Saturday, June 28, 2008

From premodern to postmodern branding all on one truck

From Premodern to Postmodern Branding All on One Truck
The name Piggly Wiggly comes straight out of the marketing conventions of late 19th and early 20th-century America. The company was founded in 1916, when brands still tended toward cute, folksy, punning or rhyming names, often involving cartoon animals. The idea seemed to be to come up with something so goofy people couldn't forget it. From their website:
Saunders' reason for choosing the intriguing name Piggly Wiggly ® remains a mystery; he was curiously reluctant to explain its origin. One story is that he saw from a train window several little pigs struggling to get under a fence, and the rhyming name occurred to him then. Someone once asked him why he had chosen such an unusual name for his organization, and Saunders' reply was, "So people will ask that very question." He wanted and found a name that would be talked about and remembered.
While many companies founded at the time eventually adopted more bland or conventional names, Piggly Wiggly -- concentrated mostly in the southeast but reaching as far north as Wisconsin -- made few concessions to the age of high modernism, although one might argue that the lower-case logo shows some modernist design influences. But the slogan on the back of the truck, "Shop the Pig," is pure ironic postmodernism. The tone is edgy, aggressive and almost mocking.

Interestingly, the trucks seem to be speeding ahead of the company's own website, which aims for more of a small-town, nostalgic feel. The pig is always referred to respectfully as Mr. Pig. His caricature is played straight and appears multiple times in different poses on the site. And "Shop the Pig" is never mentioned. It wouldn't be polite.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Driver's view of Madison's pathetic, dark and oxymoronic subterranean mural

Driver's View of Madison's Dark Oxymoronic Subterranean Mural
As I previously noted, it's almost impossible to see Madison's oxymoronic subterranean work of public art, entombed as it is under the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Monona Terrace complex. It's hardly public at all, because the only way to view it is from a speeding car, normally zipping along at more than 40mph. But, as I found out through personal experience the other day, there's an exception to this rule: It's called the afternoon rush hour (morning, too, I imagine). I was stuck in traffic directly across from the mural long enough to take my camera out of my briefcase, adjust the exposure for the general murk and contrasty lighting, focus and shoot. This is what I saw.

You might call it the Gridlock Silver Lining for Art Lovers, except that even standing still, the view still isn't all that great. For example, can you find the Capitol in this Richard Haas work of historical nostalgia and postmodern trompe l'oeil? (Hint: It's toward the top, above the left taillight of the car in front.) I'm not sure there's really any hope for this sad, neglected parenthesis in the history of public art in Madison, but a little light on the poor thing might be worth a try.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Once Madison's most controversial work of public art

Madison's Most Pathetic Work of Public Art Is an Oxymoron
The notorious Richard Haas Olin Terrace mural is an oxymoronic work of public art because it is no longer really public at all, and even when it was more public than it is now, it still wasn't all that public in the first place. (Best viewed large. Click through to Flickr and click on "All Sizes" above the image.)

It always was a drive-by mural along a busy highway -- one painted in a detailed, neo-trompe l'oeil style that made it especially difficult to take in from a moving vehicle, let alone read all the allusions to Madison history it contained. In its original incarnation the work was at least visible from Law Park, across the road -- though at that distance, the details were hard to see clearly without binoculars. Then the Monona Terrace was built.

MuralViewers-smbwMotorists now speed by in a dark tunnel, with even less of a chance to see the dimly-lit mural (it's brighter in the photo than in real life). There's no permitted pedestrian access at all (if you walk in, as I did, you're technically trespassing on railroad right of way). And in what one might call a post-postmodern irony, the trompe-l'oeil columns are now fighting for attention with the real columns supporting the overhead Monona Terrace walkway to the Capitol Square, which also cuts the top of the original mural from view.

It wasn't meant to be this way. Madison spent $67,000 on this baby, back when that was real money. It was a rare foray into the tricky territory of commissioning a work of public art by a trendy, nationally-known artist. And make no mistake about it -- Richard Haas was nothing if not trendy. Check out this over-the-top review by NY Times architectural critic Paul Goldberger:
Richard Haas has, in all but name, become an architect. He has not gone to school and got a degree, but no matter: Mr. Haas's art, which has long taken architecture as its theme, has now expanded to the point where it plays as much of a role in the cityscape as many real buildings.

Perhaps Mr. Haas should really be called a building doctor. The Haas murals that have been painted on blank walls of buildings in cities like New York, Boston, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Miami are extravagant and inventive architectural fantasies; they rescue us from the ugliness of empty walls and, in so doing, transform the cityscape around them.
I dunno. I guess you had to be there, back in the eighties, the heyday of the postmodern boom in architecture, back when "building doctors" like Haas were going to transform the face of American cities with their playful designs combining elements of fantasy, pop cultural references and ironic commentary.

Back here in Madison, the Haas mural was controversial from the beginning. A 2004 Wisconsin State Journal story about public art in Madison recalled the flavor of the controversy.
In 1985, Madison's program to put art in public places commissioned Richard Haas, an internationally known artist living in New York, to design a mural.

It should have been regarded as an artistic coup for CitiArts, Madison's arts program. Instead, it prompted two years of public bickering, with the mural at the center of a mud-slinging mayoral race between Mary Kay Baum and the incumbent and winner Joseph Sensenbrenner.Ironically, and emblematic of CitiArts' struggles, that $67,000 mural - the most the city has ever paid for an artwork - is now largely hidden by another controversial project, the Monona Terrace. What's left of the mural is in the only unlit portion of a tunnel on John Nolen Drive.
The people objecting to the mural at the time weren't just a bunch of ignorant hicks, or at least, not all of them were ignorant hicks. Some questioned the choice of artist and wondered if we were being sold a bill of goods. Some thought its location would make it a graffiti target (which proved to be true early on -- though now it's so forgotten the taggers don't even bother.) Many wondered why anyone would pay that much money for a complex work that could really only be viewed in passing from speeding cars. And a few far-thinking Cassandras actually raised the Monona Terrace issue. Wasn't it likely, with all the proposals we've had over the years, that someday something would be built here that would cover up the mural? Ten years later, it was.

I was never fond of the mural. The neo trompe l'oeil style struck me as pretentious and didn't fool -- or even please -- my eye. Since Haas was born in Spring Green in the shadow of Frank Lloyd Wright, I sometimes wondered if he was acting out some unconscious -- or perhaps even conscious -- rivalry with Wright's heritage, taking a kind of visual revenge. ("Ha! Take that, you overrated crackpot -- at least I got mine put up, which is more than you can say.") Who knows.

But that was long ago. The mural has now led the moist, subterranean life of a mushroom for more than half its lifetime. I'm starting to actually feel sorry for it. No art, even mediocre art, should be treated with so little respect and left to waste away in the dark.

Update: Stuck in traffic, a driver's eye view.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A universe so vast it's filled with those knives that get thrown in free when you order a Veg-o-matic


When the feeling comes over me that it's time again to expand my mind by feeling small, I take a break from work, sit back and let my homemade screen saver take me on a journey through interstellar space. It never stops moving and zooms through billions of years and countless light years.

I made the screensaver from an astonishing photograph taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA's Hubble Ultra Deep Field. I cropped this image along with several others out of the high-res version of the Hubble photo. I put the JPEGs into my Mac's screensaver utility, and the computer zooms in and out and dissolves from one to the other in an endless loop that's like a mind-expanding tour of the farthest corners of the universe. It's not like Gully Foyle in Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, who could jaunt to just about any place in the universe just by thinking. But it's the next best thing. (Want to try it, but don't have time to make your own cropped JPEGs? Email me and I'll send you a set.)

That still doesn't explain the title. For that, you'll have to read today's New York Times.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Madison flood gauge: East Washington Avenue Bridge over the Yahara River

East Washington Avenue Bridge over the Yahara River at Dawn
This photo of the East Washington Avenue Bridge resulted from this photographer, definitely not a morning person, making a rare early morning drive across town last fall. The picture is a kind of baseline for the recent flooding, which left the sidewalk/bike path several inches under water. You can see clearly how much the Yahara River had to rise to do that.

As a recent Isthmus article pointed out, it could have been a lot worse with just a bit more rain. The worst-case scenario was that Lake Mendota might have carved a new channel through Tenney Park, bypassing the Tenney Park locks. A good deal of Lake Mendota would then have flooded straight through Madison along the Yahara channel and caused major flooding along the downstream lakes, Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The beautiful green toxic cyanobacterial pond scum at Madison's B.B. Clarke Beach

The Toxic Scum at B.B. Clarke Beach
Although many of Madison's beaches were open again by Sunday, B.B. Clarke Beach on Spaight Street was still most definitely closed. Not only had the recent flooding caused considerable beach erosion, but the high water still covers most of the beach that remains. And a bloom of toxic pond scum floats above the former beach, fed by runoff nutrients in the water.

The Toxic Art of CyanobacteriaCyanobacteria are great abstract painters. They're best known for the bright turquoise accent colors they use in compositions like this one (click through the photo to Flickr to view large). They look like specs of paint or bright little plastic fragments floating in the water, but they are really clumps of blue-green algae. They're bad news in a lot of ways, as this CDC site makes clear. Adults usually have the sense to steer clear of them (although boaters are warned to check first before getting into the water to launch their boats) -- but children and pets do not. It goes without saying you need to watch young children near water, but also be sure to keep your dogs away from the water if there is any chance it may harbor blue-green algae.

Update: Check below in the Comments for additional remarks left by some well-informed readers about blue-green algae that go into far more detail than my post about what they are, the problems they cause, how humans contribute to them and what can be done about them.