Ideo realized there was a big opportunity in death. There are currently 76 million American baby boomers inching reticently in its direction. “We’re a generation that’s used to radicalizing things,” Bennett explains. Now, as many boomers watch their parents die just as Bennett had, accepting the soulless, one-size-fits-all deaths that society deals them, they seem to be rebelling one last time. Everywhere Bennett looked — New York Times opinion pieces and Frontline specials; assisted-suicide laws; the grassroots Death Café movement, where folks get together for tea and cake and talk about their mortality; a campaign in La Crosse, Wisconsin, that got 96 percent of the entire town to fill out advance directives, spelling out their wishes for end-of-life care — he saw his generation striving to make death more palatable, more expressive. And at the far extreme is the crop of phenomenally well-capitalized biotech startups working to get around the insufferable inconvenience of death altogether, either through science-fictionesque “radical life extension” treatments or by uploading your consciousness to the cloud. (These include Calico — Google’s so-called “Immortality Project” — and J. Craig Venter’s company Human Longevity, Inc. The founder of Oracle, Larry Ellison, who set up the Ellison Medical Foundation to defeat death, has explained his motivation succinctly: “Death has never made any sense to me.”) One way or another, Bennett told me, “We’re all holding hands and saying, ‘Forget that shit. Not going to happen.’”
I followed Bennett’s work over the past year — a journey that, in the end, may reveal less about the death of people than it does about the life of ideas, particularly the brand of Big Idea that distinctly Californian institutions like Ideo send careening through the culture. Right away, Bennett understood it would take years to see the sort of wholesale shift he was imagining — a generation or more. There was so much to do, he could really start anywhere. He just needed to find a few suitable clients, to locate a few fissures through which a genuinely different conversation about death could begin to flow. And because he was looking in San Francisco, in the year 2014, the first one he found was a startup building an app.
The app was called After I Go. The president and ceo of the company building it, Paul Gaffney, had founded two other startups but had spent most of his career working near the top of large corporations such as Charles Schwab, Office Depot, Staples, and aaa, primarily helping them find their footing online. He was 47, a loose and affable guy despite being excruciatingly analytic at his core. Once, when I asked Gaffney about himself, he explained that his “personal value proposition” is “establishing a vision for a new outcome particularly in consumer-related spaces enabled by the novel use of technology” — but he managed to sound human when he said it, even warm.
Gaffney described After I Go as TurboTax for death: a straightforward app that would allow people to write wills or advance directives and, in general, preemptively smooth out the many ancillary miseries that can ripple through a family when someone dies. Bank accounts, life-insurance policy numbers, user names and passwords, what night the garbage goes out — all of it could be seamlessly passed on. Whatever fear or despair people feel about death is only heightened by the fear that, because they never got around to making the necessary preparations, their death might burden the people they love. Gaffney assumed there’d be a big market for an app that eliminated that risk. “Simply providing people with that sense of organization would be a huge emotional payoff,” he said. But he was spectacularly wrong. Bouncing his ideas off potential investors, he quickly understood that no one welcomed a chance to prepare for death. It’s thankless drudgery — plus, it reminds you you’re going to die.
Gaffney realized he couldn’t just build the right tool; he also had to build the motivation to do the job in the first place. That’s what people would pay for. Suddenly, the work After I Go needed to do was no longer rational but emotional — which is to say, far outside Gaffney’s personal value proposition. (“I learned a long time ago that I’m not a good test case for how human beings respond,” he explains.) And so he hired Ideo to help.
For this work, Max Ernst has cut out the figure of a reclining female nude from an existing picture, rotated it though 90 degrees and pasted it onto the painted ground. Although the woman’s face is missing, we can imagine her gazing pensively at the stone below her. Her right arm is raised to her head, while her left arm passes like a sword through a dark disc. The artist has integrated the French caption as a component of equal importance. Like the picture, it offers unlimited scope for associations. In a language rich with allusions, Ernst seems to be equating the woman with the Pleiades, a constellation named after a group of virgin nymphs in a Greek myth. They were transformed into stars by Zeus to save them from the hunter Orion. Virginity and lasciviousness, the celestial and the earthly, floating and falling, grace and destruction—in this intriguing work Max Ernst holds a wealth of opposites in balance.
