“The Smoke of Thought”: For the third night in a row, at around 10PM, the wind shifted, and the faint but unignorable smell of burning reached the upper east side. Searching on Google for “smoke” and “smell” brought up two interesting poets: AE Housman and Philip Larkin. I’ve seen Larkin quoted several times in the past week. Here’s an excerpt from Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad”:
Today while I am master still,
And flesh and soul, now both are strong,
Shall hale the sullen slaves along,
Before this fire of sense decay,
This smoke of thought blow clean away,
And leave with ancient night alone
The steadfast and enduring bone.
Larkin’s poem, “The Building”, contains a description of people in a hospital waiting room that could just as easily apply to New Yorkers lately: “They’re quiet. To realise/This new thing held in common makes them quiet…”
For the record, I hardly ever read poetry and know basically nothing of poets or poetry. I guess I considered it superfluous–irrelevant, even–to the practical, “real” world I saw. Sometimes it steps up to the plate, though, and nails that same reality more cleanly than 150 hours of continuous media ever could. Economy of expression.
Like other friends who regularly add to their websites, I’ve been reticent to post during the week. From the standpoint of this site, it was a fairly easy decision; this journal is meant to document a film project I re-started in July. From a personal standpoint, it’s been more difficult. After the quest to find out whether people you know are alright or not, the events of the last few days gave me pause, causing me to question the value or importance or priority of the things that occupied my time and attention. An architect friend wrote of being told architects weren’t needed right now; Fran Liebowitz just mentioned on NPR that she’s a “luxury item,” unneeded in a situation like this. How needed is a documentary about farmers and rural small businessmen? Finally, the reality of the last few days made the question of posting moot; any idea of watching my footage was displaced by watching the news. Any attempt to think about the film was thwarted by thoughts of more immediate surroundings, people, and things.
That said, architecture, writing, filmmaking, art–these are inextricable elements of the culture and civilization we live in; the desire to participate in this culture, to contribute to it, to create something that will connect with others and extend/live beyond us doesn’t change in a day. In the Times this week, more than one image of the rescue operation reminded me of the work of photographer, Andreas Gursky. The ephemeral work of Gabriel Orozco also came to mind, specifically this photo of the NY skyline. [Note: read the review linked there, too. interesting] The types of activities that may momentarily seem superfluous may also be the ones that gauge the health of the civilization we enjoy and (now) defend.
The primacy of family, friendships, inter-human relationships also survived the events this week. Exploring these ties and what shapes and forms personal relationships take both subject and object of the film project I’m working on. If anything, the experience of searching out friends and colleagues, of responding to messages and emails from concerned people around the world, and the unexpected generosity and awareness New Yorkers show each other on the streets all steel my resolve to continue the film project. Stay tuned, and thank you again for your concern, feedback, interest and questions.
11:00AM (EST) I’m fine, family in NYC are fine. my wife’s stepmother was at work on Broad Street, and is fine, temporarily out of contact.
Email now set to download every minute. the last people we had on our first list from church- the ones who live in Battery Park City and work at the WTC- turned up in New Jersey. Most of the afternoon spent coordinating blood donors and helping set up a shelter at the church gym; it seems under-used, as most people have found a way home or a place to stay. I’ve read it in other places, but AIM was the lifeline for us to find out who was alright and to let people know we’re alright, too.
Other than that, the thing I don’t hear or read is how odd it was that everyone was walking all over the city today. Few cars, and every street looked like a concert or major event had just let out down the block. Very civil, yet somehow very unsettling; something was definitely not right.
While on vacation, we took a weekend trip to Venice to see the Biennale, a sprawling exhibition of contemporary art. With some exceptions, the art was a tremendous disappointment. Chicken & egg, I don’t know, but most of the work either strained to stand out and provide some immediate, breakout, experience right then and there; or else it required time, consideration, and contemplation which the festival format inexorably discourages. In this oppressively large exhibition, the apparent subtlety and understatement of two installations appealed to us greatly: Robert Gober’s installation in the American Pavilion and a cafe project/installation credited to the artists Olafur Eliasson, Tobias Rehberger and Rikrit Tiravanija. Understatement is problematic, though, and in ways that concern me as I try to make a documentary that is, itself, unpretentious yet affecting and lasting. Also, these works made me even more aware of how important/complicating are the expectations/experience a viewer brings with him. Let me explain a bit:
In each room of the Jefferson-esque pavilion, Gober carefully places a few objects or assemblages that appear to be found or flotsam, but which turn out to be meticulously hand-crafted re-creations: styrofoam blocks, plywood, an empty liquor bottle. In the corner of each room, there was a white, plastic-looking chair. Were they part of the piece? Gober’s certainly done chairs before. [see an image] [read an essay] We debated, looked for evidence of the chairs’ handmade-ness (which we found), but decided they weren’t. (Clue: they weren’t lit like the other objects. Sure enough, they were for the guards.)
