Monthly Archives: March 2007

Wallace Berman’s iPhone

Berman Verifax

There’s still two or three days left for New Yorkers to catch Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle, which is up at NYU’s Grey Gallery through March 31, and which makes this post my timeliest one yet. The show documents the underground scene that formed around Wallace Berman in California in the ‘50s and ‘60s, one that coalesced for a while around his unique, experimental journal Semina. It was a scene that could embrace both the Beats and Hollywood, but was not dragged down by either. (His devotees ranged from Allen Ginsberg to Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell.)

Of all the connections that the artworks on view could inspire, the most facile I could possibly hope to make is that between Berman’s Verifax collages (1964 on), his best-known series of work, and the design and marketing campaign for Apple’s new iPhone.

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1984

This ad sure doesn’t need my two cents at this point, but I’m fascinated by how dated the blonde runner looks, with her “short graduated haircut,” athletic wear that conjures an American Apparel line, and, added seemingly pointlessly, her iPod. (Has anyone solved politicians’ universal fascination with how Now iPods are?) As she smashes the Hilary control machine to bits, the added meaning of her retro period appearance lends to the dissonance of this ad.

In 1984, this runner’s outfit would have been invisible. That’s just what people on TV looked like back then. It certainly falls seamlessly into the mid-80s ethos of healthy, muscular femininity America promoted. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics debuted the first woman’s Olympic marathon, and the winner, Joan Benoit, was American.

In fact, this commercial actually pre-dates the appearance (in 1985’s Red Sonja and Rocky IV) of Brigitte Nielsen, the former Mrs. Stallone and Amazonian 80s cultural phenomenon.

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Our President is a violent cokehead

Fourth Anniversary

A to Z: Air, Zodiac

Air’s new album, Pocket Symphony, came out last week. Ten years and five studio albums later, they are still being reviewed in the shadow of their 1998 apotheosis, Moon Safari.

The video for Moon Safari’s Kelly Watch the Stars pays tribute to the pioneering videogame Pong, playing off the concept of the gamers controlling real world events. In this case, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel’s Pong game—played inside Kelly’s eyeball, which is maybe her brain, but maybe a parallel-dimension control room/rec room—determines Kelly’s real-world table tennis match. Then, when Kelly is threatened by a near-fatal athletic injury, Air pops out in the guise of paramedics, and fix her up to finish the tournament. They control her life; they control her death.

Pong

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These new Hummer commercials

These new commercials—set in a dystopian, Max Headroom-ish near future—are comic and cynical and just plain brilliant. First, there’s the kid who becomes most popular in the class by bringing a snowball into show and tell. The snowball is an exotic, magical specimen, because everyone’s parents drive hummers, and the children have no firsthand knowledge of winter or this once common substance.

The next spot (clip above) is called “Submarine,” and it features a young Mac user who customized his H3 to swim underwater. It’s an adaptation clearly designed to cope with the rising sea levels caused by melting polar ice caps. He drives off a pier into the sea; for all we know, that pier is in Nevada.

The message is simple: the environment may collapse, but Hummer drivers will triumph. Last summer’s Tofu commercial got publicity enough (its imagined confluence of vegan and Hummer driver is prima facie an absurdist null set), but that earlier campaign traded on parodying outmoded gender insecurities. There is no self-scrutiny in these new ads. Here the Hummer driver is superman; where a weaker car driver might fret or apologize, the Hummer driver just takes it off road.

One of the all-time great Internet memes is the rude gesture to the Hummer driver. This campaign, perhaps, is its subtle return gesture.

Romantic young dead, all boys

First Spaceship

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1973 Robert Smithson, 35, plane crash
1975 Bas Jan Ader, 33, lost at sea
1978 Gordon Matta-Clark, 35, cancer

Second Spaceship

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1988 Jean-Michel Basquiat, 27, drugs
1990 Keith Haring, 31, AIDS

Third Spaceship

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1989 Robert Mapplethorpe, 42, AIDS
1996 Felix Gonzalez-Torres, 38, AIDS