Recording 008: The Branding of Public Space

The branding of public space isn’t new and neither is writing about it, but the ramifications of the ways companies and people are allowed to inhabit space is as relevant as ever. In cities like New York and Chicago, writing graffiti can result in fines of hundreds or even thousands of dollars—a deterrent against individuals marking space that is supposedly meant for everyone. But is it? For years, cities have attempted to prevent homeless people from sleeping on benches and skaters from grinding on railings, among other “unwanted” citizens, with an assortment of structures such as armrests, guards, and spikes.

At the same time, the aforementioned cities solicit companies to advertise in public spaces—just look at their transportation “authorities,” the CTA and MTA, which have spent millions of dollars over the years to stop “vandals” from tagging train cars, while simultaneously making millions of dollars from corporate ads sold through advertising agencies. For example, the CTA makes tens of millions of dollars per year from advertising, while the MTA makes far, far more. And, while the MTA recently banned alcohol advertisements (it banned political ads in 2015 and tobacco ads in 1992), the service’s train cars showcase many other ethically questionable ads.

Why does this all matter? Because space that we often think of as public isn’t in its truest sense. Transportation services like the CTA and MTA force us to view ads we have no control over every single time we ride a bus or train or even walk by a station; social networking sites like Instagram and Facebook use algorithms to allow brands to bombard us with ads they think will appeal to us every time we log in. And, when we threaten to disrupt those spaces and the capital generated within them—be it through graffiti or “freeing the nipple”—we put ourselves in danger: of being banned, fined, sued, or even thrown in jail. Is a lamppost or parking meter bombed with fliers and stickers simply an example of people’s disregard for public property or is it a small attempt by individuals to share the same space that local, state, and national governments allow corporations to inhabit?

So, is an On TAPE Studio sticker on a signpost or bus stop ad merely a form of viral marketing in the vein of so many streetwear brands before me or is it something more? Can a brand disrupt public space in meaningful ways? On TAPE Studio may not be all that I am, but considering my face is literally and figuratively front and center (in the photos that drive the project), how does the brand reinforce and/or critique the hyper-visibility of whiteness and maleness? What is the power-safety dynamic between visibility and anonymity in the age of social media and what do I risk by exploring it?

 

 

Recording 007: Experiences as Possessions: the Capitalization of Memory

Over the past few years, numerous articles have been published on the trend of millennials valuing experiences over possessions, how we’d much rather go to a concert, take a cooking class, or explore an Instagram playground than buy a car or make a down payment on a house. Of course, even if this notion is true, it is drastically oversimplified; cars and houses are far more expensive than concerts, classes, or even most vacations, and with rising student debt, dwindling, if any, savings accounts, and a bleak full-time job market, most millennials (including myself) don’t have the money—or even the hope of one day having the money—to own their own home or a new car. So, I’m less interested by the premise of millennials being anti-possession, and more by the ways in which internet photography is transforming experiences into possessions, and therefore into forms of capital that exist in the same realm as possessions middle-class Americans of the past sixty years have traditionally spent their money on.

This past Sunday, I went with my wife to the Lincoln Park Conservatory with the thought of surrounding ourselves with nature (albeit man-made). As we entered the glass-enclosed jungle, a man in his sixties with deeply suntanned skin, a mandarin collared indigo dyed shirt with frog closures, and cropped army green trousers sat cross-legged on a bench and began playing the flute. My instinct was to ask him if I could take his photo, but I decided it would be rude to interrupt his playing or the experience of listening to him play. Instead, my wife and I walked through the Conservatory with the idea of looping back to listen to him near the end of our visit.

When we eventually returned and found a bench near the musician, we watched as a row of amateur photographers took unsolicited photos and videos; at one point, the scene became so absurd that one person was taking the photo of another person taking the photo of another person taking video of the musician. This meta-line of photographers isn’t necessarily the norm for experience-based photography, but it still speaks to the way photography has come to function within public environments. Do I know if all of the photographs that were taken of the musician ended up on the internet? No, but the odds are high. When I took a group of high school students to the MCA to see Takashi Murakami’s The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg over the summer, the trip became more about taking photos of Murakami’s vibrant artwork to post on Instagram than actually looking at that artwork. To be clear, I was posting photos of the Murakami exhibit as well, although I abstained from posting any (and only took a handful of polaroid photos of my wife) at the Conservatory.

