Travels With Gloria

Finding beauty mile by mile.

Tag: postwar

My space plans will surely be carried out.

The Afronauts. All photographs by Cristina De Middel.

It was 1964, and Zambian schoolteacher Edward Makuka Nkoloso had a dream.

Mr. Nkoloso dreamed that his newly independent country would make its mark on the rest of the world in a way that could never be forgotten.

Three years before, the Soviets had put a man in space. A week after that, the American President Kennedy promised that the USA would be the first to set foot on the moon.

Zambia would do the world powers one better. The Zambians were going to Mars.

Nkoloso took the first step without consulting his government — which was busy planning Independence festivities — and created the National Academy of Science, Space Research, and Philosophy (NASSRP?). He recruited astronauts and began weightlessness training by hurling them down hillsides in an empty oil drum.

This may seem primitive, but if you look at footage of NASA and the Apollo program from the same era, things aren’t a whole lot more advanced. There’s an element of the Cargo Cult in Nkoloso’s editorials from the period, but if you think about it, there’s an element of the Cargo Cult in the early Space Age as a whole. The US could never have won the space race without German scientists who brought rocket technology to the table in exchange for having their Nazi connections erased from history. Seen with 21st century eyes, we got to the moon on firecrackers and tin foil.

What America had that Zambia didn’t was aesthetics: Tang, aerosol cans, go-go boots, and the bee-hive hairdo. I’m not even sure the Soviets had that much. If it looks like you can do something, then people will believe you can do it. The funding comes rolling in. Next thing you know, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock are on prime time TV, in color. You’ve sold your mission to the stars like a sweat-shop designer handbag. One small step. One giant leap.

But Zambia didn’t have silver lamé miniskirts or a Space Western in the network TV lineup. Nobody was going to be fooled. And so, when the world reported on Edward Nkolosa’s astronaut training regimen, it did so in the form of a colonialist joke.

More than fifty years later, Spanish artist Cristina De Middel isn’t laughing. After discovering the Zambian space program through old British news footage (what can’t you find in old BBC documentaries?), she has created a series of photographs that explore ideas of the future, the past, stereotype, and image, all surrounding the aesthetic of the Zambian Astronaut.

The Afronaut series, which De Middel hopes to publish as a book, seems on the surface to participate in the joke of the Zambian on Mars. Black men wear space suits accessorized with raffia, pose with elephants, and stride through tall grasses bathed in bright sunlight. Afro hairstyles poke out of the front of their helmets.

But looking deeper, it’s obvious that De Middel is in on it. The poses are too reminiscent of Keith Haring’s cartoon space men not to be a reference to the astronaut as visual code for Infinity And Beyond. The elephant photos are juxtaposed with shots of an alien autopsy. The astronauts’ gloved hands probe; what is this strange creature? What is this bizarre sun-baked moonscape?

After all, what’s more primitive than a man being shot into the sky on the back of a giant bomb?

Note: I absolutely could not have written this piece without the inspiration of Wired Magazine and Laughing Squid.

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The past is a Yakov Smirnov joke.

1961 USSR postage stamp celebrating Yuri Gagarin's space flight. via Flickr.

I have a fascination with Soviet Russia, especially the aesthetics of the USSR from the 60’s through the fall of the Iron Curtain. Call it ostalgia if you want. I’ve always wanted to visit Russia, even nowadays when obviously most reminders of the Soviet days are long gone.

I think it comes from the mystique of the Soviet Union as “other” when I was little. I remember taking a theater workshop when I was like seven years old (yes I was always a dork) where we were given the improv prompt “what if a Russian kid moved to your town?”

The teacher was really mad when I said I would ask him what it was like in Russia and try to become his friend.

Via Coolhunting.

Of course, now ostalgia is trendy. A museum of Soviet arcade games recently opened in Moscow.

There are also two recent books on design behind the Iron Curtain. Iron Curtain Graphics is a book of Romanian communist poster and propaganda design, while Made In Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design is an exploration Russian product design.

