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Further fueling the ongoing debate over the future of the news media and independent journalism, eBay founder and billionaire Pierre Omidyar last month committed $250 million to a news site co-founded by journalist and author Glenn Greenwald. Omidyar’s investment followed the announcement over the summer that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos had purchased The Washington Post, also a $250 million investment. The late Steve Jobs’s wife, Lauren Powell, and 29-year-old Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes are also pouring money into old and new media ventures.

Could this new band of news media owners shape a technology-led business model that will be profitable and protect the integrity of impartial, ideology-free journalism? Ultimately, according to Wharton experts, the ball will rest with the consumer.

Any new business model that those in the technology world would bring to the media realm would have to address the major pain points currently facing the industry. News organizations have “suffered a lot financially in the past couple of years,” says Wharton marketing professor Pinar Yildirim. Circulation numbers and advertising revenue have shrunk as both readers and companies turned their focus to the Internet. The industry has tried to adjust to the new normal — some newspapers and magazines have cut back on issues or the number of days they produce a print product. Other news organizations have started charging for online access. Still more have tried to add content that mimics what tends to be most popular on the web, especially entertainment-related coverage, Yildirim notes.

Omidyar has indicated that he was motivated more by a desire to protect independent journalism than the prospect of getting a return on his investment, at least for now. In a blog post published on his website last month, Omidyar wrote that his investment in Greenwald’s venture (tentatively called “NewCo.”) stems from his “interest in journalism for some time now.” In 2010, Omidyar founded Honolulu Civil Beat, a news website with a stated focus on “investigative and watchdog journalism.” Earlier this summer, he explored buying The Washington Post newspaper before Bezos became the winning bidder. Around that time, Omidyar said he began thinking about the social impact he could help create with an investment in “something entirely new, built from the ground up.”

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Because the President’s limousine passed almost exactly in front of Dallas clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder on Nov. 22, 1963, just as he was playing with his new film camera, and precisely at the moment that Lee Harvey Oswald fired his rifle from a nearby books depository, his silent, 26.6-second home movie has become the focal point of America’s collective memory on that weird day. For many of us, especially those who weren’t alive when it happened, we’re all watching that event through Zapruder’s lens.

Other footage from the scene turns up here and there, becomes fodder for documentaries (like this new one disproving the “second shooter” theory). But Zapruder’s film is still the canonical ur text of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the most complete and most chilling visual record. In many ways, it prefigured all sorts of American pastimes, from widespread paranoia about government to a loss of faith in photographic truth and the news media, from the acceptance of graphic violence to newer concerns about copyright. Don DeLillo once said that the little film “could probably fuel college courses in a dozen subjects from history to physics.” Without the 486 frames of Kodachrome II 8mm safety film, our understanding of JFK’s assassination would likely be an even greater carnival of conspiracy theories than it already is. Well, maybe.

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Years ago, the photographers Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel decided to put together a book about the work on which they had collaborated, decades worth of significant art made between the 1970s and 1990s. Each had been working on his own solo projects and Mandel had left California, where the two grew up and met and studied together, so the book was always meant to be a look back, a visitation from a place of finality. But then Larry Sultan got sick. Sultan succumbed to cancer in December of 2009 at the age of 63.

“We thought it would be great to take some of the work that people hadn’t seen a lot of or hadn’t seen anything about and bring that to light, and we just thought now would be a great opportunity to do that, now that we were kind of moving into a different part of our lives,” Mandel says. “We didn’t realize Larry was moving into leaving this place.”

The book project was dormant for a while after Sultan’s death, but his wife, assistant and gallerist—who continued to be involved throughout the project—helped Mandel get the idea going again. Because the book had always been about a collaboration that had ended, the form and structure imagined by Mandel and Sultan could still be implemented. The resulting book, Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel, will be released by Distributed Art Publishers in September.

The artists, who met as graduate students at the San Francisco Art Institute, shared an openness to conceptual and experimental photography. “We were lucky to be young and freshly in that world when so much was changing,” says Mandel. The medium was expanding—although Sultan later became known as a photographer, the work the two did together is photography mainly in a conceptual sense—and the community was small enough that the two had access to influential teachers and artists even outside their school environment.

Courtesy Mike Mandel

Larry Sultan (R) and Mike Mandel, circa 1997

Their collaboration began in 1973 with public art displayed on billboards, work that both interrogated the tropes of advertising and challenged art by placing it in a commercial context. They continued to make billboards for many years. They also worked together on books, including How to Read Music in One Evening, which re-appropriated advertising imagery, and the seminal Evidence, their best known work, which took documentary and archival photos out of their contexts. Later, the two turned their attention to the news media, applying their signature critical mindfulness to the subject. Alongside photographic highlights of their art career together, Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel features analytical essays and a metaphorical commentary by author Jonathan Lethem.

