Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy 4th 2012

The National Automotive History Collection (NAHC) at the Rose and Robert Skillman Branch of the Detroit Public Library has made available its archives regarding the industry of "wheeled land transportation in the United States and abroad."  The NAHC collection includes 77 boxes and 4,000 photographs donated by the Automobile Manufacturers Association in the 1950s, and "papers, records, documents and invoices" of the Automotive Council for War Production, led by Lieutenant General William Knudsen, an "expert on mass production" and former president of General Motors.  Lt. Knudsen was appointed by President FDR.

America fosters pride in its industry of making cars.  It is a value for researchers to traverse the pike of records left behind.  History and cars united on TV this past Super Bowl XLVI, when a highfalutin plug for Chrysler motors aired at half-time.  Over a montage of Americanistic images, veteran Hollywood gunshooter Clint Eastwood narrates the bad economic state of things, that "We're all scared because this isn't a game."  The commercial harks to a simpler, more communal time unto which Clint pleads Americans to crank new life, the old greasemonkey faith and scrimmage line of hard work.  It's "half-time in America."

Either way the historian of the American wheel should be pleased.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The War and the Library

This past Saturday, the Library of Congress blog noted a milestone in the history of its collection: 

"Two hundred years ago today, President James Madison set pen to paper to write a message to Congress.  His intent was to talk them into making the nation’s first formal declaration of war – on Great Britain, which was squashing U.S. exports as a side effect of a British naval blockade against Napoleon’s France." 

The War of 1812 ensued, and when British troops attacked D.C. and destroyed the Capitol building, the government's reference library perished.  Thomas Jefferson offered Congress his own personal library as a replacement.  It was not a donation, and the sale of 6,700 books fetched TJ what in 2012 amounts to $250,000.  “There is, in fact," claimed Jefferson, "no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”  Today the Library of Congress holds 151.8 million items on 838 miles of shelves, more than 34.5 million books and printed materials, 3.3 million recordings, 13.4 million photographs, 5.4 million maps, 66.6 million manuscripts and 31.4 million digital files.
This would be the second instance where James Madison acted as an originator of the Library of Congress.  Back in 1783, the yeoman polity-mystic submitted a list of books for a premier Congressional library.  307 titles were organized by Madison into 13 categories, which included "Collection of best maps," and all treaties made with "the natives of N. America." Madison liked science works from Europe and writers critical of monarchy and religion, and his largest category was "Americas," with 231 entries, the bulk of which were travel narratives.  Making his selections before George Washington had been sworn in as first President and the capital moved from New York to D.C., Madison chose subjects that might promote a national consciousness, and envisioned a bibliography to serve the ideas of the beginnings of the United States.

James Madison.
Congress failed to pursue Madison's 1783 list, citing "the inconveniency of advancing even a few hundred pounds at this crisis."  The matter was tabled until 1800, when Congress purchased 728 volumes from a London bookseller for $2,220.  Madison was no longer involved in the decision and the 1800 list differed from Madison's bygone suggestions, with less emphasis on the Americas and works of radical thought, and absent of books on war and languages.  This collection served the country until Gen. Robert Ross sacked the capital and stook the Union Jack over the Potomac River, and soldiers stormed the White House to find the abandoned Presidential dining room laid out for a dinner party.

Just in time for the bicentennial, a new trove of documents on the War of 1812 was recently discovered in upstate New York.  Also, an academic blog plans to live-tweet the events of the conflict as they happened 200 years back. Future Use looks forward to its future use.


  • Glynn, T., & Hagensick, C. C. (2002). Books for the use of the United States in Congress assembled, 1783 and 1800. Libraries & Culture, 37(2), 109-22. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Nitehawk Cinema

Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn is not an art cinema nor archive nor multiplex nor bar.  It plays old movies and new movies, and serves beer and meals in theme with the movie.  At Cabin in the Woods, they served a “Cabin Fever” whiskey cocktail, and for The Dictator you get Spicy Lamb Meatballs.  While sitting in the theater and deciding what to order, entertaining mash-up reels play on the screen: a bunch of clips of scenes of people shouting “Get the hell out of here!” or “Blah blah blah…”  Trailers for retro movies are set to period mixes of  Lep Zeppelin and Public Enemy.  They screen movies from the “VHS vault” and in the hallway are vintage posters for classics like The Neverending Story

