Thursday, December 4, 2014


On Monday President Barack Obama called for $75 million to equip 50,000 protestors across the nation with body cameras intended to track their interactions with police officers. Using the multiple simultaneous camera angle sources, as well as other high tech gadgetry and training that the three-year $263 million spending package will provide for, protestors will now be able to recreate any recorded event in virtual three dimensional space, similar to the popular Google Map “Street View” feature.

No – not really. The cops get the cameras.

Obama is proposing a three-year, $263 million spending package to increase use of body-worn cameras, expand training for law enforcement and add more resources for police department reform. The package includes $75 million to help pay for 50,000 of the small, lapel-mounted cameras to record police on the job, with state and local governments paying half the cost. AP Article

How bizarre it seems to “record police on the job” by having them wear cameras that will only show what they are facing and not themselves. I suppose if you are at a protest that is surrounded by police then individual officers could inadvertently film each other in action, but if the interaction is between a single police officer and an individual, it is highly unlikely that the officer will get any face time.

I became aware of this proposal reading an article titled “President Obama Is Doing the One Thing That Will Prevent More Fergusons.” What constitutes “more Fergusons” here? Will this “one thing” prevent more shootings of black youths? Will this “one thing” prevent more protests in response to the shooting of black youths? Will this “one thing” prevent more stories of injustice from being heard? The headline does not consider any other option that might put the decision making power into the hands of the people rather than the police (and those that control them). Recording the interaction between a police officer and an individual does nothing to change the existing power dynamic, it is still ultimately up to the officer to decide whether or not to use force. And as we have seen over and over, recording (documenting) abuse of power, while important in and of itself, does not necessarily ensure accountability.

The issue here is not the cameras themselves, as I point to in my opening, it is access and control (as well as the allocation of public resources). Who will have access to the footage that will be collected by officers wearing body cameras? Who will decide how the recordings can and will be used? Who decides where the officers are deployed and what gets recorded? Will this policy amount to yet another fishing expedition in communities that are already profiled by the police? Along similar lines, should your attendance at a political demonstration be taken as your consent to be recorded by the police? In New York City there was something called the Handschu agreement set up to regulate police behavior with regard to political activity. Beyond taking legal action after the police have chosen to disregard the specifics of such agreements, what recourse is there? Who will police the police?

I attended an event last week that involved several artists performing work inspired by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Afterward the audience participated in a discussion with the artists. Surveillance was a major topic of discussion. The use of body cameras by police was brought up by someone who spoke of the importance of the act of witnessing in connection with justice. One audience member responded to this by declaring that surveillance was not intrinsically good or bad as long as we were aware of it. This reminded me of the common refrain if you haven’t done anything wrong then you have nothing to worry about. I wrote a recent post about how people seldom realize what freedoms they actually have and do not have until they attempt to exercise them. I said something to the group about how the information that is collected may seem inconsequential until you decide to run for public office and quickly find yourself discredited through a false narrative based around some small bit of that collected data. Many simply responded by laughingly exclaiming that they would not be running for President anytime soon. But there is more to it than this. Individuals & activist groups are commonly discredited through this process, their potential effectiveness neutralized. Entire segments of the population are demonized through smear campaigns anchored on some small piece of “evidence” taken out of context or even outright staged so as to validate the narrative. We see this same type of logic playing out in the courts as well, where victims of crimes are discredited in order to derail prosecution of the assailant.

I have seen a number of folks questioning the meaning and the use of the terms “looting” and “riot,” perhaps looking to redefine the narrative. I’ve referenced the term “looter” in earlier posts – from my post DAYANIŞMA / SOLIDARITY

Diren Gezi is Gezi Resistance. Taksim (Taksim Gezi Parkı) is the park that is being occupied in Istanbul, Turkey. Not to be confused with Tayyip (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan), who is the Turkish Prime Minister. Tayyip Istifa! is a chant for him to resign. Çapuling is chapulling. If you are unfamiliar with the word chapulling, that is because it is a new word. Tayyip (remember him?) has taken to calling the demonstrators ayyaş (alcoholics) and çapulcu (looters). Rather than defend against this, the demonstrators chose instead to reappropriate the term çapulcu. The urban dictionary defines the term as “to resist force, demand justice, seek one’s rights.” The term “looters” shouldn’t be unfamiliar to us here in the US. We have heard it and other similar terminology used time and again to dismiss the legitimate concerns of people in need and those that rise up against social and economic injustice. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina the US news media was rife with stories casting desperate victims of Katrina as marauding bands of “looters.”

And from MAN UP

In my previous post I noted how the term “looters” and other similar terms have been used time and again to dismiss the legitimate concerns of people in need, to vilify those that rise up against social and economic injustice. Those who struggle against oppression must be cast as a malevolent force in order to make a defensive response seem reasonable. If they can be successfully cast as a threat, then their oppression appears warranted - the narrative presents this action not as a choice but as a necessary defensive response. When faced with the dualistic framework of fight or flight, there really is only one acceptable option encoded into our (USA) culture - to stand your ground. The mass incarceration of young black males fits into the “self-defense” narrative as a strategy to keep blacks off the streets and off the voter rolls. But it is an offensive strategy as well, generating enormous profit through prison development and maintenance, while supplying cheap labor (less than a dollar an hour) to participating corporations. Are these young men being sold into slavery?

