Friday, April 22, 2011

Happy Earth Day!

Earth Day Flag

Once again it is that time of year where we celebrate the Earth, and renew our awareness of our adverse impacts on the planet.  Earth Day started in 1970 in the U.S. as a reaction to what was seen as out-of-bounds excessive manhandling of the environment, at a time when many Americans were totally oblivious to the issues, and a smaller number of others were totally consumed by them.  Books like Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by Buckminster Fuller, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, and the The Population Bomb by Paul R. Ehrlich had recently been published, and environmentalism was beginning to enter mainstream consciousness.  (See or for a detailed history of Earth Day.)  The first Earth Day was seen by the mainstream press not as a celebration or a consciousness-raising event, but as a “protest demonstration,”  basically an expansion of the Vietnam War protests, mainly populated by “hippies, flower children, and Communist sympathizers.”   The fact that April 22 was also Lenin’s birthday didn’t help lessen those stereotypes much, either!
You have to watch this!   It is a quick snippet of an NBC newscaster reporting on the events of the first Earth Day, back on April 22, 1970.  It’s remarkable how much news reporting has changed in the intervening years.  Mostly talking heads, little actual footage, no fancy infographics, and a thinly disguised contempt for the whole Earth Day proceedings, despite the anchor’s dispassionate tone.  It will give you a good insight into (or reminder of) the tenor of the times. 
Parts that I found very interesting – in Philadelphia, thousands of “ghetto residents” boycotted the Earth Day “protest” there, arguing that the nation’s newfound infatuation with the environment took attention away from the needs of the poor.  This was, of course, before the Environmental Justice movement made the connections between poor and "minority" populations, disproportionate environmental burdens, and adverse health outcomes. In fact, the poor were (and remain) the most heavily impacted by negative environmental factors, including being the most vulnerable to the impacts of global climate change.
Senator Jacob Javits (R-NY) on the steps of the New York Stock Exchange, protesting the focus on the environment as a distraction against other pressing issues of the day, such as poverty, the ending of the war in Vietnam, housing, alienation, racial tensions, gross inadequacies of health care, etc.  At this point, people still didn’t get that all this stuff was connected!  If, back in 1970, the government had dedicated sufficient resources to research and development of sustainable energy, for instance, more Americans would have good jobs and we probably wouldn't be in Iraq today. 
And, in remarks prepared for the American Geophysical Union, scientists gave an “awesome” Earth Day warning, about pollution warming the earth, creating a “greenhouse effect,” thereby melting the polar ice caps, and causing another Noah’s flood.  The news anchor says “greenhouse effect” as if it’s the very first time he has uttered the words, which in fact it may very well have been. 

A crowd of people gather near a large poster of planet Earth calling for “Help!!” on the first Earth Day conservation awareness celebration on April 22, 1970, in New York City.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Denis Hayes, head of Environmental Teach-In, is seen in the group's offices on April 8, 1970. The Washington organization coordinated activities for the first Earth Day, which included teach-ins on the environmental pollution crisis and overpopulation at campuses across the country. 
Associated Press

Now-a-days, unfortunately, most Americans feel that they have heard quite enough about all the problems our lifestyles have caused, and many are heartily tired of all the calls-to-arms over global warming, environmental degradation, etc.  Many people are skeptical that we have anything to do with global climate change, that it is just another “natural cycle” of the Earth, a hoax perpetrated by scientists, Democrat politicians, and other famously “liberal” people.   It has been even said that Earth Day has outlived its usefulness, and there is even somewhat of a backlash against environmental protection – at the very least, many people have gotten extremely blasé about it. 
As someone who celebrated the very first Earth Day (in true flower power style), as well as the big 20th anniversary Earth Day celebration in Central Park in 1990, with over a million of my closest friends (plus the B-52’s!), I would hate to see the commemoration of Earth Day fall by the wayside.  On the other hand, we obviously need more than just the one day to remember our responsibilities to reform our behavior and break the insane consumption-waste cycle, in order to produce a livable, equitable, and just world for all. 
I just took the ecological foot print quiz at Earth Day Network, and although I consider myself a fairly low-impact person, (fervent recycler, user of public transportation, multi-family housing dweller, eater of locally-grown food, etc.) I found out that if everyone lived as I do, it would take 4.6 Earths to support us all!  Very sobering.  Take the quiz yourself, it’s kinda fun – you get to create a little avatar of yourself, and at the end there are helpful tips about how you can improve (reduce) your footprint. 
Naturally, it is a given that individuals can only do so much by themselves, regardless of how much they recycle or eat like locavores, and I don’t think we should take on the burden of being the bad guys all by ourselves.  Corporations and governments have to do much more, and the cumulative impact of their actions will be fairly dramatic compared to the cumulative effect of individuals’ behavior modifications, but every little bit helps.  I certainly intend to step up my awareness and make whatever modifications I can to reduce my footprint even further.
And just to cheer you up and inspire you after you realize it won’t be feasible for us to go merrily along anymore in our profligate ways, and that it will require a gazillion worlds to support us if all the billions of people around the world decide to and gain the means to live as we heedless Americans do, take a look at some of these NASA photos of the Earth from above. 

