Pow wow in Taylor Park, Central City, New Orleans

On the most colorful day of the year, photographically speaking, I found I had let the batteries in my trusty G10 run all the way dry. Since nothing happens by accident, it may be that my failure to charge was a subconscious gesture in Freudian sympathy with the Mardi Gras Indians fascinating attempt to control the commercial exploitation of their image.

(As any producer of commercials and films knows, it is absolutely verboten to include corporate logos, signage, and even the facades of actual bricks and mortar stores in televised footage, without clearance. I find this a grotesque overreaching of copyright law. The Denny's, McDonald's and Nike's of the world are happy to bombard us constantly with unwanted billboards, logo-mad clothing, advertising and all manner of intrusions into our visual space, but still wish to keep complete control over the use of their imagery? This is absurd. But if they are legally allowed to challenge the "fair use" doctrine then the Indians should be as well.)

What follows are all that I could manage from the Super Sunday Uptown Indians Parade on a five-year-old cell phone:


Red Hook Criterium

There's a notorious race on the pro cycling tour, the Paris-Roubaix, which adds additional insult and danger to the already brutal demands of world-class bike racing. Known as l'enfer du Nord, the race is a savage, kidney-jangling, off-road torture chamber run over as many remaining stretches of cobblestoned road as the organizers can fit into the route. The trophy is a chunk of paving-stone. 

Taking a page from this storied event is the organizer of the Red Hook Criterium, a race of which I was entirely unaware until yesterday afternoon when I spotted a patron at the fabulous Fort Defiance, sporting cycling shoes and a shirt advertising it, emblazoned "March 20th, 2010." I imagined he was relaxing over a cocktail after having just raced. Not in fact. The event was to be held later in the evening, at 11PM. 

After enjoying a first barbecue of the season in the local community garden, we wandered on down towards the water to have a look. Nocturnal bike races are few and far between. Beard St. was clogged with cycling aficionados. There were many dozens of people, I suspect, who had never set foot in Red Hook before, but illicit sporting activity is always a powerful draw. The Red Hook Criterium is unsanctioned. It's a guerilla race ridden on brakeless, fixed-gear cycles originally created for use only on dedicated cycling tracks. Unfortunately these bikes, popular for decades with messengers and hipsters, have now become an entire cyclery subculture unto themselves. This is why a woman at the corner of Beard and Richards streets, part of a crowd trying to prevent a bus driver from continuing his scheduled route, was screaming "they don't have any brakes!"

I'm all in favor of guerilla actions, especially bike-related ones like the monthly Critical Mass rides, which are essentially joyous political manifestations that draw attention to the desperate lack of cycling infrastructure in our city. But the Red Hook Criterium is not one of those. Also, "it ain’t no hipster show,” founder-organizer David Trimble told Velo News. “The first two winners have gone on to pro contracts." This is a high-speed, top-level amateur criterium, which is a particular type of short-course cycle race. In contrast to a road race, which goes from point A to point B (Paris to Roubaix, for instance), a criterium is made of multiple laps of a tight loop, usually about a mile or three, which is repeated over and over again, in this case 16 times.

This is a race, it seems to me, trapped between its gangster, outsider ethos, its growing popularity, and the very real demands of providing a safe riding environment for the racers and  large crowds of cheering spectators. The dilemma is evident. It is hard to imagine that the city would ever officially permit a nocturnal cobblestone criterium. The police are on twitter, just like you, so they were aware of the race, and they cruised by a few times, apparently deciding to choose their battles and let this one happen unimpeded. But this is quite literally an accident waiting to happen.

In his Velo News story, Daniel McMahon managed to convince me that, if he has ever set foot in Red Hook before, it must have been at least ten years ago. "The race takes place in a derelict part of the city," he wrote, "a postindustrial area a stone’s throw from the waterfront, where at night it’s decidedly empty of people." That romantic description was more or less accurate until the Fairway opened at the end of Van Brunt St. and the IKEA opened on Beard street. The race organizers must know about the IKEA, since they put the finish line of their race at the entrance to its parking lot. Thanks to that big-box store, the stretch of Beard making up the southern flank of the racecourse is now also the terminal leg of the B-61 bus route. The B-77 bus route has also diverted to Beard St. to bring in shoppers, and runs along it in both directions. As for being decidedly empty of people, that might have been true had there not been a bike race....

During the Red Hook Criterium, a fast and short race which probably took the winner about 25 or 26 minutes to complete at speeds between 25 and 30 miles per hour, no fewer than four bus drivers had to be begged, wheedled and cajoled to pause and prolong the Saturday-night completion of their duty, which is to provide low-cost, highly energy-efficient transportation to New Yorkers. (Naturally, the bus never seems to run this frequently when I want to take it, let alone at eleven PM on a Saturday night, but  I was there, and I counted four).

Part of the problem is the nature of the criterium format. Another was an unevenly matched field. With a repeating loop of only three-quarters of a mile, it took only three or four laps before the gang of racers was entirely exploded. There was no tight pack, whipping around the course en masse, with long pauses in the action. Instead there were riders widely spread around the entire loop of the course, with the result that the hapless volunteer flagmen could never find the time safely to allow the buses to go through on their route. (This could have been greatly helped had anyone who was "lapped" --overtaken by a full rotation of the race leaders--been immediately forced to stop riding, but as far as I could tell that wasn't happening). Surrounded by people, with the roads blocked by pedestrians, the buses were huge and inert; even when an opportunity to move presented itself, it was impossible to get people out of the way fast enough. More than once a bus finally began to move, only to roll right into the path of more riders careening around the corner. At risk of sounding like a premature curmudgeon or a sandbox supervisor, this is going to be great fun, right up until someone gets hurt.

Night of the zombie shoppers at the "derelict" and "post-industrial" finish line.


Film Screening: Atis Rezistans, The Sculptors of the Grand Rue

As you all know, the excitement and optimism of the Port au Prince Ghetto Biennale was crumbled into ruins only weeks later by the terrible earthquakes in Haiti. One of the Grand Rue artists was killed, and the rest are struggling to find tents, feed their families, and protect a decade's worth of their prolific artistic output. MY previous blog posts on the Grand Rue are HERE.

Atis Rezistans: The Sculptors of the Grand Rue

Artist André Eugene came out of Haiti a few weeks ago and will be in New York briefly this week. At last-minute notice the 16 Beaver Group is kindly hosting a screening of Leah Gordon's short documentary on the sculptors of the Grand Rue: this Thursday, March 18th at 7:30 PM. 16 Beaver Group is at 16 Beaver Street in Manhattan.


Appearing will be:

Andre Eugene, discussing his work, the Grand Rue community, and the current situation in Haiti.

Laura Heyman, discussing her fabulous large format photography project from the Biennale.

Myself, doing my best to fill in any gaps in translation for Andre Eugene, although my kreyol is fairly rudimentary. I will also comment on my experience visiting the Biennale.

In case you have benefit fatigue, this is FREE and open to the public.


MORE Information HERE, from Pedro Lasch, who organized this event.


Revolutionary Cuernavaca

I'm in Cuernavaca, Morelos, for "Cinema Planeta," an environmental film festival founded last year. The visit is also an Antarctic get-together; both Sylvestre Guidi, the cinematographer on Ice People, and I, the sound recordist, are joining director Anne Aghion as she presents the film here. It's our first in-depth reunion since we parted ways three years ago in New Zealand after spending months together on the ice. The weather here makes a nice contrast with minus 40 and gusting polar winds. They call Cuernavaca the land of eternal spring, and each and every day here has been dominated by an immaculate blue sky and unwavering temperatures in that range of eternal pleasantness, the mid 70s. I didn't realize until I got here how long it has been since I was last in Mexico, and, not coincidentally, the extent to which I had let myself be subtly influenced by the tidal wave of negative media presented in the great north in the intervening years. Now, a week after arrival, sitting at the wrought-iron tile-topped tables of the Los Arcos café in the zocalo in view of Hernan Cortes' palace, with the brilliant tropical sunshine filtering down through a stately row of shade trees, my certainty that I would be kidnapped or caught in the crossfire of some drug-gang turf-war seems hilariously silly. 

It's true that Arturo Beltran Leyva, capo di capi of the Sinaloa cartel, was taken out in an eight-hour long hail of bullets right here in Cuernavaca just three months ago, in a tactical assault mounted by Mexico's answer to the Navy Seals. Although Morelos is landlocked, they were chosen for the mission because every other branch of the armed or police forces was considered leaky; it was assumed that if anyone else was involved Beltran Leyva would be tipped off. The taxistas gossip holds that the government is floating on a tsunami of cocaine bribes and I've been told that the Beltran Leyva takeout only happened as part of the government's collusion with "El Chapo," his rival. But while sipping a michelada in the park this narco intrigue all seems extraordinarily distant, and even improbable. Perhaps I'm the victim of a different kind of seduction, that of the bourgeois pleasures of the tourist life on the zocalo.

I had forgotten, as well, that despite NAFTA, globalization and government corruption, Mexico is eternally undaunted in its revolutionary fervor. The struggle for an endlessly unsatisfied and postponed justice, for human rights and the equitable distribution of land and resources, stretching from Emiliano Zapata to Subcomandante Marcos of the EZLN, continues.

International revolutionary superhero turned brand: "El Che" as the letter "o" in a roadside mural advertising the Condor sound system.

Hernan Cortes' palace has been converted into a museum celebrating the accomplishments of the indigenous peoples he decimated. "The age of iron, the wheel and cattle arrived wrapped in blood, pillage and fire."

Zapata is the ideal revolutionary icon, since no bad word can be said against him. Like Jose Martí in Cuba, he is invoked by both ends of the political spectrum. Here in the zocalo his flag flies as part of a tent city expressing the demands of the SME, the Mexican electrician's union. But since Subcomandante Marcos and his Chiapan Zapatista army, this iconography has taken on a new resonance. Does this banner suggest solidarity with the outlaw Marcos, or the revolutionary hero, or both?

"Cursed be those who with their words cheat and convince the people while betraying them with their actions."

"In favor of an alternative national project, we reject structural reform and privatization of the electrical sector... and changes to the pension and retirement system."

Mexico has a spectacular tradition of machine-age art-deco graphic design, and the SME union logo is a great example, combining the fascist impact of red and black with the electrified fist of the socialist worker.

Emiliano emblazoned on a pullman coach.

In addition to Ice People, I recommend the films Below Sea Level, L'Homme aux Serpents, No Impact Man, and A Blooming Business.


A letter to my friend Ken, President and CEO of Citibank (South Dakota), N.A.

Dear Kendall E. Stork:

I received and read with interest your recent letter. I've often wished we could be in closer communication with one another, given that I've been using your credit card for some years now. As much as I prefer cash, it's nice to accrue the American Advantage airmiles. Perhaps I could use some of them one day to come and visit you at your office in South Dakota, among the few states that lets credit card companies charge just about whatever rate of interest they like. Now that we write letters to each other, and all. I imagine you must have set up shop in that God-forsaken, windswept corner of the great plains soon after the Supreme Court's calamitous 1978 decision in Marquette vs. First Omaha Services, when the justices decided that all those hard-won consumer credit protection laws, passed by states where people actually live, didn't really matter; since then only the laws of the state where the credit cards are issued apply.

I'm digressing a bit, because interest rates, which any mortgage broker will happily tell you are today at historic lows, weren't the subject of your letter. They were the subject of another letter I received late last year from one of your minions, informing me that the APR on my American Advantage card was being raised to 29.99%. I almost called you to complain about that, since this is the sort of rate I would expect to be quoted if I were to try and borrow money from some of the thick-necked guys in aviator sunglasses who hang around down at the auto body shop, fondling their Blackberries with their meaty paws. Then I decided it was a waste of my time to sit around on hold waiting to moan to some underpaid, powerless, outsourced telephone operator sitting in a call center in Mumbai, especially given that I never carry a balance on my card, don't actually want or intend to borrow money from you, and don't owe you one thin dime! I may have once or twice missed the due date on wiping out that month's purchases, but of course you reward yourself handsomely for that sort of disorganization by charging me a $39 late payment fee. So it was really quite difficult not to be insulted by your rate raise.

We all know by now, of course, that I am the kind of customer you hate, since I religiously pay my balance in full each month, thereby depriving you of your usurious commission. I'm sure it is an unprofitable nuisance to have upstanding and responsible customers like myself. But to penalize me by going to 29.99%? That's embarrassing, frankly. There are entire countries, and I'll even mention the widely practiced religion of Christianity, which take a very dim view of this sort of extravagant loan-sharkery. Doesn't being in the business of applying such extortionate rates negatively impact your personal sense of well-being?

This all brings me to today's letter. Since I would under no circumstances borrow money from you given the vicious vig you have announced you would in future charge me, I don't know whether to be relieved or further insulted by your most recent announcement. Without ever asking you to increase my credit limit, I have periodically over the years gotten notes from you and yours informing me that it was being raised, usually "because I am such a valued customer," or something of that odor. But today your letter says that "we noticed that you have only been using a small portion of your available revolving credit line," and that "therefore, on March 10, 2010 we will reduce [it]." (You don't write here that you consider me "a valueless customer," but I smell that thought between the lines.) Now, I'm no more likely to borrow $22,800 from you tomorrow at 29.99% than I was to borrow $30,300 at 25.9 last fall, but it is difficult to take this $7500.00 diminishment of my access to credit lying down. After all, you've made me feel like some sort of uppity third-world nation instead of the upright citizen I know I am.

That's all for now, but I sure am glad to have had this opportunity to correspond with you and take a load off, as the expression goes. I feel much closer to you after our exchange, despite the machine-signed boilerplate you sent me. I'm perfectly willing to believe, even, that you actually enjoy living in South Dakota, as nominal a reality as that might be. Do you ever get up in the morning and look in the mirror and ask yourself if you are fulfilling the dreams and aspirations of your youth? I know I do, and I know I don't need your credit card to help me find the answer.

Yours cordially,
Richard Fleming