Archives: December 2016

Humanity’s greatest fear is about being irrelevant

Ian Tucker in conversation with Genevieve Bell for the Guardian
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Writing for the Guardian, Ian Tucker talks to Genevieve Bell, the Australian anthropologist working at the Intel headquarters in Oregon, to explore our anxieties about rapidly developing technology, and artificial intelligence:

Genevieve Bell is an Australian anthropologist who has been working at tech company Intel for 18 years, where she is currently head of sensing and insights. She has given numerous TED talks and in 2012 was inducted into the Women in Technology hall of fame. Between 2008 and 2010, she was also South Australia’s thinker in residence.

Why does a company such as Intel need an anthropologist?
That is a question I’ve spent 18 years asking myself. It’s not a contradiction in terms, but it is a puzzle. When they hired me, I think they understood something that not everyone in the tech industry understood, which was that technology was about to undergo a rapid transformation. Computers went from being on an office desk spewing out Excel to inhabiting our homes and lives and we needed to have a point of view about what that was going to look like. It was incredibly important to understand the human questions: such as, what on earth are people going to do with that computational power. If we could anticipate just a little bit, that would give us a business edge and the ability to make better technical decisions. But as an anthropologist that’s a weird place to be. We tend to be rooted in the present – what are people doing now and why? – rather than long-term strategic stuff.

A criticism that is often made of tech companies is that they are dominated by a narrow demographic of white, male engineers and as a result the code and hardware they produce have a narrow set of values built into them. Do you see your team as a counterbalance to that culture?
Absolutely. I suspect people must think I’m a monumental pain. I used to think my job was to bring as many other human experiences into the building as possible. Being a woman, being Australian and not being an engineer – those were all valuable assets because they gave me a very different point of view.

We are building the engines, so the question is not will AI rise up and kill us, but will we give it the tools to do so?

Now, the leadership of Intel is around 25% female, which is about what market availability is in the tech sector. We are conscious of what it means to have a company whose workforce doesn’t reflect the general population. Repeated studies show that the more diverse your teams are, the richer the outcomes. You have to tolerate a bit of static, but that’s preferable to the self-perpetuating bubble where everyone agrees with you.

You are often described as a futurologist. A lot of people are worried about the future. Are they right to be concerned?
That technology is accompanied by anxiety is not a new thing. We have anxieties about certain types of technology and there are reasons for that. We’re coming up to the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the images in it have persisted.

Shelley’s story worked because it tapped into a set of cultural anxieties. The Frankenstein anxiety is not the reason we worried about the motor car or electricity, but if you think about how some people write about robotics, AI and big data, those concerns have profound echoes going back to the Frankenstein anxieties 200 years ago.

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Highlights of 2016

Charlotte Mandell, Dan Fox, Shaun Whiteside and Jen Calleja on their highlights of the year.
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As 2016 finally teeters on its last legs, we decided to take a look back over a few of the year’s highlights for us. This year we were proud to publish excellent essays by Dan Fox, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Svetlana Alexievich, and Ben Lerner; as well as works of fiction by John Keene, Ed Atkins, Clemens Meyer, and Agustín Fernández Mallo with the second installment of his brilliant Nocilla triology.

For this blog post we asked a few of our translators, and an author, to reminisce over some of their own cultural highlights of 2016: Charlotte Mandell, Shaun Whiteside, Jen Calleja, and Dan Fox tell us about their most memorable experiences of the year in literature, music, and the arts.

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Charlotte:

For the past year I’ve been working on my translation of Mathias Énard’s long novel Boussole (Compass), so much of my reading has been connected in some way to that: Edward FitzGerald’s elegant translations of Omar Khayyam; Germain Nouveau’s poetry, in the Pléiade edition that Sarah (one of the main characters) bemoans no longer features him; Xavier de Maistre’s very funny Journey Around My Room.  There are so many books mentioned in Compass that it would take years to read them all, but I’d certainly like to try, starting with Leg Over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, a book that Sarah claims is one of the best novels of the nineteenth century in any language, not just in Arabic.  

I suppose the cultural highlight of the year for me was a gorgeous production of the seldom-performed opera Iris by Mascagni, conducted by Leon Botstein, at the Bard Music Festival last July.  It was beautifully sung by the soprano Talise Trevigne; the beginning of the third act, with its mysterious, Wagnerian overture, was one of the most haunting things I’ve ever seen in a live performance:  Iris is shown falling in slow-motion, while tendrils of smoke rise up from the trash heap below.  A screen between her and the audience made it look even more other-worldly and ethereal. 

