Back in Montpellier, we drove to the beach at Sête to relax for the day and say a last goodbye. Frantz was off to visit another friend in the south, and I would return to New York soon to give critic's tours of the Bowery for the AIA and settle my own affairs. We collected seashells and pebbles smoothed by the shore, and dove into the sea. I swam butterfly, launching myself into the air as the waves rose and plunged beneath, once taking a mouthful of saltwater as a swell rose over my head. We had one last farewell to perform: the one photo I could remember of my mother from Montpellier was with her parents at the beach after the war. We had talked about bringing her ashes here before discovering a note among her papers: For tombstone. If he like a madman lived, at least he like wise one died. -Don Quixote. With the trip came a sense of closure, which we topped off with a few bottles from the Val de Pins. It's an incredible indulgence to participate in these aesthetic pleasures when everything else seems on the brink. In dark times, it's all the more necessary to fight for joys in life and maintain a sense of hopefulness in the face the assaulting negativity of public life. The last line of W. H. Auden's poem In Memory of W. B. Yeats is Teach the free man how to praise, and, well, I agree. Spread your joys as well as the bad news. And organize.
A few days later, Frantz drove down from Paris to get me. He needed help with some family business in Auvergne, where his parents had spent their summers in a tiny village in the Massif Central mountains. On the bookshelves of their stone house, I found a first edition of Claude Levi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques, the masterpiece of French anthropology published in 1955, when Levi-Strauss had been a peer of his mom during her early years as a pioneering scholar of African literature. Frantz had buried his mother in the village a few months earlier, and now he was back to plant trees around the grave and place a marker. When we arrived at the cemetery, a rainstorm broke out. We planted the trees in a heavy downpour. But as we finished, the clouds opened up and bathed us in sunlight through the surrounding clouds. I brought two rocks to place on the marker from the Languedoc. Back at the house, we dug out a bottle of wine from the cellar. We sat in front of the fireplace talking with a childhood friend who cares for the house in Lilyan's absence, and Frantz put some pork chops on the grill. Throughout the two days in Auvergne, friends and neighbors dropped by, noting the conditions at the grave. They had all been for a visit and nudged Frantz to place rocks around the soil to prevent erosion. Lilyan had said she didn't want a tombstone: What do you want me to suffocate? she told Frantz. The next morning was the spring festival of plants and gardens. Farmers set up stands of flowers, herbs, and produce along the squares, and sold live chickens, ducks, and rabbits out of a truck. We spent the afternoon on another adventure: searching for a symbolic momento Frantz's father had left him, hidden decades ago somewhere deep in the mountains, with a map to find its location. After hours of toil and many false detours, we began to doubt and lose hope. Then, hours into the search, there it was! We found it located in the exact place he had been told to search decades ago. We packed up, said goodbye to his mother's friends, and set off again for the south, dreaming of a new way of life that could be started closer to the sea.
This was the day lightning struck my wifi connection. It sent me on an adventure through uncertain pathways from the village through the countryside about three miles to Castries, where I could catch a bus to Montpellier, then take a streetcar to the Place de la Comédie, exploring my way to the Orange telecom shop in the mall to replace the router. The elements were telling me to quit the Internet and discover another path. Along the way I explored the water systems feeding the vineyards, and many muddy roads that were barely navigable, and met a donkey behind a fence that I didn't realize was electrified until too late. And I searched out this Sou Foujimoto biophilic housing and restaurant development, L'Arbre Blanc, just finishing construction, which will have trees growing on the balconies.
It's remarkable how strong the pull of place is on the sense of urgency. Despite the gravity of the present state of crisis, I want to linger for a moment in this vineyard in the Languedoc. The wine produced here is called Val de Pins because geographically it falls within the valley, as opposed to the better-known Pic Saint Loup grown up in the mountain a few kilometers away. They say it only lacks one of the grapes that doesn't grow well in the lower climate. Nearby there's the Domain de L'Arbousier, a centuries-old vineyard with tree-houses for rent and a cave for tasting. But the nearest cave to Sussarges is called Celliers de Val de Pins. It's a cooperative that gathers small batches of grapes from hundreds of different vineyards and manufactures a handful of consistent wines from them influenced by the Pic Saint Loup. What's fascinating about this are the many particularities of economic organization. The cooperative is a very old form of farming collective that is being adopted increasingly by cultural producers and entrepreneurs. As I met with architecture collectives in Montpellier, you could see that there's a significant difference in the forms of commercial exchange made possible by an economic system that is, by comparison with the US, much more socialized. It makes possible types of survivals and innovations that do not exist and in many cases may not be possible for us without greater federal support for regional economies and provision of free space to experiment. It seems to be a hopeful avenue of research that could allow a vision for softer forms of commercial exchange--forms obviated by the disappearance of place in the production and marketing of mass consumer products. Here you can see the strength of regional character providing an affirmative identity. Wine is not crushed by global competition because no one else can produce a wine named for this place. Even a GM engine block is marked with numbers indicating its place of production. Instead of an obscure marking on the underside of a vehicle called Touareg, it should be the particularized brand on the hood that says, this was proudly made someplace.
After the panel in Venice and a talk at the University of Birmingham, I stayed in the village of Sussarges about 10 miles northwest of Montpellier at Ken and Liz Harrow's place. Ken was my professor of African film and literature at Michigan State, and a great teacher and friend over the years. Living for two weeks in a village in the Languedoc was not only pretty close to pure bliss, but it was an extraordinary learning experience about French regionalism and sociability, a great writing retreat, and an opportunity to discover where my mother's family lived during World War II. The Fountain of the Three Graces, pictured here, located in the Place de la Comédie in Montpellier, is the symbol of the city. In Greek mythology, the three graces symbolize the joy of life, the three figures representing fullness of enjoyment, beauty, and fecundity. This one is by Etiénne D'Antoine, but it has been rendered by many famous artists. In any case, I was gobsmacked by the beauty of Montpellier, and the size and complexity of what I knew to be a small city of less than 100,000, where my grandparents fled the Nazi invasion of Paris in 1940, and thus where my mom was born and grew up, in effect, a Jewish refugee, though blissfully unaware until later. It was very important to my mom that I remember that her father worked for the Comité juif d’action sociale et de reconstruction (Cojasor) resettling Jewish refugees after the war, and that's how they were reunited with my great aunt Laina, whose son was taken from her in the Stutthof concentration camp, never to be found again. Having left for Detroit in 1952 out of mistrust for the lingering anti-semitism in France after the war, how shocked would they be at the state of our country today? How in disbelief would they be that anyone believes the forcible separation of children from parents is ever morally defensible?
In her book A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid had the last word on the subject of why tourism is such a grating and damaging problem everywhere. That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives—most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go—so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself. But it doesn't address why having no tourism can be much, much worse for a place.
The panel on Robot Citizens: Architecture and Social Responsibility Now at the US Pavilion went off well, with good energy generated by a lot of passionate disagreements that had the audience building and sticking around in the courtyard. Instead of presentations, it was structured around reactions of Liam Young, Charles Renfro, Marrikka Trotter, and Jeremy Lecompte to the rant I've been rehearsing for several months having to do with the extent to which we have become, in effect, robots already, programmed by our devices in ways we have no awareness or control over, with no rights except to accept a user agreement that is coded in ways we have no access to or choice about. My question is: what are its implications are for our assumptions about public space as a redeeming place for democratic speech and participation. My position was: we may be being turned into disembodied robots by our phones, and there may be opportunities for liberation in disassociating from nationality and participating in subcultures and improvised activities, but ultimately governments, traders, and corporations are actively creating a hegemonic world that we ignore at our peril. While the discourse of human rights may be antiquated given the changing reality brought about by transnational movement of capital and information, it remains a core principle that enables each individual and each culture to exercise moral claims on power. And we need to take power, as soon as possible. Much more to say about it, but I hope to transcribe the whole conversation and share it later. The possibility for this panel was all engineered in large part by @erikghenoiu who is leading a new research program at @sciarc, and @mimizeiger mimizeiger whose co-curation of the US Pavilion @uspavilion18 balanced intellectual curiosity with important positions about the role of architecture in relation to ecology and power. Grateful to participate in this experience and cross paths with people like @kurganl @benjaminbratton Jeanne Gang @studiogang , and Kate Orff @scape_studio who I've reported on over the years, and special thanks to Hernan Diaz Alonzo for making the introduction. (Part 2)
