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Air Guitar as Global Diplomacy

Former Air Guitar World champions Justin "Nordic Thunder" Howard (2012) and Markus "Black Raven" Vainionpää (2000) tutor three audience members in air guitar (image Aleke Ollila).

Former Air Guitar World champions Justin “Nordic Thunder” Howard (2012) and Markus “Black Raven” Vainionpää (2000) tutor three audience members in air guitar (image Aleke Ollila).

There may be no more audacious pursuit of global justice than the Air Guitar World Championship’s aspiration to “promote world peace.  According to the ideology of the Air Guitar, wars would end, climate change stop and all bad things disappear, if all the people in the world played the Air Guitar.”  It is perhaps difficult to conceive of a host of global diplomats exaggerating the fluid moves of Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, yet last week a legion of the faithful gathered in Oulu, Finland for the 19th annual Air Guitar World Championship’s unique performance of self-aware camp, bold sincerity, naïve optimism, and playful theatre.  Air guitar is quite possibly among the most democratic if not egalitarian of all expressive arts.  Even the clumsiest person is capable of reproducing the familiar motions of guitar players, and it harbors an interesting politics of community that may not yield produce world peace, but it is a fascinating and idealistic starting point.

Your 2014 champion is Nanami ”Seven Seas” Nagura (image Aleksi Ollila)

Your 2014 champion is Nanami ”Seven Seas” Nagura (image Aleksi Ollila)

It is tempting to reduce air guitar to shallow imitation of authentic musical performance, but air guitar is not really mimicking as much as it is its own performance.  Air guitar playing makes sense to audiences because it invokes physical and musical referents that nearly all of us know.  In some ways, this is much like Elvis performance artists, who are not “impersonators” as much as they interpret threads of popular musical consciousness.  Where Elvis performance artists do sing, air guitar may be distinguished by its celebration of the pleasure so many of us take in music we cannot hope to play and the optimistic democracy of air guitar.  The compelling fundamental attraction of air guitar is that it appears so simple and accessible to all of us with the faintest musical sentiments and a suppressed desire to strut about with Angus Young’s theatrical lack of self-consciousness.

US Champion and 2014 world runner-up Matt ”Airistotle” Burns (image Aleksi Ollila).

US Champion and 2014 world runner-up Matt ”Airistotle” Burns (image Aleksi Ollila).

This is what makes air guitar such a rich if surprising foil for the plea for world peace: it is a universally accessible performance of the warm feelings and pure pleasure induced by music.  This diverges quite radically from the wave of musical stardom shows like American Idol, which confirms on a weekly basis that singing well is a rare talent.  Where American Idol revels in the mean-spirited public humiliation of singers with misplaced confidence, air guitar has an astoundingly good humor about itself, celebrating its self-effacing performance and a common embrace of music.

There are ambiguous criteria for what constitutes a “good” air guitar performance, but there is a scored contest, and Nanami ”Seven Seas” Nagura of Japan was crowned the 2014 world champion last week.  It may be that what separates the legion of air guitarists from the elite in Oulu revolves around the performers’ capacity to act out their emotional response to music in a charismatic and convincing way: an air guitarist aspires to induce us to join in their pleasure with the music (compare the 2005 analysis of air guitar by Dan Crane, who has been host of the World Championships since 2006; the creative mindset of air guitarists–and some peoples’ resistance to it–may be nicely captured in the video from the 2003 movie “Air Guitar in Oulu”).  Pleasure in air guitar has no especially formal standards; that is, the politics of air guitar and its audacious call to global peace are a quite simple public expression confirming the joy of music and performance in a consciously democratic art we can all share.

Nanami ”Seven Seas” Nagura accepts the final award (image from author).

Nanami ”Seven Seas” Nagura accepts the final award (image from author).

Air guitar performance is an enormously clever if unexpected simplification of conflict, idealistically brushing aside all sociopolitical complexities from real world unpleasantness.  Key to this enchanting and naïve diplomacy is air guitar’s self-awareness of its insignificance, if not its camp status.  Air guitar’s pretensions for the loftiest of goals—peace, cultural understanding, art, community—counter-intuitively come from the least self-important of all arts, a people’s folk expression in which its most prominent performers and their desires seem to be indistinguishable from those of our neighbors.  It may be a rhetorical hyperbole to suggests that if the planet is playing air guitar there will be no warfare or violence; nevertheless, it is difficult to refute the sentiment and doing so would only ignore air guitar’s improbable skill cutting to the profoundly consequential emotion, pleasure, and community invested in music, performance, and something as seemingly insignificant as air guitar.

