Notes for Dec 18th

It's funny how despite knowing that my energy levels graph like in sin-waves, with a peak followed by a trough, when I'm at a peak I totally don't see the trough coming, assuming that I'll be able to maintain this awesome level of productivity forever without crashing. Which is to say the last fortnight was fun… Anyhoo, we're in the final cruise towards Xmas and most of my jobs are done, so things are a bit more chilled. Let's get some notes down.

Solihul in December 2020 - 4

We went for a walk with our walking artist friend Kruse around suburban Solihul last week and I continued my very occasional documentation of pandemic signage. I particularly liked this guidance on a school gate that has already been edited with black tape, juxtaposed with a fading NHS rainbow. It seemed to sum up the vibe of the the UK this winter.

📷 If, like me, you really enjoyed the recent Lovecraft Country telly series feeding the horrors of racist America through the medium of pulp genre fiction, you'll find Rich Frishman's photography project Ghosts of Segregation of interest. From coloured-only entrances to internment camps, the dark history of the USA can be found in the architecture long after it's struck from the statute books. What's astonishing to a foreign viewer is how blatant it is, but then we're very good at covering up our racism in the UK.

⚔️ RIP Richard Corben, cover artist to Meat Loaf's Bat out of Hell. I was never a fan of barbarian fantasy art but given the pre-internet tiny size of the "people who like weird shit" subcultures I was part of I would often bump into his work via Heavy Metal magazine. Corben is of note for being an equal-opportunities fantasy artist, with his musclebound men having implausibly large cocks alongside the implausibly large tits of the women.

Jason Kottke posted an excerpt from Art & Fear, an excellent book that I highly recommend for any artist regardless of their medium or practice, especially when they're going through the "what am I doing this for, I can't make good work and I suck" periods that every artist goes through. The passage is the classic "quality vs quantity" example of toiling to make one perfect piece vs iteration through rapid making, with the latter winning out. I first came across it from a cartoonist who, being often asked how they developed their craft, recommended getting a stack of paper a metre or so high and filling every sheet with drawings. Then you'll be ready to call yourself a cartoonist.

Art & Fear's example uses ceramics, but it turns out story was originally about photographs. They changed it to broaden the scope of the book and to universalise the lessons, the authors being photographers. Jason isn't so sure.

The specific details lend credibility to the actual story and to the lesson we're supposed to learn from it. There's a meaningful difference in believability and authority between the two versions — one is a tale to shore up an argument but the other is an experiment, an actual thing that happened in the world with actual results.

I've always found these sorts of objections fascinating. There is the recounting of facts, and there is the telling of a story, and we often confuse the two. What is the purpose of story telling? Usually it is about communicating a message as simply as possible, to communicate an idea in a way that it stays in people's minds.

The real world is not simple and clear. It may provide us with examples we can use in our storytelling but they will always need to be tidied up, edited and embellished. There is technically no such thing as a "true story". There is the truth, and there are stories told about it. Some hew close, some diverge wildly.

A story should only be judged on whether it succeeds in affecting the receiver. In Art & Fear's case, the story does not succeed for Jason because it doesn't ring true. That's fair, but it's not because the subject was changed. It's because the re-write didn't convince him. The story was not well told.

(For what it's worth I vividly remembered the ceramics example and was able to apply it to my photography, so it worked for me!)

🗣 I love how Zeynep Tufekci has launched The Counter, commissioning someone to explain why they think she's totally wrong about something she's written convincingly on, and publishing them in her newsletter. I've started to take her writing as near-gospel, especially about the pandemic, so it's really healthy to see her open up her platform to the sort of thing that might appear as a right-of-reply or letter to the editor. It gets away from the opinion sewer of faux-debate and towards something more useful.

📺 A promo for John Cooper Clarke's new book, containing an fantastic Hedgehog / Beatles joke, sent me down a YouTube tunnel of old JCC clips, which was a delight. It ended with Ten Years In An Open Neck Shirt, an hour long, lo-fi documentary from 1982 at the dawn of Chanel 4 when this sort of thing was acceptable broadcast quality.

Music Corner

It's always nice to see what your old housemates are up to. A decade or so back I lived with a tall long-haired gentleman who studied history and played post-rock guitar, amongst other things. He's been releasing folk-ish music as Burnt Paw and this month has a collaboration with The Sound Priestess under the title Chanting Temples, a mystic gong folk duo. Rise To Meet The Dawn is out next week and a couple of tracks are up on Bandcamp.

