Thursday, February 19, 2009

Heinz Emigholz

This past weekend, I went to Toronto to see Heinz Emigholz's Loos Ornamental at Cinematheque Ontario. Loos is part of the director's series "Architecture as Autobiography," and features 27 of Austrian Adolf Loos' buildings and interiors (located mostly in Vienna), as they appeared to Emigholz in March and April of 2006 when he shot his footage. (Other architects profiled in the series include Americans Bruce Goff and Louis Sullivan.) Emigholz believes architecture evolves over time in relation to its context. To fully encounter a building's characteristics, you need to view it spatially and in its environment. Rather than recount an artist's life, Emigholz suggests it can be conveyed through their body of work. Loos Ornamental opens on a pile of square stones produced at the former stonecutter's original workshop, now the site of a hotel. It ends at Loos' gravesite, a simple stone cube he made himself. The progression of buildings book-ended by the stones - all shot in the order of their completion between 1899 and 1931 - reveal Loos' project to be, in part, a meditation on the square form. Loos is a controversial figure, mostly for an essay he wrote in which he decries the use of ornamentation. Typically, Loos' buildings are boxy - vast facades with a spare use of windows. This is exaggerated in Emigholz's film by his decision to shoot the sites at the tail-end of winter - there are almost no leaves on trees or ivy on vines to dress-up the otherwise simple shapes. But what's fascinating about Loos' work is the way in which the unadorned appearances of his buildings belie the complex organization of space inside. Plus, the architect made abundant use of textured glass, and heavily-grained woods and marbles that become ornate in combination, especially when compared to the austerity outside. 
It was an interesting sensation to be in the Cinematheque theatre. I don't go that often anymore, due to distance, but it was once my habit to go there several times a week (their Powell/Pressburger and Fassbinder series were among the best movie-going experiences of my life, so far). I'm struggling, as ever, to understand the decisions I make. Living at a remove from major cities makes it difficult to see films or visit museums and art galleries, ostensibly my favourite activities and the foundations of my work. Sometimes it feels like I cut off my own hands. Before moving to the country, we planned to travel to cities for cultural outings, but have too little money for frequent jaunts. Also, I'm so absorbed by doubt and worry, that the capacity I once possessed to follow my curiosity feels like it's all but vanished. I can do little now, without worrying about how much it'll cost and determining if it's justifiable. As recently as 2006, when Emigholz shot Loos Ornamental and Sean and I were living in Oakland, we bought a pamphlet published by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Society. We routinely went on self-guided walks past local buildings that define Northern California. We discovered Bernard Maybeck, and visiting his beautiful Christian Science church was a highlight, not least because I was reading Willa Cather's ghost-written biography of Mary Baker Eddy at the time. Back then, it was o.k. just to learn about something new. Now, I can talk myself out of activities almost as soon as I've conceived of them. My most recent encounter with architecture was the new, Gehry-devised Art Gallery of Ontario. The building's front looks impenetrable, which is in keeping with Gehry's style. It also suited my blocked state of mind. 
Being part of the Cinematheque also audience reminded me how important it is that they show hard-to-see films and revivals (Loos Ornamental has never been distributed commercially and the screening was free!). I don't always know why I moved away from being part of something so contributive - either as an active journalist or a non-profit arts staffer. I think it's because I want my work to be independent, and to originate organically from pure motivations. But when you pull yourself away from colleagues and organized objectives, you lose an external system against which to measure your progress. On my own, it's hard to tell if I'm getting anywhere or to even remember why I insist on solitude at all. Lately, I'm concerned I engage too readily in acts of self-sabotage... too little confidence to stake my claim. I'm saddened to think that instead of taking risks and building a life out of the ordinary, I've gone off into a corner to war with myself over ambitions I can barely state. 
