The San Francisco Go Club

goclubWhen I moved to San Francisco twenty years ago, one of the things that filled me with the most anticipation and excitement was the historic San Francisco Go Club. At that time it was located in a (literally) condemned building on Bush Street in Japantown which had been either a synagogue or a Jewish retirement home, I don’t remember which – the important thing is that the building was institutional and old and formerly sacred. I remember there being giant, worn Stars of David in the shabby wood façade, but memory is a smartass and a liar so those may be a retrospective embellishment.

Everything important happened in one large, high-ceilinged room thick with cigarette smoke that echoed the famous (and charming to me for being so novel) San Francisco fog outside. I was almost exactly the same size I am now, but as I describe it, I suspect everything is much larger in my treacherous memory than it was in reality. I remember long tables covered with dozens of go boards and all manner of people sitting at them playing intently. I remember the generosity of Japanese octogenarians, far better at the game than I would ever be, who, despite speaking very little English, were kind enough to play with me and patiently point out when I made mistakes both obvious and subtle. I learned enough Japanese to thank them politely and ask after their health.

Eventually the city brought the hammer of public safety down on the crumbling building, and the San Francisco Go Club moved into an anonymous, fluorescent-lit storefront in the Richmond, or maybe it was the Sunset, or maybe it was a series of storefronts. In any case it was never the same, and I eventually stopped going altogether. While it still exists, for me the club died when it left that old building. And in the absence of some seriously Faustian shenanigans, those kindly old Japanese men are almost certainly all dead now.

I miss the club. I miss those old men. I’m still not as good at go as they were. I haven’t played in so long my go skills are doubtless a shadow of what they were then. San Francisco now is not the San Francisco it was then. I am not the me I was then. Is something lost? Absolutely. But if I imagine a twenty-something moving to San Francisco for the first time, who am I to tell him that the best is past, that things aren’t what they used to be, that everything is shit? Countless someones are finding their way to the city right now, not just to suckle at the teat of tech, but because they’re excited about something weird and quirky like the old San Francisco Go Club, something they’ll enjoy and pour their passion into until it too dies along with everyone associated with it, along with me.

Big heart love to @mosjef for creating the I love you, San Francisco collection on Medium and nagging ‘commissioning’ me to write this piece.

Stand whose ground?


When I first saw the news of President Obama’s press briefing about the Trayvon Martin ruling (on Twitter, of course), my first impulse was to tweet the money quote, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” and leave it at that. Another moment’s reflection and I realized my reaction was a little too complicated – and that that complication was too important – to simply leave it at that.

I listened to all seventeen and a half minutes of the briefing. Either Obama is an even more masterful actor and politician than I imagined, or he was speaking about race from a personal point of view with a frankness and a rawness that I never would have expected from a president, even a black one. It’s probably both. Anyone who’s paid attention to the actual content of Obama’s public statements knows, and has known since the 2008 campaign if not before, that he is in practice a centrist, a cautious one, and he rarely presses the issue of race explicitly, even when it would be appropriate. It often pains me how careful he is to avoid unsettling white folks.

And yet here he was, not only acknowledging the racial context of the Trayvon Martin shooting, but connecting it directly to his own experiences as a black man in America.

There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

The shock of seeing a president explaining the black experience to non-black Americans felt historic. Hearing the president call out the institutional racism of the legal system was indescribable.

And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

Would that were the whole of the story and that we could simply honor the loss of Trayvon Martin by using this conversation to move the country forward on its painful trajectory towards redemption. It’s not, and we can’t.

In the fall of 2011 (just months before Zimmerman shot Martin), on the orders of President Obama, Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki were killed in separate strikes by “unmanned aircraft,” or as we have come to call them familiarly, drones.

Like the Trayvon Martin killing, the Awlaki killings also exist in a context, the context of the US government hijacking the political affairs of Arab countries and killing Muslims when they get too — dare I say it — uppity. What are drone strikes if not a unilateral, illegal, global implementation of “stand your ground”? Zimmerman claimed he felt threatened. We claim we feel threatened, and we expect our government to be our gun.

Just as the history of white racism in America asserts itself in our reactions to the Trayvon Martin ruling, the history of American imperialism asserts itself in our reactions to the Awlaki killings. Let there be no elision. For brown people in America, George Zimmerman is the white devil who murdered Trayvon Martin. For brown people in the rest of the world, Barack Obama is the American devil who murdered al-Awlaki and his son.

