How Marion Stokes, an Activist Librarian, Recorded 30 Years of TV News on 70,000 Video Tapes: It’s All Now Being Digitized and Put Online

“Nothing is more important than television,” said J.D. Salinger (as impersonated, that is, in an episode of Bojack Horseman). A passive, pacifying medium—“cool,” as Marshall McLuhan called it—TV has also long been an easy target for punditry, for many decades before the perpetrator du jour, video games. Television spread ignorance, was “the drug of the nation,” said Michael Franti, peddled fake heroes on “channel zero,” said Public Enemy, and would lead to an “electrical re-tribalization of the West,” McLuhan predicted (and further explained in this interview).

Marion Stokes set out to do more than any of the men above who made pronouncements about television. She dedicated her life to preserving the evidence, taping television news for over 33 years, from 1979 “until the day she died,” writes the Internet Archive, who now hold Stokes’ “unique 71k+ video cassette collection” and intend to digitize all of it. Stokes “was a fiercely private African American social justice champion, librarian, political radical, TV producer, feminist, Apple Computer super-fan and collector like few others.”

She “questioned the media’s motivations and recognized the insidious intentional spread of disinformation…. Ms. Stokes was alarmed. In a private herculean effort, she took on the challenge of independently preserving the news record of her times in its most pervasive and persuasive form—TV.” She also preserved three decades of televised critiques of television. She began making her archive at the beginning of the Iran Hostage Crisis on November 14, 1979. “She hit record and never stopped,” her son Michael Metelits says in Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, “a newly released documentary,” reports Atlas Obscura, “about [Stokes] and the archival project that became her life’s work.”

In one remarkable example of TV critique, at the top, we see William Davidon, professor of Physics at Haverford College, decrying television for spreading ignorance, social irresponsibility, and passive consumption, making people unable to participate in the political process. The roundtable discussion took place on a 1968 episode of Input. A little over a year later, writes the Internet Archive, Davidon “would take an action of great social consequence,” breaking into an FBI field office with seven others and stealing the evidence that “revealed COINTELPRO.” (They were never caught, and Davidon’s role only came out posthumously.)

Then known as Marion Metelits, Stokes co-produced Input, a local Philadelphia Sunday morning talk show, with her future husband John S. Stokes Jr., and both of them appear on the program above (both credited as representing the Wellsprings Ecumenical Center). The conversation ranges widely, with Ms. Metelits and Davidon spiritedly defending “human potential” against too-rigid systems of classification and manipulation. There are a few dozen more episodes of Input currently at the Internet Archive, with panels featuring academics, activists, and clergy (such as the episode explaining, sort of, the “Wellsprings Ecumenical Center.”)

It’s a hard-hitting, controversial show for a local broadcast, and it gives us a detailed view of a range of both popular and radical positions of the time, including Stokes’, which we can learn more about in the journals, notes, lists, newspaper and magazine clippings, pamphlets, leaflets, handbills, and more she collected since 1960, many of which have also been digitized at the Internet Archive. Stokes backed her views with action. She was “surveilled by the government for her early political activism,” Atlas Obscura writes, and “attempted to defect to Cuba” with her first husband Melvin Metelits. She kept her recording project private, “eschewed Tivo” and “never sent an email in her life.”

She also made a small fortune in Apple stock, which funded her project and “the massive storage space she required as the sole force behind it.” Stokes left us no doubt as to why she documented thirty years of TV news. But those documents get to speak for themselves—or they will, at least. Stokes recorded far more than her own program, three decades more. And the Internet Archive is currently “endeavoring to help make sure” the entire collection “is digitized and made available online to everyone, forever, for free.”

If television had, and maybe still has, the power ascribed to it by its many astute critics, then Marion Stokes’ painstaking archive offers an invaluable means of understanding how we got to where we are, if not how to change course. Stokes’ collection, and the documentary about her life, show “how the news was going to evolve into an addiction,” as Owen Gleiberman writes at Variety. The project took over her life and fractured her relationships. “Even if you’re obsessed with the inaccuracy of TV news, it has still entrapped you, like a two-way mirror that won’t let you see the other side.” If the medium is the message, the other side might always be more television.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Scandalous Painting That Helped Create Modern Art: An Introduction to Édouard Manet’s Olympia

Here in the 21st century, only the most sheltered among us could be shocked by the sight of a naked body. It would seem that the whole of human history has at least that in common with us: only certain societies at certain times have considered nudity a force worth suppressing. But then, has the problem ever been nudity in general, or rather the context, the nature, and the implications of particular instances of nudity? It’s fair to say that Titian’s Venus of Urbino has scandalized practically no one. Yet three centuries later, Édouard Manet’s outwardly similar 1865 canvas Olympia sent shockwaves through the Paris art world. Why?

