vrijdag 24 december 2010

Amazonian (non)art

According to a reviewer on amazon.com 'Arts of the Amazon' (Thames and Hudson, 1995), an overview of the personal collection of Adam Mekler, is THE book on the subject. My copy was remaindered by the Boston Public Library and purchased on ebay for a cheap 10 bucks, but now what? The main part is an excellent text by Peter G. Roe who has the decency to only talk about the objects (pottery, woodcarving, costumes, featherworks) on their own terms, trying to show you how the makers of these things see them. What is art? In this case art are those things some rich fucker can purchase, put on display, in order to feel special and have something interesting to say at parties. The word 'art' has nothing do with these objects whose meaning has no equivalent in our own society. Also see.

donderdag 23 december 2010

(Pre-Columbian) Amazonian rock art

Amazonian rock 'art', in the form of petroglpyphs, are concentrated in the mountainous parts of its northern range, from Columbia to the Guyana's and Venezuela. Their function remains obscure and there does not seem to exist a systematic overview. One of the most impressive sites is Werehpai in South West Surinam. The site was discovered and named by a Trio named Kamanja was also part of the excavation crew. The site holds 313 petroglyphs. The fact that in all of Surinam there are 192 other petroglyphs known, distributed across 29 sites, gives a clue about Werehpai's magnificence. Charcoal and pottery found at the site have been carbon-dated as 4200 to 5000 years old.

The most famous site is the Venezuelan Caverna da Petra Pintada, the 2nd image shows a marvellous matrix-like structure on the right. The last 2 are from Venezuela but from other parts of the country. This is a great website with many pics in a for me unreadable language.

Taken from Hanlon's 'in trouble again'.

Brancusian if anything.
The oldest reference that I am aware of is "Notes of a botanist on the Amazon & Andes 
being records of travel on the Amazon and its tributaries, the Trombetas, Rio Negro, Uaupés, Casiquiari, Pacimoni, Huallaga and Pastasa : as also to the cataracts of the Orinoco, along the eastern side of the Andes of Peru and Ecuador, and the shores of the Pacific, during the years 1849-1864" by botanist Richard Spruce whose observations (and illustrations) are perfectly clear:

Although we have no elements where from to determine positively the date and mode of execution of the picture-writings, those questions seem to me to have been involved in unnecessary mystery. The instruments used in scraping such deep lines in the granite were probably chips of quartz crystal, which were the hardest cutting-instruments possessed by the aborigines of South America. In the Amazonian plain I know of but two extensive deposits of large rock-crystals one of which is a good way up the Rio Branco, and the other is at the foot of Mount Duida, near the village of Esmeralda, therefore in the immediate neighbourhood of the Casiquiari. I know also of but one such deposit on the Pacific side of the Andes, namely, in the hills of Chongon near Guayaquil; yet pieces of quartz, some of which have served as knives, others as lance- or arrow-heads, are found strewed about the sites of ancient towns and settlements through several degrees of latitude. Whatever the instrument used by the Indians of the Casiquiari, it is difficult to assign any limit to the time required for the execution of the figures; but any one who has seen an Indian patiently scraping away for months at a bow or a lance before bringing it to the desired symmetry and perfection, or who knows that it has taken a lifetime to fashion and bore the white stone which the Uaupes Indian wears suspended from his neck, will understand that time is no object to an Indian. I can fancy I see the young men and women sitting in the cool of the morning and evening, but especially in the moonlight nights, and amusing themselves by scratching on the rock any figure suggested by the caprice of the moment. A figure once sketched, any one, even a child, might aid in deepening the outlines. Indeed, the designs are often much in the style of certainly not at all superior to those which a child of five years old in a village school in England will draw for you on its slate; and the modern inhabitants of the Casiquiari, Guainia, etc., paint the walls of their houses with various coloured earths in far more artistic designs. 
Having carefully examined a good deal of the so-called picture-writing, I am bound to come to the conclusion that it was executed^by the ancestors of Indians who at this day inhabit the region where it is found ; that their utensils, mode of life, etc., were similar to those still in use ; and that their degree of civilisation was certainly not greater probably less than that of their existing descendants. The execution of the figures may have ranged through several centuries, a period which in the existence of a savage people is but a year in that of the highly-civilised nations of modern Europe. In vain shall we seek any chronological information from the Indian, who never knows his own age, rarely that of his youngest child, and who refers all that happened before his own birth to a vague antiquity, wherein there are no dates and rarely any epochs to mark the sequence of events.

