Shades of Old Detroit

art, Cabinet of Wonders, history, moments in time, place

I just came across this while looking for something else in Google images: a project by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, called The Ruins of Detroit, a 5-year collaboration between 2005 and 2010.  This is part of what they have to say about the work:

“Detroit, industrial capital of the XXth Century, played a fundamental role shaping the modern world. The logic that created the city also destroyed it. Nowadays, unlike anywhere else, the city’s ruins are not isolated details in the urban environment. They have become a natural component of the landscape. Detroit presents all archetypal buildings of an American city in a state of mummification. Its splendid decaying monuments are, no less than the Pyramids of Egypt, the Coliseum of Rome, or the Acropolis in Athens, remnants of the passing of a great Empire.”

My father grew up in Detroit in the 1930s and 1940s, worked in the auto factories during the summer, and went to the grand movie houses during the height of the movie era.  I have always wanted to visit the Detroit of his youth, and looking at these pictures is, in some ways, like looking at him: under the age are traces of a marvelous youth, a grace and power that still speak to us, despite the passage of time.  It’s both breathtaking and heartbreaking to see these remains of another era.  Particularly, I find the image of the theatre to be beautiful and sad.

Adele Blanc-Sec Comes to the Screen!

comics, culture, media, moments in time, Personal, Ruminations

Okay, you-all probably already heard about this, given that the movie has already been released all over Europe, but I only found out about it this morning. After all, I’ve been busy building a house. Nevertheless… peel me off the ceiling!

I am absolutely over the moon. Thank you, Luc Besson!!! I have been a fan of Adele Blanc-Sec for nearly 30 years, if you can believe it: I found one of the comics in a store the very first time I went to France. It was a comic book – but it had naked breasts! And a strong woman protagonist who smoked and pulled guns on people! And it took place in the early 1900’s, with all the wonderful fin de siecle architecture and early-century atmosphere! I’d never seen anything like it – the whole thing just blew my young mind. And I learned a lot of French trying to figure out what was going on.

This series of books, originally written by Jacques Tardi in 1972, is a hu-u-uge reason why I love Steampunk today. It made the most incredible impression on my young mind, and I spent many years hunting down first French, then English versions of the books. They have been hard to find, and I loved them a lot – and by extension, I learned to love Tardi. And now, thanks to the movie, Fantagraphics says they will be bringing out new English translations this fall. This sounds exciting, but it’s only Volume 1 – the others will follow later (I hope).

This is a very long time coming, but I am redeemed! Bwahahaha!

Check it out:

Unfortunately, according to IMDb, the film seems to have no release dates in any English-speaking countries. It’s not clear why this is, but I encourage all to write to the distribution company and demand to know when they will bring this awesome-looking film to the English-speaking world. In the UK, that would be Optimum Releasing, but I haven’t found anything for North America yet. It seems like the delay in announcing it is pretty long. I just hope they’re not bickering about the bath scene or something (argh).

Thanks to the Steampunk Home for finding this!

Slashfilm has some photos here

And here are also Two reviews one of which doesn’t like it so much and the other which does. I don’t care – I see scenes, even in the trailer, that I remember from the book, and it makes me childishly happy, regardless!

On Utopias and the Hand

Cabinet of Wonders, contemporary, culture, making stuff, moments in time, politics

This year, in an effort to get the count in so our school could get more accurate funding, I became a census enumerator for the Non Response Follow Up (NRFU) part of the census operation.

It was interesting because, being someone who moved back to the area in which I grew up, I finally got to go down all the roads I’d wondered about as a kid — and explored the outer reaches of Last Chance Road, which winds and bumps for eight miles or more into the back country, unpaved all the way. Some of it requires four wheel drive just to be able to get over the lumpy terrain or up the super steep hills. People there live in all kinds of interesting situations.

When I told other census workers I was going up Last Chance, they looked at me in awe. “Aren’t you afraid to go up there?” one person asked me. “I had to go there to find houses. Brrr,” and she shuddered. Other people had similar reactions. “Be careful,” one person told me, as if I might not come back.

