Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Politics of Pacific Rim Part 2: The End of the Killer Robot in Pop Culture

It is fitting that the giant, slavering kaiju of Pacific Rim are biological in nature.  The true enemy of any city, after all, is its inevitable reclamation not by radical forms and alien architecture, but by natural forces.  Be they modernized desert paradises like Las Vegas and Abu Dubai facing looming water crisis or the ancient ruins of once huge population centers like western Illinois' Cahokia Mound, every city is eventually faced with the reality of its resource needs.  Pacific Rim is hardly the first recent science fiction story to preach transhumanism as a solution to the threats of biology.  It is, in fact, part of a continuing trend in popular fiction that recasts the once ominously robotic as the means of humanity's salvation. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Politics of Pacific Rim: Giant Robots and the transformative architecture of Lebbeus Woods

July 12 marks the release of Pacific Rim, the highly anticipated monster mash from director Guillermo del Toro.  The film envisions a "near future" in which invading monsters from beneath the Pacific do battle with towering metal robots called Jeagers.  Trailers promise both a healthy dose of ruin porn and the concept of machines melded with human consciousness, "Two pilots mind melding through memories with the body of a machine."

Monday, May 27, 2013

Mapping Treasure Island's Uncertain Future

Treasure Island was built up out of the San Francisco bay for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, 400 acres of "land" made up entirely out of landfill.  Now, after 75 years of mixed use, the island is one of the key targets of San Francisco's ravenous push for "development", attracting the attention of international investors and green building companies.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness' Bleak Vision of a Future San Francisco

How do we envision the future?  Are we going to imagine the urban spaces where more and more of us choose to live as tributes to history and humanity, or do we went to scrub away the past to create metal behemoths of industrialized progress?  If the recent Star Trek: Into Darkness is any indication, the fate of just one city, San Francisco, is the unquestioned victory of the latter.  A new Manhattan, transplanted on top of a city that has fought for decades to preserve its character, architecture and, now, its very population.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Original Iron Man: The Body Horror of Shinya Tsukamoto

Tetsuo: The Iron Man, 1989
With Iron Man 3 now in theaters, there is no better time to talk about the original Iron Man.  Of course, that's not the franchise launching Marvel vehicle from 2008, but the Japanese body horror freak show that is Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man.

Tetsuo is about as far from a shiny, tent pole blockbuster as you can get.  Produced in Japan in 1989 and given narrow distribution in 1992, Shinya's film is a breathless, industrial collage of desecrated flesh and industrial synth.  Where Tony Stark's metamorphosis from man to machine leaves him sexier and more powerful, "Salary Man," the films nearly anonymous "protagonist", suffers through a feature length ordeal of violent insertions and bursting blood sacks as his body rebels against itself.  His limbs bloom with tumor-like growths.  He is raped by a woman with a dancing metallic cable emerging from her navel.  He has sex with his girlfriend, only for his penis to transform into an immense, bio-mechanical drill (a prop that seems to have been copied in spirit in Noboru Iguchi's splatter horror camp fest The Machine Girl and its notorious "drill bra").  There is no hint of super heroism here.  This is The Elephant Man by way of David Cronenburg, Robocop as re-imagined by Jan Svankmeyer.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

R.I.P.: Ray Harryhausen

Special effects and stop mation animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen passed away today at the age of 92. I could go on at length about his contributions to fantasy film making, about the countless hours of labor he invested bringing life to his creations frame by frame, second by second, scene by scene over the course of a career spanning form the late 1930's to the early 1980's.  But instead I'll just re-post this, my favorite special effects scene of all time.

Since the end of Harryhausen's career, the tools for bridging the gap between the imagination and the moving image have grown both more versatile and less innovative.  With increasing reliance placed on computer imagery (in a process that J. Hoberman describes as the transformation of  the history of film into the history of animation), it becomes more and more difficult to regard something with wonder.  While the majority of modern contemporary visual effects will likely look outdated and archaic within a few years, time only lends a deepening sense of awe to the kinds of techniques that Harryhausen practiced over his lifetime. Comparing the Medusa in 1981's Clash of the Titans with the same monster in the 2010 remake is to see difference between a scene created by an artist and a scene created by committee.  And as these anonymous, digitized creations sluice through our memory like easily digested cinematic gravy, Harryhausen's work endures, every frame of every creature stamped with the artistic signature of a single man.

Harryhausen was still active as a speaker late into his life.  In March of 2006, I attended a screening of Jason and the Argonauts with the animator in attendance   The animated sequences were greeted like musical numbers, garnering deep applause from the packed house of the Winifred Moore Auditorium.  When the lights came up, Harryausen rose from his chair.  He had been sitting in front of me the entire time, an unassuming man in his late eighties, still proud of his work, still telling the same stories so many years later.