woensdag 22 december 2010

If the forest is empty so is the mind

There is no all embracing definition for 'forest', as exemplified by one UN position paper that found 950 working definitions. Cryptoforestry, as psychogeographical urban alpha-weed management on punk principles, would stress the psychological effects of a forest rather than canopy cover or land use as of importance for classification. In the west we take for granted monocultures as if they are the only way (see earlier) and after reading David Quammen's 'Monster of God', a hefty, finely nuanced, tome on the socially constructed relationship between human and man-eating beasts (bears, lions, crocodiles, etc) I suddenly realized that the forest, and all 950 definition of it, suffer from the same myopia of ingrained poverty. The poverty is not just biologically or materially but psychologically.

In conservation theory the concept of an 'empty forest' is well established. Empty forests are defauned forests from which many ecological interactions have vanished at the cost of the overall richness of the ecosystem. The literature deals mainly with (sub-)tropical forests and this is perfectly reasonable: in Western Europe forests have been empty for so long that we can barely imagine them otherwise. The good news of course is that forests, even the Dutch ones, are being replenished from the east with wolfs and perhaps, in some distant future, with bears. Scaremonger cival servants are already crying wolf: your toddler may be the next dinner for the big bad wolf. Better eaten by a wolf than crashed into by a car (an event more probable by at least 1000%) I'd say. 

The point is not that wolfs and bears are needed to fulfil ecological functions that are now null and void, the point is that a forest with such animals fuels the imagination and adds zest to life, even to those who would never visit such a 'full' forest. The wolfs in fairy tales are not just stories about animals in the way Disney films use 'acting' dogs and pigs, they are stories rooted in the experiences of people with wolfs. As far as I know all fairy tales portray wolfs as inherently bad, not as tricksters but as criminals, this mindset must be changed before the wolf can become part of our forests again. If the forest is empty the mind is empty too.

Tree of Eugenia sp. surrounded by fallen, undispersed fruits.

maandag 20 december 2010

The Crystalpunk Manifesto for Psycholudology

To pry from the cold dead hands of chaos the first animalcules of “the hundred-gated cathedral of the mind” (Herman Hesse)! To play with sticks, shells and stones, rolling them in the cup of your hand, throwing them to the ground and picking them up again, comparing, sorting and aligning them, because it pleasures the hand and satisfies the eye! To cultivate intricate relationships between found objects, on chequered boards of every shape and size imaginable, is to be carnally invaded by the little minds! To find that the brouhaha evoked by these ideogrammatic alphabetine scribbles are scarring new moods and associations into the vellum of the palimpsest of your brain! To release the invisible forces of language, and to park the underdeveloped mind in the garage box of higher awareness! To push the tabula rasa uphill, across the land of manual skill and over the summit of symbolic processing, into an Alamut of pure gnostic well being! To hike through these spectacular inner landscapes like a mountain goat! To discover what games are buried inside you! To become hooked to a game a little more each time you find that you have refined your skill of adding tantalizing zing to the patterns and combinatorics on the board! To become native to a game: learning to read, write and think in its dialect as if it were your first language; a language expressed by position and movement, communicated wordlessly to any observer able to learn to recognize the repertoire of actions displayed! To play the game and to be played by the game! To know that mind control originated with the invention of abstract games: the occupation theme of Weiqi is not confined to the occupation of board space alone; the game itself occupies the mind, tweaks the neural network to make it fire in its image, new thoughts and intuitions pop-up in your head: the Chinese army, its commanders educated by this game, has always been known to be better than anybody else in surrounding the enemy! To sense that the ‘war’ of a game is only an oily film floating on top of the surface of a great cooperative expedition towards tumultuous beauty and sublime dangers! To live a hundred years for every minute of gameplay! To make a game out of everything, the game itself included! To keep Free the Game Libre! To be the unacknowledged legislator of the game by making the rules instead of following them! To be the John Mandeville of Chinese Checkers, the Marco Polo of Havannah or the Ernest Fenollosa of Blokus ("a new world is only a new Mind" (William Carlos Williams) and a good game is more real than what is really real!)! To declare the rules anew, or to cheat in the name of ludopoetic justice, when those dullards who spoil every party with their obscurantist obsessions, start secluding themselves from the patzers in Castellian orders of increased professionalization (the ‘professional’ the Crystalpunk anti-type)! To instigate psycholudological revolt each time a game is declared more equal than others by the mandarins of mental sports: Image Chess is not superior to European Draughts, Weiqi is not more civilized than Xiangqi! To ridicule those who play to win as an end in itself: what does losing mean to Crystalpunks like us? To want to be the B E S T means being stupid and shallow, only dunces mistake the value for the coin and nobody wants to marry slappers like that! To cry despair over the boardological blackguardism of the enumerating classes, in whose book abstract board games are not games at all but mathematical problems to be solved in the in vitro womb of a database! To keep the game of mental skill tactile: thick black Bakelite tokens wins over cheap plastics fiches like Chinese wins over Esperanto! To curse the architectural profession, as it was one of theirs who invented Scrabble (word games are a tautological monstrosity, like a ‘free slave’): when the dictionary can provide the answer, the question must be wrong! To live in tents like the Mongolian hordes who are our kind of Chinese! To live slow and sustainable, free from the Red Queen's race of careerism, inside self-wrought works of ‘non-retinal art’ (Marcel Duchamp), fully submerged in the tempestuous enfolding of a game! To use the same small set of counters over and over again to create an impractically large number of unique things (Image Chess has more legal positions than the universe has atoms, but there are more Chesses than Image Chess has legal positions)! To live inside the game, with one’s whole being so as to become it, is the sole aim!