"The Nile River and its delta look like a brilliant, long-stemmed flower in this astronaut photograph of the southeastern Mediterranean Sea, as seen from the International Space Station on Oct. 28, 2010. The Cairo metropolitan area forms a particularly bright base of the flower."  The Earth From Above, NASA

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Leo Africanus-15th Century Geographer Extraordinaire

I, Hasan, the son of Muhammad, the weigh-master, I, Jean-Leon de Medici, circumcised at the hand of a barber and baptized at the hand of a pope, I am now called the African, but I am not from Africa, nor from Europe, nor from Arabia.  I am also called the Granadan, the Fassi, the Zayyati, but I come from no country, from no city, no tribe.  I am the son of the road.  My country is the caravan.  My life the most unexpected of voyages,” (from the first chapter of Leo Africanus, by Amin Maalouf, 1986:1).

Left: Plan of "Timbuctoo"  from: Dubois, Félix (1896), Timbuctoo: the mysterious, White, Diana (trans.), New York: Longmans. Page 341. View or download entire book at

  Leo Africanus was a geographer extraordinaire to kings, sultans, emperors, caliphs, the Sublime Porte, and the Christian Pope.  How he came to be all that is the subject of this fascinating fictionalized auto-biographical account of his life and times, excellently researched and told by Maalouf, with a great deal of verisimilitude to the telling of the tale.  Obviously there are many things we can never know about a person from the 15th century, especially in those days before Facebook encouraged daily regurgitation (oops!  I mean updating and documenting) of one’s life, but despite the potential for gratuitous fabrication and sensationalist imaginings, I feel the book hews closely to the facts as far as they are known, while fleshing out the particulars of al-Hassan’s life with the more general details on the history and geography of the day.  I recommend this book as a great window onto a time and place that most of us know very little about. 

Cover of the book Leo Africanus, by Amin Maalouf, which is not actually a portrait of Leo, but rather a 1609 painting by Peeter Pauwel Rubens, showing a detail from his Mulay Ahmad.

            al-Hassan ibn-Muhammad al-Wezaz al-Fasi, or as he is better known, Leo Africanus, was born about 1483 in Granada, Spain, which was then part of the Moorish Kingdom.  The Moors derive originally from the pre-Islamic Numidian Kingdom of northwestern Africa, and were ethnically and culturally of the Berber tribe, mixed with Black African and (less so with) Arab populations.  In 711, they crossed the Mediterranean Sea and conquered much of the Iberian peninsula (what is now Spain and Portugal), and they attempted to extend their rule over the Pyrenees into France, only to be stopped by Charles Martel (Charles the Hammer, the grandfather of Charlemagne) in 732.  Various other Visigothic/Christian kingdoms in Iberia also resisted the Moorish conquest, and slowly over the next 8 centuries much of the peninsula was reclaimed by Christian kingdoms, (the reconquista, the reconquest) although it is estimated that at one point over 5.6 million of Iberia’s 7 million inhabitants had converted to Islam.  Finally, after nearly 800 years of rule in Iberia, the Moors controlled only the southern strip around Grenada, where they reigned until just after the time when al-Hassan was born. 
Animated map series of the Christian reconquista of Iberia, 790-1300 AD. 

Map showing extent of Almoravid (Moorish) Empire in about 1150 AD

Upon the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella (Americans know these two primarily because they were the Catholic monarchs who financed Christopher Columbus’ voyages to discover a westward route to the Indies, but instead, “discovered” America), Spanish military might was effectively united under Christianity, the Moorish rulers surrendered and were expelled from their last European stronghold.  However, it was unsatisfactory for the newly-in-charge monarchs to rule over such a vast multitude of Islamic and Jewish people (there were also many Jews living here, as well as in North Africa, as the Moorish culture at that time was notoriously open-minded about tolerating the practice of other religions, especially when those people were perceived as being beneficial to the society.  In fact, some of the best cartographers and geographers of the day were Jews from Iberia).  Ferdinand and Isabella were also famous (or infamous) for instituting the 15th century incarnation of the Spanish Inquisition, (there had been earlier ones against certain heretical groups) to root out and kill any remaining “unbelievers,” or those who pretended to convert to Christianity but continued to practice their original faiths in secret (the Inquisition also attacked Lutherans, FreeMasons, and those peasants who practiced a spiritualistic early Christian religion, among others). 
In any event, to make a long story longer, al-Hassan’s family chose to remove themselves to North Africa and lose everything, all property, etc., that they had obtained after generations of living in Grenada, rather than face death or forced conversion to Christianity.  The move proved to be a tumultuous one, involving great culture shock and deprivation for the immigrants, but it shaped the young al-Hassan’s consciousness and strengthened his resolve not to be tied down to any one place, but rather to become a citizen of the world and see as much of it as possible. 
After leaving Grenada as a youngster, al-Hassan grew up in Fez, in present-day Morocco, which was a great seat of learning and intellectual life in those days, where he eventually studied at the university there.  Then he began helping his Fezzan uncle, who was a high ranking official in the court of the Sultan of Fez, by accompanying him on diplomatic missions, including his first one to Timbuktu (in present-day Mali) in what was then part of the Songhai Empire.  The description of this journey in the Maalouf book is incredible.  al-Hassan spent his early years traveling throughout North and West Africa and the Near East, never staying very long in any one place.  The Maalouf book integrates just about every important historical personage and event of the times into al-Hassan’s life, some of which might be unlikely to have actually happened, but which certainly gives the flavor of what an unusual and interesting life he led.  Given the fact that in those days there was a relatively small circle of intelligentsia, it is not out of the question that al-Hassan really did interact with many of these people. 
In 1518 he was captured by Christian corsairs (pirates) in the Mediterranean near Tunisia, for whom it was not considered wrong to commandeer a Muslim ship and enslave the passengers.  al-Hassan was sold to the Order of the Knights of Rhodes, (a brotherhood established during the Crusades to protect the Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land) who took him to Rome and “gifted” him to the Pope.  The Knights were on shaky grounds with the Pope at that time, because the Church was trying to disband these orders of Knights since they were getting too rich and powerful, so hence the appeasement gift of al-Hassan to the Pope.  He stayed virtually a prisoner there until the Pope finally realized how helpful al-Hassan could be.  First of all, he was multi-lingual, (he later created an Arab-Hebrew-Latin dictionary of medical terms, for instance) and he arrived with all sorts of maps and drawings that he was carrying at the time of his capture.  These maps and charts actually had tipped the pirates off as to his potential worth, and probably saved his life, in the absence of ransom.  At that point the Pope was worried about the possibility of further Turkish incursions in the region, (specifically invasions of Sicily and southern Italy) and believed that having someone on his side with a good cultural understanding of the Turks (and a co-religionist) would be invaluable.  Then too, he recognized that al-Hassan had considerable geographical knowledge which could be put to good use.  After they met and began to spend time together, the Pope also realized they had much in common: they both were men of science, and the Pope was keenly interested in the “Eastern” world, which at that time meant the Islamic world of the Middle East.  Apparently the two men developed a close friendship and bond. 
Under the protection of Pope Leo X, he converted to Christianity, baptized in St. Peter’s by the Pope’s own hand, and assumed the names of his benefactor, Johannes Leo de Medici, but was commonly referred to as Leo Africanus.  There is considerable controversy whether the conversion was one of expediency on al-Hassan’s part, or whether it was “real.”  We do know from his own writings that Leo Africanus wanted very much to return to Africa and may have done so at the end of his life, in which case, he almost certainly reverted to Islam.  At the request of the Pope, he translated the Arabic manuscripts, maps, and sea charts, which he had been carrying with him at the time of his capture, into Italian in 1526, which was subsequently published by Ramusio as Descrittione dell 'Africa et delle cose notability cheiui sono, per Giovan Lioni Africano.  This book proved to be extremely popular, was re-printed many times, and translated into a number of languages, including English in 1600. 
Leo Africanus' writings on Africa had a considerable influence on all later writers on Africa.  The book, a detailed account of Africa, its trade routes, geography, terrain, and people was an exceptionally important source of information on the continent and is generally considered the first book written by a person of primarily African descent.  It is even thought that Shakespeare was influenced by this book, and based his character of Othello on Leo Africanus. 

