Archive for June, 2010

Are Sports Boring? And an Old Lefty Stronghold in the West Village.

June 14, 2010

Buried among the tree-lined streets of the disarmingly quaint but often cloyingly conventional 21st Century West Village, are remnants of the old, rough round the edges, lefty activist, Jane Jacobs West Village.  

Keeping the pulse of the old guard is The Brecht Forum, on West Street, in Westbeth (if the Brecht Forum keeps the pulse, then Westbeth, the massive artist housing complex, very possibly provides it), founded in 1975 as part of the New York Marxist School. Today, it keeps the old activist streak alive with lectures, debates, and festively anti-establishment events such as the upcoming 913 Theater Festival (inspired by Glen Beck’s 912 Project; Beck is no stranger to this dangerous threat from the radical left as evidenced in this particularly lively tirade). Other upcoming Beck-baiting type programs include: “McCarthyism Then and Now,” and a monthly appraisal of Global Capitalism.

Last week, as a prelude to the world’s largest global sports extravaganza and in the midst of the NBA and NHL finals (well, perhaps not too many people had hockey on the mind, though more should!), the Brecht Forum hosted a debate asking whether or not sports are boring. Standing in the “Boring” corner was Arun Gupta, a founding editor of the Indypendent.  Across, at the “Seriously?” end of the debate was Dave Zirin, the ubiquitous radio sports commentator with lefty activist credentials as polished as Gupta’s (Zirin is sports editor of The Nation, currently has a book out titled A People’s History of Sports in The United States and has another book coming out called Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining The Games We Love).

Zirin and Gupta had 15 minutes apiece to state their case while cute Indy volunteers outfitted in their favorite teams’ shirts and hats walked through the aisles selling beer and peanuts (the crowd was overwhelmingly pro-sports, illustrating one of the most wonderful trademark qualities of New York – a city where high culture, serious politics and sports love each other; as I learned after living in Montreal for a few years, and then in New Zealand, this is not always the case; actually it is rarely the case. I moved back to New York).

As many, including Zirin, suspected, the real argument is not whether sports are “boring” but whether they are worthwhile and deserve our attention or whether they are actually a pernicious force that dulls the senses to more important issues.  Is it an opiate of the masses that manipulates the unthinking hordes into submission and sometimes violence? Or does it reflect the world around it and provide a forum for discussing almost every relevant issue confronting us today, from rogue finance, to sexism to violent nationalism and sectarianism?  (Old Firm matches still draw quite a rambunctious crowd after all). And what role does the left have in this discussion? Should it enter the fray or turn its attention toward more pressing issues?

Zirin, on the attack wearing a Los Suns jersey, began with some historical references: Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, Ali and 1980’s, racially charged, New York of Yusef Hawkins and New Park Pizza where any real integration happened almost only through sports.  And to dismiss any notions that sports might not be as relevant today, Zirin pointed out “the stubborn fact that next week half the world will be watching the World Cup.” Indeed, as shown in a press conference yesterday, where else can we witness someone from North Korea close up, discussing Dear Leader before taking the field against Brazil (and hoping they figure out this would be an opportune moment to defect).

Zirin reminded the audience that apart from the obvious fact that sports are as human and natural an act as clothing and feeding ourselves, they are also an ideal way of engaging in all of the grand arguments that matter.  And he rightfully recoils from the elitism that discounts sports as a language for serious conversation. Dismissing sports gives credence to the charge that the left can be elitist and tone deaf  to the people it purports to care about.

Nevertheless, Arun Gupta believes we would be better off without sports. He concedes that sports were once socially and politically relevant but points out that the sports heroes Zirin idolizes made their mark nearly half a century ago. As regarding the recent Suns franchise stance against Arizona SB170, he remarked that it was an action taken by a large corporation for undeniable financial benefits. 
More interestingly, Gupta reminded the audience of the various ways in which pro-sports have  tried to manipulate their fans to counter waning interest and profits, including implementing new rules to make games more “exciting,” such as the OT shoot-out in hockey to keep games from being tied (Americans seem not to enjoy games that can end in a draw, as evidenced by many who did not appreciate what an amazing feat the result of the England-USA match was this past Saturday).

Gupta also attacked pro sports for being grossly apolitical, noting that unlike other celebrities whom the Dems and the GOP woo each election cycle, with lavish fundraiser galas in Hollywood and NYC, sports stars don’t get too much attention from the pols. And examples of recent pro athletes taking stands can actually be somewhat discouraging, as in the case of Carlos Delgado, who maintained an informed anti-war stance while playing with the Jays in Toronto by not standing up for the national anthem but then quietly abandoning this as a condition of playing with the Mets.

There is no question that corporate interests have helped dilute so much of the essence of pro sports, but this is not a problem specific to sports. Which gets to the heart of the matter – it is not sports that are becoming more “boring,” or that present these problems, but they do provide insight into the larger picture.

And, as a reminder to those who love to misquote or half-quote the Karl Marx line about religion, Zirin  reminded us of the original, as applicable to sports as it ever was to religion: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

The heartless, soulless world came first, not sports. Sports make it so much more bearable.

