Archive for March, 2009

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Writing Under Erasure: The Art of William Kentridge

William Kentridge

The fluidity of William Kentridge is astonishing. My mouth hangs open in awe. It’s difficult to even find the words to describe what he does. I’ve just returned from the members preview of his major exhibition at SFMOMA called William Kentridge | Five Themes.

As Kenneth Baker of the SF Chronicle says, “Even people only causually involved with contemporary art tend to bookmark memories by their first encounter with the work of William Kentridge.” Mine was about 4 or 5 years ago at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I happened upon a small exhibition of charcoal drawings and one of Kentridge’s “drawings for projection.” These hand-drawn films are composed through a process of making a set of charcoal drawings corresponding to the main scenes of the film. A drawing is created, one frame is shot, then a portion of the drawing is erased and redrawn. Another frame is shot. And so on. The palette of the narrative becomes a palimpsest.

The film was called “History of the Main Complaint” and was made after the establishment in South Africa of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The narrative plays out through a ‘medical’ investigation into the body of Soho Eckstein, the white property-developing business magnate– and it eventually works its way around to point the way toward the emergence of conscience and the possibility of reconciliation. This is not agit-prop theater, its politics are filled with poetry, ambiguity and some sharp edges.

Kentridge’s process of drawing a film is a fundamental artistic act, a gesture in four dimensions. Thousands of individual drawings are created and destroyed in the process of making the projectible drawing. Marks are made, erased, new marks are made and erased– and the camera catches each state of the drawing. These fleeting moments of being exist only on film, the individual states of the drawing flash into being and are at the same time, both irretrievably lost and leave ineffaceable traces.


The SFMOMA show includes a performance of Kentridge’s design for Mozart’s The Magic Flute through projections on a very large toy theater. The YouTube videos have embedding disabled, so you’ll need to click the links to view them.

While working on Magic Flute, Kentridge concieved another piece called “Black Box.” It’s a stunning piece of work. Stop whatever you’re doing, go to SFMOMA and watch this work from beginning to end. It’s another mechanical theater piece consisting of animated film, kinetic objects, drawings and a mechanical actors/puppets. It is a powerful piece of political theater, a Trauerarbeit machine. (These videos don’t do it justice)

Kentridge discusses the role that memory and mourning play in his work:

There was a term someone introduced to me that I’ve kept in my head for Black Box, it’s the word Trauerarbeit – the work of mourning. Freud writes about that in 1917 in Mourning and Melancholy.

Freud talks about how memory compares to reality and what it takes to arrive at an objective view once the lost object is actually gone. It’s a process of detachment and de-vesting.

A Trauerarbeit machine on stage could turn, and things would come out of it.

Kentridge works without a detailed plan, here he discsuses the moments before the real-time flow of his work begins:

“Walking, thinking, stalking the image. Many of the hours spent in the studio are hours of walking, pacing back and forth across the space gathering the energy, the clarity to make the first mark. It is not so much a period of planning as a time of allowing the ideas surrounding the project to percolate. A space for many different possible trajectories of an image, where sequences can suggest themselves, to be tested as internal projections. …It is as if before the work can begin (the visible finished work of the drawing, film, or sculpture), a different, invisible work must be done. A kind of minimalist theater work involving an empty space, a protagonist (the artist walking, or pacing, or stuck immobile) and an antagonist (the paper on the wall).”

A contradiction must be captured, Kentridge must make a clear mark that preserves the ambiguity of his original impulse. It’s writing under erasure. Time, memory, history, humanity and reconciliation inhabit his work.

It happened at some point. While I’ve been following Kentridge for a number of years, I missed the moment when he emerged as the artist for this generation. If you’re not conversant with his work. Seek him out, his work touches all the notes in the central narratives of our time. And indeed, time itself.

UX: The Pleasure of the Text


Working backwards, we start with Roland Barthes’ slim volume: The Pleasure of the Text. Barthes turns the phrase around, upside down, inside out; opens the dimensions of the words across several languages; and views it through the lens of dozens of thinkers and poets. The pleasure of the text and the text of pleasure.

If I read this sentence, this story, or this word with pleasure, it is because they were written in pleasure (such pleasure does not contradict the writer’s complaints). But the opposite? Does writing in pleasure guarantee– guarantee me, the writer– my reader’s pleasure? Not at all. I must seek out this reader (must “cruise” him) without knowing where he is. A site of bliss is then created. It is not the reader’s “person” that is necessary to me, it is this site: the possibility of a dialectics of desire, of an unpredictability of bliss: the bets are not placed, there can still be a game.

Roland Barthes
The Pleasure of the Text

There’s the pleasure of the text itself, which is Barthes’ subject, and then there’s the pleasure of the activity of reading the text. The text has lead a cozy existence, tucked away in a folio as ink on paper. Its reading required only a clean, well-lighted place and a sufficiently comfortable chair. Requirements not lost on the large book retailers.