While watching a livestream of the protests in Ferguson the night the grand jury decision was announced I could clearly hear a voice repeatedly announcing that if you were in the street it was unlawful assembly and you would be subject to arrest. Then the voice would simply say loudly “Do it NOW!” Is this a matter of legal rights or solely a matter of compliance? Let me be specific here – are these people in the street (if they are actually in the street) doing something illegal? Or are they being threatened with arrest solely because they refuse to obey an order that has no legal basis? It got me thinking about how the law can be used as a validation of injustice. An example: when the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel cited a law that he claimed the teachers were in violation of. Doing a bit of research I discovered that this law was passed the previous year, likely for the express purpose of preemptively criminalizing the action so as to cast the teachers in a negative light. This kind of legislative suppression of democracy has been happening all over the country with ever increasing frequency. This isn’t a new idea of course, the laws governing free speech and assembly have been effectively rewritten through all sorts of local, state and federal legislation. From the Patriot Act and NDAA, to H.R. 347 – the “Criminalizing Protest” law. Local restrictions abound on exactly where and how many people can assemble through permit processes that clearly conflict with First Amendment protections. The wholesale privatization of public space further blurs the line between assembly and trespass, casting those who are simply exercising their rights as “law breakers.As with surveillance, the issue here is not necessarily what you have done wrong, rather it is that anything you do can be made wrong for the purpose of your control. 

An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

But what if the law has been written specifically to remove any opposition to the injustice, if your imprisonment (or indefinite detention) is the actual objective? When those in power have free reign to ram through laws criminalizing any action they deem threatening to their authority – do we still call it democracy?

As I am writing this I read that a New York grand jury has cleared NYPD officer Daniel Panteleo in the death of Eric Garner, this despite the officer’s use of a chokehold prohibited by NYPD policy, seen in a video recording of Garner’s death captured by bystanders.

Excellent report on Democracy Now concerning Ferguson and the proposed $263 million spending package.

The Police in America Are Becoming Illegitimate by Matt Taibbi

Seen It All Before: 10 Predictions About Police Body Cameras by Robinson Meyer

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


If there is one missing point that I would like to share with everyone after the many wonderful interactions I have had these last few days, it is this:

Mobilizing to get the government to respond to the will of the people and do something about the corporate decimation of the world is based on the idea that the government and the corporations are separate entities, that corporations only influence those in government. Please consider for a moment how this strategy works (and if it works) if they are NOT two separate entities. If the government is filled with people from these industries then they are not in fact influenced, and likewise will not be swayed by demands from the people. They are acting in their own interest and that action includes first and foremost silencing the voices of those who would expose them. If there is any capitulation on their part, is it only to appease and pacify the people – to allow them a sense of victory specifically to lessen their resolve? For example, if the Keystone XL Pipeline is stopped will it be a victory? I imagine it will be celebrated as such, but will this victory serve to roll back the climate crisis or just keep from making it that much worse? No steps forward is three steps back... Manufactured crisis is seductive strategy – desperately chasing every new threat can distract from the larger issue. I have heard this issue roundly referred to as Capitalism – I’m just going to call it profit.

At the People’s Climate March on Sunday I heard a few chants directed at President Obama. The next time you hear/watch the President speak I invite you to imagine him as a used car salesman, attempting to sell you the same lemon that the last President/salesman tried to sell you. Now swap that car showroom with one overflowing with American Made high-tech weapons of war. There he is wheeling and dealing weapons to the Saudis (and practically every country in the Middle East and North Africa) that they buy with money we pay them for oil. So when you are at the pump are you buying American Made weapons for the Saudis? Do you think the Weapons Industry wants you to stop buying oil from the Saudis? When you consider the chaos that we see across the world today, please remember that the military solution we reflexively deploy in every crisis, from war on terror to hurricane relief to policing our streets, ALWAYS has an underlying profit/power motive. The more chaos and conflict, the more weapons sold. And this in turn provides the rationale for further militarization and security control. If this man in the White House is not the community organizer, anti-war progressive that many “hoped” he was; if he is in fact just a fantastically charismatic mouthpiece installed by the banks and industries he serves – what then?

You can stage this type of salesman scene substituting any politician you wish to see how well they can play the role. When I was at Flood Wall Street yesterday I found myself imagining the morning call our new Mayor may have received from his new police commissioner:

“What’s the word today Mr. Mayor? Oppression or Not Oppression? Thank you sir we understand.”

While we were marching – BRAND NEW IN THE SHOWROOM 
Dennis Trainor’s video coverage – Save the Climate or Save Capitalism?

Related posts on The Missing Point:
Chemical weapons don’t kill people…


Sunday, September 14, 2014


Originally posted at Forth Position Design

When I walk into a gallery, I prefer to look at the art without first reading the provided curatorial blurb or even the titles of the works themselves. This is my design eye, always looking to understand the work without the assistance of the written word. Does this work speak to me? Does it tell me its story without the accompanying critical analysis? Do I provide the context or is it provided for me? That said, I do love art that incorporates words and typography – Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, John Baldessari, On Kawara, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer... But the artwork that has had the most profound impact on my process often has no plastic manifestation, no tangible artifact in the traditional sense. When I first learned about DADA, I really didn’t know what the hell to make of it. Every single artist involved seemed to be doing their own thing – where is the essential cohesive visual statement? When I experienced FLUXUS, I could clearly see the relationship between the two movements. The emphasis was not on producing precious artworks, but on inspiring (or inciting) the would be audience to action so that they too become participants in the creative process. This blurring of the line between artist and audience, between art and life, this irreverent disregard for the hierarchical categorization of all things artistic delights me to no end. There is a playfulness to the “work,” a fleeting timelessness centered on the ever present now. The compulsory this or that duality fades as the “artist” releases control of the process and invites everyone to join in the fun. My writing on The Missing Point over the last two years has focused on expanding the dialogue in a similar manner, so that we may move past the dualistic (conflict) narratives we are provided. While the content on Forth Position will likely continue to be primarily visual, I am going to have some fun breaking through my own this or that duality, and post some (perhaps even a buncha) words here.

