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Reading Mont Blanc

There are a couple of reasons that writing has migrated toward the screen. The biggest reason is that it's cheaper. The production process migrated to the screen, and in the end, it seemed easier to skip the part where you turn digital files into plates, smear ink on them, and print the offset onto paper. Once lots of people had screens that could serve as readers, the economics of it gained traction.

The same thing happened in movies and television, photography, and music. The consumption device is just a simpler version of the machines, or set of machines, used to produce the work.

The flexibility and agility provided by digital production methods hasn't really translated into the artwork. There are a few experimental attempts, but nothing has broken through into the mass market. A few people are working on computational narrative outside of the video game context. Generative music has also been available at your local app store for a while.

These kind of generative and computational works take the form of software applications. Computing power and algorithms are a necessary element of the product. They sit in a kind of no man's land between traditional media and video games. For the most part, the digital publication has simply been a cheaper form of print. As the hypertext medium matures, we'll need to see something more than “cheap.” Eventually, the audience won't be impressed with “free” or “cheap.” Libraries are filled with “free” books, but it's not on that basis that a reader checks out a book.

I started down this train of thought because of a book I checked out of San Francisco's Mechanic's Library. It's a membership library located downtown. If you like chess, it houses a beautiful chess room. Motivated by reading Tim Morton's review in the “LA Review of Books” of Steven Shaviro's “The Universe of Things,” I became interested in reading the poem that resonates so strongly with the title of Shaviro's book.

The poem is called “Mont Blanc” and was written in 1816 by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The poem is available online through a number of sources. I own several volumes of Shelley's work that contain the poem. Whenever I'm in a used book store I look for unfamiliar editions of poetry by William Blake and Percy Shelley. While their poetry is widely available, most of the editions are not very readable–tiny type, horrible layout.

Book publishers still working with ink and paper have also succumbed to the trend of producing the cheapest product possible. And when it comes to so-called classics, the worst tendencies of cheapness converge. It's as though the publisher cynically believes that it's enough to say one owns the complete works of Shakespeare in a single volume. Of course, no one would waste their time actually reading the plays; so why bother making them a pleasure to read?

You've probably seen these kinds of books. Their unapproachability has nothing to do with their status as “high art.” It's just that the type is too small. They're technically readable, in that, all the words have been converted to ink on paper. This is perhaps where the saying “machine readable” comes from.

Back to the poem. I'd been reading Shelley's “Mont Blanc” every evening for several weeks. I find that I need to read a poem a number of times over an extended period before it begins to function as a poem. I'd been switching off between various books that contained the poem. And then recently, I happened to be in the Mechanic's Library looking for something else, and thought I should find out if they had a nice edition of Shelley's poetry.

When I got to the designated shelf, I recognized the dark green seven volume, hard bound set of “The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley.” For some reason I'd always resisted it. I think I'd had a previous bad experience with an old edition of Coleridge's poems. Completely unreadable. I pulled down a volume and started paging through it. What a revelation.

This edition was published by Virtue & Company out of Boston in 1909. It's the library edition, and bears the number, 141 out of 1000. It has beautiful illustrations, and was edited by Nathan Haskell Dole. The volumes are simple, durable and luxurious.

Reading “Mont Blanc” in this beautiful edition, with excellent typography and a generous layout, was a qualitatively different experience. The poem has technically been printed in many books. All the words are there, and the lineation is correct, but not every printing of the poem actually does service to both the poem and the reader. The quality of the ink and the paper has something to do with it, but one also has the sense the publishers have a real understanding of what they're committing to paper. It's as though they knew in advance what it would be like to read these poems in this particular configuration.

Due to financial constraints, much of print publishing has lost its sense of usability. There are, of course, some notable exceptions. Web design has gone through the opposite problem. The “usability” profession killed design in the production of web sites. Some good principles were unearthed, but the usability specialists over-played their hand. We're only starting to see web sites (if there still is such a thing as a “web site”) wriggle out from under the boot of usability.

Reading the poem “Mont Blanc” online isn't a particularly pleasurable experience. The screen, and the vast network of interconnected pages behind it, seem to work against the flow of the poem. Rather than open the reader to the experience of the natural world flowing through the senses, as though one were a kind of Aeolian harp; the hypertext screen radiates the opposite polarity, and entices the reader to flow her attention through the connecting paths of the Network.

While it is true that the cost of publishing the written word will always be cheaper in some digital format, the value of the work in many cases is diminished. In the last year, a few online publications have started to break the mold and create more reader-friendly screen publications. Perhaps as we read more and more online, we'll begin to realize the absolute poverty of the reading experience. It's not very good. When the economics of publication, whether for print or screen, tells us that we can't afford to do good work–that's when the whole thing really starts to fall apart. We've been facinated with the idea of commodity prices approaching zero. What we're learning (again) is that value tends to follow price as it moves toward zero.

Where is that revaluation of digital values that we've been waiting for?


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 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. 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.


Environmental Theatrics: Top Secret Crypto

I'm not saying there is such a thing, and no one could prove otherwise. But if there were some sort of new underground forming, it would have a “Fight Club”-like motto. The first rule of the new underground is that you don't talk about the new underground. In fact, no one even calls it that because it doesn't have a name yet. It may never have a name. Forget I even mentioned it.

