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lynch
David Lynch (Justin Stephens for the New York Times)

Deborah Solomon: Let’s start by contemplating the current fascination with the small screen.

David Lynch: That’s a terrible subject. There’s nothing like the big screen. The cinema is really built for the big screen and big sound, so that a person can go into another world and have an experience. As an example, there’s Stanley Kubrick’s “2001:A Space Odyssey” — this would be kind of a pathetic joke on a little screen.

DS: How do you feel about someone watching your films — “Eraserhead,” “Blue Velvet,” “Mulholland Drive” — on a laptop?

DL: More and more people are seeing the films on computers — lousy sound, lousy picture — and they think they’ve seen the film, but they really haven’t.

DS: Because the small screen emphasizes plot over visuals?

DL: It’s a pathetic horror story.

DS: On the other hand, you do appear on countless computer screens every day, giving a weather report from your home in Los Angeles, on your Web site.

DL: People are kind of interested in weather. It’s not artistic. It’s just me sitting there in my painting studio.

DS: Who films you?

DL: It’s a camera that comes down out of the ceiling.

DS: I hear you’re starting an online series on transcendental meditation, based on your book “Catching the Big Fish.” Is the small screen a good format for discussing meditation?

DL: Any format is a good format for meditation. Every single person has within an ocean of pure vibrant consciousness. Every single human being can experience that — infinite intelligence, infinite creativity, infinite happiness, infinite energy, infinite dynamic peace.

DS: Tell us about your foundation.

DL: The David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace — we raise money to give meditation to any student or school. There is a huge waiting list.

DS: As a devotee of cultivated bliss, how do you explain the proclivity for twisted eroticism and dismembered body parts in your films?

DL: A filmmaker doesn’t have to suffer to show suffering. You just have to understand it. You don’t have to die to shoot a death scene.

DS: Do you see yourself as an American Surrealist?

DL: Dennis Hopper called me that, and that is the way he sees it. It’s more than just Surrealism to me.

DS: I think of you as someone who transported the noir sensibility from the city into a Norman Rockwell setting. What do you think of his paintings?

DL: I love his work. It’s like Edward Hopper. They see a certain thing, and they catch it.

DS: What is that clock you’re holding in this photograph?

DL: I just didn’t want to stand there like an idiot. It’s an old clock, but I am building this plastic bubble around it.

DS: Is it a sculpture?

DL: In a way it is. You mentioned Surrealism, and time was very important to the Surrealists.

DS: But Dali painted melting clocks, and yours isn’t melting, is it?

DL: It’s not melting, no. But part of it is made of polyester resin, which at one time was liquid.

Deborah Solomon
New York Times

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Last night, I found myself suppressing a small panic at a pointless sunset. Nice sunsets always make me jittery: They seem like such rare things that I’m always possessed of a compulsion to capture them. I bought a gigantic digital camera for just this kind of thing, but there I was on the waterfront without it. So what if the sky’s on fire, if I don’t have 20 photos of it at different exposure settings?

Thank God I had a cellphone camera in my pocket. It kept this particular glory of his creation from being a total write-off.

But now I am struck by the photo malaise that always hits me at the end of summer. As I rifle through the mountain of photos I took, I wonder whether I really need four near-duplicates of each. It’s staggering, really. We live in an age of conspicuous documentation. As digital cameras have proliferated, picture-taking has become compulsive: It is as if people fear that moments won’t exist unless they’ve been reduced to bits.

No transgression goes undocumented, no inebriation goes unpublicized and no child goes un-camcorded. People have always taken care to photograph the streetscapes around them. But now we have urban enthusiasts capturing construction sites from three angles every day, people who just sit on buses with their digital cameras, taking grainy videos out the window as the suburban wasteland rolls by and an electronic voice rhymes off the stop announcements.

It all gets posted to YouTube and stuck on Flickr, filling up giant, remote server farms like the one Google built on a river in Oregon. It’s not just family snaps any more, it’s every square inch of populated turf, every spare moment of carousing, the combined detritus of Facebook friendship, artistic impulse and wish-you-were-here idleness.

