There are many forms of collective creation that run the whole spectrum, from merely coloring in someone else’s existing drawing to the actual creation of a thing from scratch. Often this spectrum of distinction is lost in the rush to embrace the amazing and wondrous, collectively created works like Wikipedia and, um, Zagat guides—these being held up as models for the possibility of collective creation of all and every kind of activity—from politics to newspapers. I’ve maintained a fair amount of skepticism about the idea of crowd sourced creative works for some time, which is not to say some of them don’t work incredibly well. But, they’re not all the same. To me, even though Wikipedia is indeed an example of the wisdom of crowds producing an amazing work—one that is possibly better than those that are top down in their inception—it seems that the claims made for this kind of creative process are often a little misleading. Each Wikipedia entry is not vetted or added to by everyone—by the lumped masses—but by self-appointed experts on each subject. Then, after these experts have had their say, we, the masses, tend to accept on faith that they have haggled amongst themselves over a particular subject to determine what will be included and the accuracy of what is in the entry. Of course, everyone considers themselves an expert on some subjects…
I’m not going to claim that only folks nominated as experts should be trusted to manage our world and create the things we enjoy and consume. I’d be the last person to believe that a college degree or experience in a field gives one a guaranteed wise perspective—would you trust a Rumsfeld? Often, it’s the perspective of amateurs that is more accurate than the professionals who are embedded and entrenched within their field of work. That said, nature seems to have found that some level of specialization is proven to work on some level. Though it seems clear that certain ants are designated as “experts,” and are deferred to as such, I admit that I have a bias against deferring to experts. Despite the sound social management system of ants that is responsible for their long survival—a system that we often believe that we might do well to emulate—I refuse to believe that the bankers who got us into our current economic mess are the best minds to get us out of it. Similarly, I sense that one maybe shouldn’t trust the military in evaluating and establishing their own budgets. It happens over and over—the police have proven they can’t be trusted amongst themselves. Economists? Oh, forget it.
The popular hive analogy, which compares insect societies to human interactions and creation, is often applied to the idea of many doing and creating what one alone cannot. Even in the hive though, there are “experts”—worker bees are given right of way to accomplish their tasks by the other bees because it seems that everyone recognizes no one can do their job as well as they can—there is not a mass consensus meeting or discussion amongst the entire hive about the role of these worker bees. For example, it is assumed they know best how to forage for food. Like the worker bee, the area of expertise of Wikipedia contributors may vary widely, potentially covering topics from Glee to String Theory. When one of these experts writes an entry, and then annotates and/or expands on it, we (in some sense) assume they are wise and perceptive in their particular field. Also, we assume these contributions have been vetted by that expert’s peers—not by everyone. So we, the non-expert readers, give respect.
With ants it is similar. Certain worker ants (all of whom are female) have designated tasks. A quick smell, via an antennae brush, identifies what a specific worker is best at doing—foraging, cleaning debris elimination, guarding—and no one tries to “tell them” how to do their jobs. There are no bosses. It is possible for the worker ant to switch jobs, but usually, as with humans, that opportunity arises when the colony is relatively young. After that, the job pool, one’s career, is more or less set. Though, there are always reserves of other ants underground that are recruited if a new food source suddenly becomes available (Thank you Deborah Gordon’s TED talk 2003).
One of the ways an ant figures out what is going on is oddly similar to the Google search algorithm—it “counts” how many encounters it has with a specific kind of worker. Based on these encounters, the ant can deduce that there is, for example, a major clean up in progress. Instructions and situations in progress are not “described,” but are inferred by the aggregate of encounters.
The consensus “rules” of OWS were (are?) possibly a more accurate example of real crowd (or democratic) decision-making. How did the OWS group, who struggled to maintain their leaderless and self-organized identity, ever make decisions? They endorsed the idea of consensus as opposed to voting. The word consensus comes from a Latin word meaning, “feel together”. Consensus means everyone (eventually) arrives at a place where they will give consent, although they might not be in 100% agreement. The distinction seems a little vague to me.
The well-reported use of hand signals, as a means of reaching this consensus, was adopted (microphones weren’t allowed due to noise restrictions) by the movement. One would be very tempted to ask who exactly decided that consensus would be the mode for decision-making? Who and how was that decision made?
Many of the participants found the assembly and consensus reaching process a bit tedious and boring—some would wander off from lack of interest.
Maybe the ants are on to something. They too have no leader (the queen lays eggs but doesn’t manage the colony via smell, as used to be thought) nor do they have a central control. On the surface, this sounds very democratic—even anarchistic. A completely leaderless society—that works! Although it might appear this way to us when viewed from a distance, you, as an individual ant, are very much programmed by your evolved instincts and your innate reaction to smells and behaviors. While having no leader might imply absolute freedom, there are other restrictions among insects. The leader, the guide, the rules, are not external, but are built into you as an individual.
Therefore, it statistically appears as if there is no free will in the ant colony. Each individual seems to go about their task without questioning things or stopping to ponder why or what for. But, maybe on the individual level, to each ant, they feel like there is, in fact, free will. Maybe they do agonize and make specific decisions. Maybe they have simply “learned” that following the aggregate tends to give the best results for the colony as a whole. They may feel that they have made a personal decision to join along with everyone else; they may also feel that they have acted of their own free will and are not forced into joining a specific program or activity. They’re acting in consort because, from their point of view, they want to…. or so they may be telling themselves. Maybe, their “government” is internalized.
According to Gordon, when you look inside of ant colonies, the behavior seems pretty haphazard. They’re not the well-oiled, smoothly functioning machines we might expect from a species that has survived for millions of years. As in human society, the behavior of individuals is not predictable. We all, as individuals, appear to be acting on our own—but just as it is with the ants, there is a kind of decision-making based around aggregate behavior. I’m not sure how this translates exactly—how this process works with people. Does it mean that if everyone is “drinking the Kool-Aid,” I intuitively “decide” that I should too? If everyone watches Kim Kardashian, then I better join the bandwagon and do what everyone else does? If the ants appear to have some sort of free will on an individual level, but in actuality it is mostly an illusion, does the same apply to us?
How Does Anything New Come Into Existence?
I’m curious as to whether or not what we call creative works can come into fruition as a result of the contributions of countless individuals. Must a creative work inevitably be guided by the tyranny of one person’s vision—or at least a very small group (Pixar films, for example)? Can the crowd write a great novel? A symphony, or pop song? A feature film? (Hollywood films are notoriously made by a committee—and the results speak for themselves). Do we all have a kind of innate (possibly unconscious) wisdom that can profitably guide us to influence and direct the track and arc of a creative work? Do these deep instincts, if trusted and tapped into accurately, and without bias, result in a work that is inevitably true? Is this why we feel cheated when a Hollywood movie has an obviously happy ending tacked on? Do we sense that the instinctively “true” ending was abandoned? Or, is this why the happy ending was tacked on in the first place? Is the happy ending what we instinctively want in a narrative? (Is this making any sense?). If, to some extent, a sense and structure of narrative is innate, then are authorship and writing skill overrated? Superfluous?
A parallel to the question of how new works come into being are some ideas that seem to be related to collective creation, but that might not really be the same at all. Are open-ended works (e.g. video games in which the players determine details of the story) and self-generating works—such music and visual programs that accept outside input but are designed to endlessly generate content on their own—truly collectively created works?
There is an established tradition of what are called indeterminacy in music—a not so new idea that has now migrated to digitally programmed works (musical and otherwise). In these earlier musical works, used by John Cage and many others, the player was allowed to determine how long to hold a note—and sometimes, what note to play from a set of given choices. Terry Riley’s “In C” is like this, as is Cornelius Cardew’s “The Great Learning.” These are all works that almost always end up sounding wonderful, despite being as open ended as they are. The marvel is why they don’t go off the tracks. We expect that, given free reign, chaos will inevitably result. Though, it doesn’t seem to—not always, anyway.
Maybe what is key is that the overall shape of the work has been cleverly pre-determined. There is free will involved in the choices the players are given, but within very severe limitations. One might say that this process is a way of fostering the illusion of free will. Maybe it proves that these compositions and social mechanisms, when cleverly “designed” can appear as though they allow for free will but, in actuality, they involve lots of restrictions—which have the effect of guiding the structure and the finished work to be something beautiful.
Cage used other devices to introduce chance and randomness into the “decision-making” process, but the “programmer” was always lurking. More recently in music, this process has been moved into the digital realm—with algorithms that do their best to randomize the choice of notes, along with other aspects of a composition. The Buddha Machine is a good example of this—a transistor radio sized device that plays endlessly changing sounds, chosen by the program, from a given set of notes and sounds. There is, as one would expect, no arc to these compositions—no beginning, middle and/or end. They are merely states of being, not substitutes for narrative.
These indeterminate scores can be viewed a bit like the literature that emerges out of oral traditions—the great epics and sagas. The process is not so different than what occurs in a lot of folk music as well—blues songs that get passed from area to area and subtly altered each time someone new sings them… but the main thrust of the story and the song tends to remain consistent. Everyone recognizes the song despite every interpretation being absolutely distinct.
There was a text version of this process called Consequences. It’s a bit like Mad Libs, though it originated much earlier (pre-1918). One creates a sentence by filling in the following blanks (from Wikipedia, of course):
Then the resulting “story” is read (for example):
Could one write a whole book this way? William S. Burroughs used an aleatory (chance) literary technique that he and Brion Gysin popularized, called cut-ups. Cut-ups are created in two steps: by cutting a finished text into pieces and rearranging the words and then, by folding the linear text and looking for resonant bits of text when overlapped and placed next to one another.
There is the visual equivalent—collectively produced artwork like the Exquisite Corpse drawings. The Surrealists created these images based on an old parlor game. The idea is that 3 or more people contribute to a “body” by drawing on a folded piece of paper and then passing it around without knowing what the next person will contribute below the fold. Restricted by the rule that one is obliged to draw either the upper, middle or lower portions of the body the resulting monsters are, yes, beautiful and strange things whose authorship we could say belongs to an invisible 4th entity.