This is why I gravitate towards people like Emigholz, who look at art in its context and over time. We inhabit a society of our own devising, and its structures embody ideas about living that must constantly respond to change. My dreams for myself differ from what they were ten years ago, but certain influences and passions remain. When I got home from Toronto, I realized I'd been following Emigholz's work since 2002 when I first wrote about it as part of my New York Film Festival coverage. My interest in film, architecture, and hand-made art continues but, frustratingly, I still haven't fully arrived at the most appropriate form and style of its expression. Nevertheless, I include my previous writing on Emigholz out of a sheer need to show myself that I haven't abandoned everything I hold dear. Staying the course is a hard-won victory, especially when you've set yourself the added task of laying the path before you can actually walk it. The paragraphs below are excerpted from longer pieces.
Inspired by film's capacity to record and preserve, German filmmaker Heinz Emigholz traveled around Switzerland and the Midwest to complete Maillart's Bridges and Sullivan's Banks. Both are biographical portraits of twentieth century architects (Rene Maillart and Louis Sullivan) as represented by the bridges and banks they designed, presented as they exist today in order of creation. Emigholz's stationary shots capture the manner in which these artists expressed themselves personally within the perameters of engineering. Grouping structures that would otherwise require weeks of travel to view, he condenses the partial biographies of his respective subjects in these compact films, which run to 24 and 38 minutes. In so doing, he's created the cinematic equivalent of an idea expressed by Sullivan in his lectures, when he speaks of our potential capacity to intuit life through the man-made forms around us. 
Emigholz's The Basis of Make-Up (II) adopts a different approach to biography. Again working from sync-sound footage shot with a fixed camera in multiple locations, the filmmaker meticulously records the contents of 69 notebooks compiled over 16 years - one part of the director's own creative output. We're shown every page in every book, in shots each lasting a few seconds at the most. The handwritten texts are impossible to read, but we glimpse hundreds of image clipped from magazines and newspapers, representing years of pop cultural detritus that Emigholz pasted onto virtually every page. Like the monuments in his architectural films, this collection of writing and collage effectively turns The Basis of Make-Up (II) into a profile of a man in dialogue with his own culture. Emigholz has taken Sullivan's message to heart, ensuring his own ideas will endure because they've been given material form, catalogued on paper and recorded definitively on film.
In Schindler's Houses, Heinz Emigholz attempts to show how Austrian architect Rudolf Schindler envisioned an ideal for living through the physical organization of space. His mature work, done in Los Angeles during its emergence as a major urban area from the Twenties to the Forties, tried to compliment the idealism of the nascent city by designing low-cost houses out of modest materials for bohemian clients. Maintaining that structures evolve and must be evaluated in the context of their surroundings, Emigholz counters the tendency in architectural photography to portray buildings in their entirety, in isolation. Schindler's Houses presents 40 buildings, filmed as they are, crowded by looming billboards, roadways, and draping power lines, and accompanied by each site's ambient sounds - wind in the trees, distant voices, occasionally the ocean, but mainly traffic. He shoots the grounds and interiors of residences in sections in accordance with the way we perceive space cumulatively and by physical orientation. In so doing, he captures Schindler's signature characteristics - the delineation of three-dimensional space and incorporation of the outdoors - as they're affected by weather and light conditions. 
But by spotlighting them, Emigholz has in a sense rescued Schindler's houses from the city's cacophony of voices and notoriously haphazard development. But the regrettable deterioration of some of them can't be blamed on the city. Schindler used concrete in his early work and it hasn't aged well. Does this bad choice diminish his artistry? 

