seven white balusters & a cat

I’ve been accused (more than once) of overthinking everything. That accusation is often valid. I tend to overthink some stuff because it’s amusing to me and because it reminds me that everything is connected.

For example, this photograph. It’s just a cat sleeping in a patch of sunlight. Nothing significant, nothing particularly interesting in itself. But if you overthink it, it links together a series of at least ten seemingly unrelated facts.

FACT 1: I belong to an online global collective of photographers called Utata. This group, which has over 30,000 members, creates a variety of photographic ‘challenges’ or projects for its members to participate in. One of the current challenges involves photographing a collection of seven related things.

FACT 2: Pomegranates originated in a historical region called Mesopotamia which occupied the ancient Near East and Western Asia.

FACT 3: The cat that lives here likes to sleep in patches of radiant heat. On winter days, to please the cat, I open the front door to allow the sun to shine in.

FACT 4: For more than three thousand years, Aramaic was one of the prominent languages of the ancient Near East, which included regions of Mesopotamia.

FACT 5: A balustrade is a railing, often ornamental, supported by individual short posts or columns, which are called balusters.

FACT 6: Near the front door, where the cat likes to sleep in the winter sunlight, is a stairway leading to the basement; the stairway is protected by a balustrade.

FACT 7: The earliest examples of balustrades are found in sculptured Assyrian bas-relief murals, some of which have been dated back to a period between the 13th and 7th centuries B.C.

FACT 8: Assyria was an ancient Mesopotamian empire.

FACT 9: The term ‘baluster’ comes from the Aramaic balatz, which refers to the flower of the wild pomegranate. Balusters in the bas-relief murals had double curves, which resembled a half-opened pomegranate flower.

FACT 10: I noticed the cat sleeping in the sunlight from the open front door. The light illuminated seven of the balusters supporting the balustrade, meeting the requirements for the Utata photo challenge.

Does knowing those facts make this a better photograph? Nope. It’s still just a photograph of a cat sleeping in a patch of winter sunlight.

But surely you’ll agree there’s a certain delight in knowing that the cat is sleeping in a patch of sunlight beside a railing supported by posts that were originally named in an ancient almost-forgotten language because of their resemblance to the flower of a fruit that first grew in an empire that no longer exists.

i have a blue plaid shirt

I suppose by most metrics, this is a bad photograph. It’s dark, except for where it’s maybe a tad overexposed. There’s nothing special about it, it’s not terribly attractive. It’s just a blue plaid shirt hanging on a stairway post. But I was drawn by the narrow band of December light and the way it slid through the transom over the doorway and sidled up against the shirt.

I saw it originally from another angle, and was captivated enough to go fetch a camera. An actual camera, not my phone. I moved to this angle, squatted down to get the perspective right, shifted over just enough so that the windows in the neighboring house seen through the kitchen window were balanced, and made the shot.

It probably didn’t take more than 15-20 seconds. It’s a semi-casual shot of an utterly ordinary moment. Eggleston might call it a ‘democratic’ moment, though I didn’t photograph it in a democratically Eggleston way. I probably took 14-19 seconds longer than Eggleston would have. You can jam a lot of pretentious formality into 15-20 seconds. He was all about the unpretentious impermanence of everything, after all, and the revolutionary notion that art existed everywhere and anything was worthy of being photographed. I believe in that approach, but haven’t liberated myself from the tyranny of composition. There’s always, always, some level of thoughtfulness in anything I photograph.

After I shot the photo, I chimped it just long enough to see if I got what I was after. What was I after? The light, obviously. But also the darkness–the nothingness of the stairway in the center. There’s really not much to see in the photo; there’s the shirt, the window, the handrail, part of a closet door. What’s not there is as important as what is. I was pleased with the photo.

Then I put the camera down and basically forgot about the photo until yesterday. Yesterday I bought a new card reader and uploaded the half dozen images from the camera. Most of the images were crap and immediately deleted, but this one sparked the memory of the moment I’d shot it.

