Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Are you good?

One day God was looking down at earth and saw all of the misbehaving that was going on. So he called one of his angels to go to Earth for a time.

When he returned, the angel told God, 'Yes, it is bad on Earth; 95% are misbehaving and only 5% are not.'

God thought for a moment and said, 'Maybe I had better send down another angel to get a second opinion'

So God called another angel and sent him to Earth for a time too.
When the angel returned he went to God and said, 'Yes, it's true. The
Earth is in decline; 95% are misbehaving, but 5% are being good.'

God was not pleased. So he decided to e-mail the 5% who were good,
because he wanted to encourage them, give them a little something to
help them keep going.

Do you know what the e-mail said?


Okay, just checking with you. I didn't get one either...

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Cultural Time (2)

When working for the International Red Cross in Southern Africa, I also had to do some research in Northern Zambia. One day, I was supposed to meet a guy to discuss a project for which he needed funding. When I finally managed to find his office (which consisted of a small room with a table and a stool on three legs), he was not there. His charming secretary showed me an impressive amount of letters that he had written to lots of different organisations and institutions all over the world asking for money. Unfortunately, she said, he had to go to see his relatives in his home village. And when would he be back? Anytime from now, she said ...

Friday, 26 March 2010

Official Acceptance

Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor. Swift, Blake, Beethoven, Christ, Joyce, Kafka, name me a one who has not been thus castrated. Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas.
James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Winter in Maine

Diesem ganz wunderbaren Roman ist ein Zitat von Marc Aurel vorangestellt, das dieses Werk treffend illustriert: "Wer sehr lange lebt, verliert doch nur dasselbe wie jemand, der jung stirbt. Denn nur das Jetzt ist es, dessen man beraubt werden kann, weil man nur dieses besitzt."

Gerard Donovan ist ein Meister im Vermitteln dieses Jetzt. Weil er genau hinguckt, weil er genau beschreibt und weil er zu Interpretationen Abstand hält. Und das klingt dann zum Beispiel so: "Als ich Streichhölzer, Milch, Tee, Brot und Butter gekauft und alles im Pick-up verstaut hatte, überquerte ich die Strasse bis zum Café. Mir fiel auf, dass der Wind auffrischte und die vereinzelten Regentropfen sich härter anfühlten, als wären sie mit Schnee beschwert. Deshalb freute ich mich über den Schwall warmer Luft, der mir beim Öffnen der Cafétür entgegenströmte, über das helle Licht und die paar Leute, die über Suppe und Getränke gekauert dasassen. Es bediente eine andere Kellnerin, doch sie brachte mir dieselbe Kaffeesorte an denselben Tisch und sagte auch dasselbe: Lassen sie ihn sich schmecken."

Der Protagonist, Julius Winsome, lebt mit seinem Hund Hobbes und über dreitausend Büchern in einer Jagdhütte in den Wäldern Maines. Dann tritt unverhofft Claire in sein beschauliches Dasein und verschwindet nach einiger Zeit genauso unverhofft wieder. Kurz darauf wird Hobbes aus nächster Nähe mit einer Schrotflinte erschossen. Und Winsome beginnt einen Rachefeldzug.

Das einsame Leben in den Wäldern und die Lektüre Shakespeares (wer dächte da nicht an Thoreaus Walden?) hat den Protagonisten Winsome zu einem bedächtigen, überlegten und sehr gegenwärtigen Menschen werden lassen. Daran ändert auch der Tod seines Hundes nichts und doch ändert sich mit diesem Tod alles: Winsomes Leben gerät aus den Fugen, er rächt sich nun an der Welt, an all dem, was er falsch findet an dieser Welt.

Was diesen Roman aussergewöhnlich macht, ist nicht in erster Linie der Rachefeldzug von Winsome - obwohl, dieser ist spannend genug und das Buch ist auch ein Krimi - , sondern die Stimmung, die Gerard Donovan zu vermitteln weiss. Man glaubt beim Lesen selber vor Ort in diesen Wäldern zu sein, das Holz der Jagdhütte zu riechen, die Bücher aus den Regalen zu ziehen, das Knirschen des Schnee unter den Schuhen zu hören, zu spüren, wie die Zeit verstreicht. Donovan ist ein Meister im Vermitteln der Gegenwart.

Es braucht wenig, so scheint es (ist der Tod eines Hundes wenig?), dass ein Mensch ausrastet. Doch rastet Winsome wirklich aus? Nie ist er auf seinem Rachefeldzug unkontrolliert, ganz methodisch und überlegt (genauso wie vor dem Tode des Hundes) geht er vor. Was sich geändert hat, ist, dass sein (stark von seinem Vater geprägtes) Leben plötzlich eine ganz andere Richtung genommen hat.

Gerard Donovan führt mit diesem Buch eindrücklich vor, dass es illusorisch ist, zu glauben, wir hätten unser Leben unter Kontrolle. Dass er dies am Beispiel eines äusserst kontrolliert agierenden Menschen aufzuzeigen vermag, macht dieses raffinierte Werk zu einem Lesegenuss erster Güte.

