Just another manic Monday

Postscripts, follow-ups, and a few odds and ends I’ve wanted to share for a while:

1. Nostalgia or counternostalgia? The Jon Kessler Experience

VBS.tv has a little four-part Art Talk! interview with a friend of mine, Jon Kessler, who set up studio space out in Williamsburg in 1980. He took an entire factory building for $150 a month. I’d like to know how people think his storytelling — and Jon is a fantastic storyteller — falls into the “nostalgic” or “counternostalgic” camps I’ve been trying to sort out over the last few weeks.

2. Down and out on the Bowery

Also following up my “Magic of this broken world” posts is a line or two that stuck out at me while leading a book group discussion on part II of Luc Sante’s Low-Life sometime last week. Here’s how Sante wraps up his chapter on the “Saloon Culture” of the old East Side in the nineteenth and early twentieth century:

Bowery characters [eccentrics who had achieved local notoriety for flamboyant drinking and storytelling] acquired a professional venue at Sammy’s Bowery Follies, which opened at number 267, on the site of some notorious dives of the past, such as McGurk’s the Mug. There, slummers could feast their eyes on a collection of old-timers, eccentrics, geeks, and the more presentable of the bums, who carried on in a mild and pathetic way; its atmosphere of good-natured decay was chronicled in photographs by Weegee (Arthur Feelig). The proprietor became the last Mayor of the Bowery, and his place was the only one by then to possess a cabaret license and present a floor show. A certain ambience did grow around the place, mostly of a nostalgic and toothless sort: there was a Bowery Chamber of Commerce, which handed out such honors as Miss Hitchhiker at an annual ceremony; a man named Harry Baronian published The Bowery News; In 1955 the El was torn down, and the suddenly exposed street looked naked and empty. Today [1991] all that remains of the Bowery’s heritage are a number of missions and, at last count, two bars.

Now, the Bowery today is certainly a different world than it was 15+ years ago, when Sante’s narrative — the consummate nostaglic New York loveletter — was published. Here he’s lamenting the decline of the Bowery’s bar culture; by the time the book’s second edition came out in 1993 Sante was lamenting, from far off Canada, the gentrification that brought back a thriving — if somewhat more tony — bar scene in his old hood. (As an aside, I googled the address he gave and came up with this interesting Times article from 1999 on transformations in the neighborhood.) Certainly the new Whole Foods on the Bowery, across the street from the address he’s writing about, would horrify him — but the question has to be asked: is it better to have a neighborhood’s local culture fall so fully into disrepair that it can’t host more than a few flophouses and two bars, or to have it turned over to urban “pioneers,” followed closely by developers, who over the course of a couple decades bring back art scenes and nightlife, but at the cost of skyrocketing rents? Is there a third way, you armchair urban planners?

3. Ongoing Baths blogging

It was time for my bi-monthly trip to the Russian and Turkish Baths but all my regular fellow bathers were otherwise occupied, so for the first time I went on my own. It’s a different experience, sitting there with yourself, and one I’d not hesitate to repeat if needed on occasion. A few things I noticed, without friends along to distract me: One, though it’s true you see mostly couples and small groups at the Baths, there are a lot of folks there on their own. And when you’re one of them, the people there in couples or small groups — especially if they’re chatty — can be kind of annoying. (A conversation about how different nationalities like to take their medicine — Americans orally, English by injection, and the French by suppository — was redeemed only by this joke at the end: “Q: What’s the difference between an oral and a rectal thermometer? A: Taste.”) Self-righteously solo-flying, I tried to take such irritations as an opportunity to practice my yoga breathing.

Two, though this has nothing to do with being there solo or with friends, I saw my first family bathers there last night — parents with an eight-year-old kid. He seemed pretty into the whole thing and pronounced the Russian room “a good place to meditate.” When he dumped his first bucket of icy water over his head, the whole banya burst into applause. In the cold plunge, he’d count out loud to see how long he could stand the water. The whole experience seemed fresh through his eyes. I only became mildly annoyed with his parents, who looked like they’d be Tompkins Square regulars, when they kept pestering him about his “inner peace.” Had he achieved it yet? (By which I think they meant, “Are you about ready to go?”) In response he said: “I don’t know. I’ve just been taking in a bunch of Oxygen. I think I need a little Hydrogen too.” And then he gulped down a bottle of water.

