Dec 1, 2019

What About Bob

 -click images to enlarge- 

I approached the entrance of the Vancouver Art Gallery with my daughter in tow. She was a toddler back in the early eighties — a good age to begin her indoctrination into the world of art. We lived on Vancouver Island at the time, therefore we had limited opportunities to visit the VAG, but I made it a priority to drop in when we were in Vancouver. The building on Georgia Street was nondescript: concrete, glass, aluminum, straight lines — it reflected the austere coldness of mid-century architecture. No surprise there, as it had been expanded and remodelled in 1951. It replaced the original 1931 art-deco-style building — complete with sculpted busts of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci flanking the entrance, which did not exactly scream Canadian OR modern art. The original art collection contained just seven paintings by Canadian artists. The new building projected a fresh direction in the VAG's collection: more contemporary, more Canadian, fewer cows on fields reflecting venerable British art trends. The bequest of 170 paintings by local artist Emily Carr anchored the new contemporary collection. New acquisitions included works by a growing number of renowned Canadian and international artists. I was excited to see what this particular visit would offer.

The first thing I learned as we entered the building was that the VAG was planning to move. The Gallery had outgrown its location and so had the Provincial Courthouse located just a few blocks east, in the heart of the city. The provincial and municipal governments had reached a land swap deal that allowed the VAG to secure a 99-year lease of the neo-classical courthouse building. Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson had been commissioned to renovate and expand the courthouse in 1981. The new VAG would open to the public at the end of 1983 with over 41,000 square feet of exhibition space in the old Courthouse. I was thrilled to learn that.

I don't recall exactly what I saw during that specific visit to the VAG. The experience blends in with many other visits, except for one piece. As we entered the last exhibition room — think of it as a vestibule to the left of the main entrance — we were facing an 8X6 feet painting by American artist Robert Rauschenberg titled "Rush 10 (from Cloister), 1980". It was a monumental, exquisite, powerful member of Rauschenberg's Cloister Series. A full-size replica of the painting was hanging on the wall next to it. It had a superimposed grid of black lines over it dividing the painting into 7,350 squares inches. Many of the squares had round stickers attached to them. A sign on the wall asked "Help Take a Rauschenberg to Court." For $5 you could "purchase" a square inch of the painting to help the VAG raise $32,000 of the $72,000 price tag. It didn't take me long to reach for my wallet.

I paid for two square inches, and was given two round stickers to place on the grid. I figured that as time passed it would be difficult to remember which two squares belonged to Zoe and me, so I chose the "thumb up" of the hand at the bottom left part of the margin. I thought that it would be easy to remember that detail. As a bonus, we were given two buttons announcing "I Helped Take a Rauschenberg to Court." A nice addition to my button collection. As gallery visits go, that one makes the highlight reel.

I had never seen a Rauschenberg in real life before. I was not living in Canada during his first exhibition at the Douglas Gallery in 1967. While living on the island I missed his second visit to Vancouver in 1978 for an exhibition at the VAG, and once again in 1980 when he exhibited at the Ace Gallery.

Rauschenber's last visit to Vancouver was in 1999, however he was not here for an exhibition of his own work, but rather for an exhibition of Darryl Pottorf's work at the Buschlen Mowatt Gallery. Portoff was Rauschenberg's chief studio assistant in the 1990s. They collaborated on a number of pieces over the years.

If given a choice, I wish I could have attended the show at the Ace Gallery. A poster celebrating the exhibition was available for purchase at the opening reception for just $25. Eve Johnson's story in the Vancouver Sun newspaper described the scene as "(Rauschenberg) has a drink clutched in one hand, a felt pen in the other. His name is already printed on the poster. All he adds by hand is adding handwritten "Bob." I was asked to photograph one of those posters some years ago when I was working at a Gallery in Vancouver. The poster was destined for an on-line sale. It had "To Art" written on the lower left hand corner, and signed Rauschenberg with felt pen along the bottom margin. By that time I had become an ardent fan of his art, so I was tempted to purchase it, but the fact that it was dedicated "To Art" dissuaded me, although the unintended (?) double entendre made it tantalizingly tempting.

The fact that Milton Ernest "Robert" Rauschenberg is often referred to as "Bob" I find so apropos. Artist Michael Craig-Martin in an interview published by the Tate Modern put it best when describing Bob's contribution: he made us question "what the artist's role is, the parameters of art, the nature of art, what is the bottom line, what is the least thing you need, what can you get rid of and still have a work of art?" The best example of those ideas is illustrated by the story of Bob showing up at the door of Willem de Kooning's studio — the most celebrated Abstract Expressionist artist in N.Y.C at the time — clutching a bottle of Jack Daniels to ask de Kooning for a drawing, so he could erase it. There was some initial resistance, but after a couple of glasses of whisky and some intense dialogue Bob got his wish. Bill gave Bob a drawing, one that would be very difficult to erase, as it was made with charcoal, grease pencil, crayon, ink and graphite. It took Bob a month, and countless erasers to complete the task. The blank piece of paper —except for a few smudges— was framed a couple of years later and Bob's friend Jasper Johns named it "Erased de Kooning Drawing." It was exhibited at the Elinor Poindexter Gallery in 1953 where it was virtually ignored by the viewing public, although the story gained traction through the grapevine. Today it is considered one of Bob's most controversial works.

If the blank piece of paper of the erased de Kooning drawing were a one-of, it may be considered a stunt, a cheap trick, but let's not forget that Bob produced a series of radical multipanel monochromatic works titled "White Paintings": rectangular canvases covered in white house paint applied with a roller. As composer John Gage stated: "no subject, no image, no taste, no object, no beauty, no message, no talent, no technique, no why, no idea, no intention, no art, no feeling, no black, no white, no and." I am not going to attack or defend white paintings, but consider this: the same artist who created "White Paintings, 1951, Latex on canvas" also created this: "Monogram, 1955-59, Oil, paper, fabric, wood, rubber heel, tennis ball, metal plaque, hardware, stuffed Angora goat, rubber tire, mounted on four wheels." And there lies the core of his extraordinary talent: Bob relentlessly pursued an answer to the question "What is Art?" A cardboard box?, a quilt?, two sheets on a line?, an umbrella?, a stuffed goat wearing a tire? Rauschenberg disseminated the idea that art presents itself anywhere, at any time. He saw a blurry line between art and life, so consequently he merged traditional media with everyday objects creating "Combines": hybrid works that are neither painting nor sculpture but rather both at once. There is little doubt that the Combines are Bob's greatest achievement. Claiming that Rauschenberg redefined American art when he invented the Combines would not be overstating his influence. Yet, I sense that he would not be interested in that. He always looked forward, "I mean, anybody can do Raushenbergs", he once said, "It's the future stuff that's interesting."

My understanding, assimilation, and appreciation of Bob's art developed slowly. The way photography is integrated into his work created the initial attraction. Over the years I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to view Bob's work in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Paris and Madrid. I have never seen a retrospective or major exhibition of his work, but rather a few pieces here and there without context of points of reference. Those encounters have led me to want to learn more about him, his life and his work. I have discovered that the reasons why I like him are similar to the reasons why I like Picasso. They were experimenters, inventors, rebels, influencers. They were playful workaholics, did not take themselves too seriously and they were not afraid to fail. "Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea" Bob said, and if I said he was right, I'd be stopping all the momentum of a very interesting idea, so I won't.

