structure + optics lecture

I've posted a quick lecture on my father's paintings, "Structure + Optics: The Development of Kazys Varnelis’ Painting, 1967-1977" here. Next up (in the relatively long term), a book on his work, as well as a book on my work with the Network Architecture Lab

London and Paris—Midsummer 1939

In today's entry of Philip Johnson's fascist writings, we have his first piece as "foreign correspondent" for Todayʼs Challenge, written in summer of 1939 in London and Paris and published in the August-September issue. This completes my upload of the three pieces Johnson writes for the magazine. Worse is to come.  

This piece puts down the French and English as weak and ineffectual, drawing the implicit conclusion that it will be the Americans who will have to bail them out if their foreign policy leads to war. Nothing too bad, you say? Alright, well here is the conclusion, which hints at what we are going to see in his writing for Social Justice.

"Another serious split in French opinion is that caused by the Jewish question, a problem much aggravated just at present by the multitude of émigrés in Paris. Even I, as a stranger in the city, could not help noticing how much German was being spoken, especially in the better restaurants. Such an influx naturally makes the French wonder, not only about these incoming Jews, but also about their co-religionists who live and work here and call themselves French. The facts that [former Prime Minister and Popular Front leader Léon] Blum and the men around him are Jews, that there are two Jews in the present cabinet, Messrs. Zay and Mandel and that the Jewish bankers Mannheimer, de Rothschild and Lazard Freres are known to stand behind the present government all complicate the situation. 

The position taken by the Daladier government on this question is an interesting commentary on its policies in general. There are two decree laws which concern the press, one against publishing propaganda paid for by a foreign government. Under these laws, the patriotic weeklies Le Defi and La France Enchainee were just recently uppressed, presumably for getting money from Hitler; but LʼHumanité, which no one doubts gives out Russian propaganda, paid for by Russia, has been left alone. What is freedom of the press and for whom is it done, the French ask."

Read it here.

Inside War-Time Germany

Today's entry from amongst Philip Johnson's fascist writings is "Inside War-Time Germany," published in the November-December 1939 issue of Today's Challenge. Unlike the previous piece, then, this one is written after the outbreak of war, on which we will hear much more from Johnson later.

The essay begins with a reverse echo of the present day, with Johnson condemning the main stream media: "The American newspapers have done their job of indoctrination well…" The piece is worth reading in its entirety, but I will quote one section to introduce you to the sort of mental gymnastics that Johnson makes:

"none of those opposed to Hitler that I know would prefer the liberalism of the Weimar Republic to National Socialism as a system of government. They remember too well the humiliation of the Versailles treaty, the misery of inflation and the later miseries of mass unemployment. They remember that the Weimar Republic brought civil strife, battles of brother against brother; and such civil war to them was more hateful than the World War. They do not like Hitler, but they feel that if Hitler were not Hitler but some imaginary person that would be nice in their own particular way, then National Socialism or rather national socialism, would be a good idea. Such thoughts are not the stuff of revolutions. 

Also, no matter what the objections they have to Hitler, close to 100% of the Germans appear to approve of one particular part of Hitlerʼs work — his foreign policy. … since 1911, Germany has been growing rapidly. Even the bitterest foes of the National Socialist ideology are proud of German greatness. This natural pride in their power and success stultifies foreign criticism of their methods or their morals. Similarly, we Americans would not have brooked any criticism of our doctrine of ʻmanifest destinyʼ in the 19th century when we were busy conquering our empire in the west. So today the Germans are impervious to the moral admonishment that they ought not to conquer their neighbors. Conquest is good or bad, depending on who does it, you yourself or somebody you donʼt like."

Where the Jews are in all this is rather unclear (actually it is perfectly clear… they are suppressed or deemed unfit to testify) although at one point Johnson uses well-known code language, referring to the common "anti-international banker" stance between the Nazis and the Soviets. 

Read for yourself here.