Though we were there on a co-ed night, which means bathers have to be wearing shorts, I couldn’t help but think of the passage in Kavalier and Clay where Sammy’s dad takes him to the baths out at Coney Island and he first encounters “the great brown spectacle of his naked father.” What must the kid at the Baths last night have thought while the strapping Russian platza masseur beat the living bejeepers out of his skinny little father?

4. Big Mac Attack

Finally, this history of the world’s wars, WWII to the present, animated using fast food. Guess which country’s represented by McDonald’s?

Warning: this isn’t intended for kids, even if it seems funny at first.


(h/t Speak, Peppery, by way of Boing Boing)

29 responses to “Just another manic Monday”

  1. anon. says:

    Wow, that video is disturbing. On a positive note, it took away my appetite for breakfast, which I really don’t have time for anyway. So thanks, I guess?

  2. no — you should always eat a good breakfast, even in the wake of fast food fights.

  3. ks says:

    I’m in my office having an “Israel” and grapes. In a few hours I can have my “England.” (Would rather have some “Japan” but don’t fully trust that the university’s food service would have the safest raw fish.)

    I’m still unsure which European nation the pretzel represents, or which food item the Balkans were. (Were there any stuffed cabbage rolls in the battle scenes?)

    Which countries are you eating today?

  4. ks says:

    Ah, so the pretzel is Germany, but now who’s the sandwich? I won’t be able to get anything done until I identify every dang food allegory. Thanks, Bryan, for a time sink I did not need this morning! Argh.

  5. bw says:

    I should have linked to the food fight key. Here you go.

    But it’s kind of fun to figure it out without the key, too.

  6. ks says:

    Thanks for the key, though all ya’ll who’ve not yet looked yet should definitely spend some time figuring it out for yourselves. (Don’t let this spoil the fun.)

    **Bryan, maybe you should add a “watch before reading comments” addendum.

    That said, did anyone else think that kimchee looked a lot like pasta with bolognese sauce? And shouldn’t Cuba be a bowl of black beans…or coffee…or something?

    I want to show this in class but nothing I am currently teaching has any relevance. Dang.

    So glad you’re out there finding this obscure videos and sharing them.

  7. bw says:

    you’ll have to come up with a version for the civil war. grits vs thanksgiving turkey?

  8. Rachel says:

    Most disturbing moment(s): the falafel suicide bombers, especially when they took out the two towering burgers.

  9. ks says:

    I found a way in which your post is indeed relevant to my job today: I am off now to discuss early-twentieth century, cross-class constructions of manhood. A student will be giving a report on something she read about homosocial leisure (dancehalls, social clubs) among the working-class “Bowery Boys.”

    Interestingly, the rather new invention of homosexuality (as a lifestyle rather than mere acts that could be regulated) was apparently condemnable only for the penetratees in this culture, whereas penetrators risked little if any damage to their masculinity. Do you think the Bowery has changed in this regard in the past century?

  10. bw says:

    hey — will you nab me the citation she’s working from?

    i have to say i have very little insight into the sexual goings on of the few flop houses and missions that remain … my guess, though, is that a lot changed in the 1980s about the way sexuality was framed in bum culture (so to speak) as in the rest of america.

  11. ks says:

    Bryan, I’ll send a list of relevant readings for you to do in your spare time (ha!). The main two I recommend about sexuality, masculinity, and leisure in NY are George Chauncey’s Gay New York and Randy McBee’s Dance Hall Days. I’ll note the relevant chs. from each book. Also, Anthony Rotundo’s American Manhood is great on sexuality, marriage, work, and leisure. I will send a chunk of my syllabus to your university email so as not to gum up the works here any more today, if that is okay?

  12. i know the chauncey and rotundo, but the mcbee title is new to me. i’d love the syllabus. thanks!

  13. That is fascinating. It was a fun puzzle, trying to figure out which food was which.

    And why shouldn’t kids be shown this? I can see it being used to re-iterate what they learn n their history classes. Maybe not really young kids, (just because that food is really violent and there are enough slightly disturbing images, like the final one, to make a brain imprint) but kids who have had enough education on world history (specifically, the various past wars and current events).

