Sunday, 30 May 2010

#15 Sodom by the Sea.

Here's a fact for you: Blackpool has more visitors every year than Greece. Our rapacity for relentless cheesy awful is astounding. Coney Island, at the far frontier of Brooklyn, is New York's attempt to fill this need. You can entertain yourself on the Coney Island Cyclone - one of the few historic wooden rollercoasters still in existence (it was built in 1927) - play slots, dodgems and arcade games, eat fried chicken and ice cream, and lark around on the beach.

The boardwalk at Coney Island.

Recently, like everywhere in Brooklyn, Coney Island has become something of a gentrified shadow of it's former gritty glory; in 1893, the New York times dubbed Coney Island 'Sodom by the Sea', and matters didn't improve for another century. The Island's present-day claims to fame include its Mardi Gras Mermaid Parade, and the World Hot Dog Eating Championships, which Nathan's Famous hosts every Independence Day, drawing some 30,000 live spectators and several million ESPN TV viewers. (I will of course be in attendance avec camera this year, so watch this space to see if last year's record of 68 dogs in 10 minutes tumbles.)

And that's all, really. I can confirm it is a grand day out.

Monday, 24 May 2010

#14 This Grandiose Tragedy.

From Hank Willis Thomas' 'Unbranded'.

"...this grandiose tragedy we call modern art..."

Salvador Dali was not know for his plain speaking, but the sentiment that modern art is a tragedy - or a travesty, perhaps - is shared by many. One can despair at the muddying, blurring, mocking and razing of the boundaries of traditional beaux arts - the canvas, the gallery, the oil and ink - or else rejoice at this modern artistic freedom. The pen is mightier than the sword. But is the urinal mightier than the pen?

Of course, you can do both - love it and loathe it - as I usually do when I visit modern and contemporary art galleries. In the past few weeks I have hit up the MoMA - modern art's Louvre - and the New Museum, a rolling contemporary exhibition space. I have basked in the splendid majesty of Pollock's greatest works, and stood dumbfounded in front of Roy Lichtenstein's tedious canvasses. I always thought the view that modern art is what you bring to it is weak - art should say something, to me (think Damien Hirst's 'The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living'), or be aesthetically beautiful (a Paul Klee, or a Mark Rothko). I have no truck with the notion that 'anything is art', nor the pompous 'something that is simply beautiful isn't art'.

This weekend I made it to the opening of the PS1 gallery's 'Greater New York' show, a quintennial celebration of contemporary work by New York artists, and I thought I would share some of the highlights.

First up, we have Rashaad's Newsome superb 'music videos'. He has pastiched rap videos and beats with classical music to achieve something wonderfully hilarious, a pithy mockery of both those who are pretentious about music, and the ridiculous swagger of hip hop. (And, actually, bloody good tunes.) His other work has involved coats-of-arms collaged from designer labels, a common theme being the lines we draw between disparate aspects of culture, history and civilisation.

I was impressed by Deville Cohen's 'Grayscale', a surreal video 'dance' exploring themes of (you've guessed it) contemporary culture and waste. Unfortunately, I can't find a link/clip.

Pedro Lasch presented a set of maps which he had distributed to Mexicans who regularly illegally cross the US border to work in America. He asked those who completed their crossing to mail their copy back to him on arrival, and the variously weather-battered maps provide an interesting visual to highlight the political and humanitarian issues surrounding that border. See LATINO/A AMERICA for more.

David Brooks' 'Forest Preserved' was the simplest piece on display, conceptually. He nursery-grew a range of native Amazonian plants, and then dumped tonnes of cement over them, to highlight the likely catastrophic consequences of Brazil's plan to build a major highway across the Amazon rainforest. (85% of Amazonian deforestation occurs adjacent to surfaced roads.)

Finally, Hank Willis Thomas' 'Unbranded' consisted of several dozen reprinted advertisements, with all of their copy airbrushed out, from the 70s and 80s. The ads were all originally targeted at an African American audience, and the work's raison d'etre was to highlight the cultural and racial assumptions we use to, and do, make. See here for an enlightening interview with Hank.