And for what? Between 2006 and 2011 the actual chances of being killed by a terrorist for any individual American were about one in 20 million:

This compares to the annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000.

But the political risk of being “soft on terrorism,” or even perceived that way, is enormous. The risk of being too aggressive is comparatively miniscule – at least it was pre-Snowden, but even after Snowden’s revelations the political math remains largely unchanged.

It’s easy and costs nothing to adhere to one’s principles from the sidelines, but can I say that in Obama’s shoes I wouldn’t have authorized political assassinations, that I wouldn’t have made the pragmatic choice in favor of security theater and accepted the costs in resources and lives? Would you want to be the president who let Americans be killed on your watch because you didn’t have the grit to kill a few Arabs half a world away just in case (even if in this case the “Arabs” happened to be Americans)?

After Obama’s re-election in the Fall, I wrote about how important it was to have a president who was brown, like me. But “like me” also has a dark side. Among other things, it means I am inclined to give him a pass where I should not. On Real Time with Bill Maher, Cornel West quite rightly observed that liberals are too reluctant to criticize Obama on the very same issues for which they excoriated George W. Bush. He called this double standard “morally bankrupt,” and it is, and I am guilty of it, but for me it’s worse than that. Trayvon Martin could have been Obama thirty years ago. Anwar al-Awlaki could have been me now. We were both born in the same year. We were both born in America. We are both brown in such a way that many Americans would see no distinction between us. If I had a son, he’d look like Abdulrahman.

Worse yet, Obama should know better. Rightly or wrongly, we can dismiss George W. Bush as a sheltered, rich, white boy who never experienced an adverse social context in his life. Obama has no such excuse. And yet, Obama is not merely good or bad. One doesn’t negate the other. We are not what we are. We are what we do. And we do some complicated, contradictory, irreconcilable things. Having to make sense of the many Obamas reminds us not merely of the better angels of our nature but also the baser demons.

We may never get Nixon and Haldeman’s missing 18 minutes, but this briefing, at least, is 17 presidential minutes that have been missing from our public conversation about race for decades. I only wish that Obama, and the rest of us, could be as honest and direct about the other no less corrosive issues that undermine our values as a nation and a people.

Obama is still black

Jacob Philadelphia Pats Obama's Hair

(Pete Souza/White House)

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 I had no illusions about what, in policy terms, he could accomplish or would even want to accomplish. I had two simple criteria for his success beyond which everything else would be gravy: that he be president and he be black (and by black, of course, I mean brown). Whatever else he did or didn’t do, it was already transformative that he be a black president – something I (and plenty of other folks) never dreamed I would see in my lifetime. Growing up in suburban Washington DC in the 70s, it was clear to me the notion that in America “anyone can grow up to be president” did not apply to anyone darker than, say, Richard Nixon. And let’s be honest, even he was a little swarthy for comfort (look how that turned out). I will never forget how it felt on election night, November 4, 2008, standing on the dance floor of Roccapulco, to look up at the giant screen and weep tears of joy to see a president who was brownish, like me. Like me. In that moment (and whenever I’ve thought about it since, including as I write this) I am Jacob Philadelphia patting Obama’s head: “Yes, it does feel the same.”

In the years that followed it wasn’t about promises kept or broken; it wasn’t about Sotomayor and Kagan; it wasn’t about Bradley Manning and Osama Bin Laden; it wasn’t about teleprompters or professorial detachment or excessive caution in the face of congressional brinksmanship. We had a president who put his pants on one leg a time and who had brown-colored skin. Period. America was different than it had been before. There was no going back. No brown boy born in America would ever again feel the unspoken certainty that “anyone can be president” did not apply to him. (And I do mean ‘him.’ We’re still waiting for a woman president, but I no longer doubt that I’ll see one in my lifetime.) Whatever else happened, no one could go back in time and make Obama not have been elected president in 2008.