There’s an exciting new publishing collective, an offshoot of Lunar Chandelier Press, called the Lunar Chandelier Collective, which published several innovative poetry books this past year, each one very different from the other:  Heart Thread by my husband, Robert Kelly; Uncreated Mirror by a powerful young poet named Tamas Panitz; Waters Of by a lyrical and sensuous poet named Billie Chernicoff; and Porcelain Pillow, a poem that combines memoir and essay, by Thomas Meyer.  Robert actually had four books published this year: The Hexagon, a long poem published by Commonwealth Books; Opening the Seals, a meditation on proto-language, published by Autonomedia Press; Heart Thread; and The Secret Name of Now, a selection of shorter, lyrical poems, from Dr. Cicero Press.  

One of my favorite novels of the year, The Night Ocean, isn’t actually out yet — we received an advance copy of it from its author, Paul La Farge.  Its cast of characters includes H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Barlow, and William S. Burroughs, and the narration is so beautiful and intricately wrought that any summary would do it an injustice.  

Finally, I’ve been caught up lately in Nocilla Dream by Agustín Fernández Mallo, from Fitzcarraldo Editions — another difficult-to-summarize novel, having to do with the interconnectedness of things and the illusory nature of reality.  It’s elegantly and convincingly translated by Thomas Bunstead.  I’m looking forward to the next installment, Nocilla Experience.  I’m also very excited about Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, just out from New Directions:  there’s a fascinating article about it by Dan Chiasson in the recent New Yorker, here, with this memorable sentence:  “Her idiosyncratic punctuation sometimes feels like triage for the emergency conditions of her muse.”

Charlotte Mandell has translated fiction, poetry, and philosophy from the French, including works by Proust, Flaubert, Genet, Maupassant, Blanchot, and many other distinguished authors. She translated Street of Thieves by Mathias Enard for Fitzcarraldo Editions, and has received many accolades and awards for her translations, including a Literature Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for Zone, also by Mathias Enard.

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Dan:

At the start of BS Johnsons pitch-black comic novel Christy Malrys Own Double-Entry (1973), the books anti-hero, Christy, begins his adventure by taking an accountancy course. Here he learns the principle of double-entry bookkeeping: for every debit, there must be a corresponding credit. Christy is a miserable young man who rationalizes his dreary lot with the belief that the world has conspired against him. Deciding that the metaphysical books need to be balanced, he begins to apply the double-entry system to his life. Christy draws up a two-column ledger: one for Aggravations, the other for Recompense.Each time life aggravates or debitshim he awards himself recompense, usually an act of minor vandalism. When for instance, he is forced to take a detour on his way to work, his compensation is to scratch the expensive stonework of a nearby building. As his sense of aggravation grows larger, the credit he demands becomes more gruesome.

What, I wonder, would the accounts look like for the calendrical crock of cowshit that called itself 2016?

AGGRAVATIONS                                                                                  RECOMPENSE

Donald Trump and related misery 

Neo-fascism

Aleppo

Brexit

Zika

Post-truth politics

Standing Rock

Climate change

22% of Great Barrier Reef coral dead

Record decline in Arctic sea ice

Pulse nightclub shooting, Orlando

Murder of Jo Cox

Death of David Bowie

Death of Prince

Death of Pauline Oliveros

Death of Sonia Rykiel

Death of Leonard Cohen

Death of Leonard of Mayfair

Death of Malick Sidibe

Death of Alan Vega

Death of Doris Lamar-McLemore (last speaker of the Wichita language)

Death of William Christenberry

Death of Jenny Diski

Death of Victoria Wood

Death of Harper Lee

Death of William Trevor

Death of Sharon Jones

Death of Kenny Baker

Death of David Mancuso

Death of Raoul Coutard

Death of Elaine Lustig Cohen

Death of David Antin

Death of Dario Fo

Death of Prince Buster

Death of Don Buchla

Death of Edward Albee
Death of Elie Wiesel

Death of Caroline Ahearne

Death of Abbas Kiarostami

Death of Billy Name

Death of Tunga

Death of Peter Shaffer

Death of Bernie Worrell

Death of Tony Feher

Death of Alvin Toffler

Death of Carla Lane

Death of Tony Conrad

Death of Ken Adam

Death of Merle Haggard

Death of Umberto Eco

Death of Pierre Boulez

Death of Alan Rickman

Death of Terry Wogan

Death of Jacques Rivette

Death of Zsa Zsa Gabor

Death of Scooter, the oldest cat in the USA

This myopically Western-centric and mostly arts-fixated list could go on. I am stumped for Recompense line items that could truly balance the bereavement, fear, heartbreak and anger that the past year has brought. Nothing on my roll-call of admiration and pleasure is going to stop climate denial or bring down Donald Trump. But these talismans of open-minded thought, empathy and action serve as a reminder for me to keep going. 

Exhibitions:

Denzil Forrester, White Columns, New York, and Tramps, London

Mark Leckey, Containers and Their Drivers, MoMA PS1, New York

Marc Camille Chaimowicz, The Serpentine Gallery, London

Paulina Olowska, Metro Pictures, New York

Bruce Conner, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Jessi Reeves, Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York

Danny Lyon, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Kerry James Marshall, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Diane Simpson, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Nicole Eisenman, New Museum and Anton Kern Gallery, New York

Lukas Duwenhogger, Artists Space, New York

Books:

The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissimby Kristin Dombek

Respectable: The Experience of Classby Lynsey Hanley

The Complete Madame Realism and Other Storiesby Lynne Tillman

Here is Information. Mobilize.by Ian White

Film:

Arrival

Embrace of the Serpent

A Bigger Splash

Moonlight

Television:

Stranger Things

Black Mirror

Atlanta

Camping

‘Captain Fantastic’

Music:

Lodestar, Shirley Collins

‘Last Signs of Speed’, Eli Keszler

Juarezand Lubbock (on everything), Terry Allen

We Got It from HereThank You 4 Your Service, A Tribe Called Quest

Borealis Festival, Bergen. (At this small, yet brilliant music festival, I discovered the stunningly strange father and daughter improvised pop duo Yeah You; a blistering footwork set from Jlin, the hypnotic Egyptian Females Experimental Music Session, and the premiere of Object Collections new opera Its All True’ – based on the complete archive of recorded gigs by the post-hardcore band Fugazi.)

The two works that made the biggest impression on me bookended the year. In January, it was a song: I Cant Give Everything Away, the final cut on David Bowies final curtain album, Blackstar, released days before his death. Opening with warm string synths in respirating refrain, as if struggling for breath, and a plaintive harmonica line that directly echoes Bowies 1977 track A New Career in a New Town(what better description could there be for an afterlife?), the song begins with an admission with anxiety about the future; I know somethings very wrong…’ Over skittering drums, and an increasingly frenetic saxophone, the words I cant give everything awayare a line being drawn between the personal and private, or a defiant assertion of personal sovereignty. Ive given you all the love I can, it seems to say, but now I must take care of myself or I will be reduced to nothing. 

In December I saw Arthur Jafas seven-and-a-half minute video Love is the Message, The Message is Deathat Gavin Browns Enterprise, New York. Cut to Kanye Wests song Ultralight Beam, Jafas video pulls together reportage footage, cellphone video, and archival film of police shootings, civil rights marches, block parties, iconic performances by black musicians, and the burning surface of the sun. Wests sparse, roboticized gospel track problematised by the singers recent support of Donald Trump wrings pathos from the multiple video textures on screen, from the high-res to the low-grade and pixellated. Jafas film has the quality of a trailer for a documentary, a tantalising promise of a longer cinematic survey of African American social history, but its compressed expression of the complexities, contradictions, tragedies and triumphs of the black experience in the USA is gut-wrenching. I dont know what could possibly balance the books.

Dan Fox is a writer, musician, and co-editor of frieze magazine, Europe’s foremost magazine of art and culture. He is based in New York, and has published Pretentiousness: Why it Matters this year with Fitzcarraldo Editions.

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Shaun:

What a year. Book-ended (more or less) by two black-edged farewells: Blackstar and You Want it Darker, just in case the message of 2016 hadn’t got through. Both rare much more than coded farewells, and have seldom been off the stereo in our house. Goodbye, Bowie and Len. 