Here is a Chimera collectively drawn by Joan Miro, Man Ray and Yves Tanguy. They sort of didn’t adhere to the normal rules (in which you are to add normal body parts appropriate to your segment):
I’d argue that all of these forms are in fact authored. The programmer that sets the ball in motion, the one who determines the set of simple rules is, in these cases, the author. While you often get marvelous things through these algorithms, I’d be inclined to think that what you don’t get is a coherent story arc, complex characters or even a consistent vision—musical, lyrical or visual. That is, unless the framework has already been provided by a “programmer.” Follow a framework modified with embellishments, modification, additions, etc.—as in the oral tradition of storytelling—and, as a result, you get a coherent form.
Some of our most resonant works of literature have emerged out of the tradition of oral storytelling and do not have a single author credited. The tales of the 1001 Arabian Nights, for example, is composed of stories that have all been embellished, edited, written and molded by an unknown multitude of individuals over a long period of time. The stories hold up, and continue to move us today, as do the folk tales collected by the brothers Grimm. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana epics are similarly composed by a host of unknowns, as is the Bible. These all were all derived from oral traditions—in which each storyteller would add subtle embellishments and refinements to suit the local culture, time and place. The basic story arc would tend to be maintained and serve as a skeletal framework—though, in many cases, we can see where successive refinements over time completely altered the “message” of the tales. We know this because people wrote down some of these tales at different stages of their evolution and transformation.
The Old Testament tales are, in many cases, embellished versions of stories that were told (sometimes even written down) for hundreds of years. Though, by the time the stories came to exist as they do today, they had already morphed into tales that emphasized the overthrow of the older matriarchal society and spirituality by a more rigid patriarchal one. (There’s a very nice analysis of this in the back of the Crumb comic version!)
Even though these particular tales changed their emphasis in a majority of cases, usually not too much fundamentally changed in the narrative framework. The embellishments were mostly superficial… until the cumulative effect of the changes became something more profound. When reading these works, one can often sense the fragmentary nature of the chapters and episodes—many of which contradict one another. At other times a plot point or explanation is dropped for political reasons, leaving one wondering why there was a sudden shift in tone of a story or the behavior of a character. A single author would be less likely to contradict him or her self. But often, if we take each single episode—such as a single Grimm’s tale or one of the tales out of the Arabian Nights—it is often consistent, incredibly well constructed, efficient and resonant—like a tool honed by use over centuries.
These stories behave like living creatures that have evolved over time—adapting themselves, over and over again, to the psychological needs of the listeners and the creative embellishments of the narrators and their audiences. They’re not, and never were, fixed stories with an Ur version—there never was a primal text. They survive and maintain their resonance by mutating, changing and adapting to the world around them. As soon as they become fixed, they die (in a sense). They become a work that is somewhat ossified—rooted in a specific time and place. Then, the core narrative quickly resurfaces in another form—a film, TV show or popular novel.
Folk, blues, house music, pop, hip hop and lots of other musical genres might be viewed the same way—not so much as individual songs or acts of unique creativity, but as the cumulative result of many creative narrators pitching in to tweak a form that already has a given and collectively accepted shape and framework. The equivalent of the narrative arc of a story is already there in these song forms, and we songwriters, producers and singers are the storytellers in our own oral tradition—putting our own spin on an existing form, but not making substantial changes in the form itself. The point is, a lot of music that we think of as being individual acts of creation might actually be narrators contributing to what might be viewed as a larger epic work.
Though I am not a griot or epic bard, I am in my home studio making subtle adjustments and contributions to a form that came before me, and will later be picked up by others. I have the illusion of free will, of creating work and forms from scratch, but I am merely embellishing. Of course, successive embellishing will eventually lead one far from home…
That said—I believe I lean towards work that has a consistent vision. Don’t we want to feel that the version of a song, movie or narrative we have just spent time listening to, reading or absorbing is consistent—that every part was considered by its author, so as to adhere to a coherent vision? We assume that collective works don’t have the same intention as authored works. This view doesn’t totally exclude the author as a creative contributor to an ongoing epic storytelling effort though, as one still might hope for consistency from a narrator, songwriter or storyteller, even if the individual works that result are essentially modifications of something recurring and familiar.
Architecture Without Architects is the title of a wonderful picture book, by Bernard Rudofsky, that came out in 1964. The pictures are presented as evidence that exquisite, “authorless,” architecture has existed for thousands of years—and that, despite not being designed by one person, it rivals individually designed works in beauty and, above all, practicality. One might view the simple and elegant furniture of the Shakers the same way. The buildings Rudovsky chose evolved much in the same way folk stories and oral narratives did—to best meet the demands of each place and society, while also maintaining an aesthetic and spiritual appeal.
Was the latter aspect an unintended consequence of meeting local and practical needs? Could one say that these entities that have evolved over time tend to be beautiful because we recognize that some deep parts of ourselves are expressed and manifest in them? Is the beauty a layer that is, in fact, serving another equally practical function that is as important to human beings as keeping out the cold or ventilation? Is the need for beauty and elegance also something practical?
It seems that the beauty these buildings possess is not an aspect added on, an appliqué, but an integral consequence of every other aspect of these kinds of works. When every other aspect is true and integrated, maybe you automatically get beauty. These buildings and houses have evolved so that they have a spirit of life deeply ingrained in them. By recognizing this, by sensing that these qualities are in there, we find the resulting structures beautiful.
In his book Rudovsky includes single-family homes, as well as monumental works.. All of them were molded over time by a kind of collective will and impulse; none were built by just one designer. The design is not open to anyone-—it’s clear that not everyone in the community would have voted on where the chimneys go—there are folks who know how to thatch a roof, for example, better than others. But, it’s the evolutionary process that tells the community, and the specialized workers within it, that maybe there is, indeed, a best place for a chimney or a best size for eaves—and that this wisdom shouldn’t be ignored.
Here is a vernacular plantation house in Hawaii and the Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu:
There are other types of architecture, not designed by “individuals,” and these are not so different from the mosque above—like these giant termite mounds in Australia (near Darwin):
Here’s a cross section—they’re not just mounds of dirt or refuse from the tunnels:
The chimneys and air vents from underground allow the hot air, in the parts of the world where these things are built, to escape—so that the precious nurseries deep inside can maintain a constant temperature. It’s a fairly sophisticated bit of building and HVAC for a creature whose brain is the size of a pinhead. However, one might say that if you combine all of those pinheads, you get a more substantial mental capacity.
However, I’m not sure size is what matters. Heh heh. A fairly simple algorithm—rules and behavior that don’t require a lot of brain cells—can set in motion what, in retrospect, seems like a very complex bit of creation. So if over time evolution arrived at a structural solution by adapting to the situation at hand, and by using just a few rules, When these rules are set, the mental capacity of each individual doesn’t have to be so “big” at all. Everyone (or all of the workers anyway) can, and does build these incredible things instinctually.
Recently, there was a short film posted on the web of some scientists who poured concrete into an anthill to see what the network of nurseries and tunnels might look like. After the concrete (10 tons of it!) set, they painstakingly dug away the surrounding dirt to reveal an entire (miniature) futuristic city.
Here’s a blurry still:
And a blurry close-up of passageways and chambers:
And a link to the video (it’s short):
It’s easy to see how incredibly impressive the city is that these little things constructed. Overlap this town over a medieval city in Europe, in the Maghreb or in the Middle East, and one might see an almost an identical layout. It makes one think that: (A) we haven’t come so far, and (B) maybe the “hive mind” concept is more literal than metaphorical. Maybe we have retained elements of the insect mind, and we use and are guided by that, to order, build and organize our own cities. Like storytellers and songwriters, maybe in urban planning, we are merely embellishers too—we are reworking the same forms over and over, making slight adjustments to fit our own needs.
Others have preferred to view the social insects, not as social cities composed of individuals, but as single super organisms—more like one being made up of millions of semi-autonomous crawling “cells.” This would mean that these towering termite mounds and the tunnels of the ant colonies might represent the clothing or shell that belongs to a collective whole being. The mound is like the skeleton and the skin of a large creature. This view makes the cooperation of the little critters seem more like the cooperation and symbiosis of the cells and bacteria that make up our own bodies. The chambers are like the organs in our own bodies—each with its specific function and specialized job functionaries.
If we make that leap, then we too can be seen as sophisticated works of “soft” architecture. Just like the cities of the ants, bees and termites, one would never imagine that our little cells would be able to individually make and organize a structure as complex as we are. If we reorient our viewpoint, and can see ourselves as a kind of ant colony, we get a frightening insight that maybe our sense of free will is not much more than that of the ants and termites. Our most beautiful cities, and maybe we too, are not much more sophisticated than those of the social insects.
On Sunday I rode with my daughter, Malu, and her boyfriend, Will, along the path that runs beside the Bay here. We passed a marina and a horserace track, and then ventured out to a peninsula that seemed to be composed entirely of concrete rubble. Trees and bushes and a fair amount of earth on top, so I questioned my idea that the rubble was all bits of the collapsed Cypress Freeway from the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989—though that’s exactly what it looked like. Could the trees and dirt grow and accumulate so quickly on top?
Near the end of the peninsula we saw a man on a bicycle dragging an empty shopping cart with a skinny rope. I mused that he might be going into town for supplies, but Will said how would he get a full cart back with a bike. Hmmm. We saw the cart abandoned a little later, as we pedaled around this area. Here and there we saw tents in the bushes, and others tucked in the shade of trees. There were no other folks about, but it was obvious this was a hobo village of sorts. One path to a tent read “private property.”