The rules of the Paris Academy of Fine Arts at the time dictated that “great art was supposed to convey a moral or intellectual message,” says the narrator of Vox’s video essay on Olympia above. “All acceptable art fell into one of five categories, ranked by their capacity to deliver those messages.” The lesser of these were still lifes and landscapes, in the middle fell genre paintings, and the greatest were portraits and historical works. And “equally important to what was painted was how it was painted,” with more points going to “idolized, prettified visions of the world, smooth and beautiful with no body hair and flawless skin,” all painted in a way “that follow the rules of depth and perspective, meaning it looks like it could exist in the real world.”

The Academy of Fine Arts would pay little regard, then, to the “stark and unnatural colors” of Olympia, its “rough and textured” brushstrokes, and its much “flatter and less complex” look than the Renaissance realism idolized in those days. That Manet would dare give his obvious “homage” to the Venus of Urbino a title like Olympia, a common nom de guerre for prostitutes in 19th-century Paris, caused some seriously ruffled feathers as well. So why did the Academy put Manet’s painting on display in the first place? “It probably had something to do with his growing popularity. You can see his influence so clearly in what came next. He led the charge towards Modernism in the late 1800s, starting with the Impressionists — Monet, Degas — who adopted his penchant for modern themes and lucent brushstrokes.”

A more 20th-century reading of Olympia holds up the painting as proof that “no one entity gets to decide what art should look like.” An episode of the ArtCurious podcast about Olympia goes further still, claiming for Manet’s subject the status of a feminist icon. But even the painting’s contemporary detractors saw something important in it. Émile Zola at first seemed to dismiss the work by writing, “You wanted a nude, and you chose Olympia, the first that came along.” But he also admitted that Olympia captured something more genuine than even the most gloriously realistic paintings could: “When our artists give us Venuses, they correct nature, they lie. Édouard Manet asked himself why lie, why not tell the truth; he introduced us to Olympia, this fille of our time, whom you meet on the sidewalks.”

Related Content:

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A Quick Six Minute Journey Through Modern Art: How You Get from Manet’s 1862 Painting, “The Luncheon on the Grass,” to Jackson Pollock 1950s Drip Paintings

The Most Disturbing Painting: A Close Look at Francisco Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son”

Van Gogh’s Ugliest Masterpiece: A Break Down of His Late, Great Painting, The Night Café (1888)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Lemony Snicket Reveals His Edward Gorey Obsession in an Upcoming Animated Documentary

Had the gloom-haunted Edward Gorey found a way to have a love child with Dorothy Parker, their issue might well have been Lemony Snicket, the pseudonymous author of a multivolume family chronicle brought out under the genteel appellation A Series of Unfortunate Events

– Gregory Maguire, The New York Times

Author Daniel Handleraka Lemony Snicket—was but a child when he fortuitously stumbled onto the curious oeuvre of Edward Gorey.

The little books were illustrated, hand-lettered, and mysterious. They alluded to terrible things befalling innocents in a way that made young Handler laugh and want more, though he shied from making such a request of his parents, lest the books constitute pornography.

(His fear strikes this writer as wholly reasonable—my father kept a copy of The Curious Sofa: A Pornographic Work by Ogdred Wearyaka Edward Gorey—stashed in the bathroom of my childhood home. Its perversions were many, though far from explicit and utterly befuddling to a third grade bookworm. The exceedingly economical text hinted at a multitude of unfamiliar taboos, and Gorey the illustrator understood the value of a well-placed ornamental urn.)

Interviewed above for Christopher Seufert’s upcoming feature-length Gorey documentary, Handler is effusive about the depth of this early influence:

The gothic setting. (Handler always fancied that an in-person meeting with Gorey would resemble the first 20 minutes of a Hammer horror movie.)

The dark, unwinking humor arising from a plot as grim as that of The Hapless Childor The Blue Aspicthe first title young Handler purchased with his own money.

