Category Archives: USC Specialized Journalism

Lautner's Freedom of Structure

During my Great Houses of Los Angeles course with Victor Regnier, I discovered the architecture of John Lautner. Maybe I like the guy because he’s a Yooper. But his buildings are truly amazing: freedom of structure. Here’s the paper I wrote.


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Shepard Fairey Talks About Art, Obama and the AP

Being the poster child (so to speak) for street urchins’/artists’ fight against the Man has not  dampened Shepard Fairey’s sense of humor, much. At his Visions and Voices conversation with Annenberg School professor Sarah Benet-Weiser November 4, the creator of the most widely seen piece of art in recent history — the Barack Obama Hope poster — was not afraid to crack jokes at the expense of the Associated Press, his corporate combatant in an increasingly nasty legal battle that’s testing the parameters of copyright law. When a Fairey handler tried to tamp down the artist’s response to a question about the mutual AP suits, he pointed out that anyone could find the points about fair use that he was trying to make: “You can go on Google, like I did to get the image.” The crowd chuckled warmly at the jester’s mask of guilelessness.

Being the next Napster-like leader in the new media war against old media has made Fairey a bit of a rock star. Fans showed up to the overbooked Annenberg Auditorium clutching posters and conspiracy theories, like so many badges of subversion. Relaxed in an armchair with his chiseled profile, like the overgrown skater boi he is, Fairey both ate up and deflected the attention. He was funnily and charmingly self-aware. “I might be at the tail end of the hipster cycle now,” he said, after having spent about an hour discussing slides showing his evolution from the sticker mania of Andre the Giant and Obey through his anti-Bush Constructivist propaganda to the thoroughly and unapologetically un-ironic 2008 campaign posters.

Fairey did get a bit tongue-tied when he tried to explain why he lied about his original source for the Obama posters, the subject of his litigation battle with the AP. As political as his work can be, there’s always been a certain moral ambiguity in its tactics — some would say that ambiguity is another word for hypocrisy. But there still can’t seem to be little doubt that, as he argued, the Hope poster meet the criteria for fair use. Certainly, it seems very Goliath/NARAS-like for the MSM to be picking on a punk rocker from South Carolina in this way. They’re making Fairey a martyred spokesperson; his Annenberg appearance showed that given the right jury, he could easily persuade them of his righteousness. Plus, he makes some pretty damn good art. If he didn’t, no one would bother messing with him.

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Tharp's Creative License

Twyla Tharp conducted her lecture at USC’s Bing Theatre Oct. 13 a little like a therapy session. She was speaking about “creative skills,” drawing upon her 2003 book The Creative Mind. These skills are rather like self-help exercises, except Tharp drew upon the works of such great artists as Mozart, Shakespeare and David Byrne, not such great psychiatric thinkers as Freud, Reich, or Jung.

I find that when I’m having creative failure (aka writers’ block, and when I say writers’ block, I mean sinking into that abyss where I wonder who am I fooling thinking I can write and start combing the help wanted ads for a “real” job, any job), I often get inspiration by revisiting the work of a favorite inspiration. When Tharp is stuck, she reads Shakespeare sonnets so she can be assured that “someone once knew where they were going.” Choreographing the Milos Forman movie Amadeus, she was endlessly inspired by Mozart’s genius and work habits. He wrote “clean scores,” she marveled — that’s the 18th century equivalent of recording a hit song in one take.

Tharp herself is a bit of a great artist. So I took her adages more as koans than cliches. “When you’re working you can not be critical,” she advised — i.e., when the juices are flowing, don’t stop them by self-censoring. “You get energy from secrets,” she said, explaining why she never reveals what she’s working on next. “Collaborations offer tutorials in reality,” she said. “In the long run, you learn something from everyone and everything.”

The latter words of wisdom are lessons offered in her forthcoming book, The Collaborative Mind. Tharp, after all, has worked with such artists as Byrne (The Catherine Wheel), Billy Joel (Moving On), and Frank Sinatra, or at least his estate (her current show, Come Fly With Me). Having recently read and reviewed Byrne’s new book Bicycle Diaries, I really liked her description of the former Talking Head as a polymath and a poet. She said that The Catherine Wheel is likely to get restaged in 2015, the 50th anniversary of her life as a creative mind.

