Urban Elements: If Firetrucks Had Feathers

Firetruck Falcon Collage - Tim Gemperline   Falcon courtesy Mike Girone

It’s a summery day, pristine enough for the cafe’s garage door front to be open and the patio full. Converse to our seasonal clothing  pattern, the trees are thickly garbed, in full leaf and, at least the ones outside the cafe, lamps with white fabric shades. Round rimmed cups clink against doubly-wide saucers which in turn fill the even larger shade-sphere the umbrellas project. It’s, one taking in and fully appreciating the moment might call, a nice day.

It is only fair to be warned on a day like this day, and it was kind enough to do so. That’s how it is designed to work. The sound segues into  the chatter, mentioned porcelain clinks, and passing car hum. It is heard and the mind registers it and passes it along to memory and  recognition, but for now it is ignored, relegated to the pile of least concern in the constant data flow of the senses. Everyone knows  what it is, anyway.

So it increases and grows steadily, testing how loud it must be to get attention, like a child at that age where they begin to command tantrum volume as a tool. And like the parent, the patrons ignore the rising auditory flood until it reaches the right level in  the ear canal. All becomes sound.

And lights, too. The lanterns hung poshly from the trees and the umbrellas stenciling the patio could be Chinese paper. The lights,  then, should be the quick, bombastic bursts of gunpowder and ferrous metals, the mediums of a fireworks display. That’s the look; The  effect is like hearing about Ali v. Foreman for weeks, all the build-up and publicity, then turning the TV on to see the knock-out  punch in the seventh round, only to have the tube go out immediately after.

But here it is, sirens, the patented message of red and blue strobing lights, and the white gloss-paint and chrome shine of the  engine. People talk away until the last moment, then mouths rest, all pupils redirected toward the one, big window left behind by the retracted glass garage door. Without a second to spare, and lasting only as long, the blurred firetruck absolutely fills the frame and the attention of everyone in a unifying event.


The sound and sight of a firetruck is one known to everyone, and a common one to those who live in the city. I always find it  interesting that another sense, smell, is the sense with the strongest connection to memory; it seems almost a background sense, a sense in passing. Elements like firetrucks are the same way; they are familiar and common, processed at the moment then dismissed, but represent a major part of our environment. They are also a unique  element, in that they move, almost filling some gap, between large, stationary buildings and ambulatory, compact people, at least in a broad, physical lineup.

The amazing firetruck, a blocky hulk of a mobile, fulfills this role similarly to a bird, an equally astounding cohabitant (even if simply because they can fly – how long did we dream of that, how little time have we known how, and still never as elegantly?…) that likewise is placed in the gaps of our view of our environment, despite (…but, we know the secrets of flight now, any golden age of it is long gone, half the clouds are contrails; ho hum). Yet, they are the two regular passersby outside my window that halt what I am doing, both with the welcome familiarity and frenetic uncommonalities.

After becoming familiar with a ‘population’ of firetrucks (I imagine this is what Burt Lancaster’s character would have done, looking out between bars in ‘Bird Man’, had he been transfered to an inner-city prison that birds knew better than to hang around), the terms ‘behavioural patterns’, ‘territories’, ‘routes’, ‘vocalizations’, ‘markings’, ‘nests’ don’t sound so absurd and actually make themselves readily apparent. The array of noises the emergency vehicle communicates even matches a bird’s set of songs. Though less complex more cacophonous, these noises define the urban environment. Take a bird’s voice away, silence the siren, and the space would be noticeably off. Of course, there is the question of which would really be missed, but the make-way! wail is a defining track to any city soundscape.

The forests and fields have flecks of feather iridescence, beak-spouted audio, and specialized flocks. Well, the city has its own flashes of light, loud-speakered communications, and purpose-ingrained fleets, in the distinct fashion that humans mimic nature in design and organization. ‘Concrete jungle’ is more than allusion, it is a model, and firetrucks, police cars, ambulances are a fleshed-out detail of it.

The jungle is rich, it is diverse, stuff happens constantly in it. That is the allure of the city, and stuff happens in it, too. Even when it is thriving, not all of that stuff is good. Both birds and emergency vehicles act for survival, but of different varieties. In that way, the excitement of watching a firetruck roar past with building shaking momentum is tinged with voyeurism; the haste is not for show – it is for life and limb. There is an intrinsic link to destruction in these vehicles, there is an intrinsic, constant link to destruction in nature and in cities.


Another window-framed view to a flash of motion, but no foreshadowing sirens; in fact, all sound is muffled by snow that replaces the white of the previous vignette’s porcelain coffee cups with its albedo. Through the drifting and downy texture of already chubby crystals, I remember one big flake of grey precipitate from above, coming to a soft stop upon its predecessors. The structure and quality of snowflakes and feathers are poetically akin, these mediums of loftiness. The peregrine falcon lay wings spread, Meal,-Ready-to-Eat beneath its mess kit of talons and the tablecloth of white.

Without plunging into philosophy, life and destruction are entangled. It can have a structure and gracefulness to it, though. There is a difference from decay.  Yes, that firetruck that you and everyone else pulled to the side of the road for is either going to or coming from something of some degree of unpleasant, a negative of reality. But is it not reassuring to know that integrated into the habitat you live in is a means to contend with it, that in the way everyone knew to make way, the way the speeding creature moved with purpose, that there was a wider understanding and coherence to the objects and roles in the city we created? Both the firetruck and the raptor rush in parallax towards a point of destruction for a reason that is meaningful and beautifully integral to the larger environment they stem from. The firetruck is one of the small, tangible ways a city provides in the background, like a clock tower chiming every quarter hour in an oppidan language to everyone.

Firetrucks are not birds, buildings not trees, roads not rivers; when extraordinary, integral elements around us are relegated to just superficially noticed commonplace elements, a different perspective, be it biomorphic or otherwise, can bring a new appreciation for them. Such correlations and views might even help evolve their design and roles. Regardless, it is nice to see birds and firetrucks out my window, for the nuances and value they contribute from under a masterful front of admirable excitement, these flashing and feathered friends.

Support Firefighters!:   http://www.firehero.org/donate/

and those they help:  https://www.redcross.org/donate/

In the UK:  https://myfirefighterscharity.org.uk/donate

Adopt a bird!: http://www.horizonwings.org/adopt_a_bird.html


Architecture & Art: Spirit, Craft, Allied Works’ Models, and El Anatsui’s Art

Allied Works Models, El Anatsui

Whether or not you are familiar with the works of Allied Works, headed by Brad Cloepfil, a particular step in their process deserves a look. Especially with the rise of Building Information Modeling, computer rendering and analysis, and…well, everything computerized, the physical model maintains a unique role. More than trying out ideas from the mind and the computer in the place they will eventually inhabit, the physical world, models can distill architecture to its base, ‘not so much to inform the form, but to capture the spirit.’

Such comments from Cloepfil at a recent talk on his firm’s Still Museum were revealing of what role the model performs in their design process. Listening to Cloepfil, one could connect the models illuminating the projection screen behind him and begin to see where he, where the building is coming from. Indeed, some of those abstracted, conceptual models went to interviews with him, before it was even certain Allied Works would have something to design.

A weathered block of wood; the top is hewn, as if someone using a checkerboard for guidelines sunk a dull chainsaw into it a dozen times. It’s an early model of the building next door to where Cloepfil is talking, which is where, coincidentally, Ghanian artist El Anatsui had a few pieces exhibited not long ago that used exactly that language, that tool. To say that architecture is, in part, art is a given, but to have it so clearly modeled as such is refreshing. As an aside, furthering that point from the converse, Anatsui’s more tapestry-like works graft amazingly to architecture. In the convergence is an esteem for craft that such artists and architects share. Why shouldn’t architectural models reflect that artistic craft?

The reflection is refreshing, but also pragmatic. Such models, Cloepfil explains, are ‘to remind ourselves…give us touch-points as we move forward.’ Strip a design of its architectural detailing and systems, and you’ll eventually get down to its heart and soul, if that is what it was built upon. And if it was, it can be modeled. Then, regardless of changes and additions as the design progresses, that all important seed remains the driving force to refer back to and build upon. A final model may look nothing like the initial, conceptual model, but can be imbued with everything it embodies.

