Kazys Varnelis, 1917-2010

My father, also Kazys Varnelis, passed away on Friday morning after a long illness. Born in Alsedžiai, Lithuania in 1917, his father too was Kazys Varnelis, a noted Samogitian folk artist and cross-carver. 

Briefly the director of the Museum of Ecclesiastical Art in Kaunas, he fled after the Soviet invasion and eventually settled in Chicago. After more than a decade running a studio that designed church interiors and stained glass, he turned to geometric abstraction in the early1960s. His work from this period recalls the ornament of Lithuanian folk art while also experimenting with the flatness of the canvas and the contradictions in geometric patterns that are painted using the classical convention of light coming from the upper left of the canvas. He exhibited widely in the United States in places like the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Milwaukee Art Center, and Corcoran Gallery. His work is in collections across the country, from the MCA to the Guggenheim. In 1978, we moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts where he purchased a decrepit old estate that he restored as a venue for his increasingly large works. 

He also collected books and furniture and, when Lithuania became free in 1991 and offered him a museum to house his work, he welcomed the opportunity. Beginning this new project over eighty years of age, he had finally was able to realize his dream of returning to his homeland and to give his works and collections to the country he held so dear.

We are going to Lithuania on Monday to attend the funeral with my mother. He will be missed, but I am glad he had a chance to live a long and fruitful life. Here is a picture of the two of us in the best of days and here is an article on his work for those of you unfamiliar with it.            




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Infrastructural City, New Jersey Style

Although the final nail hasn’t been hammered into the coffin, New Jersey governor Christopher Christie has unilaterally cancelled ARC (Access to the Region’s Core), new tunnel to connect New York City to New Jersey.

Now, ARC itself is a damaged project. Instead of ending in Penn Station or having any hope of exiting in a future Moynihan Station (the plan to reconstruct the Beaux-Arts post office across the street into a 21st century version of the glorious old Penn Station that used to greet travelers prior to the 1960s). But instead, due to politics and complexities of existing infrastructure, ARC was to terminate off-site and deep underground, making arrival at Moynihan station impossible and complicating connections to other rail lines. 

The Infrastructural City‘s lesson is that, if you give constituents and politicians enough power and you build a complex enough civilization in which notions of civil society are replaced by ideas of property rights, you are going to bring future growth to a crashing halt. So Los Angeles strangles on itself.    

The creative destruction of the New York City of consensus and big projects by a succession of mayors since Ed Koch certainly helped its recover. Finance has done very well and the city has become a playground for the wealthy even as manufacturing and the middle class have been eviscerated. But for now, the city is still unsustainable without the large numbers of commuters that work in the towers throughout Manhattan. This is a dirty secret that Manhattanites—including all too many architects and urbanists—don’t want to admit. I haven’t found a comprehensive source of statistics this morning, so my figures are a little cobbled together, still, at least 900,000 commuters enter into Manhattan every day via New Jersey Transit, Long Island Rail Road, the Port Authority rail lines, and the buses that go in and out of Port Authority. In contrast, only some 628,000 workers from Manhattan work on the island (what do all the rest of the 1.2 million people do?) and some 880,000 workers from the other boroughs commute in. Now again, don’t rely on these figures too much, but still they seem to be roughly on target in suggesting that the majority of community into the city comes from the suburbs.

But infrastructure in and out to the suburbs is at a breaking point. Amtrak has been starved of funds for decades and its tracks and tunnels are in a horrific state of disrepair. Since New Jersey Transit has to share the Amtrak train lines in and out of the city, it has to face congestion caused by constant technical glitches on the aged, overstressed Amtrak lines. But since Amtrak owns the lines, it gets priority when only one of two tunnels is running in and out of the city.    

Now Christie’s constituency is residents who don’t commute to New York. On paper, his motivation is the opportunity to use ARC funding for highway repairs. Still, he’s a Republican and when they’re involved its hard not to imagine conspiracy theories. In particular, its plausible that part of the economic mess the country is in is due to the "Starve the Beast" policies of a generation of conservatives. Using profligate tax cuts, stave the beast was meant to create fiscal conditions that would force massive cuts in government services. The impossible situation that we face today is arguably the result. No matter how utterly incompetent the Obama administration has been, there is little question that their hands have been tied by the massive deficit and debt incurred by the Bush administration. If one applied this sort of reasoning to Christie’s move, its plausible to imagine that it’s an anti-city project, aimed to make commuting in and out of the city so much more difficult, thus forcing workers and—more importantly—corporations to either move into the city (unlikely, given current demographic flows) or to move further out into exurban areas. These, in turn, have historically been more conservative in nature (this has a bit to do with the lack of shared infrastructure, roads aside, and the insulation that exurbanites feel from the poor). So, in other words, canceling ARC is a foresighted move that will likely make it impossible for Christie to get re-elected (given the money and votes concentrated in the commuting suburbs) but will make it possible for a shift further rightward in state politics over the next several decades and, in turn, help undermine Manhattan’s future. 

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On the Art Market

I had a great time at Frieze Talks in London on Thursday with music writer Geeta Dayal, artist Thomas Demand, and Frieze editor Sam Thorne in the panel "Who Owns Images?" Sam gave a great framing introduction and Thomas presented one of his fascinating projects while lending us his insight into one cause of the extension of copyright law: the Nazis were protecting Richard Wagner’s widow’s income. For my inner (not so hidden) music geek, hearing Geeta lend her insights into changes in music relating to sampling was fascinating. Naively, I had not realized that due to the cost of licensing, sampling is now restricted to big ticket acts. With the average cost of a sample rising to $10,000, it’s easy to see why. I also was fascinated to hear that this is the reason that there haven’t been any box sets or reissues of classic hip-hop albums: they would simply prime the pump for more lawsuits. Afterwards we had a great conversation about music that ranged across the spectrum from Robert Fripp to Hafler Trio to South African shangaan electro.

My only regret that Thomas Demand misunderstood me: maybe it was a language barrier. But he seemed to be upset that I  suggested that the fact that new media art has largely proved unsellable to private collectors is a hint of a rising crisis of value in the art market. Thomas countered by saying you can’t have it both ways: infinite reproducibility and authenticity in art. Instead, he offered the example of Matisses which, as unique (auratic… although he didn’t say so) objects are worth tens of millions even though they are just bits of canvas and paint.

I found his attempt to explain authenticity in art through cash value a bit surprising but actually that was my point! Value is a funny thing and, as people who’ve studied economic theory know, it’s a gaping hole in the center of both neoclassical and Marxist formulations. We’ve got working theories, but value just doesn’t come together for us. At times–notably when bubbles burst–value collapses rapidly. Take the Dutch tulip mania or the housing crisis. These bubbles work not on the basis of inherent value, but rather because of the greater fool theory: you assume that there is someone out there who will buy what you have to sell for even more than you paid for it.

It’s surprising how much operates in terms of the greater fool theory. Take Apple computer, for example, the company is growing rapidly and–assuming that there is nothing fundamentally flawed in its price/earnings ratio and other fundamentals (disclaimer: I haven’t looked at these and since I am writing this post 38,000 feet above the Labrador Sea I am not about to) are in line, then the analysis would be in favor of purchasing the stock. I for one, greatly regret not keeping the Apple stock that I had in 2000. I’d have some absurd amount of money in my pocket if I hadn’t sold it during the dot.com crash. But Apple doesn’t pay a dividend and with the price of the stock and the amount of reserve cash they have, a hostile takeover is unlikely by anyone short of the government of China. In short, just what does one get from one’s investment in Apple besides the ability to watch the ride and pass on the share to the next fool, er, investor? Nothing really and if for some reason people stop buying the stock, the value will evaporate in the blink of an eye unless Apple makes an effort to stop it (to be fair, since Apple can, this makes purchasing Apple stock a good deal better than investing in a Ponzi scheme).

Art is like this too. There is simply no way that those Matisses return the kind of value they do. They’re fantastic of course, but their value is a social construct we agree to. Or take Thomas’s work, which I greatly admire. My father, who was a painter and collector of artworks is of a different generation and he simply wouldn’t understand how photography could be worth anything. After all, he would reason, anybody could take a photograph with a camera and an enlarger can churn out as many as you want. Naturally, I don’t agree at all, and I am sure that when it comes down to it one of Thomas’s photographs takes more hours to produce than one of my father’s paintings given the elaborate setup work necessary. If you want to go the materials route, then Thomas wins again.* Still Thomas isn’t your usual photographer. In contrast, only the value assigned by the October crowd and by the art market, plus, I suppose a bit of comic relief, makes a Richard Prince cowboy photograph valuable.

But if photography is now valued, new media art has failed to achieve that sort of value. This is not to say that new media art won’t become a matter of speculation in the future: an electronically tradable work could be subject to the same rapid financial trading that securities are today. New media art is ideal for investment-oriented collectors! Still, somehow we are’t comfortable with it. Even with brilliant and accurate televisions that rival the resolution of many cinemas in most wealthy households, new media art hasn’t made it into many private hands.

There is a resistance here and I think the reasons are complex. Perhaps it is because of the overidentification of screens with computer work and television, practices that are still somehow too low brow. Or, perhaps it is because of the threat of piracy. If one knows where to look one can find pirated video art. But right now it doesn’t seem like much of a threat: if you have a Bill Viola playing on your TV, it’s hardly going to get you much admiration from your friends if you say that you pirated it.