What strikes me in these scenarios is the ways in which intent (as well as unconscious and subconscious thought) can transform an experience into a possession. If I go to the Conservatory or the MCA, or anywhere else for that matter, for the sake of taking photos/videos to post on social media (whether I realize it or not), how is that “experience” different than going to a store with the intent of buying a new pair of jeans? What becomes of the experience when it’s secondary to the possession (of that experience)?

For millennials (including myself) public, artistic-looking documentation of experiences has become a form of capital. We don’t invite friends over to our house to swim in our new pool as an expression of financial success; instead, we take photos of our trip to the Grand Canyon to show we’re adventurous, or of the Women’s March to show we’re socially and politically conscious, or of the Murakami exhibit to show we appreciate art. In essence, we hope to become the people we represent ourselves as on the internet, and do so by viewing and capturing those experiences through a screen, simultaneously removing ourselves from the experiences while we’re experiencing them. A more cynical writer than myself might ask how Instagramming an art installation is any different than viewing that same installation on Instagram. I won’t go that far, especially since that claim discounts the existence of physical space and the body, but it’s disturbing to think about how real and virtual life can unconsciously coalesce.

Recording 006: Bad Rap and the Ethics of Omission

Bad Rap, Salima Koroma and Jaeki Cho’s 2016 documentary that follows the careers of four rappers—Dumbfounded, Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, and Lyricks—as an exploration of the space Asian-Americans (do not) inhabit within popular Hip Hop culture is, overall, an excellent and necessary film. In only an hour and twenty-two minutes director/producer Koroma and producer Cho manage to offer a brief history of Hip Hop and Asian-Americans’ place within it, introduce their audience to the sounds and lifestyles of the four aforementioned rappers, and document their intersecting careers as they (fight to) find success within America’s Hip Hop industry. Most importantly, through various forms of individual and group interviews, Koroma and Cho offer space for Dumbfounded, Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, and Lyricks to (seemingly) tell their own stories, which makes it easy for the film’s audience to feel invested in their successes and struggles (at least I did). If you care about Hip Hop music or culture, the ethics of representation, racism, pop cultural theory, or just documentaries in general, you should watch this film.

However, although the film’s thesis is spot-on—Asian Americans are unquestionably marginalized in popular Hip Hop culture—there are glaring omissions that are rarely, if ever, acknowledged. (But, before I delve into specifics, let me quickly acknowledge my biographical position—as a white, male Jewish-American writer and Hip Hop fanatic who grew up in New York City in the ’90’s and 2000’s—and intentions—not to annihilate Bad Rap, but to further open the discussion(s) it starts regarding the space(s) Asian-American rappers inhabit in popular Hip Hop.)

For one, the documentary suffers from a coastal bias and fails to make much mention of this. Three of the four rappers at the center of the film are from New York (Awkwafina and Rekstizzy) or Los Angeles (Dumbfounded) and the other (Lyricks) is from Fairfax, Virginia, which isn’t exactly far away. This might be acceptable (or at least expected) for a mid-’90’s Hip Hop documentary, but for one released in 2016, it is a troubling oversight. Yes, New York and Los Angeles are, and have historically been, epicenters for creative industries including music, but the Internet has been interrupting their dominance for years. To not at least mention someone like Korean-American spoken word poet and emcee Denizen Kane of the Chicago-based rap group Typical Cats (check out his 2009 album Brother Min’s Journey to the West) seems careless at best. Not only has Kane been around for years and produced significant solo and collaborative albums, but he also explores immigrant experiences in some of his work.

Relatedly, the film fails to fully include South and Southeast Asian American rappers. To its credit, the documentary does briefly mention that South and Southeast Asian rappers are often perceived differently (as more masculine/authentic) than those whose families hail from East Asia; however,  this a questionable excuse to exclude a long list of rappers, many of whom are currently making waves in Hip Hop: from Philippines-born, Los Angeles-raised Ruby Ibarra to former Das Racist members Heems (currently of the Swet Shop Boys) and Ashok Kumar Kondabolu aka Dapwell. Heems, in particular, seems like someone whose voice could have expanded the dialogue of Bad Rap: not only has he experienced critical and popular success over the past ten years, but he has also taken artistic and personal risks through his simultaneously leftfield and autobiographical lyricism, which does not shy away from addressing what it means for him to be Punjabi-American in a post-9/11 world, among many other subjects.

