Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Impossibility of Swimming Pools

Diving into the Deep End of Illusion and Representation

Oh the good life.  That is what our parents were all promised, right, when they moved to California from Oklahoma or Nebraska or Ohio?  (Listen to the accents in the Antelope Valley and you can hear traces of Okie English still, especially among the most long-time of our residents.)  We know what makes the good life good, too, and it's not just the weather.  No, besides eternal sunshine and blonde wives, we each need a big house and a blue, blue pool.  This fashion spread from 1970 promises it all.

Yellow hair, yellow dresses, yellow sunshine, and beneath a perfect blue sky, the Roman villa indulgence of a perfect blue reflecting pool --- yes, the good life indeed.

Yet, as we all know, this is the endless trap of endless longing, since no matter how big or how clean or how lounge-chair bedecked our pools are, somebody down the block always will have a bigger, better, more lavish one.

Yes, Hearst Castle's pool is almost certainly bigger than yours, even if you own (and live in) a Hilton on Waikiki.  Down the block there always will be something better.  Our own pools will never compare.

Do we even know how to act around swimming pools?  On the right, East L.A. in 1968, I am practicing for what I have now, which is a mostly-white beard.  In the middle, neighbor lad Melvin seems a bit serious.  One wants to give his part of the picture the tag line, "Are we having fun yet?"  On the left my brother Fred is especially dubious --- just what is this pool thing all about, and why does the water from the hose come out so cold?  Note our scissors-and-a-salad-bowl haircuts.

The painter David Hockney would argue that one thing wrong with my pictures so far in this blog is perspective.  He faults the average photograph as being too limited compared to the scanning and edge blurred reality of normal vision --- he jokingly calls it the "product of a paralyzed cyclops."  He assembled a collage of Polaroids to capture the flickering light and shifting gaze that looking at a real pool entails, creating in the process a much larger print than the usual snapshot in an album.  For Hockney, size matters, as does a fractured and unstable horizon line.

Certainly that is what most pools are for, most of the time --- not being swum in, but being looked at.  Now to enhance the trick of that perspective, modern design options include the so-called infinity pool, where edge and sky blend into one.  Welcome to Los Angeles, baby doll, where even the water wants to be perfect and infinite.

Perhaps I am thinking about this all wrong, as is even the astute and multifaceted Mr. Hockney.  Maybe the essence of a pool is not the view from above, but the view from "inside," from below the surface, a look "into" the contents of the pool.

Sort of a sexy shot, isn't it?  (Most images for this blog come from the exhibition catalog titled Backyard Oasis, tied in with what I am told is a fun show at the Palm Springs Museum of Art.)  When I was in high school the water polo players (more so than the football stars) were the narrow-waisted, broad-shouldered epitome of Greco-Masculine ideal.

Sexuality and swimming pools no doubt goes back to the first thermal hot springs 10,000 years before the Romans, but in post-WW 2 America, it really began to flourish as an ideal.  Even MM herself deigned to do some pool shots.

Maybe I am missing something, but her awkward pose and the actual fact of how abrasive poolside concrete is in reality make this, for me, a lot less sexy than it is supposed to be.  That is true as well for this group shot below, from 1972.  (I hope nobody on the AVC staff list recognizes themselves in this shot.)

This is supposed to be an orgy about to happen, but all I can think of is how for me at least this horseplay is just that --- a lot of shouting and splashing and eyes getting weepy from chlorine.  Maybe it is the harsh lighting from the flash, too, but I just don't find this an invitation to be sensually inclined.  It might be fun, but it's not erotic.  Maybe I am just thinking of those times at cheap motels when having a room near the pool turns out to be a very poor (and noisy) choice.

Sexuality and swimming pools of course crosses lines of orientation, and entire museums could be filled with images cataloging the role of the swimming pool and the semiotic of gay erotica.  This fellow from Pacific Palisades can be a stand-in for all of his fellow bathers.

Yet all is not the sex and glamor and baby oil that it seems.  Somebody has had to sweep that patio, water the plants, hose down the faux Roman statuary.  The economics of pools perhaps needs more discussion.  For every swimming pool there is probably a person of color somewhere who chlorinates it, vacuums up the leaves, and changes the filter.  Here we see this premise in action, at a resort in Namibia.

Not just the social implications of pools remains under-examined, but also some of the ecological questions, as well.  Richard Misrach has made that point in his Desert Cantos series, when he made the photograph below, at an abandoned resort at the Salton Sea.  This fetid cesspit of a disaster is 20 miles wide and 60 miles long, water that via farm runoff and evaporation grows ever saltier and ever more toxic with each passing summer.  A river flows into it from Mexico that once was listed as the most polluted river in America.  Here is Misrach's photo.