This has to be the most bucolic hobo village ever (The unseasonably warm weather helped give this impression.). If one didn’t know better one might mistake it for a recreational campsite. New York City used to have more homeless people on the streets than I saw in India—Calcutta on the Hudson—with at least one person per block, which makes 4, if you count all sides of the block. With the economic crash (crash for some, windfall for others—still unregulated!) you’d expect to see more homeless folks on the streets, but they’re not there. The relentless grooming of Manhattan in particular, begun under Giuliani, has cemented into policy. All seaminess gets taken away to present a pretty face.
We rode on, past an industrial building that seemed to have a kind of half finished crossword on it.
We rode around Alameda, an island slightly south of Oakland that used to house a massive Naval Air base. About a third of the island is still mostly abandoned air base buildings, acres and acres of them. The rest seems to be developer-built retirement homes and homes of former navy employees. We passed a few massive hanger-type buildings.
There was a bike path and promenade that went for miles along the beachfront. It was very nice, though the occasional inspired bit of topiary work was the only thing that saved the unremarkable houses on the other side of the street:
They have an art biennale here — doesn’t everyplace? Cindy has one of her new wallpaper pieces in the show, so we took advantage of the opportunity and came over and stayed a few extra days. The biennale, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, who has done other big surveys, featured, besides some well-known names, lots of stuff that some might not call art — period Korean advertising photos, minus text, by Hanyong Kim, and a promo film commissioned by a Japanese bicycle company done by an avant-garde film collective in the ’50s. There were pieces by Asian artists we’d never heard of (a Korean artist did paintings in an old Buddhist style, one of which was about women who’d had abortions suffering in hell), healing drawings by Swiss healer Emma Kunz (who died in 1963), and some vaguely outsiderish pieces (including incredible drawings by Chinese healer Guo Fengyi that she originally started doing to heal herself of ailments contracted due to factory work, and now does to “heal” others). Here’s one of her drawings:
It was great to see one of these biennale things loosen up a bit on their criteria regarding what to include. Too often they seem like sales conventions for successful galleries, with an idea tacked on to add a veneer of intellectual substance — a puppet government run by the lobbyists. This one actually seemed to be about a gathering of great stuff, no matter where it came from — some of which is shown in commercial galleries, and much that is not. Here is a sample page from one of Shinro Ohtake’s books. He’s a musician/artist who is now in a band called JUKE/19 with Yamantaka Eye, of the more well-known Boredoms. An entire room was filled with these scrapbooks, opened to random pages. They seemed to be made of ephemera and then drawn and painted over — most pages were even more messy than this spread:
Not too many of the name artists were in attendance — I saw Maurizio Cattelan and Ai Weiwei at a lunch, but not a whole bunch of others. Other curators attended — Okwui Enwezor and Francesco Bonami showed up, checking out their co-curators’ work. It’s a long way to come for Americans and Europeans, though some westerners were making this part of an itinerary that included Beijing and other new art centers.
At the same time, almost next door to the biennale, which shows in two purpose-built buildings, there was the Gwangju art fair opening in the massive convention center. This was more of a hodgepodge — some kitschy stuff and some contemporary art from an alternative universe. Art has become a “thing” here, as it seems to be in China. It’s apparently something you have to have — every town should support it, and there are weird little galleries everywhere. Gwangju is proud of their biennale, as they should be, but what a choice for a town that on the surface seems fairly nondescript.
Gwangju, we were told, is a cultural town, and it is famous for being politically uppity too — there was a rebellion that the whole country remembers and celebrates. In 1980 the citizens of Gwangju rose up against the dictatorship that ruled Korea at that time (another that was aided and supported by the US), and were fired upon by the army. Citizens raided armories and essentially took control of the town before the uprising was brutally suppressed. On the face of things it’s a little hard to imagine — the town seems to be largely made of identical tower block apartments and love hotels. Chris Wiley, who wrote a lot about the artists in the biennale catalogue, called the apartments dystopian, but he added that the middle class here loves them. They prefer them to the funkier homes that used to fill this town. The tower blocks have gyms, pools and other mod cons, so the trade off might be understandable from a pragmatic point of view. When we arrived, I saw row after row and mile after mile of them and sort of began to get depressed, but then I was reminded that my reaction was based on the legacy, history and reputation of US and European housing projects, which is generally a story of vast neglect and of dangerous warrens for the urban poor. These, apparently, have none of that connotation, though it’s hard for us to shake our western biases and presumptions. Here is what much of the town used to look like:
And here are some typical tower blocks. They stretch from one end of town to the other. You can identify your block by a number.
Most young folks don’t live alone before they’re married, so love hotels abound to fulfill the need of a private place to smooch. Typically the parking is indoors, and designed so that no one sees you coming or going, or sees your car parked out front. Here’s one that mixes the Statue of Liberty with neoclassical soft core — because that’s what liberty is all about.
A typhoon hit Seoul while we were in Gwangju, which may have affected biennale and art fair attendance — all flights from the capitol were suspended, trees were uprooted in Seoul and there were power outages.
We went for a walk to the old market, Yangdong. There are two markets split by a street — one side is for clothes and curtains and such, the other for food. Korean food is wonderful — spicy, pungent and mainly vegetarian. Fish and meat are used as flavorings more so than massive portions. Typical meals are accompanied by a host of pickled vegetable dishes, and few dishes are fried.
In the market there were lots of dried and fresh fish dealers, hundreds of kinds of kimchee, and beans and legumes galore. Here is a kind of pizza with greens, crab and sausage on a bean pancake. It makes a nice composition.
A vendor told us that the older folks continue to enjoy silkworm larvae, but the young folks don’t go for it so much now.
On the clothes-side of the market there were, aside from Nike and Adidas knock offs, aisle after aisle of traditional formal wear. It was hot that day, and by the time we arrived it was mid afternoon, so some of the sales personnel took advantage of the slowness and napped. We saw booth after booth of incredible, brightly-colored, formal clothes — with here and there a sleeping beauty fallen down among them.
The island was recommended to us by a Korean American friend. It’s a volcanic island (though not active) about the size of Puerto Rico and lies off the southern coast of Korea. One large volcanic mountain dominates and there are hundreds of smaller cones scattered about the lush green landscape. An organization called Jeju Olle initiated the establishment of a series of trails that lie along the southern coast. The trails are divided into numbered sections, each about a 5-hour hike. Eventually they hope to have trails surrounding the whole island. This one used to be a honeymoon resort, but no longer — for a while tourism languished a bit, but now these trails have stimulated a kind of ecotourism as visitors collect hikes and compare experiences. It’s an admirable project in a place that has some local culture left (they speak a unique dialect). Unlike the theme parks and resorts that often get built in places like this, the trails are free — they foster an appreciation of the land and place (of a sort, see below) and leave no carbon footprint. The hotel suggested we try Number 7.
The first part of Number 7 is fairly mediated and built up. Along the path there are signs that show the exact locations used in historical TV dramas. There are also special tours of the island that focus entirely on former movie and TV locations — a different way of viewing a landscape. It’s landscape as a set — with accompanying nostalgic and emotional connections, if you happen to have seen the TV series.
Further on there is a baffling sign/billboard that depicts, in heightened colors, what lies directly behind the sign. Maybe it’s there to help you recognize the landscape as the real manifestation of a more iconic and familiar image: “Ah yes, that’s where we are! I’ve seen this image before.”
Further on the trail becomes more primitive, the signs are no more and one has to scamper over rocks at the base of some basalt cliffs that are honeycombed with indentations.
Then the trail leads along volcanic black rock beaches typical of this place, where women are bent over gathering seaweed that they dry on bushes or on the bike lane at the side of the road.
Koreans eat some seaweed with almost every meal — either in soup, dried as a garnish or pickled as a kind of kimchee. It’s delicious, healthy and judging by the huge piles of it these women accumulate all over the island, I assumed that Jeju might be a major seaweed source for all of Korea. I was told that no, what is gathered here is pretty much consumed here — the Korean peninsula is surrounded by water on 3 sides, so lots of seaweed is needed and it’s gathered everywhere.
Nearby these pungent piles are loads of tiny fish farms. There is abundant fresh water that pours down from the interior, which feeds these farms and is then dumped into the ocean, along with some fish that manage to escape.
We stop for a meal of fishtail stew and an amazing iced soup that is made of ground red pepper, sesame, cucumber, garlic and raw squid slices — and ice cubes. Nearby the local fishermen are bathing, naked, in a rocky pool where a river pours into the sea. Later some of them are having lunch in the restaurant, and they sprinkle a kind of acid on their dishes. It’s like super vinegar concentrate — 30% as opposed to the 5% in European vinegars — and the odor is like smelling salts or amyl nitrate. We were warned not to even smell it.
However, they do also make low acid vinegars — pomegranate, persimmon, garlic, apple and pepper — that are for drinking.
When the volcanoes in this island were erupting, the lava flowed down towards the sea, creating huge underground tubes as the outer layers of lava cooled and hardened. Subsequent lava flows took the same readymade routes, and we visited one where you can walk 1 km in. It goes on much further, 17 km I think. They’re not like limestone caves with stalagmites and stalactites, but more like a road, an abandoned subway tunnel. Water drips down everywhere and one imagines there are significant aquifers deep underground.
There are lava tubes elsewhere in the world — I went into one out west, in Utah I think it was. Those are more on the surface — one can see the overgrown snaking mounds stretching across a lava field that betray their presence, and fairly often a roof collapse allows one to clamber down into them. The tubes in Utah are smaller than those in Jeju, and in the one I climbed into there was no one around. I went in a ways, but without good lights I stopped and turned around, thinking one of the branching tributaries might be a perfect hibernating spot for a bear.
Went here after a speaking engagement on Capri.