 

References

Rolf Inge Godøy, Egil Haga, and Alexander Refsum Jensenius

2006 Playing “Air Instruments”: Mimicry of Sound-producing Gestures by Novices and Experts.  In Gesture in Human-Computer Interaction and Simulation, pp.256-267. Springer, Berlin.

 

Hélène Laurin

2009 The Girl Is a Boy Is a Girl: Gender Representations in the Gizzy Guitar 2005 Air Guitar Competition.  Journal of Popular Music Studies 21(3):284–303.  (subscription access)

 

Kathrin Peters and Andrea Seier

2009 Home Dance: Mediacy and Aesthetics of the Self on YouTube.  In The YouTube Reader, eds. Pelle Snickars and Patrikc Vonderau, pp. 390-406.  National Library of Sweden, Stockholm.

 

Bjorn Turoque

2006 To Air is Human: One Man’s Quest to Become the World’s Greatest Air Guitarist.  Riverhead Books.

Images

Airistotle, Seven Seas, and Nordic Thunder/Black Raven images © Aleksi Ollila from Air Guitar World Championships facebook page

Final Ceremony image from author

The Ruins of Music

The Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 2009, which remains in ruins today (image from Albert duce).

The Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 2009, which remains in ruins today (image from Albert duce).

Music has a rather ephemeral materiality rendered in tangible things like CDs, cassettes, records, and perhaps even digital playlists, but its more compelling archaeological dimension is probably the historical landscapes of clubs and music districts that dot nearly every community.  Local grassroots music tends to be relatively dynamic, but live music holds a tenacious if ever-transforming grip on the landscape: most communities can point to a distinctive soundscape of clubs, impromptu spaces, and places from churches to schools where music was the heart of local experience.

Music has had a profoundly consequential hold on youth culture for most of the last century, but many places’ local musical heritages are in ruins or razed.  The musical landscape is exceptionally dynamic: a parade of fringe styles continually step forward in nearly every place, articulating a host of local, generational, and social experiences.  Most musical circles seek some modestly satisfying measure of relevance, creative community, and profitability, and some express broad if not universal anxieties and sentiments while others are simply more ephemeral sounds. Read the rest of this entry

Failed Ambition: Ruins, Gaze, and Public Housing

IMG_6226Much of our fascination with ruins—and perhaps some of our uneasiness—revolves around their stark testimony to failure, and perhaps no ruins aesthetically underscore the collapse of modernity more clearly than public housing.  Public housing was born from a distinctive marriage of modernist optimism and racist and classist ideologies aspiring to remake the American city (and with many global parallels).  Last week Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing project went under the wrecking ball, another in a series of 20th-century housing projectsPruitt-Igoe, Cabrini Green, the Robert Taylor Homes—that are routinely stereotyped as the epitaph for modernity’s over-reaching ambition, xenophobic nostalgia, or the misplaced optimism of state-supported housing.  Regardless of their legacy, the ruins and razing of public housing raise interesting questions about gaze and how we see and imagine particular sorts of ruins.

IMG_6239Ruins fascinate us because they energize our imaginations, providing material evidence of lost experiences while simultaneously underscoring the passing of that heritage.  Those lost experiences assume meaning through an idiosyncratic mix of popular iconography, mass discourses, and personal spatial and material experiences that shape how we perceive places like Detroit (what Edward Said referred to as “imaginative geographies”).  Every ruin fuels a distinctive corner of our imagination and tells a distinct sort of story, and the narrative of public housing ruination is distinguished in modest but critical ways from the tales woven about industrial decline, dead malls, or eroding post-Soviet landscapes. Read the rest of this entry

The Feral City: The Convergence of Ruins and Nature

Open lots in Brush Park

Open lots in Brush Park

Detroit’s Brush Park was once one of the city’s finest Gilded Age neighborhoods, a 22-block community of mansions that included a host of high style Victorian homes within reach of downtown.  Referred to by one period observer as the “little Paris of the Midwest,” Brush Park was home to some of the city’s wealthiest residents between the mid-19th century and the early 20th century, when it began to gradually decline, transformed into boarding houses during the Depression and subsequently declining along with much of the postwar city.   Today, only about 80 of the neighborhood’s roughly 300 original structures remains standing.  Some rehabilitated homes stand alongside others that are decaying as forlorn testimony to the neighborhood’s former glory, and the remaining homes are magnets for artists, preservationists, and urbanites re-imagining the life of the city. Read the rest of this entry