In literature, the great event for me was Sam Garrett’s translation of the Dutch classic The Evenings by Gerard Reve, first published in 1946 and never before translated into English. It’s a dark, existential sitcom, very unsettling and in places very funny indeed. As a Dutch commentator described it: “Nothing happens, and it seems to have been written by a psychopath.” Well done, Pushkin Press, and worth the 70-year wait. 

The exhibition has to be Bosch in ‘sHertogenbosch: the weirdness of the late medieval imagination laid bare in a comprehensive show bringing together works from all over the world, except the ones in the Prado, which it eventually joined when the show moved there. Wonderful. 

In film, my favourite was the touching, subtle and ultimately conciliatory divorce drama After Love by Joachim Lafosse. He coaxes extraordinary performances from his actors, not least from the children. 

But the most heart-stopping experience of all, on every level, was Akram Khan’s Giselle at Sadler’s Wells, to a semi-industrial score by Vincenzo Lamagna. This borrowed not only from classical ballet and Martha Graham, but from Bollywood and, most dramatically, Japanese horror movies. It was quite stunning, with dancers constantly transformed from objects into people and back into objects again. The scary second half in particular was a real treat, and Alina Cojocaru was of course amazing. Would almost restore your faith in humanity.

Shaun Whiteside is a translator from French, German, Italian and Dutch. His translations from French include novels by Amélie Nothomb, Patrick Rambaud, Michèle Desbordes, Georges-Marc Benamou, and Georges Simenon, as well as works of non-fiction by Pierre Bourdieu and Anne Sinclair. He translated Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint for Fitzcarraldo Editions, and lives in London.

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Jen:

Exhibition – Helen Marten, Tate Britain/Serpentine Gallery

I went to see the Turner Prize with a very good friend of mine and we both experienced a kind of epiphany when we saw Marten’s work. Afterwards we bought her book Parrot Problems, and while flicking through saw that she was due to have a solo exhibition at the Serpentine. We headed straight there and spent what felt like hours taking in her poetic reflection of contemporary life, it’s almost as if it’s everything in existence refracted through dreams back into materiality and image. I couldn’t be happier for her win (the last time I fell in awe with a Turner Prize winner was Richard Wright, I think) and I especially commend and celebrate her sharing of her prize money with the other artists shortlisted (for the second time in as many months) against the winner/loser hierarchy.

Fiction Michelle Steinbeck, Mein Vater war ein Mann an Land und im Wasser ein Walfisch (My Father was a Man on Land and a Whale in the Water) & Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers

I’m currently in Zurich working on my first novel and I’ve been savouring this short book by Swiss writer Steinbeck. It’s a dark contemporary fairy tale where anything can happen, and opens with a woman accidently killing a child with an iron, stuffing it in a suitcase and being told by a wise woman to track down her father to give the suitcase to him. One critic said that she had to be sick in the head to write something like this but to write this kind of thing you have to be absolutely attuned to the structures of reality and your own consciousness. This book isn’t translated into English yet, sorry. But you can read a review in English in the latest issue of New Books in German

I read Max’s GITTWF – that just won its one hundredth award this week – on a flight to Italy. Well actually, I read it within the first hour or so and didn’t have anything else to read for the rest of the flight. In that short time I laughed, cheered, was left breathless, and then left devastated. For a writer also writing a novel in juxtaposing fragments it’s got a reassuringly small word count and a massive impact that still wakes me in the middle of the night or interrupts my thoughts while waiting in queues.

Poetry – Jack Underwood, Happiness

Jack’s poetry has spoken to me for years and he definitely made me feel that there was a place in poetry for my kind of writing and the kinds of things I wanted to write about. I’ve returned to this book may times this year, soothed by the melancholic hesitancy, depiction of personal embarrassment and unstoppable worrying.

Non-Fiction – Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts & Chris Kraus, I Love Dick.

These have been two life- and game-changing books for many people. I did that whole ‘resist the hype’ thing I always do and then bought Nelson based on a recommendation from a friend who then bought me Kraus because she was moving to Australia. Just the quality of writing, the integrally experimental forms, and the unsurpassable honesty of both books have changed autobiographical, essay and feminist writing forever. Rebecca May Johnson and I are making loose plans to start a reading group next year and these will be the first two books for sure.