Stromboli is an island that is also an active volcano and is fairly close to Sicily. Its population is between 450 and 700. A week ago there was what they call an “explosion”…one of the craters blew out some fiery rocks that set the grasses halfway up the mountain on fire. (None hit the town.) The explosion and fires happened in the late afternoon, and helicopters flew in from the Sicilian mainland and put them out in the morning. The volcano has been erupting more or less continuously for 20,000 years. Most of the eruptions were like the ones we saw — periodic spurts of glowing molten rock, but no lava flows…though there are those too. The most recent was in 2002, after a gap of 17 years.
In 1930 there was a fairly major eruption, and all the inhabitants of the island were evacuated. Magma hit the sea and plumes of steam arose. Flying “bombs,” as they are called, landed in the sea as well, causing a local tsunami.
In those days the two villages here were pretty isolated — no electricity, irregular fresh water, and forget about wi-fi. Stromboli conserves water as best they can via rain barrels and containers that harvest and recycle AC drips, but even so, every week a tanker arrives to bring fresh water to the island.
Southern Italy wasn’t a wealthy area anyway, so for many inhabitants that eruption was the last straw, and they left for elsewhere if they could — Australia, Argentina and the United States had waves of Italian immigrants. In the tiny town of Ginostra (current year-round population: 27 people, 7 donkeys), the church has a plaque commemorating the Strombolian Club of Brooklyn, which sent funds for its renovation in 1940. The members of the club didn’t return to Ginostra, though. In 2003 one of the larger explosions sent rocks raining down on the village, and some houses were damaged.
Ginostra got electricity of a sort a few years ago — via solar panels — so now they can watch Berlusconi’s bimbos on TV.
In 1949 Roberto Rossellini and his then-girlfriend, Ingrid Bergman, made a film here called (in English) Stromboli, God’s Land. It’s interesting as a peek at life here some years ago, but as one local said, “It’s a terrible film! He was blinded by his love for her!”
In the movie she is a Lithuanian refugee in Italy after WWII who impulsively — or, being a refugee, pragmatically (or both) — suddenly agrees to marry an Italian serviceman. He takes her back to his town, his mother and his family, which is Stromboli — doubling for Ginostra. [Spoiler alert!] Young Ingrid freaks out and there is some overacting on her part — though the other performers, who all seem to be locals, and non-actors, seriously underact. Weird combination: calm Italians and one hysterical Hollywood actress. Her new husband in the film eventually boards her up in the house, as she’s getting seriously out of control. However, she manages to escape and heads out over the mountain (still today a more clearly marked path than the way around the outside), and we see her clawing her way over the volcano in hopes of reaching the town of Stromboli and a ship.
The shooting was troubled — partly because RKO, the Hollywood studio backers, wanted a more narrative film than what they got, and partly because Bergman was a bankable star and her affair with Rossellini didn’t go down well with the US public.
During the shooting of this scene of her at the crater, one of the crew died as a result of inhalation of the volcanic fumes.
In the early evening, we hike 40 minutes up a switchback trail to a pizzeria in the middle of nowhere that overlooks the lava flow. From the outdoor seating area one can, as the sun sets, gaze up after a sip of white wine and a mouthful of so-so pizza and see the periodic (about every half hour) explosions of lava from the crater above.
The sound is like a sudden great gushing expulsion of liquid,which it is, I guess — liquid rock. Hiking to the crater itself is prohibited, due to last week's “explosion” in which “bombs” (red hot rocks) landed not just around the crater but also on the inhabited side of the island. These landed among the bushes and grasses about 500 meters up, catching the vegetation on fire. We can see the burnt area from our little hotel room. Had anyone been hiking up to the top they might have been either struck or burned in the subsequent fires.
This is what we saw — the red chunks don’t look as dramatic in the daylight.
Being an island in the middle of the Mediterranean, the seafood is amazing and super fresh. Every morning one can hear the pinched melodic cries of a man with a little motorized cart who wends his way around town selling “pesca fresca” — fresh squid, swordfish and dorado, and whatever else came in that morning.
This is an appetizer of raw marinated fish.
The overnight ferry back to Napoli takes about 12 hours. We sit in the tiny cabin, having some wine and cheese, and watch a Planet Earth nature doc on my laptop. (“Deep Oceans” episode — incredible!)
Midtown Market/Exchange — the former Sears headquarters in Minneapolis. A tornado warning had been lifted a couple of hours earlier. There’s great Mexican food in here, and the famous Holy Land lunch and grocery, home of the jalapeño hummus, is here as well. A few years ago it was a derelict, empty shell. The upper floors house a medical facility, not a hospital.
Minneapolis just got voted best biking city in the US by Bicycling Magazine, beating out Portland and New York City. The US Census rated the city #2.
Last Thursday they instituted a bike share program called Nice Ride — an obvious sexual innuendo that was never mentioned. I was in town for one of my bikes and cities and the future of getting around panels, so I tried the system out — twice. Here’s how it works.
There are bike stations all over a large section of town, covering downtown, and areas known as midtown and uptown (which are actually south and southwest of downtown). Each station has a map showing where the other stations are, so you know where to head for — most are within a few blocks of typical destinations.
Obviously you can also go to their website, where there’s a physical map showing the station locations as well. You slide in a credit card (debit cards are no good — pin code entry is an issue) and decide how many bikes you want. You get the first 30 minutes totally free — your card isn’t charged. After those 30 minutes are up, the fees kick in, ramping up the longer you hold onto the bike. You have unlimited 30 minute chunks available to you within a 24-hour period of your rental — all at no charge. The idea is to encourage short trips, not long, leisurely day trips. You don’t have to return the bikes to the station where you got them… you typically abandon your bike at a station near your destination. When you’ve done your business there and want to return home, or to your hotel in my case, you go back to the station, re-insert your credit card and are issued a release code number. You can repeat this process as many times as you like in the 24-hour period and not be charged. I made one trip to Dero, a company that makes bike racks, and then later to the Uptown Theater, where the event was.
You can also get a yearly unlimited pass, which comes in the form of a stick you can attach to your keychain. When inserted into a slot at the stations it releases a bike instantly.
How are the bikes? Pretty good. They’re made by Bixi in Montreal, where one of these systems is already in place. The Minneapolis bikes look nicer and are easy to spot, as they’re electric green. They’re super sturdy, of course, and have only three gears — which is plenty for a flat city like Minneapolis (or New York, or Melbourne, Australia, which is initializing their own system in a couple of weeks). There is a carrier contraption in front with non-removable bungee cords, which worked fine for me to attach my laptop bag. There are front and rear lights powered by hidden dynamos — so no batteries to replace. Mud and chain guards mean you can wear normal or office clothes and not worry about getting grease stains or puddle splatters. They’re not lightweight — this isn’t a sports bike by any means — but in a flat town like this it’s no problem.
Luckily, my destinations were located in opposite directions reachable by the midtown greenway, a beautiful bike and pedestrian avenue that goes all the way across town — from the lakes to the Mississippi. It was a former rail line and for years had been abandoned — a gully filled with abandoned shopping carts and the detritus of the homeless. A few years ago it was cleaned up, and more recently the two-way bike and ped lanes were put in. There were lots of folks using it — it was gorgeous on a sunny day like today.
It’s like an expressway — you exit via ramps. The next step is to tie in the local businesses along the way a little more.
In the early afternoon, I went to the local public radio station, where a few years ago they instituted a station with a new format called The Current, that plays more music than the usual talk and current affairs programming of most public radio. They feature local music and various kinds of alternative or indie music. Needless to say, it’s hugely popular. A guy from the station would be a moderator at the bikes and cities event later.
Then I went to visit Dero, a company that manufactures bike racks to serve various, mostly practical, specific needs: cluster racks for colleges around the country, lightweight ones that can be dropped into position for temporary events, standard U-shaped ones, and I saw a prototype for a sheltered double-decker system. The upper level rail slides down so you don’t have to hoist your bike up.
They’re busy fulfilling lots of orders. We’re in discussion about some custom-designed racks for specific cities in the near future, but have to get through some red tape first.
Outside their warehouse is a sensor powered by some solar cells.
Employees can attach a little electronic thingie to their spokes, which causes the sensor to beep when they ride by.
They are then rewarded by the company for riding to work, and receive a financial credit. New York has a similar law that employees can get tax credits or financial rewards for riding — though having an automated system makes it a no-brainer.
The panel in Minneapolis was typical of these events; the makeup was a city person, an advocate, a historian/planner and myself. On this one we were joined by Mayor R.T. Rybak, who has been instrumental in getting these programs pushed through. He’s so popular that no one wanted to run against him in the last election. This event was under the umbrella of “Policy and a Pint,” a series of gatherings organized by the same local NPR radio station, in which they encourage having a beer while discussing policy. At the Uptown the excellent local beers were dispersed in the theater lobby, which slowed down the seating considerably, but allowed everyone to loosen up a little.
I got lots of laughs during my slide talk, which was satisfying. I guess it’s turned into a PowerPoint standup routine, with a bit of advocacy in there as well. I’ve adjusted my own presentation since I started doing these about a year ago — now I end on a more optimistic note, mentioning programs that are being instigated in lots of cities. It’s not just about bikes either — they’re merely part of a larger movement to make our cities more livable. There’s a groundswell in many US cities to make them more pleasant, to improve the quality of life. Many of these changes involve giving cars less priority. Even car-centric cities like LA and Dallas are building park-like things that cover over parts of their freeways; high-speed bus lanes are being installed; and pedestrian zones are being expanded.
As usual, most of the questions during the Q&A after our talks were directed to the city person — in this case, the mayor. Big cheers… as he responded to some of the queries affirmatively, announcing plans for expansion and additions to current projects. The event was becoming less a presentation and more a rally and celebration.
We had to wrap up by nine, as the Uptown Theater was screening the Joan Rivers documentary.
On to Chicago. Nice show of H. C. Westermann’s series of prints “See America First” at the Art Institute. He became known in the late ’50s and ’60s, but was maybe a little too unclassifiable to really become super well-known. He was a big inspiration for a lot of others, though.
