vrijdag 27 april 2012

Notes on Tati's Play Time

Yesterday I gave my interpretation of Tati’s 1967 film Play Time. I made a complete fool of myself and I should have prepared myself better instead of watching the snooker at the Crucible (that 147!) but here are the notes that I prepared but didn’t use.    

Notes on Tati’s Play Time

When I was invited to say something on the psychogeographical elements in Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Play Time my first reaction was: Who? Now I have seen the film I can understand why evoking psychogeography in relation to Tati’s film might be a good idea.

The origin and legacy of psychogeography is intimately connected to the restructuring of Paris. You could say that it inspired three generations of dissent; first there was Baudelaire and his portrayal of the flaneur, then came the Surrealists with their search for the unconsciousness of Paris, best captured by Louis Aragon in his book on the Paris Peasant and next came the Situationists who took their analysis of how the rationalization of Paris was not just a rationalization of the street plan but of society and daily life itself to a revolutionary conclusion. The work of Haussmann was long finished when Tati came to make his film and already a new breed of architects were preparing themselves to redesign Paris once more and this time do it right. The radiant City of Le Corbusier is the icon of modernist Paris that never was: 18 gigantic tower blocks for which a considerable part of Paris south of the Seine would have to be razed. Psychogeography in that sense was dead simple neighbourhood activism. It is unlikely that Tati ever read Le Corbusier directly but his proposals were part of the intellectual atmosphere and Tati (re)created a modernist town that feels right.

Tati: ‘In the first half of Playtime, I direct the people to follow the architect’s guidelines. Everybody is filmed as if moving in straight lines and feeling prisoners of their surroundings. Modern architecture would like typists to sit straight, would like everyone to take themselves very seriously. In the first part of the film, the architecture plays a leading role but gradually, warmth, contact and friendship as well as the individual I defend, take over this international setting and then neon advertisements make their entrance and the world starts to swirl and it all ends up in a merry-go-round. There are no more straight angles at the end of the film’. (quoted from http://www.blueprintmagazine.co.uk/index.php/architecture/jacques-tati-and-architecture/)

When Tati got to design the city that is the back drop of Play Time he took his ideas of architecture as a monstrous inhuman art and what you get is a city that is has become one gigantic undifferentiated hallway in which the hospital, the workplace, the hotel, the airport are indistinguishable from another. Tati presents the life lived in such a city where nature has been conquered, design reigns supreme as a bad dream and where people have been stripped of their wildness, their senses, forced to ambulate from one place to the next searching for the cheap fix of inane novelties. In the city of Tati wandering is either made impossible (the tourist follow a carefully planned path) or a bureaucratic trick to keep you from reaching your goal, ala Kafka. Halfway the film Tati’s starts to introduce elements of resistance and the people are set free. Just as the docile domestic cow sometimes has something of the primeval wild bovine inside it. 
Strangely in his equation of fully planned, rational environment with the devaluation of humans to drones he almost verbatim follows Le Corbusier and his dream that a well planned city would create well behaved human beings. The psychogeographic drift (Ian Sinclair included) swallows that formula by assuming that drifting, the break-up of a functional activity into a semi-random play is revolutionarily. The city as a watch that runs as smoothly as design allows. Tati buys the ideology of control-through-design but mocks the ideologue. I would argue that this position both overestimates architecture and underestimates people. Strangely enough this idea is still with us but in the opposite way. The idea of the mallable society may have vanished but the precedence of public space over behaviour resurfaces in the broken window theory that gave the impetus for the Zero Tolerance policing that you sometimes hear about here too. So: we no longer believe that design can make us, but an absence of it can break us.
There is a scene in the film where we suddenly stumble on a great open space filled with a ordered series of free standing cubicles. In each cubicle sits one person. It is hard to gauge how the film must have appeared to the viewers in 67 but this is clearly a comic moment: haha look at what those architect fools have thought off, this will never pass in real life. No labourers will ever allow themselves to work caged in a box without any contact with a fellow human. Working like rats in perfect isolation. Of course the cubicles are here but they are not very popular with employers because who knows what your employees are doing down there, hidden away from view…. Probably they are working on their blog.


maandag 23 april 2012

The great albatros wanders

From google scholar one can lean a lot about the wander-pattern of the great albatross. No wonder shooting them is such a bad idea.

zaterdag 21 april 2012

The first history of Occupy Wall Street reviewed

The occupation of Zuccotti Park began in mid September and by December at least three books had been published about it. If that is not showing the way it captured the imagination of a great number of people what will? 

