Photographer J. Henry Fair’s new exhibit, Landscapes of Extraction: The Collateral Damage of the Fossil Fuels Industries at the second floor gallery at Cooper Union is as important as it is surreal. And is it ever surreal. Esthetically, Fair goes for vividly colorful landscape shots of future Superfund sites: that is, if there is any Superfund left to clean up the decapitated mountaintops, lakesize cesspools of lethal sludge, and seemingly innocuous construction sites he shoots from a distance. Fair’s photos are accompanied by a series of multimedia stations and a grimly informative running text detailing the processes he documents: deep sea drilling, mountaintop clearcutting, messy metal refining and chemical manufacturing. And those matter-of-factly calm if predictably messy construction sites are actually hydrofracked natural gas wells.
“Fracking,” in the gas business is slang for “fracture,” a necessity when drilling through shale deposits to unleash the lucrative gas beneath. Hydrofracking began in the 70s, originally a process where high-pressure water was used to break up the rock. These days, courtesy of what’s commonly known as the “Halliburton loophole,” pushed through by the Bush regime in 2005, natural gas companies are allowed to use whatever liquid they want, no matter how caustic or lethal it might be. Furthermore, the law exempts the drilling companies from having to reveal the contents of their lethal concoctions on the grounds that they’re “trade secrets.” As Fair documents, what’s no secret is that highly toxic amounts of radium have turned up in groundwater running into the water table from these sites recently (ostensibly, there’s supposed to be a buffer zone around each well, although a particularly eerie aerial photo shows a portion of Garfield County, Colorado with wells side by side – from above, the effect is that of a graveyard). And while radium is silently lethal, there’s no ignoring the water in your kitchen sink catching fire, vividly described in Josh Fox’s documentary film Gasland. Gas leases are lucrative: it’s not hard to imagine the residents of a neighborhood or town hit hard by the depression signing up for them en masse, only to discover their property polluted to the point of being unhabitable, never mind unsaleable. Is the current process of hydrofracking the teens equivalent of what munitions manufacturing became in the 90s, a convenient way to dispose of nuclear waste? Fair’s investigation doesn’t carry that far.
He also takes a sobering look at mountaintop clearcutting (a cause famously taken up by activist/gospel bandleader Reverend Billy), where coal companies like Massey Energy basically blast the top off mountains in Appalachia, raining down all sorts of debris, some more toxic than others, on the community below. Ultimately, Fair emphasizes, what’s happened since the invention of the steam engine is that millions of years worth of carbon have been re-released into the environment in the last 250 years, a blink of an eye and the equivalent of an explosion in evolutionary terms. The potentially apocalyptic environmental crises we face today, from global warming, to oil spills, to the highly contested effects of hydrofracking, are the blowback from that explosion. The exhibit is a must-see; it’s up through February 26 at Cooper Union (enter through the back entrance at the main building on the triangle between Bowery and Fourth Avenue at Seventh Street). Hours are Monday-Friday, 12-7 PM, Saturday 12-5 PM.
Concert Review: Paul Wallfisch, the Ulrich/Ziegler Duo and McGinty and White at the Delancey, NYC 4/23/09
Small Beast is rapidly becoming a New York institution. The kind of thing you’ll look back on and tell your kids assuming you live long enough to have them and they live long enough to understand you when you talk about how in the spring of 2009 you spent Thursday evenings upstairs at this one Lower East Side bar, in a space that by all rights shouldn’t even have music at all because it barely has a stage. But it does. And the shows just get better and better. It started midwinter when Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch’s desire to work up new material and collaborate with what seems an ever-expanding cast of quality players from some of music’s darker enclaves. It’s not limited to rock, either: there’ve been shows by jazz, classical and gypsy acts here too.
Thursday’s was maybe the best to date. Or maybe not, there’ve been transcendent moments practically every week. Wallfisch opened as he always does, solo on piano, Chopinesque (in that his style blends the Romantics and the gypsies) and upbeat this time with almost a sprint through the Little Annie noir cabaret gem Because You’re Gone, a brand new tango and a ballad in French. His collaborator onstage this time was cellist Rubin Kodheli from the brilliant chamber rock group Edison Woods and the artsy, ambient Blues in Space. Despite a total lack of rehearsal, the two matter-of-factly made their way through a wrenchingly beautiful version of the subtly and brutally sarcastic Three Women and the stately, equally haunting Eleganza and Wines, Wallfisch as usual getting the crowd going in a clapalong in 7/8 time – the premise seems to be that if the Arabs and the Bulgarians can do it, we should be able to follow along too. Then they brought Kerry Kennedy up onstage and did Because You’re Gone again, halfspeed, her bruised velvet vocals giving the lament special poignancy.
