Whitney at the Gap?

If this kind of thing keeps up, I’m going to need a new category, which I’m thinking of calling “WTF fashion”. The thing to which I refer, of course, is this bewildering trend of high/low fashion mixing. It was one thing when Isaac Mizrahi started his own line for Target (which I love). And I got it when WalMart tried to jump on the bandwagon with Eisen, and failed. But today, as I was reading Bunnyshop (which deserves a shout-out of it’s own: fresh, funny, novel approach to fashion and culture coverage), I ran across a post about a new line of t-shirts from the Gap: designed by artists from the Whitney Biennial. You see why I need a new category?

It’s actually quite an interesting idea; I dearly love to see what artists can do with a set genre, and t-shirt and our associations with it are as much a genre (with conventions, restrictions, etc.) as is Renaissance painting, I suppose. And the artists included are, of course, too fun: Chuck Close (who was just recently the commencement speaker here at CSR); Barbara Kruger; and Cai Guo-Qiang, whose mesmerizing exhibition is up now at the Guggenheim. [There are a host of others–take a look for yourself.]

The question, of course, is not who the Gap has chosen, but rather, what’s the marketing play here? For most American shoppers, the Gap is still the place to buy khakis and t-shirts (i.e., “basics”). They’re reasonable, they’re reliable, they’re beloved by the college student demographic. I know that they’ve experimented over the past few years with mini-lines by haute couture designers (e.g., Philip Lim), and now it appears that Patrick Robinson is working for them as well. I don’t have any hard numbers about how those lines are selling; if you know, give a holler! Intuitively, those endeavors seem to be a bit of a stretch, but were at least hemmed in (hah. “hemmed”—get it?) by a broad framework of fashion. The jump to the Whitney artists, however, seems to be a serious reach. Is the hope here that they’ll bring the Biennial crowds to the Gap with the lure of affordable, wearable art? Will the shirts serve as a cultural education for kids born and bred on the mass-market, who’ve never heard of the Whitney? Perhaps both? If I had to make a prediction, I imagine that there will be a good number of those shirts on the clearance racks all over the country by next month. Just a guess. My sense is that neither of these populations wants to be sullied by the aura of the other.

What’s in it for the artists, I wonder? On a theoretical level, I applaud their willingness to embrace something so identifiably mass culture and mark it as art. [Which is a bit of an assumption on my part, and it has to be: while the website gives brief biographies of each artist, it doesn’t feature a mission statement for either the company or the artists themselves.]

All that being said, there are some charming pieces there. I’m particularly partial to this one, by Sarah Sze:

[And, with the immediacy that comes with the internet, I may be forced to eat my words. I searching for a picture of Sze’s shirt, I found it already listed on Ebay for four times its original price…]

Fistful of Film Techniques

M. and I are hard at work on our summer workshop, which we’re privately thinking of as “Personal Essay Filmmaking, 2.0.”  Last year at this time, we were trying to guide our students through the incredibly complex task of crafting a short personal essay film in two weeks.  This was complicated by any number of factors: mis-advertised course times and dates and lack of lab space being two of the unexpected ones.  On top of that, there were all of the difficulties of teaching a class for the first time, and team-teaching for the first time, to boot.  In short, it’s amazing that we—and the students—made it out alive.

This time around, however, we’ve streamlined the class considerably.  Based on our recent research, we’re also actively thinking about YouTube as a space in which personal essay films already exist, in a variety of manifestations.  For the last two days, we’ve been reading personal essays with the class, and using the written text as a starting place to discuss genre, and then we’ve moved on to examining a number of YouTube videos.  We’re keeping Jenkins and Juhasz in mind here, but we’re also asking our students to take seriously the potential to produce a personal film with larger societal/cultural meaning.  As if that isn’t setting the bar, try this one: they only have two weeks to do it.  (!)

My job in class tomorrow is to provide for them a handful of filmmaking techniques that will spur their creative process, and give them some ideas about the visual and aural possibilities available to them.  I’ve been assembling clips for the past hour, trying to decide which might be the most relevant to the types of stories they want to tell, but let’s face it: the language of film is infinite, and our time in class is shockingly limited.  The task of giving them an abbreviated toolbox of film techniques (and by this, I’m thinking particularly about shots, editing effects, etc.) is a bit like asking someone to build a house, but being told that they can only have three tools with which to do it.  A hammer, nails, and a saw?  A wrench, pliers, and PVC pipe?  Point of view camera, or low angle shot?  Non-diegetic sound, or discontinuity editing?

