24 May

Memorial Day Wkend Musings

I saw today in the paper that the Jack Shainman Gallery (http://www.jackshainman.com/school/) is presenting the artist El Anatsui, and I got all excited and started to work out when I could get down the gallery this week. Unfortunately I subsequently discovered that the exhibit is at their space in Kinderhook, New York, about 130 miles north of the city, which, in all likelihood, means that I won’t be seeing it. I am intensely disappointed, only because El Anatsui is that good. I first saw his work at the Brooklyn Museum of Art two years ago and it literally took my breath away.

What makes his work so good? With the caveat that I am just a layperson in the sophisticated art world, I would say that his work is fresh, clean, vibrant, and compelling. He started out working with clay and wood, but recently his major works are large, even epic, hangings which are made out of discarded metal bottle tops, and which have been flattened down and turned into tiny little strips that are then re-worked into the hanging, all held together by copper wire. It does not sound like a promising list of ingredients to make something monumental. And yet…

El Anatsui weaves these metal pieces together into vast canvases that look so much like thick cloth tapestries that you have to get really close to see that it is actually metal. The moods in these tapestries range from very light and shimmery (I recall one piece that was mostly white and gray with small open connecting circles; it was something I would have used as a window sheer), to historical (I recall several pieces about the history of Africa), to solemnly regal. The piece that took my breath away was done mostly in rich purple hues and had such presence I immediately felt it should be the great curtain that rises and falls at the Metropolitan Opera. It was completely unexpected. And it was stunning.

Note that in recalling all this, I am going from memory from two years ago. Some of the details of these pieces may not be entirely correct. But I think the smaller details are less important than the overall impressions.

Earlier this year, the Venice Biennial awarded El Anatsui the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement Award, which sounds impressive. Layperson that I am, I don’t know how meaningful this is. What I do know is that his work is definitely worth going to see, and anyone who just happens to be in the Kinderhook neighborhood should make a point to stop in and experience it in all its grandeur.

* * *

2015-05-23 21.56.40

Inside Marc Forgione Restaurant

Yesterday I was sitting at the bar at Marc Forgione restaurant at 134 Reade Street, waiting for Andrey, my swim partner, to join me for drinks and dinner. While waiting, I was writing in my journal and lamenting that I have not been writing much at all. I have decided not to be too hard on myself since I have been very busy at work. I’ve have also been working on getting a children’s book ready for publication, and in the time left over, I have been swimming a fair amount in my never-ending quest to lower my swim times.

I have also been traveling. The most recent trip was back down to Florida to take two writing workshops at the Miami-Dade College Miami Writers Institute. On that Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoon, I and about 25 other people listened to Lynne Barrett (www.lynnebarrett.com), a professor at FIU, discuss plot and structure. Then on the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday mornings, Kate Christensen (www.katechristensen.wordpress.com) led a workshop on writing memoirs.

It was such a good use of time. Lynne Barrett was so masterful at explicating plot and structure and time and characters (all stuff which I am sure any English major would have learned by sophomore year) that I came back determined to try my hand at fiction! (I’ll also take a quick side note here to recommend her collection of her short stories called Magpies. It is a thin book—her stories are very compact—but they pack a punch and leave you wanting more when you are finished.) Kate Christensen ran a much more traditional writing workshop, but was so generous and thoughtful with her conversations. With her help, I was finally able to understand how to jump over the hurdle that had been standing in my way for the past few months. I came away from both workshops awed by the quality of the other writers attending, but at the same time, inspired to come back and write.

Which makes it somewhat ironic that, two weeks after the workshops, I was at the bar at Marc Forgione writing in my journal about the fact that I wasn’t writing.

“Ok – stop this,” I told myself. “Start small, but start somewhere.”

It was 5 o’clock p.m., still early on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. It was, hands down, the most glorious day in New York this year, a day when even I didn’t wish to be back in Florida. The restaurant had just opened and I was the first person in. They had opened up all the French windows and the cool inside and warm outside blended together easily. Families and couples were wandering by and would recognize the people coming the other way and stop to talk. The dusk light was dreamy on their conversations. Some more people wandered in. The bar started to fill up. I took some notes. I thought some more. I had another sip of wine.

“Maybe a haiku,” I told myself. That’s small. That’s somewhere.

* * *

Memorial Day Weekend Haiku (from the bar at Marc Forgione) 

Spring! Good thing Barkeep
I’m not. Else we’d all be drunk
Off vodka straight up!

* * *

Saturday afternoon - one of the best days of the year so far - looking West over the Hudson River

Saturday of Memorial Day Wkend – looking West over the Hudson River

Sunday evening, and it has been another beautiful day in New York on this Memorial Day wkend. Moreover, there is still tomorrow! I was going to wish everyone a great Memorial Day, but it now also occurs to me that I should take a moment and remember those who died in service. After all, that is the holiday tomorrow, not the holiday of (Callooh! Callay!) “it’s another day off work!”

It seems odd for me to write this because I have never been one to talk much about the military or advocate for or against service. I have no immediate relatives who have died in service. Nor any close (or even distant) friends. So it seems rather foreign territory. But at the same time I know of the territory. I read about it every day in the newspapers and magazines. I listen to it on TV. I hear the stories on the radio. These are real people who died, often very young kids who had their whole lives ahead of them. Their families back home are left with only the memories, and I can only imagine the grief and whatever else must be mixed in with that emotion: pride; confusion; sadness; anger…

So as we go about our day tomorrow, we should all stop at one point and remember those who died in service. After all, start small. Start somewhere.