Philip Johnson's Fascistic Writings

Given the current political climate, it seems appropriate to go back to my dissertation and look at Philip Johnson's fascist writings from the 1930s. I will be posting these regularly here, one document at a time as a way of helping us understand the genesis of the contemporary "America First" movement in the fascistic "America First" movement of the 1930s. The order of these articles is a bit random, having more to do with what is on top of the pile than anything else.

Before we start, a word on my use of the term "fascistic." These writings will make abundently clear that neither Johnson nor the America First movement was merely Right wing, but rather that each actively sought to create "fake news," especially regarding the plight of the Jews in Europe and the Nazi Blitzkreig. Moreover, this was done with the active support of the Nazi goverment in hopes of keeping the United States out of the war with Germany. 

The first article, "Philip Johnson, “Are We a Dying People?,” was published in Todayʼs Challenge June-July 1939. In this piece Johnson rehearses arguments being made by proponents of the eugenics movement (Johnson invokes eugenics directly in this article). Like Johnson, they saw race suicide in indications that Nordic and Anglo-Saxon Americans bred at a lower rate than African Americans and immigrants from Ireland, as well as Southern and Eastern Europe. Like Johnson, the eugenicists predicted “race suicide,” and “national deterioration” as the consequence of these trends. The final section titled "The Will to Live" makes Johnson's positions on race quite clear. 

"I have heard many educated men talk in this way: 'Well if we are not the fittest to survive, nature will wipe us out. The Japanese may be more fit to survive. Remember Darwin.'

The course of nature is not pre-destined. Human will is a part of the biological process. Our will, for example, interferes, constantly in the world of the lower animals. When English sparrows threaten to drive out our songbirds, we shoot the sparrows, rather than letting nature and Darwin take their course. Thus the songbirds, thanks to our will, become the 'fittest' and survive." 

Today's Challenge, I should add, is the "official organ" of the American Fellowship Forum, an organization first conceived in Berlin by Lawrence Dennis and Freidrich Auhagen. The former was a former employee of the foreign service who had become the intellectual father of an American fascism, the latter a Nazi agent who would eventually would be convicted of violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the same act that Paul Manafort is now accused of violating.  

Find the article here

Time for a Change

I've been saying that I would leave Drupal for a few years now and today I took some steps in that direction, putting together a new front end to varnelis.net. It took two hours to produce a site with the Kirby CMS and it will take a bit longer to add the content. Eventually, I will integrate all of the content from the blog (as well as my articles) into Kirby or maybe update the Drupal side of this site, but for now, I'm thrilled that I will have a modern image-rich, mobile-friendly site for my practice.

Optics & Structure: Works by Kazys Varnelis, 1966-1976

On 30 June, Optics & Structure: Works by Kazys Varnelis, 1966-1976 opens at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius, Lithuania. This show, which runs through mid August and which I am curating, surveys the key decade when my father developed his distinctive approach to painting and experimented with constructions in space. 

During this period Varnelis explored the possibilities of light and shadow in monochromatic canvases rigorously divided into geometric shapes inscribed with smooth gradients of shadow. These works are the mature product of Varnelis’s experimentation with acrylic paint on canvas to explore the interplay of flatness and depth, the illusion of concave and convex surfaces and the production of striking optical phenomena. 

Living in Chicago and sympathetic to the Miesian architecture then being built in the city, the artist intended these paintings to be exhibited in large, modern spaces, notably art galleries, museums, and public buildings, with plenty of room for the works to be seen both in isolation and in juxtaposition. 

Displaying some fifty-six paintings from the collections of the Kazys Varnelis House-Museum as well as some little seen works now in the Ellex Collection, this exhibit marks the first time that a significant number of these works will be shown together in the sort of setting they were designed for since the small number shown in the “Three Agendas” exhibit in Vilnius, Budapest and Tampere twenty years ago and the first time that the majority of Varnelis’s classic works will be exhibited in one exhibit space since his 1974 one-man show at the Milwaukee Art Center.

