Reading Response: Oreskes & Conway, Kolbert

Musings on Enter The Anthropocene -Age of Man by Elizabeth Kolbert, and The Downfall of Western Civilization by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. 

Fatalistic

Extinctions are now happening at a rate hundreds to thousands of times higher than during most of the last half a billion years. If current trends continue, the rate may soon be tens of thousands of times highter. This is not a quote taken from Oreskes & Conways fictitious dystopian history The Downfall of Western Civilization, but rather a quote taken from Elizabeth Kolbert’s academic article Enter the Anthropocene from geologicnow.com. In reading this article I was consistently struck by how the real life facts were often as bad if not worse than the “facts” presented in Downfall.

Time Shift

Re-educating myself with geologic eras, periods et al also reiterated the gravity of the emerging Anthropocene. That it is a contemporary emergence is an obvious and frightening paradigm shift. My fear, echoed by others much more eloquently is: If we are able to identify the entry of the Anthropocene, is it already too late? Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen says “What I hope…is that the term ‘Anthropocene’ will be a warning to the world.” This causes me to question the effectiveness of the term ‘anthropocene’. It is sterile, almost euphamistic. Maybe part of our social responsibility is figuring out how to bridge the gap between antiseptic scientific language and human emotion.

Irony

The things that might be most indicative of our causal relationship with climate change are the things that will leave the smallest, least traceable things behind. “From a geological perspective, the most plainly visible human effects on the landscape may in some ways be the most transient” says British stratigrapher Jan Zalasiewicz. This is echoed by Kolbert who says “Future geologists are more likely to grasp the scale of 21st century industrial agriculture from the pollen record -from the monochrome patches of corn, wheat, and soy pollen that will have replaced the varied record left behind by rainforests or prairies.” This made me realize that in all likelihood the geologic records we have now that we use to piece together our earth’s history showcase only the slightest bit of historic phenomena. It is alarming to be reminded that our legacy will almost certainly not be a full record of our rise and fall.

Additional

-I have never heard of the profession Stratigrapher before. It sounds like a daunting job.

-I was alarmed that Enter the Anthropocene was written in 2011 and that the world’s population was only 7 billion at the time, with no mention made of it approaching 8 billion, even though that’s what the current global population is. I wonder if this is symptomatic of rapid population increase, as also mentioned in Kolbert’s article? This seems to be the start of some sort of “great acceleration”.

Collective Narrative: Capturing The (Un)Dead & Why It’s Not Weird

A selected family portrait from Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America, currently at The American Folk Art Museum.

In a world where everyone walks around with his thumb in his mouth, we don’t need to explain why a given individual has his thumb in his mouth. In a world where no one does this…we must explain why a given individual does have his thumb in his mouth.

-Roger Schank, Tell Me A Story: Narrative and Intelligence 

A photograph of a photographer manipulating a corpse in order to capture it in a “lifelike” state. Note the head brace.

Posthumous portraiture reached its heyday within…the “cult of domesticity.” In this familial structure, children came to be regarded as temporary gifts who returned to their first and better home in death.

-The American Folk Art Museum, Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America

A posthumous daguerréotype of a young child with their toy drum.
Gravestone for Samuel Bradbury, Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America at The American Folk Art Museum. A finger pointing upward symbolizes a path to heaven.

PROCEDURE

The current exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum is curiously titled “Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America.” The collection largely consists of the portraits painted to preserve members of dead family members alongside their still living relatives, in mid-19th century America. This was a relatively normal, and fairly aspirational procedure for most families. These portraits became the last living remnant of what many families came to expect as normal death at a young age.

SYMBOLISM & COLLECTIVE NARRATIVE

As this procedure spread, the symbolism that came to be represented in the painted portraits flourished, to the extent that any who saw the portraits would be able to identify which of its subjects were alive or dead, in some cases how the child (or adult) died, and precisely what the symbols stood for. This easily recognized “cult of domesticity” became a narrative of its own -entirely normal and even aspirational.

NORMALCY

After the painted portrait came the daguerreotype, which, because of its ability to capture any image with such precision, became almost immediately popular. With the new technology came a new set of necessary skills, most of which are described unflinchingly throughout the exhibition. Methods include propping eyeballs open with teaspoons and draining corpses of their liquids, and manipulating the limbs of corpses as they were held by grieving mothers. This was not a job for the scientist as one might suspect, but rather the responsibility for the portrait taker himself. The ability to so unflinchingly describe, and even recommend (“Use teaspoons for their eyeballs! It really works!) these methods can be forgiven with the context of the time, one where the ephemeral nature of life, the widespread belief in a heavenly God, the mournfulness of the family and the need for commemoration converge.

The Hourly Comic: All You Need Is Context

Exercise:  Following the Hourly Comic format, pick one day of the week and document every hour of it. Documentation might be done with drawing, photography, collage, sound, text, or any combination thereof. At the end of the hour, take a moment to reflect upon what happened.

Keel’s Simple Diary Volume One, in cherry red.

One day several years ago when I was feeling particularly ambitious about record-keeping and preserving my own memories, I purchased a Keel’s Simple Diary from the Taschen store on Green Street. I had never been particularly good at following through with diary-keeping and, despite the “simple prompt” format of the Keel’s diary, this was no exception. After approximately three months of fastidious diary entry, the exercise lost its luster and I was done.

Daily prompts from my Keel’s Simple Diary, that I was never able to maintain.

For the purpose of this exercise, I decided to resurrect my long-forgotten diary for a more frequent experience. My Hourly Comic would record the following:

  1. A page of prompts (normally meant to summarize a whole day) from my new old Keel’s diary.
  2. An answer to the question, “If you had to define your hour by one color, what would that color be?
  3. Two photos; one taken of myself, and one taken of whatever was directly in front of me.

Below is a complete (ie, fulfills the above criteria) record of my waking hours on Wednesday, January 25th 2017.

Hour 1

Hour 2

Hour 3

Hour 4

Hour 5

Hour 6

 

Hour 7

Hour 8

Hour 9

Hour 10

Hour 11

Hour 12


Hour 13

Hour 14

Hour 15

Hour 16

Hour 17

Findings:

EGO  The most prominent finding, I’m embarrassed to admit, was that I absolutely made decisions based on the fact that I’d be documenting them. I’m not saying that my behavior changed completely -all of my actions were essentially predetermined outside of the exercise- but if I needed that extra push to go to the gym, knowing that I would be displaying my life to at least three of my classmates was enough to push me to not go home and be a lazy fuck and watch Netflix on my couch while chowing down on Cheetos or some other delicious thing I’m not supposed to like.

VANITY Most days aren’t dress and lipstick days for me. At least not anymore. Incidentally a day that I knew I’d be photographing myself I made damn sure I had makeup on.

EYEBROWS But seriously, what’s happening with my eyebrows.

SHAME Or, lack thereof. There was essentially no situation in which I wasn’t comfortable taking a photo of myself or what was in front of me. Even the ladies locker room at Equinox. Even at a protest that was about something much more important than my need for a selfie. I’m interested in what this says about the roll technology has taken in our life, and how it has whittled away at “appropriate behavior.” Talking to no one in particular while walking down the street is strange, until you get close enough to that “strange” person to realize they have a headset in and are talking wirelessly on their phone. Walking down the street with a “thumb in [your] mouth”, as Roger Schank notes in Tell Me A Story: Narrative and Intelligence is strange only until you are in a world where “everyone walks around with his thumb in his mouth”. Photographing oneself as a means of documentation; relentlessly capturing the world around us, is as un strange as we make it; increasingly less bizarre and directly proportionate with the amount of time we spend doing it. Constant narrative is the new normal, and excuses even the most shameless behavior. All you need is context.

Part Of Our World: Cinderella/Cendrillion/Aschenputtel/Cenerentola And Other Familiar Faces From Stories We Know And Love

Exercise: Meditate on the importance of Fairy Tales, their cultural significance, and why they’ve been around so long, with particular focus on Cinderella. Select a version of Cinderella and note its differences or similarities to the version with which we are acquainted. What themes correlate and what are different? Why was this version chosen? Finally, create a version of a Fairy Tale of my choice. Make significant changes in time, location and characters. 

Raisel’s Riddle

I chose the Polish Version of Cinderella, also known as Raisel’s Riddle.

Raise ain’t no dummy -and she doesn’t want to be wed to one, either.

