Form inside matter


The AGO currently has an exhibit in its Italian gallery of beams of wood carved away to reveal the heartwood. Literally starting with a building material, the artist is able to reveal the tree inside it – in other words, in something whose form has been neutralized, made identical (one beam is the same as any other), he finds a particular shape.

The work reminds me of Aristotle – who says the wooden bed is not natural insofar as we consider it a made thing, something whose end (telos) is a human activity – however, it is natural if we consider it the kind of thing which in the right environment will rot or even from which could sprout a new tree. But, the work is not the same as placing a bed in mud and waiting for it to rot – the from revealed in the tree has much more endurance, it is not rotting – it looks as if it might last in its current form eternally.

So, the work is about form in matter-for-production, but without being about the generation and corruption of matter. Rather, the beam shows up the form in the wood as something natural yet eternal, which fits with the modern concept of nature as fixed lawlikeness. But, this fit is only analogous – we think nature as fixed process (i.e. gravity is a law which holds the same everywhere), but here we have a shape of a tree frozen in time, revealed, and put into museum conditions which will enable its permanent endurance.

So, the work is about something in between form in the Platonic sense (i.e. geometric forms), and form as a contingent particular (i.e. the shape of this mud field after a rainstorm). Or, perhaps it is traditionally Aristotelian – form is permanent, what matter shows up as, yet non-mathematical.

Another reason the piece is interesting is that it is a hands-off piece according to the directions given by the Artist to the gallery. But, since the piece is so clearly hands-on, security guards constantly need to tell people to not touch it (photography is allowed, however, unlike in the rest of the gallery). The artist is certainly bright enough to know the work is a hands-on work, so the only reasonable conclusion is he is including an ethical-political dimension in the work about law as the order of authority, for the sake of maintaining the perfection of the work – which is being lent to the gallery. In other words, the market value of the work requires it to be maintained in identical condition (which is part of the work). The parents telling their children not to touch the work enacts the authority of the permanent over the flux inherent in human engagement with nature. The security guard I spoke with seemed to understand this – he agreed at least when I made the point that the work is a hands-on piece regardless of what the artist or gallery say – the relation between the work and the audience is determined by the work itself, not by what someone says about the work.

The work is being loaned to the AGO with no fixed end date. I encourage anyone in Toronto to go see it, especially on a free evening when the extra people and extra security should bring even more clearly the dynamics here described into your experience of the piece.

Serra’s Shift

Yesterday morning my father, myself, and a few roomates and friends piled into my new one dollar van to drive north of Toronto to see Richard Serra’s early site-specific work, “Shift”. Although I first heard about the piece four years ago in a course on late Heidegger, a lack of private transportation meant this was my first time seeing it – a very appropriate first use for the new van.

The piece is set into a field, but not the field next to the road. Instead, there is a field of mud and soybeans between the sculpture and the road. This, and the fact that it is unpublicized, is an essential part of the work – it comes from a period of artists removing themselves from the gallery scene. (However, I don’t think it would be awful in the future for the work to become public, a small interpretive centre, gravel walking paths etc…)

The work is set into a farmer’s field which is in use, so around the piece is planted a crop (soybeans we think, and from all the corn lying around it is likely on a rotation). The farmer is surely using a very large machine, and thus can’t cut too close to the sculpture – which means most of the concrete is hidden underneath wild plants. Mostly, you don’t literally see the sculpture, but more of a hedge of wild grasses and flowers encircling it. My father was quick to point out that this hedge of wild in the middle of a cultivated field isn’t wasted space – it actually benefits the farming activity by being a natural habitat for bumblebees, and generally increasing the field’s biodiversity.

What these hedges cover is a series of concrete walls extending horizontally along a falling slope until they reach a certain height above the ground, at which point they drop to the ground and begin extending horizontally again. The work represents the way the field appears on a topographical map – in other words, representationally, according to concept, idea. Perfect. Demonstrating the topographical representation in a concrete medium allows the actual field to show up in its organic, sinuous character – which differs essentially from the rigid straightness of the representational line.

At first, then, not being able to see the concrete lines appears to detract from the work. But soon enough one can see that the overgrown hedges are actually part of it – they help bend the concrete flatlines into the curve of the field.