The pool is left over from a brief boom, when it seemed that the Salton Sea was going to become the poor man's Riviera.  Alas, the water kept rising, the fish kept dying, the stinks kept getting stinkier.  Now flooded trailer parks and abandoned towns provide post-apocalyptic images for each new generation of art MFA students.  Only the mad, the very poor, and the birdwatchers come here.  His photo shows a horizon that fades away into summer humidity, an empty promise of failed dreams.

Elsewhere in Southern California, empty pools and foreclosed houses served a different purpose, as skateboarders turned pools into the prototype X Games that in turn lead to changes in the surfing culture, and, from there, to the invention of snowboards and snowboarding.

I admire their feisty style, even if I can't skateboard to save my life.  (Heck, I can barely surf, and water is a lot softer than cement.)  Movies like Dogtown and Z-Boys capture this era in a way that a previous generation was outlined in Endless Summer.  Sean Penn narrates Dogtown, and the movie includes footage by Chris Stecyk, who took the shot included above.

Which swings back around to my initial premise, that a swimming pool is an impossibility.  It promises a lifestyle we'll never inhabit and yet at the same time, in its Edenic perfection, hides the problems of social inequality and resource consumption.  In a state that is a desert for much of its habitat, should pools even be legal in California?

While photographing the LA River from a helicopter, I took this picture at the north end of the San Fernando Valley, capturing a row of what were called (pre-bust) "McMansions" --- each huge, each on a postage stamp lot, and each with a pool wedged in like an afterthought along some margin of the dinky property.  Maybe the problem here is not the the pool, just its size in relation to the available space.  When I was a kid, my parents rented a really small house, and it had, as one would expect, an equally small yard.  But here we go then, let's make the resources fit the footprint, and for a small yard, they found a proportionally small pool.

Of course, times were simpler back then, as the telephone indicates.  (And God bless Kodachrome, still stable and vivid after all these years.)  Now I suppose kids that age will be put out of they don't have a real phone to play with, preferably an iPhone with some kind of "change my diapers" app and a ring tone array from all the latest Pixar releases.  Luckily I didn't know any better, and in fact, mine was probably the last house on the block in the 1990s to get a cordless handset for the house line.  (Land lines --- remember those?  Yes, I still have one, mostly for nostalgia.)

So in the end, what should we say about pools? 

One Hockney painting I am very fond of was made here in L.A. but is owned by the Tate in London.  Indeed, it is usually the first piece of proper art one sees upon landing at Heathrow, since, depending what terminal you come out at, a framed print of this painting is in a cafe near the where one exits customs.  Titled A Bigger Splash, it uses acrylic house paint to produce an intentionally flat, uniform finish, utterly unlike the skies of (say) 17th century Delft landscapes. 

For Hockney then, to wrap this post up, a pool is a kind of inverted sky, and the sky here, as we all know, is perfect and infinite and never, ever rainy.  Growing up in the Midlands and seeing the sharp-edged shadows of winter days in sunny California captured in the backgrounds of Laurel and Hardy films, Hockney knew that he had to come to California.  Oppressed with mildewy damp days and a cotton wool softness, he yearned for our sun and our sky.  And, once he got here, he knew he had to acquire the attributes of the lifestyle: a driver's license, a tan, a gorgeous boyfriend, and, of course, a swimming pool.  All of these things he did, and so we end the blog with this painting, showing not a person but the water, and not even the water, but a representation of water in splattered white house paint. 

What is the perfect swimming pool?  Not one at the Y and not one at your uncle's house, but as with all things in Zen and Hollywood, the perfect pool is the one in your mind: endless and clean and as eternal as the sky itself.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Twelve Office Chairs (and One Dog)

An Informal Survey of Seats

We use them all day long, yet we don't really think about them much, the chairs in our offices, and even then it's usually in the negative --- if our backs hurt, we complain about the chair.   Otherwise, nothing.  We ignore them until the next time we start complaining. (In this way, office chairs resemble how we usually treat the classified staff IN the chairs.)

Some office chairs have ended up in art museum, including the 1994 Aeron Chair (shown below). This one here is from 1849 and has sprung-steel bands to give it bounce and tilt. I love the art-deco-ish metal work on the arm rests.

A fun survey of chairs can be found in this book, below, from where the 1849 chair comes, along with a few other shots in this blog.  It breaks it all down, from headrest to footsies.

According to this book, there is no part of the office chair that has not been tweaked or corrected or made to look new and improved, and some "modern" designs are older than automobiles and electric lights. Look for example at this sequence of arm rest designs.

