Friday, October 30, 2009

Breaking symmetrical expectations and the history of nothing

So my school has been undergoing a massive restroom beautification program, which includes brand new doors, new stall doors and dividers with floral patterned wallpaper, some large fish and sea creatures stickers that appear to be swimming along the wall, nature photos with motivational quotes, some general rearrangements, and they even rigged up a speaker to pump in ultra-cheesy tranquil light classical music. The ultimate mind boggling aspect of this beautification project is that there's been a paper towel dispenser in the bathroom that has literally been empty for the past 15 months. And I don't mean it's usually empty, I mean, that, to my knowledge, there's never been one paper towel in there. And after all the work they've done in the bathroom, yesterday I still had to walk out of there to the light classical music with dripping wet hands. And today, in order to "fix" the problem, I found they just removed the towel dispenser all together and hung up some dirty mops in its place. The thing that I love about Korea is the same thing that I find most baffling about its building practices. At the outset, many structures and interior design appear to be organized and similar to buildings you'd find in the states, but then there is always one or two elements that completely destabilize this appearance.

All over this town there's these narrow, meandering dirt and rock paths running between buildings and gardens and fences. The paths look as if you're surely walking through someone's private property, but it's actually just a shortcut.

I really like this aspect of Korea's building practices, it just has so much more of an organic feel to it, as opposed to how master-planned everything has started feeling in the states. The structures here always seem to be incomplete in one manner or another. Our eyes always form expectations about the constructed spaces and natural spaces in our surroundings. We create a logic with which to anticipate visual patterns and the way we are supposed to move through the spaces, understand the intentions of the original builders, and grasp the area's various functionalities. In constructed spaces in Korea, so often all but one or two things support this equation. But there is always that one area that confuses my perception a bit. Something that doesn't quite add up and I can't quite understand the intentions that were behind it during the building process.

Speaking of the idea of the incomplete and way structures are built, this morning I was watching this TED talk lecture by Marcus Du Sautoy which was about symmetry in nature, design, art and architecture. As an artist, I think about symmetry a lot. Our minds and perceptions are designed to be attracted to symmetry. Whenever I look through the lens of my camera I always feel this pull to frame these really symmetrical compositions. It kind of sickens me actually, and it's something I fight with every time I'm making photographs. Because in many cases, something that's so symmetrical will become visually stale so fast. It just doesn't contain anything to keep you coming back to it.

Seeking out the symmetry is a completely natural thing to do, since apparently the more symmetrical an organism is, the higher its ability to reproduce. So people that are more symmetrical are usually seen as more attractive, and as more desirable mates. This is also the reason that viruses can spread so quickly and can be so dangerous: virus particles tend to be extremely symmetrical.

Marcus Du Sautoy said something I thought was really interesting which relates to that idea of artists fighting against symmetry: "Artists set up expectations for symmetry and then break them."

I can be down with that.

And another thing I've been pondering all day since I heard it this morning was what he quoted from these Japanese essays written by a monk in the 14th century called the "Essays in Idleness": "Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth. Even when building the imperial palace, they always leave one place unfinished."

I really have an affinity for that idea. Art that is too complete, symmetrical or slick and over-produced just gets tired so quickly. I want to look or listen to something that makes me feel like I need to keep coming back to it to fully grasp (I guess the only problem is that most people don't want to make half that effort, hence why the best art is left underappreciated).

Here's a link to his lecture if you're interested.

I learned about another thing that I've never really thought about before that is the origin of the number zero (coincidentally perhaps the most symmetrical of our number symbols). By that, I mean the concept of zero and nothingness in the collective consciousness. At least in recorded history the number zero never had a symbol until halfway through the 7th century. I guess no one really talked about nothing. When you think about it, zero and the idea of nothing is a really abstract concept, which is most useful only in terms of mathematics or philosophy. Many ancient civilizations only used numbers for counting and keeping track of their herds of food-animals and whatnot. Apparently, like many scientific and mathematical disciplines, zero was brought to Europe from the Arabs, who themselves learned it from people in India. "The history of nothing" has a nice ring to it. Here's a couple of links about the history of zero:

Furthermore: television snow. Rather than trying to explain it myself, here's three links which explain how about 1% of television white noise is actually the microwave radiation emanating through space from when the universe was created. After the big bang, there was energy expelled in the form of a microwave afterglow that is consistent everywhere and in every direction. Wow.
info 1
info 2
info 3

And lastly, a documentary about Tibetan Buddhism by Werner Herzog called "The Wheel of Time" got me thinking about what it would be like to measure the circumference of the world with my body. The film is about this huge Buddhist ceremony that hundreds of thousands of people make a pilgrimage to every few years when it takes place. Some extreme devotees walk hundreds or even thousands of miles there by praying and lying fully prostrate for every. single. step.

They attach wooden boards to their hands so they're not destroyed by the journey. This old monk from a remote area of China was interviewed who had travelled in this manner for 3000 miles. It took him somewhere around 3 years to make the entire journey. He said during the interview he didn't want to make a big thing about it, even though nodes had grown on the bones in his wrist from praying so much and lying prostrate across the ground. When they asked him about the distance being such an incredible feat, he just said yes, he knew how big the world was because he measured it with his arms, his legs, his head, and his body. He measured and felt every step. That's intense.

Here's the part of the documentary that shows their pilgrimage. This version is not in English though, but you can see what I'm talking about.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Allegience to the pickled cabbage

I swear sometimes I feel like I'm in some weird kimchi cult since I've moved to Korea. Kimchi is not just a food, but a religion. For most Koreans, a meal cannot even be considered a meal unless it includes rice and kimchi. And just like certain things that cults do in their eating habits or behaviors, it'll make the other members real nervous if you aren't participating. Today I was eating lunch at the teacher overflow table (where teachers sit when the main teacher table is full). It was just the school nurse and myself. There was a heaping bowl of kimchi in the middle of the table between us that I intentionally avoided helping myself to. There's a certain point in the year when they've just kept the kimchi in the fridge WAY too long. It just starts tasting stale. I love kimchi when it's fresh, or even sometimes when it's super fermented, but never when it has that stale flavor from having been trapped in sealed tupperware containers in a freezer for the past 6 months or so. I noticed immediately the nurse getting nervous because I didn't take any, so without saying anything she pushed the steel bowl closer to my tray. The comical thing about this impulsive gesture was that the bowl was already like 6 inches away from my tray, so cleary close enough for me to reach it; she pushed it to the point that had it been any closer it would have been touching my tray. Although, I still silently refrained from taking any kimchi out of the bowl. I could totally notice her eyes peering over at me throughout the meal nervously, agitated, every so often. It felt like the type of look you give someone, completely out of your control, that has their fly unzipped or some huge green vegetable fiber caught between their teeth, but you don't feel like you know them well enough to say anything.

Then after I was almost finished, perhaps as a desparate gesture to try and remind me that I STILL hadn't eaten any kimchi, the nurse made a soft grunt and placed more kimchi on her own tray, when it was obvious she still had a healthy pile she hadn't finished yet. What was funny was that she carefully placed the tongs back into the bowl so that they were obviously facing me and nudged the bowl even closer to my tray.

No matter how many days I don't eat the kimchi at school, this type of occurance is common. The older male staff like the ping pong coach, the groundskeeper and the principal will actually pick up the bowl and pass it to me saying "David-uh-kimchi!" in a sharp low voice. I love observing those inexplicable culturally driven impulses in behavior. I always wonder what odd cultural behavior we display when we're viewed by foreigners.

I suppose it makes sense, though, to think so highly of kimchi, as it did allow an entire country to continue eating vegetables during the cold winter months, before more advanced farming methods were invented. And kimchi contains enough vitamin-C to prevent scurvy, and enough other vitamins to prevent other illnesses that can occur from lack of vegetables in the diet.

My heart is chilled by your cold noodle

There's this song that's been going around for quite a while now. And in Korea pop music permeates so thoroughly. If a song is a hit, you will hear it sometimes 4 or 5 times a day, on TV, commercials, radio, EVERYWHERE. And just when you think it's finally over, burned out to the ground from tragically intense repetitive comprehensive media assault, it'll creep back again in the form of a remix or something. This song is called "Naeng Myeon," which means "cold noodle" in Korean. Naeng myeon is a bowl of very chewy, cold buckwheat noodles, either with soup broth or without, and sometimes with chunks of ice in with the mix to keep it at a near freezing temperature. Scissors are a must, because the noodles can be so chewy that they're tough to cut through with your teeth, and if they're not cut first, you can actually feel like you're choking at times while eating them. There's usually thinly sliced cucumber or pickled radish, a chunk or two of dried fish or beef, sesame seeds, and chile sauce. It can be pretty spicy, and you're encouraged to add a bit of vinegar, sugar, and chinese spicy mustard (the kind that gets up in your nose) to it, which really gives it a unique flavor: a mix of sweet, spicy, and sour.

Although the song is ultra-cheese, the lyrics are pure genius once they're translated into English. They even have this dance move that goes along with it that makes them look like they are eating out of a bowl of cold noodles. Check out the video it's so classic. Here's a translation of the chorus:

So cold, So chilling
My teeth are chattering
from your cold noodle, cold noodle, cold noodle
My heart is chilled
by your cold noodle, cold noodle, cold noodle
If I see you, it's too much. Even if I see you again, it's too much.
It's ice cold.
My body's trembling
from your cold cold noodle, cold noodle, cold noodle
It’s tough, it's too tough,
your cold noodle, cold noodle, cold noodle
Still I love you.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Feeling up the page

A braille edition of Playboy magazine (photograph by artist Taryn Simon)
This edition features no advertisements or images.

There was actually a lawsuit in 1985 won by the blind about the braille version of Playboy. The government had banned the library of congress from printing further braille editions of Playboy, and a judge ruled that this was a violation of the first amendment. The baffling question that I am left with is why the braille edition disturbed the government more than the one with naked pictures in it.

It's also kind of odd to think about the idea of blind people using their sense of touch to bring erotic visual information into their minds.

Braille, in itself, has always fascinated me, because it involves a shifting of the senses normally used to intake written information. I've always wondered how some of the basic nature of language changes when words and books become purely tactile objects in space. For a reader of braille, every letter and every word has a distinct 3-dimensional shape and form.

In the case of porn, this shifting of the senses towards the tactile is an even stranger notion, because, usually, when people view porn images they are tempted to create a tactile/physical fantasy about them, as sex has so much to do with the sense of touch. But for the blind, they need to use the sense of touch to actually feel out this erotic information across the page.

Wow, that's actually kind of creepy to even think about.


Gotta love the incomprehensible text on Korean T-shirts. Here are some random ones I thought were worth looking at. It'll really be sad the day that the Korean government's English language learning initiative becomes successful and shirts become so much more grammatically correct and boring.

And she crushed her knees on the barnacles

So I think I finally figured out a way of posting my mixes up here without a tremendous amount of time being spent on my part, and so I can now post tracklistings especially for your tremendous music-devouring face-pieces, on your part. Wow, I have to say that upload speeds in Korea are insane and I must give thanks to the most wired country on the planet for assisting me in this process.

In any case, let me know if there's any problems since this is the first and latest mix that I'm posting.

mix title: And she crushed her knees on the barnacles

part 1
part 2

Because the post just before this was about the idea of places emitting memory and the music that comes out of struggles against oppression, this post will be about the idea of words being colored with memory and how certain South African music recorded during the 1960's and during full force apartheid blends so well with breakfast on Sunday mornings. I was watching a documentary a few weeks ago called Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony that illustrates how integral the use of song was for the South African Africans to begin taking their country back into their own hands. There were some older Dutch colonial police officers interviewed and they were saying that even loaded down with riot gear and weapons it could be incredibly terrifying to watch a huge group of African protesters coming towards them because they were all singing powerfully, in unison. And the Dutch cops couldn't help but remember the songs of protest -- because the music got under their skin.

