Tuesday, April 23, 2013


In mid-August, 2012, a non-profit public arts organization named Creative Time sponsored a sand castle competition on Rockaway Beach in Queens and invited artists to compete. The participants had three hours to build their work.  I happened to be there for part of this process and photographed some of the projects. This was the inaugural year of the event, and it most certainly conforms to what Creative Time deems as one of its core values: that "public spaces are places for creative and free expression."

The photographs I took that day lay dormant in my computer file, waiting for inspiration to post. Inspiration arrived in late February of this year from the extreme opposite end of our country.  I had flown to to Anchorage, Alaska, with my wife.   On the morning after our arrival, I left our hotel only to discover a series of snow sculptures on Ship Creek, just below the center of the city. What serendipity! Here were the complements to those sand sculptures; and so this post featuring two sets of temporary public sculpture was born. 

Queens, NYC, Rockaway Beach at the 86th St. Boardwalk, August 2012

Anchorage, Alaska, Knik Arm, Mud Flats, Early March, 2013

Not only was the sculpture formed from radically different media. It also emerged from radically different environments. Rockaway is a barrier island formed in the Late Pleistocene and Holocene times. It's all sand and flat, and one has difficulty envisioning the Wisconsin glacier, whose outwash had created it.   The tidal flats of Anchorage's Knik Arm and Ship Creek were formed much later by retreating glaciers; mountains still surround the area,  and the town of Girdwood, a short drive up the Turnagain Arm from Anchorage, still is surrounded today by seven permanent glaciers.

Today, the sand remains on Rockaway Beach, but Hurricane Sandy has demolished its wooden boardwalk.  The city is rushing to build a new one by the summer--this time of concrete--but the task is enormous and terribly disruptive.   Anchorage was spared any such natural disasters, although its snowfall for this year was no match for the record total of 134.5" that fell last year.

Queens, NYC, Rockaway Beach, Creative Time Sandcastle Competition, August 17, 2012, General View

Anchorage, Alaska, Ship Creek, GCI Snow Sculpture Competition [General Communication, Inc.], General View

Here we see the actual scenes of the two sculpture competitions. In the top photograph, work is in progress at Rockaway.  The bottom photograph shows Ship Creek, which separates the city of Anchorage from its port, where the finished sculptures were judged on the morning before we arrived and discovered them.

Queens, NYC, Rockaway Beach at the 86th St. Boardwalk, Tattooed Bather, August 2012

Sand sculpture was not the only art to be found on the sands of Rockaway beach.  Here, the entire back of a young woman is covered with a Japanese-inspired tattoo consisting of two fish and a tentacled sea creature with claws.

Anchorage, Alaska, Tattooed Waitress, New Snow City Cafe

But then, even in the Alaskan winter, the art of the tattoo can be found, if a bit less ostentatiously.  Here, our waitress, Chrystal, kindly agreed to allow me to take a picture of the visible section of her body art.   She works at the Snow City Cafe, by the way, and this is definitely the hip place to go for breakfast or lunch in Anchorage.

Queens, NYC, Rockaway Beach, Creative Time Sandcastle Competition, Mary Mattingly at work

Queens, NYC, Rockaway Beach, Creative Time Sandcastle Competition, Tom Sachs at Work 

Sculpting in sand offers the option of piling it up before removing and modelling it, or just digging down, as the group under Tom Sachs was doing.

Queens, NYC, Rockaway Beach, Creative Time Sandcastle Competition, What the Sand Told Us, by Laura Wass & Amit Greenberg
The concept of a sandcastle generally implies something architectural, castle-like, as most of us have constructed at some point in our beach-going lives.  But the sculptural product may just as well lean towards abstraction or symbolic forms, as in this work by Wass & Greenberg.

Here, the castle is no more than a vestigial capping element, a small, Mesoamerican pyramid atop these abstracted faces.  The title, What the Sand Told Us, alludes to that long-standing dialogue  that artists have with their material, going back at least to Michelangelo and his references to releasing the figure from the stone that imprisoned it.