The big show there was of a particular era (1913-17) when Matisse got a bit “experimental.” Needless to say it is a popular show, but for my money it’s a little bloated — there are maybe half a dozen super amazing and surprising paintings, and the rest is context and backstory.
To some these might look unfinished — but he worked long and hard on them, though they don’t betray a lot of that time and effort. One wall text mentioned that WWI was quite a disturbing and disruptive event at that time — which is sort of an understatement, but it seems it had some shakeup effect on Henri. These were quite a bit different than his earlier work.
Later in the afternoon there was a freak storm — windows blew out on the Sears (now Willis) tower, a McDonald’s drive thru sign got blown away, and the skylight of the Goose Island brewery, one of the bike event sponsors, got sucked out of their ceiling. Over 200,000 folks lost power. Earlier that day I was told that the “windy city” moniker is deceptive — that Chicago is not really all that windy…
“Sean Maloney was on the 68th floor of the [Willis] building Friday afternoon when he said he felt the building begin to sway. Open doors started slamming shut. A colleague suddenly slid across the floor in his chair. Looking out toward the west, Maloney could see a dark wall of clouds bearing down on the city.
Blocks of concrete fell from the Aon Center.”
I think they’d better stick with Windy City.
The bike event was at the Cultural Center, which used to be a fancy downtown public library. Here is the ceiling of a room with a Tiffany glass skylight — unaffected by the storm. There was a wedding reception about to begin there, so I was shooed out.
The bikes and cities event was not as exciting as the storm, though Chicago is expanding their network of bike lanes and is going to initiate some high-speed bus routes soon too. It’s cold here in the winter, but there are folks who bike to work all year round, so there.
We eventually arrived at Klaustur, the nickname for Kirkjubæjarklaustur. It was almost completely clean here... no clouds of ash being thrown up by the occasional passing car or truck, so we looked for a place to stay. Luckily we were directed to a hotel that seemed to have aspirations to become a kind of golf resort, as they’d made a 10-hole course around some of the nearby hills that all seemed to resemble women’s breasts — complete with nipples on top.
There were three other couples in the whole place, which was nice. In the summer this area is popular as a jumping off point for getting onto some of the nearby glaciers, and an area called 100 Craters, the road to which wasn't opened yet.
It rained in the night and we wondered if it would help out the guys with hoses in Vík.
On to a nearby gorge, again along a gravel road. It appears out of nowhere, and one can hike along the top of it and peer down...
The gorge is only a few kilometers long, so after a short hike we’re back to the road and heading towards a glacier tongue I spied as we sped by Skógar — if the ash had indeed been washed away somewhat, then it might be possible to drive up to the glacier. First we tried a gravel road that was supposed to lead up to Mýrdalsjökull glacier, but it started to get pretty sketchy, so we turned back from that approach. The landscape was nice and bleak.
Further on I could see the glacier tongue from the main road... a dirty, icy wall in the distance just a little inland. Along yet another gravel road we got pretty close, and after a short hike we were on it... covered with dark brown sand or ash, or both, hard to tell. The glaciers push a lot of rocks and dirt along in front of them, so glaciers with dirty faces aren’t all that strange.
I got up as far as an area where some crevasses began, and where there were some funnel shaped holes down which melt water was draining. I could see some hikers emerging over a ridge, and they all had on crampons and carried poles and ropes, so I thought maybe with all these crevasses and deep holes I shouldn’t proceed much further.
We headed back towards Vík, and it had indeed been washed a bit cleaner. The wind seemed to have changed direction, and the ash cloud appeared to be moving more directly south over the sea, and maybe even a little west. We heard soon afterwards that Reykjavík airport had been closed, again, and maybe this wind change was the reason. Our NY friends wouldn't be getting in for Cindy’s opening.
There was a little ash dust coming up from passing vehicles, but not so much in the air now. As we passed under the cloud it began to rain — black gray brown dirty rain, as if someone were throwing mud at the windshield. The more it rained the dirtier the car got.
Clear sky ahead. We headed back to Reykjavík.
Needless to say the tourism industry has been hit hard. The guy we rented our car from was sitting around the office with his mates listening to music on their computers.
Cindy had her opening and loads of people turned out — I ran into Einar, former Sugarcube who had brought me here for a concert in the mid-’90s. We played at a movie theater, which, as it turns out, is better than a lot of the venues where some acts play. Now Einar has other projects, among them Ghostigital, with whom I am slated to collaborate on a song. The new Icelandic minister of culture, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, opened the show. Here’s her official government portrait:
Reykjavík airport had been closed for a few days due to the shifting winds moving the ash cloud around. I had intended to fly Sunday, but was delayed until Tuesday. It reopened in time for a flight that would put me in town the opening day of their arts festival, in which I have two series of photo works. There would be no time for me to oversee the installation… but, Danielle, who manages my studio, flew in earlier in a noble attempt to get some of the work to Reykjavík at least one day in advance. In order to accomplish this she had to fly to Glasgow, and then double back to Iceland. At first only a small airport in the north of Iceland was open, so there was a chance she'd have to fly there and then take the arranged bus service across the center of the island nation — along a very scenic road that passes by glaciers and barren rocky landscapes. But after all that traveling, I doubt too many would be looking at the lava fields and ice.
While stopping over in Glasgow, Keflavik airport in Reykjavík reopened, and the work got in OK.
Cindy was showing in this festival as well, so we decided to make the trip, ash cloud permitting. After we arrived on the morning of the 12th and had a jet lag nap, I went to view some of my work before the festival officially opened. One series, Moral Dilemmas, is a series of 15 — at this point — multiple choice questions placed on info kiosks around town. Each question is accompanied by a picture I took of a CCTV camera. I did a few of these some years ago, but never as public pieces, and never so many of them. These have new questions tied to the banking and financial crises such as Iceland has just had.
Here is one:
In the background one can see the big new concert hall that is being built. All work stopped when the country’s economy collapsed. The city came to the rescue, and it’s started up again. Ólafur Elíasson, the Icelandic artist who did the waterfalls in NY and the sun in the turbine hall in London, is doing the windows. They’re being fabricated in China.
Here are some more info kiosks:
And here is a link to some close-ups that are easier to read.
The festival is partly photo-oriented, though there are musical acts, and I saw a show of fabric works as well (with “wool” spun from moss!), so the festival format is somewhat loose. Both my series have photo elements in them, so they qualify.
The second group of images consists of photos I took of old-style curtains (and one of doors, from Belsay Hall near Newcastle) stuck on the windows of Reykjavík's modern art museum. These are printed on the same material that is often used for ads that cover, for example, the sides of busses, including their windows. The parts that cover the windows have thousands of tiny holes in them, so they are a bit like two-way mirrors. People inside can see out fine, and to them the windows just seem slightly tinted, but from the outside it's very difficult to see in — one sees only the image.
It's not like I had this idea and was just waiting to place it somewhere. The festival had offered the windows a while ago... though what could one do in this situation? To make something physical, one would have to be in Reykjavík for quite a while, and probably assemble a group of local helpers — not likely to happen within their newly frugal budget. So dioramas and the like — objects to be viewed through the windows — were out. I also didn't want to completely obscure or kill the light coming through the windows with an image or material... that would seem cruel to those inside, who would then be enclosed in a dark space with only artificial light. Iceland is dark enough for much of the year!
It occurred to me that there was a material I'd photographed a number of times that might be perfect. I'd taken lots of pictures of those ads on busses and trucks that wrap over gas caps, grills and often even over the windows. In the latter cases I noted that the material became different over windows, and wondered if there might be some image that could be applied over these museum windows, printed on that kind of material.
I looked through my archive of photos for inspiration. Maybe something I had taken over the years — I'm constantly taking pictures with no idea where they'll end up — might unlock this puzzle. At first I thought of using some phone pix I'd taken recently. I'd reversed the color and I thought that blowing up an indecipherable lo rez phone image might be strange and beautiful. There were also a couple of pictures of frilly curtains on file, and one of curtains in a fabric store in Mérida, Mexico. One was taken in a hotel meeting room in Easton, Pennsylvania, where my last tour started. I didn't have enough for all the museum windows though — I'd have to take a few more. The resolution on some of the older ones wasn't high enough, as these would be enlarged to the size of the full windows, about 6 by 8 feet. So, on recent trips to Providence and elsewhere for my bikes and cities events I made time to seek out some more curtains. There were some nice big fancy ones at the Biltmore.
Danielle did a Photoshop mockup of these images on the museum windows, and it looked perfect. But would the printing be rich and detailed enough? The advertising company in Iceland that produced these did tests of both a curtain image and a reversed phone image. They both looked a little washed out — the phone pic even more so — so we went with the curtains, and asked if they could make the colors more saturated. We sent a paper print as a sample to follow for color intensity. They did one in which they hit the plastic twice with the ink... and that came close, but for some reason it still looked washed out. I was about to give up. Meanwhile, the Moral Dilemmas images were being printed by a lab (Griffin) in NY which does fine art prints, and we knew they'd get the hot day-glo style colors on those... but the window pieces had to be done remotely, and the situation was looking doubtful.
Someone pointed out to me that maybe the fact that the white backing paper — which is removed before application — was showing through all the tiny holes might dilute the intensity of the color. Duh. So, I peeled off the back of the double hit sample, and slapped it onto the window of Cindy’s apartment. She has a balcony, so I could view it from both inside and out. It worked! It wasn't as saturated as the original image, but it had holes in it, so what do you expect — even the ads I’d seen on busses were less rich when the images passed over windows.
So it was a go. The company in Iceland knew how to attach these things — there’s some skill involved. They stretch a little, and if the installation was screwed up, they would have to be reprinted. The sticky reverse side, like contact paper, was a bear to get right. (They did have to reprint one in the end.)
Ultimately I was thrilled with the result. In contrast with the minimal modern exterior of the museum, the frilly old-fashioned curtains were pretty funny... and the trompe l'oeil effect worked too.