(There is every reason to assume that abstract board games paved the way for the subsequent (derivative) invention of that number-crunching plaything, the computer. It is one of psycholudology's little ironies that computers are mainly used to play games, while at the other end of the spectrum they are employed to find for each traditional board game the secret zahir that will force it to fall apart as ‘solved’. Even though the optimism of the 1950ties has waned and there is nobody left who believes a computer beating the worldchampion chess to constitute an act of intelligence, we are however stuck with the heritage of thinking about games (and language, and thinking) in terms of their computability. You can't mention Weiqi in educated society without someone uttering that meaningless factotum of science's continuing inability to come up with a program that will beat its best human players, as if that implies some special quality in that game. We know from chess that part of being grandmasterly good is to posses the freak faculty to instantly recall every game you ever played or studied: to be a top player you have to be a human computer, so no wonder real computers, the real idiot savants, have beaten ‘us’ at it in the end. Weiqi is arguably a shade deeper than chess, but ultimately all board games, when regarded in this way, are to computers what the sky is to the birds. Let them have it. The real meaning of a game is elsewhere and infinitely more interesting.

Playing against a much better player in serious rivalry will teach you nothing because the moves of the other appear to you indistinguishable from the glossolalia of the possessed.

To play a game is to answer a question with a question on a move-by-move basis. The challenge is in the construction of worthwhile dialogs by finding the right mixture of unobtrusive yet stimulating ‘answerable questions’ and ‘questions worth answering’. We are after highly personalized style not after the stalemated non-conversation between liability-negating lawyers (let them demons play Scrabble!). A friend asked the young Wystan Auden if he had ever written poetry. He hadn't, but much later, in recognition of the power of a good question to reveal what mirrors fail to reflect, W.H. recalled: "I knew that very moment what I wanted to do". A good question is angelic, as if you are being interviewed by someone who already knows for each question what your answer will be, even implying it with more eloquence than you could ever muster, but in a gentle, revealing, liberating way.

To play like you are building a castle in the air is the sole aim! To feel like you are Oscar Wilde’s equal for the duration of a game! To play intoxicated! To be intoxicated by playing! To play like you are reading a book! To play like you are writing a book! To understand how to play a bittersweet symphony and a melancholic verse! To play with friends or to play as a friend! To bring language to the point where the verbs ‘to play’ and ‘to share’ become equivalent!)