Gerard Donovan
Winter in Maine
Luchterhand Literaturverlag, München 2009

Monday, 22 March 2010

The Art Instinct

"Bold ... original ... exciting", Steven Pinker is quoted on the cover. No wonder that Pinker offers such praise for Denis Dutton draws quite a bit on Pinker (and on Darwin, Aristotle, Kant and quite some others). Moreover, Dutton basically addresses the same fundamental question that Pinker did in his "The Language Instinct", namely, whether we are primarily culturally conditioned or whether we are governed by innate universals.

"Complex language is universal", Pinker argues in "The Language Instinct", "because children actually reinvent it, generation after generation - not because they are taught, not because they are generally smart, not because it is useful to them, but because they just can't help it." It is their nature, it is not nurture. Dutton comes to the same conclusion in regards to art: "Preoccupied as we are with the flashy media and buzzing gizmos of daily experience, we forget how close we remain to the prehistoric women and men who first found beauty in the world. Their blood runs in our veins. Our art instinct is theirs."

I warm to this idea and so I approached Dutton's work with sympathy. The sensations I felt when reading it were similar to the ones I experienced with "The Language Instinct": a mix of fascination and excitement and quite some moments when I felt at a complete loss for this barrage of learned information seemed, well, a bit much, and at times offered rather peculiar conclusions: "A climable tree was a device to escape predators in the Pleistocene, and this life-and-death fact is revealed today in our aesthetic sense for trees (and in children's spontaneous love for climbing them)."

This is how Dutton describes his approach:
"Hauling in animal instincts to compare with human activities can be a suitable way to show the grand continuity of life as Darwin understood it" one reads and that "great works of music, drama, painting, or fiction set us above the very instincts that make them possible. Paradoxically, it is evolution - most significantly, the evolution of imagination and intellect - that enable us to transcend even our animal selves, and it is a purpose of this book to show how natural and sexual selection placed Homo sapiens in this odd situation." That however leads to sometimes rather odd reasonings. Let me quote from the chapter on art and natural selection (yes, I'm quoting out of context yet what I mainly want to point out here is the rather far-fetched link to art): "On the basis of this argument, I therefore side with opponents of the Symons/Lloyd/Gould view of the female orgasm as a nonadaptive by-product of an adaptive male process. A direct link between female orgasm and pregnancy, Lloyd demonstrates, cannot be established (that's hardly a surprise, I'd say), and she uses this fact, in agreement with Gould, to conclude that the female orgasm is not an adaptation. But this analysis implies, in my opinion, a paltry, limited view of human sexual experience. In this regard, it is directly parallel to arguments about whether artistic pleasures might be adaptive. Lloyd makes much of the fact that clitoral pleasure is so often self-induced and experienced in the absence of a partner. But the same might be said of most male orgasms over a lifetime - and this presumably does not call into question the status of the male organ as an adaptation." Well, yes, presumably not.

However, such rather peculiar ponderings are not the rule for this book, as mentioned above, is, first of all, an inspiring, well-written, erudite, smart, insightful, and opinionated read. " ... the whole idea that art worlds are monadically sealed off from another is daft. Do we need to be reminded that Chopin is loved in Korea, that Spaniards collect Japanese prints, or that Cervantes is read in Chicago and Shakespeare enjoyed in China? Not to mention pop music and Hollywood movies, which have swept the world."

This is, essentially, a book full of clever arguments, let me give you two examples that I've found particularly fascinating. Here's the first one:
A study on picture preferences around the world showed a remarkable uniformity about what counts as a beautiful landscape: a landscape with trees and open areas, water, human figures and animals. Surely, this must be due to exposure to the same kind of images, right? Here's how Dutton argues: "... the window of my office at the New Zealand university where I teach is high, and its ledge offers a convenient perch and nesting place for pigeons. Whatever their charms, these creatures, alas, are extremely messy; the finally made the ledge so unhygienic that the window had to be shut at all times. How to keep them away? My solution is a rubber snake on the ledge. I have seen the birds land on the ledge, see the snake, and immediately depart.They don't come back. The odd fact is that, although European pigeons have been in New Zealand for a couple of hundered pigeon generations, there are no snakes in New Zealand and never have been. The phobic reactions of the birds is therefore learned neither from exposure to snakes nor from images of snakes. In snake-free New Zealand it is a perfect instance of a natural atavism: an innate fear-response that is passed, unnecessarily in these parts, from generation to generation of pigeons."

Here's the second one: When, in 2004, five hundred "of the most powerful people in the art world" (Dutton surely lives in a world of superlatives) - dealers, critics, artists, and curators - were asked what they thought the most influential work of art of the twentieth century was, they voted for Marcel Duchamp's 'Fountain', the men's urinal put forward for exhibition in 1917. But is 'Fountain' a work of art?, asks Dutton and analyses it against a list of cluster criteria: direct pleasure, skill and virtuosity, style, novelty and creativity, criticism, representation, special focus, expressive individuality, emotional saturation, intellectual challenge, art traditions and institutions, and imaginative experience. "On a numerical calculation of items on the cluster criteria list, not to mention the overwhelming agreement of generations of art theorists, and art historians, the answer is a resounding 'Yes, 'Fountain' is a work of art.' Duchamp's readymades nevertheless incite fierce debate because they so deeply and effectively challenge our evolutionary response-system for art: where's the emotion, the individuality, the skill, the beauty? Duchamp set himself not only against culture but against the adaptive structure of art. Yet there it is on a plinth, an object of no special interest made into an object of the most special attention. Can this be art? Of course not, and yet it must be, as the experts continue to insist. As philosophical provocations about art, the readymades are intellectual masterpieces. For its part, 'Fountain' may not be pretty, but as an art-theoretical gesture, it is a work of incandescent genius." Good points, I'd say. On the other hand: there is no such thing as hard evidence in the humanities, and so there is no need to take 'expert'-opinions for more than what they are - opinions, that is.