These images come from an exhibit curated by Felipe Hernández Cava for Museo ABC on Gente Menuda, which first appeared in 1904 as a children's supplement of Blanco y Negro. Its heyday occurred from the early 1930s up until the Spanish Civil War and this post focuses on those years. I'm also working on separate posts to highlight the work of Carlos Masberger, Felix Alonso, and Piti Bartolozzi.
Curator Felipe Hernández Cava is also one of Spain's best comic strip writers, starting out in the El Cubri collective.
The Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez has described color as “not simply the color of things or the color of form [but rather] an evolving situation, a reality which acts on the human being with the same intensity as cold, heat, and sound.” Cruz-Diez presents color as an experience in itself—a pure phenomenon of light that can be perceived without interpretation or preexisting cultural knowledge. By projecting color into space, the artist explores the sensory possibilities of its direct interaction with the viewer. The viewer, instead of merely looking at the work of art, becomes a participant in a phenomenological event.
Cruz-Diez is identified in Venezuela as one of the country’s modernist masters along with the late artists Jesús Rafael Soto and Alejandro Otero. In Europe, Cruz-Diez’s name became synonymous in the 1960s with the exploration of color’s kinetic potential. Born in Caracas in 1923, Cruz-Diez studied at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Aplicadas before working with an international advertising agency from 1946 to 1951. He then worked as an illustrator for a Caracas newspaper while teaching and practicing graphic and industrial design. In 1954, the artist worked on mural projects that could be manipulated; they changed with the sun’s movement, creating shadows and animating the surface plane with radiant reflections of color. Beginning in 1959, Cruz-Diez’s series of Fisicromías actualized the artist’s premise of bringing art as an autonomous chromatic reality into the viewer’s environment. The surfaces of the Fisicromías are made up of colored strips of cardboard, aluminum, or Plexiglas assembled in two interspersed levels: one flat, one raised. The color schemes produce a sensation of vibrating movement that causes the color tones to multiply according to the position and distance of the spectator and the angle at which the light—natural or artificial—of the environment is reflected. These early works were pivotal in defining the artist’s future path. No longer denouncing social injustices through figurative painting, Cruz-Diez deployed a new means of expressing contemporaneity while maintaining a moral commitment to serve a broad public.
By way of experiencing color’s intense immediacy as light rather than pigment, the viewer’s eye is freed from the burden of interpreting representational forms that are preordained by class or political messages. Exploring the infinitely changing effects of additive, reflective, and subtractive color, Cruz-Diez has ever since used color to challenge the traditional relationships between artist, viewer, and the perception of art. In 1969, Cruz-Diez installed 22 electrically lit cabins composed of red, blue, and green Plexiglas walls grouped into four separate maze-like structures at the subway entrance of the Place de l’Odéon in Paris, his adopted home city. These color-infused rooms—called Chromosaturations—are a culmination of the artist’s desire to project color into space as a participatory event; they literally saturate the viewer’s environment.
Cruz-Diez permanently moved to Paris in 1960, though he returns often to Venezuela. Since his first solo exhibition at the Venezuelan-American Institute in Caracas in 1947, he has participated in dozens of exhibitions, including MoMA’s polemical 1965 show of then-new Op work, The Responsive Eye. Cruz-Diez’s 2008 retrospective at the Americas Society in New York was his first major exhibition in a US institution, and the influence of his experimentation with color on contemporary artists became palpable.
