Posts written in March 2008

The Power of Horror

Cover of the book The Gothic from MIT Press

I just finished reading through The Gothic, a recent essay collection from the Documents of Contemporary Art series published by MIT Press. The book stitches together a variety of short essays centered on discussion of classic gothic literature and contemporary art, tapping into the thoughts of well-established artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Wall while also reflecting on younger members of the field like Banks Violette, David Altmejd, Aïda Ruilova, and Sue de Beer. Crammed within its scant 230, large-typeset pages you’ll find writing on Edgar Allen Poe (any book on gothic literature and modernity needs to have lots of Poe!), Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Freud and Lacan’s theories of the uncanny (unheimliche), deconstructions of 1980s slasher movies, psychoanalytic musings on duality and transgression, bits of cyberpunk from William Gibson, and more! When I was younger, I was thrilled reading Poe, Shelley, Baudelaire, et al., without realizing until recently how much of an impact their writings had on art and literature, continuing even today as the art world emerges slowly out of post-modernism and back towards theatricality and the sublime. Highly recommended.

Paging Dr. Sbaitso

Accessible Rich Media
Some of the best panels and meetups I attended at this year’s SXSW (the famous technology/music/film/designer eyewear festival) were on accessibility and adaptive technology, a good forum to hear what’s stirring in those fields. In particular, it seems like there’s a growing open source movement to provide tools for users with special needs and to help web designers produce accessible content.

Closed source software like JAWS will face a real challenge as open screen readers like the NVDA project become more mature and build on the popularity of other software like Firefox — while NVDA is certainly lacking the features and polish found in the more widely-used commercial products, the price (free vs. $1000) and ease-of-installation certainly make it compelling.

I also learned about the following accessibility-checking programs and Firefox extensions, immediately adding them to my developer’s toolbox:

Content Colour Analyser

  • Colour Contrast Analyser, a great tool available for Windows and OS X that gives you two color pickers: one to choose a foreground color (probably your main text color) and a second to pick a color from the background to compare it with. It then gives you detailed contrast ratio information for the two colors along with clear indicators as to whether your site or application complies with the suggested contrast needed for visually impaired users and for colorblindness. It’s one of those tools that simply works as advertised.
  • Fangs, a screen reader emulator built as a Firefox extension. When run on a page, Fangs displays a mashed-together, color-highlighted, text-only version of your content as a screen reader would read it aloud. If you’re a sighted web developer, this is a handy tool for getting a quick impression of how your page will hold up under JAWS or similar. (Bonus points for having an attractive, accessible website)
  • The Firefox Accessibility Extension from the Illinois Center for Information Technology Accessibility. This tool helps you generate reports on various accessibility issues, can display information about your page’s semantics (headings, list items, links), lets you easily switch into various high contrast modes, etc. It’s a great companion to the awesome Web Developer extension.
  • You should also check out Color Oracle, the cross-platform color blindness simulator. It’s pretty sobering if you have regular vision like I do, and it will make you appreciate that yes, two different hues can be very, very similar-looking to a good portion of your audience, and yes that’s a big problem.

(It goes without saying that these are useful but imperfect tools, never capable of giving you the full insight that would come from actual user testing. The only real way to know what real frustrations an impaired user will have with your new web app or site? Get one to come in and give it a spin!)

The other good news coming out of the past couple of weeks is the support the major browser makers are giving to the WAI-ARIA suite of standards for making web applications and forms and controls more semantic and accessible. Opera 9.5, Firefox 3, and now even IE8 (imperfectly?) are slated to support ARIA (whither Safari?). The Secrets of JavaScript Libraries panel discussion at SXSW also brought news that jQuery will soon join the Dojo toolkit in supporting ARIA-enabled widgets (I think that’s where I heard the news, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong).

These are the kinds of open source projects that I really dig: good for users, good for shaking up the established software licensing model, and good for helping solidify support for web standards. Know of any other good tools?

Odic Force Magazine

Odic Force Issue 1

A couple of weeks ago I found a new local arts magazine sitting on the freebie shelf at Flightpath, featuring the William Hundley photo taken in front of the Daniel Johnston “Hi How Are You” frog seen above — surely a cover designed to catch my eye! The newly launched magazine is called Odic Force Magazine, evidently named after the founder poked through his thesaurus and came across the Victorian-era term. At first I was worried that it was going to be another slickly-produced-but-light-on-actual-content local “arts and culture” magazine (I’m looking at you, Tribeza and Rare), but there are some good writers involved (Steve Wilson, Rachel Koper of Gallery Lombardi, et al.) and artists profiled (fun to see the workspaces of folks like ceramacist Ryan McKerley and painter Jennifer Chenoweth). It touches on the local art, music, architecture, writing, and fashion scenes without being too unbalanced or terse. It’s not yet ART LIES but it’s an impressive first issue, and it is attempting to cover far more than just the visual arts.

Odic Force’s first issue is generously available online using one of those crazy sorta-works Flash viewers (I couldn’t get it to spit out the PDF so I could read it offline, your mileage may vary).

PS: On a related note, I’m very glad to report that Cantanker’s website is back from the dead. Their domain lapsed, and I worried that they had succumbed to the fate of most good art magazines. Looking forward to their issue #5!

In with the old, out with the new?

Museums: AMOA’s new building, the National Gallery, and the Guggenheim

I know little to nothing about curatorial practice. After reading about the Austin Museum of Art’s new building, I started thinking about the number and type of shows that they put on each year, how many have been retrospectives of well-established artists or “blockbuster” shows designed to lure in the art-timid. That’s probably overly cynical, and I really appreciate their ongoing “20 to Watch / New Art in Austin” triennial series, but we’ve definitely had a healthy dose of traveling Warhols, Lichtensteins, Christo + Jean-Claudes, etc. Who can blame them? With only four shows a year in a rather tiny space, a self-described “modest” permanent collection, and a need to draw visitors from a state where art isn’t exactly on the forefront of civic spending, I’m glad that they feature less-known and local artists at all. Hopefully their new permanent space, smaller than proposed a few years back but still more than double their current size, will help them put on more challenging shows.

An article on Bloomberg.com celebrates the recent resignation of the Guggenheim’s director, Thomas Krens. Under his watch, the museum expanded into “franchises” around the world, from the well-received Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain to the less-appreciated Guggenheim Las Vegas. It sounds like the spreading of their collection worldwide is what did him in, with members of the foundation decrying the lack of attention being paid to New York and their collection there (not to mention the building’s crumbling façade). Also contentious were the party-like exhibits being thrown, and commercial-heavy shows like “The Art of the Motorcycle”. Will toning down the hype help focus on curating good contemporary art? I didn’t get the impression that the other peripheral museums will be closing down, and the one slated for the UAE is still forthcoming, so how will they beef up a collection that’s spread amongst so many campuses?

Over in London, the new director of the National Gallery had this to say: “The responsibility of a major gallery is to show people something they haven’t seen before … A major national institution should be one that proves a constant attraction to the public. What is important is encouraging historical and visual curiosity in the general public.” This approach brings up some interesting issues about a museum or gallery’s role in modern life. What’s the right balance of crowd-pleasing and crowd-challenging? There’s an interesting quote from the director in this article in the Times in which he says that 20 years ago people expected to be introduced to new art by an exhibition. How widely spread is that sentiment today, and has it been stymied by these big blockbuster shows, or is contemporary art too alien (unpleasant?) for the public, or is something else at play?