PS: Dutton also meditated on kitsch and states that "literature and philosophy too can offer kitsch by way of undemanding analysis of life's problems through trite insights into the secret of the universe. In this respect, Hermann Hesse's pretentious mysticism and Kahlil Gibran's little messages dressed up in pseudo-biblical cadences count as kitsch." Well, this reads as if Mr. Dutton's determination to be "bold" and "original" (Pinker) has, in this instance, got the upper hand - for to label Hesse's insights "pretentious mysticism" or Kahlil Gibran's poems "little messages dressed up in pseudo-biblical cadences" is a bit cheap.

Denis Dutton
The Art Instinct
Oxford University Press 2009

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Honest Journalism?

It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings drawn together through need and chance and for profit into a company, an organ of journalism, to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of “honest journalism” (whatever that paradox may mean), of humanity, of social fearlessness, for money, and for a reputation for crusading and for unbias which, when skillfully enough qualified, is exchangeable at any bank for money (and in politics, for votes, job patronage, abelincolnism), and that these people could be capable of meditating this prospect without the slightest doubt of their qualification to do an “honest” piece of work, and with a conscience better than clear, and in the virtual certitude of almost unanimous approval.

James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Hotmail? No good!

In December 2009, my Hotmail account was hijacked by a Chinese spammer who then sent a mail to my contact list saying that I was recommending some laptop. I learned about this because one of these messages was also sent to my Google mail. I immediately informed "abuse" at Microsoft which - to my utter amazement - led to the closing of my Hotmail account. What was that all about?, I wondered and sent an inquiring mail to Microsoft - only to get an email back, that was evidently written by a machine, saying that there was spam activity originating from my account and that it was therefore closed! Which meant my contact list was gone! Well, arguing with a machine is hopeless - and my interest in Microsoft products is now zero.

A couple of weeks later, my Google mail was hijacked by the same Chinese spammer with the same message about that laptop and was sent to my Google mail contact list. Expecting the Microsoft approach, I immediately rushed to send my most important email addresses to a safe account (I hoped and still hope) with a not so famous company. But Google didn't do the Microsoft, they simply let me know that there was spam activity originating from my account and told me to change my password. Praised be Google!

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Bangkok Noir

Wer selber viel Zeit in Bangkok zugebracht hat, wird sich dieses Buch wohl mit besonderer Neugierde vornehmen. Als "literarisches Nachtbild mit mehr als 250 Fotos von suggestiver, intimer Kraft" wird es vom Verlag angepriesen. Ein literarisches Nachtbild? Damit müssen Roger Willemsens Sprachbilder gemeint sein:

"... die Polyphonie der Grossstadt Bangkok, die lebt, als hätte der grosse Auslagen-Arrangeur gerade erst seine Hand aus der Dekoration gezogen ... Die Ströme von Wasser, Licht, Verkehr, Kraft, Elektrizität müssen gebündelt, die Schneisen für Essen, Waren, Arbeitskraft müssen geschlagen und in jeden Winkel geführt werden. Selbst die Sentimentalität derer, die hier leben oder hierher zu Besuch kommen, will beantwortet werden. Die Stadt muss dem Glauben Lichtinseln, dem Schönen Raum geben, die Unterhaltung der niederen und der verfeinerten Art kultivieren, sie muss selbst alle Leibesfunktionen erfüllen, sie muss leben, und wo sie stirbt, muss sie nachwachsen und sich erneuern. Überall, bei Tag und Nacht, ist sie zugleich Stadt und Märchenwald."

Es ist anzunehmen, dass der eine oder die andere diesen Stil und diese Einsichten etwas gewöhnungsbedürftig finden wird. Ich jedenfalls wäre nie und nimmer darauf gekommen, dass jemand Bangkok zugleich als Stadt und als Märchenwald bezeichnen könnte. Und dann noch "Überall, bei Tag und Nacht".

Glücklicherweise geht es nicht so weiter und ganz wunderbar gelungen sind die Passagen, in denen Willemsen ganz einfach schildert, was ihm so zustösst. Weniger überzeugend - doch, zugegeben, de gustibus non est disputandum - ist, wenn er seiner Sprachfantasie freien Lauf lässt: "Es brennt. Der Himmel kommt herunter. Seine Tiefe ist jetzt schwärzer. Seine Höhe nicht mehr hoch. Er lastet als ein wolkiges Massiv, nicht transparent, sondern dick und undurchdringlich ..." Na ja, ich weiss nicht so recht. Andrerseits, starke Bilder produziert diese Sprache schon.

