A Faint Distrust of Words

INTERVIEW BETWEEN ANDREA SCRIMA (A LESSER DAY)

AND CHRISTOPHER HEIL (Literaturverlag Droschl)

Novels set in New York and Berlin of the 1980s and 1990s, in other words, just as subculture was at its apogee and the first major gentrification waves in various neighborhoods of the two cities were underway—particularly when they also try to tell the coming-of-age story of a young art student maturing into an artist—these novels run the risk of digressing into art scene cameos and excursions on drug excess. In her novel A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil, second edition 2018), Andrea Scrima purposely avoids effects of this kind. Instead, she concentrates on quietly capturing moments that illuminate her narrator’s ties to the locations she’s lived in and the lives she’s lived there.

When she looks back over more than fifteen years from the vantage of the early 2000s and revisits an era of personal and political upheaval, it’s not an ordering in the sense of a chronological sequence of life events that the narrator is after. Her story pries open chronology and resists narration, much in the way that memories refuse to follow a linear sequence, but suddenly spring to mind. Only gradually, like the small stones of a mosaic, do they join to form a whole.

In 1984, a crucial change takes place in the life of the 24-year-old art student: a scholarship enables her to move from New York to West Berlin. Language, identity, and place of residence change. But it’s not her only move from New York to Berlin; in the following years, she shuttles back and forth between Germany and the US multiple times. The individual sections begin with street names in Kreuzberg, Williamsburg, and the East Village: Eisenbahnstrasse, Bedford Avenue, Ninth Street, Fidicinstrasse, and Kent Avenue. The novel takes on an oscillating motion as the narrator circles around the coordinates of her personal biography. In an effort of contemplative remembrance, she seeks out the places and objects of her life, and in describing them, concentrating on them, she finds herself. The extraordinary perception and precision with which these moments of vulnerability, melancholy, loss, and transformation are described are nothing less than haunting and sensuous, enigmatic and intense. Read more »

Reflections on congestion and technology

by Emrys Westacott

Last week I drove from the small college town in upstate New York where I live to New York City. Traffic_330_1a1i8i2-1a1i8i8 We covered the 306 miles from home to the George Washington Bridge, which takes one into Manhattan, in just under five hours. The next 15 miles, through Manhattan to our destination in Brooklyn, with a quick pick up and drop off on the Upper West Side, took an hour and a half. The following day we had a similarly miserable experience driving from Brooklyn to midtown.

I understand that a country mouse like myself is likely to be both not very savvy about and easily unsettled by the ways of the big bad city. Even so, the congestion, the jungle-law etiquette, the impatient honking, the anxiety induced by reckless cyclists passing on left and right, the lanes blocked by delivery vehicles, the need for so many police officers to direct traffic and pedestrians at snarled intersections, the difficulty of finding street parking–all this had me shaking my head. I know that thousands do it every day. Many do it for a living. And a few no doubt enjoy it. But regularly spending hours in congested traffic, even in a taxi on a bus, is no part of the good life in my book. At best, it's a fairly hefty sacrifice for the sake of other benefits the city has to offer.

Strolling around midtown Manhattan, I was struck by how many of the cars on the street were yellow taxis. Apparently there is no official figure for the percentage of New York traffic constituted by taxis, but my impression was that it must be more than fifty percent, especially if one includes cars that provide ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. According to New York's Taxi and Limousine Commission, about 20,000 of the city's 65,000 vehicles for hire are Ubers.

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The Meaning of Apples

by Emrys Westacott

What is it about the apple? Common, easily grown, and cheap to buy, yet when you think about it the apple is a major character in the history of our culture. Apple-191004_150It pops up continually to play significant roles in religion, mythology, science, and the arts, and remains metaphorically active in everyday language.