Anchorage, Alaska, Ship Creek, GCI Snow Sculpture Competition, Raven & Bear, by Snow Cats

A similar work of abstraction, also composed of faces, characterizes this snow sculpture by the Snow Cats.  Ravens and Bears are often depicted on native totem poles, and in Inuit myth the former even made the world and is a curious trickster, while the latter was the teacher of man, imparting the skills of survival, of hunting and gathering.

Queens, NYC, Rockaway Beach, Creative Time Sandcastle Competition, Project by William Lamson

Of all the sculptures, the most abstract was this elegant piece by William Lamson.  Although in an interview he cites a gravel cylinder that he saw in a Japanese temple, it seems to me that his sculpture bears a much closer resemblance to one of the projects of that famous late 18th-century French Revolutionary architect, Étienne-Louis Boullée (see below).

Étienne-Louis Boullée, Project for a Conical Cenotaph, 1778-1788 (France)

Queens, NYC, Rockaway Beach, Creative Time Sandcastle Competition, The Colosseum, by Marie Lorenz

Queens, NYC, Rockaway Beach, Creative Time Sandcastle Competition, Neuschwanstein, by Shelter Serra

Other works which embrace the theme of historic architecture are Marie Lorenz's Colosseum and Shelter Serra's Neuschwanstein.  

In regard to the former, I wish that I had stayed around to see how Marie managed to remove herself from the center before the judging.  She did say that she chose the Colosseum because it seemed safer to "start with a ruin;" and, as we can see, she and her friends wore togas for the judging.

As to the latter, here we come closest to the iconic sandcastle, even as its scale pales in comparison to many of the other sculptures.  Neuschwanstein (see below) is that famous medieval revival castle of the 19th-century built for Ludwig II of Bavaria.

Germany, Bavaria, Neuschwanstein Castle, 1869-92, for Ludwig II, by Eduard Riedel

Anchorage, Alaska, Ship Creek, GCI Snow Sculpture Competition, The Ol' Bull & Chain, by AK Awesome

Anchorage, Alaska, Ship Creek, GCI Snow Sculpture Competition, The Ol' Bull & Chain, by AK Awesome

The snow sculptors of Anchorage showed little interest in the iconic architecture of past epochs. What examples I found of snow architecture were clearly of less sophisticated forms.

In the first photograph (above) we see an "adobe" wall that signifies the prison of that Ol' Bull & Chain, but it is the sculpture of the Bull that is its real tour de force.  This, by the way, won first place among the division featuring 3-member teams.

In the case of Alaska Loves Their Radio (below) a transmission tower for KNBA radio sits adjacent to and serves a simple outhouse.   Architecture here is all about function!

Anchorage, Alaska, Ship Creek, GCI Snow Sculpture Competition, Alaska Loves Their Radio, by KNBA Radio

Anchorage, Alaska, Ship Creek, GCI Snow Sculpture Competition, Moose Hunting, by SFF Group

Anchorage, Alaska, Ship Creek, GCI Snow Sculpture Competition, Moose Hunting, by SFF Group, detail

Whimsy plays a major role in this work of a moose with binoculars searching for his prey.  His rifle, equipped with a scope, lies before him on the ground, while a man with a backpack peers out from behind a snow-laden spruce tree.  Is man assisting the moose, or is he the hunted one?   

This received second place in the Family/Corporate Division.

Queens, NYC, Rockaway Beach, Creative Time Sandcastle Competition, She Was Dreaming of Castles in the Sand, by Jen DeNike

Queens, NYC, Rockaway Beach, Creative Time Sandcastle Competition, She Was Dreaming of Castles in the Sand, by Jen DeNike

Whimsy also played a role in this sculpture by Jen DeNike, simply as a consequence of its title, She Was Dreaming of Castles in the Sand.  A bikini-clad woman, asleep in the sand, reaches out with her right hand to touch the castle of which she dreams. The team of two also dressed for the occasion with filmy, full-length capes, on which the title of the sculpture could be read.

