Notes and Notices

On art, architecture and design


Why Japanese bathrooms are awesome

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

The bathroom is the most intimate place I can think of, and the Japanese have surpassed expectations when it comes to its design. At first, I thought it was just toilets, but this adorable video shows me that Japanese people can be amazingly thoughtful when it comes to spaces and amenities. I'd love to have a bathroom like this in my home, wouldn't you?


High Heel History

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

High heels are the symbol of sexy, at least to many men and women, but it's also killer on one's feet. I've never been much for them, but they do have psychological effects on its wearer, be it man or woman.

A 17th century Persian riding shoe kept a man’s foot in his stirrups—and influenced European menswear.(© 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (photo: Ron Wood)) via Quartz

Did you know historically, men and women wore heels? This Quartz article notes:
...some 2,000 years ago male Greco-Roman actors wore thick, cork-soled platforms to exaggerate their heights as they portrayed gods and royalty, bringing to mind the more recent adage, “the higher the heel, the closer to God.”
Persian cavalrymen brought heels into the West in the last millennia, influencing 16th century Venice. Venitians then took this heel and created chopines that ranged from 6 to 20 inches (!) King Louis  XIV also enjoyed a silk covered heel.

But now, the heel is mostly a feminine fashion accessory and one that's starting to separate us, as my friend Meghan Cleary notes in her Boston Globe article. What was once something to be proud of, is something that's now forced on the female of the species. In response, wearing flats is now seen as an act of resistance.
“It may seem somewhat overblown to declare the seemingly trivial act of wearing flats to a formal event as an act of resistance, but the potential impact is truly significant. After all, it’s not that long ago that women were forbidden from wearing pants in public,” says Juliet Williams, an associate professor of gender studies and associate dean of social sciences at UCLA. “By this logic, the expectation (if not formal compulsion) that women wear high heels may be seen as one more shackle that needs to be cast off if women are ever to truly compete, toe-to-comfortable-toe, with men.”
Isn't it strange that what was once an accessory that brought us closer to God has become a chain around the female ankle? It is after all just a heel, but what symbolism it carries depending on its context. So the next time you try on a pair at a department store, think about the message you're telegraphing to your public.


Manila then and now

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

Famed Manila tour guide, artist and provocateur Carlos Celdran once commented to me that Manila is "sincere and it's real. It's not the most gorgeous city in the world. World War II, poverty and mass commercialization have eroded much of it's charm. But the city is very open. Love it or leave it. Manila won't give you an apology. It's appeal isn't easily revealed but if you can't find beauty and poetry here, you won't find it anywhere."

It's hard for me to imagine a Manila that is the Pearl of the Pacific. All I saw of Manila was its grunginess, its dirt, the consequences of something as far removed from my lifetime as World War II. This Google Cultural Institute tour does a lot to remind me that this city that I've called home for three decades once held so much beauty and promise--and it can once again be that. Its photos capture more of the city's lost legacy of grand architecture than words can. So, in anticipation of the Philippines' "Independence Day" from the Americans this July 4th, here's a good overview of Manila way back when and now.

 Google Institute Tour of Manila


What Marina Abramovic Taught Me About Labor

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

Marina Abramovic, called the "grandmother of performance art," knows endurance and pain. Throughout her career, she has subjected her body to public scrutiny.

In Rhythm 10 (1973), she recorded herself hopskipping a sharp knife across the spaces in between her fingers, eventually cutting herself multiple times. Once she finished, she took the recording and tried to recreate that same heart-stopping movement, breaths, bruises, cuts and all. In Relation in Space (1976), she ran into her male performance partner again and again, violently, supposedly mixing male and female energy until there was only 'that self' left.

Her most famous work is perhaps The Artist is Present (2010), where she sat in a chair stationed at the Museum of Modern Art, mostly unmoving for three months, eight hours a day. It may seem like an easy task, but as anyone who had to sit still can attest, it is grueling. We already know sitting can kill the body, Abramovic's feat simply reinforces that. But that's not the point of her work.

In the 2012 documentary of the same name, we learn that The Artist is Present is about slowing time, opening oneself to the person sitting across the artist. By focusing just on the person that sat in front of Abramovic, she allows herself to be a mirror for all the thoughts and emotions for those that sat with her. By the smiles and tears her piece engendered, Abramovic's piece was particularly moving.

I was transfixed. Each frame revealed just how many people were lined up to be seen, really seen. It showed me that too many people feel invisible.

I was also drawn to Abramovic's commitment to her piece. Despite sheer pain that I imagine only got worse day by day, as she sat in the chair motionless, she persisted. She could have stopped the performance at any point, but she continued to the very end. Indeed, as I watched the documentary, I could see her struggle with the pain. Her eyes were bleary, her gaze unsteady. It was only her will keeping her upright. Toward the end of the three months, she admits, "This is about the limit, even for me."

When asked why she did not draw away from the pain, she said in an accented Yugoslavian voice, "There is pain, but the pain is a kind of keeping secret. The moment you really go through the door of pain, you enter into another state of mind. This feeling of beauty and unconditional love and this feeling of 'there is not border' between your body and environment. You start having this incredible feeling of lightness and harmony with yourself. It feels holy. I can't explain. That's when others start feeling that something is different."

As I heard her words, my mind conjured up an image of another long moment of pain that almost every woman would experience: labor.

Labor, the long interminable period before a new life arrives in this world, can last anywhere from six hours to days (at least that's what I've heard from friends). It comes with pain, but pain that is productive to say the least. Though Abramovic has never birthed a child, her words surely applied to all women who have experienced what it is to labor.

Pain, while not pleasant, does come with rewards. It may seem ludicrous to some, but its physical effect also produces a kind of bliss. Based on Abramovic's words, it also helps erase the hesitant, thinking part of the human mind, forcing us to rely purely on instinct. I only hope I can be as ruminative when my turn at the metaphorical artist's chair is up.

Catch The Artist is Present on Netflix. You can watch her struggle with her art piece and the pain that comes with it around the 1:18:00 mark.


Urban is?

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

We've all have probably heard the statistic that more than half the world's population live in urban areas, but did you know that "urban" doesn't really have a formal definition. What defines cities and non-cities?

Nothing, it seems except arbitrary population figures. In 23 countries, 2,000 inhabitants is enough to qualify as a city. In 21 others, 5,000 residents is enough.  Given that figure, Los Angeles suddenly becomes even more of a megalopolis than I had first surmised. As the Sustainable Cities article notes, 2,000 people is about enough to host one large office building such as Facebook's Menlo Park campus. Should Facebook be designated its own little fiefdom then?

Facebook's Menlo Campus via Quartz
Lounging spaces inside Facebook's campus via WSJ

A flower mural inside Facebook's campus via WSJ
It's interesting to see even as populations are growing around the world, we still have no definition for the most basic things. Soon, we will need it. Urban is a key characteristic and might soon be included as a Sustainable Development Goal. Classification as urban also has consequences. Those that fall within its confines need to know how they affect the larger ecosystem.

Do you live in a city? What makes you say so? Read more about defining what urban means here.


Words we use

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

Our words are telling. They speak of what we've observed, experienced, and internalized. In his forthcoming book, "Landmarks," author Robert Macfarlane poetically points out how some words that stem from experiencing the outdoors are fading away, in favor of a more digital experience.

Wildflowers found at Acrosanti, Arizona. Photo by: Carren Jao
He writes:
Children are now (and valuably) adept ecologists of the technoscape, with numerous terms for file types but few for different trees and creatures. A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages. And what is lost along with this literacy is something precious: a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place.  
It is a sobering thought. As a soon-to-be parent, I wonder if my children will be able to appreciate the physical, as they would the digital. I know they would at home in the midst of 1s and 0s, but will the visceral be as appealing? Can I find ways for them to fall in love with the natural?

I'm predicting a lot of visits to the wonderful Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, whose expansion I covered a while back. But what else can I do? Any tips?

You can read the rest of Macfarlane's essay here.


"Merchants of Doubt" shines the light on lazy thinking

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

When I left the darkened movie theater showing Robert Kenner’s latest documentary “Merchants of Doubt” is based on the 2010 non-fiction book, I realized there is one valuable lesson my child would need to learn--to face the truth with courage and to do something about it.

In Kenner's documentary, many lobbyists and (sadly) scientists play on their audience's fear simply by casting doubt on an uncomfortable truth. They go to such extent that they even fund supposedly unbiased "citizen groups" such as Citizens for Fire Safety (backed by the three largest makers of flame retardants in the world) to back their case.

This doubt-casting technique provides that tiny, precious foothold one needs to avoid an issue altogether. It works scarily well.

Big corporate funders have been doing this forever, it seems. In the 50s, Big Tobacco scientific studies figured out that there were conclusive links between smoking and lung cancer, heart, disease and other diseases, yet their official press stance was that it "could or could not cause harmful effects. We don't know enough." I'm just paraphrasing, but the same statements crop up again today, in an age when global temperatures are rising and we're seeing a lot of anomalous weather.

While watching, I asked myself, "What would we lose by ensuring that we do something earlier rather than later?" Nothing. Corporate interests would lose millions, but as regular people trying to make the best decision for our future survival, we would lose nothing. We would, in effect, be playing it safe by acting as if climate change is real. Yet, we continue to talk ourselves into doing nothing, simply because it is an easier pill to swallow.

With that, I realized, I would like my child to be the kind of person who can think for himself and to act based on his findings. I would like him to realize, just like Chris Hardwick of the Nerdist that we "are warden rather than the prisoner of [our ]emotions. The interesting thing about our minds is that if we don't actively seize control of them, they default to autopilot." His message is beautifully illustrated here at Zen Pencils.

Yes, it is easier to do nothing, to let your immediate society dictate your beliefs, but at what cost? Our survival, our planet, how about our simple human dignity?

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