These arm rests don't look classic, they just look tired.  (And they don't look like they were ever comfortable, not even in 1965, when the chair was probably delivered to us.)  This chair, rescued perhaps from the Island of Unloved Toys, lives in the break room in OF3.

 The world is full of abandoned office chairs --- not quite comfortable enough to be somebody's desk chair at a work station, yet not quite so broken as to be eligible for the dumpster, or at least not for a dumpster behind a school or natural history museum. This chair below is in the Ornithology Department at the Museum of Natural History in Exposition Park. The bird on the table is a dead condor which I was studying as part of a review of wild animals in Los Angeles.  Hard to imagine, but Pasadena and even Hollywood would have been filled once with condors, just as the Antelope Valley had antelope. (And Grizzly Bears too, if we were going back a few hundred years.) Now we have landfills and bad office chairs.

 In OF3's break room there is an office chair that is a bit confusing to people, but I do remember the story behind it, as it (or was) mine.  When I was hired in 1989, AVC still allowed instructors to control small aspects of their lives, including, in some rare instances, their office desks and chairs.  I was having back trouble then, and Vice President Rae Yoshida (long may her name be remembered with honor and joy) authorized an odd chair, the one here.

How it works is, you sit your behind the higher part (on the right, above) and then tuck your legs under, kneeling on the padded part in front.  It supposedly kept your back in an ideal posture while typing. Well, it may have done so indeed, but it also wasn't the right size for me in some ill defined way, and while it may have saved my back, it blew out my knees. (Now my office chairs are from Staples; I paid for them myself.)  Some chairs date themselves very swiftly, such as this design, the first one, which is from the 1970s, and the one below it, more timeless yet seemingly "from" the 1990s.  It just has that look, doesn't it?

The top of the two is by Olivetti, and even has a 1970s name, "Synthesis 45."  Injection-molded plastic was a new thing then. As for the second chair above, that is one I hear about on the radio a lot. One of the sponsors of National Public Radio programming is the "Herman Miller Aeron Chair Now Available in True Black." I have heard that for years, but its inclusion in the chairs book (and its inclusion, according to its website, in the Museum of Modern Art's design collection) made me look up more about it.  I guess it really must be a pretty good chair, since it costs $850, plus shipping.

The Administrative Assistant in Language Arts is a wise and long-suffering person named Donna Casey, and if you are even in the LS1 building do stop in and say hi, as she is a true gift to our Division --- and to the campus as a whole. When she learned I was doing the blog on chairs, she reminded me to include those bouncing ball chairs that are also supposed to be good for strengthening the back. I have one at home that is too small for me, though visiting toddlers like to roll it around the living room, and Lucy likes it too since its height is such my hands come down just to a good level for petting.

Next time I redo my AVC office though, if I can't convince my dean to buy me the Herman Miller Aeron Chair Now Available in True Black ("But they talk about it on the radio!" I can explain), then maybe we can go more retro / cool / frontier looking. Here is something from a folk art collection in Kentucky, a classic American chair from the 1890s.  By then America was becoming settled --- we were winding up a successful 200 year genocidal relationship with Native Americans and had pretty much shot the buffalo into oblivion.  Nostalgic for the lost American West and the values it supposedly represented, city slickers began to collect antler furniture, such as this item below.  It was an international fad; in England, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had furniture like this, but theirs came from Germany.  Hmm, with tastes like this in Buckingham Palace, no wonder Lady Di never got along with the royal family.

Maybe the best office chair is not to have a chair at all --- or an office.  Here is Life magazine photographer Margaret Bourke White doing her job, which is to say, making art, and in this case, doing so on top of the Chrysler Building.  I happened to see a similar shot recently, something very nicely done by Vincent Laforet, and besides the use of color, can you notice another difference?

Here is the recent shot, taken the same place.

Ah yes, the legally required safety harness.  And so with that, can we predict the office chair of the future? It should have cup holders (after all, don't most new cars have, like, ten cup holders in them?), and maybe built-in heating and cooling elements (again, like expensive car seats). But what if you make a sudden roll towards the filing cabinet yet go so fast you tip over?

That is right. What the office chair of the future will come with will be seat belts. That . . . and with a stack of forms saying that if you burn yourself on the cup of coffee in your cupholder while racing up and down the newly waxed hallway floor, it won't be the chair company's fault. 

And last point on this topic, when your office furniture wears out, please don't just dump it in the desert.  No, not at all.  After all, there is a very special place to throw away broken office furniture --- the break room in OF3.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Every Day Miracles

Not Here Yet (But Soon)

At the suggestion of one of my students, over the next few weeks this blog will celebrate everyday objects, looking at their evolution, their taken-for-granted status, and their magic.  Among items we will consider will be swimming pools (or California's prototype skateboard parks, depending how you want to look at them)...