The Optimism of Destruction: Demolition and the Future of the Historic City

The Claypool Hotel, circa 1904-1909 (image Indiana University)

The Claypool Hotel, circa 1904-1909 (image Indiana University)

In June, 1969 Edward Zebrowski held a massive party at Indianapolis’ Claypool Hotel.  The lavish Claypool opened in 1903, distinguished by its gargantuan lobby and opulent meeting rooms and the novel luxury of a private bath in each of the 450 guest rooms.  Numerous conventions met at the Claypool, and in its strategic location blocks from the State Capitol the Claypool was home to both the Republican and Democratic parties and hosted a stream of politicians over three-quarters of the 20th century.  On June 23, 1967, though, 300 Claypool guests including the visiting Tacoma baseball team were forced out to the street by a fire, and by the time Edward Zebrowski had his party in 1969 the hotel faced the wrecking ball.

That wrecking ball was swung by Ed Zebrowski himself, who ushered his guests outside at midnight to watch the floodlit building meet its end.  Such theatrical demolition was Zebrowski’s hallmark:  in 1967 Zebrowski erected bleachers and had an organ player serenade the lunchtime crowd watching the dismantling of the 12-story Pythian building.  His firm dismantled much of the city’s aging architectural fabric over more than a decade of fascinating destructive spectacles, tearing down the Marion County Courthouse in 1962 (built in 1876), the Maennerchor Hall (1907) in 1974, and the Central State Hospital Department for Women (opened in 1888) in 1975.  When Zebrowski was finished, he left a large sign in many of the empty lots proclaiming “Zebrowski was here.” Read the rest of this entry

Imagining Heritage: Selfies and Visual Placemaking at Historic Sites

A selfie at the Lincoln memorial (image Joe Flood).

A selfie at the Lincoln memorial (image Joe Flood).

 
A variety of ideologues routinely reduce selfies to yet another confirmation of our mass superficiality.  Instagram is indeed littered with scores of us primping for our bathroom mirrors and posing at arm’s length for “ego shots”: it seems infeasible to salvage especially profound insight into contemporary society from Justin Bieber’s self-involved posing or Kim Kardashian’s often-ridiculous stream of booty calls.  Nevertheless, the countless online selfies register a self-consciousness about appearance that is likely common in every historical moment, and the recent flood of online selfies may simply confirm that we know we are being seen and we are cultivating our appearance for others.  After looking in the mirror for millennia, digitization has provided a novel mechanism to re-imagine, manipulate, and project a broad range of personal reflections into broader social space.

An image of the facebook page of camp selfies.

An image of the facebook page of camp selfies.

Last week a New Yorker article fueled selfie critics who lamented the apparent narcissism of selfies at Auschwitz.  The page was removed after a host of media decried self portraits at the concentration camp and rejected (or simply did not comprehend) the page’s clumsy attempt to use irony to assess the holocaust’s social meanings.  The Israeli page collected youths’ concentration camp selfies, and the images push irreverence and irony beyond many peoples’ tolerance: the page included typical selfie poses of pouting expressions and stylized self-contemplation, but these selfies were at places like the iconic Auschwitz gates or had sarcastic added descriptions such as “Even here I’m drop dead gorgeous!” Read the rest of this entry

Imagining the Black Suburbs: Homogeneity and African American Suburbia

levey family

The Levey family posed in front of a Levittown home in New York in 1949.

The postwar suburb seems painted in our collective imagination as a White nuclear family standing proudly in front of a standardized tract home and a chrome-accented American car.  Fortunately a rich scholarship on postwar suburbia has complicated or utterly unraveled that and many other suburban stereotypes, underscoring the material, social, and historical diversity of suburban landscapes: we know suburbia included a multitude of architectural forms beyond the interchangeable Levittown box; the roots of the suburbs reach well into the 19th century; working-class families predominated; and we are paying increasingly more attention to the suburban experience along the color line.

Henry Greer advertised his Northwest Street liquor store in December 1935.

Henry Greer advertised his Northwest Street liquor store in December 1935.

In 1947 Henry and Della Greer were among Indianapolis, Indiana’s first African-American suburbanites, and in many ways the story of the Greers and their neighbors might be told in many more places.  Henry was a former hotel porter who worked as a salesman and real estate agent before opening the Demi-Jon Liquor Store on North West Street in December, 1935 (and eventually selling life insurance).  His wife Della was an art teacher at Crispus Attucks High School, where she taught for 20 years beginning in 1936.  The Greers blazed a trail into rural Washington Township that would find them neighbored within a decade by a series of African-American subdivisions. That suburban African-American story has been untold in many communities, swept aside in a broader moral narrative that decries suburban conformity and material homogeneity and seems unable to fathom how the suburbs have been so alluring to so many Americans.  There is no shortage of outstanding scholarship on Black suburbanization (for instance, Andrew Wiese’s Places of their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century), but as these communities transform and in many cases deteriorate their histories risk being ignored and lost on the contemporary landscape.  Despite some wonderful preservation projects in communities like Addisleigh (New York), Berkley Square (Las Vegas), and Conant Gardens (Detroit), many communities seem slow to comprehend the consequence of Black suburban life in the postwar American experience. Read the rest of this entry

The Refined Doughnut: Taste, Class, and Doughnut Respectability

Charleston's Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts offers up this Blue Cheese Cabernet Doughnut: Blue Cheese Cabernet with homemade pear jam, Cabernet glaze, and blue cheese honey drizzle (image Glazed Gourmet)

Charleston’s Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts offers up this Blue Cheese Cabernet Doughnut: Blue Cheese Cabernet with homemade pear jam, Cabernet glaze, and blue cheese honey drizzle (image Glazed Gourmet)

Albuquerque’s Rebel Donut is among a wave of doughnut shops offering up a host of novel flavors, seasonal or organic ingredients, and culinary standards that aim to upset the caricature of the conventional mass-produced doughnut.  Their donut gallery includes such flavors as Red Chile Chocolate Bacon, Nacho, Water Melon, and their Breaking Bad tribute, Blue Sky.  Many of these gourmet doughnut shops go beyond novel flavors alone and embrace a philosophy of food consumption that is rarely extended to the prosaic doughnut.  For instance, Seattle’s Mighty-O Donut’s vegan offerings include French Toast, Chocolate Raspberry, and Lemon Twist doughnuts made from certified organic ingredients.  Few bakeries can rival Mighty-O’s philosophical assessment of the doughnut, noting that when they started the business “our intention was to make an honest living while being mindful of people and respectful of the environment.  We weren’t interested in producing anything that would just end up in a landfill or contribute to the pollution piling up in the world.  … We couldn’t find anyone making a donut the way we envisioned.  A sweet treat with no chemicals, no genetically modified organisms, and no animal products—something everyone could enjoy.”

Dough in New York offers up (top to bottom and left to right) Lemon Poppy Seed, Dulce de leche, Passionfruit with Cocoa Nibs, and Blood Orange (image Wally Gobetz)

Dough in New York offers up (clockwise from top) Lemon Poppy Seed, Dulce de leche, Passionfruit with Cocoa Nibs, and Blood Orange (image Wally Gobetz)

As we approach Doughnut Day on June 6th, the artisan doughnut shop has carved a foothold in cosmopolitan marketplaces.  Gourmet doughnut shops appeal to a consumer imagination that relishes superior flavor, embraces culinary creativity, and fancies that the consumer has a discerning and educated palate.  The gourmet doughnut invokes food as a culinary, political, and intellectual consumer experience.

That vision of food is routinely projected onto products ranging from craft beers to cheese to chocolate.  Perhaps the distinction between gourmet doughnuts and a host of many other artisanal foods is the distinctly plebian nature of the doughnut: Doughnuts are routinely caricatured as mass-produced fare that lacks the complex ingredients of gourmet dishes and is beneath the consideration of skilled chefs.  Doughnuts are often viewed as violations of body discipline, a conscious (if not conflicted) embrace of desire for a food that seems to possess little or no redeeming quality.  Doughnuts are sometimes cast as “downwardly mobile” consumption, an embrace of the common by otherwise bourgeois consumers who see the mass-produced doughnut as a bridge to the masses or ironic consumption.  We spend little time questioning the concept of a craft beer, artisanal charcuterie, or organic olive oil; however, because the doughnut is rhetorically constructed as a junk food characterized by its lack of redeeming qualities, the gourmet doughnut is often a target of popular curiosity. Read the rest of this entry

Burying Trauma: Cemeteries and Heritage at Central State Hospital

The autopsy room in the Old Pathology Building at the former Central State, now Indiana Medical History Museum (image Huw Williams).