Record – Anxiety, Anxiety 

Glasgow’s Anxiety made the perfect punk record. It’s not just the record though, they break out the best unhinged, be-gloved live show I’ve seen since getting to watch Vexx many times around the UK last year. After listening to this record constantly, you should listen to frontman Michael Kasparis’ solo project Apostille, which sounds pleasant on record, but live is like watching a mean and sarcastic wailing goblin addicted to dancing sweating profusely over various electronics, and bassist Helena Celle’s new synth record is subterranean and distorted, absorbingly submerged like it’s bubbling up out of water. 

Jen Calleja is a writer and literary translator from German. She translated Nicotine by Gregor Hens for Fitzcarraldo Editions and her debut collection of poetry Serious Justice is published by Test Centre. She is currently translating Kerstin Hensel for Peirene Press and Wim Wenders for Faber & Faber. Throughout December and January she is index writer in residence working on her first novel.

Devils in Dalston

Anna Aslanyan writing for the Times Literary Supplement
Portrait of Iain Sinclair

Last week Anna Aslanyan caught up with writer, filmmaker, and psychogeographist Iain Sinclair in the wake of the publication of his latest book My Favourite London Devils. For the Times Literary Supplement, they talk about the memories that haunt his writing of London:

“You couldn’t imagine anything like this here”, Iain Sinclair said, gesturing at the interior of Burley Fisher Books, a year-old venture in Dalston. Sinclair has lived in and tirelessly explored this part of East London for nearly half a century; back in the 1970s, he ran his Albion Village Press from home and was a “trader in forlorn and forgotten literature”, selling books from stalls. The new bookshop, in the middle of what has been branded the coolest place in Britain by the media, sells books and bagels by day, while by night, true to its promise to “be an asset to the local community”, it runs events.

It was packed for the recent launch of Sinclair’s new book My Favourite London Devils, a collection of essays dedicated to authors who, like himself, found their muse in London. Written over the past decade and a half, these pieces were recovered from storage and revised by Sinclair. Read together, they prove yet again that London is an inexhaustible theme, and that Sinclair’s take on it never stands still, mirroring the city in flux.

The book’s subjects range from famous to “eternally rediscovered”, to “reforgotten” – until, that is, Sinclair got on to them. Joseph Conrad – who on his return from the Congo was treated at the German Hospital in Dalston – and his The Secret Agent (1907) are mentioned in a piece written in the wake of the 7/7 bombings. One vignette shows Peter Ackroyd at a poetry reading in Earl’s Court, and together with another of the devils, Michael Moorcock, he and Sinclair have an eventful night out. Ackroyd has said that Sinclair’s poem “Lud Heat” was an inspiration for his novel Hawksmoor (1985).

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Carsten Höller in Kinshasa – Democratic Republic of the Congo

Carsten Höller in Purple Magazine
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In 2014, Belgian Artist Carsten Höller premiered Fara Fara, a 13 minute film on a double screen exploring and reimagining Kinshasa’s vibrant music and dance scene. Later a 2015 Venice Biennale favourite, he remembers his travels to the Democratic Republic of Congo in Purple Magazine:

I’m on the plane to Kinshasa with four Europeans, none of whom has ever been to sub-Saharan Africa before. N’Djili Airport has been poshed up since I was there last, in 2011. To my disappointment, the little tourist information kiosk, where all they had was one postcard with some lounging bonobos, has disappeared. Same for the chair that was screwed to a wall because it lacked hind legs. We say hello to Papa Wemba in the lounge — our father of the rumba, Notre Père Rumba, as one of his albums is called. He came on the same Air France flight as us. There used to be huge crowds outside the airport when he came back from Europe, but not anymore.

We head straight to Zamba Playa, where Werrason is playing in front of a few hundred people. The five-lane highway to the city is brand new. It’s Chinese, but well done. They give us plastic chairs, placed in front of the stage, first row. Of course, no other whities. I wonder how my co-continentals feel about that. Finally, Primus. Werrason addresses the crowd, asking which of the two versions of the same song they like better. This is Congolese democracy. Madness. At the parliament, he says, “People, sit down,” to cool down the frenetically excited. He’s the only musician I’ve ever seen trying to calm down his public.

More Primus. Bellou drinks Turbo King, which is a strong dark beer. He’s our “cultural manager,” as he puts it. He is with Carlos, our driver and LeBrun and Maître Bola, who are here for our security. The music promoter Steve — with whom I organized Werrason (2004) and Koffi Olomidé (2005) concerts in Stockholm — also shows up. I am with Elin, George, Giovanna, and Pierre, and even at 11 PM, it’s very hot indeed.

