03 June 2010

Reading Borders



(from Michal Ronen Safdie's Vapor Trails at the Andrea Meislin Gallery)

Last night at the ICP, listening to Maya Benton and Alana Newhouse talk about the Vishnaic Archive, I was struck by an obvious thought:  to read the margins back into photography is a Jewish endeavor.  Not unlike a folio of Talmud or Medieval Commentary, we need the margins to fully understand any text, whether that text is verbal, literary or an image.  That we Jews see many layered meaning not only in what is written but what is not written is a necessary axiom for navigating our way through life.   Why it struck me as I sat among those listening to Maya and Alana's presentation has to do, I suppose, with something George Mosse taught me in Madison more than twenty-five years ago:  that images tell stories, powerful ones at that; and when a broader context invades the border, it has the potential to wreak havoc, if not completely undermine, a prior meaning attached to that image.

I took a ride into the city today on my bike to check out the new Michal Ronen Safdie show at the Andrea Meislin Gallery.  I love visiting Andrea's gallery.  We always have a good chat about life and politics and kids and Israel.  And since Andrea is the premier gallery of Israeli photography in New York, visits there always give me a chance to think about George's maxim and to contemplate and interpret image.

After lunch I headed downtown to the Strand for some books.  There I saw Art Spiegelman among the buyers, looking very much like a cartoon version of himself:  deep in thought; wearing his trademark vest; and a pack of cigarettes conspicuously tucked into a vest pocket.  Our clothes are images, too, of course and I looked at myself:  Milwaukee coffee shop t-shirt; ragged khaki pants; Brooks trail shoes; bike helmet and back-pack.   I was being *that* person, particularly necessary when one has to navigate the tumultuous octane waters of Manhattan streets on two wheels.  In game mode, I was ready for anything.  So was Spiegelman, since given his pose, I certainly wasn't going to interrupt his study of texts.

Riding back home on the Brooklyn Bridge, I was nearly hit several times by tourists taking pictures.  Mind you I was riding quite safely, mindful of my assigned areas, staying within my designated borders, when, with an unnerving mindlessness, some shmoe and his digital device walked into my path, lost in the glassy, miniature *television* of his instantaneous digital delight and damn near had us both killed.  "There are borders here!" I wanted to shout, but realized I was fighting a losing battle.  The digital has won and it has successfully obliterated borders and boundaries that once held certain rules of transport between the boroughs we inhabit.  Everyone wants to create their own experience--and even preserve it with a camera--from the top of the Brooklyn Bridge to the waters off the coast of Israel.

Weaving in and out of human traffic, riding defensively, "looking out for the other guy," as Dad once taught, I thought back to a conversation I had with an Israeli this week about the Flotilla.  "We are losing the PR campaign," she noted.  "If we had better PR for the past twenty years, we'd be in better shape."  I pointed out that Oslo pretty much started twenty years, a city that represents the idea that there still may be a negotiated two-state solution.  "That idea is breaking down the borders," I said. While on the Bridge I stayed in my lane.  I obeyed the law.  I didn't hurt anyone.  But had I let my anger fly toward those in my path--my rightful path--I would have wound up in jail.  That's just the way it is sometimes.

Other people want the same view we want; and sometimes, despite ourselves, we have to make accommodations.

5 comments:

DP Greenberg said...

Your otherwise charming travel log is marred by one seeming incongruity. You write that "[r]iding back home on the Brooklyn Bridge, I was nearly hit several times by tourists taking pictures." Now I realize that all motion is relative, but I fail to understand how you, the biker, could have been at risk of being "hit" by the pedestrians. It kind of reminds me of an anecdote attributed to Abe Lincoln. A traveler is confronted by a vicious dog as he makes his way along a country road. The dog, baring his fangs, pounces. Just then the traveler picks up a pitchfork and kills the dog. In the immediate aftermath, the dog's owner, a farmer, comes along. He's distraught because his dog has been killed, and asks why the traveler couldn't at least have gone at the mean animal with the blunt end of the pitchfork. The traveler responds by asking why the dog didn't go at him with its blunt end?

It may be difficult for you, as a Mil-rano, to understand, but the dominant narratives of human transport in New York City are walking and the subway. And yet an effete corp of impudent drips, dickwads, dirtbags and dreycups dins in the collective ear of the populous that more needs to be done to accommodate bicycle transportation. If the briefcase toting bureaucrats who conceived the idiotic bike lane on Prospect Park West really want to do something to help all of us, they should eliminate the bike lane on the upper level of the Brooklyn Bridge and let the bikers ride below with the cars. This will immediately have a couple of salutary effects: a certain number of motorists will be deterred from using the bridge by the added hassle of dealing with bicycle traffic and some of the more arrogant among the bike riders will be, shall we say, liquidated in the competitive milieu of car traffic on the bridge. In any case, I highly recommend walking, not riding, over the Brooklyn Bridge. It's the New York way.

Andy Bachman said...

Why did you bring up Milwaukee? It can't be that you are confusing the Land of Lincoln with Wisconsin, are you? Or did Stuyvesant not teach Geography in the Sixties? Or was the Jefferson Airplane too loud? I was riding my bike in the bike lane, and obeying the law. God willing there will be more bike lanes and fewer cars and therefore no more need for companies like BP to muck up the works. And by the way, I am really surprised by your opposition to the PPW bikelanes. I'd have thought a good commie like you would recognize a bourgeois NIMBY complaint when you saw one.

DP Greenberg said...

I know no geography and that's why I love the subway - there's only one direction - down (unless, of course, it's the El, which is up). Incidentally, I'm not as old as you think; it was Stuyvesant in the 70s - okay + the fall of '69. The "bike lane" on the bridge is an imposition on all the walkers and should be paved over. Short of that, close-lining should be legalized. Last, this isn't a nimby issue. Would you put a bike lane on the Champs Elysee? PPW is one of the City's most beautiful boulevards. Take a look at it today - the barricades for the new bike lane are plumb ugly.

Andy Bachman said...

I can think of a few more directions besides up and down--like North, South, East and West.

With regard to paving over the bike lanes--okay, now you're really stepping over the line. That's boardwalk up there! A lane on the Brooklyn Bridge roadway itself is a good idea, I'll grant you that.

Almost as good as making Prospect Park West two-way and adding bike lanes.

Oh! And do you mean the same Champs Elysees where the Tour de France ends?

DP Greenberg said...

Touche, although bikers on 'roids don't count in my book.