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Friday, Aug 24, 2007

Ken Goldberg, a pioneer of telerobotic art projects on the Internet, has just become the Director of the Berkeley Center for New Media. I’ve been following, and writing about, his projects for over ten years now, since we first met at one of Peter Lunenfeld’s Mediawork gatherings at Art Center in Los Angeles. He’d been a professor with the Industrial Engineering and Operations Research department at Berkeley and had a dual identity: as a scientist he invented new tools, and as an artist he found cultural applications for them and critiqued them. His branch of robotics is telepresence, which grew out of the second world war atomic bomb project’s need to work with dangerous objects at a distance. Telepresence was brought into the popular realm when Dr. Robert Ballard’s remotely operated robots discovered and explored the wreck of the Titanic. Ken developed a theory, ‘telepistemology’, to explore what we can know from a distance, and he’s wary of how people unquestioningly accept the veracity of what they find on the internet. “I’m trying to facilitate the resumption of disbelief,” he says.


The Telegarden. Image courtesy of Ken Goldberg.

The Telegarden. Image courtesy of Ken Goldberg.


Among his projects are The Telegarden, where people planted and tended a community garden in a large flowerbox, by controlling a robot arm over the internet; Dislocation of Intimacy, a meditation on how both Plato’s Cave Parable, and Duchamp’s surrealist art translate to the internet; recent explorations of surveillance technologies in an anonymous monitoring system after John Baldessari’s ‘bubbles’ project, that obscured the faces of the people he photographed; and Ballet Mori, where San Francisco Ballet principal Muriel Maffre improvised a dance to a live feed of activity from the Hayward earthquake fault—translated into sound—on the 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.


His first release as Director of the Berkeley Center for New Media reminds us just how crucial scientific innovation is in shaping the direction and content of media.


A medium, from the Latin for “middle element”, acts as a lens between observer and object, or between subjects. New Media refers to media that are discovered, invented, or adopted during a particular point or period in history. The alphabet was a new medium in 1800 BCE; subsequent new media include the printing press, telescope, camera, X-Ray, and the electric light. Contemporary new media range from Wifi to Wii to Wikipedia. Lenses both transmit and distort. As Sophocles observed, “nothing vast enters the life of motals without a curse.” One goal of the BCNM is to highlight and critically examine the opportunities and risks associated with new media, and to consider how they can constructively benefit education, political engagement, privacy and aesthetic experience.


Organizations such as the Berkeley Center for New Media help compensate for the way that the mainstream media is failing us through its lack of understanding and involvement with the process of the invention of new tools and lack of engagement with the artists and critics who link the new storytelling methods with ancient traditions and put timeless symbols and parables, that guide and sustain us, into context for the time were living in. There’s just a restless anxiety, a fear exhibited by media organizations, that by not grasping what’s happening they’ll be bumped off the gravy train as it hurtles down the information highway. Wired reports in it’s August issue that marketing and advertising executives are rushing to be a part of the synthetic environment “Second Life”, afraid to miss out on the hot new phenomenon, even though it’s becoming apparent that it’s not living up to its hype. “It’s as if the moon suddenly had oxygen. Nobody wants to miss out,” wrote Frank Rose. “Ever since BusinessWeek ran a breathless cover story titled “My Virtual Life” more than a year ago, reporters have been heralding Second Life as the here-and-now incarnation of the fictional Metaverse that Neal Stephenson conjured up 15 years ago in Snow Crash. (Wired created a 12-page “Travel Guide” last fall.) Unfortunately, the reality doesn’t justify the excitement.” In the same issue it was Martha Stewart who proved to be the tech savvy one, with hints on making a digital sound system disappear in the home, and how to manage banks of battery charging devices, by showing an awareness that technology is for communications.  “I think we are insane,” she said. “I used to get 120 to 140 phone calls a day. And now rarely does the phone ring — other than a few archaic friends who call me — because of the BlackBerry…. I think it’s awful. My daughter emails me. When your daughter starts to email you instead of talk to you… It’s horrible. You cannot forget human communication.”