I have written previously about the many factors that contribute to the production and replication (or “regurgitation” as a professor of mine once termed it) of design that is tried and true rather than design that is... well... Design. Design with a capital D - as in innovation, creation, and communication. I recently participated in a class titled Design + Psychology at the Pratt Free School. Our graduate student professor brought up the aphorism there’s nothing new under the sun (everything’s been done before) to launch into a discussion about how creativity is a process of synthesis, taking two things and combining them into something new. It got me thinking about what that “new” actually is. Is it new if I have never done it before, even if someone else already has? Would my version of this already done thing not be different as a function of my creation, born of my unique perception and understanding? Is there no value in experiencing it, doing it yourself, if someone else has done it before you? Is it not still a creative act regardless? Take dance for instance – a dancer may move in ways that we have seen before, but we still recognize the creative act of dancing. Even when a dance is choreographed, isn’t it essentially different each time it is danced by a new group of dancers? It would seem that dance is not limited to an exploration of newness as the essential creative act. Expression, experience, and freedom itself all come into play. Time and circumstance, the element of chance, all of these factors are there. Over this last year I had the opportunity to explore these concepts with my students teaching a course called Motion Design: Graphic Design at Pratt Institute. As a first time professor, it was challenging to unpack such a comprehensive subject and format it in a way that would build progressively over the term. In preparation, I spoke with the many professors I know in motion, design, and other related disciplines, and researched the methodologies of numerous others. I share this bit of my experience hoping it will provide some insight (and enjoyment) to educators and designers and those interested in such things.

On the first day of class I have my students do a little peer to peer interview to initiate our class dialogue. They break out into pairs taking about 5 minutes each. They take notes and present one another’s answers. When there is an odd number of students one of them gets to interview me (!). The questions are simple enough, what is your name, where are you from, what’s your favorite food, what do you like to do, and the last one - what is motion design? Answers to that last question vary. There are some general answers like “graphics that move,” and “4D design” (the extra dimension being time). There are more theoretical and technical answers like motion design is about creating the illusion of motion from a series of stills, or it is about using specific programs to make your illustrations move. Their answers provide a reference point for us to begin a dialogue that will continue throughout the semester (and beyond). I ask them if there is a difference between motion graphics and motion designtaking the opportunity to laugh with them about the inevitable conversation where your mom asks “what exactly do you do?”

We watch a video titled “What is Motion Design?” after which I inquire “what do you think of that?” This is a common refrain in the class. It’s about developing trust and respect, letting the students own the dialogue so they can recognize the value of their individual voice. When I ask them what applications there are for motion design they each have the the opportunity to chime in, to experience the importance of their input to our learning process. I write their contributions on the board as they call them out. My notes include a dozen – they come up with a dozen, including one I forgot. I add my single remaining contribution to the list to seal the deal. We’re all in this together now – this is our list. The class is not a competition – we are all here to learn. As Paolo Freire writes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

“Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students. This solution is not (nor can it be) found in the banking concept. On the contrary, banking education maintains and even stimulates the contradiction through the following attitudes and practices, which mirror oppressive society as a whole: (a) the teacher teaches and the students are taught; (b) the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing; (c) the teacher thinks and the students are thought about; (d) the teacher talks and the students listen—meekly; (e) the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined; (f) the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply; (g) the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher; (h) the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it; (i) the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his own professional authority, which he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students; (j) the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects.” 

In my first term the student who interviewed me summarized my what is motion design answer as, “Thomas thinks that motion design is EVERYTHING!” Quite the ego huh? What I was getting at is that everything in life can be a potential source for motion design. Design doesn’t happen in a vacuum after all. Communication is based in common language and cultural coding, and this common language goes much deeper than the sounds we utter. When we have a story to tell, we don’t actually have to connect all the dots. I have found that it is more effective to let my audience make these connections themselves, engendering a more personal experience based on their specific perceptions, not just the ones I provide for them. This doesn’t mean I leave the page blank, however, simply that I allow the space for my audience to participate in telling their story. The destination is less certain but the experience is more lasting.

My experience as an organizer has taught me that people are more likely to mobilize around ideas that they feel passionate about. For that mobilization to be lasting the people must feel that their efforts are more than a means to an end, a demand that will be granted or denied; there must be an intrinsic sense of fulfillment present in the mobilization itself. If we are only concerned with outcomes and goals then the mobilization will be constrained by whether these goals are deemed to be achievable, and ultimately judged on whether they have been achieved. This product over process approach is self defeating in that it generally emphasizes the problem rather than the development and exploration of alternate possibilities. Asking how to solve a specific problem is quite different than asking the people how they actually want to live. Within education there is a similar emphasis on goals and results. There are many extrinsic motivators for student performance – good grades, the recognition of other students, the promise of employment, etc. But these motivators can also act as detractors, setting up a dependency in students on external factors that they do not control. Helping students to ask questions and value their own responses can lead to an exploration of what they feel passionate about. The emphasis here is on dialogue and discovery, on enjoying the journey rather than on arriving at a predetermined destination. My hope is that this process provides my students with an experiential model they can reference throughout their lives, one that helps them establish the sense of self-worth required to prioritize work that they enjoy over work they do not.

A major part of that first day lesson plan revolves around a comparative analysis of the opening titles from Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and Se7en. While prepping the lesson for class I sought out online versions of the opening titles to show. It was easy enough to locate the Saul Bass titles and those for Se7en on Art of the Title, but the SOTL titles were harder to find. A smallish video on YouTube (with a hungarian V.O.) inspired me to pick up the DVD at the library before class. When I dumped the DVD into my class computer, it demanded that I assign a region to the DVD player (apparently the first time anyone has projected a DVD for a class in the lab). Of course I couldn’t do this without an administrator password, and none of the ever helpful student techs working the lab knew this password… Ultimately the DVD had to be played on one of the other iMacs in the lab. So now Hannibal is making faces on a screen (the DVD menu) across from one of my students. As we begin class the student asks “what are we going to see in that movie?” I respond that we are going to look at the titles from the film. She asks “opening or closing titles?” “Opening.” Then she and another student start talking about how they don’t remember the titles from the film and anticipation starts to build… Hannibal continues to make faces throughout my lesson. I really couldn’t have planned it better myself. By the time we got to the SOTL titles, the students’ curiosity had peaked and they were fully engaged, likely expecting some gorgeous mo graph opus. It really grounded the whole point in a way that I could not have anticipated.

First we view the titles for Vertigo and Psycho, both by the legendary Saul Bass. “What is happening here? What can you tell me about the design?” I ask. My students note that the Psycho titles seem more frenetic, that Saul Bass uses stripes to animate the type on and off, that there is no photographic element as in the Vertigo titles. The typeface is a little different from one to the other (slab serif vs. sans serif). The Psycho titles are black and white while Vertigo has color. The students point out that the music is a major factor in both sequences, but that it seems more clearly related to the animation in the Psycho titles. After my students have made their observations I add “One of the things I notice when watching the two title sequences back to back is that most of the Vertigo titles have a centered layout, whereas the Psycho titles seem more unpredictable in their layout. He seems to be following a similar sort of grid here, but I can’t quite place where the type will land from credit to credit. Is this a conscious choice? Why do you think he makes this choice?” This leads to a bit more dialogue about how Bass builds tension, establishing a grid and repeatedly breaking it to a create a feeling of anxiety before the film even begins.

We move onto the Silence of the Lambs titles (thank you Art of the Title for posting these). Commentary from the class starts with one student saying quietly “why is the letter-spacing so bad?” As we continue watching the students moan, groan and laugh, pointing at the screen to locate the flaws in each consecutive title card. Kerning, leading, justification, every rule is broken with even a couple in camera type gags to boot. The critique culminates with another student saying “even with all the obvious problems, I don’t mind the titles and I think they work with the subject matter of the film.” I wait until they all come to a consensus around this thought before letting them know that the credits were produced by one of the most influential design firms of the time ( M&Co. ) and that the design is intentionally “bad.” It’s not a function of typing into After Effects at the default settings (or simply the limitations of the technology of the time as another student astutely brings up), it is a conscious choice. My students can see that the titles are successful in conveying a feeling; their odd, off kilter unpredictable alignment and letter spacing keys us into the unpredictable nature of the film itself. The outline type appears oddly similar to the type used in Vertigo, but here the painstakingly “random” placement of the type, with its solid black fill, “haphazardly” blocks the shots rather than completing a thoughtfully designed composition. There is some hierarchical type scaling as in the Saul Bass titles, but any semblance of regular pattern is subverted the moment it appears. The appearance of unpredictability increases exponentially with ones understanding of the intricacies of typography and design, but as I mentioned earlier – all the dots don’t need to connect. Something is going on here – and the semblance of logic, of a language that we don’t fully understand, is enough to set us on edge.

The good design/bad design duality is one of the most if not the most commonly used/abused critiques in design. Tibor Kalman expands the dialogue by questioning what these terms actually mean, making a case for undesign / anti-design – another beautiful design in a sea of beautiful designs is invisible, and therefore its ability to communicate is neutralized.

“Every curatorial decision, every convention, every rule about what is good design and what is bad design works to narrow your perceptions. You become blind to most of what’s in front of you. Every rule about what is appropriate narrows what’s possible. Appropriate design is design that pleases the largest number of people. Appropriate design is normal design. It’s about keeping things more or less the same. Inappropriate design is a way of confronting taste. Inappropriate design is a way of making people think about why they like what they like and how they learned to like those things. It’s a way of making people unlearn what they were taught in design school. Unfortunately, schools teach students to design by imitating what the professionals do rather than developing their own approaches. And the schools turn out legions of graduates who believe that their best bet for success is to have a portfolio filled with layouts that look like the layouts in everybody else’s portfolios, portfolios of professionals.”