An intentionally murky pseudonym geared to ignite all manner of wildly readerly speculation as to the author’s lifestyle and/or true identity. (Gorey attributed various of his works to Dogear Wryde, Ms. Regera Dowdy, Eduard Blutig, O. Müde and the aforementioned Ogdred Weary, among others.)

Even Lemony Snickett’s website carries a strong whiff of Gorey.

In acknowledgment of this debt, Handler sent copies of the first two Snickett books to the reclusive author, along with a fan letter that apologized for ripping him off. Gorey died in April 2000, a couple of weeks after the package was posted, leaving Handler doubtful that it was even opened.

Handler namechecks other artists who operate in Gorey’s thrall: filmmakers Tim Burton and Michel Gondry, musicians Amanda Palmer and Trent Reznor, and novelist Neil Gaiman.

Perhaps owing to the spectacular popularity of Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events, Gorey has lately become a bit more of an above-ground discovery for young readers. Scholastic has a free Edward Gorey lesson plan, geared to grades 6-12.

More information about Christopher Seufert’s Gorey documentary, with animations by Ben Wickey and the active participation of its subject during his final four years of life, can be found here.

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The First American Picture Book, Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats (1928)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch the Completely Unsafe, Vertigo-Inducing Footage of Workers Building New York’s Iconic Skyscrapers

Would anyone in their right mind sign up for a job that had a high risk of mortality/disability? Or a job where red hot metal is being hurled directly at your face? Back in the 1920s this was the lot of the men who built New York’s skyline, the men who constructed the Chrysler Building and the Empire State, giant phallic symbols of America’s burgeoning wealth and power.

In this short clip (remastered and quite decently colorized) from the Smithsonian Channel, we get a brief glimpse of the perils encountered daily on the building site. Nicknamed “roughnecks,” the narrator points out that they work without harnesses, safety ropes, or hard hats. Red hot rivets are thrown at men on the metal beams higher up and they are meant to catch them with what looks like a tin funnel. You can see the thinnest of ropes used to lift the now-iconic stainless steel art-deco eagles into place by men weary felt hats and no gloves.

The workers came from Europe, many who had trained on ships. Some came from Montreal’s Kahnawake reservation. The latter, known as Iron Walkers, were Mohawk, known for working fearlessly at great heights.

“A lot of people think Mohawks aren’t afraid of heights; that’s not true,” Kyle Karonhiaktatie Beauvais said in 2002. “We have as much fear as the next guy. The difference is that we deal with it better.”

Much of this work was documented by photographer Lewis Hine, who captured a mix of brute strength and gravity defying courage along with private moments of rest, catching a smoke or taking lunch. You can see many of his famous photos in this clip:

The Chrysler Building was completed in 1930, and reached a height of 1,046 feet (319 m), featuring 77 floors. It held its fame as the world’s tallest building for only 11 months. In 1931 workers completed the Empire State Building, standing at 1,454 feet (443.2 m) and housing 102 floors. (That’s dinky compared to the current record-holder: Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, which stands at 2,722 feet (829.8 m)).

Heads up: The Smithsonian Channel clip has some of the worst examples of YouTube comments among the videos we’ve highlighted over the year, as if people still don’t work in terrible and unsafe conditions in order to feed their families and pay rent. And look! Here’s a guy who walks out onto the Chrysler eagle just for fun. Don’t say we didn’t warn you:

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

Ray Harryhausen’s Creepy War of the Worlds Sketches and Stop-Motion Test Footage

Most of us know The War of the Worlds because of Orson Welles’ slightly-too-realistic radio adaptation, first broadcast on Halloween 1938. But its source material, H.G. Wells’ 1898 science-fiction novel, still fires up the imagination. Its many adaptations since have taken the form of comic books, video games, television series, and more besides. Several films have used The War of the Worlds as their basis, including a high-profile one in 2005 directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise, and more than half a century before that, George Pal’s first 1953 adaptation in all its Technicolor glory.

In recent years materials have surfaced showing us the midcentury War of the Worlds picture that could have been, one featuring the stop-motion creature-creation of Ray Harryhausen.

“Well before CGI technology beamed extraterrestrials onto the big screen, stop-motion animation master Harryhausen brought to life Wells’ vision of a slimy Martian with enormous bulging eyes, a slobbering beaked mouth and ‘Gorgon groups of tentacles’ in a 16 mm test reel,” writes Den of Geek’s Elizabeth Rayne.

