So-called Information Superhighway

A few nights ago, the wife and I got some take-away food from the corner restaurant, Neklid (‘Turmoil’). I got my favorite dish: a steak cooked in pepper sauce with green beans wrapped in bacon and roast potatoes also cooked with bits of bacon. It’s like bowling a strike every time. Unfortunately, it also has a clearly-documented history of causing me to wake up in the middle of the night if I have it too late in the evening. This creates a sort of ongoing metaphysical dialogue where my 3am self is continually reminding my hungry, 7pm self not to order it, but the latter often manages to persuade himself that somehow the usual insomnia scenario isn’t going to apply this time. Long story short, I was up in the middle of the night. To complete the woeful vignette, you have to picture that I had also tweaked my neck while working long hours on The Book, so I was lying in bed with one of those dorky foam neck cushion things people take on airplanes, sleeplessly pondering my own gluttony.

For whatever reason, my mind wandered to the joke phrase ‘the interwebs’ that everyone started using at some point. When did it start? Was it inspired by George W. Bush’s bizarre formulation during the 2004 Presidential Debate when he mentioned ‘the internets‘? Or is it just another case of parallel evolution where a joke phrase began to emerge in the public consciousness at the same time that the same phrase emerged as a serious concept in the addled mind of our former president?

I always feel that the phrase ‘Information Superhighway’ has never really gotten its deserved share of mockery, in part because it’s always overlooked in favor of ‘interwebs’. It’s definitely my preferred ironic internet moniker, though, not least because it was originally intended seriously and was thought to sound cool. Along with ‘cybercafe’ and ‘educational CD-ROM’, it’s the disused phrase that perfectly summarizes the wide-eyed, mid-1990s utopian expectations of the internet, which – as we now know- has for better or for worse thoroughly insinuated itself into our lives as a comparatively banal, functional convenience.

Do a google image search for ‘information superhighway’ and you get an entertaining visual moodboard of all these clichéd 90s internet concepts: streaking circuitry, shopping carts, network cables and, of course, highway metaphors:


As visual messages, these have about as much going for them as animated unicorn gifs. What’s puzzling and disappointing is why the 90s visualizations of an internet-ty future didn’t result in anywhere near the same imaginative yield that came out of, for example, the early machine age or the early days of space travel. One can make the case that modern art as a whole- starting with cubism in the late 1910s- began as a collective visual attempt to reckon with the new sense of space and time that machines imposed on people. Subsequent design movements such as Futurism and Vorticism created an entire abstract visual language out of their self-professed fascination with new technology. Meanwhile, 1950s visualizations of Jetsons-style space colonization may seem fairly kitschy and silly to us now, but at least they involved considerable flights of fancy. By comparison, the visual language adopted to describe the early days of the web is all so literal, po-faced and lame by comparison. I suppose part of this is the fact that there was money to be made from the beginning in couching something abstract (‘internet’) in tangible terms (‘highway’) and thereby getting people comfortable with the idea of buying goods on it. And that there was a kind of corporate incursion on the internet from the very beginning. But, still, it’s hard to figure out how we could have gone so wrong with this from the start.

Mailbag: Futurist camouflage and Ukiyo-E

I blogged a few months ago on Franco Grignani, distinctive zebra of the design kingdom:

Reader DS alerts me to the existence of so-called Dazzle Camouflage, the British navy’s unlikely attempt to appropriate the signature black-and-white op-art forms of Grignani and other Futurists for the purpose of military camouflage:


The technique was developed by English painter Norman Wilkinson, who clarified its seemingly-dubious application in a 1919 lecture:

The primary object of this scheme was not so much to cause the enemy to miss his shot when actually in firing position, but to mislead him, when the ship was first sighted, as to the correct position to take up. [Dazzle was a] method to produce an effect by paint in such a way that all accepted forms of a ship are broken up by masses of strongly contrasted colour, consequently making it a matter of difficulty for a submarine to decide on the exact course of the vessel to be attacked…. The colours mostly in use were black, white, blue and green…. When making a design for a vessel, vertical lines were largely avoided. Sloping lines, curves and stripes are by far the best and give greater distortion.

The painting of more than 2,000 ships was supervised by none other than Edward Wadsworth, who was the most well-known of Vorticist painters (Vorticism being essentially an English knock-off of Furturism with a different name, slightly different underpinning philosophy and no awkward fascist connotations). I’d seen Wadsworth’s boat paintings before, but had no idea that they were actually battle plans to be put into action:


Camouflage on the whole has been claimed by various avant-garde art movements from the very beginning. Picasso is supposed to have muttered  ‘We created this!’ to Gertrude Stein the first time he saw a camo vehicle roll out into the streets of Paris.


Meanwhile, in the comments section to the Japan/China and Japan/Russia Fantasy War Drawings post, JohnnyO points out some great Ukiyo-E resources. There’s a lot to choose from, but I’m particularly taken with the series called Gather Together Pictures:


Johnny adds a comment about Hokusai, the author of the famous wave image and all-around loon who gave himself over 30 different names during his lifetime:

Hokusai had some great political cartoons that were quite funny when you understood the context — this one shows an octopus dressed as a samurai, sitting on a pile of potatoes, battling a farmer.


You are certainly thinking “WTF?” (or at least “信じられない”) but there was a bad rice crop the year before and the government banned snacks, or something like that.

I could have sworn there was much cooler one where a rice snack was in a sword fight with a potato snack. That was pretty awesome. (That, or I imagined it, but it would *still* be awesome.)

Japan/China and Japan/Russia Fantasy War Drawings


Unless you count the Mr. T exercise book, my big cultural discovery in Berlin this past weekend was the work of Akira Yamaguchi. My friend has a book of his stuff, which mostly consists of nutcase juxtapositions between highly-detailed, contemporary technical drawings and traditional Japanese art. I like how much his drawings pick up on the inherent fun-ness of Ukiyo-e, the woodcut style that we now often think of as ‘classic’ Japanese art but was really more of a middle-brow, vernacular, quasi-comic book style of the time and translates compellingly to ‘pictures of the floating world’:


Yamaguchi’s recent show had the totally cool title “Japan/China and Japan/Russia Fantasy War Drawings” and gets the following synopsis: “Now, imagine a time machine which could outfit Genghis Khan with rocket launchers; or Napoleon with a division of Panzer tanks — that would change human history, wouldn’t it? Tokyo artist Akira Yamaguchi explores the idea from a Japanese perspective with the hallucinogenic history lesson…”


On a more subdued note, I really like this ship/street scene comparison:


Czech "Bad Boy" David Cerny

05cerny_190I was delighted to learn, this morning, of Czech “enfant terrible” artist David Cerny, who was profiled in the New York Times.  I guess I had seen the pink tank at some point, but this was the first I heard of his caricature of the Czech president encased in a giant, fiberglass anus, not to mention his installation featuring “two bronze sculptures of naked, urinating men, which proceed to swivel their hips and move their protruding penises to trace his four-letter words into a pond shaped like a map of the Czech Republic.”

The article goes on to explain how Cerny became a “folk hero” when he staged an elaborate prank when the Czech Republic had the rotating six-month presidency of the EU last year.  Apparently some (no doubt officious) Czech dignitaries hired him to oversee a project where artists from each country in the Union would create a work that would “proudly display the unique traits of [their] country.”  Instead, Cerny did all of them himself, savagely lampooning each country (“Bulgaria as a Turkish toilet, Catholic Poland as a group of priests raising a gay flag and Germany as a network of motorways eerily resembling a swastika”), and then made up fictional artists and fake biographies for each one, complete with absurd narratives about the pieces.

