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Kentridge: Ubu and the Truth Commission

With Baltimore and Ferguson on my mind, I walked into a revival of William Kentridge's production of “Ubu and the Truth Commission.” In 1997, Kentridge collaborated with the Handspring Puppet Company on the production for the 100th anniversary of Jarry's “Ubu Roi.” Jarry's play debuted and closed on December 10th, 1896 — it caused a riot.

Kentridge and Handspring began their project in South Africa listening to daily radio broadcasts of the witness accounts from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Jane Taylor was asked to write the final script combining Jarry's proto-absurdist drama with the real-life absurdity of South Africa's Apartheid politics.

The original production of “Ubu and the Truth Commission” is described in the book, “Kentridge,” in an essay by Lynne Cooke called “Mundus Inversus, Mundus Perversus”:

Cunning bully, monstrous rogue, Ubu, when challenged at the dinner table by his wife, lapses into a paranoid, punning defense riddled with Freudian slips and double entendres. This blackly comic exposure of deep-seated cowardice contrasts minutes later with a bravado vaudeville routine when Ubu, now resolute leader, sings a rally refrain in unison with his triple-headed henchman: “We are the Dogs of War.” The exuberant wit of this music-hall presentation is later matched by the hilarious episode in which the microphones flee the torrent of lies of the brash usurper, as if refusing to contribute to their conveyance.

The cutting edge of Jarry's play is as sharp as the day it first graced the stage. When combined with this vision of South Africa, the result is almost more than a person can bear. It's also the kind of theater that's needed more than ever. This is theater that is thinking through the spirit of our times.

 

Only the Rich Can Save Us

The Sunday paper brings two related stories. Last year San Francisco was number one — it had the fastest-growing rate of income inequality of any city in the country. Now this year, it turns out that San Francisco's rich people are far richer than any other city's rich. Go us.

The other story is about a retired venture capitalist leasing a large industrial building in the Dogpatch district to create below market rate spaces for art galleries. San Francisco's art galleries are being priced out of the market, and once they're gone it will be almost impossible to bring them back. According to the article:

Andy and Deborah Rappaport, who have never been in the arts business, plan to invest “tens of millions of dollars” in a cluster of buildings that will include studios and other arts amenities under the umbrella of the Minnesota Street Project.

This for-profit business venture aims to lose as little as possible or at best break even. They have a 15-year lease and are offering galleries 3-year leases at below market rates.

One of the moral failings of the techno-rich, in the city with the richest of the rich, is that they've operated as though the city and the world around them has no relationship to them. They take no interest in the diversity of the city, the schools, the parks, no interest in the arts or culture, no interest local politics (except when it comes to tax breaks). It's possible that a few of these rich folks have looked up from their piles of cash and seen the city changing radically around them. The Minnesota Street Project was inspired by a conversation the Rappaports had with veteran gallerist Catherine Clark. Again, according to the article:

“We were talking about how we didn't want to live in a city that didn't have a vibrant arts community,” Deborah says. “There have to be galleries, and there have to be artists' non-profits, and artists have to be able to afford studios.”

Frankly, the real estate market doesn't care what kind of city you, or anybody else, wants to live in. The “market” gives the non-rich the option to move somewhere else, its invisible hand will determine what kind of city you will live in. If the market decides that art galleries, artists, non-profit workers, teachers, nurses, day-care workers and librarians are under-resourced to live in San Francisco, then they'll have to find somewhere else to put down stakes.

The non-profit achive.org has been studying the unaffordability problem and come up with its own solution to help its workers. According to their blog:

The Internet Archive and the Kahle/Austin Foundation are trying a new model to help. Foundation Housing as a name for a new housing class : Permanently Affordable housing for non-profit workers.