Accompanying the exhibit of Varnelis’s paintings will be reproductions of the artist’s experiments in space (constructions or sculptures), a reconstruction of a three-dimensional model that the artist built to show how his work might appear in the “documenta 6” exhibition, as well as documentary material demonstrating how Varnelis, along with the curators and architects of his day, thought about exhibiting his work.   

Thoughts for a Rainy Monday

It's a chilly, rainy Monday, the kind you might have in Western Ireland, not in Northern New Jersey, and since it's not yet June I feel justified in having a fire in my Morso insert while I listen to synthesizer music on the stereo. The cat just settled down, half on the couch, half on my left arm. With my typing somewhat disabled by an aging feline seeking warmth, maybe I'll even try blogging again.

It's been nineteen years since I started blogging, twelve since I switched to Drupal, four since I became completely frustrated with Drupal and decided it was time to move on. I still haven't. I don't blog much anymore and when I do, I talk about how I don't blog much anymore. I mention these dates sometimes and I make plans to update the site, slow plans.

In the meantime, I thought I'd update anyone who wandered by here as to what I am up to these days.

I'm on extended sabbatical, perhaps a permanent one, having all but retired from academia. You can read about it in my post on the academy, but the crux of it is that like Drupal, the academy became too complex, too slow, too bloated, too bogged down in internal administrative trivia to notice that it had become irrelevant. I doubt any of this will change soon either. The smartest friends I have in the academy want nothing to do with administrative roles. Such positions lead to little more than overwork, frustration, and bad health. If you're lucky enough to shape a school with a vision, you'll find it undone when the university introduces a new round of budget cuts.

But this sickness is deeper, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. In my last years of full time teaching, starting around 2012, I began noticing that the quality of students was dropping off precipitously. In the space of a couple of years, top students vanished and even passable students became rare. Students increasingly demanded praise for work that should not have received a passing grade. First students lost the ability to write essays with thesis sentences, now even basic literacy is in question. Instead of making an effort, students complained. It was bizarre, disheartening. Oddly, every faculty member that I have spoken to about this agrees. Although I still see remarkable efforts in some places—notably NJIT where I have seen some of the best work done in recent years—student work seems to be collapsing irregardless of institution and, judging from my conversations with other faculty, irregardless of field. In casual conversations with professors in fields from the design fields to chemistry to law to English, it seems that something bad is happening in universities. The most widely held theory seems to be that students are so addicted to social media that they can't think for themselves anymore, but something is causing a collapse. Much as I'd like to believe that I could make a difference, the bad taste left in my mouth by the last studio I taught means that I need to stay on sabbatical for a while longer, maybe for good. 

Instead, I have been doing a lot of planting lately. This site on the first Watchung Mountain was terraced in the 1980s then over the years the sort of plants one sees everywhere—euonymous, berberis, forsythia, pachysandra, and other invasive species—had been planted in an attempt to make the terrain conform more with traditional ideas of what a suburban yard should be. This spring we have begun undoing this in order to create a more sustainable landscape.

I am well aware that planting native plants won't restore an ecosystem destroyed a hundred and fifty years ago, but at least it can lead to a more sustainable condition that won't require me to water it frequently, nurse it along, or be concerned about what will happen during major storms. It's meditative to work in the garden—although not perhaps so much when I brought twelve tons of soil down a flight of stairs wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow—and centers me. It's a small legacy, the individual act of one family in an era of climate change and mass extinction. 

As I do this, I have some big, public projects under way as well. This year is the 100th anniversary of my father's birth and the 50th anniversary of my birth and with that in mind I am working on a show on the essential, late modern period in my father's work, e.g. 1967-1977 that will open at the National Art Gallery in Vilnius one month from now, on June 30. Afterwards, I think it'll be time to edit a book on that period of my father's work and produce book on ten years of work at the Netlab. And in the meantime, I'll be seeking venues for my work with the Netlab, AUDC, and independently. 