Leo Africanus - Jean Temporal woodcut map, 1556.

This map of Africa, with south at the top, appeared in Historiale description de l'Afrique, the French version of his book, published by Jean Temporal.  Geographically, this map is a close copy of the map prepared for Ramusio's book.  In the Leo Africanus - Jean Temporal woodcut map, the names have been translated into French, and the ships and sea monsters are engraved in a new, slightly larger style.

More good stuff on Leo Africanus (including travels you can take “in his footsteps”):

Tabula Rogeriana – south on top

Other famous Moorish geographers include Muhammad al-Idrisi (after whom the Idrisi raster GIS software developed by Clark University Labs was named).  Idrisi lived from about 1100-1166, and was a geographer and polymath who created the Tabula Rogeriana, considered to be the most accurate map of the world in the mediaeval times, which was commissioned by the Norman King Roger II of Sicily (hence the name The Map of Roger in Latin).  As well as the map, al-Idrisi produced a compendium of geographical information with the title Kitab nuzhat al-mushtaq fi'khtiraq al-'afaq, which translates as The book of pleasant journeys into faraway lands, or The pleasure of him who longs to cross the horizons.  

Part of al-Idrisi's world map compendium, produced for King Roger of Sicily, who in the 12th century took over what, up until that time, had been a Muslim Emirate in Sicily. 

About one hundred years earlier, in 1068, the Moorish geographer Abu Abdullah al-Bakri wrote the Book of Roads and Kingdoms, or the Book of Highways and Kingdoms, in Cordoba, al-Andalus (present-day Spain), which was a compilation of the works of other Islamic scholars of his day and before. 
Another important Moorish geographer was Ibn Battuta, 1304-1348, the most extensive traveler in pre-modern times, covering 75,000 miles across much of the Old World, from central Africa to China.  He wrote a book about his travels called the Rihla or The Journey, but the title is often translated as A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling. I can definitely relate to that one.  (See maps below for his travel itineraries.)

Ibn Buttata's Itinerary, 1325-1332 - North Africa, Iraq, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia, Swahili Coast.

Ibn Buttata's Itinerary 1332-1346 - Black Sea Area, Central Asia, India, South East Asia, and China.

Ibn Buttata's Itinerary, 1349-1354 - North Africa, Spain, and West Africa.

Timbuktu – A Center for Trade – The Arab use of the camel for transport allowed them to go overland across the Sahara Desert to remote parts of inland Africa, from which they converted the inhabitants to Islam.  By contrast, when the Europeans started making inroads to this part of the world, they generally came by ship, and usually didn’t get much further inland than the coast and navigable rivers.  This is why, in many West African countries today, the coastal areas are predominantly Christian and the inland areas are Muslim.

Here is Leo Africanus’ description of Timbuktu (Tombuto), just for a small taste of his writing (at least as translated into English, about which translation there is much controversy and debate as to accuracy and meaning).  It is in more or less the English of 1600 (Shakespeare’s English, in other words) so is a little difficult, but once you get used to it, it begins to make sense!  (Hint: “u”s are “v”s, “I”s are sometimes “j”s, and there are lots of spelling inconsistencies and irregularities – lots of unnecessary “e”s at the end of words, for instance).
Timbuktu in those days was perhaps the most famous Muslim town on the Niger River, and a thriving commercial center for Maghribi traders in the Sudan.  It is estimated to have had a population of 25,000 when Leo Africanus visited it in about 1510.  Timbuktu also became a great center of Muslim learning, and scholars from North Africa and Egypt visited the city for its universities and libraries.  Doctors, judges, priests, and other learned men were maintained in Timbuktu at the king's cost (nice gig for them!).