A Krugozor cover from 1964. Via krugozor-kolobok.ru

My favorite Soviet product, though is Krugozor, a music magazine published from 1964 through 1991. It came with a flexible record, though I’m having trouble finding out exactly what was on the records. A 99% Invisible podcast episode dedicated to Krugozor claims that the records included sound effects and music, and that somehow the editors were allowed to include rock music. Which sounds weird to me because rock was apparently censored or at least stifled in the Soviet Union at the time. Then again, I’m not up on my Soviet policies on Rock n Roll through the ages — maybe it was only later issues of Krugozor that included that sort of thing, during Perestroika.

It’s really difficult to find out exactly what Krugozor was or what it included, because virtually everything I can find written about it is in Russian. This definitely adds to my fascination with it. If I could read Russian, I would probably discover that Krugozor was the Soviet equivalent of Readers’ Digest, and it would cease to be interesting.

Another Krugozor cover, this time from 1971. Same source.

Sidenote/pointless quasi-proustian reminiscence: For years, there was a Taaka Vodka billboard featuring Yakov Smirnov on Veterans’ Memorial Boulevard (AKA “Vets”, to the extent that I just had to look up the actual name of the street) in New Orleans on the way to the airport. My mother’s parents spent most of the 80’s living in Cameroon, so Driving To The Airport was always a momentous occasion. I will always ever so vaguely associate world travel, the Cold War, AIDS, terrorism, apartheid, Ronald Reagan, and Duty Free, with Taaka Vodka. For no reason other than that this billboard happened to exist and perfectly symbolize everything my five year old brain didn’t understand about the world. (I still totally don’t understand Duty Free.)

Wednesday Round Up.

Screenshot diptych from Pollock. Via Design*Sponge.

Design*Sponge did a Living In post on Pollock. I remember disliking this movie when I first saw it, but damn, it really gets the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic right. I think the main reason I wish I were an artist is the idea of having a ramshackle old studio-slash-house out somewhere nobody else wants to live. In the 50’s that was eastern Long Island. Which is funny because now the Hamptons is the land of spray-tan and appletinis, a place the least imaginative people in the world want to be. I think now you’d have to be in Detroit or a ghost town in the rust belt. Will those places be the hot vacation spots of 2062?

Image courtesy Huffington Post.

The Film On The Rocks Yao Noi Festival — curated by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tilda Swinton —  created a floating island cinema for screenings.

La Guardia Airport, 1961. Via Retronaut.

Just in time for the new season of Mad Men, Retronaut has a photo series on flying into La Guardia airport in 1961.

This picture of Clarissa Darling wearing a Keith Haring t-shirt brought to you by the fact that I can't get any good MTV Art Break video clips to embed properly. Image blatantly stolen from Flavorwire.

Remember how yesterday I mentioned that Keith Haring did stuff for MTV in the 80’s? Well it turns out MTV is bringing back the Art Break. Too bad nobody cool watches MTV anymore. Also, too bad I suck at embedding video. Click the link, I guess.

Other People’s Travel Snaps

Woman at a bus stop. Photo courtesy House Of Mirth.

It started when I worked in the art department.

We did a lot of photoshopping on the TV series I worked for, and as an art department PA, photo research was a large part of my job.

New Zealand. Photo by trailofants, via Instagram.

It was the early days of Flickr. People would upload just about anything, unwatermarked and in huge resolutions. And thus I discovered that other people’s vacation photos (the less interesting, the better) made great backdrops for times when the script called for our actors to be photoshopped into Beijing, Washington, or Key West.  This is terrible karma, I know.

Woman on bridge. Photo courtesy House Of Mirth.

Even though I don’t get paid to peruse travel snaps on Flickr all day anymore, I still love them. Sometimes when I’m bored and feel like I’ve come to the end of the internet, I’ll run a Flickr search on places that top my bucket list. Instagram and Pinterest are making this odd form of armchair wanderlust even easier.

The best random travel photos, however, are the ones that trickle down from another era, shot on Brownies and Polaroids, printed on actual photo paper, and stuck into albums with those neat little corners. I try not to buy too many; it seems creepy to have an apartment full of photos of other people’s relatives. But I love to dig in the piles of snapshots at flea markets, and every once in a while if I find a really perfect one, I’ll take it home.

Mumbai cityscape. Photo by jimeryjem, via Instagram.

 

Mexican souvenirs. Photo courtesy House Of Mirth.