I walked into the VAG recently to view the "Robert Rauschenberg 1965-1980" exhibit. As I entered the exhibition hall  I was facing "Rush 10 (from Cloister), 1980." I had not seen the painting since the day Zoe and I bought the two square inches almost four decades ago. I thought about my daughter and the connection we created through a small detail in Bob's painting. I also thought that dragging my daughter through countless art galleries when she was a child — even when she complained —  produced the intended result. She grew to appreciate art.
I found the thumb, and felt glad about making that decision. As I examined the work I once again felt that sense of kinship — from one photographer to another. This time however, I felt that I knew Bob more intimately, that I understood him better, that I liked him so much more.

I like that he spent 17 years creating a mixed-media self-portrait — composed of 190 panels that measure a 1/4 of a mile long. I like that he created a series of silkscreens on copper while on a visit to Chile — using copper as a sign of solidarity with the Chilean people. I like that he regarded his dyslexia as a metaphysical advantage. I like that his art requires a bit of work from the viewer: just as you start to feel comfortable, he disrupts you with something unexpected. I like that although his painting "Overdrive, 1963" sold for $41.6 million in 2008, you could purchase "Why You Can't Tell, 1979", today, for the price of an Apple Macbook. I really like him for perhaps one of his most insignificant accomplishments: he won a Grammy Award for the cover design of the Talking Heads album "Speaking in Tongues." It tickles me to think that Bob — the inventor of creative disorder — has a link to the band that said "Stop Making Sense."

Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Newspaper clipping: Courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery Library & Archives.

Editor: K. Moser.

Nov 1, 2019


 -click images to enlarge- 

We jumped into a taxi. My father offered no explanation about where we were going or what was happening. I assumed we were going to a movie, which would not have been a surprise since my father loved movies. The restaurant my family owned closed between lunch and dinner, so my father would often go to a matinee during the mid-afternoon break. He would normally go alone.

We rode in silence along Providencia avenue towards downtown. When the cab came to a stop we were nowhere near a movie theater. We were parked in front of a walk-up rowhouse in a suburban neighbourhood just outside of downtown Santiago. My father got out of the taxi and told me to wait in the vehicle. He entered the building. He was gone for quite a while. I kept glancing at the front door hoping to see him come out, but he remained inside. I was feeling anxious as the meter in the taxi continued to run. At one point I noticed a kid looking out through the front window of the home. He appeared to be roughly my age, about ten years old. I don't think he saw me, although he seemed to be scanning the taxi. After what seemed like an interminable wait my father returned to the car. He offered no explanation for the visit. I asked him who lived there, who was the kid, what was he doing there, but his response was evasive. He told me — in a rather convincing tone — not to mention that incident to anyone, ever. He bought my silence with a double-scoop ice cream cone.

It would take me 42 years to learn the truth behind that secret rendezvous. It was a bit of a shock: the rowhouse my father visited was the home of his mistress. The little boy in the window was my half-brother Mario. During a visit to Chile in 2004 I met Mario for the first time. The circumstances surrounding our meeting were as clandestine as my father's affair. I don't know how it came to be, or who made it possible. We met at my sister's home. We sat alone in the living room where we chatted for a couple of hours and got to know a little bit about each other. My first impression was that he looked a lot like my dad, much more so than I ever have. Mario was diminutive, soft-spoken, yet assertive. He made it very clear from the onset that he was not interested in developing a friendship with me; for the simple and practical reason that we lived continents apart, so communication would likely be troublesome. And...what would be the point at our advanced age? Fair enough. I had a million questions running through my head, and I realized that this was probably my one-and-only opportunity to get some answers.

In the end, the picture that emerged from our conversation was a bit fuzzy. Our dad died when we were barely teens, so Mario suffered from the same gaps in memory as I did. He characterized dad as distant, uninvolved, uninterested. They didn't spend a great deal of time together. That didn't surprised me as he probably only saw him while dad was "at the movies." Mario did not know I existed, and vice versa. My brother showed an elemental acceptance of how his childhood had unfolded. He showed no signs of resentment or bitterness towards dad and his indiscretions. Remarkably, Mario viewed the events with a rather straightforward "it-is-what-it-is" attitude; at least that was what he seemed to be projecting to me.  We hugged, said goodbye, and we never saw each other again. When I returned to Canada I sent him an email but received no response. Mario was true to his word.

It took me a long time to digest the impact of my visit with Mario. In fact, in 2010 — six years after our meeting — I wrote a very short story about my dad on this blog. I described him as "a gentle man, deeply loyal and of unquestionable dignity and class." Although at that time I acknowledged that my assessment of his character may have been formed by collected fragments — from external sources — rather than from my own personal characterization; I concluded that he wasn't perfect, but gave no indication as to the extent of his imperfection. I think that I gave my father a Get Out Of Jail Free card at that time, because I was not ready to reject my eulogized impressions of his character, including his "loyalty, dignity and class." Since then, my attitude has changed. I no longer feel the need to protect my father from the frosty stare of judgment. I am now prepared to question his character, as well as his role as husband and father.

When Mario described our father as distant, uninvolved and uninterested I felt that his assessment was on point. From the time I started kindergarten until the day he died —when I was thirteen years old— we spent very little time together. Our daily routines did not jibe. I would leave for school before he awoke; by the time school was over dad had closed the restaurant for the afternoon and gone "to the movies." He would return to reopen the restaurant for dinner and would stay there till closing time. By the time he got home I was asleep. He worked seven days a week. In the summer — as soon as school was out — I would be sent to vacation at my aunt and uncle's place on the coast. As you can see, there was not a lot of time allotted for father and son to hang out, to play, to bond. Truth be told, I don't remember ever doing anything of significance with my dad: no fishing, or kicking a ball around. No hiking, or camping. No crafts, or home improvement projects. The truly disappointing part of it all is that the extent of his guidance amounted to no more than the lyrics to Humble and Kind: "Hold the door, say please, say thank you, don't steal, don't cheat and don't lie." The saddest part of it all is that I now know that he talked the talk, but didn't walk the walk. He did cheat and he did lie.

I will never know the circumstances surrounding his affair. Was it a one-night-stand that produced a child who my father felt responsible to support? Was it an on-going affair that undermined his relationship with my mother? Did my mother know about the affair, and condone it? Was he financially supporting two families?

I know my life was affected by his affair; the full extent of which I can only surmise. Too many pieces of the puzzle are missing. Yet I feel that the emotional vacuum that the affair created permeated our home. My father failed to develop a close, loving, nurturing, healthy relationship with me, or with my mother. The closeness and fondness that was present early in their marriage faded with time. He began to appear distant, disconnected, as if he was mentally someplace else.

My father was not particularly engaging, playful, or affectionate, which made him difficult to get close to. I don't remember him having a close friend, a buddy, a pal. His closest "friends" were probably his customers — barflies who would play dice games with him during slow times at the restaurant. It would not be unfair to characterize him as bland: like an unseasoned broth, elevator music, or a pair of khaki pants. He offered so little that I did not gravitate towards him. He was not the person who I would go to for guidance or advice. He certainly was not a person who I tried to emulate. The strength of his character was that he was a hard working man who provided the basic physical necessities of life for his family (ies?). And that's about it.

Reflecting on my father's life I cannot dismiss the feeling that he was probably very lonely. His double-life prevented him from living in the moment, being present, or cultivating meaningful relationships. His unassuming, gentle nature got buried under a blanket of deceit. His capacity for happiness suffocated by lack of authenticity. The older I got the less relevant he became. In a way I contributed to his loneliness, yet there is no guilt attached to that.

He killed himself — not by suicide — but by a slow-drip of neglect. He was afflicted by a serious cardiac condition that required frequent emergency-room interventions. Against medical advice, he continued to indulge in rich foods, alcohol and cigarettes. He understood the consequences, yet he did nothing to prevent the inevitable outcome.