Doch jetzt zum für mich Überzeugendsten.
Die Schilderung der Wanderarbeiter etwa, die so beginnt: "Zu Hunderten zwängen sie sich abends aus einem Spalt im Bretterzaun, besteigen die Ladeflächen kleiner Trucks und werden in ihre Sammelunterkünfte verbracht, mit den leeren Lunchboxen, den Gummistiefeln unter dem Arm. Offiziell zählt man hier fast drei Millionen Arbeiter, eigentlich aber sind ihrer viel mehr, zählt man die Illegalen, die ohne Aufenthalts- und Arbeitsgenehmigung dazu, die meisten Burmesen oder Laoten ...". Oder die geradezu hinreissende Schilderung übers Essen, worum sich in Thailand ja so recht eigentlich alles dreht - entweder man kommt in diesem Land vom Essen oder man geht zum Essen (ein gängiger Thai Gruss lautet denn auch: Schon gegessen?): "Tatsächlich scheint in Bangkok kein Lebensraum resistent gegen die Brandung der Nahrungsmittel. Das meiste davon lässt sich auf Spiesse ziehen, Leber, Hoden, Geflügelfleisch, Fischbällchen, Früchte - überall türmen sich die Sticks, bunt wie Zuckerstangen, glasiert, knusprig, fett, fahl wie Raufasertapete, knallig wie Pop-Art. Handlich soll dies Essen sein, gut zu bedienen, keine echte und schon gar keine schwere Mahlzeit - 'Spielzeugessen' wird es auch genannt, damit man es bloss nicht ernst nehme, und omnipräsent ist es schon, weil Thais die Freude, die damit verbunden ist, das Spielerische, Bunte und Vergnügliche so lieben, dass sie es nirgends missen möchten."

Sehr schön auch diese Stelle, eine treffende Illustration der interkulturellen Maxime, dass "humor doesn't travel well" (und das gilt ganz besonders für die Ironie):
"Ein Mann hält mich am Arm fest. In Deutschland hätte er ein Kunstlederhütchen auf. Hier trägt er ein Kunstfaserhemd, in das er hinein schwitzt, in seiner Hand ein Leporello mit briefmarkengrossen Abbildungen von Mädchen, die aus Schaumkronen tauchen und lachen.
'You want, Sir?'
Beim ersten Vorbeigehen habe ich ihn gegrüsst, den Kopf geschüttelt, am zweiten Tag nur noch gegrüsst, ihn dann ignoriert. Nichts hat sich in seinem Auftreten verändert. Ich bin der Mann, der ohne weiteres ein Taxi, einen Koffer, eine Mango oder siebzehn Mädchen im Schaumbad ordern könnte. Heute bleibe ich stehen, nehme das Faltblatt aus seiner Hand. Der Schaum des Fotos trägt den grauen Film seines Handschweisses.
'Beautiful", sage ich.
Er nickt enthusiastisch, legt mir die Hand auf den Unterarm.
'Too beautiful', sage ich.
Er sieht mich fragend an.
'Too beautiful for me.'
Er hakt mich unter:
'I have ugly, too.'"

Das Buch ist ja gleichzeitig ein Fotobuch und als solches hat es mich einigermassen ratlos gelassen, denn Text und Fotos (meine Lieblingsaufnahmen finden sich auf den Seiten 119 und 218/19, es gibt jedoch noch etliche mehr, die mich angesprochen haben) beziehen sich im besten Fall indirekt aufeinander. Anders gesagt: Der Text braucht die Bilder nicht, und umgekehrt. Doch es gilt eben auch: man liest relaxter, wenn man ab und zu seine Augen wandern lassen kann. Übrigens: dass die Fotos "von suggestiver, intimer Kraft" seien, konnte ich nicht finden, doch das liegt möglichweise auch daran, dass ich mir darunter nichts vorstellen kann.

Wie leider bei Bildbänden allgemein üblich, sind den Fotos von Ralf Tooten keine Legenden beigegeben. Man muss zum Buchende blättern, um rauszufinden, was einem seine Augen zeigen. Und da erfährt man dann, dass die Aufnahme auf Seite 6 den "Blick auf die Thanon-Sathorn-Strasse" und diejenige auf Seite 9 den "Pier am Mae-Nam-Chao-Phraya-Fluss" zeigt. Da, wie der Klappentext uns sagt, der Fotograf Ralf Tooten in Bangkok lebt und arbeitet, hätte man eigentlich erwarten dürfen (er war laut Verlagsangaben zusammen mit Roger Willemsen auch für das Layout verantwortlich), dass ihm solche Fehler nicht passieren sollten: Thanon heisst nämlich im Thailändischen Strasse und somit ist eine Thanon-Sathorn-Strasse ein ziemliches Unding; und Mae Nam heisst auf Thailändisch Fluss, so dass ein Mae-Nam-Chao-Praya-Fluss auch nicht gerade viel Sinn macht.

Doch das ist ein Detail. Mein Gesamteindruck: vielfältig anregende Ein- und Ansichten in und über eine faszinierende Stadt.

Roger Willemsen / Ralf Tooten
S. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 2009

Sunday, 14 March 2010

On borrowed time

"Anahit Hayrapetyan suggests you add Henrik Malmström as a friend on Facebook", the message read. Since Anahit, in 2009, had attended my workshop on photo ethics at the Danish Journalism School in Aarhus, I assumed that Henrik had also been one of my students. In order to make sure, I contacted him (yes, he had attended the workshop) and became aware that he had just published a book (On Borrowed Time), a photo essay on the last months of his sister, Maija, who, in 1999, at the age of twenty, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. When, in 2007, Maija was hospitalised again, Henrik started to document what were to become the last months of her life. Maija passed away in April 2008.