  14. when i said kids i meant five year olds, not middle schoolers. even so, there’s something disturbingly reductive and anticosmopolitan about the ways in which foods are assigned to ethnic groups/nationalities. and it brushes a little too close to comedy. i’m really not sure what i think about this. what exactly would it be reiterating other than the basic details of who fought whom?

  15. I hadn’t thought about this when I posted this morning, but I suppose Jon’s video sculptures share some preoccupations with the food film — and yet his preoccupation even with cartoonish media don’t even come close to comedy the way the food fight cartoon does.

  16. Tim says:

    Hey Bryan,

    I just watched the first 2 of the Kessler videos. He sounds to me remarkably matter-of-fact about the Williamsburg of yesteryear, just saying what it was like, not nostalgic or counternostalgic. Or is matter-of-fact counternostalgic?

  17. Dave says:

    Hmm, might the animation get a lot of its power from its dehumanization of war, reducing nation-states, their armies, and their weapons to foodstuffs? In some ways I find it quite funny — certainly some of the individual animated actions are funny simply in a physical, immediate sense. But overall I get a sense of weirdness — absurdity, I guess — part of which is the comedy, but part of which is other stuff. For one thing, the “reduction” isn’t a one-to-one correspondence, especially with the food representing all sorts of things: soldiers, tanks, cars, buildings.

  18. lane says:

    this is so cute to read ks talking to Bryan.

    Bry, you would have liked the garage.

    (Sorry, there I go being sentimental again.)

    NICE VIDEO! Jasper wants to watch it again and again.

  19. oh dear. don’t say i didn’t warn you.

  20. anon. says:

    Lane, I don’t know whether to hug or shoulder-punch you (from afar), so I’ll just say, it’s good to see you haven’t changed…still sarcastic AND obnoxious! But what garage is it you keep referencing? Do you mean the basement in my parents’ house…or the GARAGE-garage (a.k.a. “the bat cave”) that was somewhere else entirely? I’m so confused about what you think you remember! Dang, we have to talk about this sometime…

    I bet Adriana is all kinds of mixed up about what the video does with food. The horror, the horror….

  21. ks says:

    Dang it…that is supposed to be from ks, not anon. Blew my own cover.

  22. lane says:

    Jeff Crosby’s garage. Was it also called the Bat Cave?

    You catholic kids were so exotic.

    (and you knew it)

  23. ks says:

    Whew…that means you aren’t crazy. I don’t fully remember you being at the Bat Cave but I’m glad you were. Heck, why wouldn’t you have been? Everyone who was anyone in 1980s Ogden misspent their youth there. Good times. (Do you remember the purloined “Slow Children” sign hanging in there? (We WERE so damn cool.)

    Last summer I drove past that house and saw a cute nuclear family in the driveway and a swingset in the yard, toys scattered about. Seemed so wrong.

  24. lane says:

    “Everyone who was anyone in 1980s Ogden”

    God, you Catholic kids, you really thought a lot of yourselves,

    Glad to know you!

  25. ks says:

    “God, you Catholic kids, you really thought a lot of yourselves”

    –How could we not with the likes of you willing to hang with us?

    I wonder who, from that old gang, might still be cool. Not me, that’s for sure. You, Lane, still cool?

    I so want to send you a copy of what you wrote in my 10th grade yearbook. It totally reeks of 1985 coolness.

  26. lane says:

    “You know we couldn’t get much higher . . .”

    This is really running downhill.

    On behalf of myself and KS I appologisze to the entire GW. This really needs to be moved over to IM.

  27. swells says:

    just go ahead and say it–“lane, i’m home”

  28. Godfree says:

    Thanks for pointing me toward those Kessler interviews. I love his story — the idea of moving into an old factory has always been so appealing to me. I think this has something to do with finding a connection to my family’s blue collar past, but without having to punch the clock myself. If you think about it, moving into an abandon factory to set up an art studio is the ultimate post modernist act.

    Of course, Kessler’s working with machines conceptually ties him back to the factory’s soul — it’s Aristotelean essence.

    Boy I’m envious.