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September 16, 2013

Let us now praise Chris Burden — One of the great artists of our time, pretty much invisible

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No matter: from the time he crawled bare-chested across a floor covered in broken glass and then had himself nailed in 1974 — through the palms of his hands — to the roof of a VW bug (above), I have admired this singular man.

Now, when he has reached the ripe old age of 67 (I honestly never ever thought he would survive nearly this long) comes a retrospective opening October 2 at the New Museum in New York City.

Excerpts from Randy Kennedy's September 6 New York Times story below.


Of all the things the artist Chris Burden did, and had done to, his body for the sake of art — shot, through the arm, with a .22 rifle; nailed, through the hands; cut, with broken glass; confined, for five days inside a tiny locker — perhaps his most poetic performance piece was the simplest.

In 1973, for "B.C. Mexico," Mr. Burden paddled a small canvas kayak from a town on the Sea of Cortez in Baja California to an uninhabited beach further south, carrying only water. He spent 11 days on the beach, in 120-degree temperatures, before declaring an end to the performance and paddling back to town. In his Los Angeles gallery, a note describing his absence was the only thing viewers found when they arrived for his scheduled exhibition.

"It was really more about isolation than anything else," Mr. Burden, now 67, said recently. "It was about being gone."

For the last three decades, Mr. Burden, who will be the subject of a highly unconventional career survey opening Oct. 2 at the New Museum in Manhattan, has conducted his life like a kind of conceptual experiment in being simultaneously gone and present. He's remained a part of the art scene, but strictly on terms he has established in a world he has built around himself. That may be one reason that, among the Los Angeles artists who emerged in the 1960s and '70s and had staying power, Mr. Burden has long remained under the radar, revered in California and in Europe, and a cult figure for many younger artists, but underappreciated in New York and in many American museums.

He long ago gave up the radical performance life that made him one of the most influential underground artists of the '70s, and he has been represented for years by the Gagosian Gallery, the gilded exemplar of the commercial art establishment.

Since 1981, Mr. Burden and his wife, the sculptor Nancy Rubins, have lived here in Los Angeles but physically removed from it, deep in the hills of Topanga Canyon. Before building a house they spent five years in a tent; they now own 80 acres in the canyon, some of it rugged chaparral. To reach it, and their neighboring studios, which resemble overgrown metal tractor barns, you have to drive up switchback roads so narrow that the curves have been outfitted with convex mirrors to allow you to see if another car is coming. "Just be careful, and you'll probably make it," Mr. Burden said on the phone one recent morning while giving me directions.

Below, the artist at home with a recent piece and his dog, Wiley.


"One of the reasons Nancy and I have lived up here is so we can just leave lots of junk lying around, and it doesn't bother anyone that much," said Mr. Burden. But looking into the distance at the houses of neighbors, who include the actress Lisa Bonet, he added: "Money has come into this canyon in the last few years. By our standards, it's starting to get a little too crowded."

"The last American survey of his career was a quarter-century ago, in 1988, at the Newport Harbor Art Museum (now the Orange County Museum of Art) in Newport Beach, Calif.

"There's so much of his work that's not really known," said Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum, who is curator of the show, which is one of the most highly anticipated of the fall. It will take over all five floors of the museum's building and part of its exterior, and will include several new works. "Part of that might be because of his self-imposed isolation. But he was also working in advance of a lot of people and never really fit into any style or movement, though the work now looks prescient, and I think it's quickly going to become apparent to people when they see it."

Mr. Burden, for example, was doing what is now called relational aesthetics — art that incorporates the audience as part of the work — well before the name was coined or the practice pervaded the art world. In 1976 in San Francisco, in a deadpan piece called "Garcon!" he served cappuccino and espresso for a week to gallerygoers. A year earlier, at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York, a performance involved lying on a raised platform with no food for 22 days, which prefigured a work by Marina Abramovic in 2002, in which she did much the same thing for 12 days, on a larger platform with slightly more comfortable accommodations.

On my visit, Mr. Burden seemed little concerned about how his influence is or is not acknowledged. This may be in part because revisiting his past makes him restless and a little cranky, a position that made the New Museum's job a tough one. His initial proposal was to leave the interior of the museum almost completely empty and indulge his architectural and engineering fetishes by covering the outside of the museum with found and created sculpture — mostly antique light poles and Erector Set towers — to transform the building, which he dislikes, into a kind of Dada urban fantasia.

"I think he knew it was impossible, which is how he approaches everything," Ms. Phillips said. 'If there's any kind of certainty, he steers clear of it."

After months of debate and engineering calculations, the idea was vetoed, and now only two towers and a sailboat will be attached to the exterior. The towers will inevitably evoke the Twin Towers. Mr. Burden's intentions with the boat, which will be suspended dozens of feet above the street, are in one sense brutally straightforward, post-Hurricane Sandy. 'When the next high tide is that high," he said, "then it’s time to climb in. It's that simple."

Though he now wears reading glasses on his nose and a cap with a neck flap to protect him from the sun, Mr. Burden remains almost as solidly built as he appeared in early performance videos, with the same boyish, bowl-cut hairdo. Partly because of the physical extremity of his performances — in "Trans-fixed" [top] (1974), perhaps his most famous work, he was briefly crucified atop a Volkswagen Beetle — he has long had a reputation as a daunting presence, a kind of art-world Evel Knievel. But in person, he is much more like a down-to-business mechanical engineer, with a bone-dry wit and habit of diverting conversations deep into arcana. His approach to the performances was always more about method than shock: a systematic what-if exploration of the limits of the human body, of violence, of authority, of mortality and of a kind of nonreligious transcendence.

Of "Doorway to Heaven" [below],

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a 1973 piece in which he touched two live electric wires to his chest, crossing them in time to make them erupt into sparks but not electrocute him, he said it was 'about doing this thing that should kill you but isn't going to, because you figured out how to escape."

The Los Angeles artist Paul McCarthy, who has known Mr. Burden since the early '70s, said of the performances: "He wasn't someone who gave off a sense of machismo. It was never about: 'Look at me. This is what I’m willing to do.' But he was somebody who you knew would do it." He added, "In a way, I kind of felt like each piece he did was perfect — psychologically, the way it was constructed, in its directness, in the effect it had on the audience."

At times, Mr. Burden has also been one of funniest artists to come out of the politically fraught world of early performance and video, handling humor like a scalpel. He bought television advertising time in California and New York in the '70s in an attempt to infiltrate mainstream culture, and in one brief ad, he detailed his finances as an artist for the year 1977: a gross income of $17,201 and expenses of $16,156, leaving him with $1,045 to live on. (He makes considerably more now, but he and Ms. Rubins, who live in a modest house near their studios, are hardly big-money artists.)

The influence of Mr. Burden's performances has been so powerful, it has tended to overshadow his three decades of sculptural work, whose deep connection to the performances is not always understood. The presence of those performances in the New Museum exhibition will be greatly muted, represented only by books documenting them in text and photographs.

"When I stopped doing the performances, the pieces I was making became the performance — they are almost all performative," he said, walking over to a portion of a scale-model arch bridge that will be in the New Museum show. The bridge [below],

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almost four feet tall and made with special white concrete blocks that together weigh two tons, is held together by nothing but gravity, like a minimalist, figurative take on Richard Serra's precariously balanced heavy-metal "Prop" pieces.

"If this little piece, this one piece, breaks," Mr. Burden said, pointing to a negligible-looking round concrete cylinder near the top of one arch, "then you no longer have a bridge. It all comes down. How many people will understand that I have no idea. But it fascinates me."

"I consider myself," Mr. Burden said, "an amateur engineer and architect who uses those disciplines as materials for my art." In the end, he does not much care whether the results read as art or as something more adulterated. "I don't really think about it," he said.

Before I left, he took me on a hike along a harrowingly narrow path he had carved out of the side of a ridge. Then he led me down to a place near where he and Ms. Rubins had once lived in their tent, to show me something he had been working on for more than 30 years: a fenced pit containing every glass bottle he or his wife or their studio workers had thrown away, tens of thousands of them. It gleamed in the sun like a surrealist industrial ruin.

I asked him what he was going to do with it. "I still don't know," he said, looking it over. "But isn't it beautiful?"

September 16, 2013 at 08:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Memoto Lifelogging Camera — Is it a benefit or a hazard?

You be the judge.

Long story short: it takes a picture every 30 seconds every day.

Shipping soon.


September 16, 2013 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Your DNA is not a blueprint — "A cell is a machine for turning experience into biology"


A world-view shaking revolution has been taking place in biology over the past several decades, for the most part under the popular radar.

Long story short from David Dobbs' excellent article on the new social science of genetics: "Your DNA is not a blueprint. Day by day, week by week, your genes are in a conversation with your surroundings. Your neighbors, your family, your feelings of loneliness: They don't just get under your skin, they get into the control rooms of your cells."

If there is a better science writer than Dobbs I don't who that might be: he is a master synthesizer.

Excerpts below.


Scientists have known for decades that genes can vary their level of activity, as if controlled by dimmer switches. Most cells in your body contain every one of your 22,000 or so genes. But in any given cell at any given time, only a tiny percentage of those genes is active, sending out chemical messages that affect the activity of the cell. This variable gene activity, called gene expression, is how your body does most of its work.

Sometimes these turns of the dimmer switch correspond to basic biological events, as when you develop tissues in the womb, enter puberty, or stop growing. At other times gene activity cranks up or spins down in response to changes in your environment. Thus, certain genes switch on to fight infection or heal your wounds — or, running amok, give you cancer or burn your brain with fever. Changes in gene expression can make you thin, fat, or strikingly different from your supposedly identical twin. When it comes down to it, really, genes don't make you who you are. Gene expression does. And gene expression varies depending on the life you live.

Every biologist accepts this. But in all but a few special cases, the thinking went, environment generally brightens or dims the activity of only a few genes at a time.

David Clayton, a neurobiologist also on the University of Illinois campus, found that if a male zebra finch heard another male zebra finch singing nearby, a particular gene in the bird's forebrain would fire up—and it would do so differently depending on whether the other finch was strange and threatening, or familiar and safe.

Others found this same gene, dubbed ZENK, ramping up in other species. In each case, the change in ZENK's activity corresponded to some change in behavior: a bird might relax in response to a song, or become vigilant and tense.

Duke researchers, for instance, found that when female zebra finches listened to male zebra finches' songs, the females' ZENK gene triggered massive gene-expression changes in their forebrains — a socially sensitive brain area in birds as well as humans. The changes differed depending on whether the song was a mating call or a territorial claim. And perhaps most remarkably, all 
of these changes happened incredibly fast — within a half hour, sometimes within just five minutes.

ZENK, it appeared, was a so-called "immediate early gene," a type of regulatory gene that can cause whole networks of other genes to change activity. These sorts of regulatory gene-expression response had already been identified in physiological systems such as digestion and immunity. Now they also seemed to drive quick responses to social conditions.

One of the most startling early demonstrations of such a response occurred in 2005 in the lab of Stanford biologist Russell Fernald. For years, Fernald had studied the African cichlid Astatotilapia burtoni, a freshwater fish about two inches long and dull pewter in color. By 2005 he had shown that among burtoni, the top male in any small population lives like some fishy pharaoh, getting far more food, territory, and sex than even the No. 2 male. This No. 1 male cichlid also sports a bigger and brighter body. And there is always only one No. 1.

I wonder, Fernald thought, what would happen if we just removed him?

So one day Fernald turned out the lights over one of his cichlid tanks, scooped out big flashy No. 1, and then, 12 hours later, flipped the lights back on. When the No. 2 cichlid saw that he was now No. 1, he responded quickly. He underwent massive surges in gene expression that immediately blinged up his pewter coloring with lurid red and blue streaks and, in a matter of hours, caused him to grow some 20 percent. It was as if Jason Schwartzman, coming to work one day to learn the big office stud had quit, morphed into Arnold Schwarzenegger by close of business.

These studies, says Greg Wray, an evolutionary biologist at Duke who has focused on gene expression for over a decade, caused quite a stir. "You suddenly realize birds are hearing a song and having massive, widespread changes in gene expression in just 15 minutes? Something big is going on."

Steve Cole, a Californian then in his early 40s, had trained in psychology at the University of California-Santa Barbara and Stanford; then in social psychology, epidemiology, virology, cancer, and genetics 
at UCLA.

In his post-doctoral work at UCLA, Cole focused on the genetics of immunology and cancer because those fields had pioneered hard-nosed gene-expression research. After that he became one of the earliest researchers to bring the study of whole-genome gene-expression to social psychology.

The gene's ongoing, real-time response to incoming information, he realized, is where life works many of its changes on us. The idea is both reductive and expansive. We are but cells. At each cell's center, a tight tangle of DNA writes and hands out the cell’s marching orders. Between that center and the world stand only a series of membranes — "porous membranes" — notes Cole.

"We think of our bodies as stable biological structures that live in the world but are fundamentally separate from it. That we are unitary organisms in the world but passing through it. But what we're learning from the molecular processes that actually keep our bodies running is that we're far more fluid than we realize, and the world passes through us."

He said, "Every day, as our cells die off, we have to replace one to two percent of our molecular being. We're constantly building and re-engineering new cells. And that regeneration is driven by the contingent nature of gene expression. This is what a cell is about. A cell... is a machine for turning experience into biology."

In collaboration with University of Chicago social psychologist John Cacioppo, Cole mined a questionnaire about social connections that Cacioppo had given to 153 healthy Chicagoans in their 50s and 60s. Cacioppo and Cole identified the eight most socially secure people and the six loneliest and drew blood samples from them. Then Cole extracted genetic material from the blood's leukocytes (a key immune-system player) and looked at what their DNA was up to.

He found a broad, weird, strongly patterned gene-expression response that would become mighty familiar over the next few years. Of roughly 22,000 genes in the human genome, the lonely and not-lonely groups showed sharply different gene-expression responses in 209. That meant that about one percent of the genome—a considerable portion — was responding differently depending on whether a person felt alone or connected.

Whole sectors of genes looked markedly different in the lonely and the socially secure. And many of these genes played roles in inflammatory immune responses.

But this was a study of just 14 people. Cole needed more.

Over the next several years, he got them. He found similarly unbalanced gene-expression or immune-response profiles in groups including poor children, depressed people with cancer, and people caring for spouses dying of cancer.

He topped his efforts off with a study in which social stress levels in young women predicted changes in their gene activity six months later. Cole and his collaborators on that study, psychologists Gregory Miller and Nicolas Rohleder of the University of British Columbia, interviewed 103 healthy Vancouver-area women aged 15 to 19 about their social lives, drew blood, and ran gene-expression profiles, and after half a year drew blood and ran profiles again.

Some of the women reported at the time of the initial interview that they were having trouble with their love lives, their families, or their friends. Over the next six months, these socially troubled subjects took on the sort of imbalanced gene-expression profile Cole found in his other isolation studies: busy attack dogs and broken leashes. Except here, in a prospective study, he saw the attack dog breaking free of its restraints: Social stress changed these young women's gene-expression patterns before his eyes.

"We typically think of stress as being a risk factor for disease," said Cole. "And it is, somewhat. But if you actually measure stress, using our best available instruments, it can't hold a candle to social isolation. Social isolation is the best-established, most robust social or psychological risk factor for disease out there. Nothing can compete."

This helps explain, for instance, why many people who work in high-stress but rewarding jobs don't seem to suffer ill effects, while others, particularly those isolated and in poverty, wind up accruing lists of stress-related diagnoses — obesity, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, atherosclerosis, heart failure, stroke.

Despite these well-known effects, Cole said he was amazed when he started finding that social connectivity wrought such powerful effects on gene expression.
"Or not that we found it," he corrected, "but that we're seeing it with such consistency. Science is noisy. I would've bet my eyeteeth that we'd get a lot of noisy results that are inconsistent from one realm to another. And at the level of individual genes that's kind of true — there is some noise there." But the kinds of genes that get dialed up or down in response to social experience, he said, and the gene networks and gene-expression cascades that they set off, "are surprisingly consistent — from monkeys to people, from five-year-old kids to adults, from Vancouver teenagers to 60-year-olds living in Chicago."

Cole's work carries all kinds of implications — some weighty and practical, some heady and philosophical.

It may, for instance, help explain the health problems that so often haunt the poor. Poverty savages the body. Hundreds of studies over the past few decades have tied low income to higher rates of asthma, flu, heart attacks, cancer, and everything in between. Poverty itself starts to look like a disease. Yet an empty wallet can't make you sick. And we all know people who escape poverty's dangers. So what is it about a life of poverty that makes us ill?

Cole asked essentially this question in a 2008 study he conducted with Miller and Edith Chen, another social psychologist then at the University of British Columbia. The paper appeared in an odd forum: Thorax, a journal about medical problems in the chest. The researchers gathered and ran gene-expression profiles on 31 kids, ranging from nine to 18 years old, who had asthma; 16 were poor, 15 well-off. As Cole expected, the group of well-off kids showed a healthy immune response, with elevated activity among genes that control pulmonary inflammation. The poorer kids showed busier inflammatory genes, sluggishness in the gene networks that control inflammation, and — in their health histories — more asthma attacks and other health problems. Poverty seemed to be mucking up their immune systems.

Cole, Chen, and Miller, however, suspected something else was at work — something that often came with poverty but was not the same thing. So along with drawing the kids' blood and gathering their socioeconomic information, they showed them films of ambiguous or awkward social situations, then asked them how threatening they found them.

The poorer kids perceived more threat; the well-off perceived less. This difference in what psychologists call "cognitive framing" surprised no one. Many prior studies had shown that poverty and poor neighborhoods, understandably, tend to make people more sensitive to threats in ambiguous social situations. Chen in particular had spent years studying this sort of effect.

But in this study, Chen, Cole, and Miller wanted to see if they could tease apart the effect of cognitive framing from the effects of income disparity. It turned out they could, because some of the kids in each income group broke type. A few of the poor kids saw very little menace in the ambiguous situations, and a few well-off kids saw a lot.

When the researchers separated those perceptions from the socioeconomic scores and laid them over the gene-expression scores, they found that it was really the kids' framing, not their income levels, that accounted for most of the difference in gene expression. To put it another way: When the researchers controlled for variations in threat perception, poverty's influence almost vanished. The main thing driving screwy immune responses appeared to be not poverty, but whether the child saw the social world as scary.

But where did that come from? Did the kids see the world as frightening because they had been taught to, or because they felt alone in facing it? The study design couldn't answer that. But Cole believes isolation plays a key role. This notion gets startling support from a 2004 study of 57 school-age children who were so badly abused that state social workers had removed them from their homes. The study, often just called "the Kaufman study," after its author, Yale psychiatrist Joan Kaufman, challenges a number of assumptions about what shapes responses to trauma or stress.

The Kaufman study at first looks like a classic investigation into the so-called depression risk gene — the serotonin transporter gene, or SERT — which comes in both long and short forms. Any single gene's impact on mood or behavior is limited, of course, and these single-gene, or "candidate gene," studies must be viewed with that in mind.

Yet many studies have found that SERT's short form seems to render many people (and rhesus monkeys) more sensitive to environment; according to those studies, people who carry the short SERT are more likely to become depressed or anxious if faced with stress or trauma.

Kaufman looked first to see whether the kids' mental health tracked their SERT variants. It did: The kids with the short variant suffered twice as many mental-health problems as those with the long variant. The double whammy of abuse plus short SERT seemed to be too much.

Then Kaufman laid both the kids’ depression scores and their SERT variants across the kids’ levels of "social support." In this case, Kaufman narrowly defined social support as contact at least monthly with a trusted adult figure outside the home. Extraordinarily, for the kids who had it, this single, modest, closely defined social connection erased about 80% of the combined risk of the short SERT variant and the abuse. It came close to inoculating kids against both an established genetic vulnerability and horrid abuse.

Or, to phrase it as Cole might, the lack of a reliable connection harmed the kids almost as much as abuse did. Their isolation wielded enough power to raise the question of what's really most toxic in such situations. Most of the psychiatric literature essentially views bad experiences—extreme stress, abuse, violence—as toxins, and "risk genes" as quasi-immunological weaknesses that let the toxins poison us. And abuse is clearly toxic. Yet if social connection can almost completely protect us against the well-known effects of severe abuse, isn't the isolation almost as toxic as the beatings and neglect?

The Kaufman study also challenges much conventional Western thinking about the state of the individual. To use the language of the study, we sometimes conceive of "social support" as a sort of add-on, something extra that might somehow fortify us. Yet this view assumes that humanity's default state is solitude. It's not. Our default state is connection. We are social creatures, and have been for eons. As Cole's colleague John Cacioppo puts it in his book "Loneliness," Hobbes had it wrong when he wrote that human life without civilization was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." It may be poor, nasty, brutish, and short. But seldom has it been solitary.

Cole... spoke about how we are permeable fluid beings instead of stable unitary isolates; about recursive reconstruction of the self; about an engagement with the world that constantly creates a new you, only you don’t know it, because you’re not the person you would have been otherwise — you're a one-person experiment that has lost its control.

He wanted to add one more thing: He didn't see any of this as deterministic.

We were obviously moving away from what he could prove at this point, perhaps from what is testable. We were in fact skirting the rabbit hole that is the free-will debate. Yet he wanted to make it clear he does not see us as slaves to either environment or genes.

"You can't change your genes. But if we're even half right about all this, you can change the way your genes behave — which is almost the same thing. By adjusting your environment you can adjust your gene activity. That's what we're doing as we move through life. We're constantly trying to hunt down that sweet spot between too much challenge and too little."

"That's a really important part of this: To an extent that immunologists and psychologists rarely appreciate, we are architects of our own experience. Your subjective experience carries more power than your objective situation. If you feel like you're alone even when you're in a room filled with the people closest to you, you're going to have problems. If you feel like you're well supported even though there’s nobody else in sight; if you carry relationships in your head; if you come at the world with a sense that people care about you, that you're valuable, that you're okay; then your body is going to act as if you’re okay — even if you're wrong about all that."

Cole was channeling John Milton: "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven."

"So environment and experience aren't the same," I offered.

"Exactly. Two people may share the same environment but not the same experience. The experience is what you make of the environment. It appears you and I are both enjoying ourselves here, for instance, and I think we are. But if one of us didn't like being one-on-one at a table for three hours, that person could get quite stressed out. We might have much different experiences. And you can shape all this by how you frame things. You can shape both your environment and yourself by how you act. It's really an opportunity."

Cole often puts it differently at the end of his talks about this line of work. "Your experiences today will influence the molecular composition of your body for the next two to three months," he tells his audience, "or, perhaps, for the rest of your life. Plan your day accordingly."


Illustration up top by Jeremy Dimmock.

September 16, 2013 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

LED Knit Hat


Oooh, I know someone who's perfect for this.


But I digressed.

From the website:


Knit cap with LED lights keeps you warm and lights your way in the dark.

Comfy black acrylic pullover hat features 5 super-bright LED bulbs stitched into the brim.

Provides 7 hours of forward directional lighting for navigating through the dark or working in low-light situations.

Ideal for joggers, bikers, hikers, and outdoorsmen.

One size fits most.

Has on/off switch.

Batteries included.




September 16, 2013 at 08:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Catme 13/Glass Effect 71 — Gray Cat takes a Sunday siesta through Google Glass (video)

Gray Cat took advantage of a quiet Sunday afternoon to catch forty winks.

Watch and learn from a master.

September 16, 2013 at 04:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Ring Size Reducer


From the website:


Stop loose or too-big rings from slipping and sliding.

Looking for a money-saving alternative to having your rings resized?

Apply this gel inside the band of your rings and let dry — it forms a clear cushion that reduces ring diameter and provides a comfortable, non-slip fit.

Can also be used to ease the pinch of earrings.

Peel off as needed; won't harm ring settings.

Comes in a 5.5 gram tube.



$11.50 (ring not included).

September 16, 2013 at 12:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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