Friday, April 18, 2014

Utopian Benches: A Design and Technology student perspective

By John Steven Calder

In viewing the SFAI installation of Francis Capes Utopian Benches, I came away with more questions than answers.

Indeed it is very intriguing to find a common thread among these different Utopian Societies, in this case, common space benches typically used in their place of worship. As a Design And Technology student, and a life long Engineer, I find there are many questions left unanswered when looked at through these eyes.

The exhibit contains 17 handmade benches; ideally hand crafted duplicates of actual benches from these varied location, and a series of technical drawings describing instruction and blueprints to build them.

Curiously there are drawings for benches that are not in the exhibit or collection. The artist himself states the original installation was of 20 benches, and we can see in the drawings, two benches that have back rests, yet none of the 17 benches have any back supports rests.

Was this by design? Did the artist build but not include two benches that the drawings describe with backrests? The drawings do not include all 17 benches, so is the final missing bench one with a backrest but no drawing? Did the Artist, the Collector or the galleries Curator decide this?

I will attempt to answer some of these questions as well in this overview. Another question to review is: why are the drawings in a separate space from the Benches themselves? Again, who made this choice?

Looking at the bench reproduction from a functional and mechanical point of view bring up another set of questions and problems to ponder.

Which one is the oldest? Which is the most durable? Which is the most cost effective.

The benches vary in height, width and length. Why is that? If one discovered a perfect design, would it not be accepted as a common standard over the years? This does not seem to be the case.

As most of these benches are described as typical to their individual societies, they are as well mostly used in common areas and more importantly, in places of worship.

To understand and feel how these benches are used in a day to day basis, we have to appreciate that these are used in self describe Utopian Societies, which basically means you are sitting on this bench listening to a speaker. Utopian Ideals must be advocated for on a regular basis. So in effect if you were sitting on a given bench, your attention, and probably for a good amount of time, would be focused on a Pastor, Preacher, Chief or Advocate of the dogma or program in which the Utopian Society prescribes and aspires and perhaps, enforces.

So what does a bench design have to do with that?

When Steelcase designed the first modern molded plywood seating in MacDonald’s in the early 60’s, it was intentionally designed to make a human uncomfortable after 15 minutes or so. Lingering was not promoted. The bench designed insured that.

To fully appreciate the design of these benches, one must imagine yourself in 1823 Kansas, in a wool suit, with closed collar shirt, in the steaming summer sitting on one of these benches for hours listening to a Pastor, Preacher, Chief or Advocate admonish his followers for hours on end, about your sinful, righteous, evil, or admirable behavior. It is then the design of the bench you are sitting becomes very important Maybe after an hour, the most important thing on your mind!

Does the Minister want you to be comfortable? Or does he want to make you feel like you are sitting on a razor blade? Judging by these designs and knowing their origins, indeed, you were not to be too comfortable in them.

Aside from bench length, there are only two variables that could determine comfort if indeed comfort can be achieved at all, height of the bench and width of the bench. In all cases all 17 benches sitting surfaces were smooth and polished with no variations in the surfaces.

The benches have a variety of heights, from 14 to 18 inches. Why is that? Is the racial makeup up these insular societies significantly differing in height, body style or weight? If a carpenter in a society is building the same design for over 400 years, there must be a reason. What is it?

My ‘Engineering Brain’ has brought up a series of questions that make me ponder the ‘credibility” of the entire piece.

The bench reproductions are all made of poplar, a light, available wood, although the originals were made of a variety of local woods, indigenous to their communities, which were a variety of colors. The Artist states that this is an attempt to give them a common look. Why is that important? Did the artist feel this common ground offered yet another commonality to this overall piece?

The artist discovered a common architectural feature in most of these communities. Decided to change their material to fit his vision, removed at least 3 benches that did not fit his vision, as they were mechanically different. So the reality of these 20 benches, of a variety of design and materials, differs greatly from the installation we view today.

Does this piece have integrity or is a fake, a fabrication? Is this really common thread in these cultures or were the ‘facts’ of these pieces skewed to suggest a different meaning?

What point is the Artist trying to make, and could he have made it without changing the design of the benches?

If the Artist had named this “Holding Cell Benches, Mars Invasion Crafts #1-17, Hidden behind the Moon”, I would have said: “Wow I love Art!”. Because it would fiction and the holes in the details are left to the viewer’s imagination.