I can’t help but be reminded of the advice of dissertation advisors everywhere: you should have three different versions of your project on tap at any given moment—the 500 word version, the 200 word version, and the 25 word version.  Tomorrow, by necessity, we’ll be going with the 25 word version of film techniques.  Perhaps there will be time at the end of the week for a longer version.

Cult Books?

Given that lists are always fascinating and disappointing, there’s a great piece up at the Telegraph on the “50 Best Cult Books” (hat tip to Whitney). The authors have a difficult time constructing the criteria for the category, as any of us would. What do you count as “cult”? What makes it so? For all of the possibilities, the one that stuck with me was this:

we were looking for the sort of book that people wear like a leather jacket or carry around like a totem. The book that rewires your head: that turns you on to psychedelics; makes you want to move to Greece; makes you a pacifist; gives you a way of thinking about yourself as a woman, or a voice in your head that makes it feel okay to be a teenager; conjures into being a character who becomes a permanent inhabitant of your mental flophouse.

Evocative and metaphoric it may be, but it’s a viscerally satisfying way to differentiate the cult novel from the bestseller, the merely popular, the truly weird. I’m particularly taken with the notion of the book as totem. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time on college campuses, but aren’t there always students (and professors, for that matter) that carry a particularly dog eaten copy of the cult book around with them? Doesn’t it become one of the ways that we identify our essential, unique identities (you know, the one that we share with 400,000 other people)? Aren’t those the ones with the characters that speak to us, make us right with the world, or at least explain the wrongness of the world and our own alienation?

Having said that, the Telegraph list can’t help but disappoint. To their credit, it’s a staunchly historical and multi-national list (including The Sorrows of Young Werther and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—I don’t know how many other categories can claim that). It’s multi-genre as well, featuring self-help books, novels, and philosophical tomes (Godel Escher Bach? I dragged a copy of that around with me for years before I gave up). But the scope robs it of something too; perhaps it’s modern resonance? Were 19th century cult readers—even if they did off themselves in a tribute to Goethe—like 1960’s drug-addled cult readers? Is every cult the same?

For this reader, the comments become the saving grace of the list. Give them a read, and you’ll find yourself testing your own definition of “cult.” The Lovely Bones? Um, no. It was beautiful and sad and a page-turner, but not a cult classic. Fight Club or Trainspotting? Now you’re talking. It’s become a cliche, now, for sure, but it’s almost impossible to read Fight Club without getting sucked into it as a world view. It’s insanely quotable too—maybe in the future we WILL all be wearing leather clothes… While I’m not a huge Philip Dick fan, he certainly deserves a place. And to the commenter who asks whether a book that’s assigned for high school reading can be counted (we’re looking at you, To Kill a Mockingbird), I can only say amen.

Asian American History Month

What’s a better excuse to re-enter the blog than Asian  Pacific American Heritage Month? And what better way to avoid writing than to post a big ol’ set of videos? Actually, this last question is more than just tongue in cheek. I just wrapped up my Asian American literature class for the spring (one down, two to go! W00t!), and one of the students mentioned to me the power of video for showing us realities that we can’t always construct in our own imaginations. So, a salute to the power of the visual, in honor of the month:

First, via Jenn at Reappropriate, the Asia Society’s video featuring a cavalcade of Asian American actors, celebrities, politicians and entrepreneurs. Two additions: you can see extended footage from each interview both at YouTube and at the Asia Society website. The latter is also encouraging people to post video reflections on the question “what does being Asian American mean to you?” [And if you want to get really depressed and see how far Asian Americans have to go to make their issues visible to the public, check out the comment string for the YouTube video. Sigh.]

Second, a great idea passed on to me via a student (thanks Erin!)---a fake trailer for Chang-Rae Lee's Native Speaker, one of my top five favorite Asian American novels, and one of my favorite twentieth century American novels to boot. [If this trailer doesn't make you want to read the book---and to admire the filmmaker (you go, Bigjfrodo!)---I don't know what will. Someone call Miramax!]

And while I'm sorely tempted to post the red-band trailer for Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay here, just for a satyr-play closing video, I think I'll try to maintain this blog's PG rating. Instead, I'll leave you with the mesmerizing opening sequence from Greg Pak's Robot Stories, which is a profound and sometimes cheeky vision of contemporary Asian American life. And yes, it's THAT Greg Pak, for all you Hulk fans out there. Tip: you're going to be tempted to stop watching, but I promise that the end is worth it!!

Enjoy! Celebrate!