In this model, a new nonprofit, the Kahle/Austin Foundation House, has been set up to purchase apartment buildings. These rental units are then made available to employees of select nonprofits at a “debt free” rate– basically equivalent to the condominium fee and taxes. Typically, the debt makes up about 2/3 of the cost of a building and the other costs (tax+maintenance+insurance) makes up about 1/3. Since the employee does not pay the debt part, the monthly fee is now about $850-1000/month rather than $2700-3000 current market rent. This way, the fee to those employees is about 1/3 of the cost of market rent, and we believe more stable than market based rents.

In the face of ever expanding income inequality, these are the only solutions that seem to have a chance. Real estate is simply moved out of the real estate market to create affordability. If this kind of a proposal came from a community organizer it would be shot down as unrealistic — a socialist redistribution of wealth from the rich to the undeserving poor. And heaven help the elected official suggesting this kind of scheme. They'd be run out of town on a rail.

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, Inc., recently joined the ranks of the super rich who have pledged to give away most of their fortune. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are two other notable members of that clan. Technology money rarely supports the arts. It's more disposed towards funding medical advances. The possibility of immortality is a primary fantasy of the techno-elite. While often quite smart, most of them have the cultural outlook of an adolescent boy. Some believe that Bill Gates will outshine Steve Jobs when we look back at these years because of his post-Microsoft charitable work. For most of the rich, helping the poor is simply beyond their control — the market will do what it will.

To address the issue of income inequality, wealth will have to be redistributed. The gap has grown so wide there's no other way to bridge it. Despite the fact that the poor are in the majority, they seem have no voice in the matter. For the moment it's up the the wealthy to do things like the Minnesota Street Project. archive.org needs to do what it can for its employees and other non-profit workers. Perhaps another retired venture capitalist can address the other half of the problem for artists. While they welcome below market rate studios and gallery space, artists still need a place to live.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed building 1,500 affordable housing units for artists and creatives at a cost of more than $30 million. This action came after musicians David Byrne and Patti Smith commented that New York was no longer a good place for young artists. The same could be said about San Francisco.

Great wealth confers the gift of being able to interfere with market dynamics without being called a socialist. The invisible hand can be shoved aside, and other priorities can be manifested. The Minnesota Street Project will bear watching. Let's hope they make a go of it. And here's hoping the peers of Andy and Deborah Rappaport are paying close attention. They're the only players in this game that are allowed to make a move.

 

Dr. Dre versus the Big Bad Algorithm

We're seeing some new shapes among the feudal technology stacks. Apple has made a couple of moves that puts them on the human side of the ledger. Yahoo seems to be following in that direction. Google and Facebook remain fully automated, and they've placed their bet on male software engineers, big data and algorithms.

A few years ago, as the stacks were establishing their hold on networked computing, Nicholas Carr asked “Does IT Matter?” The question occupied the spot between home-grown corporate technical systems and the eventual outsourcing to professional cloud-based services. In most cases utility computing in central networked data centers turned out to be a better investment than a local IT team cobbling together a custom application. If the technology in question wasn't a company's core business, it didn't matter. Outsource everything possible to a vendor who counted that service as a core competency.

The networked computing platforms that have battled so fiercely to be among the few left standing have learned a bittersweet lesson. The platform is just a blank sheet of paper, a surface ready to be inscribed. Its worth is minimal, in fact, Apple has begun giving away its newest operating systems. There's no value in an individual installation of the platform, it's only the platform as a whole that has value.

When the technical press looked at Apple's acquisition of Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre they didn't understand. The music service didn't have enough subscribers, the head phones weren't even among the best, nothing matched up with the dollar figures that were being thrown around. Non-engineers aren't acqui-hired, non-engineers are replaceable worker parts that merit commodity pricing. Sure these guys have “taste”, but that's not really worth anything. An algorithm can be built to easily reproduce something like their taste. In a reversal of Nicholas Carr's thought, the algorithmists asked “Do Human Factors Matter?”