Thursday, May 2, 2013

"Infinite Resource: Ramez Naam, neolibearalism and collective passivity.

In his recent book, The Infinite Resource, Ramez Naam examines the global resource depletion and comes away with a simple solution: innovation.  “The most valuable resource on earth is not oil, gold, water or land,” he says.  “Instead, our capacity for expanding human knowledge is our greatest resource, and the key to overcoming the very real resource scarcity and enormous environmental challenges we face”  Unfortunately, Naam's arguments distill a narrative of mass passivity, a culture of communal non interference that allows a privileged few to dictate the planets future in limited, neoliberal terms.  

Naam philosophy is one of unmitigated growth.  In a recent article for I09, he argues that economic growth is a moral requirement.  “Roughly one billion people alive today on the planet have access to automobiles, air conditioners, and central heat. The other six billion do not. Two billion lack access to a toilet,” he says.  “A path forward that doesn't allow room for billions to rise out of poverty and to at least this modicum of comfort is not a very appealing one.”  The suggestion here being, of course, that it would be unthinkable for the developed world to cut back on their inherently consumptive life styles.  Our industrialized society is a foregone conclusion.  To question it would be sacrosanct.  To impose it upon the entire world and expect positive results is seen as progress.      

Monday, April 8, 2013

Coyote Growls: A Voice for Sex Positive Feminism in the Late 1970s.

Coyote Growls, June/July 1975
After Kitty Desmond's Bush Street Bordello was raided in June 1973, one of the few places you may have been able to read about it was in Coyote Growls: The Newsletter of a Loose Woman's Organization.  In their June/July 1975 edition, Coyote Growls published this brief mention of the case:

Coyote Growls, June/July 1975
Seems the ACLU was enlisted, as well as a Dixie Land themed fund raiser, but further research is required before knowing how the case turned out.

The Desmond case may seem buried under the column inches of other stories, but this is only due to the wide range of relevant news that fell under Coyote Growls' (later re-titled Coyote Howls) watch during its run from 1975 to 1979.  "Dedicated to exposing and eliminating current laws against prostitution and other non crime-crimes," the journal was the
 public face of the still active Coyote sex activism group, which continues to advocate for the rights of sex workers across the United States.

Taking a look at even just a few clips from two of Coyote's issues reveals not just the political and social issues of the late 1970's, but the multifaceted spirit of an international community.

Coyote Growls, June/July 1975

Rallying against the dictates of the Lond's Women's LIberation Workshop (who claim to 'Support prostitutes, not prostitution' in an odd echo of the now familiar 'Love the sinner hat the sin" hypocrisy Coyote issues some dictates of their own, including that,  "All work is Prostitution, whether we work for money or room and board.  All women are prostitutes...Our whole lives are stolen from us by work," and, "Every alternative to prostitution is either another form of prostitution or terrible poverty or both." 
Coyote Howls, Winter 1977

Coyote Howls, Winter 1977
Later, in 1977, and under their new name, Coyote responded to continuing raids by police.  "Sex is supposed to be personal, always a free choice, different from work.  But its not a free choice when we are dependent on men for money...The line between paid and unpaid sex is what we get in return."

Echoing the need met by Kitty Desmond's "sexual therapy", Coyote writes that, "Destroyed by the work they are compelled to do, men come to us for the sexual gratification they need to continue working," reiterating the "all work is prostitution" argument.

Remembering Infantino

Carmine Infantino, comicbookmovie.com

Since he's better equipped to send the man off than I am, having been a fan of his work for fifty some years, here's a few words about Carmine Infantino from my dad:

I have just learned of the passing of my greatest comic book idol, Carmine Infantino.  He, more than any other comic creator, awakened in me an appreciation for comic book art, an appreciation that survives yet today.

Although he had his start in the comics business during the so-called Golden Age, I first became aware of his significant role in the rebirth of "super-hero" books during the Silver Age, with my first exposure t

o his work in a special 25 cent giant annual called Secret Origins.  I had been reading Superman and Batman for several years, and was stunned in that annual by the freshness of the artist drawing the Silver Age Flash story in that book.  I learned later that this artist was Carmine Infantino.  (I pronounced his name as Carmen for years.)  Shortly thereafter, I began to buy all of the Julius Schwartz-edited books, many containing Infantino artwork.  I was a late reader of Mystery in Space, which (for too short a time) featured Adam Strange stories drawn by Mr. Infantino.  The anticipation I felt as I hurried to the drug store on the day a new MIS was to appear was only heightened by the excitement as I opened the pages to a new adventure.  When Jack Schiff took over as editor of Mystery in Space, Carmine Infantino passed his artist duties for Adam Strange to Lee Elias, and the Adam Strange magic (at least for me) was gone forever.

