January 3, 2021

Kites and Spaces

During the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about how ambient music has the ability create a perceived space, and can make time feel malleable, too. The first ambient song I ever listened to on repeat was “#3” on Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II. In high school I would listen to it while driving or falling asleep—it seemed to stretch on for so long. Whether this was because I had it on repeat, or because the song itself can seemingly hold so much time, I’m not sure. While the idea of sound creating a felt space is not new, it seemed to create an emptiness in my mind as well, a space for my thoughts to fill. Ambient music, by its own root etymology of ambire, means “going round”, and seems to form moods and spaces through repetition of form or sound—but to me it also seems to form a going round of mind and heart; a space for reflection.

In “The 16 Best Ambient Albums of 2020” from Pitchfork, Philip Sherburne says: “in a year in which many of us found ourselves staring at the walls for long periods of time, the notion of “wallpaper music” no longer seemed quite so trivial. More than any other genre, ambient frequently offers a kind of emotional blank slate, and its very featurelessness suits listeners in search of wildly divergent things: solace, transport, or even simple numbness.”

Listening to ambient music this year has felt different than it has previously. As we’ve been confined indoors more often, there is this feeling that I am not able to move around with the same amount of freedom as before. This lack of movement from place to place has made my world much smaller and self-contained. In many ways it’s been a warm turning inwards to be with my wife and son more—but also a time of challenging introspection. Ambient music has created a seemingly endless space within which to think and reflect, even amongst a certain confinement: a time of “staring at walls” if you will. I think there’s a strong connection between the sound we experience and the space we perceive. This isn’t necessarily visual space, as much as felt space, an aural environment of sorts.

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard says that “our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word […] the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamers, the house allows one to dream in peace.” Many of us have felt physically confined during this pandemic. Between global lockdowns, anxiety of being in public spaces, or other reasons for not going out, we have stayed in. And while this can feel like a burden, I think Bachelard might view it as an opportunity. Our home can be seen as a space for daydreaming, a small cosmos within which to consider the larger cosmos. It’s a safe place to return to.

I wish I was
Homeward bound
Home where my thought's escapin'
Home where my music's playin'
—Simon & Garfunkel
“Homeward Bound”

Ambient music has provided a similar type of home base for reflection and daydreaming during this season. It also has this strange ability to mend our perception of time. Keith Whitman, while reviewing the “50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time” stated: “the appeal of ambient is ever apparent; much like a science project, when executed perfectly, the outcome yields the desired results: time becomes elastic, malleable.” While ambient music can create space, it has a dual nature that can certainly remove us from the space or time we inhabit as well.

One of my favorite albums this year is from Roberto Carlos Lange (who often performs as Helado Negro), and Kristi Sword. Kite Symphony, Four Variations is a multimedia project spanning music, performance, and visual art, and was initiated under Ballroom Marfa in Marfa, Texas. “The artists are creating a new, non-linear, and impressionistic style film and live score, as well as a new body of sculptural work that explore the landscape of West Texas through wind, sound, and light.” Marfa Texas is the epitome of a southwestern sky: an expansive, open space filled with light and air. Listening to Four Variations, one can’t help but imagine the Texas sky dappled with clouds. The visuals and performance aspects in this piece are ephemeral, just like the wind itself. At one point, we hear a bee buzzing near the microphone, as if we were laying in the grass watching the clouds.

Maybe it’s just because Ohio is quite gloomy this time of year, but imagining a crisp, blue sky speckled with clouds, and feeling the wind and heat from the sun is refreshing. Either way, this piece from Lange and Sword demonstrates the ability of ambient music to create space, to shelter and foster imagination, and perhaps bring forward a grace-filled, healing moment of reflect. Even if brief, these moments can sometimes carry us forward for a long time.

June 10, 2020

On Repeat

I’ve been making quarterly playlists for about two years now, and find that each one is always a sort of reflection of—or a net for catching—the ups and downs of each season of life. It’s always interesting to look back and see how much my tastes have changed, or how replaying a certain song conjures up memories of a certain dinner at home, driving somewhere, or a feeling felt. I often don’t take time to actually reflect on these things or mark them, so I thought this would be a good place to start. Here are some songs I’ve had on repeat so far this year.

Please Won't Please by Helado Negro

“Lifelong history shows/That brown won’t go/Brown just glows.”

Helado Negro is the project of Robert Carlos Lange, the son of Ecuadorian immigrants who often explores issues of family, identity, and personal history in an intimate and powerful way. The album title itself draws on Jamaica Kincaid's story ”Girl,” a series of instructions and ideals from an immigrant mother to her daughter. Lange's previous albums are much more electronic and eclectic, but This is How You Smile is much more soft and personal. One of my favorite things about Lange's live performances are the Tinsel Mammals created by his wife Kristi Sword.


