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Reflecting on Complaints: A Conversation with Kurt Andersen — 4/3/14

Posted by Shawn Clybor, filed under Events

I had the opportunity to sit down with author and cultural historian Kurt Andersen for coffee on the morning of Sunday, March 23, the concluding day of Power of Design. A longtime admirer of The Wolfsonian, Andersen served as emcee and moderator of the ideas festival. We discussed some of the themes and “big ideas” that emerged during the festival, and the weirdness of staying in a Miami Beach resort hotel during Spring Break.

Shawn Clybor: Did you have any connection or affiliation with The Wolfsonian prior to your work on Power of Design?

Kurt Andersen: No. One line from my professional life has been writing about design. I was contacted by [museum director] Cathy Leff early in the process. At that point the festival was not totally figured out. When she told me that the theme of the festival was “complaints,” I though it was really interesting, and her irresistible enthusiasm for this still-germinating idea gave me a good reason to be in Miami at end of winter. And then I found out part of my job was to talk to my friend Andy [Borowitz]. We just get to sit around for an hour and talk? That works.

Clybor: How have you enjoyed the festival overall? Were there any highlights? 

Andersen: The scene in our hotel lobby on Saturday night was an unanticipated field study! [Spring Break in Florida. You get the picture.] Otherwise, I would say last night’s Prophets of the Digital Age event. At first I was not sure about doing it because I was already doing the other events during the day. But getting to talk to Clive Thompson, Jaron Lanier, and Michael Chabon in an open-ended way was really attractive to me. 

Clybor: It was an extremely lively conversation, to say the least. At one point Clive and Jaron were battling for the microphone, and I thought it was going to get violent.

Andersen: It got out of control. They were really arguing. I warned the speakers beforehand that they disagree in fundamental ways. And I knew already that Jaron is very convinced of his own correctness. I kind of made a joke to Clive beforehand: He’s gonna call you what Dan Aykroyd used to call Jane Curtin on Saturday Night Live

Clybor: Good prediction. At one point Jaron told Clive he wasn’t going to answer one of his questions because it was “stupid,” so they weren’t too far away from that. But, moving away from the drama, what did you take away from Prophets of the Digital Age?

Andersen: For me a highlight was Chabon’s description of how we go down useless rabbit holes with Internet research, and then serendipitously find Internet nuggets that we never would have found any other way. Our time wasting versus our eureka moments. This is my experience as well. It wasn’t new to me as an insight, but it was amusing, and he put it cleverly. 

Clybor: It was so wonderful just to hear him speak. 

Andersen: The organizers really went into left field for Chabon. He’s not someone you would think of when you think “Internet.” 

Clybor: Yes. I have to say kudos to them for the research they put into organizing the panel. It wasn’t just three famous people who have something to say about the Internet. These individuals were selected intentionally because they represent sharply different opinions.

Andersen: The organizers were incredibly on the case and thorough about managing the whole process. Panels can be really boring. Really, though, all of the panels for the entire festival were well curated. People think it’s easy to organize panels. You just put people together and one talks after the other, as opposed to thinking about it as an intellectual and theatrical craft. I’m asked to do panels and roundtables a lot, and I’ve learned to say no ninety percent of the time. This festival was, for a lot of reasons, really well and thoughtfully considered. For a beta version of something, I thought this was cool.

Clybor: So now that we’re discussing the event as a whole, did you notice any common themes or threads emerge during the festival? For instance, I heard you mention a few times during the festival the tension between the need for a Robert Moses–type governmental figure to cut through bureaucratic red tape to resolve citizen complaints, versus a more “bottom up” approach that allows citizens to fix their own problems without government getting in the way.