 His attention to anatomical accuracy was  superb, his architectural images always "modern", and his page layouts set the the style that became the standard.  His art felt somehow more "adult" than what I had been reading, and made even a lackluster plot sparkle. His work onThe Space Museum stories, Strange Sports StoriesThe FlashBatman, uncounted sci-fi adventures in the Schwartz anthology books was all unforgettable, and his contributions as publisher at National/DC helped save that company and infuse it with new artistic talent that took it to new heights. I was tempted on several occasions to contact Mr Infantino, to thank him for his wonderful work.  Alas, I didn't do that, and my window of opportunity has passed.
Yes, other great artists have come along, but Carmine Infantino was unique.  He will be sorely missed.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Carmine Infantino: The passing of a giant and the fallacies of geek culture

Yesterday, two men who had both contributed greatly to their respective mediums passed away.  Most have likely heard about the passing of preeminent film critic Roger Ebert, whose eulogizing has been far reaching and at times touching.  The day also saw the passing of legendary comic book artist Carmine Infrantino, whose contributions over the past sixty years of comic book history included the revitalization of the Flash in 1964, the creation of Batgirl and decades of work as an artist and editor.

 Just to put things into perspective, he helped moved mainstream comic art from this:

to this:

In addition to the above linked article by Comic Book Resources, Inantino's death has been reported by IGN, Den of Geek, Comics Alliance, Bleeding Cool and entertainment blog Mania.  

And yet nothing on Comics Worth Reading.  Nothing on I09, Topless Robot, The Mary Sue, Comic Vine, and many other sites.  Huge sections of the supposed geek blogosphere continue to pump out hourly articles on everything from clips of the upcoming iteration of the Iron Man product line to, perhaps ironically, memorials for Roger Ebert, but don't deem the death of a major creator to be post worthy.  Comics Worth Reading even published an article featuring one of Infantino's most iconic illustrations on the day of the man's death.  No mention was made of him, however, as the images use was to promote an upcoming book on the Sliver Age of DC Comics, an explosion of popular creativity that would have been impossible without Infantino.

Roger Ebert was a massively looming figure in the field of film criticism.  He represented a hugely recognizable, almost institutional presence, serving as a public ambassador for film in a way that would be hard to find parallels for in other mediums.  Comic books certainly have their share of ambassadors, but popular voices like Stan Lee and Kevin Smith are more hucksters and entertainers than critics.  It would, therefore, be unrealistic to expect that the passing of a figure like Infantino would attract similar levels of attention.

But ignoring of Infantino's death by the very blogs and websites who owe their existence to artists like him illuminates the illusions that these supposed "fan" communities have about themselves.  If your websites decides to post a publicity puff piece for the next Wolverine movie, and yet omits to mention the passing of a major figure, that tells you something about priorities.  Perhaps Infantino wasn't link baity enough.  Perhaps his recent absence from the field left him too far away from the spotlight to be noticed.  But any community that routinely prioritizes product shilling over the movements of its own history is one that need to be examined.  Then again, anyone who has been to a comic book convention can attest to the tiny sliver of booths known as artist's alley, the obscure engine room of the industry where greying creators sit half forgotten in the shadow of whatever new video game or major motion picture is being advertised this year.  The coverage of Infantiono's death is just one more example of how "geekdom" isn't a culture.  Its a shopping mall.        


Monday, April 1, 2013

Inherent Vice: Former Brothels of San Francisco

Former Brothel on 20th Ave.

Located between Stern Grove park and Stonestown Galleria, just a half mile from San Francisco State and a few hundred feet from a church, this unassuming building on 20th Ave gives no indication of its history as a high class brothel.  

Former Brothel on 20th Ave.

On February 13th, 1964, San Francisco police raided what the San Francisco Chronicle described as "a luxurious brothel catering to VIP officials, professional men and business executives."   This Parkside home had been operating for six months under the leadership of madam Jean Martin, serving customers, "by appointment only" until the time of the raid.

Even more amazing is the story behind this Victorian Mansion on Bush Street between Webster and Buchanan, raided by police on May 10, 1975.  

Bush Street Bordello

The woman working in the house identified themselves as members of the Golden Gate Foundation, and had been running thier business out of the house since October 15, 1973.  The Bush Street Bordello provided what the women called "therapeutic and sex counseling service," a distinction made semi official by the city having granted the site a business licence to operate as an "emotional therapy research foundation." 

Bush Street Bordello
The head of the site was Kitty Desmond.  29 years old, Desmond had only a month before spoken at Stanford University, lecturing a few hundred students on the topic of sex therapy.  Desmond's plans for the site included achieving a non profit status and even acquiring government grants for sexual therapy.  