We’re Here to Be Bad – Tibor Kalman and Karrie Jacobs

As a segue I play a short segment from a Charlie Rose interview with Tibor where he actually mentions the titles from Se7en. I ask my students if they have all seen the Se7en titles, calling attention to the important place they occupy in the evolution of motion design. After we watch the titles I again ask, “What is happening here? How do these titles relate to the others we watched?” It is easy to see that while Kyle Cooper, Tibor Kalman, and Saul Bass each have their own approach, the three are dealing with similar themes. Kyle Cooper takes the common themes of madness and obsession one step further with titles that appear to have been made by the killer (John Doe) himself. When an actor plays a part, they may seek to fully immerse themself in the character they are playing, reacting to each new situation from the perspective of that person. In a sense this is what Cooper is doing, asking what would these film titles look like if John Doe made them, or perhaps even more importantly, how would he make them? The metaphorical design coding of the SOTL titles is replaced here by a more literal approach, each design decision a direct extension of the underlying story. Kyle Cooper goes on to revitalize title design through Imaginary Forces and now Prologue, expanding the field and creating demand that was simply not there before his contribution.

What is most important to me about these three designers is that they are all doing something different, breaking with convention, each of them a vanguard in their field and an inspiration to those who follow. Rather than simply finding their place within the existing field, each of them evolves the field through their own individual design voice. It has been nearly 20 years since I first saw the titles for Se7en in a theater that has since vanished from Times Square. Adobe had recently acquired After Effects from CoSA and I was just starting to explore the possibilities. Having written about the consolidation of media in college, the accelerating cultural shift toward the market driven model wasn’t really surprising, but it was pretty alarming. Today the integration of media, culture & politics is so complete that it is practically impossible to see where one ends and the others begin. We can assist our students in navigating this uncertainty by encouraging them not just to do “good design,” but to do work they love. Allowing them the space and the support to tell their story, to discover and develop their individual voice – this is essential. The need to secure employment, to make a living, to have some measure of stability, to pay off that education debt – these concerns are real, but they are also distractions. Similarly, the idolization of newness is a market driven distraction meant to keep us scrambling from one trend to the next, picking from convenient options, but never really making a conscious choice. And therein lies the irony, the pursuit of newness in design manifests as a never ending race to keep up with market driven trends. There is no dialogue in this, there is no participation, there is no individual voice – only repetition of that which has already been deemed acceptable and profitable.  Listening to my students revisit the what is motion design question at the end of the term brings tears to my eyes (keep it together Gallagher), no longer simply static answers to fill the form, but passionate testimony to their continuing exploration and their limitless potential.

“Fuck it up a little” – Tibor Kalman quoted in Michael Bierut’s piece Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mentor, Or, Why Modernist Designers Are Superior

Saturday, May 17, 2014


On Monday May 5th, Cecily McMillan was found guilty of felony assault against officer Grantley Bovell. Facing seven years in prison, McMillan was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs headed to Riker’s Island to await sentencing scheduled for May 19. I’m not going to argue the details of the case here - that’s not what Missing Point is about. I would like instead to call attention to some of the larger ideas that I believe are getting lost in the shuffle.


The United States Constitution isn’t written to give you your rights, it’s written to protect them. Take for example the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Pretty clear, right? These are what are commonly referred to as a negative rights, and these are the type of rights we see throughout much of the constitution. In this case, the amendment is a restriction on the legislative power of Congress to prohibit them from passing laws that curtail your rights. But if the rights themselves are not bestowed on us through our Constitution then where do they come from?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This familiar passage from the preamble of the Declaration of Independence would seem to suggest that our inalienable liberty rights are a gift from God. So then if your rights are violated, should you take it up with Him/her/it? Who do you appeal to? This is where it can get tricky. Most citizens don’t spend a lot of time exercising their rights, testing them out to see if they really have them. When and if they do, they are often shocked to find that the freedom they thought they had is not absolute, but conditional, conditioned upon the authority of local law enforcement and those who control those forces. Citizens are of course “free” to indulge in the grand illusion of freedom marketed to them through multiple channels; freedom to choose Coke or Pepsi, Paper or Plastic, Democrat or Republican. Providing those who might otherwise feel powerless with ample opportunity to participate in this illusion of freedom distracts them from ever really exercising their rights, reinforcing the illusion of freedom while simultaneously avoiding the complications that come with actual freedom. 

One aspect of negative rights is that they may need to be enforced. Imagine for a moment that you are peaceably assembled outside of a bank that has illegally foreclosed on your home. If the bank’s hired security attempts to restrict your right to be there, is it not the responsibility of your local police force to protect your right to peaceably assemble? But what if your local police force has received money from the bank? If the police then arrest you, charging you with disorderly conduct for instance, what recourse do you have available to you? You can file a lawsuit for damages stemming from your illegal arrest, but this does nothing to restore your rights. Did you even have them to begin with? In this type of illegal arrest, it is the responsibility of other non-arresting officers at the scene to stop their brethren from acting outside the law, and ultimately the responsibility of the city that has contracted the individual officers to protect and serve. This no win scenario model is being replicated on multiple fronts, in cases of voter disenfranchisement, corporate negligence, etc. It is fast becoming the norm in our society, putting folks into situations where their only solace may be compensation for the violation of their rights, but only if they can prove they have been “damaged” by the violation. The litigation can be very costly, going on for years, the ultimate outcome never certain. Involvement in such cases is challenging, requiring those whose rights have been violated to relive the experience again and again as their political views, their character, their very psychological stability are questioned through the legal process. These arrests are a sink hole to siphon off the energy of activists long after the violation has occurred. Prior to the 2008 DNC and RNC the democratic and republican parties respectively took out insurance to cover potential lawsuits, allowing authorities to act with impunity knowing that these “costs” were covered. Looking beyond the semantics, this is a privatization of local police forces as a security detail directly beholden to the political parties. Needless to say, this use of local police to enforce the will of a particular political organization should not be allowed to continue.


When it comes to the First Amendment, we are seeing a strategy of get ’em off the street, sort ’em out later put into practice ever more blatantly, and forcefully, over the last decade. This illegal mass incarceration of citizens exercising their freedom of speech and assembly is a preemptive strategy to minimize the effectiveness of the action. It is an attempt to make dissent invisible. Arrests are often made the day or night before a major demo is scheduled, arrestees are then detained until after the events are over. Another component of this strategy is the wholesale privatization of public space, effectively making peaceable assembly all but impossible. Many people still adhere to the media myth of an Occupy movement that collapsed due to an inability to follow through on its demands, while remaining completely unaware of the massive systematic repression of the movement. Bloomberg’s “army” was out in force the night of the OWS six month anniversary. I have read numerous articles recently concerning Cecily’s trial and the specifics of her arrest, but I have seen no mention in these articles of the other 72 occupiers brutally arrested that night or the more than 7000 Occupy related arrests across the country. This is not an isolated incident and it should not be treated as such. The police claim that they made an announcement that they were going to clear the park so it could be cleaned. This is the same absurd claim they had made to clear the occupation of the park six months earlier, the same kind of unnecessary posturing and provocation that has played out at demonstrations over and over, the same ginned up conflict over essentially nothing. Those that seek to stifle the movement would like nothing better than to sidetrack all the passion and energy of those involved into a conflict over which they ultimately have no control. Six months later, just after the OWS one year anniversary, I wrote a post titled “To PVC, or not to PVC, is not the question.”

“So big deal. It’s just a tube. Why is this so important to me? Well, it’s easy to recognize that the police presence, tactics, actions are intended to intimidate protestors; but I believe community intimidation to be the real focus of these overwhelmingly disproportionate displays of force. These police spectacles are staged over and over at Occupy events, an over reaction to fabricated danger that is simply not present at these events. In a self-validating cycle, it is the police presence itself that creates the appearance of a conflict that they must then police. The 1% are aware just how unpopular their policies are, and the consistent repetition of their “occupiers clash with police” mantra (delivered through their corporate media) is meant to discourage others from joining the movement. While OWS works to broaden the movement and make protest more accessible - the NYPD is tasked with forming a barrier between OWS and the community; via police lines, barricades, vehicles, etc. The implied message is “if you join these folks in protest, you may be subject to arrest.” The heavy police presence can be alarming to those of us who are not faced with it every day in our communities. For those at greater risk of arrest, deportation, etc. these patterns are all too familiar; but the choice to run the gauntlet, when NYPD has been deployed as a barrier to participation, cannot be an easy one to make. It’s a set up. The 1% want you to believe that in order to join the movement, you have to be willing to breach that barrier, to risk arrest. But this is a distraction - the police should not be the focus of Occupy, a manufactured conflict to siphon off our creative energy. The NYPD officers are by definition part of the 99%, being played as pawns to protect the king. It is up to us to stay focused and not let the one percent use us in a similar fashion.”
What is the “implied message” now after the Cecily McMillan trial verdict? “If you join these folks in protest, you may be subject to sexual assault, battery, arrest and a seven year prison sentance”? Whatever your perspectives are about the NYPD, Cecily McMillan, the trial and the specifics of the case, one must consider the underlying question - why are the police there? There is no crime being committed, no property being damaged, no counter protest in sight. The banksters and Wall Street fat cats have all gone home for the day, so they couldn’t possibly threaten the rights of those demonstrating, right? If this country truly stands for freedom, then why is it acceptable when authorities arrest and detain those exercising that freedom?


Over the last several years, the democratic party (with ample republican assistance) has engineered an entire electoral platform based on protection of rights that you already have, rather than on the expansion of those rights. On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, President Obama delivered a speech at the LBJ memorial.

“But we are here today because we know we cannot be complacent, for history travels not only forwards, history can travel backwards. History can travel sideways. And securing the gains this country has made requires the vigilance of its citizens. Our rights, our freedoms -- they are not given. They must be won. They must be nurtured through struggle and discipline and persistence and faith.”
A day later at the National Action Network Conference the President made an impassioned speech urging people to get out the vote. Here again he brought up the idea of “being vigilant.”
“The principle of one person, one vote is the single greatest tool we have to redress an unjust status quo. You would think there would not be an argument about this anymore. But the stark, simple truth is this: The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago.”
While there are most certainly attempts being made all over the country to disenfranchise voters I question the veracity of these statements for a number of reasons. The first quote seems to conflict with that line from the Declaration of Independence I mentioned earlier, the one about God giving you your rights. Perhaps these are positive rights that Obama is talking about, like for instance the right to housing or healthcare, but that seems unlikely. Clearly he is talking more specifically about the right to vote in the second quote - perhaps that one doesn’t fall under “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”? With a couple stolen elections in our recent past, each very much a function of the disenfranchisement of voters in urban centers (majority “minority” voters), is it disingenuous to claim that “the right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago”? Does a focus on not losing rights redirect organizing power away from expanding those rights? Should the democratic party, and the power base they are beholden to, become the defacto recipient of all of the votes in question simply for taking the role of voting rights champion in yet another convenient dualistic conflict? And finally, is the principle of one person, one vote actually “the single greatest tool we have to redress an unjust status quo”? Occupy Wall Street, and the multiple popular movements that have manifested around the globe over the last few years, do not subscribe to this notion. These movements are based in the idea of direct democracy; empowering, respecting, and honoring all involved; rather than delegating (surrendering) authority to a representative few. Many continue to claim that the President is simply stating the reality of the situation, that change only comes incrementally - so don’t be discouraged. But as someone who studies communication I cannot help but note that his speeches are like opiates, soothing the pain while calling us to action to vote for more of the same. There are those who loudly exclaim “freedom is not free,” but it is this very view of freedom as something that must be won, rather than something that should be intrinsically recognized, that fuels this absurd dualistic dance.

Apathy? No, not really. It isn’t that people don’t care, it’s that they don’t believe that their efforts can make a difference. When they stand up, they are ignored and/or mocked by the media. They are dispersed, detained, or arrested by the (their) police. Any gains they might make can just be rolled back at anytime in the future. Their government, and the corporate shills that populate it, will continue doing whatever is in their best interest regardless. The list of seemingly insurmountable obstacles is long. So why should you bother to take action? Well one of the obvious reasons is because you know that the powers that be are expecting you to stay home, that they are engineering the whole damn experience to be as frustrating and appear as futile as possible, and you think that is bullshit. In our success and results oriented culture it is easy to lose sight of what happens on the journey, to put the goal before the process itself, this is why we can talk about being “free” without ever really exercising our freedom. Freedom is not about about picking the winner or choosing a side. It’s not about the endless artifacts that you can choose to purchase or display to represent your “self.” It’s the exploration that counts, the discoveries you make, the relationships that develop along the way. The ideas that evolve exponentially when our adherence to the dualistic conflict falls away. There is nothing quite like experiencing the realization of your own freedom, of manifesting the indomitable spirit that is within each and all of us. If you haven’t taken to the streets before then perhaps it is time for you to test those inalienable rights of yours, to find out how they work, to experience what it means to be free.

To tell McMillan’s story and assess its consequences, a group of editors revived the Occupy! Gazette in anticipation of her May 19 sentencing. Their hope is to enter into evidence what the court ignored. “Any meaningful conversation about McMillan must address the nationwide trend of suppressing protest, the NYPD’s ongoing assault on communities of color, the justice system’s failure to investigate wrongdoing by the police, and the tendency to disbelieve women’s testimony in cases of sexual assault.” Free Cecily McMillan! A Special Issue of the Occupy Gazette (pdf).

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Friday, January 17, 2014


I remember having a conversation with my brother back in the nineties about the wear and tear on a computer from repeatedly starting it up and shutting it down. He was writing code for a startup and had a fancy Silicon Graphics machine on loan to interface with the network at the office. This machine was always on, always connected, always beckoning him to work. It was the first time I had really considered that you could just leave a computer running perpetually, putting it to sleep when it was not in use. I was transitioning into motion graphics and working on the Mac was fast becoming the common denominator of that work. I had no computer in my own home at the time and it was standard procedure for me to “shut down” before leaving the office. With the internet still in its infancy, there were no e-mails to check when arriving home...

The technology and my relationship to it changed pretty radically over the next few years. Rendering animation took hours (sometimes days), so there were often long periods where the computer was occupied doing the work. At first this felt like a welcome respite, a mid-day mini vacation, time enough to take in a movie or hit the arcade in Times Square. Long before social media and i-everything there were still plenty of ways to kill time gazing longingly at the screen. Setting the machines to render overnight before leaving work was becoming increasingly common. Of course, this meant they didn’t get shut down. The gear we were working on was costly and keeping it in use day and night was a good way to justify its expense. And this really was key: there were always rush jobs that ended up stretching into the night, but this was something else entirely - perpetual work. When you couldn’t keep going, the machine could take over.

When I bought my first Mac (clone) I mounted it on a specially made desk which figured prominently in my apartment studio, the virtual hearth of my technologically centered life. No longer locked away in a dark office when rendering after hours; it was occupational tool, entertainment hub, and portal to the world all rolled into one, but still not quite what Buckminster Fuller had in mind. For all the convenience, for all the time and effort the box was supposed to save, it was always asking for just a bit more than it was willing to give. Render time became nap time - the post render chime acting as impromptu alarm clock. Four Macs later my laptop is more commonly asleep than shut down. Google at the ready, any question, no matter how insignificant, is but a finger touch away. Infinite memory to store all the things that I no longer remember. What a relief that it’s all still in there somewhere.

Reading Gibson’s Neuromancer in college the Moderns’ microsofts and Molly’s implants had me fetishizing the integration of technology into our lives at a deeper level. Despite the dystopian branding of Cyberpunk, I was fascinated by this future of augmented abilities and liberated information. But the technology hasn’t manifested as the effortlessly accessible information overlay that I had imagined. Privatization of content and distribution is more commonly providing us with a shallow facsimile of information to replace that which we already know or might venture to discover for ourselves. Characterization of the internet as infinite resource has many limiting their search for knowledge to the PageRanked information that it contains. A sort of one-stop-shop for all your thinking needs. If you can’t find it on Google, perhaps it doesn’t exist. If a tree falls in the woods...

Boarding the subway recently I found myself surrounded by a perfect ring of 7 or 8 folks plugged into their devices, heads down, eyes fixed. My partner and I stood there among them talking about how surreal the situation seemed. The individuals were completely oblivious to our conversation, each thoroughly involved with the particular “reality” presented by their device. Perhaps I should not be alarmed that many people seem to prefer interacting with a virtual facsimile of their environment (community?) rather than with the actual one they are in - texting, facebook, google maps, sim and multiplayer online games. After all, is this not welcome remedy for the discomfort that many experience in social situations? But what are we missing when we replace social interaction with a programmed facsimile? The maxim don’t believe everything you read relied on you having some other source of information beyond that newspaper or book, as well as you making the effort to establish and evolve your perception through conversation with those around you. How does this translate to our current information climate now that so many are getting their own “personalized” user specific information through this one medium? Is this really the boundless frontier we’ve been told, or is it yet another tool to keep us separate and sedated? Perhaps it is both.

Soon after we met, my partner and I got into watching a lot of pre-code films. The thing that struck me about the films was not their over arching themes, but the details of the interactions of the players on screen. I had never seen this kind of storytelling growing up watching classic Hollywood films on TV, the level of realism, the breadth of experience portrayed in these stories. I became aware that the Motion Picture Production Code was not simply some sort of age appropriate rating system, but a method for suppressing images of life that did not match the status quo. History is filled with examples of this type of censorship. It is not only the ideas themselves that are at risk here, but the very freedom to know that alternative ideas exist. This reminds me of another similar realization I had while taking art history. There appeared to be an abrupt shift in painting around the time of the Renaissance, from a flat illustrative style to one that seemed more anatomically correct and more realistic, albeit in an idealized sense. Were people just bad at drawing before the Renaissance? The style was more likely a function of limitations on what was acceptable and appropriate in the depiction of the subject matter. The artifacts alone tell us a story that has been limited in scope by its keepers, the curators, and those responsible for the commission of these works of art - in this case the wealthy and the church itself. Control over the medium (and media) today is exercised through shifts in creation and distribution technology. From LP to CD and CD to mp3, from Film to DVD and DVD to streaming media - who controls (owns) the information? Who controls your experience of it? With each technological shift marketed to a new generation of consumers along the arc of planned obsolescence - who will decide?

So much of our culture has been sampled from previous sources, marketed to us as the new and improved version, that it can be challenging to know what “reality” even is. Facsimiles now spawn their own facsimiles, a remake of the remake if you will. Take for example the cultural fascination with everything 70’s (“retro”) - is this actually based on what occurred during that decade or on exaggerated cliches presented in movies like “Boogie Nights”? I had a lively conversation with a young man at a party recently. He spoke passionately of the “energy” and the “feeling” of the NYC rave scene back in the 90’s. It occurred to me as we spoke that he was likely born right around the time of those parties or perhaps even after they occurred. I inquired how he had “experienced” the “feeling” that he spoke of. He told me he had watched the videos on YouTube. I was keenly aware of the shift he spoke of, from participatory events where people responded to the music in communal celebration, to spectator events where individual response is focused more on the status of the superstar dj than the music itself. Folks get dressed up, buy overpriced tickets, and wait on long lines to get inside only to divide their attention between the actual event and the luminous screen clutched tightly in hand. Friends and I have discussed again and again how and why this shift has occurred. There are a number of factors, but above all else I come back to one essential thing - when people go out they are expecting to be passively entertained rather than to actively express themselves.

I recently began teaching a class called Motion Graphics : Graphic Design. Working with the students I began to wonder if the examples I was showing in class were being received the way I had intended. When I first started out in design I worked in a print house pasting up artwork for silkscreened supermarket and deli signs. I remember having one of those moments when you realize that somebody made that thing you are looking at - it didn’t just spring into existence fully formed, it wasn’t simply churned out by some gigantic machine. It sensitized me to look for the hand in design, to find the personal touch in what might otherwise seem generic. I wondered if this hand was visible to my students in the flurry of moving images surrounding them? Are we all being desensitized by the barrage of painstakingly branded sameness? Is the majority of this ephemera actually telling a story - communicating any information beyond a tacked on market tested tagline? The hand becomes less and less visible, “story” turns to sequence and formula, the gigantic machine churns away. This isn’t just about finding (or losing) one’s voice, it’s about recognizing that life itself (not a scripted story about life) is the inspiration for the work - in all its messy unpredictable (and therefore un-marketable) grandeur.

In my last post I wrote about the process of relaxing one’s focus to see more. Years back, my father explained to me that this practice of looking into the distance was common when people are visualizing the future. Is the virtual space (cyber-space), that infinite expanse inside your screen, blocking your view? Do you actually know what is behind (beyond) your monitor, your pad, your phone? Can you imagine the world as it exists a block away from where you are now? How about a mile away? How about a year away? What gets filtered out when the experience passes through the screen? Can you recall the phone numbers of the five people you call most often? Do you even bother to call? Can you feel the warmth of hearing the sound of their actual voices, rather than quantized, digitized, replicas? Do you know what is happening in their lives beyond their status updates? Do you remember what you did to connect before Facebook? Before e-mail? What did you do with all of that time? I invite you to take a moment, silencing the electronic siren song, take pen (pencil, marker, crayon…) to paper and jot down ten things you would do if you had that time back. Got ten? Wonderful! How about ten more? Harder than you thought? Not to worry - it gets easier the more you do it. Of course, the list is just a reminder, it is the doing that makes it worthwhile.

If you are so moved, please share your ten things (or more) in the comments below - perhaps we can inspire each other to shut it down, step back from the device, and step forward into life.