Archive for the ‘Nostalgia’ Category

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In addition to this week’s news that I will be travelling to the Netherlands in August to meet and talk with the comic artist and illustrator Joost Swarte, I can also now confirm that I will be in New York City in September to interview the artist Ben Katchor. This trip has also been supported by the Stephenson Travelling Studentship awarded to this project by the University of Sheffield. Katchor’s sophisticated evocation of nostalgia, memory in urban narratives are of particular personal interest to me, and I’m looking forward to discussing the techniques employed by Katchor in his popular serialised comics Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer and The Jew of New York.

I’m also going to be celebrating a birthday in New York City, before perhaps taking off for a mini road trip and vacation in the mid-west, so excerpts and highlights of the interview will probably appear online in late September or early October.

If any interested readers are going to be in New York City between 11 and 16 September or Chicago between 17 and 27 September, drop me a line, and I’d be delighted to say hello.

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Regular readers might already be aware of my fondness for the meandering monologues of Garrison Keillor on his weekly radio show A Praire Home Companion. The lingering sense of nostalgia for simpler times and closer communities draws an audience of hundreds of thousands every weekend.

While beavering away at some deathly dull drawings for unrelated work this weekend, I’ve been listening to a similar-yet-entirely-different show from the CBC Radio network in Canada. The Vinyl Café is broadcast on the airwaves of CBC Radio One and a number of networked stations in the USA. As yet there’s no podcast, so if you want to catch it online you’ll need to watch the CBC schedules and work out your time difference. The show blends live performances by Canadian musicians with tales of “Dave and Morley” as told by host Stuart McLean. Once again, the radio waves seem to be the perfect media for nostalgic tales and tightly rooted music.

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This is the second installment of my thoughts on Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District. You can find the first part here… I’ve uploaded it very much as a finished piece of work in progress; that is to say I could go on re-reading, editing and changing it for weeks, but I want to record this point in my thinking now before it gets overwritten with subsequent thinking.

My intention on this sunny Sunday afternoon was to walk from my apartment, in the centre of Strasbourg, to a grand old bistro on the other side of town where students, families and married couples all find a place on shiny stainless steel pavement furniture; where extra toxic French cigarettes send trails of smoke into the air; and where the imminent descent of Monday morning is not remembered. It’s the perfect place to read and work, especially when you’ve got two comic books to flip through. But with the weather being so nice, I kept on walking, and kept on going until I reached Germany (don’t worry, it’s not far). The late afternoon sunlight is now falling through the dense leaves of the old trees in Kehl’s town square. The gold painted numbers and arms of the church clock are sparkling, and across the sandy square from water is spraying out into a liquid sphere from the dozen of pipes that make up a recently installed public fountain. I have also managed to order a coffee and piece of apfelküchen. In developing my French to level which is just acceptable for studying in France, I have seemingly erased almost every word or phrase I once knew in German.

Comics Journal Messageboard user billym put me onto Ben Katchor, and also recalled a lecture that Katchor gave at McGill University’s Architecture Department in Montréal in 2002.

The name of the talk is “The Great Museum Cafeterias of the Western World.” The profession of the speaker is A) an architect B) a food critic C) a comic book artist.

The answer is C, but Ben Katchor is no ordinary graphic novelest. The creator of “The Jew of New York” and “Julius Kniple, Real Estate Photographer” is lauded internationally for his wry examinations of daily life.

With a regular strip in the design-focused Metropolis Magazine and a book titled Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay, Katchor’s preoccupations are somewhat different than purveyors of spandex-clad “zock! pow!” narratives.

“There’s a growing interest in the architecture field for his work,” said Greg Hildebrande, an architecture master’s student who, along with fellow student Jan Schotte, invited Katchor to speak at McGill as the William Hobart Molson lecturer.

“Architecture texts tend to be very dry – what’s refreshing about his stories is that he deals with things that architects think about all of the time.”

Hildebrande isn’t entirely sure what approach Katchor will bring to the topic of museum cafeterias – Katchor seems to be rather spontaneous in his lecture style.

“It’s an examination of art theory and the effects of cafeteria design and the consumption of food on the appreciation of art,” said Hildebrande. “I’m really looking forward to what he has to say. He seems unpredictable.”

As to why a comic book artist was chosen for an architecture lecture? Hildebrande admits that he’s a fan, but also felt that Katchor could bring a new perspective.

“That’s something we want to do more of – get more cross-pollination between disciplines,” he said.