The first example that comes to mind, of course, is the apple that Adam and Eve partook of in the garden of Eden, thereby precipitating the Fall thanks to which we now have to toil among thorns and thistles, earning our bread in the sweat of our brow instead of lounging around in paradise. Scholars and pedants will immediately point out that the bible doesn't say that what Eve plucked from the tree of knowledge was actually an apple: it just describes it rather vaguely as the tree's fruit. Since there was only ever one tree of knowledge, it quite likely produced a unique fruit that is no longer available, not even at Whole Foods. But that's beside the point. In the popular mind Eve bit into an apple, thought it tasted good (so we know it wasn't some mealy Golden Delicious) and offered it to Adam; he took a bite, and the rest is a lot more mythology eventually feeding into history. Size1Here the dual character of the apple is revealed for the first time. As coming from the tree of knowledge it's presumably good, knowledge itself being a fine thing. But since eating it is sinful, the initial sweetness turns bitter, and what at first gives delight leads to shame, exile, labour and death.

It was also an apple that set in motion the events leading to the Trojan War, tragic and glorious in equal measure according to our primary source. The wedding of Peleus and Thetis had an impressive guest list that included all the Olympian gods but not Eris (a.k.a. Discordia) goddess of Chaos and Strife. She wasn't invited for obvious reasons, but she came anyway and true to form tossed into the midst of the revelers a golden apple inscribed, “To the fairest.” Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all claimed it; Zeus appointed Paris, a prince of Troy, to decide who should have it; Aphrodite offered the best bribe—the beautiful Helen of Sparta—so she got the apple, Paris got Helen, and Troy got razed to the ground after a ten-year war. In this case, too, the apple's outward appeal–it is brilliant, beautiful, and desired by three goddesses–hides a dark core that breeds rivalry, envy, seduction, betrayal, war, and destruction.

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Jonas Mekas: Serpentine Gallery, London. Until 27 January 2013

by Sue Hubbard

_MG_3195 press pageHow do we remember? Before the invention of the camera most people never possessed a likeness of themselves or those they loved – a lock of hair, a letter, were the heart’s most treasured possessions, the artefacts that conjured the past. Photography democratised the ownership of images. A portrait need no longer be in watercolour or oils, it could be an informal snap taken on a box Brownie: a casual moment sealed in the proverbial amber of memory. With the technological advances of the 20thand 21st centuries, with film, video and digital technology and the predominance of surveillance equipment it might, theoretically, be possible to record a whole life from the moment of birth till the second of death. It was only a decade or so ago that the French Postmodernist social theorist Jean Baudrillard argued that the images which assault us – on our TVs, in film and advertising – are not copies of the real, but become truth in their own right: the hyperral. Where Plato had spoken of two kinds of image-making: the first a faithful reproduction of reality, the second intentionally distorted in order to make a copy appear correct to viewers (such as a in a painting) Baudrillard saw four: the basic reflection of reality; the perversion of reality; the pretence of reality, and the simulacrum, which “bears no relation to any reality whatsoever”. Baudrillard's simulacra were, basically, perceived as negative, but another modern French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, has described simulacra as the vehicle by which accepted ideals or a “privileged position” can be “challenged and overturned”. Reality has become a complex issue.

_MG_3266 press pageJonas Mekas was 90 on Christmas Eve, which means that the film-maker, artist and poet, often referred to as the godfather of avant garde cinema, has lived through a lot of history. Born in Lithuania he spent part of the war in a forced labour camp, then after the hostilities ended, another four years in various displaced person’s camps such as Flensburg, Hamburg, Wiesbaden, Kassel – first in the British Zone, then in the American. With nothing much to do and a lot of time he read, he wrote and went to the movies, which were shown free in the camps by the Americans. So began his long relationship with film. Later, when he commuted to the French Zone to study at the University of Mainz, he met André Gide who told him to “work only for yourself,” and watched a lot of French cinema. After arriving in America he bought his first Bolex camera in 1950, which he used to film everyday scenes in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the Lithuanian immigrants who lived there. Describing himself and his brother as “two shabby, naïve Lithuanian boys, just out of forced labour camp”, it was not until some 10 years later that he decided to assemble the footage into a film.

