Sculpture Censors

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Classical nudes were covered by large wooden boxes in preparation for Iran’s President’s visit to Rome.

I always find it fascinating when the media panics over the border between art and erotica. It’s not a new concept—some critics reject artworks out of fear that it may offend members of the public, whether based on religion, culture, personal comfort or other. Art history has seen its ups and downs—the classic nude was the staple of the cultural expression of ancient Greece and Rome, but was lost for centuries as new values (ahem, Christianity) came into play. Even after the revival of the classic nude, there were moments when the naked body was still seen as shameful or offensive (the fig leaf, a common symbol of censorship, has become an ongoing debate—some historians still see the added leaves to cover the genitals of classical art, specifically in the Vatican, as vandalism to the original piece, while others now argue that those added leaves are a part of history). Whatever the case, censorship in art has always been a touchy debate.

In the most recent news of art cover ups, an unnamed official at Rome’s Capitoline Museum actually ordered to hide some of the more ‘obscene’ nude statues in the museum with large white boxes—completely blocking any view of the statue. What was the reason: the recent visit to Rome by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had this official nervous about offending him. And what is more baffling, is that this order wasn’t given by Italy’s Culture Minister Dario Franceschini or Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi.

It’s a strange concept for me to understand—yes, I can admit that there are certain works of art that could be offensive (one that comes to mind is Egon Schiele, whose sexual figures border that line between sexual art vs. erotica)—but for the classical nude sculpture that typically graces Italy’s museums, I see no need to cover that up. Perhaps this official was taking the ‘better safe than sorry approach,’ but for a country that is so proud of their contributions to the art world, you would expect them to want to show off their collections, not hide them.

In Reuters’ report on this news, they cited Rome’s newspaper La Repubblica, calling out the decision, saying: “Covering those nudes … meant covering ourselves. Was it worth it, in order not to offend the Iranian president, to offend ourselves?” It’s a valid point, for sure, but in a world of continuous PC culture and fragile political ties, maybe hiding a few sculptures was worth avoiding the potential political backlash. Just a thought.

Read more about the visit here.

Progress at the Gardner Museum?

Another push was made in finding the lost paintings. I’m talking, of course, about the $500 million worth of stolen paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA—you know, that famously unsolved art theft from 1990.

A little recap for those who don’t know the story (meaning you’re not from Massachusetts and/or don’t obsess over stories about art crimes): during the early morning of March 18, 1990, two men dressed as Boston police officers entered the security entrance of the museum, tied up the security guards, and stole 13 works of art including three Rembrandts, five Degas, Manet’s Chez Torini and Vermeer’s The Concert (I should note that while Vermeer is one of Europe’s most famous and praised painters, he only produced 34 known paintings in his lifetime, making his work particularly rare). The heist has remained unsolved even today, and has inspired numerous books (fiction and non-fiction), articles, documentaries and other films centered on the investigation. Everyone has his or her own theories on the heist at this point, and if you’re like me, your world kind of stops every time you see ‘Gardner Museum’ pop up in news headlines.

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The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum leaves the empty frames of its stolen paintings in the galleries—a reminder of the 1990 theft.

Even though we haven’t actually found the paintings yet, the story resurfaces every few months when the FBI has updates. Today, The Boston Globe announced that they believe that aging mobster Robert Gentile knows the location of the paintings. The article says that while he denies it, Gentile had attempted to sell the paintings for $500,000 a piece to an undercover FBI agent, however the deal was not completed because Gentile was indicted on charges of selling a gun to a convicted felon. The Globe stated that Gentile’s connection to the paintings resurfaced during a hearing in court this week over gun charges against him.

It seems that to make this information public would mean that the FBI had a good handle on everything, but knowing how traditional reporting works, I’m wondering if the mere mention of the Gardner Heist during Gentile’s hearing in court led The Boston Globe to reopen all of their old information—kind of a ‘Hey, it’s been 26 years, but we haven’t lost hope yet!” It makes sense—the story in itself is fascinating, and there are so many people who have a personal attachment to seeing the mystery finally solved.

