Sunday, September 30, 2018

Farewell, Victory Hall/Drawing Rooms on Grand Street

The sign outside Drawing Rooms' former site
Note: Originally I had planned to post this in June, but life intervened, so better late than never, no?

One aspect of Jersey City that particularly has interested since moving here over two decades ago is the small but vibrant arts communities that has managed to thrive in the shadow of New York City's far larger global art-industrial-complex world just across the Hudson. Jersey City's downtown, part of which was once dubbed the Powerhouse Arts District, once was full of warehouses and lofts where artists could and did live and work quite affordably, particularly compared to Manhattan and even Brooklyn. Many of the older buildings have been razed for new towers, which began rising in the lead up to the 2007-9 financial crisis, and once again began rising in 2011-12, or they were repurposed for rich condo buyers, as the downtown has steadily gentrified, scattering artists to nearby districts and cities, like Newark. A few organizations and a good number of artists have managed to hang on.

One, Victory Hall Inc., began hosting a series of programs in 2011 under the rubric of Drawing Rooms, a contemporary arts center in what was a former convent next to the campus of St. Peter's Preparatory High School, near the Paulus Hook neighborhood of Jersey City. Drawing Rooms hosted a range of shows of "two and three-dimensional works"--drawings, paintings, mix-media works, sculptures of various kinds--as well as performances by emerging and mid-career artists based in the metro area Its focus on local artists, especially those from Jersey City, Hudson County and northern New Jersey, has been heartening. Some have gone on to shows a bigger galleries in New York and elsewhere, but Drawing Rooms never lost the intimacy of its exhibition spaces, the informality and friendliness of the staff, or the affordability of works on display, for those interested in buying it. All of these set it apart even from most smaller galleries in the City.

What I learned once I started dropping by Drawings Rooms's shows, which run regularly throughout the year, was that its parent organization, Victory Hall, comprises more than Drawing Rooms, however; its other programs include Rainbow Thursdays Artists, art classes for local developmentally disabled adults; Artist Workspaces, hosted in Drawing Rooms and other sites in Jersey City; Victory Hall Press, which published original catalogues of work by Victory Hall-affiliated artists; Victory Arts Public Projects, which have included partnering efforts with other local organizations; and The Art Project, shows and gallery tours organized for four new condo developments, in conjunction with Shuster Development, in downtown Jersey City: Art House, The Oakman, Hamilton House and Gallery at 109 Columbus. (I have to say that while I understand how politics and economics have changed the equation for not-for-profit arts organizations, pushing all but the wealthiest to the brink, it still pains me a bit to witness the very institutions squeezed out or suffocated by gentrification partnering with gentrifiers in order to stay alive and keep a foothold in the very spaces and places they alone once brought to life. Neoliberal capitalism is something else, and this pattern has repeated itself over and over, I know.)

As of June 15, however, Drawing Rooms will no longer occupy its ex-convent home; it had previously announced that it would be moving to the Topps Building/Mana Campus in the Journal Square neighborhood of Jersey City. (The Mana Campus is part of Mana Contemporarythe contemporary arts powerhouse in Chicago and Miami. In preparation for its move, Drawing Rooms held a two-day final celebration and fundraiser, titled "Somewhere Over the Rainbow & Prospero's Grand St. Masque," which included an art sale, so I headed over during the second day's Brunch session to spend a little time with the artworks and artists, including James Pustorino, the Executive Director, and Anne Trauben, Exhibitions Director/Curator, who work I featured on here back in 2013, when I read poems based on them as part of a Halloween event. For the Masque, Drawing Rooms had taken its aesthetic design from Edgar Allan Poe's famous 1842 story "The Masque of the Red Death," and decorated the rooms in the colors delineated in the tale, with two additional ones, yellow for an eighth room, and red for the hallway, signifying not death and morbidity, but a rainbow's promise and ephemerality.

It was encouraging to see how many people were there that Sunday, and to later learn that a number of the artworks did sell. Below are some photos from the event; you can find the names and titles on the Masque link above. if you are in Jersey City and want to see some of the artists whose work has been featured at Drawing Rooms, Drawing Rooms' new exhibits, "Now Ya See It, Now Ya Don't" and will open this upcoming weekend at the new gallery in the Topps Building, and there will also be an Artists' Studio Tour, including Art Project exhibits at the Art Project sites listed above.

The sandwich board out front
Some of the artwork (I can't remember which color
designated this room)
Artworks by (l-r) an unknown artist,
Cathy Diamond, Gregory Stone, and Brian Hallas

Patrons and supporters of Victory Hall
& Drawing Rooms
More artwork, at left by Robyn Feld
and Andrew B. Cohen, two at
right by god@daddy borja
Conversations amid the art 
 Works in the Yellow Room (I think), by Barbara Lubliner
(fourth from left), an unknown artist,
and  Joan Mellon (at far right), 
Works by Anne Trauben (left) and Joan Mellon (right) 
Conversations in one of the galleries 
The Black Room
Some of the art in it 
Viewing the art up close
The now former home of Drawing Rooms

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Maryanne Wolf on the Death of (and Ways to Protect) Deep Reading

When journalist Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains appeared in 2010, I remember exchanging emails with Reggie H. and Lisa M. about it, reading numerous articles about it (including excerpts from the book) online, and eventually buying the book to dive fully into what he had to say. Overwhelmed at the time by my usual mountain of required reading it took me a while to get to it, but I did, and found his argument about the effects of the Internet on our brain and neural system quite persuasive. I even blogged a snippet from The Shallows at the end of that year. To quote Carr again:
The Net's cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively. Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, quickly shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again.
He was certainly on to something crucial about the various cognitive changed spurred by the US's increasing digital turn, and he wasn't alone in his assessment. Others like internet pioneer and guru Jaron Lanier took up related arguments about the effects not just of the net and our brains and nervous system, but the entire e-technological apparatus and its transformation of human sociality, economics, and our contemporary polity. Where Carr was alarmist--now proving to have been correct in his worries--Lanier was more measured, but in both cases, as with others who have written about the effects of the net, social media, etc., they were identifying the songs of more than one canary in the coal mine we're now deeply immersed in.

One very recent entry in this genre is Maryanne Wolf's Reader, Come Home (Harper Collins, 2018), which takes up some of the threads of her earlier books, Proust and the Squid (Harper Collins, 2011), and Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2016), with a shift, as was the case with Carr, on online reading and its effects. Her earlier books explored the origins of human literacy and the challenges that our long human history of interacting with text faced as we moved into our current millennium, but now Wolf, Director of Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, where she is Associate Professor of Child Development, and thus someone steeped in the current state of research on reading, is concerned with reading itself. As Laura Miller describes in her recent Slate review of the book, Wolf began to notice something about her own experience as a reader that I'd noted anecdotally with some of my students, beginning perhaps roughly 10 years ago and increasing among them to the point that I had to rethink my syllabus and approach to teaching: a waning ability to concentrate, and engage in sustained, "deep reading."

And it was not just my students: even for me, I have begun at times to feel a creeping distraction and impatience at any online text that was too long or complex ("tl;dr"), with a resulting desultory engagement in response. When it comes to expansive online texts, the feeling waxes. Skim, leap, surf: shift from one open page to another, one link to another, expect that the headline and the first few paragraphs will supply you with all you need to know. Earlier this year, as I had witnessed among my undergraduates, I even found myself struggling to get into novels, growing impatient after only a few pages, something I had never experienced befored. Wolf felt something similar, bemoaning her own inability to stick with a long, complex text, which is to say, a work not unlike a great deal of literature in a variety of genres written for hundreds of years. This was one of the central points Carr had broached back in 2010--as had Wolf, in turns out, in her 2011 Guardian essay "Will the speed of online thought deplete our analytic thought?", citing none other than Marshall McLuhan, who'd suggested that the medium was the "massage" and the message, that the technology would not only serve as a vessel but shape what it brought to us, and would shape our understanding of it.

In her new book, Wolf specifically recounts the experience of testing her capacity to "deep read" by returning to a novel she'd loved when she was younger, the very dense, multilayered Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game), German Nobel Laureate Hermann Hesse's 1943 futuristic magnum opus about a group of monk-like intellectuals who retire to a fictional European country known as Castalia, sequestered from most technology and economics, where they run a school for boys and engage in a complex, profoundly subtle form of play, the eponymous Glass Bead Game, that requires a lifetime of study and reflection to perfect. As she recounts, she tried repeatedly to begin it, but could not, yet it was not as if she could not read anything; online texts she sailed, or rather skimmed through. Hesse's novel, however, proved to be a tremendous struggle, and she temporarily set it aside. As an experiment, she set aside a period each day in which she would try again to read it, and, lo and behold, she began to find that after an extended period of struggle, she not only could get into Hesse's novel, but was carried away by it, her mind now in deep reading mode.

As note above, I have seen what Wolf is describing increasingly not just with my students and in my own recent reading habits, but with friends, one of whom admitted not to have read a novel by another writer in a while. The first person buys books of fiction and nonfiction, but when I ask if they have read them, the reply is, No. In terms of my own reading this spring and summer, I've had to force myself not to set the book aside after a few pages to check email or Twitter or look up something on Google, yet when I have stuck with the books. I get transported into the world of the work. This has been the case with novels and collections of short stories by Tayari Jones, Tommy Orange, Rachel Cusk, Uzodinma Iweala, Matthias Énard, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Jamel Brinkley, Celeste Ng, and Beatriz Bracher, to name just a few of them, as well as various longer works I have blurbed or read for judging projects. I enjoyed every last one of them, but initially entering each was more difficult than it ever had been in the past.

So, you might say, Who cares if no one reads long or dense or long, dense works of fiction any more?  What happens if we lose the "cognitive patience" and focus that Wolf argues we may be losing? Hesse's writing and ways of thought may have reached their ends in terms of their possibility of connection--or, to put it more simply--relatability, with contemporary readers. (As someone with a propensity for for dense prose and serpentine syntax, this is not an idle concern.) Even if that's true, what Wolf--like Carr--shows, as prior studies have borne out, is that "deep reading," and the virtual engagement with narratives have powerful, beneficial cognitive effects. One is to foster a capacity for analysis, which texts by Hesse, or the authors I list above, or Marcel Proust, the subject of Wolf's first book, require. To put it another way, every complex work is a kind of detective story, leaving clues the reader must assemble to make sense of the work, even as we are relating it to and contextualizing it with what we already know. The second is a quite powerful feature of fiction writing in particular: empathy. When we enter the minds, perspectives, bodies, and experiences of others in fiction, we connect with them, even if briefly, and this shapes our own views in the wider world. It sounds like hocus-pocus, but it isn't. Literature's emotional power should never be underestimated. But the fact remains, even the simplest works of fiction--and nonfiction--are slow, or at least slower than tiled or laddering screens. You can skip a few sentences or flip a pages ahead but you've probably missed something important--that is, unless you're reading a book like Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch (Rayuela), where this is an integral feature of the novel.

Rather than categorically decrying digital reading, what Wolf suggests is that even if it is reshaping our brain and cognition, there is a way, particularly for those with children or teaching and working with them, to ensure that they learn and engage not only with screens, but with books, so that they don't lose the deep reading facility altogether. For adults, will power and a concerted effort to put digital devices away--and turn off TV screens--is probably the easier and best option. Cultivating this "bi-literate" brain is what Wolf is aiming for. How to do this will a challenge for the future, especially how many people cannot pull themselves away from their phones, especially younger ones. I tend to take a gentle approach with my students in terms of their in-class texting, urging them not to do so, but also recognizing that at times they may have a pressing issue they need to address. On the other hand, I also try to remind myself that I, like most people on this earth when I was in school from age 5 to roughly 32 or so, nearly a decade out of the classroom as part of that mix, made it through entire days without 1) ever picking up a telephone unless it was an emergency and 2) only talking about things on a screen, unless we were watching a video or TV program as part of our less, or doing something very specific on a computer required for class. How did we survive? I did, we did, and I place this thought in the forefront of my brain as I close my laptop, shut off my phone, and dive into another book--a novel, a collection of poetry, short stories or essays, a play. But I'll get to that as soon as I post and read a few Tweets, bookmark a YouTube video, watch a few Instagram stories, and look at one more article online....

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Farewell, Village Voice

For the last decade or so, I have only occasionally read Village Voice, mostly online, but once upon a time, when I was in my 20s and living in Boston, acquiring a copy of the Voice at one of the news stands there, and perusing it to find out what was happening in New York, was one of the highlights of my week. (Back then I also read the New York Times in print almost every day too.) The Voice provided a trove of news about politics, in New York and beyond, as well as some of the most invigorating criticism about art, entertainment, the broader culture and the world, that you might find anywhere. For me it constantly outmatched Boston's own Phoenix, that city's alternative paper, and was part of a national ecosystem of similar papers that offered fresh, often left-leaning and progressive but always counter-mainstream perspectives on the state of the world. Now, the Voice is gone.

It's where I first learned about New York's legendary Public Theater and its pathblazing directors Joseph Papp and George C. Wolfe; it was one of the mainstream places where I regularly found informative reportage, Andrew Kopkind, Richard Goldstein and others, about about HIV and AIDS. It was a regular-go to learn about the newest and less common films, books, music, theater and performances of all kinds. The Voice also brought to me and countless readers original photography (Sylvia Plachy, C. Carr, etc.), cartoons by Jules Feiffer, Ted Rall, Lynda Barry, Mark Alan Stamaty, and Tom Tomorrow, and literature (I recollect reading a story by the great poet Elizabeth Alexander's there, among other gems). I was enthralled by Greg Tate's, Joan Morgan's and Gary Indiana's criticism, and when my friend Scott Poulson-Bryant (now Dr. Poulson-Bryant, and a professor at Fordham University) secured an internship and then a job there, it seemed like an unimaginably wonderful thing had occurred. Other than Greg Tate, the one columnist I made sure never to miss was Michael Musto, whose tour through NYC's once inimitable queer club scene will probably never be equalled again.

When C and I moved to the New York area, the Voice remained a paper I rarely missed reading. I'd even looked in its ads section in my search for an apartment when heading to NYU. When Annotations appeared, a young writer named Colson Whitehead wrote one of the most insightful, praiseworthy reviews the book received, and it meant everything to me that it appeared in the Voice. When the Voice became free in New York in 1996--which I loved but also figured was a bad sign--I would grab a copy in Manhattan before heading back to New Jersey, where we still had to pay for them. Yet I also paid attention to the labor strife that was wracking the paper in 2005 and 2006, and again in 2013: editors fired or resigning, writers sharing their fears over decreased benefits and the new owners' tunnel vision, and worse. Even as its leadership changed, the Voice remained one of the rare news organs that seemed not to coddle the rich and powerful--I recall Wayne Barrett's extensive  reporting on Rudy Giuliani's administration, and the time it ran an article outing New York's conservative Catholic Cardinal Edward Egan--and continued to employ incisive writers like Steven Thrasher. Yet in the end, its most recent owner, and the shifts in the media industry, ensured its demise.

Established in 1955 by Dan Wolf, Ed Fancher, John Willcock, and Norman Mailer, the Voice was the US's first alternative weekly, and received a wide array of honors over its 63-year existence, including Pulitzer Prizes, National Press, and George Polk awards. It survived a number of owners over the years, until it was sold in October 2015, by its penultimate owner, Voice Media Group, to billionaire heir Peter Barbey. In August 2017, the Voice announced it would cease to exist as a print publication, and its final print issue appeared on September 17, 2015. Although Barbey said that he wanted to save the Voice, and despite his considerable financial reserves, he claimed that financial exigencies required him to shut down the paper, even as he allegedly has been searching for someone to buy it. Yesterday, the electronic edition ceased publication, half the staff were laid off, and those who remain will assist for a limited period in archiving the paper's rich store of articles and materials. Yet the fact remains that one of the once truly vital organs of reportage, investigation and criticism, for New York, the US and the globe, is gone, and with it passes an era--many really--that we will somebody