Tag Archives: war

Reading Material: Cities / Playscapes / Drugs / Jerusalem / Time / Bunkers / Apocalypse

It’s been awhile.

The internet got shut off. Life got complicated. Enderender maintenance became less of a priority.

Sine last posting, I traveled by thumb from Portland, Oregon to Los Angeles  California. I came back to New Orleans afterwards and things were bad. Then I left America at the start of last year, went travelling in the Middle East. I returned to New Orleans, this time in late spring. Now I work in a public library.

Perfect. That’s the explanation for the my nearly 18-month absence.   Now, to readjust focus…

A list of recent reading material, in no particular order:

common ground
Common Ground In A Liquid City by Matt Hern

Ideas for sustainable urban futures specifically focused on arguments for density, localization, and city planning as a collective, participatory activity. The premise for this collection of essays centers around the comparison of various locales (New York, Las Vegas, Istanbul, Diyarbakir–to name a few) to the author’s own, Vancouver. The result is a civic-minded sampling of the successes and failures of different cities, with special attention paid to the possibilities of the places being analyzed.

Common Ground has a lot to with basic considerations of public space. A lot of the themes throughout the book  suggest that in order to transform our cities–whether it be through redesign, repurposing, or rehabilitation–we need to first change the way we think about them.

Makes sense. Hern’s approach to the shaping of cities is informal, organic, and spirited. He’s into bikes, potlucks, and as much shared space as possible. Corporate interest and privatization don’t make for the kind of city he’s trying to envision in this book. Essentially, he’s calling for cities to be built from the ground up, to develop character on their own, rather than be assigned one by aggressive development firms and government officials.

The writing is consistently approachable, although he could probably stand to put a little more effort into the visuals accompanying his next book. It wouldn’t be unfair at times to  categorize Hern  as “idealistic”. Of course, imagining the type of place we want to live and be a part of is a lot easier than actually implementing the changes necessary to make that place a reality. His best argument is for densification, building fecund urban centers with lots of resources and preserving the rural areas in the process.

I’d probably be pulling quotes from it if I didn’t already lend it out, recommending it to a friend as definitely worth reading.

Reimagining Recreation by James Trainor

I developed a weird fascination with playscapes awhile back. This article is about the trials of New York City playground development, the radical urban playground designers of the 60’s, and Robert Moses.

In my reading, I was dragged back to the age of six-years old, running around on what would now be most certainly condemned as a totally unsafe playground at The Hansen Elementary School in the suburbs of Massachusetts. It’s gone now, replaced by a generic, prepackaged play environment. It was made mostly out of thick lumber and old tires. There was a pyramid you could crawl on top of and around and inside, made completely out of conjoined automobile tires! And it was on the huge monster-truck tires, half-buried in the sand, with an 8-foot gap in between them traversable through a rope swing, where I split open my forehead. Lots of crying, some stress for my father, and a few stitches.

I look back upon that place as magical, maybe even more so because of my painful experience.

Lady Allen of Hurtwood, “a British landscape designer and fierce child welfare activist” and one of the major influences of Richard Dattner, a radical playscape designer, was known for her  “…unsettling dictum, ‘Better a broken bone than a broken spirit’.”

Reimageining Recreation does a good job of positioning these designers amongst fine artists and, especially, land artists. It’s seems totally reasonable to talk about playgrounds and the Spiral Jetty or Roden’s Crater in relation to one another, conceptually juxtaposing these spatial interventions.

Regarding the radical playscapes of NYC circa 1960:

The playscapes were the first in New York to be designed by architects—idealistic, savvy, and ambitious young designers with their own tots in tow, steeped in New Left politics, versed in current social theories and child psychology, and at home in downtown art circles. (Friedberg was a lifelong friend of artist Jackie Ferrara, whose feminist take on post-minimalism featured wooden staircases, ramps, and stacked pyramids that almost invited the viewer to start climbing on them.) Unbeknownst to most, Dattner and Friedberg embodied a small but important vanguard working in parallel and often anticipating the environmentally engaged work of Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, Robert Morris, Sol LeWitt, and others.