"Occupying Wall Street” tells the inside story of the occupation from the original Addbusters call to the eviction in November and a little beyond that. A large group of writers contributed material but the book speaks with one assembled voice. This means that while the book mostly reads well is it is written without style or literary embellishment. It sears through the history of OWS with the finesse of a transportbike at rush time. This is a sympathetic but detached account meant to be the first history of the movement. It attempts to represent the various and sometimes conflicting viewpoints and positions of the people involved as objective as possible by including a lot of interviews. As it documents the occupation from its humble, unsure beginnings to an unexpected mass movement it captures the key media moments like the 700 arrests on Brooklyn bridge as well as the evolving organizational structure of councils, working groups and caucuses. This turns this book into a how-to-occupy manual of sorts.

The chapter that discusses what it was like to actually live on Zuccotti does a good job explaining how the mass of occupation stratified into in smaller, often non-communicating groups with a rough division between the smart side and the down and out side. It takes you through the birthing pains of the formation of a city within a city with astonishing detail with all the social tension but also with all the bustle and excitement. The book shows what a bit of good will and energy can do: OWS did manage to provide good on-site services from daily mails, to book lending, to laundering and medical and legal assistance.

In the long run the use of this book will probably fade as better books telling the story of OWS come out but for now I will rate this book for the fact that it provides a huge amount of information that I had never encountered before. Great stuff.

PS: The Economist called this book self-congratulatory and boosterish but that can easily be explained because this book lacks the cynicism that the editors of the Economist mistake for integrity.

woensdag 18 april 2012

Walking in Siberia, forage psychogeography with the old world Eskimo

"MAPPING EVENKI LAND: THE STUDY OF MOBILITY PATTERNS IN EASTERN SIBERIA" starts with a number of maps showing Evenki land use but the paper gets even more interesting when it posits that each culture walks different before discussing the specific walking knowledge of the Evenki. This is forage psychogeography at it's finest.  

On Evenki mapping:
Evenki wander between situations or events that provoke and intensify the circuits of companionship and experiences of autonomy, rather than geographical points. With this in mind, describing Evenki land with an ordinary map imposed with spots and symbols on the continuous space or landscape becomes a real challenge. But if we inverse the main premise of map making in accordance with the logic of Evenki social organization we construct a depiction of Evenki land which will also grasp important traits of the Evenki mind. The task is easier than it seems, because the streams of Evenki paths covering their land are analogous to the changes (experiences of autonomy) from one companionship to another. Mapping Evenki land with an Evenki social organization could help us to find other such analogies between places and social interactions.