If this were a buttoned-up short story, it would end there, finding freedom, to an extent, from media or mediation and embracing being there. But I continued to travel for another three weeks, and therefore I want to continue, though I am now back in New York with my dear kitty and my plants that mostly survived my absence. In Venice, I had the pleasure of staying with some great friends, Jerome and Ginger, and meeting up with an old friend Steven Varni, a colleague from my days as a clerk at the famous long-gone Books & Co. next to the Whitney Museum, where Susan Sontag and Julia Kristeva did readings, Wally Shawn and Woody Allen would drop by, everyone who worked there was at some stage of Remembrance of Things Past, and William Gaddis was a fetishized name. Steven has been living in Venice for the last seven years, and he believes this is the last generation that will survive the effects of tourism. The classic gondola rides are the Venice version of those uncanny frozen moments of time in Paris where you cannot see it without seeing it through its repetition over a lifetime of other representations, and you need to also repeat it, like stumbling into the original portrait of King George in London, or the feeling of visitors to New York that they haven't been there until they've been to Times Square. (Part 1)
What I'm going to say now is going to surprise absolutely no one, but I never fully grokked it until I spent four days in Venice. Venice is a city composed of nothing but islands. The water is everywhere. There are no cars. At all. All transport happens by various kinds of boats. No cars. Nothing but boats. That means that everywhere you go, you are visibly and physically on the water. At the end of every street, in the backyard, through the windows, in front of the museum, at the end of the plaza. I have lived on islands in New York for the last 23 years, but rarely have I felt it, except those magical moments on Rockaway Beach, Coney Island, Long Island City, Staten Island, and Governors Island where I intentionally sought out the water. To a large extent the water is restrained, kept at bay, landfilled, or hidden behind industrial canals. Here, water flows through the city everywhere. Everywhere one is either walking across stone bridges or hopping onto vaporetti boats to get to the other end of the city. Apart from that, Venice is swarming with tourists. When I say swarming, I mean, there's a sense in which the city appears to be so overwhelmed with tourists they are squeezing out any possibility of its residents to live there at all. This too is astonishing in the context of the struggles of every place I passed through to adapt to the radical uneven global distribution of wealth, how it freely circulates through the local economy, squeezing the life out of the place. Upon arriving in Venice, I instantly had to take a few photographs. But I took surprisingly few after that, and none that capture the glorious marvel that is Venice. Because everyone, everywhere is always taking pictures. The city is endlessly captivating. I would barely be able to take two steps without feeling the need to photograph it. So I resisted the urge and just absorbed being there, the wind in my face on the vaporetti, meandering through the narrow streets, absorbed in the exhibitions of the architecture biennale, engrossed in the cinematic beauty everywhere around me. (Part 2)
So I continue. In Milan I take the bus from the airport to the train station and buy a ticket to Venice, with changes of trains in Rovato, Lombardy and Verona to my destination in Spinea, where I rented an AirBNB somewhere along the way. For large parts of the journey from Milan to Venice, I see only people of African descent, which is remarkable for a place that has been relatively stable culturally at least since after World War II. But most people with two nickels to rub together seem to have their own cars. As we get closer to Venice, I start to see a few groups of tourists. In Mestre I take a cab to Spinea, then a train to Venice for an art opening as a part of the US Pavilion events. (Part 1)
Pardon the interruption of this journal for some brief publicity for myself. In the new issue of Oculus @centerforarch released for the start of the American Institute of Architects @aianational convention in New York, editor Molly Heintz @heintzmm commissioned me to report on the historical changes to the New York waterfront since the last AIA convention in the city in 1988. The creation of thousands of acres of parks, construction of dozens of defamiliarizing towers, and formation of new guidelines for protecting against storm surges and sea level rise are among the changes illuminated through interviews with Alex Cooper, Kevin Bone @bonelevine Linda Starr @starrwhitehouse Kate Boicourt of Waterfront Alliance @waterfrontalliance and Robert Freudenberg of the Regional Plan Association @regional_plan . Also in the issue are articles by Michael Sorkin @terreformur Karrie Jacobs, and Clifford Pearson. Grab a copy!
