It was our second week of four in Lucca in July 2015. We were there to heal. It was very hot, and we had quickly settled into a rhythm of morning coffee in one of the many tiny streets still following the original Roman street pattern, an early lunch out or quick salad at home before hiding during the hottest hours in our air conditioned apartment, and heading out again late afternoon for wine followed by dinner al fresco or walking the city walls.

One such morning after sipping our coffees we strolled past the square that still follows the contour of the amfitheater that once stood there, down the Via della Fratta and came across the Lucca center for contemporary art, Lu.C.C.A. It had a retrospective of the work of photographer Elliott Erwitt.

Lucca center for contemporary art as seen in 2015 with the Erwitt banner on the facade. The center closed indefinitely in June 2021.

Born in Paris in 1928 to Jewish parents from Russia, after his early childhood in Milan he emigrated to the USA in his early teens just before the second world war. After the war he photographed in France and Italy, and joined Magnum in 1953.

It was a surprise to find this photographer and his work inside the walls of an ancient Tuscany town.
We enjoyed the love of irony and the candid shots of the little absurdities of life. Sometimes it took a moment to realise what we were seeing. His images made us smile, in a year that generally didn’t.

We bought two poster sized prints of Elliott Erwitts photos in April 2021. One the ‘dog legs’ photo, taken in NYC in 1974. The other a 1968 image taken in the Florida Keys. Both we had seen in the retrospective in Lucca. Since having them framed they hang above the piano in E’s home office.

Erwitt died this week at the age of 95. His work will continue to make me smile whenever I walk into E’s home office.

The catalogue of the Lucca Erwitt retrospective in 2015, that I pulled from the book shelves to leaf through today.

E and I spent a lovely day driving up north to Assen to visit the Frida Kahlo exhibition in the Drents Museum, called Viva la Frida. Kahlo being very much a pop culture icon the past few decades, this backfilled her life story in much detail for me. It put her actual work and self expression front and center and how it emerges from her life and autonomy, moving past just the colorful portraits that dominate the remixing of her work in pop culture. Some of Kahlo’s works shown that I found compelling were the drawing Un seuno (a dream), making me think about how I talk with Y about the stories in her head that emerge when she nearly falls asleep, the 1944 oil Doña Rosita Morillo which is an incredibly strong portrait, I stood staring into those eyes for several minutes, and the powerful 1945 painting Sin Esperanza (Without Hope), reminding me of Dali, in which the wooden construction allowing her to paint while bedridden now holds a funnel forcefeeding her. I’m linking to those works, not showing them as they are still within copyright in the Netherlands (until January 1st 2025).

While waiting by the exit for E to also emerge from the exhibit, I jotted down about 5 pages of first impressions and things that stood out for me. I’ll transcribe those into Obsidian later. Which leads me to the image below:

A necklace made before 1942 by Kahlo, out of Obsidian blades, themselves artefacts from pre 1500.

Our visit last week to the Lousiana Museum north of Copenhagen had us take in four different exhibits that made an impression on me. One of them was Magnumb about the work of Arthur Jafa.

At first I was taken in by the beauty of this sculpture, right before realising the scars of violence it shows, based as it is on a iconic image from the US civil war era.

Ex-Slave Gordon, Arthur Jafa 2017, Vacuum-formed plastic. At the Louisiana Museum, image by Ton Zijlstra, license CC BY NC SA

Then there was the in part highly disturbing imagery of Jafa’s cinematography, making one recoil, yet at the same time because of its composition and sequencing pulling you in, making you stare. Having returned home, I found the interview below on the Lousiana Museum’s Vimeo channel, where Jafa talks extensively about his work.

Arthur Jafa: Not All Good, Not All Bad from Louisiana Channel on Vimeo.

I think it’s a highly fascinating interview, in its full 42 minutes. Particularly how Jafa talks about imagery, perceptions of good and evil, and imagined audiences for the things you create.

He talks about collecting images as (my phrasing) commonplacing, as taking ownership of something that otherwise might have been highly transitional even if important. How he sees the human reaction of disgust and recoil while watching something as a signal to look much closer, even stare at it. That the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras enable all to do such collection of imagery, how it permits everyone to capture things. Such as the violence against African Americans, which has been always there and is nothing new. The newness is how all of us are enabled to make it visible in new ways, on a new level of intensity.
He talks about the spectrum between good and bad, hence the title of the interview ‘not all good, not all bad’. That us typically wanting to pigeonhole someone or something as either good or bad, before finding out an aspect about it that doesn’t fit, should not lead to then fully switching to labeling it the opposite. You have to get comfortable with the discomfort of juggling different and opposite notions about someone or something at the same time.
He talks about the intended audience for his work, whom he is speaking to. “My work addresses black [American] people, everybody else gets to listen in.” How having a limited imagined audience for your work is not an exclusionary act. How it is something that breathes life into the work, injects meaning and passion into a creative expression, impossible to achieve if that work would have been imagined for everyone. After which that life, meaning and passion can be appreciated as well by anyone outside those that are originally being addressed.

