Thursday, September 27, 2007


I've been writing and thinking (the two are almost invariably intertwined for me -- writing focuses my random thoughts) about photos.

One of my favorite writers, John Berger, has a book of poetry called "And our faces, my heart, brief as photos."

That's pretty much the crux of it for me. We're mortal. Our faces will disappear. And even, or especially the photos that might "capture" and preserve our faces are brief.

Take this photo of my son Tom playing at EZ's Woodshed in Harlem.

What does it mean?
What does it mean to me?
Those are two very different questions.

To me, to Tom's father, it means -- it's a means to see Tom, or at least a picture of Tom. It makes me wish I had been there to watch and hear him perform with his trio in front of the painting of John Coltrane. It brings back all sorts of memories and makes my mind race to the future when I'll fly to New York to hear and see Tom in early December. It means that Tom is working and can pay his rent. And so on.

But all of these meanings are mine. I'm the one reading the photo this way. Those meanings are exactly as brief as I am. They'll be here for a few more years if I'm lucky.

By itself, the photo is some kind of historical record and could be read in terms of the shirt Tom's wearing, the way he wears his hair. A reader of the photo might conclude things about the myth of Coltrane from the train that sweeps across his body in the painting.

But personally, the photo is as brief as our faces.

That's all the more apparent in another photo I've been thinking about. It was taken in 1966 or 1967 on a landing strip near Lake Powell.

If you found this photo and had absolutely no context outside what you see, you could figure out several things.

The red-rock desert landscape makes some sense; and with enough effort you might even pinpoint this as a place overlooking Lake Powell. The clothing and hair styles might indicate the 1960's, although this is an eclectic bunch. There's a lot of information to be read from the boy on the far left: a basketball player's legs and height and Converse shoes. His shirt says "Farmington Scorpions" -- this group is from Farmington, New Mexico. The kneeling man has boots and haircut that might indicate some sort of educated outdoor profession. There's an FFA cowboy in the middle of the front row. And so on.

The brief meaning I bring to the photo is more personal and much more extensive. The basketball player is named Willard Washburn. The cowboy is Delbert Slaugh. The kneeling man is a petroleum engineer. The man in the blue shirt standing in the center has a trading post on the Navajo reservation. The man to his left owns a car dealership and will become the mayor of Farmington.

I'm standing behind the boy in the red shirt, Larry Echohawk, who will become the first Native American attorney general of any state and will only narrowly be defeated in a bid to become governor of the State of Idaho.

There's lots more to be told; but important here is that most of the meaning to be read from a photo (there's no meaning inherent in the photo -- it's just a bunch chemicals adhering to a piece of paper) is tied to memory. And memory is as brief as we are.

Finally, John Berger brings this all back to the value of diverse or interdisciplinary approaches to meaning:

There is never a single approach to something remembered. The remembered is not like the terminous at the end of a line. Numerous approaches or stimuli converge upon it and lead to it. Words, comparisons, signs need to create a context for a printed photograph in a comparable way; that is to say, they must mark and leave open diverse approaches.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Writing about Alex Caldiero

I've had the pleasure of writing about the art and poetry and performance of Alex for more than a decade now.

"Intermittent Conversations" is the beginning of an essay written for the 1994 exhibit at the Salt Lake Art Center of works by Alex and 4 other artists under the title of "The Unclosed Hand."

I just posted this essay on my professional page, along with several other publications on performance and art and poetry. With Alex, if you worry about generic purity or about how to categorize his work, you're already a day late and a dollar short. He's got a whole set of interdisciplinary genes, inherited from his Sicilian parents, mutated by his Brooklyn upbringing.

Today in our class about LANGUAGE, Alex wrote the first two letters of the word "cry" on the board and declared that the C was the mouth, the r the tongue.

Here a couple of his drawings from that Unclosed Hand show that illustrate the visual nature of Alex's sense for words:

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Language Scraps and the Deseret Alphabet

Torben Bernhard has just started a blog -- --

with the intention of collecting "language scraps." It's already a visually beautiful site, and the entry on the Deseret Alphabet caught my eye.

The Deseret Alphabet was an early Mormon effort, one of many of their revolutionary ways of remaking the world they lived in, and even if it isn't used widely today, it was such a creative attempt that it continues to capture the imagination of creative people.

For instance, the Clearfield, Utah artist and 5-string banjo player Bob Moss has created a whole series of works on wood and leather and gourds and who knows what else that feature the deseret alphabet. The one I've scanned here (which has a proud spot in my house) asks what a monkey and a cookie jar have in common, and provides a transliteration sheet for any curious readers/viewers. To learn more about Bob Moss, who epitomizes the eclectic interdisciplinarity this blog keeps harping on, see this address on the web:

You'll hear good music, see some photos of Bob Moss and his work, and learn that Bob Moss doesn't have a computer.

The Deseret Alphabet also showed up about a decade ago in Trent Harris' film "Plan 10 From Outer Space." Trent's website is worth visiting:

You'll read there that

Plan 10 From Outer Space is now available on DVD and it is loaded with extras. For instance it has the official Plan 10 From Outer Space deseret alphabet decoder! It has Karen Black singing the Kolob song!! And it has the extra special extra, extra...Day With The Director, which is a strange short film where Plan 10 From Outer Space director Trent Harris chases pesky antelope around a live bombing range. . . .

and that

Plan 10 From Outer Space begins when Lucinda Hall (Stefene Russell) discovers a century old book penned by a mad Mormon prophet. She deciphers this odd artifact and is sucked into a world where spacemen, polygamists, and angels run amuck. Lucinda desperately tries to uncover the "Secret of the Bees" before it is too late. Is she mad or is she on the brink of discovering a diabolical plot led by Nehor (Karen Black), a peeved alien from the planet Kolob? Just because it's made up doesn't mean it isn't true!

And if the Deseret Alphabet and the lovely Karen Black singing "If you could hie to Kolob" and the beehive-headed cyclops don't have your attention yet, note that Alex Caldiero appears in the movie (with his now-defunct station wagon -- I kept telling Alex he should check the oil -- oil, smoil, he said) as a mustachioed father out to reform his son who has a panty fetish.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Semiotics of Young Werther

Ah, sweet love. Sweet depictions of love. Words of love.

In our interdisciplinary class on "Language, most dangerous of possessions," we've begun talking about Goethe's first novel (1774). Written by a 24-year-old who was spurned by Charlotte Buff and whose friend Jerusalem killed himself after being turned down by a married woman, there's a high potential for embarrassing sentimentality (captured nicely in this etching by a contemporary artist).

"Why does it need a name?" Werther asks, "Tell it as it is!" And that's the crux of the problem: things are as they are; we know them through language. Frustrated by the constrictions of the very language through which he knows things, Werther sees "nothing but an eternally devouring, eternaly cud-chewing monster" (when he's not kissing Lotte or her letters).

Semiotics and epistemology are Goethe's antidotes to romance in this novel that even Napoleon couldn't get over (or are they the poisons that make love wither?). So when Werther sits at his desk in his famous yellow trousers,
weighing the pen and the pistol against one another, reading Lessing's tragedy Emilia Galotti, writing the words to Lotte that will announce his death, he's caught in that web of words, that prison-house of language that is our shared human condition.

Although this ends tragically for Werther, Goethe found solace in his own writing, and went on to a ripe old (and very productive) age.