October 6th, 2007


Meanwhile, back in the real world...

The last couple of days in Boston provided a nice study in the kind of contrasts that exist in high-Gini America, but also between the world of design commentary and the actual world people live in. I arrived at the Boston ICA after a pleasant train trip up from New York. It's a very Japanese-looking structure which sits on the waterfront beyond a wilderness of carparks in the conference centre district, a sort of translucent plastic Muji jewelbox of culture. The riverside area is particularly dramatic, eddying with breezes, a spacious patio of floor- and ceiling-decking with a rakish glass crow's nest of a multimedia centre suspended from the ceiling. The Japanese impression continues in the lobby, where there's currently a vast wallpaper piece by Chiho Aoshima on display. It shows a naked cutey (weeping eco-themed tears) jutting her rump into the air and farting. The title is "The Divine Gas".

My presentation took place in the galleries. With staff wheeling a karaoke trolley around, and an audience of about 40 (more had to be turned away for lack of space) following me from exhibit to exhibit, I did ten-minute presentations about five items I'd selected from the Design Life Now exhibition. The whole thing was co-ordinated by Lizzi Ross, the ICA's Adult Program Manager, and an ex-Edinburgher like myself. The design pieces I chose were Vito Acconci's architecture (basically repeating my Vito Spreads Seed blog piece about this brilliant, ahem, jack-off of all trades), Apple's iPods (a chance for me to show off my new iPod Touch and rave about having the power of Google in my pocket), the oriental orientalism of Han Feng's costume design for Madame Butterfly, Deborah Adler's redesigned prescription drug pillboxes (which allowed me to riff on Saussure and whether "rational" design can ever communicate better than design we're habituated to) and Architecture for Humanity's African AIDS centres (a chance to talk about Lacaton and Vassal's African-inspired architecture and Shigeru Ban's Kobe earthquake relief huts, and speculate on whether cheap and ethical design mightn't also have its own aesthetic elegance).

The next day was spent wandering about in Boston, where real world design issues imposed themselves, first of all gently, then in a dramatic emergency. A student at the ICA had recommended a trip to Thayer Street in SoWa (South of Washington Street, Boston's newest gallery district), so I dutifully trekked out there only to find a couple of big brick warehouse buildings stuffed with really twee painters' studios which seemed to confirm that the really ambitious painters had all moved to New York. There was an elegant secondhand shop, though, Bobby from Boston, and a truly world-standard rare art books shop, Ars Libri, with zig-zaggy wooden shelves under a wooden ceiling and just the most amazing rarities. I could've spent most of the day poring over the old catalogues in there.

But the world beckoned in the form of a ramble over Beacon Hill, the charming-but-snobby Georgian brick quarter. You immediately know who's a tourist and who's a resident there; residents have loud voices and a strong sense of entitlement. They have "Boston Irish" faces, but they're Irish-made-good; people who look like they should be called "Lady Colleen" push prams or walk ornamental dogs. Pampered kids are ferried to and from school in Volvos. The wifi networks are all passworded; trust the rich to be mean with stuff like that.

After a trip across the common and a walk down chi-chi Newbury Street it's out to the Harvard campus, where a braying sense of entitlement also prevails; strange fresher's week rituals are happening on the lawns, as post-jock students pile on top of each other, making human pyramids. "These goons will probably be president of the US one day," I muse, "one after the other". There is, though, a great contemporary art centre (vastly superior to the sad, twee galleries in the supposedly-"gritty" SoWa district) in the form of the Carpenter Center, which is showing an exhibition I find completely fascinating: Amie Siegel's Berlin Remake, a split-screen installation showing scenes from communist-era films of East Berlin, paralleled by Amie's meticulously-matched films of the same scenes as they look today. It's a testimony to the extreme transformations Berlin has seen in just the last twenty years or so, and it's totally weird to walk out of it onto the Harvard campus (it's safe to say that the jock students wouldn't come near this show -- its curatorial quality is icing on the cake of their super-privileged college years).

I've given myself 40 minutes to make the New York train at South Station, but something unexpected happens: there's a fire at Park Street and our train is stranded on the bridge over the Charles River with no power for thirty minutes. People start to freak out in the airless carriage -- a woman next to me claims to be having an asthmatic attack. Central control isn't responding to the guard's pleas for information, so eventually she throws the doors open and we all jump out of the train (climbing over a spiked fence but not the live rail) and cross the bridge back into town on foot. The city swarms and screams with police and fire sirens. Helicopters hover overhead. You can't help thinking of 9/11 at times like this, especially if it happened on your doorstep.

I've missed my train, and the holiday weekend means there are no seats on later New York trains. I head to the bus depot and buy a ticket for the Fung Wah Chinatown bus. I'm told that my ticket is valid for the 8.30 bus, but when I get back (after a great vegetarian meal at a place called Buddha's Delight in Chinatown) there is no 8.30 bus. There's just a big queue, too big for the 9pm bus when it arrives. Eventually I make it onto a bus that leaves at 9.40, driven by a manic man-mountain who treats the freeway like a race track. It's seat-of-the-pants stuff; a chaotic, basic and bumpy end to a trip that started absurdly highfalutin and utopian. I reach New York at 2.30am just glad to be alive. I'd like to nominate this nightmarishly fast $15 bus ride my "most memorable design object of the week" and commend its designer, Fung Wah, for the thought-provoking brutality of her invention. Truly a wake-up call for sleepy aesthetes with their heads in clouds of "divine gas"!