Viewer could imagine thoughts like “Wow why that one looks Amish? Maybe the space ships were built there? Never did trust those people, I figured they were from Mars”.

In summary, I find this show to be disingenuous, as the artist is attempting to show common elements in similar but distant societies. The Artist dismisses data points that does not match his forced vision, he then goes and modifies each data point to again to match this forced vision.

Disingenuous because the Artist chose a “real” object and a ‘real” time and place, and called these facts “true”. Facts, not fiction like my spaceship example. I cannot ‘suspend belief’ when presented a story ‘supposedly’ based upon facts.

Modifying the data set and data points themselves, has proven nothing other than the Artist can make nice modern furniture.

Judas Redux - An Essay on "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie"

By John Calder

A charming tale of 10-year-old schoolgirls and their quirky Teacher, Miss Brodie at first seems like an innocent tale of coming of age. The dynamics of such social circles portrayed at first seem innocent and child like. But a simple, short tale of school life in 1930’s Edinburgh Scotland becomes something else when analyzed through the details. This brilliantly written tale, where every sentence and paragraph is crafted with intent, exposes a deeper meaning than first glance. Indeed the “Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” is about schoolgirls and the Teacher, it is also a tale of deception, betrayal and suspicion. This book is a retelling of the relationship Jesus Christ had with his Apostles and his eventual betrayal by his closest confidante, Judas Iscariot.

Sandy, Mary, Rose and 3 other girls are assigned to Miss Jean Brodie who describes herself as being "in my prime". Miss Brodie, contrary to the instruction of the school Head Mistress, Miss Mackay, is determined that they shall receive an education in the original sense of the Latin verb ‘educere’, "to lead out", gives her students lessons about her personal love life and travels, promoting art history, classical studies, and shares her love of fascism. Under her guidance, these six girls whom Brodie singles out as the elite group among her students—known as the "Brodie set"—begin to stand out from the rest of the school. 

Thus begins the relationship of the Mentor and her ardent supporter. In one scene, this biblical tale is played out were Miss Brodie and the girls “Miss Brodie led her new class into the garden” (Sparks 16). Where Miss Brodie taught her version of Religion, “Goodness, Truth and Beauty” (Sparks 17).

In regards to religion, Miss Brodie "was not in any doubt, she let everyone know she was in no doubt, that God was on her side whatever her course". Feeling herself fated one way or another, Brodie acts as if she transcends morality. In fact, Miss Brodie has taken on the persona of ‘Jesus” and the ‘Brodie Set’, her apostles, and like Jesus, one her hand picked followers would betray her as well.

When we first meet Sandy Stranger, she is described to an angelic figure wearing a halo, in a simple description of how she wore her hat. ”Sandy Stranger wore it turned up all round and as far back on her head as it could possibly go” (Sparks 12). This image beckons that of angels, particularly in the divinity paintings of Miss Brodie’s favorite artist, Giotto.
            Who is the greatest Italian painter?”
“Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.”
“That’s incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favorite.” (Sparks 18)

It is interesting to note that Giotto only painted scenes of divinity and faith, unlike other great Italian painters like da Vinci, who created timeless works of art in a variety of mediums and range of topics. Giotto most famous painting is “The Kiss of Judas”, a telling sign for Sandy’s later conversion to Catholicism, becoming a Nun and the betrayal of Miss Brodie.

Other members of the “Brodie-set” act as proxies for Miss Brodie herself, and exhibit characteristics of Miss Brodie’s behavior, themselves.

Mary Macgregor, the dim-witted and slow girl, is Brodie's scapegoat. Mary meekly bears the blame for everything that goes wrong. At the age of 23 she dies in a hotel fire, killed running back and forth through the hotel, unable to escape. Yet Miss Brodie in her sexual escapades acts like Mary, running back and forth between two paramours, only in the end, to die alone.

Rose Stanley, an attractive woman who resembles a young Miss Brodie is pressured into an affair with the Art Teacher, Mr. Lloyd, simply because Miss Brody will not sleep with him, and again Miss Brodie seeks the vicarious joy of this coupling. Mr. Lloyd, a one-armed war veteran Mr. Teddy Lloyd, a married Roman Catholic with six children, always paints his models to look like Miss Brodie, which eventually Rose finds no attraction him, she is impervious to it. It is Sandy, who in an act of dissent had the affair with Mr. Lloyd, much to the dislike of Miss Brodie.

