Monday, November 30, 2009

Where does Route 66 End? Does it matter?

I'm finishing an essay due to be published in Critical Studies in Media Communication, a piece called "Two roads diverge: Route 66, 'Route 66,' and the mediation of American ruin." The essay explores the highway as both a material environment, that is, a place with buildings and people and landscapes, and as a constellation of media texts: buttons and videos and souvenirs and the like. The article is the scholarly side of a trip I took, from which I also produced an end-to-end website. "Two roads diverge" has been accepted, and I'm now wrapping up final edits.

Working to that conclusion, I recently came across a New York Times article that featured an "end of the road" sign being placed at Santa Monica Pier as part of an 83rd anniversary celebration for the Mother Road. While U.S. Highway 66 never officially terminated at that location -- before the road was decommissioned in 1985, the most recent endpoint was the intersection of Olympic and Lincoln Boulevards -- some boosters decided to mark the pier as the terminus anyway. It's more photo-friendly, they explained.

My essay is about the way we lay new media texts atop the old roadside, sometimes even building new tourist experiences away from the highway to attract tourist dollars. In this way, simulacra replace simulation, which replaces locale. From this perspective, the essay extends from my long-term omnitopia project (while also pointing a direction toward new scholarly projects). Thus you can imagine my delight when I read a quote by Route 66 Preservation Foundation chair James M. Conkle who explained the choice to create a new terminus for the old road: "It's a myth . . . but it is a myth added to all the other myths of Route 66."

Considering the long journey I took just getting to this point in the essay, it's nice to get some confirmation that I've been heading in the right direction.

Read the entire NYT story: Mythical end for legendary Route 66

Update (with photo of new sign): Where does Route 66 End? Redex

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Return of the Dingbat

Sometime this December I plan on returning to L.A. in search of dingbat architecture that I've not yet photographed [Here's a collection of my earlier dingbat posts, if you'd like some background on the architectural term].

Any ideas on sites to visit?

(Image by Andrew Wood)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Squirrel of the Year

Four pictures: Once perfectly quizzical expression.

Clicky - Clicky: Squirrel of the Year

(Warning: Some juvenile language)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Holy City Light Painting

Jenny and I made our return-trip to Holy City for a Friday light painting excursion. I'm glad we double-checked our permission to photograph this building. Not one minute into our shoot, a sheriff's deputy drove by to check us out. He accepted our explanation, but I was reminded of Troy Paiva's advice that light painters are wise to bring along samples of their work as proof of their artistic intentions. Without a decent excuse (and a rapid departure plan) traipsing around someone's property with flashlights in the middle of a foggy night can be risky.

The shoot was terrific. Jenny and I painted the building with our car to get a decent focus before killing the light. In the misty blackness that followed, Jenny used a white flash on the outside while I stood inside, outside of camera view, painting the rear interior with red. Getting that red-window effect was my goal. Once more I appreciated the challenge of lighting empty space. In this case, we didn't light the window; we lit the wall behind - using the window as a structural lid. The result is pretty swell.

What's the next goal? I'm not sure. We've got the necessary equipment (other than a decent flash) and we're fairly confident in our technique. It's just a matter of finding the right subject for another evening of stumbling around in the dark.

(Photograph by Andrew and Jenny Wood)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Empty LA

What would it be like to see Los Angeles utterly devoid of people? Photographer Matt Logue wanted to find out. Here's his vision: Empty LA.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Return to Paris Streets

During last week's trip to the Chicago Art Institute, I delighted at the opportunity to revisit Gustave Caillebotte's 1876-77 Paris Street; Rainy Day, a critique of urban life I discussed in a recent post. My favorite part of seeing the piece up close once more? The chance to spot intriguing details in this precisely composed view of Paris that had just endured the extremes of Georges-Eugène Haussmann's city-reshaping ambitions.