donderdag 16 december 2010

Forage superstition

Helena Valero was kidnapped by Yanomami at the age of twelve. She lived with them in the Venezuelan Amazon for 24 years before returning to an unwelcoming 'civilized' world: "I though that everything would be different among the white men". It wasn't. Italian anthropologist Ettore Biocca recorded Valero's story and turned it into a narrative autobiography that was first published in Italian in 1965. It is an extraordinary account from inside the shabono and it portrays Amazonian Indian communities with an intimate and alienating detail: can we really understand these people? Superstition seems to be the glue of daily life and the abundance of it does not portray the Yanomami in a friendly way to our Western priggish sensibilities that demand fact and reason. But of course superstition is just another aspect of forage psychogeography. When your means of subsistence, no matter the amount of skill, intelligence and knowledge that is involved, depends on luck (the presence of game) all societies develop intricate systems that try to urge chance to choose your side. Sports is a good example in our society: football players are not allowed to have sex the night for a big match and they all have lucky shirts they may never be washed etc. Reichel-Dolmatoff points out that the taboos are not in themselves important but that a large set of do and don't force you to pay close attention to everything you do, even when you are not doing something special, and this prepares you for the times that heightened awareness of your surrounding is of vital importance.

Yanoama is not just a classic of anthropology, it is also a classic of ethnopoetics; here is the defining mixture of an oral Amazonian language and its narrative conventions mixed with the language of an outsider who got as far as anybody can become an insider. Valero accuracy has been often praised, memory is the birthright of the illiterate. 
Rohariwe decided to prepare curare and began to speak aloud in the shapuno, just as the priest does in his sermon: "I shall prepare mamocori; anyone who has none may now learn how to make it; if anyone has some, let him go on the track to watch out against the enemy. Let everybody listen to me; no one must go and misbehave with a woman tonight. I shall then try mamocori on a monkey; if the monkey does not die, it will mean that you have been with women during the night; in that case, the next time I shall chase you all out and make my poison myself. 
The superstition here is clear, and there is more of it:
The next morning, all the men who had come to prepare the curare had painted themselves black with coal on the face, on the body, on the legs, because they said curare is useful for war. They didn't eat that day: they said that the woman who stayed to watch must not bathe, because the poison would no longer kill animals or men. Pregnant woman must not be present because, they said, the babies whom they carried in their stomachs make water on the poison and the poison becomes weak. They do not begin preparing the poison too soon, because at that time the deer is still walking about in the wood and urinating: the deer urinates a long way off, but for them he urinates on the poison and makes it weak. Towards six o'clock in the morning Rohariwe and the others went into the forest to gather other plants, especially the plant ashukamakei, which is used to make the poison more sticky; it is a plant with long leaves. 
Most of taboos mentioned for the making of curare sound nonsensical to us, though perhaps their might be some point to the dangers of deer piss, but at the end of this quote there is made an observation, the adding of a certain plant to change the properties of pure curare, that points to a chemical knowledge that can only have been acquired through experimentation (?). Ethnobotanists like Mark Plotkin, going beyond the superstition side-show, have written about the way curare is made and have reported a great sophistication in preparation and the use of several additives to control the strength and speed of the curare's effects. The knowledge is there but can we recognize it?

United foragers against olive (oil)