Andersen: Yes, and another theme was how to fight against our ongoing need to codify and code everything. The smooth friction of the digital universe is created by trillions of lines of coding, and yet in life we are saying “less coding.” Andrés Duany [who cofounded the New Urbanism movement and spoke at the Cities and City Life panel] has been critical for a long time about the damage caused by encoded bureaucratic impulses. I also remember when Dickie Davis said something [she is director of public and customer relations at Miami International Airport and spoke at The Air Travel Experience panel] about how federal immigration staffing at Miami International Airport is a disaster. You seldom hear someone in her position say that. I was happy to see that degree of frankness.

Overall, I would say that political economy was a really major theme. And this axis [between top-down and bottom-up] looks quite different from our standard “public” versus “private” debates. This is not about some Mad Max radical libertarian thing, but at the same time let’s not deny that bureaucracy is not a dead hand of regulatory inertia. Let’s get beyond the tired, sclerotic Fox News and MSNBC talking points. That’s why I loved the Cities panel. They weren’t just some tired politicians; they were practical people asking, “How do we do this?” 

Clybor: My last question: Do you consider yourself a complainer?

Andersen: No, I really don’t. I’ve been a boss. I learned a lot from having employees. People who complained about their job, my reaction was: “Fix it. Propose a solution, or get over it and see this as a temporary thing.” Don’t just be in a situation and complain about it. Which is not to say that I’m the person who accentuates the positive. I call a spade a spade. It’s more that I’m inclined to be around cheerfulness. 

Shawn Clybor is a cultural historian of East-Central Europe and a former Fulbright-Hays Scholar. He has published several articles on the relationship between art and politics in communist Czechoslovakia and post-communist Czech Republic. He is currently cataloguing a private collection of Czech avant-garde books and teaching at the Ross School. He earned a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University in 2010.

Barking at the Bad Guys: How Watchdog Journalists Spotlight Community Problems and Seek Solutions — 3/31/14

Posted by Andrea Gollin, filed under Events

On Sunday afternoon, a group of South Florida investigative reporters and editors gathered in The Wolfsonian’s auditorium to discuss ways in which journalism responds to complaints, which they loosely defined as societal, political, and environmental wrongs.

The panel was moderated by The Miami Herald’s Jane Wooldridge, who also coordinated Power of Design’s Solve This Miami! competition, which awarded a $25,000 grant from The Wolfsonian to a local nonprofit. Members of the panel were Dan Christiansen, founder and editor of Broward Bulldog; Jim DeFede of CBS4; Carol Marbin Miller, investigative reporter with The Miami Herald; and Alicia Zuckerman, editorial director at WLRN.

“Watchdog journalism is important to our community and to the civic health of any community,” said Wooldridge in her opening remarks. She described the journalists on the panel as “driven to do the work that they do because they feel it is important to the community” and “people who give up all kinds of personal time and personal lives to do work that is incredibly important.”

Each journalist discussed examples of his or her work, much of it recent, including investigations into the abuse of children, environmental concerns around global warming, terrorism, and ethical violations by police officers.

A good portion of the panel was devoted to an ongoing Miami Herald investigative series titled Innocents Lost about the deaths of nearly five hundred Florida children in the past six years, following a shift in Florida welfare policy; in all cases, the Florida Department of Children & Families had received warnings about the families of these children. Carol Marbin Miller, co-author of the series, has spent many years reporting on abuse, neglect, and wrongful death of children and vulnerable adults.

Rather than focusing much on particulars of the investigative or even her motivation in covering these topics, Miller repeatedly encouraged the audience to be part of the solution. “You all have to do and say something if you care about our children. The primary goal of government, and of any civilized society, is to protect those who can’t protect themselves. We have all let this happen. If we do nothing then we are complicit,” she said.

“Let your feelings be known to the legislature and the governor. The situation has to be made too painful for the state legislature and the governor’s office to do nothing. They have done nothing for decades. If I were a civilian I would be sitting in the governor’s office right now. I would be in court representing these children. I would go to the hospital and hold infants as they withdraw. There are a million things you can do to help.”