However, I knew a great many of the people who live back there. Some of them are teachers at the local school, and a great many have kids who go to school with my children. The larger majority of them are people who wanted to own their own land and their own homes, who wanted to grow gardens and live in nature, but could not afford to do it in fancier “rural” neighborhoods like Bonny Doon — which has city garbage service, post boxes, and a bus line. Instead, they opt to drive in and out the five or six miles of rutted dirt road to their houses in the knowledge they can live their lives undisturbed, without a mortgage or a crazy lifestyle to support it.

Some of them have been there from the beginning. One of the teachers, for example, has a half-adobe house with hand-hewn beams and lives in a valley rich in creek-bottom soil. The garden, and the plants and flowers all around their house are like a fairy tale — the result of more than 35 years of hard work. They built their house themselves, with no hired help, and it’s a lovely work of art, like a house out of the Brothers Grimm.

A Low Impact Woodland Home – but not from here. This one’s in Wales…

Another family homesteaded a piece of property where the soil wasn’t quite so rich, but 36 years on the garden is extraordinary: fruit trees and bowers of roses, vegetables and one of the most beautiful hand-built log houses I’ve ever seen. It took three and a half years to build, hauling the trees in from the forest, peeling them and setting them; cutting the floorboards and making kitchen cabinets from hand-cut boards without the benefit of power tools.

Other houses perch on hillsides with extraordinary views, tucked among the manzanita; and there was one amazing treehouse I came across that towered over a hundred feet up in a huge tree, a three-tiered platform with arguably the most breathtaking vistas anywhere.

Some of the houses there are newer, and built with less creative endeavors in mind, of modern trucked-in materials; there are even all-mod-con trailers parked here and there in the woods. But they have the same idea in mind: a beautiful place, undisturbed by your neighbors. Even people who live only a few yards away from each other don’t bother each other, except to say “hi” when you are getting in and out of your car. The unwritten rule is that they are all out here for one basic reason: to be left alone to live their lives. How that makes these people scary, I can’t imagine. I suppose the outside reaction to their life-choices says more about the people who are scared than it does about the people they are scared of.

I wasn’t part of the 1960’s and early 1970’s ideology which some of the old-timers up Last Chance have managed to successfully embody. However, my parents were. They were a bit old to be hippies, but they had a creative (some would say bohemian) outlook which fit well with the can-do attitude of the times. In 1967 they built one of the first summer craft schools in the United States and called it Big Creek Pottery. It was more than a place to go to learn to throw pots; it was a place where people discovered themselves, dropped some of the pre-existing ideas of who they were. That sounds cheesy, but think about it: they learned how to build a kiln; they learned the chemistry of glaze formulas; they had lectures and slide shows and demonstrations by some of the leading craftspeople of the time. And they stepped out of their lives for a moment, into a place in the country, where there was hand-cooked food, two acres of vegetable garden, goats, chickens (fresh eggs!), and all the stars in the world to look at when they stayed up at night. It was idyllic, and it was hard not to go home changed.

Most of my early adulthood was spent coming to terms with the fact that adult live would never be like that. The eighties and nineties were enough to teach me that those days might never return. However, now I’ve come back to the place I grew up I’m finding new generations of believers in the idyll: this area is rife with organic farms, and new crops of idealists keep Last Chance alive and kicking. The can-do attitude has not died.

Wavy Gravy

This summer my children went to Camp Winnarainbow, a circus camp which was started by 1960’s icon Wavy Gravy. I sent them there because it sounded fun, learning stiltwalking, trapeze, tightrope, juggling, you name it. When they came back changed, I couldn’t help thinking of Big Creek Pottery and wondering what experiences they’d had in their time away. My younger daughter, given to fits of evil genius which tended to ruin her sister’s life, suddenly was making an effort to be sympathetic and good-hearted. The older daughter seemed calmer, and talked about wanting to do acting. She’d never wanted to be onstage in front of lots of people before.