The autopsy room in the Old Pathology Building at the former Central State, now the Indiana Medical History Museum (image Huw Williams).

In September 1903 The Indianapolis Journal reported that Oliver S. Clay and his mother Charlotte “for years have lived in their home at 1405 East Sixteenth street, but on account of reverses, financial and otherwise, were compelled to mortgage their property for several hundred dollars, which, on becoming due, remained unpaid.”  In many ways, Clay’s story of ill fortune might well be told of many of his early 20th-century neighbors.  His father J.H. Clay had been the Pastor of the Bethel AME Church in Indianapolis until his death in 1892.  After his father’s death Oliver was an advocate for African-American education and a Black political party, and in the 1902 election he led an African-American movement to vote a blank ballot, telling The Indianapolis Journal that “if the white politicians will give the negroes recognition then he will advocate voting.”  However, like many Americans entertaining the American Dream, Clay’s ambition and hard work ended in tragedy as he was evicted, institutionalized, and eventually relegated to a potter’s field.  The ultimate fate of his mortal remains punctuate both his unfortunate end and the way contemporary society routinely ignores the unpleasant histories at the heart of American life.

In 1901 the Public Library Bulletin reported on Clay’s aspiration to turn his home into what he dubbed the Claysonian Library.  Clay’s collection included “the 315 volumes comprising the library of his father, the Rev. J. H. Clay, deceased, to which have been added by donation a sufficient number of books to make the collection 521 volumes, besides miscellaneous magazines and periodicals.  The object is to cultivate a taste for literature among the young colored people, especially of the immediate neighborhood.”  Oliver Clay’s neighborhood library was dedicated in April 1901 on what would have been his father’s 51st birthday, and several months later he received a gift of 50 volumes from Congressman Jesse Overstreet.  The library subsequently hosted regular events at the Clays’ home and local venues, such as a lecture on the Emancipation Proclamation’s 40th Anniversary in January 1903.

In August, 1903, though, the Indianapolis Sun reported that Clay “has, with the furniture of the institution of which he is founder, been ejected into the street.”  Clay moved his things back into the home and told the newspaper that “`You may say, mistah, that the Claysonian will be re-established in other quatahs soon and that the good work started by me will never die.’”  In September a realtor returned in an effort to eject the Clays and once again “started to move the furniture out into the street.  When he looked up he was gazing into the barrel of a revolver held firmly in the dusky hand of the Claysonian.  `Claysonia forever!’ cried Oliver Clay, `and if you dare to move anything from this house you will forfeit your life.’” Read the rest of this entry

The Disturbed Tomb: Memorialization and Human Remains at the 9/11 Museum

The remains repository wall at the 9/11 Memorial Museum (image 9/11 memorial Museum).

The remains repository wall at the 9/11 Memorial Museum (image 9/11 Memorial Museum).

When visitors tour the newly opened National September 11 Memorial Museum this week they will be greeted by the relics of one of the world’s most traumatic shared events.  The Museum opens to the public May 21st, and its collection of material artifacts, images, and oral memories documents the September 11 and February 2003 attacks on the World Trade Center and examines the broad consequences of global terrorism.  The museum sits in half of the World Trade Center’s 16-acre shadow, a space that may perpetually play out the tensions between its roles as memorial landscape, history museum, forensics repository, cemetery, and tourist trap.

Much of the discussion about the museum has recently revolved around whether the site is an appropriate temporary or permanent resting place for human remains.  Of nearly 3000 people who died September 11, about 1115 remain unrecovered and perhaps represented somewhere among thousands of unidentified human elements recovered from the site.  In August 2011 the Medical Examiner held just over 9006 pieces of human remains (skeletal fragments as well as tissue), most of infinitesimal scale that an examiner described as the size of “a Tic Tac.”  In February 2013 this figure was reported as 8354 human remain samples, and on May 10, 2014 7930 remains were ceremoniously transferred to the 9/11 Museum to be placed in a “repository at bedrock on the sacred ground of the site.”  Those and any remains subsequently recovered will be subject to continuing forensic examinations “temporarily or in perpetuity.” Read the rest of this entry

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