The world is so redundantly well-documented, it’s as if you could reconstruct a virtual reality out of it. In fact, that’s exactly what some projects are doing. Microsoft’s remarkable Photosynth project, for instance, stitches photos of the same place taken by different people into one panorama. So if you’ve taken a picture of the Taj Mahal, Photosynth will cross-reference it with all the other pictures people have taken of the Taj Mahal from other angles, and weave them all together into one cohesive scene.

The catch is that the same technology that’s allowed our self-documentation to balloon has made it incredibly fragile. Digital information is notoriously prone to being lost, to physical decay or troubles decoding it as technology advances. As Jeff Rothenberg, a computer scientist, famously said, “Digital information lasts forever, or five years – whichever comes first.” An iPhone is more useful than a clay tablet, but the clay tablet is a handier find in an ancient ruin. (Besides, the contract is better on the clay tablet.)

But it’s not just the apocalypse crowd that need fret. Digital photos present a quandary for preservation-minded folks in the here-and-now. In broad strokes, there are two options for storage: You can store them yourself, or store them online, in what people are increasingly calling “the cloud” – that nebulous world of servers, mostly owned by giants such as Google and Yahoo.

Neither is a perfect option. As most people have learned the hard way, sooner or later, hard drives fail. CDs get scratched and degrade. Laptops get dropped in the pool. Backing up isn’t such an issue if you entrust your digital legacy to the likes of Yahoo’s Flickr or Google’s Picasa, but then you’ve just swapped a high-tech danger for a low-tech one: Companies go bankrupt. They merge, they fail, they change their minds and decide that there’s not as much money in digital storage as there is in eggbeaters.

Yes, paper photos burn in house fires, get carried off by burglars (the dumb kind), get eaten by dogs. As Internet thinker and author Clay Shirky points out, preservation can never be assured for any medium, merely worked at. But it’s easier to safeguard precious objects like photos in boxes and albums. The digital age, on the other hand, has turned memories into commodities that get shipped around in bulk with the care and tenderness of iron ore pellets.

When a person dies, I sometimes think of the memories that die with them. It’s not like we could get at them, but at least a living person can relate what he’s seen. Asked the right questions, those memories could be dug out. But when he dies, they die too, never to be retrieved.

Without really realizing it, we’ve engaged in a great project of memory-making for our civilization. It’s nice to think that, if and when things come to a grinding halt, our records will live on after us. But as we abandon the finite treasures of printed photos for bucket loads of endless digital snaps, our pictures become almost as fleeting as our intangible memories. The more comprehensive our digital world gets, the more likely it is to wink out – just like us.

Sunsets are such fleeting things, and that’s what makes me jumpy. A few minutes of magnificence and it’s over. Years of careful observation tells me that they happen on a regular basis, yet it’s never quite allayed my fear that the one I’m watching will be the last. I still don’t know what the best way to appreciate them is, but compulsive digital photography isn’t it. Quite the opposite of freezing them in time, it takes a fleeting moment, and turns it into something that might vanish faster still.

Ivor Tossell
Globe and Mail

Editor’s Note: This hits very close to home…


Jimi Hendrix at the Marquee Club, London in 1967. Photograph: Herbert P Oczeret/Rex Features

YouTube is best known for its offbeat videos that become viral sensations. But among its millions of clips is a treasure trove of rare and fascinating arts footage, lovingly posted by fans. Ajesh Patalay (of The Guardian) selects 50 of the best.

As the political theater season kicks into full swing in Iowa tonight, I’m struck by the pervasiveness of contrived events — events designed and delivered specifically to be reported on and YouTubed and blogged. Way back in the 1960s, historian Daniel Boorstin labeled these as ”pseudo-events,” voicing concern even then about their impact on our collective experience of community. As Boorstin defined it, a pseudo-event had the following characteristics (from The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America):

1. It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it. Typically, it is not a train wreck or an earthquake, but an interview.

2. It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measured by how widely it is reported…

3. Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. Its interest arises largely from this very ambiguity. Concerning a pseudo-event the question, ‘What does it mean?’ has a new dimension. While the news interest in a train wreck is in what happened and in the real consequences, the interest in an interview is always, in a sense, in whether it really happened and in what might have been the motives. Did the statement really mean what it said? Without some of this ambiguity a pseudo-event cannot be very interesting.

4. Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The hotel’s thirtieth-anniversary celebration, by saying that the hotel is a distinguished institution, actually makes it one.