Jim DeFede, in addition to discussing recent work, talked about how in the past, when he was a columnist with The Miami Herald, he would often tag-team on Miller’s stories in order to keep them “alive.” If a story runs in the newspaper only once, often “politicians will say all the right things when a story hits, but will they do anything?” What effects change, DeFede said, is to keep “hammering” at the story. “It’s a lot more annoying for officials if we keep doing it. We have to keep at it. The challenge when we hit with a big story is, how do we keep it up?”

Dan Christensen of the Broward Bulldog then summarized an ongoing story he’s been investigating about a family living in South Florida that abruptly disappeared just prior to 9/11—ties to the 9/11 hijackers have since surfaced, but much remains unknown. “This is an example of an investigation that can take a lot of time and doesn’t necessarily lead to a complete answer,” he said.

Alicia Zuckerman of WLRN focused on the extensive series of recent radio programming titled Elevation Zero: Rising Seas in South Florida, which ran for a full hour each day for a week, in addition to eighteen additional stories online and in social media. “How do you cover a slow-moving threat? Our approach was to look at it through the lens of science, policy, and individual stories,” she said.

One audience member complained about the type of news stories that come out of South Florida, including the frequent pieces on Medicare fraud and ID theft. Christensen’s response was to look to the lack of strong leadership. “This is a transient community,” he said, citing a study reporting that Florida is the most disengaged state in the nation and South Florida is the most disengaged part of the state.

“As a journalist, I’m glad that we are rife with corruption and scandal,” DeFede said. “Florida is a place where people go for second chances. And we want so desperately to be substantive, to be a world-class community, that we are easy prey for hucksterism.”

Zuckerman noted that for journalists, it comes down fostering a relationship of sorts between public officials and the public, while pointing out the responsibilities of each group in terms of responding to the complaints exposed by watchdog journalism: “As journalists, we hold public officials accountable. We are letting the public know what we find out and giving the public the tools to do what needs to be done.” 
Andrea Gollin is the writer/editor for special projects for The Wolfsonian, including the Power of Design website and blog.

Solutions! New Ideas and Art Made From Things You Might Otherwise Throw Away — 3/31/14

Posted by Mariam Aldhahi , filed under Events

Todd Oldham, in addition to his work curating BUMMER in conjunction with Power of Design and participating in two panel discussions (The Wolfsonian: Collecting Complaints and The Air Travel Experience), spent Sunday morning creating bracelets out of multi-colored pipe cleaners and decorating with duct tape (as pictured above).

The designer led two children’s craft workshops, held back-to-back in the lobby of The Wolfsonian. Solutions! New Ideas and Art Made From Things You Might Otherwise Throw Away, attracted more than fifty kids and their parents. Oldham, with a little help from a few Wolfsonian staff members, managed to ignite creativity while using unexpected materials, much of it recycled (and donated by Florida International University’s recycling department). The workshop was co-sponsored by the Miami Children’s Museum. 


Oldham explained that although it’s fascinating to see what children are capable of when given free rein to just do, growing up distracts. “We un-teach children. Humans have natural creative abilities and society undoes it,” he said. Oldham has held similar programs in many different locations and said that youth-stemmed creativity is universal, although parental support is crucial.

The creations that resulted from Solutions! ranged from jewelry to robots riding skateboards. One six-year-old boy created a giraffe using toilet paper rolls and yellow construction paper. A ten-year-old girl transformed a cardboard box into a rather fashionable purse by using patterned duct tape (from Oldham’s personal line) to hide the worn marks of the throwaway container. 

Below are a few of Sunday’s accomplishments, designer and all.

Iris, 7: A bracelet and mini-art installation made from tape, pom-poms, and pipe cleaners. 
Jonah, 6: A basketball hoop with a backboard and support. Jonah chose to use pom-poms as basketballs and remembered to attach a cup to the bottom for efficient storage. 

Sebastian, 6: A giraffe in its natural habitat made from recycled toilet paper rolls, construction paper, and felt.  

India, 8: Treasure chest made from a tissue box, duct tape, and paper. Treasure included.
Isabella, 9: Two purses with duct tape flower decoration and zip-tie straps.

Anaiya, 8: A desk with a cup holder and a robot made from an old Gatorade bottle and tape.

Alessandra, 5: Rainbow snowman made from a plastic juice bottle with pom-pom buttons and a hot air-balloon made with two upside-down bottles and construction paper.

Photo credits: Top two photos, Manny Hernandez. Photos of kids with artwork, Mariam Aldhahi.

A Walk on the Beach with Michele Oka Doner — 3/30/14

Posted by Mariam Aldhahi, filed under Events

Michele Oka Doner’s guided walk on the beach was one of the optional activities on Saturday afternoon during the break between panel discussions. Blogger Mariam Aldhahi tagged along.

Artist Michele Oka Doner (b. 1945) was raised on Miami Beach, just minutes from The Wolfsonian. By channeling her deep connection to the natural world, Oka Doner has created many public art installations inspired by South Florida’s flora and fauna. One of her better known pieces, A Walk on the Beach (1995–2009), is a fundamental part of Miami International Airport’s image. A mile long, the dark terrazzo walkway, inlaid with cast bronze elements and scattered with mother-of-pearl, draws its inspiration from the artist’s longstanding love of the beach. 

Based in New York City, she maintains ties to the Miami art scene. She is a member of The Wolfsonian’s advisory board and longtime friend of its founder, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr., with whom she co-authored the book Miami Beach: Blueprint of an Eden. Few people are better versed on Miami Beach’s history, ecology, and in the growing emergence of Miami as an art and design powerhouse. These factors combined make her the ideal tour guide for a Power of Design walk on the beach. 

Oka Doner made three main stops on a trek that delved deep into the artist’s psyche by going back to where her journey began: Ocean Drive. 

Stop One: The coral rock walls that stretch north to south along the western edge of the beach are among the few remnants of the pre-gentrified strip of Ocean Drive. Each piece of coral, so deeply embedded into the walls over thousands of years, evokes the artist’s major terrazzo installation at the airport. Oka Doner, though, rather than discuss her art or inspiration, relayed fond childhood memories of her mother teaching her how to lie on the wall like a lady. 

Stop Two: Palm trees along the beach may spur admirers of Oka Doner’s work to consider the large scale and types of structures she often gravitates to in her work. For her, however, the trees are mature versions of what she witnessed being planted decades before as a young girl—and a new driver—practicing her automotive skills by traversing Ocean Drive in her father’s Cadillac. 

Stop Three: The scarce greenery that dots the shoreline sends Oka Doner back to a time when the entire stretch of beach was covered in spiky plants and shrubbery, since wiped out by development. Oka Doner provides insight into her inspiration for her jewelry design when she shares stories of summer days spent on this same beach gathering natural materials for her very first personal collection. Even now, she says, she sometimes prefers seaweed necklaces over more conventional options. 

The walk was refreshing, enlightening, and created a peculiar sort of nostalgia—a longing for a time we were never part of. By visiting vital locations of an artist’s childhood that continue to inspire her work, we were given a peek into the mind and creative process of a Miami Beach native whose art owes much to her South Florida roots.  

Mariam Aldhahi is a graduate student in the MFA in Design Criticism at the School of Visual Arts. This coming summer, she will be working at The Wolfsonian as part of her thesis research.

Does Personhood Exist on the Internet? A Response to Prophets of the Digital Age — 3/28/14

Posted by Shawn Clybor, filed under Events

Jaron Lanier, Clive Thompson, and Michael Chabon gathered for a conversation moderated by Power of Design master of ceremonies Kurt Andersen to discuss whether now is the best of times or the worst of times when it comes to technology and its impact on our lives and minds (Prophets of the Digital Age took place Saturday, March 22, 7:00–8:30pm).