Anchorage, Alaska, Ship Creek, GCI Snow Sculpture Competition, Jesus Is Crucified, by Jon Eric Thompson

Anchorage, Alaska, Ship Creek, GCI Snow Sculpture Competition, Jesus Is Crucified, by Jon Eric Thompson

Jon Eric Thompson won second place in the solo division with his six-figure extravaganza, Jesus Is Crucified.   I like the way the haloes, as transparent discs of ice, become ethereal in the sunlight.

Queens, NYC, Rockaway Beach, Creative Time Sandcastle Competition, Multi-level water fountain by Jennifer Catron & Paul Outlaw

Jennifer Catron and Paul Outlaw, who regularly work as an artistic team, brought in some friends, all dressed in American flag bathing suits, and walked away with the gold prize at Rockaway. This piece may need some explaining, as it is an interactive sculpture.  The five of them sit at different heights, three on raised platforms, and become part of an elaborate water fountain. Equipped with gallon jugs and plastic straws, they take in water and then spout it back out--sometimes at the passing crowd.

I surmise that they are emulating some Roman Baroque fountain, such as Bernini's Fontana del Tritone (see below).

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Triton Fountain, Rome, Piazza Barberini, 1642-3

Anchorage, Alaska, Ship Creek, GCI Snow Sculpture Competition, Orca Attack,  by Snow Warriors

The winner of the CGI Snow Sculpture Competition for 2013 in the Family/Corporate Division was this work, Orca Attack.  The Orca, or killer whale, has metamorphosed into a bomb-laden fighter jet. It is being guided into position, either for take-off or after landing. 

Among the indigenous cultures of the north, the Orca is seen both as merciless killer and as embodiment of the soul of a human. In fact, in Haida myth Orcas take on human form when submerged and the Tlingit of southeastern Alaska regard the Orca as the custodian of the sea.

That's it for this week.  No politics, just a little fun in the sun...and the sand...and the snow.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Drones Fly In Rockefeller Center

NYC, 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center, Head of the Promenade, Model of MQ-9 Reaper Predator Drone
At 5:00 pm on Wednesday, April 3, a Predator drone was spotted on 5th Avenue, directly in front of Rockefeller Center.  Fortunately, it was simply a model, a prop for a protest against the American use of drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in our continuing "War on Terror."

NYC, 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center, Model of MQ-9 Reaper Predator Drone
This Predator Drone, seemingly floating above the heads of the protestors, offers a disconcerting presence of war, something that we Americans have successfully avoided on our mainland shores for the past century-and-a-half.  Its looming presence, even if in smaller scale, also conjures up such surrealistic images as the ship that floated up 5th Avenue in the movie, The Day After Tomorrow (see photo below).

Scene from The Day After Tomorrow,  2004, Roland Emmerich (producer & director)
Neither that ship nor this drone belong in or near our city streets. Their presence implies a radical dissonance, an aberration crying out that something is very wrong. And so, even a scale-model drone hovering over 5th Avenue may shock us enough to elicit empathy with the citizens of Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and several other countries, where we have carried out assassinations from the air, using drones that are remotely operated from secret bases around the world (as well as even from inside our own country).


NYC, 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center, Assassination, Protest Sign
As this sign states, assassination is assassination, regardless of how it is done.  However, assassination done remotely from the air with Hellfire missiles is an extremely crude tool in comparison, say, to a stiletto.  Its perpetrator is safe from any physical harm, or even any blood spatter, but he inevitably causes massive "collateral damage."

Experts quibble about how many innocent civilians are killed through our drone attacks, but these can't be justified whether the number is ten civilians for every al Qaeda or Taliban leader (Brookings Institution) or merely 20% of the total killed (New America Foundation). 