The photos hit me instantly: I felt deeply touched. These pictures radiated such profound sadness, love, and care that I was on the brink of crying. That photos of people who I do not personally know should cause such an emotional response I think not only remarkable but stunning. And while knowing that much of what we might read into a picture we simply bring to it, I also happen to believe that photographs are magical and have a life of their own.

There are moments when we, although aware that we are looking at photographs, do not seem to be looking at what we know to be two-dimensional reductions of a three-dimensional physical reality that neither smell nor sound but at real people. In such situations, looking is replaced by feeling. And this is precisely what happened to me when I spent time with Henrik Malmström's impressive pictures: I felt what my eyes showed me. Moreover, these photographs instilled in me the same empathy with which, I believe, they were taken. And that is simply wonderful.

Copies of Henrik Malmström's "On Borrowed Time" can be ordered at
See also:

Friday, 12 March 2010

Flat Earth News

This is Flat Earth News: "A story appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes a heresy to suggest that it is not true - even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda."

Remember the Millenium Bug? The time when the media around the world prepared us for disaster on Millenium Eve: Life-saving hospital equipment would break down, banks collapse, planes fall from the sky ... and then, nothing happened ... This is one of the numerous examples that Nick Davies uses to illustrate what is wrong with modern mass media.

But isn't that obvious?, you might say. It surely has to do with money, especially media ownership, advertising and the like. Well, up to a point but that is not the main thing, argues Davies. So what then is more important? "Ignorance is the root of media failure. Most of the time, most journalists do not know what they are talking about. Their stories might be right, or they may be wrong: they don't know."

Are journalists then more stupid than the rest of us? Some probably are yet there is no reason to believe that most of them should be less ignorant than most of their readers. However, journalists "work in structures which positively prevent them from discovering the truth. Historically, there has always been an element of ignorance in journalism, simply because it attempts to record the truth as it happens. Now, this has become much worse. It is endemic. The ethic of honesty has been overwhelmed by the mass production of ignorance."

Ignorance, indeed. But also the very human trait to act like sheep. Sadly, we always seem to do what everybody else is doing - just look at the uniformity that the so called free press is producing.

The problem is this: "Whatever we know about our society, or indeed about the world in which we live, we know through the mass media", Niklas Luhmann wrote in Reality of the Mass Media, and while we do of course know that we should not trust the mass media we seem to have essentially adopted the same attitude that we have towards photographs: we believe them to be true as long as nobody comes along and proves that they have been tampered with.

There are exceptions of course: a study organised in Oregon and North Carolina found that 59% of the sources of newspaper stories claimed these stories "inaccurate of some kind."

Errors are one thing, omissions quite another. In May 2006, the United Nations produced a list of the ten most under-reported stories on the planet. Here are three of them: the aftermath of the tsunami in 2004; the millions of economic refugees on the move in search of work; the global shortage of water.

"Omission is the most powerful source of distortion", writes Davies and whoever has once been the object of a newspaper article will surely recall his/her bafflement when reading the outcome of long conversations finally in print: not the occasional inaccuracy is stunning but what has been left out.

"Flat Earth News" is full of telling examples. Here's one of them.
When, in December 2001, the American energy company Enron collapsed, the Sunday Times came up with a UK end to the story by identifying three British investment bankers at being at the centre of the schemes used by Enron. Other papers followed and for two more years "the story bubbled along gently". In October 2004, an American court ordered the extradiction ot the three Brits. "And then a funny thing happened", Davies writes: "Fleet Street changed direction. Completely. The 'former bouncer' and his 'cronies' with their alleged corruption and their extravagant lifestyle became the object on an emotional national campaign, which was supported by every major newspaper and which drew in the vociferous encouragement of numerous pressure groups, MPs from all three main parties and a host of senior businessmen, finally generating a rebellion in the House of Lords and an emergency debate in the House of Commons dedicated to defend the three of them. What happened? PR happened!" How? Essentially by making the press shift their focus. Bell Yard Communications, a company specialised in 'public reputation management during times of corporate crisis or dispute', had the following objective: "Fleet Street must stop talking about the alleged guilt and extravagance of these three men and must focus instead of one single aspect of their case, the new Extradiction Act under whose terms the three men now faced trial in Texas." And Bell Yard made that work. For the fascinating details, read the book - I highly recommend it.

Spending time with Nick Davies' Flat Earth News will alter your views of the media. It certainly altered mine, in particular my view of the Sunday Times and the Observer. Don't get me wrong: I knew of course that my trust in these papers wasn't rationally justifiable yet I nevertheless sort of did trust them (in particular the Observer) despite the fact that I had (and have) no doubt that, in capitalism, the main task of the journalist is to keep the media owners happy. And now? I'm approaching information sources once again a bit more carefully and remind myself to always ask lots of questions, and among them certainly this one: Who profits from the information offered?

