you pronouncing 'funeral' with two syllables as if you've arrived directly from Harrow?! You JUST HEARD Chris Cooper pronounce it with three!"
Harrow!! WTF? My parents might have had some exposure to Harrovian accents via BBC on the "wireless", but Mom grew up somewhere in the bowels of Scranton, and my dad came from Big Spring and went to Texas A&M, which ain't Oxford to say the least.
I guess my question is, how do you say "funeral", two syllables or three? Where did you grow up? I'm really curious as to whether my family was an outlier or whether Erica Buist is sadly mistaken as to regional accents, and Cumberbatch was speaking fairly good Texas del Norte.
Another question might be, what is the absolute worst American accent you have heard out of a Brit? Everyone knows it's hard to fake a British one, just ask Dick Van Dyke.

Fracking, like cigarette production, is one of the moral indicators of Capitalism-as-practiced. A lot of money is spent by the companies involved proving that it causes no harm and is in fact a common good. It also provides a good case study in how the fight against corporate/ governmental hegemony can be a long drawn out process punctuated by the occasional surprising success. If the city of Dallas, the home of Big Oil, effectively bans fracking, that says a lot.

J.R. Ewing standing in front of Southfork with the phrase,
However, fracking is a complicated subject. The points made for it by its apologists include economic development, the prospect of having a smaller carbon footprint than with coal fired energy generation, and cheaper gas for those who are vulnerable to high heating costs. Proponents say that fracking is a proven technology used for many years, has never been proved to have a negative effect on environmental degradation, and has never caused earthquakes, which is true…if you define fracking narrowly as sending an explosive charge down a borehole to loosen the formation from which the oil is extracted, and discount the storage and transport of waste, the fugitive emissions from extraction and storage, and earthquakes caused by injection disposal wells.

Fracking is also bound up in our ideas of individual versus collective rights, class warfare, corporate/ governmental collusion, and climate change, something we on the Left are passionate about, and rightly so. On the Right it is likewise associated with decreasing reliance on foreign gas and oil imports, national economic progress, and providing jobs. Because the media promotes controversy, everything from the visual images of protesters to the letters written to local papers are often chosen to be polarising. The most extreme examples of corporate sponsored puff pieces are often balanced with impassioned but uneducated letters and e-mails, so that readers unfamiliar with the process become confused. One friend of mine asked, “How can anyone possibly think that injecting a highly pressurised column of carcinogenic chemicals into a pipe through the water supply could be a good idea?” Another made equally valid points from his point of view: “If you all say that nuclear power is off the table, renewables can’t generate enough power, biofuels take up too much productive land, and coal and petroleum has to stay in the ground, how are you going to heat your houses and cook your food?”

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Mon Aug 05, 2013 at 06:00 AM PDT

NSA: Life imitates art.

by northsylvania

long sweep of 20 foot high projections of bowling video games by cory Arcangel at the Curve Gallery.
In 2011, I went to see an installation by Cory Arcangel at the Curve Gallery in the Barbican. It was a room laid out on a long curve, darkened to highlight the 14 massive projections showing the evolution of video game technology using game players from Atari on forward. As he often does, he had hacked the games so that none of the players hit a single pin...ever.
Both the appearance and the concept of this installation reminded me of the picture accompanying the FP article by Lawrence Lewis.
National Security Operations Center, National Security Agency, NSOC, NSA
Coincidence? I think not. The main difference being that Arcangel critiques the enthusiasm for a technological solution that the NSA celebrates.

The controversy and protests over fracking (or fracing as pedants would have it) in the UK has probably not made it into the mainstream news in the US. The current Tory government is all for the "dash for gas" to the extent of trying to ease environmental and insurance regulations and handing out tax breaks like candy. The first fracking project was carried out by Caudrilla some years back on the Fylde coast of NW England. Some minor but inconvenient earthquakes resulted and drilling was halted temporarily. The second area, which has been slated for development now is in the Weald area of Sussex, a lovely part of the countryside located southwest of London. The first exploration well is being drilled in the sleepy village of Balcombe, where 85% of the residents strongly object. With support from other anti-fracking groups in the South, and all over the country, they have tried to block equipment from entering the site, but hundreds of police have, at great cost to the taxpayer, been sent to enforce Caudrilla's efforts. If you are interested in further general information, you can look up Balcombe, Frack Free Fernhurst, Frack Free Sussex, Frack Free Dorset, Frack Off UK, and a number of other similar sites.