Furthermore, the film misses an important opportunity to discuss colorism, passing, and the ways in which people of multi-ethnic backgrounds have their identities simplified and/or erased. Successful Hip Hip/R&B artists such as Anderson .Paak (who was born to a Korean/African-American mother and an African-American father) and apl.de.ap of The Black Eyed Peas (who was born to a Filipina mother and an African-American serviceman) are, at times, perceived by their audiences as simply being black or, at least, fitting into America’s greater narratives of blackness. Because of this (and even though both artists openly discuss their ethnic backgrounds), .Paak and ap do not face the same stigmas as other Asian-American rappers (but they do face other stigmas, of course); in general, they fit into popular Hip Hop’s expectations and projections of performative blackness, which means they are more often seen as being “authentic,” while simultaneously being boxed into (white) America’s stereotypes of black rappers.

In the end, an hour and a half documentary can cover only so much, but the experiences of artists such as Denizen Kane, Ruby Ibarra, Heems, Dapwell, Anderson .Paak, and apl.de.ap, among others, would have added layer upon layer to the way Bad Rap presents the narratives of Asian-American rappers within popular Hip Hop. Of course, I’m omitting and/reducing narratives, as well—such as the fact that apl.de.ap was born with an eye disorder called retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) and is legally blind, which makes him a rare example of a popular rapper of differing ability—and the fact that Bad Rap is a powerful enough documentary to cause me, and many other people, to write of it speaks volumes of the many important issues it does raise.

At the same time, it’s important to address the omissions in Bad Rap so that they are recognized as such; otherwise, we risk turning those omissions into a reality that doesn’t simply ignore certain narratives, but erases them (which is generally how history works). Since its release in 2016, Bad Rap has garnered a significant amount of press, but, as far as I can tell, very little of it (except for this article by Nadya Agrawal in Paper Mag and Rekstizzy’s brief shout-out to Heems in this UPROXX interview) has created greater awareness of, or space for, a broader spectrum of Asian-American rappers (let alone Asian-Americans who operate in other facets of Hip Hop). Yes, Bad Rap is very much the story of four rappers making their way in Hip Hop, and no piece of art should be expected to represent all members of not just one, but many ethnic groups, which is why the discussion shouldn’t be just about what Bad Rap leaves out, but how the platform it creates can make more voices visible.

Recording 005: Frame(s)

Any photographer that claims their medium is a purely honest form of representation is full of shit. It’s no accident that “framing” defines both the act of contriving a photo and the act of contriving criminal evidence against an innocent person. A frame is a form of structure, and whoever builds the structure has a level of control over the people who inhabit it. In the era of Instagram, more and more of us are exerting control over the way we frame ourselves and others—whether we realize it or not.

One might wonder if candid photographs even exist anymore. We pose while a friend or significant other takes shot after shot with our head tilted slightly to the right, then left, then forward; we spend minutes, or even hours, selecting and editing the perfect photo; we carry outfits in our bags to change into if the right light strikes; we set up mini-photo studios in our bedrooms or living rooms; we even pose in front of Instagram playgrounds in droves, not caring about how many people shoot the same shot against the same colorful wall. It’s as if every day is a wedding shoot, except we’re simultaneously the photographer and the couple getting married. We think that we are experts at branding ourselves, that we have the ultimate level of control because we’ve been surrounded by brands all of our lives—except we don’t.

We might be framing our photographs, but they are influenced by, and reside within, multiple other frames: Instagram and the Internet to name the most obvious. These frames not only influence how we frame our photographs (there’s a reason why “Pinterest” has become a stylistic descriptor), but how often we post them, how we perceive the space we post them in (a “curated” virtual art gallery, of course), and what we do, or do not, decide to post (most blood is okay, but not menstrual blood unless you’re trying to disrupt the system). And, because we spend so much time figuring out the right outfit, the right background, the right light, we never consider that we’re not only the framers, we’re also the ones being framed. It seems like a joke—one that would be laughable if the ones constructing the overarching frames we represent ourselves within weren’t often brands and corporations that want something from us: our images or money or likenesses or likes. So as we all shape our own personal brands—or branded persons—(even me) through our sculpted photo “diaries,” it’s worth thinking about what we give up every time we gain a new follower.

Recording 004: Icarus--Risk and Movement in Documentary Art

ALERT: Spoilers ahead.