We can all wring our hands at the fact that pseudo-events now comprise the large majority of our media experiences. But the more compelling question for me (at least for this blog) is how cultural managers should respond to the dominance of false reality. We are, after all, purveyors of contrived content — often meticulously planned, scripted, crafted, practiced, and delivered to exacting standards. What distinguishes our work from the larger social theater of politics, of marketing, of media?

Back in a 2000 essay in the New York Times, playwright Tom Donaghy called this very question for his peers in the live theater. In a world of reality television and ”realness” in the commercial media, what’s the unique and powerful role of live cultural experience? Thankfully, he answered his own question:

[It is theater’s singular power] to contemplate our collective reality; as audience, actor and story engage in an unspoken discussion of what reality is, how definitions of reality can be broadened. Theater affords this opportunity like no other medium, as actors and audiences breathe side by side, together engendering the spiritual and meditative power that that shared experience implies.

In the end, we’re all wielding the same tools to construct the experiences and events we offer to the world. The difference is in the intent and purpose with which we wield them.

Andrew Taylor
The Artful Manager

The “cultural elite” brought up on opera and the higher arts, which supposedly turns up its nose at anything as vulgar as a pop song or mainstream television, does not exist, according to research published by Oxford University academics…

For this exercise, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, they divided people into four groups – univores, who only like popular culture; omnivores, who like everything from opera to soap opera; paucivores, who absorb very little culture; and inactives, who absorb practically none.

People’s education, income and social class were all taken into account but this study, unlike others of its kind, differentiated between “class” and “status”. An out-of-work aristocrat has class, without status, while there are bright people from poor backgrounds who have “status” but not “class”…

Class, as opposed to status, does not seem to have much effect on cultural tastes. “A substantial minority of members of the most advantaged social groups are univores or inactives,” the researchers found.

Dr Chan [of Oxford University] said: “Our work shows it’s education and social status, not social class that predict cultural consumption in the UK, and broadly comparable results were obtained from other countries too.”

New Zealand Herald

From a review of a book about reviewing, Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, By Gail Pool:

The perceived perennial decline in book reviewing mirrors the perennial decline in book publishing. Like the Broadway theater, the publishing world is always tottering on its last legs, a wheezing shadow of its former glory waiting for the final curtain to drop, only to be jolted back into spastic life by an unexpected franchise boon (John Grisham, the Harry Potter series) and granted enough of a reprieve to keep the pity party going until the next financial slump. Much of this fatalism is standard issue, an occupational tic. It is easy to give in to despair, which is why so many give it a spin. “As anyone in publishing knows,” Pool observes, “it is a self-critical, gloomy, hyperbolic field, in which something is judged to be in decline or dying, whether it’s the novel or books themselves…”

But just because you are a hypochondriac or an ingrained pessimist doesn’t mean you may not be coming down with something ill, and Pool is convinced that there is more to the current disenchantment with book reviewing than the usual moaning and groaning of Ancient Mariners: “We have only to look at our book pages to see that reviewing … fails in ways that can’t be dismissed as trivial or excused as inevitable, that unacceptable practices–widely accepted in the field–routinely undermine the very reasons we read reviews.” It isn’t simply that standards have slipped and the caliber of writing and thinking has coarsened, though that may be true. A more radical alteration has occurred, a decoupling from reality…

Adam Kirsch issued those warnings about “the scorn of the literary blog” in The New York Sun last spring; and Pool, an unpompous traditionalist, believes, like Kirsch, that intermediaries, gatekeepers, and referees are needed to sift noteworthy books out of the avalanche heap, foster a sense of fair play, and prevent reviewing from degenerating into a prison-yard fight. It won’t be easy maintaining even a modicum of status quo. Morale is low, and apprehension borne of insecurity is rising, as she is aware. Having worked as an editor and a reviewer, Pool has pitched her tent on both sides of this vale of tears and can testify to the pains of each party. “In an underfunded and underappreciated department, review editors lack clout. They haven’t the power to raise reviewer fees, however much they might like to do so. Reviews are assigned little space, or they’re given inappropriate space: a review may run with the obituaries, for example, where no one is likely to look for it or notice it and where it seems to serve as filler. Unlike news, which is essential, books reviews are under pressure to earn their keep…. These pressures can lead review editors to seek favorable reviews that will justify the use of space to their own editors, newspapermen who aren’t necessarily bookish types and may believe that selecting a book only to find fault with it is to waste valuable column inches.”