Of the kingdome of Tombuto.
This name was in our times (as some thinke) imposed vpon this kingdome from the name of a certain towne so called, which (they say) king Mense Suleiman founded in the yeere of the Hegeira 610, and it is situate within twelue miles of a certaine branch of Niger, all the houses whereof are now changed into cottages built of chalke, and couered with thatch. Howbeit there is a most stately temple to be seene, the wals whereof are made of stone and lime ; and a princely palace also built by a most excellent workeman of Granada. Here are many shops of artificers, and merchants, and especially of such as weaue linnen and cotton cloth. And hither do the Barbarie-merchants bring cloth of Europe. All the women of this region except maid-seruants go with their faces couered, and sell all necessarie victuals. The inhabitants, & especially strangers there residing, are exceeding rich, insomuch, that the king that now is, married both his daughters vnto two rich merchants. Here are many wels, containing most sweete water ; and so often as the riuer Niger ouerfloweth, they conueigh the water thereof by certaine sluces into the towne. Corne, cattle, milke, and butter this region yeeldeth in great abundance : but salt is verie scarce heere ; for it is brought hither by land from Tegaza, which is fiue hundred miles distant. When I my selfe was here, I saw one camels loade of salt sold for 8o. ducates. The rich king of Tombuto hath many plates and scepters of gold, some whereof weigh 1300. poundes : and he keepes a magnificent and well furnished court. When he trauelleth any whither he rideth vpon a camell, which is lead by some of his noblemen ; and so he doth likewise when hee goeth to warfar, and all his souldiers ride vpon horses. Whosoeuer will speake vnto this king must first fall downe before his feete, & then taking vp earth must sprinkle it vpon his owne head & shoulders : which custom is ordinarily obserued by them that neuer saluted the king before, or come as ambassadors from other princes. He hath alwaies three thousand horsemen, and a great number of footmen that shoot poysoned arrowes, attending vpon him. They haue often skirmishes with those that refuse to pay tribute, and so many as they take, they sell vnto the merchants of Tombuto. Here are verie few horses bred, and the merchants and courtiers keepe certaine little nags which they vse to trauell vpon : but their best horses are brought out of Barbarie. And the king so soone as he heareth that any merchants are come to towne with horses, he commandeth a certaine number to be brought before him, and chusing the best horse for himselfe, he payeth a most liberall price for him. He so deadly hateth all Iewes, that he will not admit any into his citie : and whatsoeuer Barbarie merchants he vnderstandeth haue any dealings with the Iewes, he presently causeth their goods to be confiscate. Here are great store of doctors, judges, priests, and other learned men, that are bountifully maintained at the kings cost and charges. And hither are brought diuers manuscripts or written bookes out of Barbarie, which are sold for more money than any other merchandize. The coine of Tombuto is of gold without any stampe or superscription : but in matters of smal value they vse certaine shels brought hither out of the kingdome of Persia, fower hundred of which shels are worth a ducate : and sixe peeces of their golden coine with two third parts weigh an ounce. The inhabitants are people of a gentle and chereful disposition, and spend a great part of the night in singing and dancing through all the streets of the citie : they keep great store of men and women-slaues, and their towne is much in danger of fire : at my second being there halfe the town almost was burnt in fiue howers space.

Niger-Saharan Mediaeval Trade Routes.

UPDATE, 9-5-2011: Also check out for a nice biographical sketch of Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, a 10th century Muslim Persian geographer from what is now Uzbekistan. His interests were map projections, and geodesy.  