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The six Tolpuddle farmhands meeting underneath a Sycamore tree.
    The Tolpuddle Martyrs, condemned and harshly punished by the biased justice system of 19th century England, were very lucky. They not only lived through their ordeal, but also became enduring symbols of resistance whose story is celebrated even now.  Next weekend, union members and their families from all over the UK will gather at the little museum on the outskirts of Tolpuddle on July 19th - 21st for a festival of music picnics, and rallies. The magnificent union banners often seen on the streets of London during the recent protests will be paraded in a far different setting: the rolling agricultural land of Dorset. Though the Martyrs didn’t pay with their lives, their fate was dire enough, and the circumstances that caused them to be sent, first to the prison hulks of the Southwest coast and then across the world, were universal enough that they became a rallying point for resistance throughout the country.
    What makes their story relevant, not only to British union history, but to the present circumstances that many working people find themselves in worldwide, is that their story, like ours, arose from a time of social and technological change, dislocation, changing class allegiances, long term conflict, and scarcity. English history has not been part of the American educational canon since before WWII, when my mother struggled with the intricacies of the Corn Laws in high school; so follow me below the fold to find out a little of what is not shown in the costume dramas that pass for our understanding of 19th century England.
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I enjoy a well plotted book and interesting characters, but what makes a book special for me how well an author can describe a place, to what extent I am taken to a different reality. Thomas Hardy transported me to the West Country of England when I was in my early teens. It changed my life then by giving me a cool mental refuge, and eventually gave me an understanding and appreciation of a place that could have been totally unfamiliar.

Dorset countryside
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Jack inspects some magic beans he is trading for his cow
“Once upon a time there was a poor mother who lived alone with her son, Jack. All they had in the world was an old cow to give them milk. One day the cow stopped giving milk so the woman had to sell her. She told Jack to take the cow to market and to get as much money as he could for her.
On his way to market Jack met a man who wanted to buy the cow. He offered Jack five beans for the cow. Jack knew that his mother would be very angry if he sold the cow for beans. "They are very special beans" said the man. "They are MAGIC ! - they will bring you good luck!" Jack thought that he and his mother needed some good luck, so he gave the cow to the man in return for the magic beans.”

     Jack’s tale begins with some economic truths: trade is grounded in the perceived fair value of an exchange of goods and services and, in times of hardship, people will accept forms of trade that they might not consider otherwise. Fortunately, the old man did not take advantage of Jack’s naive ideas of fair value, as the beans were indeed magic. (Why the man was willing to trade them for a spent cow remains open to question.)
     Most of us make less fanciful decisions, and consider carefully whether an item we are purchasing is a good value, but until recently, most of us have not questioned the inherent worth of cash in pocket, the piece of plastic that represents funds in our account, the place where this money is kept, or the balance between trust and government regulation that keeps the entire system running. Since the financial crash things have begun to change. Kos diarists have examined the role the banks play on a personal level: skimming a little off every transaction, and assessing excessive fees. Others, particularly bobswern and gjohnsit, have assessed the banks' culpability in crippling the system itself.
This trend has accelerated to the point that trust in banks is becoming increasingly difficult. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi has shown the breadth and depth of manipulations meant to keep tight control of money in a few centers. He also shows exactly how national governments, their courts and regulatory authorities, have become helpless or even complicit in this process.

It's now evident that there is a ubiquitous culture among the banks to collude and cheat their customers as many times as they can in as many forms as they can conceive," he said. "And that's not just surmising. This is just based upon what they've been caught at.
    The foundation of the Capitalist system itself has been called into question, at least in its present incarnation. If governments can’t regulate their own money supply for the benefit of the majority of their own citizens, and banks abuse their position shamelessly on account of that, people will eventually turn elsewhere. I believe that the rise of virtual currencies, such as the Bitcoin, and alternative trading schemes, such as local scrip and barter exchanges, are symptoms of an economic system that is bent to the breaking point.
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Mon May 06, 2013 at 02:26 PM PDT

The rich are different.

by northsylvania

Apparently they seem to be junior high students. I can’t claim to have discovered this, though I’ve suspected it for a long time. (Disclaimer: I taught at a university that accepted the dodgier offspring of the rich folks in the immediate area, and their insights told me a lot about the competition among the wealthy and powerful. It really was being a fly on the wall.) George Monbiot however, is a writer, and can extrapolate the obsessions of the very rich to implicate society as a whole. There is a reason he is paid for what he does; this article shows why.

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