One of the women arrested, Randa Newby, was senior in Psychology at San Francisco State.  "We were keeping clinical records of our clients," she reported.  "We hoped to give them to the sexuality program at the UC Medical Center."  Every man, the women reported, was filed using a methodical intake system.  Their psychological profiles were based on nine models male sexuality: opportunist, patronizer, promoter, juvenile  guardian, lover, adventurer, friend and slave. 

"I started to work there because I could get money," one of the women reported.  "But then I started to get into the whole trip of therapy.  They felt peaceful with us.  Its a way of meditating for them.  Its their release."

For two years, every client was profiled and categorized this way.  Which begs the question of what happened to those forms?  What story would they tell if they were uncovered?  What became of the house and the therapists inside, and what became of Kitty Desmond?  

Monday, March 18, 2013

Time Blind Deals at Irving Variety

On the corner of Irving and 8th Ave, Irving Variety never saw an old dusty 1970's baking set it couldn't sell.  

That's a vintage Corning Ware Snack It, partying like it was still 1979.  At just under ten bucks, it doesn't quite beat this deal from an old estsy sale, but its still more quarter century old ceramic than any of probably desrerve.

"As if someone from the 1970's just stepped through your door with a gift," says this jazzed etsy seller, perhaps unaware of the complete temporal disregard of this savvy Inner Sunset entrepreneur.

Then again, I don't know what this the deal with this thing is.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Quantum History: The San Francisco Bubonic Plague Outbreak of 1900

From the Library Of Congress, The Chinese in California, 1850-1925

“What happened?” is never an easy question.  Sometimes all we have are photographs like the one above, of barbed wire stretched down the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown.  It was March of 1900, and the district was under quarantine.  A man had died of Bubonic Plague, reported the Board of Health, and no one was allowed in or out until the necessary steps could be taken.
Of course, if you were an SF resident in San Francisco at the time, there was every reason to believe that this was all an elaborate cover up by the board to garner political favor and fill their own coffers.  On March 8th, the San Francisco Call reported the Quarantine, but leaned towards the assurance of Surgeon General W.K. Van Reypen.  “(Bubonic Plague) is a disease peculiar to the Orient,” Reypen says, “and seldom, if ever, attacks Europeans.”  It’s fairly safe to say that the average San Franciscan, even in 1900, would be familiar with the relationship between Europe and bubonic plague, but it’s nice to be told everything is going to be ok, so maybe no one really questioned Reypen.
By the next day, the Call was in full on attack mode, asserting that, “The most dangerous plague which threatens San Francisco is not of the bubonic type,” but a “plague of politics” brought upon by an avaricious Board of Health who engineered a biological scare in order to get, “snout and forelegs in the public trough.” 

“It is reasonable to suppose that such men would have San Francisco advertised as a plague spot,” The Call Warns, “overlooking that they themselves were the most dangerous and most menacing malady that threatens the community.”  Unlike the incriminating photographs, here it was “ropes” stretched across the streets, and the following two days of copy are a litany of paeans to a now disenfranchised local merchant community unable to do business as usual because of the scare tactics of the Board.  “Plague farce plays havoc with business,” reads the March 9th headline, while the next day reports the end of the Board of Health’s, “theatrical posing,” as the quarantine is lifted, alongside pleas from representatives from the Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Trade.
Meanwhile, nothing at all seems strange in the chief of police’s decision to, “drive every white person out of the quarantined setting.”  Then again, the paper reports numerous Chinese appearing at their jobs over the course of the quarantine, even publishing a detailed map of a rooftop escape route, adding further credence to the suggestion that the quarantine was predominantly psychological, more a symbol of the city’s intuitional power over the Chinese population than an effective plague break.     
                Of course, if it’s February 1939, the answer to “What happened?” is much different.  As presented by a report from California Western Medicine, the city had enacted a massive PR campaign to discredit the board of health and cover up the very real presence of plague.  Multiple cases appeared in Chinatown, the bodies hidden by family members or friends afraid of the very likely repercussions of being identified with a positive case.  Sick, dead and dying Chinese were smuggled out of the city on patrol boats, leading the Navy to step in to prevent the boat’s destruction.  Even under quarantine, an exodus of over one thousand Chinese residents fled the city, seeking refuge from the very real plague conditions they had been otherwise trapped within.
So it seems the real story emerges.  Yet even as recently as January of 2012, the hoax-plague narrative was still being reported by historically minded authors.  Ptak science books released an article demonizing the racist practice of San Francisco’s 1900 quarantining.  But they then went on to assert that not one case of plague was reported among the Chinese population.  The entire thing was a byproduct of racist sentiment, they argue, a byproduct of the Chinese’s status perceived status as an, “inferior and degraded race living in close quarters and in fair squalor.”  The story was then picked up and repeated by San Francisco based geek blog iO9.   
                History, too, is like a plague.  One person reports and another outlet picks it up as truth and suddenly the narrative swings back the way it came.  The motivation here is understandably noble.  Whatever point of history we stand in seems enlightened in comparison to the mores of those that came before.  And as investigators, equipped with the near limitless informational resources now at our disposal, we feel obligated to point out the sins of our forefathers.  And yes, the quarantine of San Francisco’s Chinatown was motivated by and indicative of huge amounts of institutional racism and bigotry.  But to claim that this was the sole motivation for the event is to fall prey to the same disinformation campaign that took place in the press at the time of the quarantine.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Transmigration of Kriss Kross