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Meet Me at the Center of the Earth

Syncretism, Symbolism, and Similarities in Seattle

Meet Me at the Center of the Earth is an amazing new exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum.  It’s advertised on TV, posters, and flyers all over town, but the photos can’t prepare you for seeing the real thing.  Nick Cave (not to be confused with the OTHER Nick Cave, of the Bad Seeds) is a Chicago artist/sculptor/dancer/fashion (?) designer - and I use that word “fashion” advisedly and somewhat ironically - who works mainly with found objects, and has an incredible sense of which crazy disparate elements work with what.  His work draws on syncretism, symbolism, and similarities of materials with costumes and ceremonial garb from all corners of the earth.  The pieces are displayed on life-sized mannequins, and all are wearable (more or less).  They can alternately (and sometimes all at once!) be reminiscent of African and Papuan-New Guinean raffia clothing, Haitian sequined banner work, Mardi Gras-Carnivale costumes, Native American Shaman regalia, and the elaborate vestments of mediaeval European clergy, complete with bishop’s miter-shaped headdresses.  Elements of pop culture are also liberally sprinkled throughout the designs. 
            Cave created these outfits as an antidote to the modern male business attire, which has become ubiquitous around the world, replacing indigenous clothing for men even in very traditional societies, and much more often than women’s clothing is replaced by Western wear.  Cave’s designs are certainly an antidote to business wear!  Just walking around the galleries is enough to make you feel that you look very drab, indeed, regardless of what you are wearing that day.  His "Soundsuits" are total sartorial splendor.  He calls his works “Soundsuits” after the sounds produced by wearing and moving in them.  One of the best parts of the exhibit were the videos of people wearing the costumes and dancing/prancing/jumping/rolling around in them, especially the feathered and raffia ones that really moved.  In one segment, several of the feather-garbed people rolled around on the floor, and the camera was filming them from above.  The only way you could tell that these rolling colored feathered forms were actually people inside of these concoctions was every once in a while you would glimpse a foot sticking out.  Another segment had several of the large pink feathered beings jumping on pogo sticks in slow motion, and you could just make out the tip of the pogo stick from under the feathers. 
Here’s the soundtrack to the video, a nice example of pseudo-mid-90’s Deep House, by Phonique, featuring Ian Whitelaw, called “Our Time, Our Chance,” and it is appropriately dreamy music with a back beat to accompany the jumping feathered figures: 
            Here’s a slightly longer version, the Andre Lodemann remix:

            The found objects used in the designs include everything from tinsel and yarn mandalas en masse, to dozens of Hummel-like porcelain bird figurines, arranged in a cage-like structure around the mannequin’s face.  In another, the face and upper torso was surrounded by a constellation of tin toys, mainly flying saucer-like objects from the 1950’s.  Several of the outfits were completed covered in mother of pearl buttons, all sewn on with bright aqua thread.  These outfits reminded me of the English Cockney button people (the "Pearlies") of the 19th century.  Some of Cave's pieces were made entirely of crochet hats and bags and doilies all sewn together, very expertly so that you could not tell where one object ended and the next began.  One (and this was a personal favorite of mine) was constructed completely of tiny stuffed animals.  In almost all of the pieces, the face is obscured. 

            The title of the show, “Meet Me at the Center of the Earth,” brings to mind fantastical places like those encountered by falling down the magical rabbit hole in Alice and Wonderland, or Journey to the Center of the Earth (a movie that scarred the bejeebers out of me when I was a youngster).  It evokes a world of altered reality, where nothing is as we know it - where discarded items and objects of distain become treasures, objets d'art, and things of beauty.  In the exhibit, the individual works have no labels, and there is hardly any wall text “explaining” the pieces to us.  We are left to interpret them on our own, and to wonder about the cosmic questions of “What is beauty?” “What is art?” and “What is fashion?”
A couple of short videos from the Museum's website:

 Below: Mother-of-pearl button detail; Embroidery/applique collage detail 

Left: Nick Cave standing with one of his works.

At the museum restaurant, they make special drinks to go along with the exhibits, and the one they created to match up with this exhibit is called the Cave In.  It consists of pepper-infused vodka, blue curacao, mango puree, and pomegranate juice.  In coloration and layering of the elements, it was very much like one of Cave’s feathered beings. 

Photography in the Nick Cave exhibit was not permitted, so the photo images of his works shown here are by James Prinz, Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.  The Seattle Art Museum also has quite nice collections of Northwest Coast Indian art, African, and Pacific art, by both traditional and contemporary artists, including many traditional costumes.  As you walk around the galleries,  you can really see some of the influences on Nick Cave's work.