Winnarainbow’s slogan is “Toward the Fun,” a humorous take on the Sufi expression “Toward the One.” And as it happens, there is another agenda here: one of giving children a safe place to go and explore parts of themselves they don’t get to be with every day — without fear of being made fun of or the sense that they are weird. There is a whole tent devoted to costumes (one drawer is labeled “gorilla parts”): spangly things, wigs, silly hats, ball gowns, makeup. Children can access this treasure house at will, and often wander around with costume parts on as part of the everyday routine. The Tornado of Talent goes on almost nightly, and everyone gets to show what they can do. My younger daughter, who had been bullied at school this last year, discovered an insane talent for improv — when I got there, strangers would come up to me and tell me she had the best sense of humor in the camp — and is now putting that talent to use practicing comebacks for the bullying remarks she might encounter next year.

The camp is associated with Patch Adams, and some of the counselors have been Clown Ambassadors to other countries. Their stated philosophy is to teach responsibility for one’s own behavior, and develop confidence, inner security, and appropriate self expression; to value the uniqueness of each individual within a diversity of backgrounds; and “to provide a training ground to nurture leaders for a peaceful, harmonious and sustainable culture.”

I’m not an advocate of backwards-looking thinking. I don’t believe we should always be remembering the “Good Old Days” and wishing we could go back. But I do believe in learning from our past. There are a lot of failure stories from the 1960s: hungry people abandoning their attempts at self-sufficiency; communes where people had impossible falling-outs; the sexual revolution backfiring as women who didn’t want to sleep with every living being were told they were “uptight.”

At the same time it can be awfully tempting to look back and see a time with fewer electronic devices, when we weren’t all expecting Internet access and people had so very much time to actually build things and make things – and talk to each other face to face. The loss of hand-work as a regular part of life is a definite problem with the way we do things now, which is why I’m always so pleased to see people making things with their hands. Here in California, I see music programs, art programs and all the shop and woodworking programs being cut out of existence — not only that but the equipment is being sold off and the buildings closed or even pulled down. The outlay involved to rebuild these programs, buying the equipment and so on, will be impossible for many, many years; and in the meantime, generations of children are being raised who aren’t being taught to do anything with their hands other than type and write (and use a Wii). And sports, of course, but not all of us are cut out for that.

So it’s easy to look at a time when most people did have those skills – the skills to build their own houses and to fix their own cars and make gardens out of poor soil, and did have time, and worked together to build a shared vision of the future – and see a time that’s slipping away. And yet, here I am, talking to a much vaster audience, all about making things and being idealistic. And there’s Make, and Instructables, and learning things via YouTube, all the products of visionaries. My daughter learned how to do Jacob’s ladder from an unknown 11-year-old boy on YouTube; how cool is that? You can convert your diesel car to cooking oil, and power your generator on walnut shells, if you learn how at places like Maker Faire which is the coolest thing ever, and a place where like-minded visionary people can come together. It really isn’t a lost culture, after all, we’re just doing it a little differently. So I’ll finish with one last exhortation: Make stuff. Do it a lot. Use your hands. And don’t be afraid to change your environment. Or the world.


A Wonderful book by Juhani Pallasmaa called The Thinking Hand:
“In The Thinking Hand, Juhani Pallasmaa reveals the miraculous potential of the human hand. He shows how the pencil in the hand of the artist or architect becomes the bridge between the imagining mind and the emerging image. The book surveys the multiple essences of the hand, its biological evolution and its role in the shaping of culture, highlighting how the hand–tool union and eye–hand–mind fusion are essential for dexterity and how ultimately the body and the senses play a crucial role in memory and creative work.”

Lunokhod and the Art of Space

art, Cabinet of Wonders, contemporary, culture, history, machines, moments in time

I recently wrote a short story in which the archeologist protagonist is on the Moon, years after the human race is dead, looking at the human leftovers there and wondering about our culture. While researching the items that were left there by our astronauts, I came across this image of Lunokhod 1, sent in November 1970 by the USSR to travel the Moon, probing and testing with its various tools and to send back images and analysis of the lunar surface.

