Fictional Cities

Slats Grobnick


Fictional Cities
Portland Institute for Contemporary Art
Portland, OR

Cities aren't just places, but ideas, too. In addition to a bunch of skyscrapers, New York  is where you go to "make it," right?; San Francisco, known for its hills, is also prime destination for sexual lifestyle adventures and modern primitive spirit quests (or at least it used to be); Atlanta, whatever it actually looks like, offers a home to the most boisterously nouveau riche people in the country. For whatever reason, certain places become meccas for certain people, and when enough of them get there a city is made.

But what happens before everyone arrives? For middle-sized metropoles like Portland, Oregon, chronically fraught over whether it even is a city or not, weird intertias and self-doubts can set in, leading to a kind of desperate boosterism on the one hand–"We're on the verge of really becoming something!"–and corrosive cynicism on the other–"This place will never change. I'm depressed." Since the moment of its inception, Portland has been fretting over whether it even is Portland anymore, and if not, whether it was worth the price of changing, with every new stop light and condominium providing grist for the city's passive/aggressive mill.

Thus, the opening of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art–an alternative art space on the level of a pint-sized Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, or a one-story, quarter-floor Dia–opens yet another chapter in this river city's ongoing identity crisis. "Are we a city now?," the city asks. Smartly, the curatorial powers-that-be at PICA have christened their new space with a show addressing precisely this: the fantasy life of urban environments, and the ways in which group projections can sometimes become agreed-upon civic realities. "Fictional Cities," two installations by young artists from France, considers the self-fashioning of cities, and how the liquid thoughts of citizens impress themselves on the concrete walls and streets and parking lots of a given place.

In the front room, Alain Bublex fabricates an urban hub called Glooscap, whose municipal history resembles that of an actual port city on the East coast of Canada, but actually is not one. Using maps, historical drawings, and documentary photography, much of which could easily pass for real archival material (and much of which couldn't), Bublex presents a plausible city-on-paper complete with believable growth patterns and demographic fluctuations. Sadly, though, while rigorous in its conceptual foundations and conscientious in its execution, Bublex's dryly academic project lacks any real critical twist or visionary spark. Ultimately, it merely demonstrates the quotidian progress of urban growth without any of the juicy politics or buried skeletons that normally make the topic interesting.

In the next room, Marie Sester presents an elaborate video installation examining the mythos of five idealized city-states–New York, Jerusalem, Atlantis, Babylon, and Paradise. Projecting short, impressionistic movies about each place on separate walls of the room, and guiding the viewers' attention from one to the other via a Tinkerbell-like spotlight, Sester plays at a nearly cubistic end-game of space and perception. In the end, the piece culminates in a gush of presence, as the lights come up on the darkened walls to illuminate the room's physical planes and volumes, and with them the complex geometries of the present moment.

Whether or not these installations, and this new art space in general, will succeed in pushing Portland into the cultural bracket it imagines itself some day inhabiting remains to be seen. Sure, maybe the arrival of PICA's clean, well-lighted gallery will increase the profile of a city otherwise known, mildly, for its indie rock and responsible downtown planning. More likely, though, this most un-frontier-sy of West Coast cities will continue its strange slumber, gently repelling those with too much ambition and half-embracing those who chronically underachieve (Go Blazers!). Either way, whatever.


Camela Raymond

Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies
The MIT Press
by David E. Nye

Empowering the West
University Press of Kansas
by Jeremy Brigham

America's Electrical Utilities Past, Present, and Future
Public Utilities Reports, Inc.
by Leonard S. Hyman

Remember your grade school lessons about life in Colonial America? Maybe from the tableau vivant that your third-grade teacher orchestrated against one of the walls in your classroom, for which your classmates prepared costumes, props, and short speeches, and in which you, perhaps, played the part of Goody Hoskins, mother of eight and excellent spinner of flax? Remember the home with the trundle bed, the three chairs, the several candlesticks and cooking pots? The water drawn from wells, the chopping of wood, the eating of bread, cheese, porridges, and stews–until the end of winter, when all that was left was bread and moldy potatoes? The way, back then, life was humble, harsh, cold, and altogether different from life today?