I don’t often spend time looking at the photos I shoot. I shoot them, review them at some point, process a few, delete most of them, then I post some of the few I’ve processed. That’s it. I’m not very interested in seeing the photo after I’ve finished it. But I looked at this one for a bit, thinking about Eggleston and the democratic eye and the way the light fell and the enigmatic darkness…and I realized I was being a pretentious dick. It was just a murky photograph of a blue plaid shirt.

Self in a blue plaid shirt with occasional cat, 2013.

I’ve had that blue plaid shirt since 2001. I didn’t buy it; I sort of inherited it. It belonged to one of the guys who worked for the moving company that shifted my stuff from a small apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to an old farm house in rural Pennsylvania. The shirt got left behind. I probably should have returned it, but the movers also walked away with my antique shepherd’s crook and a walking stick topped with a hand-carved morel mushroom made by my brother — so I figure they got the better end of the deal.

I’ve been wearing that guy’s shirt for two decades now. It’s a comfortable shirt. It’s a sort of utility shirt–a useful shirt, a practical shirt for knocking around in. I wear it around the house, I wear it when I go mushrooming in the Spring, I wear it like a light jacket when it’s chilly or breezy, I wear it to do yard work. It’s a shirt I don’t have to worry about; I don’t care if it gets snagged by thorns, I don’t care if it gets dirty, I don’t care if it gets stained. I don’t care because I didn’t buy it and even after two decades I tell myself it’s not really MY shirt.

Photo by Jody Miller, 2015(?)

But clearly, it is my shirt. After looking at that photo, I realized I’d taken other photographs that included that shirt. Of me wearing that shirt. Other folks had photographed me in that shirt. I realized how much time I’ve spent in that shirt. I realized I’ve grown fond of it. I realized I have a relationship with that shirt. I didn’t really know that; not until I stopped being a pretentious dick, thinking about that photograph as a photograph.

Which brings me back full circle to being a pretentious dick again. Howard Nemerov, the poet (and brother to photographer Diane Arbus) once wrote, “The camera wants to know.” I can’t really agree with that. I’m more inclined to agree with the Eggleston approach; the camera just wants to see. But sometimes the act of seeing helps the viewer to know.

This is what I know: I have a blue plaid shirt. It’s my shirt. I didn’t buy it, but I own that shirt. It belongs to me. Now that I know that, I’m going to try to forget it. Because if I think about it, it might change the way I wear the shirt, and I don’t want to do that. It’s a lived-in shirt, and it deserves to be lived in. I want to wear that shirt the way Eggleston shoots photographs.

See? Full circle.

knuckles hits fifty

A couple days ago I posted the 50th photograph in the Knuckles Steals the World project — which isn’t really called that. In fact, isn’t really called anything at all, but I felt a momentary need to give the project a title, and that’s what immediately came to mind. As a reminder, this explains the origins of the untitled project.

GSV #22

Fifty seems like it ought to be some sort of project milestone. Milestone is, I suppose, a weirdly appropriate term, given the project is sorta kinda grounded in imaginary travel. Because it’s a sort of milestone — and because it’s a Monday and I don’t feel like doing the stuff I ought to be doing — I thought I’d piss away part of the morning nattering on about the project.

GSV #25

It’s been amusing and interesting and fun (in a very quiet way). I’ve yanked images of windmills in the Netherlands, chickens in a Turkish yard, a woman hanging laundry in some remote Brazilian village, people doing yoga in an Utrecht alleyway, a ruined castle in Andalusia, a small sunlit farmhouse in rural America, an abandoned car in Belgium — all ordinary moment and mundane scenes snatched from Google Street View (as mediated by Geoguessr) and extracted from context. I’m about six months into the project, and it’s still holding my attention.

GSV #34

I’ve actually had a few interesting conversations sparked by the project, mostly about the process and practice of appropriation. One friend, who is also engaged in an appropriation project, said he’d almost abandoned photography. “[I]t got to the point where everything looks like stuff I’ve seen before, and that was in 2005. Curation is the new photography.”