Following and watching an old Evenki man:
Only after we repeatedly watched the video recording that we made quite casually with Orochon walking in front of us through the taiga during one of our trips together, did we begin to notice some features of the particular Evenki way of walking. Orochon went through an animal pathway as if he was moving in a tube with thorny bushes as walls. He was carrying a stick on which he leaned. He took this stick in his right arm, but changed hands when some branches of the bush prevented him from going further. Then he took his stick in his left hand, and used his right hand to break the branches. The sound of this cracking was rather rhythmical and synchronised with his footsteps, which we could not hear as they were rather light. There were two images that we caught after watching this tape. One is that he was marking the path with these half broken branches he left behind. We supposed that these marks will be useful in winter, when the snow will cover the path, and only such marks above the snow surface will show where the narrow path is. Orochon himself told us that it is very important to clear pathways, because this is the basis for future hunting luck. He only commented that animals also preferred to use clear pathways, and if there were any such available then there would be plenty of prey. The other point was the importance of keeping balance. Orochon was moving through the taiga in the same way as if he was floating on a boat with a stick that helped not only in pushing forwards but also in keeping his balance. When Orochon was crashing through the branches he was also balancing himself, as his leap was counterbalanced by the inertia of branches. At these moments he had four points of support as if he had not two but four legs.
... We should not forget that Orochon was already 70 years old, but his movements had not lost any of this lightness.
Evenki go looking around for fun:
Evenki people learn from their earliest years not to be frightened and to be interested in and not exclude the new possibilities of hazardous situations – for the Evenki exploring new territories is a pleasant experience. The Evenki will prefer to go and have a look just for fun, even when there is absolutely no need to go anywhere. Looking for new places is a wonderful opportunity for experiencing companionship, and as a result it is a widely accepted thing to go somewhere with the intention just to look around. In company or alone, a trip to an unknown territory is also a fine experience of manakan (which signifies ‘independence’ and ‘solitude’ in the Evenki language), because even when together with somebody else, you perceive the place in your own unique way and take your own path. Once we participated in a ritual, in which the Evenki visited secret places in the forest. There was no obvious organization of movement from one secret place to another. Everybody was walking separately and they finally united in one place, the way hunters meet with their dogs at some moments, only to separate again without a shout or an order being given. The Evenki made their routes ever more difficult and complex. By walking in circles and making different loops they walked with the intention of looking around, thus raising their chances to come across somebody or something. The way the Evenki navigate explicitly shows their social organization, in which individuals each float freely, but are nevertheless eager for encounters and contacts with each other, uniting for a brief moment and then splitting up again to continue their individual free movement.

The emotions experienced are determined by the absence or existence of a concrete purpose for the trip. We have not only once witnessed how excited and happy the Evenki were when they were travelling without a specific purpose and also with risks (i.e. to new places) that could challenge the initial purpose. A broken wheel immediately transforms the situation during a trip, because you have to change your aims and figure out new ones, for example you need to go to your neighbours to borrow a new wheel and nobody really knows what will emerge from the new situation. Breakdowns, river crossings, drunken encounters and other occurrences, all of these incidents liberate you from the hegemony of the initial purpose, you receive the right to spontaneously change your route and combine different tasks and possible resolutions. All these conditions fill the situation with excitement and joy. In contrast to the predetermined purpose, for example the need to come back from the village to the camp to perform your household duties, this spoils the pleasure of the road and prevents total involvement in the travelling itself. Whenever possible the Evenki try to avoid moving under such conditions. For example, they find new reasons to stay in the village, even if they have no real place there and no money to spend. If they finally start on their way, the first coincidental encounter with someone will stop their movement and they will come back to the village accompanying the people they met. If there is no chance to escape from a trip with a predetermined aim, the Evenki look gloomy and keep silent, as if the existence of this concrete purpose prevents them from feeling free and getting pleasure from the trip.

Fungi Forage trail in Mexican highlands


"A new method for tracking pathways of humans searching for wild, edible fungi" discusses the best way to use GPS to track mushroom foraging behaviour of the Nahua in Mexico. The paper contains a trail of one forager, notice the change in altitude in a 5-hour trek.  
Searching behavior is a fundamental activity performed by organisms in order to increase their probability to survive, grow and reproduce by finding food, refuges or mates. Humans are no exception. Every day we can readily observe how we, consciously or unconsciously, search for and find a great variety of items, an ability that surely has its origins in our evolutionary past, including as hunter-gatherers.

dinsdag 17 april 2012

Eskimo songlines / Eskimo highways

"The Trail as Home: Inuit and Their Pan-Arctic Network of Routes" by Claudio Aporta is a dense article connecting Canadian Inuit land use and oral knowledge in recent and historic times with personal observation that give some stunning insights into the Eskimo way of life and the human talent for humanizing a harsh terrain. A related article by the same author is here and here.
We were traveling the route that days before Abraham Tagunak had mapped for us. Tagunak, a well-known elder and traveler from Naujaat, had followed that same route for the first time when he was a little boy several decades ago. It was the same trail that members of the Fifth Thule expedition used in the 1920s. It had also been used by Captain Hall’s Inuit guides in the 1860s. In fact, it seems certain that this trail and the place names around it were known to Iligliuk, the Inuit woman who acted as a guide for Captains Parry and Lyon in the 1820s. What is remarkable about this is that trails in the Arctic are not permanent features of the landscape. On the contrary, they disappear when the sled tracks get covered after a blizzard, and as the snow and ice melt at the end of each spring. The spatial itinerary, however, remains in people’s memory and materializes again when the next trailbreaker makes the trip.