In this photo it’s easy to see the curve in the lower section of this part of the work. It’s not an illusion – since the ground is curving, the height of the grasses that surround the concrete do curve – the concrete stays flat, and is only exposed at the end (bottom left). You can also see these curves reflected in the rows of planted soybeans. Except – these are not the same curves at all. The curves in the rows of plants are actually representational curves, they are planned out geometrically by the farmer who wants to plant the field in the most efficient way, to extract from it the maximum number of calories or dollars. Whereas, the curve in the wild hedge has no perfect linearity or pre-planning or expected function – the plants grow up and recoil back by the law of the propagation of life, rather than a system-thinking.

Shift is a wonderful piece – it provides a place to reflect on representation and nature, on farming and efficiency, on publicness and the secret, and on the possibility of spaces that are somehow excluded or exempt from the all-domination of the market. Yesterday was my first trip to it and I hope to visit it many more times in the years ahead.

Van Naming Contest

IMG_7833

I’ve always enjoyed the idea of naming things I own, inanimate things. It helps animate them, make them meaningful. Last summer the Taurus had the name “official place of fun”, or something along those lines, due to its involvement in various trips. That, however, is a descriptive and not a proper name. I’ve always been horrible at naming things – I’ve never successfully named a guitar, bike, or car. Which is why I’m asking you to help me name the vehicle that will take me across Canada. Winner gets a prize yet to be determined!

Bike lanes, and why cyclists are better off without them

Bike lanes seem to have some plus points – the city is carving a place on the road for bikes, theoretically making cycling in traffic safer, and faster during traffic jams.

However, the reality happens to be the opposite. While bike lanes create the illusion of safety, they tend to produce situations of extreme unsafety in two ways. First, if the bike lane is between a lane of traffic and a lane of parking, then the bike lane is exactly where you should not ride if you don’t want to subject yourself to the possibility of a door prize. The danger of opening car doors is a real one, and made worse by the lack of liability motorists are subject to if they hurt a cyclist by opening a car door without looking. Whereas if a car hits you from behind and you are killed, the motorist can be charged with driving without due care and attention causing death – penalty, up to many years in prison. However, if you are killed by an open door the most the motorist can be charged, in Toronto at least, is 110$ for improperly opening a vehicle door. So, riding in a bike lane next to parking is putting your life in hands of people who stand to lose almost nothing by ending it.

Bike lanes where there is no parking look better – but only at first. The difficulty is they are used for parking. It is not practically possible to enforce no-parking-in-bike-lane laws. And it is pointless to complain at the people doing it – they are simply being rational given the enforcement and their own constraints and interests. The solution is to simply add another lane of traffic instead of a bike lane – many fewer truck drivers are willing to block a lane of traffic than block a bicycle lane. Also, although the enforcement might be similarly inept, the fine is much higher – and if you leave the vehicle it could be towed.

But, how could getting rid of bike lanes possibly be good for cyclists? Because it could be promoted that cyclists should ride in lanes of traffic. City speed limits could be reduced to 40km/h to help cyclists keep up, and the legal right of cyclists to take a lane of traffic (which at this time exists, but is only somewhat known and poorly advertised) could be publicised and stressed.

The alternate solution is to radically seperate cyclists from traffic with physically seperate bike lanes, like in Munich, Montreal, and Amsterdam.

The point is – cycling can be safe and efficient in a city only when the question of whether bikes are the same as cars is answered forcefully in one or the other direction.

Values and Religions

Reading Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” has got me thinking about how future historians might talk about our age, and to what extent capitalism might be interpreted as a “religion”. While that might sound far-fetched at first – hear me out. For instance, when Diamond talks about the history of Easter Island, and how changing material conditions led to changing religious practices (and vice versa), it is possible to talk about the “religion” of the islanders, in a meaningful way, without ever actually talking about which dieties they worshipped – in fact sometimes it is useful to talk about a rellgion only as a set of cultural practices. Another example of this might be rifts in Christianity – sure there might be theological differences but it would be strange to say that someone doesn’t understand anything about the religious conflicts in Ireland simply because they don’t know the technical theological differences. What is true in both these cases is religion, and religious difference, is largely an issue of cultural value.