After walking ALL over the two main exhibition venues in Venice’s August heat, we took refuge in the “Refreshing Cafe,” which was credited to the three artists above. The cafe was a series of tables, some white lacquer columns/stools, and a counter/bar under an overturned swimming pool-like form propped up by pistons. It was a rare and welcome retreat from the heat and from the overwrought video art of the show. It wasn’t really clear what the contribution of the artists was, but an improvised cafe with a few mod-looking furniture pieces certainly seemed in keeping with the other works of these artists. Just last night, though, I ran into one of the three and complimented him on having made one of the few pieces we liked in the whole show. Turns out that not only did the three of them not really do anything with the piece, what they did do had been completely altered by the exhibition authorities, calling the existence of the “work” into question.
This is kind of unnerving; when understatement is the goal or medium of a work, how do you differentiate it from (or not mistake it for) the “non-art” around it? Do you?
What does this mean for the artist and the creation process?
When looking at/for art, do we readily give artists we like/know more latitude, more time, the benefit of the doubt? Does this blind us to other experiences or discoveries? Is it a sign of dulling of critical approach or increasing orthodoxy?
SCENE: Bedroom. Night. Streetlamp right outside the window prevents total darkness. Awareness of my feet piercing the plane at the end of the bed. No comforter? There’s a sheet, and it’s tucked in. Something alights on my toes. Brushes against them. A butterfly? No, of course not. Damn you, Vladimir Nabokov… No, an Other’s toes. We’re sleeping close enough to brush toes. The mattress doesn’t have a giant seam running right down the middle. Time? Four o’clock in the morning. I’m wide awake. The role of the Bad Dream in this scene will be played by a thirteen-hour trip from normally-six-hours-away France. Well, at least there’s a DSL connection here. Vacation’s over.
Greetings from France. I promised at the start of this log that I would generally avoid travelogues/journals and stick to documenting the process of making a documentary film, but since I ended up not bringing any tapes with me on our vacation in France, the project is on vacation as well. That said, it’s not out of mind. There are a few things that we’ve seen here that stick in my mind and will probably find their way into the project/story in some way:
Gleaners (see the link below on 8/5): My wife’s family’s house is in Provence, in a small village of farmers north of Aix-en-Provence. Fields everywhere of grapes, melons, tomatoes, and potatoes, which all remind me of Agnes Varda’s film.
Farmers: Of course, the rhythms and activities of the farmers around us here are very similar to those in Mapleton, the location we shot in earlier. Just today, in fact, we passed a truck loaded with baled straw. The fact that many of the farmers we see around are quite old also parallels the US, where it’s rare for young people to stay with the farming tradition of their families. One exception to that is the vintners, most of which continue as family businesses.
Nabokov’s Ada: Nothing like dense, intense reading on an otherwise unplanned, isolated vacation. I’d been told this was the most difficult of Nabokov’s books, and it is certainly complex. The narrative structure and fragmented timeline–written as commenting on looking back, memories out of chronological order–is kind of enticing and annoying at the same time. Nabokov gets the benefit of the doubt (I’m only 1/4 through); would people indulge such a complex structure for the film? Could I pull it off? Think about the film, Memento, which isn’t Nabokov, and forefronts the structure. battery’s running low. gotta go. a bientot.
I killed most of the afternoon looking for our tickets to a sold-out concert tonight at Madison Square Garden, turning our apartment inside out (and feeling compelled to return it to more-organized-than-before condition) in the process. Why? because American Express doesn’t provide purchase protection for tickets purchased on ebay [note: perishable link].
The desire to post this otherwise evaporating anecdote doesn’t bode well for my ability to keep this weblog on topic, though (see 28.07.2001 entry)…
Whether you are Greg, looking for some other Greg or looking for what this Greg is doing, welcome. I hope this site will be useful and interesting.
I am about to go to P.S. 1 to do a little representing for a group I’m affiliated with, hang out with some friends, and listen to some music.
Rather than a window into my soul or my daily existence, I was initially spurred to create this weblog as a tool for a personal documentary film project. I expect to use it to lay out and manage the elements and themes of the film; to log the progress of it during preproduction, location, and editing; and to enable interested parties (including some of the project’s participants) to follow along. For now, others beyond this small group can follow along, too.