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The We of Me - Press Mission Statement

The We of Me publishes pleasing, precise hand-made books in small editions, assembled with quality materials, and designed with the synthesis of beauty and function in mind. My books feature unique cultural essays (and, eventually, short fiction?) by a variety of writers, accompanied by original artwork that compliments and magnifies the text. I champion art that embodies honesty, simplicity, and clarity. The books' appearances are neat and consistent, proving you can achieve lovelier results from ingenuity and hand-eye coordination than from soulless, industrial assembly. They're meant to be touched, admired, and returned to repeatedly. I want my books to be collectible. 
I believe devoutly that books are ideal vessels for sharing ideas - they're compact, inexpensive to make, and infinitely variable. I take great care with my books so as to honour the patience and generosity needed to read, write, and make great art. I want my roster and readership to be reassured and inspired by my full commitment to documenting contemporary imaginative life. I value human expression above all else. 
The We of Me offers an alternate route to publication for artists motivated by the personal, creative urge over the bottom line, mass appeal bent of corporate magazines and book dealers. My contributors will never be asked to compromise or append their work to advertisements. We will not be ruled by stapled folds, currency, PR hype, or trendiness! We'll rally around curiosity, imagination, humour, and engagement with the world instead! We'll celebrate and spread the word about moving, challenging film, photography, printmaking, painting, sculpture, television, illustration, design, music, and writing! For The We of Me, these enterprises constitute proof of life. We're alive with the desire to share what we think. 
The press name is borrowed from a Carson McCullers' heroine - the curious and vital adolescent Frankie Addams - who coins the phrase to describe the many sides of herself. It fits my point of view. I think all people are conglomerates of their varied selves, and that artists must know and draw from these personal versions to produce their best work. The creative act gives these selves form - The We of Them. For a publisher, books produced over time represent who you are, your position in response to the world, a concise statement made up of multiple parts: The is The We of Me. 

Printing Project - December '08

Sean and I undertook a printing project in December of last year so we could participate in a local craft show. Using some research I'd done about the depiction of the human-animal bond in art, Sean created images derived from a few, beloved films. I printed them using a technique called Polyester Plate Lithography I learned during a workshop at the fantastic Open Studio in Toronto. Since I don't have a press (yet!), they were all generated using the "rub-with-wooden-spoon" method. This explains, in part, why they look like linocuts - we figured bolder lines could be more successfully rendered. Using the images, I made editioned prints, cards, and covers for books I bound by hand (I'd been wanting to experiment with printing on bookcloth for a long while). Overall, the Polyester Plates worked beautifully and we were pleased with the results. I'm hoping they'll serve as a stop-gap method for printing text (you can write on them directly with a ball point pen or put them through a laser printer), before (if!) I move on to the more desirable letterpress technique. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


I find that learning new things almost always involves serendipity. For example, the book I'm reading about Emily Dickinson frequently mentions Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Ralph Waldo Emerson (I also recently read Woolf's Flush). Now, wherever I go, these two seem to come up. I attended a funeral on the weekend and both Barrett Browning and Emerson were quoted liberally. Lately, I've been mentally organizing a road trip I'd like to take in the Spring. I plan to publish a book on house museums and historical villages, the constraint being that the spots I visit have got to be reasonable driving distance from my house. I've long been interested in seeing Roycroft (near Buffalo), so this will likely be one of the book's subjects (also, a Shaker village in New York state, the Oneida museum, and the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Mass... I'd LOVE to go to Haworth to the Bronte Museum but, obviously, that's not local and I'm kind of anti flying these days). I've read a little bit about Roycroft's founder, Elbert Hubbard, who admired and was hugely influenced by Booker T. Washington. Then, who should there be a profile of in the New Yorker but BTW? Anyway, Hubbard wrote a mission statement or modes of conduct for Roycroft that are lovely and, I think, values I share (apart from, maybe, the God stuff). Here they are, should you want to embody them yourself:
I believe that we are all sons of God and it doth not yet appear what we shall be.
I believe in freedom... social, economic, domestic, political, mental, spiritual.
I believe in every man minding his own business.
I believe that men are inspired today as much as they ever were.
I believe in sunshine, fresh air, friendship, calm sleep, beautiful thoughts, and the paradox of success through failure. 
I believe in the purifying process of Sorrow; and I believe that Death is a manifestation of Life. 
I believe the Universe is planned for good. 