Something struck me about the Prophets of the Digital Age event co-organized by The Wolfsonian and Intelligence Squared London as part of Power of Design, which attracted a full house—more than 350 people showed up at the Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) for the event. Despite the “ultra-partisanship” of American life, we rarely get to witness a genuinely passionate, off-the-cuff disagreement in which none of the participants has an advantage over the others.

Power of Design emcee Kurt Andersen sat down with Jaron Lanier, Clive Thompson, and Michael Chabon to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of digital technology. The sparks began to fly within the first five minutes. 

Lanier, a pioneering computer scientist turned Internet skeptic, called upon the audience to acknowledge the “empirical realities” of the twenty-first century: social inequality has exploded and the general public is increasingly ignorant when it comes to science. Thompson, a technology writer and firm proponent of the digital age, countered that these were political problems; when it comes to digital technologies, the general public has acted in inventive, unanticipated, and liberating ways. Chabon, a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist, argued that because humans created machines they reflect human nature—like us, Internet is equally horrible and wonderful.

After Chabon spoke, Lanier interjected passionately that Thompson was not looking at the larger, structural effects of digital technologies, and that Chabon was too resigned—improvements can and should be made to make the web a better place for everyone. Emotions got heated, especially when two of the speakers’ microphones stopped working. With only one microphone between them, the speakers had to share (which they did with varying degrees of willingness). In the long run, I think this had a positive effect: no matter how angry Lanier and Thompson became, they had to “pass the torch.” This act of forced sharing helped de-escalate the tension. At points, I half-expected bloodshed.

One of the interesting themes that emerged during the discussion (and which also surfaced during Andy Borowitz’s discussion earlier in the day with Kurt Andersen) was how users of Twitter and Facebook are generating free content that, according to Thompson, equals “more writing than has ever been produced in human history.” Lanier agreed that once we, as a society, are able to place a fair price the data that we are currently giving away to billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, we will be able to create a more adequate space for “personhood to exist” in the digital universe. This really struck me, and I have been thinking a lot about how (and whether) this problem really can be avoided without avoiding “social” forms of online media altogether. (If you have any ideas, feel free to send me a message, preferably not on Facebook or Twitter.)

Overall, I’m a huge Chabon fan. As such, I enjoyed his contributions the most. One of the highlights for me was his response to an audience member’s question as to whether it was possible to reinvent oneself, or to keep secrets, in the digital age. Chabon responded that secrets, and their concealment, were a central plot device in literature—affairs, illegitimate children, sordid past lives, etc. But, he asked, how are such secrets possible in the digital age, when young people no longer care much about discretion?

At the same time, he noted, novels are losing their ability to blur the boundaries between fact and creative liberty. When he published his award-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in 2000, a number of people thought he was writing historical fiction based on real people, and asked him where they could buy comic book art drawn by the novel’s protagonists. With Google, this is no longer possible. (When he said this, it reminded me that I was one of those people: when I first read the novel, I looked up the lead characters to make sure they didn’t actually exist.) When Lanier responded to Chabon that falsehoods and myths are created online every day, Chabon quipped, “So maybe the novel is no longer a good way of fooling people.” For me, it was this sort of pensive melancholy that made Chabon’s contributions so delightful.

Shawn Clybor is a cultural historian of East-Central Europe and a former Fulbright-Hays Scholar. He has published several articles on the relationship between art and politics in communist Czechoslovakia and post-communist Czech Republic. He is currently cataloguing a private collection of Czech avant-garde books and teaching at the Ross School. He earned a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University in 2010.

Photo credit: World Red Eye

The Air Travel Experience — 3/28/14

Posted by Wolfsonian Staff, filed under Events

Who doesn't love to complain about air travel? And who are the people  doing something about it? We gathered a group of individuals whose work focuses on improving air travel or who document it (a travel editor and a cultural critic). Speakers: Nancy Novogrod, editor of Travel and Leisure magazine; Dickie Davis, head of customer service for Miami International Airport; Ashlea Powell, Director at IDEO; and Kevin Doesksen, managing director, customer planning and analysis for American Airlines. This lively discussion is moderated by Alastair Gordon, author, critic, cultural historian, and curator. (The Air Travel Experience took place Saturday, March 22, 2:30–4pm). 