James Wolcott
The New Republic

Last month, Radiohead released its new album, In Rainbows, as a download and asked people to pay whatever they wanted for it. A few weeks later hip-hop artist Saul Williams did more or less the same thing with The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, the album he produced without a record company. Visitors to the Web site (www.niggytardust.com) can pay either $5 or nothing.

Go and have a listen – both albums are good. While you’re online you can read the recipes in James Bridle’s new cookbook without paying for that, either.

Bridle, who lives in London, is a former publishing professional with degrees in computer science and cognitive science and, as he puts it, “severe geek tendencies.” Since September 2006 he has kept the blog booktwo.org, where he writes about the way digital technologies are affecting the traditional printed word. The blog bears the waggish tag line, “The book is dead. Long live the book.”

Nonetheless, Bridle wrote a book, a “real” one called Cooking With Booze that was put out by UK publisher Snowbooks in October. He announced its publication on his blog and assured readers that he’d stuck to his principles and “got all booktwo on it as well.” In other words, he retained his electronic rights to the work and made its entire contents available online for free even as the book sits on store shelves wearing a price tag.

“Putting it online for free means people who wouldn’t have seen it any other way have a better chance of finding it via Google and other search engines,” Bridle explained in an e-mail. “It also means they can try out the recipes, and will hopefully be pretty well-disposed towards it, and end up buying it for themselves or others. In short, it’s great publicity.”

Creative Commons is what makes the book legally sharable. The Massachusetts-based organization offers a variety of liberal copyrights that are based in part on the show-your-work logic of open-source software.

Different types of Creative Commons licenses have different parameters. Bridle chose the Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike license for his book, which permits readers to copy and distribute and even “remix” it as long as they do so for noncommercial purposes, acknowledge Bridle as the original author, and “share alike” by distributing any altered versions of the book under a similar license.

“This means I can retain some of my rights but allow others to share and build upon the work, which allows for more interesting uses of it than traditional, restrictive copyright,” Bridle says. He made the online version of the book using open-source software, most of which was free.

Recipes by their nature are amalgamations, with each new user tweaking them to suit his own tastes and then passing them along to friends. Bridle says that making them free, and free to play around with, seemed fitting. Still, wasn’t that hard to explain to the old-media folks who’d spent money publishing the book?

Not in this case, Bridle says; he used to work as an editor at Snowbooks and had initiated discussions there about using such an approach as a promotional tool. He also had the examples of Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, both commercially successful novelists who have put whole novels online for free under similar copyrights.

As for Radiohead, Bridle thinks the band’s new album is “very canny. I think an ‘honesty box’ scheme will probably persuade a lot more people to pay rather than download it for free illegally.

“But what’s more interesting is the way they’re cutting out their record company to a large extent: As creative artists, being able to work freely and reach fans directly is pretty much the best situation you can get, and this innovative approach allows them to do so.”

Katie Haegele
Philadelphia Inquirer

*From For Free, by Joni Mitchell

In the 1950s, at the dawn of TV, the medium’s pioneers believed that television would be the great democratizer – exposing culture to the masses…Of course we all know it didn’t stay that way, and TV became the ultimate engine for gathering up huge audiences for something considerably different than the “high” culture originally envisioned.

But the fact that anyone thought that high culture would be the best use for this mass medium is interesting. When the National Endowment for the Arts was set up in the 1960s, its founders were thinking along the same lines. The biggest problem in American culture, they thought, was making great art available to everyone. Forty-plus years on, I think we can say that the arts-for-all crowd has succeeded spectacularly.

In 1950 there was only one full time orchestra in America. In 1965, there were only three state arts commissions. Now there are 18 full 52-week orchestras, and more than 3,000 arts commissions at the local and state levels. The 1990s were the biggest expansion of arts activity in American history; we went on a construction binge, building more than $25 billion worth of new museums, theatres, concert halls and cultural centers. Since 1990, almost one-third of all American museums have expanded their facilities. Major American museums such as the Met and the Museum of Modern Art are now so crowded the experience of visiting them has degraded.