As the text lifts anchor and departs from its safe harbor of ink and paper, it will visit many ports before it finds an acceptable new reading environment. The fact that one can read text from a computer screen or a mobile phone does not mean that it’s a pleasurable experience.

In the act of reading, we often become so absorbed by the narrative that we lose sight of the mechanism by which the words enter the stream of our consciousness. It’s that flow, that lift off that the user experience of reading must enable.

But let’s take a step back. What happens when a reading experience falls short? Rather than each word pulling you toward the next, the reader must exert energy to pull herself from the current word to the next one. If the value of the text is high enough, the energy expended is offset, and a surplus of value remains. If the cost is too high; no reading takes place. There are many use cases where this kind of investment transaction provides value. Over time an investment in a complex transaction type leads to a higher skill level and better yield.

When reading for pleasure, we want the cost be very low, almost non-existent. And that gets us to the user experience of reading the digital text. Digital text has been available for many years, but the “all in” cost of reading has been too high. We’ve seen similar value equations with listening to MP3 files and using the Network through a mobile phone. The pieces were all there, but the user experience wasn’t right.


When will we know that the user experience of digital reading has found the right ratio? We’ll know when there is no experience of the activity of reading, but only the pleasure of the text.

e-Books: Intertextuality, Boundaries and Doorways

There was a shift in momentum, the reading we do on web pages and the reading we do with printed books joined together in the Kindle and the iPhone. The movement was from perceiving the situation as ‘either/or’ to one of ‘both/and.’ The question about one thing replacing another suddenly seemed less important. Another point of access was opened, another door.

Consider the following sequence:

  1. This library contains one-of-a-kind handwritten manuscripts
  2. This library contains manuscripts and copies of manuscripts, both produced by hand
  3. This library contains manuscripts, copies of manuscripts and printed books
  4. This library contains printed books and audio/visual media encoded in celluloid, vinyl, recording tape and CD/DVD
  5. This library contains printed books, encoded audio/visual/textual materials and a connection to the Network to view web pages
  6. This library contains printed books, encoded audio/visual/textual materials and a connection to the Network to view web pages and digitized audio/visual/textual materials.
  7. This library contains printed books, encoded audio/visual/textual materials, a connection to the Network and loans out eReading devices that can contain and connect to any digitized media.
  8. This library contains nothing. It makes digital media available to its members via the Network through a variety of reading, viewing and listening devices

A library moves from a building that contains things to a service that enables connection to things.

Note: this change in the distribution network also reveals the converging business models of for-profit and non-profit journalism. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Now consider this eReading use case:

I’m reading a hardcover printed novel in my favorite chair. I get to a stopping point and mark my place with a bookmark, and I use my iPhone’s camera to send a bookmark to the Network. Later, I pick up my eReader, find my place and continue reading. I’ve got to go meet a friend so I mark my place and then drive over to a cafe. In the car, I turn on the streaming audio version of my book. It’s remembered my place, and picks right up with the story. I arrive at the cafe, mark my place and then go in and sit down. My friend is late, so I pull out my iPhone, find my place and continue reading. My friend arrives, I mark my place and start talking to my friend about this facinating novel.

We have the sense that the book is the container that holds the words. The library sequence above tells us something about the changing technology of the containers and the contained. As the book itself breaks free of a specific container and allows us to interact across multiple access points, all we ask is that the particular sequence of words be preserved and that our current place be available when we need it.

If the book isn’t its container, but rather a fixed stream of words that can be accessed through a variety of devices, are we fundamentally changing our idea of the book? When we buy a “book” are we buying access to the stream of words via a particular set of methods?


This way of talking about books as a stream of words brings to mind an older form, the tradition of oral storytelling. Homer, if there was such a person as Homer, sang the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey to an audience of listeners. A significant difference: in the oral tradition, variation in the word sequence is part of the value proposition. In modern books it would simply be considered an error.

As textual media moves toward a digital stream the boundries between and among books become more ambiguous. We’ve become used to the idea that search functions are available for individual digital books. As the community of digital books grows, we will also have search among books. Search will be unbounded to play in the intertextuality of all books. We may be traveling across the connections between books just as today we traverse the hyperlinks of the web. But the linkages aren’t just matching bits of text here and there. They aren’t just words, they mean something.


The idea of all books becoming one book– and of books becoming intimate, brings to mind the work of Norman O. Brown. Specifically the preface to Closing Time:

Time, gentleman, please?
The question is addressed to Giamattista Vico and James Joyce.
Vico, New Science; with Joyce, Finnegans Wake.
“Two books get on top of each other and become sexual.”
John Cage told me that this is geometrically impossible.
But let us try it.
The book of Doublends Jined.
At least we can try to stuff Finnegans Wake into Vico’s New Science.
One world burrowing on another.
To make a farce.
What a mnice old mness it all mnakes!
Confusion, source of renewal, says Ezra Pound.
Or as James Joyce puts it in Finnegans Wake:
First mull a mugfull of mud, son.
As rational metaphysics teaches that man becomes all things by understanding them (HOMO INTELLIGENDO FIT OMNIA), this imaginative metaphysics shows that man becomes all things by not understanding them (HOMO NON INTELLIGENDO FIT OMNIA).

