Monday, December 8, 2014

Forgotten Art

Forgotten Art - Transitions Online

A link to my article on artist-activist Pavel Karous, who has spent the past several years advocating for the preservation of public art created during the last two decades of communism. I contextualize his work within the 25th anniversary of the end of communism in Central Europe. This summer I spent two weeks in Prague interviewing Karous as well as architecture critics, historians, and urban planners. This article also includes my interview with Ondřej Matějka, Deputy Director for the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. Matějka’s analysis of Czech society helps to explain the dynamics of the art preservation movement. What’s really at stake here is society and government deciding what gets remembered and preserved as well as what gets pushed out of the debate altogether.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Projections on a Wall: A Hauntology (I:XIII)

Despite developing mostly with the railways and industrialization of the late nineteenth century, a deep historical consciousness marks the surface of Berlin. While it is true that no city is a tabula rasa, Berlin’s relationship to its past—and not necessarily that past itself—defines the German capital as much as previous epochs define more ancient cities. Berlin does not have the history of Rome or of Paris, but for much of the twentieth century Berlin was the axis mundi. If Paris, according to Walter Benjamin, was the capital of the nineteenth century, then it isn’t unreasonable to assert that Berlin was the capital of the twentieth.

History erupts in sometimes disturbing ways in the palimpsest that is present-day Berlin. You can’t just focus on one time period when you visit the city. Today’s Berlin opens up within a hall of mirrors that reflects and refracts all those other Berlins. To speak about the Berlin of the past 25 years requires the vocabulary of the Cold War. You find that this discourse still operates within the semiotics of the murderous Third Reich, utilizing the grammar of the First World War as inflected in the vernacular of Expressionism. Prussian imperialism provides the city’s basic syntax. One nonetheless must be fluent in history, then, before attempting to read Berlin.

My first impression of Berlin was a blank map. Of course, I knew enough of its twentieth-century history to have an idea of where I was headed when I bought a one-way ticket on the night train from Warsaw to Berlin in early 1996. At the time, I had been living in Poland. The evening before I was to leave, my Polish friends wanted to help orient me for my arrival in the morning, so they dug out a map of Berlin they had used for school trips years before. There was something strange about this map, though. I prided myself with a knowledge of history as well as the ability to decode maps, but something didn’t make sense. I barely recognized any of the landmarks. It took several minutes before we realized the problem: it was an old map of East Berlin. In the space where my primary area of knowledge lay was a pure white blank.

According to this map, the world dropped off into oblivion at the Brandenburg Gate. It was as if Hegel had been correct when he claimed that history would end with Napoleon, who triumphantly had marched through the Gate after defeating the Prussian forces. There was no pesky Tempelhof Airport to remind anyone of the failed effort to blockade the western sectors of the city. Despite the attempt to render history illegible, one could still read its traces. Nothing could have better oriented me for my experience of Berlin.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


Don't be shy about asking me about my work or what I do. I wrote a photo essay on the Berlin Wall based on my research there. I'm currently writing another photo essay about various sites in Prague, covering topics such as self-immolation, philosophers who die as martyrs, the ashes of cremated communists, fanciful etymologies, Buddhist sutras, and analyses of film scenes. Over the next few days I'll write about death masks. Not all of my work deals with such gruesome things. Earlier this year I wrote an essay about my deaf cat Bosko. I'm also writing a much longer essay about public art in post-communist Central Europe. I have many interests. I'm also a runner. Just don't talk to me about running. And talking to me while I'm running rarely ends well. I translate from several languages. I'm a musician, and I've produced three albums. I'm a slow reader and a slow talker. And a slow thinker. That is all for now. Thank you for reading and for being my friend.
I posted this to Facebook several days ago in response to charges that I rarely make the effort to be sociable. I disagreed, of course. To some extent. This post was also really a follow-up to a previous post here in which I requested new friends because it seemed that nobody has any interest in what I do or any ability to interact in a functional way with me. You know: hard stuff like Q followed by A. And if I'm criticizing your social skills, then you've got major problems.

In my own defense, however, I have reasons for the way I am. I grew up gay and very religious on a farm in rural Texas. AIDS made the headlines when I was beginning to think about sex. Also, I was intelligent. A counselor once measured my IQ and then declared that he had never seen such a high score. I nonetheless concur with Peggy Hill: "Well, whoop-dee-doo! I am the smartest hillbilly in Hillbilly Town!" (And yes, I was class valedictorian.)

There are two other ingredients you should know about that are added in the mix: my parents abused me horribly as a child. It wasn't always physical, but it was indeed always mental. Also, I had several speech impediments and would attend therapy in school until fourth grade.

That said, there's something much easier for me about meeting people and having great, intimate conversations with ease when I'm overseas. A lot of people don't understand that. But there's a lot of pressure here to fit in. I've never fit in. And when I speak, especially to strangers, I'm struck by how odd I must sound. Always being asked by my compatriots, "What country are you from?" does not instill in me much confidence. When overseas, there's not the same kind of pressure. I even think my personality bloomed when I was living in Japan, when even the pressure to look like others was lifted.

Some of my happiest times have been abroad. Some of my proudest moments have involved non-native speakers gleefully admitting that they understand my English better than that of any other American. At least somebody understands me on some level!

If I've managed to resist the terrible inertia of introversion to meet you, then I've made--and I am still in the process of making--shitloads of effort to be sociable. It's because you intrigue me and seem to be open to (or patient with) dealing with someone like me. And for that, you will have my undying love.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Germany, Year Zero

In Rossellini's Germany, Year Zero Berlin's bombed-out buildings manifest the destruction the war had already wreaked inside the characters' lives. The city, once a specific site of history, becomes in Rossellini's harsh and unforgiving light a non-place. It is at once a child's playground and the theater of war's ambiguous aftermath. Both non-sites converge on their downward path to the abyss.

The children who inhabit such a shadowless site are denied their proper innocence. Edmund's inability to understand the metaphoric content of the schoolmaster's lesson to "look at nature" in order to understand how it is with the weak evidences an innocence that already shows its own complicity with evil. Despite the blinding light, Edmund sees all in his wanderings across the city. But he finds himself incapable of responding to the horror that he witnesses, including the horror he commits with his own hands. His face betrays no emotion.

He attempts to revert to childish games, but the smaller children want nothing to do with him. He hopscotches his way alone across the pocked sidewalk of the unrelenting and unforgiving city. The sound of an organ from a bombed-out church freezes him in his tracks. It is only afterwards, in finally sharing in the responsibility of the city's moral devastation, that Edmund finds one possible response to that which devastates him. Edmund sacrifices himself with seemingly as little thought as when he sacrificed his ill father. But it's a sacrifice tainted by evil.

The weakened city contextualizes the Nazi schoolmaster's lesson. The weak become weaker when human beings resort to their baser natures. Edmund's "fall" from grace is the antidote to the other illnesses of his family. Karl-Heinz, who fought like a good Nazi soldier till the very end, is too scared to turn himself in to the police until the very end of the film. His is an untamed inertia no matter which moral universe he finds himself in. Eva, though not above "saving for later" the cigarettes the French soldiers give her at the dance hall, is too much of a prude to actually prostitute herself for something of more value, like food or better accommodations. The father is a stupid brute who complains incessantly about the fact that he's placing too great a burden on his children. He shows himself as a parent only after Edmund (who at least is trying to behave as an adult) returns home after being out all night, but then (just like his last-minute criticism of the Third Reich) it is much too late to really matter.

One only need look at the city in ruins to see how it is with the weak.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

As This Openness

The great Czechoslovakian philosopher Jan Patočka writes in his First Essay of the Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History, "Humans in their inmost being are nothing other than this 'openness' [to what there is (to which belongs being)]" (5). Almost immediately he clarifies: "Openness designates the possibility (basic possibility) of being human..." (6). Perhaps it's not too flippant, then, to ask the question, Which came first, the openness to the possibility of being human or the human who finds itself as the possibility of openness itself?

In this chicken-egg scenario, we get to the crux of the problem: there is no first or prime position. Openness and human being are always co-constituted in their very possibility. Yet the finding oneself already takes place within spatio-temporality of history as heresy. That is, heresy shows itself in the unfolding of finding oneself among the folds of history. The heterodoxy of this finding unfolds being as the being of the human (i.e., human being, not as a noun but as a verbal expression). In the choosing to have found oneself among beings (that which is in its very possibility), the human being finds itself as an expression of temporality and as time itself in its heretical modality.

To chose to find oneself as something that is—which always shows itself as one of the basic possibilities of human being—predetermines the openness to having found oneself as something of one's own choosing [haeresis]. Of course, the opposite, too, shows itself as a possibility: one can also choose to have never chosen to find oneself amid beings who exist. In this case, being would operate within the calculus of never-having-been-disclosed-as-that-which-is. Remembering Heraclitus: physis, in showing itself as something that springs forth from apparent nothingness, hides even its own hiding. This is the way in which the world (as the totality of what is) reveals itself while manifesting its own disclosure of nonbeing (as the totality of what is not).