to Inuit, the Arctic was in fact a network of trails, connecting communities to their distant neighbours, and to fishing lakes and hunting grounds in between. Based on the data collected during that trip and after mapping over sixty trails in several communities of the territory of Nunavut, I argue here that this network extends across most of the Canadian Arctic, most likely including areas that were not the focus of this research. Since Inuit did not use maps to travel or to represent geographic information, this enormous corpus of data has been shared and transmitted orally and through the experience of travel since time immemorial. Although new trails or new segments of trails are sometimes created to accommodate new travel needs and transportation technologies, while a few others are abandoned, most of these trails are so old that they are part of Inuit’s distant history, perhaps beyond oral memory and certainly beyond the limits of written documentation.

The implications of this premise are several: (1) it rejects the idea of the Arctic as a barren place, or an empty land inhabited by geographically remote and isolated communities (still present in the popular imagination); (2) it implies that Inuit have made systematic use of the Arctic environment as a whole; (3) it suggests that trails are, and have been, significant channels of communication and exchange across the Arctic; (4) it presumes that some  types of oral history and knowledge can be accurately transmitted through generations, and (5) it proposes that an important part of Inuit cultural identities is better understood in terms of moving as a way of living.

On place names:
The importance of place names in Inuit culture has been pointed out by several authors. I have elsewhere shown the connection between trails and place names. The mapping of place names makes this connection evident to the point that often the existence of trails can be guessed just by knowing where the named places are. In other words, the spatial layout of the names suggests the existence of a particular itinerary. Figure (above) indicates the presence of a trail across the northern tip of Baffin Island. Through the use of these names, a narrator can describe a trail, identifying creeks, lakes, hills, portages, stone cairns, and landing spots. The oral description of the trail (or the narrative of the journey) will help a listener picture how the horizon will look from the trail, and what kind of features a traveler should expect.

The trail as home:
During his travels in the Eastern Canadian Arctic, Knud Rasmussen documented a ritual just before a newborn child undertook her first journey. After describing the ritual and the prayer, Rasmussen noted that “this was the child’s first journey, and the little girl ... had to be introduced to life by means of [a] magic formula”. Being introduced to the first journey was, in a way, being introduced to life, as if both living and moving were part of the same journey. The trail was a place where life unfolded. Life on the trail involved the learning from an early age of an immense amount of geographic and environmental information, as the individuals experienced the land through actual or figurative travel. Through that process, a sense of community was also developed. The oral and experiential knowledge learned on the trails is, in fact, intertwined with information on and understanding of topographic features, environmental dynamics, and ecology of the familiar region. As Inuit travel to less familiar or more distant regions, this knowledge needs to be acquired from neighboring communities, which suggests a system of tenure in which knowledge equals survival (social and physical). It is through accessing this corpus of knowledge that Inuit travelers from distant communities would be able to find the good trails and the resources necessary to live in other regions.