I don’t entirely agree with that last line, but he’s got a point. The unanticipated problem with the notion of the democratic camera is that once we hit the intersection of Everything Can Be Photographed and Ubiquitous Cheap-ass Automated Digital Imagery, it’s only a matter of time before almost everything HAS been photographed.

GSV #38

As I noted when I began this gig, Google Street View has amassed imagery of over ten million miles in 83 countries.

“In that ten million miles, there are bound to be a LOT of things worth looking at. So if you are stupidly persistent and pathologically curious and live a moderately well-regulated disorganized life that allows you to piss away a few hours now and then in an endeavor that has no real value except your own amusement, there’s a decent chance you’ll get to see some of those things.”

GSV #46

I have seen some of those things. That’s where the curation kicks in. Rummaging through all those miles of unedited images and finding a few things that are, at least in my opinion, worth looking at. And of course, because I’m me and I tend to overthink all the unimportant stuff, I’m struck by the fact that ‘curation‘ comes from the same Latin root as ‘cure‘ and originally referred to the act of attending, managing, or restoring health. Art curators attend to the health of the art world — or at least are supposed to. I’m not going to pretend that this project is attending to the health of photography, but it most certainly attends to the health of my interest in photography — so there’s that.

GSV #50

Anyway, here we are at fifty images, deliberately and semi-thoughtfully culled from who knows how many possible GSV images in the world. It’s a ridiculous and pointlessly complicated project. I don’t know how much longer this project will last. I don’t have any end point in mind. But the sheer immensity and randomness of it continues to hold my interest, so I expect it will go on for a bit.

NOTE: If you’re interested, all the equally pointless Knuckles projects — GSV, My Feet Double Exposed, Things on a Table — can be found here.

knuckles is back

I have a moderately well-regulated disorganized life. That’s not as contradictory as it sounds, probably. What I mean is I sort of depend on a few daily routines that keep me somewhat disciplined in order to do the stuff I need/want to do. But those routines contain a lot of latitude for things that are unplanned, distracting, silly, random, fun, purposeless, and/or serendipitous. One result of living that sort of life is occasionally different parts of my life carom into each other.

Here are the various bits of my life that have bounced up against each other recently:

  1. It’s winter, and we’ve had like 40 inches of snow in something like three weeks, and I’ve been unable to take my normal daily walk. I have time on my hands.
  2. Because of 1. I’ve been playing GeoGuessr more often.
  3. I recently had a discussion in which I defended the concept of appropriation in art.
  4. I remain stupidly attached to the pseudonym Knuckles Dobrovic.
  5. The Knuckles Instagram account was currently idle, since I’d finished the second Knuckles project.

Those bits all came together and stuck, which is why I’ve started appropriating Google Street View images from GeoGuessr and turning them into a new Knuckles project. (Just to recap, I came up with the alias Knuckles Dobrovic about five years ago when I decided to dip my photographic toe into Instagram; first I photographed Things On A Table, followed by Double Exposures of My Feet.) I’m going to repeat something I’ve already repeated once before (and will probably repeat again), something I wrote at the completion of the first Knuckles project.

I’ll probably come up with some other sort of project, simply because I’ve grown fond of the name Knuckles Dobrovic. I realize that’s a stupid reason. I don’t care. I’ve no objection to doing things for stupid reasons.

gsv #1

Yeah, so here are the first images of the new Knuckles project. It’s not remotely an original idea. Actual artists have been using Google Street View (and I’m just going to start calling it GSV because I’m that lazy) as source material for years. I’m okay with the idea not being original. Sometimes creativity isn’t about finding an original idea; it’s about taking an existing idea and smooshing it into a form that’s your own.