Writer, director, producer, and longtime cyclist Bryan Fogel set out to film his debut documentary Icarus as a look at doping in sports; in particular, how easy it is to get away with using performance enhancing drugs in cycling. Fogel, an avid amateur cyclist, determined to do this by assembling a team of experts to help him dope for the Haute Route, one of the world’s premier multi-day alpine amateur cycling competitions, which he’d competed in the year before. This premise is interesting in itself, but it is Fogel’s journalistic nose and determination to follow it, as well as his willingness to place himself in risky situations, that make Icarus special.

During the early stages of enacting his doping routine, Fogel gets connected with Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of Moscow’s Anti-Doping Center. Via Skype, Rodchenkov helps Fogel refine his injection protocol and schedule and instructs him on the finer points of avoiding detection—a bit strange for someone who is supposed to be stopping doping in sports, not encouraging it. Of course, it turns out Rodchenkov is one of the main players, besides Vladimir Putin and a few of his top-tier cronies, in Russia’s massive sports doping operation that has been going on for decades. And when, during the filming of the movie, WADA (the World Anti-Doping Association) releases its report outlining the extent of Russia’s state-sponsored program, Fogel helps Rodchenkov, who now fears for his life, flee to the United States.

In turn, a seemingly straightforward documentary on performance-enhancing drug use in cycling turns into a fugitive film cum multifaceted expose; it’s a captivating, scary-as-hell combination that raises crucial questions about the ethics of the International Olympic Committee (which allows Russia, except for its track and field team, to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics despite WADA’s suggested ban), Russia’s post-KGB secret police (some of Rodchenkov’s colleagues just happen to “disappear”), and the validity of televised sports. These questions are especially relevant considering the ongoing investigation of Russia’s involvement in the U.S.’s 2016 Presidential Election; unfortunately, widespread cheating doesn’t seem to be limited to athletics.

The discoveries Fogel documents are jaw dropping, but his process is just as, if not even more, important. Icarus would have been a far lesser film if not for Fogel’s impulse to 1. explore an idea he cares deeply about and 2. take a chance by shifting away from his initial expectations for that idea; it’s a lesson all documentary artists can learn from: create a structure and then risk breaking it when your gut tells you to. Icarus’s impromptu changes in direction create layers for the viewer that wouldn’t exist if Fogel had stuck to his plan and, above all else, make for an exhilarating watch.

Recording 003: Tape vs. Tap

Some might find it surprising that the word “tap” predates “tape” by roughly thirty years in reference to the concept of recording. From a technological standpoint, this makes sense considering wire-based communication (i.e. the telegraph) was first successfully used by Samuel F.B. Morse in 1844, whereas the magnetic tape and recorder did not debut until the Berlin Radio Fair in 1935; however, from the way many of us think about recording, it feels a bit strange. Most of us spend significant amounts of our daily, weekly, and yearly lives making and sharing audio and video recordings of our friends, families, and ourselves. The fact that the device for, and act of, listening secretly to a transmitted conversation predates some of the main technologies we relate to communication itself is at least a little disturbing. Even more disturbing is the ability of, and desire for, tapping to outlive recording technologies. How many of us have used an actual tape recorder in the past twenty years? Now compare that to how many of us have had phone calls, e-mails, texts, posts, and search histories unknowingly recorded in the past five. When so much of our lives are on tape, why wouldn’t they also be tapped?

When, not long after his inauguration, Trump accused the Obama administration of wire-tapping his Trump Tower phones, it was easy to laugh. Trump is so consistently hyperbolic in his statements (i.e. tweets) that they lose any credibility; he truly is the troll who cried wolf. But the ways in which we knowingly and unknowingly record and are recorded by one another (and by governments and corporations) should be at the forefront of our daily thoughts and conversations. Every call, text, status update, tweet, and gram is a recording we can no longer exercise full control over. It’s scary to think about, but it’s scarier to ignore.

 

Recording 002: On the Unspoken Social Contract of (Public) Photos

Whether we like it or not, our bodies exist as both public and private, individual and communal entities, and, these days, that includes within the space of the Internet. The other weekend, my wife and I went to brunch with N____ and B___, a fellow married couple and two of our best friends in Chicago. After the meal and a walk around the neighborhood, we headed back to their car to see them off. Before saying goodbye, B___ snapped a group selfie of the four of us smiling against the backdrop of a red brick wall; we were full and happy and both my wife and B___ are in demanding grad school programs and work, so we weren’t sure when we’d see each other next. Capturing the moment was a way to remind us all of the happy times we’ve shared during the weeks or months when we might not see or even speak to one another—a common communal and historical reason for personal photography.

