Weekend

Required Reading

This week, Yayoi Kusama goes floral, the battle over US identity, considering David Goldblatt in Paris, Humanities problems, reviewing the Pioneers of African-American Cinema, and more.

Yayoi Kusama has created a new “obliteration room” for the inaugural National Gallery of Victoria Triennial. She transformed her concept to include a flower motif. Titled Flower Obsession (2017), guests are given artificial gerbera daisies and flower stickers to place on the surfaces of the room. See more images on Colossal (via Colossal)

More Americans work in museums than work in coal, but coalminers are treated as sacred beings owed huge subsidies and the sacrifice of the climate, and museum workers—well, no one is talking about their jobs as a totem of our national identity.

That English departments have contributed to this state of affairs is ironic to say the least. A lifetime ago, literary studies was conceived precisely in opposition to the specter of demagogues. The field was funded and justified on the presumption of its value as a bulwark against propaganda and political charisma. Our predecessors feared more or less exactly what we now face. The discipline we’ve deconstructed was their answer to it.

Consider their historical situation, in which potent new media were fast eclipsing old. The first radio broadcasting station opened in fall 1920 in East Pittsburgh. Two years later, consumers spent $60 million on radio sets, parts, and accessories. In 1920, movies were silent. A decade later, they talked. Instantaneous sound and light reached vast audiences between the World Wars and played an instrumental role launching the second one. Authoritarians right and left stirred ears, eyes, and hearts across unprecedented distances. The unruly masses, mobilized by facile slogans, looked everywhere poised to undermine free institutions.

Goldblatt is an unerring portrait photographer, but he is also a master of absence, able to materialise the invisible subject by photographing the tools and spaces associated with labour, even when there is no worker in sight: a pile of miners’ shovels or a black maidservant’s quarters in a prosperous northern suburb, monastically tidy, with a flattened cardboard box for a mat and a copy of a newspaper announcing that the Apollo 11 mission is on its way back from the Moon. These powerful compositions, in which Goldblatt’s subjects are invoked without appearing in the frame, are among the rare instances in which he catches people with their guard down. Most of his subjects are willing participants, invited to look the camera in the eye, or at least take note of its presence.

This question also comes up in Villar Rojas’s show. Who’s the “we” in the “Theater of Disappearance”? Does the exhibition and the museum address itself to some particular public or publics? How does it assemble them around these objects over the run of the exhibition? Or more simply, in the room on any given day? We can also take another angle on that question: Who’s the observer in this strange exhibition? Is it someone in the future looking back on our times? Or is it us in the here and now? Or both? And how does that change the way we see the world both within and outside those walls? The pieces assembled in the show seem like artifacts of a lost world — a larger totality — but of course, the art-viewing public can be much more limited and specific than that. In a narrow sense, this is a vision of an art world lost in a new era it cannot fathom. In these ways, the critique here is both targeted and vast, forcing the viewer to rethink the relationship between the part and the whole: between art and the world.

Blackness was often a source of comedy in American culture. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first made into a short film in 1903, as a compendium of black stereotypes prevalent since slavery, according to Donald Bogle in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (1973). A Nigger in the Woodpile (1904), a blackface comedy, is one of those productions from the era when film was not far from its nickelodeon origins. Foster envisioned motion pictures as a thriving industry for black people, and warned that if they didn’t invest in their own films, white people would step in and grab the profits. The millions of dollars The Birth of a Nation was said to have earned at the box office was in itself a news story.

The black actor Noble Johnson starred in thirty-four films for his Lincoln Motion Picture Company between 1915 and 1918, playing mostly ethnic characters—Native Americans, Latinos, Arabs—not black ones. But Universal Pictures, the white studio that wanted him under contract, got him to resign from all-black Lincoln, by then a competitor. In 1916, the Frederick Douglass Film Company produced The Colored American Winning His Suit, and then two more films, one of which was a documentary, Heroic Negro Soldiers of the World War (1919). Emmett J. Scott, Booker T. Washington’s secretary, attempted to make a film in answer to Griffith’s. What began with the title Lincoln’s Dream became The Birth of a Race. After Scott had to bring in white backers, his film as released in 1918 had nothing to do with black progress since slavery and was instead about two white German-American brothers who fought on opposite sides during World War I.

A reconstruction of Sri Lanka’s descent into violence, based on interviews with officials, victims and ordinary users caught up in online anger, found that Facebook’s newsfeed played a central role in nearly every step from rumor to killing. Facebook officials, they say, ignored repeated warnings of the potential for violence, resisting pressure to hire moderators or establish emergency points of contact.

Facebook declined to respond in detail to questions about its role in Sri Lanka’s violence, but a spokeswoman said in an email that “we remove such content as soon as we’re made aware of it.” She said the company was “building up teams that deal with reported content” and investing in “technology and local language expertise to help us swiftly remove hate content.”

Sri Lankans say they see little evidence of change. And in other countries, as Facebook expands, analysts and activists worry they, too, may see violence.

Not unlike Puerto Rico for America or Anguilla for Britain, Guadeloupe is France’s modern colonial problem. Guadeloupeans have French passports, can travel freely within the European Union, and can vote in French elections. (In the last presidential election, Guadeloupe’s abstention rates were higher than 60percent.) Outside of the classroom and outside of the cities, Creole is the unofficial language. Guadeloupeans follow the French legal and political system; in school, they learn from the same curriculum as students in mainland France.

But few in Guadeloupe enjoy a quality of life comparable to that of mainland France. Although Guadeloupe receives 972 million euros from the EU each year, its youth-unemployment rate has hovered around 50 percent for decades. Much of the local economy is still controlled by békés, descendents of white French slave owners who received reparations from the French government after 1848 after losing their livelihoods.

  • Now, this is interesting. Google to abandoning Allo, according to The Verge, and focusing on the future of messaging:

Now, the company is doing something different. Instead of bringing a better app to the table, it’s trying to change the rules of the texting game, on a global scale. Google has been quietly corralling every major cellphone carrier on the planet into adopting technology to replace SMS. It’s going to be called “Chat,” and it’s based on a standard called the “Universal Profile for Rich Communication Services.” SMS is the default that everybody has to fall back to, and so Google’s goal is to make that default texting experience on an Android phone as good as other modern messaging apps.

“What does it mean to be a museum in the 21st century?” he said, as an array of leaders, both Indigenous and otherwise, looked on. “It means innovation and learning, linking our past to our present and, critically, it means removing barriers to collections for Indigenous people.”

It was a tacit acknowledgment of the rift still to be closed between Indigenous communities and mainstream society, both socially and economically. The ROM, to its credit, is doing its part to sustain the conversation, though a major promise made at last year’s Anishinaabeg: Art & Power, to install a permanent staff curator of Indigenous art, remains unfulfilled (the museum says it’s actively searching for candidates, though it can’t offer a timeline).

Required Reading is published every Sunday morning ET, and is comprised of a short list of art-related links to long-form articles, videos, blog posts, or photo essays worth a second look.

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