Here’s the thing: every photo project is defined by its parameters–by some sort of unifying theme. Some folks doing GSV work take a classic street photography approach, some rely on New Topographics surface mapping, some treat it as landscape photography, some concentrate on the interactions between people on the street and the GSV camera.

gsv #2

So the first thing I had to do was to decide on my own project parameters. I spent a couple of days thinking about this stuff because I tend to think too much about just about everything. I always begin by making things ridiculously complicated, then whittling the idea down to something fairly manageable. Here are my basic parameters.

1) Rely on the randomness of the GeoGuessr app to find GSV scenes. The problem with that, of course, is that sometimes (well, often) the app will drop you in a location that’s utterly devoid of anything interesting. You can waste a lot of time noodling around for some scene worth capturing. On the other hand, that’s part of the attraction–coming across unexpected stuff.
2) Look for scenes that are ordinary but visually interesting. A lot of GSV artists seek out the dramatic or the weird or the otherworldy–car crashes, rural sex workers, odd graffiti, a particular color palette. I wanted to find mundane moments that still caught the eye.
3) Transform the image. Just some quick and dirty Photoshop grunt work. Square format, black-and-white. Get rid of the GSV directional markers and the Google trademark.
4) But not too much. I didn’t want to hide the fact that these are GSV images. So any other artifact of the GSV camera–weird angles, disrupted lines, blurred areas–remain.

That’s it. Once I’d decided on those parameters, I went noodling through the game to see what I could find.

gsv #3

I didn’t find much. It turns out that noodling around in GSV in random parts of the world is a lot like going on a photo-walk. There’s a whole lot of stuff that isn’t very interesting to look at. A boring stretch of road in Andalusia is as uninteresting as a boring stretch of road in the Australian outback or a boring stretch of road in central Russia. Playing GeoGuessr as a photo project feels different from playing GeoGuessr as a game. The fun part of it as a game is trying to solve the ‘Where the Fuck Am I?’ puzzle. As a photo project, where you are isn’t at all important; the only important thing is what you can see wherever you are.

gsv #4

Another problem quickly became apparent. When you DO happen to find something fairly ordinary but still visually interesting, GSV doesn’t necessarily give you a good angle to photograph it. In real life, you have control over your position. If you need to take a few steps to the left, if you need to squat down, if you need to get closer or farther away, you can do that. In GSV you only get what GSV gives you. For example, I saw some kids playing on a swing set on the outskirts of a small village in Estonia (okay, on my computer screen I saw an image taken mechanically by the GSV camera of kids playing on a swing set), but the kids were largely obscured by a tree and a recycling can. It was an interesting human moment, but it wasn’t a visually interesting image. If I moved forward in GeoGuessr, a hedge hid the kids; if I moved backward, a house was in the way. There was simply no possible way to turn that human moment into an interesting photograph. This is what happens when you let a robot do a photographer’s job.

gsv #5

On the other hand, the impersonal, un-engaged, dispassionate GSV has mapped around ten million miles in 83 countries. Ain’t no photographer gonna do that. In that ten million miles, there are bound to be a LOT of things worth looking at. So if you are stupidly persistent and pathologically curious and live a moderately well-regulated disorganized life that allows you to piss away a few hours now and then in an endeavor that has no real value except your own amusement, there’s a decent chance you’ll get to see some of those things.

ADDENDUM: Because I’m a self-promotional dunderhead, yesterday I completely forgot to include a link to the Knuckles Instagram account.

thanks

Occasionally people send me things. I’ve no idea why they do, but they do. Not often. Maybe three or four times a year. But periodically the postal carrier arrives at the door with an unexpected package.

Well, not always unexpected. I mean, usually somebody has emailed me and said something like “Dude, I have something for you — what’s your address?” And I give them my address. Why the hell not? I spent a chunk of my life as a professional invader of privacy, so I know the notion of personal privacy is pretty much an illusion. So far nobody has mailed me dog shit or anything explodey, so there’s that.

It always pleases me when these packages arrive. Sometimes, I confess, I’m a tad confused by what’s actually in the package — because sometimes the thing in the package is…well, let’s say some of the stuff is eccentric. But still, how could I not be pleased at the generosity and thoughtfulness behind the gift?