Bercy Muana, the animateur with a third eye tattooed on his forehead, jumps and shouts like a psychotic wildebeest. Werrason is still trying to appease, but by now this seems more like an attitude, and he smiles. I am told that Bercy, whom they call “Goosebumps,” is coming from Ferre Gola. They call Werrason “King of the Forest.” And they call Bellou “Hakuna Matata” and “The Banker From Paris.” We finally make it to Chez Ntemba, my favorite nightclub in the world. The Primus is like machine oil. We all get dédicaces — shout-outs — from DJ Frank. No extra names for us, though. Over the years, Carlos has called me “Mopao,” but that’s an exaggeration because it means “big boss.” Koffi Olomidé is called that. My four fellow travelers have already lost all connection to spaceship Europe.

We are here to work on a book about a film that has not yet been made. Maybe it never will be, like an endless project, or like Synecdoche, New York, with Philip Seymour Hoffmann. The book can be the script for the film. Elin will write the text. George is the cutter. Giovanna is the editor and photographer. Pierre is the photographer; I told him I want old-style paparazzi pictures, with the camera in one hand and the flash in the other. That’s why we are here: they need to see and hear this.

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Luigi Ghirri’s Brilliant Photographic Puzzles

Teju Cole writing for the New York Times Magazine
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Author and photographer Teju Cole delves into the illusionary world of Luigi Ghirri for his New York Times Magazine column, On Photography:

I look at Luigi Ghirri’s work daily: There’s a postcard reproduction of one of his photographs on my fridge. It depicts four women, turned away from us and toward a mountainous landscape. They could be taking in an actual vista — the perspective is correct — but the mountains and their intervening lakes have text superimposed on them, and so we realize the women are standing before an image of a landscape, either a poster or a mural. Ghirri took the photograph in Salz­burg, Austria, in 1977. I find it reassuring, amusing (that slight stutter in parsing it), simultaneously simple and complex in ways that are difficult to explain.

Luigi Ghirri was one of the outstanding photographers of his generation. His work was largely made in Europe, and most of it focused on a small area of northern Italy, the region of Emilia-Romagna, where he was born and where he died, in 1992, of a heart attack at the too-young age of 49. Today, his work is in a peculiar posthumous phase, both celebrated and elusive. Perhaps no Italian photographer of the 20th century was more influential: There are traces of his gentle, lucid, cerebral style all over contemporary photography. As of a few years ago, I had seen his images in articles and exhibitions, but information about him was hard to come by. I bought several books dedicated to his work that were in Italian, a language I don’t read. An English-language collection, published as “It’s Beautiful Here, Isn’t It … ,” was in print but scarce.

Ghirri’s pictures are calm and mysterious — just a bit out of reach, like his books. His constellation of favored themes is distinct: maps, landscapes, windows, still lifes, interiors, fog, the seaside, the objects in artists’ studios, people obscured in some way and many images that test the divide between the world and an image of the world (murals, miniatures, postcards), often bearing an ironic gleam. You feel that in each picture there’s more than meets the eye, but the feeling remains unresolved.

Ghirri’s work is in full color, like that of William Eggleston, the American photo­grapher with whom he has the strongest kinship and who admires him greatly. But Ghirri does not share Eggleston’s intense hues, the angry reds and livid greens that Eggleston hunted down in unspectacular everyday subjects. Ghirri’s favored palette is pale, soothing, often tending toward pastel, as if the images did not wish to speak too loudly or overassert their presence. Contrary to the current trend in art photo­graphy, his pictures are printed small, sometimes no bigger than the size of a snapshot. On a gallery wall, even at such modest scale — or because of the scale — they are remarkably effective. In a group show, they stand out like brilliant individual lines of poetry amid the undifferentiated prose of much larger pictures.

The recent publication of “Luigi Ghirri: The Complete Essays 1973-1991” (Mack) enriches and complicates our sense of Ghirri’s achievement. Right from the beginning of his career, he wrote frequently and with great intelligence about his own work and the work of other photographers. “The Complete Essays” comprises 68 texts, most of them brief, in which he presents an allusive, fragmented and recursive account of his photographic philosophy. Some of his arguments can be abstruse, and rarely does he give interpretations of individual pictures. But at several moments, he produces lines of epigrammatic clarity that echo the lucidity of his photographs. “Every part of the landscape, from the roofs of houses to signs on walls, seems to await recognition via his loving eye.” The sentence, which appears in an essay on Walker Evans, applies very well to Ghirri himself.