Since its release in 1992, Kriss Kross' "I Missed the Bus" has become yet another piece of faintly remembered early nineties nostalgia.  But what if the song's music video is more than that?  What if it is, in fact, a realization of the meta narrative of humanity's attempts to transcend the illusion of linear time and realize the true 4-D quantum nature of reality?

From the aboriginal Australian dream time that overlies the linear movement of reality to interpretation of Jesus Christ's "Resurrection" as a metaphor for a man's transcendence of his own existence, these narratives have been, depending on flexibility, present since the dawn of story telling itself.   Recently,  science fiction author Philip K. Dick dedicated much of his later life to trying to understand these ideas, and creating stories in which individuals struggle to comprehend and escape from what he described as "the black iron prison" which constitutes all of reality.

"Everyone who had ever lived was literally surrounded by the iron walls of the prison; they were all inside it and none of them knew it."---Valis 
Within this cosmology, there exists the rigid, linear reality of which we are all aware.  This reality is seen as an illusion, a type of waking sleep that obscures a secondary reality in which time exists in a a four dimensional, non linear fashion in which all points are present simultaneously.

 "In some certain important sense, time is not real. Or perhaps it is real, but not as we experience it to be or imagine it to be."---How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later
Throughout the video, all authority figures are portrayed as deformed or beastly, often leering at Kriss Kross from beyond some kind of dimensional barrier that seems to separate the upper reality from the lower.

"The empire is the institution  the codification of derangement  it is insane and imposes its insanity on us by violence..."---Valis
Students are displayed as mindless, overtaken by cobwebs as if lost within time itself, overseen by insectoid hybrids of human and animal.

To the fight the Empire is to be infected by its derangement."---Valis
In this sense, these creatures echo the Outer Church of Grant Morrison s' Invisible's series, itself highly indebted to Dickian interpretations of this very old story.

Reaching even deeper in Dick's estimation of the universe is Kriss Kross' personification of the archetypal twins, what he called two source cosmonogy.  Kriss Kross here become the original dual being whose role is to experience and oversee the act of universal becoming.

(The one) generated a diploid sac which contained, like an eggshell, a pair of twins, each an androgyny, spinning in opposite directions (the Yin and Yang of Taoism, with the One as the Tao).---Valis
Or, in the terms of early 90's hip hop, Kriss and Kross, the Daddy Mack and the Mack Daddy, their very appearance recalling a duality in which the body and the head are in conflict with each other.

But isn't this all just ridiculous?  Isn't "I Missed the Bus' just an otherwise rote example after school special ethics lesson crossed with perhaps out of place horror iconography?  Isn't it just an act of cultural contortion-ism to root through the garbage dump of decades old musical refuse and find meaning where none such exists 

Maybe.  But the Dickian way of looking at this is that "I Missed the Bus" is simultaneously doing both of these things at once.  It is a piece of mindless, pop entertainment.  It is a not a piece of mindless pop entertainment.  It means nothing.  It means everything.  It is, in short, an example of negative theology, a koan that presents us with the dual nature of reality.  God is nowhere.  God is now here.

 Kriss Kross is slated to reunite on February 23rd for a single performance in Atlanta, Georgia,    

Monday, February 4, 2013

Slender Man and the role of Folk Monsters in the Public Domain

For anyone unfamiliar with Slender Man, take a minute to watch this video from the youtube series “Marble Hornets.” 

Slenderman was created in 2009 by users of the Something Awful forums, as part of a Photoshop contest to create a supposedly real monster, which was then sent to paranormal activity websites and reported as real.  Since then, the character has been at the center of numerous youtube series, as well as fan made video games such as Slender and countless ensuing “reaction” videos.  What is significant about the character is not so much its increasing presence in the popular consciousness, however, but the way in which its existence flouts existing copyright law.