By the time my wife and I got home (a five minute walk away), B___ had already posted the photo on Facebook and Instagram, and the same thing happened again when we were lucky enough to have time to go apple picking with N____ and B___ two weekends later. Now, to be clear, my wife I are by no means upset that the photos were posted; they are common and benign, and similar photos of the two (and four) of us are already floating around the Internet. So, what I’m writing is less about B___ or these particular photos, and more about the ways in which we approach, take, consume, and propagate personal photography in very public ways.

Let’s be clear: people have been taking and publishing unsolicited and nonconsensual photos since the advent of photography. Although a relatively recent example, consider photographer Vivian Maier, who spent decades taking furtive photos of fellow Chicagoans during excursions into the city with the children she nannied. Maier never published these photos, although she did explore publishing them, and they only became public after her death in 2009 when John Maloof, a former real estate agent and a fellow photographer, bought thousands of Maier’s negatives for roughly $400, which led him to film a documentary and become the chief editor and curator of her work.

In many ways, Maier’s story is a smaller, simplified version of the current blurring between personal and public photography. My parents have thousands of photos of my brother and me from our childhoods, meticulously arranged and labeled in a series of leather-bound albums in a series of cabinets in the Upper West Side apartment they’ve inhabited for the past thirty-five years, but if I were growing up in 2017, chances are those photos would be in Facebook albums or published on Instagram. Even my wife, who considers herself a private person, shared photos from our wedding on Facebook days after our wedding; in contrast, it’s been nearly four months since we got married and we still haven’t ordered prints. The problem is, photos of this nature aren’t always intended to be public, or are only meant to be public to an extent, but are by nature public because they’ve been published on social media. My wife posted wedding photos because she wanted to share them with her friends and family who didn’t make it to the ceremony, but they aren’t and will never be limited to that audience. Whether someone downloads and saves a photo and then shares it on their own wall or reposts it on Instagram or, in an extreme case, hacks my wife’s Facebook account, the wedding photos are now beyond her control.

Consider the steady stream of celebrity nudes that populate the Internet due to hacked iCloud accounts or the thousands of memes created from photos of ordinary people who never wanted or expected to be Internet (in)famous. Every photo we post is a caption away from being a piece of pop cultural lore or the latest weapon in a troll fight instead of the personal or familial keepsake we meant it to be; of course, a photo can exist as both simultaneously, but it’s rare for a change in context to not influence the interpretation of, and emotions attached to, it. My parents have an adorable photo of me as a two-year-old, naked from the bottom down except for my mom’s cowboy boots, but I wouldn’t think that photo was so cute if it popped up unexpectedly in my newsfeed with a pseudo-clever caption that I’ll let you think of for yourselves.

So what of the photos in this project—the ones from my late teens and early twenties—and the people who inhabit them? How will I, and they, see the photos and ourselves now? Is excluding their names and taping over (part of) their faces enough? What makes these photos mine to post even if I took them with the inhabitants’ knowledge and permission? And what of power structures, of my whiteness and my maleness? Is saying that these essays, and the photos themselves, are an attempt at reconciling these questions enough for now?

Recording 001: Jacob v. On TAPE Studio

It seems to be common thinking these days that people—artists, in particular—need to be their own personal brands. Whether you’re an aspiring photographer, a high school student looking for their first job, or a digital marketer trying to climb the corporate ladder, the way you represent yourself (or don’t represent yourself) online matters. But, despite the fairly recent legal gray area created by the Citizens United ruling, among others, people cannot be brands because we are also living, breathing beings. No matter how polished your Instagram looks, you are still a person with emotions that you may be able to hide from the public, but which you cannot prevent yourself from having. Brands, on the other hand, do not have feelings. So, I wonder, what happens when someone creates a brand that is personal, even autobiographical (I won’t say authentic), while acknowledging, even pointing to, the constructs of branding?

This is one of the questions I hope to explore through On TAPE Studio, an ongoing interdisciplinary art project-as-brand that explores personal representation in, and leading up to, the age of social media, pulling materials and memories from, in particular, my late teens through early twenties. Inspired by poetic techniques such as erasures, conceptual artists such as Barbara Kruger, documentary projects such as Adrienne Salinger's book In My Room: Teenagers in Their Bedrooms, and the marketing and branding of streetwear, On TAPE Studio will look inward while pushing outward, questioning whether visible risk and vulnerability can change the way a brand exists in relation to its creator and the people who consume it.