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Flights

Olga Tokarczuk in Asymptote
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We are delighted to be publishing Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights in May 2017. Olga Tokarczuk is one of Poland’s best and most beloved authors. In 2015 alone she has received the Brueckepreis and the prestigious annual literary award from Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, as well as Poland’s highest literary honor, the Nike, and the Nike Readers’ Prize. Here is a short excerpt from Jennifer Croft’s translation of Flights:

I studied psychology in a big, gloomy Communist city. My department was located in a building that had been the headquarters of an S.S. unit during the war. That part of the city had been built up on the ruins of the ghetto, which you could tell if you took a good look—that whole neighborhood stood about three feet higher than the rest of the town. Three feet of rubble. I never felt comfortable there; between the new Communist buildings and the paltry squares there was always a wind, and the frosty air was particularly bitter, stinging you in the face. Ultimately it was a place that still, despite construction, belonged to the dead. I still have dreams about the building where my classes were—its broad hallways that looked like they’d been carved into stone, smoothed down by people’s feet, the worn edges of the stairs, the handrails polished by people’s hands, traces imprinted in space. Maybe that was why we were haunted by those ghosts. 

When we’d put rats in a maze, there was always one whose behavior would contradict the theory and would refuse to care about our clever hypotheses. It would stand up on its little hind legs, absolutely indifferent to the reward at the end of our experimental route; disdaining the perks of Pavlovian conditioning, it would simply take one good look at us and then turn around, or turn its attention to the unhurried exploration of the maze. It would look for something in the lateral corridors, trying to attract attention. It would squeak, disoriented, and then the girls, despite the rules, would usually take it out and hold it in their hands. 

The muscles of a dead, splayed frog would flex and straighten to the rhythm of electrical pulses, but in a way that had not yet been described in our textbooks—it would gesture to us, its limbs making clear signs of threats and taunts, thereby contradicting our hallowed faith in the mechanical innocence of physiological reflexes. 

Here we were taught that the world could be described, and even explained, by means of simple answers to intelligent questions. That in its essence the world was inert and dead, governed by fairly simple laws that needed to be explained and made public—if possible with the aid of diagrams. We were required to do experiments. To formulate hypotheses. To verify. We were inducted into the mysteries of statistics, taught to believe that equipped with such a tool we would be able to perfectly describe all the workings of the world—that ninety percent is more significant than five. 

But if there’s one thing I know now, it’s that anyone looking for order ought to steer clear of psychology altogether. Go for physiology or theology instead, where at least you’ll have solid backing—either in matter or in spirit—instead of psychology’s slippery terrain. The psyche is quite a tenuous object of study. 

It turned out it was true what some people said about psychology being a major you choose not because of the job you want, or out of curiosity or a vocation to help others, but rather for another very simple reason. I think all of us had some sort of deeply hidden defect, although we no doubt all gave the impression of intelligent, healthy young people—the defect was masked, skillfully camouflaged at our entrance exams. A ball of tautly tangled emotions breaking down, like those strange tumors that turn up sometimes in the human body and that can be seen in any self-respecting museum of pathological anatomy. Although what if the people who administered our exams were the same sort of people, and in reality they knew exactly what they were doing? In that case, we would be their direct heirs. When, in our second year, we discussed the function of defense mechanisms and found that we were humbled by the power of that portion of our psyche, we began to understand that if it weren’t for rationalization, sublimation, denial—all the little tricks we let ourselves perform—if instead we simply saw the world as it was, with nothing to protect us, honestly and courageously, it would break our hearts. 

What we learned in college was that we are made up of defenses, of shields and armor, that we are cities whose architecture essentially comes down to walls, ramparts, strongholds; bunker states. 

Every test, questionnaire, and study we conducted on each other, as well, so that by the time we got through our third year I had a name for what was wrong with me; it was like discovering my own secret name, the name that summons one to an initiation. 