Estrellita B. Brodsky Since the last time I saw you, I have done research in Caracas and discovered the complexities of how modernist Venezuelan art and its discourse developed locally as well as in Paris. I am interested in your role in that discourse as well as the roles played by two major Venezuelan figures—the architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva, who integrated avant-garde Venezuelan and international art into his design of Caracas’s Ciudad Universitaria during the early 1950s, and Alfredo Boulton, the Venezuelan art critic, cultural historian, and photographer. They not only encouraged a cultural self-awareness in Venezuela during the 1940s and 1950s, they also encouraged Venezuelan artists living in Paris to take an internationalist perspective in their work. Within this context, could you describe your initial interest in traveling to Europe and why you temporarily returned to Venezuela before ultimately settling in Paris in 1960?
Carlos Cruz-Diez It’s interesting. I came to Europe for the first time in 1955. Before that I was doing many things in Caracas simultaneously. I did set designs for film and theater while earning a living as a graphic designer. When I arrived in Barcelona in 1955 with my wife and two children, my intention was to go on to Paris. But since I didn’t speak French, I thought it’d be reasonable to stay there until I became fluent in French. I traveled to Paris three or four times during that period of almost two years, and I did a lot of research and began projects that integrated art, street life, and architecture. Like many Latin Americans who visit Europe for the first time, I went through a period of thinking: What can I do here in Paris? Nothing. There is history in Europe, but in my own country there is a blank slate; you can do anything there. How could I have missed this before? So I returned to Venezuela in late 1956 full of hope, sketches, and projects. I immediately got in touch with friends and business people so I could start working on the projects that I developed in Barcelona: the group of manipulable sculptures Signs and Dynamic Rhythms, made of metal and wood. Predictably, everyone was enthusiastic: “Great idea, call me on Monday!” Time kept passing and everything was stalled. Our economic situation was precarious and I needed to make money again. At some point I ran into a poet friend of mine who edited the Caracas-based journal Momento; he mentioned that they needed a graphic designer. Given that none of my projects had taken off, I accepted the job, though I continued doing the research I had begun in Caracas in 1953, which proved very valuable the next year, when I did those projects with murals and manipulable objects, such as Project for a Mural.
EB Though Project for a Mural wasn’t part of the Ciudad Universitaria.
CCD No, I didn’t participate in that.
EB For political reasons? I know that many artists felt that despite Villanueva’s commitment to avant-garde artists, they did not want to be associated with anything funded by Marcos Pérez Jiménez’s brutal dictatorship.
CCD The work I was doing in the early 1950s didn’t belong there. I was making figurative paintings that denounced political issues: shantytowns, poverty. There was no room for that in Ciudad Universitaria. The artists invited to participate were Paris-based abstract artists; they were the ones making works for the university. Years later, Villanueva did ask me to make a piece for the university, but I still didn’t think that it was right to join a project that had started in 1950 and which had the coherency of an era to which I didn’t belong. But I had a close friendship with Villanueva; he’d come to Paris a lot and would visit my studio.
Yet the art shown at the Ciudad Universitaria influenced me a great deal. At the time, I thought the paintings I was making were good, since I believed that the painter’s role was to denounce injustices and to make socially committed work. Latin American artists all come from that. For me, to change my discourse required a lot of reflection and time, since I wasn’t sure whether what I was doing had any visual appeal. I tell it as a joke, but it’s true: rich people were the ones buying those little paintings of shantytowns in which I denounced poverty. I was fooling myself. If I had continued making that type of work I’d be a millionaire now. So, in 1954, I started doing very focused investigations on how discourse could change in order for art to become more participatory. Before then, I had made figurative paintings because I felt art had to be integrated into society and contemporary life. They were influenced by Mexican muralism, social realism, and social satire. My first works that no longer had anything to do with so-called realism still had a social intent. Instead of making paintings that depicted poverty and social problems (which I couldn’t solve) for rich people to collect, I addressed social concerns by having people on the street intervene and help complete participatory, shared works, as I called them back then. I didn’t want to have control over the discourse. In Project for a Mural the viewers could manipulate the pieces. What gave me great joy and confirmed my findings was that when I arrived in Paris in 1955 I encountered a friend from school, Jesús Rafael Soto, as well as all the abstract painters—their exhibition Le Mouvement had just closed. I called Soto, who said, “Go to Denise René’s gallery, there’s a show there you must see.”