Operation Delirium by Raffi Khatchadourian 

Totally scary, fascinating article about an army doctor conducting drug experiments on young soldiers during the cold war. This expose calls into question the ethics of the US Government feeding young men illicit substances in the interest of developing psychological weapons. Centered around James Ketchum, one of the leading doctors at Edgewood, the article is a collection of horrors and cold military rationale:

In 1949, L. Wilson Greene, Edge wood’s scientific director, typed up a classified report, “Psychochemical Warfare: A New Concept of War,” that called for a search for compounds that would create the same debilitating mental side effects as nerve gas, but without the lethality. “Throughout recorded history, wars have been characterized by death, human misery, and the destruction of property; each major conflict being more catastrophic than the one preceding it,” Greene argued. “I am convinced that it is possible, by means of the techniques of psychochemical warfare, to conquer an enemy without the wholesale killing of his people or the mass destruction of his property.

 Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle

Guy Delisle documented, in comicbook form, his year spent in Jerusalem.  His partner worked for Doctors Without Borders, spending much of her time in Gaza, while Delisle looked after his two young children and explored his surroundings. What came out of this is a very honest account of Delisle’s personal experiences in a place of conflict.

I think the initial naiveté of the author is actually one of the strengths of the work. From the beginning, he seems routinely surprised at the conditions produced from the tensions between Israel and Palestine. He’s not visiting Israel for religious or historical reasons, nor is he visiting Palestine in the interest of solidarity or politics. Instead, it seems more like he just ended up there, the caretaker for the kids while his wife  was at work. For this reason, Delisle’s perspective is valuable. Simple and straight-forward.

It’s a good counterweight to reading Joe Sacco….but if you’re going to only read one, definitely choose Sacco.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

I’ll spare you from my own unabashed adoration of the father of modern science fiction and just leave you with a crude synopsis: A scientist travels way far into the future. The leisure class has turned into supple, dim-witted imps, the working class into subterranean savages. The future looks bleak.

‘For the first time I began to realize an odd consequence of the social effort in which we are at present engaged. And yet, come to think, it is a logical consequence enough. Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness. The work of ameliorating the conditions of life–the true civilizing process that make life more and more secure–had gone steadily on to a climax. One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another. Things that are now mere dreams had become projects deliberately put in hand and carried forward. And the harvest was what I saw!’

Home at the End of Time: Robert Vicino Built an Underground City Where You Can Ride out the Apocalypse by Austin Considine and You’re (Probabaly) Not Invited: End Times Living with the Doomsday 1 Percent by Jake Hanrahan

Both these articles came from the same place (Motherboard), around the same time (the Mayan Apocalypse), and deal with the same content (doomsday bunkers) so I grouped them together.

Remember 2012? Like last year, when that thing didn’t happen? Well, at the very least, it propelled “the end of the world” into the mainstream for awhile, which was exciting and then, quickly, tired and annoying.

When reading about these survival bunkers, I can’t help but think of that old Don Johnson movie A Boy and His Dog. I’m specifically thinking about the post-apocalyptic, subterranean community that kidnaps the young Don Johnson for his sperm. In this underground society created in the aftermath of nuclear disaster, it’s all hyper-Americana and inbreeding, weird violence and verbal instructions for apple pie blasting out of speakers. Not necessarily a future worth sticking around for.

What Robert Vicino’s bunker company Vivos offers is the economic version of the doomsday domicile. The going rate for a spot in one of his bunkers is $50,000 per adult, $35,000 for children. Vicino said reassuringly, “What Vivos is, is a modern-day fortress or citadel, where our members are safe and secure, with all the supplies they need to ride it out. And we can defend the facilities. So if the rest of the world’s gone crazy, our people will at least be in a safe haven,”

Sounds fun. And according to the Vivos website, this mass hysteria, necessitating a flee from collapse into the underground,  could be a result of any number of forces including, but not limited to, bio war, anarchy, a killer comet, a global tsunami, or a super volcano, respectively.