Making it Funny: Andy Borowitz with Kurt Andersen — 3/28/14

Posted by Shawn Clybor, filed under Events

Political satirist Andy Borowitz and Power of Design master of ceremonies Kurt Andersen got together for a talk about political satire as a way of expressing and engendering complaints (Making it Funny took place Saturday, March 22, 11:45am–1:15pm). 

Andy Borowitz has a complaint. The world has gotten so absurd that people are having trouble distinguishing what he writes from what’s actually happening. He’s a satirist in a world that’s become self-satirizing.

Borowitz and longtime friend Kurt Andersen took to the stage during Power of Design for a wide-ranging, thoroughly humorous, and borderline informative discussion. 

The duo began by discussing a selection of absurd topics Borowitz has covered for his satirical news column, The Borowitz Report, which foreign press agencies have republished as truthful. Among the most ridiculous republished headlines: “North Korean Missile Test Delayed by Windows 8” and “Amazon Founder Says He Clicked on Washington Post by Mistake.”

Both stories were picked up by a Chinese news agency. But it’s not only the Chinese. An Italian news media outlet republished Borowitz’s story about Silvio Berlusconi deciding to run for office in New York City (the item was inspired the campaigns of fellow sex-fiends Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner). The punch line? The news outlet was owned by Berlusconi! 

The conversation somehow meandered into a more serious discussion about gun control. Although Borowitz denied entertaining any notion that his writing can effect change, he did admit that when he writes about the NRA, it’s not just entertainment. “We have 300 million guns in this country,” he noted, “and that’s crazy.” Andersen mentioned the man who recently murdered a teenager for listening to his music too loud. “Did that happen right here in Florida?” he asked. “Of course,” Borowitz responded.  “Here...or Somalia."As the discussion grew more “political,” Borowitz and Andersen considered the ways in which ideology has influenced our sense of humor. (Conservatives laugh at Rush Limbaugh, whereas liberals laugh at Jon Stewart.) Both agreed that charges of “bias” in the media have become a synonym for saying “I do not agree with this.”

The problem, as Borowitz sees it, is that, at the end of the day, whether through straight-on truth or satire, no one is changing anyone else’s mind. He described a humorous encounter with a woman who told him the press hadn’t shed enough light on the many successes of the US invasion of Afghanistan. After he pointed out the many resounding failures of the invasion, to no avail, he had a crazy thought: to pretend that the woman had changed his mind. “Well, this is all WONDERFUL news,” he gushed, “This is just fantastic!” 

The last third of the discussion centered on how the Internet has facilitated this ideological bitterness, not least by engendering the nastiest forms of complaining, or “trolling.” The biggest culprit: comments sections of news media websites. The sad reality, according to Borowitz, is that at the end of the day all this complaining comes down to one thing: corporate profits. The more we’re on a website writing complaints, the more we’re clicking on other things. In so doing, our anger is generating revenue for news aggregators, whether conservative or liberal. To this end, complaints lead to results, but not the kind we likely envision.

Moreover, the writers, comedians, and anyone else worried about their online “brand,” are making the situation worse by commenting on and recycling all of these often-toxic news stories. The result is that we are generating free content for Twitter and Facebook, whose owners walk away with billions. Over the long run we’re writing long-form narratives, piece by piece, and giving them away to corporations, who are the only ones reaping the profits.

Overall it was a fantastic discussion, and a great way to bring some light (in both of its metaphorical senses) to Power of Design. And if you’d like to support Borowitz or Andersen, you should follow them on Twitter, or buy one of their books. Don’t worry about me, however.
Shawn Clybor is a cultural historian of East-Central Europe and a former Fulbright-Hays Scholar. He has published several articles on the relationship between art and politics in communist Czechoslovakia and post-communist Czech Republic. He is currently cataloguing a private collection of Czech avant-garde books and teaching at the Ross School. He earned a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University in 2010.

