Cultrface is a blog about culture and how it can enrich our lives.

Look, don't touch (or eat!)

Priya Gandhi retold the story of Ed Brzezinski, who, on a visit to a Robert Gober exhibition, ate one of the donuts from his piece called “Bag of Donuts”, as well as other accounts of museum go-ers treating exhibits as interactive art installations (when they weren’t):

In 1989, the New York Post reported that Ed Brzezinski, on a visit to Robert Gober’s exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery, ate one of the donuts from Gober’s “Bag of Donuts” (1989). Brzezinski later said that the donut, coated in synthetic resin for preservation, “tasted stale.”

Okay, I was hungry. I’d been drinking and I hadn’t eaten anything all day,” he said, post-ingestion. People were upset — likely because Brzezinski did not take seriously the delicate presence that the gallery and museum space requires of the viewer. He was hungry.

[…]

I don’t believe that these incidents are as simple as negligence and idiocy (though some of that is present). To me, there are no wrong ways to respond to art, only unaccepted ones — and even the unaccepted ones highlight integral questions of purpose. I do not advocate the destruction of art. Rather, I ask a question that seems simple at first glance, but is complicated by defacement: What do we want from our encounters with art? The answer is at the root of our human relationship with an object and reflects the value we get from that encounter. The importance of the question of purpose cannot be undervalued. We value our institutions vigorously; to allow them to serve us, and for us to serve them, they have to allow people the room to make mistakes.

For the most part, I see signs that explicitly tell observers not to touch art or cross the marked lines on the floor. If you disobey those rules, then you’re being ignorant and deserve the consequences. I may draw the line at stolen artefacts though but good luck reclaiming them without getting caught.

The Romans thought excessive milk drinking and eating butter was 'crude and tasteless'

Mark Kurlansky, the author of Milk: A 10,000-Year History, wrote an adapted article for Gastro Obscura about the Romans disdain for milk and butter consumption when they visited Britain:

During a visit to conquered Britain, Julius Caesar was appalled by how much milk the northerners consumed. Strabo, a philosopher, geographer, and historian of Ancient Rome, disparaged the Celts for excessive milk drinking. And Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, described the German diet as crude and tasteless by singling out their fondness for “curdled milk.”

The Romans often commented on the inferiority of other cultures, and they took excessive milk drinking as evidence of barbarism. Similarly, butter was a useful ointment for burns; it was not a suitable food. As Pliny the Elder bluntly put it, butter is “the choicest food among barbarian tribes.”

But the Romans weren’t the only milk and butter critics. The Ancient Greeks used “butter eaters” as an insult for the Thracians who lived north of Greece. Interestingly, cheese was exempt from such criticism as both the rich and poor enjoyed a variety of cheeses. I guess they thought feta of it.

More on milk and cheese:

Living While Black, in Japan

Living While Black, In Japan | All Things Considered | NPR

“Living While Black, in Japan” is a film by photojournalist and filmmaker team Keith Bedford and Shiho Fukada. They are both married and moved to Japan three years ago. Fukada was born in Japan and missed her family while living in New York where she met Bedford.

Bedford is African American. He says he likes living in Japan but there is a sense of being an outsider or a sense of being the other. He says this is a lot of what Fukada went through living in America.

They discussed moving back to America but then the George Floyd killing happened.

Fukada said she worried that something like this could happen to Bedford or her son. And she wanted to learn how others in the Black American community in Japan felt about it. This film touches on what it’s like living abroad for a group of Black Americans in Japan.

The film features interviews with men and women discussing how racism and encounters with police in the US, contributed to their decision to leave.

Blackness and Japan related: Yasuke, an African samurai in Japan and the Black polyglot who speaks Japanese, Mandarin, and Arabic

(via NPR)

The Victoria line could have been called the Viking Line

Whatever Happened to the Viking Line?

As Jago Hazzard explains in the above video, there were several proposed names for the Victoria Line on the London Underground and the best one was the Viking Line. But it had nothing to do with the seafaring people of 8th century Scandinavia—it was a portmanteau of Victoria + King‘s Cross as the line went through both stations.

[…] King’s Cross and Victoria was also played with neither of these really sounded right. But wait a second… King Vic… Vic King… Viking! Brilliant! That’s the toughest name ever given to a tube line but, no, not quite what they were looking for.

We were robbed!

The cultural taboos of pointing at rainbows

TIL: it’s a no-no to point at a rainbow in many cultures around the world.

Robert Blust has spent the last few years exploring these rainbow-pointing taboos and why they all exist. His first encounter with the belief came in 1980 in Jakarta, when he was a university professor:

[…] One of the teachers, seeing Blust’s gesture, politely informed him that, in Sumatra, pointing to rainbows was considered a no-no. Another chimed in to say the same was true where he came from, in a different part of the archipelago. Both had learned as children that if you broke the taboo, your finger would become bent like a rainbow.