Would we tolerate such acts on our soil? Just consider our own response to the 9/11 attacks. What we are doing in these countries (none of which are our declared enemies) is hardly different than what was done to us on that September day of 2001.

At the bottom of this sign is the reference, worldcantwait.net, an American group dedicated to resisting what it refers to as crimes committed by the US government.  

WorldCan'tWait may lack visibility among most Americans, thus enabling them to dismiss it.  Someone like Desmond Tutu, however, is known by all, and here is his comment about our drone program in a recent letter to the New York Times:  

"Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours? That President Obama can sign off on a decision to kill us with less worry about judicial scrutiny than if the target is an American? Would your Supreme Court really want to tell humankind that we, like the slave Dred Scott in the 19th century, are not as human as you are? I cannot believe it."

Desmond Tutu concluded his letter with these words: "Your response as a society to Osama bin Laden and his followers threatens to undermine your moral standards and your humanity."   We need to take his words seriously.


NYC, 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center, Obama's Drones, Protest Assemblage
I have marvelled at what Barack Obama has been able to accomplish in his first four years as President, especially given an opposition party totally committed to making him fail.  For this reason, I feel conflicted when I encounter progressive demonstrators openly condemning him.  On the other hand, as a Democrat, I understand and embrace the importance of holding all of our politicians responsible and condemning bad policy, no matter which party proposes it.

So, the photograph above shows a sculptural assemblage in paper of many drones, the nose cone of each being a photograph of Obama's head. More than one pundit, since 2011, has taken to calling our new President, "Predator-in-Chief."

This nickname must be a difficult pill to swallow for Obama--someone who had the foresight to vote against waging war on Iraq as a Senator,  who subsequently was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize (2009),  and who now finds his new policies supported by none other than John Yoo, the despised author of Bush legal memos which justified "enhanced interrogation techniques" [a.k.a., torture].

Mother of the Grannies:

NYC, Rockefeller Center, Head of the Promenade, Joan (from Manhattan)
This is Joan Wile, 81 years old and as engaged in life as, I suspect, she always was.  Joan organized last Wednesday's drone protest. More importantly, she is the founder of the activist group, Grandmothers Against the War.  They organized in 2003 to protest the war in Iraq and, for nine years, met every Wednesday afternoon in this spot to bring their protest to the people of Manhattan.

Before turning to activism in 2003, Joan focused her energies more on music.  She came to Manhattan at the age of 22, intent upon becoming a jazz singer. She formed her own trio, wrote songs, and even wrote eight musicals.  In this YouTube video, we can glimpse her both as musician and as activist, working on a composition that she titled I Am Just a 99.

Apparently, Joan intended to leave political activism and concentrate again on music. But she couldn't ignore the increasing frequency of American drone strikes.  As she explained it, "I just found the whole thing so immoral....In this country, you're presumed innocent until you're found guilty. And here we were acting as judge, as jury, and executioner, without a trial."

Granny Peace Brigade:

NYC, 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center, Head of the Promenade, The Granny Peace Brigade
Rockefeller Center is not a place for protests, and those few that occurred here had a functional connection to this place: a demonstration for the neglected poor and homeless during the Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, or the protesting of a media event like a controversial movie or the dropping of a popular NBC television program.

But the Grannies have gathered here regularly, although they barely ever cross that invisible line between the public sidewalk of 5th Avenue and the "private" pavement of the Center's Promenade. Here, too, we see the police at the ready to insure that they encroach no further. But hey, the 70-story RCA Building (re-named the GE Building in 1988) provides them with a spectacular backdrop.

Rockefeller Center, originally a complex of fourteen commercial buildings covering twenty-two acres, was the largest private building project ever undertaken. Raymond Hood was its chief designer, and he and a team of major architects designed it and supervised its construction between 1930-1939. We ought to look back with envy to this more sensible time when the private sector and politicians from both sides supported a vast building project and understood the importance of focusing on jobs and infrastructure as a way to get out of the Depression.

The GE Building (I can't tell you how hard it is for an old architectural historian to not call it the RCA Building) is the fulcrum of the entire complex.  Its address is 30 Rockefeller Plaza; among its nicknames were "The Slab" and "30 Rock," thus the name for the TV sitcom of its most important, long-time occupant, NBC.

NYC, 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center, The Granny Peace Brigade in Responsive Reading
The Granny Peace Brigade is a gathering of several separate groups, among them Grandmothers Against the War, Code Pink, The Raging Grannies, Gray Panthers, and Peace Action.

As their Mission Statement explains, they stand for peace, human rights and justice:  "We oppose war, occupation, rendition and torture, and the violence of poverty and racism. We are committed to the struggle to make a safe and peaceful world for all children and grandchildren, ours and everyone's."

How could it be that anyone wouldn't endorse these goals?

In this lowest photograph, we find the Grannies leading a responsive reading, applying some of the principles of participatory democracy that have also been widely adopted by Occupy Wall Street to insure that all participants and onlookers hear and comprehend what has been said.  The reading provided essential data and information on drones, informed people of future meetings, and then read some poems, sang songs and chanted (ex., "drones fly, children die").

Veterans for Peace:

NYC, 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center, Veterans for Peace, Anti-Drone Protest Sign
Veterans for Peace was founded in 1985 by six veterans, all living in Maine and quickly grew into a national, non-profit organization. Five years later, it was recognized as a United Nations non-governmental organization.  Its stated goal is to "raise public awareness of the true costs and consequences of militarism and war--and to seek peaceful, effective alternatives."

Their sign pictures the silhouette of a drone casting its shadow over all five continents.  It is accompanied by the words, "No Killer-Spy Drones in Our Skies or Any Skies!"

And drones are being proposed for our skies and, in some cases, have made an appearance. We have active legislation for drone use in thirty states right now, including New York, and the mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, says that police surveillance drones are inevitable. Then, that loose-talking Republican Governor from Texas, Rick Perry, wants predator drones to patrol our border with Mexico.

On the other hand, the city of Charlottesville, Virginia banned government spy drones in February, and Seattle, Washington followed suit the next day and grounded its police drone program (to be clear, these are drones that can fit into the back of a police car, not M-9 Reapers).  

Two New York City Assemblymen have just introduced bills to limit the use of drones in the city, and participants at last Wednesday's demonstration were passing out flyers urging all to ask city council representatives to make New York City drone-free. 

M-9 Reaper:

NYC, 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center,  Model of MQ-9 Drone & War Protest Sign
The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drone is a "hunter-killer" UAV designed for long-endurance and high-altitude surveillance.  It has a range of over 3,600 miles, can stay aloft for up to 24 hours, and can carry a payload of 3,800 pounds.  It also costs a bit more than $12.5 Million.

The Gray Panthers:

NYC, 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center, Joan (from Manhattan), Member of Gray Panthers
Joan (pictured above) attended the protest as a member of the Gray Panthers, an organization founded in 1970 by Maggie Kuhn and originally calling itself the Consultation of Older and Younger Adults for Social Change.  A New York talk show producer gave it its new and much more memorable name in 1972.

Its earliest goals were to challenge mandatory retirement ages and end the Vietnam War. Today, however, its goals have expanded and can be most generally described as striving to create a society "that puts the needs of people over profits, responsibility over power, and democracy over institutions."

Joan's sign alludes to the secrecy behind our drone program, and because the bulk of it is run through the CIA, whose involvement is not formally acknowledged by the Obama administration, information remains classified.  Hoped-for transparency for the drone program remains elusive, as today's New York Times editorial, "The Trouble with Drones," (April 8, 2013) reveals.

Portraits of a Protest:

NYC, 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center, Joe (from New Jersey), War Tool of the 1%
Joe, from New Jersey, is another member of Veterans for Peace. His sign identifying drones as "The War Tool of the 1%," (in other words, America's wealthiest), might be open to challenge. However, a drone does not come cheap.  Joe's sign notes that the cost of our drone program is $11.8 billion.  Moreover, we are planning to augment our fleet of 8,000 drones over the next eight years by 35% at a cost of another $36.9 billion. These are figures that only a member of the 1% understands.