Slenderman, as created by Victor Surge.
As reported last week by NPR’s “On the Media,” barely any copyrighted works will enter the public domain this year.  Thanks to the manipulation of copyright laws over the last few decades, the length of time required for a work to become public has created not just limitations on wider distribution of existing work (the ability to publish Slaughterhouse Five for free online, for example) but the existence of numerous “orphan works”.  These lost children of copyright law are the works which are unpublishable, due to the inability to contact or determine the owner.  The fear driving this limitation of access is the potential appearance of an otherwise unknown copyright holder, limiting the ability to digitize or make available the material.   Constituting photographs, musical recordings, novels and every other type of media, these pieces of “intellectual property” sit unavailable in museum, libraries and private collections.  Estimates place as many as twenty five million of them in the UK alone. 

Which brings us back to Slenderman and how IP laws are potentially unequipped to handle the internet.  As discussed on this forum, Slenderman has no distinct owner.  Though originated by the Something Awful forum member Victor Surge, Slenderman saw a subsequent “crowd sourced” approach to his creation.  Various different groups and individuals added to or ignored elements of mythology based around the central image crated by Surge.  Though copyright law might cover individual uses of Slenderman, such as in the web series EverymanHyrbrid, those laws would not really be applicable to original creations involving the same character.  Though no one has laid legal claim as of yet, things might be different if some major studio or network were to mass release a profitable entertainment utilizing the Slenderman character.  However, no one involved in the creative process has stepped forward to claim any type of ownership, even as the character’s popularity has spread into explicit merchandising.  

On a psychological level, it is fitting that Slenderman emerged in 2009, the same year as the height of American “financial crisis” and the beginnings of the bank bailout.  It is unsurprising that such a creature emerged out of a time in which our lives seem controlled by anonymous men in business suits, lurking in the shadows of everything from the housing market to lobbyist driven politics.  Just as all monsters reflect our collective fear, Slenderman joins a number of other popular monsters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Gentelmen...

The Gentlemen
 ...to Doctor Who’s The Silence.

The Silence
While those monsters share a wardrobe and lack of voice, Slenderman goes two steps further, removing the concept of a face and existing in the grainy “found footage” realm of popular jump scare entertainments.  He is a crowd sourced creation born out of the fears of a disenfranchised population, exhibited not through centralized forms of media access, but through the open distribution channel of popular internet culture.      

Alien Autopsy

Tracing the image even further back, one can't help but think of another creation of folk mythology.  The alien grey reached the height of its popular appeal during the late nineties mini craze of alien conspiracy and government cover ups.  It too, then, is a reflection of a fear of anonymous, all controlling forces beyond our control.  And it too has no single creator, emerging out of the popular consciousness as less a character than a personified aspect of cultural fear.  Though both the greys and Slenderman find themselves eventually mined for eventual profit, (and, as the greys prove, over exposure leads to the eventual inability to separate use from self conscious parody) their existence as group creations demonstrates a potential way for intellectual property to exist outside of the limitations of ownership.  

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Fight Developing Over UCSF's Mt. Sutro Forestry Plan

Mt Sutro, as seen from Golden Gate Park

UCSF currently owns and maintains 61 acres of undeveloped forest land on Mt. Sutro.  An easily accessible natural area located within the heart of San Francisco, Mt. Sutro is home to numerous hiking trails and a unique cloud forest micro climate.   However, according to an item posted yesterday by sutroforest.com, UCSF's most recent forestry plan involves removal of up to 30,000 of the site's existing trees and underbrush, constituting a 90% plan life removal.  This plan includes the use of pesticides, as well as intensive use of tarping to prevent regrowth, and could begin as early as fall of this year.

Given the scope of this project, and the sites biological significance, it is easy to have an immediate, almost gut level response to the news.  However, before reaching any conclusion as to the projects long term consequences, it is important to more closely examine its many aspects.  How does UCSF respond to the allegations made by the opposition campaign   What are the long term effects of the use of pesticides, specifically Garlon?  What are the plans of those opposed to the project in terms of communal resistance?

Hopefully, over the next few months a more clear picture of this issue will evolve.  In the meantime, it is important to know what UCSF's plans are, and how those plans are viewed by various opposition parties.      


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Empire Eats the Innovators Part 2: Disney Hates You

In 1947, at the beginning of Communism Paranoia in the US, Walt Disney was among those within the entertainment industry who testified to the House Un-American Activities Commission.

What I love about this is that Disney supports both conservative paranoia and liberalism, so there’s something to irritate everyone. 

Many of those who refused to testify were either blacklisted from Hollywood for the rest of their lives or under suspicion of Communist sympathies for years.  Many of those who blew the whistle on their own employees and colleagues have since become synonymous with their politics, including Ronald Reagan (duh), Ayn Rand (double duh) and J. Edgar Hoover. Yet Walt Disney occupies a rarefied space, his political and personal views eclipsed by the near infinite reach of his own “creations”. 

