Monday, November 10, 2008

An ordinary day in Oltrarno

We've settled in to a semi-regular existence in Florence, with a rented apartment in Oltrarno, the so-called "working class" district that reminds us a lot of the Mission back home. The crowds and the tourist attractions are several blocks away, across the river Arno, so we have all these tiny cobble-stoned streets and cheap wine bars to ourselves. It's a pretty sweet life!

This sort of travel suits us better than moving from town to town every day. We can save money on living quarters, and cook at home every once in a while. Still, the truth of the matter is that the moment you stop moving, time speeds back up. It's easy to lose a day as the rhythms of everyday life take over. That's pretty much what happened to us today.

Our plan had been to enjoy a leisurely morning (as usual) and hop on a train at noon to visit our new friend Shanna's place in Pontadera. We met Shanna here in Italy, but she is a former San Franciscan that we met through good friends Kim & Jason and Megan. A few days back we stayed with her, and when she mentioned that the olive harvest was coming up, we jumped at the chance to return.

If you conjure up your vision of the fantasy Italian countryside home -- maybe an old farmhouse in the countryside converted by loving hands into a perfect Italian villa -- that's pretty much where Shanna lives. Her family owns the place and has been fixing it up for decades now. Shanna lives there with her husband and adorable 15-month old daughter. A pretty idyllic existence!

Well, getting back there seemed easy enough. The train leaves every few minutes, and takes about an hour. We hopped in a cab, and thought we were on our way. But when we arrived, we learned the Italian word for "strike": Sciopero. No trains for Pisa today.

Still, this didn't stop us from foolishly buying a ticket in the hopes that somehow it would work.

Staying in Florence wouldn't be that bad. We've been trying to make it to the legendary Fra Angelico frescos that grace the former living quarters of Florentine monks at the Church of San Marco. So we hopped in another cab (for another 8 euros), and arrived at San Marco only to find that the church is closed on the 2nd Monday of every month.

Well, by this time we were ready to head back to our lovely Oltrarno district to drop off our bags. Having just wasted 20 Euros on cab fair and 12 Euros on a useless train ticket, we thought we'd walk. Ever tried to walk down narrow, cobblestoned sidewalks with a rolling suitcase? It's no fun. We grabbed a third cab home for another 8 Euros.

What do you do when your travel plans fall through? Laundry. As it happens, there is a laundromat just down the street from our home. Naturally, we forgot about the Italian habit of closing for lunch from 1-3, so we had to sit an hour in a cafe. And now we are in the laundromat, watching our clothes go around and around.

We need a break! I think we'll take ourselves out for a nice dinner in the Santa Croce neighborhood we've been meaning to visit, using recommendations from Kate & Sean. We'll get a botiglia di vino, do both a primo and secondo piatti, and stop by a gelateria on the way home. That'll be the end to a nice day.

Cab fare = 26 Euros
Cafe = 4 Euros
Laundry = 9.50 Euros
Wasted Train ticket= 12 Euros
An ordinary day in this beautiful city = Priceless

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Secret Room

The Mission Cultural Center asked me to paint a mural-sized political cartoon during the opening of a show they produced of experimental drawings and political cartoons. I was sort of nervous about the prospect of painting in front of a large group of people, but I decided it was worth doing, just to say I did it.

I chose as my subject the "secret room" at AT&T's Folsom Street facility. Here's the time-lapse video my awesome co-workers, Chris Contolini and Richard Esguerra, shot and edited:

While I was painting, a visitor asked me if the story of the secret room was real. "Like, is this legit? I mean, for real?" he asked.

It does sound fantastical, but sadly, the story is true -- except that no one knows if the secret room is inhabited by a giant, data-guzzling baby because only the NSA has the keys to that room.

What we do know is that the Bush administration asked AT&T to install a fiber-optic splitter -- a big version of the device you would use to make a copy of your cable signal so you can watch cable on more than one television -- and use that splitter to make a duplicate copy of most of the Internet stream passing through the Folsom Street facility.

How do we know this, you might ask. Well, I'll tell you. A technician named Mark Klein learned about this spying setup when he worked for AT&T in the Folsom Street facility. It took him some time before he understood exactly what was going on, but once he did, he was horrified. He kept his mouth shut, but secretly collected documents to prove what he knew, and when he retired, he took those documents home with him. He shopped these documents around to journalists and privacy advocates, but he got nowhere until he walked into the EFF offices one day in 2005. EFF was already working on a case against AT&T, so Klein's documents provoked a lot of interest. (Here's a good video of Klein explaining what he saw on Keith Olberman.)

EFF hired an independent expert to examine the documents, and the expert -- a guy named Brian Reid -- verified their authenticity and made a statement saying that they showed exactly what Klein was claiming: a massive datamining program sweeping up the communications of millions of innocent people. For its part, AT&T angrily insisted that EFF return the documents, claiming they were private property -- nice move, since this also provided verification of the authenticity of the documents.

So what this means is that copies of the communications and internet data of millions of people have been, and continue to be, intercepted and delivered to the government. For the lawyers at EFF, it doesn't really matter what they're doing with all that data once they have it in their secret room. What matters is the simple fact of interception on a massive scale, which violates several major privacy laws -- including the 4th amendment to the Constitution. But for an artist like myself, it's the secret room that holds the key! For me, it's impossible not to try to imagine what goes on inside that room.

Sometimes, when I've told people about this, they express disbelief. It's hard to believe something like this could be happening, and that it isn't covered by the mainstream media. But in fact it is covered. The New York Times, the LA Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, have all covered this story and confirmed the broad outlines of the story -- and in some cases, these papers have uncovered new information. But as it turns out, getting a story onto the front page of the New York Times is not enough to make a scandal.

I'm reminded of the stack of newspapers from the Watergate era I once saw for sale at a garage sale in Berkeley. As I looked through them, I realized that the thing that made Watergate so big was the fact that it was on the front page every day for weeks and months on end. We haven't had any coverage of the Bush spying scandals that even comes close to the saturation of the Watergate stories. Sort of ironic, considering the difference in scale: Wiretapping a few politicians, vs. wiretapping the entire public over the course of 6 or 7 years!

I like pointing this out, because I think it's interesting that this is how secrets are kept in the modern world. They aren't exactly suppressed, in the sense that journalists still cover the story, and groups like EFF still file lawsuits, and no one is sent to the gulag. But the story doesn't ever quite get out. The secret is there, out in public, but nevertheless hidden. You could say that stories like the Mark Klein's story about the secret room are public secrets.

So, anyway... That's why I chose to this subject for my cartoon. I hope it intrigues a few people to dig deeper and find out what's going on. And for those that already know about the NSA's illegal spying program, I hope it helps add a little bit of mythology to the story. Maybe that's what it needs -- some mystery! A secret room to inflame the imagination...

The show is up through September 14th, with work by several fantastic artists, including cartoonist Spain and my talented friend Paz de la Calzada. Go check it out!

PS: Speaking of Public Secrets, my acquaintance Ken Knabb tells me that his website, the Bureau of Public Secrets, has just entered its 10th year. Ken's site is a great repository of Situationist texts, but Ken has also filled the site with his own great writings on politics and Buddhism, as well as the collected works of Kenneth Rexroth. Great work, Ken!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Flip Your Lid artwork

The most consistent criticism I hear from people about Burning Man goes like this: Why do all this great stuff out in the desert? Why not bring it home to the city?

The Black Rock Arts Foundation was founded to do just that, and they've been doing a great job. They brought the David Best temple to Octavia Blvd, and they've installed art by Burning Man artists in other cities as well.

In fact, the only thing about Black Rock Arts that I don't like is the acronym: BRAF. Looks and sounds too much like BARF.

Anyway, the BRAF people asked me to do an art piece for their upcoming Flip Your Lid party. It's a fundraiser with a ticket price that rivals Burning Man itself, but there are cheaper options -- and all the money goes to support the arts in San Francisco and beyond. The big donors get a poster version of the art I created, printed by Digital Pond.

I won't be able to attend, since Mati's in a group show that is opening that night. But if you like the poster and you want a copy, let me know. I may have a limited number for friends.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Creating the Commons

I've just put a bunch of my work (but not all of it!) up on Flickr. It's available there on Creative Commons license -- anyone that wants to can grab hi-resolution versions of the artwork and re-mix, re-use, and recycle it as they see fit, so long as they give me credit, don't use it for commercial purposes, and allow their creations to be made available to others on the same principle.