“The vehicle was powered by batteries which were recharged during the lunar day by a solar cell array mounted on the underside of the lid. To be able to work in vacuum a special fluoride based lubricant was used for the mechanical parts and the electric motors (one in each wheel hub) were enclosed in pressurised containers.[1] [2] During the lunar nights, the lid was closed and a Polonium-210 radioisotope heater unit kept the internal components at operating temperature. Lunokhod was intended to operate through three lunar days (approximately 3 Earth months) but actually operated for eleven lunar days.”

In other words, the thing was so well-made that it lasted almost four times longer than it was designed to. And no wonder! Look at that thing! Was ever something so beautifully and functionally designed, so compact and complete? It looks like a Steampunk idea of itself, which is oddly appropriate, given that it was the first roving remote-controlled robot to land on another world.

It’s hard to put a finger on why the Lunokhod 1 is so attractive to my eyes, but I think it has to do with the fact that it’s not all angles. The simple tub-like shape, like a soup tureen on eight wheels; the two wonderful stalk-like eyes with their hanging lids; the wonderful appendages with their enigmatic functions; and best of all, the lid which opens in the day to charge up and then closes (with a clang? Perhaps if there was atmosphere) at night – all these combine to give it a nearly-friendly anthropomorphic quality, like a wind-up toy or the walking bathtub from Nightmare Before Christmas. And am I the only one who wishes they could look inside sometime when the lid was open? What’s inside it, other than the solar panels on the lid?

To add to the general mystique, I then came across this remarkable little piece of history while stumbling around Wikipedia:

“According to a French documentary TV film “Tank on the Moon” by Jean Afanassieff, the Lunokhod design returned to limelight 15 years later due to the Chernobyl nuclear powerplant disaster. The East German made remote controlled bulldozers available to Soviet Civil Defence troops weighed dozens of tons, too heavy to operate on the remaining parts of the partially collapsed reactor building roof. Human labourers could not be employed effectively to shovel debris, since workshifts were limited to tiny 90-second intervals due to intensive ionising radiation.

“Lunokhod designers were called back from retirement and in two weeks time they produced a field-usable, six wheeled, remote control vehicle prototype that was light enough to work on the weakened roof. Since the original Lunokhod moon rovers used nuclear decay heatsources for internal rack climate control, their electronic systems were already hardened to resist radiation. This benefit allowed the 1986 designers to quickly come up with a derived vehicle type for nuclear disaster recovery work. Eventually two such six-wheeled rovers were delivered to the Chernobyl accident zone and proved very useful for remotely operated debris clearing work, saving lives and earning decorations for the designers.”

Somehow this little description of a moment in history feels like the perfect reward for the group of designers who created such a perfectly aesthetic object.

In my story, at least, it was the finding of this one artifact that convinced the Enlightenment-style aliens that we were not a complete loss, after all: we clearly had some inkling of aesthetic sensibility. I’d like to see more aesthetic influence on the stuff we send out into space, wouldn’t you? Perhaps a few more rococo curls on our probes, or at the very least, decorative rivets. Perhaps they could escape the black-and-white sobriety of the paint jobs we’ve stuck to until now? Then at least our space-junk wouldn’t be completely divorced from the important cultural life of our world. NASA could hire artists-in-residence to help design the “look and feel” of the space probes, so that they embody some message about the way we look at the universe, not just about the facts and functionality of science.

Instead of ugly plaques with our body outlines and a few lines in various languages, I would like to see us leave “postcards” with some of the world’s great artworks shown on them. If you look at the images from the two Voyager’s Golden Records (sent out in 1977), which appear by my researches to be the only extensive image selection to be sent out into space, they show all kinds of things about humans and Earth: various mathematical and physical concepts; how we are conceived, born, and grow; what the landscapes look like here; all of our engineering feats (cars, airplanes, bridges, etc). There are 116 of them. Two of them show, respectively, someone painting a picture (kind of in the background, no less) and a string quartet. This is the sum total of mention of art (there are at least three pictures of cars and five pictures of dwellings).