I, personally, still think that Boston’s Whitey Bulger was somehow involved. The mystery seemed to have stalled for years until Bulger was captured in 2011 after disappearing 16 years before (It’s at this moment that I will openly admit my obsession to Boston crime stories). Think about it though—Bulger was the biggest, most feared mobster in Boston. Then he disappears in 1995—five years after the Gardener Heist! This is all speculation, of course, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Bulger were connected in some way. Maybe he wasn’t the mastermind behind the theft, but I’m sure he knew who was, and when he was finally captured, he could easily offer up that information in a deal in court. Drop a few charges in exchange for the names of those currently in possession of the artwork.

Really what this all comes down to is my hope to one day see those paintings. In 1990, I had no idea who Vermeer or Rembrandt were. But years of studying and gawking at these masters’ work, along with my dedication to reading every bit of literature surrounding the theft, has only made me desperate to see an end to this story—I would love nothing more than to learn where these paintings have hid for the last 26 years, and to see them safely returned to the empty frames that still haunt the Gardner Museum’s galleries.

‘Hamilton’ on My Mind

Our rappin' founding fathers.

Our Rappin’ Founding Fathers.

How does a Broadway superstar, adding to his repertoire, transform the tale of a founding father into a hip-hop legend selling out every night? Ok, so I tried to rhyme against Lin-Manuel’s Miranda’s narrative beat from his hit Broadway show, ‘Hamilton,’ but unfortunately I don’t think I have the creativity to write for the stage. But that doesn’t mean I can’t gawk at the sheer brilliance of Miranda’s latest sell out hit.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months, I’m referring to ‘Hamilton,’ a hip-hop musical that tells the story of our “Ten Dollar Founding Father,” Alexander Hamilton, and his contributions to the American Revolution and the birth of the United States. It’s a mix of rap narrative, meshed with hip hop/ pop numbers that will leave you humming the tune every hour of the day, all while teaching you about the start of our country. I never thought I’d see the day when American history would seem sexy to me, but then again, you never know with today’s creative minds.

I’m not sure if I can pinpoint my favorite part of this musical—since I discovered the soundtrack on Spotify last week it’s been the only thing I’ve listened to (unfortunately tickets are sold out or insanely expensive all the way into July 2016, so unless you are Beyonce of Obama, you are stuck listening to the recordings). If I’m being honest, ‘Hamilton’ is the only thing I’ve TALKED about in the past week, hence why I was compelled to write about it. I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is more Alexander Hamilton.

I’ve listened to the entire album start to finish more times than I can count. Work, subway, before bed, it’s really consumed my life. I’ve over-analyzed every line, researched every battle, and I figured the easiest way to discuss it was in list form, since I’ve had a piece of paper by my desk for three days where I jot down ideas about why I love this so much.

  1. Immigration Pride. ‘Hamilton,’ while it may be about the start of our nation, has many themes that are still relevant today. Most notably, the theme of immigrants coming to this country to make a name for his or herself rings through every song. America was founded by immigrants, it relies on immigrants, and sometimes we forget that. But one of the things that makes me most proud to be an American is that you can come to this country and work your way up—we’re not perfect yet, we’re still fighting for full equality, but we have more opportunities than other countries. ‘Hamilton’ reminds us just how important this truth is.
  1. Strong female characters. The Schuyler Sisters are pretty badass. Especially that Angelica, who knew how to work a crowd to get what she needed, but will also fight for her sister before anyone else—even herself. And you have to love her best line in that catchy, all-girl soul number—“We hold these truths to be self-evident/ That all men are created equal/And when I meet Thomas Jefferson/ I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!”
  1. Aaron Burr. As the narrator of the tale, Burr kind of has this Antonio Salieri vibe—Hamilton was this young, unknown name who quickly rose in the ranks. You can sense that jealously and tension as Burr and Hamilton’s relationship progresses, much like Salieri felt over Mozart in the classic film, ‘Amadeus.’ Of course, we know how the story ends, in a duel between the two men that (spoilers) ends Hamilton’s life, but the story is so well told in this musical that the final songs bring you to tears. And you feel for Burr—like in the song “The World Was Wide Enough,” he says his decision to shoot Hamilton made him the villain of the story, even if he wasn’t the worst person ever. (Related: there is an Aaron Burr card in Cards Against Humanity and I hope to God I get that during my annual Christmas Eve game with my extended family).
  1. The lyrics. Miranda is a lyrical genius. I’m not throwing that term out lightly either—it’s a rare thing to really see the story through just the words, and yet in every battle scene, every argument that I listen to in the story, I can see it in front of me. In “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” you can see the surrender as the man in the red coat stands on that parapet (also, who else looked up parapet when they heard that part?). You can see King George prancing around in his hilarious numbers. And when some of the characters get their shouts outs (Hercules Mulligan! Lafayette!) you want to stand up and cheer with them. The words alone bring you back to the 1700 and 1800s, just with a badass twist.
  1. Leaving a Legacy. Hamilton is obsessed throughout the musical about what his name will mean after he dies. “Non-Stop” really plays this with the line “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” Of course it’s dramatized a bit since we know what happens to him, but it still shows truth behind how much the real Alexander Hamilton worked to help this nation before his early death. And as Alex says, ‘a legacy is planting flowers in a garden we never see.’

To be honest, I didn’t know much about Alexander Hamilton before this musical—I had to take some time to research each battle and his role in the American Revolution. But Miranda’s work is doing what so many history teachers have tried to do—make history cool.

    I've become so enamored with 'Hamilton' I get emotional over the ten dollar bill.

    I’ve become so enamored with ‘Hamilton’ I get emotional over the ten dollar bill.

    Open House: Queens

    9th-Annual-OHNY-Weekend-2011-500Each October, the organization known as Open House New York welcomes visitors to hundreds of landmarks within the city’s five boroughs for one weekend. The event celebrates the past, present and future of New York’s architecture and design by opening the doors to these sites, providing educational tours about each spot’s role in the city landscape.

    It was back in 2011 when I first discovered this organization. I wasn’t living in the city yet, but was visiting a friend for the long weekend when we stumbled upon one of the sites near Battery Park. I dragged my friend into the site for a full walking tour, and there met a few of the volunteers with the organization. They explained that OHNY is a cultural organization that aims to spread awareness and appreciation of New York’s architecture scene, and as volunteers, they help man individual sites to welcome guests and provide more information on the organization.

    Now, as a strong advocate of the arts and culture scenes in my previous homes, I was pleasantly surprised at the dedication these volunteers had towards OHNY, and made a mental note to return each year to continue to support such a fun weekend. That was before I decided to move to the city.

    2012 was my first year volunteering with OHNY. I was assigned to the Grand Lodge of Masons in Chelsea, where for four hours I helped welcome tours and direct traffic. 2013 was my second year volunteering, where I helped give tours of an architecture firm in TriBeca.

    What I truly love about volunteering for OHNY year after year is sharing in the joy of New York’s history with others. With so much culture on every corner, it can be almost overwhelming to find where to start. I’ve lived here now for three years and have only seen a fragment of the city—and I explore it all the time! But with OHNY, volunteers are placed in one of the hundreds of participating sites, where they are given a chance to not only interact with weekend visitors, but also learn about a location they may have never traveled to before.

    This year, I was assigned to LaGuardia Airport’s Marine Air Terminal, a once thriving gateway to the glamour of flight in the late 1930s-early 40s. This terminal was the base for Pan American’s Clipper aircraft, as well as for ‘flying boats’ that could land on both land and water. You can still see the docks where these planes would land outside the windows of the terminal’s restaurant.

    LaGuardia Airport's marine Air Terminal lobby.

    LaGuardia Airport’s marine Air Terminal lobby.

    Today, the Marine Air Terminal still boasts its original mural in the main lobby, an art deco-style tale of the history of flight, painted by James Brooks in 1940 (a fun fact, in the 1950s, the mural was painted over because of fear that it contained Communist propaganda, but was restored in the 1980s). The terminal is still active, mainly used for Delta’s shuttle flights to Chicago and Washington D.C., as well as for private planes (Joe Biden comes through this terminal when he visits the city, and has famously referred to it as feeling like going through some ‘third world country’). But despite criticism, the terminal is a sight to see, and the employees working there were friendly, helpful, and informative, providing me with all the information I needed to tell the terminal’s story properly.

    The other perk of volunteering for OHNY is that you get to skip the lines when you’re not on duty. When you meet up with volunteers and visitors at your site, they always give out information on where they’ve already stopped by, and where they are headed next, so by the end of your shift you usually leave with a list of 50 sites to squeeze in within the hour. I only had Sunday afternoon to explore, so I narrowed it down to one site: The World’s Fair Grounds in Queens, a spot I have always wanted to see.

    You can't say you're from Queens until you visit the Unisphere.

    You can’t say you’re from Queens until you visit the Unisphere.

    Bonus: Sunday was also game two of the NCLS championships, with the Cubs playing my Mets at Citi Field, so I had to stop by to give the Mets some luck. They won 4-1!

    Wishing the Mets good luck before their win on Sunday!

    Wishing the Mets good luck before their win on Sunday!

    Projecting Change

    Pedestrians photograph a leopard projected on the Empire State Building as part of the “Projecting Change: The Empire State Building” project.

    Pedestrians photograph a leopard projected on the Empire State Building as part of the “Projecting Change: The Empire State Building” project.

    By Kelleigh Welch

    *Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2015 edition of Systems Contractor News.

    New York City’s skyline received an environmental makeover on August 1 with an animated display of the world’s most endangered animals projected onto 33 floors of the Empire State Building. This show, titled “Projecting Change: The Empire State Building,” uses images of endangered species, including manta rays, birds, reptiles, lions, and a gorilla that “climbed” to the top of the building, as a way to spread awareness about our role in protecting these animals and to promote the upcoming documentary, “Racing Extinction,” by the Oceanic Preservation Society.

    “The story we were trying to tell was something that no one really knows, and it’s that we’ve had five mass extinctions (in the Earth’s history). Now we’re rolling into a sixth, and man is the cause,” explained Travis Threlkel, chief creative officer with Obscura Digital, the design firm tapped for the project. The entire project was a collaboration between Threlkel and Oscar winning filmmaker and photographer, and executive director of the Oceanic Preservation Society, Louie Psihoyos.

    Twenty-six Christie Roadster HD20K-J and 12 Christie Roadster S+22K-J projectors were used for the “Projecting Change” display in New York City.

    Twenty-six Christie Roadster HD20K-J and 12 Christie Roadster S+22K-J projectors were used for the “Projecting Change” display in New York City.

    Projecting Change occurred in three parts, starting first with a mobile Tesla car that projected video, followed by a projection project on the United Nations building in New York City for Climate Week back in 2014. The grand finale was to project these animals onto a high profile structure—the Empire State Building. Threlkel said it took Obscura and the Oceanic Preservation Society nearly four years to get everything together for the event, working with the Empire State Building and the New York City government to secure all the permits to make this happen. On August 1, 2015, these efforts became a success as images of endangered species were projected onto the Empire State Building from 9 p.m. to midnight.

    The display measured 375 feet high and 186 feet wide, projected onto the iconic skyscraper using 26 Christie Roadster HD20K-J and 12 Christie Roadster S+22K-J projectors, provided by Nationwide Video. Obscura built weatherized steel turrets to hold the projectors, and used their own custom blending software.

    “Really our challenges were with the scale and the building and surface material,” Threlkel said. “We weren’t sure how the materials would react, but luckily it worked a little better than we thought.” Threlkel was referring to projecting onto a building with so many windows, many of which would still be lit during the event, along with competing with lights in Midtown Manhattan. He said they were expecting the images to be dim, but luckily the final images were much brighter than they expected.

    “Our goal was to capture people’s attention,” Threlkel said. “That’s why we targeted something as big as the Empire State Building—it’s iconic and it would help create as much dialog as possible.”

    The original print page for the article.

    The original print page for the article.

    Surrounding Stockhausen’s Oktophonie

    By Kelleigh Welch

    *Note: This article originally appeared in the April 2013 edition of Pro Sound News.

    New York’s Park Avenue Armory, known for its 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall, hosted a week of performances in March of German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Oktophonie, which immersed the audience into a space-age experience of light and sound.

    During his lifetime, from 1928 to 2007, Stockhausen composed more than 370 individual pieces, and his music is seen as a significant contribution to the age of modern and electronic music. Sticking to his electronic innovation, Oktophonie was composed and recorded prior to any performances, and was intended to be played back for the audience in a surround sound environment writ large. As a result, there were no performing musicians present at the Armory; instead, the “performance” was the mixing of playback within the surround environment itself.

    Walking into the hall, attendees were each given a white robe and directed to sit on one of the many cushions on the floor surrounding a DiGiCo SD8 console, where sound designer Igor Kavulek and sound projectionist Kathinka Pasveer controled the performance. A total of 32 Meyer Sound MSL-4 loudspeakers and 24 600-HP subs surrounded the audience in a virtual cube, projecting sounds in various patterns throughout the performance.

    According to Pasveer, the composition is meant to depict a war between Michael and Lucifer, with loud and frightening bomb sounds within the music. During WWII, Stockhausen was stationed at a field hospital in Bedburg, Germany, where he experienced the terrors of war first hand— witnessing bombings and gunfire at only 16-years-old—and he recreated this fear through the composition.

    “It’s about war,” Pasveer said. “It’s about the invasion of two groups, the Michaels and Lucifers, and this music is the background of that scene. That’s why there are the sounds of bombs, exploding objects and airplanes. It’s war.” It is a composition inside a composition—originally written as one part of Stockhausen’s Dienstag (Tuesday), which is part of a larger, seven-part opera titled Licht (Light). Oktophonie, named after the octophonic audio arrangement with eight channels playing back through speakers that surround the listener, can be played as part of the Dienstag opera, or as a separate piece, as it was performed at the Armory.

    When composing Oktophonie, Stockhausen intended to place the audience into the center of a virtual cube, surrounding the listeners in speakers with four channels projecting from the base and the other four playing 45 feet above the audience. As the piece is played through the speakers, the sound moves in various patterns from front to back, side to side, and in spirals.

    “It’s a square with another square on top,” Pasveer said. “This (composition) is produced by Stockhausen with eight layers of music. It’s all specialized in the studio and then he mixed it back to eight channels, and those eight channels are played back into the hall.”

    Kavulek said the size of the room allowed him to project the sound at a higher volume, but it also placed on him the challenge of choosing the best speakers for the job. Originally, Kavulek said he wanted to use a different set of speakers, but when he couldn’t acquire enough for the performance, he decided to follow Stockhausen and chose the Meyer MSL-4s and HP-600s. “Stockhausen always worked with Meyer Sound,” Kavulek explained.

    In his note to the audience, Park Avenue Armory Artistic Director Alex Poots said Stockhausen would project a small image of the moon during other performances of Oktophonie, and Stockhausen wanted the setting of this piece to take place on the moon. Through the lighting choreography created by the show’s Lighting Designer Brian Scott, the illusion of the moon moving around the Earth was created.

    The performance itself was meditative— it fully engulfed you into the lunar atmosphere as you slipped in and out of your own thoughts, letting your imagination define the intentions of the composition.

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