As Brown reminds us, books have never been separated, their containers are a kind of illusion, encoding only an instance of a song. The dark territory between texts is murky, and we may need to mull a mugfull of mud before we find anything of value. And value can be found both in ambiguity and in clarity.

Joyce was known for writing down a stream of consciousness and printing it out as something that resembled a novel. It’s a river that runs through all of us. And in Joyce,  the streams of books, and the streams of consciousness are joined as when the child was a child…

When the child was a child
It walked with its arms swinging,
wanted the brook to be a river,
the river to be a torrent,
and this puddle to be the sea.

When the child was a child,
it didn’t know that it was a child,
everything was soulful,
and all souls were one.

Peter Handke
Song of Childhood

I’ve Always Depended Upon The Kindness of Strangers…

Arts organizations and charities swallowed hard when they looked at the fine print of President Obama’s budget. Tax deductions on charitable donations from the wealthy are to be further limited in the new plan. The New York Times reported on the ire of the charity industry.

Under the administration’s proposal, taxpayers earning more than $250,000 will have their ability to deduct contributions to charities reduced to a rate of 28 percent from a rate of 35 percent, according to an analysis by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations.

Professional fundraisers, while concerned, took a different view:

“Research has shown again and again that for major donors, taxes are at the bottom of their list of reasons why they make these gifts,? said Margaret Holman, a fund-raising adviser in New York. “They make these gifts because they love, are intrigued by, want to invest in their favorite charities.?

Most, if not all, of our country’s museums, symphonies, regional theaters and opera companies depend on the generosity of large donors. In this severe economic downturn large arts organizations have also seen a sharp reduction in the income generated by their endowments. And as people cut back on their expenditures, the sale of season’s and individual tickets will fall as well. While we focus on the nation’s banks and core industries, there’s a lot of collateral damage being done to our cultural institutions and working artists.


While there’s no such thing as a contribution limit for charities and the arts, one can’t help but compare their predicament with the campaigns of presidential candidates. Historically, winning campaigns have attracted the support and contributions of large donors. This is a continuation of a patronage model that is deeply rooted in the political economics of our history. The largess of the few was the only method of raising the significant sums of money required to run a national political campaign or a major arts organization.

The Obama presidential campaign changed the equation. By reaching out to everyone, employing the Network and lowering the cost of managing a very large number of small donations, Obama was able exceed the results of the traditional fundraising model. A simple way to think of it is to imagine the size and complexity of the social graph of the McCain campaign compared to the Obama campaign. The math is pretty simple, to raise equal amounts of money– how much, on average, needs to come from each node on the network?

To some extent, public broadcasting follows the model of casting a wider net with their pledge drives. The problem is that this method of fundraising is widely perceived as annoying and unpleasant. Donations are often simply made in exchange for bringing the pledge drive to a close. We pay our public broadcasters to stop dragging their fingernails across a blackboard and return to regular programming.

As the business models for public and private broadcasting (including newspapers) begin to converge, we are in dire need of some innovation in how funds are raised. Doc Searls has shown us one possible future with his PayChoice program.

PayChoice is a new business model for media: one by which readers, listeners and viewers can quickly and easily pay for the goods they use — on their own terms, and not just those of suppliers’ arcane systems.

The idea is to build a new marketplace for media — one where supply and demand can relate, converse and transact business on mutually beneficial terms, rather than only on terms provided by thousands of different silo’d systems, each serving to hold the customer captive.

At minimum an opportunity needs to be provided to donate after a great experience with an organization, as opposed to donating to make a bad experience stop. PayChoice is trying to make donations a user-initiated event– where value is paid for when it’s experienced. Needless to say, it’s easier to imagine complex systems than it is to lay down the pipes that would allow those kinds of transactions to flow.

In this era of transformation, arts organizations will need to examine their social graphs and the quality and frequency of the events transacted through them. They’ll need to decide whether they consider social media to be a mere toy, or the foundation of their future.

While we’ve been waiting for the convergence of media devices, we haven’t noticed that the media itself has already converged. We are all broadcasters now, whether in live performance or live over the Network. The potential points of connection have multiplied greatly, but remain largely unused and unappreciated. Just as Barack Obama’s campaign was able to connect and activate a very large network and benefit from those economics– arts organizations, and many businesses, will need to execute the same maneuver. Our relationships just got a little more complicated: they’re connected through the Network in real time, time-shifted, two-way, mobile and always on. The times they are a changing.

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