I remember once being woken up by a late-night telephone call; it was my mother asking me to go to the restaurant to walk my father home. I did not understand why he would need my company to walk half a block from the restaurant to our home, but I did what I was asked to do. My mom and dad were waiting outside the restaurant when I got there. Mom said to me "make sure he gets home safe." We started walking and I immediately knew something was wrong. My father's steps seemed unsure, his speech sounded slurred. I had never seen my father drunk before so I was quite surprised. I also felt responsible for his safety which made the situation rather awkward. We got to the entrance to our apartment building and he told me to go on up. He'd be up in a minute. I did not know what to do. On one hand I had been asked to look after him, on the other hand my father figure is telling me to go upstairs and leave him alone. He continued walking. I sat in the cold marble steps at the entrance of the building waiting for him. A few minutes later he returned. He smelled like an ashtray. It was obvious that he had been smoking — something he was not supposed to do. We started climbing the stairs. Every three or four treads dad would stop to rest. His breathing sounded labored. Beads of sweat crawled down his forehead. It seemed to take forever to reach the third floor, but much to my relief we eventually got there. I had accomplished my assigned task. He was home safe.

That experience told me that he would not be safe for long. For the first time in my life I witnessed just how sick and weak my father was. It was almost frightening. That night I had a restless sleep.

A few months later I climbed the same stairs to our apartment to find the front door ajar. When I tried to enter I was intercepted by my aunt who lived in the same building. She told me it would be best if I didn't go in at that time. My father had died. I was speechless, but I did not cry. I turned around and in a bizarre ironic twist: I went to the movies.

I sit here half a century later and question: what is my father's legacy? What is my takeaway from our thirteen years together on this planet? Sadly, the strongest feeling he left me with is: I wouldn't want to be like you. I hope that realization has made me a better father, a better husband, a better friend. If that is the case then something positive came out of our relationship.

The first time I wrote about him I gave my father a Get Out Of Jail Free card. Not this time. Dad: your affair was damaging. Like blood under a bandage it seeped surreptitiously into the fabric of our family. Invisible at first, but eventually surfacing to reveal the hurtful consequences of your reprehensible behaviour.

The inspiration and strength to write this story came from Canadian raconteur Ray Bonneville who spoke about writing his song "Cemetery Road" while standing by his father's grave.

Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Brothers: Maria Angelica Ramirez.

Father and son: Photographer unknown.

Mother and father: Photographer unknown.
Editor: K. Moser.

Oct 7, 2019

Classy Move

-click images to enlarge-
Canada is having a federal election. Politicians of every stripe have began to court the "middle class" with promises of: jobs for the middle class, childcare for the middle class, tax cuts for the middle class, health care for the middle class, housing for the middle class, camping for the middle class, wrinkle-free water-proof dungarees for the middle class, and much much more. It makes me think that politicians use the term "middle class" as a wide brush, so that it covers as many voters as possible. Their rhetoric makes me feel like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver "You talking to me?... You talking to ME?!"

Who exactly is the middle class? Is that everybody between billionaires and squeegee kids? Do you have to work in middle management to be middle class? How big is this coveted group? And...what exactly determines class? To me, most Canadians seem ambivalent about class. If anything, we tend to suppress, erase or ignore the idea of class. We don't seem to have a solid sense of what it means, or a particularly solid affiliation with class. I've always thought of Canada as a country free from formal or explicit classes — an open society. Yet the middle class is this quirky social stratification thang that does get mentioned, often, at election time. It seems to fit the political strategy, because even if we use the rather narrow metric of income distribution, I think that everyone — rich or poor — thinks of themselves as middle class. A simultaneous cognizance and repudiation of class. Sociologists and/or economists may dispute those statements, but to me, those ideas are rooted in some very early lessons in social hierarchy.

I grew up in Latin America where the social class system, the social hierarchy, was primarily based on one thing: the place where you were born. My father, because he was born in Spain, belonged to the highest social group: the Peninsulares (also known as Spaniards).  Because I was a descendant of a Spaniard, but born in Latin America, I belonged to the next social class: the Creoles. The strange, and disturbing part of that system is that I was led to believe that because of those classifications I was somehow "better" than people from other social strata: the mixed ancestry Mestizos, or the indigenous Indios, for example. I was not convinced. I rejected the idea outright. I could not correlate a geographical fluke with the social standing of a person. I got off that high horse rather early, in fact I'm not sure that I ever got on it.

My parents lived under a perceived veil of superiority designed to mask their working-class lives. They referred to themselves as middle class, but they toiled endlessly to run their modest restaurant without any of the luxuries of a middle class life. They never owned a home, or a car, or a television set. They seemed satisfied knowing that their social stratification placement would remain intact regardless of their lot in life. Yet, somehow, being considered part of the middle class seemed important to them. It seemed like it was the most comfortable place to be in. You can see how their ideas of social stratification may have been confusing to me: they claimed to belong to a higher class, but lived a working-class life, and called themselves middle class. Sorry folks, it sounds to me like you were trying to hold water in a sieve.

Hierarchies in class can be measured by a number of different metrics: occupation, education, wealth, or a combination of those, which can be used to determine the socio-economic status of a person in a Canadian context. It is not an exact science however. Using that model, an electrician may rate higher than a barista based on occupation. A teacher may rate higher than a school dropout based on education. A wealthy entrepreneur may rate higher than a starving artist based on wealth. The interesting quality of this model is that it is fluid: the barista may later attend university and become a neurosurgeon. The starving artist may develop into the next Banksy and become wealthier than the entrepreneur. That fluidity means that it is entirely possible for someone to shift from one socio-economic strata to another. Canadians are free to move up or down within the social stratification system. Perhaps my parents sought that kind of mobility — averaging their Peninsulares status with their working-class life to slide comfortably into the middle class.

So, am I part of that nebulous, indefinable blob of humanity labelled the middle class? Well, let's examine the metrics. Occupation: in my working life I was neither a professional nor an unskilled worker. I worked most of my life as a government salaried employee, which places me somewhere in the middle of the occupational spectrum. Education: Sixteen years of education places me at the 72.7% mark between kindergarten and a PhD, placing me slightly above the middle of the educational spectrum. Wealth: Does a really old house, an old car, a modest pension, and few shares of Northland Power Inc constitute wealth? Well, 67.8% of Canadians owned a home in 2016, so I guess that places me somewhere around the middle of the wealth spectrum. Oh, Oh... maybe the politicians ARE talking to me.

I have never felt comfortable with the idea of class stratification. It seems to me that the system can be subversively used to label, to divide, to segregate, or even to discriminate; not unlike racism or sexism which can place individuals in a lower strata of society solely based on the fluke of gender and/or race.

Lets not forget that there is also a cultural component to class which includes your tastes, your social networks, the culture you consume, the clothes you wear, the car you drive, even the sports you enjoy. Another bucket of stuff to classify and separate us. If you play polo you may be perceived differently than someone who enjoys bowling. If you attend the symphony you may be perceived differently than someone who enjoys Talking Heads in concert. If you are a member of a private social club you may be perceived differently than someone who is a member of a community centre. These kinds of differences are illustrated weekly by New York magazine in their Approval Matrix page which they describe as "Our deliberately oversimplified guide to who falls where on our taste hierarchies." Their Highbrow/Lowbrow rating system — although meant to be humorous — clearly makes a distinction of what falls where in the cultural class system. It gets complicated, doesn't it? No wonder we feel like the middle is the preferred spot. Is Middlebrow a thing?  If it's not, perhaps it should be.

We are just a couple of weeks away from voting day. Now that I think I know where I belong I'm hoping that the candidates will promise more free stuff for the middle class: free wireless service would buy a lot of votes. How about free tire rotation? I could use that. Sorry, that was a bit selfish. A more global idea that would benefit a lot of people would be refundable lottery tickets for the middle class. If your ticket does not win, you get your money back. Boom! Middlebrow.

By the way, if you are curious and cannot wait for the official election results, let me tell you what is going to happen. (spoiler alert) The leader some people like will beat the leader who the rich people like. The leader nobody likes will get trampled by the leader who the environmentalists like. You read it here first. Vote early, the New England Patriots are playing the New York Jets on election night. Kickoff 5:20 PT.
Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.
Editor: K. Moser.

Sep 1, 2019

Design of the Times

-click images to enlarge-
The professor entered the room and placed his lecture notes on the metal lectern facing the students. He was a handsome man: tall, athletic body, longish light brown hair, chiselled facial features, perfect teeth. He was dressed in a tailored sage-green suit. His brown leather shoes had been polished to a mirror-like finish. The meticulously ironed shirt showed no wrinkles, and served as the perfect backdrop for the complementary tie that completed the ensemble. He would not have looked out of place on the cover of Gentleman's Quarterly.

Professor Kenny (not 100% sure on his name) delivered his lecture with the precision of a surgeon. He enunciated with such clarity that no word seemed ambiguous. His rhythm was impeccable: a measured pause for effect, a subtle acceleration for emphasis, a measured deceleration for intrigue. I was fully engaged as he presented the psychological concept of cognitive dissonance. He had my full attention.

I grew to admire my Introductory Psychology prof for a variety of reasons. He was sophisticated, intelligent, stimulating, captivating, witty, approachable, and very likeable. He was the polar opposite of most of my other professors, who generally dressed in ill-fitting corduroy pants and mismatched jackets with elbow patches. They mumbled and stumbled while presenting seemingly simple concepts in exaggerated over-intellectualized language, meant to impress rather than express. They illustrated Sir Ken Robinson's observations about professors to the letter: "There is something curious about professors...typically they live in their heads. They live up there... They are disembodied, in a kind of literal way. They look at their body as a kind of transport for their heads... It's a way of getting their heads to meetings." If that sounds like an exaggeration, I can assure you that it isn't. I registered for an Anthropology course for which 16 students attended the first class. An intimate setting with nowhere to hide; no dozing off at the back of the room in that one. The prof looked like he had slept in his clothes, with a scent to match. He took three-second pauses between WORDS. By the time he finished a sentence you had forgotten the beginning of it. He also had a bad case of dry-mouth, which made a clicking sound before each word. It was intensely irritating. Adding insult to injury, the material he presented was as dry as his mouth. By the second class only six students remained. I dropped the course immediately after I walked out of the classroom.

That decision was significant to me as it punctuated the end of my ill-conceived and naive dream to become a National Geographic photographer. I would not be travelling to exotic locations armed with an arsenal of high-end cameras and anthropological knowledge to photograph natives in their pristine environments. Instead, I would immerse myself in the study of human behaviour. I decided to major in Psychology.

Introductory university courses present a unique challenge for professors. They are often large, impersonal classes filled with students who have varied levels of knowledge, motivation or interest in the discipline. Students are generally testing the waters in that field, assessing their fit, and determining their level of interest in pursuing further studies - perhaps a major or career in that particular discipline. That I became interested in Psychology through that very first course has always felt intriguing. How did that happen? What created the interest? Did it all boil down to professor Kenny? How do we become interested in something? Why is a person interested in one thing and not another? I decided to look into it.

One of the first things I learned about interest is that relative to other emotions, interest is poorly understood. Interests are one of the things in life that humans are disinclined to question. We tend to accept, at face value, our intrinsic interests and rarely question their origins. American Social Psychologist Anne Row interviewed 40 famous modern artists and found that they had nothing in common other than an early exposure to the arts and had no idea of how their interest had originated. Those findings did little to provide answers for me, but they seemed to reinforce my questions.

Defining interest is a complex task, as the term refers to two distinct experiences that often occur simultaneously: Situational Interest and Individual Interest. Situational Interest is a psychological state of engagement characterized by increased attention, effort and affect experienced in the moment. For example you may be visiting an Antique Fair and notice a curios object. You wonder: what is its function, how was it made, how old is it, where does it come from, who made it? You are compelled to pick it up, feel its texture, its weight, examine it from all sides, and inquire about its value. You are momentarily captivated, yet you walk away.  You may never think of that object again.
Individual Interest is a lasting predisposition to engage repeatedly with an object or topic over time. For example a young person may go on a school trip to an art gallery and see a Picasso painting for the first time, and be captivated by the colors, the unusual perspective, the distorted shapes, and consequently pay more attention and engage more deeply. S/he may enjoy the teacher's follow-up lesson on Modern Art, and later notice a framed Picasso print at a restaurant. The student may go to the library and borrow a book on Picasso's life, then Google images of his paintings, and soon this interest can develop into a self-sustaining Individual Interest. Who knows? that person may major in art history, visit the world's greatest museums and have a life-long passion for the arts.

Although both of those examples illustrate how novelty, complexity, and surprise can grab someone's attention, Situational Interest can become more enduring after repeated experiences and thus evolve into an Individual Interest. We are more likely to seek opportunities to reengage with something if the object or task is perceived as valuable, meaningful, and enjoyable. That may be where the answer to my question lives. Professor Kenny certainly made his course enjoyable by presenting the material in such a way that I felt invigorated, captivated and enthralled. He also made the content meaningful by regularly connecting the theoretical content with real life applications. Perhaps most importantly Dr. Kenny helped me understand the value of the discipline and how it would help me in my future career.

The question that still intrigues me is: Did Dr. Kenny plant the seed of interest or did he merely germinate it? The reason for my uncertainty is that from a very early age I was drawn to the world of advertising and how it used images and/or text to influence consumers. In other words the psychology of advertising, without really knowing what that was. My childhood home was filled with magazines: National Geographic, Life magazine and Vogue Paris amongst others. What those three rags had in common was stunning imagery, both in content and advertising. I have often wondered if my interest in photography, graphic design, and advertising stems from exposure to that content.

While in high school I once volunteered to create a poster advertising an upcoming extracurricular event. I took a large sheet of Bristol board home with me and started to design the poster. I drew evenly-spaced faint horizontal lines with a pencil and then diagonal lines, creating a slanted grid.  I used the grid as a guide to write the content using a felt pen and a ruler. It was painstaking work as I was basically creating a font based on the grid I had drawn. It took me hours to finish. I erased the pencil lines and stepped back to admire my creation. The slanting font had a modern feel to it. Every letter was perfectly formed. The spacing was perfectly aligned. I felt quite proud of my effort. I ran upstairs to show my family.

The events that followed qualify as one of the most bizarre coincidences I have experienced. I arrived upstairs with my poster in hand to find my sister and husband sitting at the dinner table entertaining a couple of friends. They introduced me, and after some small talk they asked what was on the board that I was holding.  I explained that it was a poster I had drawn for an upcoming school event. They asked to see it.

I held the poster up and waited for a response. There was silence as the group digested the content. My sister spoke first and said "It's nice, but I'm curious as to what Peter here has to say. He's a graphic designer. He owns an advertising company in Vancouver." Upon hearing that, the needle in my insecurity meter reached the red zone. To his credit, Peter did not back away from the challenge and give me a fluffy empty complement. No, he analyzed the piece and gave me clear and concise information on the basic principles of graphic design. He talked about: how to use design to convey information, how to use balance, alignment, repetition, contrast, negative space, and how to use type as a visual element. He vehemently emphasized the importance of typography, which was central to the design I had just created. In short, he made me realize where I had gone wrong without ever saying that I had in fact...gone wrong. Back to the drawing board, literally.