Azora (1971)

Half centuries are a funny thing. My father operated a church interior design studio between the late 1940s and early 1960s when Vatican II and dwindling churchgoing led him to conclude that this project was over. At 50 he started teaching—oddly he is called "the Professor" in Lithuania even though he taught full time for only ten years and I taught full time for twenty years—and pursued his vision of modern art. This lasted a good ten years before he got burned out again, this time by the fashion system of art, and moved to Western Massachusetts where he established a gallery of his own works in a nearly ruined Berkshire cottage. 

With my half century mark looming ahead of me, I'm curiously optimistic about the body of work I am refining at present. Like a garden, it's a matter of planting in the right place and tending to things as they mature. Maybe when my landscaping here has reached a state I am happy with I'll buy a property somewhere upstate with a large barn and start installing my art in it. It'd be an interesting project.  

On Detachment, General Observations

The Netlab's exhibit in the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius, Lithuania, Detachment [Atotrūkis], opened on Friday the 17th with work by Leigha Dennis and myself. There is a lot to say about it and I'm afraid it isn't really designed around sound bites. That'll probably turn off a bunch of you right away. Sorry (not sorry). 

This show is the first of my ventures after I have (at least temporarily) retired from full-time teaching. While I remain at the University of Limerick part-time, teaching in the United States just doesn't make sense to me presently. Conditions have changed—not only for me, but in the institutions themselves—and the opportunities outside the university seem much greater than the conditions inside. Architectural education, constrained by financial limitations, accreditation, and vested interests, is becoming stagnant fast. Exhibitions allow me to get my thoughts out there to more people and with greater intensity.

So what is this show about? We begin with the following statement:

How do we break from the frenzy of oversaturation? With a wealth of information at hand, we find no time to reflect upon it. Connected to everyone at all times, always aware of the latest news, able to share our thoughts at any moment, we find ourselves unable to engage in meaningful political thought and discourse. Have we traded the feeling of alienation for a hyperkinetic frenzy? Does having more information that we could process in a lifetime available at our fingertips result in an utter lack of meaning?

"Detachment" (Atotrūkis in Lithuanian) refers to two processes. The first is the detachment that mobile networked technologies allow us to make from both the enviroment and the individuals around us. For the first time since the Middle Ages (if not before), we dwell in a world in which we divide our attention between the physical world and an entirely different, invisible but equally omnipresent and real realm. Our religion, however, is technology and the Ether that surrouds us.

The second is a detachment that we may make from the noise that technology produces in our environment, a detachment that can be useful, even critical, in social and political matters. Detaching or disengaging from noise allows us to re-engage with something in depth. Taking time outs from technology, for example, allows us to read more thoroughly, to engage with our friends and family more intensely, and even to sleep more deeply. This sort of detachment is especially critical for politics. As Merlyna Lim and Mark Kann uncovered in the Networked Publics book that I edited, new forms of technology make political mobilization easy (how hard is it to sign a petition at change.org, agree with your friends on Facebook, or get conned into voting for Brexit), but they have as yet been unable to promote democratic deliberation. In this model, Trump is the perfect networked candidate, living in his own Twit-bubble, ignoring anyone who doesn't fit his myopic view. This second meaning of detachment encourages us to pause from the relentless circulation of information around the globe at light speed in order to give considered thought to issues that matter to us.

Two photographic components document these conditions and their effects. The first set of photographs is inspired by Manwatching, a 1977 book by Desmond Morris, the curator of the London Zoo and surrealist artist. We were struck by the new gestures that individuals make when they use their mobile technological devices and have documented them in the streets of cities worldwide since 2009. This set of photographs underscores the detachment produced by technological devices.

In contrast, a second set of photographs documents conditions in which detachment from the noise of technologized life brings heightened awareness. These photos look at the National Radio Astronomical Observatory in the United States National Radio Quiet Zone (where cell phones, wifi networks and even digital cameras are banned to allow radio astronomy to take place), the Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve in Ireland (where lights are restricted in order to allow individuals to enjoy the only "gold star" dark sky reserve in the Northern hemisphere), and the Murray Hill Anechoic Chamber, Bell Labs in New Jersey (the first anechoic chamber ever built, which sucks up echoes in order to allow researchers to better understand the characteristics of sound). 