Nick Davies
Flat Earth News
Vintage Books, London 2009

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Brazilian Memories

It is today four weeks since I left Brazil for Switzerland. And so looking at these pictures brings back memories, fond memories. Would I prefer then to be there instead of where I am? Of course, I always prefer to be where I'm not. Always? Well, maybe not always but, in the words of one of my former students in Istanbul, a manager of a sports club, who, when asked whether he always invited his business partners for lunch, answered, "not always but between usually and sometimes".

The façade of the Copas Verdes Hotel in Cascavel

The sign reads: Exclusivo Ônibus de Turismo 1h

Drinking Chimarrão in Caxias do Sul

The photos were taken in December 2009 (Caxias, Curitiba), and in January 2010 (Cascavel).

Monday, 8 March 2010

How Iranian leaders live

While American (and some European) politicians may often come from ordinary backgrounds, their lifestyles usually change dramatically when they are in office, and by the time they have reached the pinnacle of power, they are long removed from their more humble roots. Iranian leaders in the Islamic Republic, however, clerical or lay, continue to live their lives almost exactly as they always have, living in modest houses in their own neighborhoods surrounded by their social peers, driving nondescript cars, and maintaining their social networks. There is no presidential palace, no equivalent of the White House, in Tehran, and despite the wealth of the Islamic Republic, no fleet of limousines, or even the level of security one would assume, for Iran's leadership. The presidential automobile is a Peugeot (albeit armored), and President Ahmadinejad lives in the same house he always has in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, while his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, lives in a small villa, nice but not especially so, in North Tehran. It was Khatami, who remarked to me, on a trip to the United States after his presidency, with genuine surprise and not a little admiration, that the security offered him by the State Department (as well as the limousines and SUVs) as an ex-head of state was far more comprehensive (and luxurious) than anything he had as president in Iran. He also remarked how very much it resulted in his trip occurring inside a "bubble".
Hooman Majid: The Ayatollah begs to differ

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Los Angeles

You might have heard that, in the late eigtheenth century, "El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora La Reina de Los Angeles del Río de la Porciúncula was founded from Mexico as an outpost of New Spain", but did you also know that the city of Los Angeles "as a human settlement began as the Native American Village of Yang-Na"? Or that, in the early years of the 20th century, Los Angeles "modernized itself with public works in water, land, and oil"? That made me automatically think of Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" that I had recently watched again - I very much liked that the climactic final scene showing Faye Dunaway and John Huston can be found in this heavy (it weighs an impressive 3 1/2 kilos, according to my scale) and thoroughly impressive tome. There is also a shot of Polanski "on the bloodstained porch of his home, where his wife, Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and others were slaughtered in grisly and bizarre fashion by the Manson Family, 1969", as the caption says. Such informative captions are the rule and I assume that I'm not the only one who is very happy about that. Ever heard of the Watts Towers? The caption lets me know that the photo was taken in 1966 and that I'm looking at "the result of more than 30 years of work by construction worker Simon Rodia, who built the 17 interconnected structures in his spare time. A visionary piece, it is considered a leading example of international folk art." Ever visited the Santa Monica Pier? I have, and thought there was only one but then learned that at one point Santa Monica featured seven amusement-park piers. The aerial view displayed in the book shows two.


It is a formidable visual history of LA that the cultural anthropologist Jim Heimann presents here and the texts by historian Kevin Starr and writer David L. Ulin provide the wider context. The book is divided into seven chapters (a Biblical allusion?) and these are: Ciudad de Los Angeles ca. 1862-1900, Population Explosion 1900-1920, Birth of Filmland 1920-1930, Bust to Boom 1930-1945, Postwar Paradise 1945-1965, Lost Angeles 1965-1980, Apocalypse Now 1980-today.

Tired of the well-known (yes, I know, iconic) pics of Marilyn Monroe, or of James Dean? Go to page 356 and you will look at a rarity (I at least have not seen it before): Marilyn Monroe in a Beverly Hills bookstore in 1953. On the following page you will look at another rarity: a happy and proud James Dean in his Porsche Spyder 550.

The photos were taken by anonymous photographers and by famous names such as Gary Winogrand, who portrayed John F. Kennedy as he addressed the Democratic National Convention, at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, in 1960, Ellen Unwerth who showed model Naomi Campbell on Sunset Strip in 1992, and Andreas Gursky, who's famous 99 Cent shot originated in LA.

The variety of photographs displayed is absolutely fascinating. Examples:
In 1940, a police detective poses with hatchet murder victim.
Also in 1940, the opening of the segment of the Arroyo Seco Parkway, one of the first freeways in the United States.
In 1960, the then "most modern home built in the world",
and, in 1962, a grand geodesic dome inspired by Buckminster Fuller.
In 1951, streetcars, stacked like cordwood, awaiting their fate as scrap metal - the era of the freeway had begun.
In 1958, actress Jayne Mansfield floated amidst novelty bottles made in her image.
In 1984, O.J Simpson carrying the Olympic torch on Pacific Coast Highway,
and, in 1994, the same O. J. Simpson in a highly televised slow-speed chase on the Los Angeles freeway system.


A pretty weird mix? Of course, that is how this complex LA universe seen from different angles looks like. To be sure, this is not only an absolutely fascinating tome but a document (the question whether these photos had been tampered with, did not cross my mind) that demonstrates how Los Angeles once looked, how it developed and how it looks today. Yet it is much more than that: it is a veritable social history of a city that is more a way of life than a city. Last but not least, this is admirable photojournalism.

