Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Naked and unaware: art voyeurism

Oh yes, you know home-based voyeurism. In Silicon Valley, it’s hard to avoid. To be precise: the practice of walking or driving around beautiful places and marveling at who lives there. And feeling great if it’s you. To wit: Palo Alto’s Crescent Park or Professorville neighborhoods, the entire walled city of Atherton, and the mansions tucked into hillsides up and down the Peninsula along nausea-inducing windy roads (you know, the estates with their own vineyards / go-kart courses / private hiking trails, etc.)

But there’s something that gives me a special thrill beyond even the most breath-taking, palatial monument to Internet wealth. It’s peeking behind the walls at museums before exhibits are open to the public, or art voyeurism. It’s looking underneath the skirts of the museum. It’s naked art.

Seeing a Matisse lying around on a table, idly, without a rigid spotlight cast on it, produces goosebumps. Absent is the bored-yet-watchful guard circling visitors like a shark, waiting to see who steps too close to the artwork. Nor are there prim, proper wall texts from two common schools of art-writing thought: the “hit ‘em with abstract notions of ‘meaning’ and big, Ivy-League vocabulary until they’re awed” or the “dumb it down for a ‘modern’ audience” type of writing. In fact, there’s nothing. Just the work of art.

Sometimes not even a glass case stands between you and a Mesopotamian jar – not impressed? This thing lay in the Iraqi desert for 7,000 years! – or an Impressionist masterpiece. Gee, without the cage it’s usually in, that canvas is prettier than a postcard.

I had a chance to indulge in a little art voyeurism at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center. A new exhibit called “Durer to Picasso” is coming. How dreamy-sounding. I've visited Durer's relatively intact 15th-century house in Nuremberg, Germany and stood silently in his chambers, trying to imagine the master heralded for bringing the Italian Renaissance north at his work.

Naturally, I strove to look in at this installation-in-progress. I peered beyond a wall-like divider and saw a table with a canvas on top. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the work itself. But there was the gallery, a little messy, with objects lying about, clearly neither prim nor proper. I was thrilled. I plan to try to get a better look next time. As I left, a grim-faced man wheeled in a cart with something swaddled in white, gauze-y looking material. Who knew what masterpieces lay below? And right near him, school-kids chatted casually, unaware of the unadorned art rolling past.

Another time, at Berlin’s Bode Museum , some exhibits remained incomplete right up to the press debut – shortly before the actual public opening. Oh, the temptation to touch the tiny sculptures, so bare, so inviting, so casually strewn about! (No, I ultimately didn’t.)

For art lovers, the temptation of art voyeurism crosses class lines. If you love art, you may not be immune to the temptation of advanced voyeurism – namely, walking into an incomplete exhibition and assuring yourself that even when you inevitably get caught, it will be worth it. Witness the immensely polite, proper and wealthy Texan, a friend of President Bush in fact, who took me on a visit to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. She grinned guiltily and suggested we just, um, slip right in here to take a peek at the exhibit under construction. Egads! She led the way and we peered at the paintings, up close, raw and without other visitors or a curator telling us how to think about it.

(Not to slight curators – they do really important work. They pour themselves into making an exhibit special and coherent for a wide range of visitors. And often their wall text is essential and helpful, despite the two less-fun categories of writing I describe above. But there’s just something magical about art, undressed.)

So we strolled through the exhibition, just beyond the roped-off area. And when caught, this Texan queen was charming to the guard. And not penitent in the slightest, I should add. "We just wanted a little peek," she said in honeyed voice.

Despite my Kimbell experience, I couldn't actually endorse entering an unfinished installation, given the risks to the art. What if you stumbled over a Picasso and fell smack down on the Demoiselles D'Avignon?! Could you ever forgive yourself? Casino magnate Steve Wynn accidentally elbowed and tore the canvas of Picasso's Le Reve (1932), interrupting a $149 million deal to sell it in 2006. Nevermind the damage to the poor masterpiece itself.

But it's worth a harmless look, a crane of the head. Try it. Go up to an installation-in-progress and peek around the dividers. Sniff about until a guard shoos you away. Getting a sense of the museum without its starched collar, white walls and disciplined aura is a great thing – a real work of art.

Images Creative Commons licensed.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Yogurt wars takes on election frenzy

The owners of Fraiche -- the ultra-popular frozen yogurt store in downtown Palo Alto with legions of devotees including Facebook regulars and Steve Jobs -- have thrown their hat in the ring.

Riffing on the lawn signs popping up everywhere in town as the Nov. 4 election approaches –particularly the orange “Yes on N” libraries-bond signs -- owners made 30 signs proclaiming “Yes on Yummm!”

They’re now sprinkled on lawns and shrubs throughout downtown. Employees are wearing “Pro-biotic” pins – tongue-in-cheek election flair.

According to Fraiche co-owner Jessica Gilmartin, the signs are an effort to bring a bit of levity to a frazzled societal moment fraught with political tension.

And, she added, Fraiche wanted to remind customers how darn tasty it is, given the other frozen yogurt stores popping up in town.

Frozen yogurt, in this case, is not a synonym for “ice cream but less tasty” but rather actually meaning yogurt that is very cold. On the heels of the Los Angeles-born Pinkberry trend, such dessert purveyors have popped up left and right in Palo Alto, including Red Mango at 429 University Ave. --opened by a former Googler -- and Culture at 340 S. California Ave.

For a close-up view of the yogurt wars, check out the Yelp review thread for newly opened Culture. 

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Watergate Wannabes: 5 Tips

Journalism pros weigh in on “making it” these days in Silicon Valley


It’s not just “journalism.” It’s the magic juice that shapes perceptions. It elects leaders, exposes scandal, brings joy and reflects our times. It gives us meaning, sometimes. People hold it dear. People are addicted to it. They swap stories they’ve heard. They forward links. And more and more, everyone wants to take part in creating it through blogs and other new media.

If the newspaper is dying – full disclosure: this reporter just cancelled her Wall Street Journal print subscription because online reading was more convenient – news is certainly not.

Still, the future of news is precarious. Bottom lines at traditional publishing houses are teetering and perhaps likely to tip in this current crisis.

So I asked a group of experts: Whither journalism? As a young professional, this wasn’t just navel-gazing reflection –my future’s at stake.

And Silicon Valley is a particularly great place to ask this question, because here is where the innovations that have been both news’ downfall and its revolution, its destroyer and liberator, have arisen. Namely, the Internet. Also, Craigslist, Digg and a host of social media to which people now turn for information. And while I’m not sure who first blew air into a bubble that grew into the blogosphere, I know many of its staunchest supporters are HQ’d in the Valley.

The people I queried included a local Pulitzer prize winner; a journalist synonymous with the Valley scene after a decade of coverage; a longtime tech correspondent who recently founded a journalism-centric startup; a refugee from the Bay Area’s gutted journalism scene who fled to New York; a newsanchor titan from the good ol' days based in the Big Apple; and a survivor at a local paper, still staggering forth despite the disappearance of many colleagues.

Why the anonymity? These folks spoke to me as friends, not as interview subjects. Only later did I realize their perceptions coalesced on several points. This seemed worth sharing, as a new breed of conventional wisdom -- the conventional wisdom of crisis and opportunity.  They are:


1. Don’t go into journalism.

Things aren’t like they used to be. The pay is awful and no one’s hiring. If I had to do it again, well, I don’t know what I’d do.


2. You’ve got to love it.

Ok, so you still want to be a reporter. It has to be because any other job would feel like excruciating torture. Maybe you crave to know what’s going on, who is making deals or where the action’s at. Maybe you need the freedom. Or maybe you just like people so much you want to talk to them and write for them all day. But you’ve got to want it really badly. Or it will never work out.


3. This is a great time to be a journalist.

Everything is changing. I don’t envy you. It’s scary out there now. Geez, it’s ugly. But you’re young and creative. Create a blog, brand yourself, specialize your content, be indispensable. Don’t tie your fortunes to one paper or blog. Be your own product. Silicon Valley is a hot topic and it’s not about to cool off. You may watch the great bonfire of profits and creative-professional wages flare for another few years before something dazzling and fertile emerges from the burnt ground. It’s an exciting time. This is the great democratization of media. Try to be part of it.


4. Just work hard.

There are no shortcuts. I went to every bullsh*t panel and networking event because you never know. I try to meet three new people a month. If you can meet the right people, you can make it, because you will have access to information everyone else wants about the most exciting region on Earth—Silicon Valley. Venture capitalists in particular have their eyes on what everyone else is doing. So cultivate your network.


5. I love this job.

Not technically a tip, but a significant commonality nonetheless.

Newspaper image CC-licensed 

Monday, October 6, 2008

Economic Crisis? Tell it to my Porsche


This sign, spotted on the side of a stoop on Waverley Street in downtown Palo Alto, says “Porsche Street” in German. It intrigued me when I first saw it a month ago and now that the Dow is slip-sliding around, I thought of it once again. Porsche Street? Hardly. Even in Palo Alto, investment portfolios must be taking hits. 

I returned to wondering –WHERE DID THIS SIGN COME FROM?

And I have decided to crowd-source the answer.

 In other words, reader poll: 

Is the Porschestrasse sign a


a)      Kitschy souvenir brought home from the Porsche factory in Deutschland, akin to hanging a “Budweiser Boulevard” on your deck after a trip to scenic St. Louis?

b)      Trinket from nostalgic German expats who moved here to work in the Bayerische Motoren Werke –more commonly known as BMW – office a few blocks away?

c)      Proud plaque of a gaudy Porsche owner who wanted everyone to know that s/he not only bought a car that costs more than a pony but also has a facsimile of a German street sign to prove his/her ultimate “in-ness” vis-à-vis foreign autos?

d)      Sly jab from card-carrying Prius owners at the surrounding wealthy drivers?

e)      Random item a teenage boy purchased at a yard sale – its provenance possibly relating to a, b, c or d – then begged Mom and Dad to let him nail up outside, a-la a school flag?

f)        Invent your own.


Help me answer this. Or, better yet , email your friend with the side business selling Porschestrasse signs and tell him I'd really like to pick his brain.