Here's some songs off a compilation called: Mavuthela: The Sound of the Sixties
(The way the voices are used in the first song blows my mind)

(you can get it here)

As for words, I was listening to this podcast called Podictionary that can be pretty interesting. It covers word roots, and there was an episode on the word columbine. Pretty much whenever you hear the word columbine it's fair to say that the high school massacre will almost undoubtedly come into mind (or Michael Moore holding a bowling ball painted like the globe). It's a real trip if you go to and search the word columbine. On that site they surround the definition with twitter feeds that feature the word and also image results from Flickr. It becomes really twisted and fascinating when you consider that columbine is a flower (the state flower of Colorado) and its latin root means "dove." What's even more strange is that the title "columbine massacre" was used once before in Colorado during the year of 1927 when coal miners were on strike and authority figures somehow decided that machine guns would be the appropriate tool to gain control over the situation.

It mystifies me that a word that is the name of a flower and has a root meaning of a bird that symbolizes peace has been colored with the memories of a tragedy.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Compelled to chill

Music: side one of an LP put out by Sublime Frequencies called Group Bombino, Guitars from Agadez Vol. 2
(Agadez is a city in northern Niger that is in midst of a violent struggle called the Tuareg rebellion. There is only one road that connects this city to the rest of Niger and land mines are strewn across it, thereby leaving it functionally isolated. This music comes out of this struggle and was recorded live in 2007, amidst the dunes and stars of the desert surrounding Agadez. I'm not sure what it is about music that forms directly out of the burning embers of violence and oppression, but it emanates such a heaviness to its sound, I might as well be submerged in a blanket of warm tropical waters when I hear it, or in this case, sliding down the side of a desert dune while my body is covered with sun-baked sand. It must be that when so many of the luxuries and basic necessities for life and freedom have been stripped away from people and yet they still create music to energize their spirits, this music necessarily has a quality carved out of the core of existence. Because when everything else is stripped away, bare existence is all we have, and the music that stems from this must contain a certain piercing quality, since it aims to inflame or calm the emotions caught in the fire of massive personal struggle or loss.
(you can get this music here)

Last weekend I went on a cultural field trip designed by the local education office for all of the foreign teachers in town. We visited two different Confucian academies, a soju and food museum, a traditional village where we slept (apparently in the same house that George Bush the 1st slept in when he visited there), a ginseng festival, and a temple stacked up a mountain that is the second oldest structure in Korea.

At the second Confucian academy (in images above and below) there were these beautiful trees plush with Chinese quinces and this wooden platform, raised on pillars, constructed for rest. While sitting and resting there, leaning my back against one of the wooden pillars, I became interested in the idea of whether a place can emit a memory. By this, I mean that for 400 years Confucian scholars et. al. have been chilling on this wooden resting platform, and, at least for me, the moment I shedded my shoes and stepped up onto it I seemed to feel the full weight of the deep history of relaxation that the place had. And I don't mean this in any supernatural sense, but in the natural process by which our minds interpret information we have about a place and then how that information helps us to behave in ways that befit those places. For instance, we behave one way at a library and an entirely different way at a house party because we know what type of behaviors are socially acceptable or expected because of our memories from past experiences at those places. And although I don't really have any memories from past experiences at Confucian academies, I felt sucked into the energy of the place so that, I too, like scores of Confucian students and scholars for 400 years previously, was compelled to chill.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"the lemon fell on the ground, the juice into my heart"

Music: Francis Bebey: Akwaaba (1985), from Camaroon
(Kalimbas are so beautifully simple and vanveen)

(you can get it here)

I've been reading this book on the history of Citrus by Pierre Laszlo and he includes a citrus-related quote at the beginning of each chapter. I'm gonna go ahead and list them here, because a lot of them are pretty rad. It seems like the Spanish had a preoccupation with citrus fruits and applied its metaphors to many folk songs, proverbs, prose and poetry, and other expressions of common wisdom.

"Sour and sweet like the orange is the taste of life."
--Spanish proverb

"The elements once out of it, it transmigrates."