Don't Look Back by Jackson C. Frank

“You can read all about justice / In a million books and more / But there aren’t words to bring back Evers / Nor pay the price that he stood for”

This song by Jackson C Frank is a politically charged piece recounting the civil rights movement and the murder of Medgar Evers, and American Civil Rights Activist who was shot in front of his own home after returning from an NAACP meeting.

This week we've watched as protests unfold over injustice, police brutality, and the continued fight for civil rights for black and brown people in America. My heart aches for the entire situation. I've been reflecting recently on how much political turmoil was going on during the 1960s, and how this moment in time feels so similarly in upheaval—like returning boomerang—even though it's not quite the same.


Nihilist Kite Flyer by Loving

“Asking myself / When I just might / When I just might be found / When I just might see clearly”

Loving is a Canadian folk-pop trio who released their debut LP If I am Only My Thoughts this year. I love the honest song-writing here, and how they highlight this desire to have meaning, to be able to see clearly. The lyrics feel almost psalmic or biblical in thought—the thoughts of someone who is lost and desires to be found.


Sacred Sands by Allah-Lahs

My guilty pleasure is listening to surf-rock inspired music like The Ventures, The Beach Boys, or Dick Dale. Allah-Lahs is a garage-rock, surf-rock inspired quartet from LA who released this instrumental track back in 2012. I've really enjoyed some of their newer tracks on Mexican Summer as well, but this song in particular just feels like it's supposed to be in a Bruce Brown film—and this makes sense, since ”three of the four members met while working at one of the country's great record stores, Amoeba on Sunset Boulevard, where they spent countless hours studying up on the vintage sounds that compose their affectingly melancholy self-titled debut,” as noted in a Pitchfork review.


Breeze by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and Var Har Du Varit by Dungen

Picking up off of the surf theme, these are my two favorite tracks from the recently released soundtrack to Self Discovery for Social Survial, a collaborative film between Pilgrim Surf Supply and Mexican Summer. To create the film, both musicians and surfers traveled together and the music was created in response to the surfing–a sort of homage to the birth of the surf-film genre in the 1950s.


San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) by Emile Mosseri, Daniel Herskedal, Joe Talbot, and Michael Marshall

I recently watched The Last Black Man in San Francisco directed by Joe Talbot. It's a really beautiful movie about home, belonging, and place. The score to the film is composed by Emile Mosseri, and is beautiful on its own, but fits the cinematography perfectly. This is a cover of the original 1967 song by Scott McKenzie.

July 3, 2019

Thoughts on Place

Last year in May, we traded an apartment near downtown Kent for a home about five minutes away next to a lake and the woods. For us it was a big deal to stay in Kent rather than to move away to another city after college. We felt like we were finally putting down roots. All in all, we’ve lived in Kent for about 9 years now, and we’ve loved every bit of it. We’ve grown to love this city and its people, arts, Great Blue Herons, poetry, rivers, restaurants, and events. Especially at E+E, we place high value on knowing our community, and have participated in and created our own events to invite others into.

Naturally, this has had me thinking a lot about place—how it can shape us, and how we can shape it. I didn’t intentionally set out to read a set of books about place, but over time realized that the ones I had chosen over the last year offered unique perspectives about the ability of places to heal us, shape our perspectives, create identities, solidify memories, and grow local culture. From each writer and their respective book or essay, my hope was to distill their perspectives of place to a set of brief ideas: place as healer, collage, identity, and soil.



Place as Healer

The Solace of Open Spaces began as journal entries from Gretel Ehrlich to a friend in 1979. She had moved to Wyoming for filming, and during this suffered the death of her partner and collaborator. Her book is one of personal observations about the people who live in Wyoming—their timidness, calloused hands, stubbornness, and tenderness. She also observes the land itself—its “indifference”, its expansiveness, its aridness, its light. Wyoming provides a space for Ehrlich that is healing in the wake of her loss, solace in the face of pain:

“Space has a spiritual equivalent and can heal what is divided and burdensome in us. My grandchildren will probably use the space shuttles for a honeymoon trip or to recover from heart attacks, but closer to home we might also learn how to carry space inside ourselves in the effortless way we carry our skins. Space represents sanity, not a life purified, dull, or "spaced out" but one that might accommodate intelligently any idea or situation […] We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial, but, being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We have only to took at the houses we build to see how we build against space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there.”

Ehrlich uncovers the way in which the space in us may be reflected by the landscapes we inhabit, and how places can teach us to create space within ourselves for reflection, humility, mourning, or healing. The spaces we create and occupy—the ones that we fill up or leave empty—have the ability to remind us of this space in ourselves.