 

Tip of the sombrero to Jaunted, where I discovered the Instagram travel photos that inspired this post. Hours of vintage photo browsing (and shopping!) are on the agenda over at House Of Mirth.

The place the music was born

Phil and Ronnie Spector. I tried really hard to find out who took this photo.

As a blogger with a day job in the film industry, I try to adhere to one simple ground rule: never write about work.

This is usually pretty easy to remember because of the piles of nondisclosure forms I have to sign every time I start a new gig.

But this time is a little different. I’m not going to tell you the name of the project I’m working on right now, or even what kind of thing it is. But I have to tell you this.

Our office is in the Brill Building!

The Brill Building is an Art Deco cupcake in architectural form. Honestly, it’s cool just to be working in a funky old building with a gilded lobby, arched windows, and, oh, Jesus, the bathroom. The subway tile is etched with craquelure so you know it’s been there since before subway tile was cool. The sinks might be my favorite part: wide porcelain pedestals with two taps, one for hot water and one for cold. Our floor of the building is a warren of tiny offices – no bullpens or expansive loft-like Work Spaces here. I can imagine a young Don Draper, fresh from the Korean War, sitting in these offices looking at paste-ups for next Christmas’ fur coat ads circa 1953.

But I don’t have to imagine what sorts of people might have worked in my office once upon a time. I know the answer to that already. The Brill Building is probably the only office building in the world with a genre of music named after it. In the middle of the last century, it was the epicenter of the American commercial pop music industry. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was written in this building, as were probably half the songs performed by girl groups in the 60’s. Neil Diamond, Carole King, and Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” all happened here. Paul Simon maybe still has offices in the building? A lot of the spaces on our floor are suggestive of recording studios, with internal windows between rooms, soundproofing, and holes cut into the walls to facilitate running cable.

Anyway, that’s where I work. I can’t tell you what I do here, or what we’re working towards. But there’s a strong chance the ghost of Ellie Greenwich is reading this over my shoulder.

UPDATE: So, yesterday when I was researching this post (yes, sometimes I actually research stuff, shut up), I happened upon a music podcast called Sounds Ace, which recently did a special episode about the Brill Building sound. I didn’t get to listen to it until after I wrote my post, but omigod, it’s BRILLIANT. It’s exactly the playlist I’d have put together if I’d provided a musical component, minus maybe one cheesy Neil Diamond song. So if you just read this and got inspired to listen to some Shirelles, Shangri-Las, and Ronettes, you should go give Esther’s stuff a listen over at Sounds Ace.

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Also I just discovered that Sounds Ace is made by Esther C. Werdiger, who also makes some of my most favorite comics, via The Hairpin. OMG can you feel the girl crush in the air? CAN YOU?????

What if we could take vacations in time?

I’ve been at this desk for the last eight months. I’ve been sitting here twelve or fourteen hours a day — occasional Saturdays, too — in a bullpen office with my three bosses and a gang of sassy upstart production assistants. I’m here after midnight a lot of the time. I have to ask permission to go to the bathroom. This is the reality of a career in TV production.

In two weeks my work here will be done. A few days later, I take my first vacation.

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve done more than my fair share of traveling. But there’s a difference between traveling and going on vacation. Other trips have been ambitious. There were itineraries to tweak, languages to bone up on, cultural rules to learn. This trip is different: I’ll fly to Istanbul, sleep there eight times, and then fly home. I’ll learn some useful Turkish phrases and find out how to behave in a hamam. Otherwise, I’m going to play tourist.

Nowadays we’re so obsessed with authenticity that nobody will admit to being a tourist. We want to be vagabonders, temporary locals experiencing life “off the beaten path”, whatever that means.

In the middle of the last century, folks weren’t worried about all that. They went on vacation. It was what you did. There was no shame in it. They sunbathed on patios, rode horses, caught fish, and cooked said fish for dinner. The war was over. They beat the Nazis, and now what they really wanted was modernist vacation homes with free-standing fireplaces and built-in garages for their motorboats.

I’m excited to visit Istanbul, don’t get me wrong. But a part of me wishes I could take a vacation to the fantasy-land depicted in this book of designs for midcentury plywood summer homes.

Via visualnews. You can see high-res images of the whole book at archive.org.

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