Monday, November 5, 2018

Essay'd: Bailey Scieszka

Thirsty Olde Pitre, 2017, 16:9 HD Video, 17:38 minutes. Edited video footage from from March 8th, 2017 performance at 13th Street Repertory Theatre in New York City. Music by Valerie Keane.

(originally published 10/29/18 in Essay'd)

In his 2017 bestseller Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen makes the convincing case that an essential aspect of the American character is a brazen disregard for the line between reality and fantasy. This is a congenital condition, he argues, that dates back to the nation’s founding.

Andersen’s thesis provides a useful lens through which to view the work of Bailey Scieszka, a multimedia artist and writer with a voracious appetite for history, on one hand, and popular fantasies like conspiracy theory, live action role playing, and end times prophecy, on the other. But for Scieszka, it is not just our eager and longstanding embrace of the irrational that makes Americans Americans; it is also the will to violence that is so dangerously entangled with our mania for make-believe.

Scieszka’s work has a great deal to do with violence. It’s “the only way to tell a true story,” according to her unbridled alter-ego Old Put—a murderous, shapeshifting, basket-weaving demon clown and pro wrestler who is the star of her elaborately-conceived plays, performances, and videos, and who features prominently in her prodigious drawings. Indeed, Scieszka’s astonishing output to date can be understood as an extravagant explosion of American violence, fantasy, and myth—a deranged, bedazzled, go-for-broke freak show that is informed by history, interpolated by trash and post-internet pop culture, and framed by anxiety about the horrors of contemporary life. Her work is a funhouse mirror reflection of the world today, hilarious at one turn and terrifying the next....

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Mid-Michigan modern

We recently ventured to Midland, two hours north of Detroit, to tour the Alden B. Dow Home & Studio, and to Flint, where we visited Lawrence Halprin's Riverbank Park. Both sites were recommended to us by friends, and both represent significant but perhaps underappreciated achievements in modernist design in Michigan. I'm grateful to have had the chance to get to know both of these developments, and to assess the startling contrasts between them.



Alden Dow (1904-1983) was a son of Herbert Henry Dow, founder of Dow Chemicals, and the philanthropist Grace A. Dow. He was a prolific modern and organic architect (after Frank Lloyd Wright), leading the design of more than 500 buildings across the country. In Midland, in particular, his influence was profoundhe designed dozens of residential, civic, and commercial buildings, and his promotion of modernism evidently attracted a number of other similarly-inclined architects to Midland, resulting in a remarkable preponderance of modernist structures in this curious, conservative company town.

Grace A. Dow Memorial Library, also designed by Dow (That fascia is made of glass! And was evidently just restored last year.)

Dow designed his home and studio, nestled among extensive greenery and a manmade pond, between 1934 and 1941.

Seen from either its commercial entrance (above) or residential, the sprawling, low-slung building belies its astonishing 22,000 square feet. I learned from our tour guide that it is constructed primarily out of block made from recycled ash from Dow Chemical. The architect called this material "unit block," and it distinguishes many of his other residential buildings throughout Midland.

The block is everywhere in the house and on the grounds, and also extends the home into the pond via a scattering of pedestrian islands made from the same material, which elegantly collapse the border between the structure and the landscape. This is also a playful gesture, one that invites a visitor to explore, to wander, to hop among the stoneswhich, according to our guide, was typical of Dow's sensibility.

We couldn't take pictures in the house, but that spirit of adventure or escapade permeates inside, whether in the extreme compression and expansion of space from room to room, in long interior and exterior hallways, or the surprisingly vivid use of bright, saturated colorspinks, purples, and greens that reference the lush flora outsideto draw one's attention up toward windows and ceilings that soar and fold.

The tour was an extraordinary experience, a rare opportunity to spend time in a truly beautiful, expansive, and well cared for place that was nonetheless human-scale, vivacious, warm, and idiosyncratican enlivening, playful, ever-shifting wonderland of ingenious and humane design.

Afterward, we embarked on a couple-hour interlude that basically consisted of us driving around Midland, spotting and pausing to admire more than a dozen modernist homes, and getting to know a friendly local named Laura who was initially suspicious of our interest but then proud to point out a few key streets where we could maximize our mid-century rubbernecking. Then we hit the road to Flintjust about halfway back home from Midland to Detroit.


