Weekend

Required Reading

This week, the problem with Superchief, reviewing Calgary’s new Central Library, Judith Butler’s performative gripe, a map of New York City’s endangered languages, best museums of 2019, and more.

Jean Nouvel’s new National Museum Qatar tops Dezeen’s list of the best museums and galleries of 2019, and I would agree with all their picks except The Shed, which I think is underwhelming and a monument to hubris. See their complete list at Dezeen. Also, don’t we need to find a way to factor in buildings made for dictators and autocrats versus structures made to support civic society and more democratic societies? It seems odd we don’t account for context in the judging of architecture. (via Dezeen)

Unpaid workers might be bartending (a coveted task, since it came with tips), working the door or merchandise booth at events, performing administrative tasks, painting, or building installations with the paid crew. Isaac Parker, a former Superchief employee, estimated that during the time he worked there, roughly two-thirds of the work done at the gallery was completely unpaid. The term “intern” was sometimes used to describe these workers and occasionally an actual intern would arrange college credit for time spent at Superchief, though the vast majority were simply “volunteers,” with no educational pretext. In a March Facebook post, for example, Superchief announced it was looking to “ADD TO THE A-TEAM 😎😤💪” with a call “for volunteers to help out with admin, art handling, production, and ALL of our events!”

In almost all cases, it’s illegal for private businesses to use unpaid, recurring volunteer labor and in order to hire unpaid interns, for-profit businesses must meet a series of strict guidelines, including notifying interns of their unpaid status in writing. According to the mandates of the New York State Department of Labor, the company’s system of informal payments that allegedly left many employees far below minimum wage likely violated a number of labor laws and tax laws. Former Superchief workers said that when they complained about wages, Zipco would, depending on his mood, either lecture them on how they should be more grateful for the opportunity, plead poverty, or apologetically tell them he was “new at this,” and still figuring things out as a business owner.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, the symbolic heart of the revolution is the city’s Tahrir Square. There, the people have created a communal, spontaneous, ever-growing public display of everything Iraqis have to give and to gain together. Volunteers provide free food, water, blankets, and tear gas antidotes, and even the grandmothers doing laundry refuse to accept payment, in solidarity. They accept only donations of detergent. There is a makeshift hospital, a legal clinic, a radio station, a screening room, and a library. All of this is in obvious contrast and a strong rebuke to the sectarianism and cronyism that has defined post-2003 Iraq. Ali Eyal, an Iraqi artist taking part in the uprising, describes this space as “another Green Zone. A Green Zone of our dreams, of our hopes.”

The Green Zone of reality and of despair is, of course, the massive compound that was once the central command of Saddam Hussein’s regime, until it was taken over by US occupation forces. A monument to power, exclusion, and privilege, today it houses the Iraqi government and parliament buildings, a number of corporate offices and residences, and foreign embassies, including the largest and most expensive US embassy anywhere in the world. (The embassy cost $750 million to build.) Inside the Green Zone’s heavily fortified borders, only accessible by bridge but highly visible due to its central location along the Tigris, residents and employees—mainly associated with Iraqi or foreign governments—enjoy security, the windfalls of oil sales and government contracts, clean water, and round-the-clock electricity.

The NCL is an example of what you might call “best practices” in modern monument making: put together well-tested elements, be sensitive to the site, and mould all of it together using the latest technology to create a beacon of culture that is imposing, awe-inspiring, all at the same time.

The standard elements the designers, Norwegian/American firm Snøhetta and local studio Dialog, use include a sharp and distinctive exterior; the soaring and sky-lighted atrium that is also a stair hall, from which you can see all the main levels; a broad and inviting set of steps and ramps under a sweeping canopy that invites you into the building; open stacks for at least the most often used books; cozy reading areas scattered around the space in such a way that you can either concentrate on your reading (whether digital or physical, as the whole library is also a point of access to those without connectivity) or on seeing and being seen; a formal reading room on the top level; and a stepped children’s area filled with stage sets for informal readings and parent-toddler interaction.

One of the best parallels for trying corporate executives for crimes against humanity might be the so-called IG Farben Trials, in which executives of the IG Farben Company — which worked with the Nazis to produce Zyklon B gas, a pesticide used extensively to kill Jews in the Holocaust — were tried before US Military Courts in Nuremberg. The company also developed several processes that aided in the Nazi war effort, like synthesizing rubber and oil out of coal. They employed slave labor provided by the Nazis, even constructing a factory just outside of Auschwitz so they could put prisoners to work.

Farben executives and plant managers were tried on these and other charges. Just thirteen of the twenty-four indicted were found guilty, and the longest sentence anyone of them served was eight years, including time served. After prison, several went on to lucrative consulting gigs and board positions for German chemicals companies, including former subsidiaries of the now-disbanded IG Farben, and companies like Dow Chemical. After serving his four-year prison term for the “plundering and spoliation of occupied territories,” IG Farben CEO Hermann Schmitz went on to take a senior post at Deutsche Bank.

The head of the company that would become the war’s largest distributor of Zyklon-B — Bruno Tesch — fared less well. He was tried separately before a British military tribunal and executed, alongside his second-in-command. Court documents detailed precisely how much money he and his main business partners had made from selling the agent to the Nazis.