I'd always recalled this image as feeling complete. The structure conveys totality, a surveillance over a managed environment, illustrated by the all-seeing eye atop that dominant building. Yet detail-photos reveal that work continues (left and center) in urban transformation, suggesting untidiness, a sense of Paris working frantically to stay ahead of a momentum its planners failed to anticipate. Also, my return to Chicago reminded me how the Paris street is indeed rainy (see right-side detail).

Strange, I know, but I'd never really noticed the drizzle. Ahh, the joys of museum attendance.

(low-res mobile phone photos by Andrew Wood)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I have no idea how this information slipped through my filters, but apparently some times when you're asked to transcribe those awful squiggly words before you can access a website, make a purchase, or attend to some other form of internet business, you're working to transcribe a piece of pre-digital text. This is a brilliant example of how the power of crowds can be employed for useful purposes.

Extra bonus: Learn what CAPTCHA stands for!

Read the entire article: reCAPTCHA (a.k.a. Those Infernal Squiggly Words) Almost Done Digitizing the New York Times Archive

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Chicago Tiny Town

While attending the 2009 National Communication Association conference, I came across a miniature city at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Snapping (admittedly crappy mobile phone) pictures of this scale model City of Big Shoulders whetted my appetite to pursue the "tiny towns" project that is my typical answer to the question, "So, what will you write after the omnitopia book?"

The new project is about the structural and perceptual construction of the god's eye view, focusing particularly on why we are drawn to this kind of gaze. Chapters will concentrate on 19th century bird's eye lithographs, touristic "tiny towns," model railroads, chamber of commerce-type model cities, and (perhaps) an analysis of Google Earth's spatial/communal rhetoric.

"Tiny towns" may become a series of articles, a book, a web project, or some other manifestation of the idea. I'm at such an inchoate place in my thinking on the subject that there's no point in making promises. But now that my public presentations on City Ubiquitous appear to be slowing down (though a couple more have recently been scheduled) it seems right to look forward to the next adventure.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Trillions and the Age of Ubiquitous Computing

Click the image for an interesting note on trillions and the next revolution in computing...

Some interesting quotes:
"Trillions of computers: This is not computing as a place, or computing as a big calculator. It's going to be computing as an ecology. It's all around us. Not information in the computers, but people in the information."

"Many leaders see the mountain ahead. After all, it is huge. But many of them have confused a good view with a short distance."

"Even though we haven't solved the problem of trillions, nature has."
Difficulty accessing the video? Here's a link:

Monday, November 9, 2009

Holy City, CA

Searching for an interesting site for a future light painting experiment, I came across what's left of Holy City near Highway 17, once the headquarters for William E. Riker and his goofy religious commune. Riker, a Depression-era cultist, on-the-run bigamist, repeated candidate for governor, and avid Hitler supporter, promised his followers a "Perfect Christian Divine Way" in a quasi-utopian experiment that began in 1918.

In her Saga of Holy City, Andrea Perkins describes how Riker's town, once home to 300 souls, became a minor tourist trap, selling gas, water, and (some say) lurid peep shows. Back then, motorists taking the only road connecting San Jose and Santa Cruz stopped to gawk at murals and banners announcing the new kingdom. One sign announced: "William E. Riker - The only man who can save California from going plum to hell."

Declining interest in Riker's vision, failed real estate transactions, and unexplained fires emptied Holy City in the fifties and sixties. Today only a house and post office, now a glass art store, remain. And then there's this shed, a weathered structure supported with the help of diagonal beams. The owners (folks unaffiliated with the former commune) gave their permission, so Jenny and I will return one night for some light painting.

Learn more: Betty Bagby Lewis's Holy City - Riker's Roadside Attraction In the Santa Cruz Mountains is said to be the definitive history of this town. I've already ordered my copy...

Also see: San Joaquin Valley Library vertical file

And: John V. Young's Rise and Fall of Holy City

See more: Here's the light painting experiment from our return to Holy City

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Friday Fun Post: Milk Men

Do you love Mad Men? I mean, do you contemplate this Sunday's season finale with a mixture of excitement and dread that's a bit scary, considering that we're talking about a television show? Then you've got to see this video. It's almost perfect...

Milk Men - A Mad Men Parody

Trouble seeing the video? Point your browser here:

Thursday, November 5, 2009


This is the third in an occasional series of posts about modern art. These days, I'm focusing on early twentieth century imagery related to urban life. My ideas are hardly formed; these are just musings, really. All the same, I'm happy to share them with you.

Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. (1919, Pencil on Reproduction of Mona Lisa) is an example of the artist's "assisted readymades": a work that alters found-materials instead of producing something that may be called "original." Duchamp's choice to purchase a postcard of the Mona Lisa and alter it by placing a mustache over the subject's iconic face -- not to mention his decision to scribble seemingly meaningless letters on the bottom of the card -- is an exemplar of dada, an absurdist response to art in the modern era. Like most dada pieces, L.H.O.O.Q. initially appears to reflect the artist's perspective on the world of art itself, working on a meta-level. "What is art?" This piece seems to ask. "Art is appropriation," Duchamp seems to answer. All artists are thieves, from this perspective. And yet great artists are rewarded for their theft while middling artists are mocked as pretenders. Duchamp playfully tweaks that convention by pushing the practice to excess.

Still, I would add that Duchamp goes further in this work, toward a rebuke of modernity itself. In an era of standardization and mechanization, epitomized by the mass-manufactured killings of World War I, L.H.O.O.Q.'s mustachioed image of adulterated femininity conveys a degree of disgust beneath its playful façade. In this way, the piece demands that we ask: What is the value of "originality" when a generation of young people, millions of potential artists and poets, may be slaughtered anonymously on European battlefields? Perhaps, Duchamp might conclude, we are all vandals of the good and the beautiful in this modern age, a gaping maw of destruction produced by our collective (even if unthinking) choices. This perspective might partially explain the rude implications of work's title, said (by some) to suggest sexual licentiousness or lust. After all, what higher values remain to be found in a time when all values seem to be blown away?

Incidentally, I downloaded the image [top of page] from Wikipedia commons. At this time, various wiki "editors" are squabbling about whether L.H.O.O.Q. should be considered a "public domain" work. Proponents of its inclusion cite U.S. copyright law, which apparently defines the piece as freely available. Critics respond that Duchamp's jab at the pretensions of "originality" is nonetheless protected by French copyright law and should not be freely accessible. If this is true, it's an irony that the artist himself would have relished.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Horrifying Truth about The Sims

The FooPets site is so slow and buggy these days that I'm seriously thinking about taking my "cat" to a nice "farm upstate..." [Here's some background]. But, seriously, have you ever thought about what it'd be like to be a sim? Here's one horrifying portrait:

Point your browser here:

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Elizabeth Landau posted an article on CNN that asks a thought-provoking question:
"If we rely on technology for documenting, sorting and storing information -- creating digital diaries, or "lifestreaming" -- what will become of our minds? Although there is not a lot of research on this subject, psychologists have a range of opinions about where we're headed."
Some folks propose that releasing our mental processors from mundane tasks like remembering phone numbers, addresses, and other similar low-value data frees us to concentrate on more useful things.

Others respond that as we use digital tools to continually document our own lives, gathering massive quantities of data -- images, calendar items, Facebook posts, blogs -- like an ever-expanding closet for accumulated souvenirs, we risk losing our skills at remembering our lives as they are experienced.

This reminds me of John Stilgoe's insight in Outside Lies Magic about how nineteenth century aesthetes developed richer and more vibrant ways of seeing color because they focused their attention to subtle distinctions in hue and saturation more than we do today. This was not just about looking; it was a demand for training, effort, and focus. According to Stilgoe, few of us practice that precision in cultivating our sensibilities. Instead, we gather and maybe sort, but do not engage our lives so directly. Perhaps our world is more bland than it once was because of an emergent inability to process what we see.

Paralleling this concern, one researcher quoted in the article states, "Constant documenting may make people less thoughtful about and engaged in what they're doing because they are focused on the recording process."