McGill Reporter: On Campus
http://www.mcgill.ca/reporter/35/05/campus/ retreived 4.6.2007

In my earlier musings I’ve already touched on Katchor’s subtle toying with nostalgia, and the powerful and effective way in which this can reach a reader. His interest in museum cafeterias, however, takes this one step further. In much the same way that Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer ends with The Evening Combinator, the second compilation of single or multiple page Julius Knipl stories (The Beauty Supply District) concludes with an extended story of the same name. In it we meet some inhabitants of Katchor’s fictional city who enjoy descending the stairs to the basement cafeteria of the Tenfoyle Museum of Art. For one character in particular, it’s a very special place that nurtures his vital skills of aesthetic appreciation.

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It was this particular subterranean environment, with its clacking of dishes, laughter of guards, small of steam-table food and slightly dank, coffee-soaked floors, that instead of distracting him, permitted him to enter into unique relationship with the object of his choice.

Ben Katchor, The Beauty Supply District
New York City: Pantheon Books 2003, page 94

Later in the same story, two unrelated characters jump in a cab, telling the driver “To the Tenfoyle Museum – and step on it! They close at nine”, where they seek out pound cake, cherry pie and tapioca pudding.

“It was,” he proclaimed,”the perfect point from which to mediate the longstanding hostility between subject and object – a point situated directly between the appetive urge to consume a work of art and the disinterested gaze of the cafeteria patron choosing his lunch.”

Ben Katchor, The Beauty Supply District
New York City: Pantheon Books 2003, page 94

I can only imagine a museum cafeteria such as this one existing in the nostalgic tales of Julius Knipl. It is, in fact, a complete opposite of the art gallery eateries one normally finds, where financial pressures (imagined or not) have turned art gallery canteens into trendy cafés, and dusty museum bookshops into boutiques. Even remembering the sublime Art Institute of Chicago, or the vast Tate Modern in London, I can’t help but think that the art gallery of today is now largely patronised by a public that gazes with disinterest at the art, and which consumes in the museum’s gift shop with an ‘appetitive urge’.

The Beauty Supply District charts the rise and fall of that neighbourhood in Katchor’s imagined city. Time passes, luck runs out, and businesses close for good. The urban landscape changes subtly, each erosion contributing to an imperceptible yet unmissable evolution. Yet more reasons to hunt down those out-of-print copies of Katchor’s earlier book Cheap Novelties: The Pleasure of Urban Decay.

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Returning to The Evening Combinator in Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer, we meet the architect Selladore. Whereas in The Beauty Supply District we witness the gradual evolution of the urban fabric, here we get to see a brief glimpse of a ‘visionary’ architect. After almost three decades of buidling almost nothing, he’s starting work on his greatest project: a massive mixed use development that will tower over the city, where residents will travel to and from their apartments by means of elevated railways that pass directly through each and every residence. The troubled architect finds his building plans scuppered when The Evening Combinator (a nightly journal of the city’s dreams) publishes perverted tales from Mr. Selladore’s strangest dreams.

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The depiction of the architect as a mad and disconnected visionary with unworkable designs on his city is nothing new in popular culture (see the Fountainhead for one), but his situation in Katchor’s parallel universe makes him somehow more believeable and more receptive to our pity. I want to come back to Selladore the architect in due course, but I’d appreciate some alternative interpretations of his character – is he a figure of mockery or sympathy? He – or rather his imagination of the what the city could be – seems somehow at odds with the loving feel of the tired and jumbled city that Julius Knipl usually explores.

Part three will follow in the next couple of weeks, but feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.

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A couple of weeks ago Comics Journal message board user billym directed me towards the work of Ben Katchor. Katchor is the New York based artist behind the long running syndicated comic strip Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer.

Knipl lives in a city not unlike New York City. It looks and feels like New York City, but it’s certainly not the New York City that we might recognise. It is, as Michael Chabon explains in the introduction to the 1996 collected volume of Julius Knipl strips, a “crumbling, lunar cityscape” and…

…a world of rumpled suits, fireproof office blocks with the date of their erection engraved on the pediment, transom windows, and hare-brained if ingenious small businesses; a sleepless, hacking-cough, dyspeptic, masculine world the colour of the standing lining of a hat.

Michael Chabon, Julis Knipl: Real Estate Photographer
New York City: Little, Brown and Company 1996, introduction

So the setting is a dreamlike interpretation of a familiar urban environment. In one (unusually) extended story, Knipl discovers a copy of a nightly newspaper called the The Evening Combinator, which publishes the dreams of the city’s sleeping citizens; one such story in the newspaper, for example, is entitled “Incest Party Resumes at Synagogue Laundromat”. Even in this dream like world, Katchor introduces another layer of dreams to remove us one step further from any actual city we might be thinking of.

As the title informs us, Knipl is a professional real estate photographer: a photographer of buildings that are about to be rented or sold. One imagines that this places him a lower down the pecking order than a wedding photographer.