Yanomami forage trails / ethnocartography of reticular space

"Ethnogeography and Resource use among the Yanomami" looks at the hunting and forage trails used by a Brazilian Yanomami village. It argues that space to the Yanomami is organized reticular and not concentric and zonal. Reticular? I've looked it up for you, it means: "1) Resembling a net in form; netlike. 2) Marked by complexity; intricate." I'm not entirely sure what the observations that the Yanomami use different systems of pathways adds to the table of forage psychogeography. Maybe it is a way of showing that paths connects places without laying claim to the space it traverses?
The spatial patterns of the Yanomami’s use of forest natural resources have traditionally been described or represented by anthropologists as concentric zones of exploitation (gardening, hunting, and gathering) outlined by approximate contours. Three types of concentric zones are usually distinguished: one close to the collective house, which includes the gardens, one for daily hunting, gathering, and harvesting, and, finally, one for long-distance collective hunting expeditions (hwenimu) and wild fruit gathering (waimi huu, yanomoa˜i-). This anthropological “zonal model,” which lacks any indigenous cultural recognition, projects onto Yanomami productive activities an ethnocentric conception of successive “rings” of decreasing degrees of resource exploitation similar to the classic agricultural model proposed
by J. H. von Thunen.

The methodology we adopted, allowing a fine-grained record of the Yanomami’s exploitation of natural resources, enabled us to produce a very different spatial model, this time structured by the collective knowledge and use of a web of identified forest paths (principal and secondary) tying together notable sites labeled by toponyms (hunting and gathering camps, former habitation and garden sites, groves of fruit trees, geographic features, and so on). In Yanomami cultural cartography, this complex network of paths and places is, moreover, closely interwoven with the intricate branching of the hydrographic network (made up of named rivers and streams), which constitutes another primary spatial reference.

From this new perspective, the Yanomami ethnogeographic organization of space appears to be reticular—structured by a crisscrossing network of sites (points) and routes (lines)—rather than zonal. By taking into account this emic structuring of space based on networks, as opposed to the conventional etic perspective in anthropology and geography, we aim to contribute toward a spatial model of tropical-forest resource use through data that are both quantitatively more precise and qualitatively more compatible with Yanomami social practices and cultural concepts.

maandag 16 april 2012

Outrunning a bull Kalahari style

"Persistence Hunting by Modern Hunter-Gatherers" is a paper that deals with the outrunning of game, an ancient practise today only known to be used by Kalahari hunters. The paper does a great job describing the problems of persistence hunting, goes on to detail the environmental knowledge involved in a hunt before again moving on explain how all this is related to human energy consumption patterns. All that and more in nine pages. 
An average speed of 6.3 km/hr may not seem very fast, but the challenge to the hunter is not so much the speed as the difficult conditions that need to be overcome, including extreme heat, soft sand, and sometimes thick bush. The hunter may be slowed down when he loses the trail. The most difficult task for the tiring hunter is keeping on the right track when the animal joins the rest of the herd again, since its tracks must be distinguished from those of the other animals. When the animal is still running strongly, this can be very difficult, but when it starts to show signs of tiring it becomes easier to distinguish its tracks. Another difficulty is that the animal may circle back onto its own tracks and the hunter must decide which set of tracks to follow. The hunter does not always run on the tracks but often leaves the trail in order to pick it up ahead, and a number of times the hunter lost time following the wrong trail and then going back to find the right one. The trail may also be lost when herds of other antelope species cross the tracks. Losing the tracks was the main reason the hunters gave up in unsuccessful attempts. [The f]igure  plots the route of Karoha running down a kudu bull in October 2001, showing the kudu crossing back over its own tracks a number of times and joining other groups of kudu bulls.
When running down a herd of kudu, trackers say that they look to either side of the trail to see if one of the animals has broken away from the rest of the herd and then follow that animal. The weakest animal usually breaks away from the herd to hide in the bush when it starts to tire, while the others continue to flee. Since a predator will probably follow the scent of the herd, the stronger animals have a better chance of outrunning it, while the weaker animal has a chance to escape unnoticed.

zondag 8 april 2012

Occupy changes everything, the second Occupy book does not

'This changes everything' is the second book on Occupy. It's slim and flimsy like a print-on-demand and comes from the offices of Yes Magazine. There are three sections, one deals directly with the organization and motives of Occupy Wall Street, the other two sections deal with what has to change in the US and how this could be done. For geographic reasons I have little use for the last two section while two articles in the first section also appear in the first book on Occupy. There are a few additional interesting pieces here but overall I feel that the editors of this book are ideologically far removed from OWS. While they go to great lengths to defend the consensus model of OWS you can't help but think that it's an appreciation based more on the success of OWS to capture attention than on any real sympathy for the model itself. There is just too much talk on the need for new leaders and to much emphasis on power. While the first book doesn't bother to address the way OWS changed the political agenda and gave a 'voice to the voiceless', the editors of this book can't stop salivating over this sudden mass eruption of anger and indignation. If only all those people would unite under their banner! Or at least got a subscription!! The ultimate aim of this book is to drain some of the energy of Occupy into their own fold and that makes this a dishonest book with a small number of good pieces.

