Thursday, December 31, 2009

Jeremy Dean Goes Back to Futurama: Art you can ride, even if the oil dries up

I loved my father dearly but there was one question guaranteed to get us arguing:

What is art?

One of the great blessings of my life is that my father and I arrived at an understanding on that question before he died; not exactly an agreement, but an understanding. It went something like this: Art is not art unless there is some skill involved.

For my father, that definition excluded a lot of "modern art" unless I could show him where the artist's skill came into play. Some 35 years have flown by since then, but I think he would agree with me that the latest works by my friend and colleague Jeremy Dean qualify as art. That's because Jeremy is creating art that cannot be realized without skill as well as perception, objects that have the power to make people ask questions and question assumptions, even as they impress with their physical accomplishment. I'm talking about the Hummer-Escalade-Hoovercart, the object at the heart of the Back to the Futurama project. (There are more pictures here.)

I actually wrote a piece about this on my "On the Road" blog because it relates to cars and travel and life's journey. Starting next month, Jeremy is going to take a GMC Hummer or Cadillac Escalade and turn it into a horse drawn vehicle (the image above is just one of many models Jeremy has made to visualize the concept).

Making cars into carts is what people did back in The Great Depression and in the States they called them Hoovercarts as a play on Hoovercrats, a term coined for supporters of Herbert Hoover, the president who presided over the worst of the Depression. In Canada they were called Bennett Buggies, after the prime minister at the time. They arose from a surplus of cars relative to a shortage of affordable fuel. Folks fould that one horse or mule could pull a Model T Ford quite easily if you took out the engine. And there was grass and hay to be had even when money for gasoline dried up.

This project is going to take a lot of energy and expertise. Over the more than five years I have known him, Jeremy has proved to be an endless source of energy (the making and distributing of Dare Not Walk Alone being the most obvious proof). But now he could use some help on the expertise side. Not that Jeremy is a stranger to hands-on-artisan work. I have seen numerous examples of his home remodelling and he is a skilled craftsman, a practical maker of things built to last.

So, if you know of someone who has the skills to chop a car, hitch a horse, or fit out the inside of a vehicle with kick-ass sounds and video systems, why not use the Contact link on Jeremy's home page and let him know. You can also pledge your support of the project (that page features a great video about the project as well as cool gifts you can get in return for your pledge).

When March rolls around Jeremy will ride this creation into a major art event in New York. I'm pretty sure the TV news cameras will be rolling when this happening happens. How many people will "get" what this creation says about the world today, cultural values, lifestyle choices, sustainability and human frailty? I don't know. But this engineered weirdness will get a lot of people thinking. And that's art.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Zombies, Swine Flu, and Kindling: What a Difference 6 Months Makes

Wow! I did not realize it was THAT long since I had posted here. I blame the day job, which is often the evening job and weekend job as well. Fortunately that job is going well and I am racking up kudos for my blog posts on marketing. I am also getting quite adept at the social media thing. (Here's a link to a personal post where I rounded up 19 things you should do if you want to promote your company, band, film, book, profile).

A lot of people are somewhat familiar with some of the social media basics, but it is how you employ them all in concert that makes social networking work, from Twitter to Facebook and LinkedIn, to your blog, your pics, your videos, your tr.ims, your stats and your Google Analytics (which reminds me, I need to add these last few to the list, maybe: Hey 19, Part 2, the Remix).

What has this got to do with art? Everything. There may be some artists who seek obscurity (like the Buddhist monks in Shangri-La that were on PBS last night). But most art is intended to be experienced. And that seldom happens without a push from somewhere. Consider Jeremy Dean, the Brooklyn-based artist who created the indie doc Dare Not Walk Alone (that I had the honor of producing). He has been cooking up some cool conceptual art for several years now, but it was connecting with a gallery that gave his private art a push in the public direction. Jeremy will be showing at big art events in December and March and already has some cool art video online.

Speaking of that aspect of pushing art forward which is often referred to as "publication" and/or "distribution," we are seeing the "and/or" converge taking place right now in technology like Amazon's Kindle. You can now read Kindle books on your iPhone and PC as well as on the actual Kindle device.

Which brings me to the book I wanted to review here: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. This is a novel by the first "new" author I have read entirely on the iPhone. The book came out in print a few years ago and sold well. It is currently around #300 on Amazon. But the book is in several top 10 lists on Kindle, which is how I came to see it while using Kindle on my iPhone. I was intrigued enough by the reviews to download the free preview and on reading that I figured I would like the book, so I paid for the full Kindle version.

There were three things that I enjoyed about World War Z. First and foremost I admired the extent to which author, Max Brooks, had thought through all the implications of zombieism (sp?). Then he extrapolated a new reality from a defined set of data: zombies eat flesh, zombies can only be killed by destroying the brain, zombies can survive under water, zombieism spreads through biting and the dead re-animate after infection, and so on. The book explores the logical and logistical end game. By doing so it reveals worrying weaknesses in current technology, science, cultures, and religions. (Hint, this is a global catastrophe of 2012 proportions.)

Second, the narrative structure created by the interview excerpt device was refreshing and very effective. You learn very little about zombies or the war through direct description. You get most of it by inference. And you get a lot of rich characters too, which keeps things fresh. Brooks is skilfull at giving each a unique voice and strong presence, using little more than their recorded words. He also manages some great humor of the dark, battlefield kind.

Third, I found this to be a fascinating book to read against the backdrop of the global H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic. Indeed, I think that may be part of the reason for the book's success, the series of epidemics the world has been seeing, coming from far distant places right into our everyday lives and forcing us to think hard about a lot of things we would rather keep to the back of our minds.

