Inert Gas Series, Robert Barry

Inert Gas Series, Robert Barry, 1969. The release of five measured volumes of odorless, colorless, noble gasses into the atmosphere in various locations surrounding Los Angeles, where they would diffuse and expand naturally into infinity.

The thing about product design is that it’s a constant performance. It undulates. After some seasoning, I’ve found it to be something most like Robert Barry’s Inert Gas Series, and less like a design adaptation of Agile software methods. Mix Paolo Virno’s idea of virtuosity in Post-Fordist capitalism with Sol Lewitt, and you’ll have a good sample. If the function within American Conceptualism could be utilized and molded into an assembly line, distributed and tested (hauntingly), it would resemble the current creative structure of product design. Also, it perhaps is as equally unconscious to its interior conception of politics, and because of this, of its political objectivity. That is, there isn’t a strain of product design that is looking to seriously critique itself or its limitations yet, or to trace what it is fully doing to human consciousness as it erects new behavioral civilizations. Neither discipline will be happy with this description.

I’ve been dipping into the history of SF and spinning mini-narratives that collapse the entrepreneurial spirit of this town (the title “cofounder” has less than meager meaning today) and the dreamers and hecklers that launched the 1840s gold fever.

The desire to find gold dust in streams can be said about either camp. Today’s streams lack wilderness, but they might be more wild than those old rivers, and possibly easier to exploit, at least for the time being. The most striking aspects are found in the commonalities of the spirit of the old Diggings—the spit-and-dirt gold mining sites—and the new Diggings of startup culture. For both, it takes wile to scour for the right places to source, to champion or rally behind bets, to brawl and disagree, to one-up older architecture, and to double-down, potentially forfeiting to that ever-cascading trial of luck: not being at the right place at the right time. The best understand all of this as a bet with history, a bet on a future magnitude that reaches backwards and dissolves the previous epoch’s forward movement of self-expectation. The more unfortunate believe it is their talent that has piloted them, and from their talent they expect riches. That is too easy.

We do not obtain an intuition of reality, that is to say, an intellectual sympathy with its inmost content, unless we have gained its confidence by long companionship with its superficial manifestations. – Bergson

A six month check-in with words is a poor writing practice. Maybe. Since moving to San Francisco, I have been head down and design-focused on growing Pinterest with a work ethic I’ve allowed to seep into so many corners of my life. I am unsure if this shepherding of my energy has made the resultant work better, or if I instead should allow the natural motions of life to create a rhythm that can be tapped into, sipped from, consumed. And yet, going further, perhaps this focus is exactly that natural motion. There’s effect and “data,” and then there is always a much more expansive field that has other occupants: inconsequential chance, disinterested impressions, and intuition: the stuff of ephemera and permanence, springing from within one another. Here’s to a 2014 that is more writerly, the way in which—decades after acquiring language—I am convinced my mind works.

I will miss most the light in Los Angeles. There isn’t another place in the world that slaps gold around corners and onto streets. It can be passed off quickly as just beautiful, or so LA, but the light in LA is a celebration of immolation and reconstruction, and it structures itself by way of diffusion—a recurring party. I read John Fante’s Dreams from Bunker Hill in my mid 20s and it changed my understanding and feelings about LA, untwining the fiber of this desert town as he captured the light and dust from the 1930s. The starving creative can ascend the universe with any character emblem in LA, even cowardice or arrogance, what Fante’s heroes typically overcome. Just look toward the dust and the flips of light through palm fronds at golden hour and Los Angeles will explain its 20th century to you.

I moved on from GOOD last week to join the Pinterest product design team in San Francisco. I couldn’t be more excited and more ready to hustle hard with the incredible team starting mid-July. It’s a beautiful product, and I am fortunate to join something so influential, useful, and unprecedented.

Having been in LA for almost a decade, I am sorting through what I leave behind and what I take with me up to the bay, figuratively. Part of me wants to leave behind the current east side and take the east side from 2005 or 2006, when it truly was glowing with grit. Coffee wasn’t a fetish yet. Kids could manage cocktails out of ice and water, and you could feel the desert in the streets after midnight, swaying silence, boozy nights and rambling strolls homeward. The look of the farmhand and artisan hadn’t yet been co-opted by all culturally progressive subcultures, and any tension around personal image was more around how dandified you could get and not how proletarian you could get. It was more Band of Outsiders. Fashion hadn’t yet been liquified by the internet, technology was still held suspect in many circles, and coexistence happened with the city at all levels. The most superficial thing held potential to be the most abysmal.

