art and text in AI (on Chat.openai.com)

I’ve been working with art and Artificial Intelligence image generators recently. Untalented artists are scared of AI image generators since they are tools for making bad art, which is all that is being promoted in the press. All of the image generators—save perhaps for Dall-E 2—are tuned to produce such work in order to generate revenue. Ed Keller calls this “the black light black velvet painting of our time.” AI Art is likely to destroy ArtStation and Deviant Art. But we have a jobs crisis and need people to work in more important positions like food service. Who can argue that this re-allocation of human labor is bad?

Virtually all the work being done with this—even work that is lauded as exemplary—is bad. A few friends do interesting work. I will let them publicize it, although it’s safe to say Ed is interrogating these generators as a medium, pushing their boundaries in ways that are interesting to me. A recent article on the topic in the Architects’ Newspaper highlighted only bad work. Patrick Schumacher has convened a symposium on “futuristic” work indistinguishable from his own, which means that it is midbrow and pedestrian. Archdaily published a piece that gives the impression that AI interior designs are the stuff of nightmares. I could waste my time and yours coming up with more links to bad work.

This should not surprise anyone. Almost everything is bad because intelligent thought in architecture is now nearly extinct.

Making interesting work with AI image generators requires work. It doesn’t take as much time as it might to create a painting by hand, but an AI painting might take hours, a day, or more. One needs a plan and a mind for experimentation. AI art generators are incapable of originality. Neither are almost all artists working today. That should not stop anyone as until the modern era, originality was not valued. In the Renaissance, “genius” did not mean making an unprecedented work, rather it meant the ability to shape something pleasing out of existing sources.

AI image generators create forgeries. One appropriate response, then, is to use them to create explicit forgeries. I undertook this as a project starting this summer with the Lost Canals of Vilnius, the Drowning of Doggerland, and the Witching Cats of New Jersey.

Any good forgery begins a kernel of truth. Basing texts and images on existing sources, I created alternate histories. I used a feedback effect: provocative works created by the image generators inspired my alternate histories and ideas from the alternate histories guided the prompts for image generators. Most of the work was done with Dall-E 2 since it alone is tuned to produces semi-convincing paintings and photographs.

I unintentionally duped some readers. But AI art and text generators are already being used to deceive people for political purposes, to satisfy high school and college requirements, and for work purposes. Convincing people has never been easier. This project was intended to foreground this. I intend to write an essay for this site on the topic, but this one came out first. I am in Vilnius, Lithuania which is not boring like New York City. Visiting here often jars me out of complacency, spurs new ideas, and forces action.

A related route is to use AI art in a surrealist sense. This does not mean prompts for paintings in the style of Salvador Dali. That is kitsch and awful. Rather, this is a way of accessing what Jung called the collective unconscious to produce visual automatic writing: Pinot-Gallizio’s “Industrial Painting” updated for our day. In a sense, the “Witching Cats” project came out of a prompt for a black and white cat that came out gruesomely misshaped, became an amusing diversion for Instagram, led me to read about photography and the occult in the nineteenth century, and that, in turn led to the essay and project. Otherwise, I have not released this work. I may or may not.

Two days ago (30 November 2022), OpenAI released a freely-accessible interface to ChatGPT, a language model capable of conversation in the format of a dialogue. Although it is possible to trip it up, it is also remarkable how effective it is at generating content, even content that can be quite lengthy and complex in nature. I began by trying to produce critical essays.

In all of these, my prompt will come first.

>In 1,500 words, compare “Modernist Painting” by Clement Greenberg and “Art and Objecthood” by Michael Fried.

Modernist Painting by Clement Greenberg and Art and Objecthood by Michael Fried are two important essays that address the question of what constitutes modernist painting. While both essays address this question, they take very different approaches and come to somewhat different conclusions.

In Modernist Painting, Greenberg argues that the defining characteristic of modernist painting is its emphasis on the flatness of the canvas. He argues that the history of painting is one of the progressive flattening of the picture plane, and that modernist painting represents the culmination of this process. According to Greenberg, the flatness of the canvas allows the painter to focus on the formal elements of the painting, such as line, color, and composition, and to create a more intense and immediate visual experience for the viewer.

In contrast, Art and Objecthood takes a more philosophical approach to the question of modernist painting. Fried argues that the defining characteristic of modernist painting is its refusal to be reduced to a mere object in the world. He argues that modernist painting is defined by its ability to transcend the merely physical and to create a “presence” that is distinct from the physical object of the painting itself. According to Fried, this “presence” is what allows modernist painting to truly engage the viewer and to create a meaningful artistic experience.

One key difference between the two essays is their focus. While Greenberg is primarily concerned with the formal qualities of modernist painting, Fried is more interested in its philosophical and artistic implications. This difference is reflected in their respective conclusions. While Greenberg ultimately argues that the flatness of the canvas is the defining characteristic of modernist painting, Fried argues that it is the ability of the painting to create a “presence” that sets it apart from other forms of art.

Another important difference between the two essays is their treatment of the viewer. For Greenberg, the viewer is an essential part of the modernist painting experience. He argues that the flatness of the canvas allows the viewer to engage more directly with the formal elements of the painting, and that this creates a more intense and immediate visual experience. In contrast, Fried is less concerned with the viewer’s experience of the painting and more interested in the painting’s ability to create a “presence” that transcends its physical form.

Overall, Modernist Painting by Clement Greenberg and Art and Objecthood by Michael Fried are two important essays that address the question of what constitutes modernist painting. While both essays take different approaches and come to different conclusions, they both provide valuable insights into the nature of modernist painting and its place in the history of art.

>Write a 2,000 word analysis of the song “Rid of Me” by PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey’s 1992 hit “Rid of Me” is a raw and emotional exploration of the pain and anger that can arise in a toxic relationship. Through the use of aggressive and confrontational lyrics, coupled with her powerful and haunting vocals, Harvey exposes the desperation and helplessness that can arise when trying to leave a harmful relationship.

The song opens with a haunting and intense instrumental introduction, featuring distorted guitar riffs and driving drums that set the tone for the rest of the track. This instrumental introduction immediately establishes the song’s aggressive and confrontational atmosphere, setting the stage for the confrontational and emotional lyrics that follow.

The first verse begins with Harvey’s powerful and haunting vocals, as she sings: “I want you gone / But I want you still.” This opening line perfectly encapsulates the confusion and conflicting emotions that can arise when trying to leave a toxic relationship. On the one hand, the narrator wants to rid herself of her partner, but on the other hand, she still desires their presence and connection.

The chorus, which follows the first verse, features the repeated line: “Rid of me / Rid of me.” This chorus serves as a cry for help and a desire to be free from the suffocating and harmful relationship. The repetition of the line, coupled with Harvey’s powerful and emotive vocals, emphasizes the narrator’s desperation and longing for freedom.

The second verse continues with the narrator’s emotional turmoil, as she sings: “I’m an animal / I’m a dog / I’m a death / I’m a thief.” These lyrics paint a vivid and disturbing picture of the narrator’s state of mind, as she feels trapped and degraded in her relationship. The use of animalistic imagery also highlights the loss of humanity and dignity that can occur in a toxic relationship.

The bridge of the song features the line: “I’m a mess / I’m a wreck / I’m a fault / I’m a scar.” These lyrics further emphasize the narrator’s feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness in the relationship. She sees herself as a burden and a source of pain for her partner, and longs for the release of being free from the relationship.

The final verse of the song features the line: “I’m not a child / I’m not a pet / I’m not a toy / I’m not a doll.” This line serves as a powerful declaration of the narrator’s autonomy and independence. She rejects the idea of being treated as a possession or object, and asserts her own worth and dignity.

The song’s instrumental outro features a repetitive guitar riff that gradually builds in intensity, culminating in a ferocious and powerful finale. This instrumental finale perfectly captures the narrator’s emotional release and liberation as she breaks free from the toxic relationship.

In conclusion, “Rid of Me” is a raw and emotional exploration of the pain and anger that can arise in a toxic relationship. Through the use of confrontational and powerful lyrics, coupled with Harvey’s haunting and emotive vocals, the song exposes the desperation and helplessness that can arise when trying to leave a harmful relationship. The song’s intense and driving instrumentals perfectly capture the narrator’s emotional turmoil and eventual release, making it a powerful and impactful anthem for anyone who has experienced the pain of a toxic relationship.

Unfortunately, ChatGPT can make mistakes. I asked it to write about the relationship between Vytautas Landsbergis and George Maciunas and it stated that while they are both Lithuanians interested in Fluxus and music, they had no direct relationship, which is untrue. ChatGPT receives a failing grade for not meeting the required word count, although adding those phrases produces longer analyses.

Still, the above essays are better than what 95% of graduate students are capable of doing in an afternoon or, usually, a weekend. This should not be surprising as, while ChatGPT is incapable of original thought, so are 95% of graduate students and, indeed, 95% of faculty.