Magnumb, a contraction of magnum and numb. At the Louisiana Museum, image by Ton Zijlstra, license CC BY NC SA

Some things I thought worth reading in the past days

  • A good read on how currently machine learning (ML) merely obfuscates human bias, by moving it to the training data and coding, to arrive at peace of mind from pretend objectivity. Because of claiming that it’s ‘the algorithm deciding’ you make ML a kind of digital alchemy. Introduced some fun terms to me, like fauxtomation, and Potemkin AI: Plausible Disavowal – Why pretend that machines can be creative?
  • These new Google patents show how problematic the current smart home efforts are, including the precursor that are the Alexa and Echo microphones in your house. They are stripping you of agency, not providing it. These particular ones also nudge you to treat your children much the way surveillance capitalism treats you: as a suspect to be watched, relationships denuded of the subtle human capability to trust. Agency only comes from being in full control of your tools. Adding someone else’s tools (here not just Google but your health insurer, your landlord etc) to your home doesn’t make it smart but a self-censorship promoting escape room. A fractal of the panopticon. We need to start designing more technology that is based on distributed use, not on a centralised controller: Google’s New Patents Aim to Make Your Home a Data Mine
  • An excellent article by the NYT about Facebook’s slide to the dark side. When the student dorm room excuse “we didn’t realise, we messed up, but we’ll fix it for the future” defence fails, and you weaponise your own data driven machine against its critics. Thus proving your critics right. Weaponising your own platform isn’t surprising but very sobering and telling. Will it be a tipping point in how the public views FB? Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis
  • Some of these takeaways from the article just mentioned we should keep top of mind when interacting with or talking about Facebook: FB knew very early on about being used to influence the US 2016 election and chose not to act. FB feared backlash from specific user groups and opted to unevenly enforce their terms or service/community guidelines. Cambridge Analytica is not an isolated abuse, but a concrete example of the wider issue. FB weaponised their own platform to oppose criticism: How Facebook Wrestled With Scandal: 6 Key Takeaways From The Times’s Investigation
  • There really is no plausible deniability for FB’s execs on their “in-house fake news shop” : Facebook’s Top Brass Say They Knew Nothing About Definers. Don’t Believe Them. So when you need to admit it, you fall back on the ‘we messed up, we’ll do better going forward’ tactic.
  • As Aral Balkan says, that’s the real issue at hand because “Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have the same business model. If Cambridge Analytica can sway elections and referenda with a relatively small subset of Facebook’s data, imagine what Facebook can and does do with the full set.“: We were warned about Cambridge Analytica. Why didn’t we listen?
  • [update] Apparently all the commotion is causing Zuckerberg to think FB is ‘at war‘, with everyone it seems, which is problematic for a company that has as a mission to open up and connect the world, and which is based on a perception of trust. Also a bunker mentality probably doesn’t bode well for FB’s corporate culture and hence future: Facebook At War.

Today I bought this little wooden robot.

It’s a Rijkswachter, or State Guard. It derives its name from the source of the wood it is made from.

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam was closed ten years, from 2003 to 2013, for reconstruction. In that period all objects and art that had been on display were kept safe in wooden crates. In these crates the objects were stored, but also travelled around the world for temporary displays. Studio Hamerhaai, a Dutch design duo based in Haarlem, only uses discarded materials for their work. They acquired all the wooden crates when the objects they held were returned to the exhibition rooms of the Rijksmuseum. They created robots from them in various sizes, called Rijkswachters, in reference to the Rijksmuseum and the previous role the wood they are made of had.

All robots are unique and carry a number on their back, and using that number you can find out exactly which object of the Rijksmuseum collection was stored in its wood.

My number 7496 is connected to a three legged silver tea pot with tap, from 1756 and attributed to a silver smith called Nicolaas van Diemen. (A slight disappointment of course that it didn’t house one of the old masters like Rembrandt…. 😉 ) The Rijksmuseum has been digitising most of their artefacts, made them searchable in the beautiful Rijksstudio website (where you can also remix stuff), and release them as re-usable open data. So the number directly links to a photo and description of the artefact.

Most material in Rijksstudio you can download and re-use for e.g. t-shirts, your own postcards or posters, game, video etc. This also allows you to pick any artefact or piece of art from the Rijksmuseum from their online collection and order a Rijkswachter wooden robot, where Dutch artist Annemiek van Duin used part of what you selected to decorate your unique robot, bringing this beautiful project full circle.

Got this amazing sculpture as a birthday gift today. “Strange Bird Totem” (nr 83 of 125) by Jacqueline Schäfer, a Dutch artist (1961). The object is made out of artificial resins. Her work is described as “showing a positive vibe for life in a complex modern society“, which fits me I guess. I had come across it a year or so ago, and liked it a lot. Elmine remembered. Thank you.