Via: Set in a Polish village, Raisel’s Riddle is a Jewish retelling that focuses on a smart, motivated heroine and a hero (the rabbi’s son) who is drawn to wisdom and virtue. 

Raised by her poor but wise grandfather, Raisel grows up a strong, independent girl. After his passing, she finds work in the kitchen of a rabbi. On Purim, she gains three wishes and, after using them wisely, catches the eye of the rabbi’s son. Unlike the classic Cinderella character, Raisel agrees to marry him only if he can answer her clever, thought-provoking riddle. 

Similarities to Cinderella

On the most basic level, the motivation for the plot remains the same. The ultimate goal of our heroine is to gain love. She is orphaned, and a set of unfortunate circumstances befall her. She is guided by the morals instilled upon her by now-deceased relatives; she is rewarded for her virtue by ultimately achieving that goal.

Differences

What drew me to this particular version of Cinderella is that the heroine is given agency of her decision -she is the one holding the keys to the kingdom, in a sense. The second, and most attractive part of this story to me is that Raisel is valued for being intelligent -and she seeks this intelligence in others.

It is not often that we see heroes, in particular female heroes, being rewarded for their intelligence. In fact, it is often quite the opposite. Female Fairy Tale protagonists are often praised for many things -their beauty, their kindness, their ‘gentle souls’, but it is often the clever female that gets demonized. Fairy Tale women are ‘better’ -let’s face it- when they’re just a little bit dumb. They are punished as witches when they are clever.

Raisel is not punished for her intelligence but rewarded. It is a much needed update to a centuries-old tale.

Part Of My World

The principles that attracted me to Raisel’s Riddle are the same that I hoped to emulate when concocting an updated version of The Little Mermaid.

In the best known (or at least Western) version of the tale, Ariel, a young, beautiful, headstrong but kinda dumb mermaid princess falls in love with a handsome, brave, kinda dumb human prince named Eric. In order to find Eric, Ariel literally agrees to undergo what sounds like the most painful whole-body conversion one could experience, all to win over her Man That Can’t Swim. And to pay Ursula, our wicked sorceress (who frankly is just a woman who’s been burned by the system one too many times) for this “kindness” Ariel gives up her “best feature”, her beautiful sing-song voice.

Ariel -young, beautiful, headstrong and kinda dumb.

Challenges aside, our heroine is determined to achieve the ultimate gift -gettin’ Prince Gobldywhosit to fall in love with her by sunset on the third day of their acquaintance which -goals. If she does they can play snarflats and dinglehoppers forever on a boat with a crazy French personal chef.

All French chefs are like this.

Now, there are some proto-feminist undercurrents (hee hee) in the most recent Disney version of The Little Mermaid. Ariel saves Eric when his ship capsizes during a storm. She sings him awake which is also pretty fly. And when she turns back into a mermaid (which -again- why would you ever want to turn OUT of a mermaid) she saves him again because she’s a better swimmer. (All this after he ditches her for evil Vanessa/Ursula the sea witch who is clearly the worst but is very pretty). But ULTIMATELY Ariel still chooses to become a human lady in order to be with Prince Brickbrain happily ever after -god forbid HE change for HER, youknowwhatimean? AND the person that grants Ariel the ability -and lets even say permission, to become a human lady once more? Her father. UGH.

The Little Mermaid, Reimagined

Because this version is so…much, I found myself wanting to satirize the shit out of it in my revision. And what better way to satirize a Fairy Tale than to convert it into a RomCom, the tropiest of tropes. Below, character descriptions and basic setting details.

