still cool

17 11 2008

Things That Will Never Ever Ever No Matter What Be Uncool (a list which is important because if you ever think that these things are coming into fashion for the first time you should understand now that you are wrong):





guns, horns

10 11 2008

I work at a high school in the Recovery School District in New Orleans. I love my job, for the most part, but I am every day emotionally stretched thin by how quickly my students have had to grow up. There is a boy who sits in the Academic Resource Room with me during my planning period and quietly browses New Orleans murder blogs. You can’t get him to go to class. We’ve called in disciplinarians, other teachers, his parents, you name it, but he always comes back, privately researching real-time death. When I asked him about it — why he looks at these every day, what he is trying to find — he told me that he was looking for the names or stories of friends he’d lost in gang incidents or battles of ambiguous turf. And I thought, “No wonder you don’t want to go to class.”

And that’s pretty typical. All the students here have lost someone too early. Drugs, fighting, Katrina, you name it. But mostly, the stories you hear are about guns.

New Orleans is gun-happy. Before I moved here I had never actually seen a gun — even when I went to the homes of proud hunters. In Portland, having an automatic is like having a zombie locked up in your basement: so ludicrously dangerous it’s absurd. But now I’ve seen several. They’re on peoples’ shelves in their homes; they’re in the passenger seats of cars; people take them everywhere. Guns are treated less like zombies and more like precious babies.

Any time a gun is mentioned in a piece of literature or in a movie at school, my students are quick to call out factual inconsistencies (“He’s shooting that wrong; a semi-automatic is always a double-action only”) — but they’ll believe you if you tell them 2 + 2 is 5. Gun toting is a rite of passage. Forget buying porn and cigarettes (or registering to vote) — your eighteenth birthday is marked by your first legal gun purchase in the state of Louisiana.

There was a brief period following Hurricane Katrina when the city tried to disarm the entire population. You can imagine how well that went over with 2nd Amendment activists. Here, you don’t need a permit to purchase a weapon (although you do need one to carry it in public).

As the number gunshot homicides creeps up every day, I find myself scared to walk around at night — something I’ve never been before. I find myself terrified to answer my phone when another teacher is calling because I don’t want it to be bad news. I can’t imagine what it’s like for the kids who have to live through it every day. But still, no one seems to want to change the law. Kids and adults I talk to argue passionately that they need firearms to protect themselves. “If someone came into my house and tried to get at my family, I wouldn’t want to be caught without a gun,” a student told me last Friday as he was leaving school. Doesn’t he see that the lax attitude with which we treat weapons is causing a city-wide warzone?

There’s no obvious solution. But James Morris of the musician’s advocacy group Sweet Home had a thought.

After Katrina, he proposed to provide musical instruments for anyone who would trade in a gun, no questions asked. He knew it would be difficult to implement, but when the NOPD and a bevy of churches signed on, the project was officially green lighted. Dubbed “Horns for Guns,” community members gained interest:

Musicians signed on. Roots of Music founder and drummer Derrick Tabb joined the effort. Tulane medical students volunteered to conduct health screenings and stress tests for adults. Jim Belfon, a local photographer, agreed to take on a dozen or so interested children as students. The group YA/YA (Young Aspirations/Young Artists) offered to provide art instruction to other teenagers who might stop by.

It didn’t really work. The event, which took place last week took in only about a dozen guns, mostly from people who had “extras” lying around their homes.

Still, the notion is romantic. What if, instead of violence, there was music? Art? Revelry? What a world that would be.

But that’s not the world we live in. Since Obama’s election, gun sales have skyrocketed nationwide, as folks fear that the “gun-snatching” elect will pull the trigger on lax laws. Frankly, I think that would be great, but Obama has a lot on his plate, and he’s currently concerned with reaching across the aisle as far as he can in an effort to “unite” the country.

And last night I went to New Orleans’ “Battle of the High School Marching Bands.” It was in City Park. The attendance was 99.99 percent black. Throughout the show, MCs hailed Obama, hailed America, and issued long-winded pleas to end the violence in New Orleans.

Then someone came out with a gun. Everyone started running, like it was to be expected. As I was heading for my car in the shuffle, a little girl (as if on some cliched cue) screamed at her mom, “I DON’T EVER WANT TO GO TO ANOTHER BATTLE OF THE BANDS AGAIN.”





prospect 1

2 11 2008

Yesterday New Orleans unveiled what might be the most amazing art exhibit the United States has ever seen. I know that I’m a bit young and naive to be making this statement, and I’m not even that immersed in the art community. I’m one of those art-posers, you know? I have some art books; I once dated an art major; I like to go to museums casually, so on and so forth; but I don’t subscribe to CMYK Magazine and I have never paid thousands of dollars for a tiny little thing in oil. But I stand by my statement, as enormous as it may seem.