"Øllebrød" and frothed milk

A while ago I caught the finalists of Masterchef professional 2010, a BBC cooking competition, visiting Copenhagen's Noma. And so I learned about the best restaurant in the world of 2010 as voted by the chefs themselves. It is not easy to miss that Noma is something special: the chefs are not fat bastards but healthy looking, cool dude designer types. Head Chef René Redzepi has as a cardinal rule that at least 1/3 of all dishes should consist of foraged goods and his explanation makes perfect ecological sense in the present but are also typical in the wider sense of foraging as an activity of reinhabitation, skill, concentration and awareness.
All of the people who work in the kitchen with me go out into the forests and on to the beach. It's a part of their job. If you work with me you will often be starting your day in the forest or on the shore because I believe foraging will shape you as a chef. I know it has shaped me. If you see how a plant grows and you taste it in situ you have a perfect example of how it should taste on the plate. But it's more than that. When you get close to the raw materials and taste them at the moment they let go of the soil, you learn to respect them.       
Central to the argument of the great forage revival is that it reintroduces an ancient practise wiped out by the aggressive spread of the culture of agriculture. Redzepi tells us that choosing local, foraged, ingredients also means breaking with the great tradition of fine dining: fat! And this is no surprise: not health or food security but calories were the killer app of agriculture. 
So when we came to open Noma, with our commitment to a new style of cooking that turned away from the otherwise terrific classical French repertoire – no olives or its oil, no tomatoes unless briefly in season, no bulb garlic – to something distinctive and regional, it made sense that a lot of our ingredients should be those we could find, not least because they are so available. That's the beauty of Copenhagen. You can just go into its parks and find the likes of wild garlic and yellow star of Bethlehem and march violets, all of which we use in our dishes.
Another returning fascinating point is answered as well. How do you actually learn to forage. Mostly by being instructed. The 'rare character' mentioned at the end, one of those persons with real knowledge doesn't sound open to the suggestion of  sharing his sites with the internet dummies finding edibles for free the augmented foraging easy way. There is a discussion about this earlier.  
Other things came from further away. I studied recipe books and nature books, learned about wood sorrel and ground elder and particular kinds of seaweed to be plucked from the shore. We also developed a network of professional foragers. We have one man who has been doing it for decades. He is one of those rare characters, with teeth that go in all directions and a book in which he has been keeping notes about the weather and the locations of particular mushrooms since the 1970s. This information he keeps to himself, like it was the recipe for Coke. They are his life, his treasure. 
The pictures below are from a Flickr Photoset that contains many more goodies. The quotes are taken from an interview with The Guardian in April 2010. 

Blueberries and pine

Cook it Raw

maandag 13 december 2010

Sarah Palin on and with Bears

The trooper in the red coat is Sarah Palin, surely, Americans being Americans, the first female president of the United States of America.

One of the reasons I like to read Gary Snyder's non-fiction and many US nature writers (John Mcphee's first chapter of 'Coming into the Territory' especially) is the way it deals with the presence of bears as an ethical challenge for humans to consider themselves as part of nature instead of outside it. Being Dutch, a country where the presence of a man-eating predator in the wild is probably forbidden by law, such discussions seem to be played out in a realm more distant and imaginary than those offered in most science fiction. Sarah Palin is getting her ethical metaphors from the same source of the North American bioregion of bears and in this sense Mama Grizzly is a prefect representative of the American non-urban counter culture that also sustains someone like Snyder. Theirs is a mindset where the bear is real, experienced, part of the landscape and there to teach us. But the bear has different things to teach to different people, or, listen to Nancy Franklin observing Palin in her own reality show: 

The first excursion is to the Big River Lake area for fishing and bear-watching, with Todd, their nine-year-old daughter, Piper, and a niece. “I’m really hoping that Piper . . . will have that treat of seeing a mama grizzly,” Palin says. Nature, it seems, exists to provide her with a chance to use one of her signature terms. Only brown bears show up, but it turns out that they have something to teach us, too. Palin says, “I love watching these mama bears. They’ve got a nature, yeah, that humankind can learn from. She’s trying to show her cubs nobody’s going to do it for ya, you get out there and do it yourself, guys.” That sounds great, except that in this case the mother bear is doing all the fishing while her cubs splash around on a nearby rock, ignoring her. When a bear growls, Palin says, “You hear that? That is a growl.” And then, “Wow.” And then “Wow” again. And then “Wow” again.

woensdag 8 december 2010

The absurd dominion

Listen to Alan Tormaid Campbell, earlier, on the technological axis of Forage Psychogeography, pic source is lost:
If you lived in a tiny island in the middle of the rainforest and if your most powerful tools for interacting with your environment were a machete, an axe, and a bow and arrow the assumptions of dominion [over nature] we take for granted would be absurd.

dinsdag 7 december 2010

Marching through the cryptoforest in single file

Yesterday afternoon I had an interesting winter cryptoforest expedition with 25+ employees of RWS: so, a walk though the weedy underbrush in their own backgarden. Normally I would't want to take such a large group but it was a wonderful opportunity to see that, even with winter having removed 99% of obstacles, the self-organized form of a group wilderness hike is the single file column theory would predict.  