An overriding theme in most of the work was a sense of humour; a lot of it was plain funny. If nothing else, then, very modern art has removed the dour austerity of the art gallery. PS1 was brimming with a babble of colourful characters yesterday, and the bar out from was doing a storming trade. Amen to that at least.

I also wanted to mention Marina Abramovic's show, which I visited at the MoMA earlier this month. It is the biggest performance/conceptual show devoted to one artist the MoMA has ever hosted. Abramovic's performance work has pushed all kinds of extremes - live self-mutilation, 'living in public', and endless nudity. For me, the value of the show was in studying people's reactions to the work - as they rounded a corner and saw a naked woman being crucified. She explored human interaction further in her most famous piece, where she sat in a gallery and invited visitors to interact with her via a variety of objects, from food and drink to a loaded handgun. See the Wiki here.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

#13 I live in Brooklyn. By choice.

The Williamsburg Bridge and Lower Manhattan from DUMBO

The title - a Truman Capote quote - alludes to Brooklyn's hard-edged past. Recent past, really. Even in the early 90s, the old Dutch township of Breukelen was mostly a no-go area for Manhattanites. Times have changed. The relentless gentrification of even the grittiest corners of Manhattan (the Meatpacking district, the Bowery, Alphabet City, Harlem) has forced many modestly wealthy city folks across the East River.

They weren't all pushed, mind; many jumped. Brooklyn is attractive for all kinds of reasons - big living spaces (relative to Manhattan), a rich cultural heritage (the aforementioned Truman Capote, Woody Allen, Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland, Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G. have all called these hallowed streets home), some stunning museums and parks, breathtaking views of Manhattan, and top notch transport links. Oh, and no tourists.

The clincher, though, is Brooklyn's delivery on the melting pot dream - Hassidic Jews, Muslim and Christian African-Americans, Eastern European emigrants and Hispanics from all over South America live cheek by jowl. It feels how you imagine New York should feel.

Anyway, I too have now joined this...well, let's surrender to literary cliché and call it a 'tapestry'; it is more pertinent here than generally. For the next couple of months I'm living in a hostel in Bedford-Stuyvesant, about five minutes walk from where Jay-Z was born. (Did I mention I fucking love Jay-Z?) 'Bed-Stuy' suffers something of a hangover from its very bloody gangland past ('Bed-Stuy: Do or Die', as the saying goes), but is actually a beautiful place to live, with airy parks and wide, sleepy streets. I'm sharing a room with many sweaty traveler sorts in a feast of Bohemina bonhomie, drinking copiously, eating poorly, and washing rarely.

Mural in Bedford-Stuyvesant

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

#12 We like soccer and we don't care who knows.

ESPN, the huge American sports network, has decided that 2010 is the year America will fall in love with 'soccer'.

Next month, the Fifa World Cup will compete with the NBA and NHL playoffs, golf's US Open, and Wimbledon for sports fans' attentions. Putting soccer at centre stage seems a bold move, then.

I have nothing clever to say on this topic. Time will tell, I suppose (though a soccer 'boom' over here has been predicted again and again). I'm mentioning it because I wanted to feature two every different parts of ESPN's business.

The first image is mock up of a mural, a series of which are being painted around South Africa, to encourage interest in the World Cup. (This particular example was chosen for obvious reasons.)

The second is part of a series of photographs of NFL player Greg Jones we did at the studio for ESPN magazine - the first complete project I worked on here.

Bottom image © Howard Schatz

Monday, 3 May 2010

#11 Boy you have no Faith in America.

In stark contrast to Mary Baker Eddy (see my previous post), I have considerable faith in medicine. It's just that you can't get it in America.

Now, America has been debating the benefits of 'socialized' (a clever coinage of the American right, which cunningly aligns not letting your citizens die of poverty with communism) medicine very vocally of late. Well, not really. Rather, the watered-down concept of 'universal healthcare', the late Ted Kennedy's life work, has come closer to reality, as the Democrats finally managed to pass Obama's very sickly healthcare bill. The debate is uncompromisingly partisan, depressing, and ill-informed, and the NHS is frequently referenced in exceptionally derogatory terms, of the 'well at least we aren't as unlucky as those Limies' school. Nice work Mr. Murdoch.

Pithy sarcasm aside, I have until now had little perspective on how the American healthcare system actually works for an average Joe. I imagine many Brits are as clueless as I, and so I thought I would recant my totally esoteric and probably not-at-all representative experiences.

I was decidedly ill within a week of coming here, and I never really get ill. I attributed my persistent cold/migraines/nausea to pollution, diet changes or a minor infection, and soldiered on. However, when I deteriorated from subpar to spectacularly queasy (after about three weeks), it was decided that something must be done.

I have a basic health insurance package, as required by the US Government under the terms of my visa. I am led to believe it is typical for people on smallish incomes with insurance. (Out of interest, it costs about $800 a year; I get the cheapest package there is, being young and male.)

So, the first minefield was making a doctor's appointment. Whilst I could theoretically go to any, my insurance company had a list of preferred partners, with rather better benefits (they pay 100% of appointment costs if you go to a partner, for example.) No matter, there is one a couple of blocks from the studio. I then had to call the surgery, call the insurance company back to make sure my policy was acceptable to the surgery, then call the surgery again to schedule an appointment. (I should point out that most of this faff was because I'm a foreigner - and it was only three quick phone calls.)

I got an appointment for the next day, having called mid-afternoon (how often does that happen on the NHS?). C'est bon.

By the next day zombies were stopping in the street to ask if I was okay, and I rocked up to the surgery in a delirious, semiconscious frenzy. I filled out 100 forms (that's two more than the 98 forms you have to fill out on the NHS, because you have to provide your insurance details twice), then waited patiently for about ten minutes, at which point I was ushered through to a nurse (about ten minutes ahead of my original appointment time - again, chalk one up for America).

The nurse took my blood pressure, asked me some basic questions, then left me to die for a while. Then the doctor and his student came in, and did typical doctory stuff.

The conclusion was that I had hayfever - um, what? After several minutes of me asking skeptical questions (apparently, you can get really ill from untreated hayfever because - and don't read on if you're squeamish, have ever kissed me, or wish to - of the vast volume of phlegm entering your stomach), he wrote me two prescriptions and bid me a cheery farewell.

At this stage I was thinking private healthcare was rather jolly. Then I got to the pharmacy. Now, my policy only pays 50% of prescription costs, which I hadn't thought much of - after all, we pay prescription fees in England. Except the pharmaceutical companies charge ludicrous prices, on the basis that, if you have a nice package, you never pay them, and they can rake it in from the insurance companies. The total bill at the first pharmacy I went to for some eyedrops and a nasal spray was to be $300, half of that payable by me.

$300. Seriously. Both of the drugs I'd been prescribed are available over-the-counter in the UK, for no more than 10 pounds. (You can get a LOT less stuff over-the-counter here. Also, you can't buy wine and spirits in supermarkets. How mental is that?)

So I walked out with some Clarityn (which you can buy OTC) and a very grim aspect.

Where things get weird was a day later, when I was so ill I was weeping and decided to at least pay the $50 for the spray. The pharmacy in Staten Island called up the insurance company while I was waiting, and sort of bartered over the price they would pay. In the end, they offered to fill the very same prescription for $20, and I hastily assented. It's really very curious.

I'm home next week, so will stock up on all manner of drugs in case of future need. Most Americans, of course, don't have that privilege. What I hadn't realised about US healthcare is that the problem runs deeper than the 40 million uninsured. Tens of millions more are underinsured. Even if you have great coverage, until the recent bill comes into effect, insurance companies frequently denied coverage to 'repeat offenders - the chronically ill; insurance evaporates when you need it most.

Most of the people I know here have no insurance. So, if they have any kind of minor ill - flu or fever - they won't go to a doctor; the whole enterprise would cost them hundreds of dollars. I would be interested in a study comparing the general health of this country - sick days, how fast epidemics spread - to other Western nations.

And the thing to remember with all of this: the American government, with five times as many people under its wing than Britain's, spends twice as much per capita on healthcare. I'm no math whiz, but economies of scale aren't supposed to work that way. 'Socialized' medicine is no panacea, nor is it at all easy to institute, but something is seriously wrong here.