(…)

Ur-Fascism

Umberto Eco writing for the New York Review of Books in 1995
Umberto-Eco-in-library

Thinking back to his childhood under Mussolini, Umberto Eco outlines the fundamental features of Eternal Fascism:

In 1942, at the age of ten, I received the First Provincial Award of Ludi Juveniles (a voluntary, compulsory competition for young Italian Fascists—that is, for every young Italian). I elaborated with rhetorical skill on the subject “Should we die for the glory of Mussolini and the immortal destiny of Italy?” My answer was positive. I was a smart boy.

I spent two of my early years among the SS, Fascists, Republicans, and partisans shooting at one another, and I learned how to dodge bullets. It was good exercise.

In April 1945, the partisans took over in Milan. Two days later they arrived in the small town where I was living at the time. It was a moment of joy. The main square was crowded with people singing and waving flags, calling in loud voices for Mimo, the partisan leader of that area. A former maresciallo of the Carabinieri, Mimo joined the supporters of General Badoglio, Mussolini’s successor, and lost a leg during one of the first clashes with Mussolini’s remaining forces. Mimo showed up on the balcony of the city hall, pale, leaning on his crutch, and with one hand tried to calm the crowd. I was waiting for his speech because my whole childhood had been marked by the great historic speeches of Mussolini, whose most significant passages we memorized in school. Silence. Mimo spoke in a hoarse voice, barely audible. He said: “Citizens, friends. After so many painful sacrifices … here we are. Glory to those who have fallen for freedom.” And that was it. He went back inside. The crowd yelled, the partisans raised their guns and fired festive volleys. We kids hurried to pick up the shells, precious items, but I had also learned that freedom of speech means freedom from rhetoric.

A few days later I saw the first American soldiers. They were African Americans. The first Yankee I met was a black man, Joseph, who introduced me to the marvels of Dick Tracy and Li’l Abner. His comic books were brightly colored and smelled good.

One of the officers (Major or Captain Muddy) was a guest in the villa of a family whose two daughters were my schoolmates. I met him in their garden where some ladies, surrounding Captain Muddy, talked in tentative French. Captain Muddy knew some French, too. My first image of American liberators was thus—after so many palefaces in black shirts—that of a cultivated black man in a yellow-green uniform saying: “Oui, merci beaucoup, Madame, moi aussi j’aime le champagne…” Unfortunately there was no champagne, but Captain Muddy gave me my first piece of Wrigley’s Spearmint and I started chewing all day long. At night I put my wad in a water glass, so it would be fresh for the next day.

In May we heard that the war was over. Peace gave me a curious sensation. I had been told that permanent warfare was the normal condition for a young Italian. In the following months I discovered that the Resistance was not only a local phenomenon but a European one. I learned new, exciting words like réseau, maquis, armée secrète, Rote Kapelle, Warsaw ghetto. I saw the first photographs of the Holocaust, thus understanding the meaning before knowing the word. I realized what we were liberated from.

(…)

Four Poems

Jan Dammu in Asymtote
greek jan dammu

Four poems by Jan Dammu have been translated from the Arabic by Suneela Mubayi. Jan Dammu was born in Kirkuk, Iraq, in 1943. He spent most of his life in Baghdad’s bars and cafes, living a counterculture lifestyle until moving to Australia (via Jordan) where he died in 2003: 

  Schubert the Greek 

Is it a new birth,
insomnia’s sediments 
from feathers, memories,
and bullets?
A new departure, a counter-departure.
There is no equality yet between
snow’s shadow and shadow’s ash.
Should one take refuge in Narcissus (or Bacchus)
for the sake of decoding the talismanic rose
or the butterflies that flit
in the corridors opened by our sleep
that fossilize us?

How distant are the paved roads of childhood.
How close are the roads of death.
Greek sculptures are capable of
the liquidation of minds that alienation’s echo 
filled with dirt.
Schubert once more, and the tears are not enough.
It is our duty to toss the keys into the President’s hands.


The Shade

Bore deeper into your aversion, O reality,
as that might be more becoming for the ripping up of the stars.
Stars! A foot in search of something that resembles it. A foot that sprouts leaves with dreams. A foot that severs.
The axe that was crafted to cut trees trunks will remain an axe always.
The final arrival to the realm of my arms was on Tuesday.
Between rain and reality, god’s shadow 
descends.

Here I am, en route to practice my humanity.
The room is box-shaped, just like the heart,
With the last of my cigarettes, anxiety reaches its most ferocious state.
I descend.

(…)

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