As the 2012 election season approached, I had a running argument with my friend Nathan who insisted that if Obama were not re-elected it would invalidate his presidency. I found this ridiculous. Repeatedly. How is a one-term president not a president? I mean, come on, he won the Nobel Peace Prize like two minutes after being elected (drone strikes notwithstanding). So what if he doesn’t win a second term. He was still president for four years. It counts. I argued this point unyieldingly right up until lunchtime yesterday, when, suddenly, despite my best efforts to deny it, I realized it wasn’t as simple as I wanted to be. The anti-Obama rhetoric in the last four years has been so relentless, so venomous, so absolute, that rightly or wrongly, I felt that if Obama were not re-elected, it would somehow undo the transformative power of his election in the first place. ‘Yeah, we tried having a black president once, but look how that turned out.’ I had been wrong. There was a third criterion for his success. Not only did he have to be president and be black, he had to get re-elected. In a strange way, it mattered even more this time, because there’s a big difference between never having had something, and having had something and then having it taken away.

It is with great relief that I note that Obama is still president and he is still black. The transformation was not undone, and I can now say with greater certainty than before that Obama has met my criteria for success, vanishingly modest in political terms, but reality-changing for me and the Jacob Philadelphia’s of the world. So Nathan, you were right. Warren 2016, anyone?

When no is all you have

Bartleby, the Scrivener is an absurd, puzzling, sometimes unsettling text. In the face of both support and adversity, Bartleby’s reaction is always “no.” We are all susceptible to this negative impulse, this paralysis that is neither death nor life but rather something in between. Be it professionally, creatively, or personally, the shadow of nothingness is ever present, whether we know it or not. At some time in our lives, many of us find ourselves under the influence of this “Bartleby complex.”

Read the full text of When no is all you have.

Of Groupon, Lindsay Lohan, and the envy of crowds

Whether or not you call what we’re in a bubble (which depends on what the meaning of the word “in” is), you can’t deny that Groupon’s June 2nd kimono-opening in advance of its IPO revealed, if nothing else, some interesting numbers.

Between the straight-up doublespeak of Adjusted CSOI and the chutzpah of trousering almost the entirety of their recent billion-dollar round, Groupon gave journalists plenty of material for scathing articles (including articles about the articles).

Of course, until recently, the preponderance of the press about Groupon was glowing.

Or, as Merlin Mann inimitably put it on Saturday:

For months, EVERYONE LOVES GROUPON! I didn’t care. Today, EVERYONE HATES GROUPON! I don’t care. If you were one guy, I’d totally punch you.

If Steve Jobs is Oprah for men, Groupon is Lindsay Lohan for tech journalists. Despite its German name, schadenfreude is one of the most American of pastimes. We love nothing better than to build someone or something up and then find reasons to tear them down. Are we that fickle? Does our adoration really turn to scorn that quickly? Maybe. But that scorn is an expression of something deeper and more powerful. Envy. If this is the land of opportunity, then there’s no reason you can’t be as successful as that guy. Except, shit, he got there first. He’s counting his millions while you’re reading an article about him counting his millions.

It’s not entirely in our heads. Lindsay made genuinely terrible choices, and Groupon’s numbers do indeed look like a trainwreck well underway, but lots of people screw up and lots of companies fail, and most of them go unnoticed. It’s not a rational Puritan thing—punishing the unworthy and praising the elect. It’s a much more fundamental, animal thing. If I can’t have what she has, then I’ll tell myself I don’t want it anyway.

We’re not going to stop celebrating people and then vilifying them. It’s what we do. But as someone who makes things, or sells things (or makes things that people sell, or sells things that people make), you shouldn’t take the hullabaloo for more than what it is. Having the media and the public turn on you doesn’t inherently mean anything. You’re not necessarily a victim, nor are you necessarily winning. Find another compass to tell you whether you’re doing well or poorly, doing right or doing wrong. The adulation or loathing of crowds is just noise. The only difference between Business Insider and TMZ is—well, actually there isn’t any.

iPads, tinkerers, and visigoths, oh my

Fraser Speirs’ analysis of tech insiders’ negative reactions to the iPad is the best I’ve read so far.

The visigoths are at the gate of the city. They’re demanding access to software. they’re demanding to be in control of their own experience of information. They may not like our high art and culture, they may be really into OpenGL boob-jiggling apps and they may not always share our sense of aesthetics, but they are the people we have claimed to serve for 30 years whilst screwing them over in innumerable ways. There are also many, many more of them than us.

While Alex Payne is absolutely right that the iPad is not a tinkerer’s machine, I think it’s not only reasonable but long overdue that users who don’t want to have to tinker won’t be required to, or, more often, as Speirs notes, rely on regular visits from a technological shaman to keep their machines working.

Yes, the iPad is optimized for consuming media, but it’s no more of a sinister inducement to consumption than a book is. The idea that a single, complex, general-purpose tool (the “computer”) has to serve so many different purposes and audiences through a single hardware interface is merely an artifact of the history of computing. It’s crazy to insist that in 2010 my mother should use the exact same tool to send email and view photos that I use to develop software.

That said, as a tinkerer myself, the prospect of a future where someone who does want to tinker is actually prohibited from doing so worries me as much as it does Payne. The fight for greater openness on the platform is justified. It feels to me like this decade’s analog to the battle over DRM in music, except in this case Apple is the RIAA. They’ll eventually open the platform, or they’ll be routed around. And I’ll be happy to tinker for the cause.

UPDATE: See Roger’s comment below for a reference to Steven Frank’s excellent piece on this very issue.

Fellow Old Worlders, I hate to tell you this: we are a minority. The question is not “will the desktop metaphor go away?” The question is “why has it taken this long for the desktop metaphor to go away?”


The iPhone is the new cigarette

This morning I was looking for a reference to back up what I assumed was by now a commonplace, which is that the iPhone is the new cigarette. Google gave me nothing relevant (neither did Bing or Cuil for that matter, so much for decorrelation). So, for the next person looking for such a reference, here it is.

The iPhone is the new cigarette. That’s it. Simple as that. You can stop reading now if you get it.

For people who smoke, the cigarette is still the cigarette. For people who don’t, the iPhone does almost everything that cigarettes do.

  1. The iPhone changes your brain chemistry. For better and for worse it makes you feel good and want more (mechanism of action be damned).
  2. The iPhone gives you an excuse to step outside and fiddle with something when you feel like not working for fifteen minutes.
  3. The iPhone gives you something to do in boring interstitial situations, like waiting in line at the store, or waiting for the bathroom, or waiting in line for the bathroom at the store.
  4. The iPhone gives you something to do with your hands in awkward situations.
  5. In really awkward situations the iPhone gives you a way to check out entirely (granted, that’s a slightly different type of cigarette).
  6. When you’re using your iPhone in public, some people will think you look sophisticated. Others will think you’re annoying.

Come to think of it, even for people who smoke, the iPhone is the new cigarette. It gives you something to do while smoking.

On Twitter, cyborgs, Mark Growden, and tentacles

Kottke’s defense of Twitter has it right, as far it goes. Things people say on Twitter are no more or less interesting than what they say on the street, or on the phone, or at home. It is like standing next to a conversing couple on the subway platform, but it isn’t just that.

I can only be on one subway platform at a time, but with Twitter and the emerging category of similar and related services oriented towards realtime, perishable information, I can, whenever and to whatever extent I choose, be on as many subway platforms as I can handle all at once. Or I can tesseract from one platform to another. We can even write our own tools to slice and dice the time and space of conversation any way it suits us.

Twitter and its ilk are technologies, no more and no less. Just as telescopes allow us to see farther than we could with the unaided eye, Twitter enhances our ability to pick up on ambient conversations. It makes us all a little bit more cyborg, and a little bit more Sookie Stackhouse too.

I’m a big fan of Mark Growden and his music. I met him at a party in Oakland almost four years ago, and since then I’ve seen him at a handful of events. With the combined magic technologies of foursquare and Twitter, I have a good chance of being able to tell you exactly where he is at any given time. Does that mean that if I know he’s buying groceries at Bi-Rite I’m going to rush down there to say hello? Not necessarily. But the fact that I could — or even more to the point, the fact that I have this invisible tentacle with a Growden-sensor on the end of it that I can tune into whenever I like — takes that much more of the edge off the alienation, or rather, the disconnection, of modern life.

So you think this ad is about you?

Everyone has them now and then – those brief and magical encounters that make you wonder what might have happened if only you’d had more time. Some just shrug and figure, “Whatever. ” Others, more obdurate, seek a second chance – an ad in the back of the local weekly. The sections go by different names: “Crossed Signals,” “Missed Connections,” “You Caught My Eye.” Call them what you will; each ad is a tender, improbable thread of yearning stretching from one person toward another. Literally. It’s one person placing an ad directed at one other person. “Starbucks on Dupont Circle 10/19, 1:30 PM, you were wearing a red tank top and blue jeans, I had a flower tattoo on my shoulder. We exchanged furtive glances over our cups.” To some it’s just silly, but to many it’s dramatic and engaging. The odds seem tiny that the intended sweetie will come across the ad and recognize his or her desired self, but lots of people place the ads anyway. And even more people read them. What’s it all about?