Place as Collage

Jack Kerouac is most notable for his ability to capture post-war beat culture. His stream of consciousness writing style in On the Road imitates the free-form jazz improvisation and bebop of the time—his writing becomes music, and the music his writing. Throughout his travels, his personality is preserved even while he experiences a collage of places: urban jazz clubs, the streets of Denver, the stars over the desert, the mountains at Tehachapi Pass in California. There is a tirelessness in him to move, to the point where readers feel exhausted along with him: “Here I was at the end of America...no more land...and nowhere was nowhere to go but back.” This often feels similarly to listening to a 15 minute jazz improvisation session, hoping it will end.

In many ways, Kerouac exists in a continuous temporal state, without roots—a nonlinear “modality of consciousness” as said by Allen Ginsberg—in many ways reflecting how his generation felt, and inspiring many generations afterwards to follow his routes. Kerouac has a gift in capturing this movement from place to place, documenting the people and places he experiences along the way, and embedding each of these experiences into his writing style. Even though the road he traveled was linear, his plots “zigzag in a spatial, nonlinear relationship of language and form.”

Kerouac’s experience of places can be seen as a collage: pieces torn from the pages of a numbered magazine, but arranged as if musical notation, an exploration in form and composition—becoming a unified whole by which to view America. In Teju Cole’s article “Far Away From Here,” he describes Italo Calvino’s idea of “continuous cities,” suggesting “that there is actually just one big, continuous city that does not begin or end: “Only the name of the airport changes.” On the Road offers a glimpse of a perspective of many places becoming one. What Kerouac observes is a special kind of continuity.



Place as Identity

Much like On the Road, Travels with Charley is John Steinbeck’s documentation of his travels throughout America in his truck Rocinante, named after Don Quixote’s horse. Steinbeck sets off to capture “the speech” of America, and to document the changes happening at the time from his own perspective. In many ways, the book can be considered as a period piece—it captures many social, cultural, technological, and environmental changes which still affect American life today.

Throughout his travels, he records a picture of America at a brief and turning moment in time. He paints a picture of American identity as a collage of perspectives, and makes holistic connections between the personal and the collective:

“If an Englishman or a Frenchman or an Italian should travel my route, see what I saw, hear what I heard, their stored pictures would be not only different from mine but equally different from one another. If other Americans reading this account should feel it true, that agreement would only mean that we are alike in our Americanness.”

Our witnessing and recording of place and culture—whether through photography, writing, oral histories, or other documentations—is a way of understanding the outworkings of human ecology and identity at a specific moment in history. From our own perspective and more importantly from the collective perspectives of others, we can build a shared history and identity out of what we see in the places we live.



Place as Soil

Throughout Wendell Berry’s essay “The Work of Local Culture,” he examines what it means to be a part of one, and how our society has shifted away from them. For many years, Berry has taken walks around what used to be his grandfather’s farm. On a fencepost hangs a bucket which accumulates soil, fallen leaves, pollen, dust, and water. Over time these aspects of nature collect and become a rich soil. Berry creates a metaphor for building local cultures:

“A human community, too, must collect leaves and stories, and turn them into an account. It must build soil, and build that memory of itself—in lore and story and song—that will be its culture. And these two kinds of accumulation, of local soil and local culture, are intimately related.”

In contemporary American society though, it has become the norm to leave one’s own town—to “move on” to other places and cities, and to create one’s own life there. Berry argues that this breaks a generational continuity, thus disrupting the forming of a local soil. He goes on to discuss that there must be a pattern of “reminding” which occurs in a living community that will allow history and culture to survive. In many ways, a place is an accumulation of the stories of the people who once went before us in a place. Only when we understand those stories and local histories can we begin to build upon them.

December 27, 2016

Place Into Words

Place Into Words was originally produced as a part of Kent State University's School of Visual Communication Design MFA exhibit titled “Surveys: A Design Exhibition Immersed In The Journey Between Earth and Mars.” I worked on this part of the project with Alan Walker and Jordan Kauffman. Our hope was to inspire, provoke, and stir a sense of curiosity and wonder surrounding space travel. To do this, we juxtaposed interviews we conducted on campus around the question "What do you think is the most beautiful place on earth?" with archival imagery of Mars. The result was a large scale project installation.


July 8, 2014

Objects: Painting the Tin Can

Imagine it’s 1962 and you’re a designer experiencing the glory of mid-century architecture, industrial design, and graphic design. The Eames’ have recently developed molded plywood chairs, Buckminster Fuller is about to begin work on Montreal Biosphere, and Paul Rand is designing annual reports for IBM. Their contributions to the professions and culture are becoming monumental, and the era is bursting at the seams with good design.