vrijdag 6 april 2012

Foraging in 1939

The foreword to the 1939 'Edible wild plants' describes its author Perry Medsger Oliver, a biologist, as a magnificent guide and a true woodsman. One who quotes Thoreau! Oliver's own foreword confirms the origin of US contemporary foraging as coming from a fascination with the untapped resources of knowledge about nature that are part of the cultural heritage of the native American (although, Oliver believes, only to the intelligent ones); see quote below. There are some interesting differences between this guide book and contemporary ones: there is no mention of poisonous plants; there are no warnings against over-harvesting of plants or the accidental taking of protected plants. There is much space devoted to cultural uses and histories and very little space to the details of preparation (no recipes in the modern sense) because it knows that readers know what to do with a plant and you don't need to tell them to boil the water first. It is from this that you know that this is a book from a time when the handling of a vegetable was a daily chore not a lifestyle option to be bought alongside the new Jamie Oliver book. Did you know that in 1939 dandelions were grown semi-domesticated in New Jersey and sold on New York markets?
MORE than thirty years ago, I was with Dr. Harvey M. Hall when he made his botanical survey of San Jacinto Mountain, California. An intelligent Indian joined us for a few days and acted as guide. He was much interested in the plants used by the American Indians, especially those used for food. After I came East, for several years we exchanged specimens and seeds. I sent the Indian nuts of nearly all the edible nut-bearing species in northeastern United States, also acorns, seeds of edible berries, and those of other wild fruits. These he planted along canyons and in moist situations where he thought they might grow.

From that time on I have collected data on edible plants from books, published reports, papers, from the experiences of people, and wherever information on the subject could be obtained. When possible, I observed the trees or plants first hand, often experimenting or testing out their edible qualities.

woensdag 4 april 2012

Learn about edible plants with Sturtevant's

'Sturtevant's edible plants' is Victorian ethnocookery listmania in hyperdrive. It is a collection of notes on what plants and what part of plants are eaten where and how. You can take almost any plant, look it up and learn how the Greeks or the Indians used it. The information was collected by US Botanist Sturtevant in the late 19th century but only edited for publication after his death in 1919. It is an outdated collection of lore but a fascinating place filled with all sorts of exotic factoids of interest to contemporary foragers. It is out of print but you can find copies of the Dover reprint, however this book that makes more sense as a searchable PDF

zondag 1 april 2012

The Ikea of riot control

Open Street Map does a better job than Google maps.
The Situationists critique of urbanism was inspired by the redesign of their city. Paris recreated by city planning to make it easier for the police to control it; this in the light of France's long history of revolutions and uprising. San Francisco Digger Emmett Grogan gives an riot-control-through-architecture example for New York: Tompkins Square Park in the Lower East Side of New York. This park has a long history of political dissent and rioting (even OWS was planned here) and its architecture has been adapted to meet any infringes protesters there might want to make on public order.
Tompkins Square Park had been the setting of many riots earlier in the city, and after they took place, several city departments and agencies got together and redesigned the park, stringing it with so much cast-iron fencing that gave the place the look of of a labyrinth and made it virtually impossible for any crowd to move anywhere en masse. The four-foot-high iron railings were placed randomly throughout the park, successfully dividing it up into small sections, and at the same time, separating into easy-to-handle groups any large mob that might gather. Also, in case of trouble, there were handball and basketball courts in the north-east section of the park enclosed and encircled by thirty-foot-high chainlike fences - that could quickly be converted into a makeshift jail or temporarily holding facility for prisoners apprehended during a mass arrest. 
I would love to know more about this...