“New media can transform how we perceive, learn, communicate and experience the world,” says Ken Goldberg. “What is ‘new’ is accelerating rapidly with emerging technologies, yet remains deeply rooted in powerful aesthetic, cultural and political forces.”


 


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Thursday, Aug 23, 2007


Sometimes, you have to forgive a subject’s more sensational elements. While a documentary is supposed to be, first and foremost, a work of plainspoken truths, there are elements inherent in any exploration that tend to unintentionally glamorize or glorify issues. Take Michael Moore’s recent SiCKO. Sure, people can argue that the filmmaker manipulates situations to satisfy his own, idealized agenda, but when the material is as mangled as the US Health Care system, the reality is always going to override the outrage. It’s a similar problem facing first timer Jason Kohn. Tackling the reign of terror flowing throughout South American stronghold Brazil, a fear based on a fracturing class system, high level political corruption, and a freakish fad of kidnappings for quick cash, he sometimes delivers more histrionics than hard facts. But Manda Bala –translated, “Send a Bullet” – believes whole heartedly in its exotic exposé, and for the most part, it wins us over as well.


Similar to the stance taken directly after 9/11, when antibiotics and duck tape streamed off store shelves (in anticipation of another attack), wealthy Brazilians have taken to tapping into a massive cottage industry of security. We hear tales told by businessmen and big wigs about daily abduction attempts, and as a result, classes in personal protection (including REAL defensive driving) and car bulletproofing are all the rage. They represent a status symbol of sorts, a way to differentiate the important people living in Sao Paolo’s futuristic high rises from the fringe factions metering out a meager living inside the ghetto slums. Kohn connects this Wild West level of criminality with a famous political corruption case. Permanent government fixture Jader Barbalho managed to skim more than 2 BILLION dollars off the top of the Brazilian coffers, thanks in part to a bogus Amazon development fund and a frog farm that functioned as a money laundering scheme. Though hounded by the Courts and the special police task forces, he remains a powerful Teflon titan.


Interspersed throughout this class structure symbolism is the sickening underside of all this body snatching. The desperate criminals, wanting to prove that they mean business, make a habit of chopping of the ears of their victims. It is these souvenirs, along with cruel and condemning notes that figure into every citizen’s nightmares. A famed plastic surgeon, who specializes in ocular reconstruction, explains his burgeoning practice, while an actual victim recounts her maiming at the hands of some heinous cutthroats (it happened during a marathon showing of Alfred Hitchcock films, no less). The final straw suggesting a link between all these situations is an actual sitdown with an authentic abductor. Considering himself a kind of Robin Hood for his shanty town (“when they can’t afford medicine, I buy it for them”) we are supposed to see the connection between poverty’s protection of the gangster, and a failed electorate securing an obviously crooked Congressman’s greed. As long as they keep their people happy, the police will be kept at much more than arm’s length.


Granted, for most of Manda Bala, the links are limited and without context. Kohn prefers to build a puzzle rather that spell everything out, so the first few minutes spent on a slightly disgusting frog farm appear to make no sense. Similarly, our villain is introduced in an offhand, almost slight manner. He’s called a criminal by several people, but it’s not until Kohn explains his failed assistance organization, SUDAM, that we see how horrible Barbalho’s acts really are. Then the tie-in to the amphibian agriculture is established, and things begin to make sense. In essence, Manda Bala wants to view Brazil as an emerging international power, an overpopulated place of possible prosperity riddled with the frequently foul growing pains of any soon to be superpower. Kohn wisely avoids all the culture shock, the abhorrent obsession with beauty (and the surgical manipulation of same), as well as the rampant materialism in the region. Instead, this is a story about immorality of the highest level – between people and people, and citizens and their social structure.