Now picture a used juice can made of tin. It has a burnt top made of copper fringed “antennae”, and is connected haphazardly with wires to a rusty nail and radio transistor. In the context of mid-century design—or any era of design for that matter—it’s very, very ugly. But for just a moment, I want to question what designers really consider to be beautiful, and how beauty can go deeper than appearance or even function in design.

In 1962 Victor Papanek, a designer and educator, was approached by representatives of the U.S. Army. New communications and transport problems were emerging on a global scale—especially in third world countries, where access to basic needs dwindled. The Army needed help designing a device that could deliver a radio signal to people living in remote parts of the world: villages which were primarily illiterate, unaware of the fact that they lived in a nation-state, and had no electricity, money for batteries, or access to broadcast news.

This tin can was a prototype solution for Papanek and a particularly gifted graduate student, George Seegers. The tin can was able to act as a one-transistor radio. It was non-directional, meaning it could only pick up one radio signal. This seems problematic, until you consider that the particular areas the radio was designed for typically had only one national news broadcast. Used tin cans were in abundance around the world, and the radio could be fueled by dried cow dung, paper, wax, or generally anything else that caught on fire. The heat produced would then rise to the top, and was converted to energy which would power an earplug speaker. Its manufacturing cost was 9 cents. It functioned as a communication device for preliterate areas of the world, and was given to the U.N. for use in villages in Indonesia. The radio is truly a great accomplishment—it was sustainable, served the people who would use it in the affordable and accessible way possible, and was at least beautiful in a functional sense. But the consideration of form, of visual beauty, seems to be missing entirely. For designers especially, visual attractiveness is often how beauty is measured, and Papanek’s radio begins to poke at designers’ seemingly innate preference for “tasteful” design.

Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy which deals with the nature of beauty, and it has been a debate among philosophers, artists, and designers for centuries. Consider Plato as an example. He argued that beauty was objective in the world. Plato thought that experiencing individual material things with our senses were pointing us towards the highest, most objective forms of beauty. Aristotle, on the other hand, was more focused on the idea of natural beauty as it relates to function, utility, and purpose. Rather than pointing towards an abstract, objective concept of beauty, Aristotle sought more practical explanations. He believed formal qualities in the world which have a particular fit, purpose, or goal were beautiful. Aristotle is sort of a precursor to the idea of form and function in design. Jumping ahead to the 1960s, Bruno Munari, the famous Italian designer, inventor, and artist described a leaf as the perfect combination of form and function. In his 1966 book Design as Art, he talked about how beauty in an abstract sense for designers often means that a design has particular style, and is tacked on at the end of a project.

Munari thought that designers ought to “discard” beauty in an abstract sense, and instead consider beauty as formal coherence to function:

“A leaf is beautiful not because it is stylish but because it is natural, created in its exact form by its exact function. A designer tries to make an object as naturally as a tree puts forth a leaf. He does not smother his object with his own personal taste, but tries to be objective.”

In Munari’s eyes designers are the connectors of art and the public. He believed we must have humility to approach problems without preconceptions of stylistic choice, and should focus on responding to human need. This ushers in a new dimension for visual beauty: one which is based on people’s needs. It also introduces an ethical element to aesthetic choices.

Back to Papanek’s tin can radio. In 1967, Papanek showed slides of the radio at Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm Germany. Sadly, it was criticized for its visual ugliness. When I first saw the radio, I agreed. In my mind, I felt Papanek had completely ignored the aesthetic qualities of the design. I thought about how it would feel for the people who would receive it, and how it seemed that no consideration had been given to their reception of the object. Why not just paint it a solid color? Interestingly, this is exactly what was suggested by the others at Ulm. Even Papanek admitted that he believed it to be ugly. Yet he felt he had no right to make “aesthetic” or “good taste” decisions which could negatively affect millions of people in different cultures around the world. And the payoff? When Papanek’s radio design was given to the people of Indonesia, they decorated their tin cans using native materials: paper, glass, shells, fabrics, and stones. Papanek had cleverly “built-in” a chance for the users to make the radio their own.

As communication designers continue to move into the frontier of web and user experience design, designers ought to consider the needs, expectations, and cultural understandings of beauty which are unlike their own. The risk is miscommunication on a global scale. While the web is certainly a great equalizer and homogenizer of sorts, simple aesthetic choices such as choice of color, typeface, grid structure, or even the alignment of various languages can communicate a lack of cultural understanding. Aesthetic choices have the ability to demonstrate empathy on the part of the designer—to cultivate understanding across cultural barriers. As designers, it’s becoming necessary that we consider the ethical dimensions of our aesthetic choices, and what we consider as beautiful.


Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change
by Victor Papanek, 1971
Design as Art by Bruno Munari, 1966
Art and its Significance: an Anthology of Aesthetic Theory
by Stephen David Ross, 1994

All Content © 2020 Alex Catanese. All rights reserved.