Below: Paul Simon on stage at the WaMu Theater, April 15, 2011
 I had the good fortune to snag the very last ticket (and on the aisle!) to see Paul Simon last night at the WaMu Theatre.  He has a masterful group of musicians playing with him, and performed a number of songs from his new album, which was just released this week.  This is his first major tour in 4 years, and Seattle was the first night of the tour, so it was very exciting.   After playing a full set, they did about half a dozen encore songs, including a solo “Sounds of Silence.”   Below is a link to a video of a rehearsal for one of the new songs “The Afterlife.”  If this doesn’t get your toes tapping, then, man, you might already be in the afterlife, and don't even know it yet! 
“The Afterlife” by Paul Simon
After I died, and the make up had dried, I went back to my place.
No moon that night, but a heavenly light shone on my face.
Still I thought it was odd, there was no sign of God just to usher me in.
Then a voice from above, sugar coated with Love, said, "Let us begin".

You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.
You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.

OK, a new kid in school, got to follow the rule, you got to learn the routine.
Woah, there's a girl over there, with the sunshiny hair, like a homecomin' queen.
I said, "Hey, what you say? It's a glorious day, by the way how long you been dead?"
Maybe you, maybe me, maybe baby makes three, but she just shook her head...

You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.
You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.

Buddha and Moses and all the noses from narrow to flat,
Had to stand in the line, just to glimpse the divine, what you think about that?
Well it seems like our fate to suffer and wait for the knowledge we seek.
It's all his design, no one cuts in the line, no one here likes a sneak

You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.
You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.

After you climb, up the ladder of time, the Lord God is here.
Face to face, in the vastness of space, your words disappear.
And you feel like swimming in an ocean of love, and the current is strong.
But all that remains when you try to explain is a fragment of song...
Lord is it, Be Bop A Lu La or Ooh Poppa Do
Lord, Be Bop A Lu La or Ooh Poppa Do
Be Bop A Lu La

Doors to the Longhouse (Coast Salish tribe)

            Then, this being my penultimate day in Seattle, I took a boat ride out to Blake Island, the reputed birthplace of Chief Sealth, a man of peace and great wisdom, after whom the city of Seattle was named.  On the island is a recreation of a Coast Salish tribe’s longhouse, where we had a traditional salmon bake, clam and venison stew with root veggies, and watched a dance performance with sound-producing masks.  Since it is a tourist attraction, I’m dubious about the authenticity, but it was enjoyable nonetheless, and the narrator said the performance was designed in collaboration with tribal elders. 

Above: Salmon Bake in the Longhouse;
Above: one of the performers in the dance showing how the mask works.  By pulling hidden strings, the beak makes an alarmingly loud clacking noise;
Left: A Transformation Mask (the mask opens to reveal another character within). 
Photos by the Map Monkey, April 15-16, 2011

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Greetings From Seattle!

Metsker Maps in Pike Place Market – The Map Monkey likey! 

I had forgotten how lovely this city is!  I got out here a couple of days in advance of the official start of the AAG conference, and have been spending some quality time reacquainting myself with Seattle.  A lot has changed since I was last here over 20 years ago.  For one thing, the last time I was here, the original Starbucks coffee shop in Pike Place Market was the one and only one in existence, and now look what happened!  All over the world!  About 1,700 stores in at least 55 countries. 

Starbucks - World Domination in Coffee Houses

Seattle reminds me of a slightly less glitzy and more gritty version of Vancouver, British Columbia.  And demographially, of course, it's much less Asian than Vancouver is.  But Seattle has, to me, a very Scandinavian feel – it has lots of interesting modern architecture, a great public park system, lots of public art, and is very clean and tidy and lively.  Window displays tend to be well-designed, and the city is busy but not frenetic.  And like a lot of Scandinavian cities, there is water (and boats) everywhere you look.  I also like the nice mix of age groups that you see all over the city.  All in all, it’s a swell place! 

I love how the city has gone out of its way (or so it seems to me) to commission and collaborate with innovative and somewhat unconventional architects to design their public museums, library, and so forth.  For instance, Rem Koolhaas designed the new Central Library, a LEED-certified ediface built in 2004.