Stan was inspired to write a Missed Connections ad after a moving Halloween encounter. He was at a crowded party dressed in a rented lobster costume and found himself speaking with a particularly fetching mermaid. They covered a lot of ground in a short time – not just your standard likes, dislikes, hopes, and dreams, but quirky, personal stuff like that they both loved Proust to distraction and favored corduroy over latex, fetish-wise, but when he thought to get her number she was suddenly nowhere in sight. You know how it ends. He scuttled frantically through the crowd, scanning far and wide, to no avail. Never even got her name. “I don’t ordinarily place personal ads,” Stan insisted, but, well, this was different, “I just couldn’t stop thinking about her.” You’d think a smitten lobster’s chances of finding his beloved mermaid would be pretty good – it’s hard to mistake an ad like that – but she never surfaced.

Maybe the mermaid didn’t read the personals. Plenty of other folks do, including some of the people behind the scenes at the papers that run the ads. Dave Milton of the SF Bay Guardian confesses to reading Missed Connections ads avidly and regularly. “I do read them, but it makes me feel bad about myself. Secretly, I’m wishing I’ll find one that’s about me. It would make me feel good to see that, but I wish I didn’t need that kind of affirmation.” What if he really did find an ad describing him? Would he respond? “I’d be thrilled to pieces. I would definitely answer the ad. But the best part would be the time between seeing the description of me in the paper and making the date. I mean, you’re bound to be disappointed by the actual person.” Milton, though blessed with a better understanding of himself than most people, is not alone. Scores of people admit, some readily, some reluctantly, to scanning the Missed Connections for anything that could possibly be about them.

Erich Strom, a New York actor and writer, compares the appeal of Missed Connections ads to the lottery. “There’s a thrill in looking because you never know when there could be one about you. We all like to think we’re attractive to other people, and if you find one it’s like the ultimate confirmation that you are. And you have to check regularly. It’s not like anyone says to themselves, ‘I better check this week ‘cause I noticed someone was staring at me a few nights ago.’” Unlike Milton, Strom doesn’t think there’s anything to feel guilty about, although he doesn’t read the ads regularly and says he’d never answer one. “I don’t like people I don’t know. I’m like one of those house cats that takes six months to warm up to you. The ads are great though. They’re more exciting than the regular personal ads. More real, less self-conscious. You get these intense narratives: how people met, what happened, how they lost each other. If Missed Connections had existed in Shakespeare’s time he definitely would have used them in a play.” Start imagining what the Bard would have done with Missed Connections and suddenly lobsters and mermaids seem almost understated.

Stan and his beloved may never meet again, but sometimes the message does get through. Herb found himself on the receiving end of a Missed Connections ad, though he didn’t come across it on his own. Friends brought to his attention an ad that, all agreed, was undeniably directed at him. “7/16, 6 p.m., Chevron at Market and Castro. You, brown Volvo, the cutest boy in SF. I was in front of you, but you didn’t see me. I looked back, and back, and back. Will you let me wash your windows?” This is the Missed Connection at its logical extreme, more of a cathexis than a connection – an encounter that hardly qualifies as an encounter at all, one party dizzied with lust and desire, the other party almost certainly oblivious to what went down. “I’m flattered, but I don’t think I’ll call back,” Herb told me nervously, “I mean, I didn’t even see who this person was.” It’s enough to make a boy throw up his squeegee in despair. While people by the hundreds pin their hopes on a few inches of widely distributed newsprint, and others by the thousands cruise those same inches for reflections of their own sweet selves, Herb blows off his uncrossed signal like it were no big deal. If people don’t respond even when they do find the ads they’re meant to find, how’s a would-be window washer to take it?

Anecdote after anecdote gives us little cause for anything better than mute, bitter tears. Numberless and nameless legion speak woefully of ads placed to no result, or nervously of ads read and interpreted but never answered. If it’s so hard to find people, and if people don’t answer the ads anyway, why do we bother?