“The result is something that looks like a twisted mashup of a Muppet and an octopus.” Harryhausen had long dreamed of bringing The War of the Worlds to the big screen, and anyone who has seen Harryhausen’s work of the 1950s and 60s, as it appears in such films as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, knows that he was surely the man for this job. He certainly had the right spirit: as his own words put it at the beginning of the test-footage clip, “ANY imaginative creature or thing can be built and animated convincingly.”

“I actually built a Martian based on H.G. Wells description,” Harryhausen says in the interview clip above. “He described the creature that came from the space ship a sort of an octopus-like type of creature.” Harryhausen’s also presented his vision with included sketches of the tripod invaders laying waste to America both urban and rural. “I took it all around Hollywood,” he says, but alas, it never quite convinced those who kept the gates of the Industry in the 1940s.

“We couldn’t raise money. People weren’t that interested in science fiction at that time.” Times have changed; the public has long since developed an unquenchable appetite for stories of human beings and advanced, hostile space invaders locked in mortal combat. But now such a spectacle would almost certainly be realized with the intensive use of computer-generated imagery, a technology impressive in its own way, but one that may never equal the personality, physicality, and sheer creepiness of the creatures that Ray Harryhausen brought painstakingly to life, one frame at a time, all by hand.

via @41Strange

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Hear the Prog-Rock Adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds: The 1978 Rock Opera That Sold 15 Million Copies Worldwide

Hear Orson Welles’ Iconic War of the Worlds Broadcast (1938)

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Glorious Poster Art of the Soviet Space Program in Its Golden Age (1958-1963)

How do you sell a government program that spends tens of millions of dollars on research and development for space travel? While the average taxpayer may love the idea of braving new frontiers, far fewer are apt to vote for funding scientific research, the space program’s ostensible reason for being.

During the Cold War, however, when the biggest breakthroughs in space flight occurred, selling the program didn’t involve sophisticated methods, only the broadest themes of heroism, patriotism, futurism, and, in more or less subtle ways, militarism. The appeal to science always went hand-in-hand with an appeal to the sublimely austere beauty of the heavens (which we’d hate to lose to the other guys.)

All of these were strategies NASA utilized, and then some. In addition to planting a U.S. flag on the moon, they delivered the first color image of Earth from space. On the ground, they enlisted artists like Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell, and Laurie Anderson and actors like Star Trek‘s Nichelle Nichols to sell the program.

Recently, NASA has seemed to be in a reflective mood, from its antiquarian preparations for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing to its ad campaign of retro posters that resemble not only vintage sci-fi book jackets and movie ads, but also the futuristic social realism of their former Soviet rivals.

There’s almost something of an admission in NASA’s retro posters: we may have won the “space race,” but it wasn’t winner take all. There were some things the Soviets just did better—and when it came to making space travel look like the most monumentally heroic and exciting thing ever, they excelled, as you can see in this early collection of Soviet space posters from 1958-1963.

There’s something for, well, not everyone, but for men, women, young, old, young adults. Sci-fi geeks and model builders, people celebrating the new year, children celebrating the new year, a gaggle of young students who somehow all look just like Mary Tyler Moore. The artists are not celebrities, they’re fellow workers who “foresaw a Utopia in space,” writes Flashbak.

The Communists would bring peace and prosperity not only to the people of Earth but also to the technology-enabled, God-free Great Beyond. The artists created Soviet Space posters, vivid, energising and inspiring visions of the rosy-fingered dawn of tomorrow. They’re terrific.

They’re maybe even more terrific when we consider that ordinary citizens didn’t have much say, at all, in the funding and direction of the U.S.S.R.’s space program. (Whether American citizens did is another question.) It was important that Soviets know, however, that “We will open the distant worlds!” as one poster reads, and, as the sixties teenage cigarette ad on a train above proclaims, “In the 20th century, the rockets race to the stars, the trains are going to the lands of achievements!”

The number of posters here is but a smattering of those posted on All about Russia (here and here) and Flashbak. Each poster has its own enchanting quality: emulating the propaganda of the 1930s; turning industrial laborers into anonymous towering heroes; and reaching some very heavy metal heights of bombast, as in the ad above, which declares, “Glory to the conquerors of the universe!”

One poster superimposes the beaming faces of four cosmonauts, lined up like Kraftwerk, over a scene of four rockets leaving the earth. “Gagarin, Titov, Nikolaev, Popoviich—the mighty knights of our days.” (I’m not sure how that pun works in Russian.) The Soviets could also proclaim “Glory to the first woman cosmonaut!,” Valentina Tereshkova, who became the first woman to fly in space in 1963.