Over the months that followed I had a few more encounters with Peter. My sister purchased a couple of his paintings — one of which hanged in my bedroom — a beautifully executed piece of black and white Op Art.
Peter continued to feed my interest in graphic design by pointing out areas for further exploration. He was a fan of American graphic designer Milton Glaser and suggested that I look at his work. If you have seen the I (heart) NY logo or the poster that was included in Bob Dylan's 1967 Greatest Hits album, then you know who Glaser is. Peter was excited about Glaser and Clay Felker founding New York magazine where Glaser was design director, so he suggested that I have a look. I became a fan, so I purchased a book of Glaser's design work. My admiration continues to this day; I still read New York magazine on a monthly basis. In a recent article titled The Most Gullible Man in Cambridge Glaser's influence remains visible: strong photography, beautiful fonts, flawless layout, and clean design.

My budding appreciation of Glaser led me to the work of Robert Indiana — whose colorful paintings are generally characterized by the inclusion of letters, words and numbers. I caught a glimpse of a framed series of his work hanging inside a modern home featured in Architectural Digest magazine. I was so impressed that I began looking for more of his collection. I was surprised to discover that Indiana had created the iconic LOVE sculpture. You know the one, four stacked letters... with the slanting O on the top right. Much of Indiana's work resembles advertising posters: "A Divorced Man Has Never Been The President" for example makes reference to moral hypocrisy, while "Decade: Autoportrait 1960" identifies significant personal  connections that contributed to his artistic development. All of which was created using simple shapes, powerful typography and strong colors. Clean, economic, yet visually striking.

A few years later I purchased a book titled "Posters by Painters" which included 29 posters by famous artist, including Robert Indiana, as well as works by David Hockney, Marc Chagall, Milton Glaser, and Andy Warhol among others. The artist who blended advertising and art more successfully than anyone was, of course, Andy Warhol. His appropriated images of Campbell Soup cans, Brillo Pads, and Coca-Cola define the Pop Art movement which began in the late 1950s. We tend to forget that Warhol started as an advertising illustrator for shoe manufacturer I.Miller, so his propensity for pushing product was well grounded (pun intended). By now it should come as no surprise to you that I developed an interest in the arts, and became a creative. (cre·a·tive /krēˈādiv/ :relating to or involving the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.)

My individual interest in the arts could very easily illustrate the Hidi and Renninger 2006 Model of Interest Development which claims that three factors contribute to the development of interest: knowledge, positive emotion and personal value. As I have learned more about Art, I've become more skilled and knowledgeable. That increase in knowledge has created positive emotions as I feel more competent and skilled, which in turn has given meaning and relevance to my interest. If that sounds a bit clinical, well... it's about the best I could find in terms of an explanation of how interests develop. I waded through the 262 pages of Paul J. Silvia's book "Exploring the Psychology of Interest" — which wasn't a real page-turner — and he starts off by stating this discouraging little tidbit:
"the study of interest is an eclectic and sprawling area of research. Psychologists interested in emotions, aesthetics, education, meta-cognition, vocations, personality, life-span development, exercise science, organizational behavior, neuroscience, and text processing have intriguing ideas about what interest is and how it works. It isn't surprising that so many areas of psychology study interest. It is surprising, though, that these areas of psychology have little to do with each other. Those researching theories of vocational interests, for instance, are unaware of research on interest as an emotion; those in emotion psychology, in turn, are unaware of what aesthetics research has shown about interest; and those involved in the study of interest and education are generally unaware of all of these areas."
Is Silvia suggesting that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing? Surprising really, considering that psychologists have an "organizational behavior" branch; and yet they sound like bureaucrats from different government departments trying to organize the office summer picnic. "Did you bring the plates?" "Sorry, not my department. Ask Fisheries and Oceans, or maybe Mortgage and Housing, they are into that kind of thing."

What I did learn from Silvia is that interest pushes us towards the new, the unknown, the fringes, the exotic, while providing a point of focus which leads us to pay attention to some things and not others; and perhaps more importantly: attending to deep structure instead of superficial features. So, just as I was beginning to put the puzzle pieces together of where my interests came from, someone asked me "Well... isn't genetic?" My first instinct was to dismiss that idea, but I wasn't sure. After all, one of my sister was a professional musician/composer/artist. My mother was also an artist. Could there be a genetic link? I had to look into it.

"Being artistic or creative is associated with the personality trait of being open to experiences,” say clinical psychologist John Paul Garrison. “Some research suggests that there are neurobiological foundations for creative individuals. Based on all available information, it is very likely that the capacity for creativity is shaped by genetic influences –– it’s a complicated way of saying that creativity and artistic interests can almost certainly be inherited.”

In the end, it looks like my mom, and my sister, and Dr. Kenny, and Paul, and others, created a nest in which to grow something that was already inherent. I would not have thought that. Thanks mom.

Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Dylan: Digital appropriation. Original work by Milton Glaser.

LOVE sculpture: Photographer unknown. Via Pixabay. No attribution required.
Editor: K. Moser.

Aug 1, 2019

Take a Seat

-click images to enlarge-

The Cultural Center in Lagos, Portugal, paid homage to the BICA chair last winter by exhibiting three dozen specimens of that classical design reconfigured by local artists. The BICA chair was popularized in the 1950s because of its sturdy construction, rustproofing, and its stacking capabilities. It has become an iconic symbol of Portuguese industrial design.

The diversity of the reconfigured designs at the exhibit was fascinating, from a chair covered in exotic feathers to another displaying 35mm film contact sheets showing coastal scenes from the Algarve region. The chair that I found particularly interesting was painted black; holes had been drilled to allow a grid of bolts of assorted lengths to protrude through the seat and backrest of the chair. Lines of text had been painted between the rows of bolts. Each sentence was separated by a red cross-like motif. My knowledge of Spanish helped me loosely decipher some of the Portuguese text: "Transform into pianists all pessimists and disillusioned" read one line. "Reject the feeling of insufficiency of our time" read another. I felt the push-and-pull of optimism and pessimism, of comfort and discomfort. The piece was brilliantly designed and executed.

For all of the aesthetic value of that particular BICA chair I found it difficult to dismiss its dysfunctionality- that was not a chair you would want to sit in. It was closer to an instrument of torture than a relaxing place to rest your bones. I questioned whether the artist was indeed making a statement regarding the level of comfort that a BICA chair offers. It is worth noting that these chairs are ubiquitous throughout Portugal. They inhabit restaurants, patios and sidewalk cafes everywhere you go. My youngest daughter —who is a restaurateur in Lisbon — told me that the BICA chair had been mandated by municipal bylaws in certain areas of the capital city to give the streets a look of uniformity. That is a shame because in my opinion the BICA chair is not very comfortable. They are cold in the winter, and I would imagine hot in the summer. Also, the top of the backrest cuts across the sixth thoracic vertebra, making it difficult to lean back and relax. According to the chair's manufacturers "ergonomics was a matter of seating workers in the prototypes and then assessing basic features like comfort." It does not sound like a very scientific process.