The Moral Dilemmas looked good too, but were scattered all over town, and initially we were misinformed as to their exact locations. But I managed to find most of them eventually.
Now we had two days before the opening of Cindy’s show of her famous film stills — the first time seen here, I believe. We rented a 4 x 4 and headed towards the volcano. On the map it seemed like one of the dirt roads that leads into the interior might allow us to sneak around behind the gal (volcanoes are female here), and as the ash cloud was blowing south and out to sea we might get sort of close by using that approach.
We did find that road — the same one that leads by this waterfall... a waterfall you can hike behind!
But further up, the road was blocked by a man in an emergency vehicle, and he was making cars turn around. He seemed mildly annoyed at the volcano tourists... we weren't the only ones to be turned back.
So on then to the little town of Vík, where I had reserved a hotel room... and despite a recent BBC News video showing the town covered in ash, the hotel was still open. Volcano eruptions are common here.
On the way we stopped by a pasture at the base of a mountain behind which lay the glacier and volcano. One could see a massive black cloud rising from one corner in the distance.
Driving on, the sky looked dark ahead, as if we were about to drive into a thunderstorm. It was no thunderstorm. Below the dark sky was a kind of brown fog, and when we entered it we had to slow down. It was as if night had suddenly descended, and the ash was so dense that one could hardly see ahead.
Everything was covered — barns, cars, mountains and the lava fields. We stepped outside and were instantly covered — it was finer than sand but not quite as bad as the talcum powder fineness I'd heard it was at first. Our clothes were coated and I could taste it... yuk. Dove back in the car and moved on, not really sure how much further it would extend.[Link to video]
After maybe 30 km we began to see the sky becoming slightly lighter ahead... we were coming out the other side. It wasn't much cleaner, but at least we could see. Looking back one could see the big black thing stretching out across the sky, heading for the north Atlantic and Europe.
A little further on, we stepped out and looked back towards the mountain, and now we could see the actual volcano. It wasn’t spewing lava (which was the “tourist volcano,” as the Icelanders refer to it), but throwing up a constant, billowing plume of dark gray ash from the mountain peak —
enough ash to cover Europe.
Onward. Past Skógar, where we would eventually return, and where, we were later told, access to the “tourist volcano” could have been had in the early days of the eruption. One would drive a monster truck up over neighboring Mýrdalsjökull glacier and onto Eyjafjallajökull. At that time there was none of the ugly billowing ash, as the glacier water hadn't yet melted, and that's what makes the ash plume — when the water gets superheated and explodes as steam.
Around a mountain promontory and we were in Vík, which still looked pretty filthy.
A shop window was almost covered in ash.
Two men stood with hoses trying valiantly to wash the ash off their cars and houses. Another man wore a protective mask. Maybe not a good idea to stay here. We moved on, across a great, endless, sandy desert that soon became an endless lava field. The guidebook warned of sandstorms that could strip the paint off a car. We saw one in the distance.
End Part One
TED talk — Creation in Reverse
I did a TED talk in Long Beach. TED stands for technology, entertainment and design and it’s a conference that was started some decades ago by Silicon Valley types to essentially bring part of the world to their doorstep.
From the TED website:
“TED was born in 1984 out of the observation by Richard Saul Wurman of a powerful convergence between Technology, Entertainment and Design. The first TED included demos of the newly released Macintosh computer and Sony compact disc, while mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot demonstrated how to map coastlines with his newly discovered fractals and AI guru Marvin Minsky outlined his powerful new model of the mind.”
(It was originally held in Monterey, a beautiful seaside escape just over the hills from Silicon Valley.) I suspect that the valley geeks and entrepreneurs didn’t usually get out much — they hardly ever even make it up to San Francisco! — so inviting innovators from around the world to come to them was a smart idea.
Here is Mandelbrot doing a return engagement this year, in reverse color.
It’s gone well beyond technology, entertainment and design by now, but still has a bit of a nerdy, techie vibe. I’d been watching their free video podcasts of various TED talks for years, and never really thought of attending until within the past year or two some other musicians who had been in the past all said, “You HAVE to go.”
Luckily, I got invited to do one of their talks this year, which saved me from worrying about the costs (this time, at least). The lineup is mind-boggling. TED talks are famously restricted to 18 minutes (or less — some folks are only given 3 minutes!... and some only got 1 minute!!) and they are very strict about it. I watched one elderly scientist almost get the hook as he exceeded his time allotment.
The time limit is a brilliant strategy — it forces us talkers to be concise, and the audience also knows that if they’re less than thrilled or stimulated, a new topic and speaker will be along in a few minutes. Being concise is one thing, but the time limit also conveniently means one has to stay “on message,” as the Cheney regime referred to it. In that time frame one can really just present one idea — and often it seems like just the inkling or introduction to a new idea was what was being presented.
Months ago I went to meet the TED folks at their New York offices after I was invited to participate. I was being vetted. I’ve done a few talks in the last few years — on bicycles and cities and Powerpoint — but they seemed to want something that pulled in my musical life. So, I mentioned to them that there was another talk, one about music in context, that I’d only done once — and I believed it could include musical examples and personal anecdotes. That seemed to satisfy them, though I said if they had doubts they could uninvite me, and that would be fine, no offense taken.
I practiced by talking on my subject over the last couple of months — at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg, Bell House in Park Slope, and at Bowery Ballroom as part of the Stories in High Fidelity series. I never got it down to the requisite 18 minutes at those venues, but I did refine and re-order the thing quite a bit. I got some feedback and some beers.
I was terrified going in front of the TED crowd — they never boo, but they’re a pretty heavy-duty lot. Walking in I glimpsed Daniel Dennett, the author whose amazing talks I’ve seen on the podcasts. Later I caught sight of über geeks like Bill Gates (who talked about a new kind of nuclear reactor), Google founder Sergey Brin (who was interviewed about the China mess) and Temple Grandin (who wore old school Western wear all the time)… and while I was talking on the phone during a break Will Smith walked by, accosted by two nerds. Some of the major science speakers sported science fashion straight out of central casting, while others were beautifully surprising in the disconnect between their appearance and their deep skill sets. The attendees were predominantly male.
The conference has evolved, as I mentioned — and with all the money that is now connected to and surrounding the tech world, many talks almost seemed like pitches for support in developing the speaker’s new medical miracle, for example. Your potential funders are probably sitting right in front of you. Thankfully, not too much overt hustling was in evidence, but there was lots of business card exchanging. Many talks seemed to be about new medical or other technologies that can be of use in the developing world. One can see that the Gates Foundation and many many others would naturally emerge from this milieu.
It’s not all science. There are musical acts as well — they play a few songs interspersed between the talks on the wisdom of whores and mathematical models of alternate universes. Thomas Dolby is the one-man house band, and this year he was joined by NY string quartet Ethel. Other guest acts were Jake Shimabukuro, ukulele virtuoso; Andrew Bird; and Natalie Merchant, who appropriately integrated a slide show into her short set. I sat in with Thomas and Ethel for an edited version of “Nothing But Flowers,” a song well suited to the venue where Gore first did his climate change talk (he was there too).
Sarah Silverman’s shock comedy routine wasn’t exactly well received by all… but overall most attendees seemed to be enthralled by the majority of talks. Naturally there were a few high points and spontaneous standing ovations (I didn’t get one), and those tend to spread around the web very quickly. The Jamie Oliver rant about American eating habits is online already. (There’s an amazing video clip included in it of West Virginia school kids who can’t identify common vegetables.)
There wasn’t much time for biking around — there wasn’t much time for anything beyond listening — but I did manage to rent one and ride down the beach bike path. Really lovely, though not a very viable means of commuting. Long Beach has oil wells in the harbor; larger offshore drilling rigs can be seen in the distance. The ones close to the beach were disguised to look like skinny condos or office buildings, as if that would somehow be less offensive than looking at an oil derrick.
Anyway, here’s a slightly expanded version of my talk, minus the musical excerpts.
What I'm going to talk about is an insight I've had about creation. That insight is that context largely determines what kind of music is written. Maybe the analogy applies to other forms of creation as well — painting, sculpture, programming or performance — or at least the shape of them.
That doesn't sound like such a big insight, but it's actually backwards from what I perceive to be conventional wisdom — which is that creation emerges out of some interior emotion or from an upwelling of passion that inevitably and must find an outlet. This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to be. Here are the lyrics to a new song by the group One Republic: “I need another story/Something to get off my chest…When a situation rises/Just write it into an album.”
It doesn’t even rhyme, but more than that I think it’s based on a mistaken assumption.
I do think that despite the fact that this old notion of how creation comes into being is mistaken, passion is inevitably present in most work. Just because the form things take is self- or (in the case of my examples here) architecturally-restricted, and just because our response to a given context can be viewed as opportunistic, it doesn’t mean that creation is therefore cold and heartless. Those dark and emotional materials usually find a way in — and the tailoring process is largely unconscious. Emotional content is formed and shaped to fit the available context and circumstance instinctively. So, the order of the process is the reverse from what is often assumed: the consideration of the vessel comes first, and that which fills it comes afterwards. Most of the time we’re not even aware of this tailoring we do. Opportunity is often the mother of invention. The emotional story — “something to get off my chest” — still gets told, but its form is guided by contextual restrictions.
Paintings are created that fit and look incredibly good on the white walls of galleries. They might not look quite as good in your living room, filled with furniture and AV gear. Music is written that sounds good either in a dance club or a symphony hall (but probably not both). The architecture, the space, the platform, the software, in a sense “makes” the art. After art or music succeeds in a space, more similar venues are built to accommodate more production of similar sounding or looking pieces, but that happens later, after the form has been established. I sense that this mostly internalized tailoring process applies to everything, but I'll use music as my example, as people will believe I know something about that area.
Here is the room where some of the music I wrote as a young man was first heard.