Jim Heimann, Kevin Starr
Los Angeles
Portrait of a City
Taschen Cologne 2009

Thursday, 4 March 2010


Drei Jahre lang, von 2006 bis 2009, erfährt man aus dem Vorwort, haben Ursula Sprecher und Julian Salinas sich mit dem Projekt "Heimatland" auseinandergesetzt. Herausgekommen ist ein aussergewöhnlicher und faszinierender Fotoband, in den jedoch - getreu dem Motto: die schlechte Nachricht zuerst - bedauerlicherweise Aussagen sogenannter Prominenter (nein, sie sollen hier nicht noch extra erwähnt werden) aufgenommen worden sind, die überhaupt keinen Zusammenhang zu den Bildern haben und an Banalität schwer zu überbieten sind. "Heimat ist, wo meine mir nächsten Menschen sind" liest man da etwa. Sicher, der Satz hat was für sich, doch wenn er so ganz für sich auf einer weissen Seite steht, denkt man automatisch: geht es eigentlich noch banaler? Fairerweise soll angefügt werden: es finden sich auch gute, nachdenkliche Sätze in dem Band, diese hier von Sibylle Berg, zum Beispiel: "Wenn man den Ort, an dem man geboren wurde, und grösser, verlässt, wird man vielleicht einen angenehmen Platz zum Leben finden. Neue Bekannte, schöne Bäume, hübsche Strassen. Alles kann man finden, vielleicht ist es besser, als das was man aufgab, meist ist es nur anders und das Recht auf Heimat hat man verwirkt." Nur eben, einen Bezug zu den Fotos haben auch sie nicht.

Sich Fotos anschauen ist so subjektiv wie Fotos aufnehmen oder, wie in diesem Fall, inszenieren. Und so will ich gleich mit einem Geständnis beginnen: ich bin kein Fan inszenierter Bilder. Dies gesagt, will ich sogleich nachschicken, dass ich im Falle dieses Bandes die Inszenierung ganz klar als anregend und bereichernd erlebt habe.

Sprecher und Salinas sind ihr Heimatland-Projekt mit einer Grossformatkamera angegangen. Sie wussten, was sie aufnehmen wollten und fragten Leute am Ort, wo sie die Kamera aufstellten (das dauerte), ob sie sich ins Bild setzen lassen würden - und viele machten mit. Das ist gut zu wissen, denn viele der Aufnahmen, obwohl gestellt, wirken nicht so. Dieses Wissen um die Inszenierung, die so recht eigentlich eine Re-Inszenierung ist (Sprecher und Salinas fanden die abgebildeten Menschen so vor, wie sie abgebildet sind, und fragten, ob sie bereit wären, sich bei ihrem Tun fotografieren zu lassen), verändert die Wahrnehmung, man sieht anders hin: genauer, analysierender, abwägender.

Es ist die allererste Aufnahme, die mich sofort für dieses Buch eingenommen hat. Sie zeigt den Urnerboden, die grösste Alp der Schweiz, wo noch etwa 40 Einwohner hausen. Drei der Jüngeren sieht man im Vordergrund, den Rücken den Fotografen zugewandt. Ihre Konturen sind so scharf gezeichnet, dass man meinen könnte, sie seien aufs Bild geklebt worden. Überhaupt die Farben: satt und wunderbar und einem für einmal eindrücklich vor Augen führend, dass man sich nicht täuscht, wenn es einem in diesem Land vorkommt, als sei der Himmel meist grau: er ist es.

Urnerboden / Sprecher & Salinas

Einige der Fotos konnte ich sofort, auch ohne Bildlegende, platzieren. Bellinzona, zum Beispiel, denn da habe ich einmal gewohnt. Andere hingegen nicht, den Ospizio Bernina etwa, obwohl ich da schon einige Male gewesen bin. Doch dankenswerterweise sind den Bildern Ortsangaben und Legenden beigegeben, und zwar in der jeweiligen Landessprache - im Falle von Sedrun also auf Romanisch - und das finde ich toll, auch wenn ich kein Romanisch verstehe. Vielleicht könnte Heimat ja auch bedeuten, sich einen Ruck zu geben und etwas Romanisch zu lernen.

Die Schweiz, die man in diesem Buch vorfindet, ist eine Alltagsschweiz und das meint: nicht die immer gleichen Schlösser und Burgen, nicht die immer gleichen Politiker, kein Heidi, Wilhelm Tell und Geissenpeter, dafür, zum Beispiel, der futuristisch anmutende Autobahnlüftungsschacht im jurassischen Cornol, dem jedoch ein etwas irritierender Text beigegeben ist, der mich zuerst glauben liess, es handle sich dabei um eine Zivilschutzanlage, bei der sich die Leute gerne zum Grillieren einfinden. Nur eben: der Text hat mit dem Bild nicht direkt zu tun, sondern gibt einigermassen willkürliche Informationen über Cornol wieder. Der Grund? Text und Bilder sollen zum Sich-Wundern, zum Fragen und zum Sich-Freuen anregen, meinte Julian Salinas auf Anfrage. Und wie findet man raus, dass man da einen Autobahnlüftungsschacht vor Augen hat? Indem man mit mir Kontakt aufnimmt, erwiderte er.