The modern knockoff of a BICA chair trades iron for aluminum, and replaces the metal seat and back with plastic mesh. The lighter metal makes the chairs flimsier and consequently less stable. The plastic weaving stretches over time; meaning that your bottom and back sink past the frame of the chair causing your sixth thoracic vertebra and the bottom of your thighs to ache. This is not an attempt to fix what was wrong with the original design, except that the weaving is not affected by temperature as much as the solid metal is. This is an attempt to make you get up and leave, which is counter intuitive to what a sidewalk bar or cafe would want you to do. It baffles me that business owners would chose such an uncomfortable chair. It does not take me very long to determine the comfort level of a chair. It is not rocket science; sometimes I just need to look at a chair to know that it is going to be a pain in the back.

The travelers that I've talked to, give the gold medal for the most uncomfortable chairs in the world to (drum roll)...Mexico. I don't know the process by which Mexican industrial designers came up with the prototype for their Instrument of Torture chair, but I'm willing to bet that they didn't even go as far as the Portuguese in their ergonomic assessment. Nobody could have sat in a prototype of that chair and said "This is good, go with it, make a million of them." It seems like they did — because just like the BICA chair in Portugal — the Instrument of Torture chair is everywhere in Mexico. It is configured with a straight wooden back preventing reclining. The ridiculously small seat is made of woven weeds that often sag — consequently the wooden frame cuts the blood circulation in your legs. There is no cross piece in the front to place your feet on, so you can elevate your legs and regain circulation. Pure torture. 

I was visiting a friend in Mexico; he was proudly showing me that he could receive a television signal using only an antenna, and that we could watch American football with Spanish commentary. We sat in plush comfortable recliners and turned on the morning game. By noon the game was a bit lopsided and the Spanish commentary had lost its novelty, so he suggested a walk down to the seaside strip to have lunch at a gringo bar and watch the afternoon game there.  We arrived at the bar and chose a table facing the big television screen. We ordered some food and drinks while we waited for the afternoon game to begin. I was squirming in my seat. I could not get comfortable. I realized that was sitting on an Instrument of Torture chair. A few minutes later a group of gringos showed up to watch the game and I noticed that they had brought their own portable folding chairs with them. They had obviously been to that bar before.

For many years, I purchased my office chairs from Staples — the office supply box store specializing in chairs guaranteed to fall apart soon after the warranty expires. You know the ones...faux leather, plastic legs, plastic wheels, soft foam. Oh, don't forget the "full height adjustment mechanism" designed to leak air, so you slowly sink as you work. When your chin is resting on the keyboard, then it's time to go back up. I do not recall how many of those chairs I recycled. Purchasing a slightly "better" model every couple of years did not seem to make any difference. When you see thin cardboard stapled to the bottom of the seat, then you know that the product has not been manufactured to high standards. Planned obsolescence comes to mind; it is a product designed to break easily and be replaced. 

When I retired, my loving partner gifted me the Cadillac of office chairs. Comfortable, quiet, smooth, adjustable in ways I didn't know you could adjust a chair. Tilt Limiter? That's a new one. What a pleasure to use. The remarkable thing is that after many years of daily use the chair looks and feels brand new. Good things are not cheap and cheap things are no good. I've learned that now!

So if Herman Miller can design a task-specific product that is comfortable and durable, why are there so many terrible chairs still out there in the marketplace? I don't know the answer to my question, but I suspect it has something to do with economics rather than ergonomics. I am encouraged however, by what I see happening at institutions like Humber College in Toronto. They just recently held their 19th annual Industrial Design Chair Show: Redefining the future of work. Students enrolled in the Industrial Design Degree program designed seating solutions to address the changes in today's working environments. It seems like the quest to design functional and comfortable chairs continues unabated. In the private sector, industrial design companies such as Esedra — located in northern Italy — provide support services such as engineering, mechanical solutions, and prototyping to young designers working to prevent the proliferation of instruments of torture.

Before I saw the BICA chair exhibit in Lagos I was completely unaware of the existence of those chairs. I never paid them much attention. After viewing the exhibit, they seemed to be everywhere. I was surprised that they had not registered in my mind as being so mainstream.

It was 1916 when Master Craftsman Gonçalo Rodrigues dos Santos received the first purchase order for his newly designed BICA chair. The original design would go through a number of tweaks through the years. The final shape — balancing comfort and aesthetics — would not appear until the 1950s. Over a century after Master Rodrigues started his design process, industrial designers throughout the world continue to rise to the challenge to give us a perfect place to take a seat.
Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Mexican chair photo: George Potvin.

White Bica chair: Alice Ming
Editor: K. Moser.

Jul 2, 2019


 -click images to enlarge- 

The campus employment office was crowded with students reading job posting descriptions stapled to a massive bulletin board. Spring break was over and Summer job hunting season was in high gear. The notice that caught my attention was not a job per se, but a recruiting campaign presented by the British Columbia Telephone Company (BC Tel) in 1972. They were conducting aptitude tests — which could lead to full time employment — should you prove to have the necessary mechanical skills required to become a phone installer, line technician, or other positions of that nature. I approached the front counter and made some inquiries. I was told that they had an opening to write the test on Saturday morning at 10:00 at the BC Tel Works Yard. I took the offer.

I don't know why I thought that was a good idea. My mechanical skills at the time were probably a solid 3.5 on a scale of 1 to 10. What I did know was that working for BC Tel meant full-time work, union wages, medical benefits, and a pension. The kind of jobs that no longer exist. All that was needed was to pass a test. How hard could that be?

On Saturday morning I woke up earlier than I wanted to, so I could have breakfast and ride my 10-speed bike across town to the BC Tel Works Yard. I arrived in 45 minutes. The Yard was no more than a chain-link fenced parking lot filled with vans and trucks sporting the BC Tel logo, and a single prefab building resembling a portable classroom. I approached the entrance where a cordial woman holding a clipboard asked for my name and identification. She then pointed to an empty desk in the center row of the brightly-lighted classroom. There were about thirty people in the room. Most looked considerably older than me, and some appeared to be trades people, which made me feel a bit insecure.

At precisely 10:00 o'clock the woman with the clip board stood in the front of the classroom and welcomed the participants. She then described the three-part testing procedure. The first part consisted of a questionnaire asking general questions about ourselves, such as education, career goals, and a rather tough query: If employed by BC Tel would you be willing to relocate to any location within the province? I had a difficult time responding YES. The woman collected the papers. She then placed a booklet — the second part of the test — face-down on each desk, and informed the group that we had 30 minutes to complete the task. She told us to begin as she clicked her timer.  It was the technical part of the test —multiple choice style — containing pages and pages filled with diagrams of: gears, belts, pumps, scales, circuits, and switches. I completed the test on time, but some of my answers were pure guesses.

Part three of the test was a single sheet of paper. We were told we could examine the task. The paper was filled with rows of circles about 8 millimeters in diameter — much smaller than a Canadian dime. The task was to place an X in the center of each circle making sure that the X did not touch the outline of the circle. We would have one minute to complete the test. "Make as many Xs as you can. Do not erase anything. Are you ready? 3...2...1... begin." What seemed simple, wasn't. As I worked my way down the page — at the speed of light — my hand did not respond as accurately as I expected. The pencil lead would at times cross the edges of the circles. I would then compensate for that, and make a mess someplace else. By the time I heard "STOP" I had completed more than half of the page. I felt good about that. I considered it a win. I put my pencil down. The guy sitting at the desk next to me tilted his paper up so I could see it. He had finished less than three rows, but they were perfectly formed Xs: all the same size, all at the center of the circles, none touched the edges. "It's not about speed" he told me, "It's about accuracy." I felt deflated, embarrassed, stupid. I had been wrong.