The next day I worked on a New York project in the Maghreb Cafe and walked around the souk and the médina by myself. As the sun set, Abdul arrived and took me to the leather-making district, where his friend was feeding chicken entrails to a gathering of cats and dogs. After dinner, Amir and Hakim showed up to drive me to the airport. It was a chance for everyone to seek extra payment, with heavy protests of personal injury for the little I had to give. The entreaties didn't stop until all the dirhams and dollars in my pockets were gone. Then they wanted to drive to a cash machine so I could take out more. I refused, and said I would get another taxi, which might have left me stranded with empty pockets, and I was in danger of missing my flight. They relented and dropped me off, but I was upset at the scene, which I had tried to preclude by negotiating in advance. Yet I understood it was a probable outcome of going along with a guide. The worst part was the realization at the airport that the flight to Venice I had purchased in Madrid hadn't gone through. It was 11 pm, and there were no more airplanes flying out of Marrakesh that night. In a panic, I looked at the board for the morning flights. With a slow airport wifi, I booked the earliest plane to Milan at 5:50 am. From there I could take a train and make it to Venice in time for the evening events of the US Pavilion at the Architecture Biennale.
At the end of our trip to the mountains, the three of them suggested it would be nicer for me to spend the night with a family rather than stay alone in the mountains. Abdul invited me back to his family's home in the médina. We drove back down to Marrakesh, and they dropped us off at the far eastern edge of the Médina. It was still light out, and I followed Abdul through the narrow alleys to his family's home, where we ducked into a low doorway. Inside the family compound, his mother and father lived with his brother and sister-in-law in rooms oriented around a courtyard partly shaded by an advertising banner strung up for shade and rain protection. He brought me to a traditional Arab living room on the second floor with a red-patterned divan along the walls, where I left my belongings. He made coffee, and we climbed a ladder made of tree branches to drink on the rooftop while his brother swept with a straw handbroom after the cats he feeds. After the 7:35 call to prayer, we ate flatbread, bean soup, hard boiled eggs, a mixture of honey, nuts, and spices, and lemon cake at a small table in the court beneath the strung-up banner, while his family ate in front of the TV in the adjacent living room. He introduced me, and I sat with the mother, sister-in-law and father, thanking them in French for having me, and for the dinner. They offered me another piece of lemon cake, which reminded me of my grandmother's moist lemony cake made for Jewish holidays. After dinner, I walked with Abdul back to the Maghreb cafe facing the mosque. We had mint tea, and I again connected to the wifi. Hakim showed up and went off with Abdul to the mosque for the evening prayer. The day's separation from news of loved ones had been difficult, and I felt strained by the distance. Yet even in New York, most of my connection to loved ones is mediated by a computer rather than physical presence. It didn't matter if I was in Marrakesh or Lisbon or Auvergne. Back in the médina, far from wifi, deep in the built structures of the congested city, I was grateful to experience life in the médina during Ramadan. I was not at peace, but I had a clearer idea of where I wanted to be.
In the mountains, I was fascinated with the water pouring down into the oasis of Marrakesh and the overwhelming abundance of plant life. Improvised bridges are built everywhere across the gorges, and domestic economies of gathering, growing, and making are established by each family, with little shops, cafes, tents, and hotels all along the road. Abdul walked with me up the built-up side of the mountain, through the warren of cement structures wedged into the mountainside, the home-made concrete stairs, the cabanas in wait for the start of the tourist season. How to kindly say that the informal economy of nonstop haggling over prices is exhausting? While being shown Berber carpets by a young man selling local woven goods, I felt sadness at the nature of the exchange: I wanted someone to just tell me what it was worth. Yet this haggling makes sense when you consider that prices are abstract values attributed to materials, labor, and craftsmanship. Haggling is a person-to-person auction trading on the attribution of value to an individual's creativity and the authentic value of a thing, its sentimental meaning to them. How do you compare that to a value determined by mass manufacturing and distribution of IKEA furniture, the products of which I see everywhere, as opposed to personalized rugs crafted as the expression of individual artists, which they say of the kilims? The craftspeople and family enterprises seem to have little help from any government or organization of any kind to distribute their goods or build infrastructure, and therefore heaps of ceramics and carpets are piled up everywhere with no way of getting to a bigger market. Instead they depend on seasonal tourists arriving each summer, haggling in the hope of getting two to ten times more than any local would ever pay. For this exchange, they rely on the outsider's search for an authentic experience of a place and a people. But I had not come as a tourist to buy carpets, however beautiful, and however important to people's lives to sell them. The only way I could end the conversation was to give them the insultingly low IKEA price.
