David Byrne on Mexican Street Art

I refer people to this little essay all the time, so I thought I'd park it somewhere that it can be found. It's from this book, Sensacional! Mexican Street Graphics.


Bad design is good design. And tasteful good design, likewise, is bad. Not good-bad, just bad-bad. Now that “perfect” design is possible with the click of a mouse, the industrialized world has become nostalgic for “imperfect” design. As computer-aided everything takes over our lives we begin to realize, little by little, what is missing from the high-tech world. We realize that a crooked line sometimes has more soul than a perfectly straight one and that a recording that has just the right amount of distortion is often preferable to a perfect copy. Woe unto us when the medical profession perfects their newest genetic and cloning techniques! We might actually realize that our imperfections are what makes us human.

The easier it becomes to produce perfection, in design, grammar, rhythm, and pitch, the more those who have the earliest and easiest access to that perfection want to abandon it. In a kind of reverse snobbism, Web designers and trendy magazine editors use the latest software programs to imitate the work of anonymous designers and artists. They use high-end computers to imitate the work of people who can’t even afford a computer. These unsung artists are the sources of inspiration for programs such as Photoshop, Illustrator, QuarkXPress, or Pro Tools, but never in their lives have they had access to, or even dreamed of, these tools.

As true perfection appears on the horizon, as the fruits of the enlightenment and of centuries of scientific progress appear within grasp, we take a bite of the perfected tomato or a huge flawless strawberry and realize that something has been lost. Flava. Soul. Humor. Funk.

The nostalgia for design that originates on the streets is a pathetic attempt by sophisticates like myself to recapture that lost soul. We think that by imitating the look of something “real” we might actually become more real ourselves. But for most, the Faustian bargain has already been made. We can never actually be the man or woman who draws the shoes or the tacos on the kiosk walls, but we have certainly learned to appreciate the person who draws them. We can experience that weird but typical 21st-century sensation—loving something and laughing at it at the same time.

In the 19th century, as the technology of photography became more and more ubiquitous, artists quickly abandoned “realistic” portrait and landscape painting in droves. Why compete with a machine that can do it more quickly, easily, and inexpensively than you? In short order, they had to unlearn their drawing lessons and abandon their technique. They learned to draw like a child, like a “primitive.” They wanted to capture the soul, the feeling, the sensation that the camera missed. They made virtual African art, virtual primitive art—basically, high art that looked like it was made by people who didn’t know what they were doing. In time, “good” design became so easy even your software could do it! “Bad” design took soul. Or at least virtual soul. Artists and designers began collecting examples of this “authentic” design as items of inspiration. Little icons. Little shrines to those less schooled than they. Their studio walls would be filled with photographs and clippings of signs and buildings like these. Their own work was good, but this was the “real” thing. Unschooled, uncorrupted, and mostly unpaid.

Sure, it is funny, the clunky layout and the sloppy painting on most of these images, but everyone knows that like these images, a taco on the street tastes better than one from Taco Bell. And there lies the key.

Street tacos actually are better. They feel better and smell better. They are less perfect, less clean (certainly), less high-tech, and there are no groovy advertising campaigns to back them up. But thequesadilla con floresthat one can order (during the right season) on the street, with a coldcerveza, is something that the perfection of a chain can never approach.

Perfection, one must conclude, is not actually perfect at all. In fact, it is almost the complete opposite. Perfection is bad. But bad is good. But bad perfection is not good, only good bad is good. It’s all very simple.

If these works are authentic, real, true, human—what then are the works made using sophisticated software programs, elegantly designed and with beautiful, tasteful graphics? Are they inauthentic because they are well done? Is perfection not also real? Is not the antiseptic globalized world just another kind of real? Isn’t a false thing that everyone believes in then a real thing? And, of course, isn’t it the real that many of these self-taught artists and signmakers aspire to? Aren’t they just dying to be corrupted?