As an apprentice to Errol Morris, Kohn should have recognized that a narrower focus would serve this material well. After all, he stumbled upon a potential superstar in Dr. Avelar. Not afraid to take credit for almost every medical discovery involved in his profession, he represents the best of both narrative worlds. On the one hand, his practice revolves around rebuilding the faces of those kidnapped and scarred. We see, first hand, the kind of scalpel and cartilage miracles he can create. On the other hand, he’s rich, and as a wealthy member of Sao Paolo’s elite, he runs the risk of having himself (or more likely, his family) abducted. So he extols the virtues of his many bodyguards, pimped out – if high profile – car, and his secluded country retreat. In this one character, all the elements the director hopes to discuss in this documentary are present. Instead of trying to manipulate four separate storylines, this one significant player could have provided a fulcrum for a clearer conversation.


Still, Manda Bala is unbelievably effective, the kind of film that gets you wondering when these horrible inhumane practices will finally reach the Northern Hemisphere. While there’s a much greater police presence in the US than in Brazil (a startling statistic states that for the 20 million citizens in Sao Paolo, there is a kidnapping task force of only 800), the abduction tactic is reminiscent of the car jacking craze and home invasion phenomenon of the late ‘90s. It speaks to a brazenness of the new criminal, the kind that sees the end goal without ever once taking into consideration the consequences – legally or ethically. While it may seem silly to say this, most crime prevention is based on the deterrent quality of laws. The theory states that people will tend to avoid felonious acts (especially in cases of murder and drug dealing) because the penalties will be excessive and severe.


But with a clear culture of corruption seeping through all manner of South American society, and a message that states that even the most obvious acts will go unpunished, the opposite is occurring. If politicians can prosper and profit without feeling the pinch of the police, why should the more desperate and dependent care? After all, they have the backing of the vast majority of the population (the poor won’t be traded for cash anytime soon) and with the aforementioned acts of goodwill, they tend to be borough heroes.  Indeed, Kohn argues that the newfangled industries that cater to the wealthy’s nervous needs actually feed into the problem. As the targets become warier of the criminal’s ways, the bad guys switch up and shift their attention. In the end, it’s a vicious cycle that suggests there really is no end in sight.


Even with its occasional faults, Manda Bala does what documentaries do best – illuminate an intellectual or social situation that our otherwise narrow Western viewpoint would never even consider. The visual beauty in the film – Brazil is one of the most inviting looking regions in the entire world – contrasted with the cynical, almost comic approach to the problems, lends to moments of well earned epiphany, as well as frequently flops back into directorial self-indulgence. The story of how the influential of Sao Paolo came to this fraudulent conclusion makes for an incredibly insightful experience. Here’s hoping the eventual reform movement gets as much prescient attention. 



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Thursday, Aug 23, 2007
by PopMatters Staff
PopMatters sponsor: Six Degrees Records

Gaudi + Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Bethe Bethe Kese Kese [MP3]
     


Blending the imcomparable vocals of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with traditional instrumentation and a full spectrum of reggae and dub elements, Gaudi has sensitively created a set of completely new tracks from a collection of recently discovered and rare studio sessions, recorded in Pakistan in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Dub Qawwali once again brings to life one of the most powerful and moving voices of our time in an exciting new context.


Les Savy Fav
The Equestrian [MP3]
     


The Cave Singers
Seeds of Night [MP3]
     


Lisa Germano
Paper Doll [MP3]
     


The Mendoza Line
Aspect of an Old Maid” (Alternate Version) [MP3]
     



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Thursday, Aug 23, 2007

Was Vietnam like this? Every month, it seems, heavier and heavier tomes about the Iraq War are deposited on the nation’s bookshelves. Although they all have different wrinkles and unique takes on the subject, they can mostly be boiled down to a number of boldface observations, worthy of much discussion on the talk shows and blogs which have to pass for the common square these days:


1) How We Screwed Up
2) Who Screwed Up
3) We Need To Stop Screwing Up


By the time this is all over—a helpful piece of prognostication which has yet to show up in any of these tomes—the Iraq War could well end up being the most documented foreign-policy disaster in American history; and all of it being done while the fiasco was still going on.