In 1993 at Michigan State, I read Paul Rabinow's Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco, an ethnography of the Berbers of the Atlas Mountains, in which he made himself a part of the research as much as the culture he was observing. Anthropology has often confronted the problem of how to get beyond the self-presentation of people to outsiders in order to learn the true habits, lives, and ways of thinking of others. The idea was to become embedded in the place and culture through participant observation. Anthropology has also been conscious at times of the uneven power dynamics between observer and observed. But in his Reflections, Rabinow was also aware that his presence was implicated in the culture he was observing and that both he and his subjects were grasping for ways to reconcile traditional customs with contemporary realities. One of the most distressing aspects of our current political moment is the difficulty of separating psychologically from the daily barrage of shameful actions of the US president. One is constantly implicated by extension in the failure of humanity. Even if we did not elect him and do not support him, the cruelty and destruction personally wounds us, doing harm in our name. As we powerlessly look on, our lizard brains react. We are dragged down, the sentiments themselves furthering the spectacle of reproach and humiliation. I don't relish seeing friends participate in the latest rituals public humiliations of individuals, however deserving of reproach; I would rather we organize a movement to recapture the state, and we are doing that, too. In any case, it was probably due to the memory of Rabinow and the Berber literature I read in college that I was persuaded to take a trip to the Atlas Mountains with Hakim for a day and a night, after which I was assured I would be deposited at the airport for a fee agreed upon in advance. Not to do fieldwork or organize a movement, but to investigate my own experience and human predicament through contact with the ways and lives of others. So the next day I set off with Hakim, Abdul, and Hakim's cousin who drives a taxi to the mountains surrounding Marrakesh.
Whether I was better off with or without Hakim is an open question, but he bought me a mint tea at Cafe Maghreb, which is standard in every place of business at the start of a negotiation. Hakim wanted to show me the videos of places he took strangers on YouTube, the desert, the Berber country, etc. Since I hadn't eaten, I ordered a tajine and listened, though all I wanted was to take a stroll through the médina. Hakim was anxious from fasting, and he was in a hurry to get to the mosque for the evening prayer. Without saying anything he put his handbag on my shoulder, asked me to wait, and rushed across the street for the call to prayer. (Part 3 of 3)
At the Koutoubia Mosque, I took photos of the sunset, the huge sun sitting like a melon in the sky. I bought a fresh squeezed orange juice from a man dressed in a fez and his wife. He shouted at her and threw coins on the ground when she asked him for change, then happily posed for pictures, grabbing and waving his Moroccan flag. I made a wish at the fountain at the foot of the park, and tossed in a half dirham coin. Walking toward the sunset, I stumbled into the Mamounia Palace, purchased by a French developer and converted into a high-end hotel. At the entrance, the fragrance of orange and cedar diffusions suffuses the air. Just beyond, a jazz trio plays. I walk through to the lush gardens, exploring, and find the Place Délice. It's here, I found it! But it's only for the rich! Beyond the garden, a Moroccan restaurant with traditional music fills the air. Had I been wiser, I would have stopped for a drink, stayed at the jazz bar, lounged in the comfort of the catered Western world of slightly exoticized Morroco, then gone home. Instead, it was still early, and I kept walking toward the médina. I barely walked two steps into the médina before a fight broke out between two guys fighting to be my guides, though I was determined not to have a guide. Hakim stuffed a few dirhams into the older guy's hand, buying him off, then focused his attention on me. (Part 2 of 3)
The train arrived late, around 11:30 pm, and I brushed off the taxi drivers and walked the few blocks from the train station to Hotel Oudaya, a proper ottoman-style hotel with two courtyards with fountains and a swimming pool in the middle, for 360 Moroccan dirhams. I can say that the first thing I thought about when arriving was the certainty that I should contact my loved ones. Walter Benjamin said something vague about the aura being a phenomenon of distance, however far. Presence is such that it is not resolved by distance. I intended to stay in this comfortable hotel and relax for a few days, and that lasted most of one day. I spent the next day writing, and went for a walk in the evening through the new part of town, built up with new developments. (Part 1 of 3)