A random assortment of stuff folks have sent me.

I get photographs, of course. Lovely, interesting, beautifully printed photographs. And books (usually about photography, or about photographers, or by photographers but I’ve also received stuff like old Conan Doyle novels). I’ve a friend who, like some character out of fiction, sits in European cafes and writes beautifully (occasionally indecipherable) hand-written letters on the most sensuous paper, sometimes including an interesting business card. And occasionally there’s the eccentric stuff — shark teeth, a bent and rusty horseshoe, a bit of shale shaped like a duck’s head, an advert for gas masks, a box of Jane Austen band-aids, a ceramic ashtray. “Saw this,” people write, “thought of you.” I’m not sure quite what it means when somebody sees a key chain modeled after a Medical Examiner’s toe tag and thinks of me, but I like to think it’s somehow a compliment.

Yes, I took a selfie with a Jane Austen band-aid on my nose.

Okay, this is going to seem like a tangent, but it’s not. Back in 2012 I wrote a blog post about encountering a huge murder of crows. A couple of years ago, I was notified about a new comment on that post. It read:

Hi Greg,
I love your photos. I, too, am a huge fan of crows and ravens. We had a pet raven named Cyrano De Bergerac. He was so smart and so funny. I was wondering if I could use/buy one of your crow photos to include in a painting I want to do.
Thanks from heather

I said yes, of course. I usually say yes to this sort of thing. Besides, I’m a huge fan of crows and a huge fan of Cyrano (the Brian Hooker translation) and a huge fan of folks who can paint. So I said yes, then I promptly forgot all about it. I usually promptly forget about this sort of thing. But then in January I got an email.

Dear Greg, I responded to an early blog post about crows. I had a pet raven named Cyrano De Bergerac and I asked if I could use your photos for a painting I wanted to do. I finally got around to working on it. I am almost finished and I was wondering if you would like to have it. If so, may I have your mailing address?  Thanks from Heather

So I gave her my address. And, again, promptly forgot all about it. Then the painting arrived.

I don’t know what I was expecting. Something small, I suppose. Maybe one of those 8×10 cotton duck canvas panels. Actually, I’m not sure I had any expectations at all. I was just pleased that Heather liked a photograph, and pleased that she wanted to use it as a basis for a painting, and enormously pleased that she was generous enough to want me to have the final work. But whatever I was expecting, I can say without any hesitation that it wasn’t this. It wasn’t 34×24 inches of this:

I was gobsmacked. My gob? Totally smacked. It’s crows, of course, but it’s not just crows; it’s Aesop’s crow, the one from the fable in which a thirsty crow drops pebbles into a jug of water until the water level rises so he can drink. It’s Aesop’s clever crow channeled through Heather Vos, with a bit of mysticism tossed in, and a healthy dollop of pure crowness.

There’s a 12th century bestiary that includes an imaginary discussion between a crow and God. God, it seemed, was foolish enough to try to ignore the crow. The crow wasn’t having any of that, even from a god. The crow said,

“I, Crow, a talker, greet thee Lord. with definite speech, and if you fail to see me it is because you refuse to believe I am a bird.”

This what I love about crows, and it’s what I love second-most about this painting. Crows are clever, confident enough to talk to gods as an equal — confident enough to explain things to gods. We see that crow confidence here.

What I love most about the painting, of course, is that it exists. That it’s a physical reminder that people like Heather Vos exist. That a woman from a small town in Ontario, was thoughtful enough, generous enough, talented enough to create this painting and share it with me.

I’m a lucky guy, I recognize that. I live in a safe place, I have a warm bed in which to sleep, I haven’t had to miss a meal in years, I have friends and family. I’m generally a ridiculously happy person. On those rare occasions when I start to feel the world is cold and cruel (and there’s ample reason to feel that way these days) all I have to do is look around my desk and I’m reminded that the world is full of people who are kind and caring and altruistic and warm-hearted — and I’d go on, but I already sound too much like a Pollyanna.