The official answer is simple, paradoxical, and unsatisfying. Jack Saffron, social psychologist at Stanford University, gives two likely reasons. First, he explains, “most people are horrible at conceiving of low probabilities.” We all tend, apparently, to overestimate the likelihood of unlikely things happening. Second, the numbers actually aren’t that small – statistically, Missed Connections ads really do hook people up. The problem is that any one person’s chances of netting that lost loved one are still dismally low. Why is that? Saffron sums up the statisticians’ classic “birthday paradox.” If you were to put a bunch of people in a room, you’d think the odds would be vanishingly small that any two of them would have the same birthday, right? As it turns out, if you’ve got at least 20 or 25 people, you’re almost guaranteed to find a pair with the same birthday. Sadly, however, this doesn’t increase any one person’s chances of finding a match – those odds remain a slim 365 to not very many. In other words, someone placing an ad isn’t wrong in thinking, “Hey this thing must work some of the time.” She just doesn’t count on how little chance she’s got of having it work for her. Of course all this is only part of the reason why the statistically enormous number of people with no head for statistics simply figures they’ll try it, “What the hell.” We’re talking about love and sex here, not facts and figures. There’s more going on here than just irrational misestimation.

Adrian Chan arguably knows as much about connections, missed and otherwise, as there is to know. He’s placed and responded to more than his share of personal ads (including Missed Connections), and is part owner of SF Bay Matchmaker, a web-based dating and chat service. According to Chan, Missed Connections ads aren’t about people calculating odds or desperately casting about for something, anything. The ads are about hope. “It’s the opposite of a blind date, you know what the person looks like, maybe you’ve talked to them a little, but basically you have no idea what they’re about. You felt something. You’re just hoping they felt it too, and that something will come of it.” Most people are romantics at heart, Chan figures, and if they’re really stuck on this person they’ve met, there’s more to lose by not placing an ad, so why shouldn’t they place one. “Also, I think it’s cool that we use a public medium – the newspaper – for our own private purposes. There’s a warm, friendly, small-town feel to it.” His analysis reminded of an anecdote Saffron had told me about his grandmother. She fell down outside her house one day and was unable to get up. A passing youth lent her a hand, but moved on before she had the chance to thank him. She placed an ad in the local paper, circulation 10,000, and got a call later that week from the young man who’d helped her out.

Strom had mentioned community too. “Part of what makes the ads exciting is that they’re usually in local papers. You’re all out there in the neighborhood, watching and being watched. I mean it’s a manageable number of people we’re talking about. You probably see a lot of these people every day.” He’s right. There’s actually something at stake. It’s not just a lark. There’s a substantial emotional risk involved in airing something as personal as a Missed Connection in a community forum. That so many people take that risk tells us something. It may be that the connections are never really missed at all. Whether or not we actually find who we’re looking for, or find someone looking for us, it’s the possibility of finding and being found that’s important. In the act of searching, whether placing ads or reading them, we’re already connected. The ads remind us that we are fragile and specific bodies. And whether or not they come to aught, the ads are a reassuring testament to the hope that endures in the quiet chambers of our hearts, lonely or no, as we reach out, blindly, searchingly, to one another.

Originally published in SOMA, July 1997

Guggenheim SoHo: Inside the black cube

Photo by georigami - Art has always been interactive. But in a world full of images and technologies that move and move fast, artists, curators, and critics no longer seem satisfied with art that hangs on the wall or sits on the floor. Now, they announce, interactive media have made art come alive. But digital technology is only the latest set of tools available for artists to use or misuse as they’ve been doing for centuries with technologies like charcoal and oil and marble.

Art helps us better understand ourselves and our world by telling us things we wouldn’t otherwise have guessed or confronted (or for a lucky few, by confirming things they already suspected). New technology can help art do this – amplify life for an instant – or it can get in art’s way and amplify only the technology itself. Mediascape at the Guggenheim SoHo offers a range of works that do both. After several months of renovation, the SoHo branch of the Guggenheim has reopened with a show that promises to explore the relationship between technology and culture. The relationship seems at times dysfunctional.

Walking into the Mediascape show at the Guggenheim SoHo is like walking into a storefront church cum vintage 1980s video arcade. The dark walls hide complicated machines in near-empty rooms that fill me with the same dread I used to feel at Disneyworld on rides like “It’s a Small World” floating down a shallow black river in a warehouse full of tiny singing robots. The modern art gallery has in some ways become a hermetic, almost religious environment that Brian O’ Doherty called the White Cube. The sterile power of the exhibition space threatens to upstage the presence of the art on display. The Guggenheim has created the Black Cube, a space in which the artwork is no longer in any such danger. The works themselves are the source of a soothing glow as familiar as television. Here the viewer risks fading from her own view, outmaneuvered by a high-tech, high-rent circus of dead images.