The Soviet space program deserves plenty of recognition for its many historic firsts, and also for the wildly enthusiastic optimism of its ad campaigns. They sold grand ideas about the exploration and, yes, conquest of space (and “the universe”) with the same verve and populist appeal as U.S. companies sold cars, cigarettes, and washing machines. Glory to the unsung Mad Men of the Soviet space poster!

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Watch Interplanetary Revolution (1924): The Most Bizarre Soviet Animated Propaganda Film You’ll Ever See

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Digital Animation Compares the Size of Trees: From the 3-Inch Bonsai, to the 300-Foot Sequoia

It took about 110 days to put together. A digital animation comparing the size of trees, from a miniature 3-inch bonsai, to a sequoia soaring more than 300 feet high. Some trees are smaller than blades of grass. Others bigger than the Statue of Liberty. A lot fall somewhere between.

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via Colossal

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David Byrne Launches Reasons to Be Cheerful, an Online Magazine Featuring Articles by Byrne, Brian Eno & More

Happiness, we know, is hard to come by, even in the best times. And if we agree on nothing else, we might agree that these are not the best of times. An air of gloomy dread and outraged alarm prevails for good reason. There have been many other times in history to justifiably feel this way. In 1944, German Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno—exiled for ten years from his home and sojourning through a U.S. he found increasingly fascist in character—resigned himself to quiet despair.

“There is no way out of entanglement,” he wrote in his trenchant, gloomy collection of aphorisms, Minima Moralia. “The only responsible course is to… conduct oneself privately as modestly, unobtrusively and unpretentiously as is required, no longer by good upbringing, but by the shame of still having air to breathe, in hell.”

Adorno’s absurdist melancholia came from many places: his assessment of capitalism’s inescapability, his survivor’s guilt, his generally morose temperament…. He rarely confessed to having happy thoughts even when things were going well. Another thinker of the period, philosopher of the absurd and a writer for the French Resistance during World War II, had a very different take on the question of happiness in dark times.

Albert Camus reminded us that all times are dark times for someone. Speaking after the war in 1959, he castigated the idea that we should be shamed into misery. “Today happiness is like a crime,” Camus sneered, “never admit it. Don’t say ‘I’m happy’ otherwise you will hear condemnation all around.” One pertinent question both of these very different perspectives address is whether happiness is morally responsible.

Former Talking Heads frontman, record label maven, and frequent cultural critic David Byrne has answered the question in the affirmative with his project, Reasons to Be Cheerful, first an online compendium of news stories, now a curated online magazine designed to be a “tonic for tumultuous times.” Reasons to Be Cheerful starts with the premise that we are subjected daily to “amplified negativity” that wildly skews our view of events around the world.

It’s an old complaint; we’ve all heard, or voiced, a version of why don’t they ever show any good news? Byrne put his creative energy and resources behind the criticism to do something about it, “collecting good news,” he says, “not schmaltzy, feel-good news, but stuff that reminded me, ‘Hey, there’s positive stuff going on! People are solving problems and it’s making a difference!’”

In their blurb for the introductory video at the top, the Reasons to Be Cheerful team describe the site as “an online editorial project” that is “part magazine, part therapy session, part blueprint for a better world.” The site’s “stories of hope” don’t shy away from sentiment, but they are “rooted in evidence” and purport to show “smart, proven, replicable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.”

A sampling of articles currently on the site gives us a story about how lawyers might “end up saving the world” by taking on polluters the way they took on the tobacco industry; a piece about how cheap solar in China has “fueled the world’s green-energy revolution”; and essays about education in prison and the creation of a public waterfront from donated private property on Lake Erie. This being a David Byrne project, there is also, of course, a story about “the way to a two-wheeled utopia.” The current edition features several articles by Byrne himself, and another by Brian Eno.

Byrne and the editors and writing staff make no explicitly political statements, but they clearly value things like quality public education, clean air and water, a sustainable climate, and the creation of more public space—all areas that are now vastly under threat. Whether or not you find your own reasons to be cheerful in this commitment to positive journalism may depend on who and where you are, and whether you tend to see the world more like Adorno or Camus.

via Rolling Stone

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Albert Camus Explains Why Happiness Is Like Committing a Crime—”You Should Never Admit to it” (1959)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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