Some modeling done by Allied Works is used not to be held up as the spirit of the design, but to reveal it. For the Still Museum, ‘hundreds’ of concrete explorations were made with the contractors to find the right option. Direction to the contractors was to ” ‘make messed up concrete.’  ‘How messed up?’  ‘We have no idea!’ ”

Against the technical, exact documents architects create on computers and contractors execute to technical exactness, the models seem all the more relevant. A building designed and constructed to perfection doesn’t guarantee a thing; One modeled off of a simply and sincerely expressable spirit has a good shot at saying something meaningful and succeeding at a magnificent range of levels. Allied Works’ models are a reminder that what architects do begins and ends in the challenges of the tangible, graspable world, but that what must drive them is so much more.

Allied Works Architecture:http://www.alliedworks.com/

El Anatsui:http://tinyurl.com/ElAnatsuiImages   Photos courtesy of  The October Gallery and Giuliano Photos

Literature: Karen Russell’s ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ and Cows’ Red Silhouettes in Green Water Under Obscenely Blue Skies

Vampires in the Lemon Grove - Advance and Cover - Tim Gemperline

Looking back on some previous reads, it’s perfectly easy to associate an illustrative style or cover image with the text; Quentin Blake’s loose and light scribbles for Roald Dahl, golden age comics for Chabon’s ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier and Clay’, moments of German expressionism in Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow.’ At times while reading stories in Karen Russell’s ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’, to be released tomorrow [Feb. 12, 2013], I couldn’t help but to think how Edward Gorey would flesh out the scene. If he was alive, wouldn’t it be great if he signed on to dot the collection with his crosshatching and starkly unaware faces? But that would be a misfit; what defines Russell’s stories is an absurdly humored kind of Victorian horror with a strong but unassuming magical realism, and while this may be the same bent as that of Gorey, Russell crafts a contemporary fiction that itself crafts it’s own illustrations.

And these images that coalesce between the reader and the text (without any such illustrative help) are quite stunning.

Sometimes a change in weather sucks a bat beyond the lemon trees and into the turquoise sea.

It is a simple sentence, one a precocious child might lay out to elucidate his peers on things he noticed during spring-break vacation, if so prompted by the teacher, described from his unique vantage point and select vocabulary. The most arresting images in this, the eponymous story, and the others are delivered just this way, and their simplicity belies their craft. A sparseness of objects each draped in a singular color and connected by a minimal, lively action. Russell can fill a frame this way, even with sound; a rooster’s morning crow is simply, astoundingly ‘gargled light, very beautiful.’ Very beautiful.

The color especially stands out in her description. The second story ‘Reeling for the Empire’ strings colorful lines of silk, produced by ‘some kind of hybrid creature’ silkworm-workers, across the set; not unlike the infinite rivers of stories in Rushdie’s sea, but if Murakami penned it for the pages of 1Q84 (both interestingly have some similar themes, flow, and strange cocoons). Taken in another story to Fedaliyah, Iraq, she gives us  a cow’s red silhouette on green water as it shoulders an ‘obscenely’ blue sky.

Silkworm-workers. That is to say, Japanese girls tricked into drinking a potioned tea that adds quite a few characteristics of a kaiko, a silkworm caterpillar, to them. She can add cats to walls, too:

Sleeping cats had slotted themselves between the stones, so that the walls themselves appeared to be breathing.

In the same story, of a soldier receiving message therapy on his ‘Dutch master’ tattooed back, one that changes despite honoring an unchangeable, done-and-over day, well over a dozen animals are mentioned, from mastodons to jellyfish. Across the whole collection there is a small zoo’s worth of animal similes, comparisons, and images draped in equal measure in primary colors.

Another reason Gorey wouldn’t work; his visions are mainly of grim mishap and death, Russell’s are motifs of life and its requisite learning. Black versus primary colors. Animals throughout, winds that suck like the whales inhaling plankton in another of her stories, Suns that don’t evaporate lakes but eat them; she can remarkably instill life into even grand concepts, like the future:

A new crop was pushing into the spaces that the tractor had abandoned – husks hissing out of the earth, bristling and green, like the future sprouting new fur

Even when she does deal with death, she makes flowers out of it:

…Humvees were always getting blown to bits on it. I saw it happen right in front of me, fireballs swaying on these big fucking stems of smoke.

‘The Barn at the End of Our Term’ goes so far as to take past American Presidents, decidedly, documentedly human, and make them all horses instead (Rutherford Birchard Hayes is a skewbald pinto with a golden, of all things, cowlick). And even then, as horses, they must strive to figure things out and learn. Her plots and characters, her settings and style are imbued with a greenness, a wilderness that naturally promotes a level of optimism, even if covered in undergrowth and past falls’ leaves.

Except in ‘Proving Up.’ Not since meeting Harold in ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ as a 3rd grader in a shuttered closet (not good for eyes, but good for effect) have I been so on edge from a story trying to put the reader on edge. This inclusion was previously released as ‘The Hox River Window,’ but has an eery coincidence of length in this collection; at the zenith of realization of the horror this story mesmerizingly builds to, the page turns to white. On the recto; abject terror. On the verso; an even more shocking blank. The story ends, to the very, bottom margin on that last right-side page, zero visual foreshadowing. The next, empty page is no mistake, but the full, blindingly white gravity of where Russell leaves a young boy on a desperate errand. Here, whether the editor’s work or Russell’s, is a great arrangement. Here is where a paper book in hand, quick-tempo, carriage-return reading of each line, page after page flipping culminates; and just as amazingly, shockingly the collection continues to Rutherford B. Hayes in a stable. And after that? A man I can only picture as Yukon Cornelius, cheering on plankton in the Antarctic.

More than a title, ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ is an aphoristic ingredients list for Russell’s work. The young, already labeled prodigious writer matches all her imaginative plot and characterization with controlled tone and well cropped imagery. Some questions of carrying one or two stories too long or being, frankly, a bit downing, slide to the book’s gutter in the face of the creativity and masterful storytelling present. By the end, she always seems to scrape away any fallen foliage and undergrowth to reveal an inherent vivacity and life:

The [scarecrow’s] torso looked weirdly reanimated now with the tiny rabbit digging sideways into its soft green interior, palpitating like a transplant heart.

Russell creates her own emerald landscape, opting for it to be a wild and wildly imaginative garden instead of a city; she eschews things of tin and machinery, instead giving the scarecrow a heart. Karen Russell is her own Great and Powerful Oz in contemporary American fiction.

‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ by Karen Russell, published by Alfred A. Knopf    ISBN: 978.0.307.95723.8


Art & Architecture: ‘Arranged Tree’ and Then Some

Ikebana Some people will get rid of their Christmas tree tomorrow. Some will keep it put until brown overcomes the evergreen. With tape, rebar, and the right Ikebana skills, it can carry on a whole other presence, though.

Most people know of Ikebana (生け花  ‘arranged flower’), maybe only through references in Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos, but contemporary Ikebana is even less spotlit. This juniper trunk and limb arrangement from the Ryusei annual exhibition is a great example of it and how it is still an evolving, growing art. Even without knowing the roots or integral philosophy of the 600 year old practice, it can impact with mathematical, geometric allure and highlight the oft under-appreciated, small elements in nature.

Artists like Tetsunori Kawana even take ideas from ikebana to installation scales. In almost the same way Brutalist architects used concrete and large moves to define space, Kawana shapes strong, graceful gestures from the flexible, singular material of bamboo. His works, in their material choice and forms, enjoyably intersect the fleeting, organic nature of traditional Ikebana with the more permanent, grandiose nature of traditional architecture.

Also of note in the contemporary expansion of Ikebana is Yukio Nakagawa, in particular his Ondes Oniriques (‘Dreamlike Waves’) at Renzo Piano’s Maison Hermes in Tokyo. While Piano created a space of regularity and gridding, Nakagawa was able to reshape the interior into a rolling, deciduous landscape. He commanded the master architect’s design, a compliment to both, with bale-fulls of dried blossoms in transient, visitor-moveable piles. Perhaps Ai Weiwei’s Tate Sunflower Seeds respond in this progression in contemporary Ikebana to its most modern minimal, though that may be pushing it. Either way, it is nice to see a unique tradition and artform blend with landscape and architecture as it keeps growing, interacting, and divulging something to a contemporary crowd.

Juniper Ikebana courtesy of Sato/Yoshimura from:



Ondes Oniriques images courtesy of hermes japon co.

Renzo Piano Building Workshop:  http://www.rpbw.com/


Shosho Shimbo’s Ikebana Blog:  http://shososhimbo.blogspot.com/

Art & Film: Grip Tape and Tape Tape

The parking lot backdrop rolls across the screen like classic Hollywood rear-projection, while Ella Fitzgerald samples punctuate a digitized hip-hop beat, and the board twirls about the seemingly stationary toes of the boarder. The question ‘what is art?’ is pertinent here, but doesn’t really enter the mind, because the images are magic; the instant artistry and super-human perception for all of 1,000 frames per second. Against the blurred suburban setting, Adam Shomsky’s documentary profiles of skateboard tricks highlights the artistry in the urban ubiquity well. Not to extend into hyperbole and call it ballet, but there are kindred graceful sweeps and leaps among the flicks of feet that command the gyroscopic flight, take-off to touch down, of the boards. You can see the physics and athleticism. You can draw in the axes of rotation and connect the boarder’s intentions directly to their movements.

Whereas this footage is art of the not-quite-oils-and-acrylic medium of human athleticism/skill combined with wooden planks/wheels, artist Hong Seon Jang uses the equally un-fine art mediums of tape, hot glue, and magazines. Using such items in layers and organic repetition, Hong Seon Jang highlights ‘aesthetic possibilities’ in found and mundane objects. He turns hundreds of National Geographics into colorful fungal colonies; metal typeface rises up into a grand Manhattanic diarama; tape fogs blackboard in geometric forest forms; hot glue webs into unfalling, black rain (or a thousand cans of dark silly string over a thousand power lines?).

Both artists, in essence, prolong an inevitable end, create a moment that allows for meticulous exploration. The high speed vignetting makes graspable the tense, I-have-to-land-this motions amid hectic flashing of grip tape, graphics, grip-tape again. Wait until after the credit roll on Shomsky’s video, and see how fleeting and flurried each trick really is, this time with a matching soundtrack of rolling wheels static and then sharp staccato cracks of landing on concrete. The presentation on the front end of the credits extrudes and stretches these moments. The lifespan of office supplies is likewise short, a fact acknowledged by their designers, manufacturers, and users, Han Seon Jang being an exception. His temporary installations and other works imbue the disposable items with unintended purpose and meaning that gives them license to stick around a while longer.

Both also represent a simplicity that is poignant when viewed against their alternative. The skateboard could not be simpler, especially against the fields of modern-engineered, mechanically powered cars they are filmed against; man, board, wheels. The art of Hong Seon Jang stands out against other art of a perhaps more familiar, typical kind, being made of grade school supplies; tape, glue, educational magazines. They ignore those things they are viewed against. Ignore in that they aren’t fighting against their counterparts, they are just achieving what they need to via an alternate, simpler method. They’re saying ‘look what people with wheeled boards, with office supplies can do.’  They are minimalist in their approach, but achieve contemporary progressiveness via tandem routes, and in ways that bend back towards the organic and natural; human athleticism and organic forms. Both bodies of work are new presentations that uniquely force a re-perception of simplicity, commonality, and time.

Sometimes it’s nice to see that something in a parking lot and something in a gallery can have so much in common.