Prospect.1 is a biennial. If you have never heard of an art biennial before, that’s probably because the United States has never really had one — at least, not one like this. A biennial, of course, is any event which is held every two years. So the art exhibit — billed as the largest exhibition of contemporary art ever in the U.S. — will only gain strength in the future.

The map of the event in of itself is amazing. It’s huge. You look at it and you think, “This city is big. And there is art all over it.

In an interview with NPR’s “All Things Considered,” exhibition curator Dan Cameron said that he was disappointed with the way visual artists responded to Hurricane Katrina and he wanted to do something about it. Musicians, writers, filmmakers, poets — everyone, it seemed, but visual artists — responded in some way to the devastation of the storm. So Cameron sought to change all of that in a big way, and Prospect.1 was born. Two years in the making, the exhibition brings together work by more than 80 artists from around the world (including dozens of local creators) to over 100,000 square feet of exhibition space all over the city.

Mostly, though, the work is in the French Quarter (taking over the entire Lousiana Museum at the Mint Building, the Contemporary Arts Center, and a huge chunk of the NOMA), and the Lower Ninth Ward.

Everything about the exhibition is fascinating, from Cameron’s vision to the stories of the artists to the individual stories of the works on display. But what struck me about Prospect 1 more than anything else was how deeply unpretentious it was. The work is painstakingly created; it is meticulous and time- and labor-intensive. The themes are all there as you would expect them to be: the corruption of the government, the horror of poverty, the unseen faces of crime, the lost voices of the dead, the tremendous power of nature, the depth of the human heart, etc. etc. etc. But it is all done with an air of selflessness. It is all done without the intention of achieving greatness, but of honoring something deep and solemn. As Cameron put it in an interview with The New York Times:

“It is American, but it’s no longer what we think of as American — it’s drop what you’re doing and go do what your neighbor’s doing.”

In other words, this is the kind of art you can bring your kid to, or your grandmother, or that guy who thinks Picasso and Pissarro are the same person. This is the kind of art that brings people together. It is a little like going to church, but somehow friendlier, and more holy.

That’s why I can say that this is the greatest art exhibit ever to hit the United States. It’s conceptually, contextually, and craftily brilliant.

I thought about writing about the individual works which reached me most deeply, but I realized that would be beyond the point. Prospect.1 is a single work more than it is anything else, and it reminds you why we create in the first place: to explain in some way, shape or form our own humanity.





gray ghost

30 10 2008

If you don’t live in New Orleans, you probably haven’t heard of the ominously-titled “Gray Ghost” — the “city-serving” force who has been covering up graffiti on everything from synagogues to schools to skyscrapers around the city with gray paint without consequence. Really, the Gray Ghost is not just one man, but several who operate under the direction of anti-graffiti activist Fred Radtke to smother all sprayed-on masterpieces with blocky, gray paint.

The first time I heard of the Gray Ghost, he was making headlines by covering up works by the famous British grafitti artist Banksy, who hit up New Orleans around the third anniversary of Katrina. Banksy, it turns out, visited the dirty coast in part to contest The Gray Ghost, of whom he’d heard Atlantic-stretching rumors:

“I came to New Orleans to do battle with the Gray Ghost, a notorious vigilante who’s been systematically painting over any graffiti he can find with the same shade of grey paint since 1997. Consequently he’s done more damage to the culture of the city than any section five hurricane could ever hope to achieve.”

A work by Banksy targeting Radtke

Banksy’s creations, by the way, were often worth more than the dilapitated buildings he scrawled them on. But whether he had knowledge of the war waged against him or not, graffiti is graffiti, and within days the Gray Ghost had unceremoniously dethrowned Banksy, to the chagrin of art-lovers across the city.

But this week the Gray Ghost finally went too far, when two men (including Radtke) painted over a beautiful, enormous graffiti-inspired wall mural created just a few days prior, commissioned by the wall’s owner. And finally, the man who spent the last several years committing a “public service” by masking colorful tags across New Orleans was put behind bars.

Radtke faces 90 days in jail, or a $500 fine, which is really nothing. And still, anti-graffiti activists are livid.

Mostly, it’s agreed that no one wants gang-related graffiti around. Mostly, people support the NOPD’s blind eye to the anti-graffiti activists who make their statement in covering up others’. Obviously, tagging is illegal. We don’t like it when other people deface our property, or property that belongs to the city.

I am not a student of this school of thought.

Regardless of your opinion on graffiti, I have to ask: how is gray paint any better? Gray paint doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t make property look any better, and it doesn’t end the gang activity it attempts to cover up. Really, the gray paint is perfectly symbolic of what this city tries to do too often: haphazardly cover up problems that are too big to eliminate in one fell swoop.