Well, it might all be a matter of semantics, but if one is to assume that “real” infers having some basis in life and living as we know it, then the products of globalization are not, in fact, real. They are cleaned-up versions of those funky kiosks. They are imitations of things that are real—which, in fact, the march of globalization seeks to eradicate. The global wave would wash away all of these originals and leave only their copies. A kind of pod people world.

The new attitude expressed toward crummy artifacts is that they are evidence of the resistance of the real to the unreal. If the unreal at various points and places around the world manages to completely obliterate the real, as it has done in many parts of the industrialized countries, then the real itself will eventually become merely a memory, a quaint story, a picture in a book of something that no longer exists. Colonial Williamsburg, Main Street USA, or Warwick Castle. The real is unreal in many places because it is no longer there.

The faster and greater the spread of globalization, neoliberalism, and multinational corporations, the greater the nostalgia for that which they replace. We must memorialize the anonymous artists because their work is in danger of disappearing. It is beautiful. It reminds us that underneath the slickness and the logos there are still human beings.

Ode to the Black Widow

Back in graduate school, I started writing odes to superheroes. This was about 1998, long before any of this kind of thing was cool. A couple ("Ode to the Human Torch" and "Ode to the Incredible Hulk") were published in Third Coast magazine. Each ode is written using the voice of some non-superhero speaking directly to the hero, sometimes as a fan, but mostly not. I wrote a few more to Wonder Woman, the Silver Surfer, the Flash, Aquaman, and then I kind of set the project aside.

The other day, my old friend Scott Rogers asked for a copy of "Ode to the Human Torch" which is wanted to read at some public event. I pulled that old issue of Third Coast off the shelf and decided that maybe it was time to pick up this project again.

Since this is the opening day of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I thought I'd return to the project with this movie tie-in.

Ode to the Black Widow

Spiders have the red dot and a wicked 
sheen, lets you know you need to back away
or else. With you there was no warning,
just a storm of black leather
and cinnamon. You clamped your legs around 
Dion's neck, dropped to the floor, and
he was done before you rolled away.

Then you shot Cláudio with his own piece,
your hand wrapped around his. Then somehow suddenly 
you were behind him, using the poor bastard 
as a puppet, a weapon, a shield.

I lost my nerve and dove behind
some old barrels and listened to everyone's 
guns empty out into the shadows, then I 
watched you do things with your body 
that still seem impossible. 

When it was finally quiet, I crawled 
over to Cláudio, got there before he was dead. 
He grabbed me by the hair, told me you 
smelled like a rich lady he robbed once 
in Paris. Said that when you were behind him,
picking off the rest of us, he gave up 
the fight and tried to focus on how your tits 
smashed up against his back. 

He told me how he wished he didn't wear 
a jacket today. "It was warm today, Paulie. 
A t-shirt would have been enough." Then 
he coughed once and pulled me close 
and asked how come we kept on shooting.
He said he was trying to concentrate
on this last slow dance, said he knew he 
was a goner and he hoped that in this last dream 
he'd be the hero, not the thug. He thought 
maybe saving your life would make 
a pretty lady like you fall 
in love with a stooge like him.

Can't Help But Love This

I'm not usually much of a share stuff on the internet guy, but these photographs of a Batman action figure having an emo life adventure amaze me to no end.

Photo by Rémi Noël. Click photo for more.

Photo by Rémi Noël. Click photo for more.

I've loved the gnome, Stormtrooper, and Flat Stanley memes in the past. But this hits all the right resonances for me. Here's a link to the original article on i09.

You are the Bread and the Knife

This semester I'm teaching a course in contemporary literature. In many ways, it's an ideal course. I get to assign all the books I've been meaning to read, and I get to mess around a little bit.

Today, on the second day of class, I wanted to make a move that's common in a course that tries to talk about literature that fits into a historical period. If you teach Shakespeare, then you need to spend a little time helping students of today understand what it was like to live in Elizabethan times.