When I got to the airport, I checked Twitter and found out that, according to this CNN article, the art market is rejoicing because after some down years sales at the Frieze Art Fair are back on track. The biggest sale so far was a truly beautiful Damien Hirst, "The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths," consisting of three glass panels filled with grids of embalmed fishes sold by the White Cube gallery for £3.5 million. I suppose that whoever bought it didn’t come to our panel or they might have thought twice.

But back to new media art. It may cut a little too close for comfort to the problem of value for us. The reason that the Matisses are so expensive isn’t because they are worth it: they are, by any accounting, vastly overpriced. Rather, the phenomenal rise of the global art market is the product of a world economy that economists have said many times over is awash in liquidity. There is so much excess capital out there seeking places to invest that it is driving the art market up to absurd levels. At a middlebrow level, such a market collapsed in the late 1990s when suddenly Thomas Kinkade’s works were worth a fraction of what they were selling for.

If it’s easy to dismiss the crash of "the painter of light," there’s more to it than that. Postmodernism was marked by the dominance of the culture industry–the permeation of culture by capital (in terms of investment) and the permeation of capital by culture (in the form of big business’s employment of cultural techniques to spur flexible accumulation). Today, however, we are seeing the collapse of the culture industry. Advertising, music, publishing, and film are eerily repeating the fall of Fordist enterprises in the 1970s and 1980s. Who would have thought that they would ever see such dark days? And yet, in part–but not entirely–due to the remorseless efficiencies of the Internet they have been brought low.

Art, somehow, seems to survive. For reasons that are hard to understand (prestige? the promise of authenticity? amusement value? sensory pleasure?) it occupies a hallowed position, if only for the moment. It’s a sink for overaccumulated capital, sopping up excess money that seeks investment opportunities wherever it can find them. There’s little question that there’s still a big bubble out there not only in art, but in the global economy as a whole. Excess capital can be easily redirected into political lobbying to protect more excess capital and–given that this is precisely what has happened under the Obama administration–we’re unlikely to see change anytime soon. Anytime soon, that is, unless the bubble pops.

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10-10-10 IMAGE.ARCHITECTURE.NOW in Los Angeles

I will be moderating one of the panels at 10-10-10 IMAGE.ARCHITECTURE.NOW, at Woodbury University tomorrow, 9 October in Burbank. My panelists consist of Livia Corona, Frank Escher, Sharon Johnston, and Sze Tsung Leung. Neil Denari moderates the next panel which will include Iwan Baan, Miwon Kwon, Sylvia Lavin, and Linda Taalmann. The whole thing is moderated by Frances Anderton and a fabulous show accompanies.

See more here.  



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Announcing the New City Reader

I am delighted to announce the New City Reader, a newspaper on architecture, public space and the city, published as part of the Last Newspaper, an exhibit running at the New Museum from 6 October 2010‒9 January 2011. Editorial work for the New City Reader will take place in the Museum gallery, starting at 11 tomorrow, October 5.

at linco

Produced as a collaboration between myself/the Netlab and Joseph Grima, the New City Reader will consist of one edition, published over the course of the project with a new section produced weekly by alternating guest editorial teams within the museum’s gallery space. These sections will be available free at the New Museum and—in emulation of a practice common in the nineteenth-century American city and still popular in parts of the world today—will be posted in public throughout the city for collective reading.

The New City Reader kicks off today with the City section, a massively detailed graphic produced by the Netlab recounting the 1977 New York City blackout and its effects on the failing city to reveal the interdependence of infrastructure, information, and social stability. If the challenges of that era map to the difficulties facing both the country and the city today, the New City Reader will inquire into these parallels.

Each issue of the New City Reader will be guest edited by a contributing network of architects, theorists, and research groups who will bring their particular expertise to bear on the sections.

You can also follow our tumbelog at newcityreader.tumblr.com



– Joseph Grima

– Kazys Varnelis


Alan Rapp


– John Cantwell


– Brigette Borders

– Daniel Payne


– Pantea Tehrani


Neil Donnelly


Chris Rypkema




– Momo Araki

– Alexis Burson

– Leigha Dennis

– Kyle Hovenkotter


Jochen Hartmann


David Benjamin & Livia Corona

C-Lab/Jeffrey Inaba

Program for Media & Modernity

common room

DJ N-RON & DJ/rupture

– Jeannie Kim & Hunter Tura

Leagues and Legions

– Michael Meredith, MOS

Network Architecture Lab

Frank Pasquale & Kevin Slavin

School of Visual Arts D-Crit

Robert Sumrell & Andrea Ching

Geminidas & Nomeda Urbonas, Nugu with Saskia Sassen

– Eyal Weizman, Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, University of London



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