Cornol / Sprecher & Salinas

Übrigens: die Texte, die den Bildern mitgegeben sind, sind was für Freunde des Absurden: so lautet etwa derjenige zum Foto von Wattwil (drei graue Wohnblöcke unter grauem Himmel, davor eine grüne Wiese und eine Kiesstrasse, auf der ein junger Mann in Jeans und nacktem Oberkörper einen Spielzeugtraktor, glaube ich, in der Hand hält): "Eine intakte Landschaft lädt zu jeder Zeit zu Wanderungen in der näheren und weiteren Umgebung ein. Den Bedürfnissen entsprechend haben die Verantwortlichen der Schwimmbadkommission eine ansprechende Internetseite für die Badi Wattwil erstellen lassen." Und zu Sargans, meinem Wohnort, den ich ohne Legende vermutlich nicht erkannt hätte, der jedoch haargenau so ausschaut, wie Sargans aus diesem Winkel und wenn Schnee liegt eben ausschaut, steht zu lesen: "Nur wer die Vergangenheit kennt und die Gegenwart versteht, ist in der Lage, die Zukunft unserer Gemeinde so zu gestalten, dass der Respekt gegenüber dem Bestehenden und die Aufgeschlossenheit gegenüber dem Neuen in einem fruchtbaren Gleichgewicht stehen. Im Dorf und dessen Umgebung sind 55 Ruhebänke unterhaltsintensiv zu pflegen."

Sargans / Sprecher & Salinas

Wo kommen diese Sätze her? Im Impressum finden sich "Gemeindetexte" ausgewiesen. Und das meint: Diese Sätze stammen von den Gemeinden selber, wurden von Sprecher und Salinas ausgewählt und zusammengestellt und dann den Gemeinden wieder vorgelegt, sind also von diesen abgesegnet worden. Offenbar hatten sie selber keine Mühe, sich darin zu erkennen!?!?

Summa summarum: Das ist ein Buch, bei dem nicht nur ein cleverer Gedanke Pate gestanden hat, sondern auch überzeugend visuell umgesetzt worden ist. Herausgekommen ist dabei ein sehr anderes - schrägeres und wirklicheres - als die üblichen Heimatbilderbücher.

Ursula Sprecher & Julian Salinas
Truce Verlag Zürich 2009

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Rio de Janeiro

Mario Testino / Taschen

Let me start with a confession: I love Brazil. I know parts of the Northeast, and I know parts of the South yet I've never been to Rio. Nevertheless, I've approached this book with the intention to like it. And I did because I thought the youngsters portrayed beautiful. However, I do not think that it is a book about Rio, it is about a fashion photographer's obsession with young bodies. Moreover, I totally disagree with what the Brazilian poet and composer Caetano Veloso says about this work: "What makes Mario Testino's photographs stand out from those of other inspired visitors is that Mario captures the city's essential inner being." Since I've never been to Rio, and since I'm not even Brazilian, how dare I disagree with such a well-known Brazilian native?, you might rightfully ask. Well, have a look at the book, I'd say. It primarily shows lots of well-built young men and women, either nude or semi-nude. Don't get me wrong, they are all a pleasure to look at but that these photographs should show, again in the words of Caetano Veloso, "a complex, rich and multilayered love, overflowing with intimacy and the lucidity of dreams brought to life" seems to me, well, a bit of a stretch.

The fact that not only Caetano Veloso ("Not only does Mario have Rio inbedded in his own name") but also the TV-presenter Regina Casé ("The moment MaRIO sets foot in RIO, as soon as he steps out of the airport. jet-lagged or not, he becomes one of us") stress that Mario Testino, who hails from Peru, is at heart a Carioca (how the ones living in Rio are called) still does not make this tome one about Rio - it is quite simply about Testino's fascination with young and beautiful bodies. To be fair: there are also a few shots of the city to be found in this book.

But isn't Testino's Rio what Rio is all about? Sex and lust? If we were to believe Regina Casé, it indeed is: "Horniness doesn't languish at the bottom of the ocean but flows freely over RIO." And over MaRIO, one feels like adding.

Mario Testino / Taschen

The most enjoyable text in this book is by Gisele Bündchen, who is from Horizontina, a small town of about 18,000 in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, and who writes: "Rio existed in my head long before I ever went there. Soap operas are huge in Brazil, and Rio is where they are made. When I was young my absolute favorite TV show was called Xuxa. I loved the show's heroine of the same name so much that I named my dog after her ... For me Rio was like the stage set kind of place where soap operas were made, where Xuxa lived and where healthy people ran on the beach every day and drank coconut water. It's this dream-like place, only you can go there for real and it doesn't disappoint ... Mario is brilliant at capturing Rio; the sensuality of its people and their happiness in their bodies - the fact that they are at ease with their sexuality, and not afraid to reveal everything about themselves. I don't just mean in terms of wearing few clothes, though that too, but more the way they are authentic and upfront about who they are. I think Mario is like that himself, and that's one reason why he is so great at capturing the people of Rio."

The people of Rio? That must be a city exclusively populated by young folk for none of the people photographed looks more than 22. I truly hope Mario Testino's phantasies can be found in the real Rio de Janeiro that I hope I will one day be visiting.

Mario Testino
Rio de Janeiro
Taschen 2009, Cologne