The strict Nietzschean in me resists using the term “value” in this sense. In the technical philosophical meaning, it might well be true that “values” are inherently related with the self-positing and self-certainty of the subject, and talk of “cultural value” or “religious value” is a derivative mis-understanding of pre-subjective ways of understanding the world. However, since we are subjects, and significance for us is value, it is natural to mis-understand cultural significance as value – and who am I to argue with objectively necessary misunderstandings?

That is after all a technical issue. The serious question is, what kind of “religion(s)” could secular society be interpreted as practising? The obvious choice would be to posit secular ethics (which includes environmentalism) as our “religion”, but I think this is far too narrow.

I think that a proper interpretation of the religiosity, or cultural-value, of secular(ish) society should centre on those values which we hold but don’t see. These are the uncontested values, the ones that appear necessary to us.

For instance, there is the particular way we value being in-touch. I think this is manifested largely in technologies that allow us to network by turning ourselves into a node on a plain of connections. This happens when you own a cell phone and can call/can be called by many people (and is made explicit when someone calls or texts you to get another’s number). It happens on facebook – especially on the “wall” where people comment and respond to each others comments. And it happens on youtube, flickr and picassa when we post content (ourselves) for distribution and discussion. Perhaps one trend we can see in the way we connect ourselves in nodal networks is the trend from us being the node (i.e. my phone – I am literally the thing you contact), and having media content act in place of us as the node (i.e. my facebook page, which enables me to be a locus of activity even when I am disconnected).

Technologies like smartphones should be interpreted not as creating any new possibilities for connections – but are rather built in order to facilitate those avenues of keeping in touch which are already dominant. For instance, I can now (with a 3GS iphone, if I had one) record a video, post it on youtube, while walking down a busy street or as a passenger in a car. But, these are not new technologies, simply easier ways of participating in existing ones.

But, ease of use can itself be a qualitative difference. What does the overwelming success of smartphones, (which should, although are not often, called laptops in your pocket) show? It shows that we value (and are willing to throw resources at) being in-touch in the way above described. It can hardly be said to be irrational either, since even expensive phones and plans rarely cost more than 4 or 5 dollars a day to run.

But, it is not enough to say our culture or religion was about being in-touch, that’s certainly true for every culture. There is something about the way representations of ourselves online, through blogs, photos and videos, and tweets/status updates, which is particular to this age. I don’t pretend to have a full understanding of it, but I do know how it feels to want to be part of it.

Shortly, I will take a cross Canada journey – and I very much feel the desire to blog about it in real-time – posting photos and video as we go. Perhaps, if I knew how to set it up, even podcast a short radio show (this might be possible just by creating mp3s and uploading them to the blog). There is something broadcasty about these desires, but they seem in tune with today, don’t they?

An Adventure in the Making

Cross Canada Coach?
Cross Canada Coach?

Is this the Vehicle that will take me across Canada? The story began several weeks ago with some couch surfers who needed to sell a Van they had driven from Vancouver to Montreal and Toronto. Unfortunately, they were not able to sell it. Which was lucky for me, because it meant they were willing to sign it over to me (in actuality, they signed it over to my mother to make it easier to insure). Now, the plan is to drive it across this great land.

Looking at google maps, I’ve decided that the northern route is best. Toronto, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Jasper, Kamloops, Vancouver. On the whole, it’s only about 100km longer than the more conventional route through Calgary, and it affords the benefit of seeing Mount Robson, not seeing Calgary, and a more interesting prairie drive.

I’m quite excited about what I will see along the way. Prospects include seeing the neighborhood my mom originally moved to (somewhere near Thunder Bay), standing at the corner of Portage and Main in Winnipeg, and wandering through the West Edmonton Mall. I hope to blog about the adventures from the moving van – hopefully posting updates from whatever wireless access I can borrow along the way.

Do people have suggestions of what to see along the way?

Cross Canada Driving Trip Amalgemation

Cross Canada Drive – in the Previa, with my brother.

