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…
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
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.
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
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
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
Shawn Clyboris 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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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 ofKavalier & 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 Clyboris 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
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).
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
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
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 Clyboris 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.
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
(Cities and City Life took place Saturday, March 22, 10–11:30am).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 Clyboris 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.