Mandel says that this new book was an opportunity to revisit some of their projects that had not been previously examined. “As time went on I think we recognized that a lot of the work we had decided at the time we didn’t need to talk about really ought to be talked about, for different reasons,” he says. “We did re-frame what we chose to put in the book based on this idea of looking back and being a little bit more generous toward ourselves.”

But even though the photographers had discussed the content of the book prior to Sultan’s illness, Mandel was left to make many decisions alone. He says that there were moments when he knew that there would have been a disagreement if Sultan had been there; the weight of sole responsibility was a heavy one. And they hadn’t yet decided how to end the book. Mandel chose the project Newsroom, a 1983 exhibit in which they used news tickers to edit their own versions of the days events, as the book’s stopping place. He says he felt that to stop there was to present the most coherent set of ideas, and it was also a chance to step back and look at a project that the artists had been such part of that they never got to see it from a distance. “If Larry had been with me it would have been really great to have done that together,” Mandel says.

In an essay that accompanied Evidence, Robert F. Forth, the dean of the California College of Arts and Crafts, examined the meanings of evidence, surprise and context. He wrote about the “yin/yang balance between the circumstantial and the evident,” the way that the two compliment each other to make one whole thought. If one has any defect, its relationship to the other can fill that whole. Likewise, says Mandel, his own introverted working process and Sultan’s gregarious quick thinking co-existed without one drowning out the other.

“We just had a very different way of being but we both trusted each other a lot and we both gave each other as much room to argue and promote our ideas as much as we could. That’s what the Socratic attitude was about. It was about testing these ideas,” says Mandel. “We collaborated as equals all the way through our relationship.”

Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel, will be released in September by Distributed Art Publishers.

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The land upon which the nation of Israel sits is steeped in stories and myths. It’s ancient, holy; all three major faiths that took root here see salvation in its domes, its olive groves, its cracked earth. It’s a land where people still seek the messiah. In one Orthodox Jewish messianic tradition, He will return riding a white donkey. On a blistering summer’s day in 2006, Yaakov Israel peered through the heat waves and saw, emerging in the distance, a man atop a white donkey. “He materialized,” says Israel, a photographer based in Jerusalem, “like a fata morgana,” a mirage.

Israel’s book The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey will be released in the U.S. this fall.

This man on a donkey was no illusion — nor, most would contest, was he the messiah. Instead, his arrival from the desert and into Israel’s lens gave the photographer a guide for a photo project he has worked on for the past decade, crystallized in a new book, The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey. Israel’s pictures are the product of years of wanderings in Israel, in the Occupied Territories and in the spaces in-between, seeking to document a vision of its people and landscapes away from the noise of an intractable political conflict and the rumbling news media that watches it.

In the spirit of U.S. photographers who chronicled their journeys through the American vastness, Israel would wake up early in the morning and head off in a direction, photographing what he saw and whom he encountered along the way. Of course, unlike in the U.S., Israel, traveling in the country that bears his name, would invariably run into one or two political borders by nightfall. And so his gaze dwells on the quiet of certain moments — “the small clues for me that exist in each image,” as he puts it — that tell a story of daily life in a land whose deep history and uncertain future are woven through with gestures that are at once religious, political and inescapably human.

A girl wades into the Sea of Galilee, her arms held wide as if choosing between crucifixion and baptism. Spools of barbed wire are followed in the book by tangles of thorns and a sea of dandelions; men with guns look on, at times curious, at times detached. A backpacker sleeps. The hills glow and soak in sunlight.

Israel emphasizes the everyday nature of his subjects — “these are people I’m just bumping into every time I go out.” Often, they would go out of their way to accommodate Israel, posing patiently, introducing him to family and friends, pointing to new vistas for his camera. In one scene, a pair of Arab workers who had intended to go to work choose instead to hang out with Israel and share their breakfast with him. “These episodes of human courtesy happened again and again,” says Israel. “For me, these small things tell another kind of political story.”

The man on the white donkey, a Palestinian farmer, was no different. In 45 degrees Celsius heat, he agreed without hesitation to participate in Israel’s project, desperately trying to keep his steed still until an image became clear.

Yaakov Israel is a Jerusalem-based photographer. See more of his work here.

The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey will be available in the U.S. this fall. The project recently won the PhotoEspaña Descubrimientos (PHE12 Discoveries) 2012 Award.