"Love and the orange
resemble one another
however sweet
it always remains a little sour too."
--Folk song from Argentina

"I came by your house yesterday
you threw me a lemon
the lemon fell on the ground
the juice into my heart."
--Latin American folk song

"Garlic, onion, and lemon, and you can drop the injections." (their ingestion will keep you healthy)
--Spanish proverb

"A Persian Heaven is easily made;
'Tis but black eyes and lemonade."
--Thomas Moore

"From the orange and the woman, take what they have to give."
--Spanish proverb

"If God has given you lemons, apply yourself to making lemonade."
--Spanish proverb

"Conspicuous like and orange for display."
--A common phrase in Argentina

"The nun
sang from inside the grapefruit."
--Frederico Garcia Lorca

"Rare fruit of all draw from life."
--Joachim Von Sandrart

"An orange, in the morning, healthy, at noon, heavy, at night, 'tis a killer."
--Spanish proverb

"Lemon juice, juice of perdition."
--Spanish proverb

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Love is Love and other matters

I just can't fit enough of these songs onto my mixes, so I felt like I should post the entire compilation here. It's called Love Is Love and the 12" is available on Dusty Groove. The music is from a wide variety of African countries, recorded at various times between the 50s and the early 70s. It's definitely up there with my desert island albums. THIS is the music. (and you can download it here)

In other news:
1. This is fairly amazing and conceptually mind blowing to me, but the president of the Maldives and 13 other politicians held a cabinet meeting 11.5 feet underwater, at the bottom of a lagoon in the Indian Ocean. They trained for two months and used hand signals and white boards as a means to communicate. Being the world's lowest-lying nation on the planet, they have day and night concerns about climate change. If the ocean rises a matter of inches their country will become uninhabitable and, hence, cease to exist. What interests me is that because the people of the Maldives don't have the riches or the global power to make their voices heard by conventional means, they have to rely on human ingenuinity and cleverness. What could easily otherwise be a conceptual art project is instead a practical means of gaining international acknowledgement of their country's situation.
more here

2. In France, the mayors of two towns in the suburbs of Paris helped make a road that leads only into itself. The mayor of one town is conservative and the mayor of the other town is Socialist. The mayor of one town decided that there was far too much traffic coming through his town because of commuters, so he made the road a one-way street pouring into the neighboring town. The neighboring town's mayor, being of a conflicting political ideology, made his part of the road another one way street, but going back the opposite direction. So while two politicians were battling and making decisions based on their intangible ideological conflicts, they were sending motorists on a dead on course towards very tangible, head on collisions. Why is it that real news is sounding more and more like cartoons?
more here

3. And lastly, my friend Kevin just turned me on to the idea of Jenkem. A few years ago there were several reports that children in an extremely impoverished area of Zambia, some of them AIDS orphans, collect raw sewage from the open sewers and let it ferment in bottles before inhaling its fumes for mind numbing, euphoric and hallucinatory effects. Apparently the idea of American teenagers huffing poop got over to Fox News et. al. The idea that this news segment not only exists but was actually aired on network television is so baffling by itself that I'm not sure I can even write anything about it. What I can say is that I think I'm going to start using Jenkem as a nice slang term to encompass things that occur that are so ridiculous and filled with obvious contradictions and fabrications. Like a large part of American politics: "That shit is so jenkem!"

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The next aleatoric photo session

I finally got around to editing and putting a grid together for the second photo game of chance: the color game. This time I rolled for the amount of time I'd walk around before making a photograph and then rolled two dice to decide what color would be the focus of that image.

Start: Taebaek market
End: Lindsey’s place

1=walk for 30 sec, then make a photograph
2=walk for 1 min, then make a photograph
3=walk for 1 min 30 sec
4=walk for 2 min
5=walk for 2 min 30 sec
6=walk for 3 min

Roll two dice for color

2=frame an image with as many different colors as possible
8=purple or pink
9=brown or tan
10=white or gray
12=frame an image with as many different colors as possible