05 May

Review: Ex Machina – When the Top Boss Calls, Do Not Answer!

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the opportunity to spend a week with the “Top Boss” is generally not a very good risk/reward scenario–in any scenario. Given the choice of buying stock in Amazon versus spending a week with Jeff Bezos (assuming I were working at Amazon), I’d take the stock any day. Of course, I’d be missing out on the slim chance that, in that week with Bezos, I’d be admitted to his inner circle, with all the attendant rights and privileges. And wealth. But really, the risks are much greater. Starting with the fact that the top boss has no desire to spend any meaningful time with me, and so the entire week becomes a charade of sorts. There is also the distinct possibility that I may end up not liking the top boss at all. And yet, because I am in this charade, I still have to kowtow to him (let’s be honest, it’s always a him—at least in today’s world) and it’s ultimately pretty distasteful, if not downright degrading because this is, after all, the person who is giving me money every two weeks to pay the rent, buy food and clothes, and have fun outside of the time I have already given him.

Perhaps the risk/reward calculation would be increased if I had been duped into spending a week with the top boss through a fake competition within the company, the lottery prize being an entire week with the top boss at his super-secret, military-esque compound. Or perhaps the risk/reward would be ratcheted up again if the top boss had specifically selected me to help him with a top-secret research project. And finally, perhaps the risk/reward would be worth it if the top boss were one of the most intelligent persons in the world, having written the code—at age thirteen!—for the most successful search engine in the world.

Perhaps… There are a lot of good adjustments in the last paragraph. But even with all those, I’d still go out on a limb and take the stock instead of the week with the top boss. But then, let’s remember (or let’s clarify) that I’m not Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson) in the movie Ex Machina. Caleb is a talented young programmer working at the Blue Book Company, the most successful search engine on this planet, and Caleb, believe it or not, has won a competition within the company to spend a week with the top boss.

This top boss has become a recluse of vast sorts and lives on an immense northern hemisphere estate (the film was shot somewhere in Norway) in a heavily electronically secured outpost that is nowhere near anyone, or anyplace, else. It is, nevertheless, subject to random power failures, which the top boss doesn’t like but has found ways to deal with. This top boss is also not your standard Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos egomaniac terror at the office. No, this top boss has taken himself out of society to create the first real and realistic artificial intelligent (AI) being. And this top boss—I’ll introduce him now as Nathan Bateman (played almost too intelligently by Oscar Isaac)—is smart enough and has made enough money in this world to think that he can be successful at this project.

Why does he need Caleb Smith? Simply—he needs someone who is smart enough (but perhaps not as smart as he is) to validate his AI. He needs Caleb to see if his AI is capable of feeling, of consciousness.

Nathan’s AI has a name: Ava (played very smartly by Alicia Vikander). She also has a gender: female. But she is very clearly a robot. When we first see her, there are visible silver innards in her torso, biceps, forearms, thighs, and calves while the remainder is covered by an undulating silver packing, almost like reflective fish scales. Moreover, we hear her gears whirring very softly when she walks or kneels down. But Ava, in spite of being a robot, is also, very clearly, a feminine robot exuding a tantalizing robotic female sexuality. Her voice is captivating. And Caleb is captivated.

But first, there are the formalities. Even before he can see her, the top boss asks him to sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to participate in his very cutting edge research. Understandably, Caleb is put out. But the thought of not participating in the most exciting research project ever is too tantalizing to pass up, especially with the top boss telling him that he will regret not signing the NDA a year later. And so, with a few strokes of a pen, Caleb is in. Hook, line, and sinker. Let the games begin.

Ex Machina is a very clever movie, tightly written and inhabited by three main characters—Nathan, Caleb, and Ava—in a closed environment. (There is a fourth silent and haunting character—an Asian woman (or is she AI?) who can’t speak English and is a servant, and occasionally more, to Nathan). It is not the standard Agatha Christie And Then There Were None closed-room mystery, but instead a slow-burning psychological thriller that smolders for a while and then erupts into a brilliant flame. After the initial set-up, which is fast and efficient, the plot lags a little. But it is definitely worth watching the smoldering fire to the end.

Much acclaim has gone to Alicia Vikander as Ava, and even more to Oscar Isaac as Nathan Bateman. Both of these are well-deserved, if not well-liked. Domhall Gleeson (Caleb) has gotten more mixed reviews. But let us not forget that he plays the part of the stunned, and yet most promising, mass-market employee to fulfill Nathan’s dreams. In fact, he is stunned. And he plays the corporate, but thinking, robot just fine.

Ex Machina raises so many questions about artificial (versus real) intelligence, corporate surveillance, power, gender, and sexuality, that it becomes impossible to treat them all fairly in this movie. But the fact that all those heavy questions were raised, and can still sit with you days after you have seen the movie, are a testament to the story, the script, and the acting.

After the final scene, Ex Machina leaves us with many thoughts as we walk out of the theater, but the most unsettling one, perhaps, is the thought that artificial intelligence is a force to be reckoned with, and actually, it may not be that artificial at all.