Professor Fleming

And I don't mean my father, my sister, my brother or any of those other Fleming scholars....

I don't think it is hyperbole for me to say that the last week, spent in Jacmel teaching young Haitians the basics of sound recording, and the potential uses of sound in filmmaking, is perhaps the most fulfilling time I've spent all year. The class was eager to learn and even more eager to get out in the streets and get some videotape moving through the cameras, and the five day stretch of eight-hour seminars flashed by in what now seems like no time at all.

Day one in sound studies at Sine Lekol Jakmel: the class, stunned into silence and rapt attention by the red-faced, corpulent bundle of perspiration who was gesticulating wildly in front of them.

To get some in-the-room practical experience I made the students take turns booming me while listening to the results. Quite a shift from the usual day at the office, which I spend trying to be really quiet, while wandering around holding a stick over other people's heads.

I know, now I look like a cinematographer. I could get kicked out of the sound union for doing that whole "frame" thing with my fingers.

Ebby listens carefully.

Looking at these photos, I get the impression that I must be one of those people who really like to hear themselves talk.

It's a wrap! Heading back to the school HQ, after shooting a scene at the Florita Bar. The oceanside blocks of Jacmel are full of the glorious colonnaded double-height warehouses you see lining this street.

Group One.

and Group Two. The other "blanc" in these pictures is Andrew Bigosinski, who helped immeasurably to make the week a pleasant, smooth and fruitful experience. He will be teaching editing in a subsequent installment of this intensive course.

Au Revoir. Here I'm explaining our project and making farewell remarks to the entire student body, their friends, and families, at our celebratory screening of the week's work, on Friday night. I hope I'll be invited back soon!

The films my two groups of students made will soon be available for online viewing, and I'll post a link then.

Photo credits: most by Silvio Dieudonné, except for the one of the posse walking through the streets of Jacmel, which is by Olivier (Silvio is in that picture, in the bright blue shirt, third from the left).


And even more honest if the light is flattering...

Calling Walking to Guantánamo "compelling and entertaining," in his review for the Library Journal, (link has gone dead; you'll just have to take my word for it) Lee Arnold goes on to write that Fleming (that's me) "is brutally honest, even when it shows him in an unflattering light."


A River Runs Through It

As any travelled visitor to Haiti will tell you, Jacmel is among the country's most beautiful towns. On the south shore, facing the warmth of the Caribbean, this once-booming seaport had electric light before New York City; it was the first town in the Caribbean to get wired. At the time, countless bushels of coffee and other tropical delights came down out of the hills to be stacked in Jacmel's stunning brick-floored warehouses, waiting to be loaded onto steamers bound for the markets of the north.

Now the lone pier jutting out into the sea is moribund, and the once-grand buildings are tattered, the locks rusty. Mangy dogs roam the streets, and the tourist stalls are devoid of visitors. Fabulous pillared warehouses lie empty; some are burnt shells. Tropical loft culture has not yet managed to overcome the bureaucratic stumbling blocks posed by the dozens of squabbling heirs who control these spectacular waterfront properties, arguing amongst themselves for decades as the buildings languish empty, and termites and salt air slowly eat away at a spectacular architectural heritage of wrought iron balconies and high-ceilinged splendor.

This season's four spectacular hurricanes haven't helped spruce up the city (and it is only the end of September). The Haitian president described the devastation, nationwide, as being like Katrina, with no budget whatsoever to help those whose homes were washed away, buried under silt, or flooded to the eaves. The flat, miserable, bayside armpit that is the city of Gonaives, across the mountains in the dead center of the country, is still under water, they say, or under mud, many thousands rendered homeless. Up above, looming over every coastline of this vertical country, the treeless mountains are helpless to contain the torrential rains, and the runoff blasts down the valleys, like a flash flood in a desert canyon.

A dysfunctional, underfunded government, and a donor-fatigued international community, increasingly comfortable with looking the other way, have combined to create a museum of devastation. Jacmel, at the mouth of a river, is always hit hard in the Caribbean monsoon, but in my dozen and more trips here in the 1990s I never saw anything like the streets which today lead down to the sole jetty; no asphalt or concrete surface is left, and where pushcarts and longshoremen once rolled down to the port, there is now nothing but a rutted, riverine wash of gravel, boulders and sand. What was once an important commercial street is now a gully, at the heart of the city.


We used to call it Skitching...

I'm in Haiti for a week, teaching sound recording techniques to a group of Jacmellian film students. I came here often in the 1990s, working on a wide variety of films, but it had been over ten years since I last landed in the steaming chaos of Port au Prince. The streets are still piled with garbage, and the open sewers are still running a muddy gray-brown, silted full of topsoil runoff from the devastated, deforested mountains of the interior. The grim conditions of the sweltering, overcrowded city make for a kind of reckless abandon, and an infectious, collective madness, personified for me by these two heavily tattooed rollerbladers, dressed in camouflage and kneepads, who swooped up to the back of this truck during a pause in traffic, and then kept hold for miles, doing hair-raising leaps and tricks while dragging along behind.

We used to do this sort of thing at much slower speeds, when it snowed so heavily that we could slither down snowpacked Nassau Street, gripping car bumpers and sliding on the soles of our sneakers.


Drizzle King, Andy Goldsworthy Edition

One of the joys of being trapped upstate, with only a day off here and there from filming circus folk preparing their show for the 2009 season, was that rather than tear back-and-forth to Brooklyn for brief hours of bill-paying and houseplant watering, I remained in the Hudson valley, taking each down day as a chance to explore.

Amongst the local cultural wonders is the epic sculpture park called Storm King. Hard by the New York State Thruway--the vast plain dotted with gigantic Mark di Suvero sculptures is hard to miss, off to the left, on the drive north through Orange County--this 500-acres plus outdoor museum is one of the few places that actually has the luxury of real estate to show enormous examples of modern sculpture. On a recent, drizzly weekday, I had the vast grounds almost to myself.

I'm not a great fan of monumental modern sculpture. For me to see an enormous artwork as a success I have to first overcome the self-evident megalomania and material extravagance it represents. Few works stand up to this test, and a sculpture that succeeds only because of its enormity leaves a lot to be desired. More than one of the sculptures at Storm King would be unremarkable if shrunk to the size of a paperweight.

Andy Goldsworthy, however, seems to understand this problem. He has done some monumental pieces, but his work is almost always integrated painlessly into its natural environment, like good site-specific architecture. His Storm King Wall is, objectively, much the largest of all the works at Storm King, but he didn't import hundreds of tons of Korean steel to build it, and of all the sculptures there, it is the one perhaps most easily overlooked. He, or more likely his minions, collected hundreds of cubic yards of fieldstone, from local fields and collapsed stone walls, and built a new, albeit absurd and riverine, wall. It is utterly familiar in the way it divides field and pasture from forest, but unfamiliar, stunningly so, in its sinuous aspect.

This is the essence of quality conceptual art, from Marcel Duchamp's urinal right through to the present day: to elevate a mundane, taken-for-granted object or situation and cause us to reconsider it with the fullest concentration we have to offer.

Goldsworthy's wall starts at the Interstate and descends the hill, straight, and normal, before taking a slight bend and plunging into the lake. Away, across on the other side, it can be seen reemerging, as if the local landscape had suffered some epic flood. One must then walk right the way around the water to find it curving and winding its way up into the woods, more like a streambed in shape than a wall. It wriggles through the trees. Indisputably it is a wall, but one without apparent function, a subversive wall, or the subversion of a wall. We are now wondering what it is, if it isn't really a wall at all, but something else; or, being that it is manifestly a wall, we must ask ourselves, do we really know what a wall is? Add to this its appealing curves, its careful dance through the forest, its showcasing of the trees, which we now also spend more time with.

To pose these questions and also make something truly beautiful, massive, and serpentine is a major artistic achievement. I followed the curves, winding my way up the hill, and then sat on a bench, where I found myself staring at the wall.

What I can only describe as a very nice old lady came and sat down beside me. She was a museum guard, but one of an unthreateningly advanced age, the sort of kindly retiree generally found manning the tables at a church rummage sale. She enjoyed the job, I sensed, because of the opportunities it brought to talk to visitors. "A lot of work," I noted.

"It's two-thousand-seventy-eight feet and six inches long," she said.

"How many people did it take to build it?"

"They brought a team of craftsmen from England. Five of them." Professional wall builders. "It took them sixteen weeks."

We looked again at the massive, solid construction, curling and waving its way down towards the distant lake. "That seems awfully fast," I said. "Let's do the calculation." She laughed. I scribbled. "Twenty-four feet per day," I announced. Or roughly four feet, nine inches, per man, per day. It seemed plausible, for an accomplished tradesman.

"We had to call them back recently," she said. She pointed to a paler blue patch of wall, a repaired area of newer stones that I wouldn't otherwise have noticed. "A tree fell on it. I told one visitor about it and they got all huffy with me. He kept going on about 'had we called Goldsworthy first, before we had it fixed?' I said it is our wall, after all, and so we repaired it. He got real upset. He kept saying how Goldsworthy believes the natural process of the thing falling apart is part of the artwork. Whew. Some people take these things so seriously."

"I wouldn't worry about it," I said. "In the geologic scheme of things this wall has plenty of time to fall down."

"After what we paid for it I should think we can do with it as we please," she said.


Sure does look a lot like Antarctica...

Back in Buenos Aires after a trip to Patagonia, our fearless Argentine correspondent sends these images.

I kept thinking that this must be the kind of landscape you encountered at the end of the world, he writes. Just like stepping out of an airplane that's flying over the Alps.

Photos: Jakob Weingartner


9/11 as seen from the water, and closer

Newly back in blogging action after too long a hiatus, our good friend, that tanker-dwelling princess, Carolina Salguero, has an epic post up, a memoir about boating it to lower manhattan, 7 fateful years ago...


Fishing for the essence of photography

Once again I've been thinking hard about photography, and its uses, because above and beyond printing my forthcoming magnum opus, my publisher, Commons Books, is also soon to release a companion book of photographs I took in Cuba, while I was walking about the place. So I've been revisiting Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag, and some of the other theoreticians of the medium, who I often neglected back in college. Why is it that photography is the bastard stepchild of the art world? What it is about the medium that prevents it from being taken seriously, that makes it so difficult to hang a photograph in a museum next to a painting, instead of in its own little ghetto of flat, glossy bits of paper?

Whether or not you are into theory, a major issue seems to be that the very ubiquity of photographs, the ever-increasing ease of making and displaying them, conspires against their perceived value. Millions of photographs must now be taken every day across the globe, and the vast majority of them are purely commemorative. They are taken to capture moments and experiences; they are of weddings, birthdays, visits to places or people, automobile accidents, and large buildings. The commemorative object (the blue ribbon at the horse fair, the bowling trophy, the snapshot) is almost by definition not a piece of art; it invokes not its own qualties, but seeks rather to conjure the emotions and recollections of a past glory or achievement, even one as modest as standing in front of the chain-link fence at ground zero. Contrast this with painting, sculpture, or poetry, the very undertaking of which implies an artistic intent.

On a recent day off here in upstate New York, we drove from Newburgh, down route 9W, to the temptingly named Sloop Hill State Unique Area. We are suckers for the unique, hence one of photography's problems. Sloop Hill turned out to be a small and charming park beside the wide Hudson, where, in deep shade, surrounded by pockets of burning sunshine, a group of fishing enthusiasts had gathered to memorialize the catching of a trout. It is easy to take pictures of people taking pictures, because your subjects themselves are busy asserting the normalcy of picture-taking and are therefore ill-equipped to argue that you are invading their privacy.

We snapped, and bantered. The trout had not been caught in the river, but elsewhere, in a reservoir. I failed to ask why it had been brought here, in a large red cooler (not pictured) to be photographed. It weighed more than 7 pounds, and was the largest trout the man holding it had ever seen.

Because of the challenging light conditions, or perhaps because he seemed to think it unseemly that I should take more photographs of the man and his fish, than he, the man's friend, might take, the photographer snapped again and again, providing many angles from which I was able to capture the process of the fish being memorialized. For each picture that he took of a man holding a fish, I was able to take my own picture, of a man taking a picture of a fish-holding man. Through it all, the subject remained impassive, his unwavering, emotionless face betraying not a hint of a smile, or a suggestion of pride, as if the enormous, glorious cadaver should be allowed to speak for itself.

I may not know what art is, but I know what I like.



Walking to Guantánamo, the website

My extensive paid network of publicists, personality management consultants, behavioral stylists, market researchers, ego massage therapists, trompe l'oeil physique enhancement technicians, and, of course, my social graces counselor, all agree on one thing: the budding first-time author must have a glamorous and elegant website dedicated to promoting their book. (Your comments, suggestions, and purchases are welcome.)