But thanks — thanks to Heather and to everybody who has ever sent me anything, including their thoughts.

the return of knuckles dobrovic

I’ve already written about my slow conversion to Instagram, so I won’t repeat myself. Well, I won’t repeat myself much. I’ll repeat that my original IG account was meant as an experiment–a test or sorts. I designed a stupidly simple project idea: I put things on a table and photographed them. I didn’t expect it to come to anything and I didn’t really want to be associated with it, so I created a pseudonym: Knuckles Dobrovic. The whole thing was meant to be easily cast aside–project, alias, and the entirely of Instagram.

But, of course, that didn’t happen. I learned to love Instagram and the stupidly simple project idea turned into an actual project (though it remained stupid and simple). And as silly as it sounds, I love the name Knuckles Dobrovic. Here’s one more thing I’ll repeat: this bit in which I considered what I’d do when the project ended:

I’ll probably come up with some other sort of project, simply because I’ve grown fond of the name Knuckles Dobrovic. I realize that’s a stupid reason. I don’t care. I’ve no objection to doing things for stupid reasons.

The Things on a Table project ended in August of 2014. I put Knuckles Dobrovic out to pasture, with the idea that some day I’d–okay, I actually wrote I’d haul his ass back and put him to work, as if Knuckles Dobrovic actually existed.

Here’s the thing: I write and teach fiction, so I’m fairly used to thinking of characters in terms of their internally consistent integrity. So are you, for that matter. You have a fairly good idea how Sherlock Holmes thinks, what Princess Leia believes and would fight for, what Hannibal Lecter wants for supper, who Elizabeth Bennett would like to dance with and why. You have a fairly solid grasp on these fictional characters.

Me, I know what Knuckles Dobrovic would like to photograph. So despite the fact that Knuckles doesn’t actually exist, there are still certain Knuckles-based parameters that I knew would have to apply to a new photo project.

  • The project had to be simple, grounded in something commonplace. It had to grow fairly organically out of an everyday occurrence.
  • It needed to be something that didn’t require much planning or forethought. It had to be open to spontaneity. It also needed a certain–let’s call it ‘temporal economy’, meaning I didn’t want to have to spend much time fussing around with it.
  • The project didn’t need to be entirely original (how many projects are?), but it needed enough flexibility so I could make it uniquely mine. Or, rather, uniquely Knuckles’.
  • The project had to be something I’d find interesting–or at least something I wouldn’t mind doing–over the course of several months, regardless of the weather or season.

I confess, that’s largely bullshit. It’s not like I actually thought about it enough to make bullet points. I didn’t actually articulate any of this until I sort of stumbled onto this project idea. Over the past four years I’d occasionally consider project ideas, but they were all too fussy, or too complicated, or too much bother, too esoteric, too stupid, too something. Until last week.

I walk a lot. Most days, I try to take a lazy two or three mile walk. During that walk I’ll occasionally shoot a photo or two with my phone. I usually delete them. Last week, as I was deleting photos, I noticed I’d taken two shots with similar framing–looking straight down at stuff near my feet.

Nothing out of the ordinary there; I’d guess almost everybody who’s ever held a camera has taken that same basic photo. On a whim, instead of deleting the photos, I used a simple app to lay one image over the other–a sort of faux double exposure. And I liked the result.

January 29, two locations

I liked it enough I almost posted it on my Instagram account. Then it occurred to me that the photo had Knuckles potential. It met all the criteria. Walking was a commonplace event; it required no planning at all to notice stuff near my feet; it’s not an original idea, but it’s flexible enough to allow me a different take on it; and it was dead easy to layer one photo on top of the other.

So I decided, what the hell–I’d do it again on my next walk. See if the idea had legs, so to speak.

January 31, three locations

Again, I liked the result. I figured I’d repeat this for a few days to see if it was actually a viable project concept.