That has got to be one of the best abuses of cultural cachet I’ve ever heard of.  The article quotes a Czech museum director who says that his art is “destined for the amusement park,” but then reveals that Cerny also placed that guy in the fiberglass anus, feeding slop to the Czech President to the tune of “We Are the Champions.”  If ever anybody earned his reputation as an artistic “bad boy,” it would have to be him, right?  How do you beat naked sculptures peeing swear words onto a map of your home country, or using your status to embark on personal vendettas against museum directors in the form of elaborate installations making fun of them?

The article, which is a little bit fawning (it says he looks like Mick Jagger, and also breathlessly reports how he “considered” getting fake boobs and walking around Prague with them.  Maybe it’s just me, but he’d have to go ahead and actually do that before I’d call it newsworthy), quotes him talking about the difference between the U.S., where Americans are “taught to be proud and as visible as possible,” and the Czech Republic, where “we are taught to be silent and invisible.”  I am fascinated with the idea that this sort of behavior made him a “folk hero,” as it is all too easy to imagine the opposite reaction were some American artist to make a statue of somebody peeing on the American flag or what have you.  Perhaps Dan or one of our Czech readers can further elucidate this cultural distinction.  (I’m also hoping that this post will inspire Dan to tell us about some other famous Czech pranks that I learned a little about when I visited last year.)

EDIT: Dan reminds me that Cerny also made the creepy babies that adorn the Zizkov TelevisionTower, as described in a recent post.  They seemed sort of crazy when I first saw them, but they are clearly on the tamer end of the Cerny spectrum.

Amateurism, Elmer Bischoff and Jacques Henri Lartigue

During my just-finished vacation to Poland (described in last post), I had an interesting conversation with a musician/composer guy about a manuscript he’s just finished writing for a novel. His main take was that it had been really fun to write because it provided him with a break from the tasks that he considers his real career, principally composing music and trying to organize stoned, discombobulated jazz musicians. And, because writing is strictly a sideline thing for him, he allowed himself to take his time with it, dropping the manuscript for an entire year and then picking it up again later when the urge struck. Above all, the persistence of fun came across really clearly in the way he talked about his experience with writing.

This reminded me a lot of all things bloggy, naturally– as I’ve written about before, part of the whole point of starting a blog was to find a venue that’s conducive to light, breezy, dilettante-ish writing rather than labored, serious ‘I am trying to be a writer’-type writing. It occurred to me that another, simpler way of putting this is that there’s something inherently amateurish about this format, for better and for worse. This got me thinking about the quality of amateurish-ness, which I would define as when you’re doing something where you don’t exactly know what it is you’re doing and the results perhaps benefit from the circumstance of not knowing.


Many years ago, I went to a show of works by the painter Elmer Bischoff in Oakland. Bischoff made his name doing fantastic figurative oil paintings but then got bogged down and hit a ditch that he described as a ‘state of immobilization.’ The solution came when he dropped oil paint and suddenly began working with acrylics, producing playful, abstract paintings of an entirely different nature. In fairness, I would have to say that his acrylics are never really as good as his oils, but the significant thing is that you can palpably detect the sense of  fun re-entering the picture in these later acrylic works. I’ve always remembered his account of this switch in the exhibition catalog that I read at the time: it felt, he said, like “leaving a church and entering a gymnasium. The lights were turned up and there was a very different spirit and feel about the whole thing.”


Above: Bischoff oil painting on left, acrylic on right


The photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue is an example of an artist whose work exudes amateurism, in part because he created his most famous works when he was a kid between the ages of 6 and 18. Lartigue’s early photos have an evident sense of childishness in all the best meanings of the word. Topically, they show a kid’s world, often taken from a kid’s low vantage point: Lartigue taking a bath, his cousin sliding down a bannister, car races, sports. Aesthetically, they show a world full of energy, motion, speed, fun– the things that kids are drawn to.


Self portrait, age 8


His cousin, Bichonnade


1912 Grande Prix


Self portrait, age 15

Bizarrely, although Lartigue took photos his entire life, he supported himself mainly as a painter until his childhood work was rediscovered and rocketed him to international fame late in his life.

The director Wes Anderson is reportedly a big Lartigue fan. There’s a shot of Max Fischer in Rushmore that’s modeled exactly after one of Lartigue’s teenage self-portraits as an homage.

Quiet visualizations of evil

The genius of Alfred Hitchcock is always being talked about in connection with his mastery of suspense: his ability to create scenes that are exquisitely creepy and psychologically intense without relying on gore and button-pushing (i.e., people leaping out from behind corners and screaming their heads off). I was recently thinking about artists who have been able to pull off the same feat with static images, creating visualizations of evil that don’t rely on violence to get the point across– be it actual violence, the impending threat of violence, or the psychic violence of people screaming or leering evilly at the viewer. What does evil look like when it’s atypically shown at rest?

The first thing that came to mind was the illustrations that John Martin created for Milton’s Paradise Lost. I first saw these in an exhibit at the San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum in 2002 and got a little chill out of the way that Martin uses darkness and space. Consider Satan On His Throne:


[Click image for larger version]

Martin pioneered the technique of mezzotint, where the artist essentially works on an all darkness-producing plate and scrapes away areas of light. Naturally, this is a great medium for producing images that are somber, obscured, nocturnal, or lonely. Here, the sinister device of those endlessly receding chandeliers creates a suggestion of massive space that’s only dimly revealed – it’s what’s implied and yet not entirely shown that makes the space so imposing. Consider, too, that Martin was somewhat hamstrung by the poem’s depiction of Satan as an ambivalent, not-entirely-evil character (many critics, including William Blake, considered him to be the story’s hero). Therefore, Martin doesn’t get to place a leering, vile devil on the throne (I would even argue that the picture gets both more scary and more relatable if you mentally replace the Satan figure with Dick Cheney’s lolling head and bulging eyes). Rather, what we have is a depiction of awesome strength: “He call’d so loud, that all the hollow Deep / Of Hell resounded.”

Incidentally, I love the device of the throne on top of giant granite ball. Does he simply fly in and land on top, or are there stairs running up the back side? And, if you look closely at the enlarged version, there are tiny human figures inside the throne– are these his evil assistants, more random denizens of hell, or prisoners of some sort? (Maybe I would know if I’d read the poem… but no such luck).


Last week, I came across this depiction of Moloch, a god associated with numerous ancient Middle Eastern and North African cultures, reaching out to accept an infant sacrifice as he was known to do from time to time. I guess this is sort of cheating by the standards I’ve set, in that the fact that a baby is about to be sacrificed creates a clear suggestion of violence… but I would say that the awfulness of this image has more to do with its unnaturalness, the frozen quality of the profiles, the unbelievable contrast between human characters and the god, and the amazing application of color.



The Surrealist artists in general and Max Ernst in particular were adept at creating dream-like spaces – often quite empty and depopulated – that give us the unsettling feeling that something unnamable has just gone very wrong. Ernst’s The Robing Of The Bride:

Toilet of the Bride

Ernst created a lot of pieces by collaging together bits of existing Victorian steel engravings, which had been the reigning illustration style for children’s books that were still kicking around in his childhood. So, there’s a whole other psychological dimension involved when you consider that these dreamscapes were often composed of reconstituted childhood images, such as as this illustration from Une Semaine Du Bonté:



Lastly, Egon Schiele wasn’t the least bit interested in depicting evil. He was just – among other things – giving vent to a smoldering vitality, sexuality and primitivism that had no acceptable outlet in the polite Austrian society of his time. But it’s pretty clear to me in retrospect that he inspired – both with his distinctive line quality and gouache-y water color – the Frank Miller  illustrations in the Dark Knight series that thoroughly gave me the creeps when I was 10, 11 years old: