Thursday, October 18, 2012

Ai Weiwei Exhibition at Hirshhorn

I visited the Hirshhorn Museum in DC to see the new exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s work, which was a revelation for me as I usually have a skeptical distance from conceptual art.  Ai’s work alludes to the distant artistic past, embraces Duchamp, nods to Jasper Johns, and mimes Minimalism, yet is also firmly set in the present. The work is beautiful, moving even, but without letting us forget the compromised world we live in.

What attracts me in particular is his engagement with the transformation of contemporary China. His ready-made sculpture comprising old bicycles, temple wood and reclaimed furniture references the ransacking of the past in the making of the present. He sprays Coca-Cola logos on Neolithic vases and dips Han dynasty vases in bright modern colors. There are also his more urban-inspired works.  Provisional Landscapes is a series of photos of the liminal spaces between demolition and construction that marks the Chinese urban scene.  There are the many photographs documenting the building of the Bird’s Nest 2008 Olympic stadium. Chang’an Boulevard is a 10-hour video--I did not see it all--shot every 50 meters along the 45-kilometer route. It provides a visual east-west transect from Beijing’s outer suburbs through the central city and out the other side. The Second Ring is a one-hour video of traffic along the second-ring motorway that encircles Beijing. Both videos provide the urban geographer in me with a visual handle on urban transformation.

There are the spatial works that quote maps and boundaries. Map of China is a five-foot high solid map of China made from recycled ironwood. Fragments is an installation of antique furniture and pillars from temples that he shapes to make a giant map of China.

There are the political works. Brain Inflation is two blown-up images of his brain scan taken after his beating from security police. He responds to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, not only in photographs and through the names of the victims printed on an entire wall text but also in two other compelling pieces. A traditional Chinese serpent, which on closer inspection is made up of hundreds of school kids’ backpacks, coils and winds its way around the exhibition space’s ceilings; it is a requiem for the many children killed when their shoddily built school buildings collapsed. Wenchuan Steel Rebar is a deceptively Minimalist floor piece consisting of 40 tons of rebar steel reclaimed from the wreckages of the earthquake.  A large ‘crack’ in its steel surface as it undulates across the floor recalls a quake’s rolls and fractures.

Ai Weiwei’s work is political but transcends glib agitprop.  It was a memorable experience to see how he wrestles with making aesthetic sense of the transforming world around him.

Map of China

Monday, September 24, 2012

Rising Inequality and Growing Segregation

A slew of recent reports gives us a picture of rising inequality. A report from the US Census revealed that the 60 percent that make between $20,000 and $101,000 earn around 46 percent of all income. That is a fall from 50 percent in 1990. The top five percent who earn more than $186,999 were the biggest gainers, increasing their share of national income. The income redistribution is a twenty-year trend that signals and embodies the rise of the superrich as important claimant on national income and as powerful shapers of political discourse. A report from the Federal Reserve released this summer shows that the Great Recession destroyed middle-income gains made over the past twenty years.

 The Pew Research Center also released a report this summer that showed the rich and poor are becoming more segregated. The percentage of rich households living in affluent areas doubled between 1980 and 2010. Just as income inequality is increasing, so is residential segregation. We get ideas about the world from our neighbors: when they begin to look increasingly like us we lose a sense of the other, the different and especially those with rapidly divergent economic trajectories. As we are becoming more unequal we are also losing touch with those different from ourselves.

 Another report from Sentier Research has an equally dramatic finding. While all cohorts aged 25 to 64 experienced drops in their income between 2009 and 2012, those aged 65 and above saw increases of 6.5 percent for the 65s-74s and 2.9 percent for the 75s and older. Many older Americans, because of their index-linked Social Security and stock portfolios (for the wealthiest at least), on average, are doing better than younger Americans. In some cases these differences even out as families pool money in intergenerational transfers of wealth and income. However, such transfers weaken as family size decreases, generations splinter and the elderly break away into gated communities. Inequality is increasing by age as well as income. Unemployment, for example, is borne more heavily by the young. Across Europe, youth unemployment rates are much higher than average unemployment rates. In Greece and Spain unemployment rates for those aged 15 to 25 is 52 percent. The national figures are 24 and 25 percent, respectively. That is why you see so many young demonstrators in the street. In the US, while the national unemployment rate hovers around 8 percent, youth unemployed is 14. 5 percent. 

Diverging economic conditions faced by young and old as well as rich and poor. We are becoming more unequal but also becoming more separated: the rich from the poor, the old from the young.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Watching in The USA

I love the Summer Olympics. All that competitive effort and skill, grace and beauty compacted into two weeks. It is a great time to watch sports television. Unless you are watching commercial TV. And especially if you are watching commercial TV in the USA where there is not only a five-hour delay between London’s and my East Coast time zones that softens the hard and charged impact of watching something in the shared real time as the event: the main problem is the network coverage itself. For US commercial television, sports events are ideal fillers for advertising. A typical NFL game lasts for close to three hours, with more than 45 minutes devoted to selling beer, fast food, cars and trucks. One of the pair of commentators assigned to every game spends as much time touting the network’s schedule as they do calling the game. In the universe of US commercial television, coverage time expands to fill the commercial opportunities available. The last three minutes of an NBA game can take up to 20 minutes in your time, as every break in play provides another opportunity to sell you something. Soccer is less popular amongst broadcast networks because the constant and uninterrupted play, unlike the staccato cadence of US football, basketball and baseball, provides fewer natural breaks for advertising.

For NBC, then, the Olympics is less sporting event, more giant advertising opportunity, an opportunity not to be passed up. The time delay with the London Olympics gives the network even more time to package even more adverts into their coverage, to spin out any single event with a constant and mind-numbing, repetitive barrage of adverts and the promotion of upcoming shows. Their sheer number blunts your senses for truly enjoying sports action. The sporting triumphs are brief interludes between extended commercial pablum. And then there are the very curious programming decisions. Entire NBC-affiliated cable channels are devoted to basketball and soccer, hardly unique as televised sport. On the main network’s prime time, from 8 pm to 11 pm, fare such as women’s beach volleyball gets incessant coverage. We see endless hours of two US women in skimpy bikinis, even all of their preliminary games. Even gold medaling US athletes are given short shrift while women ‘s beach volleyball is in play. A medal performance in the women’s 8 in rowing or in shooting is lucky to get a 30-second nod, between four minutes of GE product placement. The constant ogling of women’s beach volleyball is disconcerting and makes me feel as if I wandered into a soft porn viewing from long ago. And like most pornography ultimately boring: in this case only two players with little opportunity for sustained rallies. The programming decision looks as if it was devised by a groping voyeur more interested in seeing half-naked bodies than athleticisms at their finest. It is the age-old alignment of creepy voyeurism with selling products.

 Watching prime time coverage of the Olympics in the USA is a bleak experience. Actual sporting events are like tiny crumbs spread across a vast gray ocean of banal, repetitive advertising. Even the smartness of the clever adverts soon fades with constant repetition. In any hour of watching there must be at least 30 minutes of breaks. One evening after the 8.00 pm start, I clocked the first commercial break at 8.03. The Olympics is a great event for the television viewer. In much of the world it probably is. But not in the US, especially for those more TV-dependent than Internet savvy.

Watching NBC prime time television coverage is not a gold medal experience.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Koch Money Comes to Campus

There I was just finishing an essay on the super-rich. My basic argument is that we are in a second Gilded Age, a period of concentrated wealth and increased influence of the very rich. I explore their discursive reach and impact on political debates. It was quite literally an academic exercise meant for publication in a book on the very rich edited by the Australian geographer Iain Hay. And then I got notification of my own university’s Social Science Forum Spring 2012 Lecture Series (
One lecture in the series is a talk by an academic associated with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Under the title there is a little note that reads, “Co-sponsored by the Charles Koch Foundation”.

For those unfamiliar with Charles Koch and his brother David, I suggest reading an article in the New Yorker by Jane Mayer
The two brothers are among the top five richest people in the USA with individual fortunes of around $25 billion each. They own the largest private company in the USA. They have political opinions just like you and me. They believe fervently in low taxation, minimal environmental regulation, limited spending on social services and almost no role for federal government beyond guaranteeing personal liberty. Unlike you and me, however, they get to wield considerable influence on political debates. Over the years they have funded many right-leaning organizations and institutions. They bankroll a number of centers that promote deregulation and the abolition of environmental controls such as the Citizens for the Environment and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. They have also used their considerable fortune to support the Americans for Prosperity Foundation that works assiduously to promote and fashion the Tea Party into a viable political movement. Their far right views on small, minimal government are now an important part of political discourse in the USA.

At first I was appalled that my university, an institution ostensibly concerned with free and wide-ranging thought, should be taking money from an organization committed to only promoting one ideological position. But then I realized the benefits of linking up a cash-starved institution with well-funded corporate interests. Taking Koch money is just the start. In the reality of tight fiscal times for the university and extremely rich corporate interests, let me modestly propose some future lecture topics with possible co-sponsors:

The Hoax of Global Warming (Sponsored by Chevron Oil).

Financial Markets: Why We Do Not Need Government Regulation, Except When We Need a Bailout (Sponsored by Goldman Sachs).

Health Insurance For Workers is Over-rated (Sponsored by Wal-Mart).

Geopolitical Realities: Why We Need To Build More Missiles (Sponsored by General Dynamics).

The US Empire is Evil (Sponsored by Citgo Oil).

This is just a small sampling; given time I feel sure that I can come up with many more topics and potential sponsors. The sky is the limit. We get money and the organizations get to promote their ideas. Tough times demand new ways of thinking. With some imaginative thinking we might be able to solve our money woes very quickly. We could even have a whole Koch series. Clever idea to start with one lecture, but too limited. Let us move into the big time of becoming a platform for whatever big money is willing to pay for. What about a new logo for the university:
UMBC: Your Corporate Name Here

This is an idea whose time has come.