The Alchemy of Maps & Pretty Wallpaper

June 7, 2010

Laura F. Gibellini and the Domestication of Space

Almost despite ourselves, we claim the space around us more effectively than we could ever imagine. But also less willfully, maintaining a looser grasp than we think over our unique and personal design. Our desires and experiences manifest themselves through a subversion of  our intent, but also in tandem with it, informing it, and are further intertwined with unforeseeable experiences, nature, history, others.  Laura F. Gibellini’s work deftly and playfully explores these conflicting forces of the very human need to conquer and make whole and comprehensible, and the equally mortal constraints that shall always push up against it, our habits and patterns betraying us.  Throughout Gibellini’s work, an exploration of maps and domestic interiors, present the endlessly layered manifestations of the human inhabitation of space.

Despite our increased awareness that we understand so little and control even less, we keep grasping for ultimate control, trying to harness the forces of nature in an alchemical effort to transform the elements into a solid reality we can describe with human words, human images, human scales.  Even if, while doing so, we tell ourselves that actually, we are not seeking to conquer or control, we are, rather, merely trying to understand and describe, and perhaps guide a little.  Big Ideas and Big Solutions are dead we agree, but we can’t help but reach for them and their simplicity, like so many intrusive thoughts that are comfortable habits we do not really want to let go.

Gibellini’s subtle, painstakingly drawn and stenciled installations, such as “(In) Habitation” (160 x 200)  Hacia Afuera, Outdoor Art & Music Festival, New York, 2010), seem to excavate the process of map-making and domestication itself.  Her drawing takes the eye along deceptively familiar isometric patterns that do not, after close examination, describe the types of phenomena we instinctively expect them to symbolize.  These lines do not eventually converge to form a topographic description of a place, of a climate, or any other kind of observable event.  So much visual art plays with familiar symbols, using them as reference points for self-conscious reinterpretation, dislocation or just basic subversion. What sets Gibellini’s work apart, is that even though we are highly aware that we are looking at a simulation of contouring and mapmaking, we cannot repress our strong, nearly involuntary, need to find a recognizable pattern – to construe something truly familiar out of the so nearly familiar. An irrepressible urge arises to conquer the image we are looking at. To fill in the gaps and map the work itself.  It does reassure us that at last, at least one clear object, the form of a lamp, emerges from the web of intricate lines that until now were almost frustratingly vague, clearly not meant merely as decoration since the seemingly systematic lines seem to indicate purpose, but  without clear indications of any reality either.

The shape of the lamp that arises from this almost-map teases us with promises of the comfort of a domestic setting, a clearly delineated space we know from our own lives, something recognizable and intimate.  That Gibellini’s installation also takes on the qualities of a wallpaper pattern further deepens the feelings of intimacy. It also interposes another layer of domestication since the wall upon which this drawing of something that is nearly a map, nearly wallpaper, nearly a depiction of domestic serenity, is outdoors, in a garden, a communal one in East Harlem, into which artists, mostly from elsewhere, were invited to intervene. Gibbellini’s drawing – further domestication of a highly planned small urban patch of a garden, which itself, as New York is dramatically bereft of communal space, especially green communal space, provides a domestic intimacy that may seem forced but  which most New Yorkers strongly crave, respond to, and quickly inhabit. 

New Yorkers seem to have a special instinct, a need, to create intimacy and familiarity wherever they find themselves, and aggressively seek to conquer and appropriate their territory, partly because it is so limited, but also because the general anonymity and novelty they encounter on an almost daily basis can only be countered by creating these intimacies, whether they be illusory or real, temporary or permanent. The High Line is, of course, the most popular recent example of reclamation and domestication of a previously uninhabited and disinviting space.  And it is not surprising that it has become perhaps too popular, failing to provide quiet moments of intimacy because everyone is seeking them at once. New York thus betrays its own humanness by trying to carve out a distinct haven, tightly controlled by beautiful spare design, but also, ultimately, characterized by those qualities of New York that New York cannot escape – the crowds, the tourists, the need for more space, the brutal realities of expensive real estate. 

New Yorkers, and other inhabitants of densely-populated cities, have a very unique relationship with interiority and domestic intimacy, often seeking it elsewhere, outside of the home. In their own home they often cannot create their ideal domestic space since personal space is so limited; or, in other cases, it is a home that is felt to be temporary, either as a space between the spaces of work and play, or as a temporary place where they live in New York before they “move on” to the more solid and permanent parts of their life, where they will invest more of themselves and seek to more actively cultivate their physical surroundings, many seeming to walking around the city with the wider expanses of other regions always in the back of their minds. Grander horizons and “more than this” are also highly native qualities in this city, perhaps betraying the desire to want more than New York can offer, while seemingly, and consciously, fully committed to it.

 A garden wall provides Gibellini’s work with an additional lovely effect – at the right time of day some of the sun breaks through the branches and imposes its own sun-dappled pattern on the drawing.  In her work, Gibellini has often sought to recreate the wallpapers of the 50’s and 60’s, which sought to bring indoors some semblance of the nature outside – leaves, flowers, birds. With the sun intruding on this already nearly-domesticated scene, the ambition of those wallpapers, and of Gibellini’s effort to depict, archive and create the various meanings and effects of maps and domestication, are both exposed and somehow completed.

Publicado en Antípoda, revista de antropología y arqueología número 12. Departamento de Antropología de la Universidad de los Andes, Colombia.” In english: “Published in Antípoda revista de antropología y arqueología, issue 12. Anthropology Department, Universidad de los Andes, Colombia.