 There is an implicit approval of certain ideologies within both mainstream culture and the geek community, an unquestioned acceptance of the relationship between creator and property, a blurring of the edges between artist and owner.  It is well known, even parodied, that Walt Disney’s “creation” of Mickey Mouse owes the lion’s share of credit to a man named Ub Iwerks.  Though Disney would provide the character’s voice, Iwerks was the sole designer, hand animating the first unofficial Mickey Mouse short, Plane Crazy, in 1928. 

Source: Disney Image Archive 

Of course, Iwerks was Disney’s employee, and as such retained few rights.  Iwerks continued as an innovator in animation for much of his life, but saw little of the profits garnered from his creation.  Though his initial split from Disney has been attributed to a feeling that he was being denied credit for creation, Iwerks was seen as a man working on commission.  Any profit derived was simply determined by right of contract.  He was, essentially, an intellectual sharecropper.

The same was true for Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster when they sold the rights to their joint creation of Superman to National Allied Publishing.  They were paid $412.  Since then, first the men themselves then their respective families have seen nearly a century of legal battles in order to achieve proper residuals from their intellectual inheritance.  A settlement on the Schuster family’s fight was reached in favor of Superman’s parent company, Warner Brothers, as recently as last year

The problem for the families, much as with Iwerks, was that they had nothing but an ideological truth in the face of hard limits of the legal system.   The relationships between creator and owner was designed to be this way, much as the system surrounding it was designed so that art is so little valued that artists are often left forced to usurp the rights of their creations in order to survive.  Any attempt to overcome this system after the fact is one that has been lost before it began.

Of the millions of people who saw the Avengers last summer, how many of them knew that most of those characters were created by a man who had to fight for compensation and recognition until the day he died?  How many people who watch The Walking Dead every week know that the source material’s publisher, Image, was born out of a group of creators splitting from Marvel over demands for this very same recognition (and a lot of ego, but still)?  How many of the adults who support the characters they love by accumulating huge toy collections ever stop to support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a group whose sole purpose is to fight for the rights of creators?

But that is what our culture does.  It abandons the creator and worships the object.  A single company like Disney can own so much intellectual “property” as to essentially hold dictatorial control over a culture’s fantasies.  And it would be one thing for the general public not to question it.  But for the “geek” to accept it and praise their arrival in the mainstream is disappointing.  It is the job of the outsider to question, to resist, or at the very least to declare solidarity with creators and artists and call for a system to acknowledges their contributions.  Sadly, it seems geek culture is content enough.  To use an appropriate analogy, it is not too much to give up one’s voice if the prize is approval by the patriarchal establishment.  



Monday, January 28, 2013

The Empire Eats the Innovators Part 1: The Decline of the Public Domain

“Our system of law doesn't acknowledge the derivative nature of creativity. Instead, ideas are regarded as property, as unique and original lots with distinct boundaries. But ideas aren't so tidy. They're layered, they’re interwoven, they're tangled. And when the system conflicts with the reality... the system starts to fail.”----Kirby Ferguson, Everything is a Remix Part 4

When Disney purchased Lucasfilm this past December, the question on everyone’s mind, from geek blogs to mainstream news outlets, was what this meant creatively.  How would these new owners capitalize on their new property?  What would the stories be?  Who would direct the inevitable films?  What seemed to not be questioned, however, were the ideological implications of the news.  Why do we accept so freely a system that allows for corporate ownership of intellectual property?  What does it mean that single entities are allowed to own and dictate what eventually becomes the collective narrative of a culture?    

Limitation to the indefinite ownership of ideas is one of the few actual legal rights spelled out in the US Constitution.  The Bill of Rights sought to promote “the science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”  And, as becomes problematic for any central document intended to organize a large a system over time, powerful interests found ways to interpret the law to fit their needs. This led to the development of strict Intellectual Property laws for the service not of individuals, but centralized corporate entities.

Source: Techfleece

The term limits of copyrights have been expanding since the initial terms of 14 years set in 1790.  First in 1909, then again in 1976 and, most dramatically, with 1998's “Mickey Mouse Act”, the length of time granted to private ownership (and even more so to corporate ownership) has moved steadily away from the initial concept of “limited” time.  A corporately authored creation can now enjoy an ownership period of 120 years.  The idea of a robust public domain moves further and further away, while purchases of vast swaths of intellectual property are celebrated for their creative potential.

The Copyright Term Extension Act, heavily lobbied by Disney, severely extended corporate control over intellectual property.
Most troubling is the implicit acceptance of the dictatorial control of ideas and characters by a central governing power, in this case the Walt Disney Corporation.  The spokespeople of geek culture should by design be suspicious of mainstream usurpation.  Anyone whose culture is based in marginalized interests should look with suspicion upon the figures at the center of that culture.  But a geek culture seems acquiescent to the further centralization of power, a community so excited by the carrot of yet another Star Wars trilogy (which are totally going to live up to expectation this time) as to ignore the implicit nature of a political system that allows for ideas themselves to be bought and sold.