The photographic exhibits are complemented by two installations. The first is Perkūnas [the Lithuanian name for the (god of) thunder]. Perkūnas is a large structure built of commonly available sheet-metal ducting used for ventilation. It is both a found object and the product of architectural design. A ventilation fan, installed outside the room in an alcove, passes air through the duct, producing noise. A microprocessor secretly sniffs for active wifi enabled electronic gadgets and controls the amount of air and noise produced by the duct. If there are no gadgets present, the duct makes little or no sound. With a couple of gadgets, it will make a louder sound. The more gadgets, the more sound. Our ability to communicate verbally is directly affected by the amount of gadgets. If we leave our gadgets behind, Perkūnas will stay quiet, although it also reacts to the electromagnetic weather produced by stray signals in other parts of the museum and the street outside. Perkunas is neither art nor architecture. Like Aleksandra Kašuba’s curved surfaces and Valdas Ozarinskas’ installations, it occupies another conceptual space. Like Vladas Urbanavičius’s “Krantinės arka (Arch on the Quay),” it occupies a position between infrastructure and art. No matter that this exhibit is entirely about technology, this is not a work of new media. There are no screens to look at, there is no interface to play with. Invoking the name of the Perkūnas suggests an affinity with magic; in a world of technology, we once again believe things have spirits.

 

 

The final component is two instances of Leigha Dennis's Pleasure Box, a project that she previously developed as a fellow at the University of Michigan. These boxes are steel lockers similar to those found outside embassies, government offices, and other secure zones into which individuals can place their networked devices. Pleasure Box is an installation that gives users a choice to disconnect, creating temporary relief from the oversaturation of network culture. By locking smartphones and other gadgets inside, users are detached, left to ponder other pleasures including the exhibition.

Inside each compartment is a video screen displaying surveillance footage taken throughout the CAC, along with a stand to prop phones upright for recording this video footage while locked inside. Today we experience much of the world mediated through our devices. We use them to document our lives, sharing videos and photographs on social media. Yet while we willingly exchange these personal details to the public and social spheres, our gadgets are also transmitting vast amounts of personal information into the atmosphere where surveillance systems can freely detect them.
 
The instructions read:
 
1. Choose a lock-box
2. Turn your smartphone camera on and place inside facing the back
3. Close and lock the box—it will automatically lock for 3 minutes
4. Once the lock expires (or wait even longer), retrieve your device and return the key
 
 

Web Changes

After eleven years of Drupal as the content management system for this site, it's time to call it a day. The inexplicable loss of the front page just underscores that to me. I've written about the dangers of complexity many times and it's time to take my own medicine. It's madness to try and maintain a system in which everything breaks constantly, whose sole advantage is a wealth of themes and modules that every new major release breaks completely. 

I've known this for some time now and have been searching for a replacement. The Networked Publics, AUDC, and Netlab sites all left Drupal a while ago, the former becoming a static HTML site, the latter two becoming Indexhibit sites prior to transitioning, in turn, to static HTML and Kirby, a static CMS. 

I'll be making another post or two on this system, but an update is in the works as soon as I'm back from Vilnius. If you can't wait for my next post, which will explain what I'm up to in Vilnius in some more detail, stay tuned to my Instagram feed (kazys_varnelis).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talking about Kasuba in Ireland

I will be talking about the work of Lithuanian-born artist Aleksandra Kasuba at the University of Limerick School of Architecture on Wednesday, 24 February at 5pm. You can see her work at Kasubaworks

Lithuanian-born artist Aleksandra Kasuba is known for her large scale works in brick, marble and granite, and most notably for innovative environments of tensile fabrics. She is credited with “creating several families of closed system shapes of unbelievable richness and complexity.” In the field of tensile fabric structures, according to Frei Otto, her work “stands out as a strong personal vision […] The results of her investigation are among the most extraordinary to have emerged in years […] Forms derived from complex geometries display a mature sense of tension dynamics.” 
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