The unexpectedly freezing weather kept me from going out as much as I'd like to this week (I'm new to the East Coast, and unprepared for real seasons), but the irresisitible lure of gravestones and accordion music drew me out of my warm bed. Angels and Accordions is a tour of Brooklyn's Green-Wood cemetery guided by white-robed dancers and dashing accordion players.
The performance was sponsored by New York Open House, a festival dedicated to unveiling normally secret locales.
I had tried to explore the cemetery before, but always found it's Gothic gates locked. It's a huge graveyard, almost as big as Prospect Park and filled with rolling hils, weeping willows, and grandiose mausoleums. I struck up a conversation with a woman who had been to last year's performance, and she informed me that Green-Wood was the catalyst for building Central Park. Apparently the cemetery used to be the largest green space in the city, and attracted large crowds of picnickers. City officials found this macabre leisure unseemly, and began planning a tombless park. It's also the resting place of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Samuel Morse, and many historic New Yorkers whose names I recognized from subway stations (Mr. Schermerhorn and Mr. Lorimer among them).
Pyramid shaped crypts like this one inspired me to spend my Sunday in the Egyptian collection at the Met.
After searching for models for my pharoah Halloween costume, I wandered over to the modern art section and stumbled upon a fantastic show by an artist I had never heard of. Pablo Bronstein at the Met is a collection of architectural plans, prints, and paintings that construct a mythic past and various futures for the Met itself.
A series of prints imagine familar exhibition spaces as Piranesi-esque ruins, while a large ink painting shows the Temple of Dendur being carted off to its new home as a surly sarcophagus looks on. Bronstein's sense of humor makes the language of institutional critique seem fresh. The show's tone is mocking, but it is also a loving tribute to the monumental role of the museum, a model that seems to characterize most of his work.
The next event I attended was unexpected: I ducked into Borders to use the restroom when I heard over the loudspeaker that Dr. Cornel West was speaking in ten minutes! I was thrilled, as I had just seen the film The Examined Life, in which director Astra Taylor converses with eight prominent philosophers in odd settings.
Here's a link to the film's website, if you're interested in seeing it: http://www.zeitgeistfilms.com/examinedlife/. I would highly recommend it. The site has a trailer for the film, which shows a clip from Dr. West's delightful segment. He sits cramped in the backseat of a car, gesturing wildly and comparing the experience of reading Moby Dick to being in love, a sentiment I agree with.
His talk at Borders was just as enjoyable, and made me wish he had a TV show, perhaps called A Jazz Man in the World of Ideas. Compared to his relatively unadorned writing style, West's speaking is flamboyant and charming, punctuated by his trademark intellectual name-dropping. He was there to promote his new memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.
The cover design is hideous, but if it's half as entertaining as the man himself, I would read it immediately. West and his co-star Judith Butler spoke together later in the week; I hope some of you had the chance to see it.
The Examined Life has been on my mind lately, in relation to a couple of books I've been reading on cyborgs. Slavoj Zizek's appearance in the film was perhaps the most thought provoking. Zizek chose to be interviewed at a garbage dump and uses the backdrop as a platform for a attack on ecology. He posits that environmental catastrophe is unimaginable because the sight of a single tree or patch of sky is too reassuring, and lulls us into denial. We must submerge ourselves in our own filth, find the beauty in decay, in order to live in the world we've created. Zizek suggests that the dump is a landscape in its own right, and that the fetishization of the "natural" is dangerous.
The erosion of the boundaries between natural and created is central to two books on transhumanism, Upgrade Me: Our Amazing Journey to Human 2.0, by Brian Clegg, and Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future, by James Hughes. Clegg focuses on enumerating the technologies that will soon allow humans to live longer, manipulate their own genes, and meld with animals and machines. Hughes gives a political context to biotechnology, and argues that cyborgs must be integrated into an egalitarian, regulated society. The books were fascinating, though Clegg's tone is rather smug, but both lacked the imagination of Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto, the text that sparked my obsession with transhumanism.
I hope to live long enough to see Hughes' technotopia, so on Thursday I headed to the Bed-Stuy YMCA to fortify my frail human body with step aerobics. It may not be a cultural event, exactly, but sweating to high speed remixes of Chris Brown and T-Pain is an encouraging communal experience. And as winter draws ever nearer, the Y's luxurious sauna becomes a welcome sanctuary.
Tomorrow Nathan Kensinger, documenter of decay, is presenting a slideshow of his photographs of abandoned locales. It's at 709 Lorimer St., at 7:30. Check it out if you're in New York!