Of course, this particular incident was revealing, but only if you were able to tune into the hidden channel it was broadcasting on. Now that the event itself is safely behind us, I can tell you a few details. It was a series of performances by a unit called “The Collected Works” in San Francisco. Untethered to any particular performance venue, this group commandeered the Old Mint building for an environmental theater performance of Jean Genet's “The Balcony.” This information is on a need-to-know basis and should not be passed on to anyone.

The Old Mint's basement was the site of the play's opening three scenes featuring the Judge, the General and the Bishop. Underground, hidden, locked away from the revolt happening at street level, these characters obsessively repeated their fetishes in strict rituals performed in various chambers of the brothel. The audience wandered from one scene to the next feeling as though they'd walked in on the middle of some very private moment. Then, just when a sense of comfort and rhythm was beginning to take hold, an alarm bell rings. An alarm clock, a wake-up call, a harsh reminder that the time for this session is up. It's time to leave the underground cells and return to the real world upstairs.

In scenes unfolding in grand room after room, the audience witnesses the business of the brothel, the protection provided by the police, the unfolding revolution surrounding the building, private fantasies transforming into public power, and finally the birth of the Chief of Police into the canon of fetishes. Like the others, the Chief of Police is an expression of a desire that wishes to remain unfulfilled, and thus remain desire in the form of “desiring.” The Bishop, the Judge and the General are all medicines that cause the illness they are meant to cure. Preserving the capacity to repeat a ritual in the private chambers of the brothel is echoed in the public halls of government, society and power. The play attempts hold up a very large mirror.

The performance was breathtaking in the sheer size of its conception, and in the difficulty and risk of selecting Genet's text. The performers and the performance inhabited and transformed the dusty and neglected space of the Old Mint building. In environmental performance, there's a tricky moment as the audience moves from space to space to witness the next scene. There is no break in the action, no pause for the logistics of movement, the performance continues even as the audience gathers in the next space. The key rhythmical moment is when the moving audience isn't fully settled in the new location. They aren't sure where to stand or sit, they may not even be clear in what part of the room the action of the play will take place. Suddenly the performance sparks to life and the scene begins. The audience, not yet feeling itself to be an audience, is transformed and pulled into the urgency of the narrative. These performers were masterful in creating each new performance space as the play progressed.

Let us assume that you didn't witness any of the performances in this particular series. For the most part the local arts and entertainment media, to the extent such a thing still exists, was oblivious to the event. While this performance of Jean Genet's “The Balcony,” by The Collected Works was a public performance, it was hidden in plain site. It occupied two floors of a large public building in the middle of downtown, but was largely invisible. The two week run sold out every performance, with some people returning several times. For work like this to prosper, it's important that you keep quiet about it. Don't tell all your friends, don't share this blog post, and don't hope that this goes mainstream.

If we were to talk about this theater collective and it's performances, we'd have to acknowledge that plays by Gombrowicz and Genet are not mainstream. They aren't supposed to be for everybody. Any future performances are on a need-to-know basis. Attend only if you must.

Environmental, or site specific, performance creates a very rare aesthetic experience for these times. In this age of screens and couches, it's a given that a certain kind of distance and separation is required to create an aesthetic experience. The fourth wall is institutionalized in the form of a sheet of glass separating you from the “content” on your device. Interacting with a performance is limited to backchannel snark inscribed on to a real-time social network stream. Alternatively, performances like “The Balcony,” if there were such performances, are strangely intimate. A performance space is shared by the audience and the performers and divided up on the fly in brief moments of stasis before transforming and renegotiating the territory all over again. There's a give and take that demands a conscious creation and recreation of aesthetic distance from moment to moment as the play moves through the site.

I'm counting on you to keep this secret. It's not as hard as you might think. People see what they want to see. Sometimes the simplest mask will keep hidden what seems perfectly obvious and public. Remember, this is top secret crypto. Your eyes only…


Let Our Robots Fill Out Your Forms…

Bankers are making use of new technology to determine whether you’re creditworthy. According to the NY Times:

“…they may look to see if potential customers use only capital letters when filling out forms, or at the amount of time they spend online reading terms and conditions–and not so much at credit history.”

They say that “no single signal is definitive, but each is a piece in a mosaic, a predictive picture, compiled by collecting an array of information from diverse sources.”

Fortunately for you, our new firm, HONESTLY, has a whole cloud full of robots standing by to fill out your loan forms for you.

HONESTLY has hacked into all the major banks and new technology providers. When our robots fill out your forms for you, you’ll hit all the right notes for their algorithms. This kind of service has previously only been available to the very rich, but thanks to the marvels of modern cloud-based technology, we can offer robot-driven loan application filling for a low $9.95.

The banks and other loan providers have said that they’ll continually change their matrix of criteria to create better risk assessments. Since we’ve hacked into their systems, have paid off their programmers, and created strong predictive profiles of their key executives, we can anticipate their every move. In fact, sometimes their new criteria comes directly from us, which saves us programming time. That’s a saving we pass on directly to you.

HONESTLY, I can’t think of a reason not to have robots fill out your next loan application.


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