NYC, 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center, Protestor in Blue Cap
Nice beard, dude!

NYC, 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center, Protestors, No More Killer Drones
The young and the old: demonstrators are a heterogeneous lot.

NYC, 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center, Elderly Couple, Drones Spy on Us
This elderly couple took their position early and remained for the duration of the protest.  Their sign takes into account most of the backers of the drone program: Obama, CIA, Drone Manufacturers, Lobbyists, Politicians--particularly the Senate Armed Services Committee, Homeland Security, and City Police Departments.

Their concern that drones will be used domestically to spy on Americans on American soil might be premature, given the scale of our actions abroad. So argues an attorney with Human Rights First.  But then, Attorney General Eric Holder has stated that a drone strike could take place within our borders against an American citizen in an "extraordinary circumstance."  Take your pick.

NYC, 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center, Eileen & Mike (from Staten Island)
Eileen and Mike came in from Staten Island, representing the group, Peace Action of Staten Island. This is a strong and active affiliate of Peace Action, which calls itself "the largest grassroots peace organization in the country."

As stated in its site, Peace Action "is dedicated to promoting the non-violent resolution of conflict, the abolition of nuclear weapons, halting the global spread of conventional arms, building a human rights culture and supporting human needs instead of militarism."

NYC, 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center, Regina (from Manhattan), Who Needs Them?
Regina's straightforward question about drones, "Who Needs Them?," is not so easy to answer.  

Drones & Ecology:

For example, many of us may have read the article in the New York Times Sunday Review, "Slaughter of the African Elephants" (by Samantha Strindberg and Fiona Maisels, March 17, 2013).  I was so disgusted and angry at the butchering of these noble beasts by poachers (to feed the greed for ivory by China and certain other Asian countries) that I could barely read the article.  But then, it turns out that the use of drones may be the most effective way to both follow the elephant (and rhino) herds in Africa and India and also follow the poachers.   I would argue that this is an issue for which drones might be needed.

Drones As Toys:

Then, on a very different level, we have the "need" for unnecessary goods created by manufacturers.  For example, one can buy small drones for under $300.00 as toys, as well as slightly more expensive ones for hobbyists.  Toys R Us sells a toy drone quadricopter for $298.99, as does Brookstone.  And in February, Amazon sold out of its Predator Drone Toy made by Maisto International ($49.99) after parody reviews focused on it as a "silent, faceless killing machine."  This run on the toy is not unlike what happens in America with every new mass gun killing, as our gun fanatics rush to load up on bullets, large magazines and more assault rifles. 

This, of course, is the false "need" created by advertising, one for which I have no defense.  But the product exists, and people have the right to purchase it.  If our country is awash in toy drones being operated by 6-year-olds, some of which are modeled after the Predator or the MQ-9 Reaper, it may be that Mayor Bloomberg is right: drones are inevitable--"Get used to it!"

I hope not, and so do all of these fine people that I had the privilege of photographing last Wednesday afternoon.

In Conclusion--Art & Activism:

Let me end with this last photograph of Regina (above).  Her name is Regina Silvers.  Besides being part of the Granny Peace BrigadeRegina is a visual artist, a painter. This site offers access to some of her art as well as a two-minute video, "Art meets Activism," in which she talks about her art.

An exhibition of Regina's recent paintings and drawings will open on May 8 (2013) and close on June 20.  The show is titled The Granny Peace Brigade, and is a visual documentation of these public protests and its protesters.  The exhibit will be at the Living Room Gallery, Saint Peter's Church (in the Citicorp Center), 619 Lexington Avenue (at 54th Street).

There will be a reception on May 10 from 6:00-8:00 pm. I look forward to attending and I hope I will see some of you, my more local readers, there as well.