Maniac Cop (1988) William Lustig.
The brains behind Nitehawk’s screenings is John Woods, who co-owned Reel Life Video Rentals in the 1990s on Bedford Avenue before there was a Duane Reade or “Fornino: the art and science of pizza.”  Reel Life advocated an independent movie mind and offered a ripe selection of VHS and DVDs.  Nitehawk is no different, just a greater scale, though it might seem to have all the trappings of a gimmick – located in Williamsburg, serving boutiquey food and fancy cocktails (though I sipped a $3 Pabst Blue Ribbon), and exploting the shared kitsch of movies the audience grew up on.  But the set-up was honest and the effect was a blast.  The memories of the moviegoer were not rehashed or degraded by irony.  And having food served while watching Blue Velvet is a similar experience of intellect and venue as eating a sandwich at 'Wichcraft in the front hall of the New York Public Library.  

SPOILER ALERT: (don’t read unless you want the surprises of Cabin in the Woods ruined for good)

We saw Cabin in the Woods, which depicts an archive of monsters kept by a secret organization, whose workers are beleaguered and wisecracking schlubs.  They push buttons to manipulate the behaviors of ritual murder while taking bets for the office pool.  On the betting sheet, "Sexy Witches" are tagged by “Archives.”

The filmmakers similarly push the buttons of the audience, and the result is often not what is expected.  The five teens do not fit the generic categories in which both the popular mind and slasher flicks alike have made them into archetypes.  The jock is actually a brain, the blonde "whore" no ditz and not loose, the "fool" is shrewd, the scholar is not much of an egghead, and the virgin is only so in countenance and demeanor.  "We work with what we got," says the Director of the corporation who manipulates the ritual.  Isn't the subject of history treated the same way?  We work with what we've got - often found in the archive, library or museum - whether debunker, activist, think-tank wonk, policymaker, tour guide, etc.  Filmmaker Adam Curtis explores the subject in his documentary The Living Dead, about World War II, but which title is more resonant of the movie monsters in Cabin in the Woods.

A Homeric catalog of horror tropes triggers the expectations of moviegoers who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, beginning with the ultimate domicile for the premise of slaughtering teenagers – the cabin in the woods.  Nitehawk Cinema acts as a similar domicile, playfully and smartly informed by the moviegoers' experience of the neverending story of memory.  In the basement of the cabin in the woods is a collection of archival materials that indeed serve a future use for the history of humankind....

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Storefront & Situationist

Two current exhibitions just a few blocks from each other in lower Manhattan involve the actions of printed matter in the information age. Boo-Hooray on Canal Street is devoted to The Situationist Times, a self-published journal designed in the mid-1960s by Dutch artist Jacqueline de Jong.  

The Storefront for Art & Architecture on Lafayette and Kenmare consists of two conjoined exhibits: Arch-i-zine,  80 samples of “alternative and independent” architectural publications, and Arch-Art!, which features 70 seventy artists’ books that “mine the overlap and friction” between architecture and art publishing.

The Situationist Times ran for six issues between 1962 and 1967.  The exhibit focuses on de Jong's work as an artist rather than provocateuse, with samples of artwork, issues and contributions.  Though claiming to be aligned with the radical Situationist movement, de Jong’s journal was decried by the Situationist International as “vacuous” and which “has the peculiarity that it is ‘situationist’ only in the sense that it is directed against the SI, its flock of occasional collaborators never having been (nor even claiming to have been) situationists.”  De Jong is debunked as having “passed eighteen months in the SI and talks about it incessantly.”

Situationist International.

The Situationists were argumentative, incendiary, reactionary, polemic and contrarian. Factions broke loose and members attacked one another out loud and in print. Poet Attila Kotanyi suggests the paradox in the opening lines of his “Gangland and Philosophy":

“The situationist tendency is not aimed at preventing the construction of situations. This first restriction in our attitude has numerous consequences. We are striving to provoke the development of these consequences.”