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New York’s Empire State of Mind: The Colonization of ‘Up’ Part I

by Ryan Sayre
11_elevator_inv

Elisha Otis was a solver of problems—practical problems involving bread ovens, steam engines, bed frames, and the like. Faced with the problem of safely bringing debris down from the second floor of his workshop, in 1852 he repurposed a railroad brake into an emergency elevator brake that would stop the lift cold in its tracks should the supporting cables snap. This small innovation opened an entirely new kind of space; a space we might call the 'up'. ‘Up’ had of course always existed, but never before as a habitable territory. As a place for work, life, and leisure, ‘up’ would have to be imagined. While colonial powers in the early 20th century were busy stretching railroad lines across continents, urban engineers in cities like Chicago and New York were beginning to bend Otis' elevator tracks ever further upward into uncharted verticality.

For a short three to four year period in the late 1920s and early 1930s, New York City drove its skyline 70, 87, and then 102 stories into the air. The expedition marked a transformational moment in the city. During these few years city traffic was detoured skyward. The city’s profile was nearly flipped on its axis. The goal of city planners was to rationalize the city and the ‘up’ seemed like the most efficient direction to take a growing population. But rationalization and efficiency are never linear; the stories of buildings are marked by countless twists and turns.

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Reflections on the Density of City Life

I: Reflectvertising in Tokyo’s Liquid Desert
The white neon apple, visible all the way down Chuo Avenue, Reflectvertizing_ginza makes finding the Ginza Apple Store deceptively easy. I say ‘deceptively’ because it’s not until you’re about to enter that you realize you've been chasing after a reflection, a perfect double emblazoned on the frosted glass of the Matsuya Department store directly across the street. Tokyo’s upturned desert of glass preserves, from its former days as sand, the ability to proliferate mirages and fata morgana, sends wanderers deeper and deeper into the wild.

Restaurant reflectvertisements are slung around Tokyo's street-corners, billboard reflections dragged over the curved surfaces of its slow-moving
taxi cabs. Storefront neon sloshes about like oil in narrow waterways, luring then repelling, tempting then deterring. Looking out over this liquid Sahara, it’s hard to say whether reflectvertisements fall more on the side of visiting or intruding, hanging out or loitering. What can be said is that this economy of intangible light operates very differently from the economy of invisible air over which radio, television, and cellular companies bid so ravenously. And while all things may not pass amicably between reflectvertising neighbors in Tokyo, more notable than the tallying of strife is the mood of the city excited by all this uneven thrumming.
However much dictionaries may want us to think of reflections as “the throwing back by a body or surface of light, heat, or sound, without absorbing it” I can’t help but feel Reflectvertizing_street that while reflections may bounce coldly off individual surfaces in Tokyo, taken together, they soak throughly into the warm skin of the city.

II: The Relative Pressures of City Life

Whenever I happen to lay my hand against the side of a skyscraper in Tokyo or New York, I wonder why it is that these structures don’t get hot from all the millions of pounds of vertical pressure coursing down through them. Where does it all go? As it passes into the streets, through nut vendors, and out the exhaust pipes of busses, might it be possible to follow it into subway tunnels or trace it up elevator shafts back to the top floors of office buildings? City smells, city sounds, and so many of
the city’s weighty little annoyances push us along the same stress-strain curve as its towering buildings, at every turn making trial of our tensile strength. When late for a business meeting, wouldn't we do better to measure the long wait for an elevator in pascals rather than in seconds, with a barometer rather than with a wristwatch? We Razor_thin_building_shiodome inhabitants of megacities are little Titans, miniature Atlases, each hefting a little of the city's load on our aching shoulders.

When I was a child, I’d greet my father at the door, and, tired after a hard day’s work, he’d always make me the same deal. “I'll give you a piggyback ride to the kitchen,” he’d say, “but only if you carry this heavy briefcase for me.” Giving out a groan as he dropped his burden into my extended hand, and then, lifting me up onto his back, he’d march about, play-acting an unfettered lightness of being. I have a sneaking suspicion that the logic of city life turns on a similar principle; that the city carries our freight upon its shoulders as long as we bear a small measure of its upon ours. Despite common sense telling us all this heavy-lifting ought to result in more, not less, cumulative pressure, what keeps the operation moving, both for my father and for the city, is not a diminishing of pressure, but the inverse; its amplification, spiked with a communal ecstasy over the senselessness of it all.

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