I met Denise René as she was taking down the works. It was very exciting to see that without having any information—I had no idea what Soto had been doing in Paris—I was already in sync with the new discourse of creating work with which the viewer could directly interact; this broke away from the traditionally passive relationships between viewer, artist, object, and space. I hadn’t seen any photos of Soto’s new work. I hadn’t seen work by Yaacov Agam. I didn’t know of Jean Tinguely’s existence, nor of Pol Bury’s. I did know about Victor Vasarely’s abstract paintings, but not of his works with glass.
Why discuss The Arcades Project now? The book, for all its chaos and eccentricity, is an attempt to provide a record of capitalist development in a particular place and time, namely 19th-century Paris. As we know, capitalism hasn’t gone away, and neither have the particularities discussed by Benjamin – the ‘phantamasgoric’ nature of a society created by an economy in which exchange and representation suppress use and experience, the power of commodity fetishism and its extension into the field of sexual relations, the bourgeois domination of inner-city space, and the voluntary nomadism of the middle-class flaneur.
There is a further reason why this is an opportune moment to critically examine the relationship between cultural studies and radical theory, and Benjamin is perhaps best placed to provide an example for discussion, given he was as much enamoured of the former as committed to the latter.
The global economic infrastructure has been subject to a process of radical development since the crisis proximately initiated in 2007 by the sale of ‘default-ready’ loans to low-income home buyers. One salient result of this has been the progressive immiseration of large segments of the bourgeoisie in the developed world, now subject to the same insecurity of salary and job longevity as the working class has always traditionally been. This unmooring from old certainties has led to an objective loss of ‘stake’ in this society, and it remains to be seen what the reaction to this will be by those affected.
Some will cling to the intellectual sense of superiority pertaining to the possession of “cultural capital” (Pierre Bourdieu), while others will come to realise the truth, namely that art in ‘civil’ society is the amanuensis of a system that prices out the majority in the interests of galloping property valorisation, a system for managing cultural assets (meant in both senses of the term), etc. Having been ‘realised’ in an apparently endless cycle of ‘specialist’ comments on the ‘human condition’, art must now, as the Situationists recommended nearly 50 years ago, be suppressed.
Culture and marketing
The arcades represented the most integrated hybrid thus far of ‘art’ and advertising. What is striking is the extent to which, as the Situationists noted, everything becomes subject to promotion and ideologies that become commodities of the intellectual market-place as much as things are the stock in trade of the agora. Radical, ‘agitational-propaganda’ art illustrates this point – the cause is made more attractive by the application of strong design values.
Military Architecture and Regeneration
Just as the skills of presentation, display, and positioning are brought into the service of the commodity, Haussmann’s pre-emptive re-design of the city makes a militarised architecture the help-meet of social peace, and aesthetics, ambience, and spatial resonance are sacrificed to the straight lines of the city as, [literally] regimented space. Haussmann was not concerned with aesthetics, and could be described as an architectural nihilist, or “demolition artist” as he termed himself, responsible for “strategic embellishment”.
Haussmann’s work displaces and uproots the urban poor, forcibly compressing in time the process of organic assimilation of villages that characterises urban development. We shall return to the theme of time and the city in due course, but we should give honourable mention to Eugene Atget for his evocative photographs of Paris in just such a state of transition.
Planned urban environments from Haussmann to Le Corbusier (by way of Albert Speer) are instances of coordinated and major upheaval based on a grafted ideal or model, designed to engineer human behaviour through the manipulation of the urban landscape. Haussmann’s priority was socio-military pacification, Speer’s was a combination of military and other concerns (the free passage of commodities), and Le Corbusier’s the creation of efficient productive and socially reproductive environments, machines for living.
In the present phase, the agenda has become simultaneously more narrow and more amorphous – the creation of; (A) homes and playpens for the rich in close proximity to financial centres and (B) investment sites, in which the surplus value extracted from proletarians in underdeveloped countries (such as China) is revalorised via property trading in the West.