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Space, Crime, and Architecture

Space Crime and Architecture

The most recent issue of Plat, an independent architectural journal published by students at Rice School of Architecture, features an essay I wrote with two of my fellow M.E.D. classmates. “Space, Crime, and Architecture” elaborates on some of the issues we discussed in our 2011 Yale School of Architecture research colloquium of the same name. It’s also a deeper, more academic exploration of my own personal interests in the relationship between architecture and crime – particularly the notion of crime as a critical tool or transgressive criticism. Plat 2.0: If You See Something Say Something investigates the gap “between architectural representation and the buildings it produces.” Here’s a brief excerpt from “Space, Crime, and Architecture,” slightly edited and sans footnotes:

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Space, Crime & Architecture is an ongoing investigation of the failure of architecture when confronted with a criminal act. This failure is not that of an unrealized utopic ambition, but rather that of an apparatus unable to account for potential failure with the same precision it represents presumed success. The intent of this project is to theorize the conceptual dissonance between the criminal violation of a space and the intended use of a space as programmed by the architect.

The primary representation of crime typically comes from newspapers and other news media outlets. Such representations are necessarily rudimentary, and oftentimes manipulative. While the newspaper is, by its nature, obliged to convey information, it is also beholden to its readership: as a popular media outlet, it is equally obliged to be “popular.” As a shared source of information, the news media plays a central role in the construction of a culture’s perception of reality. As crime reports became nearly ubiquitous in the newspapers of the modern metropolis, fictional narratives depicting crime not only became a popular phenomenon, they contributed to the formation of both a taxonomy and a geography of criminal space. Following from Walter Benjamin’s writings on the flâneur, the crowd, and the metropolis, one can attribute the popularity of the detective story in the nineteenth century to the era’s social concerns and the anxiety of the bourgeoisie who, through newspaper stories and detective fiction, could experience the dangers of the city from the ostensible safety and comfort of their elaborately decorated interiors. In fact, it was the traces left by the criminal violation of the bourgeois interior that first made it necessary to invoke the detective in such novels. While crime fiction and true-crime narratives continued as a popular form of entertainment through the twentieth century, they have once again come to dominate the cultural zeitgeist. Television series like CSI, with its myriad spinoffs and imitators, present elaborate crime scenes and extravagant, high-tech investigations. Perhaps the current popularity of the genre can be explained by a new anxiety underlying life in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

In recounting criminal acts, the media not only constructs a cognitive map of places associated with crime, it exploits the collective consciousness to sensationalize the transgression of convention. The fictionalization of crime trains the public to identify crime as a moment of disruption, a discontinuity in the social order. Crime is both confronted by and pursued from its physical traces. And yet, despite these remains – which can be measured, documented, and reconstructed – the relationship between crime and norm is not strictly empirical. If crime and norm are two distinct notions, it follows that any value judgment of material evidence will rely on our understanding of the relationship between crime and norm. This prompts a surprisingly simple question: how can crime change the way we think of architecture? In this regard, there are two distinct, if not opposing, hypotheses from which our investigation begins.

1. The criminal act introduces a completely foreign element into an otherwise stable program; it employs logics or tools that differ substantially from the norm.

2. Crime is an organic function within the norm; it is a latent quality manifested by a catalyst (the criminal) that deploys logics or tools compatible with the norm.

The distinction is important because the relationship between crime and norm influences not only its social meaning, it also raises the architectural issue of programmatic/technical/spatial determinism. Writing about the culmination of this determinism as an assumption of architecture in modernity, Theo Van Doesburg anticipated the current trend of algorithmic design in 1924 when he described the potential for architecture to become merely the sum of a precise mathematics:

In architecture’s next phase of development the ground-plan must disappear completely. The two-dimensional spatial composition “fixed” in a ground-plan will be replaced by an exact “constructional calculation” – a calculation by means of which the supporting capacity is restricted to the simplest but strongest supporting points. For this purpose Euclidean mathematics will be of no further use – but with the aid of calculation that is non-Euclidean and takes into account the four dimensions everything will be very easy.

This investigation questions the social relations assumed by the production of architecture, and consequently whether architects are victims of the criminal act or accomplices to the crime. Is crime a complete deviation from the ideal “constructional calculation,” understood as both a programmatic strategy and as an architectural form, or an inherent variable in this calculation?

In the first of the above hypotheses, crime is understood as external to the established norm. As an unanticipated transgression of boundaries – legal, spatial, social – crime reveals the weakness of the implicit formal and programmatic optimism in any “plan” by subverting the conventional readings of the designed environment. When such conditions are made manifest, architecture becomes a crime scene.

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To read the rest, check out Plat 2.0.

Life Without Buildings

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