... at that most essential and humble object, the office chair (here, an 1849 example with a tensioned steel spring suspension)...

and at the refrigerator, or what my dad called "the ice box."

It will take a bit of time to get the right images lined up, but within the week this series will start, giving praise for the things that make life possible (or at least comfortable) and seeing how one thing became another thing.  Watch here: we'll be back soon.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Tina McDermott's New Orleans

Livin' Large in the Big Easy

While the AVC faculty have the same problems as the rest of the world (busted cars, busted marriages, kids who won't keep out of trouble and kids who do stay out of trouble but then need to go off to very very expensive colleges), unlike other places I have worked, we do share some common loves, including good food, good music, and great places to go during our break times.  Recently one of the Communication Department professors (and new boss of the Accreditation Committee), Tina McDermott, shared with me some of her memories of New Orleans.

While this most recent intersession break she traveled to Israel, next winter she has told me her hope is to be able to go back to New Orleans, maybe even renting a place and spending some time.

What's the attraction?

Well, I can answer for her, at least in one respect.

BEADS.  How can you not love a city where for months on end, everybody decorates everything with beads?

The build-up to Mardi Gras reminds me of a fun mix of Christmas and Halloween, and while we know from Tim Burton movies that is not always a happy combination, at least in New Orleans, it makes for some very attractive decorations.

But let's have Tina speak for herself.

"First and foremost, I love the music.  It is impossible not to dance.   Last year I saw the Funky Meters, an offshoot of The Meters with some of the original members in the band, at the famous Tipitina’s (a club founded in 1977 to showcase Professor Longhair in his later years).  The club was packed, standing room only.  From college co-eds to 60-somethings, the audience was all there for one purpose and one purpose only: to hear some serious grooves.  Art Neville (granddaddy of the Neville clan on keyboards) lovingly led the band from one funk-filled jam to the next, with the crowd boppin’ on the backbeat in a collective sway, a shared sense of joy.  

Good live music is everywhere in New Orleans.  Even the bowling alley and the airport feature well known musicians any given night of the week.  A brass band appears out of thin air on a corner of Frenchman Street.  A crowd gathers to dance.  It’s 10:00 on a Monday night and things are just getting started.  The music and musicians are an organic result of the place and the history.  Ancient and complex African drum beats forcefully migrated to this continent morphed over time into blues, boogie-woogie, jazz, funk, and R&B.  This is the place where the soul of American music was literally birthed.   The pain and joy are simultaneous.  New Orleans music is packed with history lessons.

I also love the language and the culture, it reveals the diversity that is the result of a complicated past.  What fun it is to say “Laissez les bon temp rouler.” Even if you don’t speak French, you know what it means.  In French “fais-do-do” (FAY-doh-doh) means go to sleep.  This is what you tell your kids when it’s time to go to bed (and in fact, that is the name of a French lullaby that my French speaking mother used to sing to me).  But in Louisiana, that means that it’s time for the adults to party, thus the word for party is “fais-do-do.”  

And my favorite word to say out loud is Tchoupitoulas (CHOP-it-TOO-luhs), as in “the wild Tchoupitoulas gonna stomp some romp,” from that Mardi Gras Indian song, “Meet the Boys on the Battlefront.”  Tchoupitoulas is the name for the Native American tribes of the Mississippi River, who provided shelter and refuge to runaway slaves before the Civil War.   The enmeshed culture of African and Indian is honored and celebrated by the black community with Mardi Gras Indian social clubs and parades, music on the streets, and elaborate Big Chief costumes that weigh 100 pounds in sequins, feathers, and beads.  It’s tacky and beautiful at the same time, and, serious fun.  This cultural mix up is, to my mind, truly American.

And don’t even start me on the cuisine.  Creole and Cajun both have French roots, so you can’t go wrong.  When I was in New Orleans last year, the worst food I had was some white toast for breakfast at an otherwise good restaurant.  All was forgiven.   There was a jazz singer and pianist playing some jazz standards, it was a Sunday morning, and we made friends with some locals at the next table.  Yes, the CafĂ© du Monde is packed with tourists, but there is nowhere else in the world to eat a beignet that puffy and fluffy and sweet."

Well now.  That made me hungry and jealous.  I wish I could be there right now --- and I would be, except (a) the spring term is in session, and (b) I gave up time travel for Lent.  Thanks, Tina, for these memories.  And, just for the record, I will mention that she teaches even better than she sings, so AVC is doubly blessed.  As for what the Accreditation Committee does and why they're super duper important right now, well --- that's food for another (perhaps less colorful) posting.