Situationists like figurehead Guy DeBord aggregated politics, history, perception, cities and the mass mind to create a cross-indexed Catch-22 of theories and ideas.  The nervous system of the movement followed concepts of “psychogeography,” a ploy of the Situationists to regard space against its own type, and they might tour one city by using the map of another

The neighborhood of the Storefront for Art and Architecture fits a psychogeographical sense.  Kenmare St. and Lafayette may be in NoLita, or Little Italy, and two blocks is the Soho Solita Hotel, on the edge of Chinatown.  The Storefront art space itself conforms to the layout of the Flatiron Building on 23rd and Fifth Ave.  The location is “Situationological.”

Tribeca Tavern & Soho Pharmacy, on West Broadway & Beach Street.

Storefront’s 150 books and zines are thematically bound by “architecture,” yet the exhibit is less concerned with the subject than with the venue of ideas about the subject, which is the industry of non-mainstream printed matter.  An accompanying broadsheet details a rich annex that sums up the gist of each zine with corresponding web address.  It is noted that the print publications are an extension of the website or vice versa, with samples here and here and here.  There is a multi-disciplinary, free-association of “land use,” “built spaces,” “the unequal distribution of environmental risks and benefits,” “romantic geography,” as well as various re-animations of policy, theory, public works and urbanism.  Most of the architecture involves city spaces over rural.  

There is a cursory, mingling aspect to the Storefront exhibit.  One can hardly ingest it all and is not asked to.  The impressive range and format finds a point of entry by the psychological modes of collage. It is an evocative medley.  I used to work at Alabaster Bookshop on Fourth Avenue, and our cabinet behind the desk was filled with arty pamphlets and small press works from the last 125 years, in which the Storefront materials would easily find home.  One time Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth came in and asked for “mimeo-graphed poetry,” and I eagerly directed him to the collection.  Disappointingly, Thurston didn't buy anything.

The Storefront agenda is artistic over political and several of the zines are the result of projects conducted by university students.  Locales represented in the collection include Scandinavia, East Africa, Western Europe, Australia and North America.  The zines describe themselves in the the annex as seeking to encourage discourse and awareness.  The artists and editors and thinkers and students behind these publications are not so much radical activists or political advocates other than the status of “non-mainstream.”  In the “information age,” the "mainstream" suggests a power structure enabled by greater mass-production and fewer independent ideas.  Storefront maintains a sort of archival objectivity in the scope and non-hermeneutic of the assemblage.  Some of the zine descriptions read as more ambitious and catchy than the actual content, but it is inspiring to know that such an ongoing proliferation of work exists.

Sometimes, the opposition to “mainstream” architecture seems equally as counterproductive to the physical areas at hand.  At the former site of the Twin Towers, some have suggested building a farm or a buffalo park.  Sounds absurd, but so does the next tallest building in the city whose height equals a symbolic number.  

One World Trade, construction site.

Public space and private interest are surely ripe topics.  When eminent domain was enforced in West Harlem so that Columbia University could expand north and build new facilities and occupy old buildings, there was naturally an uproar.  The area was a last remnant of industrial Manhattan, with the Studebaker factory long turned over to commercial space, and a Dinosaur BBQ down the block.  Bus depots and factories no longer find home there, except for the Madame Alexander doll factory, which is also a stop on the double-decker tour bus.  Two blocks away is a 1920s replica of the old whites-only Cotton Club.

West Harlem, construction site.

The neighborhood could have easily tilted towards a Times Square redux, so why not favor education over chintzy entertainment or luxury hi-rises.  It is a Situationistic predicament.

While in its day The Situationist Times strove to be original and subversive, Arch-i-zine and Arch-Art! pay deliberate homage to the analog and handable "little magazines phenomenon in the 60’s and 70’s."  The Situationists fashioned themselves as unprecedented railers against the bourgeoise yet nodded to Marxist tradition and harked back to earlier anti-establishment movements like the Surrealists of the 1920s or Vorticists of the prior aughts.  

The two exhibits find kinship in the display of what book objects might mean, and surely call to mind the Occupy Wall Street movement, having opened around the time of the May Day marches when the architecture and open spaces of New York were re-mapped as a staging ground of unrest, populism and outcry against the “mainstream.”

Situationism plays a key role in The Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School, where "non-salient factors around and within us" inform ideas on legal policy.

The Storefront show is co-credited by Printed Matter, Inc., the best artists’ bookshop in town.