Larry Hall’s Luxury Survival Condo is unique in that his bunkers are built inside repurposed missile silos built by the Army Corps of Engineers. In terms of design, they’re stunning. And two million dollars for a spot…before they sold out. Which leads to this interesting predicament noted by the article’s author:

So with all the comforts that any wealthy survivalist could throw money at, Larry Hall has designed the survival condo for likeminded millionaires savvy enough to realize that if or when the economy or society goes to pot, their cash-at-hand will be worthless, and their survival investment will be money well spent. But surely Hall realizes this, too? It’s my hope that, come time to batten down the hatches, those people sharing his oxygen don’t get on his nerves when all the profit he’s made becomes worthless in a barter-based economy.

Chinese Dig in for ‘approaching doomsday’ by Rita Alvarez Tudela

More architecture for the apocalypse. Imagine the end of the world actually happening, the only survivors being the guys brazen enough to lock themselves inside a giant ping-pong ball. Or better yet, imagine the end of the world being brought on by a global tsunami, earth turned into one giant ocean dotted with tsunami survival pods carrying the last surviving members of mankind, trapped inside giant ping-pong balls.


[Image: Film still from Leni Rifenstahl’s Triumph of The Will]


Archived footage has been discovered from 1936, showcasing the talents of Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.

According to Wikipedia, Riefenstahl was referred to as “the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century” after completing Triumph of The Will, her most well-known propaganda film:

In his book The Story of Film, film scholar Mark Cousins claims, “Next to Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Leni Riefenstahl was the most technically talented Western film maker of her era”.


Read the full article on this recent historic acquisition here.

The Inexorable Mongol Emperor of the 13th Century—Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan was responsible for some astute  aphorisms. The legacy he strived to leave upon his death was the Yassa, a set of laws for the peoples of his empire to abide by.

Here are selections underlined while reading Genghis Khan: Emperor of All Men by Harold Lamb:

“Word breaking,” he said in after years, “is hideous in a ruler.”


…when men increase and crowd one another they build walls. And they divide themselves into different classes of human beings.


Human life had no value in the eyes of the Mongols, who desired only to depopulate fertile lands to provide grazing for their herds.


When food failed, they opened a vein in a horse, drank a small quantity of blood and closed the vein.


At one place some people saved themselves by lying down among the knots of bodies of those already slain. The Mongols heard of this, and an order was issued to cut the heads from the inhabitants in the future.


    Without any in-depth knowledge of Genghis Khan other than the universal recognition of his historical impact and legendary brutality, the portrait painted in this brief account of Genghis Khan’s upbringing and assent to emperorship was exciting in the same way as some of the science-fiction stories I have so happily devoured. As I have just recently read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and am currently engulfed in the first novel of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, a background of Genghis Khan fit right in with my most recently explored literary themes of war and royalty. A specific common element generated through the comparison of these texts is the theme of the young heir with a solemn inheritance of immense responsibility.

    What separates the novels of Cards and Herbert from the depiction of the once-great emperor of eastern civilization is an obvious disparity in time—the two science-fiction stories being set far into the future while the story of Genghis Khan took place nearly eight hundred years ago. The fabled warlord could easily be used as a fantastic model for an interplanetary epic, replacing his sword for a lasgun, his horse for a ‘thopter.

    It is an entertaining thought to regard the fictitious imaginings played out in fantasy novels to be more-or-less derivative of historical events. I would the hold the genre of science-fiction to be particularly adept at enacting an interpretation of and an expansive rumination upon the collected writings of historians; writings which, ironically enough, more often than not take place in a future time.  In fact, Card describes Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, a major inspiration for his own Ender series, as “an extrapolation of the ideas in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, applied to a galaxy–wide empire in some far future time.” It is natural to imagine a thorough understanding and appreciation of history and the science fiction novel, particularly the epic, existing together in a harmonious, interesting way.

    On an unrelated note, it is said the Genghis Khan, who died at the age of sixty-five, was buried in his homeland under a great tree which was said to be guarded by members of the Mongol military, burning incense unceasingly, “until the surrounding forest grew so thick that the tall tree was lost among its fellows and all trace of the grave vanished.”

    There’s also a myth that during his burial, forty white horses and forty beautiful women were taken to his grave and slain. Crazy…

    You can read the full text of Harold Lamb’s book here.