It might seem counterproductive for an artist like me -- dependent as I am for my meager living on control of my own work -- to give my "intellectual property" away like this. But I'm not alone in doing this. Lots of artists are experimenting with different ways of sharing their work online. One that influenced me was the author Jonathan Lethem, whose "Promiscuous Materials" project inspired me to write an article for Film Arts magazine recently. (The article is not online, but there is a shorter version I wrote for EFF available here.)

Basically, Lethem has put some of his work (but not all of it) up for grabs, allowing it to be licensed for filmmakers and playwrights for the symbolic price of $1:

I like art that comes from other art, and I like seeing my stories adapted into other forms. My writing has always been strongly sourced in other voices, and I'm a fan of adaptations, appropriations, collage, and sampling.

There is an argument that all human culture is just this -- the endless remixing and recycling of earlier creativity, the making of "art that comes from other art" -- and that therefore we need social practices as well as a legal framework to reflect this obvious truth. According to this view, we should be making it easier, not harder, for people to share art and ideas, while still insisting that artists get paid. It's called the Free Culture movement by some, and in the world of computer geeks it's known as Open Source. Creative Commons, the organization founded by Lawrence Lessig, has been enormously successful in putting this idea into practice.

You might have seen the BRILLIANT article Lethem wrote for Harper's on this subject. Just to underscore his point, Lethem "wrote" the article almost entirely out of extensive quotations of work by other authors. If you haven't read it yet, I strongly encourage you to print the whole thing and give it a read.

I've always been a big proponent of this idea, which just seems like common sense to me. I remember that my first CD mixes (back in 1995, when it was a relatively new practice) included small type that announced somewhat defensively that they were part of the creation of "global cultural commons," which I think pre-dates Lessig's use of the "commons" analogy by several years. (Too bad I didn't think to claim a copyright on the phrase!)

So, anyway, now I've done what Lethem did, and put my "intellectual property" where my mouth is. Again, I'd like to point out that I've chosen not to hand out hi-resolution version of all my art. The work that is up on my Flickr page is mostly political work (which I did not do for money) and older work which won't bring me a dime and which doesn't much interest me any longer. A search for the right terms in Flickr's Creative Commons pool will turn up my artwork -- and hopefully it will be useful to someone, somewhere, in some way I can't control or foresee. And I think that's pretty cool.

If you have a Flickr page, please mark me as a contact -- you can never have enough Flickr friends!

And while you're tooling around Flickr, I've done the same thing with the graphic work I've done for EFF (all of which is always available to the public on a CC license). Enjoy!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Have some art, why don't you?

I just opened an Etsy shop! In case you have been living in a cave and don't know what an Etsy shop is (I didn't), it's this web site that makes it really easy to sell your stuff online. Tons of people are making tons of money selling their wares there. At least that's how it always seems -- someone, somewhere, is making a killing just by sitting next to their computer, watching the pennies and quarters roll in.

Who are these people? Well, there's my clever and talented wife, Mati, for starters. I don't know if she's made a killing yet, but she sells stuff at a regular clip on her awesome Etsy shop. Every few days she has to run to the post office to send out more stuff, and she has fans all over the place -- all over the world that is. It's so cool.

So I've been meaning to put up my own site and join the fun, but I wasn't sure when I was going to get around to it. Probably some time after I got back to blogging (which hasn't happened since October).

Well, I finally put up a bunch of stuff, and it wasn't half as hard as I thought it would be. I listed a bunch of rock posters I did for Lucinda Williams and Calexico, stuff I did for Burning Man, and even my latest piece for the Valentines Day event at the Ferry Building -- this last being the item most requested (I've sold three already).

Isn't the Internet great? It's like a a big, bustling market like you see in third world countries mashed up with a good old fashioned American mall. Clean and messy at the same time, just like the real world.

Here's the link in case you missed it the first time:

Next time I blog, our discovery of Web Basics continues, with Hugh's brand new Flickr page!