When all else is dead or dormant the blackberry continues to proliferate. 

maandag 6 december 2010

Sobering view on Amazonian mythology

Alan Tormaid Campbell's 'Getting to Know Waiwai' (1995), about fieldwork with the numerically small Wayapi, is a wonderful account of an Amazonian tribe and the ordeal of living with them from a Western, no Scottish, point of view. It is refreshingly free of any attempt to generalize, sympathetic to the Indians as they are (and in no way in need of improvement), humanistic in its intellectual approach (many quotes from poetry), almost, sometimes,with anarcho-primitivist undertones. In the end the book runs out of steam with too much general stuff on the position of the Indian in Brazilian society where I would have preferred to read more actual ethnography. But there are lots of novel thoughts and observations here. When speaking on Amazonian narratives and mythology Tormaid Campbell answers a lot of questions:   
There was once an influential dogma in anthropology that stated that myths had their counterpart in rituals and rituals had their counterpart in myth. The images in this case would be taken as an example of that thesis. But putting it in that way makes it all far too systematic, as if in some way if we were all to dance the Jupará we’d be thinking about butterflies and propitiating the forces of nature in order that the sky didn't fall again. It’s just not like that. The connections aren’t systematic, in the sense of a logical rationale of connections presented as a kind of theology. They don’t form architectonic structures. The fragments are fragmentary, aleatory, gloriously random.
But that doesn't mean that they are fragile. The exuberance of the connections makes for an endless tangle of associations. Again, calling it a ‘network’ of associations would give it an inappropriate tinge of order. The details tumble around one another. The myth and ritual associations in this example is just one strand, one liana, in the convolvulus tangles.   
The narratives *are* confusing. They do seem like a jumble of bits and pieces. Fragments appear in one myth and crop up in another. One person would tell the myth in one way; another person in the same settlement would have a different story line. But, like imagism, or surrealism, or any of the isms that have been part of the century I live in, getting used to the idiom is the simplest remedy to our initial confusion. Just be open to it, relax into it, become familiar with the idiom and so many of the problems disappear. When you come to hear your fiftieth myth the frown of puzzlement has vanished from your brow.
The narratives may be fragmented and straggly, twisting around in forms unfamiliar to us, but the redeeming quality that allows us to connect up is the oldest trick in the narrative book: what happened next? Once we get used to the narrative lines, the bizarre becomes the expected; or rather, nothing is too bizarre. Anything can happen. Hearing the gasps of delight from the listeners confirms that the more bizarre the turn of plot the more it is enjoyed. These are their winter’s tales, which are not supposed to be credible, consistent or concise.
While getting to the stage where you can enjoy the bizarre narrative lines, you’ll have learned one important lesson on the way: that the initial bafflement is not due to the particular version you've confronted being corrupted or partial version of a more perfect, complete, rational, logically coherent narrative that lurks somewhere in a missionaries travelogue of two centuries ago. That’s the last hope of the baffled mythographer. There’s no easy salvation somewhere back there when Amerindians were more logical, rational, and architectonic in the way they constructed their storylines. You’ve got to accept the narratives as they are, in all their crazy, fragmented incoherence. It was ever thus.
There certainly are common themes that come up again and again all over Amazonia, although it is perhaps more appropriate to catalogue them as fragments rather than themes; fragments that are shuffled around into different patterns like a kaleidoscope. ‘Getting fire from the Jaguar’, for example, is a common story, but sometimes, even, fire is taken from another creature.
However extensive our catalogue, I think it is unlikely that we’d ever exhaust the possible variations constructed from those variations constructed from those fragments. The variations and transformations just go on and on. Those with a purist itch will keep looking for some kind of complete, definitive version, but that search is a blatant result of literacy, where the most complete text is the version that has the greatest authority. In the woods, there are no texts, just people’s memory.
The second difficulty is the most obvious one and is the one most often overlooked: not the inner difficulty but the outer difficulty of content. It’s simply that since the myths are a reckless cornucopia of images taken from those particular natural surroundings, how can we hope to slip into a shared familiarity with those who have lived their entire lives in the forest and whose intimacy with it is so complete? They can let their imaginations run along with the details. When the story mentions a particular bird of a specific liana they knows exactly what’s being referred to: how the bird behaves, how the liana hangs, what tree it hangs from, and what they used it for last time. We can’t share the immediacy of the plants and animals, the shapes and the sounds, the clues about what’s dangerous, what’s noisy, what’s stealthy, about what’s likely to happen in a specific situation; or rather, to approach such an immediacy requires an enormous effort on our part. Hence, besides being baffled by the bizarre story line, we are hindered by our patchy and superficial knowledge of the great woods.