The sound in there was remarkably good — the amount of crap everywhere, the furniture, the bar, the uneven walls and ceiling made for a great sound absorption. The sound system was decent as well — better than in many other clubs, which was great, for this music anyway. Because of the lack of reverberation one could be fairly certain that details of one’s music would be heard. The lyrics would probably be understood and the rhythms and bass would be punchy and clear. Given the size of the place, intimate gestures and expression would be appreciated as well, at least from the waist up — whatever went on below the waist was generally invisible, obscured by the audience.
This club was initially meant to be a bluegrass and country venue, sort of like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville.
The audience behavior was pretty much the same too — the musical differences between the two venues are less important than one might think. Structurally, the music emanating from both places was pretty much identical.
As both of these places are bars, people drink, shout and fall down, so, the music performed also has to be loud enough to be heard above that — and so it is. (The volume in Tootsie’s is MUCH louder than it was in CBGB.)
In years that followed I’ve performed in nicer halls — Disney Hall, Carnegie Hall and others — but I noticed that some of the music I’d written didn’t sound as good in those rooms. I began to ask myself if some of my music was written, maybe unconsciously, with specific kinds of rooms in mind.
There are many strains of music in the world, of course. One strain evolved in the context of being played and heard outdoors.
In this outdoor context, percussive music typical of West Africa carries well, and the extremely intricate and layered rhythms don’t all get sonically mashed together as they would in a reverberant hall. This music tends to be steady state — dynamically it doesn’t vary much, but rather maintains a constant volume.
Alan Lomax has argued that the structure of this music — essentially leaderless — emanates and mirrors egalitarian societies, but while that’s a whole other level of context one could argue that social context counts for as much as physical space and acoustics.
Some folks might say that the instruments used here — derived from easily available local materials — determined the nature of the music, and that this was the best they could do musically given what they had available. I would argue the opposite — that the instruments were carefully fashioned, tailored and played to best suit the physical, acoustic and social situation. They work perfectly in their context, and that’s no accident. Just as non-realistic art isn’t necessarily more primitive, this music is incredibly complex on its own terms. It works brilliantly.
It would turn into auditory mush in a place like this:
Western music in the medieval era — Gregorian chants and such — was performed in these stone-walled Gothic cathedrals, and in monasteries and cloisters, which had somewhat similar acoustics. The reverberation time in those spaces is very long — more than four seconds in most cases — so a notes hang in the air and become part of the present. Shifting keys would inevitably invite dissonances and a sonic pileup, as the previously sung or played notes would overlap with the new ones. So, what evolved is what sounds best — it is modal in structure. This music often uses very long notes and slowly evolving melodies with no key changes whatsoever. It works beautifully in these spaces — in fact, the space even improves the music… it gives it an otherworldly ambience.
It’s often assumed that this music was harmonically “simple” (having few key changes) because these composers hadn’t “progressed” to complex harmonies yet. I’d argue that in this context there would be no need or desire to include complex harmonies, as it would have sounded horrible. Creatively they did exactly the right thing.
Here’s the church where Bach did a lot of his playing and writing in the early 1700s:
As you can imagine, there was already an organ there and the sound would be less reverberant than in the Gothic cathedrals, but still echoey. The reverb was so much less that, famously, Bach and others could introduce key changes into their music.
Later on, young Mozart wrote for rooms like this in the late 1700s:
And sometimes for rooms like this:
They’re slightly smaller than Bach’s church, and when filled with royalty, patrons and furniture they allowed Mozart's music to be heard in all its frilly detail. People danced to it too. Imagine people dancing to classical music today!
My guess is that in order to be heard above a dancing mob who might also be gossiping, one might have had to increase the size of the orchestra, which is in fact what happened.
Meanwhile, some folks were going to hear operas. Here’s La Scala as it is now.
Built in 1776, the original orchestra section at that time was more a series of booths or stalls rather than the rows of seats that are typical of opera houses now. People would eat, drink, socialize and holler out to one another during the performances. They’d holler to the stage too, for encores of the popular arias. The vibe was more like CBGB than the typical opera house today.
La Scala and other opera venues of the time were fairly compact — not much deeper than a small theater or large club — so the sound turns out to be pretty tight. I’ve performed in some of these old opera venues and if you don’t crank the volume too high, pop music survives surprisingly well.
Here’s Bayreuth, the opera house Wagner built for his own music in the 1880s.
You can see it’s also not that huge. Not nearly as big as most opera halls today. What’s different about his hall isn’t the space itself, but the bandstand. The orchestra pit is larger and more accommodating of the more extensive orchestras that he required to conjure the requisite bombast. He had new and larger brass instruments created, and he also called for a larger bass section to create his big orchestral effects.
I believe that later, as symphonic music tended to be performed in larger and larger halls — the kind built in recent centuries — the music, originally conceived for rooms, palaces and modest-sized opera houses, was now being asked to accommodate ever larger and more reverberant spaces, which tended to be less musically dead.
Around 1900, according to Alex Ross in a New Yorker piece (“Why So Serious?”), another development occurred which would affect the music that composers wrote. Classical audiences were no longer allowed to shout, eat and chat during the performances. One was expected to sit frozen, immobile, and listen with rapt attention. Ross hints that this was a way of keeping the hoi polloi out of the new symphony halls and opera houses. Music that sometimes used to be for all was now for an elite — something to be enjoyed without showing it or shouting about it. Audiences were intended to be “respectful,” which meant hiding their emotions until the very, very end.
This policy obviously affected composition — it meant that since no one was talking, eating or dancing anymore the music could now have extreme dynamics, and very quiet passages, as the composers knew they’d be heard, and harmonically complex passages could be appreciated. Combined with the increased reverberation of the larger symphony halls, these factors transformed music. All 20th century classical music could only work in (and was written for) these socially and acoustically restrictive spaces.
Although the quietest details and complexities could be heard, these larger halls meant that rhythmically things got less distinct and fuzzier. Late 19th and 20th century composers like Mahler therefore wrote music that took those emerging qualities into account. They emphasized texture, and sometimes audio shock and awe, as the back row was further away — and if you wanted to reach them, you needed to adapt. And adapt they did.
Here’s one of those rooms — Carnegie Hall:
Groove music — percussive music featuring drums, for example, like what I do — has a very hard time here. I’ve played Carnegie Hall a couple of times, and it can work, but it is far from ideal. I wouldn’t play that music there again.
Even the jazz now occasionally played in these rooms becomes a kind of chamber music. No one dances or drinks — at least not in the hall. (Although I’ve gotten audiences up and dancing in many of these places.) Jazz clubs followed suit — no one dances at the Blue Note or Village Vanguard. Great music resulted, but folks often forgot that jazz was once music for dancing — that spiritual uplift and dancing were never mutually exclusive.
Looping back to the early part of the 20th century to pick up jazz, it was originally played in bars, riverboats, funerals and joints where lots of dancing and drinking were going on. There was little reverberation in those spaces so the groove could be strong, precise and clear.
It’s been pointed out — by Scott Joplin and others — that the origin of jazz solos and improvisations was a way of stretching out whatever section of the tune the dancers were getting into. During a performance the dancers might really be getting off on one part, and if the “written” melody of that section ran out, the musicians would be required to extend it. So, in order to keep the dancers going, the players would jam on those chord changes over the groove rather than simply playing the same melody over and over again. The improvisations evolved out of necessity, and a new kind of music was born.
If anyone’s been to a juke joint or seen the Rebirth or Dirty Dozen brass bands at a place like The Glass House in New Orleans, then you’ve seen lots of dancing to jazz. Its roots are as spiritual dance music.
Not only the form but also the instrumentation of jazz was modified so that the music could be heard over the sound of the dancers and the bar. Banjos were louder than acoustic guitars, trumpets were louder than fiddles, and this tendency repeated until amplification and microphones came in (which I’ll get to later).
Like West African music this is texturally steady state music. The volume doesn’t vary much, for to do so would risk getting lost amongst dancing and jabbering.
Likewise, country music, blues, Latin music and rock and roll were all (originally) music to dance to, and they too had to both be loud enough to be heard above the chatter and also work for the dancers. They were all performed in similarly sized rooms as well — so rhythmically they were sustainable.
Around the first third of the 20th century a new music venue emerged. People were now listening to music on the radio or on home stereos through one of these things.
People probably heard more music on them than they would ever hear face to face. This technology, this appliance, became the concert hall. In some ways music was now free of any live context — or more properly, the context became the living room and the jukebox, as well as the still ongoing ballrooms and concert halls.
The microphones that brought music to radios also changed the way we sang as well as how we played instruments.
One no longer had to have great lungs to be a singer. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby innovatively sang “to the microphone” — they adjusted their vocal dynamics in ways that would have been unheard of and unsuccessful earlier.
Others went even further. Chet Baker sang in a whisper, as did João Gilberto, and millions followed. These guys were whispering in your ear, getting right inside your head. Needless to say, without microphones, this intimacy wouldn’t have been heard at all. And mostly it wouldn’t have been heard that well either, except in the privacy of a living room.
Recorded music emerged around this time too. Technology had turned the living room or any small bar with a jukebox into a concert hall. It seems to me that music composition and the whole situation for musicians had now come upon a forking path. The performing musician was now expected to write and create for two very different venues — for the live venue and for a recording — and the compositions were expected to be the same, as one medium was thought to promote the other. It seems unfair. The performing skills, not to mention the writing needs, the instrumentation, and the acoustic properties for each medium, are completely different.
Recorded music allowed music venues to now come into existence that didn’t even have performers. Bars with jukeboxes became venues without any live musicians at all.
For example, music written for contemporary discos, in my opinion, usually ONLY works in those social and physical spaces. Not only that, it works perfectly on their incredible sound systems. It feels stupid to listen to club music at its intended volume at home — though people do it. And, once again, it’s for dancing, as was early hip hop, which emerged out of dance clubs in the same way that jazz did — by extending sections of the music so the dancers could show off and improvise.