I don’t understand why you would spend time and energy being an anti-graffiti activist when there are so many things worth fighting for here.

So I’m glad the police finally did something about Radtke. Art comes in too many shapes and forms to ever be obvious, and we can’t treat all graffiti like it is the same. Some say that there are street art is among the greatest art of our time, and I’m among them.

Children are bringing guns to school; people are waiting hours for food stamps; the murder rate in New Orleans is the highest per capita in the country. For all the intensely beautiful and unique things this city offers, there are corners here that are so dark we don’t even dare talk about them. Gray paint is not a civil service; it’s a waste of time, and what’s more, it masks some of the most muffled voices from a city crying out.





old news

18 10 2008

On Xark! this week, eloquent media blogger Dan wrote what I think is the best article yet as to why the business of metro newspaperin’ is soon to be obsolete.

I remember attending convention after convention in the wake of the brand new brand of journalism: The Weblog. Frantic press junkies asked the same question over and over again: will The Newspaper as we know it die?

At the time, the answer was a resounding no. Popular politics blogs like The Daily Kos and The Huffington Post didn’t give readers everything they wanted, said experts, and besides, what can replace the feeling of holding a newspaper in your hands?

But they were wrong, and the newspaper is today being all-out slaughtered by online media. At first, I was grief-stricken over this reality, as I’m that staunch subscriber who won’t give up her morning-paper-and-a-cup-of-coffee routine without at least a small fight. But it didn’t take long before I, too, saw the potential in the reinvention of news media as a powerful online force which could provide accessibility to more people, and painstakingly updated to-the-minute briefs on What’s Happening Now. NYT.com, Homepage to so many of us, is a perfect example. The New York Times has truly perfected what it means for a newspaper to make the trek from tangible to technical, and for that they deserve all the credit in the world.

But Dan is right: almost everyone else has failed. And when Spokane’s The Spokesman Review announced they would shave off 27 jobs last week, it was only more concrete evidence of the start of a mass extinction that began a few years ago.

The points I particularly liked in Dan’s article are these:

Newspapers’ core audience still doesn’t want change, but they’re aging and they like a product that nobody else wants. The newspaper dilemma: Change the product in hopes of attracting new readers and you piss off your loyal core. Do nothing and you’ll watch your circulation drop every day on the obituary page. All too often, newspaper management responds by promoting bizarre changes that don’t attract new customers and alienate existing ones.

It should be simple: Keep your printed paper in low circulation and let it remain a classic broadside with all the expected sections. Then get someone young and hip to design a Web site that combines the simplicity of Apple or Clinique (lots of black-on-white, sans serif, spaced out founds) with the tech-savvy of Slate or Gawker. But noooo.

No budget for research, development or training means most newspapers can’t see what’s coming, don’t have the necessary tools for survival and couldn’t use those new tools effectively anyway (Hey news executives! Try this newsroom pop quiz: Give each staff member a pencil and tell everyone to stop what they’re doing and write out the tag that creates a hypertext link. If most can’t, you’re not spending enough on training. If anyone in your management team can’t, you’ve got a crisis). It’s also a sign of a dirty little secret: Many papers gave up on staff development several rounds of budget cuts ago.

At the two metro papers I worked at, I was never trained at all. In fact, my Adobe “expertise” and knowledge of this cryptic CSS Code we hear so much about was treated like a godly gift.

Newspapers don’t “own” enough creative technological expertise (programmers, database/mashup designers, XHTML/CSS coders, video editors, Flash animators, graphic communicators, etc) to constitute a viable tech infrastructure. Instead, most newspaper payrolls are bloated with pluralities of resentful Luddites who struggle with the complexities of e-mail.

See above.

Newspapers have already lost one of their key selling points: Social currency. In 2008, all meaningful political discourse — the essential element of social currency — takes place on the Web. Print (and televised) political coverage is now but a pale shadow of the real action online.

During the presidential debates I was wired into six separate political blogs who were each live-blogging the event as it went. By the time the editorials and newspaper articles came out the next day it all felt redundant. So instead of finding new angles (or, I don’t know, live-blogging on their own news sites), everyone decided to research Joe the Plumber.

Newspaper companies hate modern journalism. Yes, that’s an enormously over-broad tarbrush, but this is a message I want to deliver via 2×4: Newspapers companies will not survive the transition to the multimedia future so long as the people within those companies oppose the rules, conventions and culture of that future. You’ll never successfully reinvent your company if you’re punishing the innovators, killing the messengers, rewarding the political infighters and sneering down your noses at the “pajamas-clad rabble” you blame for your troubles.