I am rather proud of what my old housemate is up to.

Documenting the Documentaries

I've got a massive backlog of documentaries I want to watch, so I'm going to try and watch more and write a short bit each.

Weiner (2016)
A fly-on-the-wall record of Anthony Weiner's failed 2013 bid for mayor of New York in the face of spectacular nominative determinism as photos that he sent to young ladies of his… Vienna sausage… were uncovered by the press. Released in the year that the norms of US politics were eviscerated by one Donald Trump, it's something of a historical curiosity from another world. As such it sort of feels irrelevant – there's nothing to learn because this situation will never happen again, so the film has to stand purely on dramatic terms. Which is kinda does. Weiner is a flawed character, but he at least tries to own it and move on, believing he can make a difference and help people. I kinda admire him for that. Holding politicians to utopian standards is foolish and a redemption arc can be a productive thing (cf Profumo for example). Thinking of how Trump sidestepped scandals of a similar sexual nature simply by not giving a fuck makes me wonder if maybe Weiner's problem was he was too honest and too willing to engage on terms dictated by the media. And yet he doesn't come out of this documentary that well, not to mention his subsequent imprisonment for sexting a minor. So, yeah. Maybe best seen as a portrait of a 21st century politician, warts and all?
Trailer | Streaming options

The White Diamond (2004)
My first Werner Herzog documentary was Grizzly Man, followed by Encounters at the End of the World, a duo that serve as the perfect introduction to his non-fiction work, should you not be familiar. While I have seen everything he's made since, I realised recently I hadn't seen any docs he made before that. The White Diamond comes just prior to those and is frankly astonishing. It hits all the Herzog notes and tropes that you expect in his current work, but here they feel fresh and penetrating. What also felt different was the lack of Herzog's opining. We all love a bit of "I see only nihilism and death" but here he's content to follow his nose and observe, letting others fill the gaps, from the hyperactive British engineering dork testing his DIY airship, to the soft-spoken, wide-eyed and wide-minded Guyanese labourer who falls in love with it. Just when I was seeing Werner as a comfortable blanket I discover his back catalogue. Wow.
Not available commercially but has been uploaded it to YouTube.

Speaking of Werner Herzog, after writing the above last week I went on a bit of a binge, wanting a bit of clarity about what has driven this man to make such a huge number of films that seem to be thematically linked. Then I remembered I'd downloaded this video essay, The Inner Chronicle of What We Are – Understanding Werner Herzog, and it turned out to be the perfect overview of the man's philosophy, adding layers without detracting from the magic. And if you haven't watched all 51 of his feature films don't worry, there are no spoilers.

Links I'd like to share but don't have time to add anything substantial lest we be here all week.

🏰 This Artist Posed As a Hungarian Billionaire Buyer to Get Into 25 New York Penthouses. Nice blag and lovely photos.

📧 Substack launches an RSS reader to organize all your newsletter subscriptions. Bear in mind Substack is on an investment-driven growth spurt which will end with them fucking everyone over, so… yay?

📷 Understanding ProRAW. A journey into cameras, RAW, and a look at what makes ProRAW so special. Halide's deep dives into Apple's computational photography are always worth a read.

💻 Making a digital clock in Google Sheets. I need to make some spreadsheet art. It's the only form of programming that doesn't give me a stress headache.

💰 I keep hearing people complain that the 'mainstream media' does not understand economics and that we're talked down to as if everything must be explained as if the economy is a household. In this thread I explain all you (and they) need to know. Fantastic essay, essential for anyone who still thinks austerity was necessary to "balance the books", rendered as a series of tweets for some reason.

© Unfiltered: How YouTube's Content ID Discourages Fair Use and Dictates What We See Online. Features an interview with Lindsay Ellis.

🛫 Modern consensus ghosts such as the Monkey Man and the Gatwick Drone. Good musings by Matt Webb on the uses of urban mythology.

👵🏻 What Facebook Fed the Baby Boomers. Old people have been systematically broken by Zuckerberg's machine.

📽 Francis Ford Coppola Is Still Going for Broke. Delightful interview

🇬🇧 The British middle class is in freefall, its young people pushed into precarity. One of those essays that reminds you why Owen Jones is worth keeping tabs on.

👑 The Majestic Untruths of 'The Crown'. Helen Lewis on the simmering culture wars around historical drama and "the subordination of facts to narrative", which is what I was going on about earlier with that Art & Fear ramble.

That'll do for now

If I don't write another of these before Christmas, have a good one. Be safe and don't get too lonely.