David E. Nye's Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies will make you think about your modern conveniences in a new light. This book is a Koyaanisquatsi-like survey of America's changing habits of energy consumption from Colonial times to the present. It tells how the muscle power of farm families and draft  animals was abetted from early times by the kinetic power of water mills, the smallest of which provided the force of ten horses, or 100men.

By 1970, Nye writes, an average American household "commanded more energy than a small town in the Colonial period. The color television alone, which the family watched four hours a day, consumed 1.4 kilowatts an hour–more energy than a team of horses could provide in a week. The largest automobiles had more horsepower than the entire Du Pont gunpowder works of the 1840s." By the 1990s, an average American used 40% more energy than a German, twice as much as a Swede, and three times as much as an Italian or Japanese citizen. Converted to muscle power, Americans would need "73 quite well-fed slaves" per person to maintain our present-day comforts and conveniences.

How, the author asks, did the U.S. become the world's largest consumer of energy over a period of two centuries? An American Studies professor based in Denmark, Nye is less interested in telling depressing tales of ecological disaster and corporate domination (though the alert reader can connect these dots) and more interested in making a cool appraisal of the "social worlds" of America's shifting energy regimes. Nye's rather open-ended thesis is that new technologies have no natural social consequences, but that societies make socially conditioned choices about how to use available technologies. European cities favor mass transit, American cities favor the automobile, c'est la vie. He dismisses what he calls "determinist" historians, who include Neo-Marxists, for ascribing cultural choices to universal historical imperatives that are only visible through hindsight, rather than to the social context of a given time and place. More later on the merits and limits of this approach.

In one illustration of the folly of idle speculation, Nye points to the "crisis of leisure" that American sociologists have falsely predicted since the 1930s. This threat, that robots and computers will cause widespread unemployment leading to volcanic social unrest, was reported as recently as 1996 in Jeremy Rifkin's book The End of Work. Rifkin warns of a near future when a massive out-of-work underclass will be ruled by an elite group of skilled technicians and managers, reaping all the benefits of the new computer efficiencies. Conversely, Americans have enjoyed repeat fantasies of high-energy utopias, such as General Motors' "Futurama" exhibit at the 1964 New York World's Fair. In this future scenario, "lunar-crawlers" traversed the moon, vacationers lolled about at a "sub-oceanic resort" and deserts were farmed by remote control (if only we'd kept funding NASA!). In fact, however, in spite of geometric increases in our command of energy resources, Americans have never been stopped short (or freed for higher purposes) by an excess of leisure.

But why? According to Nye, into the 1970s, people were motivated to sacrifice leisure and work hard and long for rising wages and better consumer goods. In the eighties and nineties, even with America's productivity and wealth soaring, the average work week continued to lengthen because of the competitive pressures of the global economy and our continuing gluttony for bigger, better, more specialized goods and services. (Ironically, he adds, "leisure becomes more like work" at the close  of the century, as "millions of dollars  are spent on special equipment for cycling, skating, aerobics, and running.") Here's where some weaknesses in Nye's approach become apparent. Emphasizing the role that mass consumer tastes play in shaping culture and technology, he resists looking at questions of "power" in the sense of how energy use decisions have reflected the interests of different economic classes. Where's the discussion of the widening gap between rich and poor Americans during the past thirty years, and the different reasons that poor people have for "choosing" to work longer hours, not to mention the disparate energy use of rich and poor households? And despite his aversion to "determinist" explanations, shouldn't Nye at least note important consistencies in the service of American corporate interests, such as their notable success in acquiring natural resource extraction rights at bargain basement prices? Despite his impressive breadth of research and eye for gripping details, there are times when the author paints with too broad a brush.

On the other hand, this is a two hundred year survey, and one can understand the author's boredom with Neo-Marxist historical accounts, which can so easily turn a lively, unpredictable story into a monotonous catechism of "might makes right." Nye's story is more like a broken movie projector, jerking and rolling through images of technological wonder, ideological passion, and the trage-comedy of Americans' frolicksome, all-devouring appetite for consumption.

Jay Brigham's Empowering the West is a dry but informative account of the politics of electrical power generation and distribution in the United States during the first half-century of the technology's emergence, from the 1870s to the 1930s. Begun as the author's dissertation at UC Riverside (and reading like it), the book focuses on early debates over how to distribute electricity fairly and efficiently, before legal standards were established and political compromises cemented control structures that dominated the industry for the remainder of the century.

In Brigham's view, at the center of local and national debates was the question of who would control the electrical grids. Would it be private companies (decried by reformers as agents of an "octopus"-like "power trust") or public entities (criticized for their "insidious attack on all business and property"). Brigham pays particular attention to hydro-power in the Western states, where high concentrations of publicly owned land and federally controlled waterways strengthened the hands of public power proponents, and takes us back to a time when cities were criss-crossed with competing grids while out-lying towns clamored for electrification that was unprofitable for utilities to provide.

Readers turned off by Brigham's droning and pedantic writing style can peruse the books' many interesting tables and charts. "Table 1.3 Percentage of Chicago Homes with Select Electrical Appliances in 1929" shows that in 1929, 96% of Chicago households had an electric iron, 87% had a vacuum cleaner, 53% had a radio, and 36% had a washing machine, while only 10% had an electric refrigerator and no more than 1% had an electric clock. "Figure 2.1 Model of Holding Company Structure" sketches out the clever investment strategy used by multi-tiered holding companies that in 1930 allowed only eleven such companies to control 85% of electrical generation capacity in this country, leading to widespread fear of the "power trust." "Table 4.1 Rates of Several Small Wisconsin Towns (in cents per kilowatt hour)," shows how in 1930, Bangor, Wisconsin's privately-owned utility charged rates up to double those of publicly-owned providers in nearby towns. This situation, Brigham explains, prompted the Common Council of Bangor, population 665, to hold a referendum on the following question: "Shall the electric utility plant known as Hussa Brothers Electric Power and Light Plant, owned by the Hussa Canning and Pickle Company, be acquired by the Village of Bangor?" "Get the pickle people out of the 'juice'!" and "We're 'Sour' on Pickle Power!" the townspeople of Bangor must have screamed as they voted to pass the referendum.

America's Electric Utilities, Past, Present, and Future is a textbook for budding junior executives and financial analysts, offering them an ornery yet literate overview of the electrical utility industry from an "insider" perspective. (Author Leonard S. Hyman has testified before Congress and served on all kinds of advisory panels during and after his long career at Merrill Lynch's Utility Research Group, and looks a little bit like Sydney Pollack in his author photo on the back cover.) It covers everything from the technological and financial operations of modern day electrical generating and distribution facilities, to the development of government regulatory structures, to a history of the industry from its inception to the present. It tells about joules, load factors, price differentials, and the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973. Despite the sense that Hyman is altogether annoyed with the "antibusiness" sentiment of government regulators and irrational antics of anti-nuclear activists who have plagued his life with small tortures, one can't help admiring his exceptionally clear writing and the hint of a warm sense of humor beneath his brisk, incisive commentary. If you really want to know about the business of herding those speedy electrons into tiny conductive tubing, this is probably the book to read.

Safarini in Transit: Music of African Immigrants

Jeff Fuccillo


Safarini in Transit: Music of African Immigrants
Various Artists
Smithsonian Folkways

This twelve track porridge of five immigrant African styles, each brought to Pacific Northwest corner of the US by the artists themselves, is a mixed bag. The first impression d'Afrique taken from this peek says slick, lame, slick. Opening tracks by Wawali Bonane (Zaire, now Seattle) and Frank Ulwenya (Kenya, now Seattle) suffer severely from production grease. So slippery and slidey you just can't get a serious grip on this stuff. Is this what the US does to African artists? These African immigrant musicians are certainly talented, but the candy-coated tracks turned in by these two are a dulled-down lot.

Luckily this collection highlights the work of five ensembles rather than only two; a high level of variance leads to a pleasing change of pace on track three. Lora Chirorah-Dye (Zimbabwe, now Seattle) and the "Sukutai" mbira ensemble make it nice with a compelling spitter-spatter of buzzing metallic rings. On "Nyoka Musango (Snake in the Grass)" the traditional transcends the prior fusion-vibe to solid effect. Next up and in a similar vein is Kofi Anang's (Ghana, now Seattle) forest jams, collaged pieces where xylophone rings lonesomely across electronically rendered nature-scapes (tweety-birds and waterfalls). His two submissions, "Ko (Forest)" and "Hail", both jam; wrap your head around it. Then its Obo Addy (Ghana, now Portland) riffing heavy vocal lines and throbbing drum patterns with an expanded ensemble. Not bad at all.