Photo credit: Manny Hernandez.

Cities and City Life — 3/28/14

Posted by Wolfsonian Staff, filed under Events

For, by, and with people dedicated to improving our cities. Moderated by Carol Coletta, vice president for community and national initiatives at the Knight Foundation. Speakers: Jaime Lerner, innovator in city planning and urban issues (Brazil); Alejandro Aravena, reformer in social and affordable housing initiatives (Chile); Andrés Duany, architect and founding member of the Congress for the New Urbanism; and Gabe Klein, expert in transportation technology. (Cities and City Life took place Saturday, March 22, 10–11:30am).

On View: BUMMER — 3/24/14

Posted by Andrea Gollin, filed under Events

BUMMER, an installation curated by designer Todd Oldham from The Wolfsonian’s collection in conjunction with Power of Design, was conceived four years ago, on the occasion of Oldham’s first in-depth encounter with museum's collection. In 2009, Oldham spent several days in The Wolfsonian’s archives for New Voices. New Works., a multi-modal, multi-artist project organized in conjunction with Art Basel Miami Beach. Although he had been a longtime fan and had collaborated with the museum previously, that project was his most intensive exposure to the collection to date.

As he explored the museum's storage annex and delved into the object collection, much of what he saw stuck him, in his words, as kind of a bummer. Kind of a bummer notwithstanding, he wanted to work with the objects, gather them up despite their downward-facing nature, and display them. Now he has;  the museum’s ideas festival provided a fitting context for the installation.

“There is no place on the planet like this. It’s an extraordinary collection,” he says. “It also houses an enormous number of objects that have a shadow on them.” For BUMMER, Oldham worked closely with Wolfsonian curator Matthew Abess on the choice of objects, which includes many items that Oldham flagged four years ago. The result? “There is so much that is truly horrible, but with extremely relevant, beautiful design,” Oldham says.

The objects on display are a disparate group in terms of functionality. What unifies the selection, Oldham says, is that everything on view is “executed exquisitely. That said, the subject matter is spooky. It’s ominous in so many different ways.”

Touring the installation with Oldham, he stops to point out highlights from the seventy pieces on view, often commenting on aspects he finds beautiful, and just as often noting what strikes him as horrifying. A c. 1900 Tiffany-designed door knocker with a face as the base; the handle inserts into the eyeballs and the knocking action strikes the tongue, an overall effect that Oldham notes is “grotesque—I can’t imagine how many people were distressed knocking on whoever’s door that was on.” An American children’s game from 1943 called “Kill the Jap,” which Oldham proclaims “horrible on every single level.” A selection of HIV/AIDS posters from around the world—“beautiful and alarming,” Oldham says. An elegant food tray used in the U.S. prison system for decades. A 1937 Frank Lloyd Wright prototype armchair that to Oldham broadcasts the architect’s contempt for his clients. “He wanted you to hurt yourself, to be uncomfortable. Ergonomically it borders on a torture situation.”

As for how BUMMER fits the theme of complaints, Oldham views every item in the exhibit as having “a complaint attached to it”— that complaint may be the darkness discernible in the object, its function, or its context. Musing on the theme of the ideas festival, Oldham notes, “Complaints can fuel design solutions, and design solutions can fuel complaints. Sometimes solutions come out of awful situations. Sometimes awful people do beautiful things.”

Is he a complainer? No, he says. “I don’t complain. It’s a waste of time.” What about when something bothers him? “I share information.” His conclusion, after immersing himself in the collection, in the objects that comprise BUMMER, and in the complaints festival itself? “What I  have seen through all of this is that humor may be the thing that saves us.”
A selection of objects showcased in BUMMER follows. The installation remains on view at The Wolfsonian through August 2014.

Door knocker, c. 1900. Louis Comfort Tiffany (American, 1848–1933), designer. Louis C. Tiffany & Company, New York City, maker. Bronze. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

Poster, Le SIDA circule toujours 1981– [AIDS Is Still Circulating 1981–], 2004. Gilles Dusablon, Linda Dawe, Stephane Gaulin, creative team, for MARKETEL, Quebec, agency. The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Henry S. Hacker and Family.

Painting, Slum Wedding, 1938. Warren Beach (American, 1914–1999). New Haven, Connecticut. Oil on canvas. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

Goblet, In Memoriam Walthari, 1916. Walter Weber, designer. J. & L. Lobmeyr, Vienna, manufacturer. Glass, paint. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

Dental office chair, late 1920s. USA. Steel, chromed-steel, leatherette, rubber. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

Plate, Fest steht und true [Firm and Loyal Stands], 1918. Theo Schmuz-Baudiss (German, 1859–), designer. R. Preuss (German), decorator. Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur, Berlin, manufacturer. Porcelain. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

From a portfolio of photographs of sites associated with National Socialist (Nazi) architect Paul Ludwig Troost (German, 1878–1934), 1929–1940. Photographic prints. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection. Entrance to the Braunes Haus, Munich.

Photo credits: Installation view by Lynton Gardiner. Todd Oldham by World Red Eye.

Andrea Gollin is the writer/editor for special projects for The Wolfsonian, including the Power of Design website and blog.

Whining Our Way to Independence—Kurt Andersen’s Opening Remarks — 3/22/14

Posted by Shawn Clybor, filed under Events

Friday evening of the Power of Design: Complaints kicked off with opening remarks by the ideas festival’s master of ceremonies, Kurt Andersen, novelist, cultural historian, and host of the public radio program Studio 360. Andersen's talk was followed by the presentation The Wolfsonian: Collecting Complaints, in which several Wolfsonian staff members and others explored the connections between objects in the collection and complaints.

Andersen began his talk with the humorous observation that the United States was founded on a spectacular, articulate complaint: the Declaration of Independence. The document begins with high-flying philosophical sentiments, such as “all men are created equal,” but soon devolves into catalogue of grievances against the King of England. Essentially, Andersen concluded, “we whined our way to independence.”

Despite our country being founded on complaints, Andersen noted that Americans have lost their way in recent years. For example, according to a social-psychology study he cited from 2008, in comparison to Ukrainians, Americans are much less likely to complain directly or at all when friends show up late to a social engagement. Instead, if we even say anything, we tend to articulate our “indirect disapproval.” I’m guessing that’s a nice way of saying “passive aggressive”—we note that the soup would have been much nicer if it were still warm, that it really is such a late hour to serve pasta, and so on.

Ukrainians, on the other hand, are much less reticent. More than forty percent make note of the late arrival. Many use jokes and irony to express their dissatisfaction, although some go for the direct route: “You were LATE.” And there were those who go so far as to demand satisfaction (we’ll leave that to your imagination). Andersen noted that, according to other studies, in addition to their complaining prowess, Ukrainians are also the most likely among European nationalities to assume that, sooner or later, they are going to get “screwed.” The Russians, interestingly, are number two. 

Perhaps it’s not always so great to be the complainer.Andersen's remarks were followed by a series of three-minute presentations that  considered objects from The Wolfsonian's collection and their relation to complaints. Several Wolfsonian staff members spoke: Matthew Abess, Silvia Barisione, Peter Clericuzio, Christian Larsen, Francis X. Luca, and Jon Mogul. They were joined by Steven Heller and Todd Oldham. 

Shawn Clybor is a cultural historian of East-Central Europe and a former Fulbright-Hays Scholar. He has published several articles on the relationship between art and politics in communist Czechoslovakia and post-communist Czech Republic. He is currently cataloguing a private collection of Czech avant-garde books and teaching at the Ross School. He earned a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University in 2010.