And Beverly Hills had, as always, its dreamy youth and dreamier wealth, and its spirit of questioning the seasons. It’s the near lack of seasons in LA that gives this barren, sparkly town its pause between yes and no. And that pause exists everywhere here. It is strongest for me in 2006.

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Sometimes I can’t tell if the making of Kubrick’s 2001 is more impressive than the film itself. The psychedelic ending with its Nietzschean übermensch tone risks the same annihilating consequences any near-fascist creator faces. How did he end up there, and how did he pitch his vision … to himself? I remember reading somewhere that his process to make his unrealized mid ’70s Napoleon lasted longer and produced more content and research ephemera than all of his films before it put together, including 2001, Lolita, and Dr. Strangelove. And even still, the difference of research and process quality of Lolita, of interpreting Nabokov for film, is itself an enduring task. Artists and even (especially) designers have come to fetishize process quite a bit, and for the majority of the time aim to exhaust all viable possibilites with a faith that the product is justified by their process. This is not necessarily so, and sometimes, many times, even if a process is lush and exciting and a product in itself, the final product can be limp and unfulfilled. A thorough process does not necessarily make a great product. Great decisions do. In any case, here is a Scribd of the making of 2001, and here is probably the best interview Kubrick ever did, a talk with Playboy in 1968:

How much would we appreciate La Gioconda today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: “This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotten teeth”—or “because she’s hiding a secret from her lover”? It would shut off the viewer’s appreciation and shackle him to a reality other than his own.

Unfinished journal entry that already said it all, “22 hours later in rainy La Paz,” and most magical adventure to date, where the most important language was voiceless. I ain’t going down to the well no more. This, this, and this, too. Baudelaire defined genius as “childhood regained at will.” Also, Stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula.

1. In its flatness, the Southwest provides what the dusty hills of Los Angeles cannot: centrality. You are here, and the Southwest’s here is always located nowhere, but already everywhere. Distance collapses into you and yet everything is expansive and abundantly distanced. The Southwest gives you to yourself to tinker around its landscape and embrace thoughts of exile that seem inherent within the flattened horizon and backlit neon plateaus and the meandering crests of wrought plant patches. There are also things called washes everywhere, and each wash has a name. Carla said she’d rather have a wash named after her than a road. I agreed, unless my road crossed a ton of washes. To wash or to be the washed? Cord also agreed, a wash was the thing, better than a road. Washes, I found out while in Arizona this last week, are natural conduits for rain-charged gushes of water, river pantomimes that dry up as quickly as they flush above or under roads. They resemble windy dioramas of the plains, wilted golden styx of long grasses. And there are thousands of washes, each emptying into one another, ready for the next storm. In performance, the snuffed ground is incapable of absorbing a sudden torrent of rain, and at once these washes pulse with the clouds. The Southwest exhumes your past as evocatively as it preempts the decay from your future, and it will deny you the presence of ancient riverbeds while it ratifies the outbursts of dice from above.

2. Fitzgerald, from The Crack Up: “He repeated to himself an old French proverb that he had made up that morning.” An accurate account of my birthday this year, this month. Additionally—if Montaigne was the first blogger, F. Scott was the first Tweeter, specifically with the exhaustive staccato in The Crack Up. But these are pathetic things to loft onto either writer. And it goes without saying that the contemporary context of writing and communication has birthed these new technological mediums—teasing out an origin is always the plaything of poorly guided guides to thinking about the internet. Favorite Montaigne, from On Redemption, in Essays, “Even constancy itself is no other but a slower and more languishing motion.”

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Picnic at Hanging Rock

The contingent world and the problematic individual are realities which mutually determine one another. – Georg Lukács