So while this is by no means a solid various artists collections (has there ever been one?), the concept of it all–to give a glimpse at the various modern musical styles of African immigrants in the Pacific Northwest–is decent enough to stand on its own. Like myself (holier than thou traditionalism keeps me from enjoying far too much), you won't like all of it. In the end, for me, its a 3 for 5 deal. And simply stated, batting .600 ain't bad.

Ass Ponys

Slats Grobnick

Ass Ponys
Some Stupid With A Flare Gun
Checkered Past

Soulful country songs about astronauts and smokejumpers. And robots.


Gorge Bundundor

5 Rue Christine

Always elicits compliments when featured as hold music. Spicy.


Gurgi Bottoms

The Geometrid
Sub Pop

Some guy from Belle and Sebastian, making music much better than theirs. Bouncy, catchy. What do you say about this kind of thing? It won't frighten you.

Dirty Three

Blog Billandererr

Dirty Three
Whatever You Love, You Are
Touch and Go

Kind of turgid, entropic songs by the guys who back up Cat Power sometimes. Isn't Cat Power good? No, these guys are good, too.

The Sensualists

Cob Dobbler

The Sensualists
Audio Dregs Records

These guys really know how to party. Their parties: you should see them. People have a lot of fun. In describing their sound, one should probably mention Stereolab.

Die Like A Dog Quartet

Jeff Fuccillo

Die Like A Dog Quartet
From Valley to Valley

Before seeing them perform I would have said this: From the inaugural saxophone stroke, a shrieking tonicity that shudders with a highly adorned and resplendent vibrato, it's totally crystalline who's empyrean and oracular energies are being channeled here. Expired for roughly 30 years now, Albert Ayler's extra-ordinary ghost continues to be played, heard, and felt. Die Like A Dog, a quartet consisting of reedsman Peter Brotzmann (of legendary Machine Gun fame), trumpet player Roy Campbell, drummer Hamid Drake, and bassist William Parker, devotes itself to jamming in his holiest's zone. But they don't vex themselves with drafting exact covers of Ayler's free jazz tunes (pretty much impossible to pull off anyway). Instead, they toss themselves into the same musical girth fathered and affectionately nurtured by the late great saxophonist back in the mid 1960s. And with "From Valley to Valley," a live set recorded at Northhampton's Fire in the Valley festival, this incredible ensemble approaches a truly transcendental tribute to Ayler's life and work.

All of the qualities that made Ayler's music so unique and mind blowing are found in "II," a forty minute long improvisation that is the bulk of the ensemble's live set. Energized free form playing on the part of all four players expresses an electrical liveliness in a two minute moment of spitter spatter trumpet blasts; an intelligent embellishment of simple melodic lines is forged with long-breath saxophone squeals; a high level of emotion is expressed throughout as a mid-jam section of noisy crescendos takes over in all its blissful noisiness. Just as Ayler always did, these horn players throw themselves completely into the fold. Which isn't to say that Drake and Parker get lost in the mix. Bubbling with under-the-surface tension, both throttle right alongside their louder frontmen.

But far more important than the individual abilities of each of these musicians is the way they riff together. On par with the collectivism displayed by Ayler, his brother Don, Gary Peacock, and Sunny Murray on their various incredible ESP disks of the 1960s, the group playing here, 30 years later, is absolutely unexcelled. Ayler has always been one of those "wish I coulda seen him before he split" kind of musicians, and this ensemble, who continues to perform live sets, gives us a chance to catch his spirit circa right now.

After seeing them perform I say this: To hell with Ayler, on with the new. The set blew the mind, took it to new levels. Disproportions, flighty extrapolation, and ethno-drum jams overtook the brutal Ayler-shrieks. The time is now, not then. The now is Brotzmann, Parker, and Drake-motherfuckers with a mission: take the old, kill the molds, hold em cold, rock the soul. Pick up the baton, rock on.

About This Story

  • Authors: Slats Grobnick, Camela Raymond, Jeff Fuccillo, Gorge Bundundor, Gurgi Bottoms, Blog Billandererr, Cob Dobbler
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012