    Aldous Huxley’s “A Brave New World” (1932)

    Realizing I probably should have read this book back in high school, I was a bit amazed both at how pleasurable reading Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” was and that I hadn’t read it sooner. I think I had something built up in my mind, the false idea that this book would be more challenging and dry than it was. In reality, I found Huxley’s most prized piece of writing to have some genuine humor throughout it. The absurdity of situations are elevated to comedy. For example, police spraying soma gas (a universally popular and near mandatory narcotic distributed by the government meant to provide feelings of bliss and absent-mindedness) at a crowd on the verge of aggressively rioting and altering the mass into a sobbing horde of groping bodies drugged out of their dissent.

    Alas, there is also violence present within the novel that is raw and not intermingled with the light-hearted. An earnestness underlines the entire work and reminds the reader that what they are in fact engaged in reading is a tragedy, putting the problems of peace under scrutiny.

    This is a theme I find interesting, an alternative among the abundance of post-apocalyptic scenarios drawn out in countless science-fiction tales where the world is burned out or neglected to the point of being uninhabitable. In this version of the future, the apocalypse as a cataclysmic event is stunted by the control of a governing body that works to maintain peace and order, to preserve and progress human society to a point of thoughtlessness, in effect ruling out the possibility of war altogether.

    The point made with “Brave New World” is there can no great tragedies or art in the absence of social instability. In a societal structure shaped through conditioning, culture is necessarily mass-produced and insubordination beyond the realm of the imagination. Religious over-tones aside, Huxley at times coming across as a tinge conservative in beliefs and possibly a racist, “Brave New World” certainly deserves the title of “required reading” among any literate person interested in ideas of social structure or visions of the future.

    I found Kurt Vonnegut through a high-school English class after reading “Harrison Bergeron”, an author undoubedtly influenced by Huxley. Perhaps this particular novel would have soared over my head in my teenage years. Some would even go so far as to say that books like “Brave New World” and “1984” are so dated that they don’t elicit the same level of shock as they used to amongst young readers, the fantasy described in the novels already being a reality. Be that as it may, well-formed ideas of the future, even if written over a half-dozen decades ago, still elicit some excitement from me and seem worthy of sharing.

    Also, I’ve been meaning to find the cartoon comparing and contrasting Huxley and Orwell. I had seen it awhile ago and it sort of fell out of my mind until I started reading “Brave New World” and found it on chimac.net. Read the cartoon “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Stuart McMillen here.

    Player Piano – Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel

    “Better to be nothing than a blind doorman at the head of civilization’s parade.”

    Vonnegut’s earliest novel “Player Piano”, published in 1952, expresses a fear of a technologically-dominated society in which the basic mechanisms of life are mediated by calculated machinery. All but the most educated of men, the engineers and managers, are left with little to do, they’re basic sense of pride and purpose stripped by society at large. Albeit, this automated America provides levels of luxury and domestic comfort previously unattainable by the majority prior to the war which the premise of this book proceeds. Here Vonnegut presents the interesting problems present in times of peace, where the existential dilemma that is faced by many of his characters is one of normalcy and boredom and how to create change regardless of whether it is for the better.

    As with nearly all of Vonnegut’s work, this was a pleasure to read. Showcasing the authors attraction to all things apocalyptic and his bittersweet, optimistic dread, it’s an intriguing window into the development of Vonnegut’s trademark brand of sardonic, humanistic science-fiction.

    Martha Rosler

    Martha Rosler has become an artist of interest after recently viewing her collage series titled “Bringing The War Home”, a collection of works from the seventies which addressed the Vietnam war by juxtaposing images from two disparate media sources – Life Magazine and House Beautiful. The Aesthetics of Terror website appropriately described her collage work as “image sabotage”.

    One of Rosler’s current projects is the “Martha Rosler Library”, a traveling-study hall filled with thousands of books from the artists personal collection. While creating a peculiarly intimate window into the intellectual development and inspiration of the artist, this work also communicates an earnest intent to share information in a manner non-subjugated by her own interpretations.