An immanent ideal that provokes unlivable experience becomes the subject of freedom and terror for a number of films in the 1970s. Picnic at Hanging Rock, a 1975 film by Australian Peter Weir, is most emblematic of this. Set in 1900, a dozen or so schoolgirls picnic at a geological oddity on Valentine’s Day and a handful climb up the carved, maze-like wonder of rock, all but one disappearing forever. The mystery of the girls’ disappearance jolts the surrounding social fabric and brings near disfunction to the private all-girls school. The school, Appleyard Hall, prepared girls for a then proper ideal for the soul—of womanhood and the arts, an understanding of classics, of sonnets, poetry, languages, and it nurtured saucer eyes with the possibility of unfulfilled romantic bliss. The highly anticipated picnic delivered the spiritual hysteria of the sun, ancient dust, moires cast from the forms of the earth, and the possibility of sensuousness unleashed from morality. This general gist is at a similar crossroads of what was erupting everywhere during the late 19th century and early 20th century: Westernized life idealizing in a different way primitive cultures and nature, the decay of the allegiance to aestheticized pastorals and the sublime, grandiose depictions of nature: a bourgeois dazzlement with a cabinet of curiosities found in ritualized, tribal art and objects. Yet the difference in Picnic is that it is the formless that requests the hero’s fate and not the safe boundaries of art—as opposed to the forms from tribal expressions usurped by Cubism, let’s say. The thirst from the schoolgirls in Picnic comes from a promise of an unknowable experience, and this experience can take your flesh and breath as well as your acceptance of the meaning of time, as the only survivor of the bandit hike experiences when she returns to a present that is unrealistic and untimely. The brutalizing logic during the early 20th century and its wonder of the “other” is cast against a wobbly concretion of proper social existence. But still, Picnic is an updated vision from the 1970s, after the sexually liberating movements of the 1960s and the other revolutionary moments that doused the earth. And for the most liberating frontier, form was not needed, just the earth was necessary. Clearly, love nor its promise is enough in Picnic; it is necessary to conjure immanence and the provocation of nothingness, a capsizing into the abstract.

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Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes’ Striptease disrobes Parisian culture from its own beautifully mystifying rhetoric quickly in three pages—or at least the 1957 text illuminates the device that makes possible a living rhetoric. Striptease negotiates signs of eroticism in moments of ritual: spectacle and interior voyeurism. The text is less about pointing at the use of words or about a public phraseology and is more about circumscribing what establishes the conditions of a public to understand itself or be understood through ritual. For Barthes, this striptease is “based on a contradiction,” and it’s that a woman is “desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked.” The rest of the text uncoils from this first sentence. The force of Barthes’ writing is intoxicating and steadily has two paths, a constant forking, because whereas the piece is clearly on eroticism, desire, a fundamental tease within a climate of voyeurism, and a direct illumination of a myth—of the seeming universal nature of petit-bourgeois culture, the tease is also in the act of writing itself. To make concrete any sociological observance, to play voyeur with the cult of humanity, the way in which a writer’s own rhetoric mystifies and demystifies projections or strips observations of their existential coyness creates a living rhetoric. Transgression and commitment, that binary star, isn’t always just an erotic relationship. Fear is its master, a “delicious terror” which only needs an “announcement” to evoke the relationship. Pointing at the mechanism of a vehicle is different than driving it. And whereas so much writing diagnoses culture from this or that theory, typically under the guise of a crisis of meaning or experience, it’s something altogether different to celebrate in exacting and haunting exposure the inescapability of ourselves.

After waging a big battle with content strategy—firing a team of incredibly talented writers and editors, as well as the dissolution of a unique, internal custom content agency—GOOD will relaunch as a site aiming to help prime discussions and actions around an infinity of worthwhile causes and issues. Regardless of the common fear directed toward the management style of GOOD, the vision is viable, alive and palpable. It has taken countless whiteboard hours, exhaustive UX and UI comp reviews, centrifugal strategies, software engineer blood and sweat, and sheer steadiness in the middle of poorly unleashed psychological self-assaults from the company to get the minimum viable product up and operating. The MVP is an excellent stab, one that I have a hunch will bear fruit in the next year as we iterate on it and learn from it. Criticisms hurled at the product are inevitable, and insightful expressions about the difficulty of the vision during the present online climate will be found nowhere, but historically this move and transition will be seen as one of survival, to be sure. We’re early and not late. And it might speed up death or it could phoenix. Wait and see. The world wide web has proven that behaviors condensate rapidly, and further that the very medium of a written piece can change by way of the context and interface that allows it to be consumed.

Onward to tomorrow.

This amorphic, formless spirit is a threatening one that is emerging everywhere, and those who are threatened should do something more than write against it.

Six days on the road, feels like seven It’s over when Minnesota Fats says it’s over Camus: “Free yourself from ambition. Create.” Buckley’s Dream Letter has posted Tumlir’s dangerous method, Robert Barry, and the plague But who’s afraid?