Thanks for calling it out, Dan. I agree whole-heartedly.

The one thing I disagree with Dan about is that I think that newspapers tend to understand that this Web transition is happening, but they don’t really know what to do about it. New Orleans, for instance, has a deeply relevant (and comparatively successful) local paper. It’s a money-maker because New Orleans has such unique and pertinent local news that most locals can’t get all their information from the national dailies. And yet The Times Picayune, for all it has going for it, doesn’t have its own Web site. They think it’s trendier and hipper to combine their Web news with Nola.com (terribly difficult to navigate and visually unstimulating) because it appeals to the U.S.A. Today FULL COLOR CUT-OUTS! sensibility. It appears to be flashy and all-encompassing, but the site is truly just a sad reflection of how an out-of-touch forty-something with cursory HTML skills perceives the MySpace generation.

And The Times Picayune isn’t the only paper who does it. My home newspaper, The Oregonian (which has been drastically losing revenue for years) links its readers to OregonLive.com. Boooo.

I don’t think adults realize that the Web can be a classy place. It doesn’t have to be garish or awkward and overachieving. It can give us information without blinking avatars or colored hyperlinks. Successful news blogs today are just as careful with their design (if not more so) than the most award-winning works in print journalism have ever been.

The danger in letting the metro newspaper die is that such a massacre will allow the issues of accountability and objectivity to become relatively irrelevant. Fact-checking will become an afterthought at best, and reliable sources will grow more and more questionable. We need good, solid news groups to ensure that journalism remains fair and balanced; if the twenty-somethings with neon blogs earn more readership than, say, the Seattle Times, we will all be at risk of turning into the blind leading the blind off cliffs of untruth.





briefly

19 09 2008

If you’ve been skipping the New York Times lately because you find the economic crisis either too depressing or (let’s just face it) too confusing, I’d like to point you to a happy piece from yesterday’s paper which I found valuable:

It’s straight-up good news: Congress is ready to pass a non-controversial civil rights bill which will extend rights for people with disabilities. This is actually huge bill, and Republicans and Democrats agree that it’s about time. The bill attempts to remedy the problem Tom Harkin aptly describes like this:

“The Supreme Court decisions have led to a supreme absurdity, a Catch-22 situation. The more successful a person is at coping with a disability, the more likely it is the court will find that they are no longer disabled and therefore no longer covered under the A.D.A.”

This new bill would protect the rights of people who are suffering from disabilities, even if they take medication to quell their ailment, or are successfully holding their problems at bay.

Nothing to complain about here. I’m thrilled about this development; I’ve been following this bill for a while now and I’m glad it’s finally made it to the table.





houseless, homeless

18 09 2008

I remember once in high school I went to Coaltion for the Homeless event in Portland and there was one of those motivational speeches before the event began where a man — a “homeless” man — said, “We are not homeless — we’re houseless!” I really liked that at the time. Portland is all about Dignity Village and hippie communities and stuff like that, and I was totally into this concept that you could choose to be homeless (or “houseless”), or you could really respect yourself and your lifestyle as a homeless person.

But homelessness doesn’t exist in Portland the way it exists here.

While a steadily increasing number of homeless adults seek shelter in Portland, newspapers all over the country spout horror stories of homelessness in New Orleans, where everything from anti-camping laws to multi-family housing limitations have been considered in an attempt to sweep away this glaring blight.

The thing is, homelessness here wears a lot of different faces. Common, of course, are the kids who live six or seven to two-bedroom apartment, or entire families who motel-hop or sleep in cars, all technically off the street, but far from having a home.

So I’m really torn about yesterday’s article in The New York Times about the Congressional considerations being made to redefine what it means to be homeless:

For more than 20 years, federal housing law has counted as homeless only people living on the streets or in shelters. But now the House and the Senate are considering an expansion of the definition to include people precariously housed: those doubled up with friends or relatives or living day to day in motels, with money and options running out.

Sounds good.

Except that there’s no funding for that kind of expansion. Services for the homeless are drastically underfunded as it is, and if you were to add the several hundred thousand more who would be eligible for government funding under this expansion, the already sparse dollars would be spread far too thin.

Capitol Hill knows it, but they also know that the expansion looks good on paper. It seems like a bill advocating to give to more people, but it ends up being too little for too many.

Still, I wonder if this kind of expansion might raise some kind of newfound awareness. So few of us realize that about 700,000 people currently live in shelters or on the streets on any given day, but federal dollars finance only 170,000 beds. Perhaps this kind of overstretching is the only way to alter government spending to accommodate more social services? Kind of like a little bit of evil to stir up the water enough to bring about some good?

Anyway, it’s worth taking into consideration. And read up on the most current statistics about homelessness. Voting season so fast approaches…