I am not a big fan of horror stories, particularly ones that dabble in the supernatural. The genius of World War Z is that Brooks makes fighting zombies seem very real and anything but a figment of the imagination. Consider this: In talking about the book over dinner one night I found myself saying "If this zombie thing ever happened for real, it would be really bad." Talk about willing suspension of disbelief.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Two Good Books and a Movie: Avoid if you're feeling blue

The common element in stuff I've been reading and watching lately is this: It could really bring you down. We're talking about the suffering and death of millions of people here. So you've been warned. On the other hand, these are stimulating works, they might make you think a lot, and then you might have some new thoughts about how things could be made better. Then you could act on those thoughts and the world would become a better place. I guess we'll see.

First up is the movie Body of Lies. Great photography and editing. Great casting and acting. And a gripping story without a cheesy ending. To me this film was drenched in authenticity. AFAIK, what you see in this film is very close to how things really are in the field of espionage, as in "espionage in the field" and the people who run it, both locally and remotely.

As Far As I Know, there is this huge gap between remote agent and central office--the controller cheering his kid's suburban soccer game or taking his son to the bathroom, while calling in the kill--which suddenly collapses with a plane flight into the field. Then it zooms back into the clinical and chilling detachment of eye-in-the-sky operational monitoring and direction (with echoes of Patriot Games and The Bourne Supremacy but with great real world moral ambivalence). We are left in no doubt that local assets, people we turn when we pursue humint, are considered expendable, and there's a school of thought that says this is the way it must be. You rarely see that portrayed as bluntly as it is in Body of Lies.

Second up is the novel, Timebomb, which echoes that same theme of the expendable asset, with deeper historical context as to how it arose. The action here is in Europe, from the UK to the eastern Soviet bloc, but present day, so we have disaffected Russians, Jewish mobsters, and Middle Eastern terrorists. Again the operational authenticity is there, but layered into the basic spy v. terrorist story you find the horrific story of a Polish death camp. And this "second" story is not pasted on, it is integral to the picture that Seymour paints of hate and fear breeding more of the same.

The author of this thick but very readable thriller is Gerald Seymour, a former ITN television news reporter, back when that title meant you got a lot of experience reporting in the field (he covered the Munich Olympics massacre and the Great Train Robbery, and spent time reporting from Vietnam and Northern Ireland). Relatively unknown in the States, judged by a dearth of Seymour titles on the shelves of two different Barnes & Nobles I have visited in the last three months, Seymour is a consistent best-seller in the UK and has penned a string of excellent novels.

For me, his The Walking Dead A Thriller is the definitive novel about suicide bombing. One of my guilty pleasures on a trip to the UK is stocking up Gerald Seymour novels (not sure why I said "guilty" because "stupid" is more apt--I have to drag the things home on the plane and you can actually order online in the U.S.).

On a literary note, these books rise above the "thriller" tag for me, much like LeCarré's work. Seymour's style is faster-paced but the depth is there. His trademark technique is weaving multiple points-of-view. There are no "main" characters but rather a half dozen or more people that we follow throughout the book. The fun part is deciding who's POV you're getting at the start of a new section. A rare case of entertainment tastefully blended with substance.
The last review is 1491 and there's an inverse relationship between the amount of truly fascinating content in this book and the brevity of its title. (Okay, so the full title is 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus but what I'm saying is, this book is stuffed with good stuff.)

This such a good book I am now reading it for the second time. I don't read many books twice, so this is quite the accolade (others so honored in my post-college life include Gibson's Neuromancer and Count Zero, and Doctor Wooreddy's Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World, the latter having more than enough ironic content to warrant the long title).

What I'm doing with 1491 right now is dipping into several different sections at once. It is a testament to author Charles C. Mann's superb writing that one can do this. I can flip from the amazing city of Cahokia on the Mississippi to the dozens of feuding Mayan city states. I can read about the vast earthworks of the Beni and the sophisticated aquaculture of the Amazon, then travel via Norte Chico, a Peruvian civilization older than Egypt, to the indigenous forest-scaping of the North Eastern U.S. And all the while I can follow the plot, which is basically this: America was a heavily populated and highly civilized land before contact with the Europeans.

That many millions of people died as a result of European arrival in the Americas, either killed in conflict or killed as a consequence of contact, is now clear. This truth had been slowly emerging in scientific papers and publications for decades, but Mann has pulled all of the data together and the effect is almost overwhelming. I had long suspected that the sophistication and scale of indigenous culture and civilization was being ignored or suppressed.

With a minimum of moralizing and finger-pointing Mann documents the whole sorry story. He leaves others to state the obvious conclusion: Americans of European origin stole this land and we did our best to destroy the civilizations that once thrived here. It took less than 500 years to erase tens of thousands of years of human history, hundreds of languages, scores of magnificent cities, dozens of libraries, and millions of people.

I believe that many of the consequences of this history have yet to be played out. After all, the consequences of ancient conquest in the Middle East are still shaping events today, and our post-imperial ahistorical ineptness in dealing with them is still causing problems, some of which can be seen in a film like Body of Lies or a book like Timebomb. Watch and read, just try not to get too depressed about it.

(Note: In the interests of full disclosure, all the above links are to Amazon through my Associates account. That doesn't add anything to the price but it means that this blog gets a small kickback from Amazon when you buy from these links.)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

40th NAACP Image Awards on Fox TV Feb 12 at 8PM

Since Roger Moore over at the Orlando Sentinel mentioned the NAACP Image Awards being on BET, I thought I would point out they are on Fox TV, 8pm Thursday, Feb 12 (check the schedule here).

And for those who are late joining the party, Dare Not Walk Alone is up for an award: Outstanding Documentary. The competition is stiff: CNN, ESPN, HBO, and an Oscar-nominated indie film, Trouble the Waters. We are hoping that the nomination of DNWA will raise awareness of the film, whether it wins or not.