May 29, 2006

Wired Al Gore

Al Gore will never change, that much is clear. An Inconvenient Truth might be his vehicle for change, but the man himself, don't you worry he's as awkward as ever. A couple minutes into his sold out and Wired sponsored appearance at Town Hall in Manhattan and his hand was already deep in his pocket. It didn't leave for about half the speech. Several presidential campaigns, eight years as vice president and who knows how much overpriced public speaking tutorials and he's still making one of the most basic mistakes in the game. If he hasn't learned now well it's way too late isn't it?

Of course there were moments in his talk where he turned it on, the passion leaked through. He'll never stop coming off like an android, but at least at times he comes off like an android modeled after Bill Clinton, which puts him on par with a decent human public speaker. But Gore has always been able to turn it on every once in a while, it's the consistency that kills him, and it always will.

What was disappointing about the Wired event was that Gore got up and gave a short stump speech rather than the semi legendary slide show that served as the inspiration for An Inconvenient Truth. If Gore is serious about running for president in 2008, and as hard as he dodges the issue, one can't escape the feeling that he'd like to, then he's going to need to figure out a new way to campaign. A slide show is different pubic speaking artform than a straight speech and it's one where you just might be able to get away with sticking you hand in your pocket. Would have been interesting to see him getting busy with the real thing rather than sticking to his old failed forms.

The really radical campaign form though is the movie, which I haven't seen yet, but it's good to see the left finally embrace Hollywood the way Hollywood has always embraced the left. At the same time though, watching the trailer, seeing Gore and the producers talk, and reading the Wired cover story on Gore I can't help feeling like what they are trying to do is duplicate what Bush, Cheney and Rove have mastered, selling fear to the American people. Rather than selling mythical weapons of mass destruction, it's the hypothetical rising water mass of global warming that's the product being pitched. There is none Rove's masterful soft sell though, it's straight Chicken Little the sky is falling hyperbole. I haven't seen the full flick yet, but right now it's getting set up like it's this summer's disaster flick, with Al Gore playing Tom Hanks role. If nothing else it'll be an interesting lesson in propaganda.

After Gore gave his brief speech, the somewhat odd main event began, Gore, the scientist Jim Hansen, and in true Hollywood fashion, two of the movies producers took the stage for a panel discussion moderated by the excellent John Hockenberry. It filled me with fear alright, although I'm not sure it was the type the producers were after. Fright number one was how little these people were actually doing to help the environment beyond their media presence. Gore claims he's "carbon neutral" whatever that means, probably something to do with his android operating system. The rest? Apparently they've changed their lightbulbs and maybe installing solar panels, but not yet. I was sort of dreading one of them answering "I drive a Prius", and thankfully it didn't happen. Except now I'm wondering if they actually do, or if these people are cruising around Hollywood in gas guzzling limos par the course.

In the end though it was Hansen who really scared me. In response to an audience question about scientific disagreements on the threat of global warming, Hansen could only respond "all scientists agree". Now this may well be true or at least close to true, but I have no way of verifying that based on the information Hansen presented. In other words he offered up the most unscientific of all arguments, one that breaks down to "trust me, I'm an expert." And it is at exactly this point that scientists start functioning exactly like priests. Good science requires not just a discovery process, but a communications process. No matter how sound the research methods might be, if the results are dictated to public they can no longer be viewed as being scientific and instead become propaganda. That leaves us, the general public holding the bag as the Hollywood producers and oil company greenwashers wage a PR war over what we are doing to the planet.

Now let me make it explicitly clear that I have absolutely no affinity for the people out there denying the possibility of global warming on a corporate dime. But I do have a serious skepticism of anyone out there claiming they can predict the future the way Hansen and Gore make like they can. That the risk of global warming exists and is very real seems pretty clear. And if such a risk exists we very much need to be dealing with it. But that doesn't mean it's going to happen, or really happening the way some think it is. In the end one question stays persistent as I watch, listen are read about global warming, is the earth really so fragile that we as mere humans can have such a great impact? Could all the fear and paranoia over what we are doing to the planet really just some overblown hubris, an exaggerated sense of our powers to both create and destroy in a global level? Not an easy question to answer, but it isn't exactly hard to imagine why Gore, the man who arguably has come the closest in the world to holding incredible power without ever actually having any, might just have a distorted sense of what an individual can do.

Posted by Abe at 12:56 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

May 07, 2006

Renegade Materialism

Geoff Manaugh of the always incredible BLDGBLOG outdoes himself with Architectural Criticism a masterful rant on the state of well "architectural criticism". It's a great piece and I agree completely with Geoff except on two points, the architectural and the criticism...

Ok so that maybe seems like a big disagreement, but it's not, I agree about the problems now and I agree about where things need to go, I'm just not so sure about the vehicle for the journey. I'll leave the whole issue of criticism alone for another day though so lets talk about the architectural. The core of Geoff's argument goes like this:

"Architectural criticism means writing about architecture, not writing about buildings."


"Architecture is not limited to buildings! "

There are two movements here, one is to propose an expansive definition of architecture, the other to accuse the contemporary practice of architectural criticism of caring only about buildings. But when one reads through his wonderful list of what fits into the big tent definition of architecture, something curious comes out. Indeed "not every one of [the listed items] is a building" but there are a whole lot of buildings on it that contemporary architectural criticism is not concerned with. If that practice was truly focused writing about buildings it would be far closer to Geoff's vision then it actually is. The real problem with contemporary architectural criticism is not that it is about buildings, but that it about architects. It just happens to use buildings as a surrogate for their architects at times.

Geoff's solution is not a bad one, shifting the focus away from those starchitect buildings and back towards an expansive vision of architecture could well work. It's not a bad solution, but I just don't see how it can be a sustainable one. For by privileging and expanding architecture the way he does can only in the end continue to privilege architects as well. If the focus of architectural criticism is "architecture" it will only take minor amounts of energy to shift it back towards architects and then back towards their buildings. It is only through an incredible rigor distributed across the hundreds of practitioners that an architectural criticism can stay focused on architecture and not slip over into the banal celebration of architects that it is today. In order to move into the incredible places that Geoff wants to I think it is important to just leave "architecture" as a concept behind and enter into the territory unhindered by architects.

Now of course there is a significant risk in this action, for it also might mean leaving behind architects as an audience as well, and believe it or not there are a couple architects left with the power to actually do things like build buildings. But if one considers just how thoroughly architectural criticism has left behind all those other people who actually build buildings, contractors, city planners, politicians, real estate agents, developers and yes construction workers, leaving architects behind is probably just what is needed to get back a truly relevant audience.

What is needed then is something of a renegade materialism. Renegade because it rejects both the dialectics that so often come joined like a siamese twin to the philosophical practice of materialism and because it rejects the obsession on possession that comes with the economic use of the word materialistic. A renegade materialism is instead interested in the movement and transportation of materials in all forms. From nickel tailings and abandoned nuclear storage units to cities prototyped in video games and hills transformed into stepped pyramids of tea. From highway underpasses and abandoned subway lines to abandoned satellites and Mars terraforming robots. These are the subjects, they could well be the subjects for an architectural criticism, but they already are the subjects of a renegade materialism.

Posted by Abe at 10:52 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack