Dispatches from the fringes of Late Capitalism/notes on propagating rare trees.

Tuesday, April 29, 2003  

OK, OK, I've really been remiss in blogging 'the propagation of rare trees' part of my masthead. I am particularly interested in growing some of the more unusual Asian species that seem hardy here on the West Coast of Canada. One of my favorites is Idesia polycarpa or 'Wonder tree. They've got beautiful large leaves with a kind of red veining. I've got four of them which I grew from seed I collected at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Another magnificent species is Paulownia tomentosa, which has beautiful blue foxglove-shaped flowers and massive spade-like leaves, (when young). The oldest one I grew from seed is growing at Cottonwood gardens in Vancouver (about 6 metres tall ) and is already flowering. I collected the seed from a beautiful old specimen growing in front of the VIA station in Thornton Park, Vancouver.

Paulownia in Thornton Park, Vancouver, British Columbia

posted by oliver | 9:58 PM

Sunday, April 27, 2003  

A Belgian lawyer actually has gotten it together to initiate a legal case against American general Tommy Franks for war crimes committed during the invasion of Iraq, pointing out that Franks did nothing to stop the looting of the hospitals in Baghdad. The US is already threatening "diplomatic consequences." The alleged "weapons of mass destruction" that were the reason for invading Iraq in the first place have not been found, 5 weeks into the US invasion, and likely won't be. The Christian Science Monitor published a useful inventory of America's fraudulent pretexts for invasions and covert operations over the past few decades, including the nonexistent MIG fighters that Reagan used as the basis for funding the covert war against Nicaragua's Sandanista government and the constructed fiction of Iraqi soldiers snatching babies from Kuwaiti incubators. The big lie continues apace. I am seeing chilling parallels between the Bush administration's manufacturing of consent on the Iraq invasion, and the stories that my parents (who grew up in Nazi Germany) have told me about how the Nazis maintained their regime's grip on the hearts and minds of the German people while invading Poland and perpetrating the holocaust. A pliable, frightened population that is xenophobic and feeling economically vulnerable is a prerequisite for the successful demagogue.

There been concern in many quarters that nanotech organisms will soon eat the planet. Wordspy lists a new word for this - 'global ecophagy.' Perhaps these nanotech organisms have infected the brains of the Republican right.

posted by oliver | 10:55 PM

Friday, April 25, 2003  

Conversation with an ancient turtle:


Once again Al jazeera has nailed it. While the Museum of Antiquities (containing the first examples of human writing) was looted into oblivion (because the American occupation forces couldn't spare a few soldiers to protect it), the Iraqi Ministry of Oil escaped the bombing and looting, unscathed. It had been heavily guarded by American troops since the invasion forces entered the capital. Sometimes the obvious is just obvious.

It's come to light that some of the 'enemy combatants' imprisoned at camp X-ray in Guantanamo Bay Cuba are children under 16 years of age. They are detained without charges and have no access to lawyers or their families. What is this 'freedom' thing that America is fighting for anyway?

I nearly fell out of my chair in disbelief watching Barry Diller, (the CEO and chairman of USA Interactive, and founder of FOX Broadcasting) call for more media diversification and to keep some vestige of regulation on the concentration of media ownership in the United States. Maybe having only 5 companies controlling all broadcasting has become just too boring for even the oligopolists? He did say that 'young' people are turning to the Internet in droves. So what else is new? Still it was worth hearing one of the titans of the World Information Order use the word 'oligopoly.'

Turtles are near and dear to my heart. Many are threatened with extinction. As I type this, my companion box turtle is glaring up at me balefully from my office floor. I have had him since 1967, since I was a young boy. This little refugee from the Triassic has lived through the Vietnam era, my adolescence, the invention of the personal computer, the Gulf Wars, and HIV. He is still basically interested in the same things he always was: food and chasing (the even older) female turtle around in a kind of elephantine march around my office. Looking at turtles often makes me weep. They are everything that we precocious, quick breeding, tool using, naked apes are not. They are conservative, slow growing and long lived. They are vulnerable in the extreme because they think that they are safe when they withdraw into their bony shells. Everything eats their eggs, they get caught in shrimp nets, crushed when they crawl across freeways and cooked into allegedly medicinal soups. I have seen their sad, confused faces gazing from fish crates on the Bowery, crowded into rank aquariums in low-end pet stores and tormented in buckets by cruel, pre-adolescent boys. I have a visceral memory of an enormous snapping turtle, covered in mud and moss laying perfectly spherical, glistening white eggs into the gravel beside a busy highway in a bleak Toronto suburb. The turtle was weeping with its exertion, or perhaps from the futility it perceived of its attempt at reproduction. The swamp it had always lived in had become a vestigial pot hole, filled with abandoned shopping carts. The sandbank that had sheltered generations of its young was now covered in pavement. Yet the ancient turtle carried on -- I would like to say 'oblivously,' but I think not. Somehow it must have known what was happening to it. A world inhospitable to turtles would be a severely diminished place. We should all try to make their acquaintance before it is too late.

posted by oliver | 8:07 PM

Wednesday, April 23, 2003  

My friend Laura was riffing about stumbling on a show about the wildlife of Israel, while channel surfing for news on the Iraq war. These shows always seem to frame what appears to be pristine nature, without showing the post-industrial context. I am reminded of this whenever I drive down to the Comox Valley (Vancouver Island British Columbia), in the winter. Right next to the big box stores and the light industrial parks of the' Edge City sprawl, lie a few lush fields which constitute the main wintering ground of the endangered trumpeter swan, the largest waterfowl on earth. There's something deeply sad about seeing the trumpeters graze away against a backdrop of mini-malls and 'U-store it' units. One could easily film them without this context, but it would be a lie. It's important to cop to understanding that a large proportion of the winter habitat of one of the most threatened and beautiful water birds on the planet is basically a part of Late Capitalist suburbia. Here is a somewhat grainy pic of a group of trumpeter swans from out the car window:


Nature shows such as "Mutual of Omaha's" Wild Kingdom where a staple of my childhood television experience. Unfortunately many of the shots in such shows were 'set up', inflicting considerable cruelty and suffering on the animals being filmed. The quintessential example of this is the 1958 film, 'White Wilderness,' in which lemmings were basically shovelled off of a precipice to reinforce the (erroneous) idea that they habitually commit suicide. The Nature magazine website debunks this myth and provides valuable insights into lemming behaviour. It turns out that we humans have a lot in common with them, especially around election time.

The most egregious 'mockumentary' filmmaking was of course perpetrated by Disney. There is a great article in Earth Island Journal by Chris Clarke, describing how Disney has misinformed generations of North American children on how animals actually interact with each other and with their environment.

While this fiction is understandable in its cartoons, Disney's use of authentic seeming wildlife documentaries to reinforce the cornerstones of capitalist myth such as social Darwinism and erroneous notions of ecology as personality cult, continues to be pervasive.

Cougars or mountain lions frequent the island on which I live. Vancouver Island is one of the world centres for cougar population, but you rarely see them. One is lucky to catch a few glimpses in an average lifetime. My glimpse was out of my truck window around 8 o'clock at night on a rainy, winding road. The enormous cat jumped out of the darkness with all of the ease of a kitten jumping off of an armchair and into the pool of my headlights. Within an instant, it was gone. This fleeting, yet authentic experience gave me far more of a 'frisson' than any wildlife documentary ever could, despite and in fact, because of its evanescence. Through its overexposure in the Disnified world of 'Animal Planet' style documentaries, nature is suffering a crisis of the real. We have never been more distant from the cougar even though we may think that we are familiar with every hair follicle on its mediated face.

posted by oliver | 10:05 PM

Sunday, April 20, 2003  

It's become clear that the US has been using cluster bombs in its attack on the populated areas of Iraq. BBC world this evening broadcast images of limbless children who had been on the receiving end of these technological atrocities.
Kurt Vonnegut turned 80 this year and remains one of America's most prescient authors.
Ruth sent me this link to a recent interview with him on 'psychopathic personalities' the war in Iraq.

Vonnegut when asked: ". . . do you have any ideas for a really scary reality TV show? "
answered: C students from Yale. It would stand your hair on end. "

posted by oliver | 10:06 PM

I've been interested in tracking the US Psy Ops during the invasion of Iraq. Apparently entire planes are kitted out with equipment to intercept cell phone communications and to override local radio broadcasts with pro-US propaganda. The BBC World series 'Click on Line' always has an interesting analysis of cyberculture and in addition to the above topics also covered GPS 'jamming' equipment and the techno-glitches that lead to 'friendly fire' incidents.

posted by oliver | 12:08 AM

Friday, April 18, 2003  

My mother surprised me today. She has been trolling the internet and snagged an interesting link to an article by John Pilger in Z Magazine entitled 'We See Too Much, We Know Too Much. That's Our Best Defense' in which he basically asserts that our broad access to information has fundamentally changed the power dynamic, creating a problem for the hegemony in promoting propaganda. I hope he's right. Anecdotally it seems to ring true but the consensus building mechanisms of polling and compliant mass media are extremely powerful within the US. How much 'alternative' information about Iraq is filtering down to the bulk of the population? Only time will tell.
I spent the day wandering around in a rainforest which is slated to be sold, probably to loggers. Freedom means being able to cut down a 300 year old western red cedar tree and make it into lumber for a deck.

posted by oliver | 12:36 AM

Tuesday, April 15, 2003  

I am seeking solace in observing ruderal ecologies. I took my class to the local garbage dump today, where we saw broad and lanceolate leaved plantains (plantago), dock (rumex), bitter cress, crysanthemum leucanthemum and buttercup growing (and in fact thriving) in gravel soaked with toxic waste. Oddly, some of these are the very plants that are useful in cleaning toxins out of the human body, especially plantago and dock.

I remember (twenty years ago) standing by the Berlin Wall, looking out over the green expanse of a mine field between the West and the (then) Warsaw pact. European hares gamboled around lush tussocks,too light to trigger the lethal mines (or maybe they just knew where they all were.) The hares were being pursued by flocks of European buzzards and other raptors that had all but vanished from the surrounding cityscape. Wildflowers that had become extinct in the rest of Germany flourished in this 'no-man's land.' The whole thing seemed like some kind of demented post-modern Serengeti, a ribbon of verdant green snaking through a concrete wasteland.

The catastrophe that was Chernobyl proved to be a boon for wildlife which could complete its life cycle before succumbing to the cancer that would kill creatures like us that have longer life spans. Our violence has created a paradise which is poison to us. Deer and birds teem in this death zone because we are not there.

Here are some Super 8 mm stills of the ruderal systems that existed between East and West Berlin, before the so-called 'fall of communism.' The images which I filmed in 1983, clearly show the European buzzards, hunting the hares on the green grass of the mine field.

posted by oliver | 10:13 PM

Monday, April 14, 2003  

This is the sort of thing that keeps me up at night: American Marines interviewed in the ruins of one of Saddam's opulent palaces (on tonights BBC World TV News) say they are awe struck by the contrast between the wealth of Saddam and the rest of the Iraqi people. They should feel very much at home in Iraq because America has one of the greatest income inequities in the industrialized world. Could it be that the American military is starting to promote class struggle?

posted by oliver | 12:56 AM

Saturday, April 12, 2003  

I too have been tracking the ransacking of the Museum of Antiquities. This falls into the category of 'meta-atrocity' because it obliterates an irreplacable part of our collective human history. Orwell said it all.
Winston: "But it did exist! It does exist! It exists in memory. I remember it! You remember it!
"I do not remember it," said O'Brian
-George Orwell 1984

posted by oliver | 10:17 PM

Blogging is like crack for 'otaku.' I can't believe how addictive it is. I can see the real danger in being sucked forever down rabbit hole. Seriously though, do you think it could lead to an actual problem? The interactivity is so addictive, i.e the feeling of intellectual control. And the linking. My God- the LINKING! It could absorb every hour of every day. Blogging is the true consummation of Ted Nelson's 1983 'Literary Machine' concept, i.e. the Xanadu project which you probably remember.
So I guess the question of striking a balance between blog interactivity and wet-ware/meat-ware/biological/human activity is paramount. This is an interesting discussion that would rate another blog, which of course is the problem.

posted by oliver | 1:09 AM

Thursday, April 10, 2003  

Reminiscent of some kind of 19th century British painting, television presents us over and over with this colonialist, exoticised tableau of downtown Baghdad- a mosque beside a traffic circle festooned with date palms. The landscape is predominantly depopulated and very little happens in it. Occasionally there is smoke, presumably form the cluster bombs. Yesterday an American tank crawled up the traffic circle like some menacing dung beetle. We are drawn to this image because it is live and yet banal - free from the troublesome burdens of information that might make us judge. On the internet, the real time stream of images from this ancient city are juxtaposed with pornography.

posted by oliver | 11:42 PM

Wednesday, April 09, 2003  

I just have to say that blogging totally rules. It is helping me process enormously. I have been tracking the Palestine hotel situation. The BBC images of weeping journalists were heartbreaking. They know that it is open season on the truth. Today was just an opening salvo. The 'new normal' is extending its pervasive logic and what would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago, is now banal. 'Shock and awe' affects intellectuals disproportionately. It is too easy to give up. By coincidence, Ruth (with a streaming cold) was at the BBC nyc office giving an interview today. She said all hell was breaking loose re; the journalists who'd been killed etc.