Okay, so it was 1977, and the big thing was science, and making sure the aliens who encountered this could see what our science looked like so they could grasp our world-view, so to speak. But what about how we view ourselves? It seems to me a great deal can be said about us by how we express ourselves, and the great variety of cultural artifacts we produce. What about Japanese woodcuts? The Mona Lisa? African Kente cloth? What about the wave organs, the Expressionists, or (God Forbid) Mount Rushmore? What would alien cultures learn about us from this dazzling array? It would be easy enough to show someone painting, and then show a series of paintings; to show someone weaving and then a selection of woven things. And so on.

It’s true that various forms of music have been sent out into the spheres, probably because music is a fairly compactable (and mathematical, and therefore acceptable) art form. There has been some discussion of the efficacy (or not) of images as a way of communicating to extraterrestrial cultures; but it seems to me that even if they don’t have eyes per se, they are likely to have some way of sensing the wavelengths of light, so they will “see” it somehow. And it most certainly seems that any culture that is advanced enough to be out in space, finding our stuff, is surely going to have some concept of aesthetics, and therefore find our artmaking the subject of much interest and discussion. Think about meeting someone for the first time. Are you more interested in how they built their house, or in how they see the world – what music they like, whether they read and go to museums or simply watch violent movies every night on TV? I suspect that meeting some other race would be like the dance we do when making a new friend, at least a little bit.

At least, one certainly hopes so. Otherwise, really, what’s the point of it all?

Goodbye, Oliver Postgate

animation, Cabinet of Wonders, children, moments in time

Oh, oh.

Oliver Postgate, the creator of Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, the Clangers, and Bagpuss, among other television characters, has died.

The Clangers shared their hollow planet with the Soup Dragon (pictured right), while the Iron Chicken – modelled from Meccano [aka Erector Set] – lived in an orbiting nest made of scrap metal.

I’m a late believer, but have since come to appreciate the little singing mice in Bagpuss – and was really a goner once I had read the whole set of Noggin the Nog books to my elder daughter.

Here’s a snip from his obituary in the Guardian:

“In 1957-58 he joined one of the new commercial television companies as a stage manager. But it was when he was assigned to children’s programmes that Postgate was drawn to his true niche in life. He thought the youngsters were getting a penny-pinching deal, especially in the matter of storytelling.

“Marionettes on strings or glove puppets were all very well, but to keep pace with expanding young imaginations, he felt that fully animated cartoons or puppet dramas were needed. And these were far too expensive for everyday use.

“With an artist friend, Peter Firmin, he set up an independent production outfit called Smallfilms to see if they could turn out affordable animation. Their studio was a cowshed (later replaced by a row of converted pigsties) on Firmin’s farm near Canterbury, in Kent. Postgate dreamed up the characters and stories and taught himself the laborious skills of frame-by-frame animation.

“Firmin drew the pictures or designed the sets and made the models when they switched to puppetry. The bassoonist Vernon Elliott came in to furnish the music. They began with a 10-minute cartoon series, The Saga of Noggin the Nog (1959), in which a stolid young Viking prince was up against an evil uncle and various Nordic monsters. By eliminating most overheads and taking little reward for themselves, Postgate and company were able to turn them out for a 10th of the going rate. They sold the series to the BBC.”

It’s a reminder of all the people who continue to try to make the world better, at little gain for themselves – who want to make people happy. I applaud them, and I applaud Mr. Postgate.

There is apparently still a pretty good DVD business for his odd little shows. Children love them, and they are just weird enough to appeal to adults, too. Check out the Dragons’ Friendly Society, the center of all Noggin the Nog creativity and a nice example of good self-publishing working well.

More pictures of Mr. Postgate and his creations here.

PS. If you are interested in ordering Noggin the Nog stuff (or the DVDs of Bagpuss, etc) from within the US or other non-British countries, go here to their online eBay distributors, who will take actual plastic. The DFS themselves only take cheques.