I didn't stop in Casablanca, just got off the car and caught the next train, one track over, bound for Marrakesh. Not long after we set off, I was offered flatbreads and cheese by my neighbor and his mother, Berbers who lived in Marrakesh. Since we're in the middle of Ramadan, it was, I learned, a part of their offering of good deeds for the observances. Across the table from me a gentleman pulled out a large plastic jug of milk and poured himself a cupful. A cart came by selling food and drinks. Perhaps needless to say, there is no drinking of beer and alcohol. If I understood properly, the man had brought his own homemade milk. After receiving the bread, I asked the young man traveling with his mother why they gave away the bread to everyone. His mother spoke French and responded that it was Ramadan, and nobody eats from 3 am to 7:35 pm when the sun sets. I asked why 3 am. Because it's Ramadan she says. But why that time? Then, after a while, another gentleman, a bit fatter who looked like he worked for the railroad and was apparently their friend, sat down and wanted to explain to me what Islam is. There are four things you must do: make a pilgrimage to Mecca, pray, celebrate Ramadan, and do good deeds. Then he asked me if I was French or Catholic. I said no, I'm American, born Jewish but don't believe in god, and a secular humanist. I asked him what he thought about other religions, people who believe in other gods. He got fairly upset, and said there is only one God. I said, maybe they have different names, but what does he think of other faiths, are they ok? At first he said yes, but after, I think he suspected this was blasphemous. He pointed at me threateningly and said, there's only one god. After that he left the train. After a while his friend and mother came to get their things and left as well. The train stopped soon and they got off, apparently, without even a nod or a wink. I might have scared the crap out of them. Maybe they went to call the authorities. The train stopped for an unusually long time. It was late. Then another train arrived from the other tracks. A few minutes later, the train continued the last stretch to Marrakech.
As we drive from the ferry station to Tangiers through the mountains we pass camps of Berbers by the side of the road selling milk, watermelons, mint, ceramics, fruits and vegetables. They dress in clothes reminiscent of Hasid or Amish, the women draped in pastel dresses and straw hats embroidered with strips of colorful fabric, and the men in trilbies and modern attire. They sit in encampments on the ground draped with sunshades and umbrellas. It's as if there were no system for bringing goods to market or for combining each family's production into a larger network for distribution. There are no signs or prices. The goods themselves are displayed as the sign. Today there was a Guardian story on the US becoming a developing country. Are we doing something similar to the Berbers in our new media use, putting ourselves out as content by the side of the road? We have no organization or union to represent the value of labor; each person is out there bargaining, and the prices are set by its free distribution. The base value is zero. Yet whenever I rant about new media, I'm also conscious, particularly as I travel further from reliable wifi connectivity, that these networks also bind us together in a common space. The anxiety of cell phone attachment is the anxiety of distance from loved ones, and the further I am detached, the more the anxiety increases. The signposts and signaling and communication become essential links to our most cherished community of like-minded friends and associates, and for every kind of business, a shingle or signboard of the services we're offering. I install myself at the Hotel Rembrandt for something like 360 dirhams, or $37, to figure out the train schedule to Marrakesh. I'm advised that nothing is open in the afternoon during Ramadan except a few cafes catering to strangers. I sit down across the street and order a mint tea and a tajine. The next morning I get a tour of the casbah from an old man who presses himself on me as a guide. I am quickly identified as Jewish, as the former Jewish quarter is pointed out. I'm ripped off by a taxi to the station insisting on 100 dirhams instead 10. I hop on the train to Casablanca.