Live performance didn’t go away — the social attraction was too important. The most successful pop music acts ended up performing in the largest man-made indoor spaces available. Basketball arenas and hockey rinks have terrible acoustics — so only a narrow range of music really works at all. The music that arena rock groups composed was, like the sounds written for Bayreuth, Wagnerian… tending to medium tempos and fairly simple harmonic structures. Otherwise, despite advances in technology, it turns to mush.
Here the masses gather in an architectural space that demands that the music not only sonically but socially perform a different function than what it does on record or in a club. Arena rock works pretty well in arenas, but if you’ve ever heard a band who’s spent decades playing in sports arenas do an “intimate” club date, you might hear that they’ve often evolved into an animal that doesn’t fit outside their contextual element. The outsized gestures and the music itself are a fish out of water.
What’s new? One of the newer musical venue is the car. I’d argue that contemporary hip-hop is written, musically at least, to be heard in cars with systems like this one.
Or maybe this one?
I’d say the audio space in a car with these speakers forces a very different kind of composition. Full spectrum. Bass heavy. The vocal is often allocated a space where not much else lives. Although this music may have emerged from dance-oriented early hip hop, it’s morphed into something else entirely — music that sounds best in cars.
One other new music venue has arrived.
Presumably this MP3 player plays mainly Christian music.
Beginning with the Walkman portable cassette player, private listening is musically and socially partly an extension of the “sitting very still in a concert hall” experience, combined with the pristine virtual space that studio recording allows. You can hear and appreciate extreme detail and subtlety when the earbuds are in your ears, which is similar to concerts that demand silence — but as opposed to most concert halls, the lack of reverb means that rhythmic material survives beautifully and completely intact.
That said, extreme dynamic changes can be painful on a personal music player. If there’s a quiet passage then we turn the thing up, only to have our ears assaulted when the loud bit comes along. I never listen to traditional classical music on one of these, for example. As with dance music 100 years ago, it’s better to write steady state music for these.
Interestingly, it seems we’ve come full circle in many ways. The musical techniques of the African Diaspora, the foundation of much of the world’s contemporary popular music, with its wealth of interlocking and layered beats, works acoustically incredibly well as both a private listening experience and as a framework for much contemporary recorded music.
African music that might have been originally created based on being played in the open — steady state music loud enough to be heard outdoors above dancing and singing — turns out to also work well in the most intimate of spaces, our inner ears.
Yes, people do listen to Bach and Wagner on iPods, but not too many people are writing new music like that — except for film, where Wagnerian bombast works really well.
This adaptive tendency isn’t just limited to musicians and composers. It extends into the natural world as well. David Attenborough and others have claimed that bird calls have evolved to fit the environment. In dense jungle foliage, constant, repetitive and brief signals within a narrow frequency work best. The repetition is like an error-correcting device — if you didn’t hear the song/signal clearly the first time, here it is again.
Birds that live on the forest floor, however, have evolved lower-pitched calls — sounds that don’t bounce off or become distorted by the ground. Meanwhile, birds in the plains and grasslands have buzz-like calls that carry longer distances, like the Savannah sparrow:
Water birds have calls that cut through the ambient sounds of water, and Eyal Shy of Wayne State University says that there are even variations within the same species. Scarlet tanagers vary the pitch of their songs in the east, where the woods are denser than in the west.
There’s more: birds of the same species in the same place adjust their singing as their habitat changes. Birds in San Francisco were found to have raised the pitch of their songs over 40 years, in order to be better heard above the increased traffic.
So it’s not just composers who do this — who adapt to the context and to venues — it’s an interspecies phenomena.
Music composition being shaped by the venue in which it will be heard is an easy example for me to use. I also have a feeling that this somewhat reverse view of creation happens a lot, maybe in many very different areas of creativity.
What’s interesting to me is not that these practical adaptations happen — that seems predictable and even obvious — but what it means for our perception of the creative process.
It seems that creativity is adaptive, like anything else. When a space becomes available, work emerges to fill it. The genius, the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work, happens when the thing is perfectly suited to its context and is also surprising. And when something works, it strikes us as not just being clever — a good adaptation — but as strongly and emotionally resonant. When the right thing is in the right place we are moved.
What seems obvious by now is that emotion, passion and personal expression can be poured into whatever form or vessel becomes available. And that form and those structures are determined primarily by the available venues — be they a club or an arena in music, a blog entry, a forest, or a white gallery wall.
Sometimes if I say things like this I get accused of being cold and calculating — the implication being that by adapting, work is somehow spineless, without integrity, inauthentic. The old idea that true creativity explodes into existence out of the heart and soul, and somehow emerges and insists on the form it wants to take, still lingers.
This romantic attitude applies to politics too. Thomas Frank wrote on one possible reason why voters often vote against their own best interest:
“Authenticity has replaced economics as the driving force of modern politics. The authentic politicians are the ones who sound like they are speaking from the gut, not the cerebral cortex. Of course, they might be faking it, but it is no joke to say that in contemporary politics, if you can fake sincerity, you have got it made.” [Link]
That’s where the danger lies. We need to accept that our evolutionary connection to the birds is not just physical, as a member of a similar branch of the evolutionary tree, but our expressions are like birdsong as well. Whoever writes the songs for One Republic, it’s true we do “get things off our chests,” but the way we do that, the art of it, is to put them into proscribed forms. That’s part of the creative process, and we do it instinctively — we internalize the process, like the birds do — and it continues to be a joy to sing, like the birds do.
Went to a friend’s, Ford Wheeler’s, new house in Mérida (Yucatán) on the 27th through the New Year. Mérida is now a sizable town, but a bit of a backwater, and therefore its colonial center is more or less intact and there are few tourists — they all head west towards Chichén Itzá, Tulum and Cancún instead. I’d been here a few years ago and there are two blog entries on the ruins that are all around the area, the Maya and the collapse of their civilization. Now I wondered about the collapse of the massive European-based civilization that flourished here.
Mérida used to be one of the wealthiest cities in the New World. “For a brief period, around the turn of the 20th century, Mérida was said to house more millionaires than any other city in the world” [Link]. Who’d a thunk it? The money came from henequen — an agave-type plant that, when processed, could be made into rope and other durable products. It is sometimes known as sisal, after the Caribbean port town nearby where it was shipped off in massive quantities. Green gold, it was called.
I used to have a kind of carpet made of “sisal.” When nylon and other man-made products were created that could replace henequen, the Yucatán monopoly collapsed and the millions evaporated. This was the second collapse of a civilization in that peninsula, the first being the collapse of the Maya civilization, which had already begun, but proceeded more rapidly after the arrival of the Spanish, who claimed the city from the Maya in 1542. Because it was a pre-existing city, it is considered the oldest continually occupied city in the New World. That doesn’t mean there is an abundance of buildings that are 500 years old — but there are a few. Though the great Maya temples are now ruins, and their peninsula-spanning network of roads and cities has all but vanished, the people are still present, and much of their culture survives.
The Spanish, like the English in North America, instigated a feudal system when they arrived that was based on race — with the Spanish at the top, people of Spanish descent (Creoles) next, mestizos (mixed race people) in the middle and the Maya as slaves at the bottom. The Spanish built massive haciendas — huge plantations that were like self-supporting towns unto themselves.
Mexican insurgents fought for independence from Spain — a movement that started around 1800, ending with independence in 1821 — though it was hardly democracy. Agustín de Iturbide declared himself Emperor after victory. But Mexico was not the Yucatán. With independence from Spain, some here hoped that the brutal caste system would come to an end — but what happened was the Creoles simply took over from the Spanish as rulers and nothing much changed. Besides, the Yucatán wasn’t considered a part of Mexico proper — it was a separate country. Eventually, and not surprisingly, a war erupted — the Caste War.
The Caste War was long coming — private interests had been usurping Maya lands for some time — and it was the execution of three Maya that triggered the uprising. It continued for decades and by 1848 the Europeans had been driven from the entire peninsula, except for the cities of Mérida and Campeche… and the port of Sisal. The Maya had almost won, but then something strange happened.
Swarms of flying ants appeared, which we might interpret as some Biblical omen, but the Maya realized this meant it was the perfect time to begin planting their crops — so they abandoned the battlefield and walked away, not realizing that victory was close at hand.
The Creole Yucatáns, still a separate nation, offered sovereignty — their country! — to anyone who would help them defeat the Maya. Mexico answered the call and the Maya were pushed back — well, halfway. The “European” Mexicans controlled the northwest (Mérida, etc.), while the Maya controlled the jungle and the southeastern portion of the peninsula.
In 1850, an apparition appeared to the Maya — a Talking Cross — that urged them to continue their struggle. This was in the area called Chan Santa Cruz, which Britain recognized at this time as an independent nation (it was close to British Honduras — present-day Belize — which was British-controlled, and they traded with one another). But as years went by the British began trading more with Mexico, and the balance of power eventually shifted; by 1893 they signed a treaty recognizing Mexican sovereignty over the Maya-controlled region — and stopped all trade between Honduras (still their colony) and Chan Santa Cruz. The “rebels” had been isolated. [Source]
Logan Hawkes attempted to find the Talking Cross. Here is an excerpt from his account:
During the time when Chan Santa Cruz was an independent nation, non-Maya were forbidden to enter the region — they would be instantly killed — but after so many years of conflict, financial isolation, and the arrival of the Wrigley’s company looking for chicle (the sap that forms the basis of chewing gum!), the war was declared over in 1915. By then the world of the henequen barons was already collapsing.
So, that’s the story of what was once one of the wealthiest parts of the New World — and not so long ago either! Kind of puts things in perspective. There are decaying haciendas all over the peninsula, like this one with a chimney built to vent off the processing of the henequen, and many of them have been renovated as luxury resorts with swimming pools added.