It would eventually be Sandy who would betray Miss Brodie. This was her destiny set up for her by Miss Brodie in much the same manner in which Jesus chose his own Apostles, even Judas. Sandy exhibited dissident behavior in almost all her independent decisions. “Miss Brodie’s disapproval of the Girl Guides had jealousy in it” (Sparks 48).
“Sandy thought might see about joining the Brownies. Then the group-fright seized her again, and it was necessary to put the idea aside, because she loved Miss Brodie” (Sparks 48). It’s apparent that Miss Brodie, like Jesus, expects the eventual betrayal. “If the authorities want to get rid of her she would have to be assassinated”.

The betrayal of Miss Brodie was set in action by her selection of her hand picked confidante Sandy. Sandy’s reaction to this betrayal was cold and impersonal. "It’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due". (Sparks 135)
            “Have you thought of politics?”
            Miss Mackay turned her chair so it was nearly square with Sandy’s. This was business.
“My dear”, she said, “What do you mean? I didn’t know she was attracted to politics.”
Neither she is,” said Sandy, “except as a side interest. She’s a born Fascist, have you thought of that?” (Sparks 182)

Sandy’s betrayal was ordained, as much as Miss Brodie’s playing the role of the betrayed. The actors played out their roles in this passion play in a predictable and biblical histrionics. Sandy’s spiritual awakening gained through infidelity, the affair with a married Catholic painter, led to her contempt for Miss Brodie’s beloved Calvinism and fascination with impeccable order, Fascism. History repeats itself and so does the story of the betrayal of Jesus Christ by Judas Iscariot.

Works Cited

Spark, Muriel. “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, (United Kingdom 1962).

The Perils of Obedience

By John Calder

The Perils of Obedience - An Essay on “Behavioral Study of Obedience” by Stanley Milgram Psychologist (b. 1933-d.1984)

Dr. Milgrams experiments with Peer Shock Administration derived from his interest in the Nuremberg trials following World War II. In particular interest was that of Adolph Eichmann, the ‘Architect’ of the “Jewish Solution” known as the Holocaust.

Upon Eichmann’s capture in Argentina in 1960, he was transported to Israel by the Mossad for trial. Key to his defense, as a good German Officer Mr. Eichmann declared “I was only doing my job”. A phrase[1] that has been since never to be forgotten and certainly must have made an impression on Dr. Milgram, a New York City born Jew and a recent Harvard graduate.

Eichmann defense was based upon the responsibility to follow orders, regardless of their source or moral content. It was his defined duty to act in such a manner.  Could such a behavior be anything less than psychotic? Dr. Milgram was determined to find out.

Dr. Milgram set up a testing environment that include the primary authority figure, The “Experimenter”, the testing subject themselves was called the “Teacher” and an actor, who like the “Experimenter” was part of the test team, playing the role of the “Learner”.

The Teacher would recite a series of words for the Learner to repeat. If the Learner made a mistake, punishment in the for of an electrical shock, with a variety of setting from low (mild shock) to very high (extremely painful), who be applied by the Teacher until the Learner got the right answer. Of course, the actor pretended to get shocked as no actual shock was administered.

The Experimenter, prodding the Teacher to increase punishment, oversaw all of these actions.
The most basic observation indeed verified Eichmann’s defense, that once authority was suspended from the individual and accepted by a higher authority (Experimenter), indeed the Teacher, the target test subject, would apply unspeakable punishment without question.

Dr. Milgram tested numerous variations of this experiment and has verified the basic hypothesis except for the following 3 conditions:
  •        The Experimenter must be physically present for unquestioned obedience from the Teacher
  • .      Authority lines must be clear. No conflicting sources or the Teacher would fail to punish.
  •        Peer pressure rebellion will cause the Teacher to refuse punishment.

I found this absolutely fascinating, as over my years in business I have developed a similar conclusion, yet I never had any exposure to this information. I concluded to never put family, business or myself in a situation where someone in power has the right to make yes/no decision that will have an adverse effect. I conclude people in these situations will always NO because they CAN, not because they want to. My person confirmation of the “Behavioral Study of Obedience”

[1] A derivative of this phrase was included in the 60’s WWII Comedy “Hogan’s Hero’s” where the forever inept Nazi character Sgt. Shultz would repeat “I saw nothing! I know nothing”. How, in the 60’s, a group of Jewish writer, Directors and Producers, who certainly have lost family member to the Holocaust, decided to create a “Whacky Nazi Sitcom” is beyond the scope of this analysis but should be the subject of another study itself.

No Way Home

By John Calder

An Essay on the human cost due to the collapse of a City
I often ponder what kind of man would I would be today, had I NOT been born in a place that started dying the day I was born. 

What and where would I be today if my place of birth was growing and vital? Where people had happy endings, stories that had endings, things that made you happy or even something to look forward to?
It wasn't till I was maybe 10 years old did I discover that the very existence of Detroit, my friends and families, were all tied to the rise and falls or whims of the Ford Motor Company. I realized that this town only had room for one great man, I too wanted to be a great man (in my boyish brain) and I would have to find my opportunities elsewhere. Where was my land of opportunities? I had no idea.

Well, pretty much the car companies got their asses kicked, and the place beat up the most was my home town, Detroit and all the little suburbs that housed the people that fired the automobiles manufacturing machines, and all small business that supported them. I remember as kid feeling that people were uncomfortable, very unsure of what was to come.

I was born in Detroit Children’s Hospital, right down from Tiger Stadium, on December 6th 1957. General Motors had just released one of there finest, highest selling cars of all time, the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air.

As a kid growing up I thought the word “FORD” was a thing, maybe a government agency, but certainly, not a person. Ford seemed to be everywhere, schools, hospitals, pharmacies, parks, the back of cars and trucks. Everything was provided by Ford and of course, everything was named after the man himself, the genius engineer, first American Billionaire, outspoken racist, pen pal of Adolph Hitler and rabid anti-Semite, the great Henry Ford.

This time, around my birth, marked the ‘high water mark’ in the 50’s and into the late 60’s for the Detroit automotive industry. Within in a few years Detroit icon’s like Ford, Chrysler, Pontiac, Cadillac, Buick and Oldsmobile would lose market share to the likes of Volkswagen, Mercedes, Opel, Honda, Toyota, Datsun, and you know how that played out. Add in an oil embargo in early 70’s, where gas prices went from $.36 cents to $.85 cents in two years, where Detroit was making cars that had ½ to 1/3 of the gas mileage as the imports.

Detroit was going to get hit, and get hit hard. Detroit was terminal; it was going to die.

In return for their dedicated and unwavering loyalties, Detroit autoworkers (and just as important, the sales and retail business that supported them), were rewarded with lock-outs, massive layoff, offshore transference of jobs.  A complete gutting of the middle class that Henry Ford proudly created in 1914 by paying a fair and equitable wage of $5 dollars a day -- nearly double the amount of his competitors -- a shocking event in these time.

As long as I can remember, everything around me was constantly changing, always bad changes. Never do I ever recall a ‘happy’ story or one that ended better off at the end than the beginning. Some popular business or restaurant was closing, so and so was being laid off at one of the factories or somebody’s uncle or husband was dying because of drinking or drug abuse.

“Tough” is what happens when you lose everything and run out of options. “Pride” comes from surviving those times. Detroiter’s are Tough and Proud. Hell, we were proud to be Detroiter’s, we were tough, and we had a reputation.

It seemed every one moved from a big house to a smaller one. Never do I ever recall anyone I grew up with moving away to a nice place or town, ever. My family went from a nice house in Detroit proper, with a beautiful lake front vacation home on an exclusive island -- where I would sit all summer on our dock under a gazebo with my Grandfather and Uncles and fish as we looked out into Laker Erie and watched the giant lake freighters make there way up the Livingston Channel -- To a tract subdivision in a small town south of Detroit.  No more lake house, and no more fishing trips. My Grandfather had died and we sold the island home to pay his debts. No one in the extended family had any money; everything was drying up.

This changing landscape was most apparent in the neighborhoods in the shops and small businesses that served the autoworker and their supporting community. As unemployment grew, high wage autoworkers that had saved, bought a 7-11, or a Domino Pizza store. Mom and Pop stores and restaurants, places that gave neighborhood character, soon began to close. Soon each town, each block, became the same mosaic of the same franchise fast food, copy shops, and chain auto repair shops. In effect, they all looked the same and all the uniqueness was gone.

And of course, all these new jobs paid minimum wages. The boss you had at work, who bought a pizza chain store,  ‘hired’ back his fellow workers, his ‘crew’ at GM, but instead of $24.50 an hour and full benefits, the ‘crew’ was working for 1/5 of what they once made.

Detroit went from a Growth based, high wage manufacturing economy to a Stagnant Service based economy that paid minimum wages. This simply was not sustainable, for families or companies.

I left Detroit after graduating high school in 1976. I got out of school on June 10th and I shipped out in the Air Force on July 21st 1976. I was not going to linger at home, did not want to get tempted to stay, I needed to go and go quickly. Detroit in 1976 simply did not instill enthusiasm and access to opportunity for a young man looking for his opportunity to be great. Time to go, but where? At that time, anywhere but here!

My older brother Mark had faced the same decision I had; family with no money, no chance to go to school, he chose the Navy.  He would send letters from Japan or the China Sea, I’m thinking, “this sound good to me”! Yes, the Air Force, very serious, smart people and I’m going to travel.

Having a life long love of airplanes and all things design and mechanical, I choose the United States Air Force and I was going to be a Jet Propulsion Specialist, a jet engine mechanic! Off to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas and technical training at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois; after that: The world!

Surely, this would improve my situation; get to place where I can become my own great man!

First stop was Lackland, Basic Training for entrance into the United States Air Force! We were hustled into a sterile room and this little mean, short Mexican Drill Instructor, Sergeant Lopez, wearing one of those stiff Brimmed Drill Instructor hats.  Sgt. Lopez commenced to ‘Orientate us’, or basically, yell at us for about an hour. I’m thinking, “My situation in has NOT improved here”.

Well we were in for a wake up call this seemed very serious. But alas, Sergeant Lopez made a fatal error; he forgot to read the paperwork and learn that we were from Detroit! As he was winding down on his “Orientation”, he proclaimed: “I am the baddest man in Texas, if any of you fools want to try me, step up, I will kick your ass!”

Well, 5 of my fellow Detroiter ‘Brothers’ stood up and said, “I’ll take some of that!” Wrong thing to say to roomful of Detroiters!

Sergeant Lopez fled the room in fear, trying to find Security Police. Suddenly this whole thing did not seem too serious any more. (Sergeant Lopez DID have me though, for about 58 minutes.)

Yep, My situation was not improving! No room to be a great man here, but if I can just make it through my 4 year obligation? Maybe I can use this as a platform to build on? But at least I was not floundering in the soul-sucking place of my birth.

Mom still lived in the family home in Detroit proper, having moved into her mothers home when Grandma died. I diligently visited my Mom and Detroit, every Saint Patrick’s Day, a family tradition, sometimes for the 4th of July, (another family tradition) and either Thanksgiving or Christmas. So pretty much I visited Mom and Detroit 2-3 times a year for 38 years, close to 100 trips.

And every time I visited, something else had died, or someone else had died, something else closed or was lost, some family had yet another tragic story told. No happy endings.

Suffering most was Detroit. The City was dead, declared so buy the New York Times in 1978. Yet each time I visited, it died more! One-year vandals set fire to 2000 houses; that number increased every year for 20 years! How can something continue to die when it’s already dead? How can something rot when all that's left to rot IS rot?

Detroit, if it’s known for anything, its Determination and Pride. Detroit is determined to die forever and be proud of it.

The Air Force brought me to California. In 1980 something very big was brewing, Silicon Valley, fertile ground for a creative mind. I found my ‘springboard” my opportunity, perhaps my time to be a great man, do great thing. Optimism, a first for me, abounded!

Schooled as an Electronic Engineer, I went to a Defense company, where I received 5 promotions in 2 years. I was recruited to a Start-up company, where I wholly designed my first product. The company folded, but I was able to acquire its assets, including my product, for $4500. I added my new label, and in one month shipped $150,000 worth of products, in one year it was $1,500,000. 17 Years later $75 Million.
Well in spite of long odds, a rough start, a bad marriage and raising 3 beautiful children, I found my niche, my time, and my opportunity to become a great man, to do something great!

I have been on TV, in books, featured in magazines, ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’, ‘Start-up to Watch’ in Wired Magazine, Started 3 companies, still own two. I produced movies, raised significant Venture Capital monies, spoken at universities, traveled in the Pacific Rim extensively, shipped hundred of thousand products to 11 countries in 5 languages, raised money for school, mayor, governor, senate and congressional candidates. In short, I have live a full and rich life, all the result of opportunity, a bit of luck, hard work and determination.

My names not on the back of a truck or a school, but its my kids last name and I’m very proud of that. I think I’ve done just fine! Maybe that’s a first for a Detroiter? A happy ending!