Friday, December 30, 2011


Went to the Walker Art Center yesterday. My favorite thing in there right now is a video piece called “Flooded McDonald’s” by Superflex. It's part of the John Waters-curated exhibit "Absentee Landlord." (Brilliant.)

The film is exactly what the title says. An empty McDonald’s looks like it’s been abandoned mid-day. The camera lingers on each thing in the room: Meals both fully intact and half-eaten, a container of glistening french fries, trays of refuse, an empty cup on its side on a seat, a chair, a tall Ronald statue, a full coffeepot. All these objects become characters in the film.

Then water begins to rush in beneath the crack of the door. It’s thrilling to watch it pour in, clear and fast. It fills the room quickly. The first things it picks up are crumpled wrappers on the floor.

As the place fills, things start to move. The rising water animates everything. Ronald rises to his feet and begins to bob. Eventually the cup on the seat gets lifted. Ronald tips over. The food is liberated from its tabletop inertia and joins in the flow, traveling to corners of the restaurant it shouldn’t be. The chair. The coffeepot is suspended so just its lip remains above the surface, floating along still full of coffee. The swinging doors of the trash cans begin to flap in and out. There’s a merriness here as everything falls from its place, displays collapse and all the bright litter is animated. Little kids in the room giggled.

Flooded McDonald's from Superflex on Vimeo.

But as the place continues to fill, the water goes from clear to dirty. It darkens, clouds, fills with bits of trash. French fries drift by, ghostly cups, the chair a tilted shipwreck. The water reaches the big electric M on the wall and it blinks a few times, buzzes, goes out. Eventually it rises to the backlit menus and those too go dark. By the end of the movie the screen is a hazy brownout, water to the top of the field of vision.

It’s like watching death, I whispered to my companion, who said, I was just thinking that.

Also, it’s like America.

That alone was worth the admission. I also liked Mike Kelley’s framed carpet and map of his junior high, and the Glenn Ligon coloring-book painting, and this dolphin oracle you could ask questions by typing them on a keyboard. After you hit return, an ellipsis appears, and then the dolphin squeaks and chirps and writhes a little while its subtitled answer materializes. It is terribly charming.

The answer to "Are you messing with me, dolphin?"
The much-hyped graphic design exhibit exhausted me in about two minutes. About ten years ago I developed serious design fatigue. I had worked at a design magazine run by a megalomaniac tyrant who had us all on 70-hour work weeks. I was eating too many Twizzlers out of my desk drawer and getting skinny, severely underpaid and overworked, and I got so sick of Good Design. I mean, I love good design. But I tired of the fetishization of it. (See also: the hilariously/cruelly named Design Within Reach.) This exhibit was a tornado of type and logo, and it was crammed into a few big rooms where every surface seemed to swim with letters, but not in a beautiful or harmonious or interestingly-clashing way; it was like walking into a world of internet sidebars. Most of it was advertising. That’s the problem with graphic design. Almost all of it exists to sell you something. The embedded museum shop was indistinguishable from the exhibit.

But speaking of Facebook, this breakdown of the eight elements of status updates was in one of the newspapers on display.

Last stop before heading back north was Birchbark Books, which is owned by Louise Erdrich and is now one of my favorite bookstores anywhere, beautifully selected and appointed and staffed by an extremely relaxed dog named Dharma.

It's one of those stores where the selection is perfect instead of vast. And there are handwritten recommendations by Louise Erdrich all over. Doesn't get much better than that.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Well, blog. We have a lot to talk about.

One thing is that I abruptly and semi-impulsively deactivated my Facebook two weeks ago. I had 900-some friends and all but a handful are people I actually know or have known in my many lives. I think I even like almost all of them. But the noise got to be too much. Facebook was like too many radio stations playing simultaneously. I forget half of what I hear but I remember almost everything I read, and so all that trivia was printing itself all over my brain.

And the pleasure had gone out of it. The first, most potent pleasure of Facebook for me was finding the long lost. There were so many: from my entire childhood in Park Rapids, from Norway, Iowa, New York, Oberlin, the Stegner crew, music-world people, writers and editors, Portlanders, et cetera. But pretty soon, everyone was found. And the thrill of the discovery quickly sagged into the mundane. I loved the initial burst of information, when it was like running into someone unexpectedly in a bar in another city: the catching-up. Where are you? What have you been doing? You look great. These are my dogs! But then it didn't stop. It went from catching up to keeping up. Keeping up with people, keeping up appearances. We were back in that bar every day. It started to feel less like a bar and more like a storage unit.

There are the friends who click Like and there are the friends who show up. (I've been both, I'm not exempt.) But I am more interested in the latter these days. I want your real face. I want your microexpressions and your voice. I want us to see the same thing at the same time, and I don't mean on YouTube. I want laugh and conspiratorial whisper, not just quip and complaint. Maybe 90% of Facebook and Twitter are quip and complaint.

When I worked at magazines in New York around the turn of the millennium, the (permanent) trend kicked in of articles shrinking while their photos grew. We were supposed to relocate more of the info to captions and sidebars, fragmenting the content like pre-cut food. "Quippy kickers," they called it at one publication. To dig into the substance of an article--the body of the text, as it is notably called--takes time and effort, and maybe people just wanted to look, not read. To snack, not eat. I think Facebook does the same thing. Magazines got shorter and so did we. Our images grow and grow while our (visible) content shrinks. We just sample each other. Swish and spit.

My departure is probably not permanent. I know myself too well to claim that I'm Gone for Good. But the time away has felt great.

Meanwhile, friends (yes, friends, not friends™!): let's write.