Why? Because we ask students to project themselves a little bit into the time period so they don't make the mistake of judging past works of art according to contemporary standards that wouldn't have been in place then.

So what's a body to do when the time period you want to explore is your own?

I am uncertain that it's safe to assume that students have a clear understanding of this era. I think a little help framing and contextualizing things can be a big help.

So in my attempts to do this today, I tried to curate a few things to show how print is not the final (or most interesting) form literature can take. In order to make my point, I shared some videos of Billy Collins' Poem "Litany."

The text of the poem is over on the right. The first video is of Billy Collins reading the poem himself and offering a little insight into the process and giving a little background. 

The second video is of this viral YouTube video from last year of a three-year-old kid reciting Collins's poem. The first video is pretty deadpan and hilarious. The second poem is downright adorable.

Take a look for yourselves.

I'm really interested in what digital media is doing to support the spread of traditional art and literature. I'm also very interested in the way that digital media is restoring some of the oral qualities of literature.

Mostly, I love this poem, and that little kid.


Billy Collins

You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine...

-Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine. 

NB: I found this wonderful NPR story on Collins and the little kid. I think it says a lot about how little writers will actually ever know about what people do with their work. 

A Tanka For Aaron Eden

Aaron Eden asked me to sum up my recent days in haiku form. It was 14 syllables too long for that. Here's the tanka that creates a little sushi roll of summary.

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Some changes

With muchos gracias to Grettir the Strong, the updates to my blog are complete, or close to complete.

The URL www.toddpetersen.org (which I've been keeping under my pillow for months now) is all ready to roll now, and should be able to service your Todd Petersen needs for the forseeable future. I'm just coming on a crazy semester of five courses and five preps, and I don't wanna do that anymore. I sort of feel like I have to sometimes because I don't have the power to crush people's skulls between my open palms. So instead I just do extra work, which makes me feel as if I am really necessary. I might not be -- heaven forbid I'm not -- but it only matters if I think that I am indespensible. What others think is irrelevant really, right? 

But seriously folks, it's strange to be thinking about how to get out of so much work. Being a college professor can eat your lunch. There is so much a body can get into that has nothing really to do with the thing that makes a person want to be an academic in the first place. What follows is a list of the things at work I want to give up for Lent (I know it's months away, but who cares):

1. Bitching about money. I'm never going to be rich, so who cares? "Rich" and "cool" are almost never synonymous.

2. Getting mad at other people who can't be bothered to [fill in the blank]. I'm never going to get them to change by reasoning with them. Plus: they'll get more upset if I ignore them.

3. Spending time grading work that students have obviously treated with disdain or depraved indifference. Believe it or not, some students seem not to care if they do a good job. Normally these papers take a really long time to grade in relation to ones written by conscientious students, which strikes me as patently unfair to the students who work hard. They deserve my time, not the lazy wiseacres, who couldn't care if they were in my class or lying in the gravel somewhere.

4. Doing more creative projects just for the joy of it. I've been doing so much lately just because it might have some potential career benefit, and I'm thinking that one of the benefits of tenure is that I can let my attentions wander a little. My primary professional responsibility is to be creative, and not in any particular field of endeavor. In fact the work I should be doing should be outside of the box of my discipline.

I'm also going to put more effort in to writing and sending that writing out into the world. This blog is a good way to do that. Keep your eyes peeled for new posts, which I should be sending out through social media channels and the like. If you're part of my Facebook Crew, Google+ Posse, or TwitterHood, you should know when something has been flung into the world. 

Sometimes Things Aren't Exactly Black and White


Every parent faces the problem of the tough moral conversation, ones where the utmost discretion is required. The briefest hesitation or misstep can damage relationships or worse. It is crucial that a parent play these seminal moments exactly right, or later in life your child will second-guess your knowledge, experience, and character.

A few years ago, I had just such a critical conversation with my son, who was playing with some Batman and Mr. Freeze Legos that I keep in my office for days when his pre-school schedule got jacked.