Walton Ford and Natural History

I read a fascinating Calvin Tomkins article in the New Yorker about painter Walton Ford. NB: Please be advised that I'll likely refer exclusively to the New Yorker as it's the only magazine I subscribe to. I have a hate/hate relationship with magazines, apart from those that are contributed to/edited by my friends, of course! Anyway, Ford paints monumental watercolours of animals in the tradition of Audubon and other past explorers who travelled to remote areas to document the forms of life present. Stunningly realistic, they're also allegorical - meditations on colonialism as represented by the practice of killing animals on their native turf to study and share them with a public unlikely to encounter them in their habitat. According to Ford, Audubon killed more animals than he documented... shooting birds in flight from the decks of ships just to watch them fall in the water. The intersection in natural history of artistic rendering for the sake of spreading knowledge and the ease with which animals are sacrificed in the process interests me enormously. I've been studying this permutation of our relationship with animals, among others, for awhile now. Tomkins' article reminded me of Harriet Ritvo's book The Animal Estate, in which she chronicles the evolution of attitudes towards animals during the Victorian period in England (and how these inform our current perspective). Ritvo focuses on areas like agriculture, the rise of dog breeding and kennel clubs, overseas big game hunting, and the origins of zoos. She explains that zoos offered visitors the opportunity "... to enjoy simultaneously the thrill of proximity to wild animals and the happy sense of secure superiority produced by their incarceration." I expect the practice of natural history (particularly in its earliest incarnations) provides the same thing - that animals are interesting in so far as they measure our domination of a world we don't fully understand. And as society develops, we become increasingly removed from the animal kingdom, resulting in an "us and them" relationship that's unnatural and unnecessary. It's a variation on a fear of the other. Since animals possess instincts and skills we don't share, our historical reaction has been to control them either by killing them, or harnessing their abilities and using them to our advantage. For the Victorians, for example, elephants were admired precisely because they were seen as willing to submit to human superiority. Even if this is true, we've never respected either this willingness, or the work that animals do for us. Proof: to validate his own work/experimentation, Thomas Edison electrocuted a circus elephant on camera. One of the first instances in which an animal appeared on film amounted to its brutal, barbaric death.  

Current Reading

As ever, I've got a few books on the go. I've been making my way through Virginia Woolf's 5-volume diary for a long time, drawing it out to savour it (plus I know how it ends). Surprisingly, one of the most fundamental and tumultuous relationships it documents was with her cook Nellie Boxall. So, I was interested to read a book review in the Atlantic Monthly about Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History About Domestic Life in Bloomsbury by Alison Light (not to be confused with actor Judith Light who appeared on Who's the Boss?). Among other things, Light discusses the absence of servant life in literature and the difficulty someone like Woolf would have had documenting it, given the tricky business of writing outside one's class. This immediately made me think of Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton, which would seem to contradict this point. Anyway, as we all know, wives of artists are often solely responsible for mundane life tasks in order to provide ample space for their husbands to be great (see: Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, Alberto Giacometti). In Woolf's case, this role was played by Nellie (and, to some degree, Leonard), who cooked and cleaned so Virginia could work. In my own life, I find it hard to occupy a serene space in which to think and create, and then come down from it to get the groceries, do some laundry, make dinner - and I don't even have kids. It's a difficult balancing act and I have the utmost respect for writers who've worked it out (Barbara Kingsolver and who else?). The answer lies in how much value you place on getting the work done, as opposed to doing laundry or cooking food - conviction that what you might write will make it worth prioritizing the effort. I struggle with this so much. Despite considerable obstacles, Samuel Johnson stayed the course, as James Boswell outlines in The Life of Samuel Johnson. (So many years after completing an English degree the taint has finally left this book and I can enjoy it for its own sake). But do men, universally, find it easier to justify their work? Johnson even had Boswell to record the minutiae. I guess Emily Dickinson figured out how to get her writing done, but at what cost? I'm reading Alfred Habegger's My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. While it might not be the definitive bio., it's what was available in the used bookstore in town. I'm not familiar with Dickinson's poems - I don't read much poetry - but she's exactly the kind of artist I like (to the extent that we can know her)... naive, compulsive, self-made, principled, original, mysterious. And by speaking of my own writing difficulties in terms of these great, revered artists, I don't mean to suggest that I equate my own modest enterprise with their abilities or accomplishments. But, I find my mentors in art, for lack of having them in real, lived life. Reading could lead me towards resolutions I badly want and need.