Much of the newer works in Mediascape make exuberant use of cutting-edge technologies: a bicycle the viewer pedals to control a wide-screen display of cities made up of giant letters, an entire wall of video monitors working in unison to display enormous animated cartoon animals, a piano the user plays by drawing marks with a trackball. Trackballs and keyboards and VR helmets are interfaces – ways to get information from the outside of your head to the inside and vice versa. But books, pencils, and chisels are also interfaces, and so are paintings, sculptures, installations, and happenings. Ironically, some of Mediascape’s older, lower-tech works make the most startling, compelling statements about the gap between technology and culture.

Bruce Nauman’s Raw Material: Brrr (1990) is among the simplest pieces in the show, and one of the strongest. Two video monitors and a large screen on an adjacent wall show the artist shaking his head violently from side to side as he blurts a single continuous syllable: “brrr.” Nauman’s face painfully and visibly wears the physical effort of the gesture. As with the most effective minimalist art and music, the sustained repetition, far from being monotonous, sensitizes us and gives meaning to the smallest changes in rhythm or tone. Nauman’s Video Surveillance Piece (Public Room, Private Room) (1969–70), also relatively low-tech by today’s standards, is thought-provoking as only conceptual art can be. In two rooms, one entirely sealed, a video camera pans back and forth. A monitor in each room shows a live feed from the camera in the other room. As the viewer observes the empty room the video camera in front of her reminds her that seeing also involves being seen.

The range of works in this show reveals that making an effective statement has less to do with using cutting-edge technology and more to do with successfully bringing the device to bear on the experience of being human. Vermeer, for example, used the advanced technology at his disposal, the camera obscura, to project real scenes onto his canvases as a guide while he painted. The resulting artworks still fascinate us hundreds of years later. They reward close examination by letting the viewer into the very space of the painting, letting her navigate from plane to plane, beside and behind the figures themselves.

Two works by younger artists represent the best and the worst of what can happen when artists build works around new technologies: Toshio Iwai’s Piano – As Image Media (1995) and Bill Seaman’s Passage Sets (One Pulls Pivots at the Top of the Tongue) (1994–95). Piano offers a trackball that allows the viewer to draw marks on a screen that slopes gently up from the floor to the base of a piano keyboard. The piano plays the appropriate keys as the marks scroll past it onto another screen above the piano where they become four-pointed stars that spin rapidly upwards and out of sight. Passage Sets also provides a trackball and allows the viewer to click on scrollable lists of words to create short sentence-poems. The choice of words triggers combinations of sounds, video clips, and still images.

I watched a young man sit down in front of Piano and start to draw notes. At first he looked dissatisfied with the sounds he was making, but quickly he developed an intuitive sense of how to organize the marks to create the sounds he wanted. People stopped wandering in and out of the room and listened as the young man lost himself to the machine and made music. Passage Sets offered little such gratifying feedback. The connections between the viewer’s actions and the words, sounds, and images on screen made no sense. Every choice had the same flat effect, nothing seemed more or less appropriate. Nobody stopped for very long when faced with strings of words like “standing darkness dead trees suspend a tree.”

As I walked through the gallery for the second time a woman who had just come in asked me, “Where does it start?” I pointed behind me and said, “Anywhere you want.” A few minutes later she passed by me again as I stood staring at a bank of video monitors and asked, “Now which way? That way?” Sure, the layout of museums can be confusing, but if we aren’t capable of interacting with an exhibition enough to pick our own ways from one work to the next, then Mediascape and shows like it might as well be high-culture video malls.

What makes works like Nauman’s Raw Material: Brrr, and Iwai’s Piano – As Image Media so compelling? They beat not with the perfect mechanical rhythm of pieces like Seaman’s Passage Sets, but with a varying, human rhythm. You forget that you’re dealing with a complex machine because the work makes room for you. The juxtaposition of works in Mediascape makes it clear what’s at stake, though perhaps not by design. At their best, high-tech artworks are tools that encourage us to participate in our experience of art, helping us better understand our relationship with the technology. At their worst, they dazzle us with their complexity but are interactive in name only. They keep us in the dark while trying to convince us that we are active players in a glamorous new world of digital media.