He had just positioned Batman in his modified Batmobile then looked up up and said, "Dad, does Batman  lie?" Ike was staring at me unflinchingly across his glasses, a gesture acquired from me, which I acquired from my mother.

I measured my words carefully, knowing that my son was aware that I have a dozen toy Batmobiles, and I have written and presented two scholarly papers on Batman.

"Ike," I said, "Batman is the kind of hero who will do whatever it takes to catch a bad guy."

Ike compressed his lips and cocked his head at me, a cross between the RCA dog and Andy Sipowicz. "So, um..." he said, pushing up his glasses with two fingers. "Does Batman lie?" He leaned on the word "lie" like he was pulling nails with it.

"Yes," I said, when I could wait no longer. "Batman lies."

Masking Tape Epiphany

One day, when I was in the second or third grade, I had an epiphany about what was possible if you took a length of masking tape and folded it over. Do that and you can change it from an adhesive to a material. Before that moment, when tape would fold over onto itself, I considered it unusable, and I would throw it out, start over. What I figured out simple: folding masking tape over itself and layering it turns it into a pale, synthetic leather that is semi-rigid and could be fabricated into a wide variety of objects. roll of masking tape, edges out of focus

I consider this a major revelation for someone that age, also because this happened in 1976 or 1977, right about the time that duct tape was no longer an obscure WW II-era moisture-resistant adhesive. It was now in the toolbox, next to WD-40 and bailing wire.

Because I was seven or eight, I wasn't part of a DIY or handyman movement, which made me feel like a pioneer. With this masking tape leather I made small boxes, costumes for action figures, helmets for stuffed animals, mazes, the pouch of a slingshot. Later on my friends and I made whole suits of armor using cardboard boxes and the beige leather. We, of course, moved onto duct (duck?) tape and eventually made wallets. In high school I had a tape notebook. After college, I went through a spell of fabricating things with cardboard and hot glue. But it all started for me with masking tape.

My son is really amazing with LEGO bricks. They are his medium. I played with them too, of course, when I was young. I've noticed that many makers, hackers, engineers, and do-it-yourselfers identify LEGO bricks as a basic starting point for their activities. This doesn't seem revelatory to me because LEGO bricks are designed for this purpose. In fact LEGOs have turned away from their "open" roots to a more proscriptive thing these days: build the Millennium Falcon or Helm's Deep; here are the instructions and the special bricks. Michael Chabon has a great essay on this issue in Manhood for Amateurs. I recommend it.

In the end, the power of masking tape for me is the fact that is was not designed as a toy. It was created to assist amateur painters (real painter cut in). Turning this stuff into a helmet and breast plate for Winnie the Pooh was a hack—my first hack— and it established one important foundation for me: you don't have to use things the way their designers intended. This understanding is a requirement, in my mind, for creative thinking.

Are You My Mummy?

NOTE: this is an old post that got hung up in the draft phase for over a year. Ever since I first saw this Diane Arbus photograph, about twelve years ago, I have been enamored of it. I have also been envious of it, upset by it, even obsessed by it. It seems like this kid caught Arbus off guard. He challenged her. It lacks the ironic distancing that is so common in her work.

It's so crazy looking and off the cuff and weird and in your face. It's a pretty famous image, so I know that others have had some kind of similar response to it, maybe not the same identical one that I've had, but something that punches me in the guts.

Today at a Halloween party, I got the chance to get into that Arbus territory with a picture of my son, Ike, in his Doctor Who inspired costume.

It's from the 2005 episode "The Empty Child" The boy Ike is dressed as is named Jaime, a child who was killed during the Blitz but who was resurrected (sort of) by some alien creatures but had his gasmask genetically fused to his face. He goes around asking everyone, "Are you my mummy?" It's pretty chilling in the show.

This costume was Ike's idea. My wife, Alisa, put it all together. She made the gas mask herself, which is pretty impressive.

And I got the shot.