For the most part, I walk in my neighborhood, which is pretty suburban. There are some newer middle class areas, some older working class homes, a few small parks, some bits of light industry not too far away, a handful of strip malls and small shops fairly close by. It’s not particularly visually interesting. But there’s always stuff on the ground. Always and everywhere.

February 2, two locations

What I like about this idea is the element of randomness. You never know what you’re going to find on the ground. But there’s also an element of intentionality and deliberation that I find appealing. You have to make deliberate, intentional decisions on HOW to photograph the random stuff.

The biggest surprise was discovering I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. You’d think it would be easy to photograph random stuff in such a way that they’d blend together in an aesthetically pleasing way. But it ain’t. At least not for me. At least not yet.

February 6, two locations

I really like the fact that I don’t quite know what I’m doing. I like the fact that a lot of what I think will work as a double exposure turns out not to work at all. I’m pretty comfortable with the flawed and fickle nature of this gig. I’m okay with the fact that some days nothing I photograph will produce anything interesting.

I suspect that over time, I’ll get better at it–but I’m in no hurry. There’s always another walk tomorrow. There’s always going to be random crap at my feet.

February 7, two locations

The best thing about this gig (for me, at any rate) is that — well, there are two best things. The first best thing is that I get a ridiculous amount of enjoyment out of the name Knuckles Dobrovic. The second best thing is that this encourages me to walk with anticipation but without expectation. If that makes sense.

Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Buddhist monk who advocates a form of walking meditation, says this about walking: When you walk, arrive with every step. I’m not a good enough Buddhist to do that, but I try to be open to arriving. There’s just something pleasant and satisfying about seeing something on the ground — a leaf, a shadow, an oddly shaped stone, a bit of paint– and stopping a moment just to appreciate it. To arrive at that leaf or stone. I do that even if I don’t take a photograph.

So I think this project idea might work.

bullshit with icing

I have a friend — an artist (by which I mean an actual, no-shit, serious artist who not only makes art, but thinks about art and the nature of art and what is meant when we use the term ‘art’) — who recently said he wasn’t sure how he felt about the whole Masterpiece Cakeshop situation. To which I have two responses.

First, what the fuck does that even mean? How can you not know how you feel about something? I can totally understand having mixed feelings. I can understand having contradictory feelings. But surely it’s pretty obvious how you feel about any given thing at any given moment because you’re actually in the process of feeling it.

Second, stop over-thinking the Masterpiece Cakeshop situation. Which probably leads a lot of folks to this question: what the hell is the Masterpiece Cakeshop situation? It’s your basic situation in which a Christian doesn’t want to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. There’s a good chance you already think this crap has already been settled, and you’d be mostly right. The law is pretty clear. If you’re providing goods or a service to the public for commercial reasons, then you have to provide those goods and that service to ALL the public. Even if you don’t like or approve of them.

If you run a rental agency, you can’t refuse to rent a folding table to a Muslim just because you hate Muslims. If you run a landscaping business, you can’t refuse to landscape the lawn of a Thai family just because you dislike Asians. And if you bake cakes for a living, you can’t refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex couple just because you think homosexuality is evil.

A baker can refuse to bake a cake if the customer is requesting a personally objectionable decoration. You can refuse to bake cake in the shape of a penis. You can refuse to decorate a cake with I ♣ My Wife. You can probably refuse to bake and decorate a cake if the customer behaves like an asshole. But you can’t refuse to bake a cake simply because you object to the customer’s race, gender, marital status, religion, and all that.

Jack Phillips, cake artist

But here’s why the Masterpiece Cakes situation is a situation — and why my artist friend and his feelings are so confused. A baker named Jack Phillips, who owns a bakery called Masterpiece Cakeshop, refused, for religious reasons, to bake a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple. He also refuses for religious reasons to make cakes that celebrate Halloween or a divorce, and he won’t bake a cake that includes alcohol. What makes this situation a situation, though, is that Phillips is NOT claiming he won’t bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because they’re gay, but because they’re getting married. His religion states marriage should only be between a man and a woman. He says,

“I’m being forced to use my creativity, my talents and my art for an event — a significant religious event — that violates my religious faith.”