  • Setting -Present day. Ariel is a mid-level executive at an NGO that works in environmental preservation and is particularly concerned with preserving the world’s oceans. She is distracted from the pressing issues of her career, because BOYS! She just loves boys. She’s also a member of a band and sings on the weekends.
  • Conflict -Ariel has a crush on one of the dudes that works at a bank across the street. Ideologically this poses some conflict.
  • Posse -None of Ariel’s friends -especially her bandmates- understand why the hell she’s so obsessed with a brodouche who is seems to be less than concerned about the negative implications his job/livelihood have on the world. They also suspect he’s a Trump supporter.
  • Father figure -Ariel’s dad is a republican of an older generation. He doesn’t get Ariel’s obsession with this guy either. Ariel’s dad inexplicably has an influence over his daughter’s actions.
  • Female antagonist -Ariel has a colleague at the NGO who has been bypassed for promotions year after year, even though she has deserved them. She is shaken by the openness of fourth wave feminists, and confused by their many contradictions. She is particularly confused by Ariel who appears to have a very nice life, and wants to compromise her ideologies for the sake of finding a man. Who needs a man that wants you to change? That’s not the right man.
  • Comic relief -Ariel has a stylist, a hairdresser and a colorist who provide her council. They love her, but they are all a bit irritated by Ariel’s persistent denseness.
  • Plot -Ariel goes on a series of dates with E from the bank. Her hairdresser, stylist and colorist provide her with opposing counsel on each occasion, all suggesting that she adjust some aspect of her personality in order to better please E, who seems to never really take interest in Ariel. After he misses one of her performances that she really, really wanted him to go to, she cries herself hoarse. At the office the next week, Ursula, the second wave colleague, offers some unsolicited but sound advice: Focus on your career. Be yourself. You will be fine. Ariel introduces Ursula to her ornery widowed father. They get married. Ariel finally has the strong female role model she needs. Ariel ignores E. and saves the worlds oceans. It’s the right choice.

Source materials:

      • Bruno Bettelheim “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales” Introduction
      • Jack Zipes “Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre: Chapter 2: The Evolution and Dissemination of the Classical Fairy Tale and 3: Once Upon a Time – The Relevance of Fairy Tales
      • “Cinderella” from “Transformations” by Anne Sexton
      • “The Stepsisters” from “Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses” by Ron Curettage

Words That Stick

Statement Of Purpose

Words That Stick is an interactive performance piece that comments on the unique and misogynistic lexicon that has been cultivated specifically to target women, and the ways in which we might be complicit. The piece explores the violent and prohibitive effect this lexicon has on women’s often marginalized or reduced role in society. Drawing from personal and shared experiences, Lindsey and Oriana hope to portray both the damaging effects of these words on the female psyche and the ways in which words might also empower and activate a solution.

Interactivity

  • The wearable suit is wired to a control panel that activates the neopixels sewn to the wearable.
  • The control panel is divided into quadrants, that are mapped to different portions of a wearable suit’s body (left arm/right arm/left leg/right leg).
  • Every time a quadrant’s button is pressed, it changes color, and also triggers a set of media clips to be played.
  • There is a fifth, hidden “clear” button, that triggers a new set of empowering words by iconic women and overrides the rest of the suit’s controls.

Tech Specs

Arduino Uno (to control neopixels & control panel calls using neopixel library in C/C++), P5.js (to store sound clips, serial communication with arduino to trigger sound clips with control panel & coincide with neopixel on/off), fabricated jumpsuit (neopixels, stranded core wire, soldered inputs, screw terminal, hacked ethernet cable w/ 8 in/outputs), fabricated control panel (laser-cut acrylic, pushbutton panel, screws/nuts/neoprene washers & solderless breadboard)

Project Participants

Elizabeth White, Dancer trained in classical ballet for sixteen years at The Academy of dance arts in New Jersey and then went on to continue training in modern and contemporary ballet at Alvin Ailey in New York City for three years. During her time at Ailey, she also pursued a BA in Visual Arts at Fordham University, with a concentration in drawing. Elizabeth is now pursuing her Masters at NYU through ITP. Her work is an exploration of emerging relationships between dance, visual art and technology, with a focus on performance and installation art.

Lindsey Piscitell & Oriana Neidecker, Producers are MPS candidates at NYU’s Tisch School Of The Arts/ Interactive Telecommunications Program. Lindsey graduated magna cum laude with a BA in English & American literature and a double minor in creative writing and urban design from NYU’s College of Arts & Sciences. Oriana graduated cum lade with a  BA from NYU’s College of Arts & Sciences with a major in Psychology and a minor in business.

Credits

Dancer -Elizabeth White

Producers -Lindsey Piscitell, Oriana Neidecker

Music “We Insist” by Zoe Keating.

Camera A -Christina Elizabeth Hall

Camera B -Grant Henry

Source material list here.

Photographers -Christina Elizabeth Hall, Lindsey Piscitell