The Ulrich/Ziegler duo were next, supplying the requisite transcendence, boiling over with chilly reverb instrumental soundscapes evoking images of Tribeca alleyways in grim, rain-drenched late autumn predawn, black and silver but not in a Blue Oyster Cult way, not unless you count the two guitars. With Big Lazy on the shelf at the moment and what seems an endless series of film and tv projects going on, frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich has been lately been playing duo shows with Pink Noise guitarist Itamar Ziegler. This team is a winner, part Mingus, part Ventures and part Morricone but with a savage, often macabre wit that transcends any of those styles and at times, unsurprisingly, sounds almost exactly like Big Lazy. Ziegler was a human metronome, holding the songs together while Ulrich played sharpshooter, alternating between ominously minimal tremolo licks, ominous washes of sound, reverberating chordlets and dirty skronk. They opened with a vintage Big Lazy song, following with a plaintive waltz and a surprisingly bluesy, minor-key one loping along on a garage rock beat. A new one, Since Cincinnati proved to be Ulrich’s most haunting lapsteel song, sort of a more noir, cinematic twist on the old Big Lazy hit Junction City. They wound up the set with a swinging, chicha-esque version of Caravan lit up with a long, blacklit solo from Ulrich in place of where the Ventures would have put the drums.
McGinty and White were a good segue because while many of their songs have a subtle menace, there was no resemblance between them and Ulrich and Ziegler other than that they could be competing offices of obstetricians. This was ostensibly the first live show together for the former Psychedelic Furs keyboardist and the “tippling gadabout [NOT]” who’s been putting out excellent, darkly lyrical janglerock albums since before the turn of the century. Occasionally putting down his acoustic guitar, White proved equally adept as a crooner while the backing band did a picture-perfect evocation of late 60s psychedelically-inclined chamber pop. Watching them was like being in the audience at Ed Sullivan, 1968 – and putting violinist Claudia Chopek out in front of the stage, on the floor, where her warmly compelling lead lines could resonate was a smart move. The title of their new cd McGinty and White Sing the McGinty and White Songbook is characteristically tongue-in-cheek. McGinty is no slouch at sardonic humor, offering a vivid reminder with the deadpan Get a Guy and the haunting, atmospheric ballad that closed the show. They’d opened the show with the sarcastic Everything Is Fine, punctuated by a surprisingly over-the-top metal solo from their lead player, later delivering the self-effacing Big Baby, McGinty’s effortless rivulets threatening to erode the piano keys. The savage Knees, written by White finally unleashed the demons: “You can keep my heart, bitch, just give me back my knees.” There’ll be a review of the album here closer to the date of the cd release show in May.
Super duper orange alert: unless people start dropping like flies in the streets, Lucid Culture has no intention to stop reviewing concerts, frequenting public places or riding the train. This “flu outbreak” has all the earmarks of hysteria (remember Y2K?). Mexico City has awful sanitation and services, it’s overcrowded, polluted and the most impoverished Mexicans suffer from malnutrition. In other words, it’s a prime spot for an outbreak of something. You could say the same about New York except that as bad as things can get it’s not that bad here. Yet. Keep your eyes open this fall and see if the bug mutates into the black plague.
Lucid Culture is one year old today, so it’s time to celebrate with some particularly lucid cultural news!
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, along comes Super Pii Pii Brothers, a video game designed for the Nintendo wireless system. A vaguely dildo-looking contraption is strapped around the player’s waist and is used to wirelessly direct the bright yellow stream of urine that sprays from what seems a distance of several feet toward the toilet or toilets onscreen. Every once in awhile a cat pops up from under the toilet seat. Piss on the animal and you earn extra points. If your aim is weak and you urinate on the floor for any length of time, the game is mercifully over.
The game claims to offer “100 different peeing environments with multiple toilet and urinal styles.” And for the ultimate homoerotic experience, two players can compete with dueling pee streams. Supposedly the game is popular with Japanese girls who for the first time get to pee standing up. The lone American vendor offering it for sale at this point is selling it for $35 plus shipping. Rumor has it that there is a version designed specifically for Williamsburg, Brooklyn due out soon, wherein the goal is to avoid the toilet and pee on the floor as much as possible.
So in recent weeks, I’ve quoted some linked articles in Alexander Cockburn’s ongoing tirade against the global warming hypothesis. Today, I finally waded through the source material of this tirade – an ongoing ‘debate’ between Monbiot and Cockburn hosted by Znet after Cockburn’s first column appeared in the Nation several months back. Bracketing any dispute I may have with Cockburn on the ‘global warming’ issue, after reading the exchanges, I can now completely understand why his columns took the direction that they did – and I have completely lost all respect for Monbiot. Let’s start at the beginning.
Let me begin this response with an admission of incompetence. I am not qualified to comment on the scientific claims made in Alexander Cockburn’s article. But nor is Cockburn qualified to make them.
George, you are a journalist who writes almost exclusively on environmentalism and environmental science. If you are not ‘qualified to comment’, you should seek another field. But this point is just the opening volley of a gross appeal to ‘experts’, to people who seem more qualified to offer their opinions simply because they have letters after their names and their writings have been ‘peer reviewed’
When a non-scientist attempts to dispute the findings of an entire body of science, a good deal of humility and a great deal of research is required. Otherwise he puts himself in the position of the 9/11 truthers.
Right, so when someone appeals to the work of scientists who disagree with the prevailing paradigm, they are immediately to be deemed conspiracy theorists who believe that no plane hit the Pentagon. Great. Got that point.
Cockburn’s article cannot be taken seriously until we have seen his list of references, and affirmed that the key claims he makes have already been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. This would not mean they are correct, though it does mean that they are worth discussing.
And we reach the point – the only science ‘worth discussing’ is that which appears in peer-reviewed journals. Before I dissect this, I would like to backtrack to one more statement made in this foray by Monbiot:
If you want to believe that HIV does not cause AIDs, you can find a professor of medicine who supports that view.
Well, given your high appraisal of peer review, I ‘d like to see the peer-reviewed article in which 1. HIV has been isolated, 2. HIV has been shown to be present in vivo in blood and fluid, 3. HIV is shown to have a clear pathogenesis resulting in AIDS, and 4. That the non-specific antibody tests for HIV actually predict an AIDS diagnosis in the absence of other factors which could result in an AIDS diagnosis. Don’t put yourself out George, Kary Mullis has been asking the HIV royalty for this ‘peer reviewed’ article for about 15 years, neither Gallo nor Montaigne have coughed it up. And for your information, some 2,500 scientists, doctors & academics have concluded from a review of the literature that HIV does not cause AIDS. There are several Nobel laureates, there are a vast array of people formerly working in the field, there are a vast array of some the most prominent scientists currently alive on that list.
Why are their opinions not worthy of grants George?
I have long had issues with the ‘peer review’ system. We now seem to accept it unquestionably as the only way to vet knowledge. It wasn’t always such. And it serves a far more nefarious purpose than one would imagine. David Noble has written a great article on the history of peer review that should be a both a revelation and reiteration for anyone following science in the ensuing decades.
Led by New Deal senator Harley Kilgore they put forth a plan for a postwar National Science Foundation that emphasized lay control over science and political accountability. It was to be headed by a presidentially appointed director advised by a board whose members would include citizens representing consumers, labor, and small businesses as well as large corporations and scientists. The agency would let contracts to firms and universities on an equitable basis and would retain public ownership of all patents. Kilgore envisioned the new agency as a democratic means to socially responsive science.
This democratic proposal alarmed Bush and his elite academic and corporate colleagues who formulated a counter proposal, for National Research Foundation (later, also called the National Science Foundation). Central to this plan was an agency that guaranteed professional rather than lay control over science, was insulated from political accountability, and gave its director discretion over the awarding of patent ownership. In essence, the Bush agency was designed to guarantee public support for scientists – and, indirectly, for the corporations they served as well – without public control, a regime of science run by scientists and paid for by the taxpayer.
In 1950 a compromise version of the Bush bill was passed and signed by Truman, now once again under (cold)wartime exigencies. The new agency included a presidentially-appointed director but a board composed only of scientists committed to continuing the comfortable patterns established by the OSRD during the war. As a bulwark against democratic oversight and lay involvement in the awarding of scientific contracts and grants, the agency adopted a new mechanism of exclusion: “peer review.” Only peers – fellow privileged professionals, whatever their unacknowledged ties to commercial enterprise – could be involved in deciding upon the merits and agenda of science.
Hence the origin of ‘peer review’ – a political attempt to keep ‘science’ under the control of government and the corporate interests they serve. Keep that in mind the next time you ask for ‘peer reviewed sources’.
But this gets to the crux of the matter. What has this legislative dictum wrought? Precisely what we have today – a world in which the status quo is reaffirmed by grant after grant, and those doing real science, those questioning, those debating, those doing whatever they can to cobble together research that contradicts the ‘right’ ideas, are completely excluded from the ‘scientific world’. They are cranks, quacks and snake oil salesman. It doesn’t matter if they’ve won Nobel Prizes or are recognized in other ways as some of the greatest scientists of all time. They’re still heretics in the face of ‘peer review’, because their ideas don’t serve political ends.