Ordinarily, I might have found Tharp’s presentation too touchy-feely for my punk hide. And I’m sure glad that I wasn’t the woman who had to go up there and lie on the stage like an egg. But I had just come from a class where a bunch of students had been scoffing at the idea of the artist as some Romantic vestige. I thought such postmodern Barthesian concepts of the death of the author had finally been bankrupted — as Jeff Chang would say, “that’s so 9/10.” (Jeff was talking about the idea of “branding,’’ but I love that phrase and now say it every chance I get.) “Pomo no mo’” is my motto. In the age of content, creativity has been woefully commodified and needs celebrating. So I was up for exercising the creative mind.

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Social Media and the Arts: A Podcast

Are social media creating a new army of citizen journalists, rendering us professional types obsolete? Or can they be tools to further the trade of arts journalism? These questions and more were discussed at the National Summit for Arts Journalism that USC hosted Oct. 2. As part of a group assignment for school, I wrote, recorded and mixed a podcast on Social Media and the Arts.  For it, I interviewed Jeff Change and Laura Sydell — two pros I happen to know from my old Voice days. (Laura interviewed me about 18 years ago for a NPR story on the Nuyorican Poets Cafe; it was funny to turn the tables all these years later. Jeff and I were fact-checkers and copy-editors, respectively, and writers.) Keep in mind that I missed the radio workshop where we were taught how to do this. I had a crash course on mixing mostly by trial and error. The segues are pretty rough. But not bad for an amateur, if I do say so myself.


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Arts Journalism Summit

Speaking of the changing nature of arts journalism, there’s a summit about that very subject at USC on Friday, co-directed by Sasha Anawalt, the director of my Master’s program at SC’s Annenberg School (the mistress of my Master’s?). You can watch it live right here, from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. PST. video by Ustream

Check out the ongoing chat here:

And finally, yes, the Twitter feed:

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Twitter Over?

I met with some undergraduates at Wells College today to talk about journalism. I asked them as many questions as they asked me. A lot of what they told me is not necessarily what we’re being told about the new media audience. For instance, they like magazines, the print kind. None of them Tweet or blog. They want to work for book publishers and write long-form. They don’t use RSS. One of them reads Digg. One reads alternative news sources online, like Alternet. Mostly, they don’t have a lot of time to read, outside of course work. I remember that feeling well — oh wait, I’m that way now. These are students at a small private liberal arts college in rural New York. Not necessarily what a group of NYU students might say. But still, interesting.

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Japanese Dolphins: Ponyo versus The Cove

I wanted to see Ponyo the minute it hit theaters — Miyazaki is certainly my favorite maker of children’s films, and one of my favorite directors. But swine flu and other distractions kept my son and me away until this Saturday. Cole’s dad was out of town, we were enjoying a mom-and-son weekend, and Ponyo was on top of my list (though we did stop at a horse show on the way).

It’s funny to me that Disney now releases these Studio Ghibli films, since Miyazaki’s imagination is still so unformulaic and frankly sometimes freakish. His characters are androgynous and anthropomorphic in ways that seem to me to be subversive and, well, queer. It’s part of why I love him. Often, as in Ponyo, there’s a wizard who drips sweat and anxiety — an authority figure who has been twisted and can’t be trusted. He usually has long hair and a big nose, like a rock star crossed with a witch.

Nature bursts into strange and fantastic forms in Miyazaki’s movies, and Ponyo — though G-rated — is no exception. There are waves that are slaves to the wizard, and throw themselves as menacing creatures onto the shore. The whole movie is about the sea. It’s also about the relationship between a mother and son. So it was perfect and profound that Cole and I saw it together, on our weekend alone, then drove back to our new home by the shore.

Ponyo and other Miyazaki movies are all about the environment.  The Japanese filmmaker was green long before An Inconvenient Truth made it trendy. This struck me as interesting in light of debate saying that The Cove is harsh on the Japanese while ignoring American theme parks’ complicity in dolphin entrapment and trade. Perhaps because the Japanese still whales, it’s easy to point the finger at them as cruel to animals — Miyazaki does it as well. But the U.S. is the country that didn’t sign the Kyoto protocol.

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