How could I have gone from feeling that I was completely right, to being completely wrong, in the blink of an eye? Well, apparently, humans generally lack the necessary internal clues to know that we are wrong, until it is too late. We tend to assume that we are right, all the time, about pretty much everything. This internal conviction, that we are right, does not always jibe with what is actually going on in the physical world. When we act like we DO know, and dismiss the possibility that we may be wrong... bad things happen: we lose a $125 million Mars probe by using Imperial instead of Metric measurements. We sink a cruise ship with 4200 people on board after hitting a reef off the coast of Italy by navigating by sight; "because I knew those seabeds well" the captain claimed. George W. Bush wasted $1.7 Trillion and killed 461,000 people by starting an eleven-year armed conflict in Iraq based on the possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction by the Iraqi regime. There were none. He was wrong.

Pulitzer Prize recipient Kathryn Schultz in her book Being Wrong convincingly illustrates that "the 'feeling' of being right is misleading." We’ve got to look outward. We need an external aid." NASA should have measured twice and cut once. Captain Schettino should have turn the ship's radar on. George W should have found some WMDs before bombing Iraq.

One of my early lessons in being wrong was rather harsh. When I was ten years old my mother redecorated our living room. She re-purposed the old silver Lamé curtains, and made me a bedspread. I was thrilled to receive such a thoughtful hand-crafted gift. One afternoon, I was sprawled on my bed doing my homework when my fountain pen ran out of ink. I fetched the ink bottle from my desk and set it on the bed. I began the process of refilling the pen. I'm not sure how it happened, but suddenly I see an ink stain, about the size of a golf ball, on the new bedspread. I know what to do I told myself. What takes stains out? "Bleach!" I got a bottle from the kitchen and began to rub the stain with a bleach-soaked rag. To my surprise, instead of lifting the stain, the bleach diluted the ink and the stain expanded to the size of a saucer. The ink stain looked a bit lighter however, so I added more bleach. The stain grew again, and this time the corrosive liquid started to remove the silver color from the fabric. So, there it was: a blue and white stain the size of a dinner plate in the middle of my mom's creation. Stain...bleach...Wrong! The episode was deemed an accident, and the remedy was pegged to ignorance. Phew!

How could I have been so wrong? I felt terrible. Yet being wrong should not be detrimental to our self-worth. Wrongness is a vital part of learning and growing. Being wrong allows us to modify our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.  In fact, to quote Sir Ken Robinson "if you are not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original." Being wrong does not mean that there is something intrinsically wrong with us. We just prefer to be right because it feels better. We feel smart, dependable, honorable, and gratified.

For the most part, being right should not be that surprising; we mostly operate our daily lives pretty successfully. We wake up, cleanse, dress, feed ourselves, and get on with our day without peril. We are right about most things: I don't care what the television said. I don't think it's going to rain, so forget the umbrella. "Look, the sun is out!" We enjoy being right and it doesn't really matter what it is that we feel right about: Rami Malek winning an Oscar, or the outcome of the Brexit vote. When you put a fiver on the nose of a 30 to 1 odds horse named Hoof Hearted because you like the name, and it wins...being right feels pretty good.

An old friend has told me, in more than one occasion, that he doesn't like to be wrong. "I like to be right" he once declared with a tone of assurance and affirmation. It sounded a bit like French playwright Molière who said "It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I'm right."  I don't think that my friend's preference is much different from anyone else's; we all would rather be right than wrong. The difference lies in how we respond when we are wrong.

A few years ago, my dear old friend was sitting in the back seat of the rented SUV as we left the Los Angeles Airport on route to Escondido. He had assumed the role of navigator. He was guiding the foursome to our golfing vacation destination. We merged onto the multi-lane main highway heading South as suggested by the GPS unit. It was Friday afternoon and the rush hour had started, so we were not moving very fast. After a while, our navigator told us that he had found a smaller secondary road that may be moving more freely. He guided the driver to the nearest exit to the alternate route. Everything seemed fine for a while. We started moving a bit faster as there were fewer cars on the road, but then we hit road construction, a multitude of stop lights, and soon traffic was at a standstill. With no way out, we crawled to Escondido. Our guide had been wrong. He took it pretty well for someone who does not like to be wrong. He was able to laugh it off, and joke about his navigating skills. The next morning — as the foursome was getting into the vehicle to head to the golf course — our navigator called out "I know a shortcut..." Needless to say he got an earful.

What my friend didn't know at the time was that he had been a victim of the psychological principle of naive realism; which according to Social Psychology professor David Dunning means that "even though your belief about the way the world is, just seems so compelling or so self-evident, it does not mean that it really is. Whenever we reach a conclusion, it just seems like it's the right one. In fact, a lot of what we see and conclude about the world is authored by our brains." I think David is implying that we make stuff up in our heads.

My relationship with my wrongness has evolved over time. Want to be wrong decidedly and often? Learn an additional language. Get used to: wrong word, wrong pronunciation, wrong spelling, wrong context, wrong usage, wrong grammar. They pelt you incessantly like Calgary hail. It is perhaps through that experience that I've embraced "I don't know" and "I'm not sure", as two perfectly acceptable responses which help me avoid the Dunning-Kruger Effect — the cognitive bias that could make me believe that I'm smarter and more capable than I really am. 

As a young man I felt devastated by the simple misunderstanding of the intent of a sheet of paper filled with small circles, which had I analyzed correctly, could have been life-changing. I may have spent my working life atop a hydraulic bucket splicing telephone wires together. In retrospect, and considering my fear of heights, I get the feeling that a career in telecommunication would have been, well...wrong.
Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Editor: K. Moser.

Jun 2, 2019


-click images to enlarge-

I was dragged kicking and screaming into the murky world of social media at the end of February, 2010. Someone suggested that since I had family dispersed throughout the world, perhaps Facebook could be a good tool to connect with those distant loved ones. Further encouragement came from someone who thought that the social media site could provide a venue for me to share my photographs. I was reluctant. I did not want to join.  Everything changed on February 27, 2010 when an 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit central Chile as my relatives gathered to celebrate the birth of the family's first great-grand-daughter.

My first Facebook post was a link to a Google Disaster Relief effort to help Chilean families affected by the catastrophic event. At that point in time social media made sense to me. I was able to connect with my distant friends and family and be witness to both significant, and trivial events in their lives.  Keep in mind that Facebook was just six years old at that time; there was still an air of novelty and innocence within the platform. Yet, in the back of my mind I felt somewhat uncomfortable with the entire concept. I did not trust it. The feeling was strong enough for me to choose a pseudonym — as a way to retain some level of privacy and control — when I decided to join the popular social media site.

As it turned out, 2010 was a good year for me to join Facebook. There were many significant events in my life for me to share: My oldest daughter married a lovely young man who I've grown to love and treasure. My partner and I participated — for the first time — in the New West Cultural Crawl; opening our home-studio to hundreds of art lovers who dropped in to view our creations. I wrote the first story for this blog at the end of August of that year. I considered those to be very positive, personal, and rewarding events which I was happy to share with friends and family. In turn, they responded with love and kindness, thus creating the kind of interactions that I was pleased to participate in. To my surprise, Facebook seemed OK... for a while.

My apprehension, reluctance and misgivings about joining Facebook — based on privacy issues —  may have been well founded. On November 29, 2011 (20 months after I joined) the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a statement indicating that "Facebook has agreed to settle FTC charges that it deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public." The extent of the deception was far reaching. Allow me to paraphrase some of the highlights: Without warning or approval, Facebook allowed certain information, which users may have considered private — such as their Friends List — to become public. Facebook allowed advertisers to access personally identifiable information from users who clicked on ads, while maintaining that the company does not share personal data with advertisers. Third-party app developers were given access to nearly all of the user's personal data while claiming that developers would only have access to information needed to operate. To add insult to injury, when you finally had enough and deleted or deactivated your account, Facebook allowed access to your content even though it said it would be inaccessible. Doesn't that just make you feel warm and fuzzy?

Fast forward to today and the privacy scandals plaguing Facebook continue to pile up. The Federal Trade Commission once again started investigating Facebook in 2018 when it learned that Cambridge Analytica — a British political consulting firm — had harvested the personal data of 87 million Facebook users without their consent, and used it for political purposes, including the Donald Trump presidential campaign, and the Brexit referendum. Oh, there is more... Business Insider just revealed that Facebook has been scrapping user's email contact lists since 2016; asking for passwords to "verify" their accounts then taking the data without consent. Does any of this really matter if all you want to do is share a link to your new favourite cat video? Maybe. Maybe not.

I know that my level of engagement, my response, and my feelings towards Facebook have changed over time. The changes have been partly caused by what I perceive to be a massive exodus from Facebook in the past few years. Over a third of my "friends" have left the platform or perhaps just stopped posting content. Some may be lurking in the shadows but are no longer visible users. Recent figures released in a study by Infinite Dial show an 8% decline in FB usage in the USA since 2017 — the first drop in engagement since the platform opened to the general public in 2006. From what I've experienced I think that number is low.

So what has caused the decline in engagement? I don't want to overstate the point but the recent flubs in privacy and accountability have created an environment of mistrust around those who operate the platform. If I cannot trust you, then I am not going to play with you.

If you are a FB user, you may have noticed an increase in discord, antagonism and polarization on your feed, fueled by the political climate created by the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. I believe that the proliferation of that toxic atmosphere has contributed to the decline in FB engagement. If it's not Fake News, or pipelines, or immigration, then people are finding other things to argue about. It is tiring. It is unsavory. It is boring. It is the wrong venue to make your point. It is a social network, remember? Here is an example from my feed: "Friend A" posted a meme... Climate Science Basics: 1. It's Warming, 2. It's Us, 3. We're Sure, 4. It's Bad, 5. We can Fix it. "Friend B" responded: Yeah, you're right, it's so greedy of me to want to heat my home in a Canadian winter or maybe cook some food on my gas stove, maybe drive my kids to hospital, or me to work. And damn those fossil fuel companies for contributing billions to our economy through taxes and jobs, so socialists like you can have a free ride! I know, AOC says we only have 12 years left, and she's a credible source, isn't she? 

Well, well, well, how do you think that conversation ended? Hint: The environmentalist did not become a polluter, and the polluter did not become an environmentalist. End of story. That reinforces my belief that socio/political posts on Facebook are annoying, divisive, and a waste of time. Your clever meme, or link to a late-night TV monologue is not going to change anybody's mind on climate change, impeachment, or gun control. Wanna argue?, Be anti-social?, Spew your load? Then head to Twitter, but remember that up to 48 million Twitter accounts are estimated to be fake, so pick your fight carefully.

Privacy and discord issues have certainly contributed to the decline in FB engagement, but we cannot underestimate the impact of Instagram — the photo-sharing social network — which now has one billion registered users worldwide, and has siphoned off many of FB's younger users. Facebook purchased Instagram in 2012 for $1 billion in cash and stocks, and followed that with the purchase of WhatsApp — the popular cross-platform messaging service — in February of 2014, for the basement bargain price of $19.3 billion. Initially, Facebook's Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg promised plenty of autonomy for those newly acquired companies, but recently he has indicated a desire to integrate the three messaging services by 2020; which has the potential to strengthen Facebook's grip on its users amidst antitrust, privacy, and security concerns. Oh boy...

My daughter convinced me to join Instagram at the end of 2015. She had deleted her Facebook account and migrated to the photo-sharing platform. "You are a visual person, a photographer, an artist" she mentioned, "This is right up your alley. There are no links to political crap on the site. I think you'll enjoy it." she continued. I took her advice. I have to admit that I have enjoyed Instagram. It's visual. It's creative. It ranks low on the annoyance meter. I like the fact that the content is user-generated instead of folks posting links to content that they did not create. I'm interested in what YOU have to say, not what Yahoo!, Digg, or Reddit have to say; that's why we are friends. 

My personal Facebook user-manual clearly states that if you did not create the content you posted, then I will ignore it. No "like" fo' you! I learned that from the mistakes I made in my early days on FB. As a newbie, I used to post links to items of interest to me thinking that sharing them was a good thing. It wasn't. Just because I was interested in the sale of David Hockney's "Imogen + Hermaine" at auction in 2010, that did not mean that others would share my enthusiasm. That post was virtually ignored. My link to an NPR article asking for opinions on what is "The Best Opening Track Ever?" sounded interesting to me. I mean, who doesn't have a favorite? That post was totally ignored. So, over time, I decided to restrict my posts to native content — photos or stories that I personally create. No more links to other people's content. I learned, that because you liked a video on How to Sharpen a Chisel, it does not mean that I will. If I wanted to see a video on how to sharpen a chisel then I would Google "how to sharpen a chisel." Consequently, I have adjusted my behavior. I now resist posting a link to "37 Websites Every Photographer Should be Reading", and instead I just send that information directly to my friends who I know have an interest in photography. I just saved you milliseconds of scrolling.  You're welcome.

Your decision to ignore my post on David Hockney, and my choice to dismiss your chisel video, affect the ranking of those posts and influence the social media algorithms that make that content visible to others. To put it simply, algorithms are the math that computers use to decide stuff. The present algorithm being used by Facebook is designed to prioritize content that is generating active conversations such as: lots of  "comments", "likes", and "shares", as well as what Purpose Fuel Blog describes as, "content published by users who have a history of frequent activity and quality engagement across the platform. Users and pages receive points for things like writing long-form comments and posting native content, and lose points for sharing clickbait and asking people to 'like, comment and share'.” That explains why so many of my "friends" seem to have vanished from Facebook; they've become casualties of the algorithm.

Stephanie Kneissl's Stop the Algorithm project displayed at The Photographers Gallery London, aims to disrupt algorithms by using machines that "scroll through social media feeds — liking and following at random — to boycott the algorithmic process of data generation." Her goal is to disrupt the perceptions of what has value, what is relevant, or important, as presented by social media. Stephanie may want to think about disrupting the Pragmatic Chaos algorithm used by Netflix; designed to crawl inside your head and figure out which movie to recommend for you to watch next. Unbelievably, Pragmatic Code determines 60% of the movies watched on the popular streaming service.

If what I see on social media is no longer determined by what my friends and family want me to see, but instead, the content is being curated by lines of code inside an algorithm designed to benefit the platform, while ignoring the human element, then I have to question: Why am I a part of that?  Perhaps, that is the reason why I have renegotiated my relationship with Facebook. Perhaps, that is the reason why Facebook does not feel as genuine as it once did.

It's not all doom and gloom. Facebook may have issues, yet it remains a convenient tool for peeking into the lives of family and friends who matter to you.  It is also a very effective promotional tool. It can bring together classmates for a Grad Reunion, it can provide support to community groups, or amateur sports. One of my daughters promotes her business using the platform, and does so very successfully. I use its far reaching tentacles to promote art exhibits, and this humble blog. FB can also help in times of distress, grave illness, birth, or death; when urgency beckons and speed is vital. Like when an earthquake hits. 

So, I'm conflicted. I feel like a teenager stuck at a family Thanksgiving dinner. I want to leave but I can't. I want to go and hang out with my friends, but instead, I'm stuck at the dinner table listening to uncle Dick bitch about those darn algorithms.

Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.
Editor: K. Moser.