When I did my dissertation at Cornell, a dissertation was defined as a “contribution to knowledge” but the vast majority of such work in the humanities is formulaic: find an obscure topic related to an important topic (an unknown modern architect in Brazil in the 1960s who made middling buildings but met Lina Bo Bardi at a restaurant for dinner once or a failed, uninteresting project by someone who saw Le Corbusier speak) represented in an archive, go to said archive, find some obscure fact of no importance and blather on about how important said find is, add a conclusion in which Foucault is invoked to make the work “political,” and submit as a dissertation. Or at least that was a “good,” Ivy-level dissertation in the 2000s. Today one would have to add some random verbiage about marginalized communities, identity, and oppression to indicate that one is more “political.” Such work is not intended to be original, but rather to indicate that one has been properly disciplined in graduate school and is now capable of independently programming other students to also produce work of no importance whatsoever. If it is true we live in a simulation, most of these people are NPCs. Original thought is almost non-existent.

If an AI can equal or better such work today, albeit only in short pieces, imagine it in a few years.

ChatGPT can also be used to create instruction-based art. A series of these follow.

>produce a textual score by John Cage

0’00”: Silence
0’01”: A single piano note is struck
0’02”: Silence
0’03”: A second piano note is struck
0’04”: Silence
0’05”: A third piano note is struck
0’06”: Silence
0’07”: A fourth piano note is struck
0’08”: Silence
0’09”: A fifth piano note is struck
0’10”: Silence
0’11”: A sixth piano note is struck
0’12”: Silence
0’13”: A seventh piano note is struck
0’14”: Silence
0’15”: An eighth piano note is struck
0’16”: Silence
0’17”: A ninth piano note is struck
0’18”: Silence
0’19”: A tenth piano note is struck
0’20”: Silence
0’21”: An eleventh piano note is struck
0’22”: Silence
0’23”: A twelfth piano note is struck
0’24”: Silence
0’25”: A thirteenth piano note is struck
0’26”: Silence
0’27”: A fourteenth piano note is struck
0’28”: Silence
0’29”: A fifteenth piano note is struck
0’30”: Silence
0’31”: A sixteenth piano note is struck
0’32”: Silence
0’33”: A seventeenth piano note is struck
0’34”: Silence
0’35”: An eighteenth piano note is struck
0’36”: Silence
0’37”: A nineteenth piano note is struck
0’38”: Silence
0’39”: A twentieth piano note is struck
0’40”: Silence
0’41”: A twenty-first piano note is struck
0’42”: Silence
0’43”: A twenty-second piano note is struck
0’44”: Silence
0’45”: A twenty-third piano note is struck
0’46”: Silence
0’47”: A twenty-fourth piano note is struck
0’48”: Silence
0’49”: A twenty-fifth piano note is struck
0’50”: Silence
0’51”: A twenty-sixth piano note is struck
0’52”: Silence
0’53”: A twenty-seventh piano note is struck
0’54”: Silence
0’55”: A twenty-eighth piano note is struck
0’56”: Silence
0’57”: A twenty-ninth piano note is struck
0’58”: Silence

>produce a textual score by John Cage

  1. Open the piano lid.
  2. Place a single sheet of paper on the piano keys.
  3. Using a pencil, randomly draw lines and shapes on the paper, creating a visual score.
  4. Sit at the piano and interpret the visual score, allowing the lines and shapes to guide the movements of your hands on the keys.
  5. Explore different sounds and timbres by experimenting with various techniques, such as striking the keys with different parts of your hand or using the pedals.
  6. Allow the music to emerge naturally and organically, without predetermined melodies or harmonies.
  7. Continue to improvise and explore the piano’s soundscape for a set duration of time, determined by the performer.
  8. When the performance is complete, gently remove the sheet of paper from the piano keys and close the lid.
  9. Reflect on the experience and the unique sounds and melodies that emerged during the performance.

>write the instructions for a new Sol Lewitt pencil wall drawing

  1. Choose a wall in your space that has a minimum height of 8 feet and a minimum width of 10 feet.
  2. Measure the dimensions of the wall and divide it into equal horizontal and vertical sections, creating a grid pattern with a minimum of 10 horizontal and 10 vertical lines.
  3. Using a pencil, randomly select one of the grid squares and draw a line that extends from one edge of the square to the opposite edge, without crossing any other lines or touching the sides of the square.
  4. Repeat this process for each of the grid squares, creating a series of lines that fill the entire wall.
  5. Experiment with different line lengths, angles, and directions in order to create a varied and dynamic composition.
  6. Avoid erasing any lines or making any corrections, and allow the drawing to evolve organically.
  7. When the drawing is complete, step back and admire the final composition.
  8. Optional: photograph the drawing and share it with others.

>write the instructions for a new Sol Lewitt pencil wall drawing

  1. Choose a blank wall in a well-lit area to create your wall drawing.
  2. Using a ruler and a pencil, draw a horizontal line across the center of the wall.
  3. Draw a second horizontal line above and below the center line, each spaced at equal intervals.
  4. Draw a third set of horizontal lines, above and below the second set, at the same intervals.
  5. Continue adding sets of horizontal lines until the entire wall is covered with a grid of evenly spaced lines.
  6. Using a different color pencil, randomly draw diagonal lines connecting the horizontal lines.
  7. Experiment with different patterns and densities of diagonal lines, creating a unique and visually interesting composition.
  8. Step back and observe the overall composition, adjusting and refining the diagonal lines as needed.

>write an instruction piece in the style of a list by Yoko Ono

Choose an everyday object, such as a paperclip, a pencil, or a piece of string.
Place the object in a simple, unadorned setting, such as on a blank sheet of paper or a plain background.
Using a camera or smartphone, take a photograph of the object in its chosen setting.
Share the photograph on social media, along with a simple and enigmatic caption that invites viewers to interpret the object in their own way.
Consider how the chosen object and its placement in the photograph might evoke emotions, thoughts, or memories in the viewer.

>write an instruction piece in the style of a list by Yoko Ono

Find a quiet, peaceful space where you can be alone and undisturbed.
Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, allowing your body and mind to relax.
Slowly open your eyes and look around your surroundings, taking in the details and textures of the space.
Imagine yourself floating in a vast, empty void, free from the constraints of time and space.
Allow your mind to drift and explore, without judgment or expectations.
Listen to the sounds around you, and allow yourself to be present in the moment.
As thoughts and ideas arise, allow them to flow freely, without attachment or resistance.
When you feel ready, write down any thoughts or ideas that emerge during your meditation.
Take your time, and trust in the process.
When you are finished, close your eyes again and take a few deep breaths, grounding yourself back in the present moment.
Reflect on your experience, and let go of any judgments or expectations.
Enjoy the feeling of freedom and openness that comes from exploring your inner landscape.

All of the artists I have chosen employ deliberate repetition, variations within a framework, and an element of chance. I produced these pieces in an hour and yet they are plausible variations on their work. Not all attempts were as successful. It is, however, evident that one could, for example, generate a large number of these to hand out to an audience at a performance so for participants to perform and evaluate the results.

AI has been rapidly developing this year and ChatGPT is only an early step in this decade, likely to be dominated by AI. Serious artists need to ignore the bad art and forge ahead. AI image and text generators are the tools of our time.

On valdas ozarinskas and stalker architecture

I am going to Vilnius next week and this reminds me of my last visit… in which I told myself that it’s critical to get my unpublished 2019 essay on Valdas Ozarkinskas, the most brilliant architect I ever met out there.
Well, here it is: Stalker Architecture: Design and (Private) Ideology.

Imagery is the stumbling block for this essay, as I don’t have access to an archive, so I have mainly borrowed images from other sites. I’m doing this under the principle of academic fair use since all I want to do is get Valdas’s work exposure outside Lithuania, if you own any of them and want me to take them down, by all means, get in touch!

The Witching Cats of New Jersey

The history of the European settlement of North America goes hand in hand with the history of occult practices—particularly witchcraft—on the continent. A large and unfamiliar land with an indigenous population that had recently died out under mysterious circumstances (now of course known to be largely due to disease brought by contact with Europeans) and in which esoteric movements were tolerated was fertile territory for individuals and groups with practices of worship at the edges of Christianity and even beyond. While at the archives at the Germantown College Archives in New Germantown, New Jersey, I recently had an opportunity to visit the noted Witchcraft Collection. Visually, the record is dominated by a peculiar obsession with cats reputedly engaged in witchcraft in the “Mosquito State.”

Silas “Grim” Cole, Cat owned by Hattie Simpson of Cape May, 1782, courtesy the Witchcraft Collection of the Germantown College Archives, New Germantown, New Jersey

A wealth of paintings and photographs document the obsession with these animals and their connection to the occult in the state and I am delighted to share them with you on this Hallowe’en since so many of you have reacted positively to the ones I have posted on my Instagram account.

Cats are the most popular pets in the world, and certainly on the Internet, but the history of domestic felines is inevitably linked to the idea of the witch’s familiar. Cats are mysterious creatures (I suppose) that are active at night (not mine) and often, especially when in heat, make otherworldly sounds (Roxy is guilty as charged). Given their further association with femininity, they wound up historically linked with witchcraft.

The Witch and her Familiar, American Primitivist Painting, Artist Unknown, Morristown, New Jersey c. 1824. 
DALL·E 2022-07-30 22.15.22 - A thomas cole painting of __ “a black cat with white belly and white paws” dressed like an evil witch
DALL·E 2022-07-30 22.15.33
DALL·E 2022-07-30 22.24.33 - A thomas cole photorealistic oil painting of __ “a black cat with white belly and white paws” dressed like an evil witch, 1810
DALL·E 2022-08-01 11.07.19 - A thomas cole painting of __ “a black cat with white belly and white paws” dressed like an evil witch, 1810 (2)
DALL·E 2022-08-01 11.08.18 - A thomas cole folk horror painting of __ “a black cat with white belly and white paws” dressed like an evil witch, 1810
DALL·E 2022-08-01 11.08.18 - A thomas cole folk horror painting of __ “a black cat with white belly and white paws” dressed like an evil witch, 1810 (1)
DALL·E 2022-08-01 11.08.19 - A thomas cole folk horror painting of __ “a black cat with white belly and white paws” dressed like an evil witch, 1810
DALL·E 2022-08-02 20.38.44 - primitivist painting of a “a black cat with white belly and seven white paws” 1610 Blair witch carcosa wicca thomas cole (3)
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New Jersey, unlike Massachusetts, was not settled by a single, religious community, thus diverse faiths were tolerated here. Moreover, the colony was not originally British but originally was composed of New Sweden (by the Delaware river) and New Netherlands (by the Hudson), becoming a colony only in 1664. A land for free-thinkers, the colony embraced Huguenots fleeing from France, as well as Baptists and Presbyterians from Ireland and Scotland, as well as other faiths while Quakers crossed the Delaware from Pennsylvania and brought their beliefs here as well. The Presbyterian leader of the First Great Awakening, Gilbert Tennant (1703-1764) came “to blow up the divine fire lately kindled there.” Thus began the colony’s early affliction with the supernatural, something made vividly clear in a young Benjamin Franklin’s accounts of the Mount Holly Witch Trials in 1730. If witches were a source of pre-revolutionary terror, by the late eighteenth century, archivist Alistair Cailleach-Crone told me, the burgeoning New Jersey merchant class in New Jersey began to commission portraits of their cats as witch’s familiars or “witching cats.” There is little documentation left of this fashion, save for this text by one Pieter Heks, 1783:

There are, and ever have been, cats and other felines, who converse Familiarly with the Spirit Realm and while some say they thus receive Power to both hurt and deceive, others claim them as happy mediums who, by their very being, keep a home free from plague, louse, and the lyke. Others, particularly, the wives of merchants in our land, keep these animals dear and hold them the pride of their house even, as the fashion holds, having portraits made of them.

Odd as it may seem, the best artists of New Jersey’s first decades as a state were involved in this work, as well as artists from the neighboring states of Pennsylvania and New York. After scolding sermons and threats from Presbyterian ministers, the fashion of Witching Cats fell out of favor among the wealthy, who soon went back to commissioning portraits of themselves, their children, their families, and noted racehorses. More than one artist was relieved. Famed painter Benjamin West, whose paintings of the subject have been lost, wrote unaffectionately in his notebook: “Damned cats and their owners. To the devil with them! These Jersey brutes love their animals but to have them sit for you would try any man’s patience. And half do seem to be possessed by the devil. I will never lose the scars from these accursed creatures, all claw and fang.”

DALL·E 2022-08-02 20.38.44 - primitivist painting of a “a black cat with white belly and seven white paws” 1610 Blair witch carcosa wicca thomas cole
DALL·E 2022-08-02 20.38.36 - primitivist painting of a “a black cat with white belly and seven white paws” 1610 Blair witch carcosa wicca thomas cole (4)
DALL·E 2022-08-02 20.38.44 - primitivist painting of a “a black cat with white belly and seven white paws” 1610 Blair witch carcosa wicca thomas cole (3)
DALL·E 2022-08-12 18.51.00 - american primitivist painting of a witching cat, 1780
DALL·E 2022-08-01 11.15.20 - American primitivist folk horror painting of __ “a drunken black cat with white belly and white paws at a table in an old pub” dressed like an evil wi (1)
DALL·E 2022-08-12 17.59.48 - american primitivist painting of drunken cat 1840
DALL·E 2022-10-31 12.42.25 - American primitivist folk horror painting of a drunken black cat with white belly and white paws dressed like an evil witch wicca thomas cole
DALL·E 2022-10-31 13.20.51 - american primitivist painting of black cat white belly white paws witching cat of jersey witch magick foul
DALL·E 2022-08-13 13.22.45 - american primitivist painting of a drunken witching cat of new jersey 1830 (3)
DALL·E 2022-08-13 13.22.45 - american primitivist painting of a drunken witching cat of new jersey 1830 (2)
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By the 1820s, however, the Witching Cats found a resurgence in the vogue for alternately amusing and frightening paintings made by self-schooled Primitivist (or Naïve) painters in rural areas, notably the Pine Barrens. Whereas the previous paintings had largely been portrait-like in nature, memorializing specific favored pets, new paintings were often sold by itinerant painters as well as peddlers who purchased them elsewhere to sell from the back of their carts and wagons. This work—of varying quality, sometimes remarkably comical—comprises the bulk of the collection at Germantown College. More than one observer has noted that the cats in the paintings of both periods are dominated by tuxedo (or piebald) cats, which were a common “breed” in New Jersey at the time. As Benjamin Franklin (who owned an angora) wrote in 1745, “In the dark, all cats are gray, but in the light, only the cats of New Jersey are piebald.”

DALL·E 2022-08-11 18.51.04 - american primitivist painting by joseph whiting witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual obje
DALL·E 2022-08-11 18.51.03 - american primitivist painting by joseph whiting witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual obje (1)
DALL·E 2022-08-12 15.00.46 - thomas cole painting of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects in a witch's room (3)
DALL·E 2022-08-12 15.00.46 - thomas cole painting of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects in a witch's room
DALL·E 2022-08-12 12.03.24 - Sepia print of a witching cat black cat with white paws eating scary meat, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects “hand of (3)
DALL·E 2022-08-12 12.03.26 - Matthew Brady Sepia print of a witching cat black cat with white paws eating scary meat, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual obj (1)
DALL·E 2022-08-12 12.03.28 - Matthew Brady Sepia print of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, surrounded by unclean ritual objects “hand of glory” “stick figu
DALL·E 2022-08-12 15.00.46 - thomas cole painting of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects in a witch's room
DALL·E 2022-08-13 13.15.13 - thomas cole painting of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects in a witch's room (2)
DALL·E 2022-08-13 13.15.13 - thomas cole painting of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects in a witch's room (6)
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The fashion again lasted about a decade, and toward the end of the period, a young painter from Speertown, in northern New Jersey named Theodore “Red” Baudrons (1810-1910) began a curious series of paintings in which cats were depicted in environments with strange objects that hinted more directly at witchcraft. This series, called “Cats in the Garrett” soon became controversial and he wound up leaving for New London, Ohio where he lived and worked on a farm owned by the Townsend family and depicted the wealthy farmers of the area instead.

If primitive, compositionally Baudrons’s art evidences an interest in the phenomenon of “the Cabinet of Curiosities.” Precisely where Baudrons learned about the artifacts and symbolism used in witchcraft is unclear, although there have been suggestions it may have been from his sister Hattie Cunnan or perhaps his mother Diana both of whom were spoken of as “cunning women” who could cure many aliments. Baudron, about whom little more is known, also left a few drawings behind at the Townsend farm, which are mixed with the paintings in the gallery above.

DALL·E 2022-08-03 19.03.36 - american primitivist silver albumen print of black cat white belly white paws witching cat of jersey witch unclean carcosa foul (2)
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.38.46 - Sepia print of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects “hand of glory” “stick figu (1)
DALL·E 2022-08-03 19.03.36 - american primitivist silver albumen print of black cat white belly white paws witching cat of jersey witch unclean carcosa foul
DALL·E 2022-08-08 18.24.33 - american primitivist silver albumen print of black cat white belly white paws witching cat of jersey witch “ritually unclean” carcosa foul (2)
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.34.57 - Silver albumen print of a witch’s familiar black cat with white paws, 1840, Blair witch carcosa
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.34.58 - Silver albumen print of a witch’s familiar black cat with white paws, 1840, Blair witch carcosa
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.35.01 - Silver albumen print of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.35.09 - Silver albumen print of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, witch trial dock taxidermy
DALL·E 2022-08-03 19.03.31 - american primitivist silver albumen print of black cat white belly white paws witching cat of jersey witch unclean carcosa foul (3)
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.35.12 - Silver albumen print of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects in a witche's room (1)
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.35.39 - Silver albumen print of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects in a witch's room (3)
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.37.19 - Silver albumen print of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects in a witch's room (1)
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.37.30 - Silver albumen print of a New Jersey witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects in a wit
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.38.46 - Sepia print of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects “hand of glory” “stick figu (3)
DALL·E 2022-08-12 12.03.24 - Sepia print of a witching cat black cat with white paws eating scary meat, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects “hand of (3)
DALL·E 2022-08-13 14.08.27 - a silver albumen 1865 photograph of “a maine coon cat” , 1810 Blair witch carcosa unclean ritual objects stick figures (2)
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Again, the fashion for Witching Cats died only to re-emerge in the years immediately after the Civil War, this time in photography. One Thomas “Namir” Bastet (he claimed Persian ancestry) set up a photographic studio in West Bloomfield, where—along with the usual photos of widows and their errant children—he took an extensive series of photographs of cats that are clearly within the Jersey Witching Cat tradition although in fairness, some appear to be just ordinary housecats. Bastet, it seems, was both a student and friend of photographer William H. Mumler, noted for his notorious 1869 photograph of well-known cat-lover Mary Todd Lincoln and the ghost of her husband Abraham Lincoln—there are suggestions that Bastet actually pioneered the practice—but also was a friend of Swedenborgian Spiritualist painter George Inness who once told Bastet of his photographs, “Namir, you really have something there.” Inness wrote that Bastet—alone among photographers—understood the vital forces in his subject matter and the first image in the slider above is of his cat, Roxelana.

Bastet’s photos often seem influenced by the compositional strategy of Baudrons’s paintings: a cat perched on a shallow ledge populated by strange artifacts, but Cailleach-Crone suggested to me that this may have to do with deeper folkways and practices now lost to time. Compounding the supernatural nature of these images quality, the photographs of the day had long exposures, requiring a stillness an awake cat could hardly be expected to meet, resulting in a blurred image that gives many of them an especially otherworldly quality.

Together, these three eras of art reveal to us the nature of the most haunted state in the Union and the peculiar genetic misfits (by this, of course I mean the piebald cats, not the citizens) that have inhabited it to the present day. Long before the Internet, our fascination with cats—as well as with folk horror—was already common. Please visit the Germantown archives, or perhaps visit the Dall-E 2 site to learn more about these images and how they were made.

Regarding Twitter

I have another, much more interesting and important thing to talk about—e.g. the witching cats of New Jersey—but enough people have asked me for my hot take on the acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk that I’ll take a stab at it. I will get back to my regularly scheduled programming in the very near future, but for now, I am going to celebrate the fact that moving this site to kinsta earlier this week has made a rapid response like this one much easier.

In the 2005-2006 academic year, I led a team of scholars at the Annenberg Center for Communication in researching the topic of “Networked Publics.” This project led to a book of the same name, published by the MIT Press in 2008 and an aborted project on the broader topic of network culture that faced too much opposition from entrenched interests in the academy to see the light of day. Our little group didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but if there was anything we could agree with, it was the grim conclusion of the brilliant politics chapter written by Merlyna Lim and the late Mark E. Kann: although the Internet is a powerful resource for mobilization, it is a poor venue for democratic deliberation.

To this day, we have absolutely no evidence otherwise. The dramatic rise of algorithmically-produced content feeds in the nearly twenty years since our research year has made matters much worse. As algorithms respond to user engagement and reaction, they deliver the content that users want to see, creating a spiral of ever-increasing polarization (for a series of links to studies on this matter, see this piece from the Brookings Institution). Making matters worse are the social media “cops” on both sides who thrive on attacking viewpoints divergent from accepted consensus. If you say that vaccines are important and that the 2020 election was legitimate but your social media “friends” are right-wingers, you’ll get called out by an army of Trumpenproles if you say so. If you say that magic monetary theory is insane or that defunding the police will hurt African Americans more than anybody, you’ll get publicly shamed by the Internet cops on the Left. Then there are things that we know very well not to talk about with our peers. To take one example, virtually no academic would publicly say that doctoral programs are in crisis and universities are producing vastly more PhD.s than there will ever be jobs for just so that doctoral chairs can gain status in the academy and professors can get free research assistants, even though most academics I have spoken to about this agree wholeheartedly off the record. I am outside the academy so I can freely say this. But nobody in the academy can. The cops there have the power to destroy unorthodox thinkers so nobody will say it. Even outside academia, there are positions so politically dangerous that I won’t dare utter them out loud even here, notwithstanding that the vast majority of my peers agree with them privately (you’ll just have to guess, so sorry). Internet cops gain symbolic capital by dismissing ideas that don’t conform to the orthodoxy and it’s been interesting to observe as a few cops have, coincidentally or not, attained positions of minor leadership in the academy (probably because no sane person wants them). Cops tend not to think for themselves, but rather they are guided by what Venkatesh Rao calls beef-only thinkers, who demand unqualified support, folks like Glenn Greenwald, Michael Tracey, or Marjorie Taylor-Greene.

If, on the one hand, we have a social media landscape actively patrolled by cops, we also have a steady-state of outrage from the woke and the trumpenproles: everything is burning, right now/there has never been a more consequent election/there has never been a greater threat to democracy/etc. The news media—particularly TV news, but also online personalities—amp up the rhetoric in order to profit from the clicks. Outrage makes money, even as it makes us stupider. But after years and years of outrage, people are exhausted. It’s very much like pornography, searching for ever-greater stimulus, things got more and more extreme and eventually it wasn’t that people got scandalized, it’s that they got bored. Only the most politically active and the most insane want to the outrage to continue. After the nightmarish calamity following the 2016 election, COVID, the January 6 insurrection, and then the invasion of Ukraine, high levels of cortisol and adrenaline have literally taken their toll on our bodies, creating inflammatory reactions that leave us with no way to absorb more bad news. It may have been funny when a demented old grifter demanded to see Obama’s birth certificate, it was hilarious to see “America’s Mayor” stand up in front of the garage of a landscaping firm, burbling nonsense, his false teeth nearly falling out of his head, but nobody wants to see it again. In an economy sustained by growth, Facebook’s aging user group is down by significant numbers, and analysts are talking about a “death spiral.” Well, thank goodness. Nor is the subject of today’s diatribe, Twitter, immune, its active users are also fleeing, just in time for Musk’s ill-timed purchase. The only solution people are finding to this anxiety is disconnection, leaving all this crap behind. It will likely cause a rout for the Democrats in the 2022 election (I am not, however, entirely convinced of this), but if it does, it will be the far Left’s relentless barrage of alarmist news that will be, in large part, to blame.

What are the options? Clearly not Twitter. Elon probably should fire most of Twitter’s staff. Around 5,000 employees work at Twitter and, judging from the evidence, none of them save the people who make sure the servers don’t go down, do anything. The site has had virtually no innovation since its launch, the code is a notorious mess, and, well what do they actually do all day long?

Journalists like to promote TikTok as an alternative, but TikTok’s growth is limited to a high school and college age demographic in search of diversion. What political content exists there—a Johns Hopkins study suggests— is hardly any better than what can be found at Facebook and, in any event, like YouTube, TikTok is oriented less toward people producing their own content and more toward passive consumption and commenting. Instagram is not dissimilar, although there, the content-production tends to be aspirational and imitative in nature, contributing to body dysphoria and leading young women to seek to surgically reshape themselves into the “Instagram face” look pioneered by Jocelyn Wildenstein. The one healthy (for now) antidote for this is BeReal, an anti-Instagram that values immediacy and promotes looking real, or at least, candid and terrible, it’s only drawback is that virtually nobody except for college-age kids uses it (I know, you can visit mine, I have one follower). TIkTok and Instagram are terrible platforms for political messaging—although some will try—and BeReal is virtually useless for it. This, of course, is their charm.

If there are genuine alternative social media spaces right now, they are Discord and Substack. Both are flawed, but it’s Substack—not Twitter—that holds the only potential for a future social media platform right now.

Discord is a set of “servers” (not really servers, but they are called that, they are virtual spaces for micropublics) dedicated to a given topic, e.g. Minecraft gaming, Roblox, GTA, (Discord started as a space for emergent gaming communities), online generative art generators, techwear, eurorack synthesizers, alt-space, AI generative art, Arduino programming, white supremacism (this has since been banned) or whatever excites you. Discord is growing rapidly, but it has two major limiting factors. The first is that because of the conversation-like organization, unless one is actively engaged with a server, one rapidly loses track of what is being talked about. Catching up is neither intuitive nor, well, interesting. The second is that there is no broader link between these micropublics. Each server is a walled silo and there is no communication between them.

Substack is a platform for content-creators—mainly writers but also some podcasters— in which subscribers pay subscriptions for content and content-creators are promised income directly from their subscribers. Unlike the similar Patreon, however, it is more oriented around discovery and community. Log into the Substack site and you will be shown a sidebar with recommendations for other Substacks that are, shades of Facebook and Twitter, algorithmically recommended for you. Subscribe to a right-wing Substack, you’ll definitely be offered more. So, basically, another Facebook or Twitter. The up side is that Substack allows comments (depending on settings), and also has recently allowed users to incorporate RSS feeds from outside of Substack into their feed. If—and it’s a big if, one that likely won’t take place since it’s only my idea, not Substack’s—the platform can find a way to create glue between Substacks and users—such as making it easier for users to follow each other and talk directly to each other— it has some hope. The reason I hold any hope for Substack is that unlike Facebook or Twitter, it promotes long-form writing. This post makes no sense on Facebook or Twitter, but it will easily work on Substack. The second hitch is that Substack is heavily tied to a subscription economy. Most newsletters, it seems, cost about $10 a month. That’s great but can rapidly become unaffordable in an era where we are already paying for one or two newspapers, a couple of magazines, Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, and you get the idea… People are getting tired of subscriptions, very tired.

This leaves us with with WordPress. WordPress is not only the dominant worldwide blogging platform, it has a reader that allows readers to follow blogs and participate in dialogues in the comments. Again, it’s a long shot, but users are also implicitly encouraged to become bloggers and, well, why not? In the 1970s and early 1980s mass media seemed to be all-powerful, but then we had the Zine revolution and the explosion of the Internet, back when it was still fun and potential seemed everywhere. Substack and WordPress may not be the future, but I still think a platform with some future in it (I am no longer comfortable thinking it will be any lasting solution, let alone a utopian space of deliberative democracy) is coming if we have any hope of talking to each other online.

A final reflection on all this is how deeply sad this is for Elon Musk. Although he has recently shifted from being an icon of the Left to being an icon of the Right, he is the Steve Jobs of this age, having made both electric cars a reality and creating the first successful reusable rocket system. Ten years ago, even five years ago, owning two electric cars by 2022 would have seemed entirely implausible to me and yet, we replaced both our cars with Teslas in 2020. These cars require less maintenance than any other vehicles we have ever owned (thus far, our total repairs involve a heat pump valve on the Model Y and some issues with the rear gate on our Model S, plus some cabin air filter replacements oh, and new tires), have excellent performance (I’m a car guy, but my wife loves driving hers as well), and it is delightful to skip the weekly trips to the gas station. SpaceX’s phenomenal success speaks for itself (not only am I car guy, I’m a space nut) and Starship promises to revolutionize the space industry, and even though I am concerned about Starlink’s impact on astronomy, it has the ability to deliver secure Internet communications at broadband speeds virtually everywhere and has made a big, positive impact in military operations in the Ukraine. That, for whatever reason, Musk is spending his time and money on Twitter is very sad. If he wanted to have fun, wouldn’t it make better sense to just book a flight on a crew Dragon? I would. It’s not like he doesn’t won the only company that ever regularly sent people into outer space; eat your own dog food, Elon. Running Twitter seems incredibly boring. Moreover, Elon has a long list of failures to go along with the successes—Tesla Solar (I just put a new roof on my house, why wasn’t it from Tesla Solar?), Tesla’s Full Self-Driving has been around for almost two years and hasn’t gone anywhere (remember when Elon said we’d have self-driving Tesla taxis by 2020), and Tesla not only hasn’t released a single new vehicle since 2020, it has raised prices on existing vehicles while cutting out features such as front-facing radar and rear-facing ultrasonic sensors but hasn’t found ways to compensate. I own Tesla stock but I think they are in trouble unless Elon spends some time there soon and Twitter is a distraction he hardly needs.

Finally, as far as the future of Twitter. Who cares? It is a dying platform. I have met some great friends on it—many more than on Facebook—but if it dies and Facebook dies, it will be better for everyone. If Captain Dementia joins back up over the weekend, or Monday, or whenever, what does it matter. It’s not like anybody listened to him on Truth Social anyway.

A New Career in a New Town

I moved Varnelis.net to Kinsta yesterday, widely seen as the best WordPress host around. I also updated the site theme to GeneratePress which I first used at the Native Plant Society of New Jersey where I am the head of advocacy and, to help out, brought the Web site to WordPress. The site struggled after I had serious security issues earlier in the year. Not only was that a crummy experience for you, the backend that I write posts with glitched constantly and it was frustrating for me to enter new content. The new site is a delight for me and, I hope, is interesting for you as well. The theme is ultimately based on Indexhibit, which was admirably minimalist in a way a Lithuanian artist could love but never worked for me as a content management system.

I have lost count of how many times I have said that I will be posting more on this site, so I won’t make promises I can’t keep, but at least the site won’t be an excuse anymore. So what about blogs? Aren’t they dead? Archinect’s blog, aggregat:456, archidose, ballardian, javierist, m.ammoth.us, markasaurus, sit down man you’re a bloody tragedy, strange harvest, subtopia all gone, lgnlgn a record of an aborted restart ten years back. Even bldgblog barely posts more than I do now. But I refuse to go. Loos titled his first collection of essays “Spoken into the Void.” Being untimely may be the strongest position of all.

Now, there’s not that much to say about architecture anymore, but that’s ok. Times change. Architecture is at its lowest point in my lifetime. There is no excitement. When is the last new building that interested you, I ask my friends? Nobody knows. Maybe the Casa da Música, one said. That’s like saying the Ford Foundation building was the last great building in 1981. Not one great building on this list of top ten buildings in the 2010s, not even one good building. The scandal isn’t that there is a scandal, the scandal is that nobody cares and nobody talks about it. Conceptual architecture is dead in the water. Architecture fiction was the last burst of a shooting star deep in the atmosphere before it disappeared. In fairness, I don’t know if either AUDC or the Netlab will do anything again, although I continue my own work in earnest (more on that work another day).

But there is plenty to talk about; we can talk about late network culture and the sorry state it has brought us to, the failure of networked publics. we can talk about art, and we can talk about the environment and the importance of native plants in the landscape. We can even talk about architecture since art forms that seem to be things of the past have an uncanny way of coming back to life. I have a lot to say about these things and, with the end of (native) planting season upon me this week, I may be doing just that. But I won’t be doing that on social media. Sure, you may see these posts on Facebook or Twitter, but I’m not really there much anymore. After logging off Facebook for a year, I found I didn’t want to use it anymore. Facebook doesn’t create a feeling of belonging, it creates anxiety and depression. No wonder young people don’t want to use it anymore. Facebook’s troubles are deepening and it’s ridiculous foray into virtual reality will, we all hope cause its utter demise. Twitter stayed relevant for longer, but I am noticing many fewer posts from my friends there these days. Growth at both of these platforms has ceased, even reversed. So Elon Musk is buying Twitter. That’s the equivalent of buying a new gasoline car today, a dying platform terrible for the environment. Twitter is dying. If Elon brings back the seditious, short-fingered vulgarian now suffering through mid-stage dementia, it will just bring end Twitter to an end and wipe out his ludicrous $44 billion investment. Young people increasingly hate these platforms, regardless of what money-chasing analysts want you to believe. Yes, there are podcasts. I love them, but I worry about the effect of constant voices in my head, perhaps because I read Julian Jaynes many decades ago. There are Medium and Substack, but the endless demand for money is tiresome. You may read this on Substack. Great. But you don’t have to. Read it here instead.

The social media era is over. Long live the blog. My posts may be few and far between, they may be late, they may be bad, you may not read them but they are still something I own. I can say what I want, unbeholden to anyone else and I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.

On the Destruction of Doggerland

Image of the Doggerbank
source: wikipedia

In 1422, the long decline of the Kingdom of Doggerland came to an end with the drowning of the vast island once found in the North Sea between England, Denmark, Norway, and the Low Countries. Roughly 40,000 km2 (15,500 sq mi) in size, for over a thousand years, Doggerland remained a European Kingdom even as rising sea levels led to large areas being abandoned and depopulated in the later Middle Ages.

With the island destroyed by the tsunami (“the Great Drowning”) caused when an earthquake dislodged vast portions of the undersea continental shelf off Norway, the extinguishing of an entire European kingdom was a critical event, perhaps the critical event, in the history of Early Modern Europe, demonstrating the frailty of mere mortals and the insufficiency of human faith against the wrath of nature.

The island was first referred to in the 4th century BC by the Greek geographer Pythaes of Massalia as “the Kingdom of the Fishes,” and would be dubbed “Ictis” by Diodorus Siculus during the 1st century BC:

The inhabitants of that part of Britain which is called Belerion are very fond of strangers and from their intercourse with foreign merchants are civilized in their manner of life. They prepare the tin, working very carefully the earth in which it is produced. The ground is rocky but it contains earthy veins, the produce of which is ground down, smelted and purified. They beat the metal into masses shaped like knuckle-bones and carry it off to a certain island off Britain called Iktis. During the ebb of the tide the intervening space is left dry and they carry over to the island the tin in abundance in their wagons … Here then the merchants buy the tin from the natives and carry it over to Gaul, and after travelling overland for about thirty days, they finally bring their loads on horses to the mouth of the Rhone.

Pliny referred to Doggerland as “Mictis,” describing it as “lying inwards six days’ sail from Britain, where tin is found, and to which the Britons cross in boats of wickerwork covered with stitched hides.” A century later, Doggerland became the northernmost land conquered by Caesar during the Gallic Wars of 54 and 55AD and remained under Roman rule until the Attacotti tribes threw out the Romans in the Dogger Risings of the 364-365 and, in 367, crossed the Dogger Channel to Britain to participate in the widespread risings called the Great Conspiracy.

7th century gold Dogger mask, discovered on the seabed, 1984.
British Museum.
Seal of the United Kingdoms of Denmark and FIskeland, c. 1025.

In the early 10th century, the semi-legendary Harthacnut I became the first King of both Denmark and Fiskeland (Doggerland). Cnut the Great (c. 990-1035) united Denmark and Fiskeland with England and Norway in the brief but effective North Sea Empire. Even so, the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, which began in 950 and lasted until 1250, wreaked havoc with Fiskeland as water levels rose and some of the more low-lying farmland and the fish farms (vivaria) that the Fiske peoples had pioneered were inundated.

King Cnut on his throne as the waters rise, Unknown artist from Doggerland, c 1365

No matter how mighty he was in politics and war, Cnut himself understood the futility of the rising of the waters (the Stigendevand) and, as Henry of Huntingdon later recounted in his Historia Anglorum:

When he was at the height of his ascendancy, he ordered his chair to be placed on the sea-shore as the tide was coming in. Then he said to the rising tide, “You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.” But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king’s feet and shins. So jumping back, the king cried, “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and the sea obey eternal laws.”

Fishing Monks, a painting on a wood panel from Fiskeland, mid 14th century.

Inhabitants slowly began to drift away, to Britain, Denmark and Norway, but also Iceland, Greenland, and other points west. By the thirteenth century, the country was dominated by a court whose strength was primarily nautical—the powerful Dogger ships that controlled the North Sea—and by the monastic orders that alternately served, and competed with, the court. Although Doggerland (the new common name of the country after 1360) had been largely spared the Plague, by the time of Cnut VI, also known as Saint Cnut the Drowned (1394-1422), the stigendevand had become acute and a sizable portion of the remaining population inhabited floating vessels at all times.

Still, Doggerland’s Court was widely known for its accomplishments in art, music, and literature. Clockworks and complicated mechanisms were a noted specialty. With the end of Doggerland long prophesied, time-keeping had been an obsession in Doggerland—a common Doggerish saying is “Hours are a greater treasure than gold”—and spring driven clocks were developed in the first years of the fourteenth century. The precursor to the piano—the clavichord—was invented in Doggerland in the early 14th century and primitive forms of printing with carved plates had begun to be employed.

Idesbald of Drounen, Cnut VI’s Lament, 1424

On 21 April 1422, Ugo, Abbot of Drounen wrote,

Late in the morning, when the markets were full, a shudder came upon the land and the sea retreated. The waves rolled back over the horizon and the Dogger ships were left on dry land, revealing monstrous creatures that normally dwelt under the water. The good monks of the Abbey prayed for salvation from this horror, but to no avail as the sea came rushing back and we were forced to climb into the row boats I had commanded the monks to build in the case of the Flood, which God had now thrust upon us again. Thousands were swept past us and those we could haul aboard were saved, but most were drowned under the waves. To our dismay, we saw the King sitting on the rocks but the waves rose and covered him.

Exodus from Doggerland, Painting by the “Master of Doggerland,” c. 1425
Drowning of Doggerland, Unknown Painter, 1520

The exodus from Doggerland led to an influx of refugees to the continent precisely at a point in which post-plague Europe itself lay in wait for a stimulus that would trigger the Renaissance. Although chiefly seen today as a Flemish painter, Jan van Eyck was Doggerish and brought the previously closely-held secrets of oil painting to the rest of Europe while Rogier van der Weyden apprenticed there in his youth. Exiled scholars helped found the Universitas Lovaniensis (Old University of Leuven) while other experts in Latin, astronomy, alchemy, and the culinary sciences became teachers throughout Europe. For example, Henry of Drouen, a tutor for Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici. Francesco Colonna was the son of Dogger refugees in Venice—a natural destination for many—and in his famed Hypnerotomachia Poliphili conjures a dreamscape that scholars see as a description of his parents’ lost homeland.

Jan van Eyck, the Royal Court of Doggerland in Exile, 1433

The first extant spring-wound clock wound up in the court of Burgundy after the Drowning. As is well known by now, Johannes Gutenberg worked with survivors from Doggerland to develop the printing press, a fact that the famed printer Aldus Manutius would memorialize in his logo for the Aldine press.

A picture of a dolphin wrapped around an anchor, which was Manutius's imprint.

Laments for Doggerland were common in the Low Countries for centuries after. The Drowning of Doggerland or “de Doyer Overstroming” was a cautionary tale memorialized and returned to again and again by poets, painters, and musicians. A pastoral land of sheep and fish that escaped the ravages of Plague and war but was lost forever due to the vengeance of the sea could hardly be far from the imagination of the creative mind. In the late 17th century, in particular, there was a revival of interest in the Dogger pastoral as Flemish artists rejected the excesses of the Spanish Baroque and their wealthy mercantilist clients sought to surrounded themselves with visible reminders of their—often imagined—past as descendants of the Court of Doggerland.

Jan van Goyen, the Cathedral city of Aleyen, Doggerland, c. 1640
Jan Vermeer van Haarlem the Elder, Doggerland Landscape, c. 1689
Pieter Bout, Dogger Fisherman returning from the Sea, c. 1705

Such laments would dissipate over the course of the eighteenth century as a modernizing Europe increasingly abandoned the lost pastoral land for a eudaemonic narrative of growth and newfound wealth. With the colonization of North America by Europeans, a new and much larger land was—they thought—given to them by God to replace the lost land under the sea. In particular, early settlers to Newfoundland initially called it “New Dagger Land” or “Nieuwe Doyer Land” and Governor William de Doyer had pronounced “It a free land, to be inhabited by all brothers of the land beneath the sea, be they English, French, or Dutch,” a dream wiped out after his death in a storm at sea in 1686 and the subsequent events of King William’s War (1688-1697) even though the ideal was referred to, somewhat cynically, during the British development of the Canadian colonies after the seizure of New France less than a century later.

Light blue indicates areas of Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark that will flood with 1.7C of global warming, salmon color indicates flooding with 4.0C of temperature rise.
Credit:Climate Central

For us, the drowning of Doggerland has a different meaning. Rather than a lost past to lament, it is a cautionary tale of the Anthropocene near future. The impact of climate change on the environment forces us to consider that rising seas will likely drown substantial areas of the world, including the coasts of Denmark, eastern Britain, Belgium, and much of the Netherlands (and of course, much, much more of the world). Unlike the inhabitants of Doggerland, we have a choice, but will we take it?