Which brings me to my point, which is the kind of conundrum of the present historical moment and the 'imagined unimaginable.' I suppose the secret to successful sanity is to find a balance between critiquing the ongoing atrocity image stream and finding meaningful engagement in the local 'real' without retreating from the very necessary role of 'witness.' I have always had an on again/off again love affair with virtuality. It is at once beguiling as well as alienating. The map is not the territory and we do an awful lot of critiquing of maps. Television is the ultimate map. You probably remember the Herman Hesse novel 'The Glass Bead Game' which was all the rage when we were in high school. In it, the best minds were engaged in pushing beads around a board while the rest went to hell in a handbasket. (At least that is how I remember the text which is really all that matters) This hunger for the real is what took me away from the rarified milieu of conceptual art (which is basically a kind of 'secret handshake') into the realm of activism and urban agriculture. Growing food and bioremediating land provided me with the opportunity to act directly on my critique of contemporary (Late) Capitalism, which had previously threatened to disable me. Having this outlet makes the virtual less oppressive because I realize that I can ameliorate the local in a direct and real way. Oddly, this has brought me back into conceptual art by going kind of full circle. Passivity is a very destructive force.

posted by oliver | 12:57 AM

Monday, April 07, 2003  

I'm jacked into BBC World on the dish. I can't drag myself away. It's kind of an extended play version of 'Atrocity Exhibition'. I am watching American armoured personel carriers crawling up the banks of the Tigris, the ancient lifeline of Mesoptoania. The venerable date palms are covered in dust and oil and black clad Iraqis are stripping to their underwear and getting blown to pieces by unseen aircraft. Other people seem to be commuting to work in their cars, a few hundred metres from the battle fields. Who knows what is out of the camera frame? Yesterday at about 2 in the morning there was a BBC report from behind a camera lens smeared in the camera man's blood from a location in which Americans bombed themselves in Northern Iraq.

We should all re-read Karl ( Marx.) My minimal knowledge of Marx is mostly due to the influence of my McLuhanesque suburban Toronto high school, where in addition to doing away with walls, we studied revolutionary history from the French Revolution to Ho Chi Min. It was of course the 70's. Only lately have I begun to value of this educational opportunity, which I had long taken for granted. I remember some enlightened history teacher organizing a bus trip for us to Madame Tussaud's Wax museum in Niagara Falls to study the Chamber of Horrors, as a kind of pedagogical trope for world history. I remember visibly the drawing and quartering, the scalping, the flaying and the beheading. We got it, I think.

In social studies, we travelled to TV stations to watched banal afternoon game shows being filmed. I remember one chat show called 'Party Game', where a bunch of polyester-clad third tier celebrities yucked it up in an inebriated game of charades. They were so drunk, they could barely stand up to say, "sounds like . . . . BUNT." It was around 11:00 am in Hamilton Ontario, 'STEELTOWN." As a souveneir, I was given a 16 mm film clip of a 'Cool Whip' commercial, which became one of my prize possessions, taped to my basement bedroom window the afternoon light shining through the Ektachrome cells. It was a good introduction to Eisenstein's theory of montage..
More soon. . . .
(More) I am simultaneously, sickened, mesmerized and angry as I continue to watch the war unfold. Susan Sonntag wrote a good essay about the power of images to overwhelm us and make us passive. The quintessential modern experience is to watch atrocities being committed in real time, in the other half of the world. (Baudrillard) (His 'l'esprit du terrorisme' is a must read)

posted by oliver | 12:25 PM

Saturday, April 05, 2003  

You have been very reassuring.
I've been a bit catatonic lately, not quite knowing how to deal with the horrific nature of world events. I am told that in America, many intellectuals are no longer talking about the war. This is deeply troubling. This is what my parents told me happened in Germany during the ascent of Hitler. The bourgeoisie and intelligensia are often the first to pull in their horns. It is up to the 'lumpen' intelligensia to pick up the psychic slack. Aboard the ferry this morning, I watched a pod of Orcas playing in the boiling, gun metal gray sea off Marina Island. Their purposeful recreations cheered me up despite the fact that this population is threatened with extinction. In Japan, the carp always is said to strive mightily to achieve its goal. The orca, being a mammal, revels in distraction. Maybe it's the consequence of a 'big brain'' and a 'short life', (cf. Vonnegut) That's our problem in a nutshell.

posted by oliver | 11:59 PM

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