Frank Gehry designed the Rock and Roll Museum (there is an exhibit going on right now about Nirvana, arguably Seattle’s most famous export after Starbucks, Boeing airplanes, and Jimi, and this is the first time the museum is featuring the band, for some odd reason, even though the museum is over 10 years old).  What an incredible building!  The monorail goes right through the building!  It is an undulating, city-block-sized sculpture, more than it is a building.  All I can say is that the engineers must have hated doing the working drawings for the structural, HVAC, and electrical systems! Not a 90 degree angle or flat surface anywhere! The museum, also known as the “Experience Music Project” or EMP, was the brainchild of one of the Microsoft founders.  Apparently the inspiration for the museum’s design came from a film that Gehry watched about Jimi Hendrix smashing a guitar, as he was wont to do back in the day.

Seattle’s Experience Music Project – the Rock and Roll Museum (built 2000), by Frank Gehry

The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) (built 1991) by Venturi and Scott-Brown, (of “Learning from Las Vegas” fame). 

The Seattle Art Museum also has an outdoor sculpture park down at the waterfront, (the Olympic Sculpture Park) with huge pieces by Alexander Calder, Claes Oldenburg, Louise Bourgeois, Richard Serra, and the like. 
Polished Stainless Steel Tree, by Roxy Paine, the branches are made of 5,000 pounds of cantilevered steel. 

Alexander Calder sculpture in Olympic Sculpture Park

Details of the 1933 Art Moderne-style Seattle Asian Art Museum

And the original building of the Art Institute of Seattle, designed by Carl Gould in 1933 in the then-au courant Art Moderne style, now houses the Seattle Asian Art Museum.  The building is a wonderful period piece, and all the stylistic details are meticulously maintained.  The rounded forms, the stepped surfaces, streamlined modernity, and the use of typical Art Moderne materials such as stainless steel, wood marquetry, and metal banding applied on top of travertine.  Carl Gould, who graduated from Harvard with a B.Arch. and then attended the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, apprenticed under McKim, Mead & White, and worked as a draftsman for Daniel Burnham.  Gould was active in Seattle in the early 20th century, designing many of the terra cotta structures that Seattle is known for, as well as the master plan and several building for the University of Washington, where he also started the Architecture Dept.

View from the steps of the Asian Art Museum, looking towards Volunteer Park Reservoir with Isamu Noguchi's "Black Sun" sculpture in foreground, and Space Needle in background.

The Seattle Asian Art Museum is in a beautiful location overlooking a small reservoir in one of the parks that the Olmstead Brothers designed as part of the master plan of park landscapes and boulevard system for Seattle in the early 1900’s.  Olmstead père, of course, famously designed Central Park and Prospect Park in NYC.             

View of Water Tower

Also in the Volunteer Park is a fabulous old water tower - the façade is made of brick, but it surrounds a metal water tank that goes up the full height of the building.  You can climb up the spiral metal stairs to the top for wonderful views of the Seattle cityscape, the Space Needle, and the snow-capped mountains on a clear day.  Also at the top is a small exhibit on the Olmstead Brothers’ plans for Seattle’s park and boulevard system, from 1903. 

The water tank itself, just inside the brick outer skin of  the building.

Left: The spiral steel stairs encircling the actual metal water tank, between the outer brick walls and the tank itself. Right: View from one of the arched windows at the top of the water tower, Seattle's Space Needle (1961) in the distance.
Left: On top of the water tower. Right: The Olmstead Brothers' preliminary plan for Volunteer Park, named after the volunteer soldiers from Seattle who fought in the Spanish-American War of 1898. 

Left: View of downtown Seattle and port from the Space Needle, built for the 1962 World's Fair, and at about 600 feet tall, was for some time the tallest structure west of the Mississippi; Right: Brass Compass Points embedded in the Space Needle observation deck walkway.

Pike Place Market on a rare sunny spring day

Contemporary Northwest Coast Indian Carving, Steinbrueck Native Arts Gallery

Detail of terra cotta decorative element.  Terra cotta became very prevalent as a building material in Seattle after the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, since terra cotta was considered to be a fire-proof construction material.

Photos by the Map Monkey, April 10-11, 2011