In the mid to late-1970s, Flint's fortunes were faltering. In an effort to revitalize the downtown, boosters and philanthropists organized the construction of a new downtown park to be designed by the firm of Lawrence Halprin (1916-2009), a Bay Area-landscape architect noted for his dynamic public spaces. Or so we learned from Cade Surface, a friend of a friend who has studied Riverbank Park extensively and has advocated for its preservation, and who happens to live just a few blocks away.

Cade took us all around the ten acre park, explaining that it embodies a key concern of Halprin's, who worked closely with his wife, the choreographer Anna Halprin: it is a space that invites people not simply to walk through it, but to dancethat is, to move through it in various and imaginative ways. In addition to the variety of perspectives it offers from which to watch other people, Riverbank Park, like the Dow House, encourages people to hop from space to space, to climb, to explore, to discover.

As you can see from the photos, Riverbank Park is made mostly of concrete, a material I'm personally very fond of (hence my interest in going there!). I'm one of those Brutalist weirdos who wants to tell you how soulful concrete is, how comforting and natural. I guess there is something about its sturdy matter-of-factness, or maybe its roots in the ancient world, that draws me to it. And there is, in fact, a classical quality to Riverbank Park, with its succession of outdoor rooms, its oculi and amphitheatre, its insistence on the ideal of the public.

But Riverbank Park was meant to be more than concrete geometric forms, grass, and trees; it was at one time permeated and enlivened by the Flint River itself, via a feat of engineering that involved the use of two nearby dams, an Archimedes screw, and an aqueduct, a system whereby water regularly coursed through the structure, cascading down steps and spouts and into pools and channels.

Photo of functioning Riverbank Park by Adam Pagnier

Currently, the park is dry, which gives it an austere and forlorn feeling. Cade explained that on advice from the federal government, Flint has gone about dismantling the two dams to minimize the risk of flooding downtown. The aqueduct and Archimedes screw have also been removed. It sounds like water can still be made to pass through the park piecemeal, but with effort, and only on special occasions.

The future of the park is uncertain. Our quick visit suggested that it is still used, but in addition to the malfunctioning water system, Riverbank Park does not seem to be well cared for (little wonder, in a city that, according to Cade, has just one full-time employee working for the entire park system). Cade said that one plan calls for most of it to be leveled and replaced with grassland. Along with other community members (including Emma Davis, a dance instructor at UM-Flint, who staged a community-driven performance there in 2014), he continues to advocate for its preservation as a place of local and national distinction, citing its singular character and the fact that numerous of Halprin's other spaces elsewhere in the country remain both vital and protected.

Part of what made our visit to the park somewhat sad is the profound disconnect between the soaring ambitions of its creators (one might say their hubris) and the earthbound economic reality of life in Flint. This was meant to be a grand place, and evidently it was, for a timebut grand places are expensive to maintain. How could Riverbank Park possibly have thrived after the successive social and economic crises that have rocked Flint's beleaguered citizens these last decades?

Even dry, still, skeletal, the park is a beautiful place. Yes, there is something integral missing, but it still feels sacred and surprising, like something from a dream. And in fact, as I fell asleep later that night in Detroit, I started dreaming that I was back there, under the sun, but that there was water rushing all around, down the steps, through the channels, spilling into basins, catching the light, splashing. The park was alive with water. It was a lovely vision of a rare and special place. I don't know if, after an hour and a half introductory visit, I have any right to advocate on behalf of the preservation of Riverbank Park, but I can't help but hope that I'll get a chance to experience that vision for real one day, and that many others will too. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

B-side: Ghost busses and phantom transit data

I published an article in Model D this week that describes my and Michel's surprisingly rich six month experience living car-less in Detroit. In it, I glancingly touched on something I wanted to dig into a little deeper here: my experience using the DDOT bus system.

I'm a very recent DDOT user, having just gotten started in October. As I mentioned in the article, I have really come to love riding the bus in Detroit. I look forward to it, every time, for a whole bunch of reasons.

View from my bus last week

But as much as the system has evidently improved in the last couple years, it still has its problems — namely, busses occasionally not showing up when they're supposed to. As I mentioned in the article, this has been an infrequent occurrence, in my experience, but that doesn't mean that it's not a maddening, frustrating inconvenience when it happens. It's a real killjoy, especially in the cold. It's also unsettling, in a very specific way. You're standing there, squinting into the horizon, hoping to catch a glimpse of the indistinct but telltale orange marquee lights that means a bus is coming, wondering — did I get it wrong? Did I miss the bus? (Did it come early?) Is it five minutes away? Is it ten minutes away? Is it just not coming? Should I call a Lyft? Should I wait for the next one? Then you see those lights, and you feel relieved, but it gets closer and you see that it's not your bus at all, but another line, going someplace else.

Besides the glaring, systemic problem of the bus not being on time, there's another problem here, a human-scale problem: a problem of information. You don't know. There are tools that are supposed to help you know, but these are confusing and, evidently, inaccurate. For instance, the first time I caught the bus, I used DDOT's "Text My Bus" service, where you send a text and get an automatic response telling you how far away the bus is. It worked perfectly — it said the bus was five minutes away, and five minutes later, the bus showed up. But the next time, it said the bus was two minutes away, and two minutes later, no bus. Five minutes later, no bus. Ten minutes later? No bus. I texted again: next bus, 35 minutes. It was like a ghost bus had gone by.

"Use Transit," a friend said when I relayed my experience, referring to the free smartphone app that purports to offer realtime bus tracking info. "It's more accurate." Great! So I downloaded Transit, and after struggling a bit with the so-simple-it's-complicated-interface, I got the hang of it (or thought I did). Transit uses GPS to determine where a user is and shows the buses that should be coming by, displaying a list of upcoming, realtime pickup times. Except, when I started using it...more ghost busses. More confusion. What was going on here? Transit is supposed to be displaying real time data about the busses in Detroit. But is it?

I posed this question to the folks at Transit and got an illuminating response from a friendly representative named Katie. "Transit does in fact offer real-time information in Detroit for DDOT buses as well as SMART buses, and the new Q Line," she wrote. But she said that she noticed that some DDOT busses didn't have realtime data available. You can tell when there is realtime data, she said, by the radio wave icon that appears next to certain departure times. In the screenshot below, realtime data is only available for the 4:48 and 6:12 bus. The other times are all extrapolated from bus schedule data.

It's a subtle thing, that little radio wave icon. I never even noticed it before Katie brought it up, and the folks at Transit would do well to make its significance clearer up front. But now that I know, it's great! At least now, I know what I know, and what I don't. (And a few subsequent tests have proven this out — each time I've seen those radio waves, the bus in question has come right when it's supposed to.)

But that bit that I don't know remains problematic. Why, on the screenshot above, do only two of seven busses have realtime data? Why can't I know exactly when all those busses are coming? To understand that, I turned to Neil Greenberg, manager of service development and scheduling for DDOT. (He's also a bona fide transit enthusiast, a former bus driver, and the mastermind behind Freshwater Railway, the intricate but totally made-up regional Detroit transit system that made a splash in 2011 when it got Detroiters dreaming about what real, connected transit here could look like.)

"The realtime DDOT data just isn't consistent," Neil admitted. It's not reliable." The problem, he said, is that DDOT is using a 25 year old AVL, or automatic vehicle locator, computer system. "When you try and feed data from an old system into a newer system," he said, "things really get messy." So in the transfer, the data become unreliable. Buggy. It's the same problem for Text My Bus that it is with Transit — as users, we simply cannot expect reliable data every time, or even most times. His advice? Use bus schedules instead. The busses, after all, tend to come when they're scheduled, so in the absence of consistent realtime data, the schedule's the most reliable option.

The good news here is that, according to Neil, DDOT is currently embarking on a multi-year tech upgrade that will include a complete replacement of the AVL. "We're investing pretty heavily in all new systems," he said, "not just for the AVL, but downstream from that — apps, data processing, everything that ultimately makes it to the customer's hand. It'll be great to have. We don't just want something new, we want something that we can maintain and keep up to date." He expects the overhaul to be complete in 2019-20, and lists better realtime data as a major goal. He cited other forthcoming improvements, too, including a notification system to alert riders about delays, and a new website that would help make the experience of learning how to use the bus system more straightforward and accessible to more Detroiters.

So evidently, there's a lot to look forward to. For now, of course, the most pressing concern remains the big one: those late or MIA busses. The best way to address that problem, Neil counsels, is to let DDOT know about it. "We really like complaints," he said, "but please don't just blow steam and tell us how we wronged you; tell us when, where, and what line. We need specifics."

Ideally, of course, the bus system wouldn't wrong its riders at all, but as you may have noticed, we don't live in an ideal world. I'm going to keep riding DDOT because I like it and it's convenient and, in my experience, it usually works just fine. I'm sure, here and there, another bus or two is going to not show up, and I'm sure I'll feel frustrated and wronged and curse the fact that we just can't seem to get transit right in this town. But I'm glad I spent some time digging into this, because I'll also take some comfort from the thought that something better might be coming down the road. If I squint, I can almost see it.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Making rock music with Kathy Leisen

Oh Detroit, what have we done to deserve Kathy Leisen?