On the Lost Canals of Vilnius


DALL·E 2022-07-21 17.39.32 - Detailed 1780 oil Painting of Vilnius street on Venetian canals with boats and bridge, Gediminas Hill in the background” by Bernardo Bellotto dutc
DALL·E 2022-07-19 15.02.59 - “Detailed oil Painting of Šventos Onos brick gothic church in 17th century Vilnius with Venetian canals” by Caneletto ultrarealistic 8k detailed prec
DALL·E 2022-07-19 15.05.31 - “Detailed oil Painting of 18th century Vilnius with Venetian canals” by Caneletto ultrarealistic 8k detailed precise museum quality
DALL·E 2022-07-19 15.04.58 - “Detailed oil Painting of 18th century Vilnius city center with Venetian canals” by Caneletto ultrarealistic 8k detailed precise museum quality
DALL·E 2022-07-19 15.02.05 - Detailed oil Painting of capriccio of street with brick gothic buildings lining both sides of a Venetian canal in 17th century Vilnius ” byCanaletto
DALL·E 2022-07-19 14.49.07 - Detailed oil Painting of the canals of 18th century Vilnius by caneletto
DALL·E 2022-07-19 15.08.20 - “Detailed oil Painting of 18th century baroque Vilnius church on Venetian canals with boatns” by Caneletto ultrarealistic 8k detailed precise museum q
DALL·E 2022-07-19 15.02.34 - Detailed oil Painting of capriccio of street with brick gothic buildings lining both sides of a Venetian canal in 17th century Vilnius ” byCanaletto
DALL·E 2022-07-19 14.48.55 - Detailed oil Painting of the canals of 18th century Vilnius by caneletto
DALL·E 2022-07-21 17.40.14 - Didžioji gatve Detailed 1740 oil Painting of 14th century brick gothic Vilnius street on Venetian canals with boats, Gediminas Hill in the backgroun
DALL·E-2022-07-28-16.14.59-Thomas-Cole-painting-of-17th-century-vilnius-street-with-brick-gothic-buildings-lining-both-sides-of-a-canal-in-1780-Vilnius-2
DALL·E 2022-07-19 14.49.02 - Detailed oil Painting of the canals of 18th century Vilnius by caneletto
DALL·E 2022-07-19 15.04.12 - “Detailed oil Painting of 18th century Vilnius cathedral with Venetian canals” by Caneletto ultrarealistic 8k detailed precise museum quality
DALL·E 2022-07-19 15.04.02 - Capriccio “Detailed oil Painting of 17th century Vilnius cathedral with Venetian canals” by Caneletto ultrarealistic 8k detailed precise museum qualit
DALL·E 2022-07-19 13.12.18 - Detailed oil Painting of the canals of 18th century Vilnius by caneletto
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Vilniaus Dinge Kanalai ​​​​​​​​
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Jau mes senai užmiršome kad XVI-XVIII amžiam, Vilnius buvo vadintas „Šiaures Venecija“ ne tik dėl to kad miestu architektūra būvu panaši bet gi ir Vilnius buvo kanalų miestas lyg kaip Venecija. Po Didžiojo Vilniaus gaisro 1610 metais, Kristupas Radvila Jaunasis liepė rekonstruoti miestą su Venecijos-tipo kanalais kad vėl tokio įvykio nebūtu. Vanduo buvo paimtas iš Vilneles upes. Šitas etapas baigėsi kai Rusai užėmė Vilnių ir bijant choleros, reikalavo gatves atgal atstatyti. Praėjusia savaite buvo malonu užtikti senus paveikslus senai užmirštame muziejaus fonde. ​​​​​​​​Žinoma, tas viskas užtruko daug laiko ir užmirštose kampose kanalai dar egzistavo iki pat pirmojo pasaulinio karo.

The Lost Canals of Vilnius

We have already forgotten that in the XVI-XVIII centuries, Vilnius was called “Venice of the North” not only because the architecture was similar but also because Vilnius was a city of canals, just like Venice. After the Great Fire of 1610, Prince Krzysztof Radziwiłł ordered the city be rebuilt with canals like Venice so that such an event would never happen again. Water was taken from the Vilnele river. This phase of the city’s history ended when Russia took over the city and, fearing cholera, demanded that the streets be put back. Of course, this took quite some time and the infill was not complete until the eve of World War I. The previous week in Vilnius, it was nice to run across old paintings from long-ago forgotten museum storage spaces.


DALL·E 2022-07-21 17.40.01 - Didžioji gatve Detailed 1780 oil Painting of 14th century brick gothic Vilnius street on Venetian canals with boats, Gediminas Hill in the backgroun
DALL·E 2022-07-21 17.40.22 - Didžioji gatve Detailed 1740 oil Painting of 14th century brick gothic Vilnius street on Venetian canals with boats, Gediminas Hill in the backgroun
DALL·E-2022-07-24-19.32.38-Detailed-oil-Painting-by-Canaletto-of-capriccio-of-17th-century-vilnius-street-with-old-buildings-lining-both-sides-of-an-iced-over-canal-in-17th-cent
DALL·E-2022-07-24-19.32.49-hyperDetailed-oil-Painting-by-Canaletto-golden-hour-lacquered-of-capriccio-of-17th-century-vilnius-street-with-old-buildings-lining-both-sides-of-an-i
DALL·E-2022-07-24-19.35.59-A-painting-of-a-street-of-old-brick-gothic-buildings-in-Vilnius-of-1720-with-a-working-Venetian-style-canal-running-down-the-middle.-2
DALL·E-2022-07-24-19.36.04-A-painting-by-Thomas-Cole-of-a-street-of-old-brick-gothic-buildings-in-Vilnius-of-1720-with-a-working-Venetian-style-canal-running-down-the-middle.-1
DALL·E-2022-07-28-16.14.55-Thomas-Cole-painting-of-17th-century-vilnius-street-with-brick-gothic-buildings-lining-both-sides-of-a-canal-in-1780-Vilnius-
DALL·E-2022-07-28-16.14.59-Thomas-Cole-painting-of-17th-century-vilnius-street-with-brick-gothic-buildings-lining-both-sides-of-a-canal-in-1780-Vilnius-
DALL·E-2022-07-28-16.14.59-Thomas-Cole-painting-of-17th-century-vilnius-street-with-brick-gothic-buildings-lining-both-sides-of-a-canal-in-1780-Vilnius-1
DALL·E-2022-07-28-16.14.59-Thomas-Cole-painting-of-17th-century-vilnius-street-with-brick-gothic-buildings-lining-both-sides-of-a-canal-in-1780-Vilnius-2
DALL·E-2022-07-28-16.17.19-Thomas-Cole-painting-of-17th-century-vilnius-street-with-brick-gothic-buildings-lining-both-sides-of-a-canal-in-1780-Vilnius-1
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Or so the story goes.

I’ve spent a bit of time this spring exploring Artificial Intelligence-driven image generators like Nightcafe Studio, Midjourney, and most recently Dall-E 2. These engines allow anyone to produce remarkably complicated and realistic (or surrealistic) images easily. These are the early days of image generators and the developments have been rapid. Clearly, the handwriting is on the wall for a variety of practices. Why use stock photography if any image you can want can be yours, royalty free, for a few dollars? Will we ever trust an image again? What will happen to pornography when physical bodies aren’t necessary anymore? Will video game environments be produced by Artificial Intelligences, based on prompts from developers, or will they be dynamically created on the fly? Figurative painting, in particular, seems all too easy to simulate and simulate well, but then I haven’t really understood the purpose of figurative painting for some time now. The sort of fan art and sci-fi fantasy scenes commonly found on DeviantArt and in Hot Topic stores are easily made by Dall-E 2 and its ilk. But quite obviously art, in its highest form—for example, conceptual art—can’t be made by such applications. Or can it?

If we see art as a constant research process exploring the boundaries of the human condition (and I am likely to argue such a thing in the second part of my post on Art and the Universal), we might begin with the observation that although image generators can’t purposefully do anything new conceptually, we can use them in conceptual ways. Returning from a week in Vilnius, I saw a friend tweet an image of London by Canaletto. This got me thinking about Canaletto’s famed capricci, fantastic images of Venice in which many of Andrea Palladio’s works from Vicenza (a town considerably inland from Venice) mysteriously appeared in Venice. Canaletto spent ten years in London, but his student and nephew, Bernardo Bellotto, who was also a painter and—confusingly enough—was also known as Canaletto, was even more itinerant, spending time painting in Dresden, Vienna, Turin, and Warsaw where he was appointed court painter to Stanislaw August Poniatowski, the last King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. After the massive destruction visited upon Warsaw by the Luftwaffe, Bellotto’s 26 panoramic vedute of the old city were used to help reconstruct the city center as a matter of “national honour.” The socialist government of the Polish People’s Republic argued that by turning back to the eighteenth century, they were reconstructing a pre-capitalist state, hence the reconstruction was not a bourgeois project and could proceed under the regime. By the 1960s, the city historian would claim that “the old town now looks as it used to long ago.” But, like his uncle, the second Canaletto enjoyed taking significant artistic license with his paintings and, compounding this, the authorities made decisions to depart from any previous epoch in Warsaw’s history. The resulting Warsaw center has itself become a built capriccio, a city that never was. In enshrining it in its World Heritage list in 1980, UNESCO called it an “outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century.” (see more on Warsaw’s reconstruction here).

Over the thirty years that I have been visiting Vilnius, I have observed the city doing the same thing, albeit in a more piecemeal fashion. One day there is a ruin, a few years later a baroque building appears to have risen on the spot, although behind the façade is a hotel or an Internet startup. Most notable of these is the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania which had been demolished in 1801 but was rebuilt out of reinforced concrete from 2002 to 2018. In fact, Vilnius—like virtually all cities—is hardly static, but rather exists in a constant state of flux. Even now, there are threats to incorporate the city’s main icon—the Gediminas Tower—into a reconstruction of the long gone upper castle. The architect involved claims that since the original tower was only there stories tall, the current structure—rebuilt in 1933—is so inauthentic as to demand the long-gone structure be rebuilt.

Having often heard Vilnius compared to an Italian city and thinking of the nature of the Canalettian capriccio, I decided to produce the lost canals of Vilnius (perhaps also referring to the filled-in canals of Venice, California, or the missing canals of the planet Mars) in Dall-E 2. Hundreds of image generations later, I have a small selection of images for you of a city that only exists in the imagination, but that, given the propensity of cities to be remade to look like images, may yet one day come to pass.

On Art and the Universal, I

In his Theory of the Avant-Garde, Peter Bürger concluded that the avant-garde’s purpose is for art to sublate(assimilate) into life. In opposition to nineteenth century aestheticism that aimed to emphasize the autonomy of art from life, Bürger’s reading of the historical avant-garde—be it Dada, Surrealism, Productivism, Constructivism, or the Bauhaus—was that it aimed to break down the barrier between art and life, allowing the fullness of artistic expression to pass into all aspects of life.

For a large group of people in the developed world, this is now an everyday condition. Members of the creative class curate their lives around aesthetic choices, work and life are inseparable. Our lives are filled with intentional choices that express our individuality: we aspire to cook modernist cuisine, clean up with Marie Kondo, and obsess over the right boots and hat to go gardening in. STEM and maker culture are not opposed but inseparable: who doesn’t make their own jewelry or design their own body art these days, often using 3D modeling software and printers? Tens of thousands of people worldwide sit on Philippe-Starck-designed toilets every day. The workplace is a playground. Even after the recent plague, design festivals and biennales are a dime a dozen now. Go glamping in Marfa, spend an evening at the local sip ‘n paint, bring your friends to the immersive van Gogh. This curated life is thoroughly documented, to be posted on Instagram for the world to see.

In fairness, Bürger believed that by the 1950s, when avant-garde techniques from Dada and Surrealism had been incorporated into advertising and television (think Ernie Kovacs or Ray and Charles Eames’s films here), the aestheticization of everyday life had been complete and the avant-garde had been dealt a fatal blow. For Bürger, this is a false sublation, but I’m twice as old and jaded as I was when I first read the Theory of the Avant Garde and I don’t see how Bürger’s historical avant-garde could have ever been anything but a temporary reconciliation with an ultimate tragic end. The avant-garde was always a historically delimited moment. And if it’s fair to say that contemporary culture is thoroughly spectacularized, you would be right, but when a book on Constant Nieuwenhuys sells for $1,892 on Amazon, what is the spectacle anymore? Writing about Situationism has earned more than one professor tenure at a top university. Pinot Gallizio’s works, once sold by the yard, now sell for tens of thousands of Euros. The practices of Situationism have long since been absorbed by the spectacle. What is Dîner en Blanc® if not a Situationist practice? What is Situationism if not an excellent guerrilla marketing project?

That the Situationists or Fluxus chose to continue on with the neo-avant-garde was merely an after-effect. No doubt there is much truth there. The historical avant-garde is long dead and with it too the promise of art sublating into life.

Much of the art world has long abandoned any pretense of avant-gardism, embracing instead the idea of self-validation and value. Take NFTs, the realm of garish cartoon apes that have escaped from a Hot Topic store to scream “I am rich.” This is no different from the art at the very top of the market, touted as an investment vehicle that cuts out the vicissitudes of corporate ups and downs, skipping price/earnings ratios and dividends for an unabashed belief in inflation and the greater fool theory, but in reality act primarily as a signifier for extreme wealth and good taste (and often a front for money laundering).

Other forms of art and architecture use politics as a form of branding, taking a page from Debord’s idea of the Spectacle. Take the hyper-branded architecture of Rem Koolhaas, Bjarke Ingels, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and their ilk, often presented by academic “critics” as somehow serving to liberate people (which I suppose means from architectural convention) or progressive (which is just baffling). 

These two positions—the idea of self-validation and branding—come together in art that espouses a political position or identity politics. Now the central point of the avant-garde had been to communicate political ideas and, especially after the Black Lives Matter and #metoo movements, there has been a burst of interest in the art world in such art. Yet, nobody has ever gone to an art gallery and come out a communist. Hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb collects art by Jean-Michael Basquait, Richard Prince, Mike Kelley, and Cindy Sherman, all of whom have been political art darlings of Leftist art critics and yet is a major donor to Right-wing causes as well as a supporter of the neo-fascist menace that occupied the White House from 2017 to 2021. He is merely one egregious illustration; ultimately one’s political position hardly matters. What does it mean to have an El Lissitzky on one wall and a Frida Kahlo on another? It signifies wealth and aesthetic appreciation, not political allegiance. What does it mean to demonstrate solidarity with an identity group? Why is one lauded for affirming one’s sexuality loudly in art, even if Mapplethorpean transgression can no longer demonstrate the shock of the new? All this merely demonstrates one’s virtue.

Many members of the bourgeoisie, unable to escape the deeply engrained notions of Protestantism, but questioning its superstitions, have replaced the delusion of original sin with the notion of “privilege.” Surrounding oneself with art that trumpets the identity of its maker is a way of assuaging this guilt, even if—as the notorious Whitney “Collective Actions” show demonstrated—political art’s functional purpose isn’t to change the structural condition that it critiques but rather to underscore and cement those very structural conditions. Nor is this new, notwithstanding the newness of the phrase “virtue signaling,” virtue and art have long been linked, initially through religion, later on through connoiseurship. And, of course, for many artists, the idea that art needs to be socially relevant assuages their own guilty consciousnesses for producing useless things for the rich.

And yet, as Peter Sloterdijk explained in his Critique of Cynical Reason, it’s the habit of such guilty consciousnesses to turn to cynical. The cynic (in the sense that Sloterdijk and I always speak of) is someone with an enlightened false consciousness, someone who knows that something is wrong but goes on doing it anyway. Having read critical theory in university, the modern cynic knows that what she or he is doing is wrong, but they do it anyway. Sloterdijk writes that this makes them “borderline melancholics, who can keep their symptoms of depression under control and can remain more or less able to work.” For Sloterdijk, once an individual has become cynical, his or her hope has been lost, abandoned for expediency. Take for example, the Marxist professor (a figure I met all too often in the university) who realizes that with Revolution endlessly deferred, the best thing they can do is to defend their academic position at all costs so they can continue preaching Adorno and Benjamin, even if that defense comes at the cost of cutting down rising faculty, avoiding any political activities outside the university, or looking upon staff as human beings worthy of consideration. Fascism—both interwar and present-day American and European fascism—is the ultimate result, of course, a politics based on brutal expediency, in which democracy must ultimately give way to a “politics of pure violence.”

There is, however, a choice that avoids the cynical, the choice of embracing the most degraded of all ideas in art today, that of “the universal,” and it may not be what many of you will think or find acceptable (although in private conversations, many of you have said that this is precisely what is necessary…). That possibility is the subject of Part II, which will come after an interregnum in which I get some work out there.

Modernism in Montclair

I will be speaking about the modern architecture in Montclair, New Jersey and the surrounding areas tonight for the Montclair History Center, 2 June at 7pm. The talk will be recorded and shown on Youtube a few weeks from now at the Montclair History Center’s channel. I will be covering the period from 1900 to 1985, including “the Hollywood Hills of New Jersey” (Highland Avenue) and will briefly talk about the Deck House corporation.

https://us06web.zoom.us/j/92938168537?pwd=T0pGbVgxVUMwVjV0WDBMZlFkbUI0Zz09
Meeting ID: 929 3816 8537
Passcode: 818319

On the Wastelands of Northern New Jersey

My photographic essay, Wastelands: An Analysis of the Early Anthropocene Swamps of Glacial Lake Passaic is now up on this site. The photographs were exhibited at El Palacio de la Madraza in Granada, Spain as part of the show Vernacular. Diálogos entre micropolíticas del paisaje, curated by Carlos Gor Gómez. A brief abstract below:

In his 1961 book, Megalopolis: the Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, geographer Jean Gottman adopted the Greek term “megalopolis” to refer to vast conurbations such as the northeastern seaboard of the United States, from Washington DC to Boston. This megalopolis, he observed, would not have a uniform population density but rather would be composed of multiple urban centers and the interstitial spaces between them.

Even as megalopolitan territories have developed across the globe and the price of land in their boundaries has skyrocketed, interstitial spaces within them persist in terms of what Ignasi de Sola-Morarles called terrain vague, leftover spaces that have been abandoned for some reason. Understanding the potential of such sites—not to develop them, as is the vogue for too many architects, but to leave them as is or to allow damaged ecological systems to be restored—is a critical task for urban researchers today.

In this photo essay, I look at a group of such areas in Essex County, New Jersey, the densest and most urbanized county of the densest and most urbanist state in the United States, specifically at huge swamps remaining from the draining of Glacial Lake Passaic that comprise roughly ¼ of the county’s acreage. My interest is in both the history and conflicts over these areas and the tenuous relationship individuals have with the borders of such areas, especially now that extreme weather events have become annual occurrences.