Jimmy Iovine's response to the machine was that something was missing from the algorithmic output. Here's how Iovine put it:

“The sequencing of an album was very important. Music is made in bite-sized pieces, but you need an hour's worth of music for certain activities. The other guys have an algorithm. For some reason, these young people aren't understanding why they aren't getting the feel they're supposed to get. We said no, no, you're supposed to have the right sequence.”

What's the value of being able to create “that feel” across a networked computing platform? There doesn't seem to be an acknowledged economic value that can be applied to in creative people working at the platform level. The technologist and the financial analysts ask “where's the game-changing technology?” That's what Apple did with the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Where's the iWatch? Where's that next big thing? No one creates a game changing technology. Steve Jobs said it best and very simply many years ago.

“Things happen fairly slowly, you know. They do. These waves of technology, you can see them way before they happen, and you just have to choose wisely which ones you’re going to surf. If you choose unwisely, then you can waste a lot of energy, but if you choose wisely it actually unfolds fairly slowly. It takes years.”

You choose the wave. You don't invent the wave. In this new era of feudal technology stacks, the technology should intrude less and less. The technology, if it's well designed, should start to recede into the background. If you're noticing it, generally that's because it's broken. Finding the feel, creating the feel of, and within, the platform, that's the thing a machine can't come up with on its own. Or at least that's what we're about to find out. Will creative people who can operate at the level of a large platform (Dre, Iovine, Ahrendts, Deneve) be more successful than an algorithm that crowd sources, sorts and filters?

 

Graeber and DiDonato: Imagine Technology for Nothing

David Graeber’s recent interview on Salon.com puts a spotlight on an uncomfortable fact about the economics of our working world. The more you care about something, the less you will be paid for it. Art is for art’s sake, and therefore monetary compensation is subsidized by the worker’s own care. The more you care, the lower the monetary reward required to get you to take on certain kinds of work. If you are truly passionate about something, you should expect no financial reward at all. This is especially true if you care about directly helping and educating other people. We’ve set up the incentives so that it’s almost impossible to care for another person without extreme sacrifice.

In her recent commencement speech for the 2014 graduating class of Juilliard, the great American diva Joyce DiDonato delivered a similar message. “You aren’t going to make ‘it'” and that’s because there is no “it”. The lives of these students of art, drama, dance and music will be dedicated to service within their respective arts. There’s no point in thinking about the financial rewards beyond what it takes to keep body and soul together. It’s as though DiDonato is talking to a room filled with religious martyrs about begin their journeys. Given the state of our culture, DiDonato is dispensing very practical advice.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the wealthy technology giants are learning the meaning of noblesse oblige. In an era of vast income inequality, these technologists have to learn how to care about the neediest among us. Of course, they learned long ago that there’s no percentage in “caring”. The people who “cared” ended up burned out and barely scraping by. It’s only by extreme focus on technologies that will “help all of humanity” (but no person in particular), that they’ve amassed these large fortunes. Only a loser would focus their energies directly on helping the people around them. To avoid the label of vampire squids of the West coast, the technology and venture capital giants must become less focused, must use their excess capacity on something completely outside of their corporate mission statement — helping the people sleeping on their doorstep.

In some alternate universe I imagine DiDonato giving this talk to a class of computer science students. Telling these young technologists to focus on, not monetary rewards or groundbreaking technological achievement, but on the ability to meaningfully touch the lives of people in need. No doubt they will face hardship and days when they’ll ask themselves if it’s really worthwhile. Only their passion for making a difference in people’s lives will carry them through.

For DiDonato it’s crucial to focus on the moments of joy along the way. That’s how a passion for the work can be sustained. For some reason that brought to mind a video of opera singers Rene Barbera and Wayne Tigges backstage in a dressing room singing “More than Words” by Extreme. In the mirror you can see Joyce DiDonato lip syncing and dancing to their impromptu performance. Sometimes those moments of joy aren’t under the lights of the main stage in front of a full house. Other times, they are.

 

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