In other words, Phillips sees his custom cakes as works of art, and he shouldn’t be required to make art that offends his personal sensibilities (in this case, it’s his religious sensibilities). His lawyers argue that forcing him to create a custom cake for a same-sex wedding threatens the “expressive freedom of all who create art or other speech for a living.” And let’s face it, the law wouldn’t force a Jewish painter to accept a commission to paint a portrait of Hitler. The law wouldn’t force a Mormon sculptor to accept a commission to sculpt a giant stone dildo with the face of LDS founder Joseph Smith. So why should the law force Christian Jack Phillips to accept a commission to create a cake celebrating a marital union his religion opposes?

It’s because of this free expression argument that the Masterpiece Cakeshop situation is a situation. This is why four of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have agreed to hear arguments on the case at some point in this term. And hey, if we agree that art is protected by the free expression clause of the First Amendment (and it is), and if we agree that decorating a cake can be a work of art (and sure, it can be), then that sounds like a solid argument in favor of Phillips.

But it’s not. It’s just bullshit with vanilla icing.

Happy birthday!

It’s bullshit for this reason: it’s still about the wedding. it’s about the purpose of the cake, not the decoration. Let’s say the gentlemen who wanted the cake asked Phillips to create a three-tier wedding cake decorated with rainbow hearts and with two tuxedoed male figures arranged side by side on top. Phillips refuses, saying he shouldn’t be required to use his talents to create a custom wedding cake because his religious views oppose same-sex marriage. Now let’s say those same gentlemen asked Phillips to create a three-tier birthday cake decorated with rainbow hearts and with two tuxedoed male figures arranged side by side on top. Unless his religious views forbid him from celebrating birthdays, he’d be required to make the cake.

It’s the same damned cake using the same ingredients with the same decorations created using the same artistic skills. The only difference is the purpose, and the purpose in the Masterpiece Cakeshop situation is to discriminate against folks having a same-sex marriage.

It’s not about art and it’s not about free expression; it’s about refusing to obey laws against discrimination.

taped

It’s like this: you’re walking through an art center you’ve visited several times, chatting idly as you pass the art work, stopping occasionally to study or share a comment on a particular piece. There’s a Grant Wood, there’s a Hopper, there’s a Mapplethorpe and an O’Keefe. It’s normal, it’s enjoyable, it’s casual and easy, and then you turn a corner and encounter…well, this:

It’s hard to describe. But try to imagine if the xenomorph from Alien and Tolkien’s arachnid nightmare Shelob the Great mated, and the resulting offspring could extrude packing tape. To come across it unexpectedly is wonderful — and I mean wonderful in the earliest definition of the term. It inspired wonder.

And then as you stand there gawking, you realize there’s a person inside it. A person. Inside it. And moving.

It’s an art installation by a collective calling itself Numen / For Use — three industrial designers (from Germany, Austria, and Croatia) who create large-scale, site-specific interactive projects. They’ve done similar tape projects in Melbourne, Paris, and Vienna. This is their first tape installation in the U.S. And it is spectacular.

 

In this case, Numen / For Use used about 1400 pounds of translucent polypropolene tape to create an object that’s a cross between a giant spider’s web and a cocoon. There’s a single small circular opening in the bottom of the installation through which it can be entered (with the help of a small stairway). Folks can crawl, scoot, wriggle, and worm their way through the installation. At some points, it’s large enough to stand up inside.

On its own, this installation is singularly strange and oddly delightful — but even more strange and wonderful are the reactions of the people. Nobody can look at this without becoming at least momentarily childlike. You want to touch it, to crawl up inside, to wander around beneath it — you want to play with it even as you admire its beauty.

My friend and I spent maybe an hour with it. Then we went for tea. Then came back again for another thirty minutes. And it’s still not enough. We’re going back again today.

It’ll be enchanting and astonishing folks in the I.M. Pei wing of the Des Moines Art Center for the next three months.