Results & remarks: Last time I noticed myself being broken down a bit by paying attention to all the confused and suspicious looks I was getting. I knew that it had prevented me from making some photographs I had really wanted to, and I’m never quite sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing to be that sensitive to my surroundings while I’m photographing. This time around, largely to avoid being deterred by the multitude of stares I know I’d receive, I went out with my ipod and walked around making photographs while listening to a rad mix. I was making an image of these beautiful colors the peeling cracking paint had made on a wooden door. This old man came out of nowhere and started asking me angrily and suspiciously in Korean what I was doing. The smell of soju on his breath was distinct. I told him I was making pictures, and that seemed to make him more upset. I could only understand a little of what he was saying, but he lived right next door, and it seemed he knew the owner of whoever lived behind the door I was photographing, and he kept trying to open it. At first I just kept telling him in Korean that I didn’t understand. This is one of the great fall-backs that I’m allowed by living in a foreign country: I can always pretend I don’t know what people are saying. This behavior has a great history of getting me out of a lot of trouble or awkward situations when people or authority figures just don’t feel like spending the time to deal with the language barrier. But this time, it just seemed to have the opposite effect, as it became apparent that he was undeterred. So I told him, in the best broken Korean I had, that Taebaek was where I lived, and I was making a photography book so my family and friends could see this place because they missed me. I told him that the door was beautiful. I started naming off all the colors on the door to fill in the gaps in my Korean, and told him that the pink and yellow and white were beautiful too. I told him that I thought this place was beautiful and all places around here were beautiful. At that point he cut me off, put his hand over his heart and told me he was deeply sorry in both Korean and English, over and over again. He grabbed my hand, and walked me over to his house. So then I was sitting on the floor with this old man in his kitchen, and I realized he lived in a Buddhist dwelling. There was the Buddhist sign on the front and a prayer room in the next room. We were sitting by the animal food. He said a lot, and I felt bad I could understand almost nothing, except that he wanted to know if I’d eaten lunch. And I had had cold buckwheat noodles an hour earlier, so I didn’t join him, even though I wanted to. But I would have been late for frisbee later.

I thought it was a total shift, where last time I was under the impression that photography had put a distance between me and the place I lived, this time it brought me closer. At least, if I hadn’t looked completely ridiculous to that old man by taking a picture of a disintegrating door, he probably would have never interacted with me.

Also, I kept rolling blue over and over again for a while.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Business is better now because of the Nats

The music above is from a compilation called "Music of Nat Pwe". It is from spiritually driven festivals that are a tradition in Burma (Myanmar). These rituals stem from belief systems that were in place long before Buddhism was introduced to the country.

In Burma (Myanmar), the spirits of those who died tragically or led great lives before passing are roaming wildly, and it takes the madly escaping energy of those playing music and those fully submitting to this music in trance states to appease these spirits. The spirits are called Nats. The music is jarring at first. The music is pummeling and cacophonous in an unconscious and organized fashion, and it's so easy to get into, and I can understand how people can be taken over by it.

The music makes me think of the sound that spiritually infused carbonation would make if it was flowed through people brandishing instruments. It simply kills me how much life there is in it.

This music also makes me think a lot about the shot at the beginning of the documentary (below) of the mirror that is swinging left and right, that my mind kept telling me was a swiftly panning shot of the crowd, even though I was fully aware that it was just the reflection in motion, swinging back and forth, and not the camera, which was generally still. A strong and simple tension between movement and stillness that is simply always present. And this tension between movement and stillness is the foundation of all music. The still space between sound and vibration encapsulates a particular music's character -- the still space defines it. It makes me think a lot about sparse minimalist music and experimental music where they were playing with the notion of what even defines music. For instance, if you play one, unceasing tone for half and hour that never changes pitch or volume, could that even be considered music? Although if we focused on and listened to a single unceasing tone for half an hour, our flawed human perception alone would fool us into thinking that the tone would go through changes of intensity and character. This would argue perhaps that the exquisite flaws in our own sensory mechanisms have a big part in what defines music from ambient noise.

Repetition, also: The same short musical phrase repeated over and over again until it's character is changed, again only by our perception would provoke the question of whether it could be considered music (or torture for some, probably).

But in reality, at least for me, I think all these questions were answered long ago by musical pioneers delving into these same ideas: if you really think about it, there is no separation from every sound you hear around you right now and all the music recorded in some form or being played live right now somewhere. It is only our focus and attention that makes one music and leaves one as ambient background noise. Different groups of humans or individuals are the only ones that can draw the defining line. The steadily deadening eardrums of noise-core enthusiasts from willingly lining up year after year to be sonically punished by musicians on stage blasting amped power tools and the like are proof enough of that alone.

Conclusion: music is better now because of the Nats.