Landau's piece also proposes that our choices to live our lives in a constant state of expectation that our actions should be blog-able or Tweet-able may alter what we value. Shall we strive for long-term or short-term experience? Put another way: What is worth remembering if we can remember everything (or if others can remember it for us wholesale)?

Read the entire article:

Also: Here's a recent post that explores this topic in a related way: Real-Time Web

Monday, November 2, 2009

Halloween 2009

Here's the video from Halloween 2009 [Difficulty seeing the video? Point your browser here:]. We selected Zombie Apocalypse for this year's porch theme, and we had a great time sharing our vision (the result of untold hours of planning and effort) with the kids.

Effects included a gory zombie feast, a television showing "This Just In" news, the projected image of a ghoul leering through the window, the skeletal remains of a dude who shot himself before becoming the next meal, and the kids' favorite prop: a roving undead baby who cooed and giggled while digging at a bloody amputated leg. As usual, we posted parental warning signs to avoid traumatizing the wee ones (usually to no avail). And, just like every year, I'm already dreaming of next year's porch theme.

Below are some pictures from this year's show...

The onslaught began in the peaceful Skypark neighborhood of Scotts Valley where one house had become ground-zero for a gory night of savagery. Seeking safety from hoards of ravaging undead ghouls, local kids raced up the steps and into the living room where a television blared warnings of the zombie plague. Too late: the occupants were already infected.

The Undead Eradication Squad, a crack team of special forces soldiers and hastily deputized locals, tried to alert the children, but these hungry neighborhood kids smelled candy. Ignoring posted warning signs, barreling past parental-caution notices, hundreds of impressionable kids climbed the stairs and faced a scene of inexplicable horror.

The house had been ransacked; bags of candy were strewn about, as if the night were some sort of macabre holiday. Caution tape, hardly a deterrent to the famished children, did little to enforce the quarantine. Once a pleasant abode of domesticity, the living room was now occupied by zombies who'd already gorged on living flesh and were ready for another helping.

An elderly relative shot himself once he realized that his family, a married couple named Andy and Jenny, had joined the groaning ranks of the living dead. The family's teenage daughter had escaped and the zombies were hungry, so they ate the old man's skin and organs, stripping him clean to the bone.

Jenny, still in her curlers and bathrobe since the moment she'd been infected, tried to lure the children to their doom by offering them pieces of candy. But the kids were too fast, wearing costumes to confuse her and racing away once they snatched treats from the zombie's clutches. Even after three hours of trying, Jenny couldn't eat a single tot.

Andy was no luckier than Jenny at wooing the young visitors. He tried to encourage the kids to join the feast, but his clever attempts to charm the children failed every time. Invariably he'd stare at them maniacally and start moaning, "brains, braaaaaiiiiiinnnnns." The kids were curious, but they weren't stupid.

One other rancid resident of this Skypark home, Andy and Jenny's baby, had also succumbed to the pathogen, and she was famished too. Fortunately, the baby got lucky earlier in the day when someone from child protective services tried to offer her a meal. The zombie bit the hand, which fed her all night.

Even more horrifically, a dimwitted pizza delivery guy mistook Andy and Jenny's address for his last stop and -- well, there's no nice way to say it -- ended up supplying "extra meat" to the feast. While children screamed and (God knows why) laughed, the zombies ripped his chest open and took turns gorging on innards and outards. There was no tip.

Countless children visited Andy and Jenny's house that night, enduring depraved displays of carnage without becoming the evening meal. By around 9:30, the last one departed the house, and the exhausted zombies leaned against each other. Drifting to sleep, Zombie Andy and Zombie Jenny dreamed together of a neighborhood where the kids aren't so suspicious.

See you next Halloween!

Previous Years

• 2008: Dr. Freightmarestein's Haunted Laboratory of Horrors [Pix] [video]

• 2007: Psycho Circus [Pix] [video]

• 2006: Alien Autopsy [Pix]

• 2005: Just Buried [Pix]