Winning the Right Warby Philip H. GordonTimes BooksSeptember 2007, 224 pages, $24

Winning the Right War
by Philip H. Gordon
Times Books
September 2007, 224 pages, $24


Which brings me to yet another one of these books on the disaster, Philip H. Gordon’s Winning the Right War, which is worthy of your attention for a couple of reasons. First, Gordon doesn’t feel he needs to waste a lot of time on screwup nos. 1 and 2, rightly figuring that this is well-plowed territory at this stage. Second, he’s interested in finding a solution, not just pointing out how far we currently are from one. Gordon’s not much of an ideologue, being a senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institute who once served on the National Security Council and now teaches graduate classes in international studies at Johns Hopkins and pens learned prose on the world situation in his spare time. In short, he’s a wonk, but strangely for his species one who also seems interested in communicating with people who don’t live and die by the latest policy papers or declassified intelligence documents. His book is a briskly-written, short (160-odd pages, not including notes), pocket-sized manual for a foreign policy based not on bluster or ideology but in rationality and smart self-interest.


As is clear from the title, the main thrust of Winning the Right War is identifying where we went wrong and how to steer us back onto the right course. Or, as Gordon simply puts it, “The war on terror has not gone as planned because President Bush launched the wrong war.” The wrong war (meaning, for the most part, our interminable military adventure in Iraq) was launched, Gordon writes, because the threat was misunderstood at a fundamental level. When the president mischaracterizes the reasons behind the terrorist acts that launched the war in such a basic way by thinking it happened because “they hate our freedom,” it’s difficult to see how anything could proceed correctly afterward.


Gordon persuasively argues that that misunderstanding by both Bush and his neo-con enablers helps feed into their (incorrect, he thinks) belief that the struggle against terrorism is an epochal one with no greys to be seen. He quotes arch neo-con Richard Perle and former Bush speechwriter David Frum from their book An End to All Evil—whose absurd title really says it all—saying that in the fight against terrorism there is not only “no middle ground” but only two choices for an end result: “victory or holocaust.” A better way of going about things just might be understanding that such juvenile oversimplifications will give us nothing but unending fear and disappointment. In strong, simple strokes, Gordon lays out the case for a long-term, Cold War-styled campaign against terrorism which utilizes every power at our disposal—economic, cultural, and diplomatic—to showcase America as a country to be admired instead of just feared, instead of our current approach of monolithic militarism. He also suggests, in not so many words, that some people need to just grow up: “Like violent crime, deadly disease, and other scourges, [terrorism] can be reduced and it can be contained, but it is unlikely ever to be totally eliminated.”


Gordon’s book is quite likely to be ignored by both sides in the debate, too gloomy for the pro-war folks (though, as we’ve recently heard, they don’t like to read anyway), and not nearly angry enough for the Get Out Now crowd. But that’s the problem with enourmous bloody clusterfucks like Vietnam and Iraq—people tend to get emotional.


Read the introduction to Winning the Right War here.


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Thursday, Aug 23, 2007

Comedian Doug Benson is one of the great comics you have never heard of. Previously, he appeared on Comedy Central Presents, VH1’s Best Week Ever, and the comedy classic Mr. Show. Recently, Benson was one of the finalists on Last Comic Standing, but was eliminated with Matt Kirshen. Doug, along with fellow comedians Arj Barker and Tony Camin, wrote the off-Broadway comedy, The Marijuana-Logues. As Benson’s popularity increases, we will hopefully see more of him in the future.


Doug Benson’s I Love Movies podcast from Handheld Comedy:
with Brian Posehn, Bill Dwyer, Graham Elwood, and Paul F. Tompkins
with David Cross
with Zach Galifianakis


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