If you don't know Kathy, she's an artist, musician and singer with a voice like a smoldering, late night campfire beneath a big, starry sky somewhere out West, with some ragged clouds just starting to roll in and drizzle, but it's OK because you're with your friends and you've had a little whisky and you just spent the whole day outside. Her band Soft Location, with their mellow, slow-burn rock tunes crowned by Kathy's aching lyrics of love and longing, is a Detroit essential. Put on a Soft Location record and time slows; you drift a little. You melt. Here, listen:

Kathy also happens to be disarmingly graceful, forthright, and generous of spirit. I will perhaps forever associate her with the peaceful, matter-of-fact good vibes of the Detroit art community. She's one of the first people I met, seven or so years ago, when I started writing about Detroit art with any semblance of seriousness, and I won't soon forget the kindness and openness with which she welcomed me (nervous, unsteady) into the little sound art gallery in Eastern Market where she was noodling on an acoustic guitar.

Last weekend, she amply demonstrated that welcoming spirit in "Harmony By Any Means Necessary," an intimate performance at Popps Packing, the Hamtramck home, studio, and artspace of artists Graem Whyte and Faina Lerman. The concert was part of the Lounge of Saturn, an ongoing exhibition and performance series at Popps featuring work by a dizzying array of Detroit artists.

Popps Packing

For the occasion, Kathy donned a plain, billowy garment that her friend, the artist Chad Wentzel, created, a sort of giant apron that makes her one with her keyboard. ("I feel like I'm getting ready to go into surgery," she joked as she slipped into it. Chad told me that his ambition is to make a room-sized version of this piece, an environment, basically, that would join Kathy and her keyboard with the audience, a la James Lee Byars, maybe. Sounds like fun.)

As she set up the keyboard, Kathy placed five or six stones, maybe 2-5 inches long each, along the top of it, as well as a couple rolls of masking tape, and told the assembled company that she needed some help with the performance—or the game, as she put it. ("Art should be fun, shouldn't it?") The idea was that she would start playing, and then we would commence to shape the music together, with each audience member encouraged to walk up at any time and place a stone on a key, or group of keys, or else tape down a particular key. As the tones shifted, Kathy would correspondingly modulate the tone of her voice, producing a unique, improvised composition, co-created on the spot.

I've seen Kathy use her stones in a more straightforward solo performance recently, at the Shells record release party at Trinosophes, and it's a subtle but powerful gesture. Visually, tactilely, the stones carry a certain weight. They're of course such natural objects, freighted with idiosyncratic meanings about their (be)holder's connection to the natural world, about childhood exploration, ancient beginnings and environmental degradation. There is something fruitful, dialectical, about the relationship between the stones—with their utter simplicity, their mute, compact, essential rock-ness—and the keyboard, the big sound machine, hard-angled and complexly engineered. Their union (their reconciliation) could be gimmicky or precious, but it's not; instead, it's unexpected, a little whimsical, and quite elegant.

The sound, meanwhile, is notably...visual. There's the background, the pure, hard tones of the keyboard, which are minimal, even, unambiguous, and insistent: a drone. (A plane.) And the foreground: Kathy's voice, reverb-ed and echoing, freeform, soft, shifting, and abstract. (There are lyrics there, but they're fuzzy and indistinct—mostly you can make out an "I" here, a "you" there—all, perhaps, you need to know.)

With participation, of course, there is much more: you hold the rocks in your hands. You make choices, informed or not. (Kathy is definitely not worried about whether or not participants "know" music, which is in itself pretty incredible.) You perform the ritual; you walk up and make an offering, to...what? The god of music, maybe, or to Kathy, or to the Earth itself. And you do it in concert, with strangers, perhaps, or with friends. You play (in more ways than one) and then enjoy the remarkable result: that voice, that sad, silver voice, ringing out over the tones that you've manifested, together.

"Harmony By Any Means Necessary" was all over pretty quickly. Just three distinct compositions, maybe 15 or 20 minutes in total, but what a gift: a precious opportunity, these days, to shake off the weight of things, the anxiety, the despair, the ceaseless chatter, and to make something that stands apart—something simple and still, sacred and shared.