The number of performing arts groups is up 48 percent since 1982. Last year American music schools graduated more than 14,000 students, and new fine art academies are popping up all over and overflowing with students. There are more than 250,000 choruses in America – that’s choruses, not people in choruses. That means that more than four million people a week are getting together to sing. There are at least that many book clubs. Opera attendance is up 40 percent since 1990…Culture is a $166 billion industry, accounts for 5.7 million jobs and is America’s top export…Going to the ballet or opera or museum is hardly an everyday experience for most Americans. But then, what is? Baseball might be experiencing record attendance, but wide swaths of the population are indifferent to it. TV may still dominate the average America’s entertainment diet, but what they’re watching has diversified.

I’m not making an argument that the arts are the new mass culture. I’m not even arguing that the audience for classical music rivals that for the pop star du jour. My point is this: Since most culture is defined in part by its relationships with the other cultures around it, if mass culture is losing its ability to gather huge audiences, and arts culture is growing, the relationship between the two needs some redefinition. In a crowd of pygmies, the arts have a different relationship to commercial culture and, I believe, the ramifications are significant.

Douglas McLennan
diacritical

We’re consumed by the idea of mass culture. Since television (and before it, radio) brought the immediacy of produced culture into our living rooms, we’ve treated the power of a massive aggregated audience with awe. That something is popular enough to attain common currency means it has power. Mass culture pervades everything. Writers place a character or location by dropping pop culture references. Advertisers trade on the familiarity of mass culture icons to sell us things. The so-called “traditional arts” try to justify their contemporary relevance in relationship to the “mass” taste.

Our base definition of success is the mass culture definition. If something finds a mass audience then it is successful. Mass culture is expected to make money, even obscene amounts of money. Success is defined not by achievement of excellence but by the size of audience and how much money that audience makes for you.

I’m not, by the way, dumping on mass culture. Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it isn’t excellent, and I’m an enthusiastic consumer of mass culture myself. This isn’t another high/low culture debate. Not at all.

But I do think that some of the assumptions we make about the intrinsic power of mass culture no longer hold true. Much has been written about pop culture breaking down into niches. But even as we acknowledge the fragmenting of audience, we have been reluctant to re-examine our assumptions about the power of mass culture and how it works. The very strategies that make something successful in a mass culture model may work against that success in a niche market model.

To take newspapers as an example: If the average reading level is eighth grade, in a mass-culture model you want to write to that level and hope you capture the largest demographic segment. And you hope that those below the level will give you a chance. In fact, you aggressively court this group by trying to prove your accessibility. As for the group reading above the level: your strategy for success is “where else are they going to go?” Your paper is probably the only/best/major source of news in your community.

Newspapers have not traditionally been mass market. In fact they were the classic niche subsidy model. The genius of newspapers was that they aggregated lots of mini-content – comics, bridge columns, stock tables, crossword puzzles, the arts, business, sports – and built enough of a combined audience to subsidize the content that otherwise would not have paid for itself.

I don’t know a single journalist who got in the business because they wanted to make sure Garfield or Dear Abby got delivered every day, but the fact is that the content that journalists think counts most – coverage of city hall, foreign reporting, investigations – does not have a big enough audience to pay for itself on its own.

Yet somewhere along the way, this idea of niche aggregation slipped away from the local paper and was replaced by the sense that every story ought to be comprehensible by every reader. The problem: in a culture that increasingly offers more and more choice and allows people to get more precisely what they want, when they want, and how they want it, a generalized product that doesn’t specifically satisfy anyone finds its audience erode away. The more general, the more broad, the more “mass culture” a newspaper tries to become, the faster its readers look elsewhere.

The very things you see newspapers doing to try to bring in new readers – Britney Spears on the cover, pandering to pop culture trends, sensationalist news stories that offer more heat than light – are the things that while they might have worked 20 years ago, don’t today. That’s because the celebutantes get better dish at TMZ and the Live at 5 guys do better fire and missing kids.

On websites, the celeb stuff gets more traffic, true, but these are “drive-by” clicks that don’t build a readership. Not that there shouldn’t be celebs in a newspaper, but they’re not the solution to building a bigger audience.

Douglas McLennan
diacritical