Art: By Pigeon-Gram

A girl sits, inquisitive look on her face, behind cloud reflections and smoky glass. She is in a wood wrapped room cantilevered three stories above a shaded stradetta and more of the dark glass. It clads most of the sophisticated, squarish building in flush panels, and bounces back the urban context as well as the gold-highlighted sky with cinematography. I stand, the same level but outside, on a ribbon of glass filtering light down, my soles two dodging smudges to anyone who looks up. I look ahead at another architectural feature, less eye-widening, more eyebrow raising; a wood frame and chicken-wire coop, adorned with a half-dozen roosting birds. Another girl, sharp nose, clad in henna tattoos and with eyes that similarly reflect the sky, though in quite an opposite manner to the noireish way the glass does, looks inquisitively at me.

The first girl’s look, perhaps, is in attempted reconciliation as to how the objects through her window seem unexpectedly misplaced, but to belong, to match at the same time. The second girl’s look is simply in waiting for confirmation that I am there for the reason she suspects I am.

‘Hi. Are you here to check out a pigeon?’

Interactive art is certainly a major, if not shift, then trend in art museums. It is fitting that a contemporary art museum would house such an installation, but this one, entitled ‘Thinking About Flying’, pushes the envelope of the genre, literally to a 30 mile radius of the museum. Over the course of months and in a matter of minutes, visitors can walk out of the museum with a young homing pigeon in a small laser-cut cardboard box, assembled as the attendant picks up a pigeon to use from the coop. From there, the visitor takes the bird (themselves loaned from a local pigeon racing club) to their home, or wherever they choose in the envelope, and releases it. The pigeon then navigates its way back to the simple country coop atop the sleek, contemporary museum, training it in the process.

Conceived by artist Jon Rubin, the installation uses the borrowed birds’ abilities to rethink the relationship between the museum and those who explore it. Participants become needles, the pigeons threads, connecting the museum to its wider context; the city as a whole becomes the effective exhibition space.

The traditional notion of an art museum is inverted as domestic spaces perform the function of temporary exhibition sites and the institutional space is cast as a domicile and caretaker. In this way, the work maps the social and geographic relationship between the institution and its constituent audience. (MCA)

Aside from asking visitors to directly participate in the work, the museum is putting more responsibility into participants’ hands than certainly most other interactive exhibits; within a quarter hour, I entered Adjaye’s building, learned about the exhibit, and had a living, breathing animal in my complete care. In another quarter, I chatted with a curious duo outside considering the same role, rode through downtown (piqueing more curiosity), and released the bird. There was a scattered flock of street-pigeons about for the release, but it was clear the one I had was not in the caste of flying rat; it burst crisply without hesitation from its cardboard confines into the open air, and took a swooping, deliberate arc around the edge of the next building, reversing on its inverse errand the route I had taken. It’s head moved once for the turn, seeing magnetic fields and maps, while the pedestrian pigeons below constantly swiveled necks, seeing only bread crumbs and threatening shoes.

The move towards interactive art exhibits reflects the connectivity and connections defining this age and developments across all fields. We are part of ‘the cloud,’ with shared commonalities, far-flung resources and coherent input, performing almost as a conceptual city. Hand-in-dichotomous-hand is the ubiquitous, representative ‘i’ prefix; the value, role, choice, and effect of the individual. Yet this instance didn’t have to be electronic or avant-garde to achieve its intentions in an efficient, effective, and engrossing fashion. ‘Thinking About Flying’ takes an ages old, pseudo-nostalgic method, where the only clouds are made up of water and dotted (without ‘i’s) by birds, and meaningfully connects the individual to the wider contexts of the city, art, and imagination.



Architecture: Sketches (etc.) For Humanity

Sketches from artists whose works usually aren’t sketches are uniquely intriguing. Those from architects are perhaps the most acute case of this.  To architects, sketches are process tools; fascia between design in the mind and in the real, physical world, but somehow insightfully closer to the designer than the constructed edifice.

The sketches for Architecture For Humanity’s fundraising auction are a little different in that a number of them are the intended end design. Sketches as the architect’s work of art. There are even a few three dimensional works. If you can, bid on them to support a great cause; the well known non-profit has volunteer run chapters all over, with community-benefiting projects at local, national, and global levels. If you can’t, at least check them out; the sketches and AFH.