Communication on the Streets: Three Examples

As someone who rides a bike pretty much everywhere I go in the city, I get to witness all the ways that the people who use our streets communicate with each other. Getting from A to B on New York’s busy thoroughfares is sort of like a square dance in which you’re constantly moving from one partner to another; a successful performance requires that you not only execute the choreography with each partner precisely and synchronously, but that you also contribute to the group’s pattern of movement around the dance floor by flowing easily from one position to the next. And as with a square dance, navigating the streets safely on foot, by bike, in an automobile, or on any of the other crazy things that one sees on the roads today requires constant visual and aural communication between all participants. Pending the findings from a scientific study on how communication between cyclists and motor vehicle drivers works, allow me to unscientifically highlight three of the communicative modes that dominate NYC’s traffic tango:

  1. The Middle Finger

Ok, so I’m most familiar with this gesture when it emanates from my own hand (and often that of other cyclists), usually directed at a car driver who I feel has pulled a jerk move. Flipping the bird is a form of visual communication, and its counterpart in the pedestrian world is the WTF look, a contorted face accompanied by shoulders and hands raised with palms open in disbelief at the jerk move the driver or cyclist who violated their right of way just pulled. I’ve seen motorists give the one finger salute or pump a fist, but it’s generally harder to communicate visually with them. In fact, even though the main rationale provided for laws prohibiting substantial window tinting in New York seems to be safety for cops,I think tinted windows are a huge hazard primarily because they inhibit that most basic form of visual communication—eye contact—between drivers and all the other road users whose safety depends on it.

  1. The Honk
DON'T HONK

Don’t expect to see these anymore.

Last year, the NYC Transportation Department took down all of the “Don’t Honk” signs in the city. The removal of the signage, which also advertised the fine for unnecessary honking ($350), was NOT prompted by a change in law, but rather by “an effort to declutter the streets of often ignored signs.”  Like others, I was saddened to know that we’ve resigned ourselves to accept this form of aural communication as a regular part of our streetscape. The way I see it, honking in any scenario besides a potentially dangerous situation is a violent act. When directed at cyclists and pedestrians, it is an aggressive statement of a driver’s greater power to which those non-motorized travelers have little possibility of responding in kind. Of course, cyclists and pedestrians often do respond and engage in plenty of aural communication of their own on the streets. Here we enter the more specific realm of verbal communication, which consists largely of venomous insults about other people’s inability to follow the utopian etiquette for street use that each of us has devised in our heads. What is it about being on the streets that makes us so nasty to each other?

  1. The Wave

Another mode of visual communication, this one comes in many varieties. There’s the one where a driver oh so graciously gives a pedestrian at a crosswalk a hurried wave motioning for them to cross, even when they already have the right of way, though in rare instances it is altruistic. And then there’s the wave of “thanks.” This gesture expresses gratitude to other folks for yielding to them, whether or not traffic norms dictated he or she do so. I am consciously trying to foster this approach more often, hoping that positive reinforcement for good driving behavior will help change habits. During a road trip across the country years ago, a friend clued me in to a similar visual cue in the trucking world: At night, when one big rig is passing another, the driver being overtaken will flash their high beams when it is safe for the passing vehicle to pull back in to the right lane. The trucker who has just passed will then tap the brake lights twice (or briefly turn on the hazard lights) to say “thanks.” I got to engage with this lingo a few times and it felt good to be friendly on the roads! Let’s hope that the path to “ending traffic deaths and injuries on our streets,” the goal of NYC’s new Vision Zero plan, makes us all more civil communicators.

On Haunting and Inhabiting

The Docks, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1921), NYPL Digital Collections

The Docks, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1921), NYPL Digital Collections

The past is present on the internet. Specters of the past, particularly those that are marginalized or ignored in traditional historical narratives, dwell in digitized open-access archives. Websites like The Public Archive: Black History in Dark Times, Digitizing “Chinese Englishmen,” and People of Color in European Art History curate texts that challenge conventional knowledge and reveal other contexts for understanding the world. By attending to difference and nuance, these archives bring obscured histories to the fore. Dissatisfied with the uneven production of knowledge and histories about certain regions and communities, individuals from within, and outside of, academia foster digital spaces for critical inquiry.

The accelerated speed of internet communication seems to encourage a tendency to reduce or compress information into smaller parts. Sound bites, gifs, images, and excerpts effectively draw attention and mobilize political sentiment. There is a risk, of course. This speed can reproduce damaging assumptions, for internet users might rely on old habits of thought in order to make sense of fragmentary information. But archival projects like the ones listed above enact a critical exercise that shatters any simplistic, one-dimensional representation of a community, region, or historical period. For example, The Public Archive was born out of a frustration with the mainstream media’s depiction of Haiti after the the earthquake in January 2010. Professor Peter James Hudson  explains the digital humanities initiative: “As professional historians with laymen’s interests in Haiti, we thought that we needed to make some small, however limited, intervention in the coverage of Haiti, and we agreed that the best way to do it was by mobilising the research skills we had as historians in an attempt to provide some context for understanding Haiti’s history, and how that history was constructed and represented in the media.”

In culling freely accessed texts, The Public Archive composes a fuller, more intricate, picture of Haiti. The Public Archive does history in a way that is legible for a wider audience without compromising the assertion that rigorous study is still necessary. Its entries oscillate between past and present, text and image, still photographs and videos. The website also offers extensive dossiers, interviews with scholars, and recommended reading lists. In this curatorial move, the archive allows visitors to briefly inhabit the grammar of places, historical periods, and connections that we may have not been conscious of before. Take, for instance, a published post entitled “The National City Bank of New York & Haiti” that sheds light on U.S. military occupation and corporate involvement in Haiti during the early twentieth century. Plural perspectives, multiple genres, and temporalities come together in one post: a Bloomberg blog entry from 2012, a Haitian newspaper printed in 1927 that announces the arrival of National City Bank’s president, an academic article published earlier this year, a pamphlet printed in 1920 that critiques U.S. presence in Haiti, the National City Bank’s rationale in 1920 for its ventures into Haiti.

Marketplace, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1919), NYPL Digital Collections

The critical attitude that is “discontent with reified objects” and “impatien[t] with guilds, special interests, imperialized fiefdoms, and orthodox habits of mind” can flourish in public, digital spaces. This critical attitude, exemplified by The Public Archive and other similar projects, invigorate the sense of a knowledge commons. It seems to me that while the internet may disorganize traditional approaches to acquiring information (i.e., the physical space of a classroom, a codex textbook), knowledge is being reorganized in emergent, sometimes unrecognizable, shapes on the internet. The process of disorganizing and reorganizing knowledge and its politics, I suspect, is activated by collective desires to dilate the space and time allotted to learning.

***

Note:  This  blog is, in part, inspired by the “Why the Research Block?” Faculty Roundtable discussion that I helped Senior BLSCI Fellow Meechal Hoffman organize earlier this month. Also, see this recent NYT Op-Ed piece by Laurent Dubois for a discussion on Haiti and economic history.

On Time and Risk

If there’s not enough time, I could just cut to the chase: the scene is at risk without context.

***

As I write this segment of my blog entry, I’m on a train returning to New York City from a conference. Voices in the background unify into one murmur and whenever I look out the window with the silly hope of pausing on a frame, I see green foliage running, flashes of indecipherable station signs, a moment of cars going in the opposite direction. And now, I am reflecting on a roundtable discussion. My mind is a bit murky.

“Is there a war on the humanities?” This was the title of, and the question posed to, a roundtable discussion earlier this afternoon. While holding up a print version of The New York Times, the moderator began the session by referring to a recent scientific study on the social value of fiction. This prefaced the expressions of unease that later filled the room. The general sense of unease stemmed from the pressure for the humanities to define productivity in quantifiable, measurable, and instrumentalist terms. One of the speakers briefly discussed, I can’t recall his name at this moment, the pressing need to read for content, to browse for a reference. The value that was once placed on the practice of slow, immersive reading seems to be eroding.

***

Scenes are less meaningful without context. Because I taught classes scheduled in the evening and early morning, classes scheduled prior to and after the workday, I wonder often about the temporal contexts that affect scenes of learning and student performance. Like most CUNY students, my City College students frame their education around their work schedule and commute time. For each student, there’s a different set of stakes, a unique set of contexts, that shapes her/his performance. I can’t fully comprehend every set of stakes, but I appreciate when students attend class regularly with the desire to pause on an idea, in spite of temporal discomforts.

***

This student didn’t stick around after class to chat, nor was she a frequent office hours visitor. I remember the first time I read her writing. It was an essay where she brought together Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and Italo Calvino’s essay, “Levels of Reality in Literature.” She’s a stunningly bold writer. She reappeared in my classroom a year after she wrote that paper. She registered late and arrived late to the second class of the semester. She maintained a taciturn presence. Writing assignments were turned in, hers were efficiently written; adequate. I couldn’t find the fearless voice.

Towards the end of the semester, she arrived to my office to complete an assigned recitation. She had to select lines from Paradise Lost, recite them from memory, and then discuss her understanding of those lines. Her boldness returned in a different form, through Satan’s soliloquy. She fumbled on one article but otherwise had delivered the lines perfectly, with verve. A discussion about those lines commenced, about Satan, about Milton’s experience with political defeat. I was impressed with her analysis of the lines and asked about her strategy for studying the lines. Tiredly she smiled at me, zipped up her jacket, and said that she had done it piecemeal. She made flashcards for her subway commutes and meditated on the lines during her shifts at work. “I’m working extra hours this semester,” she told me.

This made me wonder about the vocations that “[involve] both commitment and risk, boldness and vulnerability.

On Smartphones and Journalism

For the past two semesters, I’ve worked with students as they reported all over the five boroughs and Long Island for the Multimedia Journalism class. They’ve produced photo slideshows, videos, and podcasts for the class, and my role has been to coach them through the reporting and editing process.

Here at Baruch, we have audio recorders, video cameras and basic still cameras that the students can borrow from the school if they don’t have their own equipment. At this point, we don’t have high-quality DSLR cameras to offer them (and in any case it’s not an advanced-level class). So most of the time, for the photojournalism assignments, we had them use their smartphone cameras.

I noticed fairly early on that some of the students seemed a little bummed that they had to rely on their smartphones rather than professional-grade equipment when it came time to shoot their photo essays. I’ve been a student journalist myself and know what it is like to feel as though my student status and tight budget is holding me back from telling stories as well as I’d like—so I sought to reassure them that there was no need to feel limited.

The first thing I did was tell them about photojournalist Michael Christopher Brown, who has been featured on TIME’s LightBox photo blog for his iPhone photo essays made in Libya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He told LightBox that he began shooting on his iPhone after dropping his SLR shortly after arriving in Libya, and then found that in many ways he actually preferred it.

Our multimedia class discussed the pros and cons of using a smartphone as a camera. True, the quality of the image isn’t as great with a smartphone, and the camera is much more limited in terms of the light conditions where it can shoot. But something strange happens when you pick up something the size of your palm to take a picture of someone instead of several pounds worth of glass, metal and plastic: You become invisible.

You could be checking your email, posting on Facebook, or playing Angry Birds. But even if the person knows you’re taking their picture, a phone is simply less intimidating. Subjects have blinked and even physically recoiled when I’ve pointed my DSLR quite close to their face to take a portrait. Using a camera phone often conveys a certain intimacy, and it makes you seem less of a threat. I know journalists who have been allowed access to places—field hospitals, for instance—with their iPhones while their colleagues with heavy cameras have been forced to wait outside.

Halfway through the fall semester, Hurricane Sandy shut down Baruch for a week. Many of our students were directly affected, and getting back on track as a class wasn’t easy. But one wonderful thing to come out of Sandy was the fact that it afforded the students an opportunity to report on a major story unfolding in their own backyards, and they did some truly beautiful work.

Sandy also led to an historic moment in photojournalism. For the first time ever, a photograph taken with a smartphone made the cover of TIME magazine.

Screen shot 2013-06-14 at 7.29.42 PM

Photo by Ben Lowy

The photographer, Ben Lowy, along with Brown and three other photojournalists, was commissioned by TIME to document Sandy and its aftermath on Instagram.

Earlier this spring, Baruch invited Australian photographer Andrew Quilty, one of TIME’s five Instagrammers, to speak at a panel called “Your Smartphone: A Window On The World.” Sitting on the panel alongside Quilty were Genevieve Belmaker and Kirsti Itämeri, who have both used smartphones extensively in their work. The presentations and discussion delved into the practical aspects of using smartphones, the ethical ramifications, and the future implications for journalism as they become increasingly ubiquitous and cost-effective tools.

Just two weeks ago, for instance, the photojournalism world was stunned by the news that The Chicago Sun-Times had laid off its entire photo department in favor of putting iPhones into the hands of its reporters. From reading my musings up until now, you might think I applauded this decision, but let me point out one key distinction: Quilty, Lowy, and Brown are all experienced photographers who have spent many years developing an eye for style, composition, and content. When they take pictures with an iPhone, it isn’t as an afterthought, so they have something to run along with the story. As far as I’m concerned, there will always be a need for photojournalists who devote their lives to the craft.

One of the Sun-Times photographers started a Tumblr shortly after being laid off. In the description, he writes, “Rob Hart was replaced with a reporter with an iPhone, so he is documenting his new life with an iPhone, but with the eye of a photojournalist trained in storytelling.” And he delivers.

Ultimately, that’s what I want my students to see. That it’s not about the type of camera, it’s about the journalist holding it.

Publicly Sponsored Hate Speech

I hadn’t intended to write another post about the virulent hatred of fat, fatness, and fat people that is currently shaping our culture. My previous post on the topic led to some interesting and intense conversation, but there are many other topics to discuss and many other dangerous political trends to analyze. Besides, this is a communications blog.

But when I came across this astonishing campaign image on the subway recently, I realized that it deserves its own post.

"Cut the Junk" NYC Campaign

“Cut the Junk” NYC Campaign

[Read more…]

Windows into the “Holiday Season”

The marketing gods of Manhattan are rounding the bend into Valentine’s Day-themed imagery, but I’m still thinking about the “holiday season 2012” fervor.  Specifically, I’ve been caught up in the department store holiday windows. Minnie Mouse dancing with Sarah Jessica Parker.  Winged women in 1920’s-style flapper dresses floating in front of a kaleidoscopic glass and gold backdrop.  Santa leaning over a giant vintage globe in a musty study.  Carousel horses suspended from an ethereal blue mist.  In approaching the CUNY Graduate Center from most directions, these images were unavoidable.  What does it all mean?

Bergdorf Goodman

Bergdorf Goodman

The department store holiday window display tradition in Manhattan always seems anachronistic to me.  It seems like a throwback to less tech-savvy entertainments, such as nineteenth century panoramas, or the diorama book reports I made in third grade. They are also, of course, a symbol of the complicity between corporate commercial interest and the production of supposed mainstream national culture.  And I will admit, I kind of love them.

But what do the holiday windows communicate?  What do they say about attempts at constructing a cohesive narrative of the “holiday season” in the United States?  About the relationship between this amorphous holiday season and American trends in fashion and consumption?  About the carefully constructed neutrality of the concept of a “holiday season” itself?

The generic greeting of “happy holidays,” so ubiquitous in December in New York City, always makes me particularly conscious of the complexity of negotiating aspects of national culture in a country that has, perhaps, never conformed to the neat nation-state model.  This winter I noted how many times, in my Queens neighborhood known for its ethnic and national diversity, I had interactions with strangers in which we both wished each other a “merry Christmas,” after which I paused and considered how unlikely it was that either of us was planning on celebrating Christmas on purpose.

The holiday windows present an interesting text for considering the conscious choices that corporations make in communicating a particular vision of the holiday season.  The trend in the window themes this year seems to have favored topics without explicit Christmas imagery.  For example, local news sites identified a roaring twenties theme represented by Bergdorf Goodman’s jazz-age windows and Henri Bedel’s Great Gatsby-era windows.  Barney’s Disney-themed windows stuck to a generic treatment of the holidays with their “electric holiday” series.  Bloomingdale’s Cirque du Soleil theme invoked whimsical, otherworldly landscapes, meant, presumably, to speak to the transporting nature of holiday revelry.  I’m not sure what makes these themes “holiday” specific, aside from the vaguely religious imagery of winged angel women in low-waisted white fringe dresses.  More than anything, the common denominators deemed “safe” for these window themes seem to be material decadence and high-end nightlife.

Bloomingdale's

Bloomingdale’s

The Macy’s and Lord and Taylor windows stood out through their use of specific Christmas imagery.  The Macy’s windows, based on the story associated with the now legendary 1897 newspaper editorial “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” convey a family-friendly ethos with old fashioned charm, reminding us that childhood belief in the supernatural keeps alive a valuable spirit of possibility.  But is this kind of belief deemed universally valuable, or is it the specific trappings of Christmas imagery that are shown to be uniquely wholesome?

Macy's

Macy’s

It was the Lord and Taylor windows that most interested me.  The series, titled “Wish for Tradition,” depicted Santa in an old study, leaning over a globe.  The tones are muted, as though we’re viewing Santa lost in time.  The globe conveys a sense of world unity in diversity, just as “tradition” implies continuity between the contemporary world and the past.  But this global unity is limited; it is, apparently, only populations that Santa plans on visiting who are included.  The dioramas include a snowy central park excursion, a scene in an outdoor German gift market, a swanky party in an unidentified location (but mostly attended by white people), and a lantern-strewn bridge in Japan with people wearing both traditional and modern clothing.  Tradition, the title implies, is something we should wish for, something we are perhaps at risk of losing, something that might be given to us wrapped in shiny paper if we hope for it fervently enough.

Lord and Taylor

Lord and Taylor

But this glorified representation of tradition only applies to those parts of the world where December is a blanket of snow, or where holiday festivities are marked by buying things, or by a tuxedo-clad waiter carrying bottles of champagne.

“Trick or Treating” for Adults, After a Hurricane

The day after Hurricane Sandy departed and left us with the mess, a close friend invited me to go “trick or treating” in the Carroll Gardens.  Now, you don’t have to twist my arm to ask strangers for chocolate; but this pre-Halloween expedition had a twist.  They were collecting provisions – flashlights, batteries, candles, canned goods – for people in the neighboring Red Hook, which had no electricity and was suffering pretty badly in Sandy’s wake.

I couldn’t join them, but a couple of days later I stole the idea and took students from a class I teach at Pratt Institute “trick or treating” in Clinton Hill and Fort Greene.  If we started off rather timidly, two hours later we were boldly knocking on doors and could barely carry everything we’d collected.   Our laden arms made for lighter steps: after days of being worried, sad, frightened, frustrated, cut off, and/or inconvenienced there was something alleviating and just plain fun about talking to people we didn’t know and witnessing their impulse to give…something.  There was a British man who didn’t think he had anything that fit our list.  He asked us to wait while he checked and returned a few minutes later with an unopened bottle of Jack Daniels.  “That’s non-perishable,” he said.  Much to my students’ chagrin I gave it back.

As people opened their doors we caught a glimpse into well-lit homes that seemed largely unaffected by the storm but for those minor inconveniences that make you realize how lucky you usually have  it.  Then every so often, one of us would point to something, like a car pancaked under a fallen tree, and we’d remember even life here wasn’t  exactly “like normal.”  What I could load on to my back and bike rack I took to Red Hook the following day; the rest we dropped off at the nearby Brooklyn Tech, which was being used as an emergency shelter for evacuees whose lives had been uprooted.  Opening the doors of the school was a glimpse into a starkly different world – with mounds of donations and people stationed near the entrance to check you in, a depressing feeling in the air, and some of the 500 evacuees wandering in and out looking worn down, bored, anxious, displaced.  Right before we left, a young woman who saw me holding a sketchbook exclaimed: “Can I have that?  I’m going to make art!!”  She seemed the kind of person you could picture smiling through the apocalypse and I hope she’s somewhere around me when that shit goes down. I gave her the pad.

Over the next two days I went to Red Hook, Brooklyn and the Rockaways, Queens.  Most of what I did in both places was to deliver food and provisions to the homes of the elderly or infirmed who couldn’t collect it and had no heat or light in their public housing buildings.  I met people who were just so grateful for a warm meal, a mother and adult son who were living with a leaking roof and gusts of cold air blowing through their broken window, children desperate for a flashlight.   On the way to these sites, I passed a standstill line of cars over twenty blocks long waiting for gas, kids playing on fallen trees instead of jungle gyms, and streets along the coast where houses had been completely decimated.   Returning to my warm apartment where everything was fine except for the cell phone service had the same strange contrast of “trick or treating.”  Just like there is something eerie about comparing photos of lower Manhattan where folks were groping around in the dark for days and people living in the Jacob Riis Houses on the Lower East Side still have no running water or flushing toilets to images of upper Manhattan, where as a friend aptly put it, women could still shop at Bergdorf’s and don their high heels.

But then this is New York.  Just walk down Madison Avenue from 120th to 80th Street sometime, think about the controversy over Stop and Frisk policing, or consider the city’s growing chasm between rich and poor and the effects of “city renewal” on the latter.   With Sandy, it was the very blatant division of have and have nots across new lines at a moment of collective uncertainty and crisis that had a visceral effect and appealed to an underlying ethic of compassion and justice most of us share.

Over the past days, I saw a lot of people coming together to help each other and themselves.  Many are people I know from CUNY who have been working morning to night since the storm to make sure their fellow New Yorkers have at least their very basic needs met.  Many are people who’ve been working on issues related to housing, debt, education, policing, labor, income disparity, environmental justice, you name it long before this storm hit.   I hope the important work of repairing and rebuilding the physical and social infrastructure of our city doesn’t stop with the obvious, but addresses some of the divisions that go back further and deeper so we can come out of this stronger than we’ve ever been.

Hard Copy Heaven: The NY Art Book Fair

This weekend I attended Printed Matter’s seventh annual NY Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1. A much-hyped event (in the art community, at least), the fair featured 283 vendors – more than any prior iteration – throughout Ps1s sprawling building. Some were crammed together, others with dedicated rooms of their own, the various stores, presses, not-for-profits, publications, and individual artists offered everything from lovingly crafted editions and xeroxed zines, to stacks of academic titles, to lush monographs and works of book art.

Wolf Vostell’s Unique Concrete Book Object, 1973 (with Josef Beuys’ 1970 recording Ja ja ja, nee nee nee, in background.

As someone whose idle fantasies continually circle back to a luxuriously appointed study that can comfortably house a growing personal library (in contrast to my current reality of shrinking bookshelves and desperate use of a batch scanner, and yes, I’ll happily take a cramped assistant professor’s office, thanks for asking) my walk through the fair was bittersweet. Unlike some of my colleagues, I wasn’t buying for an institution or a curated collection, and any indulgence was on my own dime.

In her 2003 essay, “The Problem of Reading,” artist and writer Moyra Davey writes incredibly eloquently about the ongoing turmoil of choosing what to read next (provided one isn’t reading for a specific writing project), tracing a literary thread on the creative work of reading – and the conflict of choice – through Woolf, Calvino, Bathes, Kafka, Perec, and Bloom. At the beginning of her text, she conjures an imaginary protagonist at home, drifting from book to book. “It is not just a question of which book will absorb her, for there are plenty that will do that, but rather, which book, in a nearly cosmic sense, wil choose her, redeeem her. Often what is at stake, should she want to spell it out, is the idea that something is missing, as in” what is the crucial bit of urgently needed knowledge that will save her, at least for this day?” The advice of various authors is woven throughout her text: Bloom advises returning to Shakespeare, which contains the “Freudian map of the mind” and is therefore crucial to understanding contemporary society, and Gregg Bordowitz advocates “promiscuous” reading, in which any planned faithfulness to a productive list is regularly cast aside, in favor of recommendations by anyone you might run into.

But the “art book” is a particular medium, in an extremely general sense: its objecthood communicates as much as its content. Its design marks its history, its physical form reflects its intended purpose: cold conceptualism, subjective meditation, or exhaustive compendium. It’s about more than reading: it’s about having.

One of my purchases, the main catalog for documenta (13) 2012.

Some tables were refreshingly austere, offering more information than heavy things to haul home. Curator and writer Jamie Sterns talked with me about the new media preservation and preservation work of NP. There was, of course, a book on offer: Travess Smalley’s Capture Physical Presence.

It’s hard to add new books (that aren’t critical to one’s dissertation) to an already unwieldy collection. But part of the reason I find culling books so painful is that it feels like letting go of not a piece of “knowledge,” but a piece of subjectivity, and of the potential for a rich-re-reading at a moments’ notice, just by reaching for it again on your crammed shelf.

Speaking of rich re-reading: these two original Kathy Acker paperbacks, which I really wanted, were something like $80 each.

A book is a cultural exchange, and a place for the exchange of books is, almost inevitably, a place where culture thrives. Presumably, it’s what the duo behind the upcoming LES bookstore, the Bureau of General Services, Queer Division, are banking on .

Donny Jochum and Greg Newton of BGQSD, with hot selling title No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics (Justin Hall, ed.)

Perhaps, along with Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure and Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères, and Greg and Donny will stock the latest issues of Pinups. Promiscuous reading, anyone?

Walking past this table, I was unexpectedly treated to the picture of a friend naked in the shower.

I picked up a copy of the brand-new anthology Where Are the Utopian Visionaries? from the Project Projects/Paper Monument table. The former is a terrific design studio, and the latter is an art journal that’s way more fun to read than October.

Rob Giampietro of Project Projects.

The fair is over, my desk is more cluttered, and my Amazon wishlist (for those things with an ISBN) is even more swollen. But, somehow, I’m still looking for the thing to read next.

As Davey writes, “The idea of a book choosing the reader has to do with a permission granted. A book gives permission when it uncovers a want or a need, and in doing so asserts itself above all the hundreds of others jockeying to be read. In this way a book can become a sort of uncanny mirror held up to the reader, one that concretizes a desire in the process of becoming.” In light of yesterday’s first presidential debate, this collaborative publication from the Badlands/Deste table seems perfect.

The inaugural collaborative publication between Paul Chan’s Badlands Unlimited and the Deste Foundation. Available on Kindle, if, like, me, you’re grousing about space.

FRO12: Now Much Artier

This summer Mikhail Gershovich and I re-wrote the three blog prompts required of all Baruch College students taking Freshman Seminar. The previous prompts, which we wrote a few years ago, were way too formulaic. When crafting assignments, you get what you ask for. We had asked students to tell us “this,” and they responded by writing “this.”

One of the goals of the freshman blogging initiative was to get a sense of who our students are. Instead, we were getting a sense of who our students felt we wanted them to tell us they were. Very few posts integrated media, and students responded to them as though they were a burden rather than an opportunity.

We feel these new prompts are much improved:

Post One, due by mid-September Create a two minute video, an eight image slideshow, or a ten song musical playlist that represents who you think you are to your classmates. Embed your creation in a blog post and then write no more than 500 words that explains how what you’ve created speaks to who you are.

Post Two, due by mid-October For this assignment, you must 1) post the self-reflective monologue you’ve developed in your seminar workshop AND 2) embed a self-portrait, which can be a photograph, an image, a cartoon, a drawing, or some other depiction of how you see yourself.

Post Three, due by early December Create or find a photograph or some other image (a meme, an animated GIF, etc.) that represents in some way your experience at Baruch thus far. Embed your image in a blog post in which you reflect, in no more than 500 words, on your impressions of your first three months at Baruch. Your response should be personal and creative. If you use an image that you did not create yourself, be sure to credit the source with a name, if possible, and a URL!

We trained the Peer Mentors who run Freshman Seminar in how to guide students through producing these posts, and gave them a range of tools that students can use. We also talked to them about the “why” behind these assignments. Each creates an opportunity to talk with students about intellectual property issues, about citation, about public and private publishing (students can password-protect their posts if they want), and about the network of publishers that’s emerging on our campus. In their coursework, we ultimately want students to break down artificial boundaries between the tools and ideas they use and engage outside of their schoolwork and what happens in school. We want to give them permission to apply the skills that power their hobbies to their academic pursuits. We want them to make some art, dammit. And we want them to learn how to do all this in a way that generates both specific expertise and “generalizable knowledge.” Doing so in a low-pressure setting like Freshman Seminar is a crucial first step.

We’re already seeing the fruits of this change in the first six hundred + posts that have come in. Want to see what college freshmen at public, urban university are listening to these days, and how they write about those tastes? Want to see New York City through the eyes of 18 year-olds? Want to see our students’ facility with the moving image (only a few have used video so far, but, this is great)? Then check out the 2012 Baruch Freshman Seminar Motherblog. This space aggregates feeds from around fifty individual sections of the course powered by the work of over a thousand students. That space will be filling up with work over the next few months, and we’re excited to keep looking at, listening to, and watching what our first year students come up with.

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Originally posted on my personal blog

A Glimpse of Themselves

Some years ago I learned of the existence of a “public editor” at The New York Times — someone charged with sifting through and consolidating the feedback and concerns of readers — an advocate or representative of sorts. I was delighted to imagine this direct line of access to the top of The Times tower, to someone actually desirous of productive feedback, and immediately conjured the concise, bullet-pointed letter I’d pen — one that would be received with deep gratitude (and likely produce an invitation to come on as a paid consultant). In straightforward language I’d point the editor to a variety of egregious oversights and mistakes he hadn’t yet noticed (including, but not limited to, The Times’ apparent understanding that the passive receipt and regurgitation of press releases from the agents of those who have recently produced corporate-sponsored art forms constitutes art and literary coverage). The fantasy withered, however, as I soon saw that a) The Times is fully cognizant of its inner logics and b) the office of the public editor blunts real critique by providing readers with an aggression-welcoming punching bag.

Defeated, I channeled my concerns into a private transcription of undeniable, mundane error, keeping a running record of grammatical mistakes and patterns. For instance (the comma seems to cause particular trouble):

  • Four of Mitt Romney’s sons get out the message, as well as, offer a glimpse of themselves.
  • In “A Singular Woman,” the author Janny Scott goes beyond what we know about Barack Obama’s mother — a “white woman from Kansas” — to portray a woman who took a more difficult path than her peers’.
  • Chrissie Miller of Sophomore, is still a social force, with a new store, 143.
  • Ms. Rowley poses with Leigh Lezark of the Misshapes, while Mr. Powers, chats with James Frey.
  • In that last montage, some months after East Dillon has done the inconceivable and won the State championship, they are shown as the East Coast people, Eric thought they could never be.
  • Wardrobe diplomacy: Tips on the perfect closet and, more importantly, how to share it your husband!
  • Chuck Close, wearing a colorful suit by the avant-garde fashion label, threeASFOUR.

This last line was published on the same day a thoughtful editorial on comma confusion appeared. Indeed, the newspaper excels in simultaneous grammar meta-commentary and error. An online column is dedicated to tracking the grammatical errors readers have found, and “grammar and usage” is an online “Times Topic,” introduced this way: “Why are people so obsessed with grammar, and so offended by real or imagined lapses? They argue over split infinitives and sentences that end in prepositions, almost to the point of blows…sticklers see proper grammar and usage as a baseline for a civilized society, or at least for a respectable publication. If writers don’t know the difference between “rack” and “wrack,” or between a gerund and a participle, why should we trust them on anything else?”

Once again they’ve beat me to it, anticipating my attacks by providing a column with which to contain them. But I remain undeterred. Perhaps it’s time to write to the public editor, explaining that grammatical outrage might be compensatory, might stem from sources other than grammar itself. In my case, it’s simply a stand-in for the fatigued irritation I feel each time I read about the varieties of fruit that fill Upper West Side blenders in the weekly “Sunday Routines” column.