Whereas Murray tips his hat rather perfunctorily to feminism before proceeding to put the boot in, Meghan Daum’s The Problem with Everything is a middle-aged, passionately committed feminist’s lament over what has become of her convictions in the age of what she calls the “wokescenti”. If her critique of the more outré antics of US identity politics is more convincing than Murray’s, it is partly because it is always more effective to be censured by one’s sympathizers than by one’s adversaries. Daum strikes a balance on the question that seems to elude Murray. At its best, she writes, the new generation of cultural activists elicits greater awareness of issues of social justice. At its worst, it functions as the purity police, calling people out for the slightest transgression of a stiflingly self-righteous orthodoxy.

Because the US is a deeply parochial society, not much given to seeing itself from the outside, what seems obvious to an external observer – the fact that the more baroque forms of political correctness represent the latest outbreak of good old-fashioned American Puritanism – seems not to be much recognized at Yale or Columbia. Sectarianism, holier-than-thou-ism, the gulf between the reprobate and the elect, the scanning of words and actions for the least flicker of ideological impurity: all this has a history as old as the nation itself. There’s nothing new either about the claim that if my experience is radically different from yours, you are incapable of understanding me. It used to be known as middle-class individualism, and involves confusing sympathy with empathy, as well as making a fetish of immediate experience. Once upon a time, the self was hermetically sealed off from the selves around it; now it is cultures that are mutually incommensurable.

According to witnesses, the woman, whom Harris has nicknamed “Talkback Tammy” on Twitter, stood up from her seat and loudly interrupted the Q&A just as it was finishing up. She accused the queer black playwright of being “racist against white people.” At one point, she complained that she didn’t “want to hear that white people are the fucking plague all the time.”

During her diatribe, which lasted for several minutes, she reportedly said she had been a victim of rape, false arrests, having her children taken away, and “being told as a single woman [she’s] not good enough to fucking raise them.” She asked Harris, “How the fuck am I not a fucking marginalized member of this goddamn society?”

  • Netflix released The Irishman, the 3 1/2-hour gangster epic by Martin Scorsese, and it was seen by 13.2 million US viewers over its first five days of release. But only 18% of viewers finished it:

Only 18% of viewers made it all the way through “The Irishman,” which stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. But that’s not unusual for a Netflix movie. A similar number finished “Bird Box,” and only 11% completed “El Camino.”

On the Friday after Thanksgiving — the most popular day for viewing “The Irishman” — 930,000 viewers watched the entire movie, Nielsen said.

It is this spirit that The Wing and Glossier attempt to invoke with their maximalist designs. Pattern and ornament are perceived as signs of freedom and tools for the destabilization of gendered hierarchy. This is how The Wing’s website can claim it’s ‘a throne away from home’, allowing women to ‘spend hours plotting with your co-founder’ while ‘trading tips in the beauty room’: play, pleasure and the cultivation of beauty are understood as integral elements of an optimistic feminist politics. In an era threatened by an emboldened far-right, asserting the value of pleasure is undeniably appealing. Yet, what this conceals is how, in the period since the P&D movement, the boundary between work and play has been troubled by neoliberalism’s insistence that pleasure and profit can, and should, co-exist harmoniously. What these corporate playgrounds truly demonstrate is how the radical potential of ‘playful’ and ‘zany’ aesthetics can be appropriated to mask a capitalist logic, which conceives materialistic motivations existing in tandem – rather than in tension – with the desire for freedom and self-expression. To understand these enterprises as feminist or anti-hierarchical relies on deception: with London membership of The Wing costing GB£1836 annually, not everyone can join the club. Exclusivity is cloaked as inclusive community, escapism is dressed up as empowerment, and philanthropy is used to deflect from profit motive. As Jia Tolentino writes in Trick Mirror(2019), ‘women are genuinely trapped at the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy’, yet ‘the trap looks beautiful. It’s well-lit. It welcomes you in.’ Ultimately, the right description for this contemporary aesthetic isn’t decorative maximalism, it’s kitsch.

  • The Endangered Language Alliance released a fascinating map of the endangered languages of New York City, and it’s incredible what the range truly is. Here’s a screenshot of the area around Hyperallergic HQ, and it appears there are Ojibwe and Tatar speakers in the area:

  • A new study from a professor of mathematics at Tufts University has devised a mathematical model that accurately reproduces real-life wealth inequalities in a wide range of free-market countries. Their model shows that in a pure free-market economy (i.e. in the absence of wealth redistribution mechanisms) all the wealth inevitably falls into the hands of one or a few people (an oligarchy). Surprise, surprise:

Although the origins of inequality are hotly debated, an approach developed by physicists and mathematicians, including my group at Tufts University, suggests they have long been hiding in plain sight—in a well-known quirk of arithmetic. This method uses models of wealth distribution collectively known as agent-based, which begin with an individual transaction between two “agents” or actors, each trying to optimize his or her own financial outcome. In the modern world, nothing could seem more fair or natural than two people deciding to exchange goods, agreeing on a price and shaking hands. Indeed, the seeming stability of an economic system arising from this balance of supply and demand among individual actors is regarded as a pinnacle of Enlightenment thinking—to the extent that many people have come to conflate the free market with the notion of freedom itself. Our deceptively simple mathematical models, which are based on voluntary transactions, suggest, however, that it is time for a serious reexamination of this idea.

In particular, the affine wealth model (called thus because of its mathematical properties) can describe wealth distribution among households in diverse developed countries with exquisite precision while revealing a subtle asymmetry that tends to concentrate wealth. We believe that this purely analytical approach, which resembles an x-ray in that it is used not so much to represent the messiness of the real world as to strip it away and reveal the underlying skeleton, provides deep insight into the forces acting to increase poverty and inequality today.

If the whole report is too heady, the Irish Times has a good summary.

Required Reading is published every Saturday, 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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