Photos: Toronto to Thunder Bay, Thunder Bay to Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan to the Rockies

Trip preperation

Day 1

Day 2 – Morning

Day 2 – Afternoon

Day 3 – Morning

Day 3 – Afternoon

Day 4 – Morning

Marathon Ontario

Truck Accident we observed

Saskatoon

West Edmonton Mall

Downtown Edmonton

The Rest of the Trip

Driving tips!

Cabin Feever is a state of mind

This weekend Drew Sexsmith’s band came through town, and I put them up at my house. Although I missed their set, I thoroughly enjoyed hanging out with fine musicians, and getting to experience a bit of the fun filled comical frenzy that is being on tour.

Saturday morning was especially enjoyable. I jammed with Drew, who was glad to have someone to play bluegrass with, and drank a beer in the morning. It made me realize that cabin feever isn’t about a particular place, but just about a group of people moving in a different sort of time.

The Dreadnoughts have just completed the North American wing of their world tour, and are as we speak on their way to Holland. They plan to spend 3 months in Europe, and they are headed on tour again in October.

On Eating Alone, or Engagement and the Social Valuation of Food Consumption

I noticed after returning from Montreal that I was finding eating much less enjoyable than I did while I was there. Trying to find a reason for this, I went over several possibilities. One is that in Montreal I was free to purchase dairy products to consume at home – I certainly do value soft french cheeses, and they certainly work well in Montreal. But, upon further reflection, I think the larger difference is that while I was in Montreal, I was always cooking for two, or being cooked for by another. Eating with others is really a completely different experience to eating alone – cooking isn’t a chore, but a party when done not only with others but even in the presence of others. Drinking wine with dinner is a bit introspective when alone, but convivial when with others. With others, there is no rush to get things done, the preparation, even washing up, is itself a joy. Even more than this, I found shopping for food more enjoyable in Montreal. Here, I take shopping to be a necessary evil – I don’t like parting with money, and I only buy what I consider the cheapest, which rarely leads to a balanced pantry.

These realizations have made me seriously reconsider my relationship with the food I purchase, cook, and eat. Actually – that’s the wrong way of parsing the question, the relationship is not one only between me and the food and the cooking and the eating – the relationship is also with others, whether present or absent. This is the old question of the location of consciousness – we tend to think of it as if its in the head, but actually its not in the head but in the relation between myself and others. Perhaps not only human others, “I” am literally in my engagement with physical things, never radically abstracted from them. But, this has become far too philosophical – what do I mean?

Basically this – that food is not an object of measure, like an atom or a plant in a museum. It is more like a car or a hammer – a “tool”, not in the sense that it has a purpose (although that is true also), but in the sense that I am engaged with it as something which becomes part of my body. Not only in eating it, we all know that, what I am trying to say that food, in my concerned preparation of it, is already part of me in the same way a hammer or a car becomes part of my body when I am using or driving it. This might sound ridiculous, but this hundred year old phenomenological insight has been confirmed by neuroscience when it was discovered that my brain literally treats the hammer as if it were part of my hand. And, for those of us who drive, we all know that we say “ouch” when we hit an unexpectant bump not only because the we might be surprised, but because we intuitively empathize with the machine as an extension of our own arms and legs. When I brake – my foot is not on the pedal but on the road, right up to the point when I lose control (then my foot is most certainly on a pedal).

But, enough about neuroscience and phenomenological interpretations of driving – I am trying to talk about my engagement with food. Food enjoyed in the presence of others somethings has a magical quality. Think vegetables at thanksgiving – they manifest “plenty”, and the meat manifests “sacrifice”. Wine is magical as well, spirit, blood, spice. These manifestations are not simply illusions but are properties of the engagement of myself with the food – or, since “I” am nothing but that engagement, they are aspects of myself (although not as an individual). The key then is perhaps that the manifestations of myself, self-understanding of my engagement towards food, only shows up in social circumstances. The “lack” felt in eating alone is the inability to manifest something present, but not manifestly so.

The question – is it because we don’t value eating alone as much as eating together that we eat more carelessly, and thus the peculiar engagement we have with food fails to show up? Or, is it because eating alone conceals our engagement with it that we do not value it?

Certainly, my experience of different valuations of eating whether alone or together is not universal. If anyone reading this prefers eating alone, or does not prefer one over the either, please comment.