The seeds of my dissertation project were sown a couple of years ago when I submitted my undergraduate dissertation on the subject of architecture and photography. At the time, I was particularly interested in the way that newly completed buildings were photographed for architectural journals and exhibitions. It was this lifeless representation of the building after completion and before occupation (as a pure, static piece of art) that inspired me to consider looking at the difference between comic book narratives and the presentation of architecture. Knipl, however, reminds me of a type of architectural photography that I had not considered: the images of buildings that are used to advertise them as commodities. Although we never see Knipl doing his job in the course of the comic strips, we can imagine him attaching a wide angled lens to his camera and contorting himself into the corner of a room to capture an image that depicts a space in its most spacious and illuminated form.

I would be interested to discover why Katchor chose Knipl’s profession, especially since we never see Knipl in action. I would suggest that it is because Knipl’s role in the strips is that of the detached observer – similar to that of his job. He is both a protagonist and an observer, and a recognisable figure (with his two camera bags, one in front of his slightly portly frame and one behind) who admits us into these strange personal encounters, justifies our presence and who involves us. Not only is he a casual observer, he represents us, the reader, bringing us right into the surreal urban landscape that he explores. With Knipl as our guide and alter-ego in this nameless city, we are even closer to the people and and places that Katchor depicts.

There is, as with almost all comic strips, an occupation of time and space in all of Katchor’s strips. But what is much more sophisticated is the inferred nostalgia of Knipl’s city, which Chabon discusses at length in the book’s introduction.

Katchor carefully devises a seemingly endless series of regrets in the heart of Juliuis Knipl for the things not only gone or rapidly disappearing, such as paper straws and television aerials, but also wholly imaginary: the Vitaloper, the Directory of the Alimentary Canal…

Michael Chabon, Julis Knipl: Real Estate Photographer
New York City: Little, Brown and Company 1996, introduction

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The passage of time in Kathor’s comic strips is not expressed solely through the momentary changes from panel to panel, but by the subtle and underlying expression of emotion and regret with regard to the passing of time. What is fascinating about Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer is the almost tangible comprehension of time before the narrative in the comic strip began. The occasional appearance of dates and years on calendars in the comic strip remind us that this strip is contempoorary, but it often feels more like a nostalgic vision of New York City in the fifties or sixties than an imagined modern day world.

Did Knipl’s city ever really exist in reality? Or is it just imagined nostalgia? I’m not American, but along with Garrison Keillor’s weekly tales from northern Minnesota, Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer is one of the closest renditions that I have encountered to my romanticised vision of middle America. The streets are lined with independently managed retailers and diners, above which one room businesses occupy tall red brick tenaments. Starbucks, McDonalds and Maceys have yet to invade and destroy the characterful enterprises of this American city. For me, a highlight of any visit to the USA is a $3 breakfast special sitting at the zinc-topped bar of a diner, drinking endlessly refilled cups of weak-as-water black coffee. But what inspired this nostalgic streak in me?

…Katchor is more – far more – than a simple archaeologist of out-moded technologies and abandoned pastimes. In fact he often plays a kind of involuted Borgesian game with the entire notion of nostalgia itself, proving that one can feel nostalgia not only for times before one’s own but, surprisingly, for things that never existed.

Michael Chabon, Julis Knipl: Real Estate Photographer
New York City: Little, Brown and Company 1996, introduction

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  • ABOUT THE PROJECT

    "no words no action" was an experiment in academic blogging. The blog recorded the progress of reading, research and investigations that lead to a Masters in Architecture dissertation at the University of Sheffield in autumn 2007. You can find out more about the author's interest in blogging here.

    To find out more about the thesis, download the original dissertation proposal (pdf format) from February 2007 or the semi-formal first chapter (pdf format) from April 2007.

    Further research projects are in the works, and their dependence on human interaction and networking suggests more blogging will be inevitable when the time comes.


  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    At the time that this blog was created, James Benedict Brown was a fifth year Masters of Architecture student at the University of Sheffield. James' personal blog is here.

    James graduated in 2008 and now lives and works in Glasgow.


  • ABOUT THE TUTOR

    This project was supervised by Renata Tyszczuk at the University of Sheffield


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    If you want to correct me on something, offer an opinion on a particular artist or building, or if you'd like to recommend someone or something to find out about, please feel free to leave a comment. Just click on 'Comments' under the headline of the relevant post...


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  • CONFERENCE DIARY

    I've managed to miss almost half a dozen compelling conferences around the world so far this year, simply because I have no (more) money to travel and no time to escape my studies in Strasbourg and Sheffield. However, if I had a magic plane ticket and plenty of time, here's my selection of essential conferences to attend. Hopefully I'll be there for more of them next year... click here for the diary (updated every time I miss another one).


  • NOTE

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