What if we resist the idea that Jedi can be owned?  Is it too much to ask for a system where, at least after a certain amount of time, popular characters are treated not as commodities, but masks concealing universal archetypes, their interpretation open to public use?  In one sense, Lucasfilm allowed for this for a decade, openly endorsing the creation of fan films with their Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards, encouraging the use of their properties and images from within the public community.  But now that they are under the ownership of a company notorious for its strict policy on usage, some are already asking  what this might mean in terms of fair use.

Source: ABC
Disney celebrates its news acquisition with a "Star Wars" themed episode of  Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

Unfortunately, as the previous few decades have proven,  the idea of an open system of ideas, of a robust public domain, seems further and further from the accepted model.  Instead, the innovators find themselves swallowed up, while one of the most notoriously conservative corporations in the world continues to spread its girth.            

For a deeper examination of this issue, take a look at Kirby Ferguson's concluding entry in the "Everything is a Remix" series. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Goodbye Space Lincoln: JJ Abrams and Cultural Homogeneity

I’ll admit that when I first heard that JJ Abrams was poised to direct the new Star Wars film, my initial geek blurt was, “That’s good.”  This was the director of the LOST pilot, Mission Impossible 3, the rebooted Star Trek film.  Those are all solid entertainments, infused with a mixture of solid character work and action that is not just kinetic, but coherent (a point on which his is often superior to the chaotic approach of Christopher Nolan).   When adapting an old property, as with Star Trek, Abrams has demonstrated the ability to infuse it with contemporary sensibilities while also demonstrating his own obvious admiration for the source material. 

It could easily be argued that 2009’s Star Trek film wasn’t really a Star Trek film, as it eschewed the philosophy and social critique of the original series to make room for sick ass sky jumps and “splosions”.  But the Star Trek films have been moving in that direction since the failure of Star Trek the Motion Picture all the way back in 1979.  What troubles me about this is the idea of a single voice holding the reins to two most prominent science fiction mythologies of an entire culture.

Artists impart sensibility.  Likewise, the level to which a character or universe is available for interpretation can provide for greater degrees of interpretation.  There are currently three active interpretations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes characters; two different television series and a chain of feature films.  Regardless of personal preference or relative accuracy in relation to source material, this demonstrates how a property’s status in the public domain can contribute to a more robust cultural landscape.  Had Warner Brothers retained the copyright to the character upon the release of their 2009 film, the subsequent adaptation would never have happened.  However, the character remains open to constant reinterpretation, fulfilling the role of a kind of modern folk tale in that it maintains certain key elements (the triumph of deduction, let’s say) while filtering others through contemporary taste.  The character lives on through reinterpretation. 

Not like i have a preference or anything. 
Even in terms of storytelling there is a greater freedom here.  There is no official Sherlock canon.  Even the books are simply starting points, and there are as many different universes and time lines for Holmes as there are iterations.  Compare this to the news of Abrams directing this new Star Wars film.  He responded to previous Star Trek continuity by literally wiping it from existence through time travel.  You can have your stodgy old tribbles and Space Lincoln, but in this brave new world, there is no room for the past.  There can only be one “official” timeline, and this is it.  

Now we have news that the same man will be providing a likely similar take to another huge property, itself with a pre-existing universe of characters and events that has been unfolding steadily for almost a quarter of a century.  Now, with this new film looming, fans of those stories are about to be told that those events never happened.  Make way for the new universe.  Just as Peter Jackson and Weta have become the sole arbiters of what another man’s universe might look like, so too does this directorial appointment seem to indicate a continuing homogeneity of approach.

Science fiction looks to the future and wonders what could be.  It envisions a better world, or a smarter world, or another world entirely, and dares us to achieve it in our own.  Star Trek’s creator, Gene Rodenberry, famously insisted that his Starfleet would not be driven by internal conflict among crew members.  This was a future where we were past that.  It pushed up against the boundaries of what could be depicted during an era of intense racial segregation and gender normativity.  

Star Wars, meanwhile, took the monomyth at the root of our story telling and dressed it up in new clothes. It said that the old stories were still powerful, that all they needed was a new outlet.  But what remains of these aspirations and these undercurrents when two entire canons are handed over to a single individual, himself representing the best choice of a profit minded pair of mega corporations seeking to challenge as little as possible?  What happens to that optimism?  It doesn't go away, but it becomes harder and harder to hear over the drum of the status quo endorsing juggernauts that are now wearing its skin.