He later found that the forbidden gesture wasn’t specific to south-eastern Asia:

Blust began to cast a wider net. He sent questionnaires to colleagues and missionary stations around the world, inquiring about rainbows and taboos related to them. He would soon amass evidence for the rainbow taboo—in some form or another—in 124 cultures. The prohibition turned up in North America, among the Atsugewi of northern California and the Lakota of the northern plains; in remote parts of Australia and isolated islands in Melanesia; among the Nyabwa of Ivory Coast and the Kaiwá of Brazil. At one time it was present in Europe, too: one of the Grimm brothers noted it in his book on German mythology. The belief was not found in every culture, according to Blust’s search, but it was present globally, across all inhabited regions.

Although the reasons differ, the general idea behind the rainbow-pointing taboo is bad luck. I wonder how many “successful” or otherwise happy people have done it and how it affected them, if at all. And does it count for rainbow drawings (of which there have been loads in the UK during the pandemic)? Cultural anthropology is fascinating.

(via Atlas Obscura)

Ill-Studio's 'Then & Now' explores the reconstruction of deconstructed buildings

ILL STUDIO / THEN&NOW

Have you ever watched a demolished building reconstruct itself? Well, now you can thanks to ‘Then & Now’ a collaboration between Ill-Studio and Belgian electronic group Soulwax, who provided the soundtrack.

The project serves as a concept piece merging an “imaginary encounter” between Robert Smithson’s essay A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey and archive footage from contractors demolishing buildings. The creative agency says Then & Now “draws attention to the ruins of 20th century as seen through the prism of modernity” where the lines between past and future are blurred.

Here are two quotes that illustrate ‘Then & Now’ perfectly:

The buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise as ruins before they are built.

I should now like to prove the irreversibility of eternity by using a jejune experiment for proving entropy. Picture in your mind’s eye the sand box divided in half with black sand on one side and white sand on the other. We take a child and have him run hundreds of times clockwise in the box until the sand gets mixed and begins to turn grey; after that we have him run anti-clockwise, but the result will not be a restoration of the original division but a greater degree of greyness and an increase of entropy.

Of course, if we filmed such an experiment we could prove the reversibility of eternity by showing the film backwards, but then sooner or later the film itself would crumble or get lost and enter the state of irreversibility. Somehow this suggests that the cinema offers an illusive or temporary escape from physical dissolution. The false immortality of the film gives the viewer an illusion of control over eternity—but “the superstars” are fading.

Excerpt from A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey by Robert Smithson

Tobi Kyeremateng on the joy of Nigerian childhood parties

iNews published an excerpt by Tobi Kyeremateng from the book Black Joy about her love of Nigerian parties as a child. I’ll keep the quote short and brief as you should definitely read the original link and the whole book:

There was a particular pride to be taken in hosting parties, especially “Why not?” parties that didn’t call for any specific occasion to circle its way back around the sun. “People say we Nigerians take parties too seriously – and yes, we do!” D Boss would say, punctuating the air with a nod in agreement with himself. “It’s part of our tradition. Parties are never forgotten.”

My earliest memories of these parties are distinct. The familiar scents of hard liquor and spiced foods carry me towards the kitchen. In the corner of my eye is a blue bucket full of ice moving like Tetris, cradling bobbing bottles of Supermalt and cans of Lilt. As soon as you arrived, the aunties would say, “Oya, go and play with your cousins!” – as if they had been waiting for the moment they could drop their shoulders and just be – and off you went with a group of children who you weren’t sure were your actual cousins or just the children of the elders.

There’s just something about Black parties. That warm buzz of community and togetherness, people enjoying themselves, laughing and drinking, dancing and eating—I’m not nearly as social as I used to be but when it comes to a Black party, I feel right at home.

More from Nigeria: Johnson Eziefula on his art and his relationship with identity and Daniel Obaweya as Nigerian Gothic

It's a federal crime to sell a pig carcass if it has a 'pronounced sexual odor.'

When I first read that quote from Mike Chase, a criminal defence lawyer, I had to re-read it about 4 times before I looked into what it meant. Krissy Clark explained what a ‘pronounced sexual odor’ was in more detail and it makes sense:

Between 10 and 20 percent of uncastrated male pigs have, well, the technical term is “boar taint.” It’s pheromones, which animals produce when they come into heat. Walter Jeffries, a pig farmer in rural Vermont, told us “sexual” doesn’t really do the smell justice.

“Go grab a guy and have him sweat on an undershirt for you real well, and that’s the smell,” he said. “To me it smells like shit and armpits.”

You still might be wondering though: Why did the government have to get involved? If people don’t want smelly meat, they don’t have to buy it, right? But here’s the thing: You can only smell boar taint when the meat is warm, not when you buy it refrigerated at the store.

So an unscrupulous pig farmer might be tempted to sell a little tainted meat, knowing it’d go unnoticed until some unsuspecting bacon-lover goes and cooks it. If enough sexual-smelling pork gets in to the pork supply, people are just going stop buying pork.  

Which is where title 21, sections 610 and 676 of the U.S. code of statutes, and title 9, section 311.20 of the Code of Federal Regulations come in. If you’re caught selling a pig carcass with a pronounced sexual odor, you could face up to a year in prison or a $1,000 fine. It’s a crime, one that’s maybe not quite as ridiculous as it first sounds.  

In summary, selling pork with strong sex smells could land you in jail and with a fine. Walter’s description was hilarious and may live with me longer than the title of this blog post. The downside is I can smell “shit and armpits” now and I’m nowhere near an abattoir.

Related to illegal animal meat: What was François Mitterrand’s final meal and why was it so controversial?

Is 'ugly design' good or bad for culture?

Creative director Andrea Trabucco-Campos wrote about the pros of ‘ugly design’ for Fast Company:

For a designer, “ugliness” hasn’t historically been something to strive for. Beauty has largely been a no-brainer when it comes to what’s desirable, or what constitutes “good” design.

Yet, culturally, we’re becoming increasingly fatigued by perfection. After years of brands behaving in similarly simple, orderly ways, we’re yearning for expressions that are less hygienic and altogether more human. When designers do away with old-fashioned principles that align “good” with “beautiful,” they have the freedom to make work that’s infinitely more creative. And in doing so, it’s more interesting—and more inclusive.

Design that destabilizes inherited “rules” around ugly and beautiful rewrites what’s seen as acceptable. It progresses visual culture by celebrating playfulness and forging intimacy by underscoring the limitations (and untruths) of perfection. It subtly helps everyone from brands to designers to consumers communicate more honestly.

Andrea also dives into the disciplines of typography, branding, and ‘ugly as democratization’.

An example of ugly design that I love is brutalism. I jokingly call brutalist buildings “arresting developments” because they are so stark, often cold, grey, and… brutal. Concepts like brutalism and dadaism follow Andrea’s idea of destabilization and serve as visual communication. That’s not to say I dislike modernism or minimalism (spoiler alert: I love them), and don’t think they have their place in design history and the present, but the world and its cultures would be a boring place if they were all we had. Embrace the ugly!

More on ‘ugly’ design: The surreal animations of Wong Ping, Boston’s brutalism, and Observe The Rugged Side Of The Internet With “Brutalist Websites”

Design Within Copy shows off design knock offs (and their knock offs)

Originality died a long time ago in design but companies aren’t even pretending to care at this point as Design Within Copy, an Instagram account dedicated to furniture design knock offs, demonstrates. One of my favourites from the account is Rachel Donath’s chair sets for Giovannetti Collezioni, which takes “inspiration” from a host of different designers. But it doesn’t end there as the furniture designs that Donath copied were copied themselves, from Walter Lamb and his 1940’s patio furniture collection.

I guess it boils down to where you draw the line between imitation, appropriation, and appreciation. But most of the furniture designs featured on Design Within Copy are closer to the former two.

Black Film Archive

Black Film Archive is an archive of Black films made between 1915–1979. Their collection is ever-growing and they will likely expand that timeframe in the future but for now, that period covers a lot of significant Black cinema eras. But the important thing is all the films are streamable in some way.

Here’s how Black Film Archive classifies a “Black film”:

The films collected on Black Film Archive have something significant to say about the Black experience; speak to Black audiences; and/or have a Black star, writer, producer, or director. This criterion for selection is as broad and inclusive as possible, allowing the site to cover the widest range of what a Black film can be.

The films listed here should be considered in conversation with each other, as visions of Black being on film across time. They express what only film can: social, anthropological, and aesthetic looks at the changing face of Black expression (or white attitudes about Black expression, which are inescapable given the whiteness of decision-makers in the film industry).

Titles include Blacula, Super Fly, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Shaft, Boss Nigger, and Ganja & Hess.

Black film related: Carvell Wallace on Candyman and the exploitation of Black pain in cinema, 10 best Black superhero movies, according to Rotten Tomatoes, via Screen Rant, and Room Rodeo: a Chicago student’s film about Black cowboys

The best of Salem Saberhagen (some of it anyway)

The best of Salem Season 2

Sometimes, I wonder where I got my sarcasm from. Other than my dad and Raphael from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (aka my favourite), it was Salem Saberhagen from Sabrina the Teenage Witch. His acerbic wit and zero chill was a revelation to witness as a kid. He was punished by the Witches Council to live the rest of his life as a black cat for a failed world takeover attempt. But that doesn’t stop him from telling Sabrina and anyone who’ll listen about themselves and I love him for it.

Nicholas Bakay’s voice work and writing turned Salem into the icon he remains today and I salute you.

Other comedy compilation videos: The Best of Razz Prince and 100 deep burns by Dr Niles Crane

A Kaws-tic review by Hrag Vartanian

I try to avoid meta-reviews when they’re especially scathing (Rashayla Marie Brown’s review of Virgil Abloh’s “Figures of Speech” is a notable exception) but I was intrigued by this one by Hrag Vartanian. For Hyperallergic, he reviewed Kaws’ retrospective exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum curated by Eugenie Tsai. Vartanian starts throwing critical punches from the get-go (the title, Kaws Is Terrible, But Thankfully Forgettable, sets the scene):

We live in an age of cons driven by people who think they’re smarter than the rest of us, or in on a joke the rest of us fail to see. Con men (and they’re most often men) are prevalent in the fields of modern and contemporary art. They have their coteries of edgelords, artists, curators, and associated writers and academics who fancy themselves ahead of the crowd, along with collectors, dealers, auctioneers, and other purveyors of luxury goods who join them in celebrating their acquisition of power, or the symbols of it anyway.

Few genres of contemporary art reveal the machinations of this tiresome ouroboros of popular shock to luxury shlock as clearly as graffiti and street art. And no one encompasses that soulless supersizing of pop culture as clearly as Kaws […]

He pours scorn on the gentrification of street art and graffiti, laying a large part of the blame on artists like Kaws, whom he noted for being “apolitical”, lending his work to “the super wealthy who prefer to be comforted and appeased rather than being criticized.”

The art on display in KAWS: WHAT PARTY, is wretchedly meh. The references are facile, and aesthetically the works are akin to Instagram filters or Photoshop tricks. He uses shiny materials, scale, and quantity to make his obtuse points. Not to mention, he offers merchandise in every color and size and price point — let’s call him the Swatch watch of art.

I recommend you read it for the continuous fire spitting from Vartanian which appears to be aimed mainly at contemporary art’s shallow emptiness rather than Kaws alone. Personally, I can take or leave Kaws. His work uses pop culture references I hold dear to my heart (The Simpsons, for example) but his style isn’t for me. Maybe in 2008 when I was heavily into skateboard art (as much as someone can be without every stepping foot on one but I did love Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 back in the day!) I do agree with Vartanian’s overarching views on street art and its commodification. Alas, it is nothing new and artists lament it every decade it occurs. If anything, the time between artistic revolution and gentrification has shortened so much that some artists appropriate before we can blink an eye. But hey, they’re making their millions of NFTs while we sit and bash on our keyboards, right?

Some “better” artists: Keith Haring documentaries to watch on YouTube and Sampira’s top 5 Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings

The African origins of Yasuke's name

I covered Yasuke, an African samurai in feudal Japan in 2019 (I honestly thought it was in 2020 but I digress). His story was retold by Satoshi Okunishi for a popular* Netflix animated series and Language Log investigated the African etymology of his name via Wikipedia. Apparently, there are a few theories:

  1. He was a member of the Yao people from Malawi, Tanzania, and Mozambique and his name was a portmanteau of Yao and the common Japanese male suffix -suke.
  2. He was a member of the Dinka people from South Sudan due to his height and skin tone, which was a defining characteristic of the Dinka.
  3. He was Ethiopian, according to this theory that suggests his original name might have been the Amharic Yisake or the Portuguese Isaque, derived from Isaac.

Who knows if any of them are correct. The Dinka theory gives me “all Black people look alike” vibes and his appearance was the only match (Adult Dinka men used to have decorative patterns tattooed on their faces and Yasuke apparently didn’t have any.) Nonetheless, etymology is fascinating and none of it takes away from how awesome Yasuke was.

* – Popular on Rotten Tomatoes (93% as of today), not so popular on IMDb (6.2/10) or MyAnimeList (5.8/10)

Portillo's famous cake shake

Chicago’s Famous Cake Shake Is A Portillo’s Staple | Legendary Eats

Portillo’s is a restaurant chain in Chicago known for its famous hot dogs, Italian beef sandwiches, salads, and its cake shakes.

Insider’s Medha Imam visited Portillo’s Summit, IL location to learn what goes into making the iconic cake shake. Rumor has it they put an entire slice of chocolate cake into their milkshake, making it a must-try dessert.

The best thing about the shake is that they bake cakes fresh so you don’t get anything stale. In the words of Bob Kelso from Scrubs, “Golly, I do love moist cake.

Shake-related: 3 levels of milkshakes, the $5 milkshake from Pulp Fiction, and the origin of the milkshake line in ‘There Will Be Blood’.